A five-course meal

ROHIT BRIJNATH

BLAME it on conditioning and your parents, on cliches and marketing. Blame it on green ivy and red strawberries, on the Duke of Kent and a quaint tradition. Blame it on seduced writers and breathless commentators, and All England Club benches that read "gentlemen are requested not to remove their shirts."

Because when we think tennis, the word Wimbledon gets stuck in the throat. Which is all very convenient, except it means clay never gets the respect it deserves.

Sure, Lendl and Wilander produced masterpieces of monotony at Roland Garros that emptied stadiums faster than a bomb scare, while McEnroe, Connors and Borg were performing athletic ballets across the Channel.

But times have changed: Wimbledon often resembles not much more than an entr�e, the French Open a five course meal. Serve and volley is a dying, majestic art, but it's time we stopped yawning at the baseliners.

Grass is viewed as exotic and foreign and possessing a higher degree of difficulty, specially since only five of 66 ATP tournaments this year are held on grass, and 23 on clay. Yet, of the 17 No.1 ranked players since Connors, while 11 (Lendl, Wilander, Courier, Muster, Moya, Kafelnikov, Kuerten, Rios, Rafter, Safin, Hewitt) have never won Wimbledon, nine have never won the French (Connors, McEnroe, Edberg, Becker, Sampras, Rios, Rafter, Safin, Hewitt).

Of course, this proves little beyond sparking an inconclusive statistical argument. Except that to call the French Open a tournament is a bit like describing the Taj Mahal as a nice building or saying Picasso was a useful painter. To be more precise, two weeks at the Roland Garros is an extraordinary auditory experience, a marathon run in an enclosed space, a modern dance workshop in balance and sliding, a test of washing liquid, an exercise in frustration that would exasperate Rubik and a comprehensive advertisement of tennis' skills.

Connoisseurs of wine and tennis are easily recognised here by their half-closed eyes and the glass of Chablis that rests beside them. The ears, they know, tell their own tale here. In the mere strumming of the racket strings by the ball all sorts of audible deception is revealed. Sound suggests topspin imparted, and in turn, it reveals angles, it specifies power, it advertises intent. All this is valid elsewhere, but heightened appreciably at Roland Garros. Be advised, Shane Warne has a Masters degree in spin, Gustavo Kuerten a PhD.

Acute hearing is necessary, for topspin is accompanied almost simultaneously by a sharper grunt, which sounds in the most part like a man struck sweetly in the solar plexus, which by and large is often the pain that accompanies clay court tennis.

The grunt, audible elsewhere but more apparent here, tells its own tale. Seles can be heard on the Champs Elysees, Kuerten is known to rattle crockery at some distance. When two Spaniards of impressive voice slug from the back it is tennis' version of Pavarotti and Domingo in concert. Beyond mere identification, the grunt at the French is an able indicator of exhaustion, whereupon it descends swiftly into a ragged moan.

Sampras one year played heroic five setters against Todd Martin, Sergi Bruguera and Jim Courier, two of them former French champions and in a fleeting moment of fancy may have liked his chances. Whereupon his muscles seized, his legs felt manacled with irons, and Kafelnikov sent him home in straight sets. Indeed, whenever Sampras' tongue tends to flop out wherever he is in the world, one presumes he is suddenly reminded of the French.

He need not feel unduly persecuted for serve and volleyers by and large are viewed here as a light snack to go with a vintage Bordeaux; the last (or sort of) of that breed to win here being Yannick Noah in 1983, which to give it context is about when a two-year-old Lleyton Hewitt was being introduced to nappy rash.

As the South African Gordon Forbes once put it, "On the way to the net (on clay) one automatically had visions of the valley of death." Now it is worse, the Open a veritable conclave of passing shot artists, who can thread a needle with a ball in the midst of a tempest and off balance too. This itself is a specific art at the French, for players do not so much run to a ball as slide into a stroke, the explosion of red shale around their socks followed by the thunder of the shot. One look at Kuerten's shaggy mane and unshaven face suggests this man is fit for such a grimy art.

If grass plays different when dry, and when damp, clay has its own nuances. Hewitt admitted recently that on dry days when the clay is quicker he is more adept, but when rainstorms turns it to sludge then matches turn into a super-slow-motion film. Which is when chaps like Moya, who think 5-hour matches are good for the appetite, are to be mostly avoided.

But clay does not numb the mind as it once may have. Modern rackets have not so much ended rallies but accelerated them, and the ball hurtles and hisses, tattooing the baseline, again and again, consistency and precision, speed and stamina, all finely woven together.

Nowhere else does the definition of a great shot come so unstuck: what appears like a winner is not just somehow returned but with interest, till it appears, agonisingly, that a point has to be not so much won once but twice. Shirts go red with shale, wet with sweat, and frustration sits on a chair courtside.

As the body swings between the sidelines the mind is constantly computing, when to rally, or attack, or alter pace, or invent an angle, probing for openings and seeking weaknesses, eagerness allied with patience. No one shot will do, no one skill is enough.

Who will win? Ferrero finally, Moya again, is Kuerten ready, Safin mature, has Hewitt the game? Who will win? With that glass of Chablis by one's side, Hewitt grunting, red shale rising, does it matter?