U.S. Men Try to Avoid Bad Beatings on Clay

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Who would have thunk it? After all, James Blake had been mired in an inexplicable funk since he let go of match points against Fernando Gonzalez at last summer’s Olympics. But in Estoril, the power baseliner came out of nowhere to reach his first final on Euro clay, upsetting Nikolay Davydenko before, believe it or not, he let go of match points in a 5-7, 7-6(6), 6-0 loss to Albert Montanes.

“If he missed the line by one inch on one of the match points, I would have won,” Blake said. “He didn’t and he gained confidence. It happens to every player. Today, it happened to me in the final. With the exception of one bad set I played some high-level tennis all week.”

The next week, Blake took two more victories in Madrid, before going down to Roger Federer. Certainly, this was a heartening mini-stretch for the U.S. veteran.

But prior to Estoril, this clay court season had become almost a wash for the boys in red, white and blue — three notable events were contested on European dirt in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome, and not one U.S. male made even a minor impression. Virtually no one gives any of America’s big boys — let alone its lesser-known men — much of a chance to go deep at the crown jewel of clay-court tournaments, Roland Garros.

The monarch of clay, Rafael Nadal, won well contested Masters Series titles in Monte Carlo and Rome over Novak Djokovic, and also won Barcelona. Djokovic won his family’s new event in Belgrade. Czech Tomas Berdych won Munich.  Even Briton Andy Murray, the new No. 3, has something to cheer about, reaching the Monte Carlo semis.

The American men aren’t just an afterthought in the French Open discussion; they aren’t even on most people’s minds.

Incredibly, when the Americans arrive in Paris, instead of having two to three major contenders like the U.S. had when former Roland Garros champs Agassi, Chang and Courier were making noise in the ‘90s, there will be no man with a reasonable hope to go deep in the second week.

None of the top Americans — Andy Roddick, Blake and Mardy Fish — have reached even the Round of 16. As former touring pro Brian Vahaly told IT, this current group of Americans wasn’t brought up with enough patience or a deep enough knowledge of clay-court point construction 101 to make a major impact.

“Some of the international guys hit with such heavy topspin that you have no ability to end points,” Vahaly said. “You’re stuck playing their game, and they’re a lot better than we are. You sit back there and try to rally and, inevitably, they tire you out. It’s very frustrating to play matches when you feel helpless. You watch a lot of Americans play on clay and see their faces, and you can see they feel hopeless when it comes to strategy. We just get outplayed and then figure the only thing to do is to swing even harder. We’d rather lose on our terms, but we’re probably not going to win. We’re very easily exposed. But tennis players are stubborn, which is one of the qualities that also makes them great.”

Roddick, who showed fine form in the first quarter of the year on hard courts, married model Brooklyn Decker in April and didn’t even start his clay season until mid May in Madrid, which from an off-court perspective is perfectly understandable, but from on-court perspective, is questionable.

Fish is in a slump, Robby Ginepri (who reached the fourth round last year) is recovering from an emergency appendectomy and two younger players who had decent results on clay last year — Sam Querrey and Wayne Odesnik — have fallen back to the pack. John Isner, who won the USTA’s French Open wildcard playoff, is on the upswing, but at his height, he can’t be expected to go too far.

While a number of Europeans and South Americans have done well on the hard courts, this current crop of Americans has not been able to match their foreign rivals’ results on dreaded dirt.
“If you look at the top tier — Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and Murray — they’re able to make that transition a lot better, and that shows why they have distanced themselves in the rankings,” said Vahaly, a former University of Virginia All-American who reached a career-high No. 64 in ‘03. “Ultimately, in order to be one of the best, you have to be able to survive on that surface. But your confidence becomes so low. Most of these guys have tried to take the clay game seriously and it still doesn’t pan out, and they think, ‘I would have been much better off taking a break.’ There’s nothing worse than taking a bad beating on clay. You are just getting made to look stupid. For Americans who are looking to be aggressive, it’s a miserable feeling, and you don’t want that lack of confidence to spill into the core of your season, which is the grass and hardcourts.”

There are many reasons why Agassi was the last U.S. male to win the French in ‘99 and continued to reach the quarters up until ‘03, when he was well into his 30s, why Chang won the crown as a teenager back in ‘89, and why Courier won French titles in ‘91 and ‘92. They all were great baseliners who could eat up the mid-court ball. But they also believed they should be winning, and committed to the mandatory long grind.

“Americans are very impatient by nature,” Vahaly said. “Clay is the ultimate equalizer, and foreign players are well aware that we lack confidence on the surface. We grew up on hardcourts where you look to move forward and put the ball away. It was never out of patience that we were learning to construct a point. The international guys know how to construct a point and hit three or four good shots to win a point. Americans look to hit one big shot and we are done. “

The way Nadal is playing, if he doesn’t sustain an injury, he’ll walk away with his fifth straight French crown. So will anyone really care if the Americans don’t make a minor rally? U.S fans certainly care to a degree, because no country likes its boys being mocked at the majors. But the American men aren’t taken seriously in Paris, with pressroom contests being held to guess how many will survive to the first Thursday, when the first round ends.

USTA Player Development chief Patrick McEnroe cares a great deal and believes that learning the intricacies of the surface might be the key to finding the next U.S. champ. American men are in the midst of their worst Slam title drought since 1955-63, when they were shut out of 30 Slams. Since Roddick’s ‘03 U.S. Open crown, 21 majors have passed (hello, Roger and Rafa) without an American man winning one.

“If you develop players more on clay they will become better all-court players, even better fast-court players,” McEnroe said. “The way the game has changed with the technology, the rackets, the strings, the athleticism and the speed, you have to learn how to build the point and play with spin, play with angle, take the ball early. You have to do it all. We feel it’s a huge part of the developmental process for kids to become all-around players.”

There’s no question that some American fans would like to be able to sit down during the second week, turn on the tube and hope that the feisty likes of Roddick can find a winnable style that will allow him to punch out a strong-legged Spaniard like David Ferrer or Nicolas Almagro. Because while the near concession of one-third of a season by the game’s most storied tennis nation borders on the absurd, it’s becoming a trend for some.

“Starting at the end of Miami all the way through Roland Garros, a lot of guys are taking breaks. Some of these guys recognize that it needs to be a natural break for them,” Vahaly said. “Their ranking points have come on grass and hard, and in order for Americans to really take Roland Garros seriously and even make a quarterfinal run, you need to be willing to train on it. Truth be told, Americans can have a successful year overall without much success on it.”

Vahaly isn’t sure whether his former mates are striking a proper balance and spending enough time during April and early May to be able to put up respectable results on clay. But he believes that Roddick’s decision to take time off just might be the best decision for him, as he’s obviously happy on a personal level and will be fresh in Paris, with his true aim being to bang enough balls around to be primed for another Wimbledon run. But Vahaly agrees that reaching the second week of the French once before retiring would be a huge accomplishment for Roddick.

“Wimbledon and the U.S. Open are his meal tickets, and you want to minimize experiences that mess with your confidence,” Vahaly said. “Sometimes taking a break can be one of the best things. I like it because I know it’s been frustrating for him being over there. He’s gotten in great shape and is serving well.  He should feel dangerous against anyone. But Andy wins a lot of matches before he even gets on court based on reputation, and on clay that advantage disappears a little bit. Actually, as an American in Paris, you hope to see another American in your draw.”

Vahaly believes that playing without expectations, Roddick might do a little better this year, but he tabs the left-handed Odesnik — the only U.S. player who professes a true love of dirt — as the American to watch. The immediate future doesn’t look bright, but someday it might turn around. Just don’t book your seats for the men’s final if you are packing a U.S. flag in your suitcase.

“We are a long way off, but all it takes is one guy with a level of patience, like a Courier, who wins the title to change things,” Vahaly said. “Now we’re breeding big-serving, aggressive players and, while it’s great for three of the four Slams, we just disappear this month. Just to have one guy in the Round of 16 would be a major victory. Really, even one guy in the third round would be nice.”