Grappling on—and With—Clay

Monday, April 15, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

In another time, John Isner’s title in Houston on Sunday might have led American tennis fans to rub their hands in anticipation of the upcoming clay-court season. In another time, a man in Isner’s shoes might have looked ahead to the long trail that ends in early June at Roland Garros. And in another time, that same man might have looked forward to a few weeks spent jousting with Europe’s best on the red clay of the continental resorts and capitals.

After all, Isner has proved that his best surface may well be clay—or at least it is on those days when he can’t simply ace his way through a grass-court match. Houston, Isner’s sixth championship, is as good a title as he’s won; in the semis and final he beat two renowned clay experts in succession, Juan Monaco and Nicolas Almagro. But for the best-of-three-set format—and I wouldn’t minimize the significance of this—those might have been Roland Garros quarters and semis.

How many players have wins in best-of-five-set matches on red clay over Roger Federer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and Gilles Simon? Who else has led Rafael Nadal, two sets to one, at the French Open? (Isner lost that one, 6-4 in the fifth)? But as much as clay appears to like Isner, Isner hasn’t been inclined to reciprocate—certainly not to the extent that seems appropriate given his playing history.

Thus, the real cause for celebration today is that Isner asked for—and received—a wild card into Monte Carlo. He’s playing that red clay Masters 1000 event for the very first time, and even if he won’t have enough recovery or adjustment time to go deep in Monaco, his embrace of the challenge is heartening.

Going to Europe to compete on the red clay was once not only a regular habit for top American players, but something they actually enjoyed—it meant exposure to different cultures, a little adventure, a more well-rounded education not just in the ways of tennis, but of the world. But that all began to change when pros suddenly could afford to pass up the prize money available on clay, and as surface specialization and obsession with rankings and performance became more pronounced.

The last great American player who didn’t merely suffer the Euroclay circuit but actually reveled it (of course, he had the game to take such pleasure) was two-time French Open champion Jim Courier. Pete Sampras, his more famous countryman and rival, didn’t like the red clay much, and he didn’t share Courier’s basic interest in European culture.

But Sampras still invested significant time in trying to master the clay game. In 1995 he’d been No. 1 for two years and he still pulled out all the stops to improve in Europe in hopes of winning the French Open. He played six events on red clay, including Davis Cup against Italy, Monte Carlo, Hamburg (since replaced by Madrid as a Masters event), and Rome.

Sampras went a disappointing 5-5 (3-5 in tournament play) that year, and while he avoided Europe the following year to play a pair of lucrative hard-court events in Asia in the spring, he would return and labor on European clay with some consistency for the rest of his career.

In reality, the main thing that kept Sampras engaged in Europe was his determination to retain the No. 1 ranking. He knew that with the likes of Andre Agassi and Courier breathing down his neck, he just couldn’t afford to write off the European spring—and this was a man who had lifted the trophy at the Rome Masters in 1994.

Just one American has been ranked No. 1 since the end of the Sampras-Agassi-Courier era, and that is Andy Roddick. Ironically, Roddick won three of his first five titles on clay leading right up to his career year of 2003, during which he added another clay title—the first and only one he would win in Europe, at St. Poelten. But by 2008, he was down to playing just one or no warm-up events for Roland Garros (although in 2011 he took one more shot at Madrid and Rome). Interestingly, Roddick’s former Top 10 colleagues from the U.S., Mardy Fish and James Blake, showed solid support for the European tour, at least until they ran into injury problems.

A number of factors have also combined to make it feasible for Americans to play less on red clay in Europe than at any other time in the Open era—and in this regard, through no short-sightedness or indifference on their parts.

For one, the European clay swing really begins now in Casablanca and Houston (and, for the women, Charleston). Houston has carved out a nice little niche as an event that allows U.S. players to go to Europe without, well, actually going there. And as Monte Carlo follows Houston on the calendar but precedes a week of ATP 500s and 250s, any player who doesn’t want to go to Europe until the last possible moment—the start of Madrid Masters—can now do so without much sacrifice.

This is of little concern to most fans globally; after all, attracting U.S. players has never been vital to the success of the Euroclay events—and that’s more true now than ever. But it turns out that Europe’s finest also feel less obliged to play four or five events before the grand finale in Paris. Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic each played three clay events last year before the French Open, and you have to wonder if Nole would have played Monte Carlo at all were he not a resident of the principality of Monaco. Madrid and Rome may be coming to dominate the clay circuit in the same way that Cincinnati and Canada are emerging as the pillars of the U.S. Open Series.

But let’s get back to that reluctant clay-court warrior, Isner. Last year, he played four clay tournaments after Houston, but won just three matches during the Euroclay season. The highlight was a nice win over Philipp Kohlschreiber in Rome. The lowlight, of course, was his painful, 18-16 in-the-fifth second-round loss at Roland Garros to 30-year-old Paul-Henri Mathieu.

Isner is a combined 8-10 at the three major Euroclay tournaments—Madrid, Rome, and Roland Garros—and has posted back-to-back wins at any of them just twice. One reason for that poor showing is obvious: If you play just the top events, your chance of winning a couple of matches diminishes because of the strength of the field.

Anyone looking for areas in which Isner might improve in order to boost his current ranking of No. 23 need study no more. That’s why it’s encouraging to see that he’s entered in Monte Carlo. Perhaps he also ought to consider entering the Bucharest or Estoril 250—James Blake, who never won a clay-court event, was a finalist at the latter in 2009.

“I've always known I could play well on clay,” Isner said, after he won on Sunday. “I felt I played better each and every round. I played well yesterday (against Monaco in the semis) and even better (in the final with Almagro) today.”

Isner is off to a good start on clay; the lingering question is, will he—and other Americans who follow him—do all he can to take full advantage of his knack for the surface?

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