Roland Garros, home of slippery clay and sly underarm serves

Roland Garros, home of slippery clay and sly underarm serves © Pierre René-Worms | Tunisia‘s Malek Jaziri during his second-round defeat to Richard Gasquet at the French Open on May 31, 2018.

Dominic Thiem and Maria Sharapova power into the third round at the French Open as Rafael Nadal blasts slippery courts and an American youngster throws in the first underarm serve since Michael Chang.

Blame it on the stifling heat or the daily thunderstorms, or both, it seems the clay of Paris isn’t quite what it used to be. That is, at least, according to several top players here at , including the man who practically owns the place, .

The 10-time champion has been complaining about the red dirt since his rain-delayed, and tougher-than-expected, first-round win over Italy’s Simone Bolelli.

“The court is more slippery than usual, and actually, I slid a lot when I started off or when I moved to another side, and it was quite complicated. There are no excuses. This is what I felt,” Nadal told reporters following the match. He then went on to give a brief exposé on the composition of the mischievous ochre surface.

“If you look at the images on television, you can see that there are many more greyer zones or whiter zones than other years, because there are little pebbles underneath, and that's why you don't have the proper grip on the court,” he added.

© Pierre René-Worms, FRANCE 24 | Slippery or not, Court Suzanne Lenglen was no trouble for Nadal on Thursday.

The little pebbles Nadal was referring to are part of the seven to eight centimetres of crushed shale and limestone that sit below a thin coating of powdered red brick. According to the men’s title holder, those two millimetres of red dust are even thinner in places, rendering the area behind the baseline – where hard-hitting clay-courters spend most of their time – more slippery than usual.

The “king of clay”, who eased into the third round on Thursday with a 6-2, 6-1, 6-1 demolition of Argentina’s Guido Pella, is not the only one to complain about court conditions this year. Belgium’s 9th seed David Goffin blamed the heat and humidity for making Court Suzanne Lenglen slippery during his straight-sets win over French teenager Corentin Moutet. And in the women’s draw, 20-year-old Naomi Osaka, the rising star of Japanese tennis, dismissed the red stuff as “not clay-clay”.

Back to the future

A defining characteristic of clay-court matches is that they can go on forever and test the body like no other surface. That’s what happened to fourth seed Gregor Dimitrov on Wednesday when 57th-ranked Jared Donaldson of the US pushed him all the way in a five-set thriller that lasted four hours and 19 minutes in sweltering heat.

In a memorable twist, Donaldson produced two underarm serves while cramping in the fifth set – three decades after another American youngster, 17-year-old Michael Chang, famously pulled that same trick on Ivan Lendl en route to the 1989 French Open title. But while the unorthodox strategy worked for Chang, it resulted in a point but no victory for Donaldson.

“I would never try it if I was feeling 100 percent and stuff,” said the 21-year-old after the game. “But obviously Grigor was playing so far back on the return that I felt like, ‘You know, maybe it’s just something that I’ll try.’ He obviously wasn’t expecting it, you know what I mean? It’s kind of a cheeky way to get a point.”

As it turns out, there may be a future for underarm serves at the French Open this year. Ahead of the tournament, Craig O'Shannessy, a strategy guru and tactical advisor to Djokovic, threw out the idea of an underarm serve in a bid to unsettle Nadal, urging players to “do something radical” to unsettle the Spaniard.

‘Where you from buddy?’

With Nadal a virtual shoo-in to win an 11th title next week, the last thing his rivals need is to slog their way through five sets in week one. And yet that’s precisely what they’re doing. Just as Dimitrov was battling his way past Donaldson, second seed Zverev survived a scare of his own when Dusan Lajovic of Serbia went two sets up in their second-round tie, before the German fought back to clinch a 2-6, 7-5, 4-6, 6-1, 6-2 win.

The 21-year-old, who is chasing his maiden Grand Slam win, was later mystified when a reporter from Yorkshire, in northern England, asked his question in the post-match press conference.

“Where you from buddy?” Zverev asked back, before adding: “If they ever make a tournament there I’m coming just because of that accent. Love it” (which presumably means he will be on the grass courts of Ilkley, in the Yorkshire Dales, on June 16 for the start of the county’s only professional tennis tournament).

Thiem, Sharapova battle through

Aside from Zverev, the biggest threat to Nadal’s dominance at Roland Garros is likely to come from Austria’s Dominic Thiem, the number 7 seed, who put an end to Rafa’s extraordinary winning streak of 50 consecutive sets on clay earlier this month in Madrid. On Thursday, a ruthless Thiem saw off Greek rising star Stefanos Tsitsipas in the second round’s showpiece, wrapping up the rain-delayed match 6-2, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 to ease into round three.

Tsitsipas was one of two highly rated 19-year-olds whose French Open came to a premature end on day five. Playing in his first Grand Slam as a seeded player, Canada’s Denis Shapovalov hit 11 double-faults and 82 unforced errors on his way to a disappointing 5-7, 7-6, 7-5, 6-4 defeat against Germany’s Maximilian Marterer.

In other results, third seed Marin Cilic booked his place in round three with a 6-2, 6-2, 6-7, 7-5 win over Poland’s Hubert Hurkacz, while local favourite Richard Gasquet also dropped a set against Tunisia’s Malek Jaziri before cruising to a 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-0 victory and a daunting third-round clash with Nadal.

© Pierre René-Worms, FRANCE 24 | Richard Gasquet sets up a third-round battle with Rafael Nadal.

In the women’s draw, world number one Simona Halep crushed America’s Taylor Townsend 6-3, 6-1 on court Philippe-Chatrier to continue her quest for an elusive Grand Slam title. Over on Lenglen, third seed Garbine Muguruza of Spain was equally impressive in her straight-sets defeat of France’s Fiona Ferro (6-4, 6-3).

On a day that was yet to produce major upsets, gave further evidence of her return to form by prevailing in a thrilling battle of big hitters with Croatia’s Donna Vekic (7-5, 6-4). Next up for the two-time French Open champion, who is making her first return to Roland Garros since her drug ban, is a showdown with former world number one Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic – followed, perhaps, by a fourth-round meeting with the mighty Serena Williams.

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