French Open 2021: Why Roland Garros is the toughest Grand Slam to win?

In the age of short attention spans and instant gratification, playing long gladiator style tennis matches on the slow clay at Roland Garros seems to be going out of style.

Gaurav Natekar May 24, 2021 09:48:31 IST
French Open 2021: Why Roland Garros is the toughest Grand Slam to win?

The hundreds of players being churned out of Europe, especially from Spain, have all learnt the basics of the game on clay courts. AFP File photo

As the clay court season on the tennis tour reaches its climax with the French Open, the obvious question on everyone’s mind is the same as it has been for the past decade-plus. Is there anyone who can stop Rafael Nadal? While the jury may not be out for too long on that decision, it is pertinent to address another important question: why is the French Open considered the toughest grand slam to win?

At the basic level, the answer is simple, it’s the clay courts. In the age of short attention spans and instant gratification, playing long gladiator style tennis matches on the slow clay at Roland Garros also seems to be going out of style.

The axis of tennis has been shifting to Europe from America for sometime now and it’s a telling tale that 17 out of the top 20 players and over 70 out of the top 100 players are from Europe. I believe a key reason for this ‘change of guard’ has to do with the clay courts.

The hundreds of players being churned out of Europe, especially from Spain, have all learnt the basics of the game on clay courts.

Growing up, clay courts are the best courts to learn the game as it teaches you to be patient, to construct a point, and most importantly, physically prepares the child to endure long rallies and longer matches thereby strengthening the legs and heart in the process. And once you have legs and heart, more than 70% of the battle is won not only on clay courts but on all surfaces and in any sport.

It’s not Wimbledon these players dream of winning as children, but the French Open. It’s the reason all the clay court ‘specialists’ from across Europe descend on Paris to ‘try their luck’ in the qualifying and the main draw event.

Clay courts are much slower than all the other surfaces which make the points and the matches a lot longer. The courts play very differently depending on the conditions. Paris, like most of Europe sees its fair share of rain and once that happens, the court gets wet and/or moist which means the ball bounces off the surface even slower carrying a little bit of mud with it for company. This makes the balls heavier and harder to generate speed on the shot. The players not only have to use more strength and muscle, but also need to hit closer to the lines to win each point since all the players are extremely fit and strong. The rain soaked courts also become slightly undulating leading to uneven bounce making shot preparation, selection and execution a tough task for most players.

Clay courts also require movement of a very different type as compared to the hard court. One has to learn to slide into the shot and this again varies on the state of the court. A little wet and one ‘runs’ the risk of falling and twisting the ankle and a little dry makes the court slippery and balance becomes all important. The movement requires a lot of practice and a different set of drills and training as well. It is why you will notice most of the players from Europe looking quite natural and ‘at home’ slipping and sliding their way into winning matches and having some great results at the French Open. At a broader level, players who grow up on clay are also able to adapt quite easily to moving on the hard court whilst the same cannot be said of the opposite.

Another very important aspect is that big servers do not have an undue advantage on clay. Over the past 20 years, tennis, like many sports has moved from finesse to fitness and the serve has become the most important stroke in the arsenal of any player. On the hard and grass courts, players with the fastest and biggest serves win matches but it’s the players with guile and disguise on their serves that create a bigger dent at the French Open. It’s also the reason that in a game mostly dominated by tall players, you will notice a lot of players under 6 feet in height also have some interesting results at the French Open.

At a personal level, my formative years were spent in Mumbai playing on the super fast ‘cowdung’ courts in Mumbai. The court surface was an ‘Indian innovation’ and I could write a book on the reaction of the foreign players when they landed in India and realised the ingredients of the ‘hard courts’ they were playing on. I had to quickly adjust to playing on the slippery clay courts in Chennai when I relocated to a tennis academy there. I have no doubt that playing on the slippery clay courts taught me patience, perseverance and the art of constructing and winning points in my head and with my racquet which stood me in good stead in my later years.

Paris may be the most romantic city in the world for the public at large, but I am pretty sure the tennis players who compete at the French Open may have a different take on it.

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