It remains highly unlikely that there will ever be a time when British tennis players are as comfortable on clay as their European counterparts, but the last few weeks have nevertheless seen a remarkable upturn in the fortunes of British players, both male and female, on the red dirt. That has added to what has already been the thoroughly welcome return of the European clay court swing, after its almost complete abandonment last year in the immediate wake of the coronavirus pandemic. This week, Cameron Norrie has been the latest Briton to bloom on clay.
He is having an unexpectedly impressive run at the Estoril Open in Portugal, reaching the semifinals of the ATP 250 Tournament after producing what is arguably the best result of his career by beating Cristian Garin, the Chilean clay-court specialist and second seed at Estoril, 3-6 7-5 6-3 earlier today. Norrie will now face Marin Cilic in the semifinal on Saturday, after the Croatian’s quarterfinal opponent Kevin Anderson retired injured after an exhausting first set that Cilic finally won in a tiebreak. Cilic, of course, is a two-time Major finalist, but given the way Norrie is playing, the Briton will fancy his chances against the veteran.
The British #2 had been impressive enough in his last 16 victory over Pedro Martinez, who may have been ranked below him but is still a natural Spanish clay-courter. Nevertheless, against Martinez Norrie demonstrated great patience and persistence, perhaps the two most important qualities on clay, the surface on which it is hardest to hit winners. Eventually, he ground down his opponent to win 6-4 6-7 7-5, in a fiercely fought and generally high-quality contest that lasted for more than three hours, before ending in an utterly unfitting manner with a Martinez double-fault.
Garin, however, was a significant step up in class for Norrie, as appeared to be the case when the Chilean won their opening set relatively comfortably. In the second set, however, Norrie upped his game, served more impressively and then broke the Chilean to win 7-5. But it was the third set that was the most surprising, as the British player broke Garin midway through it and then served superbly to see out the match, culminating in a final service game to love. Garin may not have been at his best, but it was an excellent result all the same.
In the less star-studded field at the ATP 250 event, at least in comparison with an ATP 500 or Masters Tournament, Norrie now has a genuine chance of winning his first tour-level title. However, before British tennis fans get too carried away at what would have seemed an extremely unlikely prospect at the start of the week, it must be pointed out that the other half of the draw contains three younger players in Ugo Humbert, Corentin Moutet and Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, all of whom will fancy their own chances of victory in Estoril.
Nevertheless, whatever happens now, Norrie has had a superb week, finally fulfilling all the clay-court potential that he had shown on his real breakthrough as a professional, which came more than three years ago in the Davis Cup. Then, as a last-minute call-up to the British team after Andy Murray had to pull out through injury (sadly, neither the first nor the last of the great Scot’s recent injury troubles), he stunned the world, or at least the whole of Spain, by beating Roberto Bautista Agut in five sets, after losing the first two, on the clay of Marbella.
The most encouraging aspect of Norrie’s improvement on clay this season is that it is not even the most impressive upturn in form by a British man. That accolade still belongs to Dan Evans, after his own run to the last four at a clay-court event, and his came at one of the greatest and most historic clay-court tournaments in the world, the Monte Carlo Masters.
Evans had not won a match on clay on the main ATP Tour for more than four years before he went on a devastating run that accounted for Hubert Hurkacz, the newly crowned Miami Masters Champion, Novak Djokovic, the world #1, who he beat in straight sets, and David Goffin, who he actually bagelled (or more accurately “claygelled”) in the first set. And if ultimately Evans lost to Stefanos Tsitsipas in straight sets in the semifinal, he can take comfort from the fact that only the current King of Clay, Rafael Nadal, has beaten the man who increasingly looks like his heir apparent on the red stuff this year, in their classic, three-set Barcelona Open Final last weekend.
It is fair to say that Evans has not yet built on that superb week by the Mediterranean in subsequent events, especially in Barcelona, where he lost to the man who is fast becoming his nemesis, Corentin Moutet, after the young Frenchman also defeated him in the second round of the US Open last year. Nevertheless, defeating the great Djokovic in straight sets on clay proves that Evans can go deep in Rome, Madrid or even, given a good draw, Roland Garros itself.
The third part of the British hat-trick of impressive clay-court performances was provided by Johanna Konta, in the WTA Madrid Open. Unlike Norrie or Evans, Konta has already shown great clay-court pedigree in her career, having reached the French Open semifinals in 2019, a wonderful run that ended disappointingly in a loss to the Czech Marketa Vondrousova, who at the time was only a teenager.
Arguably, Konta has been on a prolonged career hangover since that loss, especially as the pandemic wiped out so much tennis last year, but she may just be showing the first signs of a career revival, including on clay. So far in Madrid, she has only won one game, but it was against Yulia Putintseva, the Kazakhstan player whose favourite and best surface is clay. Having won only two other games on tour so far this year, for Konta to beat Putintseva in straight sets, 6-4 6-2, was a hugely welcome return to form for Britain’s #1.
Of course, British players have done well on clay in the past. Andy Murray went one better than Konta at Roland Garros in 2016 when he reached the Final and even won the first set against Novak Djokovic, before the Serb eventually won in four sets to win the French Open for the first time and complete his career Grand Slam. And there have even been British players in the past, both men and women, who have done better than Murray and triumphed in Paris.
Two British men have won the French Open (or French Championships, as it was then): a certain H. Briggs won the very first Men’s Singles event in 1891, which is so long ago that it appears his first name was never recorded for posterity; and of course the great Fred Perry triumphed in 1935. And in total an impressive eight British women have won the French title, including such great champions as Christine Truman (in 1959) and Ann Haydon, who won twice (in 1961 and 1966), even if the only Open-era winner is Sue Barker (in 1976).
No-one is suggesting that any one of the current crop of British men and women tennis players is likely to add to that list of French Champions, although Konta would have an outside chance if she could rediscover her form of 2019. Nevertheless, after so many barren years on the European clay-court circuit, with the notable exception of Andy Murray, it is still wonderful to see more than one British tennis player finally blooming on the red dirt.
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