When Andy Murray found out he was playing a qualifier in his French Open first round, he half-expected to be facing a grand slam rookie, at least someone lacking experience at majors.
Instead, he got 37-year-old Radek Stepanek, a man making his 13th appearance in the Roland Garros singles main draw, and who just three weeks ago took a set off the British world No2 at the Madrid Masters.
For a player who turned pro 20 years ago and peaked at No8 in the world ten years later, Stepanek has been forced to get back to basics in Paris as he battled through three qualifying rounds to earn his shot at Murray. The last time he played ‘qualies’ at Roland Garros was 2002.
Clawing his way back up the rankings following a sciatica nerve problem that saw him plummet to No367 in the world last July, Stepanek is the oldest man in the draw and is contesting his 52nd grand slam.
“They asked me ‘you still want to play qualies at your age after you’ve been at the top and stuff?’ But the love for the game is there no matter where I’m standing or what the number of my ranking is,” said Stepanek, who is now No129 in the world.
“I had been out for eight months so I’m very pleased for every minute I can spend on the court. My situation 12 months ago wasn’t good and now I’m sitting here with you and talking about qualifying for a slam again.
“So I’m very pleased for that and as long as I stay healthy, I always say ‘when the hardware is good, the software is there’.”
Stepanek, who takes on Murray on Monday, says the sciatica issue saw him lose 50 per cent of the muscles in his right leg within a two-week period.
'Wily'. Stepanek and Santoro have been called 'wily' more than any other tennis player.— DavidLaw (@DavidLawTennis) May 20, 2016
Others? Federer - 'Maestro' https://t.co/eV1G2TpWHM
Last year, the Czech, known for his flamboyant – and often questionable – fashion sense on court and his multiple romances with WTA players off it, became the oldest man to win a match atRoland Garros since a 38-year-old Jimmy Connors in 1991.
“The challenge is to be older than Jimmy Connors and play in a slam. He was 38? Oh it’s not that far, it’s just around the corner,” Stepanek says with a laugh.
“I love everything that comes with tennis, atmosphere, fans, emotions. You can play the same opponent seven days in a row but every match is going to be different and that’s what I like about it.”
Never a player who relied on big groundstrokes or a huge serve, Stepanek has troubled many top players with his variety in the past, including Murray.
Stepanek trails the Scot 2-6 head-to-head, but they’ve split their last two meetings – Murray at Queen’s in 2014, before avenging that loss in Madrid earlier this month.
“Obviously there were better draws than this one but that’s how it is. You can’t choose, you have to get ready for what’s next,” added Stepanek.
“We had a tough battle a couple of weeks ago so definitely I’ll use that match as a way to show me what I have to do. It’s also grand slam tennis, best-of-five, so it’s going to be physically a tough match.
“The conditions in Madrid are very specific, it’s high altitude, the balls are flying. But his improvement on clay in the last two years was tremendous I think and his recent results are proof of that.”
After capturing his first clay title in Munich last year, Murray has quickly developed into a great dirtballer, with Masters 1000 titles in Madrid in 2015 and Rome earlier this year. He is a three-time semi-finalist at Roland Garros and is considered Novak Djokovic’s biggest threat this fortnight.
The 29-year-old recently parted ways with his coach, former French world No1 Amelie Mauresmo, and is relying on Jamie Delgado in Paris, who initially joined the team as an assistant coach.
Murray says he has not yet sought out anyone to replace Mauresmo and is happy with the current set-up for the time being, especially considering he has gone 12-2 on clay leading up to the French Open.
“Obviously with the way that everything went in Rome and Madrid, things are going well just now, so no need to sort of rush into anything. I’m happy with the work I have done with Jamie so far,” said Murray.
“I enjoy working with him. He’s a very good people person. He’s pretty calm, relaxed. On top of that very, very experienced around the tour.”
Djokovic commences his assault on a maiden French Open crown on Tueday against world No100 Lu Yen-Hsun of Taipei.
Arab No1 Malek Jaziri is also in action as he faces Germany’s Florian Mayer.
On the women’s side, Serena Williams will begin her title defence against Magdalena Rybarikova on Tuesday.
The American world No1 combated a cold last in Paris last year, with five of her seven matches going the distance.
“If that happens again I’m not sure I can get through that again. I’m like okay, every night I have this programme. Make sure I have my vitamins and just be healthy,” she said ahead of her opening clash.
Twelve months after his latest bid to complete a career Grand Slam was thwarted, Novak Djokovic targets an elusive French Open title with time and history threatening to conspire against him.
The world No1 was left in tears in 2015 when Stan Wawrinka unleashed a battery of single-handed backhand winners to all corners of Court Philippe Chatrier on his way to a shock Paris title. Djokovic’s coach, Boris Becker, described that day as a “big storm”, and the top seed’s team will be looking to avoid a repeat this time around.
“You have to be there when the sun shines and you have to be there when there’s a storm, and that was a big storm,” Becker told Sport360 of that French Open final defeat.
“It was part of my job and the Djokovic team to lift him up, touch his spirits and his inner soul, for him to understand this was a tough loss but the only way out is up.
“The next tournament thankfully was Wimbledon so there was enough motivation to go back on the practice court. But believe me some of the practices were difficult. Because he was still labouring the defeat against Stan but it speaks to his character and determination to find a way within to hold the trophy at Wimbledon four weeks later.”
Djokovic turns 29 today and will be playing Roland Garros for a 12th time where he remains the overwhelming favourite to secure a trophy which would also place him halfway to the first calendar Grand Slam since 1969.
But tennis is littered with great names whose Grand Slam pedigree endured shattering reality checks on Roland Garros’ unforgiving crushed red brick surfaces.
Pete Sampras won 14 majors but 13 times the great American tried to win the French Open and 13 times he failed. Stefan Edberg also made 13 fruitless visits while Becker tried nine times. John McEnroe also flopped, the four-time US Open and three-time Wimbledon winner having to console himself with a runners-up spot in Paris in 1984.
Djokovic, with 11 majors under his belt, has come closer than all of them. He has been runner-up three times and a semi-finalist on four occasions. He starts in Paris against Taiwan’s Lu Yen-Hsun, the world No100. He is seeded to face Tomas Berdych in the last-eight before a potential semi-final blockbuster against nine-time champion Rafael Nadal in what would be the 50th meeting between them.
“I still feel like I have plenty of more years ahead of me, which gives me more comfort in terms of opportunities I’m going to have at the title of Roland Garros, which releases more pressure for me this year,” said Djokovic. “I don’t try to approach them from a view of being obsessed with this tournament.”
World No2 Murray is shaping up as Djokovic’s greatest threat. He may be 8,000 points behind in the world rankings, but the former US Open and Wimbledon winner has developed a taste for clay relatively late in his career. His 6-3, 6-3 win over Djokovic in the final of the Foro Italico came on his 29th birthday. Murray has steadily improved in Paris with three semi-final runs in his last four appearances, losing a five-set epic to Djokovic in 2015.
He faces 37-year-old Czech qualifier Radek Stepanek in the first round with a potential semi-final against Wawrinka.
“Qualifiers have played three matches. That’s tough. They have won three matches here. They are probably feeling pretty good about their conditions and comfortable on the courts,” said Murray.
Nadal was promoted to fourth seed after Roger Federer withdrew from Paris with injury ending a run of 65 consecutive Slam appearances stretching back to 1999.
Written off after a 2015 campaign saw him endure his worst season in a decade, the 29-year-old Spaniard won in Monte Carlo for the ninth time and then clinched the Barcelona crown to equal Guillermo Vilas’ record of 49 career clay-court titles.
Nadal starts his quest for a 10th French Open against big-serving Sam Groth of Australia. With his 30th birthday just around the corner, Nadal has arguably the toughest draw – Italy’s Fabio Fognini, who came back from two sets down to beat him at the US Open last year, is a possible third round opponent.
Austrian Dominic Thiem, who knocked Federer out in Rome, is lying in wait in the round of 16.
“I’m not feeling old. On court it is true that I had a lot of years here on the tour, but in terms of mentality and in terms of life I feel myself young,” said Nadal. “I don’t think about going to be 30.”
Defending champion Wawrinka has endured a mixed clay season – a quarter-final in Monte Carlo, an opening loss in Madrid and just one win in Rome. He will hope to fly under the radar once again.
World No.6 Kei Nishikori of Japan remains an outside hope. The 26-year-old was runner-up in Barcelona to Nadal and then lost semi-finals to Djokovic in Madrid and Rome.
But Nishikori’s record at the French Open is modest with a quarter-final spot last year representing his best performance.
He will be targeting a 50th grand slam match win on Sunday when he faces Simone Bolelli in a tricky French Open first round.
“I regret to announce that I have made the decision not to play in this year’s French Open,” the 2009 Roland Garros champion wrote on his Facebook page.
“I have been making steady progress with my overall fitness, but I am still not 100% and feel I might be taking an unnecessary risk by playing in this event before I am really ready.”
The 34-year-old world number three, who has been plagued by knee and back injuries this year, last missed a Grand Slam event in 1999 when he skipped the US Open.
Federer, with his 35th birthday looming in August, has played only four tournaments this year.
A knee injury sidelined him after the Australian Open until Monte Carlo before a back problem ruled him out of Madrid.
The Swiss then lasted just two matches at the Rome Masters where he was dumped out by Dominic Thiem.
Despite Thursday’s decision, Federer insists he will keep playing and will concentrate on preparing for the grass court season and a fresh bid to win an eighth Wimbledon, the scene of his most recent Grand Slam triumph in 2012.
“This decision was not easy to make, but I took it to ensure I could play the remainder of the season and help to extend the rest of my career,” the Swiss veteran added in his statement.
“I remain as motivated and excited as ever and my plan is to achieve the highest level of fitness before returning to the ATP World Tour for the upcoming grass court season.
“I am sorry for my fans in Paris but I very much look forward to returning to Roland Garros in 2017.”
Federer’s withdrawal from the French Open, which starts on Sunday, means that nine-time champion Rafael Nadal will be promoted to fourth seed in Friday’s draw behind Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and defending champion Stan Wawrinka.
It also means that dangerman Nadal cannot meet Djokovic or Murray before the semi-finals.