Tennis: Wrestling with the red stuff

Some of the greatest gods in tennis have been tripped up because they had feet of clay
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The Independent Online
WE HAVE ARRIVED for tennis's clay pigeon shoot at the Monte Carlo Open, an idyll at the base of the Maritime Alps, where the eye is lured beyond the soft, salmon-coloured Centre Court to the azure Mediterranean, and where players flying towards the net tend to be picked off at will.

Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski are among those at risk during a fascinating three-month period on the sport's slowest surface, culminating at the French Open in Paris. Spectators lose count of the number of times the ball crosses the net; competitors lose patience in pursuit of the half- forgotten art of rallying; umpires and line judges lose weight running to check dimples in the clay made by disputed shots; British players lose.

It is perplexing that our most successful man on clay since Fred Perry in the 1930s should be George Wimpey. Is it a technical problem or a state of mind? When did the notion that if you can play, you can play, get confused with horses for courses? It is not as if our course, supposedly the Wimbledon grass, is overrun with home champions. Grass, once the surface at three of the world's four Grand Slam championships, is now reduced to the Wimbledon fortnight, the highlight of a six-week season, as brief as the points.

Clay, or terre battue (beaten earth), Europe's traditional outdoor court surface, is made from crushed bricks. Concrete courts, such as those at the United States Open and at the Australian Open, probably afford a more even bounce and suit various styles, baseline or serve-volley, as long as the players' joints last. Excessive power in the men's game, a combination of physical development and modern racket technology, has been countered in the preparation of all surfaces, outdoors and indoors, with the exception of grass. Clay, which takes a degree of pace out of shots, allowing lengthy rallies between unexceptional players to become tedious, has been made faster, and more attractive to attacking players, by reducing the depth of the surface and introducing a smaller ball.

It is generally accepted that clay is the best surface on which to learn the game. Groundstrokes, footwork, rallying, strategy, patience, anticipation and stamina are fundamental to success, as we have seen from numerous Swedes, Spaniards, Frenchmen and eastern Europeans. The Lawn Tennis Association, an enthusiastic if belated builder of indoor centres, oversees next month's inaugural Samsung Junior Clay Court Challenge, featuring more than 330 players aged between 11 and 16, at West Hants, Harpenden, Queenswood, Bisham Abbey, Doncaster and Ripon.

Henman and Rusedski know the clay court season can provide long term benefits in fitness and court craft, even if they have to suffer a string of defeats on the red stuff in the interim. The Renshaw twins, William and Ernest, might not have experienced such an idignity in the early days of the sport, but, after they both lost at Wimbledon in 1880, they left their home in Cheltenham for the French Riviera and built a court at the Beau Site Hotel, in Cannes. They practised every day on the hard-sand surface until it was time to go home for the 1881 season and won everything that year; William won the Wimbledon singles title six times in a row, and a seventh in 1889.

Some of the biggest names have been denied the French Open title, which remains Pete Sampras's one elusive goal and is also missing from Andre Agassi's CV, even though the Las Vegan contested two consecutive finals at the onset of the 1990s. Stefan Edberg lost in five sets to Michael Chang in 1989, and John McEnroe wilted in 1984 after leading Ivan Lendl by two sets to love. A frustrated Jimmy Connors was banned from the French Open in 1974, the year he won the three other Grand Slam titles, because of his involvement in World Team Tennis.

Boris Becker has no clay court title among his 49 career singles championships. Once, while practising for the French Open, Becker made a typical dive for the ball. One side of his body was covered in red. Noticing he was being watched by a journalist Becker turned and said: "I'm half a clay court player now, huh?"