Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Tennis [Print without images]

Monday, May 26, 2008
Updated: May 29, 7:55 AM ET
At least one American has an affinity for clay courts

ESPN.com

Right at home on clay

PARIS -- A day after the American men broke their French Open hex, Wayne Odesnik buried it by beating 31st-ranked Guillermo Canas in the first round Monday for the most significant win of his career.

The stat sheet said Odesnik won in straight sets, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (3), 7-6 (8), but the drama and length of the match were worthy of a five-setter. The two men battled through three tiebreaks over nearly four hours on an outer court, leaving Odesnik nauseated and drained.

Wayne Odesnik

AP Photo/Christophe Ena

Wayne Odesnik advanced to the second round of a Grand Slam tournament for the second time in his career.

"I was just trying not to put [Canas] on a pedestal in my mind,'' said Odesnik, 22, who is 106th in the ATP rankings and earned a wild-card invitation to Roland Garros by winning a U.S. Tennis Association playoff.

Odesnik, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., resident, came to the United States from South Africa with his family when he was a small child. He is the rare American player who relishes playing on clay, a surface he says suits his style and strokes. He played eight Challenger-level clay-court events last season, including one in Italy in which he was beaten soundly by Spanish clay-court standout Felix Mantilla, a 1998 French Open semifinalist who reached No. 10 in the world.

Earlier this year, Odesnik asked Mantilla to coach him, and the two began working together during the World Team Championships in Germany (where Odesnik played with James Blake) last week.

Mantilla sat courtside Monday, uttering quiet words of encouragement as Odesnik tried to close out the match. "Breathe,'' he said as Odesnik stalked around near the baseline in the third set, telling himself to relax. Odesnik proceeded to earn a break point with a low, lashing forehand shot from a full crouch. Later, Mantilla urged Odesnik to "Believe it, believe it.''

"He's really hungry, really motivated,'' Mantilla said. "I'm really excited and happy for him.'' Mantilla said he has been working to get the left-handed Odesnik to take more advantage of his opponents' backhand and be more aggressive at the net.

Odesnik seems to have absorbed both pieces of advice. He hit twice as many forehand winners (33) as Canas and rushed the net 39 times, converting on 30 of those chances. Canas, who has yet to show the form he had in his 2007 season comeback from a disputed doping suspension, served poorly and didn't have enough answers for Odesnik's aggressive, varied attack.

The two men traded breaks early in the first set. Odesnik fell behind 5-1 in the tiebreak, then won seven of next eight points. Neither player lost serve again in the match. Odesnik dominated the second-set tiebreaker but needed four match points -- one at 6-5 and three more in the third-set tiebreak -- to seal the win.

Odesnik beat then-11th-ranked Ivan Ljubicic in Montreal last year and reached his first ATP semifinal on clay in Houston last month. Although he appears to have a heavy dose of natural intensity, Odesnik said he's still striving for greater mental toughness, something he's been trying to improve through sessions with a sports psychologist.

"Yeah, just, you know, trying not to play too much towards the score,'' he said. "Focusing on what I have to do out there with my game plan and playing regardless of whether I'm up or down. Trying to keep level throughout the whole match.''

Commentator and former pro Justin Gimelstob, who occasionally trains with Odesnik, said his work ethic is admirable.

"Unlike a lot of the young Americans, he's completely determined and dedicated to performing well on clay,'' Gimelstob said. "This is a huge win for him emotionally and confidence-wise.''

Odesnik next faces No. 52 Hyung-Taik Lee of South Korea.

Two other young American men, John Isner and Bobby Reynolds, had their matches suspended because of rain. Isner leads Juan Ignacio Chela two sets to one but was trailing 4-1 in the fourth, and Reynolds had split sets with France's Thierry Ascione.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

International man of mystery

Baghdatis

What's the deal with Marcos Baghdatis?

That is the question du jour at Roland Garros after the ATP's No. 18-ranked singles player got flamed Monday by a serviceable Italian named Simone Bolelli, 6-2, 6-4, 6-2.

"I was lacking practice and matches," Baghdatis explained. "I was not making the appropriate choices at the right time. I wanted to play, but the problem is I didn't know what to do. Sometimes the ball was arriving, I didn't know how to play it."

Which, if you are a professional tennis player, can be a problem.

Of course, the lack of preparation is all due to the likable Cypriot's decision to take the beginning of the clay-court season off for "personal reasons." He has yet to explain just what those reasons were, and that has set the Internet abuzz.

Most likely it is related to the abrupt departure of his mentor and longtime coach, Yiannos Hadjigeorgiou, who himself cited "personal reasons" for ending their association.

In any case, Baghdatis' career has been on a downward trajectory since he reached the finals of the 2006 Australian Open. If you're looking for context, Baghdatis now has played 42 Grand Slam singles matches, and this was only the third time he was beaten in straight sets. However, it's worth mentioning that the previous two matches were to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

His singles record for 2008 is a patchy 9-6, and the future is a bit up in the air. Typically, grass has had a restorative effect on his game: He was a semifinalist at Wimbledon in 2006 and a quarterfinalist last year.

"I don't know if I'll play a Challenger next week, but I'll definitely go to Wimbledon," said Baghdatis, who turns 23 next month.

Baghdatis' postmatch news conference mirrored his listless on-court performance.

"That's the way it is," he said. "That's tennis."

-- Greg Garber

Venus rising … sort of

Williams

The French Open thought so much of Venus Williams' sketchy first-round win that it failed to announce her news conference to the assembled media. As a result, it was a four-question, drive-by session that was over in about two minutes.

"Sometimes tennis isn't always won as quick as you want," Venus explained to her sparse audience.

Usually, first-round women's matches at a Grand Slam between a top-10 seed and someone ranked, say, No. 93, are over in less than an hour. On Monday, Israel's Tzipora Obziler managed to extend Williams to three sets -- 6-3, 4-6, 6-2 -- in a match that consumed 2 hours and 3 minutes.

This from a 35-year-old woman, the oldest in the women's draw.

No, she said, she's not feeling any pressure.

"The only pressure I have," Williams said, "is the pressure I put on myself. So I try not to push too much."

-- Greg Garber