Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Terre Battue

Terre Battue’ is how the French say clay, and when the French talk about clay they’re almost certainly talking about red clay and they’re almost certainly talking about European clay court tennis.

The coolest tennis on the planet.

Sports-wise, this is my favorite time of year.

We are in the middle of the European clay court tennis season. In two weeks the toughest and most magic-prone tennis tournament of the year will start. On May 25 the French Open gets underway on the terre battue of Roland Garros.

Some of the weird magic has already started.

In Monte Carlo, Roger Federer, almost flawless and unbeatable on every other surface, lost in the final to Rafael Nadal in straight sets. In Berlin Federer lost to a guy named Stepanek, also in straight sets.

The hottest two part question in tennis right now is will Federer win the French Open this year? And will Federer ever win the French Open? (I don’t think he will. If he gets a lucky draw and some breaks, he could win easily, but the French Open does not often give out favors.)

Lots of historically great players have never been able to win in Paris. Jimmy Connors never won there. John McEnroe never won there (more on McEnroe later). Pete Sampras never won there. Of modern American men, only Michael Chang, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier have been champions in Paris.

And beyond just not winning, some players have been tortured.

John McEnroe was up two sets to love over his arch-rival Ivan Lendl. Somehow Lendl hung tough, charged back and won in five sets. Stefan Edberg was up two sets to one over teenager Michael Chang when Chang hung tough and edged out a five set victory. Edberg, then only twenty-three, said he wasn’t too depressed after the match because he just assumed he’d have more chances in the future. That was his only trip to the French Open final. Although American Jim Courier won in Paris twice, his amazing five set loss to Sergi Bruguera seemed to drive Courier from the game. He retired soon afterward. (That first Sergi Bruguera/Courier match is my pick for the greatest tennis match I’ve ever seen. That year and the next, Bruguera is my pick for the greatest tennis player ever. On hardcourts in that time period, Bruguera beat Pete Sampras once or twice. However injuries and awful coaching choices wrecked Bruguera’s career.)

The clay has been magical for the women already, too. Dinara Safina triumphed in Berlin by beating the number one player in the world, Justin Henin, former number one player Serena Williams and my favorite woman player, Elena Dementieva, in succession to take the title.

And although most big names in the women’s game have won in Paris at least once, Martina Hingis is notable for never winning. And being tortured. In 1997, in one of my favorite tennis matches of all time, essentially unknown Iva Majoli routed Hingis in straight sets. Two years later Hingis faced an aging Steffi Graf in the final and in a grueling three set contest that featured Hingis freaking out during the match and running to Graf’s side of the court—as the crowd jeered and whistled—to question a call. After Graf’s victory, Hingis freaked out again, broke down crying and ran off the court. Her mother had to force her back out for the awards ceremony.

Clay court tennis.

The best tennis ever.

This week we’ve got the men in Germany and the women in Italy. Next week there are small tournaments but most players will take the week off.

Then Paris.

Yeah, if anybody sees me in the real world, that odd expression on my face isn’t me being insane, it’s just me being insanely happy.

It’s clay court season!

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