It is the black sheep of the Grand Slam tournaments with the clay surface sending many players into uncommon difficulties, but the time of Roland Garros has arrived once again and the tennis world is all abuzz with the latest news that the financial rewards on offer will be significantly increased this year. It has been announced that the French Open is raising the prize money for each stage of the tournament by at least ten per cent lending the familiar betting on who will be the lucky winners an exciting edge. The total amount the Parisian competition will give out is 25 million euros (£20.63 million/$34.56 million), with the Singles Champions earning 1.65 million euros (£1.33 million/$22.11 million) respectively. This is an increase of three million euros in total and an extra 150,000 euros on the individual prizes picked up by the champions last year.
The move has been welcomed by those in the tennis world particularly because the biggest increases have come in the earlier rounds of the tournament. It is part of a four-year plan (between 2013-2016) specifically geared towards helping players knocked out in the first week of play. This is partly due to the fact that a career in professional tennis can come at quite a high financial cost as funding and monetary rewards are not always very substantial for players outside of the top 100. As a result those making an exit in the second or third rounds will receive 20 per cent more than last year in prize money, with 42,000 euros and 72,000 euros, and fourth round players will get even more with a 25 per cent rise meaning they will pocket an attractive 125,000 euros for their efforts.
Roland Garros starts on the 25th of May and Wimbledon are set to announce their own increases in prize payment later this month, but with the increased prize money on offer at the French Open speculation is now centered on which of the top players will be the lucky winners taking home such nice checks. With the King of Clay, Rafael Nadal, in good shape, the Spaniard and defending champion is once more the runaway favorite for the title. Nadal has won a record eight singles titles in the French Open as well as holding a joint record with Bjorn Borg of four consecutive titles at the Grand Slam. Unlike many other surfaces clay is not one on which players normally specialize due to the slow nature of the courts and the requirements for precision and stamina as well as acute psychological tactics are arguably higher than on other types of surface. Yet Nadal has claimed the clay courts as his own and his ability to consistently dispatch any challengers has been proven year on year. However, there are multiple contenders waiting to challenge his dominance on the notoriously difficult surface with the main one being the Serbian Novak Djokovic. Having beaten the world number one on the surface before as well as in their last three meetings in London, Beijing and Miami, he is one of the few that has not only managed to master the clay surface but also matched Nadal, although as yet not at the same time.
Of the other players, Federer has always displayed a remarkable mental weakness when it comes to taking on Nadal, and he is clearly not at home on the clay court. At 32 he is no longer at the top of his game, but his previous flair does make occasional appearances. Unfortunately his chances of overcoming his greatest challenge are fairly small. Equally, the British hope Andy Murray has slipped down the rankings recently and was distinctly luke-warm in his performance at the Sony Open in Miami – his first tournament since his back surgery. It remains to be seen whether he will have recovered his best form in time for the French Open, particularly given his ongoing search for a coach to replace Ivan Lendl. World number three Stanislas Wawrinka who was a surprise winner in the Australian Open is more comfortable than most on the clay, and could potentially cause Nadal difficulties, but his recent form has not been great with a withdrawal in Miami and losses in the Davis Cup. Similarly Thomas Berdych could be a contender but would have to produce his best performance to date if he got far enough to face Nadal.
In terms of the women’s game, despite the deplorable tendency of the media to focus on their dress sense and sponsorship attire, there is a similar situation with last years champion the clear favorite in the form of Serena Williams. However, the American has struggled in recent times despite her victory in the Sony Open and has never really shown any flair on the clay courts, preferring to rely on her ability to over power her opponents in her usual style. So perhaps the women’s game is more open in terms of challengers. As the ranking of the top female players tend to move around a lot more than the men’s, those at the top are frequently displaced making it more difficult to place bets on who might be the one to come out victorious. Some of the best women players such as Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka have never managed to reach the final stage of this tournament. Even Maria Sharapova has only managed to win once in 2012, and Li Na, the Chinese player Williams defeated in the Sony Open final of this year has also won once the previous year. Ana Ivanovic is another one time winner in Paris. All could be contenders, but for the most part the women currently competing in the modern game have shown little consistency in their ability to win on clay so this years tournament is as difficult to predict as the last few have been.
So while the news that the French Open prize money has been increased has sparked excitement and interest among tennis fans, the bets are now on for who will be among the lucky winners taking home this years trophies. With a notoriously hard and tricky surface to gauge and only a few players showing any real preference for the clay, it will be interesting to see how the competition plays out at this years French Open.
Commentary by Rhona Scullion