French Open: Dirt demands grit!

The greatest clay court champions, from Bjorn Borg to Rafael Nadal and from Chris Evert to Justine Henin, have shown true grit. From their preparation to their performance, they have displayed extraordinary passion and perseverance. More than any other court surface, clay rewards these traits.

The French Open trophy is one thing missing in Novak Djokovic's cupboard. The Serb should win it this year, says the author.   -  Reuters

Come the French Open, Rafael Nadal is a re-vitalised man. He should make the final.   -  Reuters

Garbine Muguruza should bag the women's title.   -  Getty Images

In her highly praised and compelling book, Grit: The Power and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth writes: “Why were the highly accomplished so dogged in their pursuits? For most, there was no realistic expectation of ever catching up to their ambitions. In their own eyes, they were never good enough. They were the opposite of complacent. And yet, in a very real sense, they were satisfied with being unsatisfied. Each was chasing something of unparalleled interest and importance, and it was the chase — as much as the capture — that was gratifying. Even if some of the things they had to do were boring, or frustrating, or even painful, they wouldn’t dream of giving up. Their passion was enduring.

“In sum, no matter the domain, the highly successful had a kind of ferocious determination that played out in two ways,” explains Dr. Duckworth, a MacArthur Fellow and groundbreaking researcher. “First, these exemplars were unusually resilient and hardworking. Second, they knew in a very, very deep way what it was they wanted. They not only had determination, they had direction.

“It was this combination of passion and perseverance that made high achievers special. In a word, they had grit.”

 

The greatest clay court champions, from Bjorn Borg to Rafael Nadal and from Chris Evert to Justine Henin, have shown true grit. From their preparation to their performance, they have displayed extraordinary passion and perseverance. More than any other court surface, clay rewards these traits. Combined, they equal competitiveness. The Greats enjoy the hard yards of training, but they live for the competition.

Don’t tell Nadal or Novak Djokovic or Serena Williams or Victoria Azarenka that they have nothing to prove. As Dr. Duckworth pointed out about the highly successful, they’re never satisfied. No matter what they’ve already accomplished, they want to prove they’re the better player in every match and the best player in every tournament.

With that trait particularly in mind, let’s look at the contenders and the champions at the French Open starting May 22.

The Men

Kei Nishikori — Nicknamed “Clay Nishikori” by witty Tennis Channel analyst Mary Carillo, he is belatedly learning the tricks of the trade on the slowest surface. Wrong-footing foes and using more touch and angle shots, the Japanese made his first Roland Garros quarterfinal last year. On European clay this season, he reached the Barcelona final, Madrid semifinals, and the Rome semifinals where he lost a sensational 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 duel with Djokovic.

No man under 6’ tall has won the French Open, or any major title, since 5’ 9” Gaston Gaudio, the shock titlist in 2004. Unlike the steady Gaudio, the 5’10” Nishikori is a hard-hitting baseliner with blazing speed. He combines both assets on offence by hugging the baseline and moving diagonally forward to attack. Whether his sometimes fragile body and weak second serve hold up will prove crucial in close, gruelling matches.

By far the most successful and popular Japanese man in the Open Era, the even-keeled, No. 6-ranked Nishikori has mostly struggled against the Big 4 at Grand Slam events, except for his big upset over Djokovic at the 2014 US Open.

He’ll either displace one of the Big 4 or Stan Wawrinka to gain the semis in Paris. (Grit Grade – A)

 

Nick Kyrgios — Which Kyrgios will show up, the determined, focussed competitor or the distracted, flashy bad boy? Clay penalises the latter more than any surface, and fickle French fans will boo Kyrgios mercilessly if he takes the low road.

A huge serve and vicious forehand are his weapons of choice. Embracing the biggest moments on the biggest stages has become his trademark ever since he shocked Nadal at the 2014 Wimbledon. It marked the first time a teenager upset a world No. 1 at a major since Nadal upset Roger Federer at the 2005 French. As ESPN analyst Darren Cahill said, “Put Kyrgios on Court 6 and he struggles. Put him on Centre Court, he normally plays his best.”

This year the 6’4” Australian of Greek-Thai descent has knocked off top-tenners Wawrinka, Tomas Berdych (twice), and Richard Gasquet. If he keeps winning tiebreakers — he’s a terrific 10-1 this year — this bold shotmaker can knock off anyone, except Djokovic.

With a favourable draw, Kyrgios will make the quarterfinals. (Grit Grade – B+)

Dominic Thiem — The gentlemanly Austrian has been touted by coaches, TV commentators, and fellow players for the past three years as a future Grand Slam champion. World No. 9 David Ferrer even called him “the future of tennis.”

Already this year Thiem, 22, has played seven events on clay, his favourite surface, and won the Argentina Open where he upset Nadal 6-4, 4-6, 7-6. The son of tennis coaches Wolfgang and Karin, he interestingly is the youngest top 100 player with a one-handed backhand. Whether this vulnerable and increasingly uncommon stroke can hold up against booming serves and groundstrokes will determine how much higher Thiem, now No. 15, can climb in the rankings.

Thiem’s serve and forehand, both a beautiful blend of power and overspin, make him a threat on any surface. “The weight of shot Thiem generates on his groundstrokes is something to watch,” praises Tennis Channel analyst and former coach Paul Annacone. Another reason for his steady improvement is winning an excellent 55% of his second serve points in 2015. Thiem will advance to a career-best round of 16. (Grit Grade – A-)

Stan Wawrinka — Before you count out the defending champion at Roland Garros, note that the sometimes erratic Swiss is the only man, other than Djokovic, to capture more than one major title since the start of 2014. Federer and Murray haven’t won any in that period. Stan’s heavy artillery worked to near-perfection when he stunned Djokovic in the 2015 final. So far in 2016, not so much. He has yet to defeat a top-10 opponent.

Not to worry, Stan assures us, because he came into Roland Garros in similar circumstances a year ago. “I was struggling with my game before here,” he recalled. “I was starting only here to practise a little bit better, to find some level. I wasn’t playing great tennis. I start(ed) little by little to play better and better in Rome, Geneva and then in Paris. This year I’m just feeling really good in practice. I think I’m playing well. That’s why I know that if I keep pushing myself, the rest will come sooner or later.”

Unless the clay is playing very fast, Wawrinka will be upset early this year. (Grit Grade – A)

Andy Murray — The Britisher, who turned 29 on May 15 (a week before Djokovic does), has played the best clay-court tennis of his career in 2015 and 2016. A year ago, he won his second career Masters 1000 title on clay at Madrid and gained the French semis for the third time. This year Murray upset Nadal at Madrid before losing to Djokovic in the final and then peaked with an impressive 6-3, 6-3 win over Djokovic in the Rome final.

His touch shots, solid groundstrokes, superior return game, and defensive skills are ingredients for success on clay. But all too often a lack of concentration, confidence, patience, stamina, and fighting spirit does him in, particularly in long matches at the majors. Without a coach — he and Amelie Mauresmo recently split up — who will Andy Boy have to bark at when the going gets tough?

Character is destiny, and his is weak. Murray will be upset in the quarters or earlier. (Grit Grade – B-)

Roger Federer — Sorry Fed fans, the living legend has withdrawn from the French Open because of back problems. "I am still not 100% and feel I might be taking an unnecessary risk by playing in this event before I am really ready," the 17-time Grand Slam champion said in a statement in Facebook. "This decision was not easy to make, but I took it to ensure I could play the remainder of the season and help to extend the rest of my career," he added.The withdrawal ends his record streak of figuring in 65 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments.

Rafael Nadal — Nadal epitomises the grit Dr. Duckworth extols. In his 2011 memoir, RAFA, Nadal confided, “One lesson I’ve learned is that if the job were easy, I wouldn’t derive so much satisfaction from it. The thrill of winning is in direct proportion to the effort I put in before.” Rafa has persevered to pull off great career comebacks after serious injuries.

Few champions, in any sport, have matched Nadal for passion. In RAFA, he explained, “I don’t think there is anything in any area of life that gives you the same rush as winning in sport, whatever the sport and whatever the level. There is no feeling as intense or as joyous.”

Nadal turns 30 on June 3 and is no longer the irresistible force that captured a record nine French titles, and five other majors, in 11 years. He’s also been bothered by niggling wrist and foot problems. Although he has regained much of his stellar form on clay, his backhand can be overpowered, his forehand can misfire, and he can surprisingly double fault on big points.

But this ultimate warrior will overcome all that and reach the final, unless he lands in Djokovic’s half of the draw. (Grit Grade – A++)

Novak Djokovic — Just when we thought the sensational Serb couldn’t get any better, he did. After all, how can anyone improve on Djokovic’s 2015 tour de force? He came within one match — the Paris final — of achieving the first men’s Grand Slam since 1969. He also grabbed a record six Masters 1000 titles.

This season Djokovic easily captured his sixth Australian Open, plus Masters 1000 titles at Indian Wells, Miami, and Madrid. He’s lost only three matches and one was a retirement at Dubai due to an eye infection.

After Djokovic edged Nadal 7-5, 7-6 in Rome recently, he said, “Winning against Nadal is the ultimate challenge on clay courts and one of the toughest challenges we have in sport.” That high praise may still be true, but Djokovic has whipped Nadal the last three times they’ve played on clay, all in straight sets, and in their last seven matches.

In fact, Djokovic doesn’t have any rivalries. He’s also grabbed 12 of the last 14 matches against Murray; the last four at majors against Federer; the last eight matches against Nishikori; and eight of the last 10 matches against Wawrinka, though the two losses came at majors.

Djokovic will seize his first French Open and 12th major title. That will move him halfway to his thrilling bid for a Grand Slam, the most difficult and treasured feat in tennis. How long his domination will continue remains the only question as he pursues Federer’s record 17 major titles. (Grit Grade – A+)

Darkhorses: Alexander Zverev, David Goffin, Borna Coric, and Lucas Pouille.

The Women

Madison Keys — The 21-year-old American is a pure power player whose groundstrokes average nearly 80 miles per hour, faster than most men pros. She also boasts a potent serve, sometimes reaching 120 mph. Assorted injuries and flawed tactics, though, had stalled her progress since reaching the 2015 Australian Open semifinals.

Big, confidence-building victories over Petra Kvitova and Garbine Muguruza at the Italian Open give 17th-ranked Keys momentum and make her a legitimate contender at Roland Garros. “Madison has been playing with such poise and consistency, especially on the big points,” says Tennis Channel analyst and former No. 1 Tracy Austin. “She’s moving and sliding into her shots beautifully. All of her shots have more shape (topspin). When she’s on, she can hit you off the court.”

The new smarter, faster, and more consistent Keys will knock off a high seed or two to reach the semis. (Grit Grade – A-)

 

Agnieszka Radwanska — Aggie is a delight for connoisseurs of finesse tennis. The brainy Polish veteran slices and dices, drop shots and drop volleys, changes pace and spins, and otherwise befuddles opponents. But, in an era of “Big Babe tennis” (another Carillo-ism), her slight, 5’ 8”, 123-pound model-like physique sometimes gets overpowered. Anatomy can be destiny in tennis, too.

Ranked a misleading No. 3, Radwanska hasn’t beaten a top-8 player this season. The odds grow longer every year that she’ll ever win a Grand Slam title. “When there is opportunity, it seems like she stumbles more,” notes ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert. “She doesn’t control winning on her terms. Her (lightweight) second serve and lack of big power are impediments no matter what surface, and anybody playing at a high level can stop her. Radwanska has great guile and movement, but with so many power players, it will be tough for her to win seven matches in one event.”

Radwanska, who can get moody, will lose in the fourth round or quarters. (Grit Grade – A-)

Simona Halep — After reaching the 2014 French final, Halep has become predictably unpredictable at Grand Slam events. The 24-year-old Romanian made two semifinals and a quarterfinal, but also lost in the third round, second round, and first round twice. Halep bottomed out at the Australian Open in January when she was shocked in the opening round 6-4, 6-3 by Chinese qualifier Zhang Shuai.

At the Madrid Open in May, Halep was ecstatic after claiming her 12th career title. “I’m really happy I could win this trophy, it’s very special for me,” she said. “It’s an unbelievable feeling. It’s the best day in my life.” It ended her 2016 slump and put her back into the top 5, but she still hasn’t beaten a top 8 player this year. Darren Cahill, an elite coach with a soothing personality, has calmed the sometimes temperamental Halep and helped add variety to her stylish game.

Like Radwanska, though, the 5’ 6” Halep can be overpowered. She’ll bow in the quarters or semis. (Grit Grade – A-)

Angelique Kerber — A late-bloomer at 28, she surprised everyone by winning the Australian Open with a 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 final upset over Serena Williams. Now ranked a career-high No. 2, she has an all-around game that should fare well on all surfaces. Even so, the solidly built, 5’ 8”, 150-pound German has made the Roland Garros quarters just once in eight appearances, back in 2012.

Kerber suffered an almost inevitable letdown after winning her first major title. She admitted she was not “feeling her game or rhythm” following her opening round Doha loss to No. 73 Zheng Saisai in February. Kerber is now the hunted and no longer the hunter, and the pressure showed. Happily, the lefty regrouped and rebounded to reach the semis at Miami and Charleston and win Stuttgart with good victories over No. 7 Petra Kvitova and clay-court maestro No. 11 Carla Suárez Navarro.

Kerber, a high-percentage player, will make the quarters. (Grit Grade – A)

Victoria Azarenka — She is sometimes unflatteringly called “Vika the Shrieka.” She’s unapologetically intense on the court. And off the court, she’ll unabashedly tell you about her burning ambition to win major titles as well as pretty much anything else you want to know. The animated 2011-2012 Australian champ fell on hard times during the next three years because of assorted injuries and the heartbreak of a romantic break-up.

Vika fans rejoice. She’s back! Her trademark determination and aggressive groundstrokes helped her take Indian Wells and Miami in March. Then ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez analysed, “She’s fitter, stronger, and she has the belief. Look how close to the baseline she was. She dictated play against Serena,” in her 6-4, 6-4 victory at Indian Wells.

The 6’ Belarusian, now 26, recently has been slowed by a lingering back problem and clay has never been her forte. Still, the No. 6 Azarenka will make the quarters to continue her comeback. (Grit Grade – A)

Serena Williams — Will Serena be the Superwoman who chased and caught a man who stole her cell phone in a New York City restaurant last year? Or the Super Fool who ate her dog Chip’s hotel food in Rome last week and got sick? (She tweeted: “Chip liked it and it looked good, but I don’t think it’s consumable for humans. They should have wrote that!”)

With unpredictable, un-serene Serena, you never know. After Serena’s Miami Open fourth-round loss to Svetlana Kuznetsova in only her third tournament in seven months, Carillo commented, “It’s been easier to find Serena Williams on social media than on a tennis court this year. I have to start questioning her motivation. She’s posting on Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat, shopped her wares on HSN, and appeared on one of Beyonce’s songs, Lemonaid.”

Serena silenced critics, temporarily at least, by capturing the Italian Open without dropping a set.

For nearly 20 years, tennis never consumed Serena, as it has most champions — even though she’s hyper-competitive and wants to be remembered as “the greatest ever.” Winning Roland Garros would give her 22 major titles, equalling Steffi Graf’s Open Era record and getting closer to Margaret Court’s all-time record 24.

Serena managed to win six Australian titles with little or no preparation, but clay is her least-effective surface and she’s now 34. She’ll be upset in a controversial three-setter in the round of 16.

(Grit Grade – Anywhere from C+ to A+)

Garbine Muguruza — While other little girls were playing with dolls and Barbies, highly energetic Garbine was playing sports, usually tennis. Her mother described her on Tennis Channel as “Competitive, competitive, competitive.”

Expectations have always run high for the superbly fit 6’ power hitter. They skyrocketed when Muguruza overwhelmed Serena 6-2, 6-2 at the 2014 French Open. She reached the quarters there in 2014 and 2015. Although her favourite surface is hard courts and the most popular surface in Spain is clay, she gained her first major final on grass at the 2015 Wimbledon. Serena exacted revenge with a 6-4, 6-4 triumph.

Adversity hit No. 4-ranked Muguruza hard in early 2016, though. Plantar fasciitis in her left foot made running painful. She lost early in nearly every tournament. She talked about the heavy burden of great expectations. She hit rock bottom at Indian Wells. During a match changeover, she tearfully told her coach, Sam Sumyk, “I don’t want to play.” In the nick of time, Muguruza snapped out of her prolonged slump, by reaching the semis at the Italian Open.

Power players have won all but two of the French Opens this century. Always-competitive Muguruza, smartly mixing change-of-pace shots with her intimidating power, will capture her first Grand Slam in Paris and provide a preview of the post-Serena era. (Grit Grade – A)

Darkhorses: Johanna Konta, Karolina Pliskova, Jelena Ostapenko, and Daria Kasatkina.