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France’s Tennis Frustration Is the Color of Red Clay


PARIS — Essentially the most distinguished 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’s as much a component of local culture and tradition because the bouquinistes that sell art and used books along the Seine.

And yet, because it so often is within the country that claims Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir, the connection between France and its “terre battue” is just a little more complicated.

This red clay that comes from a small brick factory in Oise, north of Paris, elicits a lot love.

“My favorite surface,” said Stéphane Levy, a lifelong member of the Tennis Club of Paris, a favourite haunt of a few of the country’s top players, including Gilles Simon and Corentin Moutet, where eight of the 18 courts are produced from the identical clay as those at Roland Garros.

“There isn’t a feeling like playing on it,” Levy said. “The sliding, the clay in your body while you sweat.”

However the clay has also turn out to be a logo of deep frustration. A Frenchwoman has not won the singles championship this country so treasures, the one which requires more grit but additionally more thought than every other, since Mary Pierce in 2000. A Frenchman has not won it in 39 years, since Yannick Noah in 1983. The last of the French men and ladies were eliminated from the singles tournaments on Saturday.


The reply likely has so much to do with a central contradiction in the house of red clay’s biggest stage. Just 11.5 percent of the tennis courts in France are product of the normal red clay and most of those are in private clubs. One other 16.5 percent of courts are product of an imitation clay surface that is analogous to the terre bateau but plays harder and faster than the softer, traditional clay.

Maintaining red clay in cold, wet weather, which is common in France for much of the 12 months, is practically inconceivable, and constructing indoor complexes for them is pricey. So most French tennis players grow up playing on hardcourts, unlike their counterparts in Spain, where temperate weather and red clay dominate the way in which Rafael Nadal (who won Sunday in five sets) and so many Spaniards before him have dominated Roland Garros.

That tennis at the very best level is contested on different surfaces is as normal to tennis fans as fuzzy yellow balls and grunting forehands, but it surely is certainly one of the nice quirks of the game. Imagine for a moment if the N.B.A. played 70 percent of its games on hardwood, 20 percent on rubber and 10 percent on rag wool carpeting. That is basically what skilled tennis players do, spending the primary three months on hardcourts, the subsequent two on clay, roughly six weeks on grass, after which most of the remainder of the 12 months back on hardcourts.

While the surfaces have turn out to be more similar in recent times, each requires a singular set of skills and produces a really different sort of play.

Grass and clay are on the extremes, with grass being the fastest of the three surfaces.

Clay is the slowest. The ball pops off the dirt and hangs within the air for a split-second longer, allowing players to meet up with it and extend rallies, and forcing them to play a more tactical style, grinding from the baseline.

Watch an hour of professional tennis on each surface. In the event you cut out on a regular basis between points, actual tennis playing on clay accounts for about 13 minutes, in response to multiple studies of energy and energy in the game. That’s significantly greater than on other surfaces, where the player returning serve is at a more severe drawback and may struggle to place the ball back in play.

Hard courts are at roughly the halfway point, and require an all-around game.

Amongst the professionals, the red clay is each loved and loathed.

“I don’t prefer it much,” said Daniil Medvedev of Russia, the world’s second ranked male player, who struggled for years to win a match on the French Open and reached the fourth round on Saturday.

Nick Kyrgios of Australia has no use for the surface and skips the clay-court season altogether. Iga Swiatek of Poland, the world’s top-ranked woman, would spend her whole profession sliding around on it if she could.

Winning on clay requires a Ph.D. in what coaches and players call “point construction,” which is shorthand for taking part in tennis like chess, pondering not only about this next shot, but three shots down the road. Learning that to the purpose where it’s instinctual can take years, and like most things, the sooner one starts training the brain to think that way, the higher.

“On clay, the fight really goes on and on,” said Aurelio Di Zazzo, a coach on the Tennis Club of Paris. “The longer the trouble, the more you’ve got to make use of your mind.”

The club, which is lower than a mile from Roland Garros, tries to hold red clay’s torch as best it could actually. That torch isn’t low-cost. Maintaining the courts requires 4 full-time employees, and recent clay costs greater than $2,000 a 12 months for every court. Each court should be entirely dug up and redone every 15 years, costing greater than $30,000 per court.

Levy said it’s value it.

“This clay is part of France,” he said.

France’s tennis federation agrees. The organization also really wants a French Open singles champion. It’s scheduled to announce a recent plan to advertise tennis on the “terre bateau” in July. Perhaps that may help.

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