Americans in the red at Roland Garros

It's no surprise American men don't fare well at the French Open. Greg Garber explains why advancing to the second week at Roland Garros will be a major feat.

Updated: May 26, 2006, 4:38 PM ET
By Greg Garber | Senior Writer

On a wet, gray day in Bristol, Conn., earlier this month, James Blake's sunny disposition warmed like a fire crackling on the hearth. Back home in his native state, the world's then-No. 7-ranked male tennis player toured the sprawling facilities at ESPN.

Asked what his chances are of reaching the second week at the French Open, which begins on May 28, Blake was optimistic.

James Blake
Clive Mason/Getty ImagesJames Blake has never advanced past the second round of the French Open.
"I like my chances," Blake said. "I will be going in with a different attitude because I never believed I had a chance to win Grand Slams until I was in that [U.S. Open] quarterfinal with Andre [Agassi]. Now I really do believe I have a chance to get to the second week and, possibly, further."

Six days later, on the red clay at the Masters Series Rome, Blake lost his first-round match to Florent Serra of France 6-4, 7-6 (3). Serra, whose highest ATP ranking ever is No. 37, began playing on clay at the age of 7 in Bordeaux.

The loss illustrated the historic difficulty American men have encountered on clay in general and at Roland Garros in particular. Of the first 10 ranked U.S. men, only Andre Agassi -- the 1999 champion -- has a winning record in the French Open. It is instructive that Agassi, now 36, his body breaking down, will skip the grind of Paris (for the casual tourist, an oxymoron to be sure) and focus instead on Wimbledon.

The three top American men who will play in Paris -- Andy Roddick, Blake and Robby Ginepri -- have a combined record of 7-11 at Roland Garros. Why?

Top Five American Men
Player Rank W-L at French
Andy Rodick 5th 4-5
James Blake 8th 3-3
Robby Ginepri 17th 0-3
Andre Agassi 23rd 51-16
Paul Goldstein 58th 1-2
"It's partly because we didn't grow up on clay," Blake explained. "We grew up on hard courts and learning attacking games, as opposed to clay-courters who are a little more comfortable, able to slide a little better and defend much better. We need to adjust quickly and hopefully figure out a way to get it done.

"I like our chances this year. Andy's playing confidently, I'm playing confidently. Robby's been struggling a little bit, but I think we can turn it around."

Todd Martin, who retired from the ATP tour after last season, succeeded with a classic American hard-court game -- big serve, big forehand -- but always enjoyed the technical challenges of playing on the oh-so-slow courts at the French Open. He lost a third-round match at Roland Garros in 1996 to then No. 1-ranked Pete Sampras in five sets. In 1998, he defeated Alberto Berasategui in the finals at Barcelona -- a rare clay victory abroad for an American man.

"I remember saying in the trophy presentation that I turned a clay court into a grass court," Martin said. "It's a mental thing. It might take you one or two shots longer to get it done the way you like to get it done. You might have to play 10 to 15 percent of the points relatively defensively during the course of a match.

"If you understand those basic concepts on clay, I think you can stand to be successful. There are still limitations because of the way we were brought up and the shape of our shots."

Martin, who recently defeated John McEnroe in the final of the Champions Cup in Boston, said the evolution of tennis has lessened the degree of difficulty for Americans on clay.

"Guys hit the ball harder -- it's not the rackets, it's the guys," Martin said. "When [Mats] Wilander and [Guillermo] Vilas were playing each other, the ball bounced straight up. [Roger] Federer and [Rafael] Nadal hit the ball through the court faster and faster. That should put the [U.S.] men in a better place.

"The guys that grew up on this stuff have patience. They do everything they're supposed to do to produce the possibility of an opportunity for themselves. That's what so different for us. Usually, when I'm patient, I'm trying not to miss. That's why, in general, guys brought up on clay who may not be the best-ranked players are the best at controlling those matches."

In other words, clay is the field-leveling surface that allows Florent Serra to beat James Blake in straight sets.

In addition to playing tournaments on the 35-and-over circuit, Martin is coaching Mardy Fish, the 24-year-old who was once ranked as high as No. 17, but is coming back from two surgeries on his left wrist. Fish will pass on Roland Garros to play some Challenger tournaments in Atlanta and Tunica, Miss., to get his ranking up with the hopes of qualifying for the main draw at Wimbledon.

The funny thing? Fish won on the clay at Houston in early April, dispatching well-regarded players -- Vince Spadea, Tommy Haas and Jurgen Melzer -- in the process.

"It's nice to be back winning matches," Fish said from his Tampa home. "The clay is the ultimate test because you spin the ball so much. That would be tough [for the wrist] at this stage."

Fish has an interesting theory about Americans in Paris.

"Tim Henman, if he can make the [2004] semis in Paris, so can Andy. Tim came to net a lot and beat some really good players. … We're not going to beat them standing back there."
Mardy Fish
"We change our game style a lot more than we mean to," Fish said. "I think Andy has gotten into [the] mold of staying back and grinding. Being No. 5 in world, he needs to be as aggressive on clay as he is at Wimbledon. He hasn't gone on past third round and he's definitely got the game.

"These guys that grew up on clay, they just know how to move. They just seem to glide. Their games are structured around it. It doesn't mean we can't beat them; Tim Henman, if he can make the [2004] semis in Paris, so can Andy. Tim came to net a lot and beat some really good players. We're not going to beat them standing back there."

When Roddick won the U.S. Open in 2003 just after his 21st birthday, there was a rush to anoint Roddick, Fish, Ginepri and Blake as the next great generation of American men. To date, the group has captured only that lone Grand Slam title. Pete Sampras (14), Agassi (eight), Jim Courier (four) and Michael Chang (one) combined for 27.

"There was such an overdriving public push for those guys to replace Andre, Pete, Jim and Michael, but it was so premature," Martin said. "You're used to seeing four, five, six guys at the top of the game from the States for most of '90s and with a few dropping by the wayside, it's only natural to look for someone to carry the flag.

"I think we're getting to the point where this group of players probably deserves some of the attention they got a few years ago. There is so much room for all of their games and their character."

Now, if they can just win a few matches on the red clay of Roland Garros.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.