If moon-ball tactics are largely absent in modern clay-court tennis, the back
court remains the preferred place to be--a launch pad for power-laden
forehands and backhands. To present one's opponent with a softish or shortish
offering risks surrendering dominance probably for the rest of the point.
Heavy ground-strokes off both sides are thus required among the pros, whether
attacking, defending, or in a position of neutrality. Also needed is excellent
court mobility--to reach the opponent's rockets and obtain body position to
reply with equivalent heat. A strong serve, too, is important, to produce
errors and weak replies from opponent and deny them the initiative.
But clay-court tennis at the pro level is not purely a power contest. The
characteristically slow and low bounce seen on clay helps the clay-court
artist in delivering overspin lobs, angled low shots, and droppers--weapons
for moving the opponent about and creating openings. Variety can be the key
to engineering points which culminate in the coup from forecourt. Such
artistry produces a kind of tennis thoroughly delightful to the watcher.
The European clay season opens in mid-April at Estoril (Portugal) and
Casablanca. Then come tournaments at Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Mallorca, and
Munich, leading into the Italian, the German, and the French Opens, ending in
June. (A few European clay events are also held in the weeks after Wimbledon
and after the U.S. Open.)
Players from continental Europe and South America learn the slow-court game
from youth and are typically the world's best at it. (Players from North
America, Australia, Britain and South Africa generally learn on hard courts
and rely to a greater extent on their volleying and serving abilities.)
Here, we seek to identify the 16 warriors whose performances on clay in
recent times make them the prime contenders in the circuit just ahead. We
start with last year's clay-court Top Eight, as determined by results at last
year's Monte Carlo, Italian, and German Opens (Masters' series events), and
the French Open. These are the clay-court events that are entered by
virtually all the top pros.
- Kuerten (won French and German)
- Norman (won Italian)
- Pioline (won Monte Carlo)
We next add the winners of the recent clay-court circuit in South America and
Mexico--four tournaments that ended in early March. Vicente of Spain won at
Bogota (Colombia) and Coria of Argentina, 19, won at Vina del Mar (Chile).
Kuerten won at Buenos Aires and Acapulco. Kuerten is already on our list, and
we now add Vicente and Coria.
Coria's youth calls for a closer comment. I watched him closely last summer
in a three-set duel with the German star Nicolas Kiefer on a slowish hard
court in Washington. A baseliner, Coria, then just 18, took an early lead by
virtue of Kiefer's errors and served out the first set at 5-4 by delivering
four consecutive first serves, none of which were returned by the German. I
wrote in my notebook that Coria plays basically defensively, hitting firmly
but not overpoweringly. He moves very well and hits regularly toward the
corners, I noted. After set one, Kiefer picked up his game and eventually
comfortably defeated the teenager. During the three sets, Coria must have
tried 8-10 droppers, all of which found the net. Kiefer then went on to
defeat Manta and Gambill before losing in the semis to tournament-winner
Correja. I noted mentally that Coria was one to watch for.
We next look at several proven winners in big-time clay events. Agassi,
Kafelnikov, Moya, and Chang are former French Open champions, and Rios,
Costa, Medvedev, and Sampras have won at least one clay-court Masters' event.
(Pete won the Italian in 1994.) The player who has won the most such
victories, perhaps surprisingly, is Medvedev, still only 26, who has won
three German Opens and one Monte Carlo and was also a finalist in the French.
We choose four of these stars for our prime list--Agassi and Kafelnikov, both
of whom rank very high in current rankings on all surfaces, along with
Medvedev and Moya. The Spanish player is gradually returning to contention
Two places remain, and we find our choices in the recent tournaments at
Indian Wells and Miami. From Indian Wells, where the hard courts are on the
slowish side, we choose Lleyton Hewitt. The Aussie reached the final four by
defeating clay-court stars Costa, Ulihrach, and Escude, and then became
victim to Agassi in split sets. (In the final, Agassi defeated Sampras in
three straight sets.) Finally, from the Ericsson in Miami, we pick Gaston
Gaudio, 22, who there defeated both Kafelnikov and Ferrero and last year
reached the semis at Monte Carlo.
All of our sixteen clay elites are from South America or Europe except for
Agassi and Hewitt. (Four are from Spain and three from Argentina.) A majority
are six-footers, including Safin and Medvedev at 6-4. The median age is 24;
the oldest is Pioline at 31, the youngest Coria, 19.
Thus, behold our 16 nominees. But be wary, especially of the host of
Argentine and Spanish players virtually co-equal with their better-known
countrymen named here.
Who will break out of the pack this season to thrill tennis fandom