FRENCH OPEN – DAY ONE

Excitement is a word often associated with Paris, as is love. Both are present in abundance as the French Grand Slam approaches like a fully laden 747.

Most of the main contenders have settled into their accommodation and have familiarised themselves with the facilities which are, as usual, outstanding.

Around the practice courts casual observers have been delighted to see legends of the game Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli having a gentle trundle round the clay, the guitarist with an ever-present cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth while the dapper violinist has had the small band of watchers in stitches by miming playing his racquet with a bow. They are not here to compete, of course, but to play an exhibition match for invited guests. It was a lovely moment when jazz-fusion pioneer Jean-Luc Ponty—much fancied to go deep into the second week of the tournament—was seen chatting with Master Grappelli after the practice session. Ponty exudes a quiet confidence, having taken home the trophy twice already in his career, most recently with his brilliant use of sequencers on the enduringly fresh jazz-fusion-electronica LP Individual Choice.

Also on a practice court, though behind some hastily arranged hessian curtains, was number one seed Jean-Michel Jarre receiving last-minute coaching from his father. It was rumoured that raised voices were heard, though it is likely this was only a result of Jean-Michel whacking tennis balls at lurking paparazzi who demanded to see Charlotte Rampling. ‘We’re divorced,’ muttered Jean-Michel sulkily. ‘Concentrate!’ bellowed his father.

Other magic moments occurred during the closing stages of the qualification rounds, when two of the most colourful entrants played an inconsistent yet wildly entertaining match that lasted well into the evening. No-one gave Moving Gelatine Plates much of a chance against the internationally admired Gong, but the lesser known outfit put in a terrific effort across three fluctuating sets. What a treat for the small but enthusiastic crowd to see such musical madness on display. The Plates, as they are known to their fans, certainly have the musical chops to make it in the big time, though their wilful eccentricity—breaking into a weird version of ‘Three Blind Mice’ during feature piece ‘London Cab’, for instance—sometimes causes them to come unstuck.

Unstuck is a word sometimes associated with Gong too. Unhinged is another. The pot-head pixies were all over the court, dancing, singing and generally taking the piss, though some of the match’s most exciting moments came when the saxophones of Didier Malherbe dueled and danced with the woodwinds of MGP’s Maurice Helminger.

In the end, the deeper experience of Gong got them across the line. After all, MGP only made two albums and Gong are almost immortal. Still, the Plates made many new friends and vowed to return with more Gallic Zappa-ish shenanigans next year.

Let’s hope they do.

The contrast between the mad good-humour of the above match with the scandal that followed could not be more marked. Less than an hour after the two teams downed racquets and opened a magnum of champagne, Gong were disqualified for being insufficiently French. In the subsequent press conference, David Allen, his normally cheerful Australian dialect noticeably strained, expressed disbelief in the tournament referee’s decision.

‘More than half the band are, or at some point will be, French,’ he said. ‘Some individuals are already half-French and others are becoming so as they share in the band’s tea-rituals. It’s silly and we are going back to England where Richard Branson understands us. Or did, at some point.’

Moving Gelatine Plates were awarded the now-vacant place in the main draw, but politely declined.

‘We’ve had a great time playing with Gong,’ they said, ‘But that’s enough tennis for now. We’re going back to bed because no-one understands us.’

Officials, panicking a little at the gap in the draw, made a hasty phone-call Jacques Loussier. The jazz pianist had been eliminated during the quals and was in the act of checking out of his hotel when he took the call. Reluctant at first—‘This is no place for a serious musician,’ he is reported to have said—the chamber jazz maestro was lured back with the promise of the #3 seeding, placing him in what many consider to be the most volatile quadrant of the draw.

The top seeds, then, are as follows:

  1. Jean-Michel Jarre
  2. Jean-Luc Ponty
  3. Jacques Loussier
  4. Heldon

The entire draw appears below.

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Further posts in this series can be found at VINYL CONNECTION

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The French Open series was inspired by, and is a tribute to, much-loved and greatly missed writer/comedian John Clarke [29 July 1948—9 April 2017].

The Tournament by John Clarke (Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, Australia, 2002)

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WATCH

Got a new band put on the watch yesterday. The old one had curled up from years clasping my wrist. Looked all right on the outside, but inside it was worn and stained, the leather disintegrating under the surface. Looks horrid, Cal said, cracked and scaly. It reminded me of my legs. Old man’s legs with papery skin. Running about a tennis court doesn’t result in fresher, younger epidermis. Not to look at anyway; it must be doing something for the muscles, surely.

Played a couple of mixed doubles matches, standing in for a chap who’s injured. Last week the opposing team were all so young you could see the outline of school uniforms on the tennis kit. I did all right for someone giving away multiple decades; the sets were even but we lost by a few games on count-back. It not being my team, I didn’t care much as long as I played OK, which I did.

Afterwards there is supper. A couple of Men’s teams were outside singeing sausages and drinking beer. We were inside with cheese and crackers and dips and grapes and lemonade. Someone’s mum put this together, I thought.

They were nice kids, and not quite as young as I thought. Three in first year uni and one in second. He was the captain. I asked what they were studying and one, a girl built like a willow-wand but with the heaviest serve of all the women, grinned and challenged me to guess. I got two straight off and one with a bit of help. Smartarse. But I could not guess Twiggy. 

Politics, she said. How depressing, I thought, but didn’t say.

Got home and limped to the shower. Three close sets on a Thursday night. Jeez.

Horizontal at last, but legs aching so much I couldn’t sleep. Got up and did a few laps inside the house, trying to avoid cramp. Kept the lights low, to fool myself I was a few laps away from Lethe. Clocks grinned in the gloom as I passed them. Reckon they were mocking me. Eventually I took half a pill. Fuck it, I need sleep.

A Sunday morning game with a mate has become a ritual. Sometimes I manage to beat him, mostly he out-runs me. Younger legs and years of playing competition squash. He’s an executive. Knows how to get the job done. Last week it was a war of attrition; at six-all we agreed on an honourable draw. This week he rolled over me. My body was still grizzling about the mixed doubles. Recovery times lengthen, relentlessly, until you tear or break something and it ends. Now that’s depressing.

But I love it (though less when I’m crap, like Sunday).

When I got home the boy asked, could you not play next week as it’s my birthday?

There was a hesitation. I was thinking, the party is not until the afternoon, what’s the problem. A childless moment that passed. Sure, I said. We’re having pancakes, he said. Excellent.

It’s a significant birthday, though he won’t let us talk about the obvious. Thirteen. That last syllable serves up all kinds of complications, and soon he won’t want to spend time with his boring oldies. Tempus fugit says the smug new band on my watch. Shut the fuck up, I snarl. But somewhere I feel hourglass tears falling.

hourglass

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