|ESPN.com: French Open 2014||[Print without images]|
PARIS -- Another shanked forehand sailed long and Donald Young, bad body language settling in, admonished himself again.
"Too far back," he said to himself and the 3,000-plus spectators surrounding Court No. 1. "Come on, D."
Clay, clearly, is an acquired taste. Young, a 24-year-old who was born in Chicago, does not particularly like it. Green clay, he said a few days ago, he actually avoids. Red clay, the only choice here at Roland Garros, isn't a terribly comfortable fit, either.
|Donald Young does not like clay, but he showed he can play on it.|
The state of American tennis has been maligned far and wide, but every year around this time it comes under greater scrutiny. The lack of truly elite players -- No. 1 Serena Williams is the only one currently ranked among the top 10 -- is exacerbated by that clinging red clay.
But this spring, as the French Open heads into its second week, we can report that all is not lost for the United States. Sure, Williams was a second-round casualty, and sister Venus departed on the same rainy day. Given their recent history -- Serena lost here in the first round two years ago -- it wasn't a complete surprise.
The fact that two American singles players (not to mention a pair of California twins) are still in residence here at Roland Garros is mildly astonishing, given the steady stream of discouraging results. John Isner, who is ranked No. 11 among ATP World Tour players, catapulted himself into the fourth round Friday on the strength of his searing slingshot serve.
On Saturday, three younger players attempted to do the same.
Sloane Stephens, a 21-year-old from Coral Springs, Florida, famously announced herself at last year's Australian Open by beating Serena Williams in the fourth round. And though Stephens' out-of-Slam performance has been spotty, she has been sharp in the majors, reaching the second week six consecutive times now, after ushering Ekaterina Makarova out of the tournament 6-3, 6-4.
No other American, even Serena, has been able to achieve that kind of sustained excellence recently at these big events.
Young, who lost a monumental struggle with Guillermo Garcia-Lopez 6-2, 6-4, 2-6, 6-7 (4), 6-4, and Jack Sock both ran into players far more comfortable on the dirt. Garcia-Lopez is a Spaniard who grew up on the stuff, and his confident movement around the court was in striking contrast to Young's tentative, sometimes disconnected play.
Sock, who grew up on a heavy dose of fellow Nebraskan Andy Roddick, has also had some early success at the majors. Twice, he sliced his way into the third round of the US Open, and that's where his Parisian journey ended Saturday, too.
The 21-year-old lost relatively swiftly to Serbia's Dusan Lajovic 6-4, 7-5, 6-3. In theory, it should have been a closer match; Sock is ranked No. 75 and Lajovic is at No. 83. They are both relative newcomers to the ATP World Tour. But, in the end, Sock just didn't have the stamina or the power to hang with Lajovic.
"I just think my strengths weren't really clicking today," said a terse Sock afterward. "Didn't serve the best, and forehand wasn't doing as much as I wanted to, which was allowing him to use his strength, which is his backhand and kind of move around the court and kind of dictate a lot of points. I felt I was doing a lot of the running when it's usually the other way around. That was probably the most frustrating part."
In the critical second set, Sock was all over Lajovic's serve but could never convert a break. Even when he made a spectacular, retreating, through-the-legs shot that drew a roar from the cozy Court 7 crowd and scored him another break point, Sock couldn't get over the top. In the 10th game, Lajovic surprised Sock with his only serve-and-volley of the match and stroked a half-volley drop shot that saved another break point.
Serving at 5-all in the second, Sock was broken and slammed his racket to the clay -- and it rebounded and nearly hit him in the face. He actually forged more break points than the 23-year-old Lajovic, but only broke him once. The Serb was 5-for-8 and had 15 fewer unforced errors. Late in the match, Sock required a visit from the ATP trainer, who massaged his right biceps to relieve the pain from tendinitis.
Sock's press room demeanor was curt. How mad are you at yourself he was asked?
"Not mad," he answered. "Just a little disappointed after playing pretty well in the second round and pretty high confidence, but he came out and played some great tennis today and deserved to win."
So did Garcia-Lopez.
In the 3-hour, 47-minute match, he won 165 points to Young's 159.
Young's ongoing relationship with the USTA remains, well, complicated.
For years, USTA general manager of player development Patrick McEnroe -- on and off the record -- has criticized Young's work ethic and, indirectly, his parents, Illona and Donald Sr., who coach him. Friday, McEnroe was exhorting Young from the media seating area (he is also an ESPN analyst) and three of the USTA brass -- Craig Boynton, Jose Higueras and Rodney Marshall -- were sitting near his mother, who continues to be his primary coach.
"We help him," McEnroe said. "I'll tell you, he's working hard. And when you work hard, you feel better about yourself. Good things happen when you put in the work."
Young, who has his ranking up to No. 79, did well here. He won the first two red-clay matches of his life and gave himself some momentum into the grass-court season.