Sporting Life

In wet Open, overcoming tough conditions is part of the challenge

On holiday to the hushed, laidback, scenic countryside of England, I carried a book on a sweaty, manic, driven man. Michael Jordan is very fine company on unhurried days. You lie on a couch, he soars.

Part of the thrill of understanding Jordan involved his response to situations. If he was injured, he'd storm the basket; if he had the flu, he'd fly; if a rival coach demeaned him, he'd pile on points. He was always trying to show people which is how he showed us who he was.

This is part of the pleasure of sport, this investigation into how athletes behave when accosted by adversity. When they're suffering, how deep can they dig? When they're annoyed, how ably do they wear concentration? When the conditions are unbearable, what solutions can they find? In heavy conditions, Andy Murray's response was nearly 40 drop shots against Richard Gasquet.

And yet when some players had to play in the drizzle at the French Open, they fumed and whined which was partially understandable and a little precious and very fascinating. Young players who sit like royalty on court with a kid holding an umbrella over their head, now had to play without one.

Blinking back water during a rally. Heavy balls. Cold days. Aching arms. Conditions hard to hit winners in. Clay hard to run on.

Oh, beautiful.

Agnieszka Radwanska removing clay from her shoes during her fourth-round match against Bulgaria's Tsvetana Pironkova at the French Open. But the Pole came unstuck, losing 6-2, 3-6, 3-6.
Agnieszka Radwanska removing clay from her shoes during her fourth-round match against Bulgaria's Tsvetana Pironkova at the French Open. But the Pole came unstuck, losing 6-2, 3-6, 3-6. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE- PRESSE

Of course we want to see athletes in their comfort zone - the sun friendly, the wind absent, the surfaces benevolent - because then you sometimes get the most unadulterated expression of their skills. In-the-zone stuff. But sport can also be tedious when it's one-dimensional - like golfers playing target golf in no wind - and so we also want cricketers confronted by foreign pitches asking tricky questions, golfers faced with heavy rough and lightning greens, drivers challenged by a suddenly pelting rain. We want to see if they can find their perfect self on an imperfect day.

Simona Halep in Paris could not. "It was impossible to play, in my opinion," she said. "And to play tennis matches during the rain I think is a bit too much." Agnieska Radwanska was her grumbling echo. "I mean, it's not a US$10,000 (S$13,800) tournament, it's a Grand Slam. How can you allow players to play in the rain?" Perhaps, in fact, because it's a Grand Slam event it should be doubly testing.

Halep and Radwanska are fine players of interesting skills and one was worried about her back and another about her hand. We don't have to sneer at their fears but neither do we have to entirely indulge them. Sure, tennis injuries are rising yet part of sport must always be a physical examination. Sure, organisers have to consider how far to push players, but when tennis folk started muttering about "dangerous" conditions it must have made rugby players roll their black eyes and cyclists snigger. Dangerous, after all, is flying down a Tour de France slope in the hail at 80kmh on a tyre the size of a wrestler's finger.

We also want cricketers confronted by foreign pitches asking tricky questions, golfers faced with heavy rough and lightning greens... We want to see if they can find their perfect self on an imperfect day.

More than footing, perspective was being lost. As Marion Bartoli, the former French player, said of the courts: "I think it was playable, it was tricky and difficult for players. You have to learn to play under tough conditions... It's part of your job, you must be ready for it." This was evidently French for suck it up.

Of course athletes in all sports will gripe and grouse for they can be high-strung, not to mention high-maintenance, and that's fine because it's human and triggers debate. But after a point when the privileged start to gripe, it simply sounds petty and spoilt. Like golfers who throw mini-tantrums about pin placements and then sulkily drive home in Ferraris.

And so, perhaps, when you're playing for a €2 million (S$3.08 million) first prize in tennis, you just get on with it and play with heavy, clay-smeared balls because anyway it doesn't happen all the time. And when you're lucky enough to get paid to use a racket and can change into a new pair of customised, expensive shoes every match, you just learn to manage the conditions. And when spectators in all sports have to pay more for stadium seats most years and often a higher fee to watch on TV, you simply get out in the drizzle and play for them.

The weather forecast for Paris currently lists rain for Saturday, Sunday, Monday. This Open may not finish in time, it could involve frequent rain breaks, long waits, back-to-back matches. Muscles will stiffen and rotator cuffs will get a workout. To win it all will be to conquer rival and boredom, overcome nature and frustration, find a tactic and patience. Sounds like a stern examination but then this is the French Open, not the Boulogne-Billancourt Pensioners Open. Of course, the mad beauty of exceptional athletes like Jordan is that they would want to win them both.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 03, 2016, with the headline 'In wet Open, overcoming tough conditions is part of the challenge'. Print Edition | Subscribe