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psychotic banana
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PRO GAME: Preview: Roland Garros 2003

5/23/03 0:00 AM

Gone are the days of the plodding clay-court specialist who won matches simply by outlasting opponents. This year, the play in Paris will be dominated by a new World Game that combines tenacity, variety, and plenty of power—regardless of the surface.

By Peter Bodo

From the June 2003 issue of TENNIS Magazine

Photos by Ron Angle

Roland Garros, in case you haven't noticed, has slowly but radically changed. It isn't just that patrons these days observe the injunction against smoking in their seats (tantamount to surrendering a human right, as far as the French are concerned), or that the relatively new Court Suzanne Lenglen has displaced the venerable center court as the place to experience the ultimate in tennis-viewing atmosphere.

The most profound changes have occurred at ground level, on the red clay itself. And these changes have been profound, driven by the evolution of equipment technology, training techniques, and playing styles. Make no mistake about it-this is not your father's Roland Garros. It's no longer the baffling World Championships on Clay, in which, until the early 1990s, one-trick-pony defensive specialists took advantage of the slow surface to flummox the sport's stars. At long last, the dreaded clay-court specialist is history.

Gone, too, is the baseline-based "negative" style brought to its apogee by two-time champion Sergi Bruguera (1993-'94) and 1995 titlist Thomas Muster. Instead, Roland Garros has become the showcase for a new World Game that is to tennis styles what Esperanto once hoped to be to languages. In the World Game, backcourt consistency is married with any combination of the following: sheer power, one or more weapons, and an aggressive shotmaking disposition. This is a one-size-fits-all game that travels effectively from one surface to another, making it the style of choice even in the most far-flung corners of the globe.

Few players are as well-equipped for running as Venus Williams, who lost last year's final to her sister Serena. Venus is defensively able, but her distaste for engaging her little sister in combat is her fatal flaw. Too bad, because this is the event in which Serena, with her shotmaker's impatience, is most vulnerable.

Clijsters, who came within a hair's breadth of snatching the 2001 title from Capriati, is strong enough to go toe to toe with Serena, and so is Capriati. But, as Clijsters says, "Serena has won so many Slams because when she is in trouble she raises the level of her game. She can raise it to the point where she is unbeatable."

Lindsay Davenport will play Roland Garros for the first time since her opening-round loss in 2000, but she feels no pressing need to make a big statement. The opposite is true of perennial French hope Amelie Mauresmo. Although she's never carried the weight of expectations as far as the final eight, Mauresmo has the versatility to probe Serena's defenses, much like Justine Henin-Hardenne did in ending Serena's 25-match win streak this spring on a clay court that's faster than those in Paris.

These players, along with the Williams sisters, are shaping the new World Game for women. As Mauresmo says, "Now there's a lot of pace in the women's game and that's different from before. But we still don't have a lot of variety. I think that's changing, because doing different things, having different weapons, that's a big advantage."

Ultimately, a strategy based on variety and flexibility may be the only one capable of neutralizing Williams-grade firepower. And the mission for the women players defining the new World Game is clear: beat a Williams, the rest will take care of itself.
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