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The Natural: Can clay star Simona Halep keep rolling at Roland Garros?
Jim Courier gave his thoughts on the Romanian and this unusual edition of the clay-court Slam.
Published Sep 24, 2020
This year can be compared to a lonely, dimly lit back alley—and even that might be generous. It’s eerie and certainly not a place anyone would choose to be in. But at least in the world of tennis, champions find a way to overcome obstacles, uncover solutions and take positives from any situation, even if they are mired in obscurity. Court Philippe-Chatrier may not be filled to capacity this year at Roland Garros, but it still takes seven matches to win a major, and the game is played exactly the same.
Jim Courier would know. The two-time Roland Garros champion is headed to Paris to cover the tournament for Tennis Channel, and discussed what's in store at the upcoming clay-court Slam earlier this week.
“Players mentally aren’t used to being on this surface this time of the year,” says Courier. “So, can you be positive and look at it as an opportunity or are you grinding your way through what’s left of this year? It depends on your view but it’s a great opportunity for whoever is ready to take it.”
In the weeks leading up to the US Open, top players announced their absence from the event in a steady stream. This led to a floating conversation of whether the hard-court event deserved an asterisk. While it’s a popular opinion—and while there are big-name absences at Roland Garros—Courier disagrees emphatically.
“As long as it’s seven matches to win and the players aren’t striking, then for me the answer is no," he says. "It’s a very different Roland Garros, but it’s not one that the champions will be looked on with any inferiority."
Most recently, Bianca Andreescu joined the list of withdrawals. Three-time major champion Naomi Osaka and reigning Roland Garros champion Ash Barty will also not be present. But Serena Williams, Simona Halep, Victoria Azarenka and other major champions will be vying for the title, and similar to the US Open, they will endure unusual and somewhat challenging circumstances. Taking everything into consideration, Courier believes the women’s side is up for grabs, and it will most likely boil down to which player has the better mindset, embraces the challenges and finds the sometimes-elusive comfort on the terre battue.
One of the strangest circumstances heading into Roland Garros is not having a typical clay-court season beforehand. With only a few weeks to prepare, this tournament will be a serious challenge for players who need time to adapt to the dirt. Along with a positive mindset, Courier believes “natural” clay-courters will have the best chance at capturing this edition.
“I think if you have any trepidation about the movement on clay and it’s something that isn’t natural to you, then it’s very difficult to make the transition in such a short period of time,” Courier says.
Since the WTA tour resumed in August, Halep has captured clay-court titles in Prague and Rome, and holds a 10-match winning streak heading into Roland Garros. The Romanian is accustomed to reaching the deeper rounds in Paris and lifted the Coupe Suzanne-Lenglen in 2018. Halep’s movement on clay is both graceful and precise, never overthinking, just simply playing her game. The world No. 2 embodies the very definition of a “natural.”
“She has been practicing on the clay and that obviously paid dividends for her in Rome. She’s perfectly poised to do well there; doesn’t mean she will because women’s tennis has been hard to dominate in the recent years," Courier says. (There have been seven first-time Grand Slam champions at the past 14 majors.) "We have had so many winners in the majors and I don’t think we have ended that cycle. Halep for me would be the favorite, but a lot can change.”
Courier is excited to see all the storylines unfold, and also to absorb all of the on-site updates, which include an added retractable roof on Court Philippe-Chatrier. There's also a new a fan pique-nique viewing area in place of the former Court 1, more famously known as the “Bullring.”
“My favorite court in the entire world since I was a kid was Bullring, which has been demolished and now they have an open space for what they hoped would be a lot of fans, that won’t be the case this year," laments Courier. "But, I’m very interested to see those improvements. I just love the atmosphere in general, it’s very charming at Roland Garros and I’m sure they’ve done a great job with it.”
Roland Garros will not look the same in any regard, from the venue itself to the playing field. But at the end of the day, the player that manages to clear this French fog will come out on top.
“I think the fact that we are playing at all right now is fabulous, because I know how hard the organizations across the globe have been working to make these tournaments happen,” says Courier. “It’s a challenge, we had a short clay-court season and it’s wonderful that they have been able to adjust and find spaces for the players to play.
“We are going to get three out of four majors in, which is pretty remarkable.”