April 7, 2010

Winds of Change

SpringSummer is in the air in New York as temperatures went from the mid-fifties to nearly ninety in the blink of an eye. There's been a similarly abrupt shift on the tennis courts as the world's top players moved from hard courts to the (sometimes) elusive clay in a matter of days -- and a couple will face their first big tests on the surface ahead of the year's next Grand Slam.

I admit that I was a little terrified when I first played on a clay court. If Pete Sampras, the greatest player of all-time, in my opinion, couldn't win on the surface, how could I? And in fact, most American men struggle on the red dust. Andre Agassi and Jim Courier were able to take a couple of French Open titles between them, but before that you have to go all the way back to 1955 and Tony Trabert to find the last U.S. champion at Roland Garros. Even Andy Roddick, who's been a staple in the top-ten for almost a decade, has only made it as far as the fourth round -- once.

This week the next generation of American men are in action in Houston, seeking to prove that they might be able to succeed on the surface. So far they haven't had the best luck. Jesse Levine and Donald Young both lost their first round matches while Taylor Dent and Rajeev Ram each retired from their openers.

It's not all bad news, though -- twenty-two year old Ryan Sweeting made it through qualifying rounds and defeated fifth seed Evgeny Korolev before falling in a three-and-a-half hour battle to Nicolas Massu in his second main draw match. And two Americans hold big seeds -- John Isner and Sam Querrey, likely the best hopes our country has to bring home a few Major titles this decade.

Querrey, the #3 seed in Houston, will be tested first as he faces Blaz Kavcic, a man who just misses having a double-digit ranking. Sam was able to pull off a nice win over Viktor Troicki in the first round of Davis Cup -- his only win on clay this year. Overall, he has a lackluster 7-17 record on the surface. He shouldn't have a hard time making the quarters, but when he meets Massu there, well, that could be a different story.

Americans' best chance is probably with second seeded Isner, who'll open tomorrow against Xavier Malisse -- but that's also far from a sure thing. The #2 U.S. player has even less experience on clay, a 3-7 career history, and his biggest weapon -- a rocket-fast serve -- is largely neutralized on the slower surface. The Belgian is certainly more experienced, having been on the pro Tour for twelve years or so, but he is having trouble putting together big wins of late. A win for Isner would give him an easier road to the semis and could put the U.S. at large on the map during the clay court season.

We're a long way from being a real threat in Paris, but we're certainly making our way there. If either of these guys can pull off a few wins or -- dare I say it? -- a title in Houston, it could be the start of a new era in American men's tennis.

After all, if I can learn to play on clay, anyone can.

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