It’s no secret clay wasn’t my favorite surface, but it wasn’t always that way. That’s right, the hardcore serve volleyer you know started out as a young clay courter grinding from the back of the court. It wasn’t until I was a little bit further along in my junior career that Barkers (Ian Barclay) taught me how to come forward and attack the net. Although I never became especially successful on clay, I had a few successful runs, perhaps my most memorable was during the 1988 French Open.
I was determined to have a good run at the French Open, after all, I had just made my second Australian Open final at the start of the year and I would be the defending Wimbledon champion in a few short weeks. I decided to play an exhibition event the week before Roland Garros to better prepare myself. At the exhibition, I had a convincing win against up-and-coming star Andre Agassi, naturally I was feeling extra confident going into Parisian Grand Slam.
I survived my first three rounds relatively unscathed, but in the fourth round I would face Russian Andrei Chesnokov. He was one of the first Russian players to break through on tour. As the Iron Curtain began to fall, it meant these new players were free to make their mark on the tour. The Russians were coming! Due to the tight travel restrictions of the USSR the Soviet players were relatively unknown. I remember watching Chesnokov for the first time, what an athlete this guy was! I sat watching him run side to side cracking forehands and backhands, this guy never seemed to miss.
Perhaps more intimidating than his shots was his entourage. KGB agents (talk about a high profile)! They followed him wherever he went. I remember my first-time meeting Chesnokov. I was in the players area when a tall Russian strutted out from behind the KGB agents, naturally, I kept my distance, they seemed liked people I probably shouldn’t mess around with, at least off the court. Nevertheless, he walked right up to me, pointed at my t-shirt “I Like them” he said. I was wearing an Iron Maiden shirt. It turned out he was a metal head like me. Right then and there I knew our nations could resolve their ideological differences through the power of heavy metal ;). Anyway, we talked music and I asked if he would like a cassette tape of the new Iron Maiden album. He accepted. However, he told me to hand it to him discreetly. He said if his two KGB buddies caught him with foreign music he was going to get in big trouble. When the agents weren’t looking I passed it to him quickly. I guess the extent of my Cold-War involvement was trafficking heavy metal into the Soviet Union.
I knew the match was going to be tough, but Chesnokov had one big weakness, his 2nd serve. It was weak, really weak and it sat up nicely to attack. I thought if I could put some pressure on him by hitting a hard return and rushing the net I could win. That is the beautiful thing about tennis, its all about finding solutions to the situation you’re in. Unfortunately for me I was soon to be in a tougher situation than I had anticipated. The start of the match I executed my game plan to near perfect. I won the first set comfortably 6-2 and could see my first French Open quarter-final on the horizon, but what appeared in the actual horizon was different. Like a bad omen grey clouds swepped across the sky. It became a miserable day in Paris. The temperature dropped and drizzle followed, the balls became slow and heavy exactly the conditions I didn’t want.
The Chesnokov serve sat up even more right in the middle of the box, perfect for me to attack, right? Wrong! It was a trap! I had to stand a few feet inside the baseline to return his serve but just as his serve sat up for me, my returns sat up for him! Time and time again I was passed when I charged the net. But what was I supposed to do, return and run back? That wasn’t my style and facing Chesnokov from the back of the court was what I was afraid of. The only thing I could do was hang on as long as I could and hope for the conditions to change. The conditions did not change.
I was now two sets to one down. I looked at my coach hoping for some game changing advice. I could only hear him screaming “Get off the court! Everyone has stopped! The other courts had all been given rain delays. I turned to the tournament referee and appealed for the match to be suspended. He took a few steps onto the corner of the court, stomped his foot a couple of times, looked up at me and said “continue play”. I couldn’t believe it. Every referee has their favorites and I definitely wasn’t his. We continued as the lone match in play. Chesnokov won the set 6-3. He ended up falling in the next round to finalist Henri Leconte, but would improve the following year by reaching the semi-finals. Although my match against Chesnokov wasn’t the most joyous, it was definitely one of the most memorable.
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