Paris – Roland Garros has been a happy hunting ground for many of the greatest Grand Slam champions, but rising stars Naomi Osaka and Daniil Medvedev are hoping to avoid being added to the list of big names who could never conquer the Parisian clay.
For every Rafael Nadal, who will be bidding for his 14th title this year, there is a Pete Sampras — the 14-time major winner who never even reached a French Open final.
The grueling challenge posed by playing on clay makes the calendar’s second Grand Slam event a very different test when compared to the other three.
Sampras won Wimbledon seven times, while John McEnroe, a seven-time major winner, reached the French Open final just once, only to lose to Ivan Lendl in an epic five-set clash.
Osaka is already a four-time Grand Slam champion at the age of 23, but has yet to reach the second week at either the French Open or Wimbledon. All of her WTA Tour titles have come on hard courts and clay is the only surface on which the world No. 2 has yet to reach a final.
“I’m just not that comfortable on it (clay) still, and I’m not sure if it’s because I need to play longer on it or if I just haven’t grown up on it,” Osaka admitted earlier this month ahead of the Italian Open, where she lost to No. 31 Jessica Pegula in the first round.
“Mentally it’s a bit harder because you have to structure the points differently. There are bad bounces and stuff. I get quite frustrated. So, yeah, mentally, I think it’s a bit more taxing.”
The difficulty of adapting to all three major surfaces is shown by the fact only 18 players — eight men and 10 women — have completed the career Grand Slam.
Osaka may be able to take solace from the fact the last woman to complete the Grand Slam, Maria Sharapova, did not reach the final at Roland Garros until her 10th attempt. In the end, the French Open became the only major Sharapova won twice.
Players who rely on a big serve and net play have traditionally struggled the most on clay.
“Physically, it is tougher to end points so that makes it trickier,” McEnroe told Eurosport last year.
“You have to be in that frame of mind where you have to restart points that you thought you had already won, so it is just the psychology that was more difficult for me as time went on, so it just made it very difficult to get all the way.”
Medvedev is widely expected to become a multiple Grand Slam champion, having already reached the Australian and U.S. Open finals. He won the ATP Finals last year, beating the top three players in the world rankings on his way to the title.
The 25-year-old Russian, however, has won just one of his last nine matches on clay, a slump which started with a loss against Dominic Thiem in the 2019 Barcelona Open final. His only victory during that stretch was against Alejandro Davidovich Fokina in Madrid on May 5, after which the world No. 2 ironically said to the camera: “I love clay.”
Medvedev has lost all four matches he has played at the French Open.
Just being able to win matches against top players on clay is no guarantee of winning the French Open.
Sampras and seven-time Grand Slam winner Venus Williams both won multiple titles on clay, but could never replicate that form in Paris.
Boris Becker, a Wimbledon champion three times, lost all six finals he played on clay and was beaten in each of his three French Open semifinal appearances.
“Clay was difficult because it was against my personality,” the German said in 2013. “On clay you win by making less mistakes, on any other surface you win by making more winners.”
Cutting out errors could be the key for Osaka and Medvedev to break out of their respective slumps on the surface. Although for some players, not always trying to hit outright winners is just too tough.
When asked where she was most likely to win her first non-hardcourt Grand Slam following her Australian Open success in February, Osaka said: “Hopefully clay, because it’s the one that’s sooner.”
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