Mark Vines of Richmond had just walked off the court at Roland Garros Stadium in Paris last week. He was soaking wet and caked with the burnt orange clay that is the surface for the French Open, the world's third-ranking tennis event behind Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
Vines is only 23 and from my hometown.
"How'd you do?" I asked as he passed me in a hallway.
"I lost 6-1 in the fifth and I'll never play here again, I'll tell you that," he responded. "To come here, play your guts out for four hours, and still lose doesn't make sense." Frustration poured out of him.
I had more than a momentary concern with his answer. It seems that quite a few young Americans are forsaking the world's great clay court events for the quicker surfaces of the U.S. professional tennis circuit. It has become a serious problem for international tennis.
Of the world's 36 major Volvo Grand Prix events ($200,000 or more in prize money), 10 are played on clay. The U.S. has only four: Washington; Boston; North Conway, N.H., and the U.S. clay court championships at Indianapolis. The WCT Tournament of Champions at Forest Hills is also on clay. Obviously, there is little incentive for young American males to learn to play on clay.
John McEnroe, ranked No. 1 in the world, played in only one Grand Prix clay event last year. This year he'll play in none (he did play in the Tournament of Champions). He is ranked No. 1 on the basis of his play on fast surfaces only -- cement, grass, indoors. The South Americans and Europeans are not pleased.
There are 22 Americans ranked in the world's top 50. Ten elected to bypass the French Open. The Mayer brothers, Gene and Sandy, claimed injuries. So did Stan Smith. The others, though, will tell you the truth: "Who needs all that aggravation over there?"
Americans are becoming fast-court players only. They are arranging their schedules to avoid clay.
Some young Americans simply don't want to go through the rigorous training required to prepare for the French. Playing three out of five sets on clay requires hours of training. A typical three-set clay court match could take 2 1/2 hours.
But young Americans are not entirely to blame for this fast-court emphasis. They were reared on the quick surfaces. The U.S. junior championships, the Easter Bowl juniors, the NCAA championships, and most of the top college teams play their tennis on cement.
Even the women are beginning to lean away from clay. "Women's clay court tennis is the most boring sport there is to watch," says a TV executive. At last year's U.S. clay court championships, Andrea Jaeger beat Virginia Ruzici by hitting lobs the entire match. About a third of the crowd got up and left.
The U.S. record at Paris is dismal compared to that at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. In the last quarter-century, only Chris Everet Lloyd has won four French titles. No American male has won a title since Tony Trabert in 1955.
I was very impressed with Jimmy Connors' preparation for the French this year, but he was beaten Wednesday by Jose Higueras, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2. As great a player as Connors is, he has never won this title. And he knows that a player can never be considered truly outstanding until he wins it.
Something needs to be done to stop the American slide toward the fast surfaces. We must prepare our best young players to play on any surface. It is for this reason that I rank Bjorn Borg as the best player of all time. Borg has won five Wimbledon championships and six French titles -- on the fastest and slowest surfaces, respectively.