It\'s April, time for tennis on the red European clay. For eight straight weeks, men and women on the WTA and ATP tours will be grinding it out on the dirt. For the Spaniards and the South Americans, this is the surface they shine on. For the Americans, Aussies, Brits and many others, clay is a nightmare.
The clay court season climaxes with the French Open starting on 28 May. When it is all said and done, two champions will be crowned at Roland Garros and their names inscribed on the trophy alongside such men\'s champs as Borg, Brugerra, Kuerten and Courier, and on the women\'s side, Evert, Navratilova, Graf and Sanchez.
Why is playing on clay so difficult? The main reason is it slows the game drastically and neutralises power. You have to work hard to build a point and nothing comes easy. Longer rallies equate to more time on the court so fitness becomes a critical factor. Another challenge is footwork and movement. It is much more difficult to change direction on clay courts and the ability to slide to maximise reach becomes essential for survival. Players skilled at topspin, under spin and drop shots adapt to the surface much more easily. I truly believe that learning to play on clay courts helps you become a complete player. This is the one surface where you have to have good defensive and offensive skills, the ultimate challenge for players at any level.
Who will be the contenders at this year\'s French Open? In the men\'s field, Nadal and Federer are clear cut favourites and it would not surprise me one bit to see them play in the finals in Paris. Nadal has an amazing 38 straight wins on clay going into this week\'s master\'s event in Monte Carlo. Federer has had his share of success on clay and is no stranger to the surface, having grown up on it in Switzerland. Unlike Pete Sampras, Federer will some day win this event but I am not convinced that it will be this year. There will be plenty of challengers waiting. Among them Ferrero, Nalbandian, Gaudio and Coria will pose the biggest threats to Nadal and Federer.
On the women\'s side, Henin and Clijsters are the favourites. They move well, which is a huge advantage they have over heavy hitters like Sharapova, Davenport, Kuznetsova and Petrova. The health of these two Belgians will be an important story line to follow as we near the championships in France. Keep an eye also on Martina Hingis and Patty Schnyder from Switzerland. They know how to manipulate the ball with spins and both of them have good anticipation and the transition games to be serious challengers.
Weather will also be a factor. More sunshine means drier, and faster, courts. Power players such as Andy Roddick and Marat Safin will benefit from a speedier surface as will serve-and-volleyers like Tim Henman from Great Britain. Don\'t forget the great run he had two years ago when he reached his first semis in a grand slam event at the French Open. Yes, Gentleman Tim, who served and volleyed his way through the field and came so close to upsetting Guillermo Coria for an improbable berth in the finals.
In 1989, Michael Chang won the French Open and dedicated his victory to the Chinese people while protests were going on in Tiananmen Square. As I follow the great tennis on the clay courts in Paris, my thoughts and prayers will be for peace and democracy in Nepal.