Rarely does the release of a tournament schedule elicit the type of response aimed at French Open officials after they assigned eight-time champion Rafael Nadal to the Suzanne Lenglen court.
Lenglen is the second show court and plays second fiddle to Philippe Chatrier, center stage at Roland Garros.
The apparent slight raised eyebrows. It also raised questions. Just what is the relationship between Nadal and French fans? Do the French appreciate and embrace his dominance? Or has the Spanish conqueror worn out his welcome?
Nadal clearly enjoys playing in the French Open. He is 59-1 at Roland Garros. But perhaps the French would rather see someone else hoist La Coupe des Mousquetaires.
During the televised opening-round match between Novak Djokovic and Joao Sousa on Chatrier, ESPN commentator Brad Gilbert suggested that if Djokovic and Nadal met in the final, the French crowd would likely side with the Serbian.
Gilbert is probably right. In 2009, Sweden's Robin Soderling handed Nadal his only defeat at the French Open. The fans appeared solidly behind Soderling, who wasn't exactly a popular player.
After the Soderling match, Nadal's uncle and coach Toni Nadal lashed out at the partisan Parisian crowd. In an interview with a Spanish radio station, Uncle Toni declared: “There is only one set of supporters that is worse than the French and that is the Parisians...The Parisian crowd is pretty stupid. I think the French don’t like it when a Spaniard wins."
While Nadal prefers to dismiss that type of talk, some players were baffled by the opening-round court assignment. John Isner told USA Today's Douglas Robson, "That's really bizarre...I mean, how many times does the guy have to win the tournament to be able to have his first match on Chatrier?"
Twitter was abuzz as sports journalists and tennis fans tweeted their disbelief.
The blowback was so bad that Kate Battersby, a blogger for RolandGarros.com, the official French Open website, wrote an article offering an explanation that read more like an attempt at justification. Battersby questioned, "Why should the ticket holders of Suzanne Lenglen be denied the chance to see the best players?"
They aren't. The top players alternate between Chatrier and Lenglen throughout the tournament. But this is not about Lenglen ticket holders. French Open officials can spin this any way they want. This was an epic dis.
Nadal is more than a mere defending champion. Serena Williams is a defending champion. She opened on Chatrier. Roger Federer won the title once. He opened on Chatrier. Maria Sharapova won two years ago. She opened on Chatrier. Djokovic, ranked No. 2, has yet to win. He opened on Chatrier.
Nadal is ranked No. 1 and has twice as many French Open titles as Williams, Federer and Sharapova combined.
In his post-match press conference Nadal downplayed the controversy. "Doesn't matter if it's Chatrier or Lenglen or another court, be around here in Roland Garros always gonna be great. And I started in Lenglen this year, is a great court. I am not sure, but probably next one I gonna play in Chatrier. That's it."
That's Nadal being diplomatic. He will never say what the snub implies: The French are so over him.
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