One of the great things about visiting the Australian Open, as I’m sure it would be at the other Grand Slams, is realising that every player in the draw is someone’s favourite.
For the last 12 years, the man who I’ve most enjoyed watching is a 5-foot-8 bandana-and-sunglasses-wearing Frenchman named Arnaud Clement.
I first saw Arnaud – because tennis players whom we love are known by their first names, such as Roger, Rafa, Andre, Goran, Guga etc – in 2000 when he defeated 7th seed Nicolas Lapentti in the second round. Four days later, I sought Arnaud out, and found myself on Court 3 to watch him take on Younes El Aynaoui from Morocco in a most unlikely fourth round meeting.
Arnaud secured my long-term fanhood on the first point of the match. He served up the T from the tramstop end of the court and immediately approached the net. When the linesman on the centre line called “fault”, Arnaud didn’t break stride – he approached with great purpose, coming to an abrupt halt mere centimetres away from the net, bending at a right angle at the waist so that his torso was clear over the other side of the court, from where he could peer down to scrutinise the accuracy of the call. The crowd laughed as one as he shrugged his shoulders and strutted – for Arnaud always strutted – back to take his second serve.
It was just the kind of engaging on-court persona and engaging play – a 5-foot-8 guy who would occasionally serve-and-volley?!? – that I love in a tennis player. Three-and-a-half hours of a most incredible afternoon later, El Aynaoui took the match 10-8 in the 5th set, and the two men embraced at the net.
While 21st Century men’s tennis has been dominated by Roger, Rafa and Novak, many fans who have adopted players outside of the big three have chosen to be entertained by Frenchmen. Whether it’s the brash athleticism and engaging grins of Tsonga or Monfils, the wizardry of Santoro, the classic grace of Grosjean, the all-court game of Llodra, or the fluid and pure grounstrokes of Gasquet, all of the French brigade have entertained while simultaneously displaying the potential to beat any opponent on any proverbial given day.
Of course, this would often mean that their unpredictability would add to their intrigue.
Every time Arnaud walked on the court, it felt like we knew that we were going to witness extremely high quality tennis, even though we had absolutely no idea what the result of the match would be.
In 2001, I sat in Rod Laver Arena for a third round round match next to two Melbournian girls who struck up a conversation. When asked, I said that I was cheering for Arnaud. They weren’t: they were loudly appreciative of the “hot” guy down the other end of the court, a 19 year-old pony-tailed kid from Switzerland named Federer who people felt hadn’t yet reached his full potential. Arnaud won 7-6, 6-4, 6-4 in his usual style. “His usual style”, of course, meant that every time Arnaud won a match, everyone in the stadium felt that he had, in fact, reached his potential.
For how could he not have? He was as well-built as a guy could be without losing his speed, could run forever, left the court at the end of each match having given his all in every point, and was an inch shorter than the shortest Grand Slam winners in recent memory – the gigantic Michael Chang and the towering Gaston Gaudio.
Just over a week later, Arnaud played in his one and only Grand Slam final after saving match points in his five-set semi-final against his close mate Sebastien Grosjean. Agassi duly thumped him and Arnaud is now regarded as being one of the worst male players to reach a slam final in recent memory. Eight years later, he would once again be in top form, reaching the quarter-finals at Wimbledon as a 30 year-old shrimp. He battled fellow veteran Rainer Schuettler in over five hours of play over a few days and rain delays, until Schuettler won 8-6 in the 5th set. And yet, in between these successes, Arnaud’s play was only effective enough for him to finish two years ranked inside the top 20 and he finished his career with more losses than wins on tour.
Of course, the fun of watching Arnaud was also enhanced by never knowing just what kind of showmanship one would witness in any given match. During his run in 2001, Arnaud played the serially slow Greg Rusedski, who started to ask a ballkid for a towel after every single point. Arnaud decided to revel in it, alternating between speeding up the points when he was serving and showing Rusedski the meaning of slow play by proceeding to clean his sunglasses between almost every point in some games, frustrating his opponent and entertaining the crowd at his expense.
Many years later, Arnaud showed that even when he had a crack at a ballkid – an act that usually destroys any kind of affection the crowd has for a player – he could increase one’s enjoyment of a match. It was the first round of the 2010 Open, and in his match against James Blake, Arnaud had our section of the crowd on Court 6 in stitches as he tried to explain to the ballkid what he wanted him to do. Arnaud delivered a couple of very clear instructions: hand the towel over this way first, then place the balls on my racquet as I hand the towel back. The kid didn’t understand. After repeating and rephrasing to no avail, Arnaud resorted to miming the actions he wanted performed. The kid was still too slow to understand. Finally, after trying once more, Arnaud’s patience cracked: instead of handing the towel back to the ballkid, he dropped it just out of reach. We all laughed as one: not many players show an ounce of the patience Arnaud had shown with the kid, and the moment had been so lengthy and graphic that everyone in the crowd knew precisely what Arnaud wanted the kid to do! Arnaud lost convincingly on that day 7-5, 7-5, 6-2, only winning 43% of the points. Despite this, he hit more winners than errors, once again forcing his opponent to play excellent tennis to beat him and providing spectacular entertainment even in defeat.
Arnaud’s last competitive match came this past Wimbledon, in a third round doubles match against the Bryan Brothers, who are one Slam title away from equalling the all-time record. Arnaud and partner Michael Llodra lost the first two sets, rallied back to 2-2 and finally lost in the fifth. Sounded about right for the man’s final send-off. He’ll now start his stint as the French Davis Cup Captain.
The last time I saw Arnaud play was appropriately typical. I knew what I would see: numerous beautiful shots from all corners of the court, a competitive nature that forced him to chase down everything in sight, a bandana that would be changed at the end of each set, and a strut that announced to us all that whatever the result, we were watching a bloke confident in the belief that he was at the peak of French masculinity. It was a first round match at the 2011 Open against Italian Andreas Seppi. Arnaud took the first two sets, but couldn’t close it out. At 10:00pm, 3 hours and 40 minutes after the match had started, Seppi finally won the fifth set. I was beaming as I walked back down the Yarra. Result be damned: it was a hell of a ride.
Au revoir, Arnaud. May your life be filled with the kind of joie de vivre your play has brought to those of us who have loved watching you.