great clay challenge
Exhausting, demanding, unforgiving — the red clay court at Roland Garros is no bed of roses for a tennis player. Top names often bite the dust, cracking under the tough conditions. Rallies as well as matches take ages to end, sapping the energy of not only the loser but also the winner.
This year’s French Open, which begins on May 23, is not likely to be any less gruelling. There are a few favourites, but they would have to be at their best — technically, physically and mentally — to avoid upsets and emerge victorious.
The top contender in the men’s section is a teenager who will be making his debut at the French Open — Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard has hardly put a foot wrong this year, winning tournaments in Brazil, Mexico, Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome. At the end of last year, he was ranked 51 — now he is in the top 10.
Clay court specialists like 2003 French Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero and last year’s losing finalist Guillermo Coria have found him too hot to handle. Nadal has oodles of stamina, as shown by his victorious five-hour-plus battle against Coria in Rome. To make matters worse for his opponents, Nadal is on a 17-match winning streak.
The man who can prove to be a handful for him is world number one Roger Federer. The Swiss is determined to win the only Grand Slam title that has eluded him. He has not been at his best at Roland Garros in the past, losing three times out of six in the opening round and never advancing beyond the quarterfinals. His current form, however, has been ominous. He has won six titles this year, including the Hamburg Masters on clay, during which he beat both Guillermo Coria and rising French teenager Richard Gasquet.
The other contenders include Ferrero, Coria and of course defending champion Gaston Gaudio. The latter has won three titles on clay this season and is aiming to emulate Gustavo Kuerten, who retained his crown at Roland Garros in 2001. Then there is French sensation Gasquet, who might prove to be a giantkiller.
In the women’s category, comeback girl Justine Henin-Hardenne looks like a safe bet. The winner at Roland Garros in 2003, the Belgian has battled mystery viruses and niggling injuries to win three successive clay court titles in the past two months. The victories in Charleston, Warsaw and Berlin have made her hopeful of adding to her kitty of three Grand Slam crowns. (She also won the US Open in 2003, followed by the Australian Open last year).
Having beaten world both number one Lindsay Davenport and number two Maria Sharapova recently, the Athens Olympic champion seems unstoppable. However, she knows very well that things can easily go wrong at Roland Garros, where she lost in the first round in 2002 and in the second last year.
Henin-Hardenne is likely to face a tough challenge from France’s Amelie Mauresmo, who will be banking on her good form to win her first Grand Slam title. The powerfully built Mauresmo fought back from a set down to beat Patty Schnyder of Switzerland in the final of the Rome Masters last week. She would have plenty of home support at the French Open, but by her own admission, she may find it hard to handle the pressure.
The defending champion, Anastasia Myskina, is a doubtful starter due to a nagging shoulder injury. Her form this year has been far from satisfactory, having reached only one semifinal. At the Australian Open, she was upset by Nathalie Dechy. Former world number one Kim Clijsters, who retired from the German Open recently after injuring her right leg, might become another pre-tournament casualty.
Reigning Australian Open champion Serena Williams will be keen to repeat her success story of 2002 at the French Open. However, her recent track record on clay is hardly encouraging. Serena was knocked out of the Rome Masters by world number 26 Francesca Schiavone of Italy. Also, she hasn’t had much match practice since an ankle sprain forced her to withdraw from tournaments in Amelia Island and Berlin.
The world’s top two women’s players — Davenport and Sharapova — don’t stand much of a chance on clay.
There are high hopes from Sania Mirza, who would be expected to equal or better her third-round finish at the Australian Open. Unfortunately, her build-up to the French Open hasn’t been good. After her victory in the Hyderabad Open and a quarterfinal finish in the Dubai Open, Sania has done little on the court to please her fans.
The tennis idol bowed out in the first round of the Nasdaq Open in the USA and then missed the Fed Cup competition in New Delhi last month due to an ankle injury. At one stage, it was uncertain whether she would participate in the French Open, where she got a direct entry due to her high ranking (72nd). She was eventually declared fit for the big event, but on her return she failed to qualify for the Strasbourg Open in France last week, winning one qualification match and losing the other. Woefully short of match practice, Sania would have to play exceedingly well to advance in the Grand Slam tournament.
In doubles, Indian hopes rest on Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, though they won’t be playing together. Paes’ partner is Ninad Zimonjic of Serbia-Montenegro while Bhupathi is paired with Australian doubles great Todd Woodbridge.
Of the two pairs, Paes-Zimonjic have performed better this year. They won back-to-back ATP Masters titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona last month. Earlier this month, however, they lost to the Bryan brothers in the quarterfinals of the Rome Masters. In the Hamburg tournament, they went down to Michael Llodra and Fabrice Santoro of France in the semis.
The formidable French pair also did not spare Bhupathi and Woodbridge, beating them in the semis in Rome. Another top duo, Jonas Bjorkman and Max Mirnyi, beat the Indo-Australian pair in the quarterfinals in Hamburg.
With such a tough field, which also includes the Croatian pair of Mario Ancic and Ivan Ljubicic, Paes and Bhupathi would need a favourable draw to brighten their chances of reaching the semis or further. The same holds true for Sania, whose first aim would be to survive the opening round.
There was a time when he was known as one of Asia’s leading shot putters and discus throwers. Today, he is a nobody. Lying on a cot in a nondescript village named Bhagta Bhai Ka, 40 km from Bathinda, Parduman Singh spews venom at the government for its insensitivity towards him ever since he quit competitive athletics about four decades ago.
The 78-year-old Parduman, a medal winner in three editions of the Asian Games till 1962, is living out his old age in penury. His modest house bears no name plate, just the number 1992 inscribed on a concrete pillar. His name does not ring a bell among most villagers. Here he is known as the ‘Gole Wala Baba’.
Parduman retired as Risaldar Major from the Army in 1972 and since then he his living on a pittance of a pension. Too feeble and too old to support his wife and son, Parduman bitterly recalls the day he took to athletics as a starry-eyed boy while studying in the village school.
The man whose muscular frame was once the envy of many, now lies paralysed after he met with an accident in 1982. "No one even visited me to know how was I living till the Arjuna Award was announced in 2000," he says.
When the award was announced, the athlete was caught in a dilemma — whether to accept it or not. His reasoning was that why had the government overlooked him all these years. "After my retirement from the Army, why were my applications addressed to politicians and bureaucrats for a job repeatedly rejected?", he asks in a voice heavy with emotion.
In a corner of the room is a cupboard stacked with chipped medals, faded photographs, rusting trophies and frayed newspaper clippings. If you think this is a treasure, he remarks, "No, this is junk."
Parduman proudly remembers the Tricolour rising when he won the shot put gold in the 1962 Jakarta Asiad. And then he recalls the next four decades he has spent in desolation. The prince of Indian athletics from 1950 to 1960 laments the government’s callous attitude towards him.
After much begging, the Punjab Government thought it appropriate to dole out a monthly pension of Rs 2,000, but that too has now been discontinued without any obvious reason.
It is not only poverty that hurts him. It is the trauma of anonymity — the men who once lauded him now reject his petitions and job applications. Outstanding players like him have realised painfully that even if you win laurels for the country, there is no guarantee of becoming rich and famous. Even honour comes at a premium for them.
Big-time hockey is here again. The 14th Azlan Shah tournament begins in Kuala Lumpur on May 26, featuring seven of the world’s top teams. Besides India, who finished seventh and last in the previous edition, Olympic and defending champions Australia, last year’s losing finalists Pakistan, bronze medallists South Korea, sixth-placed Malaysia, New Zealand and South Africa will compete in a round-robin format. The high-profile India-Pakistan clash is on June 1.
Lin Dan showed why he was the world’s number one player in men’s badminton as he battled to a dramatic 17-15, 15-9 singles win over Indonesian Olympic champion Taufik Hidayat in the final of the Sudirman Cup last week, powering China to a 3-0 victory.
The highly anticipated showdown provided some of the best badminton of the tournament and a big test for Lin who had to come back from behind in both games.
"The match proved I can beat Taufik," Lin said. "I was able to control him and break his patience so he couldn’t play his game."
In a marathon first game, sometime badminton bad-boy Hidayat coolly handled Lin’s slams and took a 14-12 lead. But Lin kept his cool with some accurate shots and fast footwork to draw even at 14-14 and with the momentum going his way, fought hard to take the game 17-15.
The second game was also a see-saw, the two trading points until Lin went ahead 11-9 and eventually clinched victory.
While Lin had not really been challenged earlier in the tournament, Hidayat earned his spot in the final by beating Danish world number three Peter Gade 2-0 in the semifinal.
Hidayat had come out on top in a previous meeting with Lin in the semifinals of the Indonesia Open in 2004.
But Chinese coach Li Yongbo said after the result: "Lin’s 2-0 win shows who’s stronger, who’s better." — Reuters
Ganguly can bounce back
Apropos of the write-up "Down, but not out" (Saturday Extra, April 23), Sourav Ganguly can’t be written off so easily just because he is going through a lean patch. Though his form has deserted him and his performance has nosedived, he still has the ability and mental toughness to bounce back. Form is temporary whereas class is permanent. He is in a class by himself and regaining form should not be a Herculean task for him.
The most successful skipper of India in both versions of the game, Ganguly needs moral support and encouragement, not antipathy. Those who are baying for his blood should not forget his significant contribution to Indian cricket.
It was Ganguly under whose leadership India had humbled Pakistan in Tests as well as one-dayers in Pakistan last year. So he should be given a chance to fight back to silence his detractors. He should concentrate on his batting and make way for someone else to captain India.
Tarsem S. Bumrah
Cricket loaded in batsman’s favour
The fourth Test match between South Africa and the West Indies ended in a tame draw as the pitch was as dead as a dodo. As many as eight tons were scored in the match. Such pitches are not good for Test cricket. Pitches should be prepared keeping in mind batsmen as well as bowlers. But unfortunately, cricket is becoming very batsman friendly.
Pitches which are bowler friendly — like the one used for the India-Australia Test in Mumbai last year — get a lot of criticism while those helpful to the batsmen do not. The Mumbai pitch drew flak even though it produced a result, while the one in St John’s, Antigua, got away without criticism despite being responsible for a drab draw.
Kapil Mohan Pal