How Players Truly Feel About The Hot Mess At The French Open

AP Photo/David Vincent

Sloane Stephens, who plays Serena Williams in the fourth round Monday, gives the Roland Garros clay very high marks.

PARIS -- The Roland Garros clay is so distinctive, famed and prized that souvenir capsules of it sell for a pricey 20 euros ($22) at the concession stands here. The players take away roughly the same amount each match, though theirs is collected not inside a tiny bottle but on their shoes, their socks, their shorts, their wristbands and even their flesh.

Not that they necessarily are going to bring it home to keep on a mantle.

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Caroline Wozniacki dislodges some of the clay from her shoes.

"I have had a lot of time on the clay, and I don't need to take any home with me,'' said Jack Sock, who loves the substance. "Maybe -- no, I'll be more excited just to get home and spend some time with family. The clay will probably stay here in Paris.''

Steve Johnson says he doesn't wear white shorts here because they just get ruined with clay stains. He wears dark clothes during the clay season and puts his shoes in donation boxes. "I'm not going to take a couple pairs of dirty clay-court shoes home with me.''

Caroline Wozniacki says stained shoes and socks simply are part of the Roland Garros experience.

"I think the designers now know so that when they design the shoes and everything, even when they get the orange clay on it, it's still going to look good,'' she said. "I'm wearing yellow these weeks, so I think that contrasts well on to the clay. It kind of brightens it all up, even when it's a gray day out there, I'm still shining bright.''

Asked about the subject last year, Novak Djokovic said he didn't mind the clay stains because "where I'm staying there is a washing machine, so I'm washing my socks every day. So it doesn't matter really how dirty they get.''

Of course, given how much the clay sells for in the concession stands, the players might want to consider saving the material. If there is one ounce of the clay in the capsule -- and a concession worker nodded at that guesstimate -- it costs slightly more by weight than silver these days. And it's considered every bit as precious as gold.

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Usually described as red, Roland Garros clay is actually burnt sienna in color. A factory in northern France produces it from crushed bricks that have been left outside in the weather for at least one year. The clay, or terre battue in French (literally "beaten earth''), is very fine, like the powdered sugar sprinkled on the waffles here. There also is only a surprisingly thin layer of it over a base of limestone that comes from southern France. As thin as the layers are, an estimated 50 tons of the clay still cover the courts.

Jim Caple

Thomas Rollier loves working with the clay and doesn't mind the long hours at all.

If it was priced the same as the souvenir capsules -- which it most definitely is not -- that clay would cost more than $35 million. All the prize money at the French Open (just under $30 million for both women and men) would not cover that price.

There are 125 people working the clay at Roland Garros, with about six per court. They arrive at 6:30 in the morning, spreading one to three wheelbarrows of new clay on each court, and they don't leave until after the final match, usually around 10:30 at night, when they spray some water on the clay and cover it. It's a long day.

"Yeah, but we're not caring at all,'' court worker Thomas Rollier said alongside Court Philippe Chatrier. "It's long but it's not very tiring and it's very exciting because we are here and we can watch the matches from the closest place possible. It's pretty cool, actually.''

The workers, naturally, are covered with even more clay than the players. "Tonight everything will be red -- it comes with the job,'' Rollier said. "There is clay everywhere.''

Rollier is a huge tennis fan. I asked whether he had ever played on Chatrier. He said no, that such a thing is strictly forbidden. Only those in the French Open can play on Chatrier. Two famous French celebrities briefly took the court once and, despite their fame, were chased off within minutes.

Chatrier and the clay are sacred.

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The Roland Garros clay changes with the weather. It plays heavier and slower in cooler, damper weather, faster and harder in the heat.

Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Jack Sock, who takes on Rafael Nadal next, says the clay brings out the best in his game.

"The courts are different than they were [the] previous year,'' Wozniacki said. "I think there is much more clay on the courts in general. I think there are more bad bounces because of that. I think in previous years it's been much less clay, been faster to play on.''

The clay can also change during the course of the day. The first week the mornings have been sunny and warm but cloudier and cooler as the days and matches move along.

"It can play very different,'' John Isner said after his first match this week. "One of my practice days -- on Sunday it was pretty cold and the ball was not bouncing at all. I think the time I played today, I had a pretty good timing and a very good court for myself as well. The ball wasn't staying as low as it was a few days ago, which obviously is very good for me.''

Roger Federer said the clay here is the finest grain. "It feels a bit different to then the clay we have in Switzerland,'' he said. "It's a nice court. Obviously they put in a lot of effort. You can feel it.''

While Sock is a big fan of the clay, Madison Keys is not. "We had a conversation the other day,'' she said. "He says it gives him more time for his serve. He doesn't like grass as much and he loves the red clay. We're polar opposites. I'm like, 'You're bizarre.' And that conversation was over. He said, 'I'm not the typical American.'''

"I feel like it maximizes my game more than other surfaces,'' Sock said. "I'm able to set up and dictate with the forehand again. Serving definitely gets up. It definitely makes my shots a little more lethal than on other surfaces. It feels like it suits my game very well. I feel very comfortable on it.''

Sloane Stephens, who played on clay a lot in Florida, also likes the terre battue of Roland Garros, where she has enjoyed some of her greatest success by reaching the fourth round four years in a row.

"This is probably the best red clay you'll ever play on in your whole life,'' Stephens said. "I think here it's easy to slide. It's easy to get around. I mean, it's everything you would dream of if you had to play on a clay court. To play here obviously is great. It's something that I've always loved to do. ... The lines are perfect. The courts are always perfect. Never get too dry. Never need water. I mean, they just maintain them really well.

"Hopefully I can play here for like 25 more years.''

Stephens would be 47 by then. But the clay still will be here. Although it probably will be priced at $60 a souvenir capsule by then.

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