The solution to the struggle on clay is multi-dimensional. (AP)
Any American, man or woman, who made it past the third round of the French Open is a revolutionary by today’s standards. Just four of 17 U.S. women escaped the first round (though all of them reached at least the third round), and of the five American men in the main draw, only Jack Sock stormed his way past the second round. There was no shame in Sock’s eventual fourth-round loss to Rafael Nadal, of course, but the fact remains: The star-and-striped pack is listlessly behind the rest of the world on clay.
This is nothing new; American results in Paris have been bleak for years. Last year, 14 U.S. women appeared in the main draw, and just two went past the second round. On the men’s side, eight Yanks were in the 2014 main draw, and three made it to the second round, with only John Isner reaching the round of 16. The last time an American man won Roland Garros was Andre Agassi in 1999 (Serena Williams won in 2002 and 2013). American players haven’t been blossoming at any of the Grand Slams lately, but it’s been especially uninspiring in Paris.
America’s lack of clay-court preparation is nothing new, either. The clay courts you do catch a glimpse of in the States are almost all green Har-Tru, not the authentic red dirt found everywhere else in the world. I’ve played on red clay just twice, and it’s beautifully raw tennis at its finest. The points are longer, which helps form strategically oriented, problem-solving players with greater stamina, patience and shot variety. It ruins your socks and stains your clothes, but it’s more a badge of honor than a nuisance, although that may be because it feels like such a rare privilege.
The problem, though, goes beyond the recreational game and country clubs. There are hundreds of clay-court USTA tournaments for juniors, but as the level of competition increases, the number of clay events decrease. There’s just one major junior national championship and three ITF junior events on clay every year.
The ITF Pro Circuit is split pretty evenly between clay and hard courts, but it’s the opposite at WTA and ATP level, where there’s just one clay men’s event (Houston) and one clay women’s event (Charleston). But the deficiency of the surface is most stunning at the college level. The USTA Collegiate Clay Court Invitational, which started in 2012, is the only college tournament played on clay.