John McEnroe on the challenges of playing on the red clay as he picks a French Open winner

French Open

Six-time Grand Slam champion and Eurosport tennis expert John McEnroe and has given an insight into why the clay courts of Paris were particularly difficult for him to conquer during his playing days.

Victory at Roland Garros was the only void on his list of Grand Slam titles and the American admits it is one of the big regrets of his career.

“When I grew up, I was actually better on clay and my best results were on clay,” said McEnroe. “Then, as I became a professional, since the schedule was virtually year-round, the commitment it takes, it’s hard to walk and only play one tune-up event which is more or less what I was trying to do.

“I’m not going to bore everyone with the details but it was tougher to focus on that and I credit the French Open and Australian Open for trying to get themselves closer to what Wimbledon and the US Open were. So, in my mind you obviously wanted to win everything but it was difficult to put yourself in a position where you gave yourself the time and the amount of time you’d be away from home as an American.

“You’d have to go to Europe four to six weeks before the French Open, so these types of decisions made it trickier and obviously, if you are an aggressive player like I am and someone who liked to move forward and cover the net, it’s tougher to move and make those quick explosive moves on clay.

“So, it’s better set up for a counter-puncher. It’s interesting to see someone who is willing to move forward and then someone who is willing to wait and see what you do and that’s usually the more successful person at a place like Roland-Garros.

“Physically, it is tougher to end points so that makes it trickier. You have to be in that frame of mind where you have to restart points that you thought you had already won so it is just the psychology that was more difficult for me as time went on, so it just made it very difficult to get all the way.”

Rafael Nadal with French Open trophy

McEnroe went on to suggest defending French Open champion Rafael Nadal may face some new challenges with this year’s tournament being staged in cooler autumnal conditions, as he suggested that may played into the hands of his rivals.

“Usually in Paris it cools off and it gets a little bit chilly at night and it depends on the scheduling,” he added. “I’m sure that Rafa won’t be suggesting he plays a lot of night matches and I don’t know how that’s going to play out. Obviously the weather is very unpredictable but presumably in the autumn, the balls are not going to jump up as much as it normally does which will make life more difficult.

“Also, the law of averages I suppose – Rafa’s won it 12 times so you would think at some point he’ll cool off a little bit and not be able to produce as amazingly as he has so I think the door is open, particularly since this crazy pandemic has been going on.

“It’s something the players haven’t experienced so it’s going to be unpredictable. A lot of players are scrambling, trying to play events that they might not normally play, say in Hamburg, to get some matches. Others are rolling the dice a little more and playing maybe one event in Rome and others may not be playing almost any events so it’s obviously as unpredictable as it can be with a guy who’s won it 12 times.

“Nadal and Novak Djokovic are clearly the favourites, but I think Dominic Thiem is obviously the third guy, there’s no doubt about it.

“He’s stepped it up emotionally and physically. It’s got to be draining, what happened and then winning, for him to finally break through and win one is something that is an accomplishment that puts him in rarefied air but at the same time, he’s going to have to dig deep because he’s going to have to go to a surface where he plays well.”

John McEnroe is a tennis expert for Eurosport. All courts and all matches from Roland-Garros will be live on Eurosport and Eurosport app starting Sunday 27 September.

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