Groundskeeper Is Unsung Hero in Paris
PARIS (June 8) - Rafael Nadal is considered the king of clay. The accolade also applies to Gaston Cloup.
The 56-year-old Frenchman isn't a tennis player. He's the "maitre de la terre battue," or clay master, at the French Open.
Cloup and his team of 11 work year-round to prepare the 20 signature red clay courts at Roland Garros for the Grand Slam tournament.
"You have to have a real feel for the earth, the soil," said Cloup, who draws on his agricultural childhood to prepare the surfaces.
The clay at Roland Garros is only a fine sprinkling of powder, made from finely milled bricks that are recovered from demolition sites around France. The powder covers an 8-cm-thick (3 inch) layer of hard-packed limestone.
Cloup took over in 1990 from an Algerian family that had tended Roland Garros courts since the 1920s. Two members of the original family are still part of Cloup's team.
"When I got here, there was a certain resistance to my techniques," said Cloup, who was the first to introduce motorized equipment to Roland Garros.
"In those days, anything with a motor was taboo," he said.
Now, Cloup and his team use jackhammers to break up the surface after the winter freeze and compress the tilled limestone using tractors fitted with earth-packing rollers.
He said his unorthodox methods improved play at the complex, bringing surfaces on the 17 annex courts up to par with the three showcase arenas.
But Cloup still relies on low-tech traditional techniques to maintain the courts, which his team dusts with brick powder, rakes and waters daily - more often during the tournament.
Still, he says, there are no formulas for maintaining the surface.
"It's an art, not a science," said Cloup, who is grooming a protege to take over for him when he retires in a few years.
Born into a farming family from the northern Laon region, Cloup spent his childhood in the fields, harvesting beets and potatoes. After finishing his military service, he moved to Paris, where he found work as a gardener and later in a company that installed tennis courts.
Clay seems to run in the family: Cloup's 29-year old son tends the No. 4 and No. 5 courts at Roland Garros. But the father insists his son is not in line to take over operations.
"He just doesn't have it in him to be the boss," said Cloup, adding that during the tournament, the stress can be almost unbearable.
Clay courts got their start in the early 20th century, when a family of British aristocrats summering in the south of France built a grass court, Cloup said.
But as the thermometer rose, the grass scorched, and the family suspended play until someone suggested dusting the court with a powder made from milled bricks. The trend caught on and soon spread elsewhere in France and the Mediterranean.
Though this is his 17th French Open, Cloup has only ever attended one other Grand Slam: Wimbledon, whose head groundskeeper treated him "like a king."
"There, once play gets started, the grounds crew are all done," he said. "Here, we've got to keep hustling and grooming the courts all day long."
Though Cloup and his team are quick to protect the courts from rain - they scurry to cover the surfaces with massive tarps when the skies open up - the real enemy of the clay court is the wind, he said.
Gusts of wind lift the carefully spread powder in ruddy clouds, often making the slow, slippery clay courts play like hard ones.
During his first-round match on a wind-swept center court last week, Nadal asked the referee to put more clay onto the court.
"It's not a clay court, it's a hard court" the 20-year-old Spaniard said after the match. "It's dangerous."
Though that certainly wasn't the case for Nadal, who has advanced to Friday's semifinals, Cloup said it wasn't unusual for disgruntled players to blame their bad performance on the clay.
Still, the satisfaction Cloup and his team take in their work more than makes up for the inconveniences.
"When I watch a great match, I know I played a part in it," he said. "Even if it's just a small part."