Why U.S. Tennis Players Do So Badly at the French Open


Julian Finney/Getty Images

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.

What's concerning is the overwhelming indifference of America's tennis cognoscenti. By choosing to ignore the obvious downward trend and continuing to raise the best of U.S. youth tennis almost exclusively on hard courts, the USTA and America's leading tennis academies are perpetuating the problem and ensuring our newfound status as an inferior tennis country will continue.

Athletes are more likely to succeed at a particular subset of their field if they have prolonged exposure to it from an early age. Golfers who play only par-5s until they reach college would be woefully inadequate any time they stepped up to a par-3. Likewise, young tennis players who spend a modicum of their practice hours on clay will never be complete players because they have not mastered the game on all its surfaces.

The USTA is not ignorant of this fact—anyone who follows tennis knows Nadal perfected his French Open game with years of practice on the red clay courts of Mallorca. Yet the association continues to give young Americans scant opportunities to get tournament experience on clay. Of the 68 USTA junior tournaments held in the first five months of this year, 53 were on hard courts, while just 12 were exclusively on clay.

The result is a spate of young U.S. pros unable to adeptly adjust their games to the slower pace of clay. The surface rewards agility and tact over raw power and big serving, and getting maximum topspin on the ball is critical to success. Shots unreturnable on hard courts are easier gets on clay, leading to longer rallies and more unforced errors.

To be fair, clay courts are more expensive to build and maintain than hard courts. And our prolonged lack of success in European clay-court tournaments has fostered an indifference from U.S. tennis fans that is one part arrogance and two parts helplessness. But Federer and Nadal, by far the two best players in the world, have combined to win the last five French Opens. An American hasn't captured the French Junior title since Jennifer Capriati in 1989. And after claiming 12 Davis Cup championships in 28 years, the U.S. has won tennis' version of the World Cup just once since 1995, falling time and time again to other countries' not-so-secret weapon: clay-court advantage.

If the USTA and fans of American tennis want to sit idly by and hope for another Pete Sampras (14 Grand Slam titles, none at the French), that's their call. But as someone who grew up watching U.S. men and women compete on clay and dominate the overall rankings, I'd like to see us make a concerted effort to teach our children to play on clay. Because a tennis country is only as good as its weakest surface.