Posted: Tuesday April 25, 2006 11:02AM; Updated: Tuesday April 25, 2006 12:15PM
Vincent Spadea was the only American to compete in both the U.S. Clay Court Championships and Barcelona's Open Seat Godo.
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BARCELONA, Spain -- I'm here in the Catalonian capital this week, competing in one of the most prestigious and longest-running events in professional tennis. The Open Seat Godo is one of the biggest and most competitive clay-court tune-ups for the French Open, which starts in five weeks.
Almost all of the leading contenders for this year's Roland Garros title and the "King of Clay" honors are here: Rafael Nadal, Guillermo Coria, Carlos Moya, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Gaston Gaudio and many other players who take pride in having their socks and sneakers stained with the red clay of European courts.
Sadly, when I look around the locker room, I don't see many of my compatriots. The only other American in the field is Vince Spadea, one of the few Americans who regularly head overseas early to prepare for the French Open. (Both of us were eliminated in the first round.) I'm sure many other American players would enjoy this event. Barcelona is a very popular city, the tournament is held at a beautiful tennis club, and it enjoys tremendous fan and sponsor support and a deep tradition of tennis excellence.
There are two things that prevent the top Americans from participating in this and many other important clay-court events preceding and following this week: the surface itself and the duration of the European stretch of tournaments, from clay season to Wimbledon, the end of grass-court season.
All of the top American players, such as Andy Roddick, James Blake, AndreAgassi and Robby Ginepri, are under no delusions -- they are at a tremendous disadvantage on clay, especially against the elite clay-court players who grew up on the surface and are as comfortable sliding around on it as they are walking or talking. When confronted with the challenge of making their schedules, most Americans would prefer to rest up and take off some of the weeks of the clay season to be fresher for the more advantageous, fast-playing grass surface that immediately follows the French Open.
Clay-court tennis has become an ugly topic over the past few years among American tennis players, fans and journalists. I do agree that we've underachieved and are capable of better results, but it's important to understand and accept that without more significant clay-court events in the U.S., American players will continue to develop their games for faster services.
I don't think there's anything wrong with this. It's important to develop all-around games, and we all could benefit from spending more time in Europe on clay, learning about the intricacies of sliding, court positioning and shot selection. However, with the ATP calendar as full as it is, and with the tennis season already 10 months long, it's important to find breaks in the schedule to rest as well.
Since the European clay season is the least successful for Americans, it's a logical time to take a brief respite. It's identical to some of the clay specialists taking their breaks during grass season and the beginning of the U.S. summer hard-court stretch. Tennis is too challenging, physically and mentally, to go the whole year without some calculated breaks.
Todd Martin is the only American to win Barcelona in the past 48 years. He won the title over Alberto Berasategui in 1998. The previous American winner was Herb Flam, who won in both 1956 and '57.
With his victory last week in Monte Carlo, Nadal has now won 42 straight matches on clay. It's the third-longest clay-court winning streak in professional tennis history, behind Guillermo Vilas, who won 53 straight in 1977, and Bjorn Borg, who won 46 straight from '77 to '79.
Since Roger Federer took over the No. 1 ranking in February 2004, after winning the Australian Open, his record is 181-12. The only player to have beaten him more than once during that stretch is Nadal, who has done so four times.
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Outspoken ATP tennis pro Justin Gimelstob is a frequent contributor to SI.com. He lost his first-round match to Agustin Calleri on Tuesday, 6-2, 6-1.