For American Tennis, Clay Is Kryptonite

Andy Roddick
Andy Roddick expresses his frustration as he plays Russia's Igor Andreev during their first round match of the French Open on Tuesday. Andreev won 3-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4. (David Vincent - AP)
By Sally Jenkins
Friday, June 1, 2007

The American men are gone from the French Open, disappeared in the torturous red dust after just the first round. It's no great mystery why the current crop of Yanks couldn't survive at Roland Garros: The answer is that if you want to win on clay, you've got to live on it.

Go to any small village in Spain or Switzerland, and you will find a public clay court, some benighted quadrangle that looks like an old patio has been broken up by a sledgehammer into a fine red powder. This is no longer the case in America, where it's easier to find the local golf course than a clay court, and where fast-surface bashers try to end every point in one stroke.

"We've got some work to do," Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe says. "And by we, I mean all of American tennis, from 11-year-olds on." The Americans with their shock serves and sidewinder strokes, typified by third-seeded Andy Roddick, simply have lost the patience or the tolerance for the substance, which forces them to hit more shots than they want to. The dirt is uneven and negating, and the points tedious, except to a real French Open enthusiast.

"It gets in their head," says NBC Sports analyst Mary Carillo, the former French mixed doubles champion whose amusing clinic on how to play on clay can be seen on the network Web site. "And it gets in their socks, and it gets in their shoes. You have to be willing to play long mental points. You can't hit winners easily on this stuff. It can get demoralizing."

While Roddick couldn't last beyond the first round in Paris, Rafael Nadal's and Roger Federer's rivalry is restoring the magnificence of a tournament that is the most uniquely testing of all the majors. The real French Open enthusiast understands that the tournament is actually less about the players than the courts themselves, those swatches of gorgeous but somehow distressing color, the color of, well, dried blood. It's the kind of red that comes from a vein.

Actually, it's not color so much as pigment, an iron oxide. Cave-painting red. Mars red. Hemoglobin red. Red as in deficit, debt. The color is totally expressive of the place, and of the paradoxical truth about the French, which is that it's at once the most romantic and beautiful tennis tournament in world, and also the most ugly and revealing. It's also the noisiest, what with all the screams of exertion and the schlsssssss of the sneakers in the brick dust, and the players flopping on the ground in exhaustion or euphoria. There's no peacocking or strutting on those courts. It's all the players can do to stand at the side of the court, cramming bananas in their mouths on changeovers, afraid to sit down for fear of cramping up. It makes them press, and work harder than they've ever worked, and pull from deep inside themselves.

Yannick Noah once said something to this effect: "To play on clay is a conversation. You hit a shot, and there is always a reply." If so, then to win on clay requires insight. Along the same line, the old Australian greats had their own saying about the clay of Roland Garros: "You have to play five years to win the French."

American men don't seem willing to spend five tournaments learning to play on clay, much less five years. James Blake was among the most committed of all the Americans -- he played four tuneup events, a total of 11 matches. "You have to rehearse a lot before you get there," says Billie Jean King, who won in 1972. "If you want to be good and effective and have it feel a little bit natural, you have to be on it a lot. Then you don't have to think."

Thinking is what stops Roddick every time. The 24-year-old has never been past the third round, and more often than not goes out in the first. How can the third-ranked player in the world have such an abysmal record? Roddick's game is all cannonading winners and hard charges -- totally unsuited for clay, and his coach, Jimmy Connors, who never won the French in 13 attempts, doesn't seem to know how to adapt it. "I talked about it with Jimmy," Roddick said. "I'm like, 'Is there anything I'm missing here?' He said: 'No. I can't think of anything.' It's tough to switch it up and all of a sudden change your stroke production, change everything."

Roddick's game is like a hard but brittle glaze, with nothing underneath. Once he decides he can't hit winners, the glaze is shattered. To win at the French, Roddick would have to learn a different, more durable and less overtly imposing kind of game; he'd have to learn different rhythms and change of pace. He'd have to learn to volley cross-court when his fast-surface instincts tell him to go up the line. He'd have to learn to work an opponent around the court, waiting for the moment when they are sliding, arm out, back to the net.

The American men who have won the French, such as Michael Chang, or most lately, Andre Agassi, had plenty of power, but just as important, they were steady. Jim Courier, who won the French in 1991 and 1992, not only took the time to study playing on clay, he learned how to speak French. (As for Venus and Serena Williams on the women's side, nothing explains them except genius and sheer force of will.)

The great American clay-courters had foundational groundstrokes that allowed them to be alternately aggressive and patient, to put together whole sequences, before they caned a winner. "It's not just one swing, it's combinations," Carillo said. Ironically, it's a supremely self-confident brand of tennis, as summarized by Ilie Nastase, the 1973 men's champion who said, "If you have confidence, you have patience."

Clay also is a surface that reveals insecurity and self-consciousness in the most confident players -- it has even made Federer look like a choker on occasion. It's the surface on which a player can ill afford any vanity, because it exposes weakness more than any other. In the course of a long match, the greatest champion will feel hopeless, and lose points, games, and sets. There are ebbs and flows, highs and lows. Personalities unfold -- or fold, and sometimes unravel. "I've been my own worst enemy here for a lot of times," Roddick said.

The French can be the most wearisome of the major championships. But it's also the most human. And therefore the most oddly compelling -- whether Americans are in it, or not.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company