“They say it themselves and it’s true, the Parisian crowd is pretty stupid. I think the French don’t like it when a Spaniard wins. Wanting someone to lose is a slightly conceited way of amusing yourself. They show the stupidity of people who think themselves superior.”
That’s Uncle Toni Nadal talking to Spanish radio after his nephew, Rafa, got bumped out of Roland Garros on Sunday to Robin Soderling. (via The Guardian)
The Swede underdog was buoyed by the cheers of the French crowd, which offered little love to the four-time defending champion. In key points of the match, the stands shuddered under cheers of “Ro-bin! Ro-bin!” John McEnroe quipped that Soderling had never experienced such support – in Sweden.
Nadal noticed, too:
“This tournament is so important, such a beautiful tournament for me. . .I wish when I’m back they (the crowd) can support me a bit more in key moments.”
Flashback to Rafa’s 2005 Roland Garros debut, when the crowd was so angry at an umpire’s (correct) decision against Rafa’s opponent, Sebastien Grosjean, that play was halted for a full seven minutes under a barrage of catcalls and whistles.
“The crowd yesterday didn’t behave as they should behave when watching a game of tennis.” the 18 year-old Rafa said later. (via The Independent)
Rafa lost that set against the Frenchman, but went on to win the match and then his first title in Paris.
He wasn’t so lucky this time , but Rafa and his fans can take cold comfort in knowing that he isn’t alone. Many a great Champion has been humbled by the Roland Garros audience.
Last year’s target was Maria Sharapova, who had the nerve to be ranked No. 1 and show emotion while losing to Dinara Safina in the fourth round. The crowd hissed her off the court for the crime of caring too much and too loudly. The Guardian described the jeers as “nasty, bullying” and the spectators as a “mob on the move.” Maria, of course, said it was just business:
“I can’t please everyone; that’s not in my job description. I’m an athlete. I go out there and fight my heart out. I mean, they paid for a ticket to watch me so they must appreciate me on some level, right?”
Even more contentious was the 2003 French Open semi-final between Justine Henin and Serena Williams, where the crowd was so pro-Henin, that they booed Serena for protesting the Belgian’s gamesmanship. Here’s a (scratchy) video of the famous “hand” incident:
Serena was so rattled by Justine, the crowd, and the moment, that she ended up losing that game and, eventually, the match. She couldn’t hide her disappointment, afterwards. You can guess who “they” are:
Sometimes the crowd behaves less like a lynch mob and more like a Greek chorus. My all-time favorite French Open scene is from the 1999 final between Martina Hingis and Steffi Graf:
The most important thing to remember before catcalling the French Open crowd: for every Champion sent steaming into the locker room, there’s an enraptured underdog left blowing kisses on the court. Who can forget the “Mexican wave” that brought Gaston Gaudio back from two sets down against Guillermo Coria in the 2004 final? He was just two games away from defeat when the cheeky crowd rallied him to victory:
“I was too nervous,” Gaudio said later. “After the wave, the people started to help me, and I relaxed a little bit.” (via USA Today)
But why is the French Crowd so finicky? Why can’t the spectators be respectful, like the British, or eating hot dogs, like the Americans? What motivates these passionate and pissy performances on one of the sport’s great stages?
Blame it on the “Poulidor Syndrome.”
GTT commenter and French tennis fan, “whynotme” educated me on this affliction that tortures the collective French psyche. It’s named after Raymond Poulidor, an immensely popular and unlucky French cyclist from the 1960s:
“Poulidor was a French cyclist, very talented, he won a lot of tournaments, but he never EVER won the Tour de France, though he finished 3 times as second, and 5 times as third. Each and every time, something happened to him that prevented him from winning it (whether it was multiples falls, flat tires or even a motorcycle who ran into him!) And that’s why he had a storied rivalry with Jacques Antequil, who on the contrary was winning the Tour (5 times). What happened in France is that everyone started rooting for Poulidor, everybody wanted him to finally win. And so French people kind of disliked Antequil, if not hated him. He was booed, they whistled at him.”
Poulidor explained the phenomenon this way: “The more unlucky I was, the more the public liked me and the more money I earned.” (via Wikipedia)
See, sometimes irrational behavior is anything but! Even Uncle Toni might reconsider his slur: the crowd doesn’t hate a Spaniard, just a Jacques Antequil.
Hate the sickness, not the sufferer, Uncle Toni.
Thanks again to “Whynotme” for the insight and on-site reports from RG!