It's a clay-court world outside the United States
What is it about the French Open -- particularly on the men's side -- that creates so many one-hit wonders? Greg Garber explains.
PARIS -- Martin Verkerk, 6-foot-5 and gloriously goofy, came bouncing out of the obscure Dutch club circuit and all the way into the 2003 French Open singles final.
Verkerk has won all of two Grand Slam singles matches at the other three venues combined, but for one delicious fortnight at Roland Garros he somehow won six times before falling to Juan Carlos Ferrero in a straight-sets final.
Today, Verkerk is essentially out of tennis. He rose as high as No. 14 in the world later that year, but he did not play at all in 2005 because of a shoulder injury. He retired from his only ATP match this year against Flavio Cipolla in Naples, Italy.
What is it about the French Open -- particularly on the men's side -- that so often creates the phenomenon of the Accidental Tourist, the Verkerkian one-hit wonder?
It is a certifiable, undeniable fact. In the Open era, the French Open has provided the platform for no fewer than 21 first-time Grand Slam singles winners on the men's side. That's twice as many as any other Slam; the U.S. Open has 10 first-timers, followed by Wimbledon and the Australian Open with nine each.
Yannick Noah famously broke through here in 1983 for the only Grand Slam victory in his 14-year career. Carlos Moya, the stylish Spanish player, won the 1998 French Open and, to this day, has not won another major title. Albert Costa (2002), Ferrero (2003), Gaston Gaudio (2004) and Rafael Nadal (2005) also broke through at the French and have yet to add another Grand Slam.
Nadal is one of six active male players with a lone Grand Slam in his trophy case. It is worth noting that four of those players broke through in the French. Nadal, of course, seems destined to win at least several more, but you can make the case that Moya, Costa, Gaudio and Ferrero might never win another.
Because, outside of the United States, it's largely a clay-court world. There are no statistics available, but people who know the game say more professional tennis players would cite clay as their No. 1 surface -- over hard court or grass -- if surveyed. There are more men's tournaments on clay (25) than hardcourt (21) and the French Open is the only Grand Slam tournament played on clay.
And because clay is a slow and confounding surface for marquee players whose power is more conducive to winning on hard courts or grass, many of them are virtually eliminated as contenders in Paris. Pete Sampras, Boris Becker, Jimmy Connors -- and Roger Federer -- have never won here, which creates some room at the top.
For the Europeans and South American players who grew up sliding on clay, Roland Garros is their holy grail.
"This is their only shot at a Slam," said ESPN analyst Mary Carillo. "Look at the past champions playing today -- Fererro, Gaudio, Moya -- they played beautifully to win their titles. If you can grind for two weeks, you can win this thing."
On the women's side, there are fewer interlopers. Still, Anastasia Myskina won her first and only Grand Slam title at Roland Garros and, judging by recent results, may be one and done. Iva Majoli of Croatia won here in 1997 -- and never made another major semifinal, before or since.
On Friday, there were four past champions on display on the show courts: Nadal, Moya, Ferrero and Gaudio. Two of them lost in the third round.
When Ferrero reached the final in 2003, it marked the fourth consecutive year he had reached the semifinals. The King, as he is known, seemed destined for a long reign. In the last three years, however, he has failed to get past the third round. Moreover, since defeating Andre Agassi in the semifinals of the U.S. Open, Ferrero is 0-8 in Grand Slam matches against seeded players. He has not won a tournament since the end of that 2003 season.
"I think I played a good match against someone who's a specialist on clay," Ferrero said. "I tried to do my best, but he was dominating all the time."
Gaudio, for his part, made the round of 16 at a major tournament for only the fourth time. Yes, of course, all four have come at Roland Garros.
Moya, who won his first four matches against Davydenko, has now lost two matches in straight sets. On Friday, it was 6-1, 7-5, 6-3. It was over in barely two hours.
Davydenko is building toward a high-end result here at Roland Garros. He reached the semifinals here last year -- naturally, his best Grand Slam effort to date -- and is the No. 6 seed this year.
Moya, now 29, fell out of the top 10 only last year, but he talks about his time on top as if it were ages ago. He finds small victories wherever he can. Moya said he was pleased to be playing on the second-largest court at Roland Garros, Suzanne Lenglen -- even if it was where he lost the last two years.
"You can see you're still important, you're still well-considered," he said. "I have great memories of that central court [Philippe Chatrier] because that's where I won my first Grand Slam. I hope that I will be able to play more matches on center court."
Moya, clearly, moves through life with optimism. His first Grand Slam, like so many one-shot champions at Roland Garros, is more than likely to be his last.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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