Rafael Nadal has won the French Open eight times, but he still needs one more win to pass Max Decugis. (Bertrand Combaldieu/AP)

Rafael Nadal has won the French Open eight times, but he still needs one more win to pass Max Decugis. (Bertrand Combaldieu/AP)

Rafael Nadal has won the men’s singles title at the French Open eight times. That tournament is underway this weekend and if, but only if, Nadal wins it again he’ll have more French men’s singles championships than any other player. If you find that hard to believe, it’s because you are unfamiliar with Max Decugis. Christopher Clarey, who writes about tennis for the New York Times, joined Bill Littlefield.

BL: Max began winning French championships back in 1903. He won seven more of them over the next decade or so. But it would not be accurate to call him the French Open champion, right? Why is that?

CC: Well, it’s because the French, unlike Wimbledon, which was the other great, great tournament of the era, it didn’t allow non French club players to play for a long time. They started that in 1925 which was after Max’s career was over. So Max played almost all of his matches at the French championships against French players instead of an international field. But Max is on all of the lists here in France. He’s considered a French champion just like Nadal is. No one has won as many titles as Nadal at Roland Garros since the tournament moved to that site or in the Open era.

BL: What made Mr. Decugis so formidable as a player?

CC: Well, first of all, he looked cool. He had that Gatsby-esque look. The hair was darker but he had the black hair and the part down the middle, all slicked back. That kind of look. But he was one of the first real attacking players — from France anyway: big serve, big overhead. He won titles at Wimbledon as a junior, and he won Wimbledon doubles title as well and all his French titles — he won 29 altogether if you count the doubles. Olympic medals as well.

He played with Suzanne Lenglen, “La Divine”, who was probably the biggest women’s tennis star, perhaps, you know, of the pre-war era at all, pre-World War II. Huge star. And she was a real drawing card, and she played with Decugis when she was just 15 years old and won the French mixed-doubles title. So Max was a real formidable figure in a very elite sport that had a reduced audience in those years, but he was considered kind of the first great French men’s tennis player.

BL: Decugis played well before the era of steroids, or even amphetamines, but you have discovered that he may have partaken at least once in a kind of performance enhancer. Tell us about that occasion.

CC: One of his tormentors was a dashing New Zealander named Tony Wilding — won four Wimbledon titles and was really the best player of this era in a lot of ways. Wilding often got the best of Decugis, and they were playing in Brussels in 1911 and there are two different versions of this. What’s clear is that Max lost the first two sets, 6-0, 6-0. I have heard and read that he was down 5-0 in the third set, and I have also read that he was down 5-4 in the third set. Either way he was down a lot. And then he managed to reverse the situation and win the match, 7-5, 6-0, 6-0. So he reeled off a bunch of games in a row. Shocking result.

And he later confessed to a French chair umpire, who reported this later to the French press — he felt like he might have been the very first case of doping in tennis because unbeknownst to him the chair umpire in that match had given him a little fruit to eat on the changeover. And it turned out to have been a kola nut, which was full of caffeine. I think he felt — you know maybe his conscience was a little bit troubled anyway. But it makes for a better story. He may have been the first doper even though caffeine is not illegal now in sport. But he might have felt that in his conscience he had violated the spirit of it or something.

BL: I don’t know how popular tennis was in France in the early 1900s. Was Max Decugis a celebrity? 

CC: Well if you go back and read the sporting press of the day — a very prominent guy. But look at the crowds who watched the early French championships. They were very small. And in fact, on the women’s side of things, you wouldn’t even need to win a match to win the title. There were even cases of three or four people entering a tournament on the women’s side and then having defaults or withdrawals and somebody kind of getting a walkover to the title.

I think Max had to work a bit harder than that, but I can say that in 1907 in the final he played a man named Gautier, and he won the final by the score of 6-0, 6-0, 6-0, which you could almost see Nadal doing in his prime. But that tells you something right there. I think the crowds in the early years were quite small but it did build momentum. And the arrival of Lenglen right before the war, and especially after the war when Lenglen became such a big star on the women’s side, and then the Musketeers came along — Lacoste and Borotra, Cochet and Brugnon — and they won the Davis Cup and beat Bill Tilden and Billy Talbert and the U.S. That’s when tennis really took off in France and became a huge sport.

BL: Well let’s jump forward a century and more. Do you like Rafael Nadal’s chances of moving past Mr. Decugis by winning this year’s French Open?

CC: We need to ask Rafa if he knows Max Decugis, first of all — find out whether he knows this is what his big challenge is this year or not. You can’t really pick against Rafa until somebody does it. He’s only lost one match at Roland Garros in his entire life. He’s already won eight titles. Only man to beat him was Robin Soderling when Rafa had sore knees back in 2009, and it’s hard to visualize losing, but I think he really is a little vulnerable this year. He’s had his weakest clay court season. You know, in his prime coming in he lost three times on clay, twice by Spaniards, [Nicolas] Almagro and [David] Ferrer, and then he was beaten by Djokovic in the final in Rome.

So he’s a bit down this year compared to some previous years. But he has such fighting spirit, and he appears to be building, so I would personally, if I had to put my hand over the fire, I’d put him as co-favorite with Novak Djokovic. I think those two will fight it out.