It used to be that the French Open was the drama-filled finale to the European clay-court season. But that was before Rafael Nadal emerged and the French became the thoroughly anticlimactic conclusion to one man's annual scorched-earth romp across the terre battue.
Nadal arrives in Paris this week coming off a stretch in which he won four of the five tune-up events. He is no doubt the heavy favorite to win his 11th French Open crown. Yes, he had to mount a ferocious third-set comeback against Alexander Zverev on Sunday in Rome to notch his eighth Italian Open, and yes, Dominic Thiem took Nadal down in Madrid the week before last. But Nadal encounters one or two potholes every year en route to Paris, and it makes no difference in the end.
Barring injury, food poisoning, a meteor hitting his hotel or some other freakish mishap, Nadal is going to be giving the trophy his customary bite once again on the victory platform in Paris a couple of Sundays from now.
Because of this numbing Nadal-induced predictability, the European clay-court season seems really long. But that's not just a matter of perception, nor is it solely a function of Nadal's historic dominance. The European clay season is long, stretching from the beginning of April through the first week of June.
Whether you think that is good or bad depends on how you feel about clay. If you enjoy watching long, grinding rallies, you probably can't get enough of the reddish-brown stuff. If you prefer shorter, more explosive points, April-June is presumably your least-favorite part of the tennis season. But personal preferences aside, is the build-up to the French too drawn out? And with three Masters 1000 tournaments among the tune-up events for Paris, does it overstate the relevance of clay?
Debates about the tennis calendar and whether particular surfaces are over- or underrepresented are nothing new. At the moment, 36 ATP events are played on hard courts, 21 on clay and seven on grass. Add in the Slams, and the numbers are 38, 22 and 8. But unlike the hard-court stretch, the clay season is pretty much clumped together.
The paucity of grass-court events has been a source of discussion going back many years. (Yes, grass-court tennis is an anachronism, but there are plenty of people who think there should be a few more tournaments on grass). However, it is clay that gets most of the attention when conversation turns to scheduling and surfaces. A few years ago, there was talk of expanding the clay-court schedule, and in particular adding more clay events in the United States. There was even discussion of converting the Miami Open from hardcourts to HarTru, the green clay that is ubiquitous in retiree-rich Florida.
Now, though, clay seems to be in retreat. In 2014, the Mexican Open, which had been played on red clay for the previous 20 years, switched to hard courts, a move that appears to have presaged the demise of the entire Latin American clay-court swing, which takes place in February. The ATP event in Rio looks set to switch to hard courts.
When I was in Buenos Aires a few months ago, Luis Diez, the president of the Buenos Aires Lawn Tennis Club, which hosts the tournament, told me that they were giving serious thought to making the switch. The club currently has no hard courts and would have to convert the stadium court (named for clay-court legend Guillermo Vilas) and a number of outside courts. If both Rio and Buenos Aires move to hard courts, it is difficult to see how the February clay tournaments in Sao Paulo and Quito can resist following suit.
The problem with the Latin American swing is that it falls between the Australian and Indian Wells and Miami. In other words, it is a mini-clay-court season sandwiched between three of the most prestigious hard-court tournaments. This makes it difficult to attract high-quality fields. Yes, some big names turn up in Rio and Buenos Aires, but evidently not enough to satisfy the ATP.
However, there is a deeper problem with the Latin American circuit than its place on the calendar: At the pro level, clay just matters less these days.
"The next generation is hard-court focused," said Luis Carvalho, who runs the Rio tournament.
It was a comment echoed by Thiem: "The whole tour goes more and more to hard courts," he told ESPN.com. "Except for Roland Garros and Wimbledon, all the most important tournaments are on hard courts."
Diez told me that the other reason the club is considering swapping out clay courts for a hard surface is to enhance its junior program -- to compete successfully at the international level.
These changes will serve to reinforce the trend that prompted them. (Another factor in favor of hard courts: They are much cheaper to maintain than clay.) It is possible that these developments in South America could presage a diminished role for clay in general. Would that be a bad thing?
The ATP seems to think so.
"We believe that having a balance in the diversity of surfaces is important," ATP spokesman Simon Higson wrote in an email. "The homogenization of surfaces and styles of play is something we want to protect against."
But what constitutes balance as far as surfaces go has been a constantly moving target. Three of the four majors used to be played on grass, and as strange as it is to recall, there wasn't a hard-court Slam until 1978, when the US Open moved from the West Side Tennis Club to Flushing Meadows. (The Open was played on HarTru from 1975-1977 and grass before that. The Australian Open didn't transition from grass to hard court until 1988.)
The point is that tennis has seen a lot of dramatic changes over the decades, not the least involving playing surfaces. It's hard to really claim that the sport has suffered because of these changes.
Which brings us back to the French. Is the lead-up too long? Probably. The point is to whet our appetites for the main course at Roland Garros. But by the time Paris rolls around, even those of us who adore watching clay-court tennis are feeling pretty satiated. A slightly shorter swing would make a lot of sense, and there's definitely no need for three of the nine Masters Series events to be on European dirt.
Champions come and go, as do tournaments. The one constant in professional tennis is the quest to create a better, more rational calendar.