Build up to RG: what’s not to love about the clay?

The seasons are changing in tennis as in nature as the clay courts call the baseliners home for the start of the build up to Roland Garros.

Rafael Nadal sliding on the 2019 Roland-Garros clay©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Ah, the first pink sock of spring. The mere thought of it brings a smile to the pale faces of those us trapped in a Northern Hemisphere winter – the dark days are numbered and a new season is almost upon us.

That pink sock is like the first crocus of the year. Oh, yes, we all know about snowdrops but they are just the glory boys: “Look at me – it is still snowing but I am blooming. Aren’t I brave? And rather beautiful, now that you come to mention it…” but it is the crocus that does the heavy lifting. 

The journey to Roland-Garros is just beginning

The pioneer corps of nature, the crocus shoves its head above the dirt and gleams yellow in the pouring rain and howling wind. “Come on lads, follow me,” it yells and before long the daffodils and tulips have fallen in behind. Spring has officially sprung and all is well with the world.

So it is with the pink sock. The pristine white – if somewhat sweaty – garments of the hard courts will soon be no more than a memory as the stained footwear of the clay courters take precedence. For the next few months, the good and the great will be caked in red brick dust as they chase ranking points and trophies around the tours. We are just beginning our journey to Roland Garros and there will be a lot of laundry to do between now and then.

Sure enough, we still have the Sunshine Double of Indian Wells and Miami to negotiate before the European clay court season gets underway but already those first pink socks of springtime are pushing their way to the fore in South America – and David Ferrer is making the most of them.

Ferrer's last hurrah

This is Ferrer’s last hurrah. The 2013 Roland Garros finalist will call an end to his 20-year career at the Mutua Madrid Open in May but until then, he still has a little unfinished business to attend to and he got to work with a rip-snorting opening round at the Argentina Open to beat Malek Jaziri. At the age of 36 and with a ranking of No.149, he may not be able to add to the three titles he won in Buenos Aires between 2012 and 2014 but he is not going out without a fight.

The clay court season has a comfy, familiar feel to it. We have the prospect of Rafa Nadal rewriting history to look forward to (we always do) although it is usually the history he rewrote the previous year, but never mind. He has been setting records on the red stuff since 2005 and his first title in Paris – that year was the start of the longest winning streak on one surface in history.

And... Rafa!

Between 2005 and 2007, Rafa won 81 clay court matches to establish himself as the King of Clay. But that was only the beginning. Last year he collected his 11th Roland Garros crown to add to the 11th Monte Carlo title and the 11th Barcelona trophy he had gathered in the previous couple of months. Now we get to sit back and wait to see if he can make it a round dozen at all three venues. You can never get tired of watching Rafa winning.

That is another good thing about the clay – the matches have a rhythm all their own. They are no less intense, no less fierce, than matches on other surfaces but they… well, they do go on a bit. This is not blink-and-you-miss-it tennis; this is a game where the points are crafted with care, the shots are selected with precision and the winners are arrived at with thought and patience.

As a result, you can pop out and put the kettle on or answer the door to the pesky neighbour who wants to borrow your lawn mower safe in the knowledge that by the time you get back to your seat, you will not have missed too much.

And if it rains, they keep playing until such time as they are paddling around in gum boots and oilskins. Clay court tennis is not a sport for the faint hearted.

Remember Marco Cecchinato?

It is also a brand of tennis that throws up new stars each year. These days, the surfaces are not so vastly different that a clay court aficionado cannot play on a grass or hard court (remember the time when the clay courters would book their summer holidays during the grass court season? Back then, there wasn’t much point in them going to London for all that biff-baff-bosh malarkey) but it is still a unique surface that produces unique players.

Remember Marco Cecchinato? The man who beat Novak Djokovic in last year’s quarter-finals? Can he come back and do it all over again? Twelve months ago, he was ranked No.72 in the world; he starts the clay court run this year as the world No.18 but with heaps of points to defend before Roland Garros is over. And he has just won in Buenos Aires.

What about Mr T?

He was beaten in the next round by Dominic Thiem. The Austrian headed to his first major final and became the first final debutant in Paris since Ferrer in 2013. He dropped only three sets in his run to that final but once there, Rafa did to him what he has done to so many others and beat him in straight sets.


Dominic Thiem hitting a backhand on the clay of 2019 Roland-Garros©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

This year has not been good to Mr T and due to illness, he has not really got started yet. But he thrives on the clay courts; the red dust beneath his feet allows him to do the most damage. Could he kick on from last year and become the first of the new generation to win a major trophy? Watch this space.

The countdown to Roland Garros has begun and the long road to the Court Philippe Chatrier lies ahead. The tour winds its way from South America over to Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, Lyon and on to Paris. And it all starts with that first pink sock.