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Last Updated: Monday, 27 May, 2002, 07:37 GMT 08:37 UK
Clay brings tension to surface
The clay at Roland Garros
The ball bounces higher on clay than on other surfaces
The French Open is the only one of the four Grand Slams to be played on slow clay courts, a surface where many of the biggest names in tennis have floundered over the years.

Even Jimmy Connors, winner of a record 109 titles in his career, never got beyond the semi-finals in Paris.

John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Pete Sampras and Stefan Edberg are other great champions who have always come up just short at Roland Garros.

So why does it happen?

"The first thing you need to have is enormous patience," Paul Hutchins, former British Davis Cup captain and now tennis consultant, told BBC Sport.

"Because the surface is much slower and the ball bounces higher than on grass or hard courts, the rallies last much longer.

"It is not unusual for one to last 10 to 15 strokes, compared with two or three on grass.

"So you have to be a very strong athlete with great stamina."

On clay, the ball bounces much higher than on other surfaces, so players have to hit the ball at shoulder level.

Gustavo Kuerten
Kuerten is a succesful example of a clay court specialist
Experts on the surface, such as reigning French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten, hold their racket differently to the likes of Tim Henman and Sampras to cope with it.

"Tim Henman may adapt his grip on the racket a little bit when he plays on clay, but it's not the same as someone who plays that way all the time," said Hutchins.

"The idea is to hit the ball high over the net so it goes deep and with a lot of top-spin. This means you can get back into position for the next shot."

Even moving around the court makes different demands on the players. As clay is not so firm underfoot as hard courts, twisting and turning is harder.

"The footwork on clay is an art in itself. A good player can slide into a shot, something that is impossible on other surfaces.

"If you get a dry day when the wind is up, the clay can blow in your face and someone not used to it can be in trouble."

Andre Agassi is one of a select group - and the only man still playing - to have won all four Grand Slam events, including on the clay.

Hutchins puts this down to his aggressive adaptability.

"Agassi plays it slightly differently to the real clay specialists.

"While Kuerten will be three or four metres behind the baseline, Agassi will be standing one metre back or actually on it and taking the ball early.

"He is more attacking than some of the others."

Links to more French Open 2003 stories



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