Americans Nowhere to be Found on European Clay

By Yeshayahu Ginsburg

It sometimes feels like there is a long-standing tradition of Americans skipping the European clay court season. Oh, everyone will play Roland Garros because even a first-round loss at a Slam is too much money to pass up and the Slams are prestigious enough to merit playing on an uncomfortable surface. But no American since Agassi really seems to expect to win more than a few matches in Paris. The evidence is in the fact that no American ever really seems to take the clay preludes to Roland Garros seriously.

John Isner looks like he wants to buck the trend. Even though it ended disastrously for him, he took a late wild card to play Monte Carlo and really looked like he wanted to get more match play in on the dirt. Of all the Americans, he has the best chance to do well on clay and appears to have finally decided to try and pick up his results in Europe—which have not been good in his career, to say the least. Isner will also play Nice the week before Roland Garros. And while it is often debated whether or not playing the week before a Slam is a good idea, it clearly shows that Isner is in the right frame of mind here.

Sam Querrey seems to have gone the standard American route and will only play Madrid and Rome before the French Open. And, while we should not conjecture anything bad here, Americans since Andy Roddick have often found ways to avoid playing one or two of those Masters events each year.

After those two, it’s not only in Europe where Americans can’t be found. It’s really anywhere. Mardy Fish is still in the top 50 on the back of a good summer last year, but he has only played 1 tournament in the last 6 months and a heart condition isn’t always something that you can heal or fix. He is playing in the Savannah Challenger this week, but you have to begin to wonder how much longer he can physically play tennis.

Brian Baker, last year’s amazing comeback story, is still out with a torn meniscus suffered at the Australian Open. Ryan Harrison and Donald Young, both of whom have been in the top 50 within the past year, have dropped considerably. James Blake and Mike Russell are consistently in the tail end of the top 100, which seems to have been their constant place in the last 5 years.

The most spirited American tennis during the clay season always seems to come on the Challenger tour. This is because the USTA gives their wild card for the French Open to the player who earns the most total points in the Sarasota, Savannah, and Tallahassee Challengers. These players mostly know that their chances of getting through qualifiers and actually playing in a Slam, especially on clay, aren’t so high. Thus, we often see these 100+ ranked players giving everything they can and more in these tournaments.

Of the Americans outside the top 100, Rhyne Williams is rising. He began really improve last season and this looks to be his breakout year. He gained over 300 rankings spots in 2012, from 510 up to 191 and is currently ranked #119 in the world. Jack Sock and Steve Johnson, two talented youngsters, are still looking for their first breakthroughs on the professional tour. And Alex Kuznetsov, a once-hyped player who hasn’t been able to do that much with his career won the Sarasota Challenger and has the inside track for that wild card and his first-ever French Open Main Draw.