Same old story for American men
There's only one way to go for U.S. men at the French Open -- and that's in the direction of one of the observation decks at the Eiffel Tower.
Unlike in 2010, when John Isner and Sam Querrey met in a clay-court final, the top four Americans, or at least three of the four, are struggling on dirt heading into the season's second major. Isner, Querrey and Andy Roddick went a combined 2-7 on the European terre battue prior to this week, extending their overall malaise, while Mardy Fish did reach the third round at the Rome Masters. That counts as progress. Oh, and the four landed in the doubles final in Rome.
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What's the worst-case scenario? In 2007, all nine U.S. men fell in the opening round, part of the least productive performance at Roland Garros in at least 40 years. The last American man to reach the quarterfinals was Andre Agassi in 2003.
We caught up with Agassi's former coach, the vastly experienced Nick Bollettieri, to discuss the quartet's prospects, paltry as they might be, and what they need to do to win a few rounds. Isner, for one, needs to "put a firecracker up his a--," Bollettieri said.
Best French Open finish: 4R (once)
Madrid should have provided a bit of relief for Roddick, since balls travel through the air faster and the courts are more like hard courts. He got a nice opener, too, pitted against Italian journeyman Flavio Cipolla. An agitated Roddick saved a match point in the second set, only to lose the momentum and drop the third.
"I still enjoy the challenge [of playing on clay], but it's no secret that pretty much everything that I typically do well is nullified by the surface to some extent," Roddick said.
Roddick departed in the first round in Rome to Gilles Simon, not so unpredictable. He has lost four in a row and pulled out of the doubles final in Rome due to a shoulder injury, but he's still in the draw this week in Nice.
Nick Bollettieri says: "Amen. He said his game isn't suited to clay. So then play the damn game that's made you a heck of a player. Just play like it's a hard-court match and don't worry about the surface. Come in. Chip and charge and make the guy pass you, because the longer you stay at the back of the court, the harder it gets. Andy has improved his groundstrokes, but he's not going to cause too much damage getting in long rallies from the back court.
"Perhaps get more first serves in and vary it with some kick serves and serve into the body rather than trying for a big flat serve. After Andy serves well, he has to stay close to the baseline."
Best French Open finish: 2R (twice)
Cracking the top 10 earlier this spring and replacing Roddick as the U.S. No. 1 was big for Fish. He wants to prove achieving both feats was no fluke and stay in the top 10 for a while.
Fish was ousted in a 50-50 match against Isner in the first round in Madrid but bounced back by topping Santiago Giraldo and Ivan Ljubicic, who've played extensively on clay, in Rome. Fish lost 30 pounds last season and is still reaping the rewards, outlasting Ljubicic in three hours. It was sweet indeed, since Ljubicic won 10-8 in the fifth set in the second round of last year's French.
Fish also grinded out a pair of five-set victories in the Davis Cup this past September, Giraldo one of his victims.
Bollettieri: "What Mardy shows is the tenacity that it takes to play on a clay court. He's come a long way. His attitude is damn good, and he's a fighter. He's improved his serve and forehand. He hits a very good return of serve, and he's not afraid to come in because he's a good volleyer.
"He should continue to do what he's doing. When he does have that opening, like a two-handed backhand down the line or forehand cross-court, he has to take advantage. He moves well on the clay."
Best French Open finish: 1R (four times)
Querrey had a mostly successful season in 2010, winning four titles. Playing better at the bigger events would come with time, the thinking went.
But the 6-foot-6 Querrey can't notch wins anywhere. He lost his opening three matches in 2011 and, after a slight upturn, collected his lone W on clay thanks to a retirement in Rome. And this after Querrey beat Isner for the Serbian Open crown a year ago and advanced to the Monte Carlo quarterfinals in 2008.
Best French Open finish: 3R (once)
Isner was optimistic as he ventured to Europe, having done extensive fitness work in Tampa, Fla. Unlike Fish, Roddick and Querrey, he made the trek earlier, with his first stop in Belgrade.
Unfortunately, the results haven't yet followed. The trend continued with Isner struggling on break points, going 2-for-11 in his three losses. Down to 39 in the rankings, his lowest spot since November 2009, the 6-foot-9 Isner has points to defend at the French Open, having gotten to Round 3 in 2010.
Bollettieri on Querrey and Isner: "The good thing is no one expects them to do anything, so go in and say, 'Screw you -- I'm going to show you I can do something.' But I don't think they're going to do something playing a conservative game on clay. It's not going to happen.
"They're big guys. They have to do what [Juan Martin] del Potro does, come inside the baseline on high backhands, which catches the opponent out of position. They have to play that shot and come forward some of the time.
"Querrey moves a little better. The question mark on Isner has always been the physical conditioning and movement. But remember, these guys have good groundstrokes. They have to tell themselves how good they are and go out and play a big game."
If nothing else, some wins, and thus confidence, ahead of the more fruitful grass-court swing would do nicely for the foursome.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter.
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