Americans hurt by perception

Updated: May 26, 2004, 9:55 PM ET
By Malivai Washington | Special to

PARIS -- Considering the number of American men in the draw, it's hard to explain how not one was able to advance beyond the second round of the French Open. You could have gotten some tremendous Las Vegas odds against that happening.

Logically, Andre Agassi loses to an ATP qualifier who had never won a match on tour is unexplainable. So is Andy Roddick leading two sets to one, then losing his match.

I talked to Vince Spadea after his loss, and he appeared to be in disbelief that he had lost his match to a qualifier. With the draw rapidly opening up in front of him, Spadea recognized this as his opportunity to advance to the second week of the French for the first time. He seemed just as disappointed about the missed opportunity as the lost match.

This year, more than previous years, it was very evident how vulnerable American players are on Europe's red clay. Although no one came into this tournament feeling that American players were favored, nobody thought they would collectively make history by being out of commission on Day 3.

Success on the men's tour has a lot to do with confidence. If you genuinely believe that you're good on a certain surface and bad on another, it most likely will prove to be the case. Additionally, many non-Americans believe they should not lose to Americans on clay.

There came a point in Pete Sampras' career when players, who knew they didn't stand a chance against him on grass, believed they could beat Sampras on clay. He didn't have that air of invincibility on the dirt. So players took the court against Sampras thinking, "this is my opportunity to beat the great Pete Sampras."

Players today feel the same way about Andy Roddick, Robby Ginepri, Jan-Michael Gambill, Mardy Fish, James Blake and others. It's almost as if once a player draws an American player on red clay, he feels as if he was given a good draw. The only way that perception will change is if American players commit to playing on red clay and improving their style on the surface.

They can't just look at the clay-court season as a time of year to muddle through. There has to be a concerted effort to succeed on red clay. And that might mean sacrificing parts of the hard-court season or the indoor season. And it will be a sacrifice. But that's the only way for the Americans to make any inroads to defeating this perception.

The Spaniards learned to succeed on hard courts, and they made sacrifices to do it. That's what the Americans have to be willing to do.

MaliVai Washington, a tennis analyst for ESPN, reached the 1996 Wimbledon final.