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Hopes for American men dwindling

6/1/2006 - Tennis

ANOTHER DISAPPOINTING YEAR FOR AMERICAN MEN?

By Greg Garber, ESPN.com

PARIS -- The question, like the damp, frigid air that hangs over the City of Light, is unavoidable.

Toward the end of his exit interview on Tuesday, Andy Roddick was on the receiving end.

Do American men have problems competing on the red clay of Roland Garros?

"Yeah, well, apparently we do," said Roddick, clearly annoyed. "Can't really argue with the results as much as I'd like to. I don't really know what to tell you. What exactly was the specific question?"

Are the Americans in a position to compete in the men's French Open?

"Let's see," Roddick said sarcastically. "How many do we have left?"

After Roddick retired from his first-round match against Spain's Alberto Martin, the answer was two: James Blake and Kevin Kim.

"And one plays [Rafael] Nadal?" Roddick asked. "James plays [Nicolas] Almagro? That's going to be a tough one. Right now, obviously, we're not in a dominating position. We're playing a seven-two, off-suit, against pocket aces right now.

"I think you know the answer to that question."

Only seven Americans were in the draw to begin with, and one of them -- Kevin Kim -- got there despite losing in the second round of qualifying. The composite record is 2-5, and as Roddick noted, it will likely get worse Thursday.

Roddick and Robby Ginepri already lost to Spanish players and two more await Kim and Blake. Kim, who won the national boys 18 singles title in 1996 and left UCLA a year later to turn professional, is 4-6 in ATP matches this year. Nadal, the No. 2 seed, is looking to extend his record of consecutive match victories on clay to 55.

Blake, although he is the No. 8 seed here, is an underdog in many minds to Almagro, 20, who is a superb clay-court player.

"Hopefully, this is a big match for him where he's playing a guy in the top 10," Blake said. "Maybe that can have an affect on his mentality."

Maybe.

The last American man to last into the second week at Roland Garros was Andre Agassi, who reached the quarterfinals in 2003, only to lose to Guillermo Coria. That accomplishment appears to be safe for another year.

If Blake and Kim both lose, it will mark the third consecutive year that no American male has reached the third round. More instructive, it would also be the third time since 1968 that it has happened in any Grand Slam.

DAY 5 PREVIEW

Rafael Nadal looks to continue his quest for a second straight French Open title. Next up for the No. 2 seed is lucky loser, Kevin Kim. That's bad news for the Americans, who have only two players left in the draw: Kim, and James Blake.

Nadal, who broke Guillermo Vilas' record of 53 straight clay-court wins in the opening round, is 18-0 on clay this season. It's been well over a year since he lost on the dirt (April 2005 to Igor Andreev.) The Spaniard had little trouble in his first match, a routine straight-sets win vs. Robin Soderling.

For Kim, he is coming off his first career win at the French Open. However, the California native doesn't appear to pose a threat to Nadal, at least on paper. He has a career record of nearly 20 matches below .500 and has failed to win consecutive matches once this season.

In what might be the most highly- anticipated match of the day, No. 8 James Blake attempts to advance the third round of the French Open for the first time in his career. First, though, he will have to get by perhaps the most dangerous unseeded player in the draw, Nicolas Almagro. Last month, the 20-year-old Spaniard won his first career title in Valencia, knocking off former Grand Slam champions Juan Carlos Ferrero and Marat Safin in the process.

Perhaps more impressively was his quarterfinal match vs. world No. 1 Roger Federer in Rome three weeks ago. The Spaniard took the second set in a tiebreaker but eventually lost 7-5 in the third set.

For Blake, he looked sharp in his first-round match winning in straight sets vs. Paradorn Srichaphan. However, the American has struggled since the clay-court season started. Having won two titles, both on hard courts earlier this season, Blake is just 3-4 on the dirt.

The only other top-10 seed in action Thursday is No. 4 Ivan Ljubicic. The Croat had little trouble in his first-round match, dropping just five games. With a win, he would reach the third round for only the third time in seven tries.

The Belgians, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne, lead the way for the women Thursday. Clijsters, the No. 2 seed, had reached the finals here twice, losing on both occasions to Jennifer Capriati and Henin-Hardenne respectively. She will take on unseeded Conchita Martinez Granados. The two have met just once, Clijsters prevailing easily at the 2002 U.S. Open.

Henin-Hardenne is the only active player who has won this event more than once. The No. 5 seed had a red-hot start to the season, winning her first 10 matches. This ended at the finals of the Australian Open, when she retired against Amelie Mauresmo.

The Belgian was not tested in the first round, winning 6-3, 6-0 vs. Maret Ani.

No. 6 Elena Dementieva and No. 10 Anastasia Myskina are the only other top-10 seeds in action Thursday. Dementieva was a finalist in 2004 at Roland Garros before losing to Myskina. She has had a solid 2006 season reaching at least the quarterfinals in six of nine events. This includes her lone title at Tokyo, her first career Tier I championship.

Dementieva takes on Viktoriya Kutuzova from the Ukraine. It is their first career head-to-head meeting.

After winning the French Open in 2004, Myskina lost in the first round last season. She became the first defending champion in history to lose in the first round at Roland Garros. She is already off to a better start this season, winning her first match in straight sets. Next up for the Russian is 85th ranked Melinda Czink from Hungary.