Is Anyone Left To Win Roland Garros?
By Tim Joyce
The odds are always against a lefty-lefty duel over the Musketeers Cup, or in any final. Last year, when Rafael Nadal bested Mariano Puerta, 6-7 (6), 6-3, 6-1, 7-5, it was the first all-southpaw final on the red clay of Paris since Marcel Bernard defeated Jaroslav Drobny in 1946.
Right-handers win at Roland Garros to a degree greater than at the other slam events. Still, the terre battue has been the site of some extraordinary displays of lefty prowess. Open Era champs on the men’s side, in addition to Nadal, include Thomas Muster (1995), Andres Gomez (1990), Guillermo Vilas (1977) and Rod Laver (1969) — who also claimed the French singles championship in 1962, to go with his 1961 doubles and mixed doubles titles there. Left-handed women who have raised the Suzanne Lenglen Cup during this time include Martina Navratilova (1982 and ’84) and Monica Seles (1990-92).
Something about lefties seems to defy definition. As Lindsay Davenport said of playing Patty Schnyder (who has reached the fourth round at Roland Garros three times in her last four tries and reached the quarters in 1998) at last year’s season-ending championships, "Patty is probably one of the most tricky players to play. I mean, we don’t see a lot of lefties in women’s tennis, and we don’t see a lot of players that have the ability to create angles like she does, use the different spins ... So you play a match against her that you don’t have to play against anybody else."
It was from the perspective of a different surface, but Andy Roddick expressed a similar view about la difference after his stunning first round ouster at last year’s U.S. Open by Luxembourgeois southpaw Gilles Muller: "I just couldn’t get a read on his serve. It was very deceptive and tricky."
Although only about 10 percent to 15 percent of the general population, left-handers are not strangers to success. Examining the 20th century finds that arguably the greatest achievers in their respective fields have been lefties: Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Jimi Hendrix, Charlie Chaplin and Bill Gates, to name a few. And for nearly half of the last 60 years, a southpaw has resided at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (Presidents Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton).
The athletic world has also seen a great deal of left-handed prowess. For example, baseball’s four most prolific hitters of all time are left-handers: Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Barry Bonds. Given the recessive nature of left-handedness, it is not clear how biology and psychology play out in the success of southpaws, but in speculating as to why lefties might have an advantage in sports, Tiffany Herlands, professor of behavioral sciences at the Einstein School of Medicine in New York City, cited a Turkish study of soccer players which found that "lefties were more aggressive, and that aggressiveness was found to be correlated with superior performance in soccer." She also had at hand a fair number of additional studies highlighting the natural, physical advantages lefthanders may enjoy. Studies whose conclusions "... indirectly support the notion that left-handed people have neuroanatomically-based advantages in performing certain neurocognitive tasks, such as visuospatial and gross (whole body) visuomotor tasks."
University of Montpellier, France, sociologists Charlotte Furie and Michel Raymond have suggested from their 2004 study of primitive cultures that the reason for enhanced left-handed aptitude in one-on-one sports could have evolved from a higher success rate among lefties in primitive combat. It is a theory that seems to have a direct correlation to success in tennis: Because lefties have an element of surprise, they attain an upper "hand," as it were.
Roger Federer seems to be at least a partial proponent of that theory, as, following his defeat by Rafael Nadal earlier this year in Dubai, he was quoted as saying he needs to become more familiar with Nadal’s portside game: "The more I play him, the more I’ll figure out how to play him. He’s a lefty and a good lefty [at that], and I don’t get to face many lefties." That said, the world No. 1 currently has a 1-5 career won-loss record against the world No. 2.
In the Open Era, 10 male left-handers have amassed 30 of the possible 152 men’s Grand Slam tournament singles titles (starting with the 1968 French and including the 2006 Australian). And Rod Laver, considered by many to be the greatest player of all time and the ultimate member of the left club, is also the only man with two Grand Slams to his name. Most startlingly, there was a left-handed U.S. Open men’s singles champion (Jimmy Connors, Manuel Orantes, Vilas or John McEnroe) for 11 consecutive years, from 1974 through 1984. Perhaps the pinnacle of left-handed success was in July of 1979 when four of the top five men were left-handers: Connors, McEnroe, Vilas and Roscoe Tanner attacked the ball from that side, while only Borg came at it from the other.
Interestingly enough, left-handed women have not achieved as left-handed men have. Consider that there are only two women southpaws in the International Tennis Hall of Fame, Martina Navratilova and Ann Haydon Jones, while 16 male lefties are enshrined in the halls at Newport. Left-handed Wimbledon (1960) and U.S. (1959-60) singles champion Neale Fraser spoke to Australian radio about why lefties in the women’s game don’t seem to possess the same advantages as their male counterparts: "Whereas the men are attacking more and the ball is swinging more through the air and they’re rushing the net a bit more, women maybe play a little bit more from the baseline and they’re able to see the ball a bit longer, and it’s not as disruptive for them." The greater emphasis on baseline play could also play a role in why lefties have had less success at Roland Garros than at the other Grand Slam events.
Touching on the men and women in the Hall, it should be noted that Ken Rosewall and Margaret Court were natural born left-handers, but the prejudice of their times enforced on them a right-handed training regimen. Perhaps one day the same will be said of Maria Sharapova, a natural lefty who was turned around for tennis by her father. While there appears to be no tangible biological explanation for why the first years of the Open Era were so left-heavy, many sociologists opine that this was the first generation that was largely freed from a vigorous, societal-imposed anti-left bias. In fact, Martina Navratilova was actually encouraged to craft her beautiful serve and volley play from the left side, as her father knew of the significant advantage it held.
But the advantage was only lefty over righty. McEnroe hitting his wide, slicing serve in the ad-court against Borg may well have driven the stoic Swede from the game as he, with less reach as a two-hander on his backhand side, was forced to retrieve a ball 10, maybe 15 feet outside the sideline. His return would come back to a McEnroe charging the net with an eye on an open court in which to aim his follow-up volleys.
Conversely, when McEnroe played his other fierce competitor, Connors, his serve was neutralized by the fellow lefty as it bounced into the St. Louis-native’s driving forehand, and McEnroe’s approach was made without the advantage of the angle offered up by Borg’s much weaker return.
The serve is often cited as the biggest lefty advantage. Since righties are not accustomed to playing lefties on a regular basis, it is harder to adjust to the angle on the return. According to Fraser there is even one aspect of the modern game that almost seems intended to benefit lefties: "In the tie-break, after the first point you change serves and the server starts in the second [ad] court all the time, and that’s the lefthander’s most [sic] favored side. Conversely, when the right-hander is playing and has to serve, he is serving into the second court that is not his favored side. So I think the tie-break definitely favors the left-hander."
Former Top 10 player Greg Rusedski echoes Fraser’s view. Posting to his Web site, he explained that his serve is "... a big advantage. Two lefty’s playing together is quite an odd match-up because they don’t like each other. But in general, being left-handed definitely helps because on the biggest points — game point or break point — you can slide it out wide or you can hit the T, and you can really take your opponent off the court with the slice."
Baselining lefties, such as Guillermo Vilas, are not nearly as prolific Grand Slam champions as serve-and-volley or all-court lefties. However, play from that side still offers its backcourt advantages. Part of Nadal’s record of success against Federer may result from how the teenage Spaniard plays one of the Swiss star’s favorite shots. The inside-out forehand stymies most opposing players, but slides into Nadal’s overpowering topspin forehand and offers highly advantageous angles for returning the ball.
It is all vaguely reminiscent of the late ’70s and early ’80s when Bjorn Borg was dominant. His biggest losses at Grand Slam tournaments seemed always to occur against lefties. For example, the combination of Connors’s lefty serve and groundstrokes ended Borg’s hopes for a title in the finals of the 1976 and ’78 U.S. Opens, the first on clay and the second on a hard surface. In addition to the Jimbo defeats, Borg lost in the last match of Grand Slam tournaments to McEnroe three times, and at the 1979 U.S. Open, Roscoe Tanner defeated Borg in the quarterfinals. However, Borg’s record against lefty baseliner Vilas was a dominating 17-5, and he never lost to the Argentine in a Grand Slam event. Notably, Borg went a nearly four-year span (autumn 1976 to summer 1980) without losing a tournament final (any tournament, not just a major) to a right-hander.
Given Borg’s struggles, one of the great what-ifs of Pete Sampras’s reign is what impact facing a few more lefthanders would have had on his gathering up 14 Grand Slam tournament singles titles. Obviously, the answer will never be known. Goran Ivanisevic, a strong lefty, but probably not Hall of Fame quality, won only six of 18 against Pistol Pete, while one-time No. 1 Marcelo Rios — a left-hander who seemed to thrive as the embodiment of clichés like "tempestuous" and "crafty" — was 0-2.
It seems obvious that a left-hander offers an important natural balance to a doubles team. From Australia came Fraser and another lefty, Tony Roche, to partner "singles specialists" Roy Emerson and John Newcombe (both right-handers), respectively, to Grand Slam tournament titles. More recently, John McEnroe(l)/Peter Fleming(r) and Navratilova(l)/Pam Shriver(r) both left their mark as partnerships. And currently the ATP’s top team is the left-handed Bob and right-handed Mike Bryan. But once again, there are notable differences between the men’s and women’s sides, with the men having four teams in the Top 20 feature a righty-lefty duo (No. 1, Bryan/Bryan; No. 5, Knowles/Nestor; No. 8, Fyrstenberg/Matkowski; and No. 19, Clement/Llodra) and the women but two (No. 15, Huber/Navratilova; and No. 20, Peschke/Loit).
"Nobody likes playing lefties," said Bob Bryan. Speaking of the benefit to the siblings of having a lefthander on the doubles team, he explained, "Without question the biggest advantage is with the wind and the sun, being able to negate [those] elements during a match [as, for example, a righty-lefty team can choose a serving sequence so that neither member ever has to serve facing the sun]." Why left-handedness, having been so prominent overall in the Open Era, is now making only a relatively small impact on the current tennis scene, is puzzling. Perhaps it’s due to the death of serve-and-volley tennis, by which lefties can maximize the advantage of their unfamiliar style, or because of so few lefties being adequately coached to effectively employ the slicing serve out wide. Or perhaps we are just in a down cycle.
Nevertheless, it is a cycle that features a player who may turn out to be the best lefty since Laver. The 16th left-hander to rank in the ATP Top 10, Nadal has elevated himself as the only true rival for Federer’s top ranking, once again positioning left-handed tennis to receive top honors. Intriguingly, Nadal is only a tennis lefty; he does everything else with his right hand, but started playing tennis with his "other" hand as a youngster and never changed.
After losing to the Spanish teen in last year’s semifinal in Paris, Federer described the difficulty in facing the Mallorcan southpaw: "You’ve got to understand he is a totally different player. The points are played a different way. My kick serve doesn’t bounce to his backhand; it bounces to his forehand. So it changes everything. And his lefty spin always takes me a while to figure out."
Italians consider them sinistra. The French refer to them as gauche, and the modern English equivalent comes from the Anglo-Saxon lyft, meaning "weak." But left-handers, from the founder of the Davis Cup, Dwight Davis, to the man whose name is imprinted on the Australian men’s trophy, Norman Brookes, to Laver, to Connors, to McEnroe, to Navratilova and now Nadal, have made a significant impact on tennis.
With the possible emergence of much-hyped, former junior No. 1, American lefty Donald Young, it will be interesting to see if the future left-handers will return to their just-passed dominance. Perhaps it would be wise for player development around the world to nurture the growth of lefties. They bring "that certain je ne sais quoi" (translation: I know not what) to whatever court they play upon. And for the betterment of all concerned — the players, fans and overseers of the sport — that high-profile southpaw presence is something for the sport to exploit.
Tim Joyce, a regular contributor, is also in his first year as the men’s tennis coach at Sarah Lawrence College. His previous story for Tennis Week was "We Are The (TeamTennis) World" in October 2005.