By Linda Pearce
You’re at the local trivia night. Have answered the questions about capital cities and Kardashians and then, phew, thankfully, some tennis. Except that it’s a curly one: who is the last Australian to win an ATP singles title on the European red clay?
(Clues: tall Tasmanian. Quiet but friendly. Career-high ranking No.24.)
And if you still haven’t guessed, Richard Fromberg doesn’t mind.
“I don’t think many people would get that one,’’ laughs the man who claimed the last of his four career titles on the european red dirt of Bucharest in 1997, adding to others in Bastad and Bologna and a sole hardcourt triumph in Wellington.
Having played in an era that included world No.1s Lleyton Hewitt and Pat Rafter, nor did the player who retired in 2002 have any inkling that his last-Aussie-man status would endure more than two decades later.
“It’s pretty amazing when you think about it, because Lleyton was probably a better clay court player than me overall, but didn’t quite get there for a European clay court title (did win in Houston and Delray Beach in the US on red clay and green clay respectively) and Pat was a semi-finalist at the French, so he could play on clay,’’ says Fromberg. “But those two didn’t play as many clay court tournaments as me, either.’’
Rafter, in fact, was not just a 1997 semi-finalist at Roland Garros, but the athletic serve-volleyer remains Australia’s most recent in the men’s draw. That is, despite being no-one's idea of a clay court specialist - least of all his own.
The 2010 runner-up Sam Stosur was then the standout, and consistently, reaching at least the last four on four occasions, before Ash Barty broke the nation’s 46-year drought at the continental major with her famous triumph in 2019.
As Barty prepares to carry the top seeding and tournament favouritism into the 2021 edition, which has been delayed by a week to start on May 30, there is again little prospect of a countryman joining the Queenslander in contention deep into the second week.
Fromberg points to obvious factors such as the European players’ greater exposure to and experience on the surface, yet is quietly bullish about the prospects of Spanish-based Alex de Minaur and 2017 junior champion Alexei Popyrin, while also pointing to John Millman’s ATP finals appearance in Budapest.
A baton-pass the 50-year-old considers to be just a matter of time suggests that perhaps the gender divide is not so much the Aussie men lagging behind as the outstanding level of two particular Aussie women.
“I just reckon that Ash Barty is probably the most talented tennis player that we’ve had for a long, long time,’’ says Fromberg, now a respected coach. “She’s got great touch, she’s got a very good slice, which can be effective on clay - just a great game on every surface, really.
“With Sam, she had a lot of strength, a lot of power, and a lot of topspin, so she was able to do very well on clay, too.’’
Few are more passionate about the subject of clay court tennis than Paul McNamee. The former doubles great, top-25 singles player and Australian Open chief executive is adamant that it is not just the best teaching surface but, well, the only one.
“Hardcourt is draughts. Clay is chess. It’s the highest form of the game,’’ McNamee says. "You can bluff on a hardcourt; there’s nowhere to hide on a clay court. That’s where you learn how to play. In terms of learning the game there’s only one surface: that’s why almost 80 (74 on last week’s rankings) of the top 100 men are from Europe.’’
Hence his disappointment at the cavalier attitude of Nick Kyrgios, who has what McNamee has dubbed the type of “king forehand” that would help bring the world No.56 success during a swing he has not contested since a three-match Rome-Madrid cameo in 2019. Notable results before that included the 20-year-old's upset of Roger Federer in three tiebreaks at the 2015 Madrid Masters.
“Nick calls them dirt-baggers, these guys who play on clay. He’s got no love for it at all. Zero. He could care less if he ever played on clay again,’’ says McNamee. “So even though he can play on clay, actually, he has a disdain for it, so he’s inherited that Aussie ‘we don’t care about clay’ attitude and that sends a message to the young kids.
“Alex de Minaur can play on it, but his lack of a real weapon hurts him. He’s such an all-round player, his weapons are arguably his movement and his competitive spirit, and his backhand’s great, but he hasn’t got what I call a true weapon, so he needs to develop that, I think, to be a great player on clay.
“Popyrin. He’s an all-round good player. I really rate him. I think the jury’s out on whether he’s got a big Roland Garros in him; I just like his game. He makes too many errors, but he’s young, and he’s slowly going to get better and better and better.
“I mean, his game is sending him to top 10, in my opinion, because he’s got the Spanish one-two punch, which is the big serve and a big forehand. His backhand probably has to improve a little bit, but he volleys pretty well. Moves well. Big guy. Ticks the boxes. Not a classic clay-courter, but he’s good on every court.’’
In Europe, where 21-year-old Popyrin trains at the Mouratoglou Academy in Nice, there are plenty more of the clay variety than in Australia, where the two major training facilities are at Melbourne Park (six - with two others relocated as casualties of the current redevelopment) and the Queensland Tennis Centre in Brisbane (three).
Following the destructive digging up of clay courts in Queensland and New South Wales in the 1970s, McNamee says the decision 10-15 years ago to re-invest in the Italian-style product has already paid a rich dividend: specifically, the success of Brisbane-based Barty at the clay court slam.
“It was always going to be a really good surface for her, with her sliced backhand and her versatility, and her ability to get free points on her serve, and she slides very well,’’ says McNamee, who senses a slight shift in the 25-year-old's priorities.
“She has this love of grass and this Wimbledon fascination, but in my opinion she is more likely to win more Roland Garros titles than Wimbledons,with her game. But there’s no question she’s capable of winning Wimbledon, including this year.’’
McNamee is confident that the Barty-led renaissance, which will play out its next chapter in the 16th arrondissement before limited crowds next month, will reinforce the need to no longer treat the famous red Parisian red clay as a mere warm-up for the famous lawns of SW19.
So, another trivia question: how many Australians have won multiple French singles championships?
Answer: five (Margaret Court, Roy Emerson, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Lesley Turner Bowrey).
Which might soon be six. No prizes for guessing that one.
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