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Clay Court Capital
by Steve Flink

Serena WIlliams is part of the new era at Roland Garros.
Every major tennis tournament has a distinct character, and personality. The Australian Open is a sparkling hard court festival, opening up every Grand Slam season. Wimbledon is the Kentucky Derby of tennis, the only major to be contested on grass, the tournament every great player wants to win more than any other. The U.S. Open--- staged at the end of a long American summer--- is a showcase for the best players to do battle on the New York hard courts in the last major of the season.

At the moment, the game's finest competitors are in Paris for the French Open. Roland Garros is unmistakably the clay court capitol of the world, the place where slow court players of the highest order have their best chance to succeed at a major. As the only Grand Slam event held on clay, the French Open is a treat for fans who love watching the game played on that surface by the masters of the craft. It is a delight for players who relish the opportunity of performing on the dirt to find a place as elegant as Roland Garros to show off their talent and flair.

I will be attending my 29th French Open this year. Across the decades, the tennis has changed considerably. For example, Bjorn Borg--- arguably the best ever on clay--- took apart Guillermo Vilas in the 1975 final at Roland Garros. Both players were superbly fit, unerring with their heavy topspin arsenals, very fast on their feet. But their matches were not engaging because they had such a large safety net on their shots that the rallies were largely monotonous. A decade later, the two premier clay court players were Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander, a pair of three time singles champions.

Lendl was a transformational player who was largely responsible for the so-called “one-two punch” of a big serve backed up by a crackling inside-out forehand as a winning recipe on all surfaces. Wilander resembled Borg with his admirable quickness, baseline consistency and clay court acumen. But, once more, Lendl-Wilander contests on the Paris clay—including the 1985 final won by Wilander and the 1987 title match taken by Lendl-- were not alluring as they fought each other conservatively in long and predictable rallies. Only diehard fans could fully appreciate their contests.

By the 1990's, times, techniques and tactics were changing. Jim Courier came through twice to win on the red clay with a more aggressive back court regimen featuring his trademark inside-out forehand. He was patient yet adventuresome. Later in the decade, the charismatic Gustavo Kuerten emerged, artistically claiming the crown three times with dazzling style, displaying one of the most graceful one-handed topspin backhands I have ever seen. After Kuerten won his last championship in 2001, there was a lull for a while until Rafael Nadal stepped forward emphatically to record triumphs the past two years. With his phenomenal speed, heavy yet penetrating topspin, and incomparable ferocity, Nadal is a joy to watch on the red clay of Roland Garros.

Among the women, Chris Evert garnered her first French Open title in 1974 and her last in 1986, setting a record for men or women with seven championships. The essence of her game remained the same over all those years. She had nearly impeccable ground strokes, most notably her trademark two-handed backhand. She always got great depth on her shots, and her match playing acumen was second to none. Moreover, she was as tough mentally as anyone who has ever played the game. In 1985 and 1986, Evert beat her celebrated rival Martina Navratilova in epic three set finals. Those were compelling contests as a more diversified Evert kept probing from the baseline and approaching the net with increasing conviction while Navratilova--- who won twice at Roland Garros herself--- always looked for ways to attack, simultaneously displaying her improved ground game.

After these two towering champions left the center of the stage, Roland Garros was dominated by the redoubtable Steffi Graf and Monica Seles. Graf brought a new level of back court athleticism and an incomparable flat forehand onto the clay while the left-handed Seles pounded her astonishing two fisted strokes off both sides with vigor and angles never exhibited by a woman before. Graf was victorious at the French Open six times between 1988 and 1999 while Seles was the champion three straight years from 1990 to 1992. The Seles-Graf 1992 final--- which Monica narrowly won 10-8 in the third--- was a gem.

Meanwhile, the women's game at Roland Garros has moved forward admirably. Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario--- as industrious and enterprising a clay court player as we have seen--- took her last of three titles in 1998. Jennifer Capriati--- an excellent flat ball striker who covered the court ably--- got on the board in 2001, and Serena Williams took advantage of her awesome power and incomparable foot speed to win the following year. Justine Henin--- propelled by an increasingly impressive all court style and a glorious one-handed topspin backhand-- has been the victor three of the past four years.

For the most part, both the men and women at Roland Garros are more enjoyable to watch these days than in years gone by. Matches are played at a faster pace but patience and tactical awareness still matter. More and more, though, players are looking for openings to end points with aggression rather than waiting inordinately long for opponents to miss. This could very well be a vintage year at Roland Garros.

Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to TennisChannel.com. He will be reporting regularly from Roland Garros.

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