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  • James Chin

En Marche!

Updated: Nov 24, 2018

The second Grand Slam event of the year, the French Open, gets under way in Paris.

(published in the Edge Malaysia, Options lifestyle section)

Also referred to as Roland-Garros, the French Open, to be played between May 28 and June 11, is considered by many in the tennis world as one of the toughest major titles to win. It is played on a red clay surface, which is “slower” than other court surfaces. The ball also bounces higher, favouring defensive players with heavy top spin strokes who never quit (can somebody say “Vamos Rafa”?). The dusty clay surface makes it harder for tennis pros to put the ball away or end a point quickly, and the rallies tend to go on longer on every point. Particularly at Roland-Garros, perseverance, patience and stamina are keys to success.

This year, total prize money is reported to be €36 million (2016: €32 million), with €2.1 million going to each winner of the men’s singles and women’s singles titles. The singles runners-up will each receive €1 million.

There is a sense of a change in the air in Paris with the recent election of a new French President – will it be the same at Roland-Garros? And just what does the famous red clay have in store for tennis fans this year? Here are some of the key talking points and players to take note of:

Rafael Nadal (world No. 4), the “King of Clay”, has dominated this tournament since 2005, winning it for a record nine times in the last 12 years. His resurgence early this year, after recovering from a wrist injury last year has been incredible to say the least. Despite losing the Australian Open final in January to Roger Federer in a thrilling match, Nadal has gone on to win two clay-court tournaments for the 10th time - the Monte Carlo Open and the Barcelona Open. Nadal is the only player in the Open Era (on the men’s side) to win a tournament 10 times (and he has done this twice!). If he wins at Roland-Garros this June, he would have achieved an astounding “Triple 10” crowns, a feat that seems unlikely ever to be broken.

World No.2 Novak Djokovic, the defending champion, completed his career Grand Slam (all four major tournaments) when he won the French Open last year. In doing so, he achieved a non-calendar year Grand Slam, holding all four major titles at once, the first man to do this since Rod Laver in 1969. It was an amazing feat. Everyone thought he would continue to dominate after Roland-Garros but he has appeared to run out of steam in the second half of the last year, with an uncharacteristic dip in performance and eventually losing the No.1 ranking to Andy Murray at year’s end. He suffered a second-round loss at this year’s Australian Open, a tournament he has won six times. Djokovic hit the “reset” button in early May, parting ways with his entire coaching team (coach, fitness coach and physio). In his own words, he administered this “shock therapy” as he needed new energy in the team and to raise his level of play. News broke recently that Andre Agassi will be the Joker’s new coach. Perhaps this new direction will help Djokovic play more “freely” and help him regain his dominance on the court.

Last year’s finalist, Murray, has not really lived up to his No.1 ranking so far, with mixed results in various tournaments. He suffered an elbow injury in March this year and after some rest, he is back on the court competing. His recent loss in straight sets to young rising star Borna Coric in Madrid has left him worried, saying he needs to be “concerned” about the way he lost the match.

French Open 2015 champion Stan Wawrinka (world No.3) will be looking to land a second title at Roland-Garros to follow-up his semi-final showing at this year’s Australian Open where he lost to eventual champion Federer. His explosive one-handed backhand is a joy to watch against his mostly two-handed backhand opponents.

The question as to whether Roger Federer will play in this year’s French Open was finally answered by a tweet from the great man himself on May 15. Federer felt that it would be in his best interest to skip the clay court season this year and prepare for the grass and hard court seasons. He mentioned that “scheduling” will be the key to his “longevity”. Federer turns 36 in August, an age where most professional players would have already retired. His amazing start to 2017, winning his 18th Grand Slam title at the Australian Open and adding titles at Indian Wells and Miami is nothing short of incredible. I believe we Federer fans will have to come to terms with the fact that for Federer, prioritising the tournaments he plays in will be the new normal. The upside is that it looks like the 18-time Grand Slam champion wants to play until his forties! Wouldn’t that be amazing?

Big servers Milos Raonic (world No.6) and Marin Cilic (world No. 8) will be looking to make great strides on the red clay in Paris. Japan’s rising son Kei Nishikori has shown great form on clay but has recently suffered a wrist injury that saw him withdraw from the Madrid Open, leaving his appearance at Roland-Garros in doubt. Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov has bounced from a shaky 2016 season to play with more confidence, wining two titles this year in Brisbane and Sofia and reaching the semi-finals in the Australian Open where he lost in a close five-set match to Nadal. His tennis strokes are reminiscent of Federer’s graceful playing style and we hope they will be on full display in Paris.

Belgian David Goffin has quietly been moving up the ranks (currently No.10) and plays a good all-round game which should see him fare well on the French clay. Flying the flag for France are countrymen Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils, who will certainly hope the French crowd support at Roland-Garros can help them lift the title on home soil.

#NextGenATP star 20 year-old German Alexander Zverev (world No. 17) continues his impressive form, winning his third ATP title in Munich recently. The 1.95m right-hander has beaten top-ranked players such as Federer, Wawrinka, Tomas Berdych and Cilic. It’s no wonder he is one of the most promising NextGen stars in tennis today. Another one to watch is Borna Coric, the 20 year-old Croatian who recently stunned World No.1 Murray at the Madrid Open in straight sets. In April, he won his first ATP World Tour title by beating veteran German Philipp Kohlschreiber.

Other young guns who could make an impact this year are Dominic Theim and Nick Kyrgios. Austrian Thiem (world No. 7) and has won eight ATP titles so far. Nicknamed the “Dominator”, his powerful one-handed backhand is expected to do damage on the clay courts. Australian Kyrgios, with his explosive serve and power shots, has been getting more consistently good results so far this year, losing to Federer in an exciting semi-final match at the Miami Open. However, he needs to prove that he can extend his big-hitting game to the slower clay courts of Paris.

In the topsy-turvy world of the women’s WTA, recent match results have shown that practically anyone can beat anybody, at any time (particularly in the top 20). Serena Williams (world No.2), winner of this year’s Australian Open with an amazing 23 grand slam titles to her name, has announced she is expecting a baby and will miss the French Open and likely most of the 2017 season. Without a dominant player like Williams, and the highly competitive levels shown by all players in the top 20, it’s not easy to select any favourites to win the French crown. Here are my picks for the exciting ones to watch in Paris:

World No. 7 Garbine Muguruza, who beat Williams for her maiden Grand Slam in last year’s French Open, is the defending champion. The 1.8m tall Spanish-Venezuelan has an explosive aggressive playing style, with a strong serve and powerful ground strokes. Two-time Grand Slam champion Angelique Kerber, is back at World no. 1. As the top seed, all eyes will be on her to see if she can live up to her ranking and capture her third Grand Slam title. Fellow German Laura Siegemund (ranked in the 30s) who won the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix final in Stuttgart recently could spring a surprise.

World No. 3 Karolina Pliskova has won eight career WTA titles so far and was a finalist at the 2016 US Open. Watch out for her lethal serve, one of her biggest weapons. Pliskova was WTA’s aces leader of last year with 530. An interesting fact is that she has an identical twin sister Kristyna Pliskova who is also a professional player on the WTA tour ranked in the 40s. Sometimes they also partner each other for doubles (Talk about double vision!). Besides having different tattoos, the other way to distinguish them, particularly on the court, is that Karolina plays right-handed whereas Kristyna is a lefty. Romanian Simona Halep continues her good form in the clay season with a recent win at the Madrid Open, where she was the defending champion. She has risen in the rankings to No.4 and has admitted that she feels great on clay and should perform well in Paris.

British No.1 Johanna Konta has been steadily rising up the world rankings since 2015 with her aggressive match play. She became the first British woman to win the Miami Open recently with a straight sets win over Caroline Wozniacki. Maria Sharapova has been denied a wild card following her 15-month doping ban. Eugenie Bouchard, the former high-flying Canadian who is trying to regain her tennis form, created quite a stir when she called Sharapova a “cheater” and suggested that she should have been banned for life. The two most recently met in the second round of the Madrid Open, with Bouchard edging out a win in three tightly contested sets.

Other players to note are Kristina Mladenovic (the only French player in the World Top 20), veteran Svetlana Kuznetsova, Dominika “energizer bunny” Cibulkova (she apparently never stops running!) and Agnieszka Radwanska. It will be exciting to see which WTA star grinds out a win this year!

Roland-Garros fun facts

Why is the French Open called Roland-Garros?

In 1927, France defeated the US for the first time to win the Davis Cup, largely due to the heroic efforts of a group of French tennis players called the les Quatre Mousquetaires (the Four Musketeers) comprising Jacques Brugnon, Jean Borotra, Henri Cochet, and Rene Lacoste (of the fashion brand Lacoste). The French decided to build a tennis stadium on their home soil to defend their Davis Cup title, and one of the conditions to acquire the land to build the stadium was that it be named after a World War I soldier. The soldier chosen was French aviator and WWI fighter pilot Roland Garros. The stadium was built in 1928, and the Four Musketeers lead France to six straight Davis Cup titles from 1927 to 1932.

How much red brick dust is needed to cover a clay court?

About one tonne for an average court. The Roland-Garros centre court - named in honour of one of the French Tennis Federation’s best known presidents, Philippe Chatrier - which has more space than usual behind the baseline, requires 1.5 tonnes of dust.

How did Rene Lacoste become associated with “the crocodile” – the motif that still distinguishes his brand?

There are various accounts of this story. Legend has it that in 1927, Rene Lacoste made a bet with the captain of the French Davis Cup team that he would win his match. The wager was for an alligator-skin suitcase Lacoste had seen in a store window. Upon hearing this, the American press dubbed him the Alligator. When he returned to France, “alligator” became “crocodile”, and Lacoste was known thereafter as the Crocodile.

Who is the youngest winner of the men’s singles title at Roland-Garros?

In 1989, Michael Chang of the US won the French Open at the young age of 17. He became the youngest male player to ever win a Grand Slam singles title. On his way to the final, he famously beat Ivan Lendl (then World No.1) while experiencing severe leg cramps. Memorable points by Chang included a surprise under-arm serve (Chang won the point), and standing almost at the service line to receive Lendl’s serve at match point. Lendl, surprised and under pressure, double-faulted and handed the match to Chang.

Who holds the record for most women’s singles title at Roland-Garros?

Christ Evert holds the record with seven titles, followed by Steffi Graf at six.

Which Frenchman and Frenchwoman won at Roland-Garros in the Open Era since 1967?

Only one Frenchman and one Frenchwoman have won at Roland-Garros in the Open Era - Yannick Noah in 1983 and Mary Pierce in 2000.


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