Jimmy Connors doesn't even like to use the word. He calls it "that stuff." John McEnroe calls it "outdated." And Europeans enjoy watching U.S. players slog away on it like they're trying to run along a sandy beach.

It is the red clay of Roland Garros, and not since 1955, when Tony Trabert won his second straight title here, has a U.S. man won the championship. Only five have even reached the final. McEnroe's five-set loss to Lendl last year was the closest an American has come to the title.

This year is no different, now that Ivan Lendl has ousted Connors and Mats Wilander has beaten McEnroe.

In those 30 years, U.S.-born women have won nine titles and Saturday's final will match Chris Evert Lloyd and Martina Navratilova. But the women play differently, relying less on power, and playing longer points. And they play best-of-three-set matches, rather than the best-of-five the men play.

"It takes unbelievable discipline to win here," said Nick Bollettieri, who coaches Aaron Krickstein and Jimmy Arias, two of the United States' best on clay. "On a hard court, it takes two good ground strokes and one good volley to win a point. Here it takes three ground strokes and two volleys.

"That's 40 percent more shots if you play the ideal point. That's 40 percent more chance for an error. The clay court player sits back and waits for the error, because he knows it's bound to come."

The French Open is tennis' ultimate test of endurance and patience. The 19 clay courts here are built for the player willing to stay in the heat all day, rallying and rallying and rallying.

Men in the United States usually learn to play on hard, fast courts. A good first serve usually means a point. So does a sharply angled volley. "The hardest thing to deal with when you come over here," said Arthur Ashe, who never got past the fourth round, "is hitting a 'winner' and then looking up to see the ball coming back at you. Americans just can't adjust to that."

Connors might have won in 1974, when he was the best player in the game, winning the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. But he was denied entry here because he was playing World Team Tennis and the French Tennis Federation was feuding with the WTT.

Angered, he refused to play here the next four years, when he was at his peak. "That was a mistake," he said this week. "I let '74 affect me more than it should have."

He came back in 1979 but has never made the final. McEnroe first came here in 1977, but only after Wilander beat him in the quarterfinals in 1983 did he start to take winning here seriously.

"I walked off the court after losing to Wilander and said to myself, 'You should have won that match; you gave it away,' " he said. "That was the first time I really thought about winning the French."

Ashe, never good on clay, played here almost every year of his career. "I think you should play," he said. "It's a major championship. Until the mid-'70s, it was even harder for Americans here. They used pressureless balls that were almost impossible to hit hard.

"Now, it's more a mental thing. It's hard to adjust to sliding rather than stopping. It's hard to deal with point after point that never ends. I think, if we're ever going to do better here, more of our junior tournaments have to be played on clay."

Unless that happens, U.S. men are likely to continue to lose on clay. This year, 28 played the first round here. Seventeen lost. Only McEnroe, Connors and Krickstein made it to the third round.

"It's an equalizer," McEnroe said. "Guys who normally can't compete with much better players can, because they can run down balls and keep it in play. I understand why they built these courts years ago, but now I think they're outdated. They can build courts that will produce better tennis."

His view is understandable. But the very fact that the clay is an equalizer is what makes this tournament unusual.

Nowhere else could Tarik Benhabiles keep Connors on the court more than four hours while 16,500 sit enraptured. Nowhere else could young Andrei Chesnokov outlast Eliot Teltscher, a top-10 player the last five years.

"The game is different for everybody," said Navratilova, one of the few women to try to play serve and volley on clay. "When I first came here, I tried to come in on my second serve, on everything. I also lost a lot. I had to change my game to win here. Now, when I start practicing for this tournament, I say to myself, 'Okay, time to put on your clay brain.' "

One of the few Americans to play clay consistently with some success is Vitas Gerulaitis. He twice won the Italian Open, which is played on clay, and he reached the final here in 1980.

"When I did well over here," he said, "you could compete if you stayed back and sort of blocked the ball back. It's a very strategic game, rather than hit, hit, hit. Now, with all the top spin, you really can't do that. The reason McEnroe does well is because he's one of the few Americans who can play the ball on the rise and really hit it hard."

But today, McEnroe and Connors played like several generations of Americans have played here.