Nguyen: Embracing The Nightmare
Published May 29, 2014 12:12
PARIS, France - Red Brick. Sprawling vertical swaths of green. Crowded walkways packed with backpack-laden souls in search of food and coffee. No, this isn't Harvard University, it's Roland Garros. There are no schoolbooks here, but this institution of higher learning still dishes out the hard lessons on a daily basis.
Because what if you just hate playing on clay? What if nothing about its need for geometry, physicality, and patience has any allure? For those who didn't grow up on the surface, who built their games around the idea that big serves should be rewarded and offense should pay off with winners and quick points, the French Open is an utter nightmare.
"It just wasn't that much fun because I was tall and I never felt very comfortable on it," Maria Sharapova said in Rome. "But I always felt like I learned a lot. I always saw it as a learning experience."
I won't march out Sharapova's famous frozen cattle analogy, but the reason why her off-hand joke got such traction was because it's such a perfect visual. Clumsy, unsure, and udderly (sorry) hopeless. Yet even Sharapova learned how to make it work for her and the 2012 French Open champion barely loses on clay anymore. The reigning champion in Paris, Serena Williams, conquered the surface in 2002, but needed another 11 years to stand atop the podium again.
It seems there are two ways to get over the hump on clay: Either you learn to love it or you simply just realize you really hate losing on it. Like, really hate losing on it.
"I think it was more I don't want to lose," Serena said, when asked about what finally clicked for her on the surface. "I want to be in the tournament. I want to ‑ not that I didn't have that feeling before, but it was even deeper to a point of I just want to be here."
It's not particularly fun to spend two months of the season with your hands practically tied behind your back and your feet stuck in mud and that was never more clear than after talking to 19-year-old Madison Keys after her 7-5, 3-6, 6-1 loss to Sara Errani in the first round of the French Open.
"Obviously I'm not bad on it," Keys said, a little teary-eyed after the disappointing loss. In the first tour-level red clay match of her career she defeated Li Na at the Mutua Madrid Open last year. Last week she made the semifinals in Strasbourg and now she's pushed the WTA's best clay court specialist to three sets. So no, she's not bad on it.
"I'm definitely getting more and more comfortable with it. Hopefully at the end of next year I can say I feel really comfortable on it, I'm doing a lot better on it. It's just about getting better every year."
Keys laughed at the idea that she might one day fall in love with the clay, but maybe she doesn't have to. She can look to Sharapova as an example of how to get over the mental hurdle of feeling like all your weapons have been taken away from you on the terre battue.
"I enjoy winning on it more than I enjoy playing on it," Sharapova said in Rome. That sounds like a pretty simple lesson to learn.