At the French Open, Feats of Clay

Why is clay the toughest surface for tennis players? Ron Rapoport and Lynn Neary ponder that poser and review action from the first week of the French Open. Martina Hingis is playing well in her first French Open in five years.

LYNN NEARY, host:

Time now for sports. We're smack in the middle of the French Open. The reining women's champ is Justine Henin-Hardenne. She's just won her third round match. The men's champ, Raphael Nadal, also looks unstoppable. But American Andy Roddick wasn't so lucky this week. He's already left the clay courts at Roland Garros.

We're joined now by our best man on any surface, Ron Rapoport.

Good morning, Ron.

Mr. RON RAPOPORT (Sports Columnist, Chicago Sun-Times): Hi, Lynn.

NEARY: So the real story here is on the women's side is Martina Hingis's comeback. She's playing at Roland Garros for the first time since 2001. How is she looking?

Mr. RAPOPORT: Well, she's looking great, Lynn. You know, she won her comeback tournament in Rome last week after a three-year layoff because of injuries. And she's really played well in her early matches here. This is her first French Open in five years and the tournament has not been kind to her, she's never won. So it will be a great win for her on several counts.

NEARY: Roger Federer, of course, wants to win this Open. But clay is a tough surface for a lot of people.

Mr. RAPOPORT: Well, you know, of all the major championship venues in any sport, really, the French Open may be the strangest. Pete Sampras won 14 Grand Slam tennis titles, more than any other human being, never won the French. Federer, the greatest player alive today, he's won every other major title at least twice in the last three in a row, never won the French. And Hingis, as we said, she's won five in a row, but never won the French either.

On the other hand, you have Raphael Nadal, who you mentioned. He's only 20, but he's already won a French Open. And, in fact, just set a record with 55 wins in a row on the clay courts. So it's a perverse tournament, no question about it.

NEARY: Hmm. James Blake is the only American man standing in France this week, and he's got quite a story. How's his game?

Mr. RAPOPORT: Well, he's playing very, very well. He'd be just a wildly popular winner if he could pull this one off. Two years ago, you'll remember, he broke his neck when he was racing toward the net to return a drop shot, lost his balance, slammed head first into a steel post. He said he could feel the post move and his neck didn't.

NEARY: Ugh.

Mr. RAPOPORT: So it's amazing that he's playing at all, really, not to mention playing so very, very well.

NEARY: What about the Williams sisters?

Mr. RAPOPORT: Well, Serena pulled out. She was hurt. Venus is one of the two American women left in the tournament. Shenay Perry is the other. And along with Justine Henin-Hardenne, there are half a dozen potential winners: Amelie Mauresmo, Maria Sharapova and Clijsters and Venus. So this shapes up as a very interesting tournament on both sides, of both men and women.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much, Ron.

Mr. RAPOPORT: Okay, Lynn.

NEARY: Our own sports commentator, Ron Rapoport.

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