Every year in the fashion capital of the world, on tastefully decorated courts, elegantly-dressed fans get enchanted by dishevelled gritty men in dirt-stained clothes. Invariably, for close to three decades, the Parisians in their immaculate Channels and Diors have ended up applauding the French Open triumph of some tired Spaniard bathed in red clay.
In the last 29 editions, 18 winners have been from Spain. Rafael Nadal’s 13, Sergi Bruguera’s two and one each by Carlos Moya, Albert Costa and Juan Carlos Ferrero made their country’s red and yellow the perennial black of the most stylised of Slams.
This time around, as the French Open commences on Sunday, the first Slam in two years that doesn’t have Covid restrictions or a cloud over anti-vaxxer Novak Djokovic’s participation, Spain’s presence in the men’s singles draw is an unusually high eight. Attracting an unprecedented buzz, not seen on the tennis circuit since Nadal was 19, is a boy from a Spanish village known for its beaches and palms living the last year of his dreamy teens.
The hype around him is justified, but then like all hypes, it is a shade exaggerated.
Carlos Alcaraz, in the last couple of months, has beaten Nadal, Djokovic, Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas – currently the best in business. Still some pundits are holding back the platitudes. His wins have been in best-of-three sets, and that’s a rider that can’t be ignored.
Novak + Carlos = 🔥 🔥 🔥
— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) May 2, 2022
In tennis, the fourth and fifth sets happen to be the auspicious time when ‘greatness’ visits the court, it’s the moment of truth when the likes of ‘promise’ and ‘potential’ across the net start to look insufficient and not yet ‘well done’. Reference: Any recent Djokovic Grand Slam triumph.
Paris will decide if Alcaraz needs more time in the furnace to steel up. Unlike the Slams on grass and hard courts, clay demands a lot from the player and eventually ends up taking out much more. History shows that a fancy booming serve or a chip-and-charge game shaped around a killer volley might take you far, or even till the final day, at Wimbledon, or even US or Australian Opens.
Not so at the French Open, the slowest of Slams. At Roland Garros, it’s a harder grind, where the grunts from the baseline are louder and guttural, the laundry bill higher. Around here, the forehand with wreck-ball-like demolition capability early in the rally doesn’t guarantee a point. On the finely powdered top layer of red clay – the surface that grips the ball and sucks out its pace – the tactics and set-ups need to be the sharpest tools in a player’s kit.
Rivals need to be out-thought, wrong-footed and thrown out of position before the ball is imparted the maximum possible RPMs and optimum speed so that it travels faster and dips deep in the rival’s court.
Alcaraz is known to do all that and much more but had he not been from Spain, the world wouldn’t have gotten this excited. His countrymates’ imposing footprints on the Roland Garros clay – this millennium there have been just four instances of non-Spanish French Open finals – adds to his aura, believing in his ‘vamos’ pitch and trust in the brand he represents.
Got every shot in the book.
The lob… pic.twitter.com/I3vNONWI8v
— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) May 5, 2022
Spain has taken a while to build this legacy. Nadal isn’t merely a product of Uncle Tony’s obsessive individual pursuit or ambitious enterprise. He is the outcome of a scientific system that works on a centralised strategy with former players and renowned coaches, eager to share their wisdom, on watch at every turn of the prolific assembly line.
The early 1990s is a good start to understand Spain’s clay march. In 1993, Bruguera, breaking his nation’s two-decade long lull, won the French title. The arrival of a champion role model was a stroke of good fortune the sport needed after it received massive funding in the lead-up to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Suddenly, at the newly-laid clay courts spread around the country, young kids wanted to slide around like Bruguera and whip across the net those monstrous inside-out forehands.
— Roland-Garros (@rolandgarros) May 20, 2022
Beginners taking baby steps on clay courts is a healthy sign for tennis. Old-school coaches stress how slower surfaces are the best teachers. They inculcate good habits. Clay courts are fertile fields to grow patience and develop tactical acumen. They are also easy on the legs. Since the balls don’t skid or rush off the surface, young players have time to get into right positions, get their grip right, develop a swing and discover a sweeter part of the racquet.
But merely laying out clay courts didn’t give Spain, a country with a population on par with Delhi NCR, unimaginable Grand Slam success. The country had visionaries charting the dirt-track in the wilderness and believers passionately following them.
In the eye-opening book The Secret of Spanish Tennis by Chris Lewit, a technical piece of work primarily for professional players and coaches, the author mentions a training template – a programme with endlessly-repetitive drills to improve footwork, racquet speed, defence, attack. This was put in place by Bruguera Senior in the 1980s, and diligently followed by a son and in wake of his success, getting mass following. The success of the Sanchez siblings, Emilo and Arantxa, would be a catalyst.
No substitute for hard work
Those proverbial 10,000 hours of drill work helped Bruguera add extra RPMs to the ball, making him an unstoppable force on clay. His success popularised his methods. Across Spain, youngsters would spend long hours imitating the down-to-up arc that Bruguera’s racquet made. The results were dramatic. The pursuit to send a tennis ball in a tizzy by giving it a whiplash – enabling the racquet strings to give a quick heavy brush to the ball – would become a national obsession. It would trickle down the system.
— Roland-Garros (@rolandgarros) May 20, 2022
As Lewit says, the coaches ensured that the Bruguera way would soon become the Spanish way. “Coaches have taken his (Bruguera) drills, adapted and modified them, and proliferated them at nearly every school – all across the country.”
This explains the genesis of Nadal’s dreaded weapon, his Jedi lightsaber-like topspin forehand. When Nadal hit his prime, about a decade later, the evolved racquet technology made his strokes so heavy that the world couldn’t handle the weight. But in Spain, they swear by the system, not any individuals. “The heavy ball in Spain is not just an accident or due to a player’s DNA, it is actively and systematically developed,” writes Lewit.
The missionary zeal with which good word was spread is also a cultural thread. Around the world, the Spanish tennis ecosystem is seen as a close-knit community that believes in collective wisdom. Coaches and former players are known to have big hearts. “There is a ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ mentality, rather than a ‘scorched earth’ competitive approach,” says the book about a system that abhors the military strategy of winning at all costs and destroying anything that is useful to the enemy.
It’s a tradition that will be for all to see at this French Open. Nadal will have in his corner French Open champion Moya. And Alcaraz, in his box, will have another Roland Garros winner Juan Carlos Ferrero. They all know the drill to succeed on the unforgiving clay court where there are no short-cuts.
Suffering is a big part of the tennis system. About the long classic Spanish drills – with repetitions of non-stop 20-60 balls – the tome said: “There is nothing like hitting your 30th ball – legs burning, lungs on fire – only to realise that you still have 30 more shots left to go.” Mountain climbs, sprints upstairs, hill running prepare players for a five-setter at Roland Garros.
Players are said to embrace suffering, something Lewit argues is part of Spanish culture. Emilio Sachez points to the years of “suffering under a totalitarian regime” (under Franco). The book also says that the “theme of suffering is also a core part of the dominant Catholic religion in Spain”. As a player quoted in the book says, “they are not willing to suffer, they love to suffer.”
The most earthy of all Slams waits to see if Alcaraz has it in him to suffer and succeed.
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National Sports Editor