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Does red clay matter in women's tennis?

By Matthew Cronin
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The last woman to win Roland Garros and no other major crown was Iva Majoli in '97 and she's won more titles on non-clay surfaces than on dirt. In the past 25 years, only Romania's Virginia Ruzici (who won the French in '78) matches Majoli's one-Slam in Paris and nowhere-else feat ... and she won the French in a year when the top players were nowhere to be found.

Every other woman to reign in Paris since Ruzici has hit the big time at other Slams, including Chris Evert, Hana Mandlikova, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, Mary Pierce, Jennifer Capriati and Serena Williams.


Which begs the question: Does clay matter in the women's game?


The answer is yes, but only partially so. The WTA is not the ATP, where the likes of Sergi Bruguera, Thomas Muster and Gustavo Kuerten can be so dominant on dirt but down right ordinary on other surfaces. After all, some men venture out on the crushed red brick at Roland Garros and quiver in front of the mighty Spanish Armada. But a couple of weeks later, the armada is reduced to a small, quivering almost irrelevant fleet of non-contenders at the all-England Club – if they play at all.

Unlike most of their male compatriots, Spain's "big two" of Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Conchita Martinez were major forces on other surfaces, with Martinez winning '94 Wimbledon and Sanchez reaching the final there twice, as well as winning the '94 US Open.

Putting Spain – the current symbol of clay court prowess – aside for a moment, pure baseliners and multiple Roland Garros winners such as Evert, Seles and Graf were able to clean up on hard courts the first three month of the year and then comfortably sink their tennies into red clay without being concerned about being yanked around by tireless, top spinning dirtballers (as Pete Sampras was on so many painful occasions). Today's women have been bred on the baseline and are taught to survive long rallies. Because many aren't tall enough or have the upper body strength to power multiple aces, learning to hit outright return of serve winners becomes a premium and is a weapon that can give players control of points on clay.

LACK OF EXPERIENCE AFFECTS DAVENPORT


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Having a significant exposure to clay is a huge advantage, which is why despite their sometimes clumsy movement, both Pierce and Seles were able to win the French and Lindsay Davenport hasn't been able to. Both Seles and Pierce are familiar with how the balls bounce on dirt and are confident enough in their knowledge of how points are constructed on clay to be able to dictate from inside the baseline.

As in the men's game, you have to have a money shot(s) and cannot have an extremely weak side to win the French. Graf's forehand was significantly better than her backhand, but she rarely made errors off her backhand side, which allowed her to eventually whack those forehands that she preferred. Sanchez's forehand was never a weapon and could occasionally be exposed, but she counterpunched it well enough to set up her booming two-handed backhand. Recent winners Capriati, Pierce and Serena are strong off both wings.

While clay doesn't appear to matter much when players come into the French raring to go, when they are lacking confidence, are sick or injured, the surface usually gets the better of them. Clay may not break down your hips or knees like hard courts do, but if you go into Paris with a bad groin, hamstring, sore ankle, abdominal tear, sore feet, arm, etc., you can all but kiss your chances good-bye. (See the years that Seles or Pierce were hobbled and Kim Clijsters last year.) Moreover, if you catch a cold or virus when springtime in Paris is feeling like winter in London, your goose is cooked. (See Henin in '02 and Davenport in prior years.) For the Americans who didn't grow up on the stuff, it also takes a while to learn how to slide, as both the Williams sisters (who suffered some awful defeats at the French prior to last year) can attest to.

Most importantly, as so many players who have wheezed their way to Charles de Gaulle Airport during the first week of the tournament have learned, if you're not in top-top shape, there's a battalion of baseliners just waiting to exhaust you in a two-hour sweatfest. Just ask defending champ Serena, who in '98, entered Roland Garros with heavy legs and four rounds and couple hours with tireless Sanchez later, found herself sobbing in from of the merciless crowd at Suzanne Lenglen Stadium.
 

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In today's era, it seems as though altho the surface can help some players, amongst the top women, it doesn't matter.

For example, many of the top women today have speed and power as their weapons (the majority of the Top 20).

So anyone below Top 20 will sometimes have their day when they cause an upset, but because of the drop in standard post Top 20-30, the elite power players aren't going to be troubled too much.

To succeed in women's tennis today, speed AND power are both required.

The surface is irrelevant e.g. Serena vs Serna matchup on clay - we'd all say Serna has the talent to cause an upset, but in our hearts we know that Serena's power alone would be enough to carry her through.

I don't know if I've expressed myself clearly, but I feel surface isn't as much of a differential anymore, as the very top women players and their power have adapted to every surface and cause damage anywhere.

Guaranteed as this years RG, the majority of QFs will be power hitters.

That says it all about the clay specialists.
 

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Historically, it hasn't mattered. The best women can usually dominate relatively well on even their weakest surfaces. There's been very few men who'd been able to do that. The few exceptions been probably Laver and Agassi.
 

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Sometimes it matters a great deal.

Yes, a top woman can win on all surfaces, but give Mauresmo, Clijsters, Cappy and Henin a pick of surface on which to face Serena and guess what surface they'll pick?

Quick now-three seconds. Their choice says it all:)
 
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