The scene was a small tennis club nestled among some greenery to the west of Paris, just a stone's throw from famed Roland Garros, where the French Open circa late 1980s was about to begin.
I, a 19-year-old tour rookie entered in the qualifying draw at the year's second major, found myself standing on a terrace overlooking a dozen or so red clay courts, observing the comings and goings of players from all over the world, each with a dream of being one of the 16 who would emerge from a field of 128 to earn a place in the main draw.
Most of the players I did not know by name or face. But one thing was clear — those whose socks and shoes were covered in red, actually more a hue of burnt orange, were feeling right at home. They chattered to each other in tongues I didn't understand — Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, I wasn't sure — and standing 10 feet behind the baseline, walloped balls back and forth with ferocious racket-head speed and topspin. Booming serves and forays to the net? Not so much and frankly not so necessary — these were clay court specialists who rarely ventured onto faster hard courts or grass where their long strokes and extreme grips would be ill-suited. But in long baseline duels on dirt, they were deadly.
There was a time when clay court specialists reigned at Roland Garros. Astute fans will remember names like Andres Gomez, Sergi Bruguera, Thomas Muster, Gustavo Kuerten, Carlos Moya, Albert Costa, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Gaston Gaudio, all of whom hoisted one or more French Open trophies in the 1990s into the early 2000s yet never won a major on another surface. Now the clay court specialist seems to be no more.
Some might contend that Spain's Rafa Nadal is today's version, with his nine titles in Paris and buckets-full of tournament wins elsewhere on the surface. But it would be underselling the man to attach that label when he has also won twice on grass at Wimbledon, two times on hard courts at the U.S. Open, and once on the same surface in Australia.
The reality has become that most modern-day players are convertible from surface to surface. The very top players especially so, with just three men gobbling up 42 of the past 51 Grand Slam titles: Roger Federer (17), Rafael Nadal (14) and Novak Djokovic (11). Add in two-time major winner Andy Murray and this quartet perennially makes up the favorites at every Grand Slam event.
This was not the case back in the day, when the aforementioned clay courters were the big dogs in Paris yet upset opportunities on faster courts, while someone like Pete Sampras, the most dominant player of his generation with heaps of Grand Slam titles, was viewed as playing for scraps at Roland Garros. His best result was reaching a semifinal.
While the clay hasn't changed at Roland Garros, which actually plays on the quicker end of the clay court spectrum especially when the weather is warm and dry, the other surfaces, from hard to indoor to grass, have been moderated to medium speeds, thus allowing players who excel on clay to also succeed elsewhere.
The narrowed range of surface speeds is also the reason playing styles have become more uniform, with the "aggressive baseliner" being the predominant style that prospers most everywhere on tour. Contrast this to the 1990s and prior, when the quicker hard courts in New York and especially the skidding grass at Wimbledon were conducive to a now-extinct style — the "serve and volleyer" (Google it if you're under 20).
Ironically, the player that is best known for his consistency across the surfaces, World No. 1 Djokovic, has never won in Paris. That is less a statement about his clay court abilities (he has been the finalist three of the past four years and won all manner of other tournaments on the surface), but rather more about the superlatives of the rival he has faced over the years — namely, one Rafael Nadal.
Novak and Rafa, who has had a resurgent clay court spring, winning in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, and Murray, the victor in Rome, are the three favorites in Paris. Djokovic certainly has the most to play for, as a Roland Garros title would give him not only a career Grand Slam but a non-calendar year version as well.
This year, it's anyone's pick which one will come out on top. But what I will predict is that the increasingly rare player who specializes in plying the tour with red-stained shoes won't be the last man standing.
Minnesota's David Wheaton served and volleyed his way through the French Open qualifying in 1989 and beat French favorite Fabrice Santoro in a first-round five-set thriller. Find out more at DavidWheaton.com.