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Sebastian Grosjean: A Little Man in a Big Man’s Game

Posted on March 10, 2010 by Rob York

If you’re a tennis follower, you’ve probably heard it before: Little guys don’t have the power to reach the top of the game.

BNP Paribas Open.

Sébastien Grosjean has long been known as one of the game's speediest players.

If any “little” guy were likely to disprove that notion it’d have been Sébastien Grosjean. Now 31, Grosjean stands at 5’9” and weighs in at about 160 pounds. Now 31, he’s been a dangerous presence on the tour for more than a decade, thanks to his great speed, surprisingly punchy serve and ability to hit generate explosive forehands that belied his size.

He has been a regular, if not constant presence in the game since he introduced himself to the tennis-viewing public in 1998, reaching the fourth round on the lawns of Wimbledon. There he fell to Pete Sampras, who certainly knew a thing or two about grass, and the following year he reached his first ever Masters Series final in Miami.

In the early goings of the decade the Frenchman ironically nicknamed “Big John” established himself as a big threat on all surfaces, winning his first tournament on the grass of Halle in 2000 and the semis of both the Australian Open and Roland Garros the following year.

It’s through his 2001 RG result that Grosjean first attracted international attention, while earning his place as a footnote in tennis history. Facing none other than Andre Agassi in front of a hometown crowd, the young Frenchman appeared headed for quick exit, having been outmuscled in the first set 6-1.

Since then, much speculation about this match has focused on what happened to Agassi next: With the former President Clinton arriving to take premium seating, the momentum of the match swung wildly, as Grosjean dropped just one game each in the second and third sets. Though the American dug in for the fourth, Grosjean’s momentum carried him to a 6-3 win, thus securing him the match.

The media would pepper the American legend in the post-match presser, asking him if the presence of the former head of state had any bearing on the result. Though lapses in his play seemingly coincided with Clinton’s presence on the court, Agassi (and Clinton himself) denied this, saying the change in the match’s tempo had more to do with the man on the other side of the net.

We may never know for sure, but Agassi’s side of the story does fit the description of the Frenchman’s game: Often content to use his legs to track down his opponent’s shots and force either mistakes or poor approach shots, Grosjean has long been know for his ability to suddenly switch to offense, firing aces or blasting forehands with minimal effort.

French Open Tennis X

At the 2001 Roland Garros, Andre Agassi became the prize scalp in Sébastien Grosjean's collection.

This ability remained useful throughout that season, as he won his first (and only) Masters Shield that fall in Paris. With this win, he qualified for the year-end championships in Sydney. Once there, he reached the finals before losing to world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt.

In 2003 he picked up a longer racket and managed to fight his way to the semis of Wimbledon (a feat he duplicated the next year), a big achievement for a small player on the surface most rewarding of wingspan.

Yet, he never got over the semifinal hump at the Slams: His first opportunity at the 2001 AO against countryman Arnaud Clement – who is listed as one inch shorter than Grosjean – will probably remain his best chance. Up two sets to love against Clement, Grosjean failed to finish off his compatriot in one of the worst latter-round closes in Grand Slam history.

In every subsequent semi appearance, nerves were irrelevant. At that year’s Roland Garros, the heavy bounce of Alex Corretja’s groundstrokes wore down Grosjean. His two Wimbledon semis were notable achievements, but he was thoroughly overmatched once he got there, succumbing in ’03 to Mark Philippoussis in straight sets, and did no better the following year against Roger Federer, successor to Sampras’ grass court control.

Ultimately, what so surprised Agassi that one special summer – sudden bursts of power – has left Grosjean unable to rise higher in the rankings than No. 4, unable to win more than four career titles, and stuck two hurdles from Grand Slam glory. Agassi, who took the ball earlier and hit with more consistent pace than his contemporaries, won eight majors by making his opponents work harder than he did.

Roger Federer, with the most fully developed game in tennis history, hasn’t had to rely on one or two shots to win matches. Even Philippoussis, who only went past the semis of a major twice, had an overwhelming serve used to conserve his energy.

While Grosjean could succeed on the slow clay of Paris and the quick lawns of London, he never made it past the third round of the US Open. Though New York’s hard courts should have been the middle ground between Paris and London’s extremes, it’s easy for an undersized player to burn himself out before the game’s last major.

ATP Masters Series Paris - Day One

Now 31, Sébastien Grosjean still has one of the most feared forehands on tour.

Still, he perseveres on tour, having won his last title on home soil in 2007 at Lyon. This year he has accepted a wild card into the BMW Tennis Championship in Sunrise, Florida, scheduled to start March 14. It will be his second appearance at the event, having reached the final in 2008.

He’ll be one of many players – some of them young, some of them veterans – looking to use the event as a springboard to better things. We’ll soon find out whether Grosjean, no longer so young, can use his experience to compensate for his size.

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