Sign of progress for Americans in France

Updated: June 2, 2008

AP Photo/Christophe Ena

Robby Ginepri was just 6-24 lifetime on clay courts prior to his run at the French Open.

And then there were none

PARIS -- The American men's run at the French Open came to a soggy and somewhat bitter end Monday as the world No. 1 doubles team of Bob and Mike Bryan elected to play on through steady rain and lost its quarterfinal match to a chippy South American pair.

The Bryans' loss came close on the heels of Robby Ginepri's elimination by Chile's 24th-seeded Fernando Gonzalez, whose electrifying forehand enabled him to dictate much of the action. Ginepri's round-of-16 appearance marked the best showing by an American male singles player since Andre Agassi made the quarterfinals in 2003.

Yet a year after going 0-9 in singles here, the U.S. contingent's results can accurately be called encouraging.

"I think it was a wake-up call,'' commentator and recently retired pro Justin Gimelstob said of the 2007 shutout. "There's an understanding and a willingness to commit to the clay, that there's tremendous value for your overall game.

"It was embarrassing,'' said Gimelstob, who was quick to point out that he himself was responsible for one of the losses. "A lot of guys came over early this year. Sometimes you have to experience the worst to get better.''

Bob and Mike Bryan were so irritated by Pablo Cuevas' showboating in the third-set tiebreak that they refused to shake his hand at the net afterward in what the brothers said might have been a first in their career.

The Uruguayan, playing with partner Luis Horna of Peru, sprinted and hurdled the net instead of walking around when the teams switched sides with the Bryans trailing 5-1. Bob Bryan called the maneuver "disrespectful" and "classless.'' When a Spanish-speaking reporter said Cuevas had meant no insult, Bob Bryan stared him down and responded, "He should have handled it differently.''

In retrospect, the Bryans agreed they should have asked for the match -- the only one that continued on the entire grounds in the inclement weather -- to be suspended, a request that generally would have been granted to players of their stature.

"No excuses, it was up to us. We don't have any excuses, 'cause we kept playing. We thought maybe we'd get some momentum. Have to tip our hat to those guys. They served just well enough to where we couldn't be aggressive on our returns," said Bob Bryan.

Mike Bryan added, "It was a muddy ball. Couldn't really penetrate and get offensive off the net. We were putting enough pressure to where it didn't matter. I thought we could still pull it off.''

He looked at the small group of American reporters and said, "You guys should have been out there going …'' drawing a finger across his throat in the universal gesture for "cut.''

In the bigger picture, the Bryans know they had an excellent clay-court season, winning titles in Barcelona and Rome, but Monday's loss extends their Slam-less streak a little longer -- their last major was the 2007 Australian Open. Their next encounter on clay is a crucial one, although it won't come for nearly four months. U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe will be counting on the Bryans for a win in the semifinals in Spain.

"They played in horrendous conditions that gave the South Americans a big advantage,'' McEnroe said of Monday's match. "But they'll be fine. The last thing you worry about is the Bryans.''

The soft-spoken Ginepri was clearly disappointed by the defeat, but in a sign of the progress he's made under coach Jose Higueras, broke it down philosophically.

"I should have turned it more into a grind test,'' Ginepri said. "A fivehour grind test would have favored me a little bit more. I tried to end the points too quickly. I wasn't really too patient enough when he would chip the ball.

"I thought I went for it a little bit too early in the point and didn't stay in the point long enough. If I had to do it over again I would change a lot of things, but comes with experience and matches, so learn from this one.''

McEnroe said Ginepri, a slow starter in past seasons, "set himself up to have a really good summer, going to the grass where he'll play well, and then the hard courts. It's good to see him in the mix again.''

A rundown on the rest of the crew:

Sam Querrey: His unlucky first-round draw against Roger Federer precluded the chances of building on his unexpected three-match run in Monte Carlo, but Querrey doesn't have any mental block about the surface and should pick up where he left off next year.

Wayne Odesnik: The tenacious lefty capitalized on his wild-card invitation by outlasting the tireless Guillermo Canas, then won another match before running into a not-to-be-denied Novak Djokovic. A self-assured player who loves the clay, he'll be back here doing more damage.

James Blake: Handled veteran Rainer Schuettler in the first round and had a seductively open draw ahead, but Ernests Gulbis of Latvia managed to tame his hard-court mentality a little better than Blake. Credit Blake with making the effort to play four European clay events, including the world team championships in Germany. His biggest payday came with a quarterfinals appearance in Rome.

Mardy Fish: Logged a quality win against Argentina's Agustin Calleri before a surprisingly on-form Lleyton Hewitt took him down.

Bobby Reynolds: Diligent grinder beat France's Thierry Ascione and pushed Nicolas Lapentti through a tough four sets.

John Isner: Extended Juan Ignacio Chela to five sets in the first round and with Querrey, won two matches and upset a seeded team in doubles.

Vince Spadea: Once one of the stronger U.S. men on clay, Spadea couldn't get it done against France's Julien Benneteau.

First-timers at Roland Garros Scoville Jenkins took a set off clay-court specialist Horna, and Donald Young lost to Ginepri.

"I wouldn't put it down in the history books as a tremendous performance, but it's certainly better than last year,'' McEnroe said.

Then and now

Navarro

The only Spanish woman to win the French Open is a big fan of the first Spanish woman to make the quarterfinals since 2003. "In Spain, we say she has her feet on the floor,'' three-time champion (1989, '94, '98) Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario said of Carla Suarez Navarro. The 19-year-old qualifier from the Canary Islands with the big smile and the sweeping one-handed backhand has charmed crowds here with her exuberance and solid game. Sanchez-Vicario said Suarez needs to improve her serve but forecasts a promising future. Suarez moved to Barcelona to train last year, and hit the radar in Spain when she won a Fed Cup match in China earlier this season. She said she's always played with a one-handed backhand but perhaps not coincidentally, is a huge admirer of Justine Henin's game.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.


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Doubles trouble

Paes

No one cares much about doubles in the United States, but in India it's a very big deal.

The country's two best doubles players, who won three Grand Slams together and once held the No. 1 ranking, have long since separated because of the ubiquitous "personal differences."

Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi don't really like each other, and their volley of words has caused a controversy of massive proportions in their home country. You see, the All-India Tennis Association (AITA) would like them to play doubles together in the Beijing Olympics. Really, it might be India's best shot at a medal.

When Paes won a bronze in singles in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, it was the first medal for India since 1908 and the first individual medal since 1952.

Bhupathi, in an e-mail to the AITA, declared that he could not, and would not play with Paes.

Paes has begged him to reconsider.

"I urge him to think hard and change his decision," Paes said recently. "It's both of us who are losers here. The whole thing has become extremely childish -- it's petty, it's rubbish.

"Right now, I can't read the man at all."

Adding spice to the controversy was this first-round mixed doubles match on Sunday: Paes and Nadia Petrova versus Bhupathi and Jie Zheng. There they were, two of the highest-profile athletes in India, on opposite sides of the net. They warmed up, awkwardly, together and yet somehow seemed to avoid establishing any meaningful eye contact.

We are happy to report that everyone was civil and well-behaved; there was no head-hunting when the two traded overheads and practiced serves. Ditto for the match. Bhupathi-Zheng won 7-5, 6-4, in a tidy 72 minutes, and there was even a tepid handshake after the match.

Neither player, however, will address the issue. This one bears watching.

-- Greg Garber

Junior achiever

When you are 16 and a terrific tennis player, the world is your oyster.

Consider the case of Chase Buchanan of Columbus, Ohio, who turns 17 on Wednesday. On Sunday he played a practice set with John McEnroe at the Racing Club -- and won, 6-3.

Now, do the math. McEnroe just beat Pete Sampras in a senior event and Sampras just pushed Federer to the limit in a series of exhibitions. By extrapolating …

"He's going to win 14 Grand Slam titles," joked U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe. "Seriously, the people I've talked to say he's one of the best kids we've got coming up."

Buchanan is unseeded here and got a brutal first-round opponent in the junior tournament, France's No. 3-seeded Jonathan Eysseric. The score was 6-0, 6-2 and it was over in 53 minutes.

"Not the best day," Buchanan said afterward. "I was tired and he played smart. I was making so many errors, I just never made him play."

Still, he'll always have memories of Paris and hitting with McEnroe.

Buchanan's USTA coach Mike Sell hooked him up with the seven-time Grand Slam winner. The kid was serving at 5-2, but the competitive McEnroe broke his serve. Then Buchanan broke back.

"It was fun," Buchanan said. "He gave me some tips, like how to move into the ball on clay. It was special."

-- Greg Garber

Head games

Gulbis

Novak Djokovic and Ernests Gulbis apparently have some history as teenaged running buddies at respected former Croatian pro Niki Pilic's academy in Germany, but Djokovic wouldn't tell any tales on his quarterfinals opponent. "We know each other on and off the court,'' Djokovic said, smiling enigmatically. Crazy experiences off the court as well.''

Djokovic, who just celebrated his 21st birthday last month, is a little more than a year older than No. 80 Gulbis, who is the first man from Latvia to crack the top 100 and whose calm demeanor defies the stereotype of redheads as hotheads. "He has a big forehand, very talented guy, but still getting through, you know. He made some good results here and there, but he's not consistent,'' Djokovic said. "So maybe there's my chance, you know, with the experience and the patience that I have.''

We're not entirely sure, but we think the No. 3 from Serbia was kidding when he later added, "He was destroying me in practices. I couldn't win a match. On practice? No chance. … So all the pressure on him, OK? He's a favorite. Whatever. I play -- no responsibility, nothing to lose.''

-- Bonnie D. Ford

Critic's choice

Djokovic

Old pals Novak Djokovic and Ernests Gulbis might have dreamed of this scenario when they were lads training together -- except they would have made it a Slam final, not a quarterfinal. Should be interesting to see them feel each other out as they meet at this level for the first time. Underdog Gulbis can afford to play with abandon. Djokovic is experienced enough not to look too far ahead at a much-hyped semifinal with Rafael Nadal. The tennis should be entertaining.

ESPN.com's prediction: Djokovic in four.

-- Bonnie D. Ford