Paris, Tennis and the Big Three

Why is the clay at Roland Garros so unique?

The red clay at Roland Garros (Source: The Independent UK)

“I look up. I’m lying on the floor beside the bed. I remember now. I moved from the bed to the floor in the middle of the night. I do that most nights. Better for my back… I count to three, then start the long, difficult process of standing… I’m a young man, relatively speaking. Thirty-six. But I wake up as if ninety-six. After three decades of sprinting, stopping on a dime, jumping high and landing hard, my body no longer feels like my body, especially in the morning.”

This is a passage from ‘Open,’ Andre Agassi’s autobiography, ghost written by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist J. R. Moehringer (a fascinating read). Agassi is a tennis legend. He is one of a handful of players that can boast of achieving a Career Slam, i.e., to have won each of the four tennis Grand Slams. In the quoted text above, Agassi speaks about the toll that years of tennis has taken on his body. And yet, in an era dominated by the age-defying Big Three, we may question Agassi’s claim, or even laugh it off as an excuse. That is not a reflection on Agassi; it is rather a testament to the unearthly longevity and consistency of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. After 18 long months, we will once again see the Big Three competing against one another for a Grand Slam. The venue: Paris.

I recently spent some time in Paris, living and working there between January to April. I cannot help but draw parallels between my experiences in France, and the red clay of the surface at the French Open. Both are notoriously slow at decision making, evoke polarised opinions from others, have a strong and distinct character, are strikingly beautiful, and can be exasperating and scintillating in equal measure. As an aside — how is it that French people feast (prey, gorge, overdose) on wine, cheese, bread and butter, while retaining their petite figures? Maybe that is a conversation for another time.

Just a regular Parisian terrace (Source: Time Magazine)

In tennis, the speed of the surface is a huge determinant of a player’s success or failure. Grass and clay represent opposite ends of a spectrum. While the ball skids off grass, picking up pace, it stops on clay, slowing down immensely. As a result, shots that may have been winners at Wimbledon might be only ordinary at Roland Garros. Wimbledon and similar fast surfaces reward you for employing an attacking style of play; a powerful shot or a quick serve will give you the upper hand. That is why we see a lot more of serve and volleying, and points won at the net. Clay is another animal altogether. It rewards players with a strong baseline game. It requires guile, grit and determination to win. The question is whether you can wear your opponent down. The average match time in Wimbledon is much shorter than at the French Open; the average winners hit per match much higher. Statistics never lie.

Rarely do we see players that thrive on both surfaces, largely because of how fundamentally they differ. Pete Sampras, once considered the greatest tennis player ever, never won a French Open. Neither did John McEnroe or Stefan Edberg. All excelled at Wimbledon. On the flipside, Guillermo Vilas, Dominic Thiem (whose loss yesterday represented the first upset of the tournament) and other players of that mould barely make it past the early rounds on a grass surface. Once again, the Big Three are an exception to this dichotomy. What a surprise.

Federer and Nadal at the latter’s tennis foundation in Mallorca

The compelling narrative going into this year’s French Open is the number of Grand Slams to each player’s name. Federer and Nadal have 20 each. Djokovic has 18. I have a close friend, Vir Singh, who is a betting man. Even he would not risk betting against Nadal ending the fortnight with 21. No amount of superlatives will do justice to that man’s legacy at Roland Garros. He has won the French Open 13 times. To put that in perspective, Pete Sampras, who until recently held the record for most Grand Slams, has won 14 in total. Let that sink in.

As with any Grand Slam, I am excited to watch how it unfolds. Will Nadal achieve the inevitable? Will the next generation finally stake their claim? Time will tell. I simply intend to enjoy the ride, baguette and fromage in hand.

‘The Eclectic’ is a blog at the intersection of sport, law and culture.