French Open: Suffering in Spain, succeeding in Paris

Every year in the fashion capital of the world, on tastefully decorated courts, smartly dressed fans are enchanted by serious, disheveled men in dirt-stained clothes. Invariably, for almost three decades, Parisians in their immaculate Channels and Dior have ended up applauding the Roland-Garros triumph of a weary Spaniard bathed in red clay.

In the last 29 editions, 18 winners have come from Spain. The 13 of Rafael Nadal, the two of Sergi Bruguera and one each of Carlos Moya, Albert Costa and Juan Carlos Ferrero have made the red and yellow of their country the eternal black of the most stylized of the Slams.

This time around, as the French Open begins on Sunday, the first Slam in two years that has no Covid restrictions or a cloud over the participation of anti-vaxxer Novak Djokovic, the presence of Spain in the men’s singles draw is an unusually high eight. Attracting unprecedented buzz, not seen on the tennis circuit since Nadal was 19, is a boy from a Spanish village known for its beaches and palm trees who is living the last year of his dreamy teenage years.

The hype around him is warranted, but like all hype, it’s an overstatement.

French Open.

Carlos Alcaraz, in the last two months, has beaten Nadal, Djokovic, Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas – currently the best in the business world. Some experts still retain the platitudes. His victories have been best of three sets, and he is a driver who cannot be ignored.

In tennis, the fourth and fifth sets happen to be the auspicious time when “greatness” visits the court, it is the moment of truth when the tastes of “promise” and “potential” on the net begin to feel insufficient and not “good” yet. Finished’. Reference: Any recent Grand Slam triumph of Djokovic.

Paris will decide if Alcaraz needs more time in the oven to strengthen. Unlike grass and hard court Grand Slams, clay demands a lot from the player and ends up taking a lot more. History shows that a booming fancy serve or a game of chips and charges shaped around a deadly volley can take you far, even to the last day, at Wimbledon, or even the US Open. or from Australia.

This is not the case at Roland-Garros, the slowest of the Grand Slams. At Roland Garros, it’s a tougher grind, where the backline grunts are louder and throatier, the laundry bill higher. Here, the forehand with wreck ball-like demolition ability at the start of the rally does not guarantee a point. On the finely powdered top layer of red clay – the surface that grips the ball and sucks up its pace – tactics and settings must be the sharpest tools in a player’s kit.

Rivals must be passed, badly caught, and thrown out of position before the ball receives the maximum possible RPM and optimum speed so that it moves faster and dives deep into the rival’s court.

rich tradition

Alcaraz is known for doing all of this and more, but if he hadn’t been Spanish the world wouldn’t have been so excited. The towering footprints of his compatriots on the clay courts of Roland Garros – this millennium there have been only four instances of non-Spanish French Open finals – add to his aura, believing in his pitch “vamos ” and trusting the brand he represents.

Spain took time to build this heritage. Nadal is not simply a product of obsessive individual pursuit or Uncle Tony’s ambitious enterprise. It is the result of a scientific system that works on a centralized strategy with former players and renowned coaches, eager to share their wisdom, on the lookout at every turn of the prolific assembly line.

The beginning of the 1990s is a good start for understanding the march of clay in Spain. In 1993, Bruguera, breaking his country’s two-decade-long lull, won the French title. The arrival of a model champion was a stroke of luck the sport needed after receiving massive funding in the run-up to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Suddenly, on newly laid clay courts spread across the country, young kids wanted to slide like Bruguera and whip through the net those monstrous upside-down forehands.

Beginners taking baby steps on clay courts are a healthy sign for tennis. Old-school coaches point out how the slower surfaces are the best teachers. They inculcate good habits. Clay courts are fertile ground for cultivating patience and developing tactical acumen. They are also easy on the legs. Since the balls won’t slide or rush across the surface, young players have time to get into the right positions, get a good grip, develop a swing and discover a softer part of racket.

But simply laying out clay courts hasn’t given Spain, a country with a population on par with Delhi NCR, unimaginable Grand Slam success. The country had visionaries who blazed the dirt road in the desert and believers who followed them with passion.

In the revealing book The Secret of Spanish Tennis by Chris Lewit, a technical work primarily aimed at professional players and coaches, the author mentions a training model – a program with infinitely repetitive exercises to improve footwork , racket speed, defense, attack. This was set up by Bruguera Senior in the 1980s, and followed diligently by a son and following its success it was followed en masse. The success of the Sanchez siblings, Emilo and Arantxa, would be a catalyst.

No substitute for hard work

Those proverbial 10,000 hours of drilling helped Bruguera add extra RPMs to the ball, making him an unstoppable force on clay. His success popularized his methods. Across Spain, youngsters spent long hours imitating the downward arc of Bruguera’s racket. The results have been spectacular. The pursuit of kicking a tennis ball into a tizzy—allowing the strings of the racquet to kick the ball fast and heavy—would become a national obsession. It would affect the system.

As Lewit says, the coaches ensured that the Bruguera route soon became the Spanish route. “Coaches have taken his (Bruguera) drills, adapted and modified them, and proliferated them in almost every school – across the country.”

This explains the genesis of Nadal’s dreaded weapon, his Jedi lightsaber-like forehand. When Nadal reached his peak about a decade later, advanced racquet technology made his shots so heavy the world couldn’t bear the weight. But in Spain, they swear by the system, not by 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 the good news was spread is also a cultural thread. Around the world, the Spanish tennis ecosystem is seen as a tight-knit community that believes in collective wisdom. Coaches and former players are known to have big hearts. “There’s a ‘rising tide that lifts the all boat mentality’, rather than a competitive ‘scorched earth’ approach,” the book says of a system that abhors the military strategy of winning at everything price and to destroy anything useful to the enemy.

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It’s a tradition that will be visible to everyone during this French Open. Nadal will have Roland-Garros champion Moya in his corner. And Alcaraz, in his box, will have another Roland Garros winner Juan Carlos Ferrero. They all know the drill to succeed on an unforgiving clay court where there are no shortcuts.

Suffering is an integral part of the tennis system. Of the classic long Spanish drills – with 20 to 60 balls non-stop reps – the tome said, “There’s nothing like hitting your 30th ball – legs burning, lungs on fire – to realize that you still have 30 shots left. go.” Mountain climbs, upstairs sprints, hill running prepare players for a five-setter at Roland Garros.

Players are said to accept suffering, which Lewit says is part of Spanish culture. Emilio Sachez evokes the years of “suffering under a totalitarian regime” (under Franco). The book also states that “the theme of suffering is also at the heart of the dominant Catholic religion in Spain”. As one player quoted in the book says, “they don’t want to suffer, they like to suffer”.

The most down to earth of all Grand Slams is waiting to see if Alcaraz has the strength within him to suffer and succeed.

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Sandeep Dwivedi

National Sports Editor