American men anxious to end clay-court anguish
Will 2008 be the same, trite story for the U.S. men at Roland Garros? Last year, all nine were vanquished in the first round. But for the top six Yanks, a little faith and determination may go a long way.
American men have always been off-balance at the French Open -- maybe because it's a struggle to even make a phone call or find out what's happening in the NBA playoffs -- and never have their trials been more pronounced than in recent years. No American man has reached the quarterfinals at Roland Garros since 2003. In 2007, all nine of them lost in the first round. Though encouraged by his semifinal showing in Rome, Andy Roddick decided his shoulder injury hadn't quite recovered and decided to withdraw from Roland Garros, a wise move made no doubt with Wimbledon up ahead. But since it's springtime in Paris, perhaps it's time for at least a mini-rebirth of American hopes. Here's a look at six notable Americans and how their games might best work on the red clay.
Fleet of foot -- absolutely. Sure of foot -- not always. Blake's ability to cover the court is as good as they come. He tracks down balls many couldn't even think of getting. His forehand is also first-rate. But the slippery qualities of clay also put a premium on balance and recovery; there's far less of the grip Blake is used to getting on a hard court. The result is that during the bad patches of his matches, he's slipping and sliding more like a roller skater. Frustrated by not always being able to assert himself, less than graceful in the yin-yang of defense to offense, Blake will then rush through matches. Just a bit more faith in his considerable skills -- including the ability to play cogent defense when necessary -- can do wonders for him in Paris.
In theory, he's the American with the most obvious set of clay-court tools. In the tradition of two-time French champ Jim Courier, Ginepri's anchors are fitness, patience and forceful groundstrokes off both sides. This, after all, is a man who on his way to the '05 U.S. Open semis won arduous five-setters against '04 French finalist Guillermo Coria, French hopeful Richard Gasquet and veteran Tommy Haas. A focused Ginepri can do wonders on clay. But when his confidence takes a dip, he can get dark like few in the sport. Hopefully, the work he's done in recent months with the wise Jose Higueras will keep him positive and eager to hit yet one more ball in every rally.
A whistle-clean backhand, smooth serve and overall efficiency to his technique are Fish's finest assets. But despite some success on clay, mostly on the slow stuff, Fish's brittle forehand triggers a virus that seeps into his game and erodes his confidence. The sad truth is that contemporary tennis often calls for using the forehand in a big way. But to his credit, Fish has put in considerable time in recent years retooling his technique. If it can hold steady and not betray him over the course of a long match, he might be able to impose the rest of his considerable offense. Warm weather will also aid him, as the court would then play much faster.
It's good to be young, fearless and unaware of consequence and expectation. Certainly those factors worked in the 20-year-old Querrey's favor when he surprised everyone by reaching the quarterfinals last month in Monte Carlo -- a run highlighted by wins over '98 French Open champ Carlos Moya and a comeback effort over current top-10er Gasquet. In theory, a lanky Southern California-raised shot-maker like Querrey should be as comfortable on clay as Pat Robertson at an ACLU meeting. But his big-bang mix of a lively serve and bold forehand worked in his favor in Monte Carlo. The best hope for Querrey is to abandon all pretense of defense-to-offense and merely let the guns blaze.
Still in his teens, Young has quietly put in time in Challenger events, building up his ranking and confidence with solid wins. It will be interesting to see how his textured lefty game plays out on clay. He might still be a little light in the arsenal department, but it'll be fun to watch his first main-draw appearance at Roland Garros.
Much like Querrey -- tall and big-serving -- Isner is hardly familiar with clay. However, his optimistic nature could work in his favor at this early stage of his career. Isner's French Open debut will be edifying and not always so pretty, but as with Young's, it surely will have its moments of engagement.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.
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2008 FRENCH OPEN
French Open Video
May 25-June 8
Women: Justine Henin
Men: Rafael Nadal
Day 15 • Men
• Ford: Nadal simply too good against Federer
• Garber: Federer resolute in confidence, ability
• Harwitt: Rafael Nadal the best clay-courter ever?
• Photo gallery: Best of Week 2 from Paris
• Ubha: French Open men's final instant analysis
Day 14 • Women
• South Americans take men's doubles
• Garber: Maturation, confidence help Ivanovic
• Ford: Zen-like calm elevating Ivanovic
• Harwitt: Can Ivanovic hang on to No. 1 ranking?
• Ubha: French Open women's final instant analysis
Day 13 • Men
• Bob Bryan, Azarenka win French mixed doubles
• Garber: Federer in need of a monumental effort
• Ford: Nadal handles Djokovic with relative ease
• Harwitt: Borg spends birthday extolling Nadal
• Who will win the French Open women's final?
Day 12 • Women
• Garber: Ivanovic, Safina set to duke it out
• Ivanovic to take over No. 1 ranking
• Ford: Djokovic ready to reshuffle world order
• Latest Dirt: Men's semifinal preview
• The big three: Federer looking past Monfils?
• Harwitt: Safina's mom has reason to extol virtue
• Men | Women
• Latest Dirt: Women's semifinal preview
• The big three: Federer semifinal streak lives on
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Day 10 • Men | Women
• Garber: Serbs thriving because of each other
• Chip and Charge: Assessing the French
• The big three: Nadal-Djokovic ready to battle
• Sharapova to fall from top spot after French Open
• Men | Women
• Garber: Sharapova sent packing by Safina
• Latest Dirt: Americans officially done
• Garber: Ranking the sweet 16 players
• The big three: Federer and Gonzo to clash
Day 8 • Men | Women
• Garber: Ferrer worthy of being in top five
• Latest Dirt: Evaluating the top-five players
• The big three: Humdrum day for Nadal, Djokovic
• ITF to probe player's claim she was told to lose
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See all stories from Week 1