Cricketers mutter over pitches like diagnostic radiologists over an MRI. They see things we cannot. Reading the dirt is an art—inexact, of course—which involves history, geography, tradition, performance theatre, meteorology, feel, imagining, and, once, the keys of Tony Greig.
Athletes are sensitive creatures who fuss over string tension, bat weight and the draught in a badminton hall. At the finicky upper end of sport, detail matters and I got a lecture recently from an elite swimmer on pillows and mattresses and the problem of lying on your side if you have wide shoulders. Indeed.
But it is surfaces which have fascinated us, the type of earth we play on, the material we compete on, even the pits we land on. In 1908, pole vaulters at the London Olympics discovered there was neither a sandpit nor bales of straw to break their fall. The surface adds to the degree of difficulty, requiring tiny, precise adjustments from athletes, like the bumps on a Formula One street circuit or the varied walls of a squash court.
I was thinking about tennis’ clay-court season and the idea of surfaces, so I sent out messages to athletes in other sports. Just prying open their foreign worlds. Just investigating, for instance, if the surfaces of gymnasts—the floor, the beam, the springboard—alter and in what way. Replied Lim Heem Wei, a Singaporean gymnast who has competed at the Olympics: “Each brand (of equipment) has a different touch, feel, tension, bounce, angle. Even with the same brand, the different models/series will feel different.... The age of the equipment will also make a difference to the feel of the equipment.”
Then I asked the world-class squash player Saurav Ghosal about the floor of his courts, which is when he gave me a mini-education on walls.
“The floors are made of some sort of wood or ply. Generally (the surfaces are) about the same. Just that some are better sprung, which makes it easier on the body. The walls make a greater difference to how the ball reacts on different courts. So we probably pay more attention to that rather than the floor.
“Some traditional courts are panels while others are brick and cement. All the glass courts have glass but different manufacturers use a slightly different glass, I guess? The temperature makes a difference to how the ball reacts off the walls as well. Every court plays slightly differently for various reasons. It’s crazy.”
Yes, it is.
Clay—whose seasonal conclusion in that stylish sandpit in Paris starts on Sunday—is insane as well. Crushed gravel, coal residue, crushed white limestone and red brick dust equals dirty socks and painful lungs. Growing up in India, we snobbishly leant towards Wimbledon and grass, dismissing clay as the tedious arena of dusty labourers. Exhibit A: Mats Wilander vs Guillermo Vilas, 1982 French final. The first set ended at 6-1. It took roughly an hour.
But eventually I swooned over the surface and the season, the long wind through spring into summer, the earthy colours, the endurance, the head-shaking duet between player and umpire over a mark, the variations on spin, the coin-throwing in Italy when you played their precious Adriano Panatta. One time, wrote Michael Mewshaw in his terrific book Short Circuit, Björn Borg simply scooped up the coins and held off the Italian.
Mewshaw, an author and a generous soul, was terrific company for a young writer at his first French Open in the early 1990s, sitting high up in the press tribune, sharing wine and stories as umpires announced “egalite”. Equality? Not if you were playing Borg in the 1970s. Once, before he played the Swede in the semi-finals at the French Open, Corrado Barazzutti said: “The only way I can win is if they let me bring a gun on court.” He won only one game.
Like sand in an engine, clay got into people’s brains, irritated its machinery, corroded their confidence. Serve-and-volleyers attacked the net with as much luck as the Light Brigade and brilliant, modern Tennysons in the press room wrote poetic laments to Sampras, Connors, Becker, Edberg, all of whom floundered and fell in the dirt. The incisive John McEnroe actually led against Ivan Lendl in the 1984 final, two sets to love, till doubt and distraction led him astray. A cameraman’s headset, which was sitting there, was crackling and McEnroe walked over and shouted into it, “Shut the f*** up.” Perhaps he should have himself.
People take clay home with them, in their socks, in their nightmares, the court a sweaty rectangle of mud where a point seems won and then it isn’t. “It’s the most physically challenging surface,” says Somdev Devvarman, who made six visits to the French Open, four times in the main draw. “The person with the best legs wins.”
Friction is at work here. The ball rubbing against the red powder and ideas pushing against each. Go? Wait? Attack? Hold on? The ball loops higher, spins and leaps like Erling Haaland. String a few more rackets, says Devvarman, the games will be longer.
The fine art of serve-volley, the sort of tennis D’Artagnan might have played, was exuberant but this surface breeds a hardy customer. “If you say,” says Devvarman, “someone is very good on clay, it means they are a great counter puncher, have great defence, can change pace, are steady and know how to fight.” Still, a surface needs a salesman and Paris found one in Rafael Nadal, a fellow as rugged as the surface he slid on. If people buy the dust of Roland Garros, which is sold in a key-chain, then it’s because he turned it into a holy land.
On this surface, so many customs endure, but one is most precious to Devvarman. After practice, irrespective of who you are, the players take a piece of netting tied to a rope and sweep the court. So that the next player is met with an immaculate court. A red canvas inviting you to paint.
Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.