Tennis: Britons must master learning curve

John Roberts explains why many of the world's greatest attacking players have failed to succeed on the clay courts of Roland Garros
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The Independent Online
PREPARING for his annual dose of frustration at the French Open some years ago, Boris Becker made a trademark dive for a ball on a practice court at Stade Roland Garros in Paris. Rising to his feet, the imposing German began to wipe himself. One side of his body was covered, head to foot, in the dusty red clay. Noticing that he was being observed by a British journalist, Alan Page, Becker turned to him and said: "I'm half a clay court player now, huh?"

Without wishing to act as a top-spin doctor for Greg Rusedski and Tim Henman, your correspondent suggests that while it would be embarrassing for Britain's finest to have their noses rubbed in the Paris clay in the days ahead, the experience need not be disastrous. It has happened to some of the best. Becker numbers among the great attacking players who have been unable to make a lasting impression on the slowest of the four Grand Slam surfaces. John McEnroe capitulated against Ivan Lendl after leading by two sets to love in the 1984 French final. John Newcombe failed to advance beyond the quarter-finals. And Pete Sampras is due to resume his quest to complete his collection of the majors next Monday.

Yesterday's draw made it feasible for Sampras to meet the unseeded Henman in the third round, although the 23 year old from Oxford must first overcome the talented Armenian Sargis Sargsian, ranked No 94, followed by Andrei Medvedev or Andrea Gaudenzi, both of whom are comfortable on clay. Sampras opens against his American compatriot Todd Martin.

Rusedski, seeded No 5, is due to play the Belgian Johan Van Herck, ranked No 97, in the first round, followed by a qualifier. Two Spaniards, Carlos Costa and Carlos Moya, may then lie in wait should Rusedski's groundstrokes continue to support his huge serve. Clay is not noted for yielding to the serve.

The closest Becker came to a triumph at the French Open was in 1989, when he lost in five sets against his Swedish rival Stefan Edberg in the semi-finals. Edberg was unable to capitalise after leading an inspired Michael Chang in the final. Becker, now semi-retired, does not have a clay court singles title to his name even though he spent many of his boyhood days playing on the surface.

Among the exceptions in fairly recent times was Yannick Noah, whose athleticism gained little on Wimbledon's lawns but who maximised his aggressive style to provide a home victory for the French at Roland Garros in 1983, and the Italian Adriano Panatta, who prospered from a spirit of adventure in 1976.

Conversely, some of the most tenacious counter-punchers have fallen short. Jimmy Connors was a semi-finalist on four occasions and Andre Agassi was the runner-up in two consecutive years (Agassi, like Sampras, requires the French for a full set of Grand Slam titles).

Which puts into context Bjorn Borg's astonishing feat in winning the French Open on six occasions, Wimbledon five times consecutively, and linking the titles three times in a row, scarcely pausing for breath between Paris and London SW 19.

British interest may have been revitalised by our men at Wimbledon and elsewhere, but only Fred Perry's footprints would qualify for a walk of fame at the French Open.

Until 1975, the French championships was the only one of the four Grand Slams which was not played on grass. The US Open then switched to clay for a brief period before settling for concrete. The Australian Open followed suit in 1988, leaving Wimbledon as the last oasis.

"Some say that grass is for cows," Rusedski remarked recently. "I guess clay is for making bricks."

The British No 1's joke raises a serious point. Figuratively, the bricks created by working on clay courts represent the physical and mental components of a solid all-round game.

Although the red clay of Stade Roland Garros, and elsewhere in European tennis, may signify danger for British players, whose style is better suited traditionally to faster courts, the challenge of competing on the terre battue (beaten earth) is a healthy one. The bonus of playing on clay is that it fosters patience, strategy, timing, anticipation, swift, intelligent footwork and builds stamina. The benefits of practising and playing on clay tend to be long term, even for those players who endure the indignity of moving from one first-round defeat to another. Playing on clay improves the ability to hit deep, consistent groundstrokes, promotes confidence when engaged in lengthy rallies, and encourages the use of the lob and the drop-shot.

Only a few years ago, before Rusedski arrived from Canada and Henman began to develop towards his potential, it was a rarity for British men to be ranked high enough to gain direct entry to the top level ATP Tour events on any surface. The fact that they are doing the rounds of the mainstream clay-court circuit at all is a step forward.

Sensibly absorbing the setbacks as part of the learning process (and at times they have seemed uncertain whether to serve and volley or pitch and putt), they have expressed a determination not to confuse unease about the surface with a basic failure to convert opportunities.

Asked if he was inhibited about using a top-spin backhand as a variation to the slice, Rusedski said: "In practice I've been hitting it really well. I just have to set my mind. You mustn't have that indecision in your mind, no matter what standard you are."

Henman, while acknowledging that playing on clay is second nature to many opponents, endeavours to view his matches as further education. "I know it will help me so much more on other surfaces," he said.

Personal experience at the Italian Open that the Chilean Marcelo Rios is as brilliant on clay as he was on concrete at the Lipton Championships in Florida did not drive Henman off his "learning curve".

"Realistically," Rusedski said, "I haven't done that well on clay in the past, so it's just another challenge. It's part of being a tennis player. I'm hitting the ball well on the clay. Now it's just a case of turning it into the matches. I'm just learning how to do it. If I can do it, then victories will come. If I can't, there's always the nice grass!"