French Open 2019: Decline of claycourt specialists has led to puzzling change in the competitiveness at Roland Garros

Is 'specialist' a dirty word? Would you be offended if someone said you were a specialist in one aspect of your job?

The way claycourt specialists are derided and dismissed by many in the tennis universe, you'd think there was something inherently unsavoury about excelling on clay. It doesn't help that some of the other names these players are called by — grinder, dirtballer, or worst of all, dirt rat – make it sound like they engage in an activity that is downright filthy.

A claycourt specialist is widely understood to be a player whose results on clay are significantly better than they are on other surfaces (primarily quick ones). In a negative sense, it is considered a worthy label for a player who performs poorly everywhere except on clay.

But the derision is misplaced because claycourt specialists can be champions in their own right. In fact, many players who fit into this category have triumphed at the sport's only Major played on clay – the French Open.

 French Open 2019: Decline of claycourt specialists has led to puzzling change in the competitiveness at Roland Garros

Gaston Gaudio defied all odds to win the French Open title in 2004. Gabriel Bouys/AFP

If you go back to the early days of the Open Era, there was 1972 Roland Garros champion Andres Gimeno, who never won a Slam outside Paris, and 1976 champion Adriano Panatta, who never even reached a Slam semi-final outside Paris. Yannick Noah won the French Open in 1983 but never contested a final anywhere else, while 1990 champion Andres Gomez always struggled to go deep at the other Majors.

In the last couple of decades, we've had Sergi Bruguera (two-time Roland Garros champion but a serial underperformer elsewhere), Thomas Muster (who won the French in 1995 but failed to reach a non-Paris final his entire career) and 2002 champion Albert Costa, who made just one Slam quarter-final on hardcourt or grass. The peak of "claycourt specialization" probably occurred in 2004, when Gaston Gaudio, a man who never went beyond the third round at Melbourne, Wimbledon or New York, triumphed over Guillermo Coria in Paris to lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires.

There have been similar stories on the women's side too, albeit fewer in number. Sue Barker, Mima Jausovec and Virginia Ruzici won a trio of French Open titles in the late 70s, but never tasted nearly as much success at the other Slams. In more recent times, Iva Majoli, Anastasia Myskina and Francesca Schiavone have lit up the courts in Paris by galloping all the way to the title, while regularly flopping at the quicker Majors.

The relatively high number of surface-specific champions at Roland Garros suggests that the French Open is more unpredictable than the other Slams. Here's a telling statistic that starkly expresses the difference: there have been 12 French Open men's champions in the Open Era who never won a Slam elsewhere; for Wimbledon, the corresponding number is just four.

Over the years it has never been easy to predict when a claycourt expert, who has largely been invisible for the rest of the calendar, will suddenly peak during the clay swing and walk away with the Roland Garros trophy. In some ways, that has been the USP of the claycourt Major.

I know what you're thinking though: "unpredictable" could very well be a euphemism for "easy". If there are more unknown champions at a particular event, that might be an indication that the event is not a true test of greatness.

But take one look at the list of greats who have never been able to win the French Open despite years of trying and that argument is flipped on its head.

What do John Newcombe, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and Pete Sampras have in common? They have all won six or more Majors and are considered all-time greats, but have never triumphed on Parisian clay. Surely if it was "easy" to win the French Open, these stalwarts would've got the job done at least once, if not multiple times?

We will probably never get a clear resolution to the debate over the comparative difficulty level of each Slam because there are just too many variables and everyone has their own opinion about it. What we can say with certainty, however, is that the French Open requires a more specialized set of skills than any other Slam. And you either have those skills (acquired through years of training on the surface right from your childhood) or you don't; there is no middle ground.

That is borne out by another quick glance at the six-Slams-or-more club of players who have never won the French Open, mentioned above. Four of those six players are from either Australia or USA – countries that prioritize quick-court attack over slow-court slogging in their training academies. It is no wonder that the grind of Paris was so alien to them.

But if clay is such an inherently niche surface, why has the French Open men's singles become so predictable since that excessively left-field Gaudio win in 2004? The easy answer is Rafael Nadal. The man's claycourt abilities are so extraordinary that he has reduced the tournament to his personal playground, allowing just three other players to win the title in the last 15 years.

There could be another factor behind this state of flux too though. Since the turn of the century, courts all over the world have seen a gradual slowing down in order to reduce the prevalence of the serve-dominated contests that were such a norm in the 90s. With the difference in court speeds between clay and non-clay surfaces getting lower and lower, players have started finding it easier to adapt their game across the four Slams. That has meant a lesser emphasis on surface-specific skills and greater importance for all-round proficiency.

The "claycourt specialist" is threatening to become extinct on the men's tour. Of the current top 50 in the ATP singles rankings, only a tiny handful – Marco Cecchinato, Pablo Cuevas, Matteo Berrettini and Guido Pella – can unequivocally be called claycourt specialists. The rest – including Dominic Thiem – have achieved too much success outside clay to be considered single-surface experts. The days of random, unheard-of champions in the Roland Garros men's singles tournament are probably over.

You'll notice I mentioned "men's" twice in the preceding paragraph. That's because the women's singles tournament at Roland Garros has actually gone in the reverse direction over the last decade and a half; it has now become more unpredictable than ever before.

In the 12-year span from 2007 to 2018, there have been 10 different women's champions at Roland Garros. Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova have threatened to establish a stranglehold over the clay Major, but neither has succeeded. Instead, the women's tournament in Paris has become a free-for-all, looking more open than any of the other Opens.

Tennis - French Open - Roland Garros, Paris, France - 5/6/10 Italy's Francesca Schiavone celebrates with the trophy after winning the French Open Mandatory Credit: Action Images / Paul Childs Livepic - MT1ACI7034425

Francesca Schiavone won the French Open in 2010. Paul Childs/Action Images via Reuters

What is particularly noteworthy about this situation is that apart from Francesca Schiavone in 2010, none of the other champions would really qualify as claycourt specialists. Jelena Ostapenko hasn't done much at any Slam apart from her run to the Roland Garros title two years ago, but that is more due to her wild inconsistency across all surfaces than any particular affinity for clay. Even if you do bracket Ostapenko along with Schiavone, that would still leave eight of the last 10 champions who are comfortable across surfaces.

So if there aren't any claycourt specialists wreaking havoc with the French Open women's draw, why exactly has the tournament become so unpredictable? The answer may lie in the way that the women's game has evolved in recent years – which is quite different from the way the men's game has.

With conditions everywhere being roughly the same, the men had to choose one of two distinct strategies to perfect: hit your opponent off the court, or shrink the court with your speed. They went the counterpunching route, deciding to place greater emphasis on movement and defence than risk and attack and Nadal subsequently turned that strategy into an art form.

But the women's tour had the presence of Serena and Venus Williams – two superhuman athletes who showed that the other option could be equally effective. The Williams sisters perfected the art of bashing the ball out of reach of the opponent and coaches everywhere soon started following that example.

The result is that the two tours now look considerably different in style and form. And nowhere is that difference more vividly evident than at the French Open, where extremes are rewarded more than the middle ground.

While the recent men's champions have been largely defence-oriented who ensure that it is borderline impossible to hit through them, the women have discovered that if you don't generate thunderous pace on your own, someone else will come along who does. Simona Halep and Francesca Schiavone have been the exceptions in the last decade; the other recent women's French Open champions have all been capable of bringing the power of Thor to the court.

Of course, the trouble with increased emphasis on aggressive, risky tennis (which by definition is hit or miss), is that it has raised the inconsistency and unpredictability levels too. Is it any surprise then that there have been so many different women's winners in the last decade?

Today, it is very difficult to predict the top four players in the French Open women's tournament, because you have no idea which player is going to outhit the other on any given day. In sharp contrast, it's not that difficult to predict the top four men's players because you know the usual suspects who are too quick and consistent for the rest of the field and one player in particular who is too strong for everyone else.

In effect, the decline of claycourt specialists has brought about monopoly in the men's tournament and mayhem in the women's tournament. Are we sure either of those things is desirable? Maybe we should have stopped dismissing claycourt specialists as "dirty" or "irrelevant" when we still had the chance.

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Updated Date: May 21, 2019 11:52:20 IST