The Invisible Laws of Clay



tro in Paris is quiet.

A sedate grandmother, gray and wise, reads a 19th century novel. Nearby, a gaunt university student, his distant gaze firmly in place, adjusts his wire glasses. Both are oblivious to the wandering musician playing his well-worn accordion. Yes, his aging fingers falter; still, he hopes his Bach variation will yield riches.

In short order, the riches of one of the great experiences in tennis — a day at the French Open — will unfold. For starters, there’s nothing quite like the approach to Stade Roland Garros, the beloved home of France’s Grand Slam. Emerging en masse from the Metro stop, you must, for about a half-mile, navigate the most curious gauntlet in tennis. Here, as you stride the crowded sidewalk, it’s not so much the loud whiz of Avenue de la Porte d’Auteuil to your right or the well-manicured Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil to your left. It’s not the imposing black statues you pass or the massive iron gates or even the distant roar of the freeway that races away to Lyon. Rather it’s the incessant howls of predatory young ticket scalpers. Dozens of hustlers — in just slightly menacing packs or simply solo — breathlessly bark: “Cherche des places?” Fierce negotiations, quiet deals and timely third-party interventions mark your stroll past wide-eyed buyers who wonder: can this guy be trusted? Are these tickets for real? Still, a certain benign, even joyous sensibility prevails. After all, once you pass through the gates of Roland Garros, you’ll embrace a wonder world of athletic grace with an unmistakable French accent and continental élan.

As the London Times’ Rex Bellamy noted, “A day at the French Open mirrors a lifetime’s hope and frustrating beauty and pathos, pleasure and pain.”

Grit ‘n scramble ferocity, long chess-like rallies, astounding lobs, feathery drop shots, sliding turnarounds, jaw-dropping upsets — welcome to the dirt, where Argentinean grinders, French magicians, a battalion of somber Russians and the gallant Spanish Armada set sail.

Here, you may first encounter one of the outer courts — say Court 4. Angular and filled with nooks and crannies, it draws a hollering standing-room-only crowd. Singsong police sirens, motorcycle horns and noxious truck fumes invade. Fans hang from pre-war rafters and salute America’s No. 1 man, chanting, “Ahn-Dee, Ahn-dee.” And Andy Roddick dutifully responds by dismissing the upset hopes of a Czech wannabe.

Nearby is the storied Bullring — Court 1 — the finest little jewel in spectator tennis. An intimate oval with seemingly ancient stones and fluttering flags, here you see every expression, endure all the self-loathing mutters and survive every dreary grunt. Here, the art of the game is in full flower in a nation (make that a Republic) that was founded on a tennis court in 1789 and that gave tennis much of its lexicon, (deuce, love et al.).

Sure, the French Open complex was named after a WWI flyer, Roland Garros. But make no mistake about it, it was a quartet of four fellows in the ’20s, Les Quatre Mousquetaires — who were pivotal in French tennis history. All of Paris — was intrigued by Henri Cochet, René Lacoste, Jean Borotra and Jacques Brugnon, who led their land to six straight Davis Cup titles. Court Centrale was literally built in 1928 for the foursome, and has since been the site of much triumph and infamy, drawing bulky bakers, debonair dukes and singular celebs. After Don Budge won the ’38 French Championships, the world’s premier cellist, Pablo Casals, invited the American to his apartment for a solo concert. After Andre Agassi spotted Bill Clinton heading to his seat in the International Box in ’01, his game collapsed and he inexplicably fell to the seemingly overmatched Sebastien Grosjean.

The Agassian debacle is merely grist for the (more than ample collective) mill of the Roland Garros fans who love to view matches as good vs. evil, us vs. them morality plays, complete with heinous villains and inspiring heroes. So when the stadium emcee gave American Dana Gilbert‘s name a French twist, the Roland Garros throng presumed she was French and showered her with adoration. In contrast, in the ’99 final, when Martina Hingis revealed her petulant sense of entitlement, she was pelted with verbal abuse.

The Roland Garros throng are not like Philly fans (who’re infamous for booing Santa Claus). Still, they can be unsparing, or, if it’s their pleasure, will embrace their faves. So after Steffi Graf scored her last Roland Garros win in ’99, she told the French crowd, “I’ve played in a lot of places, but I’ve never had a crowd like this. Never, ever.”

Judgmental at every turn, the fans embraced Mats Wilander when he refused to win a match on an errant call or when Guga Kuerten drew a heart in the clay and collapsed into it in triumph. But all were not happy when Ilie Nastase untied the shoelaces of a linesman, when Marat Safin dropped his shorts or when John McEnroe unleashed a perfect storm against a courtside photographer in ’84, which, you could argue, cost him a win over Ivan Lendl and a far more exalted place in the tennis pantheon.

But not to worry, Yankee Jim Courier won many a Parisian heart when he gave his acceptance speeche in French, and who wouldn’t embrace Justine Henin‘s poignant backstory of how her late mom took her on a pilgrimage to Paris, where the Belgian began her dreams of triumph?

But, ultimately, at Roland Garros, it’s all about the clay: the orange crushed brick, or terre battue, as the French call it. Sure, as American Sammy Giammalva, Jr. once claimed, there’s nothing worse than playing with clay in your underwear.” Still, as one writer claimed (after Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer in ’08), “There’s an invisible law, like a law of gravity, a law of clay, that on clay even the most complete player has less chance than the first-class clay-court specialist.”

But what are the invisible laws of clay?

Grind ‘n grit and use your wit.

Patience isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.

Topspin is your friend.

Beware of power outages (clay absorbs monster serves and forehand blasts like a sponge).

Craft your points or pack your bags.

Don’t sweat the small stuff (like service breaks).

Bold, feel-good net charges can be hazardous to your health.

Love your lob (and, for that matter, your drop shot, too.)

Nadal’s a fearsome force of nature. Avoid him at all costs.

Never arouse the wrath of the French. But then again, the masters of derisive whistling, rhythmic clapping, the wave as a strategic instrument and discipline unruly elements within their own ranks, are probably most harsh on themselves.

They become delirious when a French player rallies. But they quickly pout and moan “mon dieux” when their beloved stars (from Henri LeConte and Fabrice Santoro to Richard Gasquet and Jo-Willie Tsonga and Gael Monfils) flail and falter. After all, since 1946, only two French players — Yannick Noah and Mary Pierce— have won singles titles.

Worse yet, their best female player — the wine-sipping, motorcycle-riding Amelie Mauresmo — who has Wimbledon and Aussie Open trophies on her shelf, would melt down with such regularity that even she confessed that Roland Garros was “something I equate with pain.” She later speculated that the only way to avoid another disaster was “to clear my head and have a brain graft.” Eventually, Mauresmo brought in the Lion of Roland Garros, Noah himself, to be by her side, all of which prompted the L.A. Times’ Lisa Dillman to ask, “What’s next? The channeling of the spirit of Suzanne Lenglen?”

Of course, we Americans have had more than our share of problems on French clay. Yes, Chris Evert (seven titles) was arguably the best woman to ever play the French. Michael Chang’s run to the ’89 title was tennis’ feel-good David and Goliath fable, and Courier, Agassi, Martina Navratilova, Jennifer Capriati and Serena Williams all scored triumphs. But in general, Roland Garros has been a French farce for Americans.

Some might say that there’s a cultural element. (John McEnroe said France would be a fine place if it weren’t for the French. Legend tells us that when Capriati first saw Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, she asked, “Where’s the football field?”)

And many an American would agree with Stan Smith, who said that playing on clay “was like running on marbles.” Still, Americans grasped onto their straws of hope. Pete Sampras said, “I strongly believe in destiny. And I think that one day I’ll win in Paris. Why not?”

Now realism reigns. Roddick recently admitted that there is a ceiling on what he can do in Paris and said he “was just glad Americans play well in three of the four of the Slams.” Not surprisingly, writers now bandy about such phrases as “group choke,” and analyst Bill Scheft quipped that the French Open “was the one place Americans have an effective exit strategy.”


As for the future, when James Blake was asked when an American guy might again win, he said, “Maybe when they put in hard courts. So maybe never.” In the meantime, there’ll never be a shortage of passionate dreamers or triumphant celebrations. Ah, yes, there was the Court Centrale hug shamelessly shared by Noah and his dad in ’83; the two-hour, drum-pounding samba-fest Brazilians unleashed when Guga won in ’97. Then, in ’00, a triumphant Pierce exuded glee, exclaiming, “The magic word is love. The power of love is amazing. The reason I’m standing here today is love.”

Again this year, after the last point of the last game is stroked, there’ll be magic. And after the final interviews are given and the last journalists file their last accounts, they’ll pile into the tournament’s press vans and watch as the lights from ancient apartments flicker in the celebrated waters of the Seine. They’ll pass by the Eiffel Tower bathed in light, weave down the Champs-Élysées to Place de la Concorde and eventually descend on the fabled bars and cafes of the Left Bank. Here, unlike Hemingway or Sartre, there’ll be no soliloquies on literary trends or existential truths. But rather there’ll be a knowing chatter of Rafa and Roger and deep-brow analysis of the law, the invisible laws of clay.