It was a disastrous day for American men at the French Open on Wednesday, as Andy Roddick, the country's brightest tennis talent and best hope of rehabilitating a sullied reputation on clay, was bounced from the tournament by an obscure Frenchman ranked No. 153 in the world.
Roddick's departure, coming on the heels of Vince Spadea's ouster earlier in the day, means there are no American men left in the world's most prestigious clay-court tournament just three days into the two-week competition.
It is the first time since 1968, the dawn of the Open era of tennis, that no American man has advanced to the third round of a Grand Slam tournament. And it reinforces the widely held perception abroad that Americans don't care about clay-court tennis and are capable only of a hard-hitting, hard-court game that lacks nuance and patience.
The big-serving Roddick looked impressive in the first set against Frenchman Olivier Mutis but lost both his focus and skills as the match ground on, losing 3-6, 6-3, 6-7 (7-5), 6-3, 6-2.
"Obviously, I had a game plan," Roddick said afterward. "The plan was to beat him. But neither one of those panned out for me today."
Spadea, the tournament's 27th seed, showed tremendous resolve in his opening match Monday, fending off nine match points to advance to the second round. But he was easily handled Wednesday by a French qualifier, Julien Jeanpierre, who claimed the straight-set victory, 6-4, 6-2, 7-5.
It was a swift dressing-down for the 10 American men who entered the tournament -- half of whom were ousted by Frenchmen. Sixth-seed Andre Agassi, the 1999 French Open champion, was the biggest name to fall on Day 1, sent packing by an unknown French qualifier, Jerome Haehnel, who was making his tour-level debut.
Asked what this did for Franco-American relations, Mutis simply smiled and said, "Sorry!"
It's likely to be no better for the tournament's television ratings in the United States, which rise and fall with the presence of American players.
American futility on the slow, European red clay is hardly new. Only three American men have won at Roland Garros in the Open era: Michael Chang (1989), Jim Courier (1991-92) and Agassi (1999).
Roddick, the defending U.S. Open champion and last year's top-ranked player, was expected to be next -- if not ready to join their ranks this year, then surely in time. After losing in the first round the last two years, Roddick changed coaches, hiring Brad Gilbert, who helped Agassi to the French title in 1999. He also traveled to Paris a week earlier to acclimate himself to the clay.
European clay courts are typically tricky for Americans because they're much slower than the hard courts so common in the United States. The balls bounce higher, too, which gives opponents more time to react. That blunts the impact of raw power, makes rallies last longer and, as a result, rewards patience and cunning over brute strength.
"It's a challenge for me," Roddick conceded. "I mean, that's no secret."
To perform best on clay, Roddick needed the court to be bone dry, which meant it would play hard and fast. Instead he got a slow, soggy court that was doused by sprinkles of rain. It worked to Spadea's disadvantage, too.
"The conditions were really heavy," Spadea said. "You could get 10 marathon runners and give them tennis rackets, and they'd probably fare better than half the tennis players out here."
Roddick took command early Wednesday, breaking Mutis's serve in the fourth game to claim the first set in a brisk 35 minutes. But he grew sloppy in the second set, while Mutis got sharper. Instead of being cowed by Roddick's record-breaking serve and rocket-like forehand, Mutis attacked the ball, taking big whacks that worked in his favor.
They played each other stroke for stroke in the third set, with Roddick pulling out an ace to clinch the tiebreaker, 7-5.
Down two sets to one, Mutis toughened his resolve, convinced Roddick could be beaten. When Roddick hit with power, Mutis varied the pace. When Roddick rushed the net, Mutis ripped passing shots beyond his reach.
In the fourth set, Roddick's mighty serve deserted him. He was broken on four consecutive service games in the fourth and fifth sets, and the blow seemed to drain the resolve from him. Roddick's forehand went next. Mutis's array of shots and tricks, meanwhile, seemed to multiply.
"He's very talented," Roddick said. "There's no doubt he has great hands; that's evident right away."
The 3-hour 10-minute match was played before a spirited crowd at Suzanne Lenglen Court, and more than once the umpire had to quiet fans.
The chattering clearly agitated Roddick, who turned to the umpire for help in the final set. By then, though, his focus was shot.
Roddick is hardly the only American to leave Roland Garros disappointed. Unlike Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe -- among the Americans never to have won here -- he will have other chances.