The Gift of Red Clay

June 1, 2016 — Ask people which Grand Slam they like most and chances are Wimbledon would win, with a spattering of nods to the other three. Yet the real winner has to be Roland Garros. And that’s because of the red clay.

If skies are blue and springtime temperatures prevail in Paris, play is quick: short points, more aces and less drop shots, power over finesse. If skies are cloudy and rain persists — take this year for example — play slows to a crawl, rallies extend upward to thirty shots, and balls pick up moisture plus clay, beginning to look like something dogs drag in from the back yard. 

Kiki Bertens of The Nederlands surprised Madison Keys, defeating the number-15 seeded American in straight sets to reach her first-ever quarterfinal at a major tournament. Bertens is one of four new faces that have earned their inaugural quarterfinal berths at the highest level of competition in tennis. The other three are Yulia Putintseva, Dominic Thiem, and David Goffin. Photo credit Leslie Billman

This means, of course, that players should have to adapt to conditions that vary with greater frequency than during a major on hard courts or grass courts. 

Tennis Channel’s Jon Wertheim put that theory to the test, asking Novak Djokovic (No. 1) about its validity. Wertheim wanted to know if conditions favored the underdog, meaning Roberto Bautista Agut, the No. 14-seed Djokovic had just beaten. 

“The conditions are slower,” Djokovic said. “The balls are full and wet. The courts are muddy, as well. The players that have nothing to lose go out there from the start to hit great shots. He did that. Today in the fourth [set] it was a challenge.”

With his win, 3-6, 6-2, 6-4, 7-5, the Serbian became the first man to reach the quarterfinals on the top half of the draw, and the first man in tennis to earn $100 million in tournament prize money. With that high monetary honor tucked under his belt he trucked off to the locker room to start recovery. He will have to play again tomorrow. “Thankfully, nothing is concerning me,” Novak said, with a smile.

The wiggy weather did a trip on the women’s side to a greater extend, we could say. Before the day was done — and there were no rain delays, a miracle in itself — Kiki Bertens (No. 58) had wiped out Madison Keys’ (No. 15) hopes of advancing to her first quarterfinal in Paris, 7-6(4), 6-3. 

Tennis Channel characterized her loss as a “disappointment,” but Keys said in her post-match press conference that she was pleased with her run in Paris and over the clay-court season, which ends for the majority of players after Roland Garros. A week ago she made the final in Rome, a tournament ranked just below a Grand Slam in the WTA, losing to Serena Williams. Keys one tour title — Eastbourne — is a grass-court tournament. So by doing well in Paris she has proven to herself that the tempo of a two types of court surfaces — slower clay versus faster grass — can be a field of dreams for the young American. 

Dutch native Bertens biggest goal coming to Paris was to qualify for her country’s Olympic tennis team. She’s accomplished that even if she has been stymied by the change in pace, timing and muscle strength needed on this year’s version of le terre battue. 

“I think I feel it already a little bit in my shoulders. The balls are much heavier than the other days,” she said, Reuters reported.

No one would know, though. She began her campaign to her maiden major quarterfinal when she ousted Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber in the opening round. Berten’s has never been beyond the third round. Additionally, she and partner Johanna Larsson defeated the No. 2-seeded team of Lucie Safarova and Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the first round of women’s doubles competition. They cruised to the quarterfinals there, but lost today to Kristina Mladenovic and Caroline Garcia (No. 5). 

The win over Keys in singles, though, surprised odds makers.

“The balls are much heavier than the other days,” Bertens said. “Also my shots were not like they would have been if the sun was out. But I think [I] still did a pretty good job today.”

Yulia Putintseva (ranked No. 60 in the world) surprised clay-court aficionado Carla Suarez Navarro (No. 12) to win a quarterfinal berth for the first time, as well. The Kazakhstan native, know for her feisty and dramatic on-court behavior, matched Navarro stroke-for-stroke today in the two-hour two-set victory, 7-5, 7-5. Only five-foot-four, Putintseva has the wheels of a race horse. With slower conditions she had time and chased down shots to her hearts content today. 

The 21-year-old Putintseva has not dropped a set yet and had only lost eight games prior to her win today. That’s the best record for all single entrants, even Serena Williams who Yulia will face tomorrow. 

With Bertens and Putintseva riding a high wave into the business end of Roland Garros, two other hopeful new faces lost today: American Shelby Rogers and Bulgarian Tsvetana Pironkova. Had they advanced, they would have been the first women to have reached the semifinals of a major while ranked outside the top one-hundred. Rogers is ranked No. 108 and Pironkova No. 102. 




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