The two millimeters of terre battue – iron oxide is what creates that distinctive burnt sienna hue – that cover the courts in Paris can represent a quagmire for the clay novice. It’s exceedingly unstable, creating all kinds of physical issues.
Maria Sharapova’s first exposure to these horrors ended badly in 2003, with a 6-0, 6-4 loss to Spanish clay-courter Magui Swerna. Sharapova was only 16 years old – but already a big hitter with a promising career underway. Still, nothing suggested she would ever solve the Rubik’s Cube that was clay.
After winning a second-round match four years later at Roland Garros, Sharapova uttered an unforgettable quote, saying she felt “like a cow on ice.” It brings an immediate (and indelible) image to mind and was a hot topic in 2012 when she actually reached the finals in Paris.
“I can’t tell you how many times that I have heard that phrase in the last four weeks from journalists,” Sharapova said at the time. “I will give you the standard answer. That I do occasionally still feel like it and, I’m sure, look like it, too.”
It wasn’t only about movement for Sharapova. It was also the grinding, physical toll exacted from matches where her serve and groundstrokes didn’t create as many winners as they did on the faster surfaces. The different muscles that sliding demanded. Early in her career, she never imagined she could put together the seven tough matches required of champions at Roland Garros.
And yet, one decade ago, she defeated Italian Sara Errani 6-3, 6-2 to win her first French Open title. Along with her three previous major triumphs – 2004 Wimbledon, 2006 US Open, 2008 Australian Open – she became only the 10th woman to capture the rare career Grand Slam.
In an irony not lost on Sharapova; she won a second French Open title two years later, beating Simona Halep in a match that ran more than three hours. This, on the surface she once thought to be her worst. Note, her career winning percentages: hard court (.777), grass (.794) – and clay (.815).
So many great players have fallen one particular title short of that personal Slam, among them: Justine Henin, Monica Seles and Martina Hingis. Lindsay Davenport – joined by Pete Sampras and Boris Becker – missed out on the matched set by failing to win at Roland Garros.
The 10th anniversary of Sharapova’s breakthrough is a good time to remind those armchair skeptics that it’s way too early in the curve to start passing definitive judgments on some of today’s young players who already have had success on hard courts
Naomi Osaka won her first major, the 2018 US Open, at the age of 20. Now 24, she’s won four majors, all of them on hard courts. Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez played last year’s US Open final, but clay remains something beyond their immediate grasp.
Mastering the cloying clay in Paris and the slippery slope of Wimbledon’s immaculate grass courts requires a certain diversity of game and the ability to adapt to drastically different conditions. Serena Williams is the only active woman with a personal Grand Slam, and she’s done it three times over. Angelique Kerber has won three different majors, but lacks the French Open on her resume; she made the quarterfinals there twice, in 2012 and 2018. Simona Halep and Garbiñe Muguruza have both captured Roland Garros and Wimbledon but have yet to win a hard-court major.
It’s been a small sample this year for our young triumvirate. Osaka is 1-1 on clay for 2022, following last year’s 2-3 record. Raducanu, this year playing her first clay matches at the level, is an encouraging 5-4. Fernandez went 2-2 in Madrid and Rome. Raducanu and Fernandez are just kids in the sandbox, relatively speaking, trying to figure it out.
“I have definitely learnt that I can kind of adapt to this surface much faster than I probably thought and about how to stay in the point,” Raducanu said Friday during Media Day at Roland Garros. “I think my movement on defense has also improved a bit.
“When to play with spin and when to actually hit it hard. You don’t have to always just grind it out. Sometimes you can put your hard-court game on a clay court, as well. It’s just finding the balance. I think that clay definitely teaches you that.”
The first thing they must master, according to 18-time major champion Martina Navratilova, is their movement. Sliding in the dirt, it turns out, is an acquired skill.
“Unless you grew up on the stuff, it’s hard to gain that footing,” Navratilova said. “You become vulnerable easier on clay, like if you get pushed wide – unless you really know how to slide – you don’t recover after the shot as well. And it shows up more, not covering the court as well, with the big hitters, because you can’t make up for it as much.”
Like Navratilova, Pam Shriver, a tennis analyst for ESPN and Tennis Channel, grew up playing a lot on clay but discovered it didn’t suit her big game.
“Eventually, I would just settle in and think, `You know what, I can just play my same game, but I just have to do it just a little bit better,’” Shriver said.” If it’s a play that works on a faster surface, I just need to do it with a little more conviction. A slightly better angle, a slightly better serve.
“These days, there’s not as much difference in the surfaces. Players can bring their same game to all three surfaces and just make their little adjustments here and there.”
Ultimately, it all goes back to the example of Sharapova. Toward the end of her career, clay became her most consistent surface. As Shriver noted, look at what Sharapova did – study it – and it could happen to you.
“Clay at the beginning kind of was like written off, ‘Oh, it’s a clay court, just have a go,'” Raducanu said. “But now I really believe that I can be good and faster than I thought it would be.”
With insight from Navratilova and Shriver, who won 20 Grand Slam doubles titles together from 1981-89, including a calendar-year Grand Slam in 1984, a brief examination of how Raducanu, Fernandez and Osaka could make some headway on clay this year at Roland Garros:
French Open seed: No.12
Career records: Hard court:11-9 (.550), Clay: 5-4 (.556), Grass: 3-2 (.600)
Total: 19-15 (.559)
Navratilova: “Raducanu can generate pace and redirects pretty well. But on clay she has to do a lot more. It’s harder to find the openings, so you have to hit more shots and pick your spot.”
Shriver: “I feel like on the footwork side, I think Raducanu has some potential on clay because it’s a little more precise than the other two.”
French Open seed: No. 17
Career records: Hard court: 39-23 (.629), Clay: 7-8 (.467), Grass: 1-2 (.333)
Navratilova: “Leylah doesn’t have the big weapons of, say, an Osaka. Those weapons can get you out of trouble on clay. Movement, like with Halep, will have to be her calling card.”
Shriver: “Hitting topspin and creating margin, I think is a Fernandez strength. And also being left-handed – the good lefty forehand over the top, gets up high. I like her using that in a positive way on clay.”
French Open: Unseeded
Career records: Hard court: 134-57 (.702), Clay: 21-17 (.553), Grass: 11-9 (.550)
Total: 166-83 (.667)
Navratilova: “For Osaka, her big shots don’t pay off as well on clay. So she has to hit more balls, and her play is still pretty risky. Eventually, I think Osaka can succeed on clay because of the weapons she has. Sharapova was a bigger hitter, and it worked for her. It can be done. It just takes a while. You just need to put in the miles.”
Shriver: “On clay, Osaka’s footwork is not as comfortable. Osaka’s a little bit older  so she’s had a longer time to develop some scar tissue about the surface, an unease. Like Sharapova, she can realize if you’re a little bit slower, clay actually helps you.”