Fabrice Santoro couldn’t help but chuckle at the first question he received, when holding a Q&A session recently in Dubai. 'Why did you decide to play with two hands on your forehand and backhand?' an eight-year-old asked at the Habtoor Grand.
It’s a question that has become a regular line of enquiry put to the French cult hero throughout his 21-year career, but after a smile the 40-year-old delivered his answer. “When I started playing tennis I never had a chance to play with a small racquet, like you have now, because I started playing tennis more than 30 years ago and the only chance to play at that time was to play with a normal racquet for adults,” he said. “And I was very small, so any chance for me to hit the ball was to hold the racquet with two hands.”
As the only player to contest Grand Slams in four different decades – from 1989 to 2010 – Santoro entertained the tennis world for a considerable period of time, where his slice-and-dice game brought finesse to a sport that was becoming more about power and less about feel.
The diminutive Frenchman may never have won a Slam in singles, nor did he reach the top 10, but Santoro will forever be remembered for his double-handed talismanic ways, which frustrated so many players, it drove former world No1 Marat Safin to once say: “It’s a nightmare for me to play Santoro.”
His inconceivable shots also earned him the nickname ‘The Magician’ which was first coined by Pete Sampras following a tight three-set win over Santoro at Indian Wells in 2002. “My style came very naturally to me and also my dad, who was my coach as a kid, and he always told me ‘in life everything that is natural, just keep it’. And my style was natural so I kept it,” Santoro told Sport360°.
“I think it’s easier to win a match by hitting the ball these days than playing the way I was but on the other hand, I stopped when I was 37, I was top 50, and I had a feeling that even if I wasn’t tall, if I wasn’t very powerful, even if I was the oldest guy on the tour, I could have played two, three more years.”
Success in the Middle East
Of the six singles titles Santoro captured in his career, two came in the Middle East in Doha and Dubai. “I also made one final here and one in Doha, so four finals, two trophies,” said the former world No17. “It’s always a pleasure for me to be in this part of the world. It’s quite close from Europe, you get to meet nice people, nice weather…”
He won the Dubai tournament in 2002, nine years after he made the final in the very first edition of the event. “As a player every year in November or December you prepare your schedule for the next year,” he explained. “And I remember in 1992 I said ‘oh, next year there’s a tournament in Dubai’. And 20 years ago everyone said, ‘where is Dubai?’ I’m a little bit curious and I said ‘Dubai, I want to see it’.
“So I entered the tournament and I reached the final. Between 1993 and this year, I’ve come to Dubai almost each year at least once and every year it’s a new city.”
Since he put an end to his professional career at the 2010 Australian Open, the three-time Grand Slam doubles and mixed doubles champion has kept close ties with the sport. He commentates for both French and British TV, has been doing the on-court interviews at the French Open and is part-owner of the ATP tournament in Metz.
He also remains a keen fan and could not help but drift away from our conversation every now and then, as his eyes shifted to the nearby TV that was showing the Shanghai quarter-final between his countryman Gael Monfils and Novak Djokovic. Unlike Pat Cash, who recently described the current men’s game as boring and predictable, Santoro finds it riveting.
“I don’t agree at all,” he said. “Because if I look at the best 12 matches I’ve seen in the last 20 years, I would probably pick six to eight from the past five years. All the battles I’ve seen with Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray in the past three to four years are unbelievable matches. Those are the matches I remember.”
Although seemingly a fan of Nadal, Santoro doesn’t agree with the Spaniard's views on urging the tour to have less tournaments played on hard courts. “If I was Rafa I would also say there are too many hard courts I want to play everything on clay,” he said smiling. “I think tennis is a great sport because it’s played on all these different surfaces, indoor, outdoor, everywhere around the world. And that’s why it’s so popular.”
Santoro won the mixed doubles title with Daniela Hantuchova at the French Open, but in singles, he agrees with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga that it’s difficult to see a Frenchman win the home Grand Slam.
Tsonga, though, reached the semi-finals at Roland Garros this year before succumbing to David Ferrer. “But he was right, he didn’t win,” laughs Santoro.
“It would be a huge surprise (if a Frenchman wins Roland Garros in the near future). I think even if Jo was in the semi-final, you are only four guys but you’re still not close to the end. I think even in the semis, he was far to win.”
Tsonga’s run to the semis without dropping a set and crushing Roger Federer en route was not the most dazzling stretch of tennis from a French player last summer. It was Marion Bartoli who stole the show with her surprise Wimbledon victory, sporting a double-handed game like Santoro.
“I was very surprised. Nobody was expecting her to win the tournament but this Wimbledon tournament, especially on the ladies side was very strange,” he said. “She had an opportunity and she took it. But what’s even more amazing is that she stopped after.
“I have no idea (if she’ll come back). But I think when you build your life around tennis and you wake up every morning thinking about it, it’s tough to take this decision in one hour when you’re in the middle of nowhere in Ohio in your hotel room and say ‘okay, it’s 11pm, I’ll stop’. I think it’s a bit brutal.”
Santoro says Federer remains his favourite player to watch, for his elegance and the fact that they played each other 11 times brings back sweet memories. But when asked to weigh in on the Federer-Nadal greatest of all time debate, he thinks the Spaniard can make a case for himself.
“One very important statistic is that Nadal is the only guy on the tour who has a positive record against everybody – Djokovic, Federer, Murray and every guy. Federer is negative against Nadal and Murray. With this positive record, if Nadal wins four more Grand Slams and ties Federer, then yes, he could maybe take the spot,” he adds.