Bienvenue à Paris
Sights and sounds during the pre-French Open lull
Posted: Friday May 25, 2007 11:17AM; Updated: Friday May 25, 2007 11:18AM
PARIS -- The French Open is undoubtedly the toughest Grand Slam of the year for me. The clay-court surface is like kryptonite for most Americans.
My practices always start on a perfectly manicured court, and they end with half the clay on my clothes. On Thursday, I even found some in my hair. Now that's talent! Clay is not a surface I have much experience on, and the required timing, balance and sliding skills are nothing short of a work of art when executed correctly. By watching me, you'd see just how difficult it is.
Amazingly, my dislike of the surface doesn't sour me on the overall experience of the French Open. As a matter of fact, the practice week leading up to the event -- when I arrive here five days early -- is one of the most enjoyable periods of my year.
I always look forward to getting to Paris as early as possible in order to soak in all the amazing things the city and the French Open have to offer. I love wandering around the grounds to watch some of the best players in the world, many of whom also get here early to practice and prepare. I enjoy studying them and learning about the game I love.
On Thursday, I watched 2004 champion Gaston Gaudio practicing with '04 semifinalist Tim Henman. The English veteran is one of the few attacking players left in men's tennis, so I was interested to see how he would try and pressure a classic South American clay-court player.
What I saw wasn't particularly encouraging, but I did discover a few patterns that, if I can execute them perfectly, could yield some dividends. For instance, most clay-court players kick in their serves and immediately move to their left to hit more forehands. If you can effectively hit your backhand down the line return on the ad side, you can catch your opponent off-balance and win some quick points. Also, hitting short volleys and hard slices can disrupt their normal patterns of bashing ground strokes at the baseline.
I also picked up a valuable tip from watching Gaudio's backhand. The Argentine is considered to have one of the best one-handed backhands in the game, so after struggling with my own backhand Wednesday, I tried to emulate him as best I could. It paid dividends pretty quickly -- I only launched a few shots onto the Champs-Élysées this time. That's what you call progress!
Probably the scariest thing I saw on Thursday was two-time defending champion Rafael Nadal practicing. I prayed that my name wouldn't fall next to his on the draw. (It didn't; I open against another Spainard, Nicolas Almagro.) Nadal's just brutal -- he practices like he plays, as if he's a starving lion and the tennis ball is the last piece of meat on the planet.
I also got a practice in with my doubles partner and fellow American, Robert Kendrick, a very talented player with a huge serve and forehand. He's having the best year of his career and is playing in his first French Open main draw. Robert seems to be enjoying the clay courts as much as I am, as evidenced by the numerous marks left by chucked rackets on the back curtain!
Kendrick just got married a few weeks ago to Liz Proctor, who played college tennis at Wake Forest. He's convinced this should suffice as their honeymoon, but Liz isn't buying it and is angling for a November trip to Sardinia. My bet is she will get what she wants.
The past two nights I went to dinner with Henman, his coach, my longtime friend Paul Annacone and his trainer, Joey Debeer. After long days of training, we destroyed an Italian restaurant and a sushi place in two successive evenings.
The Italian place we went to used to be Pete Sampras' favorite spot while he competed in Paris, so I was convinced if I ate there, my first-serve percentage would miraculously improve. Henman had been raving about this sushi place and is convinced it's the best on earth. It wasn't bad, but he obviously doesn't live in Los Angeles.
Another fun pre-tournament routine is the sponsorship distribution for the competing players. I've been with Nike since the beginning of my career, 12 years and counting. I still enjoy picking up my overflowing bags of clothes with the newest lines. I must say thanks to Nike because no matter how I play -- I'm going to look good out there!
My day finished with a quick interview with Mansour Bahrami, a retired player who was hired by the tournament organizers to poll the players as to how to best improve the experience at the French Open.
I told him that everything was great -- the facility, the food, the accommodations, everything -- but if he could maybe switch the surface to a fast-grass court, I would really appreciate it.
Twelve-year ATP veteran Justin Gimelstob is competing in his seventh French Open. He'll write periodically for SI.com from Roland Garros during the tournament.