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Next? Young Americans May Struggle To Succeed At Roland Garros

Photo By Susan Mullane By Douglas Robson

When 17-year-old Michael Chang jolted the tennis world by winning the 1989 French Open, he halted a streak that some might consider one of the most stunning in U.S. tennis history: The United States had gone 33 years without capturing the men’s crown at Roland Garros, sniffing the final only five times in that span, before Chang’s career-defining performance.

How could that be for such a superpower? The United States is supposed to be the best in everything, right? Of course, these nagging questions were quickly buried by the emergence of the greatest generation of U.S. male players in history, who churned out their fair share of success on clay. Chang’s drought-ending win was followed by Andre Agassi’s romp to the final in 1990. Jim Courier then won back-to-back French Open titles in ’91 and ’92, followed by a third consecutive final in ’93, when he lost in five sets to Spaniard Sergi Bruguera. Chang or Courier reached at least the semifinals at Roland Garros the next two years, Pete Sampras — the king of this generation — had a career-best performance, reaching the semifinals the following year, and a few years later, Agassi broke through to add the ’99 Roland Garros trophy to his growing Grand Slam collection.

However, since the Las Vegan’s stirring two-sets-to-love comeback against Andrei Medvedev in the final four years ago, no American has advanced beyond the quarterfinals in Paris. And the sole U.S. player to reach that round? The ageless Agassi, who enters Roland Garros this year one month past his 33rd birthday.

All of which begs the question: Is another French Open drought on the way for American men?

None of the current U.S. bumper crop — Andy Roddick, James Blake, Robby Ginepri, Taylor Dent and Mardy Fish — have distinguished themselves on the red dirt of Roland Garros. The best showing by any of these players was Roddick’s third-round finish in 2001. Dent will be making his Roland Garros main draw debut, having lost the only qualifying match he has played on the terre battue.

With Sampras seemingly one step from retirement (not to mention years past being a French Open contender) and other top Americans, such as Jan-Michael Gambill, averse to the surface, only Agassi, now in the twilight of his career, seems a credible threat to win the French. No one else raises an eyebrow among the rest of the world when it comes to playing on clay.

Says three-time Roland Garros champion Gustavo Kuerten, who, in fact, saved a match point against American Michael Russell and turned what was almost a straight-sets loss into a five-set win en route to his 2001 title, "It is the same way as maybe when they play a guy like me or maybe a Spanish guy on…hard courts or indoor courts. They see some advantage."

The U.S. women, meantime, have more than held their own in the post-Steffi Graf years. The last two French Open women’s singles champions, of course, were American: Serena Williams in 2002 and Jennifer Capriati in 2001. 2000 winner and 1994 runner-up Mary Pierce grew up in the United States, developed her game here and began her pro career as a 14-year-old American, claiming French citizenship (her mother is French) only when, at 15, her father had a falling out with the USTA.

Even if you don’t count Monica Seles’s three consecutive French titles, 1990-92, because she was still a Yugoslavian, she had been a naturalized American for four years by the time she was Roland Garros runner-up in 1998. U.S. players Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova battled for most of the French championships in the 1980s.

Call it lack of depth in the women’s game or just plain excellence; whatever the reason, Roland Garros success seems to have been easier for U.S. women to achieve.

This leaves American men playing catch-up. The U.S. tennis establishment would like to believe things are changing — if they haven’t already. Eliot Teltscher, who twice reached the round of 16 at the French Open and is now director of tennis operations for the USTA’s USA Tennis High Performance program, says the emerging "Brat Pack" are young and still learning the ropes of the pro tour. Some have had success on clay, such as 20-year-old Roddick, whose Top 10 ranking is pillared with back-to-back U.S. Clay Court titles in Houston, where they boast of having imported authentic Roland Garros clay for the event.

Steadily rising Blake, 23, now ranked in the Top 25 (about 15 spots better than this time last year), is athletic and possesses a huge forehand, great assets on clay. Twenty-year-old Ginepri, who is from Atlanta and vaulted into the Top 50 after consecutive quarterfinal finishes at Indian Wells and Miami, is speedy and powerful off both sides from the baseline and should have no problems sliding around the dirt, considering his Georgia roots.

"Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I still think that clay is a very good surface for James and Andy, and it should be good for Robby," says Teltscher. "I do believe that one of those guys could win the French Open — even this year."

Despite the meager success of U.S. men (save Agassi) on European clay, Teltscher believes a bit more seasoning will produce results at the big clay tournaments leading up to the French Open. (Dent, Fish, Ginepri and Roddick lost in the first round at Monte Carlo; Blake in the second. However, 28-year-old Vince Spadea was a semifinalist.) But he’s also aware that the limited amount of time many U.S. players spend preparing on clay, particularly as juniors — coupled with the overall ATP emphasis on hard courts — could spell trouble if results don’t start coming soon. "If two years from now we’re having this conversation, I’ll be biting my fingernails," he says.

Some fraying around the fingers is already evident. There is a chorus of agreement among players, officials and coaches that efforts to develop clay court skills in the United States are somewhat lacking. "I certainly think with some of our guys right now, we could be a real factor on clay, [but] enough isn’t being done and we need more tournaments on clay for juniors," says U.S. Davis Cup Captain Patrick McEnroe, who grew up in New York, but still played a lot on clay, even indoors.

McEnroe, having watched the U.S. Davis Cup team battle tough opponents and clay courts simultaneously in France and Spain the past few years, believes juniors should be exposed at an early age to the sliding techniques and shot selection necessary to play on clay "because it’s a different style, it’s a different type of movement and it’s a different type of patience and point construction." Weather is a bigger factor as well, since clay is much more affected by moisture and temperature than hard courts.

"I also happen to think it’s easier [growing up] on clay and then transitioning to hard than the other way around," McEnroe says. "Look at guys like Courier, Agassi, Chang. These guys all have had successful careers on clay. They basically spent a lot of time playing on hard courts, but they also practiced a lot on clay as kids."

Admits Ginepri, "I don’t think we’re on the clay quite as much as we should be."

Even Roddick’s coach, Tarik Benhabiles, who is French, says, "Americans don’t put the time into it. When they go to Europe, they don’t go one month or three weeks before. They go the first week of the clay court season and play two months and a half. This is it."

The upshot: U.S. players still step onto clay courts with a "disadvantage," at least psychologically, to their more dirt-savvy counterparts, says McEnroe. Which leads to another question: Is this country doing all it can to prepare the next generation of dirtballers?

USTA officials argue that they have put a greater emphasis on clay in recent years. At the national training facility in Key Biscayne, Fla., about a third of the 17 courts are clay. The new USTA complex in Carson, Calif., will also have four green, or Har-Tru, clay courts. USA Tennis High Performance Managing Director Paul Roetert says that today’s top 14- and 16-year-olds are spending some time competing in Europe and South America on clay, and preliminary discussions with the French and Spanish federations about month-long player "exchanges" are ongoing.

Rodney Harmon, director of men’s tennis for the High Performance program, says he’d like to see juniors from 14 to 18 play 50 percent of the time on clay — an unrealistic goal at present.

"There are so many things that they learn, developmentally, in their game," he says, "defense, movement, variety, understanding the areas of the court, the geometry of the court. That is invaluable."

Players who grow up in Florida playing on clay automatically move a lot better, play better defense and understand when to hit neutral shots, Harmon explains. And it can be excruciating to witness a hapless kid who has never been on clay try to adjust to the less-sure footing, high bounces and longer rallies.

"It’s so funny watching California kids on clay," he says. "You have to see it. They can’t slide, and you can’t play on clay if you can’t slide. So they’re playing someone who can slide, who can slice, who can do all these things and they’re hitting the ball straight away. Aw, it’s just painful to watch."

With no massive clay court building boom in the foreseeable future, challenges, at least for U.S. men, will persist.

"There is room to improve," says Roetert. "But our country is built on public parks. It’s a cost issue. Other countries have a club system. We have parks and high school. Their system lends itself better to more clay courts."

Though Roetert does not mean to imply that clay courts are un-American, that general sentiment does seem to exist. "You don’t want to lose sight of the fact that we’re Americans and we like to go for it," says McEnroe. "Our mentality is to be attacking players. The guys I mentioned to you — Courier and Agassi — they played well on clay, but they played an attacking style. You don’t want to go against, I believe, what our core attitude is, which is, ‘We’re going to win the point, rather than wait ’til you lose it.’ There’s a balance there [between] saying, ‘We’re going to play our game,’ [and] ‘We think we can play our game and still be successful on clay.’ "

So we are back to the question of which American man, other than "old man" Agassi, stands a chance of winning Roland Garros? The players of the new generation might have good all-around skills, but playing competently and cultivating the skills to win big clay court events are not the same.

Kuerten, one of only four men in 35 years of Open tennis to win at least three French Open titles, concedes he has a tough time seeing the likes of Roddick, Blake or Ginepri as the last man standing at Roland Garros.

When asked if it’s possible, he says, "It’s a tough question. Even a guy like (Juan Carlos) Ferrero, he’s completely a clay court player. But so far, he hasn’t won (the French). (Alex) Corretja is another example of that. So that takes another level, maybe, to bring everything together."

Among American men, only Agassi is at that level today.

Douglas Robson has written for Business Week and USA Today. This is his first story for Tennis Week.

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Yeah, I agree with the article in general. Americans aren't as much into the clay as the other players. However, I think it's slowly changing. And on the women's side, American clay courters have done well. Serena, Venus, Jenn...they've all done well on clay.

Maybe Ashley Harkleroad will be a force on clay. If Charleston was any indication of her clay prowess, then she may make an impact at RG one day!
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