Santoro wears his art on his sleeve
By Jake Niall
January 21, 2006
IF YOU’RE actually interested in tennis, as opposed to ogling Russian babes or their on-court ensembles, then as Molly Meldrum used to say, do yourself a favour and check out Fabrice Santoro today.
French Fabrice is more character actor than one of the tour’s leading men. The part he plays is of the quirky, independent artist. Pete Sampras and Bjorn Borg were machines. Roger Federer is both artist and machine. But Santoro is solely an artist and, as such, has never seriously challenged — much less raged against — the machines in the matches that count.
In 54 grand slam appearances, Santoro has never been beyond the fourth round — a yield that is somewhat disappointing considering he has been ranked as high as No.17, has been on the tour longer than anyone bar Andre Agassi (since 1988) and has a repertoire of shots that are entirely his own.
He is much admired by the tennis cognoscenti because, in a game that grows ever more uniform, Santoro dares to play his own risky way and to defy the bland bash and crash, backcourt orthodoxy.
He plays two-handed on both sides, hits a strange slice forehand and, most eccentric of all, he hits the ball softly, relying on placement, control and surprise instead of ruthless power. His zen style infuriates the temperamental Marat Safin, who has a negative win-loss record against Santoro.
On Friday, when he outlasted eighth seed Gaston Gaudio, Santoro used a different racquet at each end — employing “very loose” strings into the wind, and a tightly-strung racquet with the wind. He often hits drop shots on return of serve, the very definition of low-percentage tennis.
While there is no one remotely like him on the circuit and little prospect of imitators, Santoro’s slomo groundstrokes recall the Czech aesthete, Miloslav Mecir, who was fortunate to play at a time when power was less absolute and managed to make a couple of grand slam finals.
Santoro is often asked why he’s still playing — the assumption being that one needs a good, non-financial reason to be playing tennis at 33. “I play tennis now, it’s because I like to be on the court, I like to work, I like the fight, and I know that I’m still a pretty good player,’’ he says. Tennis is his art — and craft.
But he’s also hanging around in the hope that the dusk of his career can deliver a grand finale, that he can surpass that unflattering record and make the quarter-finals of those four-times-a-year tournaments that define players.
“I want to play to try to do something better than I did in grand slams, and this Australian Open I have a good chance. I’ve never been better than the fourth round,” he told The Sunday Age. “If I could go to the quarter-finals for the first time in my career, it would be wonderful.”
Standing between Santoro and the grandest achievement of his career is one of those ubiquitous clay-loving Spanish baseliners. David Ferrer, the tournament’s 11th seed, was a quarter-finalist at Roland Garros last year and, should he match that effort here, might sneak into the top 10.
Ferrer clearly likes the combination of searing heat and sticky rubber courts, because his third round, straight-sets dismissal of Mario Ancic ranks as one of the most authoritative performances of the tournament to date.
Ancic, remember, won Croatia the Davis Cup and has that most novel distinction of being the last man to defeat Roger Federer at Wimbledon (in his 2002 debut).
So, Ferrer has serious form. Santoro, who lost their one close encounter in Montreal last year, describes his opponent thus: “He’s a great player ... he’s strong on both sides, you know, he makes you run. Backcourt, not a huge serve, but good enough to be ready for the second shot. He will be one more tough opponent for me.”
Santoro welcomes the prospect of a closed roof in today’s diabolical heat, having endured four hours in nearly-but-not-quite-extreme heat on Friday, when he unexpectedly surged after dropping the third and fourth sets and losing his serve early in the fifth.
It was a canny victory that owed much to Santoro’s decision to, in effect, give up on the fourth set and conserve energy for the fifth. During the breaks he covered his head in plastic bags filled with ice. “Normally I put them on my neck, but today I feel like my head was too hot,” he explained.
Santoro intends to keep playing this year and in 2007, having just hired a new coach. He says he owes his unconventional style to his father, Marcel, an ex-soccer goalie. And like many artistes, Santoro takes pride in his non-conformity.
“I’m very happy he teached me this because it gives me this peculiarity, my difference with the other players. “I’m very happy to play a different game. Most of the guys are playing the same tennis today. So when I’m on the court, people like it, or they hate it, but they have an opinion about my game.”
Results mirror successful French system
January 24, 2006
FRENCH tennis is thriving with the largest player representation of any country at the year's first grand slam and Tennis Australia is looking to adopt part of their blueprint for success.
Established names such as Fabrice Santoro, Sebastien Grosjean, Amelie Mauresmo and Mary Pierce are being chased by exciting young players like Richard Gasquet, Gael Monfils, Tatiana Golovin and Marion Bartoli, giving France a bright future.
There were 24 French players - 13 men and 11 women - in the singles draws for the 2006 Open. That outstrips even the Russians at 19 (15 women and four men).
Santoro and Grosjean are through to the quarter-finals in Melbourne, making it the third time since 1973 there have been two Frenchmen in the final eight. Arnaud Clement lost the 2001 Australian Open to Andre Agassi.
Amelie Mauresmo, who in September 2004 became the first French player, male or female, to reach the world No.1 ranking, is through to the quarter-finals. She was a finalist here in 1999 and has made the quarter-finals three times in the past four years.
She also claimed the women's tour championship last year, beating compatriot Pierce, herself an Australian Open champion in 1995 and finalist in 1997.
"It's great for the French Federation to see so many players and young players coming through," Grosjean said yesterday after beating compatriot Paul-Henri Mathieu 7-5 6-2 6-2 in a fourth-round match.
"Also in the juniors they can play very well on the tour after (leaving junior ranks). So this is great for French tennis. I mean, it's starting to be popular again in France."
Mathieu said the source of success was the sport's national body, the French Federation of Tennis.
"We have a good Federation and we have many good young players," Mathieu said yesterday. "And when you see one guy win, guys playing nearby also want to win.
"We have so many in the top 100 (nine men) that I think we shall soon see more in the top 30."
For the past two to three years the FFT has developed a new talent identification scheme, not unlike the one TA piloted in the Melbourne suburb of North Balwyn last week where 100 children aged five to 12 were put through different skill and agility tests.
These identification clinics will be held all over Australia this year.
The FFT has divided France into 40 tennis regions with an FFT representative to scout all clubs and tournaments and pick out the promising juniors. They are then assigned a coach and given small grants to help with training and travel costs.
The next big change was to improve a National Training Centre at Roland Garros which looks after the talented players as they prepare to leave juniors ranks and move onto the professional tours.
"This has been the biggest difference because those two or three years for a player (after) leaving juniors has always been the most difficult," said Vincent Cognet, tennis writer for 15 years with French national sports daily newspaper, L'Equipe.
"Now when they leave junior ranks there will be someone to be with them, to coach them and to help them."
In Australian terms, the high performance centres will look after the journeymen and women like Peter Luczak, Nathan Healey, Chris Guccione and Casey Dellacqua, who are in their 20s and ranked around 150, which means endless qualifying tournaments and unable to afford a full-time coach. TA will now provide them with grants and coaching staff while on the road.
But one thing no tennis structure or administration can teach is camaraderie, and the French players have that in abundance.
They hang out together, enjoying each other's company.