x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Last frontier is a feat on clay

Roland Garros, a graveyard for many a tennis great's dreams, demands a different set of skills and approach.

Rafael Nadal won the French Open men's singles title five times.
Rafael Nadal won the French Open men's singles title five times.

After his only French Open triumph in 2009, Roger Federer faced the usual "how does it feel" question, inadvertently phrased as a "27-year wait for the French Open".

"I never waited 27 years, because 27 years ago I was just born," was his classic response. "My parents never told me, 'If you don't win Roland Garros we take you to the orphanage'."

A bit later, though, the Swiss admitted, "I'll be at peace. I can walk away from this game tomorrow."

Federer's relief at winning the French Open, after three consecutive defeats to Rafael Nadal in the final, was palpable. He had removed himself from a list that includes Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, John Newcombe, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova. These are all greats of the game, men and women who ruled, but failed to master the slippery, red clay of Roland Garros. Paris, for them, was a final frontier that refused to cede.

The genius of McEnroe, the might of Pistol Pete and the power of "Boom Boom" Becker were all neutralised on a surface that has come to be known as the ultimate test in tennis.

You had to be metronomic like Bjorn Borg, move like a Michael Chang or Justine Henin, be patient and pounce like a Gaston Gaudio, or simply be a Nadal - a supreme athlete and a brute force of nature, blessed with crushing ground strokes and the heaviest top spin in the game.

"I love it with all my heart, because it gave me so much joy," Nadal said last year. "Winning here in Paris is ever so special."

Winner of five French Open crowns in six years, Nadal is an exception.

For most, Roland Garros has usually been a great equaliser, where ranking and reputations count for little. There is a greater demand on stamina and mental toughness, and a need to radically overhaul game plans. Patience, persistence and guile are virtues on a surface that remains a mystery and a slave to the vagaries of nature - the sun, rain and wind.

"Balance and recovery are critical," said Lynne Rolley, the former head of coaching for the United States Tennis Association. "You've got to have the confidence that you can adjust - and do so constantly."

"For me, the most important thing is movement - like getting used to the sliding," Jelena Jankovic, a three-time semi-finalist, added.

Made up of natural clay covered with crushed brick as a fine surface dressing, the courts at Roland Garros grip the ball more than other surfaces, making it a lot slower. If the ball hits a clay court at 108kmph, it will typically bounce up at a speed of 64kmph, which is substantially slower than grass or hard courts.

This means you are not going to hit winners on clay, unless you are a brutal hitter of the ball like Nadal. That brings patience and flexibility into play. The "side pocket" shots, lobs and drops, top spin and high looping groundstrokes all need to be a part of the arsenal and the players should have the stamina for long, grinding rallies of attrition.

"I love the way the points go back and forth on clay," added Andy Murray, who considers the French Open to be the "toughest grand slam to win". "Someone can pound a serve, but it's much easier to return. Balls can be deep, there can be dropshots, but you have time to run them down.

"There are a lot of variations to the game on clay and the mental side is huge. Even if you're struggling and losing points, you can continue to run as much as you can and put balls in play. You can always change the momentum on clay."

"Tactically, it's a completely different game," said Nadia Petrova, who has made two semi-finals at Roland Garros. "Clay absorbs power and slows down the game, so you can't go for the winner right away.

"You have to be more creative - you need to move your opponent around before you finish off the point. Also, the footwork is obviously different - you have to know how to slide."

"Also, being patient and working your points is important," said Samantha Stosur, the losing finalist last year.

"You cannot finish a point, so you have to be patient and use different variety of shots to keep your opponent guessing," said Vera Zvonareva.

Some of the tennis greats were found wanting in these departments when they came to Roland Garros.

Sampras's failures at the French Open still gnaw at his heart, but McEnroe has grown fond of clay through the years, watching the French Open from the commentary box.

"I love clay-court tennis," McEnroe said. "The strategy. There's a lot going on, so much to talk about."

There is plenty to see around as well, with Paris being the capital of haute couture and home to some of the best-known monuments. The Louvre, Sacre Coeur and the Eiffel Tower; the Marais, Bastille and Montmartre; the Notre-Dame Cathedral, Ile de la Cite and the Bois de Boulogne - there is something for everyone.

"There's stuff to see at tournaments like the Australian Open, but it's not historical like Europe where you feel obligated to go see some things," Sam Querrey, the American, said. "I felt obligated to go see the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower."

Serena Williams will miss this tournament through injury.

"I love playing in Paris," Serena said. "You can't even imagine how much love I have for the title that I won there [in 2002]. Very few titles that I've won top it.

"I wish I were Parisian. I would love to speak French. I don't even know how to explain why I love it so much, but everyone looks so fabulous. It's an old city but it's so well maintained."

The setting has earned the French Open the tag of being the most romantic international tennis championships in the world, rich with the history of triumphs and sporting tragedy.

The tournament started as the French men's singles tennis championship in 1891 at the Stade Francais, with just 10 participants. Six years later, the women's singles was added to the event, which did not open its door to the best foreign tennis players until 1925.

With the arrival of the foreigners, the tournament moved to the Racing Club de France before making the newly constructed Roland Garros, named after an aviator who flew across the Mediterranean in 1913, its home in 1928. In 1968, the French Internationals became the first grand slam tournament to join the era of tennis called the Open.

Since then, the tournament has seen 25 different men's champions and 22 among the ladies. Borg holds the men's record for most titles with six, including four on the trot. Chris Evert has won seven ladies' crown.

The list includes many clay-court specialists, mortal men who excelled where the mighty failed. For Andres Gomez, Sergi Bruguera, Carlos Moya, Gustavo Kuerten, Albert Costa, Gaudio, Hana Mandlíkova, Iva Majoli, Anastasia Myskina and Francesca Schiavone, Paris brings back memories of their greatest moment in the sport.

"Roland Garros is what kept me motivated throughout my career," Kuerten said. "So much has happened to me in Paris, so many matches turned around. My fondest memory on a tennis court happened at Roland Garros in 2001.

"I was in a state that you could hardly ever feel after I won the match. I felt as if I were floating. I was so happy, with such energy, that I drew a heart on the court to show all my love to the crowd and to that court. It wasn't something I was thinking before the tournament or during the match, it just came naturally at that moment. I think I was very fortunate to have had that idea.

"I drew the heart and lay on the clay when I won the tournament. I think it says it all."

The days of specialists such as Kuerten are probably over, but hoisting the Coupe des Mousquetaires after two weeks in Paris still remains one of the most challenging tasks in tennis.


Roland Garros’ best moments

Ivan Lendl v John McEnroe,  1984 final

Lendl had lost four grand slam finals and was heading for a fifth as McEnroe won the first two sets. After winning the third, Lendl was trailing 2-4 in the fourth before he turned things around and  clinched the final two sets “If we played that match 10 times, maybe I’d win only once,” Lendl said.

Chris Evert v Martina Navratilova, 1985 final

This final has often been described as a match for the ages. Having lost to Navratilova the previous year, Evert was determined to reclaim the French Open crown and she did for a sixth time.

Michael Chang vs Ivan Lendl, 1989 fourth round

This was a classic David versus Goliath match, with  Chang, 17, stunning three-time winner Lendl. Chang lost the first two sets, but rallied to level the match. In the fifth set, suffering severe cramps, Chang began lobbing the ball to Lendl, served underhand and even stood close to the service line to receive Lendl’s powerful serve.

Monica Seles vs Steffi Graf, 1992 final

Winners of two French Open titles each in the previous five years, Graf and Seles produced one of the greatest deciders in tennis history. The third set lasted 91 minutes with Graf saving five match points before Seles won 10-8.

Gaston Gaudio vs Guillermo Coria, 2004 final

This all-Argentine final has been described as one of the most bizarre matches. Coria was cruising towards the title after winning the first two sets and serving at 4-3 in the third. Gaudio won the next eight points to win the third. Hampered by cramps, Coria lost the fourth, 6-1, yet  still found himself serving for the championship at 5-4 and again at 6-5. Gaudio survived two match points and clinched the decider 8-6.