The colour of the red-clay courts in Europe is a revelation for North Americans accustomed to playing on a drab, grey Har-Tru surface.
There are lots of adjectives that can be used to describe the terre battue in European countries like France – among them ochre, pumpkin and burnt sienna. And the red-clay surface is at its finest in late afternoon/early evening when the sun gives it an almost fiery feel.
The picture at the top here is of the ember-hued Pista Rafael Nadal at the Barcelona Open. The sun is a necessary element to bring out the best in a red-clay court but that wasn’t the case last week at the WTA’s Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart because it’s an indoor event. There’s no way to make an indoor red-clay court (see below) luminous without the sun.
Winning the Stuttgart and Barcelona titles on Sunday were two deserving, solid citizens of the pro tours – Petra Kvitova and Dominic Thiem.
The 29-year-old Czech’s triumph probably received more attention than the 25-year-old Austrian’s because her 27th career victory made her first woman to win two tour titles in 2019 – up until Sunday there had been 18 different champions.
In the final Kvitova defeated no. 15-ranked Anett Kontaveit of Estonia 6-3, 7-6(2). She saved two set points trailing 6-5 in the second set and then bulldozed the first six points of the tiebreak on her way to taking it 7-2. She got to take home a Porsche for her fifth career title on clay.
The two-time Wimbledon champion ranked as high as no. 2 in 2011 but has never ascended to the top spot. Now at no. 2 again, and just 136 points behind no. 1 Naomi Osaka, she’s headed to Madrid next week where she’s the defending champion as well as a past champion – 2011 and 2015. Though not in the Prague field this week, she’s defending 280 points from her victory in the Czech capital 12 months ago.
Kvitova’s explosive game-style makes her one of the most dynamic players on the women’s tour. Many tennis followers will be hoping the likeable Czech can reach no. 1. She has won seven titles over the past 15 months – more than any other player – and has also courageously overcome the literal and figurative scars of a traumatic home invasion in December, 2016.
It’s still a stretch to pick her as the favourite for the French Open because the vagaries of an outdoor event like Roland-Garros make it more of a challenge for her than the indoor conditions in Stuttgart or Madrid’s elevation of approximately 650 metres. Since she reached the semi-finals in 2012, her record at Roland-Garros is a modest 12-6.
With Serena Williams’ status not entirely clear at the moment, the 6-foot lefthander is undeniably top of the class in power tennis on the women’s tour.
On the men’s side, Thiem won the title in Barcelona and, in the process, became only the second player (Novak Djokovic – seven times) to record four career victories on clay over Rafael Nadal.
Thiem beat 11-time champion Nadal 6-4, 6-4 in the semi-finals before taking out no. 14-ranked Daniil Medvedev 6-4, 6-0 in Sunday’s final – winning 12 of the final 13 games as the Russian seemed to be inhibited by a shoulder problem.
With the result, Thiem remains at no. 5 in the ATP rankings – his career high was no. 4 in November 2017. He could move higher but has the following points to defend at his next three events – Madrid (runner-up – 600 points), Rome (opening round – 10 points) and Roland Garros (runner-up – 1200 points).
Time flies and after this week’s ATP 250 events with no. 3-ranked Alexander Zverev (Munich) and No. 8 Stefanos Tsitsipas (Estoril) as the only top-10 players in action, there will just be the Masters 1000s in Madrid and Rome, as well as a final week with Lyon and Geneva, remaining before the start of the 2019 French Open on May 26th.
Canadians Denis Shapovalov and Félix Auger-Aliassime are off this week before playing Madrid and Rome, with Auger-Aliassime going on to Lyon the week before Roland-Garros. It was revealed Monday that Milos Raonic has withdrawn from Madrid and Rome with a knee issue, putting in jeopardy his participation at Roland-Garros.
As for Bianca Andreescu, it was learned Monday evening that she will not be playing in Madrid next week as she continues to come back from a shoulder issue.
Louis Borfiga – Vice-President, High Performance Athlete Development for Tennis Canada – is in high demand for interviews these days following the recent success of Bianca Andreescu, Félix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov.
Last Saturday, the former long-time coach with the French Tennis Federation appeared on the Radio-Canada programme ‘Podium’ in conversation with host Marie-José Turcotte. Here are some of the Montreal-based Borfiga’s thoughts translated from the French.
PLAYER DEVELOPMENT: “When I arrived (2006) there were no clay courts and we needed them. You can learn a lot of things on clay – patience, endurance and also the rallies are longer so that requires a lot more effort.
“So I asked Eugene Lapierre (Tennis Canada’s Vice-President, Professional Tennis in Montreal) if he could help us. And he was very quick. (Four clay courts were built on the roof above the existing hard courts). That’s also been part of the success – people giving us the means to be successful.”
RECENT SUCCESS: What was the trigger (le déclic)? “I think we were lucky to have players like Eugenie, Milos and Vasek who wanted to succeed and wanted to excel. And they wanted to show that it was possible, even if you were a Canadian. I remember, it was about four or five years ago – so there had already been the successes of Milos, Eugenie and Vasek – I got our coaches together and said to them that we really had to get going because I didn’t want people to say that we got lucky. We have to develop another generation to prove that our system is the right one. So Milos, Eugenie and Vasek led the way and Félix, Denis and Bianca said to themselves that anything is possible – ‘they did it so we can do it.’ We had the same coaches, the same structure – and on top of that we found three youngsters who were exceptional in terms of talent and that was combined with the coaches who worked with them.”
LUCK? “There’s definitely an element of luck in this, that’s obvious – an element of luck to have found these youngsters with that kind of talent. But on the other hand, if there had not been a structure, they certainly wouldn’t be at the level that they’re at. So again it’s the marriage of the two that means today you can say that Canada’s star is rising in the world of tennis.
“The good fortune for these three is that they had coaches (in Shapovalov’s case his mother Tessa) who worked on technique with the idea of what would be happening at 18 or 19 years old.
“In their dreams, the three of them don’t dream about being no. 5, they think about being no. 1. Bianca has said it and Félix too.”
FELIX: “He’s got a great personality. He has a special presence – he’s a boy who has been well brought up. He acknowledges and appreciates all the coaches that have worked with him. He has something special that, in my opinion, and I’m saying it now, in a few years he’s going to be – on the level of Canadian sport, all sports included – the star of Canadian sport.
“I think he will win Roland-Garros. I’ve said it often and I still feel that way because, when he was 16 years old he had already made the final (holding three championship points) of the juniors at Roland-Garros. I think his game-style fits well with clay – and at 18 he made the (ATP 500) final in Rio (in February). It makes me think he can win Roland-Garros because he is adored in France, and that’s a good sign for him because the people like him a lot. That’s why I think he has a great chance to win that Grand Slam.”
DENIS: “He has everything (to become no. 1) and he proved it when he was 18 and beat Nadal, del Potro and Mannarino (at the 2017 Rogers Cup in Montreal). So he too has a huge potential, there’s no doubt about it.
“He has the quality of ball-striking and arm speed which is scary for his opponents. Sure he uses up a lot of energy and he’s always lunging around from left to right. But he’ll learn to channel things a bit – but he also has to keep his own personality because that’s what his charm is. He makes amazing shots, he twists and turns…he jumps. And Felix too has to keep his personality. He’s comfortable with himself and knows what to do. But the two of them…I think it’s good that the two have different personalities.”
BIANCA: “I talk to a lot of coaches on the tour and I remember I was speaking with Fabrice Santoro about Bianca. And all of sudden he said to me that he doesn’t watch much women’s tennis but by chance he watched the final at Indian Wells. ‘I couldn’t take my eyes off the match,’ he told me. ‘If women’s tennis is Bianca, I’d watch all the matches.’
“That’s a heck of a compliment because he’s a guy who knows tennis.”
“Bianca is really going to be good for Canadian tennis for the simple reason that the coaches who are coaching young girls – the girls are going to be inspired by Bianca’s game. That’s the proof and we’re lucky that the Canadian No. 1 is playing a game-style that’s the future of tennis. So, all the coaches can be inspired by her.”
THE CHALLENGE NOW: “Don’t forget that we had a Canadian who made the final of the Australian Open juniors (16-year-old Leylah Annie Fernandez) and it almost looked at as if it’s normal. Things have changed because a while ago we would have thought that was fantastic – ‘we’ve got a finalist!’ That’s good because it shows that the ambitions are higher and that the level is higher. The challenge is to make everyone understand that we won’t have the Félixs, Biancas and Denis’ regularly. We’ll have good players who should be respected, players who have a very good level that we’ll coach and help them – because, as I always say ‘there’s only one no. 1 player in the world. There aren’t ten – there’s just one.’ So we have to continue in the same direction but knowing that we’ll have players who are more conventional, more normal in the years ahead.”
FUTURE: “In five years where are Félix, Denis and Bianca going to be? (Borfiga smiles) I see them in the top-10. And in five years there will be at least one of them who will have already have won a Grand Slam.”
— Simona Halep (@Simona_Halep) April 25, 2019
World no. 3 Simona Halep had a little fun recently showing that her one-hand backhand could be quite effective – although maybe not quite as effective as Stan Wawrinka’s.
At the far right above wearing glasses in Sunday’s Barcelona Open trophy picture is 1975 US Open champion (beat Guillermo Vilas in the semi-finals and Jimmy Connors in the final) Manuel Orantes of Spain. Now 70, Orantes also won the Canadian Open in 1975, the last edition of the tournament to be held in private clubs before the event moved to the National Tennis Centre at York University.
(Feature photo: TennisTV.com)