TENNIS PROS FACE GRUELING 2 WEEKS
The Miami Herald
Sunday, May 27, 1984
JIM MARTZ, Herald Sports Writer
Paris in the spring means love to some, but to the tennis circuit, it means the most grueling two weeks of the year.
"I've always thought the French Open is the toughest tournament to win," says Harold Solomon, a finalist in 1976. "It's the toughest mentally and physically. Day in and day out, the rallies are longer and the matches are longer because of the slow red-clay courts. And there are so many good European and South American clay-court players. The tournament used to be even tougher because there were no tiebreakers and the balls were heavier."
This year's tournament, which will begin Monday and continue through June 10, is spiced by an intriguing array of questions:
* Will John McEnroe, 32-0 this year and the recent winner of the WCT Forest Hills championship on clay, become the first American to win the men's title since Tony Trabert in 1955?
* Can Yannick Noah, who last year became the first Frenchman to win the men's championship since 1946, defend his title despite the pressure from his homeland that was so great he moved to New York to seek anonymity?
* Can Martina Navratilova win her fourth consecutive Grand Slam tournament, thus earning a $1 million bonus put up by the International Tennis Federation?
* Will Chris Evert Lloyd bounce back from her humiliating 6-1, 6-0 loss to Navratilova on Amelia Island's clay and successfully defend her title?
The key to any of these questions being answered in the affirmative is patience and perseverance. The French Open is not a slam-bam affair as is the U.S. Open on cement or as Wimbledon and the Australian Open can be on grass. It's a survival-of-the-fittest test.
Ed Rubinoff, who in 1962 was the only American to qualify and reach the first round, can attest to that.
"With all due respect, I was a strong clay-court player, and in the years I played, we had a relatively weak American group," says Rubinoff, a former University of Miami All-American and now an attorney in Miami. "Those clay courts are so tough to play on. And you have a bunch of European players used to them, names you've never heard of.
"You can't attack them, and you're out there all day long. Americans are not mentally conditioned to play two to three hours to win a match, 6-1, 6-1.
"McEnroe is perfectly capable of winning any match. He's so mentally tough, until he loses control of himself. But it's a question of temperament and knowing it's going to take 10 to 15 shots a point to win. And do it over five sets and over 14 days."
Frank Froehling, a semifinalist in 1971 and now constructing tennis courts in Florida, adds, "McEnroe certainly is the best player in the world. But I can't see him going two weeks on the slow red clay. Maybe Jimmy Arias could. He has that kind of game."
The list of players who could win the men's title is as tall as the Eiffel Tower. Favorites besides McEnroe, Noah and Arias include Ivan Lendl, 1982 French champion Mats Wilander, Jose Higueras, last week's Italian champion Andres Gomez, and Jose-Luis Clerc. Possible breakthroughs include the latest Swedish sensations, Henrik Sundstrom and Stefen Edberg, and France's Henri LeConte. Solomon believes that he and fellow South Florida clay-court specialists Brian Gottfried and Eddie Dibbs "are way long shots."
Solomon also thinks it's "a fluke" that no American has won the men's title in 28 years. And Trabert says, "It's a sad commentary, and I don't know why."
In that same period, six U.S. women have won the French singles, including Evert five times between 1974 and 1983, and naturalized citizen Navratilova in 1982. In light of Navratilova's domination of Evert (10 straight matches) and her newfound confidence and patience on clay, she is the overwhelming favorite.
"I did far better than I thought I could at Amelia Island and the next week at Orlando when I beat Laura Arraya, 6-0, 6-1," says Navratilova. "I feel very comfortable on clay. I know what shots to hit, and I know when to slide.
"I should do even better on red clay. I grew up on red clay, and I'm playing better on clay now than I did two years ago when I won the French."
Last year, Navratilova was upset in the fourth round by Kathy Horvath, her only loss of the year. Since then, Martina the Magnificent has won the next three legs of the Grand Slam -- Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open.
Now comes the battle of the traditionalists against the International Tennis Federation, which is changing the ground rules for winning the Grand Slam. Traditionally, that has meant winning all four major tournaments in the same calendar year.
Only four players have accomplished the feat -- Don Budge in 1938, Maureen Connolly in 1953, Rod Laver in 1962 and '69, and Margaret Court in 1970. But last year, ITF President Philippe Chatrier decreed that any player who captures all four Grand Slam titles in a row, in any time frame, wins the Grand Slam.
Fault! says the U.S. Tennis Writers Association, which voted overwhelmingly against the ITF plan and said it wouldn't recognize a non-calendar-year sweep of the four majors as a Grand Slam.
"I will call it a Grand Scam or Grand Sham," says columnist and commentator Bud Collins, who will be part of NBC's crew telecasting the tournament. Adds Tennis magazine Managing Editor Alexander McNab, "The ITF's move is an unfair and unnecessary dilution of the game's greatest challenge, and a denigration of the accomplishments of the four previous Grand Slam winners . . . It's essentially a PR
Nevertheless, Navratilova will accept the Grand Slam crown if she wins, not to mention the extra $1 million. "To me, it counts if they say it counts, and the ITF and Women's Tennis Association say it does," she said.