There is no obvious reason

SOMETIMES there is no simple logic, no obvious reason, to explain it. Why a particular stadium intimidates more than others, a specific opponent cannot be beaten, a distinct surface fails to be mastered.

ROHIT BRIJNATH

Bjorn Borg went to the U.S. Open nine times but was repeatedly denied; four finals he lost, till stepping on to court held all the joy of a familiar walk through a minefield. — Pic. AL BELLO/GETTY IMAGES-

SOMETIMES there is no simple logic, no obvious reason, to explain it. Why a particular stadium intimidates more than others, a specific opponent cannot be beaten, a distinct surface fails to be mastered.

Bjorn Borg went to the U.S. Open nine times but was repeatedly denied; four finals he lost, till stepping on to court held all the joy of a familiar walk through a minefield. Was it the light that left his timing awry, was it the discomfort of playing Americans (Connors, Mac, Tanner) in their raucous backyard, it is hard to tell.

Ivan Lendl never solved Wimbledon, but he did the U.S. where he lost three straight finals. A practical man born in Ostrava, the steel heart of Czechoslovakia, he probably believed all solutions could be forged through time and sweat. So he installed, or so goes the story, Deco Turf II (the US Open surface) at his home in Connecticut, and won the next three finals.

One day Lleyton Hewitt, frustrated and discouraged, might do the same. Just say, to hell with it, hire a plane, fly in a few tonnes of European clay and dump it in the garden of his Adelaide home. If this won't work, he might say to himself, nothing will.

Hewitt is 22 years old, has been to the French (this year included) just five times (to give it perspective, Lendl made 15 French visits, Thomas Muster 16), and already his lack of success there has resulted in talk of a jinx, a curse, as if some claycourt gremlin finds delight in giving him the evil eye.

It is, of course, on the surface (forgive the pun) a terrific irony: a player known for his repetition, for taking a little skill a long way, whose game is based on the simple logic of getting the ball back more times than the opposition, who Oxford researchers think of when deciding the dictionary definition of "consistency", is least comfortable on a surface that appears to demand exactly that.

Always a mutterer and a moaner, and owner of a vocabulary that has umpires preferring to feign deafness, Hewitt is at his irritable best on clay. A man accustomed to opponents perspiring at his sight, he finds himself defeated by the surface. He plucks his strings repeatedly but is never in tune.

What makes the situation increasingly absurd is that it has been said Hewitt can play on clay, and to illustrate the point experts note his victory over Gustavo Kuerten, in Brazil. Of course, that was a Davis Cup match, a competition where Hewitt is known to walk on water let alone clay. It was also three days of competition, not two weeks and seven matches.

No one is sure what afflicts Hewitt, but neither are they short of an idea. Former Davis Cup player Chiradip Mukjerjea rightly points to his limited warm-up this year, for Hewitt played only two clay tournaments prior to the French for a total of six matches (in contrast, Tommy Robredo, who beat him at the French this year, played 16 matches at five tournaments, and Juan Carlos Ferrero 20 at four events).

Of course, Hewitt's preparation for Wimbledon is as fleeting, limited to two tournaments at best, but as Mukherjea explains, the grass season is restricted to a few tournaments in the year (unlike clay which is played year round), and thus ensures a level playing field. "Everyone on grass", he says "has to adjust".

But Hewitt will nevertheless remain disadvantaged for clay does not come naturally to him (for sake of analogy look no further than Indian batsmen on Australian wickets). As former Australian player Bob Carmichael (better known in India as Leander Paes' long-time coach) pointed out, part of the answer was to be found in Hewitt's post-Robredo-defeat press conference.

As Hewitt said: "No doubt growing up on (clay) helps, you just got to look at (Guillermo) Coria and Ferrero move on the stuff. They've started playing on the clay since they were five or six years old... I started on clay when I was 15, 16." It means homework Lendl-style has its utility, but there are some mysteries to the surface never explained to those not born to it. Few surfaces, especially now that serve and volleyers on grass are a dying breed, attract as many specialists as clay. European fellows with adequate serves, backswings that begin in the heavens and often end there, who as children play in clay pits not sand lots, and make terriers blush at their retrieving skills.

Men like Ferrero might be uni-dimensional players, machines tuned to a particular toil, but they are able to make both fortune and reputation from a solitary surface. The numbers do not, as ever, tell us everything, but they give us a snapshot of what Hewitt is against. Ferrero, for instance, has won career nine titles, seven of them on clay; of the eight finals he lost, five were on clay. Hewitt has won 19 titles, and only one of them, way back in 1999, was on clay; of the six finals he lost none was on clay. Ferrero's win-loss on clay is 114-27, on hard court 72-48; Hewitt is the absolute opposite, his win-loss on clay 47-21, on hard court 164-49.

If this is not hard enough, Carmichael adds that Australian clay is distinctive and bears no honest comparison with its European cousin. In Victoria, he says, the clay is brittle brick dust, in New South Wales it is ant beds. Both are slippier than Roland Garros, with uneven bounce, the texture making a difference not just in shot-making but particularly in footwork. Hewitt's explanation of movement was no mere excuse.

Hewitt has always lacked a big shot, a singular weapon that evokes intimidation; quicker surfaces lend some potency to his shots, clay takes even more pace off it. It means he has to grind harder, yet when he looks at Albert Costa, whose first four matches this year have taken 15 hours, he must wince at the challenge that awaits him.

His serve, too, while improved, is not tuned to clay, and he admitted so. To serve for winners, as he confessed he did, rarely works, and a heftier fellow named Sampras might willingly testify to that. Instead, as he said himself, "It's more angles and kickers out wide, more trying to set the point up than trying to win the point off your first serve."

Hewitt will master the French one year. It will take time (it is not a priority yet) for it is a language of feet and stroke not easy to decipher. He will have to assiduously woo clay like a determined suitor, must master its nuances, embrace its subtleties and adapt to its particular demands. He needs to discover that fine balance between finding a familiarity, but not overplaying himself. He is not the most pleasant of men, but when it comes to a challenge few men have similar resolve.