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After a grueling back-and-forth struggle, Serena Williams watched a final desperate forehand sail long and hung her head in disgust. Across the net, Australian upstart Samantha Stosur lifted her arms to the sky, celebrating a 6-2, 6-7, 8-6 victory over the world's No. 1 player in the quarterfinals of the French Open.
Though Stosur was an underdog heading into the match, the result was hardly an upset when you consider the players' nationalities. Williams was simply this year's last American standing, and her exit marked the latest chapter in the United States' decade-long march to mediocrity in tournaments on clay courts.
Since Williams triumphed on the red clay of Roland Garros in 2002, the U.S. has been shut out in women's singles every year. Though our country's best players have excelled at the other three Grand Slam tournaments, Americans have failed to even reach the finals at the French in the past eight years. While Serena and sister Venus have combined to win five Australian Opens, eight Wimbledons, and five U.S. Opens, Serena's '02 title is the family's lone French Open championship.
As disappointing as the Williams sisters have been, their performance in Paris has far outstripped the overwhelming failures of the American men. Since Andre Agassi won the title in 1999, no U.S. player has reached the semifinals in the men's singles draw. Other than Agassi from 2001-03, none have advanced past the fourth round. Meanwhile, Argentina had three men in the semifinals in 2003 alone.
How bad have the U.S. men been at the French? Andy Roddick, the best American on the ATP Tour since Agassi retired, has never managed to make the final eight.
Our dismal record on clay extends further back than Agassi—since the beginning of the Open era in 1968, Americans have won the men's title at the French just four times. For comparison's sake, Rafael Nadal won four championships before ever losing a match at Roland Garros. And it's not just in Paris. Americans have consistently come up short at the marquee clay events on the ATP and WTA tours, epitomized by Venus Williams' one-sided loss to virtual unknown Aravane Rezai in the finals of this year's Madrid Open.
The clay-court failures in recent years have gone hand-in-hand with an overall decline in the state of American tennis. Among active players, only the Williams sisters and Roddick have won a Grand Slam tournament in men's or women's singles. Other than that trio--who are all 27 or older--no American is ranked in the top 18 on either tour. With no young U.S. players poised to enter the upper echelons of tennis and the Williamses and Roddick playing fewer tournaments every year, American tennis is rapidly nearing a state of crisis.