The French Open is upon us and, while it may not be the most loved Grand Slam among players, Michael Graham explains why its his favourite of the big four to watch.
Ahead of the 2018 French Open, a journalist asked Andre Agassi what he would do if he was drawn against Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros. His answer was enlightening: “Call Air France and check the next flight out.”
Agassi, of course, was no jobber when it came to tennis. He is part of an exclusive club to have won the coveted ‘career slam,’ but his disdain for the French Open is obvious.
“I fought so hard to win the French Open one time and this guy (Nadal) has won it 10 times, which is just amazing,” Agassi said before the Spaniard won his 11th crown last year.
“I mean, 10 French Open titles? Come on, that’s not possible.”
Of course, it is possible. Nadal has done it and more. This year, Nadal will chase title number 12, and there won’t be many people on tour expected to get even close to being to stop him.
But let’s just take Nadal out of it for a moment. He is a phenomenon, a once-in-a-lifetime talent when it comes to the mastery of clay-court tennis. The fact is, the French Open has been feared by top players long before Nadal essentially monopolised it.
Legends Arthur Ashe, Boris Becker, Jimmy Connors, Stefan Edberg, John Newcombe, and Pete Sampras all have something in common: that they failed to win the career slam because they were unable to win the French Open.
Even Roger Federer, the great Roger Federer, can count only one Roland Garros success among his 20 Grand Slam titles.
So just what is it about the red dirt of Roland Garros that makes it such an in hospitable place? The argument has been forwarded that it is simply a case of rarity, but that doesn’t really stack up.
After all, there are far more clay-court tournaments on the tennis calendar than there are grass, meaning players get much more opportunity to familiarise themselves with the surface, and yet Wimbledon is universally loved – unless your Thomas Muster, of course.
Muster won the French Open in 1995 and reached world number one on the back of his success on clay, yet only ever played four matches at Wimbledon, losing them all, all in straight sets, and all to players ranked outside of the top 100.
It was a similar, yet less extreme, story for Mats Wilander. The Swede won three French Open titles, but was denied the career slam by failure at Wimbledon, where the furthest he was able to go was the quarter-finals.
He, then, is perhaps better placed than anyone to describe what makes the French Open a challenge to which not everyone is suited.
“The conditions change so much at the French Open, you know, you have to be prepared for something you really don’t know what it is,” he told Reuters.
“You can practice in the morning and it’s fine, and the weather is great then you come to play in the afternoon and it is drizzly and the conditions are totally different.
“As the only grand slam tournament without a roof, it is the only one where the conditions can totally vary from hour to hour, day to day. At Wimbledon if it is slightly wet you don’t even play the match.
“At the French Open you need to just get on with it and somehow adjust. It is hard. If it gets like that you get no rhythm.”
It can’t all be put down to the weather, though. The inherent conditions of clay-court tennis are such that it can dismantle a player’s usual game.
The flaking of the surface slows the ball down through the air, making rallies longer, matches longer, winners harder to find, and the net harder to attack.
It’s a surface that favours court-smarts and spin over serve and volley, and rewards patience and durability over power and brute force. That’s never been more succinctly demonstrated than it was by Pete Sampras in 1995.
Sampras amassed 14 Grand Sam titles in a glorious career, with them all coming courtesy of a brilliant serve and volley game that blew opponents away before they were even able to get a foothold in the match.
In 1995, though, in the French Open semi-final against Yevgeny Kafelnikov – the closest he ever came to winning it – his refusal to adapt cost him.
Tennis journalist Bud Collins commented to CNN at the time: “He was playing really well against him then reverted to his old serve and volley type and his chance was gone.
“He was stubborn about it. He was going to be Pete Sampras and it didn’t work out.”
Retrospectively, Sampras agreed: “I could have worked a little harder,” he told CNN’s Open Court show. “I mean I worked hard but you always look back at your career and feel I should have done.”
And that is what makes the French Open, in my opinion, the best Grand Slam there is. It all adds up to create a test for which players can’t truly prepare.
Roland Garros makes demands of players that no other spectacle in tennis dares – and it’s indiscriminate. It doesn’t matter who you are, the red dirt of Roland Garros will not compromise in its demands of you, and even the very best must earn its spoils.
If only Rafael Nadal would let us remember it from time to time!
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