Year’s second Grand Slam at Roland Garros in Paris is still some time away but the buzz has already begun. Every year, thousands flock to the glamorous French capital and add more glamour by their presence at several courts of RG. Tournament controller French Tennis Federation has a new director-general Jeremy Botton and tournament director is also a new man, Guy Forget. In press conference a few days ago, they announced an increase in this year’s prize money besides briefing the media on other aspects 2016 French Open. Nearly 250 ball boys and girls are already under training on the red-clay courts of RG under watchful eyes of a starter. Most of these teenaged kids will be doing the duty for the first time. In the run-up to the big event, one cannot help recall Andre Agassi’s monumental efforts in 1999, Rafael Nadal’s 9 RG titles, Novak Djokovic’s unfulfilled dream of winning the only tournament that has eluded him for a decade and Serena Williams’ quest of the 22nd Grand Slam victory that will help her draw level with Steffi Graf.
It was announced that 2016 French Open will be handing out 32 million euros in prize money, an increase of about 14% over 2015. The most important aspect of such enhancement is maximizing the winnings of those in opening rounds. This sets RG apart from other Grand Slams, as the winnings of players at the lower end has been enhanced by nearly 70% in the last five years. With gender parity restored in prize terms, first round men and women singles winners are assured of 24000 euros each while the two singles champions will collect 2.1 million euros each.
One pre-tournament exercise is training of the ball kids. They have a starter, who tells them about keeping their voices low, running, sitting, waiting and ball collecting. About 250 teenaged kids are undergoing a dress rehearsal for the real event. Beginning on May 16, when qualifying matches will start, these kids will serve until June 5. Throughout the afternoon, youngsters, aged between 12 and 16 years are put to a hard grind of running and suddenly stopping that puts physical strains on their legs. Besides, they are also being trained for such scenarios, when some players ask for a particular ball that won them the last point or someone, who would want a towel in between the points. For most of these boys and girls, it will be a new experience but some of them also served in 2015. The selection process is a long-drawn exercise lasting the entire year and only about 250 make the grade out of nearly 2500 applicants. They all know it is going to be tough in summer heat and flying plumes of red clay.
This year, world no.1 Serena Williams will be trying to equal Steffi Graf’s record of 22 Grand Slam wins while Novak Djokovic will attempt to win the only trophy he has missed in his life. The Serb is the undisputed world no.1 for last two years but the RG trophy does not ornate his awards-chest. The unlucky Djokovic reached the finals in 2012, 2014 and 2015 but couldn’t cross the last hurdle. In 2015, it was Stan Wawrinka and on other two occasions, he lost to Rafael Nadal. Roger Federer got lucky in 2009, when Nadal lost to Sweden’s Robin Soldeing in fourth round and when Soldering reached the final, he couldn’t beat the then world no.1.
Another intriguing RG story concerns the legendary Andre Agassi, an 8-time Grand Slam Winner and 1996 Olympic gold medalist. Agassi was one of the game’s most dominant stars from early nineties to the mid-2000s but won the French Open in 1999 under the most trying circumstances. As a 20-year old Agassi reached the final at RG in 1990 but lost to Ecuador’s Andres Gomez in four sets. In 1991 too, Agassi entered the final but lost to Jim courier in a five-setter. By 1995, Agassi became the world no.1 for the first time. All of a sudden, Agassi was plagued by personal issues in a two-year period until 1997 and sank to world no.141. Just when most people thought his tennis career was over, defied the odds and regained his world no.1 ranking, cemented by his famous RG victory in 1999. The American would have exited in second round against Frenchman Arnaud Clement, who needed to win just two points against but Agassi survived. In fourth round against Spain’s defending champion Carlos Moya, Agassi was down a set and two break points before he fought back to win. Agassi’s most difficult test came in the final against Ukraine’s Andrei Medvedev. After losing the first two sets, Agassi amazingly pulled himself together to win 1-6, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4. Everything about Agassi was special and that included his attitude and the outwardly appearance.
No RG account can be completed without the story of the King-of-Clay Rafael Nadal, whose record of 9 victories is nearly impossible to break. From 2005 to 2008, Nadal had a vice-like grip at RG. However, Robin Soldering came in his way in 2009. Nadal got over that blip next year and recorded 5 more consecutive wins until 2014. 7 out of Nadal’s 9 RG victories have come after he had won also at Monte Carlo. Besides these 7 Monte Carlo-Roland Garros doubles, Nadal recorded two more victories at Monte-Carlo to make it 9 titles each at RG and Monte Carlo. It is an amazing record though the famed Spaniard has recently suffered a loss of form due to injuries. Now having won Monte Carlo 10 days back, Nadal will look forward to making the Monte-Carlo-RG double for the 8th time. That will also make it his 10th title at RG. But you have to wait some more, before the reality unfolds at Paris.