Every year, nicely dressed spectators are fascinated by dishevelled gritty guys in dirt-stained clothing on tastefully designed courts in the fashion centre of the world. For over three decades, Parisians in their perfect Chanels and Diors have always ended up applauding some exhausted Spaniard drowned in red dirt winning the French Open.
Spain has had 18 champions in the past 29 tournaments. With 13 wins by Rafael Nadal, two by Sergi Bruguera, and one each by Carlos Moya, Albert Costa, and Juan Carlos Ferrero, their country’s red and yellow became the permanent black of the most stylized of Slams.
Spain’s presence in the men’s singles draw is an unusually high eight this time around, as the French Open begins on Sunday, the first Slam in two years without Covid restrictions or a cloud over anti-vaxxer Novak Djokovic’s participation. A youngster from a Spanish community famed for its beaches and palm trees, who is in the final year of his magical adolescence, is generating unparalleled excitement on the tennis circuit, not seen since Rafael Nadal was 19.
The craze around him is warranted, although like other crazes, it’s a little overblown.
Carlos Alcaraz has recently defeated Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Alexander Zverev, and Stefanos Tsitsipas, four of the finest players in the world. Some commentators are still holding back on the cliches. His victories have all come in best-of-three sets, which is an important factor to consider.
In tennis, the fourth and fifth sets are when ‘greatness’ appears on the court; it’s the moment of truth when words like ‘promise’ and ‘potential’ over the net begin to appear insufficient and not yet ‘well done.’ Any of Djokovic’s recent Grand Slam victories.
Paris will determine whether Alcaraz requires further time in the furnace to steel up. Unlike the Slams on grass and hard courts, clay requires a lot of the player and ultimately takes a lot more away. History has shown that a flashy booming serve or a chip-and-charge game centred on a deadly volley can get you far, even to the final day, at Wimbledon or the US or Australian Opens.
This is not the case at the French Open, the slowest of the Grand Slams. The grind is tougher in Roland Garros, where the baseline grunts are more guttural and the laundry bill is larger. Early in the rally, a forehand with wreck-ball-like demolition capabilities does not guarantee a point. Tactics and set-ups must be the sharpest tools in a player’s arsenal on the finely powdered top layer of red clay — the surface that holds the ball and sucks out its pace.
Before the ball is given the highest possible RPMs and optimal speed so that it travels quicker and dives deep in the rival’s court, rivals must be out-thought, wrong-footed, and put out of position.