Nine months of the year, they were terrorizing everybody on the tour. And then, come the clay-court season, they suddenly became vulnerable, the superheroes in underpants who met their kryptonite. We run down the Top 10 world number ones to whom playing on red clay was somewhat reminiscent of hell.
10- Marat Safin
A case apart. Marat Safin was not, strictly speaking, bad on clay. Whoever discovered him at Roland Garros in 1998 or saw his show on the gravel courts of Paris-Bercy for the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas in 2002, can attest it. However, the great Russian has fulfilled his promise on this surface, and his performances at Roland Garros were often disappointing: one semi-final (2002), a quarter-final (2000) and many first-week eliminations (5 in 11 appearances). Having also merely managed two finals at the Hamburg Masters 1000 - he never even managed to go beyond the last sixteen in ten attempts in Rome! Only the title at the prestigious Barcelona's Godo in 2000 brings a bit of light to a meagre record on clay.
9- Venus Williams
“A cow on ice.” For a long time this is how Maria Sharapova described her relationship with clay. Absent from this listing following her victory at Roland Garros last year, the tall blonde then makes way for Venus Williams. The elder of the terrific sisters of tennis has never been very comfortable in Paris. If the 2002 final looked like a bare minimum, given her domination at the time, the image that will last of Venus on clay is rather that of a sketchy giraffe, unable to slide from the top of her endless segments, in trouble by dint of seeing her service coming back too often, and disillusioned by the killer passing shots at any rush to the net.
8- Boris Becker
A man cursed on clay, yet the prototype of the complete player, he never knew what game plan to use, too often attempting to take on the experts at their own game, from the baseline. However, Becker's results are not ridiculous, but it misses "the" cornerstone to his ochre work. Despite two finals in Monte Carlo - including one victory stolen by Thomas Muster from under his nose after saving two match points - another one in Rome and a final in Hamburg, "Boom-Boom" has no clay-court trophy in his vast collection. The three semi-finals at Roland Garros offer little consolation, as the one lost against Stefan Edberg in 1989 left a bitter taste. In the pantheon of champions bogged down in clay, he might well be the most unfortunate, even more than Edberg or even...
7- Pete Sampras
Pete Sampras and clay, a history of distrust never dissipated and dotted with many defeats against the infamous Thierry Champion, Gilbert Schaller or Ramon Delgado at Roland Garros. It's true that if for some Paris is the be-all and end-all, Sampras, in his case, never sacrificed his beloved Wimbledon on the altar of the court Philippe Chatrier. The only year in which the man with 14 Grand Slams to his name spread his wings to the semi-finals of Roland - a memorable journey in which he beat Bruguera, Martin and Courier in five sets - is also the only year at the height of his powers where he didn't win Wimbledon. Pure coincidence? Sampras doesn't believe so. His title won in Rome in 1994 at the expense of... Becker was not enough to make him change his mind.
6- Lindsay Davenport
Same as Venus Williams, with even more disastrous moves. In 11 appearances, the American, a monster of consistency, only reached the Paris semi-finals once. One word was enough to beat Davenport on clay: variations. Make her six feet two run, bend it to force low shots, destabilize it with off-balance shots and drop shots... The many and varied instruments of torture that Conchita Martinez, Arantxa Sanchez and Kimiko Date used to master.
5- Patrick Rafter
“Aussie” n°1. The records of Patrick Rafter on clay are scarce. And yet, the twice winner of the U.S. Open struck on this surface twice: at Roland Garros in 1997, marking the first appearance of his career in a Grand Slam semi-final; then in Rome in 1999 where he beat Ivanisevic, Gaudio, Agassi, and Lapentti Mantilla, only to bow in the final against Gustavo Kuerten. Outside of these two performances - nothing. Towards the end of his career, the Australian didn't even bother to play the preparation tournaments for Roland Garros.
4- Lleyton Hewitt
“Aussie” n°2. Bad on clay, Lleyton Hewitt? Too light, actually. Because on the game plan, on the strategy, mobility around the court, the double Grand Slam winner had everything to succeed on clay. Everything, except the striking power. To see Hewitt play on clay was like seeing a master tactician toy with his opponent, but never being able to reach the conclusion with the final strike. Conclusion: Lleyton Hewitt has never been ridiculous on clay without ever flailing badly on it. Just like his career record at Roland Garros, a good tournament? Quarter-finals. A bad one? Third round. Everything depended on the time he met his first serious opponent on the surface.
3- John Newcombe
“Aussie” n ° 3 and the heavy-hitter. In John Newcombe’s trophy cabinet there are three Wimbledons, two U.S. Opens, two Australian Opens and... Two quarter-finals at Roland Garros. A poor return for a man who was one of the greatest champions in the early days of the Open era. In 1973, the World No. 1 and recent winner in Australia, nevertheless arrived at Roland Garros with a declared objective: to achieve the calendar Grand Slam, as Laver five years earlier. Except that, once on the court, he sank without a trace in the first round against the Czech Milan Holecek, 7/5 6/1...
2- Caroline Wozniacki
She is not yet 23 years old, but after 7 years on the tour, Caroline Wozniacki has had time to show her deficiencies on the surface. Mobile but not very powerful, enduring but with a limited creativity - we remember her sad 10 winners in a semi-final, and a three-set match at that, in Melbourne against Li Na in 2011 - the Dane often made lightning visits to Roland Garros, only managing to go beyond the third round once. Her executioners in Paris? Cirstea, Hantuchovà or, last year, Kanepi. If she continues at this pace in the coming years, she will be an excellent candidate to dethrone the No. 1 of this ranking...
1- Andy Roddick
The standout. Nine matches won in ten appearances at Roland Garros and defeats against terrors like Sargis Sargsyan, Teimuraz Gabashvili and even Nicolas Mahut, "clayphobic" himself. When he was younger and trained by the Frenchman Tarik Benhabilès, Roddick was far from being bad on ochre, to the point of quickly winning four tournaments on the surface (three in the U.S. and one in Europe, at Sankt Pölten) and playing a semi-final in Rome on his first visit. But the strategic choice of his next coach, Brad Gilbert - maximizing the strengths rather than working on the weaknesses - certainly allowed the American to shine for ten years at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, but it closed all doors to him on clay, where his backhand in particular was sad to see. Andy Roddick, the last No. 1 to date to have shown such flagrant imbalances in his game ... and his prize list.
By Guillaume Willecoq