The french open hasn't lost its Gallic essence. Which is to say that crepes and wine are still served at the concession stands, and the Parisians still take pleasure in the Americans' collective misfortune on clay. But this year the tournament has a distinctly Spanish flavor. If 2004 was marked by the Russian Revolution in women's tennis, this year has ushered in the Reign of Spain in the men's game. "There have always been good Spanish players," says world No. 1 Roger Federer of Switzerland, "but now they just keep coming."
Spain had 19 men in the main draw in Paris--no small feat, given that none made it by dint of a wild card--and six of the seeded players. Through three rounds, eight Spaniards remained, among them Rafael Nadal, who is tipped by many to win the whole platter of paella on Sunday, two days after his 19th birthday. On Monday, Nadal was joined in the quarterfinals by fellow countrymen David Ferrer, who dismissed defending champion Gastón Gaudio of Argentina, and Tommy Robredo, who upset No. 3 seed Marat Safin of Russia. "We practice with each other, we hang out with each other, we push each other," Nadal says of the Spanish contingent. "Like they say, 'Success builds success.'"
A country of 40 million, Spain has long been disproportionately represented in tennis's upper ranks. Consider: Three of the last six men to win the French Open have been Spaniards. But the prototypical Spanish player--a tireless grinder who loops topspin shots, considers the net terra incognita and loses his edge when there is no clay underfoot--is obsolete. The new-wave Spaniards (15 of them in the top 100) not only have versatile games but also can play on a variety of surfaces. Nadal, for instance, reached the final of the 2005 NASDAQ-100 hard-court tournament. "You see more and more hard courts [in Spain]," says Albert Costa, the 2002 French Open champion from Barcelona. "We [realized] that if you can only play on clay, you're limiting yourself."
Spain's current influence on the sport goes deeper than the raft of hombres playing in the top echelons. Espa√±a has replaced South Florida as the promised land for aspiring juniors from around the globe. As a teenager in the mid-'90s Safin left his native Moscow to train in Spain. It was a savvy career move, and it's been emulated by hundreds of players, among them 2004 U.S. Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova, who is based at the Barcelona complex of former pros Sergio Casal and Emilio Sànchez. "You really learn to play in Spain," says Kuznetsova. "You learn how to construct points."
June 5, 2005
Spain's tennis federation can't fatten its coffers with profits from a Grand Slam event, as the federations in Australia, France, England and the U.S. do. But this might be a blessing in disguise. "Instead of one big national academy, there are a lot of private academies," explains Costa, "and the competition among them makes everyone better."