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L. Jon Wertheim
June 10, 2002
Clay PigeonsWith one exception, U.S. men just can't play on the French Open's slow surface
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June 10, 2002

Tennis

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Clay Pigeons
With one exception, U.S. men just can't play on the French Open's slow surface

They came. They saw. They left. This year 12 American men made the main draw of the French Open. After two rounds only a pair remained. One of them was Vince Spadea, a woebegone former Top 20 player who summoned his best tennis in years before losing in the third round to France's S�bastien Grosjean. The other was Andre Agassi, who at 32 played as well as ever until the fourth round, where he needed five sets to beat a French qualifier. The remaining Americans took part in the annual rite of negotiating with airlines for an earlier flight home. "We came here pretty optimistic," says James Blake, who lost in the second round to Grosjean, "but it seems like the same thing every year."

That's not exactly true. Only a decade ago Jim Courier defended the French Open title he'd won a year earlier by beating Agassi in an all-American final, and three years ago Agassi won in Paris. But Blake is basically right: To most American men, the red clay of Roland Garros might as well be quicksand.

Pete Sampras, unlike Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, has never had Paris. The French Open is the lone major title that has eluded him, and it's been five years since he has survived more than a solitary round there. Despite weeks of preparation for this year's tournament with his new coach, Jos� Higueras, Sampras looked utterly out of it in his first-round loss to Italian journeyman Andrea Gaudenzi. "Pete may be 30," says Higueras, "but he's still learning how to play on clay."

So is Andy Roddick, the 19-year-old tagged as the next great American player. He too lost in the first round, to Australia's Wayne Arthurs, hardly a clay-court specialist. Roddick attacked when he should have stayed on the baseline, and he lingered in the backcourt when he should have charged the net.

The long-standing explanation for this futility on the terre battue is that clay-court tennis is as foreign to Americans as paillard. Natural clay accounts for only 4% of all courts in the U.S., and most American junior players have little experience on surfaces other than hard courts. Technology bears some blame, too. In 1989, before more powerful rackets changed the sport, Michael Chang, men 17, won the French Open even though he hadn't set foot on a clay court until the previous year; his consistent, top-spin-heavy backcourt game and his exceptional foot speed were well-tailored to the surface. Courier played much the same way, as does Agassi. But most young American players today use those more powerful rackets to play riskier, "bigger" tennis that translates poorly to slow surfaces. "Juniors who are used to hitting a few balls and then relying on a weapon suddenly have to construct a point," says former U.S. Tennis Association coach Dean Goldfine, who works with Todd Martin and Xavier Malisse.

Agassi believes that playing well on clay is a matter of preparation and adapting one's game. "We all grew up on hard courts, without the subtleties of [clay]. We sprint to the forehand, knowing that if we hit it flat up the line, we don't have to recover. On clay that ball's not going to end the point, so now you're stopping and sliding to get back in position."

As American men struggle on clay, proficiency on that surface has never been more important. In addition to the French Open, three of the nine ATP Masters Series events—the high-stakes tournaments that count automatically toward players' rankings-are held on clay. What's more, the host nation of a Davis Cup tie chooses the playing surface. It's hardly surprising that France has elected to play September's semifinal tie against the U.S. at Roland Garros. Given that Agassi is unlikely to play, a French victory is a virtual fait accompli.

Higueras, a former clay-court specialist and now a consultant to the USTA, has recommended that the organization build more clay courts and sponsor trips to Europe for talented young American players. "When you don't have experience," Higueras says, "you get on clay and end up playing against the surface as well as against your opponent."

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