Seven years ago, my daughter Sarah and I were in Paris, France, and one of the things that I have always wanted to do was to attend a Grand Slam tennis tournament. The French Open just happened to be going on while we were in Paris, so we decided to head out to Roland Garros to see some great tennis on the red clay courts.
The French Open allows you to buy Evening Visitor passes online the night before you want to attend, which allows you on the grounds late the following afternoon – once there, we were able to upgrade our tickets to get a seat on one of the show courts. Rafael Nadal was playing on Court Phillippe Chatrier (the main stadium court at Roland Garros), so we got tickets for that court, and headed over to see Rafa play. By the time we got to our seats, Rafa’s match was nearly over, but we did arrive in time to see the last couple of games of his straight set victory. I was able to take a couple of long-distance photos as he was leaving the court. Seeing Rafa play was great, if even only for a short while, and Sarah was very happy to have been able to see one of her favorite tennis stars in person.
Next up was Serena Williams, playing against a Frenchwoman named Virginie Razzano. At the time, Serena had a WTA ranking of No. 5 in the world, and was also seeded 5th at the French Open. Serena started the match really well, although both players were hitting clean, powerful ground strokes. Serena won the first set by a relatively easy 6 games to 4. The second set was much tighter, eventually going to a tiebreak, where the first player to get 7 points (winning by at least 2) wins the set.
During the tiebreak, Serena was cruising along, leading 5-1, when Razzano started to claw back into it, and reeled off 6 straight points to win the second set. All of a sudden, we had a match! In the meantime, French fans had begun to stream into the stadium during each side change, to find seats, and to cheer on their French compatriot. “Virginie! Virginie!”, they would yell, urging her on. In the meantime, the professional photographers, who had been focusing their cameras almost exclusively on Serena during the first set of the match, were beginning to train their sights on Razzano.
As the third set started, Serena seemed to be totally out of sorts, barely playing the first 4 games, and was quickly down 0-4. Then she started to get her game back, and won 3 of the next 4 games, to be down only 3-5. Meanwhile, the crowd was becoming ever louder, with 90% or more of the fans pulling for Razzano, and the stadium had become nearly full. During the changeovers between games, the French leaning crowd would erupt in various cheers, and do the wave.
Then, with Razzano serving for the match at 5 games to 3, we witnessed what would become the very best game of the match, a 20+ minute thriller with 8 match points, 5 break points, and as much drama as you could ask for in any tennis match. Eventually, on that 8th match point, Razzano was able to pull off the win, and the French crowd went wild with joy. We had witnessed the best match of the day at the French Open.
Serena’s loss that day in Paris was the only time during her career that she lost a first round match of a Grand Slam tennis tournament. Indeed, she went on that year of 2012 to win both Wimbledon and the U.S Open tournaments, and her world WTA Rank rose to No. 3 by the end of the year. In 2013, she claimed the No. 1 WTA Rank in February, and would hold on to that number one ranking for more than 3 years, before dropping to number 2 in September 2016. Along the way, she would claim the French Open title twice (2013 and 2015), Wimbledon 3 times (2012, 2015 and 2016), the U.S Open three straight times, 2012-2014, and the Australian Open in 2015, thus cementing her place in professional tennis as one of the best players, male or female, to ever the game.
But that day in Paris belonged to the Frenchwoman, Virginie Razzano, and to the fans, many of them local Parisians who had come out to enjoy an afternoon and evening of tennis, and wound up witnessing a truly remarkable match. Seven years later, I can still hear the fans yelling out, “Virginie! Virginie!”, encouraging the French underdog on to play her best. And that she did.