Tennis: America’s Difficulty On Clay
The clay season is in full swing and as seen in the past, old storylines are starting to resurface. Rafael Nadal, the undisputed king of clay, is returning to form and is rightfully taking back his crown on clay. Despite an early lose in Monte Carlo, Novak Djokovic is still the heavy favorite to take the title at the French Open. Finally, another familiar storyline is surfacing and that is the unsuccessful effort of Americans on clay.
Now, with the likes of all-time greats such as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and current world number one Novak Djokovic, most titles are hard to win. However, it remains clear that clay is still not a surface that most Americans can seem to find their footing on.
It is important to make two distinctions when it comes to discussing Americans success on clay. First we have to separate the men from the women. The American women, led by 21 grand slam champion Serena Williams, have performed solidly on the red dirt. Again, I repeat that is in large part due to the success of Serena Williams. With that said, Serena only has three French Opens compared to her other grand slams she’s won at least five times. Second, we have to specify that the focus is on the European clay. Americans have performed solidly on clay on American soil. But American clay is quite different from European clay. It is also important to note that elite players skip American clay court tournaments.
On the men’s side we have yet to see any male player have any real success in quite a long time on clay. Monte Carlo, Madrid, and Rome are the three main Masters tournaments leading to the French Open and there hasn’t been an American champion at these tournaments since 2002 when Andre Agassi was able to win Madrid and Rome back to back. Since Nadal came on the scene it’s understandable as to why there has not been an American champion but there hasn’t even been an American runner-up.
At the biggest clay court tournament of the year, Roland Garros French Open, in the past five years only two Americans have made it to the second week. If you compare the results at the French to other grand slam tournaments, it’s the same pattern; American men have a difficult time reaching the second week. But when you add the lack of success on clay court tour tournaments with the poor results at the French Open, it’s a glaring fact that American men just don’t seem to perform well on this surface.
Historically speaking, very few Americans have had success on the red dirt at Roland Garros. Andy Roddick, arguably the last great American to play tennis, only managed to make the second week once throughout the course of his twelve-year career, a fourth round appearance. Pete Sampras, for all his greatness, only made one semifinals at the French. Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and teenage sensation Michael Chang were worthy of winning on the red dirt but these players were apparently the exception and not the norm.
So the remaining question remains why have Americans had so little success on clay. Well a follow up question has to be asked, how serious do Americans take clay? There are several things to consider when trying to answer that question. For a start we have to know if young Americans are spending enough time on the clay. In the past it was a fact that young Americans mostly trained on hardcourts. There are over 100 junior clay court tournaments worldwide but just five tournaments in the United States. Five is not a horrible number but it’s six less (five excluding the U.S. Open) than the number of junior hard court tournaments. On the pro level there is just one clay court tournament in U.S.
Another thing to consider, which is an extension of the lack of training on clay, is the question of whether the playing style of Americans doesn’t fit the playing style needed to win on clay. Most of the current top American men such as John Isner and Sam Querrey are known for their huge serves and big forehands. These are all great weapons to possess but on a surface such as clay where power is neutralized, movement is needed to endure, expected, long rallies. Without the ability to defend, it is extremely difficult to win.
But there is hope. Jack Sock who has been playing tennis for a couple of years but still considered one of the faces of American tennis in the future, has outright said clay is his favorite and best surface. After seeing him play on the surface you can see why. Jack has the typical weapons of Americans (a big serve and a huge forehand that has a ton of spin on it) but he also moves quite well on the surface. Jack unlike his American peers knows how to slide on the red dirt, an attribute essential for success on the clay. Jack’s lone title came clay (albeit the sole U.S. clay tournament) and although his record on clay isn’t all that impressive yet, in 2015 he made it to the fourth round of Roland Garros, taking a set off of Rafael Nadal, an action worthy of noting.
There is also more hope with the new generation of players such as Taylor Fritz and Francis Tiafoe who seemed eager and hungry to make a name for themselves. Perhaps these new players will be able to do what their predecessors have been unable to do on the red dirt. Success on clay for Americans on clay might seem glim but tennis is a sport where things can change in a heartbeat.