Patience is the key-word

May 31, 1994: Pete Sampras (left) in action against Jim Courier in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros. Pistol Pete, who lost this match, could never make it in the French Open, whereas Courier has won the title twice. _ Pic. GARY PRIOR/GETTY IMAGES-May 31, 1994: Pete Sampras (left) in action against Jim Courier in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros. Pistol Pete, who lost this match, could never make it in the French Open, whereas Courier has won the title twice. _ Pic. GARY PRIOR/GETTY IMAGES

The French Open is certainly not for anyone in a tearing hurry. The key is to arrive at an optimum mix of power and delicate strokes, writes VIJAY PARTHASARATHY.

LATE one afternoon, a little over two decades ago in Paris, a young man sporting semi-dreadlocks — the proud legacy of his mixed lineage — let his racquet drop on to the clay-court and sank to the ground, unmindful of the grime, his fists clenched in disbelief. In victory.

This was his first Grand Slam win. Some 50 million of his countrymen erupted simultaneously in their homes, and somewhere, no doubt, the late Bob Marley smiled in approval.

Alright, so cut it out already.

There is no cause for melodrama, you say. After all, it's happened to almost every first-time champion, from Bjorn Borg to Venus Williams. The latter, for instance, did a pretty neat impression of a kangaroo leaping about excitedly after winning her first Wimbledon title. You could be forgiven for betraying a little emotion.

True. But this was something different, something special.

This was history.

Yannick Noah — he, of the screaming forehand and the dazzling dropshot — had just become the first Frenchman to win at Roland Garros in the Open era.

Noah never scaled such exalted heights again, although he did reach the Australian Open semifinal in 1990, his last year on the pro Tour. He exchanged his tennis shoes for dancing ones a long while ago, and today finds himself playing at trendy jazz festivals in neighbouring Switzerland. To many Noah's career can be summed up in a footnote, but back home he is still revered — not merely because he was the first native winner of the French Open.

As it transpires, he is also the only one.

To some it defies rational explanation but the fact remains that no Frenchman, since, has won the only Grand Slam played on clay.

And, as the French Open gets under way this time around, it doesn't look as though things are about to change dramatically — at least as far as the men's section is concerned. When the competition includes among others, formidable names like Juan Carlos Ferrero, Andre Agassi and Roger Federer, you are inclined to think the only familiar French name you are likely to encounter during the second week is the word, egalite.

In the past we have seen the likes of Jim Courier, a popular champion, who charmed the crowds with his glib French accent after consecutive Slam victories in the early 90s. But the American with the fiery red mane doesn't count.

The French might embrace the American spirit but they still retain their self-respect.

As for the last male champion who entertained the crowd in the local language at Roland Garros — Gustavo Kuerten — he is as French as your average pomme fritte deep-fried at the nearest McDonald's outlet.

They organised the Resistance to German occupation during the Second Great War, for crying out loud. They have pride, they have guts; that is the stuff the French are made of. When that sort of reputation precedes you it makes you shake your head and think, well, winning a Grand Slam in your own backyard should be easier than having your breakfast served in bed.

But don't say that aloud.

A particularly hot-blooded Gascon might re-adjust your face; worse, he might challenge you to a duel. The French can get a little touchy. In some respects they are like the Brits, who are particularly sensitive about Wimbledon — but that's another story.

Meanwhile, the search continues for another homegrown tennis champion in the Noah mould. Men like the talented Cedric Pioline promised much for a while, but never lived up to expectations.

Tres, tres tragique.

Yannick Noah is the only Frenchman to win at Roland Garros in the Open era. — Pic. STEVE POWELL/GETTY IMAGES-

FOR those stretching out for their perfumed hankies, there is some consolation.

Men like John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker and Pete Sampras — whom history will, no doubt, judge more kindly than Pioline — have never won at Roland Garros.

And, certainly, you can't put it down to lack of effort. They kept coming back year after year, launching one campaign after another until the initial optimism was transformed into a reckless desperation.

It's all very well to cite the case of Borg, the blond Swedish prodigy, who won six French Open titles (including an incredible four on the trot), and simultaneously held the Wimbledon title for three years. But the five-time Wimbledon champion, in reality, was a natural baseliner who consciously adapted to the serve-and-volley style to win on grass.

On the other hand, Sampras, widely acknowledged as the greatest player in the history of the sport, mastered pace on his way to multiple Wimbledon and U. S. Open victories but ultimately floundered on clay. Boris Becker, who won Wimbledon at 17 with his big serve and acrobatic spills, suffered equally on the dead-slow surface.

And, although McEnroe and Edberg — genuine serve-and-volleyers in every sense of the tradition — came painfully close to winning in Paris, a fundamental axiom still prevails:

The French Open is certainly not for anyone in a tearing hurry.

You can't, for example, hope to kill someone's serve with a big forehand down the line, all the time. Your opponent is bound to slide across the dirt and frustrate you from the baseline by keeping the ball in play for, what might seem, an eternity.

The key is to arrive at an optimum mix of power and delicate strokes. Anyone repeatedly approaching the net here will look as out of context as the Eiffel Tower standing at the centre of Piccadilly Circus in London. You might need three or four winning shots on clay where one would prove enough, on another surface. Players need more than just stamina to survive the two-week grind; they need an iron will to survive consecutive five-setters.

WHERE greater men have failed, lesser mortals have stepped in.

Not many might remember a certain Andres Gomez, who virtually spilled out from the grasp of relative anonymity to win the 1990 French Open singles title. Even fewer might have heard of Alberto Berasategui, the 1994 finalist, who lost to Spaniard Sergi Bruguera.

The tournament is notorious for flirting with flash-in-the-pans: nine French Open champions have failed to win another Grand Slam. That list includes well-known names like Noah, Michael Chang, Thomas Muster and Carlos Moya.

The 90s produced eight different Roland Garros champions. Wimbledon, in contrast, had one name — Pete Sampras — bang under the column titled `winners', six times out of ten. (Not to mention, seven out of eleven.) The decade also heralded the rise of the clay-court specialists — read Spaniards — a breed of men that performed miracles on red dirt.

Variety is good, nobody's complaining. But the degree of unpredictability does tell you how hard it is to win at Roland Garros.

We may never again see another Suzanne Lenglen, the legendary Frenchwoman who dominated tennis in the 1920s with six French and Wimbledon singles titles, each. Or a Steffi Graf, for that matter. We don't see that kind of domination often, and today, professional sport has rationalised the denominator to a great extent, rendering such complete mastery difficult. A Michael Schumacher is more the exception, than the rule.

But amidst the chaos, there appears to be some hope for France after all: while she might be no Lenglen, Amelie Mauresmo is looking good to pull off what none of her fellow citoyennes, save Mary Pierce, has managed to accomplish in nearly 40 years. Before Pierce won in 2000, Francoise Durr was the last Frenchwoman to win at Roland Garros. That was way back in 1967; and now, in an injury-plagued field Mauresmo stands a good chance of winning.

THIS is a tournament with a delicious sense of history.

Paris itself, of course, is steeped in sophistication. If you happened to walk into any of the city's cafes sometime in the early part of the last century, you might have tripped over an assortment of the greatest writers, artists and other soon-to-be cultural icons. Somerset Maugham, Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway all dipped their croissants in coffee here as they contemplated the universe through their unique perspectives.

This is also where some of the greatest modern legends of tennis drew first blood. Borg, Evert, Lendl, Graf, Wilander — they all made their first serious impressions in Paris, at the tournament named after one of France's most remarkable World War I fighter pilots, Roland Garros.

Will the home grown Amelie Mauresmo make it this time?. Pic. CLIVE BRUNSKILL/GETTY IMAGES-

Nevertheless, the tournament's reputation as the toughest Grand Slam to win is not ill-deserved. Men like McEnroe and Becker — modern legends in their own right — returned time after time, as if bewitched, only to be consumed by frustration.

At its worst the tennis played here is not pretty; but this is not to say the tournament is a tribute to boredom. Far from it. Points are frequently settled by long rallies that end in the most breathtaking manner; spectacular passes and agonisingly beautiful dropshots pepper the clay like seasoning on your steak.

For the loser, the experience often symbolises a love that has turned sour; and while there are fond memories, these are inevitably clouded by a sense of wistful regret.

For the deserving winner, the prize is not the result of some accidental flourish; on the contrary, it is a labour of love.

Year after year we expect to be dazzled by the exploits of the millionaire playboys; and yet, come away marvelling at the fortitude of the bourgeoisie.

For a change, the charm springs not so much from the players, the colourful characters or their whimsical styles. It is drawn, instead, from the inherent simplicity, the honest toil and the sweat. The romance lies in the grind of the red clay itself.

It lies in the good earth.