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Always the quirkiest of Grand Slam events, Roland Garros could also be this year's season-shaping tournament
WHAT IS IT with the French? The eternal question begs asking because that confounding Gallic shrug has again moved center stage. The French Open, which over the last two decades has been the boutique stop of the Grand Slam circuit—the major least trusted to prove tennis greatness—is this year's swing Slam. If Roger Federer wins it, his career r�sum� will be complete, and the summer of 2007 will be invigorated by his eminently viable quest to become the first man in nearly four decades to win all four majors. If Serena Williams triumphs, the season will be energized by her even better chance of becoming the first woman to complete a calendar Grand Slam since 1988. For a sport in dire need of buzz, nothing could be better. But if they lose? Then the French paradox kicks in, and Roland Garros 2007 becomes merely the game's most grueling test.
This is no aberration. No other major comes close to matching the French Open's constant swing from pivotal importance to near irrelevance. After all, Paris is where Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Boris Becker and Pete Sampras cracked time and again, where Martina Hingis's career crashed and Andre Agassi was transformed from punk to legend. But it's also the premier spawning ground of tennis minnows, one-hit wonders such as Andr�s G�mez, Michael Chang and Iva Majoli. Eleven of the 13 French Open male champions since 1989 never won a major anywhere else; 2004 titlists Anastasia Myskina and Gast�n Gaudio bombed out in last week's first and second rounds, respectively.
Why so mercurial a major? The obvious reason is Roland Garros's slow playing surface. Many blamed last week's U.S. debacle—by the tournament's third day all nine American men had lost—on the lack of clay-court emphasis Stateside. But the women hold form more consistently on clay no matter where they grew up. "I spent my childhood in America practicing on hard courts, and now I'm playing well on clay," said fifth-ranked Jelena Jankovic, who crushed Marion Bartoli 6--1, 6--1 on Sunday to make the French quarterfinals. And U.S. women have never had the problems the men do with the surface. "I don't care if it's on clay or grass, hard court or on mud," said Williams, who joined Jankovic in the quarters with an easy win over Dinara Safina. "I'm going to be doing whatever it takes to win."
You can point to the lousy footwork and shot selection of the U.S. males, but in Paris attitude makes all the difference. For all the joie de vivre at the French Open, it's the one Slam where, coach Jos� Higueras says, "you've got to be ready to suffer." During the long points on clay, patience, smarts and hard work can trump flashes of genius. "It's not ready-fire-aim tennis," said two-time French Open champ Jim Courier. "You have to think your way through it."
The French Open, in fact, usually serves an admirable purpose. It's the game's ultimate underdog event, where the best fear the most because for two long weeks they aren't quite so exceptional. But now is not the time for that. These are desperate days. The tennis world needs the French to fall into line, which can mean only one thing. Beware the minnow.
ONLY AT SI.COM Read more on the 2007 French Open from Paris.