The year’s second Major, Roland Garros, starts on Sunday. Tennis is presently dominated by Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams and it is only a fool who will look elsewhere for this year’s respective male and female singles title favourites. Djokovic has been in particularly ominous form in 2015 sweeping all before him. My take is that he is in 2011 form and then some.
His only serious rival in Paris is Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard’s lack of confidence ostensibly rules him out but he loves the French capital and has only lost once there since 2005. However question marks over his overall health also raises concern and for me unless Nadal can call on all his reserves, only a younger, up-and-coming player ie Milos Raonic or Kei Nishikori can surprise Djokovic but that is highly hypothetical.
On the women’s front Williams is on a path towards greatness and I believe only the American herself can stop the march to top spot on the list of all-time Major winners. Former doubles top 10 player and renowned coach John-Laffnie De Jager says the ball is in Williams’ court: ‘From an ability point of view, 100% I think it’s up to Serena from a mental and drive perspective, if she can do it the next two or three years.’ SA Fed Cup stalwart-turned-coach Natalie Grandin echoes the sentiments, saying: ‘Serena is like a fine wine that gets better with age. She’s a fine player; a big, strong girl. If she can hang in there mentally she can, because at one point she was vulnerable in the early rounds but these days she’s just unstoppable.’
The clay court season is winding down, followed by a few weeks of grass court tennis, before returning to the hard courts. It has me wondering about the overall variety in world tennis. It seems it is just these three surfaces these days. The only real variety is that some hard court events are played indoors and in Houston the clay colour differs. Apart then from altitude, chiefly in Latin America, there is no other variety on the ATP and WTA tours. Some 20 years ago indoor tournaments were often played on a carpet surface, now extinct from the professional game.
It also does not help that the balls at SW19 are heavier and the grass longer. Yes it has been that way for more than a decade now but by rendering grass to virtual cement the kind of player we are seeing is almost exclusively the baseliner. The serve-and-volleyer is all but dead. De Jager agrees: ‘I think it’s not good for tennis. I would love to see a situation where players know for the next seven weeks they’re playing on clay and then for eight weeks on a faster surface and so on. So you can create the contrast between the serve-and-volleyer and the baseliner. You don’t have a (Pete) Sampras and (Andre) Agassi, or (Bjorn) Borg and (John) McEnroe rivalry anymore because all the surfaces are so similar now. Today we have great quality but everyone plays the same way so we don’t have variety. We don’t see so many winners anymore and variety would develop better tennis players too.’
Perhaps the situation will change. Once upon a time three of the four Majors were played on grass so we could just be at the low point of a cycle. However for now it is the baseline stuff we have to be content with. It is not all bad of course because the kinds of rallies we are seeing are superb, to say the least. And what better place to witness riveting rallies, than the dirt at Roland Garros?