D-Day, Balkan memories still fresh

D-Day began at Omaha Beach, and reminders of war still stretch to and beyond Roland Garros. AP Photo/Thibault Camus

PARIS -- Veterans of the 29th Division who were in the first invasion waves on Omaha Beach stayed at my hotel here last weekend before they departed for Normandy for today's 70th anniversary of D-Day.

I thought about these men and this anniversary at Roland Garros, which has war connections of its own. The tennis grounds are named after the French flier who was shot down in the First World War, which started 100 years ago this summer. During the outbreak of the Second World War, the grounds also served as a holding camp at its outbreak.

As CNN notes, celebrated author Arthur Koestler wrote of those experiences in his book, "Scum of the Earth."

"At Roland Garros, we called ourselves the cave dwellers, about 600 of us who lived beneath the stairways of the stadium. We slept on straw -- wet straw, because the place leaked. We were so crammed in, we felt like sardines ... It smells of filth and excrement, and only slits of light can find their way inside. Few of us knew anything about tennis, but when we were allowed to take our walk in the stadium, we could see the names [Jean] Borotra and [Jacques] Brugnon on the scoreboard.''

Fortunately, Roland Garros smells of more pleasant things -- such as freshly baked waffles -- these days, unless you happen to enter the men's restrooms where the urinals have no water. The grounds are still crowded -- especially around the big screens and restrooms -- but most of the people here are well-versed enough in tennis that they don't need to see the names on the scoreboard to know who is playing

("Why does the scoreboard show Serena losing to 6-2, 6-2 to Muguruza? Shouldn't it be the other way around?'')

Still, as I covered the tennis this fortnight, I found occasional reminders of war and fighting, sometimes sad, but often inspiring.

Consider that many of the players are from the Balkans, where war was a part of their childhoods, and some are from Ukraine, where war is possible now. The most prominent of these players are Novak Djokovic, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic, who grew up in Serbia when Yugoslavia was splintering violently apart. They sometimes were forced to play tennis in drained swimming pools, but despite such conditions, they each rose to No. 1 during their careers.

Or perhaps their success is because of those conditions.

"It's truly incredible and something I don't wish for any human being to experience, the power of war and the power of being just helpless out there,'' said Djokovic, who defeated Ernests Gulbis in one of Friday's semifinals. "There is nothing that you can do, basically, if you have an air strike like we had for 2 1/2 months.

"So we were just praying for that to be finished and for this agony to go away as quickly as possible, because many civilians were killed, many people lost their homes, lost many things that still even today they couldn't recover.

"But from my personal experience, as much as it was devastating, it was also very helpful in terms of my mental strength," Djokovic said. "It shaped up my personality incredibly in such a way that I didn't have much fear after that, after being afraid for your own life and with your close ones. There are not many things that you can fear after that.''

There has been much talk recently that this is one of the reasons that Americans, apart from the Williams sisters, haven't fared well in the sport of late. That we have grown soft while Eastern Europeans are hungrier and tougher because of more difficult backgrounds. The Williams sisters' success backs up this view, given that they grew up in Compton, California.

There are counterarguments to this view -- Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer hardly had impoverished lives growing up on the island of Majorca and in Switzerland, respectively -- but if there is some truth to it, perhaps there also is some hope in one of America's brightest young players, 16-year-old Francis Tiafoe.

Tiafoe's parents, Constantine and Alphina, are from Sierra Leone. Constantine immigrated to the United States in the late '80s. Alphina fled Sierra Leone during its 11-year civil war that left more than 50,000 dead.

As Tiafoe grew up in College Park, Maryland, the family was so strapped for money that his father housed himself in a storage room at the Junior Champions Tennis Center, where he was a maintenance worker. When Alphina was pulling a double night shift, Francis and twin brother, Franklin, would sometimes sleep in the same storage room. His father took him to the tennis center all the time. It's how he got his start in the sport.

"My dad told me to keep it up and take advantage of the opportunity,'' Tiafoe said. "I've already taken it a pretty far way, but I want to take it even farther. He's happy for what I've done. He never thought I'd be here. He thought I'd be playing locally and keep paying after school. Nothing major. And I took it to something incredible being here at Roland Garros. I just hope to keep going and keep working hard.''

Just outside Roland Garros is the newly renovated Piscine Molitor, a former public pool prominently mentioned in Yann Martel's magical novel (and Ang Lee's beautiful movie), "Life of Pi.'' The title character is named after the pool and the novel relates his survival from a shipwreck that kills the rest of his family.

Pi tells this tale in two versions. In the first, he recounts how he somehow survived for weeks at sea in a lifeboat with a tiger named Richard Parker. When the people documenting his survival say they do not believe the story, he tells them another, a grotesque tale filled with greed and cannibalism.

He then asks them which story they prefer to believe. They choose the uplifting tiger story.

I thought about that when I walked past Piscine Molitor each day. There are horrific war stories, sad, depressing tales that never seem to end as man fights war after war after war. And there are inspiring ones of what people are able to overcome. They are all true, all important, the good stories and the bad. But on this anniversary of D-Day, while we pay tribute to the people who lost their lives or their loved ones, let us focus more on the stories that lift our spirits.

Djokovic made this same point. The Balkans were hit hard by record rains and extensive flooding in May, and, looking to help, Djokovic held a fundraiser here as the French Open started. He said that as tragic as the floods were, they had a positive result by uniting people from Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"We all know that 20-25 years ago, there was a huge war where the wounds are still fresh for the people of all these countries. But for 10 days, everything was forgotten and it was still very calm, very positive,'' Djokovic said. "People were reacting in a very nice way toward each other and helping each other.

"One of the first countries to help us in these terrible times was Croatia. Their volunteers came and they helped others and saved kids. I have seen one news story that a kid was very close to drowning and a Croatian volunteer came and saved her.

"These are the kind of stories that we need to listen to, that need to be out there more often" he said. "Because at the end of the day, we are probably going to still be the same independent countries we were a couple weeks ago. But I think there is going to be a significant change in terms of relationships between the countries and that is a positive thing.''

World War I, which started with a Balkan assassination, was supposed to be "The War To End All Wars.'' As the D-Day veterans and the Balkan players know all too well, it did nothing of the kind. Perhaps mankind can listen more to the uplifting tales to at least limit further violence and hatred as much as possible.