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Inside Tennis

June 10, 2002
June 10, 2002

Table of Contents
June 10, 2002

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Inside Tennis

Clay Pigeons
With one exception, U.S. men just can't play on the French Open's
slow surface

This is an article from the June 10, 2002 issue Original Layout

They came. They saw. They left. This year 12 American men made
the main draw of the French Open. After two rounds only a pair
remained. One of them was Vince Spadea, a woebegone former Top 20
player who summoned his best tennis in years before losing in the
third round to France's Sebastien Grosjean. The other was Andre
Agassi, who at 32 played as well as ever until the fourth round,
where he needed five sets to beat a French qualifier. The
remaining Americans took part in the annual rite of negotiating
with airlines for an earlier flight home. "We came here pretty
optimistic," says James Blake, who lost in the second round to
Grosjean, "but it seems like the same thing every year."

That's not exactly true. Only a decade ago Jim Courier defended
the French Open title he'd won a year earlier by beating Agassi
in an all-American final, and three years ago Agassi won in
Paris. But Blake is basically right: To most American men, the
red clay of Roland Garros might as well be quicksand.

Pete Sampras, unlike Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, has
never had Paris. The French Open is the lone major title that has
eluded him, and it's been five years since he has survived more
than a solitary round there. Despite weeks of preparation for
this year's tournament with his new coach, Jose Higueras, Sampras
looked utterly out of it in his first-round loss to Italian
journeyman Andrea Gaudenzi. "Pete may be 30," says Higueras, "but
he's still learning how to play on clay."

So is Andy Roddick, the 19-year-old tagged as the next great
American player. He too lost in the first round, to Australia's
Wayne Arthurs, hardly a clay-court specialist. Roddick attacked
when he should have stayed on the baseline, and he lingered in
the backcourt when he should have charged the net.

The long-standing explanation for this futility on the terre
battue is that clay-court tennis is as foreign to Americans as
paillard. Natural clay accounts for only 4% of all courts in the
U.S., and most American junior players have little experience on
surfaces other than hard courts. Technology bears some blame,
too. In 1989, before more powerful rackets changed the sport,
Michael Chang, then 17, won the French Open even though he hadn't
set foot on a clay court until the previous year; his consistent,
topspin-heavy backcourt game and his exceptional foot speed were
well-tailored to the surface. Courier played much the same way,
as does Agassi. But most young American players today use those
more powerful rackets to play riskier, "bigger" tennis that
translates poorly to slow surfaces. "Juniors who are used to
hitting a few balls and then relying on a weapon suddenly have to
construct a point," says former U.S. Tennis Association coach
Dean Goldfine, who works with Todd Martin and Xavier Malisse.

Agassi believes that playing well on clay is a matter of
preparation and adapting one's game. "We all grew up on hard
courts, without the subtleties of [clay]. We sprint to the
forehand, knowing that if we hit it flat up the line, we don't
have to recover. On clay that ball's not going to end the point,
so now you're stopping and sliding to get back in position."

As American men struggle on clay, proficiency on that surface has
never been more important. In addition to the French Open, three
of the nine ATP Masters Series events--the high-stakes tournaments
that count automatically toward players' rankings--are held on
clay. What's more, the host nation of a Davis Cup tie chooses the
playing surface. It's hardly surprising that France has elected
to play September's semifinal tie against the U.S. at Roland
Garros. Given that Agassi is unlikely to play, a French victory
is a virtual fait accompli.

Higueras, a former clay-court specialist and now a consultant to
the USTA, has recommended that the organization build more clay
courts and sponsor trips to Europe for talented young American
players. "When you don't have experience," Higueras says, "you
get on clay and end up playing against the surface as well as
against your opponent."

Cutbacks in Men's Doubles
Nothing Personal. It's Just Business

Last week two top-ranked players were banished to the hinterlands
of Court 8 for their first-round match at the French Open. A
major scheduling snafu? Hardly. As doubles players, Jared Palmer
and Don Johnson of the U.S. are accustomed to such slights. Many
other players consider them lucky to have jobs.

In the wake of the ATP's disastrous deal with ISL--the Swiss media
and marketing company that promised $1.2 billion to men's tennis
and promptly went bust--tournaments are desperate to slash costs.
Doubles players, who account for more than 20% of player expenses
but sell few tickets and are of no value in television-rights
negotiations, look like low-hanging fruit. According to one
promoter, the nine Masters Series events plan to ask ATP approval
for cutting doubles draws and prize money by as much as 50% next
year. "It's just a question of looking at costs and revenues,"
says Jon Friend, a spokesman for the promoters.

Doubles has long been problematic for the tour. Fewer and fewer
stars play doubles, giving rise to a subculture of obscure
specialists who make a handsome living while making little
attempt to be serious singles players. (Sandon Stolle, for
instance, has never won an ATP singles title but has earned
nearly $4 million.) Last year the ATP replaced third sets with
"match tiebreakers" (first team to 10 points wins) in most
tournaments to shorten doubles matches and lure singles stars,
and it began admitting players to doubles draws based in part on
their singles rankings. At the Nasdaq-100 event in Key Biscayne,
Fla., in March, half of the doubles players also competed in
singles.

Promoters and ATP CEO Mark Miles say they're not trying to
euthanize doubles. Others wonder. "If you keep cutting the money
and the draws," says Todd Woodbridge, president of the ATP
players' council and perhaps the greatest doubles player of all
time, "who's going to play?"

Mary Pierce and French Fans
Falling in Love Again

It was as if Mephistopheles had made a deal with her: You'll win
the French Open, but in return you'll lose the next two years of
your career. After winning in Paris in 2000, Mary Pierce fell
into professional purgatory. She hasn't won another title since,
and she has been beset by a bum right shoulder, back trouble and
an abdominal strain. By April 1 her ranking--once as high as No.
3--had free-fallen to No. 292. Mercifully Pierce was given a wild
card to this year's French Open.

She made the most of it, winning her first four matches in
straight sets--including a 6-1, 6-2 pasting of ninth-seed Sylvia
Farina Elia--to become the lowest-ranked player ever to reach the
quarterfinals. "It's been incredible," says Pierce, who just last
month lost 6-0, 6-0 to Jennifer Capriati. "Obviously, being
healthy makes a big difference."

Full health isn't the only change for Pierce. She's sporting a
tres chic layered hairstyle and working with a new coach, Bobby
Banck. She's also no longer with her onetime fiance, New York
Mets second baseman Roberto Alomar. Even her relationship with
French fans is different. A French citizen by virtue of her
mother's provenance, the Canadian-born Pierce has always had a
love-hate relationship with Parisian tennis fans. She's been
honored like a conquering heroine when she's won matches and
booed off the court when she's lost. But at age 27, she's in good
stead with her fickle compatriots. She won over the crowds for
good when she took her title in 2000. She missed last year's
French Open with injuries, so this is her triumphant return.
"Things have changed in my rapport with the public," she says.
"As soon as I stepped on the courts here, I felt something
special."

COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN Blake arrived in Paris with high hopes but was laid low by Grosjean and the terre battue.COLOR PHOTO: PHIL COLE/GETTY IMAGES Pierce, who needed a wild card to make the draw, powered her way into the quarterfinals.