Soaking up the French Open experience

PARIS -- I recall reading a travel magazine in which John McEnroe said a lesser-known tourist activity in Paris he really enjoys is going to the top of the Arc de Triomphe and watching the traffic flow beneath him.

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For a good time, try watching the Paris traffic from atop the Arc de Triomphe.

For good reason. A dozen streets flow into the traffic circle surrounding the Arc and the resulting congestion is compelling entertainment. Honking vehicles of all variety -- taxis, sedans, SUVs, cramped smart cars, trucks, the occasional brave/ignorant cyclist -- all fight for space in the many confusing, unmarked lanes of the circle. The experienced taxi drivers usually speed around with little issue but the frustrated tourists who foolishly rent cars in Paris become virtually paralyzed, unable to merge in or out of the flow. Wait long enough and eventually, there will be the sound of crashing metal followed by the sight of the drivers gesturing wildly as they exit their vehicles.

It's like watching the world's largest driver's ed class head into Los Angeles at rush hour. Call it "The Slow and the Furious."

The French Open is a bit like that. Tennis players stream onto the clay courts at Roland Garros from all countries of the world, producing a wild tangle of athletes and storylines over two weeks.

You have the top seeds skillfully navigating the opening rounds while the lower seeds attempt to fight their way past Rafael Nadal's unyielding path. Sometimes there is the jarring collision that knocks someone out (Serena Williams' first-round loss to Virginie Razzano last year), plus the occasional dispute (will Sloane Stephens again complain about not getting enough love from Serena?).

Meanwhile, I'll be watching it all from my perch in the press area.

This is the first Grand Slam tournament I have covered. In fact, it is my first experience at a major tournament, except for the time I camped out on the street overnight for a ticket to Wimbledon during a European sports tour for ESPN.com in 2004.

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Serena Williams enjoyed a painting class in Paris prior to the start of the French Open. After her first-round victory, she spoke French to the crowd.

I'll definitely try to avoid repeating one part of that experience: I forgot to turn off my cellphone while watching a semifinal match between Lindsay Davenport and Maria Sharapova. The rental phone went off -- with the embarrassing ringtone of "Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas" -- right in the middle of Davenport's serve.

This also will be my most prolonged exposure to tennis since working my way through college at the Seattle Tennis Club, a club so exclusive and stuffy that my uniform for taking out the garbage was a green IZOD shirt and khaki slacks. The Roland Garros security guards, however, top that with a very French look of sweaters, polo shirts and orange pants.

It was refreshing not to have to wheel a garbage can around when I took my seat at Court Philippe Chatrier for Serena's tournament-opening match against Anna Tatishvili on Sunday morning. I wasn't there long. In stark contrast to last year's opening upset loss, top-seeded Serena demolished Tatishvili 6-0, 6-1 in 51 minutes, capping off the match by giving a courtside TV interview in French.

"I've been speaking French for years and years but I don't really have a lot of confidence," Serena said later. "I just have to kind of jump in. Once I get there and warmed up, I know how to say things and speak. So it's just getting that confidence to speak in French.

"It's way, way more nerve-wracking than playing tennis."

In addition to winning the title here in 2002 (plus 40 total wins), Serena has fully embraced the French Open experience. She even took a painting class here earlier this week to work on her other strokes.

"My friend, Val, is taking a painting class and I was like, 'Wow, that sounds so French.' You go to Paris and you paint and you meet someone. I thought that would be really cool," she said. "So I was like, I want to be in that class. So I ended up going to a painting class. It was fun. Really random. I'm probably the worst artist alive so I didn't do so well. But it was really, really fun."

Serena said the teacher instructed them to paint a still life -- vases, apples and a tablecloth -- using charcoal, water colors and chalk, which reminded her too much of an art class in which she flunked a midterm.

"I just wanted to paint a landscape," she said. "I can paint sky really, really well. And I can paint grass really well, too."

How about a self-portrait? How would she do with that?

"I'm good at that," she said. "I just draw a circle with a line and then two arms and then I just draw a lot of hair."

Over the next two weeks, I will try to follow Serena's example as best I can by soaking up as much of the French Open experience as possible, writing about what happens on the court and blogging my impressions off the court.

Hopefully, my French Open impressions will be as interesting -- but less confusing than -- the traffic around the Arc de Triomphe.

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