Cheers and Fears: A Quick Peak At the French Open
5/24/02 6:23 PM
By Joel Drucker
special to USTA.com
No other tournament more vividly demonstrates the United Nations-like qualities of tennis than the French Open. As the only Grand Slam where English is not the primary language, Roland Garros exudes a cosmopolitan flavor. It’s also a richly sensual tournament, a mix of squeaking feet and dusty socks, hearty grunts and luscious clay, all adding up to the most physical tennis on earth. Winning the French requires unprecedented patience, first-rate fitness and wise shotmaking. To quote one of my favorite Doors’ songs, “No one here gets out alive.”
Can Andre survive the clay courts of Paris? Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
• Good Morning, America. Challenging as Roland Garros has been for Americans, this year there’s a reasonable chance an American-born male and female can win for the first time since Tony Trabert and Maureen Connolly did it in 1954. At 32, Andre Agassi is more focused than ever. Tempting as it is to cite marriage as dulling a player’s skills, in Agassi’s case that wife happens to be a fairly dedicated person named Graf. Who better to understand the demands of a champion? But even though Agassi’s looked impressive winning big events at Key Biscayne and Rome, I only see him as a prohibitive French favorite. He’s stumbled badly there the last two years, and I’m just not certain his body and mind can withstand seven dirtballing matches. But it would be stupid not to put him right up there with Lleyton Hewitt, Marat Safin and Gustavo Kuerten as the top choices.
On the women’s side, it’s a sound bet to take defending champ Jennifer Capriati, Venus and Serena Williams versus the remaining 125 players. The slight edge goes to Serena, who this year has been playing with more consistency than ever. Her win last week over Capriati in Rome consolidated her current stranglehold over Jennifer. And I also see Jennifer as feeling rushed and disturbed during her matches. Glorious as Capriati’s comeback these last two years has been, there are signs everywhere that she’s indeed fed up with the tennis life. Though she remains a feisty, fit ballstriker, that crabbiness can catch up with a player during a Slam. As for Venus, her health is questionable. She pulled out of Rome moments before a match versus Anna Kournikova, claiming she’d injured it carrying a racket bag. Those slight injuries might not matter on a rat-a-tat place like Wimbledon, but at Roland Garros, toothaches can quickly become cavities.
• Guga, Tennis’ Energizer Bunny. Barely six weeks ago, this human Slinky was recovering from hip surgery. Somehow he’s gotten himself right into the thick of things again, and though he’s yet to win a tournament, he’s fought hard and shown ample hunger in pursuit of a fourth French (and third straight). Guga’s got a vivid package for the French: He can run all day and can strike lots of big shots, most notably when he rips his backhand – either with the contemporary down-the-line drive or the rolling crosscourt. A potential Kuerten-Lleyton Hewitt quarterfinal could be one for the ages.
Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images
• The Belgian Sensations. I love the dedication of Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters. Henin recently even admitted she gets nervous trying to close out matches. And though Henin’s one-handed backhand and shotmaking makes her appealing to watch, Clijsters’ game strikes me as more physical and capable of scaling the heights necessary for success in today’s women’s game.
• Monica Soldiers On. Veteran baseball legend Satchel Paige once asked, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?” At 28, Seles has millions of miles on her odometer. But she carries on. On the verge of retirement last summer, this three-time French champ (a million years ago in the ’90-’92 period) retooled her body and earlier this year beat Venus at the Australian. The only rub: Brilliant as her game is, Seles’ inability to learn how to close out points is as frustrating as a 30-year fixed loan at 11 percent – and at this stage, there’s no chance she’ll refinance. But with a few breaks from the draw and the weather, she’ll be in the hunt.
• You couldn’t ask for a wider disparity between the top two men’s seeds than Hewitt and Marat Safin. Hewitt is a 21st century Jimmy Connors – feisty yet mature. Safin is a little boy trapped inside a big man’s body. Good a grinder as Hewitt is, it’s not certain he has the strength to strike too many winners on the slow clay. Will the high balls wear him down? Then again, Hewitt is as great a competitor as you’ll ever see. Safin has all the tools – a great backhand, big serve, shotmaking everywhere – but his mind is suspect.
• Like Charlie Brown running to kick the football, each year Pete Sampras – my pick for tennis’ best ever –- comes to Paris armed with the best of intentions, only to fall on his butt. Anywhere but European clay, and his first round match versus Andrea Gaudenzi is a walk. But let’s look closer: Gaudenzi’s a crafty, veteran Italian. He knows this surface. Heck, last year Pete struggled to beat a qualifier who’d months before lost to 44-year-old Gene Mayer. My view: Even though Pete’s retained claycourt genius Jose Higueras as a his coach, and even though he invariably talks about his desire to win the French, the real purpose of Higueras is to rekindle Sampras’ love and intensity – and generate big-time results at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
Carlos Moya and Spain have a bevy of great clay-courters. Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
• Spanish Armada. Every few years a collegial group of fellas comes along who conjure up notions of the Australian era of teamwork and championships. In the ‘80s, it was Sweden. Now it’s Spain, and certainly the likes of ’98 French champ Carlos Moya, two-time runner-up Alex Corretja and rising Juan-Carlos Ferrero demand attention. But I’ll tell you this: This Spanish crew strike me as weary, rarely rising much for big occasions. Do they play too much? Are they worn out from focusing on Davis Cup? Are their games too prosaic? I feel a disturbance in the force, a sense that this Spanish feast is more likely a bunch of Spanish rice – and might be saying the same thing in two years about the French.
• Andy Roddick's Sophomore Year. The French and next month's Wimbledon are vital tournaments for America's great hope. Not that he needs to win either, but after last year's reasonable debuts, he needs to start advancing deep into the draw. Seeded 13th at Roland Garros, Roddick's got a rough first round versus dangerous Aussie Wayne Arthurs and is on a path to meet slashing Swede Thomas Enqvist in the 3rd round. Whether he wins or loses, how he competes will reveal much.
• Dark horses. Men: Guillermo Canas, Jiri Novak. Women: She won’t win it this year, but Daniela Hantuchova is a hot prospect.
Do you think it is true what they say about Jen? That she's sick of the tennis life???