It continues to amaze me just how bad the American tennis players are on clay. The latest disaster came today in the French Open when James Blake was beaten in straight sets by a 22 year old Argentinian qualifier making his grand slam debut. Mardy Fish is out as well after a first round setback to another Argentinian. The Americans have three players ranked in the top 22, and only Andy Roddick survived to the second round. It’s pathetic, really. Roddick has played in seven French Opens. He has lost in the first round four times, the second round twice, and once more in the third. This was Blake’s seventh Open. He has two first round departures, four more in the second, and one in the third. Fish has only made it as far as the second round once in four tries. That’s 18 tries combined without so much as a round of 16 to show for the effort. Over the same period the players have a grand slam win, five semifinal appearances, and 12 more quarterfinal showings in the other three slams. It’s pretty clear what the problem is – clay.
Americans haven’t always been bad at clay. In fact they used to be pretty good. Andre Agassi won the tourney in 1999 and was twice second. Michael Chang had a first and a second. Jim Courier won it twice and was also a runner-up. That’s four wins and four seconds over an 11 year period that only ended a decade ago. No country was better over that time. The problem isn’t that the current generation has no history of excellence to build upon. So what is the problem?
Succeeding on clay requires one thing more than any other – patience. On other surfaces you can win with straight brute force and determination. Clay changes tennis from a show of force to a chess match. It requires strategy, and the Americans seem to either lack the interest or the aptitude to compete on that strategy. They try to rush the games while their opponents sit back and wait. They get increasingly frustrated. That makes them sloppier, and leaves more situations to exploit. It’s a vicious cycle, and there is no reason to believe that it will get any better with this current generation. They have shown no improvement over the years, and they don’t seem to care enough to do anything about it. What a wasted opportunity.