Where rhapsody and agony meet
By Greg Garber
PARIS -- Typically, the artist molds the clay. At the Musee de Rodin, for example, you can find dozens and dozens of breathtaking examples.
There is, however, only one Roland Garros. Here, it is the clay that shapes the athlete. The champions, of course, prove themselves to be artists in their own right. Only on clay, can you inspect the artist's brushstrokes -- to see if the ball was on the line or just outside.
Gaston Cloup is the curator, the guardian of the famed red clay here at Roland Garros, all 50 tons of the terre batu or beaten earth. The chief groundsman is, according to the newspaper Le Figaro, "the magician who gives life to the earth." Since 1990 Cloup, 53, has overseen the 80 people responsible for the care and feeding of the 20 courts belonging to the French Tennis Federation
"Bonjour," says Cloup, emerging from his office. He has bright red cheeks and a pleasant manner. His hair has gone completely white -- he says it happened two years ago when the month of April featured a ghastly 26 days of rain.
Cloup opens the door to his adjacent shed, which sits about 30 feet beyond the baseline under the stands at Phillipe Chatrier, the center of the Roland Garros universe. In the corner, behind the battered green wheelbarrow, the tangle of shovels and squeegees is a heap of the glorious red dirt itself. This is the very stuff that sends people rhapsodizing into emotional monologues. The bounces, the players say, are usually true -- which is not the case at most other clay venues. Cloup is the reason. You can see the faint red dust on the tips of Cloup's white sneakers, at the cuffs of his khakis and the edges of his blue rugby sweater. Frankly, you can hear it in his voice, too.
"The clay here is alive," Cloup says. "It is very, very special."
"It's the best," said American Todd Martin. "This is the first year in a few years that I haven't been here the week before the French. That's usually my favorite week of the year. It's my best week of practice. I learn more about tennis in that week than I usually do in any other.
"I'm not a creative player, but when I get on clay I feel more creative. I feel like I have to be more creative. If you look at the history here you see the guys with success have been creative players. You have to figure out different ways to get points."
"I like it," said Jennifer Capriati. "I like it when you are able to work your way into a point and get a really good rhythm going."
Alex Corretja, who was born in Barcelona and lives there still, is most comfortable playing on clay. Ten of his career 17 titles came on clay. In 12 years in professional tennis, his overall record at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open is a decent 24-19. His record at the French Open, though, is 34-11. Before he exited in the first round here this year, Corretja had reached at least the quarterfinals in each of the last five years; he was a finalist twice, in 1998 and 2001.
Like so many players, Corretja smiles fondly when he talks about the red clay.
"Especially if you're Spanish, red clay is something where you feel like you're at home," he said. "We really like to be out there fighting hard because we know we have (the) advantage.
"I think playing Roland Garros best-of-five, is like being in a big battle, a big war. You go out there knowing you (are) going to fight for a lot of hours and no matter what, you like to survive. I haven't been playing well on clay (lately), but when I come here at the French, I feel like I'm ready again."
A level playing field
Of all the Grand Slam tournaments, the French Open has always produced the most unlikely champions. Pete Sampras has won 14 Grand Slam tournaments, but he has never won at Roland Garros. Martina Hingis won in Australia, at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, but never in Paris. John McEnroe won seven major titles, but never the French Open. Boris Becker? Six Grand Slam titles, zero French Opens. The reason? Clay is the great field-leveler.
"Basically, the points become longer because the balls does not penetrate as much," Martin explained. "So a player would have to hit three or four good shots instead of one or two good shots in order to be in a winning position. Plus, the serve is not as effective.
"On a hard court maybe 60 to 75 percent of the points are started to a somewhat neutral level. On clay courts, probably 75 to 100 percent are started at that level."
Said Capriati: "You have so many more underdogs with a chance because everything slows down. It's not like the hard courts where the point can be boom, boom and that's it. Everything is slowed down. You just can't hit winners all over the place."
Last year, following a streak of 65 consecutive tournaments without a victory, Spain's Albert Costa put together the best seven matches of his life. He survived Guillermo Canas in the quarterfinals, Corretja in the semifinals and Juan Carlos Ferrero in the championship. Since then, Costa has yet to win a title again in 22 tournaments. For the Europeans, winning here is the ultimate victory.
Yannick Noah, the poetic Frenchman, won here two decades ago. Andres Gomez was the winner in 1990. Sergi Bruguera won back-to-back titles in 1993 and 1994. Thomas Muster broke through a year later, followed by Yevgeny Kafelnikov. Gustavo Kuerten, the Brazilian, has won three of the past six French Open titles.
The common denominator? All of these champions virtually grew up on the dirt. The Europeans and South Americans, in particular, are extremely comfortable on the clay and have mastered its nuances.
Here are the best 10 performers on clay from last year's ATP: Spain's Carlos Moya (34-7), Gaston Gaudio of Argentina (29-6), Costa (28-8), Morocco's Younes El Aynaoui (25-8), Corretja of Spain (24-8), Argentina's Canas (24-12), Marat Safin of Russia (22-8), Argentina's Jose Acauso (22-12), Juan Ignacio Chela of Argentina (22-12) and Spain's Ferrero (21-8).
For those of you scoring at home, that's four Argentinians and -- count them -- four Spaniards. And here's the funny thing: this year's statistics also feature four Argentinians and four Spaniards among the top players. But Canas, Acauso and Chela have been displaced by Agustin Calleri, Guillermo Coria and David Nalbandian. On the Spanish side, Corretja and Costa have given way to fellow countrymen Felix Mantilla and David Sanchez. That is some serious depth.
"Most of us were born in Barcelona," Corretja said. "We have lots of clay courts, so we practice there a lot. If you play thousands of times on clay, you are going to be comfortable playing on it. It gives you a big advantage over guys who have played maybe only a hundred times on it."
For Americans there is, generally speaking, a disturbing a level of discomfort.
First of all, clay is a rare phenomenon in the United States. Hard courts are the surface of choice; they are unyielding, consistent and as fast as light. In short, everything clay is not.
"I love playing here," Martin said. "Of course, when I start to think that it's my career and how I learn my livelihood, I probably should play somewhere else."
A new chapter
"Once you move out of the hard courts, it's a new chapter," he said. "It's like you're reading a different book. You have to settle into it and consider that it was a great start but it's a long year."
Agassi eventually won the Houston tournament, defeating Andy Roddick in three sets. Both Americans, against type, seem to thrive on clay. This is Agassi's 15th French Open; he won here in 1999, reached the final in 1990 and 1991 and, all told, has reached the quarterfinals on nine occasions. Of Roddick's five ATP victories, two have come on the clay at the U.S. Clay Court Championships at Houston. His record last year on the dirt was an impressive 14-7.
"Oh, I don't know if I've solved it," said Roddick, a 20-year-old American, who proved prescient when he exited here in the first round. "So much of it is being exposed to it early. I think a lot of guys try to change too much. You have to concentrate on the things you do well. Mentally, you just have to notch it down a little bit."
In other words, patience is the greatest of virtues here.
"Yes," Corretja said, "you should have lots of patience. And you should be in really good shape physically and, of course, mentally. Plus, your groundstrokes have to change a little. If you play flat here, sometimes you can make a ot of mistakes. You give a little more spin to the ball to make it round a little bit. You can make the other guy run all over the place. You need to have spaces and angles so that the other guy (has to) run all the way and after an hour, hour-and-a-half, they are sort of dead."
Australian Lleyton Hewitt is the No. 1 ranked player in the world, but few believed he could win here.
"His style," said Costa, the defending champion, "he likes to play more flat. For clay, that's not the best thing. He's good physically and mentally, but I don't know. Players like Moya and Ferrero have (a) better chance. Their game is better on clay."
Alexandra Stevenson, who reached the semifinals at Wimbledon in her first Grand Slam appearance ever in 1999, is a big hitter, whose game is conducive to grass and hard courts. She is 0-4 in matches at Roland Garros.
"You must adjust," Stevenson said. "It's hard for me. I'm trying to learn how to be more patient. On grass, you have to attack, attack, attack. On clay, it's patience, patience -- and then you have to pick your spot to attack."
Patrick McEnroe, the U.S. Davis Cup captain, insists it is a learned behavior.
"Part of being an American, mentally, is being aggressive. It's how we live, it's how we play our tennis. Rather than waiting for the opportunity, you go for the shot.
"The games of Agassi, Courier and Roddick, it's all controlled aggression. But those guys who are big hitters, their margin for error is less."
Jim Courier, the champion of the French Open in 1991 and 1992, likes the emerging games of both Blake and Roddick. They have the foundation, he said, to one day succeed on clay.
"They're both big servers and have big forehands," Courier said. "Both have developed patience. That's something that only comes with practice. It's just a matter of changing the way you approach the building of a point. It's going to take longer and you have to deal with that."
According to Martin, movement is the key to winning at Roland Garros.
"The ability to move and be balanced is critical," he said. "You're basically chasing balls. It's a difficult surface to move on, with all the starting and stopping and sliding. The more you're on it, the better you get at it.
"The two most important things are your mind and your legs. We all hit the ball well enough to do well here. But you need to be able to put yourself in position to hit the ball -- every shot. And you need to know where to hit the shot more than on other surfaces. Other surfaces sometimes reward the wrong shot. This surface punishes the wrong shot."
Although No. 2-seeded Kim Clijsters, runner-up here, is a Belgian, she has never been particularly comfortable on clay. In fact, she won her first clay event a two weeks ago in Rome.
"It takes me a lot longer to find my game on clay," said Clijsters, a big hitter who thrives on the speed of hard courts . "It takes a lot more work to hit winners. You have to expect every ball to come back."
Gaston Cloup does not trouble himself with all these details.
The players say the winner here must be flexible and wise. The victor, they say, must prevail on seven different courts, seven subtly different sets of circumstances. Cloup, who is extremely proud of his courts, looks slightly perplexed when the translator relays a reporter's question. Consistency, he maintains, is most important. Court 18, he says, is just as important as the jewel of Philippe Chatrier.
"When we say the clay is alive, we feel that because in the span of a day it can change speed, change bounciness," Cloup said. "We have to water it so it retains its humidity. As it dries out, it speeds up.
"A player programmed to play a first match at 11 (a.m.), he's going to feel a certain type of clay. When players say seven types of clay, it means they're sensitive to every variation."
When players come off the court, the red clay is everywhere: in their socks and sneakers, their clothes, even their hair and face. Martin smiles when the messy aspect of Roland Garros is raised. "That's good isn't it?" he asks. "I think it's one of the best things of playing on clay. You walk into the locker room and every single guy knows whether you were in a war or whether you were out there for only a little while -- just by looking at you.
"I think you walk off the court and it's like a badge of war. I like that."
Said Corretja: "When you see the guys coming up to the lockers, you look to the clothes. It's like you can't use them again in your life because they are dirty, because probably you fall a few times, plus it can be wet. That, for me, is what makes it special."
Every year Cloup fields numerous requests from players for a bit of the red stuff. They bring him film canisters and, when he's feeling generous, he'll dig around in his office and find a tennis ball can. He'll scoop it through his pile of clay and give it to the player. They are, he says, very excited when this happens.
"In some small way, they bring back a little bit of clay with them to their home country," Cloup said. "What I like is when a player comes out of a game all sweaty, full of clay on him. Whether he is the winner or not, he tends to be happy."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories
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