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The great clay hope

Calling all Americans to challenge our nemesis surface

Posted: Friday April 13, 2007 11:38AM; Updated: Friday April 13, 2007 11:52AM
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Andy Roddick has had some success on clay courts, but a pulled hamstring will limit him in the weeks leading into the French Open.
Andy Roddick has had some success on clay courts, but a pulled hamstring will limit him in the weeks leading into the French Open.
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The good news is I'm back on the ATP Tour. The bad news is my timing sucks.

As if nearly seven months away from professional tennis isn't challenging enough, my comeback happens to fall during the least favorite time of year for American players: clay-court season.

Don't get me wrong, I'm incredibly excited that my recovery from back surgery has progressed to the point where I can be playing tennis anywhere, on any surface. But I'm going to try and be patient and benefit from low expectations during this clay-court stretch. I look forward to seeing some green grass or hard courts underneath my feet thereafter.

I've touched on the challenges of competing on a specialty surface like clay before. American players are raised to focus on building weapons and finding ways to attack and win points. Clay-court tennis puts a premium on defense and manipulating your opponent into low-percentage positions where he will eventually lose the point.

As my SI.com and pro tennis colleague Lisa Raymond recently wrote, the even more overwhelming factor in clay-court tennis is the movement. Moving on clay is an art form, the sliding, the balance and recovery. Clay-court movement is not something that can be mastered in the few weeks a year we usually have to prepare for this unique skill.

South Americans and Europeans who grew up on clay have such an overwhelming advantage because of years of practice combining the movement and the patience of developing a point that we Americans can't learn in a crash course.

Some would ask, why don't Americans practice on clay more during their developmental stages? The answer is there isn't much access to good clay tennis courts in the U.S., except in Florida. In addition, the clay courts Americans do get to practice on aren't true clay courts -- they're what's known as Har-Tru, a green, faster clay surface that plays differently than the red clay in Europe.

This week the U.S. Clay Court Championships are taking place in Houston on the Har-Tru surface, and while it's a great alternative for American players than going to Europe this early before the French Open, it isn't a true indication of clay-court prowess.

With all this being said, we do have some great players in this country that are capable of winning on any surface. Guys like Andy Roddick and James Blake are very capable of posting some good results during clay season. Unfortunately, Roddick's clay-court schedule is going to take a hit as he recovers from the hamstring pull he suffered in Key Biscayne, Fla., so don't look for him too much in the draws in Europe prior to the French Open.

Blake, on the other hand, made some significant progress last year with wins over clay specialists such as Carlos Moya and Nicolas Almagro, so we can look for him to build on that this season. Also, veterans Vince Spadea and Mike Russell are two of the best U.S. clay-court players there are, and they'll likely have some of the best results amongst the Americans.

On a bigger scale, look for the same faces to terrorize on the dirt. Rafael Nadal will face some stiff competition from young guns such as Novak Djokovic and Almagro. But the biggest threat to his capturing a third straight French Open crown will come at the hands of Roger Federer and the player who has already secured the 2007 Comeback Player of the Year Award, Guillermo Caņas.

Caņas has showed he embraces the grand stage, and if anyone can put a halt to Nadal's 62-match clay-court winning streak, it might be the Argentine. Fernando Gonzalez and Tommy Haas are both off to great starts this year as well, and they could be major factors. They both possess the combination of firepower and defense skills needed to excel on clay courts.

In the end, though, I still believe Nadal will be rolling around in the red dirt on the final day in Paris in early June, and Federer will have to wait yet another year to try and win his elusive career Grand Slam. And for us Americans, well, bring on hard-court season.

Twelve-year ATP Tour veteran Justin Gimelstob writes for SI.com on alternate Fridays.

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