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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Herb Benham

We like stories, especially ones that flow leisurely like the summer Kern rather than end abruptly.

Tennis flows in that its storylines move from tournament to tournament and one year melts into the next. This is the second week of the French Open, (Roland Garros, insiders call it). Roland Garros is played on red clay (the players call it dirt) and if tennis had an egalitarian appeal, you could imagine a kid with a racket and a couple of dead balls hitting against a wall on a baked-dirt lot. Maybe a stretch, because tennis at a high level involves coaching, gear, travel and usually private clubs; still, there is joy in hitting a ball back and forth in the simplest of settings.

For many of us, the storyline includes Roger Federer, the great Swiss player who lost Sunday to Latvian Ernests Gulbis in the fourth round. While Federer fans look for a reason to live, or at least to keep watching the tournament, Federer's presence is another opportunity to revel in his resume, which has not grown old.

Federer has won 17 majors, once held the world No. 1 position for 302 weeks and has won more than $80 million. At one point, Federer reached 10 consecutive Grand Slam finals. What makes these statistics even more satisfying is that Federer is a gentleman and sportsman.

As great as McEnroe and Connors were, it's hard to imagine Federer ever excoriating an umpire or clutching his groin as Connors often did. Federer is loved and respected by fans and fellow players alike.

Federer, however, is only part of the storyline. Men's tennis is rich in characters, and most of them are likable. Spain's Rafael Nadal, the current No. 1, has won 13 Grand Slam titles and although he is a ferocious competitor, he is respectful of his opponents and gracious, win or lose. Nadal behaves as if he were raised by parents who encouraged but did not spoil. Nadal's coach, his uncle Tony, reportedly makes his nephew carry his own rackets.

Serbian Novak Djokovic is No. 2 in the world. He's also funny, a terrific mimic and someone who respects the game, which include his opponents.

Scotland's Andy Murray (who has won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open) has evolved from a sour-looking, acidic player to one capable of shedding tears when he is so moved.

Stan Wawrinka, Federer's fellow Swiss, is the newest player to crash the top-five party by winning the Australian Open this year. Always a great player, breaking into the elite group at 28 is inspiring for the rest of us late bloomers.

The women's draw began with the Williams sisters, who were beaten early. Although not universally loved, they are a tennis force and a boost to the women's game. Between them, they have won 24 Grand Slam singles titles -- Serena with 17 and Venus seven -- and upped the ante for what a female tennis player could be like athletically. If Serena could improve on anything it might be to become more gracious toward her opponents when she loses.

Tennis can be good for that kind of growth as players tilt toward the end of their careers.

Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki was part of this year's storyline when her fiancee, Northern Irish golfer Rory McIlroy, called off their engagement in a phone call that allegedly took 180 seconds. Wozniacki responded to the news by losing in the first round of Roland Garros while McIlroy won his next tournament.

Odd quirks that fans may never have noticed include Slovak Dominika Cibulková, who sniffs the ball before she serves as if she can smell an ace coming.

Breakups, tantrums or pats on the back -- none of it really matters but, like baseball, it can be satisfying as a summer escape. Bring it on but bring it slowly. Clay, the slowest surface of all, is good for that.

It's like playing in the dirt again.

Contact Californian columnist Herb Benham at 395-7279 or hbenham@ His work appears on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays; the views expressed are his own.