I’m not a big fan of grass court tennis. Sue me. It takes me about two weeks to get my head around the ball flying off grass at meteoric speed and that just when a game is getting interesting it’s over. That means by the second week of Wimbledon I can pay attention and reconcile myself to the fact that the clay court season, that beautiful time of year when men and women don’t only have to hit the ball but have to think through and execute a game plan against someone who is doing the exact same thing is over.
The clay court season on the main tour was dubbed The Road to Roland Garros by those clever folks at The Tennis Channel and in my mind it was a roaring success. You have smaller tournaments, then Monte Carlo, the tournament held in a jewel box setting on the Mediterranean Sea. True it is a country club but there is no stiff upper lip here. The fans, to borrow a phrase, get down in the dirt with the players creating an electric atmosphere for tennis. Barcelona is the next jewel and then it’s on to the Eternal City of Rome for the event that has produced the matches voted the best in both 2005 and 2006. There is a stop in Hamburg, cold and damp in the spring and then it’s the City of Lights – Paris and the second Grand Slam of the year.
Before you can catch your breath there is the grass court “season” which ends with the third Grand Slam of the year, Wimbledon. Players and fans have to make the mental adjustments necessary to play this surface. My blogmate Craig hates the clay and prefers the speed of the grass court game. We disagree. He’s gone so far as to say this years French Open was boring. I’m not quite sure what he means.
This French Open saw the American men and women go down in flames leaving Serena Williams the last American standing. When she took the court against Justine Henin people expected a heavy weight fight. Instead Serena joined her compatriots in going down with barely a whimper to the eventual women’s champion. This left the stage to the Europeans and South Americans. That’s right. Quiet as it’s kept Maria Sharapova, when she deigns to, plays Fed Cup for Russia not the United States. Did this make the French Open dull? I don’t think so. Gael Monfils seemed to be finding himself again. Gaston Gaudio has to decide if he's got the cojones to continue playing the main tour or if he needs to give himself a chance to regroup at a lower level. Willy Canas showed that while he is good on clay his game is probably better suited to the faster surfaces ahead. The Serbians announced that they're in the house and plan to put their feet up and stay awhile.
I know I sound like a broken record but clay makes demands on a player the other surfaces, excluding rebound ace, can’t. You can’t wander onto a clay court and think you’re going to improvise your way into winning a match. You have to know the person across the net, and know what they’re going to do if you present a certain situation to them. It’s then up to you to counter their move. I could bring up the last two French Open men’s finals but I won’t do that here. I will say the chess match has been interesting.
And let’s not leave out Justine Henin. Say what you will about her, and there is a lot to say, on the court she outsmarts and as a result outplays women who should be blowing her off the court.
I think the story of the French Open this year was the Draws. There were three cakewalks, two overt and one not.
Amelie Mauresmo's draw was, well, a piece of cake. It's just that no one told that pesky Lucie Safarova she wasn't supposed to win. Safarova, instead of taking the momentum and moving into the quarters or semis lost to Anna Chakvetadze, someone who continues to underwhelm me. There was a lot of chatter about AnnaC taking it to Sharapova. I have no idea what the French did to the wine this year. Anyone who thought Chakvetadze was going to take out Sharapova was delusional.
And that brings me to the stealth cake walk of the tournament. People started posting all over the place that Emilie Loit was a tough cookie for Maria in the first round. Now that was laugh out loud funny. I have nothing against Mlle Loit but she was not going to take anything to Sharapova. That should have made the red lights start flashing but obviously everyone had drunk the same Kool Aid, uh vin. Maria didn't face a single player who could hurt her, including Frau Schnyder, until she stood eye to eye with Ana Ivanovic. Ana obviously came in with a plan and I think we can all agree she executed it quite well. For the second time in a year Sharapova found herself a spectator at her own match. The scores were almost the same come to think of it. And in no time she was on her way to Birmingham England and what I guess are the safer confines of grass courts. Justine Henin, normally taciturn, made a point of saying she did not have an easy draw. Jelena Jankovic made a comment about it being a shame Venus had to go out so early. Needless to say she kept her thoughts to herself after that one made the halls of the ITF and WTA run red with blood.
There was another cakewalk draw. In my opinion cake walks do not champions make. Anyone who could possibly pose a threat to Roger Federer was no where near him in the draw. They threw a couple of guys under the bus to make it look good but when your semi final opponent comes into the match having said he can't beat you should anyone really be surprised at the result? And then he ran into the guy who blew through people who were good players including the vaunted Serbian Novak Djokovic to reach the final. I'm not quite sure what the people who had Roger hoisting the Coupe des Mousqetaires before the first ball was struck in the final thought Senor Nadal was going to be doing while Roger was running rings around him but he showed up with a game plan and proceeded to quietly demolish the man seemingly everyone had crowned king.
So why was this French Open dull? Hard work won out in the end for both the men and the women. The women's final was admittedly one of the worst finals ever played but who can deny the drama of the men's final especially when Roger came back to win the second set. Rafa however seemed to shrug and say "that's it?" before going on to win the next two sets rather easily. No five set classic but one that emphatically let the world know just who was wearing the crown.
So now grass season is upon us. Forget thought provoking points and play from now on. The hit it hard and if it doesn’t work hit it harder school of tennis will be in session. Not that it doesn’t demand it’s own skill set and have it’s own peculiar beauty. Some people seem to forget that grass court play is just a different way to play. It’s not better than any other surface, it’s one of the four main surfaces a player has to master in order to be called great.
I don't say everyone has to think the way I do. I actually like tennis played on any surface and admire the adjustments the top players make from one surface to the other. But we all have our preferences. Mine is clay. Craig's is grass. I don't weep and moan during grass and hard court season like some do during the clay court season. I'm too much of a tennis head to do that.
The French Open allows you to see into the hearts and minds of the top players. You have to play or go home to steal a phrase. And that is what the clay season, and the French Open is all about.