Commentary

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.

Updated: May 22, 2008, 5:03 PM ET
By Joel Drucker | Special to ESPN.com

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.

James Blake
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.

[+] EnlargeRobby Ginepri
AP Photo/Jae C. HongRobby Ginepri has a game reminiscent of Jim Courier but has hever escaped the first round of Roland Garros in five previous appearances.
Robby Ginepri
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.

Mardy Fish
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.

Sam Querrey
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.

Donald Young
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.

John Isner
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.