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Love That Dirt

June 09, 2008
June 09, 2008

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June 9, 2008

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Love That Dirt

After last year's French Open flameout, the U.S. men showed they might know a bit about playing on red clay after all

MIDWAY THROUGH thefirst afternoon of play at this year's French Open, the U.S. men had surpassedtheir collective performance of 2007. Which, granted, wasn't difficult, giventhat the Yanks failed to win a single match last year at Roland Garros. De-featof clay, one might have called it. "We set the bar low enough," jokedJames Blake moments after winning his first match. "It was like playingwith house money this year."

This is an article from the June 9, 2008 issue

But then the hitskept coming. Florida's Mardy Fish won in Paris for the first time in hisnine-year career. Robby Ginepri, a 25-year-old Atlantan, reached the fourthround. California's Sam Querrey, who beat former French Open champ Carlos Moyàon clay in April, gave Roger Federer a workout in round 1. And the mostpleasant surprise may have been the emergence of Wayne Odesnik. A 22-year-oldlefty based in Fort Lauderdale, he entered the draw as a wild card but deployeda grinding, patient, decidedly un-American game to beat Argentina's GuillermoCa√±as, an elite clay-court player, in the first round. Odesnik, who—kiddingly,one assumes—referred to himself as the American Rafael Nadal, won his secondmatch before capitulating to third-seeded Novak Djokovic in straight sets lastFriday.

While all the U.S.men, save Ginepri, were eliminated before the second week of play, there wasevidence that their recent incompetence on clay might be coming to an end. Thisis attributable, in part, to the changing surface. Just as the lawns ofWimbledon aren't as fast and slick as they once were (due to thicker grass anddenser soil), the "slow clay" of Roland Garros has become a bit of amisnomer. Particularly on hot, dry days—thanks, global warming!—the French Opensurface plays almost like dust-coated asphalt.

But this year'sresults also suggest that if the American men aren't necessarily embracingclay, they're no longer mentally unhinged by it either. Ginepri is right whenhe asserts that the surface makes unique demands on a player, but in the endtennis is tennis. "Honestly," he says, succeeding on clay is a matterof "just hitting the right shots at the right time, getting the footworkadjusted a little bit better and then playing my game."

This surge comesnone too soon. As the nerve center of pro tennis continues to move away fromthe U.S., competence on clay has never been more important. Besides the FrenchOpen, three of the nine high-stakes ATP Masters Series tournaments are playedon clay. Plus, so long as the sport's dominant triad—Federer, Nadal andDjokovic—is so proficient on all surfaces, a player who struggles on clay allbut forfeits a chance for a high ranking. (Not for nothing is the U.S. TennisAssociation exposing top juniors to clay courts at an increasingly earlyage.)

This fall theAmerican men will be able to gauge how far they've really come on the surface.In the semifinals of the Davis Cup competition, the defending champion U.S.team will take on Spain in Madrid, playing on a surface likely to resemble asandbox. The visitors will be prohibitive underdogs. But who knows? When thesurface gets gritty, maybe the Americans will too.

ONLY AT SI.COMDaily French Open analysis from Jon Wertheim and Justin Gimelstob.

Move Over, Bro

Dinara Safina is blessed with the same athletic genesas her older brother, Marat Safin. She has also been cursed with hisinexplicable tendency to play sensationally well and then sensationally poorly.But lately Safina (right) has been riding the biggest swell of her eight-yearcareer. In Berlin last month the 22-year-old Russian beat Justine Henin andSerena Williams and won the title. In Paris on Monday she reached thequarterfinals by upsetting top seed Maria Sharapova. Nearly six feet tall,Safina clubs the ball from both sides and has a powerful serve. Asked aboutthis latest twist in her mercurial career, she's philosophical. "I hopeit's a new me," she says, chuckling. "God knows."

PHOTOBOB MARTINNO CLAY PIGEONS Ginepri made the fourth round and Odesnik (inset) the third.PHOTOBOB MARTIN[See caption above]PHOTOBOB MARTIN