Roland Garros and Tenacious Longevity

By Anusha Rasalingam

During the rainy first days of Roland Garros 2014, many spectators wedged themselves into the small museum on the grounds honoring Eugène Adrien Roland Georges Garros for his aviation exploits during World War I. While most were simply seeking a dry place to pass the rain delay, those who were looking closely would have learned about the man whose indomitable spirit imbues the tournament that rewards those who share his iron will.

A sickly child, he took up cycling to improve his health, and became a champion cyclist, soccer and rugby player during his studies. Upon graduation, he developed an interest in automobiles, and, despite being financially cut off by his father who disapproved of his career choice, launched a successful business in automobile sales. But he changed course when he first encountered airplanes, became a pioneer in long distance flight, and was the first to cross the Mediterranean Sea by plane. Upon the outbreak of World War I, Roland volunteered for the French army, and served as a reconnaissance pilot. Shot down in April 1915, Roland spent nearly three years as a prisoner of war, but, after many attempts, managed to escape in February 1918. He returned to his aerial missions, but was killed when he was shot down in October 1918.

While there may not seem to be too many similarities between an early 20th century aviation pioneer, and the lycra-clad victors of the tournament that bears his name, this year’s champions both share Roland’s ability to adapt and to wring longevity from careers that seemed like they would be shortened by injury.

Both Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova emerged on the Grand Slam stage a decade ago – he in his sleeveless shirts and piratas, and she with her fearless beat-down of Serena Williams at Wimbledon’s Centre Court. In the intervening ten years, Nadal’s punishing playing style and rigorous training led to knee injuries that caused him to miss nearly two full years on the tennis tour. Sharapova, while building an impressive business empire, fell victim to shoulder injuries that nearly ended her career and forced her off the tour for months at a time. Yet, when the terre battue settled at this year’s Roland Garros, these wounded warriors hoisted the trophies once again.

A decade is a revealing slice in tennis. Look back during the past ten years, and we see the zenith of Federer’s career, Serena’s resurgence, and the evolution of Novak Djokovic from bratty newcomer to a new age professional who is legitimately counted among the greats of the game. Take the prior ten years, and we see the once-in-a-lifetime Grand Slam battles between Venus and Serena Williams, the phoenix-like careers of Andre Agassi and Jennifer Capriati, and the grass-court dominance of Pete Sampras. And ten years earlier gives us the Graf-Navratilova-Seles-Becker-Lendl-Edberg-Wilander battles that I remember from my childhood.

With his victory, Nadal became the first player to win a Grand Slam every year for a decade. In and of itself, this is a remarkable feat. But, when one considers that both Federer and Djokovic have been heralded for their relatively injury-free careers and durability, it’s even more surprising that the most physically fragile of the three has emerged with a record that rewards longevity. It’s hard not to imagine that, ten years from now, we won’t reflect on this golden age of tennis as one where Federer ascended to blinding heights for a shorter period of time, but Rafa managed to stick around and keep winning majors for longer – recasting them, on a relative basis, as the McEnroe-like artist versus the Connors-esque grinder who stuck around and just refused to lose – both with better manners, of course.

As for Sharapova, it’s hard not to forget her statement from 2004, after winning Wimbledon. She noted that she was now the hunted on the tour. She said then, “I am sure they are a lot more hungry now to get me. I love that challenge. When somebody is hungry, I’m starving.” Ten years have not satisfied Sharapova’s appetite for battle. To win the trophy, she won four straight three-set matches, where she lost the first set in all but the final. Serving double digit double faults, she seemingly willed herself to the championship despite, her own level of play at times, with her naked desire to win evident in her clenched fists and cries of “come on.” While Sharapova may never solve her Serena problem or challenge the Evert-Navratilova-Graf-Court Grand Slam title numbers, there is no doubt that she has squeezed every bit of on-court success that she can out of her talent, when, as we all know, she has enough off-court success not to bother.

The one thing that has changed in the past ten years, is that Nadal and Sharapova both shed tears on winning their trophies this time. It’s not hard to explain, given the battles they have each fought to remain champions over the past decade. While in 2004, each was a fresh-faced teenager just beginning to fight, in 2014 both are decorated champions who realize that their time at the top is fleeting. But, like the namesake of the tournament they just won, they have managed to extend their time in battle far beyond what anyone could have expected ten years ago.