Friday, December 9, 2011
Why the Orange Bowl switched to clay
By Sandra Harwitt
Special to ESPN.com
PLANTATION, Fla. -- For its 65th anniversary party this year, the prestigious Orange Bowl junior tournament returned to its original roots: clay courts.
For the first 51 years of the Orange Bowl, the players toiled in the dirt. But getting dirty on clay courts came across as almost un-American to the Yanks who prefer the art of speedy hard-court tennis.
So 13 years ago, the tournament left the Har-Tru courts at Miami's Flamingo Park for the cement of the Tennis Center at Crandon Park, the site of the Sony Ericsson Open on Key Biscayne.
After much soul-searching, the United States Tennis Association reconsidered the choice to abandon clay. This week, the Orange Bowl is being held on the Har-Tru courts at the Frank Veltri Tennis Center in Plantation, Fla.
Why the change of heart?
It became evident that the American kids have become one-dimensional players. They were accustomed to quicker points, potent serves and blasting opponents off the court with power shots -- all essential skills of the game but not the only skills needed.
In comparison to the kids coming out of countries where clay rules, the Americans were being left behind in the dust. Clay-court players learn more about constructing points, the need for patience and waiting for an opportunity, and the concept that sometimes winning -- or losing -- takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears.
Clay is also kinder and gentler on the body than the constant pounding on hard courts.
"I'm happy with it," said Patrick McEnroe, general manager of player development for the USTA, who authorized the surface switch. "This is part of a long-term plan. We sort of knew that initially we would not have good results, but that's not what it's about. It's about development."
Former world No. 3 Brian Gottfried was an American serve-and-volleyer, but that didn't mean he didn't know how to slip and slide on clay.
Back in Gottfried's day, Har-Tru was prevalent in the United States, and the entire pro summer circuit was held on the surface. In 1977, a year Gottfried won five titles and reached 10 other finals, one of those finals was at the French Open.
These days, Gottfried, one of the great thinkers in the game, coaches Josie Kuhlman, who reached back-to-back quarterfinals in the 16s draw at the Eddie Herr International and Orange Bowl this month.
"More important than having a tournament on clay is practicing on clay," Gottfried said. "That's what is going to enable players to develop that chess-game instinct for tennis. The game needs to be more than a big serve and big forehand. Josie and I, when we practice, 90 percent of the time it's on clay."
Well-known Chilean coach Pato Rodriguez, who ushered Jose Luis Clerc of Argentina to No. 4 in the rankings and two French Open semifinals, applauds McEnroe's decision to move the Orange Bowl back to clay.
"The kids, having to play on the clay, they're going to suffer more on the court," said Rodriguez, who had a number of students from his Chilean academy competing at the Orange Bowl. "You have to suffer more, play longer points and not expect to hit a winner right away, all the time."
The American Orange Bowl roll call: 15 boys and 24 girls in the 18s draws, and 26 boys and 39 girls in the 16s draws.
Two American boys -- 13th-seeded Alexios Halebian and wild-card recipient Noah Rubin -- lost in the boys' 18s round of 16, and no American boy made it into the 16s quarterfinals. Americans Sachia Vickery and Samantha Crawford made the girls 18s quarterfinals, and Rasheeda McAdoo, the daughter of former NBA star and Heat assistant coach Bob McAdoo, and Kimberly Yee reached the girls' 16s semifinals.
Although most of the American players said they understood the reasoning behind switching the event to clay, it didn't prevent Halebian from expressing some disappointment.
"I obviously liked Crandon [Park] more," he said. "I know they want Americans to be more successful on the clay, so I definitely understand it. I just don't think in such short notice. If they wanted to make the decision, they should've waited another year so it would be organized [better in the junior schedule], but I'm not going to say it's a bad decision."
McEnroe knows not everyone embraces the clay. He heard grumblings that a U.S.-based event should be played on a surface that benefits the Americans.
To his credit, McEnroe doesn't really care about the chorus cries.
"I don't know if they get it, and to be honest, I'm not really worried if they get it or not," McEnroe said. "I don't really care what the kids or the parents think. It's our job as coaches, as educators, as leaders to teach them the right way to play. When people say that the Americans aren't tough enough, that's not their fault; that's our fault."
Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.