(May 21, 2013) ESPN held a media conference call with Chris Evert and Cliff Drysdale to discuss the upcoming French Open, which will be broadcast on ESPN. Here are a few questions and answers from the conference call which included discussions about Roland Garros favorites – Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal, Serena’s maturation as a player and her chance of breaking Evert’s mark of 18 major titles (or even Graf’s 22), plus the state of Roger Federer’s career and the diminished difference between clay courts and grass courts compared to years ago:
Q. I want to ask you, Chris, whether you think Serena Williams might finally add a second French Open title given the way she’s playing in general and particularly on clay these days. I’m wondering, given all of her talent, are you surprised that she hasn’t already won several?
CHRIS EVERT: That’s a good question. I think it’s long overdue, her second French Open win. It’s mind-boggling to me that she hasn’t been in the final since 2002. To me, that’s mind-boggling. So she hasn’t had her best results at the French. She has improved tremendously on the clay. We talk about how she’s improved her game. But in my mind I’m impressed with how consistent she’s become and how patient she’s become and how she’s harnessing that power to be not only an effective clay court player but a tremendous clay court player. I think she had a quote, I can’t remember the newspaper, about, When I look in the mirror, that’s my chief competition. The thing is, if Serena Williams doesn’t have a bad day like she did last year against Razzano, she just manages to play her normal game, I think she will win her second French Open, yes.
Q. I wanted to ask about Nadal, another person who’s just been dominant this year. In January everybody was wondering, oh, my God, is he ever going to come back, will he ever be the same. Can you talk about what he’s done so far and is he invincible on clay.
CLIFF DRYSDALE: Yeah, I think he is invincible on clay. The way that he’s played so far, just two matches all year. To be honest, it’s not just a clay court comeback. He’s only lost a couple of matches. I guess there’s a lesson to be learnt from taking a lot of time off when you’re injured. He’s clearly by most definitions a clear favorite to win the French. That said, I’ve picked Djokovic to win it because I’m a big believer in Novak’s game and I believe he’s going to be able to take him down.
CHRIS EVERT: Wow, Cliff. If I can say one thing about Djokovic. I was so impressed with the way he played Nadal last year at the French Open, especially when Nadal kind of cruised through the first two sets, then Djokovic went on a tear and won the third set, was up a break in the fourth. That made me realize then that Djokovic was a definite contender for the French Open. I think Nadal looks like the favorite, but I think Djokovic can threaten him definitely. I wonder if Nadal is a little fearful of playing Djokovic. I think that’s going to be the intriguing matchup.
CLIFF DRYSDALE: 2011, he took Rafa down a few times on the clay, which was really I think when the whole thing changed for Djokovic. I think he’s a different player now. He doesn’t have the same record that Nadal has at this point. If I had to bet my house on it, I guess I’d have to go with Rafa for sure based on his record and the way he’s playing now. But there are some questions about the fact he hasn’t played that much, he took all that time off, and his knees obviously.
Q. Chris, this is sort of geared toward Nadal. Could you speak to the main challenge of a top player returning to the game after an extended break, in his case seven months. Is it confidence, ball striking, timing? What all goes into regaining that form after an extended break?
CHRIS EVERT: Oh, my God. All of the above. That’s a great question. Maybe Cliff can answer this, too, because maybe he’s taken time off. I took a period of three or four months off, and I came back. Definitely confidence, no doubt about it. Your confidence is waning a little bit. Definitely the timing, the striking of the ball, the reaction time. Definitely the concentration. You’re going to get more winded because you haven’t done tennis cardiovascular. You maybe trained hard off the court, but a match cardiovascular is a lot different.
I just think every element is affected both physically, mentally and emotionally, psychologically. Everything is affected when you first come back. For these champions, it only takes about two or three tournaments to get back, for me. Once you have those two or three tournaments under your belt, I think you’re fresher and your mind is more clear and you’re better off than when you left for seven months.
CLIFF DRYSDALE: I totally agree with the last thing you said. There are two sides to that coin. You take time off, it might hurt you, but it also gives you, as you said, a new enthusiasm quotient, liveliness quotient. You really want to be on the court. You’re not tired out. It’s like picking up a new tennis racquet sometimes. A new piece of equipment gives you a new lease on life. History is dotted with people who have come back. We talk about Serena. How many times has she come back and shows no signs of a negative result because of it.
Q. Chris, with clay, the surface from your standpoint, what are some of the things you love about it as a player, what are some of the things that you hate about it as a player?
CHRIS EVERT: First of all, I think the clay is fast. I think the balls are faster, the clay is faster. The conditions are faster than when I was playing. Plus the fact that players are obviously hitting the ball harder. I guess the point I’m trying to make, you have to have patience up to a certain point, but you don’t have to have as much patience as my days, when you played moon ballers, you had rallies of 20 shots.
The tough thing is sliding. If you haven’t grown up on clay, it’s hard to learn that instinctive sliding technique. So if you’re not used to sliding, if you don’t like it, you’re going to have trouble. That’s one tough thing.
Again, you’re going to have to hit three or four more balls to win a point. Kind of backtracking, contradicting myself. Patience is a factor. If you’re not patient, you’re not going to win on clay. So the patience, the sliding is tough.
I like the fact that you have a little more time to think of a strategy, a little more time to work the ball around the court, to sort of work the point. I like that. You’re not as rushed as on other surfaces. You feel if you’re a defensive player, you’ve got at least a shot. It’s important to be defensive and offensive on the clay. But it’s better to be defensive on the clay. It gives you more benefits than being defensive on any other surface.
CLIFF DRYSDALE: I think Chris made the best point when she said the surfaces have become more universal. The balls are much more lively now than they used to be. The court is playing much quicker than it used to. You’ve got the options on clay now, as well.
To me the biggest thing about clay is it’s so much easier on the body. I think Rafael Nadal might get his wish one of these days, there may be more tournaments played on clay. There’s discussions about even turning Miami into a clay court tournament. It’s easier on the body and I think it would help the longevity of the players.
From a technical standpoint, as Chris was saying, it’s a different kind of game. The transition from the French to Wimbledon used to be really dramatic, and it’s not as dramatic now as it was, because Wimbledon is much slower and the French is much quicker.
Q. Chris, do you think any of the women on the tour are mentally in position to be able to beat Serena? And to both of you, the status of Federer’s game, in particular his movement?
CHRIS EVERT: That’s a good question. I just think when I look at someone like Azarenka, she actually played a good second set against Serena. She didn’t play a bad match against Serena, yet she won four games. When I look at that stat, then I look at Maria, she handled Maria so easily on the clay.
I don’t think it’s going to take a player to overpower her. First of all, I don’t think anybody out there can overpower her. The thing that we have to remember is this is still Serena’s weakest surface. Let’s not lose sight of that. She has to, as she said in her own press conferences, she has to remain really consistent, cut down on the errors. She likes to go for her shots. This is where she’s transformed herself into a better clay court player.
If there was a player that came out of the blue that was crafty, had a great dropshot, had some great short angling to get her off the baseline, bring her up to the net, I think that’s the only chance that anybody has. The day of the Martina Hingis type players, I don’t see those players as much anymore. I just see players that just like to bash the ball from the baseline and use their power more. I think it would take a versatile player like that to carve shots, dropshots, slice, get Serena off her rhythm, bring her up to the net. If there’s a player out there like that, maybe we’ll see her in the next couple weeks.
CLIFF DRYSDALE: You’ve got to remember that her serve is so dominant now. The court is playing a little faster at the French, so that’s helping her. Number two, she’s not squawking and squealing like she used to on the court. She’s much calmer. I think that’s made a huge difference to her as well.
You talked about patience earlier. She’s much more patient. She doesn’t take things as seriously as she used to. She’s in a much better place mentally. She cannot be beaten by anybody but herself.
CHRIS EVERT: I think you’re absolutely right. If you look at her on TV, she’s managing her emotions in between points so much better and she’s managing her energy. She’s conserving her energy. She’s like in her own little zone, own little world. She’s going to need that for the French.
CLIFF DRYSDALE: All that said, I want to emphasize what you said, don’t forget this is her weakest surface. If there’s a chance to beat her, this is it.
CHRIS EVERT: And the first week. Because once she gets grooved, going into the second week, she’s going to be tougher.
Q. Cliff, your feelings on Federer, the status of his game, particularly his movement?
CLIFF DRYSDALE: Don’t write him off. We’ve written him off a few times in the past. My sense always with him is he’s also mentally in a really good place. He doesn’t mind losing matches. Just from a technical, mechanical standpoint now, he may be, all things being equal, I think Andy Murray and Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic, would be at least 50, maybe a little above 50 on the head-to-head with him, 50/50, but he is still a contender. I just caution you, if you check his record, he’s never anywhere other than at the end of the a tournament. If you get to the semifinals, anything can happen in these events. I know it’s a cliché, but I’m cautioning everyone that we’ve written him off before. Suddenly two years ago he wins the French championships and he’s No. 1 in the world.
I think his movement has always been his strong point. I think it still is one of his strongest points. If there’s an issue with Fed, sometimes his confidence during a match, he starts to spray balls. He used to be able to get away with it, but he doesn’t anymore. Djokovic, Nadal, Andy Murray don’t allow you to get away with it.
CHRIS EVERT: The thing with Roger, two things have to be working for him to win a Grand Slam again: his serve, his forehand. Like Cliffy said, when he slaps that forehand around, he can slap it for winners or he can slap it for errors. But that forehand has to be a weapon. He’s got to be making those slaps. His first serve, he’s got to win some free points. It’s a lot of work for him on the clay. That’s why for me, Wimbledon is the one tournament where he can get away with a big serve and a big forehand a little bit easier. Anyway, I put him like fourth or fifth as a favorite.
Q. Sorry to dwell on Serena, but do you feel like she needs that second French to secure her place to the upper echelon, if you will?
CLIFF DRYSDALE: Not in my book.
CHRIS EVERT: No, no.
CLIFF DRYSDALE: She’s secured it already. The fact that she hasn’t won the French twice, she’s won it once. You know, I look at it sort of from a historical standpoint and wonder who would you put up against Serena. Chris can answer this question a lot better. Try to put herself up or Martina or even Steffi. It’s hard for me to imagine, day in, day out, if Serena is playing like she’s playing now, that you can’t count her already as one of the all-time greats even if she doesn’t win the French.
CHRIS EVERT: It’s not going to put a blemish on her record at all, especially if she continues to win Wimbledon and the US Open and the Australian. I think with her serve and her athleticism, her power, her court mobility, I just think when she’s on, she’s the greatest player we’ve ever seen, ever. Now, whether her record is the greatest remains to be seen because she hasn’t retired yet. But I think she is really the greatest player. I have seen Martina and Steffi at their best. There are little chinks in those players’ armor, but it was a different era, where you didn’t need to be the perfect player.
On the one hand I hate comparing generations because I feel the current generation is going to be better, but on the other hand it’s hard to imagine a better player than Serena when she’s playing well. I don’t even know if that was the question, but I just had to answer it that way. If you talk about Grand Slams, you know, to me she’s going to pass Martina and I. It’s still a reachable goal for her to win 22 and match Steffi. If she plays another two, three, four years healthy, she can break all those records.
Q. Do you think there’s any concern for Djokovic considering he lost in the first round to Dimitrov and then lost the match to Berdych where he was 5-2 up? Do you think he’s placing too much pressure on himself for the French Open? And then there’s 12 American women in the top 100 of the WTA. Do you see any of those women besides Serena making noise in the second week of the French Open?
CLIFF DRYSDALE: On Novak, no, I don’t think that he came that close. I think mentally he’s very strong. He’s the kind of player who does not get down on himself because of a loss. The things that he says, his thought processes are kind of like Andre Agassi who talked about enjoying the journey, the process, of getting to places on a tennis court. I just think that, no, it doesn’t hurt him. If anything, losing early gives him a little more rest. I watch him play. I wonder how the heck these top players can play week in, week out at that intensity and level.
I don’t think it hurts Djokovic. If it would have hurt him any way, it would have been mentally for him to say, Oh, gee, I’m not playing as well. I don’t think he’s susceptible to that kind of thinking.
As for the ladies, the 12 in the top 100 in the U.S. I’m very excited by that. I think Madison Keys has got a real shot. It’s a matter of maturity. I think Sloane Stephens is equally in. Maybe not a legitimate shot to win, but I’d be very surprised if we don’t see a move from either her or Madison Keys, Lauren, Jamie Hampton, with real serious shots at getting top 10 and then eventually even top 5. Most of them are young, enthusiastic and really talented. This has a really high enthusiasm quotient for me.
CHRIS EVERT: The first question about Djokovic, he’s gone on record saying that the French Open is the most important tournament for him this year. I just think that speaks for itself. I think whatever has happened before, he does have a win over Nadal this year. Whatever has happened, I think he’s going to erase the losses and go into this fresh. He wants this one badly, very much like a Maria Sharapova wanted the French last year. In saying that, that I think is going to give him more motivation.
As far as the women, I agree with Cliffy. Nobody stands out for the French Open as far as really doing some damage the second week. We’ve got a really consistent roster. Bethanie Mattek, she’s had wins over Sloane Stephens, Errani, who is a great clay courter. She’s gone from like 400 to 100 in three months. I think she is the most improved American player we’ve seen in the last few months. There’s some big names, and Cliff mentioned them. Madison and Sloane, Christina McHale, Lauren Davis just beat Christina McHale, and I’m proud of her because she trains at my academy. But there’s some good, solid American girls that I think in the next couple years could be top 20 definitely.
Q. I was hoping you would give some advice to Maria on what she can do at this point to make more of an impression on Serena’s game on clay or in general. Serena leads 13-2 head-to-head. She’s No. 2 in the world, vying for the No. 1 spot from time to time.
CHRIS EVERT: And remember, Maria didn’t have to beat Serena last year at the French Open, right? She didn’t have to beat Azarenka in the French. I think last year, the draw opened up perfectly for Maria. The tough thing about Maria, the tough thing for her playing Serena is that Maria’s strength, which is her return of serve, really isn’t a strength against Serena, so she can’t win those free points on her return of serve because Serena’s strength that feeds into Maria’s strength is so dominating.
When you get on the clay and you start to look at how important moving is, sliding on the clay, really Serena I think is head and shoulders above. Even though Maria’s movement has improved, Serena is still head and shoulders on the clay as far as movement. It’s tough, but at the same time Maria has to believe and just keep that confidence going because she did play a great set and a half at Sony Ericsson. She was dominating, moving well, dictating the points. Serena was a touch off. I think it’s an uphill battle for Maria. Knowing how mentally tough she is, how much she is a fighter, she has just got to hope that Serena has a little bit of a lapse maybe of concentration or whatever and just dive in there at that point. That’s how I feel about that. What do you think, Cliff?
CLIFF DRYSDALE: What you said, I could not add anything to it that makes any more sense. You’re exactly right about the points that you’re making. It is about the movement. That’s the problem. The question always is, How can she beat her? Maybe tripping her up when they’re crossing sides after 1-Love in the first set, that would be the best solution. Going back to one thing you said, Chris, to add to what you said earlier, believe it or not this is the best chance you have to beat Serena on this surface overall. You have to bear that in mind. Take comfort in the fact this is her least effective surface, do whatever you can. I think I’m very impressed with the way Maria has come back. She had a tough time with Azarenka last year. But she’s just such a mentally tough competitor, always has been, and it stays that way. It’s all about Serena. Every tournament is all about Serena. But Maria is still in there with her mental strength. She could do it. Look, Serena may lose again early. You never know.
CHRIS EVERT: The other thing is she’s players, like Cliff said, when they go into a match against Serena on the red clay, they have to have a little bit of confidence anyway knowing that Serena’s only won this title one time, and that clay hasn’t been her best surface in the past. Maybe there is a shadow of doubt. She may be impatient. She may make errors. They’ve got to see that there’s a little window when they play her at the French versus the other Grand Slams.
Q. Thinking back to a year ago at Roland Garros, Errani making it to the final. Chris, are there two or three names you would throw out there who have never won a Grand Slam title, maybe never made the final of a championship, who you think could be a surprise person to make a run into the second week?
CHRIS EVERT: I think Bethanie Mattek-Sands, the way her form has been the last two months, being an American, she’s at a really good place right now in her life and with her tennis. Most of the people that come to mind, like Li Na, who has won it, you can’t underestimate her. Radwanska, I’m still waiting for her to make that step because I think she’s the kind of crafty, smart player that should on paper do well at the French. I don’t think that’s been one of her better tournaments either. So look for her a little bit to do something. (But) it’s a tough one. I look at Sam Stosur. There’s a lot of players, as I said before, like Ivanovic, like Li Na, like Sam Stosur, who have shown they can do well on the red clay. Maybe Ivanovic is another good one. She’s had some good results lately.
CLIFF DRYSDALE: I was going to mention her. I wonder what you think about Wozniacki, have we seen the last of her? I think she’s got another big win in her, too. She’s a potential surprise because she’s got the defensive game and clay is by definition good for the defensive players. I like you’re call about Ana because she had her serving problems the same way Maria did, and she seems to have overcome them.
CHRIS EVERT: Cirstea, Errani, they’re all dangerous players. You mention Wozniacki, two years ago she’s No. 1 in the world. She seems to be losing. Before she never lost to players she never should lose to. Now she’s losing to players ranked below her. I want to see her do well, but she hasn’t shown me she’s a threat.
CLIFF DRYSDALE: Makarova. There’s my outside pick.
Q. It’s the Serena day. When you’re talking to other players, how incredibly dominant she is, it’s hard to come up with anybody who has a chance to knock her off, how demoralizing must it be for the other players? How many players out there do you think really believe, I can beat Serena Williams? You have perspective that we don’t have about what goes into the mindset of all these women going into a tournament knowing that this woman is just steamrolling over everybody. What would be able to keep you hopeful you could beat her? Do you think people go into it defeated when they play her?
CHRIS EVERT: I think 99% of the players go out there knowing that they’re going to lose. I do think that. Azarenka, Maria, I just think they definitely give themselves a chance. There’s no way they walk out on the court with Serena and think they’re going to lose. They give themselves a chance because they’re confident and they have beaten Serena before. They do, especially at the French, this is her weakest surface, she could have a bad day. She has the ability to make errors. I’m going to get a little more time to return that dominating serve. I think of all the Grand Slams, this is the one those top players feel they do have a shot and feel a little more confidence.
As far as the other players, the only thing is, if you go out there and play Serena, you see that she’s not in a good mood, she’s starting to spray balls, then I think the body language could give players confidence after a couple of games. It has a lot to do with her body language, the way she’s playing. It almost doesn’t matter how you’re playing. It almost doesn’t matter. You know what, the other players probably hate it when we say this, but it really is all about Serena and how she’s feeling and how she’s playing.
Q. Would you have liked to have played her, Chris?
CHRIS EVERT: Well, really, do we have to ask that question (laughter)? I mean, I would have played her 30 years ago. That’s unfair to ask. I mean, with my mind I probably would have definitely drawn her in. When I’m commentating, I’m screaming. I’m like under my breath, ‘Dropshot, hit a short angle, come in, show her something different.’ You can’t be banging balls from the baseline with her. You’re not going to win. She’s got a good volley, she doesn’t have a great volley, but she has a great everything else. Expose her weaknesses a little more. Is it tough to get a dropshot, absolutely. But she will give you some mid-court balls. You’ve got to be creative and do something different with those shots. I don’t think Maria has that in her repertoire. I think Vika does. I think Li Na does. You’ve got to really try to find the right shots to use against her. To me they’re the dropshots, short angles, drawing her into the net.
CLIFF DRYSDALE: If you look at it from the other angle, the other question along the same lines is not are the other players beaten when they take the court against her, but what about from her standpoint. She’s lost only two matches this year. She’s only lost two matches this year. But there is time after all the weeks, the practicing, the matches, when you get to a point in a match sometimes where you say, Wait a minute, what is this pip-squeak doing breaking my serve in the first set? You start to think about it, spray a few balls. There’s always the hope from someone playing against her, Errani did it last year, where you do see the opening that Chris was talking about. It’s not a foregone conclusion. You wouldn’t bet against her, but there’s two sides to the mental equation.
CHRIS EVERT: Also she’s not 21, she’s 31. I always found that even though she’s had a lot of not vacations, but periods where she’s taken rest and rehabilitated, she’s been out of the game, she still has played a lot of matches. She has to play seven solid, good matches. When you get older, as Roger Federer is finding out the hard way, you have more off days. No doubts about it, you have more off days because you’re not as mentally fresh as you were when you were 21. That could be a danger for her also. My last two years that I played, I’d wake up in the morning and I didn’t want to get out of bed. I dreaded knowing I had to go out there and play a match. That happened not frequently but once in a while.
Q. I have so enjoyed this game planning talk. Would you both take a crack at Nadal. In other words, how would you construct a game plan against Nadal at the French? Is there any point in trying to play better defense or be more patient? What do you expose?
CHRIS EVERT: You know what, same thing.
Q. Same answer applies?
CHRIS EVERT: I have seen Nadal eight feet behind the baseline. I have seen players dropshot him. He doesn’t like it. He doesn’t like running up. He doesn’t like being on the defensive. He doesn’t like being at the net. You got to take them out of their power zone, right? You have to hit the short angles, dropshots, slice it. I think you have to bring him in, hit them shorter. And I think you have to have a big first serve. Cliffy, what do you think?
CLIFF DRYSDALE: I think those are all really good points. It’s hard for me to imagine. There’s got to be more to it than that. My feeling on Rafa, he’s way behind the baseline, like you said. By definition with his strokes, they’ve got so much topspin on them, they’ll jump up a lot. But eventually by definition they end up short. In 2011 the way that Djokovic took him down was by standing on the baseline waiting for the short ball and then making Rafa run every which way from east to west on his side of the court. That is still the formula for beating him. It’s easy to say from a strategic standpoint; it’s not that easy to do.
A guy like Federer, for example, with the one-handed backhand, he just can’t do that, whereas a Djokovic can. Andy Murray has also got a kind of game, but I’m not sure he can do it on the clay courts, that can do that same thing: stalk the baseline, wait for the short ball, then bang it. That’s how Rafa is vulnerable. The problem is you have to do it for five sets, four hours, and be in great shape. You don’t have that much margin because, by definition, you’re a much more flat ball hitter than he is with all the topspin he has. That’s the solution.
CHRIS EVERT: I think that Roger’s backhand, I could be completely wrong on that, but I think on the clay he has a good slice. He can hit that high backhand slice, hit a short angle. He has that dropshot. But I think Roger, again, could take a set off him. But to keep that up for five sets, yeah, I think Djokovic is the only one.
But Djokovic has the touch. He’s got to mix it up, though.
Q. As analysts, when you’re watching the matches, can you tell before the players themselves that the wheels are starting to come off the bus, that they’re starting to lose things?
CLIFF DRYSDALE: That’s an interesting question. I think both Chris and I can tell, you have a sense for when a match is turning around. It’s quite clear often. You can see it before your eyes. But I’m not sure that we can tell before the players themselves.
CHRIS EVERT: I think that we can tell before the opponent can see it, for sure. When we’re up there in the box, we’re watching the action down on the court, we’re seeing like Victoria Azarenka play Serena, all of a sudden the point is over, the person that is kind of starting to be upset, starting to show more body language, we see it because the opponent, her attention is centered around herself. She’s not like looking to the other side of the court and saying to herself, Whoa, she’s really upset, I’m going to use it to my advantage. The beauty of commentating is we can see that pretty quickly. Both Cliffy and I, this is the advantage of having played a lot, having had good careers, Grand Slam careers, definitely we can sense, especially knowing the person, what the next move is going to be, how they’re going to react. I think we can see the wheels falling off quicker than their opponent can see it.