It is not easy to be an American in Paris these days. The dollar is weak and the red clay at Roland Garros is slow. Three days into the French Open, only five of the 18 U.S. men entered here are still playing.
But, given the current state of American tennis, especially on clay, that isn't surprising. In fact, the first American to reach the third round, Johan Kriek, is shocked to be there.
"This is all very confusing for me," Kriek said today after beating 6-foot-8 Czechoslovakian Milan Sjreber, 6-1, 6-3, 5-7, 6-3. "I don't think I have a chance . . . of winning the tournament. I'm just out there playing. I don't feel any pressure. All I want to do is go far enough so I can pay my wife's American Express bill."
Kriek, an expatriate from South Africa, is the No. 13 seed here. But that is deceiving since he had not played here since 1979, hates clay and never had won a match in this tournament before Monday.
"I guess I've proven some of the people who said I can't play on clay wrong," he said. "Right now, I'm confused because I've handled the stuff this well."
Kriek's victory came on a day when every seeded player who stepped on the court won, but the beleaguered Americans did throw one decent-sized scare into their French hosts. For the second straight day, Yannick Noah, the monarch of Roland Garros, allowed an opponent who had no business thinking he could beat him here to think he could do just that.
On Tuesday, it was Tarik Benhabiles. The French could bear that because he is a countryman. But today, with the stadium packed with schoolchildren, Sammy Giammalva took on Noah and the screechy crowd. It took Noah more than three hours to beat Giammalva, 6-4, 6-7 (10-8), 6-4, 6-4, and by the end he and the crowd were acting as if the opponent were Ivan Lendl, rather than a 22-year-old American who is ranked No. 85 in the world.
"I really felt like I had a chance to beat him," Giammalva said. "The crowd pumped me up, actually. I had never played in an atmosphere like that before. Yannick is their king here. But I thought I could win."
If Giammalva had forced a fifth set, he might have won. Noah has played seven hours of tennis in the first two rounds here and has not looked very sharp.
"I didn't get to practice last week as much as I wanted to because my ankle and heel were bothering me," he said. "In two days, you will see a different Noah. Vintage 1983."
That was the year Noah won this championship and sent the country into hysterics. His play will have to improve markedly if he is to repeat that feat.
Lendl, the man Noah will meet in the semifinals if there are no upsets, cruised for the second straight day, defeating Jacob Hlasek, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3. Lendl spent more time in his postmatch news conference analyzing Noah's escape from Benhabiles than his own tennis, an indication of how one-sided his match was.
"If he has an easy match today," Lendl said before Noah-Giammalva had started, "then it won't matter that he had a long match last night. But he could use an easy match today."
He didn't get one. By the time the match began, the cool, cloudy morning had become a lovely spring afternoon, and Noah raced through the first set and to an early break in the second. But Giammalva didn't wither. He began knocking off passing shots despite Noah's acrobatic sprawls, broke back and won the tie breaker with a gorgeous backhand after Noah had botched a set point by hacking a backhand wide.
"The crowd was so loud sometimes I couldn't even speak to the umpire about line calls," Giammalva said. "I'm conscious of the fact that people are down on American tennis. There's definitely a point to it, unfortunately. That should make us all a little hungrier. It would have been great today if I could have pulled this one out."
"I know I have a lot of work to do," Noah said. "But I'm still playing."
On the women's side, almost all the seeded players are still playing. Today, nine of the top 10 seeds (No. 6 Helena Sukova did not play) won in straight sets. Martina Navratilova (1), Chris Evert Lloyd (2), Steffi Graf (3) and Hana Mandlikova (5) all won in less than an hour. Navratilova lost the most games (four) among them.
The only seeded player who had difficulty today was No. 13 Carling Bassett, who had to come from behind to defeat Pascale Etchemendy, a 19-year-old Frenchwoman. Bassett trailed, 3-5, in the third set before she rallied to win it, 7-5. Bassett said she knew little about Etchemendy, who won the first set, 6-3, before Bassett won the second, 6-4.
"I walked up to a girl yesterday and asked her if she was the one who beat Barbara Gerken," Bassett said. "She shook her head. Then this other girl sitting there said, 'I'm the one you're looking for.' That's why I asked my friends about her, since I didn't know her at all.
"They didn't tell me very much because I think they thought it would be an easy match. I'm a little upset that they thought that, because that was a tough match."
But Bassett survived, as did Kriek, who said: "The only time I got at all nervous today was when [Davis Cup captain] Tom Gorman walked in." Kriek has made no secret of the fact that he would love to play Davis Cup for his new country.
The United States is scheduled to play Mexico on clay in July. After three days here, it is apparent that Gorman's pickings are slim. Jimmy Arias sprained an ankle and was unable to play here. Eliot Teltscher and Aaron Krickstein play second-round matches Thursday -- Krickstein against Mats Wilander.
By week's end, if he keeps winning, Kriek could accomplish a lot more than paying that American Express bill.