Working with clay

Updated: April 19, 2006, 9:24 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

MASTERS SERIES MONTE CARLO

The third Masters Series event of the season is under way in Monte Carlo, and there is not a single American in the 64-player field.

Not one.

In the past, the clay-court season has been the time of year when players like Alberto Berasategui, Andrei Medvedev and Martin Verkerk made a name for themselves.

There is no other time in the season where more unidentifiable players come out of the woodworks. In the last three seasons, there have been three unseeded players reach the final of the French Open. In the other three Grand Slams combined, there have been only two such players, and both were big names battling back from injuries: Marat Safin, runner-up at the 2004 Australian Open, and Mark Philippoussis at Wimbledon in 2003.

In the Open era (1968), 12 men have won at least three of the four Grand Slams, and seven of them failed to win the French Open (Andre Agassi is the lone player who has won all four). This includes the likes of Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and Pete Sampras. Current world No. 1 Roger Federer has seven Grand Slam titles, but has yet to reach the final of the French Open.

Furthermore, 24 different players have won the French Open (in the Open era). Amazingly, 13 of those 24 (55 percent) never won any of the other three majors. Compare the French Open to Wimbledon, where there have been 18 different winners. But only four players failed to win any of the other slams.

So why is it that clay brings out a different breed of player? And why can't they win on other surfaces? There's no denying that the slow, high bouncing clay courts are not for everyone. Still, that does not explain why players who've had success on the other extreme (grass) have been able to win on other surfaces.

"If you have followed tennis over the years, the French Open and the clay-court season is a big mystery," said ESPN analyst Luke Jensen. "It starts from the ground up. Before the 1990s, the majority of the season was played on faster surfaces. But now, the clay-court season is longer … and this affected big servers like Pete Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic and helped out players without big weapons.

"Clay is the power equalizer. If you can run all day and hit massive topspin to keep the ball high and consistent, you're in every match. It's a simple game plan: who's more willing to grind it out for five hours. That being said, anyone can come out, train and use this formula, which is enough to make a run at the French Open."

In 2004 and 2005, American men failed to advance to the third round at the French Open. Those are the only two years -- in the Open era -- in which the United States failed to have a player in the third round of any Grand Slam event. Americans are not known for their clay-court prowess, but Andy Roddick and James Blake lost to Jose Acasuso and Stanislas Wawrinka, respectively last year at Roland Garros. (Acasuso and Wawrinka have a combined two titles on the ATP Tour.)

While the American futility on clay seems to have reached an all-time high, Jensen remembers what it was like a decade ago. "We had Michael Chang (1989), Jim Courier (1991-92), Andre Agassi (1999), and even the Jensen brothers (1993) won on the red dirt at Roland Garros." Agassi's '99 title represents the last time an American reached the French Open final.

"It's actually really simple," Jensen explained about the drought. "Are we in shape to play these long matches? No. Can we move on this surface? No. Dirt ballers slide to the ball while Americans are used to striking the ball with firm footing and a quick recovery. Do that on clay and you'll go sliding and looking like the Three Stooges.

"Clay is a true test of a player's mental and physical toughness and most European tour players grew up playing on it. They learned how to play dirt-ball tennis from the moment they turned three years old."


MEET PATTY SCHNYDER

Patty Schnyder
Despite losing in the final of the Family Circle Cup last week in Charleston, S.C., Schnyder knocked off the top seed Justine Henin-Hardenne in the semifinals. (Henin-Hardenne had a perfect 14-0 record at the Family Circle Cup entering the semis.)

Schnyder is having another stellar season, having reached at least the quarterfinals in six of the eight events she's played this year, and currently is ranked No. 8 on the WTA Tour. 2005 was the first year in which the 27-year-old Swiss finished in the top 10. She reached the fourth round or better at every Grand Slam but Wimbledon, and next month she will compete at the French Open, where she reached the fourth round last year.




PHOTO OF THE WEEK
Monte Carlo
Ian Walton/Getty Images
Not a single American has entered the Rolex ATP Tennis Masters Monte Carlo.
STAT OF THE WEEK
15 -- Mardy Fish won his first career clay-court tournament in Houston last week. The active leader in clay court titles is Carlos Moya with 15.

DIRT-BALL GOODBYES?
Gustavo Kuerten, Albert Costa and Alex Corretja were three of the best clay-court players over the last 10 years. However, all three have struggled with injuries for some time now, and the tennis world is wondering if they will ever be seen again.

The only thing that was bigger than Kuerten's hair when he entered the French Open in 1997 was his game. Ranked 66th in the world, he stormed onto the courts at Roland Garros and knocked off three former champions, including Sergi Bruguera in the final, to win the championship. Kuerten would go on to win two more French titles in 2000 and 2001.

In 2000, Kuerten finished the season ranked No. 1 in what was perhaps the most exciting season-ending race since the inception of the rankings. He needed a win over Andre Agassi in the finals of the Masters Series Cup in Lisbon, Portugal to secure the top spot. He promptly beat Agassi in straight sets, one match after knocking off Pete Sampras in the semifinals.

Kuerten, though, has had a chronic hip injury which has prevented him from competing regularly on tour. Last year he finished outside the top 100 for the first time since 1995.

Costa won 12 career titles, all on clay. None was bigger than his 2002 championship at the French Open when he handily beat heavy favorite Juan Carlos Ferrero. Costa slowed down tremendously last year, and like Kuerten, finished outside the top 100. He had surgery on his left knee after the '05 French Open, and played in only five tournaments the rest of the year. This season he has played in four tournaments and lost in the first round in each.

Corretja was perhaps the best clay-court player in the last 15 years to have never won a French Open title. He was a two-time runner up at Roland Garros losing to Carlos Moya in 1998, and Kuerten in 2001. He was 36-13 in his career at the French, but in the other three Grand Slams combined he won just 25 matches. Corretja was once ranked as high as second in the world in 1999. The Spaniard won 17 titles in a career that started in 1992.

Perhaps his most memorable moment came in 1998, a year in which he won a career-high 57 matches. After losing the first two sets to countryman Carlos Moya, Corretja rallied to win the ATP World Championship in a match that lasted just over four hours.