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.
Injury forced her to close the door on her singles career but as compensation, Sania Mirza won a WTA-best five doubles titles this season, including back-to-back crowns over the past two weeks at premier events in Tokyo and Beijing, with first-time partner Cara Black.
She plans on playing next season with Black, but before the Indian sensation starts focusing on 2014, she stopped by Abu Dhabi to promote the Country Club Fitness initiative, of which she is an ambassador.
Sport360° caught up with Mirza to find out what life is like on the doubles tour.
You said stepping away from singles was the hardest decision you’ve ever had to make. Looking back, has your sensational season in doubles made up for that a bit?
It’s hard when you’ve played singles and you’ve been top 30 in the world. I loved playing singles and I knew I was very good at it. The only problem was my body didn’t agree with me. I’m a little bit of a control freak and I think it was the hardest decision for me because I couldn’t decide for myself if I wanted to stop or not.
I was forced to decide and that’s something that was not acceptable to me at the time. But now when I look back, do I think it’s the right decision? Yes, because I think if I had continued playing I would have kept getting hurt and not being able to play tennis at all.
And to me winning five tournaments in a year, it’s been an amazing year. I think I’ve won the most number of tournaments on the doubles tour. So I feel very happy. I don’t know if it makes up for it, but I know it was the right decision.
You’ve played five different partners this season, won with three of them. You seem to be the common factor.
I have a lot of friends on tour and I usually play with people I get along with. Obviously we try and choose each other – who complements each others’ game. I don’t know if I’m versatile or not, but I’m easy to get along with on the court and I think that does play a role a little bit. I’m quite chilled out, I’m not hectic at all.
How has your routine changed now that you’re just focused on doubles?
You have a little bit more time now. When I was playing singles and doubles I was playing eight matches a week, and when you play so much there’s really no time to do anything, you don’t have a single day off.
Now when you’re playing just one event you have time to yourself. You can take some time off. You can go and see the city a little bit, where I’ve been going for 10 years and never stepped out. Now, I do have that kind of time but I still train like a singles player.
What’s one thing you’ve done this season that you’ve never been able to do before?
I went to the Forbidden City in Beijing and the Summer Palace, which I hadn’t done in any of the years that I was going.
How would you describe each of the five players you’ve partnered this season? Let’s start with Cara Black…
Cara is one of the most mature players I’ve played with. She’s been there, done that. Won Grand Slams, has been No1 in the world, that’s as good as it gets. To me it’s an honour to play with her.
She’s my best friend. It was a very hard decision for us to split. It’s just her body not letting us play together. Playing a full season was impossible. But we do miss each other, miss playing with each other. She’s crazy but she’s my best friend.
She’s a very nice girl. We’ve had some great singles battles during the Asian Games and all kinds of things. I’ve known her for a very long time. Very nice girl, extremely friendly and extremely polite. I think Asians are generally more polite, down to earth, she’s an extremely nice girl.
Liezel was my first partner who I won a tournament with in 2004. So it was great to come back and play with her again. It’s funny how you grow up and your views change and so many things change. But it was still fun. We’re great friends. She was my mentor when I came on tour when I was 16 years old, so it was funny to play with her.
And Flavia Pennetta…
We just played for one week together. She’s one of my closer friends on tour. It’s hard when you play just one week with someone you can’t really make a partnership out of it. But we’re great friends and had lots of fun.
Who would be your dream mixed doubles partner and which Slam would you like to partner him at?
Roger Federer, I definitely think he’ll be my dream partner. I don’t care, any Slam, but Wimbledon if I get to pick (laughs).
What would be a personal highlight from this season?
Definitely winning the last two tournaments were a big highlight. I mean we won the first tournament of the year in Brisbane, but the last two weeks have been great because I think to finish on such a high, winning the two biggest tournaments of the year (behind the Slams). I’m looking forward to next year.
How much tennis do you watch when you’re not playing?
I actually don’t watch too much tennis when I’m not playing because I try to take some time off and just relax.
What about cricket?
Yeah I’m kind of forced to aren’t I? (laughs) Sometimes, but not a crazy amount. I like to switch off from sport when I have time off.
Every tennis player I talk to is hooked on a bunch of TV shows. What are you currently watching?
I’m on Game of Thrones, Grey’s Anatomy just started again and Criminal Minds too. So I’m addicted to those three.
Victoria Azarenka withstood the swirling winds of Doha and an early attack from Romina Oprandi to book a place in the last 16 of the Qatar Total Open.
The defending champion of the $2.37 million (Dh8.7m) event went down 0-2 in the first set as strong winds swept through Centre Court at the Khalifa International Tennis & Squash Complex.
But she fought back to secure a 6-2, 6-3 win over Oprandi, who originally played for Italy but switched allegiance to Switzerland a year ago.
“It wasn’t easy, for sure, but you never want to take the wind as an excuse because it’s the same for both players,” said the 23-year-old Azarenka.
“I think Romina is a very tricky opponent, especially in those conditions. When you haven’t played a match, it can be a little bit tricky as well.
“I’m glad I could turn it around. I felt like it was a little bit of a slow start for me. I started to go too much for my shots at the beginning. Then I started to be more patient, work more for the points.”
The world No1, who spent her pre-season training at the same venue in Doha before she went on to defend her Australian Open crown in Melbourne, will play Christina McHale in the last 16 after the young American disposed of Czech Republic’s Lucie Safarova 6-4, 6-2 earlier in the day.
“I don’t think I played against Christina in a real match before. We played an exhibition or something once,” explained Azarenka. “I think she’s a very talented girl. She has a great game, a good serve, good forehand. It’s going to be a tough battle.”
Meanwhile, last year’s semi-finalist and world No4 Agnieszka Radwanska used her smart shot-selection skills to ease past Australian qualifier Anastasia Rodionova 6-3, 6-2 in 75 minutes.
The Polish No4 seed, who saved all three break points she faced during the match, next takes on Serbia’s Ana Ivanovic, who booked her last-16 spot after her opponent Simona Halep retired with a lower back injury.
Radwanska made her first Grand Slam final last season at Wimbledon, where she fell to Serena Williams in three sets, and she later rose to No2 in the world. She admits things have changed since then.
“Well, it’s always a little bit of pressure (trying to maintain that level), but I think this is the dream for everyone to be in the final of a Grand Slam and of course to be number one in the world,” said Radwanska.
“I hope I can have some more opportunity to win the major final.” Radwanska’s sister Urszula also made it through after she beat Italy’s Roberta Vinci 6-2, 5-7, 6-0.
Other winners include two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, who upset No9 seed Marion Bartoli 6-4, 6-4, and next plays former US Open champion Sam Stosur, who overcame tricky Romanian Monica Niculescu in a two-hour 6-4, 1-6, 6-3 clash.