The final tournament of the U.S. clay-court season is well underway in Houston, Texas. The event also happens to be the first tournament of the U.S. clay-court season—that is, unless you want to count the WTA event played last week on green clay in Charleston, South Carolina.
Think about it. The outstanding facts about the clay-court game in the U.S. are that this nation, which produces one of the four prized Grand Slams, three elite Masters 1000 ATP tournaments, and five Premier WTA events—all of them on outdoor hard courts—has just one ATP- and one WTA-level event on clay.
The U.S. Clay Court Championships (Houston) is a mere ATP 250, which means it's like an ATM machine for players lucky enough to be deemed appearance-fee worthy—or it would be, if they could stuff all that money into one of those fixtures.
Don't get me wrong, I like the current, three-tier ATP system (it sure beats the WTA's bizarre assortment of numerically differentiated Premier events; figuring that out is a little like trying to work out the difference between the TXLr and TXLi versions of some fancy car). And being from Texas, that most fascinating and historically rich state, the folks in Houston know how to throw a party disguised as a tennis event, and to leave their mark on the game.
I haven't been to a tournament in Houston in years, but I'll bet that you don't walk away from the U.S. Clay Courts grumbling about getting ripped off. And what are the chances that you could roll out a clay-court event anywhere else on this planet and have a pair of Americans as your top two seeds (Mardy Fish and John Isner, respectively)? That's unique, even if the very name "Isner" presently strikes fear in the heart of anyone to whom drawing an American opponent on clay is usually summed up in the word, "appetizer."
The gradual demise of the U.S. clay-court game, or at least pro clay-court tournaments, points toward what not so long ago was a consistent theme when the conversation turned to the decline in American fortunes in the global game. Critics volubly suggested that since the best European players were raised on clay—including outstanding fast-court and serve-and-volley players like Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, and Roger Federer, along with powerhouse baseliners like Bjorn Borg and Rafael Nadal—the American problem could be traced to the lack of early clay-court play.
Grow up on hard courts, it was said, and you won't ever be as consistent as someone trained on clay. As well, there was the irritatingly amorphous belief that learning on clay taught a player how to "construct" points, as if tennis were more like genetic engineering than boxing. I'm partial to the idea that instead of thinking about building points, we ought to be thinking about how to tear them down as quickly and efficiently as possible, but that's just me. Turns out though, that the once raucous outcry for more clay courts and more training on clay has died down markedly.
You can put that down to the confluence of a few evolutionary trends. First, the technologies that now enable us to create hard-courts tailored to our exact needs, speed-wise and even cushioning-wise. Hard courts no longer look—or play—like portions of the Price Chopper parking lot cut out and plopped down by helicopter next to a high school.
Second, the racket and string technologies that increasingly put a premium on power over finesse.
Third, the demand for a universal outdoor surface in a global game and the related, economic burden of building and maintaining clay courts.
For a while there in the 1970s and 80s, as the demise of grass as a viable surface for the pro game became obvious, it seemed that proponents of clay and hard would battle it out to become the universal surface. Even the U.S. Open tried Har-tru clay for a three-year period. But when both the U.S. and Australian Grand Slams chose hard court as the new surface to replace grass, the victory was sealed. Clay has since receded to its original place as the surface of the European and South American game (at least in pro events), where it still enjoys robust popularity and retains its aesthetic appeal.
This evolutionary process is mirrored in the history of clay-court tennis in the U.S., which gives Houston an added dimension as an American landmark—kind of like that place due west and across the state, the Alamo.