The Red Clay

By Jane Voigt

May 28, 2013 -- What comes to mind when someone mentions springtime in Paris? A blue sky dotted with puffy clouds? Couples strolling in the Bois-de-Boulogne? Fabulous meals? That's probably what a regular person would say. Ask a couple tennis fans and they will answer Roland Garros.

Roland Garros is springtime in Paris. And it is synonymous with red clay, the toughest surface of all the Major tournaments. 

Red clay, which is crushed bricks, is slippery for several reasons but primarily because it becomes the consistency of flour. That makes it extra tough for maintaining balance. And it provides the stage for sliding, a beautiful art seen predominantly on clay courts. 

Because the skies over Paris this spring have been dark, damp, and rainy with temperatures hovering in the low to mid 50s, the terre battue -- literally, beaten earth -- has appeared to be a dark ocher. If the weather dries out and temperatures rise, the color with be a tint of that.  

Like Wimbledon, the courts at Roland Garros are covered at night and during rain delays. However air transforms the clay. 

Damp conditions means slower play and extended points. Although poly strings and powerful racquet frames have negated this phenomena to an extent, it still holds true. The ball could be struck with the force of a baseball bat, but when it lands the damp clay grabs it. Players therefore have more time to get to the ball. They have more time to set up for a shot, as they slide closer and closer. The advantage is time, more of it. The disadvantage is also time, depending on which side of the net you are on and your skills.

Our fitter-than-fit players of this Century can withstand long rallies on the red clay, and any other surface for that matter. In Paris, though, shots that seem like winners usually are not. Players anticipation and developed muscularity let them track a ball as well as a hawk tracks fish.

A slower court makes the ball stand up, too. If it is struck with topspin the ball will fly, spin, upward. If struck with under-spin it could move backward, almost. 

Players must adapt quickly to changing conditions, which is one reason they consider Roland Garros so grueling. It's the nature of the surface and its ever-changing characteristics. Throw in some wind and anyone wearing contact lenses could be in real trouble.

Usually warmer weather sets in over the two weeks of the tournament. Here the ball won't bounce as high or low. The fluffy red stuff does not grab as much, if dry. Sliding becomes a slightly different dance partner. Players will always weight the back of their feet in a slide, but when to start it becomes an added consideration. With the speed of the game today, those considerations have had to become innate. 

So who will do best? Who will win? The draw is key. So is the weather. 

Serena Williams will most likely win her 16th Major because no one can stop her except perhaps Samantha Stosur, Li Na, or Maria Sharapova. Serena is fit, happy, and motivated. The last time she won in Paris was 2003. It is the slam she has won only once. 

Rafael Nadal came to Paris with six titles for the year, more than any other year of his career. His entourage, which is headed up by Uncle Toni his coach and uncle, will fill journalists' ears with woes of Rafa's poor knees, or we must be vigilant about his health, or some other slice of spin to keep the competition guessing. But the truth is, Rafa can't hide the obvious … those knees are doing a bang-em-up job.

Rafael Nadal uses topspin like no other in the history of the game. It is his main weapon and he has thwarted the best with it, enough to win 7 of the last 8 men's singles titles. 

If cool conditions persist through finals' weekend, his heavy shots will make opponents very uncomfortable. They will be forced to strike balls at should height, on both wings, unless they can master taking them on the rise. But over a long match that becomes close to impossible unless it rattles Rafa. But he controls so many rallies with topspin, players weaken from the effort. He wears players down. He is a solid bet to win no matter the weather, the time of day, the phase of the moon.

Bless Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer with dry conditions -- sun, a little wind, fluffy clay -- and the tables turn. 

Roger Federer has a dream draw for the first time in years, and Novak Djokovic is due. He has never won Paris, and it would give him a career Grand Slam.

Both Federer and Djokovic know clay. Federer is probably the second best player to Nadal on the red stuff. But here's the thing … Federer will have to execute fast points and maintain a high percentage of first serves, along with a healthy helping of aces. He will also have to kill the conversation in his head about being 'less than' Nadal. 

On the other hand, Djokovic poses a greater threat. Since Nadal and Djokovic are on the same side of the draw, they would only meet in the semifinals. The world number one, Djokovic, took the glory away from Nadal in Monte Carlo earlier this spring, Nadal's favorite pre-French Open tournament. He won it 8 consecutive times, until 2013.

Tennis players want to be in control of a match in order to command their will on opponents. But considering the part played by red clay in Paris, their intentions are not always realized.

© Jane Voigt Tennis 2013