In typical years, the short interval players have to switch from the clay of Roland Garros to the grass courts of Wimbledon makes winning both championships in the same summer the most difficult challenge in tennis. But that’s especially true with the gap as short as it's ever been this year because of the French Open’s decision to start play a week later, on May 30, in the hope that Covid virus concerns would diminish enough to allow more fans to attend the tournament.
Since the Open Era of tennis began in 1968, only six women – Margaret Court, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Stefanie Graf and Serena Williams – have pulled off the French-Wimbledon sweep in the same year, and it’s even rarer on the men’s side, where Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have done it.
Notice a pattern there? Each of those nine players who captured the French-Wimbledon double have won at least 10 career Grand Slam titles – which may be the best proof of all that the sweep is the toughest accomplishment in tennis.
Serena, who accomplished the Channel Slam in 2002 and 2015, joked to reporters during her 2015 run that handling the mental crush and physical toll of one seven-match, two-week title run for one Grand Slam tournament – let alone two majors on two wildly disparate surfaces in a matter of weeks – requires being able to resist the feeling you’re about to “lose your mind.”
Then there’s this hurdle: What do you do when the particulars of your game make you eminently more suited for grass or clay, but not both? Serena’s serve is generally considered the best in women’s tennis history. And yet, as her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, pointed out this spring, even Serena’s serve is not the same weapon on slow clay as it is on grass. “She has to be really very fit on clay because the serve is not as efficient and you have to work much more – every rally is a fight,” Mouratoglou said.
Williams hasn’t won a major singles title since the 2017 Australian Open, and until she suffered quick exits in Rome and Parma in May, she hadn’t played a match on tour since losing the 2021 Australian Open semifinals to Osaka. But Williams has said she trained for this year’s French and Wimbledon runs the same way she did for the Australian, right down to importing Mackie Shilstone, her glory days fitness guru, to her training site once again.
And the good news for Williams is that from 2000-2020, the French Open has been won by a Top 10 seed all but three times.
King – who won her only French Open singles title in 1972 – said the first time she played on clay as a teenager she felt as though she had marbles under her feet. Some players never master how to slide into their shots on clay, but King worked at it and worked at it, and intentionally trained to win the French in 1972 – even going to Florida for a week to train with 16-year-old Evert and her dad, Jimmy, then a teaching pro, when Evert decided to skip the tournament. King says she’d just grown tired of hearing that to be considered one of the true greats, she had to win Roland Garros at least once since it’s the only major played on clay.
In the 1970s and 80s when Evert and Navratilova were capturing their French and Wimbledon sweeps – Evert in 1974, and Navratilova in 1982 and ’84 – the Wimbledon grass played much faster than it does now. The difference then was so pronounced, in fact, even baseliners would try to serve and volley at the All England Club at least a bit because they didn’t like their chances of winning from the backcourt. But it could make for some awkward moments. “The Australians would laugh at you,” three-time French Open men’s champion Mats Wilander, now a tennis TV commentator, has said.
By the time Graf arrived on tour, the speed gap between surfaces had begun to change. In a lot of ways, Graf was the perfect player for her era – a woman who grew up playing on clay but had the athleticism and imagination, footspeed and unshakeable toughness to win on any surface. And power? Graf wasn’t nicknamed Fraulein Forehand for nothing. In 1988, at the age of 18, she became the only other player in the Open Era besides Court to sweep all four Grand Slams in a calendar year, and she accomplished the French-Wimbledon double again in 1993, 1995 and 1996, the most by any man or woman.
By 1993, Graf had already come to believe her hard-won versatility was the key. “I am more of a complete player than I was even last year,” she said. “I think I feel more confident with my backhand and all-around, I think my strokes have improved. … I have [to] play from the baseline. It is really difficult if you play somebody who comes in all the time to play perfect, I mean, it is just impossible. But I think my backhand passing shot is really working. [And] then it is really difficult to do something against me, because I know that whenever I am going to go for my shots, it will happen.”
That confidence may be the last, and perhaps most attainable piece that this year’s contenders can summon, regardless of the particulars of their individual games.
“I like the dirt now,” Coco Gauff said with a laugh after winning her first career clay-court title at the Emilia-Romagna Open in Parma, Italy, this past weekend, and reaching the semis at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia to establish herself as a player to watch in Paris.
World No.1 Ashleigh Barty, the 2019 French champion, and Garbiñe Muguruza, a past titlist at both the French Open (2016) and Wimbledon (2017), rank among the top favorites again this year.
As is Naomi Osaka, even if she has never advanced past the third round at the French Open. That said, Osaka has a remarkable tendency to summon her best performances on the biggest occasions and it would be foolish to count her out.
Iga Swiatek won as an unseeded player in 2020. She’s back this year. Williams also enters the French as an underdog, even if she is still just one title away from matching Court’s career mark of 24 major titles.
Much like at the 2021 Australian Open, all players at this year’s French Open and Wimbledon will have to submit to regular Covid testing and stay in the tournament “bubble” at designated hotels rather than private housing. Wimbledon will be making a welcome return after canceling the tournament in 2020 for the first time since World War II. Whomever wins the Wimbledon championship will also have to deal with the truncated grass-court season that’s been caused by this year’s decision to move the French Open back a week.
The steepest challenge that tennis offers is tougher than ever this year.