The French fans have been the opposite of encouraging nine-time champion Rafael Nadal. (AP Photo)
Even without looking at the TV screen, you can tell a French Open audience by the particular sounds it makes. Most famous are the rising cries of “Allleezzzz!!!” from the peanut gallery. The crowd in Paris may rise sharply in a burst of celebration, rouse itself into a storm of boos and whistles at a perceived injustice, or drop quickly into a sullen silence.
When I started watching one morning during the 2014 French Open, I was surprised to see that their flavor du jour was Austrian Dominic Thiem. They were rooting for him because of who he was playing: eventual tournament champion Rafael Nadal. The world No. 5 may be a nine-time champion at Roland Garros, but his earliest nickname in Paris was “The Ogre,” and the image among tennis fans in France has stuck. Even more amazing than Nadal's 70-2 record in Paris is the fact that virtually every match he has played there has been the equivalent of an away game in team sports.
Why do the French dislike their tournament’s greatest champion?
First, as his uncle Toni once said in rather pointed fashion, he’s Spanish. “They say it themselves and it’s true, the Parisian crowd is pretty stupid,” Toni said after the crowd in Chatrier cheered vociferously for the only man to beat Rafa there, Robin Soderling, in 2009. “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.”
Then there’s Rafa’s playing style. The French love artistry in their tennis; Ilie Nastase and Roger Federer are their gods. Literally—I’ve heard Federer referred to as “Jesus” at Roland Garros more than once. By comparison, Nadal, at least in the eyes of the French, uses a physically bullying style to grind opponents down. The fact that Nadal the Ogre has beaten Jesus Federer all five times they’ve played in Paris has only added insult to injury.
The Roland Garros crowds love to insert themselves into matches. Looking at the record, you might conclude that the French have had the opposite of their desired effect on Nadal. At 61-1, Rafa’s record in Paris is the best of any player at any Grand Slam in the Open era. Ironically, it was Federer, distracted by their oohs and aahs in Lenglen, who screamed at the crowd to “Shut up!” two years ago.
Have the French actually helped Nadal dominate their tournament? Rafa has always said that “you have to love the suffering” to be a great champion; you have to learn to ignore adversity, whether it’s physical or emotional.
Yet I think the way Rafa has thrived in Paris also shows how fundamentally different he is from Toni, and how that difference helps him. “This tournament is so important,” Nadal said, “such a beautiful tournament for me. Well, that’s the way it is. But I wish when I’m back they can support me a bit in key moments.”
Whatever the reasons for it, Nadal’s story in Paris is a remarkable one. As far as I know, the French haven't booed or hissed at him for a while, and they even sang "Happy Birthday" to him a couple of years ago. Should they take the next step and finally embrace their nine-time champion? It would be nice—and who knows, it might even make Rafa drop his guard and lose a match or two. But I get a kick out of the Rafa-at-RG dynamic. I respect, in a perverse way, the crowd’s stubborn consistency in giving Nadal the cold shoulder. And I respect Nadal’s record there even more because of it.