PARIS – The most important feature of the French Open is that this Grand Slam tournament takes place on the rusty red clay of Roland Garros, a beloved feature that is as much a part of local culture and tradition as booksellers who sell second-hand art and books. along the Seine.
And yet, as is so often the case in the country that calls itself Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir, the relationship between France and its “clay terrain” is a little more complicated.
This red clay, which comes from a small brickyard in Oise, north of Paris, arouses so much love.
“My favorite surface,” said Stéphane Levy, a life member of the Tennis Club de Paris, a favorite haunt of some of the country’s best players, including Gilles Simon and Corentin Moutet, where eight of the 18 courts are made from the same clay. like those of Roland Garros.
“There’s no desire to gamble on it,” Levy said. “The slip, the clay on your body when you sweat.”
But clay has also become a symbol of deep frustration. A Frenchwoman has not won the singles championship of this precious country, the one that requires more courage but also more reflection than any other, since Mary Pierce in 2000. A Frenchman has not won it in 39 years , since Yannick Noah in 1983. The last French men and women were eliminated from the singles tournaments on Saturday.
The answer probably has a lot to do with a central contradiction in the house of the greatest red clay scene. Only 11.5% of tennis courts in France are traditional red earth and most of them are in private clubs. Another 16.5% of the courts are made of an imitation clay surface which is similar to clay but plays harder and faster than softer traditional clay.
The maintenance of red clay in cold and wet weather, common in France for much of the year, is practically impossible, and the construction of indoor complexes for them is expensive. So most French tennis players grow up playing on hard courts, unlike their Spanish counterparts, where temperate weather and red clay dominate the way Rafael Nadal (who won in five sets on Sunday) and so many Spaniards before him dominated Roland Garros.
That tennis at the highest level is played on different surfaces is as normal for tennis fans as fuzzy yellow balls and growling forehands, but it’s one of the great quirks of the sport. Imagine for a moment if the NBA played 70% of its games on hardwood, 20% on rubber, and 10% on rag wool carpeting. This is basically what professional tennis players do, spending the first three months on hard courts, the next two on clay, about six weeks on grass, and then most of the rest of the year on hard courts. .
While the surfaces have become more similar in recent years, each requires a unique set of skills and produces a very different style of play.
Grass and clay are at the extremes, with grass being the fastest of the three surfaces.
Clay is the slowest. The ball pops out of the ground and hangs in the air for a split second longer, allowing players to catch it and extend rallies, and forcing them to play a more tactical style, starting from the baseline.
Watch an hour of professional tennis on every surface. If you cut all the time between points, real tennis on clay lasts about 13 minutes, according to multiple studies of energy and effort in the sport. This is significantly more than on other surfaces, where the player returning the serve is at a more serious disadvantage and may struggle to get the ball back into play.
Hard courts are about halfway and require full play.
Among the pros, red clay is both loved and hated.
“I don’t like it very much,” said Daniil Medvedev of Russia, the world’s second-largest male player, who struggled for years to win a match at Roland Garros and reached the fourth round on Saturday.
Australia’s Nick Kyrgios has no use for the surface and is skipping the clay-court season altogether. Iga Swiatek of Poland, the highest ranked woman in the world, would spend her entire career slipping on it if she could.
Winning on clay requires a doctorate. in what coaches and players call “point building,” which is shorthand for playing tennis like chess, thinking not just about this next move, but three moves later. Learning this to the point where it’s instinctual can take years, and like most things, the sooner you start training the brain to think this way, the better.
“On clay, the fight really continues,” said Aurelio Di Zazzo, coach at Tennis Club de Paris. “The longer the effort, the more you have to use your mind.”
The club, which is less than a mile from Roland Garros, tries to carry the torch of the red earth as best they can. This torch is not cheap. Maintenance of the courts requires four full-time employees, and new clay costs over $2,000 per year for each court. Each court must be completely dug up and redone every 15 years, costing over $30,000 per court.
Levy said it was worth it.
“This clay is part of France,” he said.
The French tennis federation agrees. The organization also really wants a Roland-Garros singles champion. A new ‘clay court’ tennis promotion plan is scheduled to be announced in July. Maybe that can help.