With the start of the French Open only a few weeks away, many of the players on the ATP Tour are grinding away on the red clay courts of Europe, preparing for the second Grand Slam of the season.
Many of them, but not all, because in the United States there are options that are much closer to home for up-and-coming Americans and others looking to improve their place in the standings.
Over the course of three weeks, there’s a series of Challenger tournaments played on Har-Tru, the green clay courts usually in supply throughout the U.S. The first event of the circuit was last week in Sarasota, Fla., where young American Tommy Paul defeated his compatriot Tennys Sandgren to win the second Challenger title of his career. This week, both of the players remained in the Sunshine State for the Tallahassee Challenger, where Sandgren is the second seed and Paul is seeded ninth.
Sandgren experienced a near-perfect start to the year, winning his first carer ATP Tour title in Auckland, New Zealand, but an early loss at the Australian Open cost him in the standings as he didn’t defend his 2018 quarterfinal points. Outside of the top 100 right now, his runner-up finish last week put him back on a positive path.
For Paul, the result last week brought him back into the top 160 as the 21-year-old’s career has been a series of starts and stops with injuries slowing his progress. Only the second American to win the French Open boys’ title in the 2000s (after Bjorn Fratangelo’s 2011 victory), the 2015 champion is at his best on clay and will look to build upon his recent good fortune.
Vying with those two for points and prize money this week and at the next stop in Savannah, Ga., are many of their fellow Americans who’ve yet to crack the top 100, such as Mitchell Krueger, Noah Rubin, JC Aragone and Thai-Son Kwiatkowski.
And aside from the challenges all of the Americans face from each other, they have to contend with a number of players who’ve honed their games on slow and slippery surfaces abroad, such as Paolo Lorenzi, who was the top seed this week in Tallahassee, but lost his first match; and Federico Coria.
If there was a chance to gain equal footing with their peers who’ve built their games primarily on red clay, it would come on Har-Tru, the green clay surface that many American juniors have grown up playing on—especially the top prospects as it’s been cited that it helps with developing point construction, a necessity for the next level.
Aside from going to Europe right away, which can be cost-prohibitive if automatic entry isn’t guaranteed into a main draw, these tournaments provide an opportunity for Americans to get in some clay-court work while playing close to home.
Plus, there’s one prize that’s probably the most important of them all.
Over the course of four weeks, the United States Tennis Association has a Roland Garros Wild Card Challenge, which rewards the American player who picks up the most points over that period at any red- or green-clay tournament. The eventual winner receives a wild card into the French Open, which enables them to bypass the qualifying rounds and go straight into the main draw.
Last year, Rubin was the recipient and at Roland Garros, he fell to top-ranked American John Isner. Still, it was a notable achievement in the former junior standout’s career, one that he and many of his countrymen will try to replicate as they battle it out on the green clay courts throughout the southern U.S.