In 2013, Nadal became the first man in tennis history to win eight titles at the same Grand Slam championship. Roland Garros website
Time to play on clay
By Roger Childs
If Wimbledon is the most prestigious of the tennis grand slams, the Paris tournament is the most flamboyant. There is plenty of colour and style about the French Open with its mix of bands and dancing, the dressing up and stylishly turned out ball kids, the Mexican waves and the vocal spectators, and of course, the red clay on which the players slip and slide. The television coverage is superb and French cameramen are known to linger on the female form and face both on the court and in the crowd.
Rafael (Rafa) Nadal has had a mortgage on the men’s singles in recent years and no-one else has had a look in, except Roger Federer. Rafa has won eight of the last nine tournaments and in 2009, when the Swiss maestro won, Nadal was absent because of injury. Meanwhile the women’s title has been won by a different player in each of the last seven years.
Will things change in 2014? Nadal is looking beatable and it could be Djokovic’s year. On the women’s side it could be yet another new winner, as last year’s champion, Serena Williams, was thrashed in the second round.
Rafael Nadal, the man known as the King of Clay, holds the record for single victories in the modern era. Prior to World War One, Max Decugis had eight victories, but at that time only French nationals could contest the tournament. New Zealand’s greatest tennis player and four-time Wimbledon winner, Anthony Wilding, would surely have won the title back then, if he had been allowed to play.
First contested in 1891, the tournament moved in 1928 to a new stadium named after a World War One aviator, Roland Garros. Today it is the only one of the four grand slam tournaments played on a clay surface.
A familiar sight in matches is players hitting their shoes to dislodge the red clay from their soles. Another unique feature in European clay tournaments is the sight of an umpire leaping out of the elevated chair to pinpoint where the ball has landed in a disputed call.
The King of Clay – the right temperament and all the shots
Spaniard Rafael Nadal is one of greatest players ever to hold a racquet and currently has 13 grand slam victories to his credit. Only the great Roger Federer with 17, and the legendary Pete Sampras with 14, have won more.
Rafa is coached by the inscrutable Uncle Toni, a man whom the television cameras constantly pick out in the crowd, when Nadal is playing. He has instilled in his protégée the need for discipline and focus. There are scowls and glares but never any tantrums or racquet abuse from Nadal, and he respects the ability and skills of his opponents.
On the court there is a steely determination and confidence, whereas in interviews he comes across as being very humble and rather shy.
However other players do have some issues with his tactics. If he start losing points on service, he will slow things down and often take more than the allotted time allowed for serving.
Nadal’s playing strengths are his
- anticipation and shot selection
- incredible speed around the court
- lethal forehand
- powerful double-handed backhand
- mastery of top spin and placement.
The left-hander will often slide along the baseline for a wide ball and then angle an unplayable cross court winner. He is also a master of the passing shot, so much so that opponents are often scared to come to the net.
Although not a natural serve and volley player like Federer, he is still deadly when he does come to the net and rarely misses putting away a smash.
The pack is hunting
However, could this be the year for a new men’s singles champion on the clay of Roland Garros?
April-May is the time of the year when the tennis world focuses on the clay courts of Europe. The climax is the French Open, however there are four major tournaments in the preceding weeks:
~ Monte Carlo
This year the men’s winners have been Stanislas Wawrinka, Keri Nishikori, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Nadal won the Spanish Open in Madrid, but was being thrashed until Japan’s Nishikori had to retire with a back injury.
So the King of clay is vulnerable in this year’s French Open, as his form in the lead up tournaments has been mixed. The greatest threat in a very good field of clay players is Djokovic.
The Serbian master has won five of the last thirteen grand slams in what is probably the greatest era ever of men’s tennis. Djokovic is the complete player because of his
- superb fitness and speed around the court
- consistently accurate serve
- equally powerful forehand and backhand
- superb placement
- ability to play winners from almost any position.
He beat Nadal comfortably in the recent Rome tournament and most pundits are picking him to go on to win the only grand slam that has so far eluded him. However Rafa can never be written off because, as sports writer Dan Weston notes, he has a truly incredible 59-1 venue record and also has a 46-4 record in his last 50 matches on clay.
There are also plenty of other top quality players through to the third round, including Federer, Berdych and Murray as well as French stars Tsonga, Monfils, Gasquet and Simon hoping to be the first home country winner since Yannick Noah prevailed in 1983.
No doubt there is plenty of drama to come.
A lottery in the women’s singles
Amazingly, the two top seeds, last year’s winner Serena Williams and Australian Open champion Li Na, are both out after two rounds. Previous winners Martina Sharapova and Anna Ivanovic are still there, however there is plenty of young talent coming through.
Others who are likely to feature in the last eight include Australian Sam Stosur who was runner up in 2010 (pictured above), Germany’s Angelique Kerber, 20 year old Canadian Eugenie Bouchard and fourth seed Romanian Simona Halep.
It’s not easy to pick a winner! One thing is certain, there is plenty of great tennis still to come.