MANILA—It has been only seven months since Rafael Nadal of Spain and Iga Swiatek of Poland conquered the 2020 French Open, and now, they are gearing to defend their titles in the usual schedule of Roland Garros beginning May 30 to June 13 in Paris.
So, what should players do to achieve success similar to the feats of Nadal and Swiatek at the French Open, widely regarded as the most difficult among the Grand Slams?
“I mean if you take out Rafa, for sure,” said former professional player Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus of the simplest yet toughest way to make it big in the French Open.
Turning serious, former World No. 8 Baghdatis and former World No. 5 Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia discussed what players have to improve on in an exclusive interview with ABS-CBN News arranged by FOX Sports Asia.
“Roland Garros is the most physically demanding grand slam. I feel like you have to have a much better endurance than anywhere else, especially for the guys playing best of five on clay. When it gets heavy and cold, which can sometimes be, it’s just physically extremely difficult from the endurance point of view,” said Hantuchova.
“But at the same time, you have to have more power than normal because the balls and the courts get really slow sometimes. So the training before gets really, really hard and that’s why physically to me, whoever wins Roland Garros must be in incredible shape,” added the Slovak who achieved a career Grand Slam in mixed doubles.
Baghdatis agreed on the need to have optimum fitness.
“In the men’s side, definitely, because of the five sets and also because of so many rallies and moving left to right and the drop shots, and because there are less winners. It’s very difficult to take time off your opponent on clay than it is on other surfaces. Fitness is very important for the clay,” he said.
The former pros, who gamely shared their opinions and experiences as FOX Sports Asia pundits, highlighted the need for players to extend their patience and keep their focus.
“Just having the patience and acceptance that you have to play longer rallies, that the points are not going to be as quick unless it’s super dry and hot weather, then it’s possible to almost play like on a hard court. But if it’s a little bit colder, then no,” said Hantuchova, who added that players must have an open mind to the varying playing conditions in Paris.
Baghdatis said: “Definitely more patience, and also on clay, the thing is you cannot slip concentration because you have to keep your level the same all the time especially towards the end of the tournament because everybody’s playing well.
“It depends also on the way you move on clay. If you find your steps on clay, if you find your movement on clay, I think that’s very important with the sliding.”
Playing for the crowd
Baghdatis and Hantuchova admitted that the limited number of spectators allowed due to persisting COVID-19 restrictions will dampen the atmosphere.
They lauded the players for being able to adjust to the setup of playing for a few spectators, or sometimes, none at all. Recently, players are lucky to have played for slightly larger crowds.
For the fortnight’s first 10 days, up to 1,000 spectators each are allowed to enter the three main Roland Garros showcourts while 35% of the capacity of smaller venues will be admitted. The main showcourts’ capacity will be increased to 5,000 beginning the quarterfinals, and Hantuchova thinks this will delight the players.
“Even if you can have a hundred people watching, it’s definitely worth the efforts of the tournament to make that happen because that’s what we play for, for the fans. Like not being able to share the moments when you win or make unbelievable shots with everyone watching, it doesn’t really make sense,” she commented.
Added Baghdatis: “There’s no better feeling than playing in front of the biggest crowd in the world and an athlete has that motivation to play in big crowds, to enjoy the claps and the cheers from the crowd, and the energy.
“It was my motivation every morning to wake up and keep on working to have more matches in front of the crowd.”
Best matches on clay
The FOX Sports Asia pundits also took the time to look back at their favorite Roland Garros moments.
Topping Hantuchova’s list is her 2005 mixed doubles championship victory with Fabrice Santoro of France. She and Santoro, who edged out No. 6 seeds Martina Navratilova of the United States and Leander Paes of India, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, in the final, received overwhelming support since the opening round.
She also marveled at playing with the French veteran dubbed as “The Magician” for his astounding trick shots.
“Normally, I would always face the net and I don’t look at my partner in the back but because it was such a magic what he was doing, I would always turn to him because I wanted to see like, ‘How on Earth is he playing those shots?’”
Hantuchova, also a former World No. 5 in doubles, talked about another favorite French Open memory.
“One of the best matches I’ve ever played was here in Paris, which is maybe surprising because clay was not my favorite surface. It was against Caroline Wozniacki when she was No. 1 in the world. Purely from a tennis standpoint, that was one of my best performances,” she said of her 6-1, 6-3 upset over the Dane in 2011. The Slovak reached the French Open fourth round four times.
Baghdatis’s best Roland Garros result was also a fourth round finish, earned in 2007. His opening round match that year was memorable because he beat “one of the very good players on clay,” French Sebastian Grosjean, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4.
“It was my first time to play at Centre Court, Philippe Chatrier. And I played the best match in my career on clay. I was just flying on the court, feeling so good, and it never gave the chance to the crowd to get into the match. It was an amazing feeling,” he recounted.
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