The State of American Clay Court Tennis
By Matthew Laird
Last week, after John Isner lost his second-round match against Brazilian Tomaz Bellucci, there were no Americans left standing in singles at the Rome Masters. This isn’t really much of a surprise, as there were only two in the draw to begin with.
Andy Roddick, the top-ranked American, opted not to play in Rome, and was only able to get around the fine he would have received for skipping a mandatory tournament due to a loophole for veteran players with a sufficient number of wins. Sam Querrey lost in the first round to Julien Benneteau, despite serving for the match in the third set. James Blake is struggling with a knee injury, so he was also absent. The other American players were ranked too low to gain direct entry. Only Michael Russel tried to play through qualifying, but he lost in the first round to Marcel Granollers.
This seems like a good a time to look at just what is happening to American tennis players when they set foot on clay. American tennis players, who generally thrive on hard courts, seem to completely forget how to play tennis once the tour shifts to Europe and the surface gets softer. Whenever April and May roll around, the U.S. players are nowhere to be found. Certainly not in the later rounds of any Masters series events, or – heaven forbid – the French Open.
There are no active American players who have made it past the fourth round at Roland Garros. The last man to do so was Andre Agassi, way back in 2003, when he lost to Guillermo Coria. And their performances on the Masters-series level haven’t been much better.
In fact, in 2009, the eight Americans in the ATP top 100 went a combined 23-34 for the season on clay, a winning rate of just over 40 percent. Andy Roddick hasn’t even set foot on a clay court this year, and he probably won’t until he absolutely has to. In 2009, he only played in two tournaments on clay, the Madrid Masters event and the French Open. I expect he’ll do the same this year.
So far in 2010, American men have played in a clay court tournament a total of nine times, for a combined record of 8-9. Three of those wins can be attribute to Sam Querrey, who had a nice run to the final at Houston before losing to Juan Ignacio Chela. This also doesn’t include the three losses that the U.S. Davis Cup suffered in their defeat to Serbia, which also happened to be on clay. Does it need to be mentioned that seven out of the U.S. team’s last ten losses have been on clay?
The stats are pretty clear about how American men perform on this surface, but the unanswered question is why that’s the case. One explanation is how a clay court changes the way that the game of tennis is played. Clay is stickier and softer than the grittiest hard court, so the ball bounces higher and loses more of its momentum when it comes off the court. This makes it harder for players to hit winners past their opponents, and necessitates a more patient mindset in which a player constructs a point.
The general wisdom is that American players, who prefer to mindlessly bash the ball from every part of the court, can’t handle adapting their games to this style of play. Similarly, clay makes it harder to hit aces. In 2009, only 10 players managed to hit on average, more than 10 aces per match they played. Five of those players were Americans.
The other explanation is a bit more subtle. Clay courts are rare in the United States, and are almost nonexistent outside of expensive tennis clubs. Despite the fact that the U.S. Open was played on clay for a few years in the 70′s, there is only one clay court event left on American soil, the aforementioned U.S. Men’s Clay Court championships in Houston. And that’s on green clay, rather than red clay, which is actually closer to hard courts than most clay surfaces. Since they’re so hard to come by out here, American players never play on clay when they’re learning tennis, or when they’re playing juniors, so they don’t have the experience that Europeans or South Americans do with how to deal with the dirt.
While it’s true that both of the reasons mentioned above are factors contributing to the dearth of American success on clay courts, that’s not really the problem. Yes, in general, the strengths of U.S. tennis players are hindered by the way that clay courts behave, and American players have not clocked as many hours on clay courts as their opponents from Europe and South America. But the real problem has become that American players have all decided that they can’t win once they get on clay.
There are plenty of players from other countries who play a style similar to American tennis who have had no trouble on the surface. Last year’s French Open finalist, Robin Soderling from Sweden, belted the ball from the back of the court and came to net, just like he would on any surface, when he beat Nadal last year. Fernando Gonzalez, from Chile, hits the cover off the ball, and eight of his elevent titles came on clay courts.
Croatian Ivan Ljubicic plays a lot like Sam Querrey – big serve, big groundstrokes, not the best mover in the game, but his lone grand slam semifinal came at the 2006 French Open. These players are all playing the same kind of big-hitting style that people say Americans can’t make work on clay, but they do fine. The simple fact is that clay is less soft – and hard courts are less hard – than they were twenty years ago. While there is still a difference between the surfaces, it is much less pronounced than it had been in the past.
The other explanation about inexperience may have more to it, but if it is, American players are not responding to it appropriately. In 2009, the eight Americans in the top 100 played in a combined total of 27 tournaments on clay. That’s an average of 3.5 tournaments per player, and this includes the Americans whose rankings weren’t even high enough to get into the Masters Series events. Consider that the clay court season is eight weeks long, and there is a tournament every week.
There are also clay court events to be played both before and after the official clay season. Most other players on tour get into at least five, maybe as many as seven or eight events on clay. If American players don’t do as well on clay because they haven’t played on it as much, they’re not making that any better by taking a vacation during the months of April and May.
The real reason that Americans have so much trouble with this surface is that all anyone has been saying for the last ten years is that Americans cannot win on clay. Tennis is such a mental sport that simply believing that you aren’t going to win is usually enough to make it true. Look at the losses in Rome last week: Isner lost in two tight sets, including losing the first set in a tiebreak. Querrey served for the match. Those aren’t the types of losses you’d expect if the Americans just couldn’t play, those are the losses you’d expect if they didn’t have any confidence. Those are losses which are due to mental fragility, nothing more.
And both Isner and Querrey stuck around in Rome to play doubles, where they made it all the way to the final, beating the tournament’s fourth seeds along the way before losing to the Bryans. They also managed to beat Roger Federer and his partner Yves Allegro.
And this week, both Isner and Querrey are into the semifinals in the Serbia Open. The next generation of American players may have more success on clay, but they still need to have the mindset to win on the big stages – in Davis Cup, the Masters Series events, and at Roland Garros.
Unfortunately, Andy Roddick isn’t helping this situation with his attitude toward the clay-court season. When the number one American skips most of the clay court season to get married (or take another honeymoon, this year), when he is frequently quoted as saying that he believes he can win any grand slam he enters, “except the French,” what are his lower-ranked countrymen supposed to think about their chances? And honestly, there is no reason that Roddick can’t succeed on clay. He plays such a conservative, baseline-grinding style of tennis that if you took away his serve, you could confuse him for a Spaniard or Argentine.
In fact, did you know that Roddick, at 28, has five career clay court titles? That’s as many as Jim Courier or Michael Chang won, and it’s one more than Pete Sampras. Roddick’s career winning rate on clay is 66% (71-36) which is almost as good, percentage-wise, as David Ferrer’s. The Spaniard, who is one of the best clay-court players on tour, has significantly more wins than Roddick on clay (he’s 166-82) but he has exactly as many titles on the surface.
If Roddick, and the other Americans who are similarly discouraged by this part of the tennis calendar, could just remember that no matter what color the court surface, it’s still tennis, there’s no reason that they couldn’t have a lot more success getting their feet dirty.
You read more from Matthew at http://matchpointace.blogspot.com.
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