BOSTON — The difference between loss and victory in Grand Slam tennis can be a surface issue, especially during high season, which began this week and ends in September.
From the red clay of the French Open, to the manicured lawn courts of Wimbledon, and finally the hard courts of the US Open, the crust on tennis courts changes in color, texture, and playing conditions.
On the first day of the French Open this week, last year's champion Gustavo Kuerten breezed into the second round of the tournament. But Greg Rusedski and a few other seeded players fell quickly by the wayside. Their style just wasn't suited to clay.
The key to mastering this cramped season is managing the transitions between surfaces. Pete Sampras, arguably the greatest men's player ever, hasn't yet found it when it comes to clay. Yet.
"Tennis is a more specialized sport now," says US national coach Eliot Teltscher, who was among the Top 10 players during the 1980s. Players are sticking to the surface that suits their style.
Specialization is clearly evident in the disappearance of a phrase from the tennis lexicon - "the all-court player." The last to qualify for the category was Steffi Graf.
Sampras, the dominant men's player of recent years, has won only one clay court title in four years, and it was earlier this month in Atlanta. If he wins the French, he will finally join Graf in the ranks of those victorious on all Grand Slam surfaces.
The next best hope for an all-court player is Marcelo Rios. The Chilean is the favorite to win the French Open because he, like many Latin American players, has spent years playing on clay, and he has also raised the level of his game on other surfaces to play the best tennis on the tour in recent months. He surprised many by winning on hard courts earlier this year. Rios, however, is a rarity.
The clay at the French Open caters to players with strong stamina and patience. It is the slowest surface in the sport and allows players a bit more time to vary their strokes. The bounce is consistent, the rallies are long. It is essentially for players who stick to the baseline and rally till the opponent makes mistakes.
Serve-and-volleyer Rusedski, currently ranked fourth in the world, has won just one match in five clay-court tournaments this season. It is difficult to make a quick transition from one surface to another, says Teltscher.
In May and June the headlines usually have names such as Rios, Kucera, Carlos, Costa, Kuerten. Then they disappear.
The season shifts to grass. Sampras, Patrick Rafter, Rusedski are the everyday names. They take easily to grass, which is a short season. Players have just two weeks to acclimatize to the surface in preparation for Wimbledon. It is crunch time. And that's what makes tennis a unique sport.
The surface at Wimbledon is the fastest in the game. The bounce, unlike at the French Open, is erratic. Unpredictable. Patience is no virtue. Last year several clay-court specialists, including Top 20 players, skipped Wimbledon.
When the time comes to make a switch for the US Open, hard-court players have a big advantage. It is a fast surface and suits players who rely heavily on a big serve and rush to the net behind their serves and avoid long rallies.
During the high season, tennis almost seems like more than one sport.