The red clay of Roland Garros isn’t impressed with raw power.
It rewards stamina, agility and the resolve to hit ball after ball until an opponent either wilts or short-circuits in sheer frustration.
None of these qualities has made Serena Williams the most dominant player in women’s tennis over the last decade. But on the eve of the 2012 French Open, the 30-year-old Williams looks the favorite to win her 14th Grand Slam title on a surface that has never played to her strengths.
And it’s not because the women’s field is weak.
On the contrary, women’s tennis is reveling in welcome depth, with hungry hard-hitters emerging from all points on the globe. Five women from three continents have claimed the last five majors: Victoria Azarenka of Belarus (2012 Australian Open); Samantha Stosur of Australia (2011 U.S. Open); Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic (2011 Wimbledon); China’s Li Na (2011 French Open); and Kim Clijsters of Belgium (2011 Australian Open).
Confronted with a landscape of new challengers, Williams could have bowed out of the sport, having won more than $36 million in prize money and added two Olympic gold medals to her prodigious trophy case. Instead, she has rededicated herself — slimming down, toning up and surging up the rankings to No. 5 in the world.
It’s not the first time Williams has stormed back after tumbling outside the top 10. What’s notable this season is the concession she’s making on clay, bending to its peculiar demands rather than imposing her power-is-all game on it.
She’s more patient in rallies. She’s moving better. And she’s more adept at sliding to the ball, an art that seems a birthright among European players but bewilders Americans weaned on hard courts.
As a result, Williams is 17-0 on clay this season — a record that includes 6-1, 6-3 triumphs over the world’s No. 1 and 2 players, Azarenka and Maria Sharapova, en route to the Madrid Open title earlier this month.
“I just have never seen Serena play this well on clay before,” said Chris Evert, whose record 125-match winning streak on clay will likely never be snapped. “Her fitness level is higher than we have seen it. She’s moving better, and she wants the French Open really badly. . . . It is the one surface that eludes her at times, the clay. She’s brilliant on the hard court and the grass, but has not had as much success on the clay.”
A seven-time French Open champion, Evert returns to Roland Garros this year as an analyst for ESPN, whose live coverage kicks off Sunday at 5 a.m.
It’s a plot twist for women to dominate the story line of the French Open, which since 2005 has been the fiefdom of Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard boasts a 45-1 record on the terre battue (French for “beaten earth”), winning every title except that of 2009, when his fourth-round ouster paved the way for Roger Federer to complete a career Grand Slam.
This year’s men’s field is no less compelling, with the world’s top three — Novak Djokovic, Nadal and Federer — fit, in form and expected to reach the final weekend.
For all their glittering trophies (with 31 Grand Slam titles among them), each has a point to prove.
With a victory at Roland Garros, Djokovic, 25, would complete a career Grand Slam and have claimed his fourth consecutive major.
A seventh French Open title for Nadal, who turns 26 on June 3, would break his tie with Bjorn Borg. But Nadal hardly needs the achievement to seal a place in history, in the view of ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe, who calls him “the greatest clay-courter ever, already.”
Nadal launches into the French with a fresh jolt of confidence. After losing seven consecutive matches to Djokovic (including the finals of the last three majors, the 2012 Australian Open and the U.S. Open and Wimbledon last season), Nadal has beaten the Serb twice this year — both times on clay.
And Federer, at 30, seeks to prove that he still belongs in the three-way conversation at the top of men’s tennis. The Swiss has a formidable path to the final, drawn to face Djokovic in the semis if the tournament unfolds according to seeding. If so, it would reprise last year’s thrilling men’s semifinal, in which Federer snapped Djokovic’s 43-match winning streak.
It’s difficult to imagine American men going far in the French. Of the bunch, 6-foot-9 John Isner stands the best chance. But clay blunts the impact of his booming serve and devastating forehand. And a weak second serve and backhand further undermine his prospects over a two-week tournament.
On the women’s side, Venus Williams is scheduled to return to Grand Slam competition for the first time since having Sjogren’s syndrome diagnosed, it is an autoimmune disorder that causes fatigue. Like Roddick, the 31-year-old Venus has never excelled on clay.