Competition on Clay

For the next two weeks, the world's best tennis players will be trying to slip and slide their way into the history books. On courts made of red clay, the top men's and women's players will compete in the year's second major tournament, the French Open.

The French Open: The tournament started on Sunday, May 24. The finals will be played on Sunday, June 7. All of the matches take place at Roland Garros Stadium in Paris. This famous stadium was built in 1928 and is named after a French pilot who fought in World War I. The men's tournament at the French Open started in 1891, the women's tournament started in 1912.

Playing on Clay: The French Open is special because it is the only Grand Slam event played on clay. While it's rare to see clay courts in the United States, they are more common in other parts of the world, especially Europe and South America. Clay is challenging because players cannot run to the ball and stop before hitting it. The surface is very slippery, so they have to slide to the ball and hit it while they are still in motion. This makes the tournament very fun to watch. It takes a lot of skill to be able to play great tennis on such a slippery surface.

Tennis' Grand Slam: Baseball fans all know what a grand slam is. It's when a player hits a home run with the bases loaded, driving in four runs with a single swing. In tennis, the Grand Slam refers to the four major tournaments: the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. If a player wins all four of these tournaments in the same year, they win the Grand Slam. Only five players in history, two men and three women, have done this. Steffi Graf was the last person to win a Grand Slam in 1988.

Top Players: Recently, the most successful player on clay courts is Rafael Nadal, who has won the French Open four times in a row. In fact, in four years he has never lost a match at Roland Garros! Nadal is the favorite to win the French Open again this year. Ana Ivanovic is the defending women's champion. She won the tournament in 2008 and reached the finals in 2007 before losing to Justine Henin, who also won the French Open in 2005 and 2006.

Why It's Important: The French Open is most famous for its unique playing surface. Some of the best players in tennis history, like Pete Sampras and Venus Williams, have never won the French Open because it is played on clay. Other players, like Nadal, made their name in tennis by becoming dominating clay players. It is one of the oldest and most respected tennis tournaments, and the champions go down in history.

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