Why US men can't win on France's clay tennis courts
PARIS — Talk about biting the dust. America's tennis heroes have tanked again on the brick-red courts at the Roland Garros stadium, home to the French Open and so often a graveyard for US hopes.
The tournament's clay courts have favored European and Latin American players, who are more accustomed to the slower surface, higher bounces, and longer rallies that are the trademarks of the clay they play on here and in their home countries.
By contrast, US players are not used to clay, which is reserved "for elder players because it is easier on their knees," says Adam Steinberg, who coached the Pepperdine team to this year's college championship. US pros "haven't grown up on the red clay, and their game style doesn't fit," he explains.
The faster, more aggressive approach that American players favor works less well on a slow court, Steinberg adds. "It's more difficult to put the ball away," so "staying behind the baseline and running down every ball" wins more points.
Certainly the clay surface does not suit players who count on cannon-like serves to win quick points, as men like Andy Roddick do on the grass courts of Wimbledon. There, over the past 10 years, men have hit an average of 2,500 aces each year, calculates Rod Cross, a Physics professor at Sydney University in Australia who has made a specialty of tennis science. In Paris, they hit only 1,450 aces on average.
Since it is harder to hit a winner on the slower clay, players generally win points by waiting for their opponents to make an error. So the statistics confirm: at Wimbledon, the 128 men who start the tournament make about 4,700 unforced errors. In Paris, they make 16,500 mistakes.
But even without any compatriots left in the competition, US tennis fans may still get to watch one of the greatest rivalries in mens' sports today.
If all goes according to plan, Sunday's final will pit the best men's player in the world - some say the best ever - Roger Federer, against Rafael Nadal, who is on a record-beating roll of 57 straight victories on clay.
Clay might be the young Spaniard's favorite surface, but it has been the downfall of US players for years. Even at the height of his powers, Pete Sampras could not add Roland Garros to his roster of 14 major tournament victories. Nor did Jimmy Connors or John McEnroe ever win the French Open. Only three US men have won the tournament in the past 50 years. (US women have a better record; Chris Evert won the event seven times. Serena Williams was the most recent American woman to win, in 2002.)
In Paris, as elsewhere in Europe and in Latin America, the courts are made from packed crushed brick, covered with a loose topping of rough brick dust. That makes for some unusual science when it comes to ball behavior.
On hard courts, and even more on grass, the ball skids fast off the ground, making players hit it somewhere between the waist and the knees. On clay, the ball "slides along the court and pushes up the clay like a bulldozer" says Professor Cross.
That means that the ball "has to jump up over the ridge it has made," he adds, which makes it bounce higher, losing almost half the speed it had when it hit the ground.
The effect is magnified because players tend to brush higher bouncing balls, putting topspin on them which makes them travel more slowly and dip more dramatically. The more sharply a ball falls, the more steeply it will climb when it bounces.
The slower pace of the ball gives players more time to prepare their shots, which makes for longer rallies and, many spectators feel, more compelling tennis.
"It's more exciting," says Jo Thomas-Kemp, a coach with the British Lawn Tennis Association. "The players have to construct each point with a series of shots. You see more balls being hit."
At the same time, Ms. Thomas-Kemp adds, the long rallies demand "a lot of tactical stuff, using the court, moving your opponent around. Patterns of play have to be very good on clay."
There are those who say that the peculiarities of Roland Garros's surface mean the tournament is not a true measure of tennis greatness. Of the 13 winners since 1989, they point out, only three ever won another major.
Others, however, see clay as the "great equalizer," as Mr. Steinberg puts it. "Mentally and physically, Paris is the toughest tournament to win," he says.
Top-ranked Roger Federer of Switzerland and second-ranked Rafael Nadal are currently on course to meet in Sunday's final.
The two men are a study in contrasting styles: the austere, reserved Federer makes magical shots of astonishing precision that leave opponents slack-jawed.
Touted as the most complete player in tennis history, he has his eyes on the Grand Slam - victories at the Australian, French, British, and American Opens in the same year. If he wins Sunday, he will be halfway to a legendary feat last accomplished in 1969 by Rod Laver.
Nadal is savage and tireless, sporting shirts that show off his awesome biceps as he races from one ball to the next, never giving up. The current King of Clay, he seems to have ruffled Federer's normally majestic calm: Nadal has won five of their six encounters so far.
If they make it through the semifinals, says Thomas-Kemp, their face-off on Sunday "should be a really great spectacle."
• At Wimbledon, the average first serve for men is 185 k.p.h. [115 m.p.h.]. At the French Open, it is 160 k.p.h. [100 m.p.h.].
• At Wimbledon, the 128 starting men hit about 4,700 unforced errors every year. At the French Open, those same players hit about 16,500 unforced errors every year.
• At Wimbledon, the men hit 2,500 aces every year. At the French Open, they hit only 1,450 aces.