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It’s raining in the park but meantime
South of the river you stop and you hold everything
A band is blowing Dixie double four time
You feel alright when you hear that music ring
Coming in out of rain to hear the jazz go down
Competition in other places
Oh, but the horns, they’re blowing that sound”
—Sultans of Swing by Mark Knopfler/Dire Straits
We are nearing the end of the annual French Open tennis tournament and at this point, things get very interesting.
Understand that all big sporting events–F1 races, the Superbowl, Key West Race Week, the Masters–are athletic trade shows. The action on the court or field or course is accompanied by equally intense action on the sidelines and after the event, as participants make deals, plan, scheme, propose, and hope for new or better business alliances. But we’ll deal with that stuff later, Today, the topic at hand is Roland-Garros, the annual French Open Tennis Tournament.
The French Open is unlike the other three Major tennis tournaments (Australian Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open) because it is the only one played on clay–red clay to be specific, or, in French, the “terre battue”. The terre battue surface at the French is deceptive, like most things in tennis. The top layer–the one you see as the court surface and the one the players play on–is composed of ground up red brick, approximately 2mm thick. Below that are multiple layers of rocks and stones, with the topmost layer being fine limestone and the very bottom layer being larger clunky stones. The New Yorker published a terrific article by Reeves Weideman about the surface of the courts at Roland-Garros, the tennis stadium complex where the French Open is played every year, starting late May and running into early June, and about the French Open which details how the court is made; you can read the article by clicking the link above and you are advised to do so.
Tennis played on red clay (or any kind of clay for that matter) is different from tennis played on grass (Wimbledon) or hardcourts (the Australian and U.S.Open).
The beauty of the French Open is that it brings tennis back to its most basic: ground strokes. The slower pace of play on the clay courts at Roland-Garros stadium in Paris is the precise opposite of the high speed game that takes place at Wimbledon on grass and on the hard courts at the Australian and U.S. Opens. A big serve is always an advantage, but a better advantage on clay is a solid return game and a big topspin forehand or backhand. Players use topspin to control the power they develop when they hit a shot; the topspin (created by hitting low to high on the ball) brings the ball down into the court where it hits and then rises quickly up off the court surface; without topspin to bring it down, the ball would fly out of the court, which is not the desired result. Topspin is a way to harness power and control and very necessary on clay. Clay court players also “slice” the ball, which creates underspin (the opposite of topspin) which keeps the ball low, especially after the ball hits the court, because underspin shots do not “jump” off the court after they hit.
At the French, players have to “construct” a point, moving their opponent from one side of the court to the other, opening the court up, trying to get the right angle to put the opposition away. This takes time, the surface is slow and takes its toll on the legs and endurance of the players. Impatient players do not do well on clay. Players who have only one dimension to their game (a big serve, a great forehand) or who do move well, do not well on clay. Players who have kinks in their groundstrokes, or bad nerves do not do well on clay. Players who do not think strategically do not well on clay. And players who are not in shape do not do well on clay. It’s a demanding surface (face it–at the world class level, all surfaces are demanding, but some more than others) and it can bring out the best and the worst in a player.
On hard courts, the modern players using modern carbon fibre racquets can end any point they can get a full swing at; not so at The French, where the clay absorbs so much of the power of the shot that winning a point on power alone is tough–it’s placement along with power that rules the day. The Tennis Channel (and NBC this weekend) is providing wire-to-wire coverage of The French as well as an excellent opportunity to see the best players in the world exchange groundies and work their tactics. If you love tennis, you have to love The French because it is perhaps our purest interpretation of the game, as well as one of the most physically demanding tournaments (more about the French and their love of endurance sports in a later post).
There are four key strokes in tennis: forehand, backhand, volley, serve. The overhead is a version of the serve. And although it’s not classified as a stroke, the service return, forehand or backhand side, could be considered the fifth key stroke. In clay court tennis, a player needs full command of all four strokes and a very good service return. At times, a player can “run around” a backhand to hit a forehand (the player moves past the point on the court where he would he normally hit a backhand and, instead, powers a forehand; typically this provides a terrific angle to the opposing player’s backhand side) but that’s a tactic that has to be very carefully utilized because the player hitting the run- around forehand is way out of position on the court for the reply shot from his opponent. A player could also run around a forehand to hit a backhand but that seldom happens. When a player runs around a backhand or a forehand that’s typically a sign that the player is covering up a weak shot.
Not all players have equally consistent, powerful, and accurate ground strokes off both sides; that’s the ideal of course, but few players are equally solid off both sides. The really top players–Federer, Djokovich, Borg and Lendle and McEnroe in their day–had powerful, effective shots off both sides. A player like Raphael Nadal, who has won more French Open titles than anyone in history (10) has a solid backhand, but his wrap around, topspin forehand is his trademark, killer shot. If you’re playing on clay, the last thing in the world you want to do is get into a forehand battle with Nadal. He will prevail. Nadal has a tough years in the past, but he always seems to come alive at The French, so much so that it’s news if he doesn’t win. The tennis writers predict he will win again in 2018 and, indeed, as this is written, he is into the finals, where he will face clean-cut Dominic Thiem, a young Austrian with a very big serve and even bigger forehand. Nadal, however, remains the favorite to win this year’s French Open. He’s popular, he’s athletic and fast and relentless, and he has deep reserves of desire. But–he’s put a lot of mileage on his musculature hitting tennis balls and that’s certainly had an effect on his game. He’s still, however, the favorite–the point that is it’s news when he loses, not when he wins.
Building or constructing a point on clay requires patience and consistent, accurate ground strokes. The goal is to move the other player around the court enough to finally put him out of position so you can crack a clean winner. Understanding this process is as simple as watching a match on clay between two really good players. It is basically a matter of geometry. The court is a rectangle cut into two sections by the net; the net is lower in the middle than at either end (important point-which also explains why so many shots are hit “down the middle” or “cross court”). The goal is to move your opponent around his side of the court as much as you can–from side to side or up and back or both–while minimizing your own running around.
If you’re in “control” of the point, your opponent is running around a lot and you’re not. The player doing the most running is generally not in control of the point; the player doing the least running is in control. Running is important–especially on clay–because you have to be very fit to run, continuously, for a few hours at a time. Fabrice Santoro defeated Arnaud Clement at the French in 2004 in a match that lasted 6 hours and 33 minutes and was played over two days. That’s six hours of sprinting on clay. That’s a lot. The Olympic record for the marathon is two hours and change. Think about it –and marathon runners don’t sprint, they just set a pace, lock in, and go.
You can hit shots that go down the side of the square (forehand down the line or backhand down the line) or shots that cut the square, angled diagonally from one corner to the other, in either direction. And, of course, you can hit shots right down the middle.
A predominant number of shots are hit down the middle or cross court; one reason is that the middle of the net is the lowest part of the net, so there’s more room to get the shot over, more margin of error, which is important even if a player hits really big topspin shots (and they all do). The net is higher at its endpoints, which means that forehands and backhands hit down the line must cross the net at its highest point. A typical clay court point will start with a return down the middle, and maybe a few other shots down the middle before the players start to move the ball out to the sides of the court, always looking for an angle that will give them an advantage.
Twenty or more years ago, I was walking off the courts at a racquet club, after playing a couple of sets of clay court tennis, and I heard the sound of thunderous shots. The sound was like someone chopping wood, crisp and impactive, rhythmic and full of fire and it continued without a break. Occasionally there would be a short pause, ten seconds or so, and then the sound would pick up again, gaining intensity and frequency. I turned away from the clubhouse and started walking among the courts, looking for the source of the sound. The club had a nice compliment of hard courts but most members were there because of the clay courts–a special type of clay called Rubico–and, soon I turned the corner and found the source of the sound: it was Zan Guerry and Harold Solomon, two of the All-Americans from a very, very talented Rice University team assembled and coached by Sam Giammalva, himself a very good world class player in his playing years. Stalking the baseline, taking the ball early as it leaped off the Rubico courts, the players strokes’ were fluid and powerful and well placed. Guerry and Solomon pushed each other around the court continuously, probing for the one moment when one of them would be just the slightest bit out of position. It was mesmerizing to watch the precision and consistency–but that’s what clay courts do to your game (they’re also a lot easier on your legs because you do not get the jarring that comes with playing on hard courts). There was no one else around that afternoon and I watched for twenty or thirty minutes as two of the purest clay court players in America pushed each other’s limits. It was amazing to see, just one of those moments in time that are very special, but go unnoticed or unremarked upon unless someone makes the effort.
Guerry and Solomon both went on to pro careers and Solomon won 22 titles and was a finalist in the 1976 French Open on clay. I could see that coming the day I saw him hitting with Guerry. Guerry had a modest pro career but both he and Solomon were elected to the ITA Collegiate Hall of Fame for their college tennis career. Zan Guerry went to Wharton Business School (the graduate one, not just the undergrad), worked at Texas Commerce Bank as a financial planner, and just recently retired as CEO of his family’s medical supply business in Chatanooga, Tennessee. Solomon is a tennis coach who lives and works in Washington, DC and Florida. Solomon was a true clay court master: in addition to making the finals in the French in 1976, he reached the semis in 1974 and 1980. During his career, he was ranked as high as 5th in the world (1980).
What I saw that day in person–and what you will see this weekend, on TV–was the “groundstroke symphony”, the perfect match up of two players at the top of their game, trading groundstrokes and strategy and endurance, power, and speed, pushing each other’s limits as the made the sweet music of clay court tennis played well. The girls do it too, very well actually, and so on Saturday, in the Women’s finals, Simona Halep will face off against Sloane Stephens in for the Women’s title in a match that will not be short on power or placement or quick thinking.
If you like to see classic tennis, tennis played with the points going long enough that you can actually study them and learn from them, you should tune into NBC both Saturday and Sunday morning to see the “groundstroke symphony” that is clay court tennis at its absolute finest. To a serious–or even semi-serious–the sound coming off the courts is the sweetest kind of music, the kind you only get from great groundstroke battles, on clay.