Having endured another predictable clay season dominated by the ferocious Rafael Nadal, it is curious to remember a time ten years ago when the clay field was relatively deep and competitive, with a number of good-to-great specialists and no single competitor a la Nadal, able to sweep aside the competition over the clay season for the loss of mere sets.
Corretja was part of a pack of players in the mid-to-late 1990s and early 2000s, who together comprised one of the greatest clay court fields of all time. Among the Spanish contingent, there was also the eccentric Sergi Bruguera (winner of Roland Garros in 1993 & 1994), the forehand maestro Carlos Moya (winner in 1998), Albert Costa (Roland Garros champion in 2002), Juan Carlos Ferrero (champion in 2003) and Alberto Berasategui. Other great clay specialists of the time included the charismatic Gustavo Kuerten (three time winner in 1997, 2000 & 2001), iron man Thomas Muster (1995 champion) and American Jim Courier (winner in 1991 & 1992). Added to this prestigous group were a number of non-clay specialists who nonetheless thrived on the red dirt – Andre Agassi, Andrei Medvedev, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Magnus Norman. Owing to the sheer depth of the clay game at the time, Corretja never managed to grab a French Open title, losing twice in the final, once to Moya in 1998, and once to Kuerten in 2001. Ironically for a clay court player, his greatest triumph came at the end of year Masters in 1998, on the ice-quick surface of Hanover.
While Corretja possessed all the physical and combative qualities necessary to succeed on clay, he also played with beautiful grace and panache. His single handed backhand was a reliable and gorgeous shot: with its magnificent sweep and unnverving consistency, it mocked the fact that he learned it relatively late in his career, switching over from a two-hander. Having started a glaring weakness in his game, it was honed to perfection in the course of his career, and seen here, is regal yet industrious at the same time. His forehand motion is not entirely dissimilar to that of Juan Monaco’s (currently one of the better clay players on tour). Both men hit with considerable clearance over the net and monstrous topspin, despite using a relatively conservative eastern grip – a peculiarity for clay players, who tend to opt for either a full western or at least semi-western grip.
An adaptable and well rounded player, Corretja held other qualities not usually associated with clay court players. A fantastic returner, he twice beat Pete Sampras in big events, once on grass in Davis Cup Quarter Final, and once in semi finals of the end of year Masters. Clay courters of his grace and consistency are sorely lacking from today’s game.