French misconnection for U.S. tennis players
Being an American in Paris isn't easy if you're a tennis player. Even the courts are foreign, covered with a red powdery dust that's slippery underfoot and gives the ball a vicious bite as it springs off the ground.
For those raised on hard courts, it's an acquired taste. Not an easily acquired one, either. Early American exits at the French Open have become something of an annual tradition, particularly on the men's side -- Andy Roddick had to endure and explain this for years, thanks to his position as the country's standard-bearer before his retirement last year.
"Pretty much gotten used to that press conference where you're asking me how much we suck on clay in Paris every year," he told reporters once.
Like many analysts, Roddick felt the main challenge was mastering the skidding and sliding that is characteristic of playing on dirt.
"It's tough for us just because the movement is something that we probably didn't acquire at a young age," he said. "Kind of like a language. If you learn it at 3 and 4 years old it's going to be a lot easier for you."
And don't their European competitors know it. For clay natives, a "USA" beside the name of an opponent might as well be spelled "opportunity." They come out with a little extra spring in their step.
"You go over there, and you certainly have a target on your back a little bit," American Ryan Harrison said. "The guys love playing Americans on their home surface, you feel like they're fired up to play you. It's something you've got to use, and stay motivated, and just do your best to fight through each match."
Step off the court, and there's a language barrier to deal with as well. Because they already speak the main language used on tour, pros from English-speaking countries are rarely fluent in anything else. But in a global sport with tournaments in about 60 countries, it can be inconvenient -- and sometimes costly, as Bethanie Mattek-Sands found in Paris one year.
"I had bought subway tickets. I purchased one that you needed a French ID for, or something," Mattek-Sands said. "The automated machines were only in French.
"So I ordered, and the police ... in the subway stopped me and asked for my tickets and said, 'No, no.'
"I said, 'I bought a ticket. What are you talking about?' They said, 'Oh, it was on the screen.' I said, 'Only in English.' And they just would not have it. And I got fined like 50 euros."
"I was like, 'Come on ... really? You're going to give me a hard time and I paid for the ticket?'"
The conversation took place in English, which may not have helped her cause.
"Maybe they were [annoyed] that I didn't speak any French, I don't know," she added with a laugh.
Ask an American player to count the number of words he or she knows in French, and most only need one hand, perhaps two. There are some exceptions. Former players such as Jim Courier and Patrick McEnroe became quite proficient in the language eventually, and avid learners Serena and Venus Williams have both made a concerted effort at speaking it. But not many.
Harrison estimates his French vocabulary at five words. Last year, Sam Querrey figured he might know four, while John Isner said, "I might know five. I can't even think of one right now."
"Merci beaucoup. Leave it at that," he added.
Donald Young puts the number as high as "maybe 10."
"Merci -- thank you, or merci beaucoup -- thank you very much, -- excuse me," he threw out. "But other than that, I try to speak to someone or find someone who can speak English."
Young says restaurants can pose some of the biggest challenges.
"When you're going to order the right things at dinner or lunch … it's tough to get it across," he said. "You work, you can get it, but it's definitely not like [when] you speak English and everyone understands."
"I don't even try to speak French too much. I think French people get a little annoyed with my English accent so I try to stay away from that," said Alex Kuznetsov, a former French Open junior finalist who will make his first main-draw appearance this year after winning the USTA's wild card into the event.
The lack of French-speaking Americans can partly be attributed to the limited presence of the language in the United States. Some Americans are not entirely unilingual. The Kiev-born Kuznetsov speaks Russian, for example, while both Isner and Young can communicate in Spanish.
"For me personally, I've been working on Spanish quite a bit," Young said. "I spent three weeks in Mexico recently, and I've been studying it for a while, so my Spanish is more solid, I can have a conversation.
"There's a lot of Spanish-speaking people starting to come over to the States. And places I go, I just wanted to understand -- a lot of Spanish-speaking players as well."
Even if they can't parlez Francais, the players still get out and enjoy Paris. Ask what they like about the city, and "good food" is usually the first answer. Taste, it seems, needs no translation.
The rest takes a little more getting used to -- the only football on TV is the one played with a round ball, accommodations are charming but often cramped and the news of the day usually involves hard-to-recognize figures talking about unfamiliar issues. Last week, Harrison tweeted a picture of the comically small "smart car" and jokingly wrote, "Midsize European SUV."
In the end, however, most American players come around.
"I actually didn't like Paris that much in the beginning, and over the years I've grown to love it a lot," Mattek-Sands said. "I guess it's maybe just because I didn't know where to go, I didn't know how to get around, the restaurants, the shopping, I didn't appreciate … the people. It's all kind of grown on me. We've seen shows there. We've had friends that have taken us to places that are off the touristy map. It's actually become a lot of fun and I look forward to going."
While tennis pros are often unenthusiastic tourists, sticking to the tournament grounds and their hotel to avoid distractions, Paris is one of the few cities where visiting the sights is de rigueur. Kuznetsov, awed by Paris after growing up on the outskirts of Philadelphia, even visited with friends a couple years ago, renting bikes and riding them to famous spots such as the Louvre, Notre Dame and the Champs-Elysees.
The Williams sisters also have ridden those bikes around the city, and, like Mattek-Sands, had a train mishap -- getting lost on one of their journeys. Perhaps no American player since French Open champion-turned-resident Budge Patty has embraced Paris like Serena, who went as far as to buy an apartment near the Left Bank in 2007.
"I love my flat. It's perfect. And every morning I wake up and I can walk outside and buy croissants and, you know, it's just, oh, I love it," Williams said. "I think it has the best couture shows, and stuff you don't get in the United States with the whole real avant-garde couture. And I just love the streets, I love the city. I have friends here now, so it's like a second home to me."
Now, she spends even more time there. After a shocking first-round exit at the French Open last year, Williams began working with French coach Patrick Mouratoglou and trains regularly at the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy near Paris.
The broken French she spoke earlier in her career was much improved even before last year, and has no doubt become better since then. Williams has yet to be warmly received by the French crowds in spite of all this, but could go a long way by achieving one of her big goals -- winning at Roland Garros and speaking to the crowd in French. After winning both of the big clay events in Madrid and Rome coming in, she's the heavy favorite at the French Open.
As for the rest, they've got their strategies for communicating, too.
"My friend, who's also my doubles partner -- he speaks German, French, a little Italian," Kuznetsov said of German Mischa Zverev. "So I'll stick with him."