Clay: a riddle, a mystery, an enigma

To conquer the clay at Roland Garros requires a special kind of skill and temperament. Nandita Sridhar previews the French Open.

The red-baked clay at Roland Garros has authored innumerable stories. Stories of artistry dwindled away into fodder for grinders, stories of greatness denied by the most demanding of surfaces and stories of men and women succeeding on the only Grand Slam stage that would pamper their skills.

From the days of Susan Lenglen sipping brandy between sets to Rafael Nadal's colourful bottled concoctions, a lot has changed at the French Open. But some things remain the same. There is intrigue and frustration in Roland Garros for some, as much as there is comfort for a few others. For the man who conquers everything else, the French Open is a roadblock and a puzzle. It is a nitpicking surface that bloats his weaknesses. As far as he can see it, it demands loads of patience and different set of skills.

But for those born to the surface, Roland Garros is all they've got. Ball-pushers, retrievers, top-spinners, scramblers, ubiquitous European and South American grinders and owners of any clay-court parlance — they all converge on their Grand Slam prey. But despite that, the French Open still harbours fantasies. The artist still hopes to win. Those on the brink of creating history still feel they can master the surface.

Each of the four Grand Slams has its own character. The Australian Open, the youngest of the four, prides itself as being the `Happy Slam'. Flushing Meadows is busy, concrete and colourful during the US Open. Wimbledon with the pristine whites and the grass is as much about history and tradition, as it's about the dynamics of grass-court tennis. Roland Garros is not devoid of tradition or history, but its character and identity lie in what its courts, composed of clay, contain.

It stands as the ultimate examination for all-time greatness, only because it's a clay-court Grand Slam. If men like Pete Sampras, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors have gaping holes in their CV, it's because they `failed' to win at Roland Garros. Inevitably, Roland Garros is always a point of contention, and a topic of debate.

But the year's second Grand Slam is not simply a stage for big-name failures and a canvas for single dimensional brushwork. It has seen personalities evolve. It has seen greatness. It owes a lot of that primarily to Bjorn Rune Borg and Chris Evert.

The Swede's on-court persona oozed a sort of chillness that lent itself well to his tirelessly manufactured groundstrokes. If the bowlegged Borg's six French Open crowns is a massive enough achievement to match, his French-Wimbledon three-time double seems unlikely to be reproduced in a specialist-dominated era (though both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal came quite close in 2006).

In conquering five different opponents (Manuel Orantes, Guillermo Vilas (twice), Victor Pecci, Vitas Gerulaitis and Ivan Lendl), Borg set a playing trend that now walks out of every European street. "My greatest point is my persistence. I never give up in a match. However down I am, I fight until the last ball. My list of matches shows that I have turned a great many so-called irretrievable defeats into victories," said Borg of his success, earlier.

It is that toughness that has come to symbolise Roland Garros. Every Grand Slam has had its share of marathon encounters, but clay has an elevated sense of drama and showcases a more apparent display of physical strength and stamina, unlike grass, which calls for a more subtle show of strength.

"Because the surface is much slower and the ball bounces higher than on grass or hard courts, the rallies last much longer. It is not unusual for one to last 10 to15 strokes, compared with two or three on grass. So you have to be a very strong athlete with great stamina," former British Davis Cup captain Paul Hutchins told BBC. The rapidly slowing surfaces at Wimbledon might change the dynamics in a few years time. Hutchins' words are not new for followers of the game, but it conveys the basics of clay-court tennis, which is perhaps the most difficult adjustment to make for most. But the dirt is not merely physical exertion. If one wishes to look beyond tiresome and long rallies, the `slidyness' of clay gives most the leeway for some deft footwork; something that makes for good viewing.

Decades after it first became an international event, Roland Garros has seen magic through the years. Althea Gibson breaking barriers of colour and becoming the first black woman to win a Major, Evert's (her game was tailor-made for her seven French Open crowns) and Borg's respective show of phenomenal clay-court tennis, McEnroe's madcap moments in the 1984 final, and Andre Agassi, Michael Chang and Nadal, re-writing their own pages in history.

The 2007 edition will once again showcase Federer and Nadal looking to defy and create history, in their own way. The Swiss will, like a lot of his predecessors, search to master a surface most alien to him. The Spaniard will look to do what no dirtballer could after Borg, which is claim a hat-trick of Roland Garros crowns.

"Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Serena (Williams), Justine (Henin) and Venus (Williams)," said Serena when asked to name her favourites. Not too far off the mark, if you could ignore Venus (with due respect to her). The women have their own past to live up to.

Henin and Serena, both with sufficient skill and character to live up to the likes of Evert, Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf, look most likely to have the bloody-mindedness to survive the grind. After the build-up events, it's time now for the true test of clay court callisthenics.