Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Roland Garros Beckons

The months from March to May are a special season on the international tennis circuit - the season when all kinds of 'Latino' names start to dominate the headlines on the back pages - the clay court season, of course. Some of these names really have a seasonal pattern on them, never again making the headlines until the same season next year, except for a few summer weeks, may be. However, there is more to the clay court season than just the Spanish, Argentinean and Brazilian domination. I discovered as much in the recent weeks, when I was forced to watch long drawn battles on mud because I had nothing better to do. In the men's game so enamoured with and dominated by power, subtlety and patience are the name of the game when it comes to clay. That is in part the reason it is such a great leveller. No wonder the French Open sees an exodus of top seeds quite early on, more so than any major. It is also a more prominent trend in recent times that most of the top players in the world have struggled on the surface save the odd one. Not even Agassi has been remotely consistent despite his obvious strengths on clay. On the other hand, there are those players who I referred to somewhat sarcastically, who struggle to make the top eight at any other slam but seem to have a gala time on clay. There have always been specialists, but this era truly seems to belong to them. Refreshingly, Rafael Nadal is one player who may be able to buck the trend and make it as an all-court player whose main strength is clay - now that would be a rarity. Moya, Ferrero and Coria have all shown it is not beyond them, but somehow none of them have been able to put it all together on faster surfaces. Coria may yet have his chance, as might David Nalbandian, a stunning under-achiever. Certainly Nadal won't be found wanting for spirit - he's about as plucky as they come, and with the ammunition to back it up. Though completely baseline oriented, he's not averse to trying to mix things up and with a very decent serve, his game has a solid foundation. His confidence is no doubt soaring as the French Open approaches, but the only worry is that he may have played a little bit more than he should have. Speaking about subtleties, one of the obvious variations used on clay is the drop shot and most of the hardened specialists have a fair degree of mastery of the shot. But I have seldom (in fact, may be never) seen anyone used it to such devastating effect as Christophe Rochus did in the German Open. He destroyed Gaston Gaudio first and then Juan Ignacio Chela with some of the cleverest tennis I have seen in a while. But being clever is one thing, being able to exhibit a near-total command of the shot is quite another (my friend Biswa once mentioned Fabrice Santoro does it well). Rochus was outplayed though, by the other young pretender Richard Gasquet, in the semis. The Rochus brothers, Christophe and Olivier, standing at just 5'7" and 5'5", are certainly one of the stories of contemporary tennis. They may have journeyman records, particularly Christophe, but they are certainly not short on talent and fight. They cannot ask for a better venue (one named after a World War I pilot) to display their wares at the end of the month. - NK

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