One of the least mainstream sports in America is tennis. But this week, the world has enjoyed one of tennis’ Grand Slam events: the French Open. Late spring is the most dreaded of tennis seasons because most of the big tournaments are played on clay courts leading up to the French Open.
Why do tennis players hate clay? One word. Sluggish. Both the ball and the player are sluggish because the clay court is so much slower than any other court surface like the popular hard courts of the Australian and U.S. Opens or the much faster grass courts that will be played in the next Grand Slam event, Wimbledon, later this month.
Top spin is almost negated on clay because the ball kicks up on the dry clay as opposed to rolling on hard courts or grass. This makes for longer points, longer games, longer sets and longer matches. In a two week tournament, it is a [brutal wear-and-tear] both mentally and physically on the player.
American players haven’t fared well at the French Open. The last American man to win the title was Andre Agassi in 1999, and before that Jim Courier winning it back-to-back in 1991 and 1992. The women have had more recent success with Jennifer Capriati and Serena Williams winning in 2001 and 2002 respectively. But before that, not one American woman has won it since Chris Evert in 1986.
Week two of this year’s French Open has been astounding after a lackluster week one with Andre Agassi losing in the first round and Andy Roddick losing in the second round. Defending women’s singles champion Anastasia Myskina lost in the first round as well.
My pre-tournament pick to win the title was Marat Safin who lost a five set fourth round match to Tommy Robredo. After beating the unbeatable No. 1 Roger Federer the previous Australian Open en route to his second Grand Slam title, it seemed like a lock for Safin to win back-to-back Grand Slams. But in the fifth set, Safin seemed to just have enough left to keep steady with Robredo. In the French Open, the final set is played without tiebreakers and must be won by two points. At six points all in the final set, Safin hit a few crucial double faults that gave the next point to Robredo. Safin showed his frustration with repeated racquet slams to the ground. Robredo followed through to serve out the match.
On the last weekend of the French Open, Justine Henin-Hardenne proved that she is one of the best players on the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association). She destroyed a rejuvenated Mary Pierce at 6-1, 6-1 in the finals. Henin-Hardenne won her second French Open title and her fourth Grand Slam. Both are coming back from major injuries. Even though Mary Pierce didn’t show it Saturday, she had played great tennis during the two week tournament. At 30, Pierce has shown the world that she can still play top tennis. Most tennis players hit the wall at 30, but Pierce might be one of those rare players who can maintain their competitive forms at such a old age.
Sunday’s final between teenage phenom Rafael Nadal and unseeded Mariano Puerta was more thrilling. But for his 19th birthday, Nadal celebrated it by winning his first Grand Slam of his career and his sixth title of the year. Proving that his success isn’t a fluke, he extended his winning streak to 24 matches, bettering Andre Agassi’s streak by a male teenager. I bet my tennis coach that Safin would win, and he chose David Nalbandian, which wasn’t a bad choice. Neither of us thought about Nadal, and as much as we both love him, we didn’t think he could succeed this fast. Teenagers haven’t fared so well in this modern era of metal racquets (Anna Kournikova anyone?), but Nadal might prove us wrong. He could be that good.
But Nadal’s recent success has all come on clay, so Wimbledon could be the best way to test him and properly gauge his talent. I can’t wait. My pre-Wimbledon pick will still be Safin, but I might have to hold my breath if he faces Nadal. June 20 is the start of Wimbledon. Prepare to watch some great tennis.