The American has made it feel like Paris in springtime, tennis-style, again.
Years ago, I followed an American photographer around the grounds at Roland Garros to see what her job was like. As we watched Roger Federer play Gael Monfils in Court Philippe Chatrier, she told me, regretfully, that she probably wouldn't get many good celebration shots from Federer that day. When someone is facing a French player, she explained, they typically don't like to annoy the crowd and give them any reason to boo. And it was true. Even Federer, who was as popular in Paris as any non-French player in history, offered only a few quiet fist-clenches during his march to victory.
This phenomenon occurs at other tournaments, of course. Wherever you are, when you're playing one of the locals, the last thing you want to do is have to fight the fans, too. At the US Open, players have to deal with a steady hum of noise that continues even as the points are being played. But there's no place in tennis quite like Paris. The audience is patriotic, highly unified, cares about tennis, and is not afraid to insert itself into a match. Any match. Even if there's no French player involved, any perceived breach of decorum is immediately punished with a wave of boos and whistles that pierces the air in the stadium-two-time champion Novak Djokovic himself has received his share of boos for his fist-in-the-air celebrations this week. To the targeted players, it must feel as if a storm cloud of noise has just broken over their heads. Call it the sounds of Paris in springtime, tennis-style.
At first glance the usually laid-back California kid might seem like the last person to turn himself into a pro-wrestling character. But Fritz always reacts with strong emotion after his victories, and he can be brutally honest.
Personally, I like the French crowd and the festively edgy atmosphere it generates. Because of the fans, it feels like there's more at stake at Roland Garros than at any other event. It's also the only place where I've wondered whether a real live riot might break out during a tennis match. But I've also never been the subject of their ire. I can only guess that there have been hundreds of players over the years who would have liked to tell the fans to can it-or whatever the equivalent is in French. Federer is one of the few who dared. Distracted by his own supporters during his quarterfinal with Juan Martin del Potro in Court Suzanne Lenglen in 2012, he screamed "Shut up!" after losing a point. Maybe it was a liberating moment, because he came back from two sets down to win.
Eleven years later, in the same stadium, another player matched Federer's bravery. It's not who most of us thought it would be. On Thursday night, Taylor Fritz held his finger to his lips the moment he defeated France's Arthur Rinderknech. Ignoring the boos raining down all around him, the American kept his finger there as he hopped and leaped his way to the net, and even into his (ultimately aborted) post-match interview with Marion Bartoli. Fritz never let up, never smiled, never tried to mollify the fans, and the fans responded in kind.
In Fritz's defense, this particular crowd took its involvement in the proceedings a step farther than normal. Serving for the match at 5-4 in the fourth, Fritz missed a first serve. The audience began to hiss, and didn't stop, even after chair umpire Alison Hughes asked it to. Fritz had to back off the baseline and take extra time before his second serve, but he ended up making it and holding. That was a legitimate distraction, and not just normal partisan rooting.
"The crowd was just so great, that I had to let it fire me up," Fritz told Bartoli, sarcastically. "They cheered so well for me, I had to make sure I won. Thank you, guys."
Fritz, who walked off blowing sarcastic kisses, has taken on the same villain's role that Daniil Medvedev occupied in New York four years ago. At first glance the usually laid-back California kid might seem like the last person to turn himself into a pro-wrestling character. But Fritz always reacts with strong emotion after his victories, and he can be brutally honest. Asked about the new, heavier balls in use at Roland Garros this year, Fritz didn't mince any words. "I hate them," he said.
In New York in 2019, Medvedev was able to ride his villain status all the way to the final. How will Fritz fare this week in Paris? He'll be back in Lenglen on Saturday to face Argentina's Francisco Cerundolo. As harsh as the Parisian fans can be, they can also be won over. In my first trip to Roland Garros, in 1998, I watched as a young Marat Safin was booed mercilessly for slamming his racquet in Chatrier while he was playing local favorite Cedric Pioline. Safin knew enough, though, to throw his hands in the air in apology. The audience did a 180 and roared its approval of the contrite young man.
We'll see how Fritz is greeted, and treated, on Saturday, and how he reacts. It will help that he's not playing a Frenchman, but it won't help that he's playing Cerundolo, a very good clay-courter. Either way, the drama is welcome. This year's Roland Garros had seemed a bit flat without its traditional protagonist, Rafael Nadal. Thank Fritz, and his haters in the audience, for giving us a new main character, and a new bête noire, in Paris. --Tennis.com