MIDWAY THROUGH the
first afternoon of play at this year's French Open, the U.S. men had surpassed
their collective performance of 2007. Which, granted, wasn't difficult, given
that the Yanks failed to win a single match last year at Roland Garros. De-feat
of clay, one might have called it. "We set the bar low enough," joked
James Blake moments after winning his first match. "It was like playing
with house money this year."
But then the hits
kept coming. Florida's Mardy Fish won in Paris for the first time in his
nine-year career. Robby Ginepri, a 25-year-old Atlantan, reached the fourth
round. California's Sam Querrey, who beat former French Open champ Carlos Moy�
on clay in April, gave Roger Federer a workout in round 1. And the most
pleasant surprise may have been the emergence of Wayne Odesnik. A 22-year-old
lefty based in Fort Lauderdale, he entered the draw as a wild card but deployed
a grinding, patient, decidedly un-American game to beat Argentina's Guillermo
Ca�as, an elite clay-court player, in the first round. Odesnik, who—kiddingly,
one assumes—referred to himself as the American Rafael Nadal, won his second
match before capitulating to third-seeded Novak Djokovic in straight sets last
While all the U.S.
men, save Ginepri, were eliminated before the second week of play, there was
evidence that their recent incompetence on clay might be coming to an end. This
is attributable, in part, to the changing surface. Just as the lawns of
Wimbledon aren't as fast and slick as they once were (due to thicker grass and
denser soil), the "slow clay" of Roland Garros has become a bit of a
misnomer. Particularly on hot, dry days—thanks, global warming!—the French Open
surface plays almost like dust-coated asphalt.
But this year's
results also suggest that if the American men aren't necessarily embracing
clay, they're no longer mentally unhinged by it either. Ginepri is right when
he asserts that the surface makes unique demands on a player, but in the end
tennis is tennis. "Honestly," he says, succeeding on clay is a matter
of "just hitting the right shots at the right time, getting the footwork
adjusted a little bit better and then playing my game."
This surge comes
none too soon. As the nerve center of pro tennis continues to move away from
the U.S., competence on clay has never been more important. Besides the French
Open, three of the nine high-stakes ATP Masters Series tournaments are played
on clay. Plus, so long as the sport's dominant triad—Federer, Nadal and
Djokovic—is so proficient on all surfaces, a player who struggles on clay all
but forfeits a chance for a high ranking. (Not for nothing is the U.S. Tennis
Association exposing top juniors to clay courts at an increasingly early
This fall the
American men will be able to gauge how far they've really come on the surface.
In the semifinals of the Davis Cup competition, the defending champion U.S.
team will take on Spain in Madrid, playing on a surface likely to resemble a
sandbox. The visitors will be prohibitive underdogs. But who knows? When the
surface gets gritty, maybe the Americans will too.
ONLY AT SI.COM
Daily French Open analysis from Jon Wertheim and Justin Gimelstob.