PARIS — The most prominent feature of the French Open is that this Grand Slam tournament takes place on the rusty red clay of Roland Garros, a beloved feature that is as much a part of local culture and tradition as the bouquinistes that sell art and used books along the Seine.
And yet, as it so often is in the country that claims Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir, the relationship between France and its “terre battue” is a little more complicated.
This red clay that comes from a small brick factory in Oise, north of Paris, elicits so much love.
“My favorite surface,” said Stéphane Levy, a lifelong member of the Tennis Club of Paris, a favorite haunt of some of the country’s top players, including Gilles Simon and Corentin Moutet, where eight of the 18 courts are made from the same clay as those at Roland Garros.
“There is no feeling like playing on it,” Levy said. “The sliding, the clay on your body when you sweat.”
But the clay has also become a symbol of deep frustration. A Frenchwoman has not won the singles championship this country so treasures, the one that requires more grit but also more thought than any other, since Mary Pierce in 2000. A Frenchman has not won it in 39 years, since Yannick Noah in 1983. The last of the French men and women were eliminated from the singles tournaments on Saturday.
The answer likely has a lot to do with a central contradiction in the home of red clay’s biggest stage. Just 11.5 percent of the tennis courts in France are made of the traditional red clay and most of those are in private clubs. Another 16.5 percent of courts are made of an imitation clay surface that is similar to the terre bateau but plays harder and faster than the softer, traditional clay.
Maintaining red clay in cold, wet weather, which is common in France for much of the year, is practically impossible, and building indoor complexes for them is expensive. So most French tennis players grow up playing on hardcourts, unlike their counterparts in Spain, where temperate weather and red clay dominate the way Rafael Nadal (who won Sunday in five sets) and so many Spaniards before him have dominated Roland Garros.
…. to be continued
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