by Saqib Ali
Clay season is upon us and is in full swing. Like most surfaces it presents its unique challenges and the tennis changes on this surface more than any based on the weather conditions. Many consider it the standard test as this surface tests mental and physical endurance of a player. This is where the players seem like gladiators as they slide into points which produce battles of will and attrition. Traditionally the clay season always throws more names into the mix. This season already has seen the likes of Borna Coric, Steve Johnson and Lucas Pouille register their maiden clay wins, while the ever dominant Rafael Nadal added two more titles to his illustrious clay collection. While doing so Nadal became the first player to win ten times at not one but two different locations. And this list could be up to three in six weeks’ time if he were to register his tenth win at the French open. Clay is important to Nadal like other greats favored Wimbledon time on the calendar, namely Sampras, Becker and Federer. But more importantly Nadal has been equally important to the surface. As he has added more interest to the clay swing by his dominance and global appeal.
While growing up I was introduced to tennis by my dad and Wimbledon was the first event I watched. Like many growing in that era it was the tennis connection which started with McEnroe vs Borg and exploded with the rise of Becker. India was and is predominantly a cricket crazed nation but it was in the Becker/Graf era that tennis interest reached a larger audience and was there to stay. I did not watch my first Roland Garros match on the tube till 1988. Even as a boy it was clear to me that is not the tournament I would like as my favorite player was not as good on this surface. Like Becker himself, fans like me were thrilled to see the sight of grass court tennis on TV. Of course we were not appreciative enough of the great tennis clay surface can produce due to our limited knowledge then and lack of TV coverage. But more importantly at that point the shift was also made in clay tennis as Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander began to struggle at Roland Garros after 1989 while Becker and Edberg were not clay forces. The consensus among us fans was that clay produces only one slam winners like Andres Gomez or surprise winners like Chang.
However as an audience we were getting more live matches now on TV and Roland Garros too was covered from day 1. While we mourned the exits of Becker and Edberg in early rounds, we began to subconsciously appreciate the clay battles between lesser ranked players. The names of Muster, Berasategui and Bruguera became associated with clay success. While we were still obsessed with the Wimbledon and US open tennis but realized the brand on clay was different and the biased mindset agianst clay was slightly turning into a new acceptance now. A chapter had been turned for me as fan.
This became the era of clay specialists vs the best players. The point is this was still a tournament in my eyes as a fan that the best player did not win or dominate till the red headed American Jim Courier broke through. Even tough Agassi had still not won a major, he was still seen as the biggest tennis star in the world along with Becker. Courier was termed as boring, which was unusual for me to understand as he dominated the tour for a year and a half. Clay was still not getting its due! The theory that the best player does not win the French open was shattered by Courier but he did not receive the same accolades as others in terms of popularity as some of his peers. This pattern continued for the most part as the next dominant player Pete Sampras struggled the most on clay of Roland Garros, more than Becker and Edberg. Agassi and Courier were the exception to the rule that top players were contenders to win in French Open. The Spanish brigade was taking over the clay tennis and their clear dislike of the faster court conditions was pretty evident.
With passage of time I started enjoying the clay battles even more. The movement and point construction was very different than other surfaces and that itself added to the length of matches. A service break was not considered writing on the wall for a match’s fate and the tide changed more than few times before the players shook hands. When Sampras started approaching his twilight years, the clay court specialists in that phase started making their move on hard courts. With the rise of Carlos Moya and Alex Corretja, the definition of a Spanish player was already changing in world tennis. It felt like the different universes were aligning. Galo Blanco’s upset of two time US open Champ Pat Rafter at the 2000 edition was seen as a major turning point. The next brigade of Spanish players wanted to prove to the tennis community that they were far from a one trick pony. Spanish based clay training programs were also in the news as the man who won the US Open that year, Marat Safin had Spanish clay roots going back to Valencia. He along with Guga Kuerten and Magnus Norman were the new era world number ones who could play on clay as well as hard courts. Kuerten and Safin had great personalities and were loved by the tennis crowds in Paris. The evolution was already set in motion if we were to look back now. The homogenization of the surfaces was not far away and most top players were slowly adapting to play well in different conditions and surfaces.
This is not to say that clay tennis was not popular earlier. These are my experiences as a die-hard tennis fan, who basically along with many got converted into a clay loving fan over the years. This journey came to full fruition when my favorite players like Safin, Ferrero and Federer started going deep in clay events. Which brings us back to the greatest clay courter of all time, Rafael Nadal. His records and stand out years on clay made him a force like no one else on any surface. He went on months without losing matches on clay and his style of play brought a new wave of audience to tennis. Like I mentioned earlier to me it is clear clay needed Nadal more than the other way around.
Roger Federer too had an impact on the popularity of clay tennis. In many ways Federer and Nadal are tied into each other’s greatness. Federer was clearly the best player in the world but was coming in second to Nadal on almost all clay matches they contested. This narrative caught the public’s imagination and their rivalry became the storied legend that is we know of. The French open became a pursuit for Federer and Nadal was the one man denying him that coveted glory on court Philippe Chatrier. Novak Djokovic too followed suit and is now a very dominant clay court player himself. The best players in this era have elevated the consistency levels and the game produced a lot of top name heavy finals at majors. A school of thought firmly believes that this consistency is a byproduct of the homogenization of surfaces. That is a discussion for another time but clay tennis is getting its due in this era because the best players win almost every major and the Roland Garros is no exception.
As a fan I had my first visit to Roland Garros last year. Even without Federer, the very reason I went there, the trip was total tennis haven, and I recommend it to every tennis fan. The quality of clay tennis in person escalates to a whole new level. Watching clay battles on outside courts was like a tennis dream. This year’s edition has its own mystique with Nadal aiming to create his own history. With Djokovic and Andy Murray a little off on their usual excellent level, this year could easily see a new player reach the finals of Roland Garros if not win it all. Still some tennis has to be played in major venues before we reach the clay climax and Nadal as of now looks like the man to beat. Which is totally the usual scenario during this time of the year.