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ATP Tennis 360


May 10, 2010 5:52 AM

Why are American players so loath to play on the clay?

sam-querrey.jpgThe Serbia Open final was, for a series of different reasons, remarkable. First of all because it's not so usual to find an all-American clash in a title-match on European claycourts. The close friends John Isner and Sam Querrey, losing finalist in another all-American clash in the doubles final in Rome to the Bryans, interrupted a gap dating back in 1991, when Jim Courier defeated Andre Agassi to lift up the Roland Garros trophy.

Isner spooned a great chance to in his first claycourt title wasting a match point serving at 5-3 in the second set. The golden spell of form with his serve, that led him make the breakthrough in the hard-fought battles against Zeballos and Wawrinka, deserted him in the crucial moments and Querrey converted a break point with a forehand passing shot.

Then, in the key ninth game of the third set, he surrendered a 40-0 lead and then fought off 4 break points before Querrey cashed in on the momentum and sealed a 36 76 64 victory in an hour and 55 minutes when Isner netted a forehand and threw his racquet down in frustration.

The match confirmed Querrey's game fits better the surface than Isner's style, based for the most part on huge serves (characterized by a straight tossing arm, pronounced rotation of hips and shoulders away from the net and an almost-sideways position with his feet pointing diagonally to the net allowing him to move his racquet faster) and on the efficiency of net play.

Despite the good results in Belgrade, American players' idiosyncrasy towards the clay is far to be removed. The stats speak for themselves. No active American player passed through to the quarters at Roland Garros: the last to garner such a result was Andre Agassi, defeated by Guillermo Coria in 2003; not to forget that seven of the last 10 U.S team defeats arrived on this surface. In 2009, the Americans in the top-100 had a total 23-34 record on the clay, playing a combined amount of 27 events: a modest average of 3.5 tournaments per player.

Considering the period 2006-2010 (before the Madrid Masters) there are just two Us top-100 players with an active record on the surface: Mardy Fish (23-20) and Andy Roddick (19-14) who, anyway, has the onus on him because of his frontman role and his five titles on the surface, one more than Pete Sampras (just to say). In the same period, only Michael Russell played more than 20% of his matches on the clay (his overall record is 27-28).

The main reason probably lays in the way clay changes the game. The stick and soft surface make the ball lose more of its momentum after the rebound; so the serve-and-forehand style, so dominant among American players, becomes less effective. It's harder to hit many aces and winners, the gameplan requires a patient mindset to build the point that's not in the U.S. players' DNA.

This happens because there are few clay-courts throughout the United States, and almost non-existent outside the most expensive clubs. The change of surface decided this year for the US Men's Clay Court Championship, passed from the green clay (more similar to hard-courts) to red clay is just an isolated exception.

Young Americans becomes familiar with the more enticing, beguiling, blue or green hardcourts and hasn't enough experience to deal with the dirt. American philosophy of gaining all at once, of coming, seeing and winning doesn't produce results on the red clay.

It's not a case if Andy Roddick, spearhead of sulking Americans, whenever he's asked to, says "I can win every Slam, except the Roland Garros". Despite his game isn't so far from Robin Soderling's style. But the iron-minded Swedish reached the Roland Garros final and defeated Rafa Nadal on the row. It's a testimony to his character and the best confirmation that .

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