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Rafael Nadal, who beat Roger Federer to win the French Open title last year, is one of just four men to lift the trophy more than once since 1989. Patrick Kovarik / AFP
Rafael Nadal, who beat Roger Federer to win the French Open title last year, is one of just four men to lift the trophy more than once since 1989. Patrick Kovarik / AFP

An open-and-shut case

The best matches at Roland Garros are edgier somehow, drenched in an anticipatory overload: as each rally lengthens, the greater the viewer's investment in it.

The red (and now blue) clay is upon us and soon, before the month is out, the most contrary of the four tennis grand slams will have begun.

The French Open is probably not the easiest major to watch. Not here the short rat-a-tat conversational put-downs other surfaces provide; a big serve, a few strokes and a bigger winner and good night. The rallies stretch out like meandering, coy dialogues between players, sometimes threatening to never end. Then a Spaniard or South American wins.

Viewing can be monotonous because at Roland Garros players only go to the net when shaking hands. The pace of the game is slower and its nature less obvious in that it isn't always easy to grasp the possibilities and implications, for instance, of topspin if you haven't played.

These aren't detractions necessarily in fact, neutering big serves and groundstrokes is great; just that appreciating this requires a degree of tolerance and patience not readily available.

And the best matches at Roland Garros are edgier somehow, drenched in an anticipatory overload: as each rally lengthens, the greater the viewer's investment in it, and thus, the more drained he feels at the end of it. It is compelling if not comfortable viewing (it helps to be the only major where scores are announced in a language that isn't English).

But the best thing about it used to be the kink it could potentially provide in the story of a tennis season, a little jagged blip in the otherwise smooth success stories of whoever was prominent at the time.

This hasn't been the case since Rafael Nadal began winning it in 2005 but that has more to do with him than the tournament. It is beautiful though how the tournament is as given to repeated conquer as it is to throwing up one-off winners never to be heard from or seen thereafter.

And it is the preponderance of the latter that was its most attractive feature. Since 1989, when Michael Chang won one of the best opens of many years, 10 men have won the tournament just once and never again (four have won it on multiple occasions). There is a great, flirty charm in those numbers: I'll let you trick me once, the French Open seems to be saying, but won't let you trick me twice as easily.

That is more pronounced than anywhere else.

Over the same period, Wimbledon has had eight one-off winners and three multiple winners (two of whom, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, have enjoyed long, record-breaking periods of sustained dominance); the US Open has seven one-off winners and five multiple winners; the Australian Open has five players who have won it once and seven who have more than once. No tournament could have produced a winner such as Ecuador's Andres Gomez, who beat Andre Agassi in the 1990 final having almost retired the previous summer. Gomez, born for clay courts (he fell in the first round of Wimbledon weeks later), only decided to play because Ivan Lendl pulled out that year to prepare for Wimbledon (imagine!); Lendl had knocked Gomez out in the quarter-finals thrice previously.

Or, more astonishingly, the unseeded Argentinian Gaston Gaudio who won it in 2004 and swiftly receded back into obscurity.

Other slams still allow for diverse styles to triumph (it is a debate for another day that the diversity itself is dwindling). Not the French which guards its bias for baseliners with a cussed and demented purpose. Since 1983, the only winners who weren't specialists from the back have been Yannick Noah and Federer (who is a more ambiguous example because he has been such a complete player).

A French Open winner, however, is often so uniquely equipped to win only the French Open (and has ambitions only for it) that he has no shot at the others. Sergio Bruguera, Gustavo Kuerten, Carlos Moya, Albert Costa, Thomas Muster, Juan Carlos Ferrero were all fine players and worthy champions, but scarcely threatened to win any other major.

It is precisely why Nadal is such an outlier, having transformed from a clay-court specialist to all-surface great.

This is a golden age of men's tennis we are watching and any complaints would be mostly contrarian. But it would be quite within the spirit of Roland Garros if it decided this year, after many, to produce a little blip on the radar.


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