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Dust of Legends: Will Novak and Serena Shape History from Clay?

Today (22nd May), the second tennis Grand Slam of the tour calendar begins in Paris. Overlooked by the Eiffel Tower, Roland Garros, the 126th French Open Championships commences at the dawn of summer (in the northern hemisphere). And this year heralds a championships where two players from the men’s and women’s tours are standing on the cusp of history.

Roland Garros is often marked out as the most fiendish of the four tennis Majors. Like Wimbledon that follows less than a month after the culmination of proceedings in Paris, the French Open is the sole Grand Slam to be played on a unique variety of surface, clay. Although grass is the fastest of surfaces to play tennis on, clay is by far the slowest. Furthermore, grass has been tamed to a degree. It’s culturing in recent years, with speciality species cultivated to slow the ball and emulate hard courts has evened out the game (to the dismay of some, the serve and volley and unpredictability of an ambient surface was seen as a healthy challenge to insanely competitive atheletes) yet clay has been less susceptible to control. This makes clay’s dusty surface treacherous and slows balls down and makes the ball bounce heavily, which worsens when the rain comes down (which clay can endure much more of than the other tennis surfaces). On the plus side, clay courts have some cool features. Players can commit epic slides across the surface to reach for a ball and who needs Hawkeye (the computerised system to watch for balls going out serves that are faults) when a bouncing ball leaves noticeable marks for an umpire to inspect personally?

As a result of clay’s whimsical nature, less of the top players perform well on clay than one might expect and some are downright horrid at playing on the surface. The legendary Pete Sampras would rarely make it to the second week of the tournament (having won the other three Grand Slams at least several times apiece, only one man equals Smapras’s total – Nadal – and one currently holds more Majors than Sampras, Roger Federer – who in turn has only won Roland Garros once. Though this is more to do with Nadal’s dominance). Yet this year marks a watershed moment in tennis once more. The last decade has set a precedent for the amount of records broken in the men’s game, with the so-called “Big Four,” controlling the ATP Tour in the manor of an infernal quartet of rulers. The Big Four – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray – have been absent from only one Grand Slam since 2005, since then, they have at least competed in, or won, all of the Majors between them (the 2014 US Open being the only exception, when Marin Cilic beat Kei Nishikori).

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As the saga on the clay commences, Novak Djokovic is on top of the world. Number 1 in the ATP rankings, the Serbian holds 11 Grand Slam titles. Six of them won in Australia, a record equal to the Australian Roy Emerson. A victory in Paris eludes the champion who is currently tied with Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver in his Grand Slam tally, Swiss number 2 Stan Wawrinka beating him there last year. Djokovic’s form hasn’t been top notch going into the tournament either. Closest rival and current World Number 2, Andy Murray, defeated Novak on clay in the Rome Masters recently. So there is a testing time on the way for the Serb and Murray’s own form at the French has seen him get as far as the semi-final (with Djokovic being runner-up there three times already). Murray’s Grand Slam record against the World Number One is less than solid too. Having currently met Djokovic in 7 of Murray’s 9 Grand Slam final appearances, Murray has only won two of those (US Open 2012 and Wimbledon 2013). Moreover, Djokovic will be seeking a year that is literally a gold standard set by none other than Steffi Graf, 28 years ago. Obviously, Novak yearns to win what has been dubbed: “The Golden Slam.” This is a feat where a tennis player wins all four Grand Slams and an Olympic Gold Medal in one season and only Steffi Graf has achieved this. At 28-years-old himself, there is a likelihood that he could pull it off in four years in 2020 in Tokyo if he fails in 2016. But this year in Rio seems to be more like his “Golden” chance! As a sweetener, pulling off the “The Golden Slam,” would increase Djokovic’s Grand Slam total to 14. This would equal Sampras and Nadal and by winning at Roland Garros, would also make Djokovic only the fifth man in the Open Era (besides Rod Laver, Andre Agassi, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal) to have won all four Grand Slams. All champions thirst for glory, but Djokovic must be more parched than a man stranded in a desert!

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Serena Williams is also seeking to stand clear of the legendarily long and heavy shadow of Steffi Graf. The American (one of 6 women in the Open Era to have won all four Grand Slams, alongside Margaret Court, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and Maria Sharapova) with 21 Majors, was stalled in attaining the Grand Slam total of 22, set by the German Steffi Graf, earlier this year at the Australian Open, when she was defeated by another German, Angelique Kerber. As a holder of four Olympic Gold Medals (3 in doubles and 1 in singles) already, “The Golden Slam” is one accolade to elude her and seemingly maybe always will (Serena will be 38 by the time the Tokyo Olympics rolls around). Yet the chasing of Steffi Graf’s Major tally remains tantalisingly close. If Serena Williams wins the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open, her championship total will reach 23, overtaking Graf and equalling the German’s feat of being the only tennis player to have won all four Grand Slams at least four times apiece and one Major behind the all-time record of 24, held by Margaret Court of Australia. So come the end of 2017, there’s a good chance that Serena Williams (at least in terms of Grand Slams) could go down as the greatest tennis player ever. 2016 is truly the year where dreams could be etched into the ages for not one, but two players… moulded from French clay!

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