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Compelling French Open ends with encouraging American triumph

Wrapping up a French Open that was as compelling as it was historic:

• Finally, a significant boost for the USTA development program. Bjorn Fratangelo's title in the boys' singles has a direct connection to a radical new change in American strategy.

Patrick McEnroe, the driving force behind the grooming of junior players, believes clay courts are the answer as a basic instructional venue. Noting the European-paced trend toward patient, defensive players -- as opposed to all-out attackers -- McEnroe spearheaded the movement to install clay courts behind Arthur Ashe Stadium and at the USTA's main training centers in Boca Raton, Fla., and Carson, Calif. "We still want players to be aggressive," he said, "but if you can't hit a lot of balls from the back of the court, it's pretty unlikely you're going to make it to the top."

As it happens, the 17-year-old Fratangelo grew up playing on clay courts in Pittsburgh -- not the red clay we saw at Roland Garros, but the grey Har-Tru clay that serves as the American model. "There's not much difference between the two," Fratangelo said after his 2-6, 6-3, 8-6 victory over Austria's Dominic Thiem in the boys' singles final. "People make too much of that."

Mats Wilander, pointing to Rafael Nadal as the ultimate showcase, believes the USTA is on the right track. "Clay is where you learn to move," he said. "You can't cheat on clay. On hard courts, you inevitably get lazy. There isn't that big of a difference between Mardy Fish and Novak Djokovic in terms of hitting the ball, but Djokovic moves 10 times better."

One hesitates to predict greatness for Fratangelo -- he had never won a junior match at the Grand Slam level before -- but he certainly fits the USTA's contemporary template. He occasionally trains in Boca Raton with Jay Berger, one of America's most prominent developmental coaches, and after winning at Roland Garros, he thanked the USTA "for everything they did."

Berger, on the scene in Paris, predicted that Fratangelo "will be a great player and will climb into the top 50 really fast. This is an important step in his career."

Fratangelo -- who will skip the grass-court season to play Futures events and try to improve his ATP ranking -- was one of six U.S. boys to qualify for the French Open draw. Marcos Giron, out of Thousand Oaks High in Southern California, was the only other player to get past the second round (he lost in the third).

• Fascinating stuff in the girls singles' draw. Caroline Garcia, whose groundstroke elegance stunned observers and nearly took down Maria Sharapova in the second round, was beaten in the semifinals 6-2, 1-6, 6-2 by Ons Jabeur, who went on to win the tournament. Jabeur is the first junior Grand Slam singles winner from North Africa (Tunisia), and I loved her comment after the final: "I don't like to play like girls, especially Russian girls. I like to be different, so drop shots and volley shots and everything."

As far as American girls in Paris, not much to report. Three of them made the draw, and only Victoria Duval (Delray Beach, Fla.) had any success, reaching the third round.

• One of the best writers in the business, Christopher Clarey of the New York Times, after watching Sharapova commit 10 double-faults in her loss to Li Na: "I've only watched a couple of matches in my life where I was absolutely sure someone would double-fault on match point. This was one."

• As if Caroline Wozniacki didn't hear enough about Li Na being the most accomplished player in the world through the first two majors: It was her father, Piotr, the Danish Fed Cup captain, who suggested that Li hook up with coach Michael Mortensen.

• I once asked a tennis insider how the ranking system works, exactly, and he replied, "Don't ask," suggesting it's far too complicated to even address. I just know this: If Serena Williams doesn't play for nearly a year, she should be ranked about 103rd, not 17th. Strange, too, to see Mardy Fish and Andy Roddick both in the Top 10 (Fish is ninth, and Roddick crept up one spot from No. 11).

• It's entirely legitimate to back Nadal as the greatest player of all time, but don't forget that Roger Federer has a 6-2 edge over Nadal in Wimbledon titles, 5-1 at the U.S. Open and 4-1 at the Australian.

• The one-handed backhand lives. All you kids out there, watch Federer and Francesca Schiavone before you join the masses. You just might discover an artist within. And how about Federer's comment during the first week of the tournament? "I can't believe how good my backhand has become," he said.

• Approaching darkness has become a curiously vital ingredient to men's tennis lore. When Pete Sampras defeated Patrick Rafter in the 2000 Wimbledon final to break Roy Emerson's long-standing record of 12 major titles, he barely finished it off before it became too dark to play. That same dramatic element accompanied the 2008 Nadal-Federer Wimbledon final, widely considered the greatest match ever played. And the French Open semifinal between Federer and Novak Djokovic became a classic, at least by this year's standards, because Federer was able to finish it off at 9:37 p.m.

(And isn't it amazing how television images offer no hint of fading light? It always looks like the middle of the day if you're watching from home, even as players approach the chair to complain they can't see.)

• If you're an East Coaster incensed over the confusing TV setup for the men's semifinals, it could have been worse. You could have been a West Coaster, like myself. Federer had a two-set lead on Djokovic, in real time, when the tape-delayed telecast began at 11 a.m. our time. I don't know if the departing Dick Ebersol still calls the shots at NBC Sports, but this was a very Ebersol-like move, treating the Pacific time zone with pitiful disregard.

And don't even start with the match being shown live on NBCSports.com. Sports are meant to be watched on television, not a computer. ("Honey, don't you dare put that iced tea next to the keyboard!") I did call up the streaming broadcast for a moment, just to check the quality, and it was awful, like watching the video of an NFL game from 1968.

• Did anyone recognize Djokovic against Federer? What happened to the man who looked so confident and unbeatable during his 43-match winning streak? This was an entirely different guy: bewildered, tentative, almost resigned to his fate. Now he has decided to skip Queen's to give his knees and his mind a rest. Probably a good idea. He'll need to come back strong at Wimbledon.

• Encouraging: Watching two all-court players who really know how to move on clay -- Li and Schiavone -- contest the women's final ... Marion Bartoli overcoming years of grief (scorned by the French federation) to make a serious run before wildly supportive crowds ... Gail Monfils moving ever closer to smart, sensible tennis when it really matters ... John Isner throwing a big scare into Nadal, a real boost for the American's confidence ... Juan Martin del Potro taking a set off Djokovic before their third-round match was suspended. If Del Potro continues his improvement and Andy Murray can shake off that ankle injury, the Wimbledon storylines will be off the charts.

• Discouraging: Hearing Nadal's pointed remarks about the physical demands of a tour that runs far too long -- and knowing nothing will be done about it ... Albert Montanes failing to put away the cramping, statue-like Fabio Fognini in the fourth round, especially maddening after Fognini bailed out of his date with Djokovic ... Bernard Tomic and Grigor Dimitrov joing Milos Raonic as first-round flameouts among the "can't-miss" set ... Melanie Oudin, needing a big win so badly, drawing Schiavone right off the bat ... Kim Clijsters looking worn and strangely detached as she lost to Arantxa Rus after leading 6-3, 5-2. John McEnroe and Mary Carillo each suggested that Clijsters is leaning strongly toward full-time motherhood and looking doubtful for the 2012 Olympics.

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