Commentary

French Open exposes U.S.' weakness

There's nothing to suggest the American men will have any success in Paris

Updated: May 23, 2014, 11:08 AM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

Maybe it's over and all the shouting is as unnecessary as the headshaking, a reflexive longing for yesterday instead of the existence of a new crisis. Last year, on the Wimbledon grass, the American men failed to reach the third round for the first time since the Titanic sunk (that would be 1912), and as Roland Garros 2014 approaches this weekend, it has now been 15 years -- yes, 15 -- since Andre Agassi became the last American to win the clay major, back in 1999.

Maybe it's over and there's nothing to talk about because it has all been so talked out before, but it is nevertheless important to be precise with the pronouns, to be precise about what "it" is, exactly. "It" might be the end of the American tennis dynasty, a conversation so saturated in the age of the big three as Pete Sampras, Agassi and Jim Courier recede so far into the rearview that it has lost its power to shock. With apologies to Jimmy Connors, who didn't play the French between 1974-1978, Courier remains the only American in the Open era to win the French Open twice, which he did consecutively in 1991 and 1992. The American empire, drained of talent, has long turned to dust.

[+] EnlargeJIM COURIER
Chris Cole/Getty ImagesJim Courier's clay-savvy game was clearly an aberration among American men.
Maybe "it" is thinking about a championship being a bizarre exercise in national arrogance, because the truth of the present -- Americans have not even been a factor at Roland Garros since Agassi started building charter schools -- is far more desperate. Forget the hardware. Forget losing a final. No American has even reached the fourth round since Robby Ginepri in 2010 and the quarters since Agassi in 2003.

The sky has been falling for a long time, but the American delegation in France isn't expecting world No. 79 Jack Sock or 90th-ranked Donald Young to challenge Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer next week or live up to being John McEnroe. Perhaps "it" is all of these things, but something more important is forcing the turn away from yesterday, from the legends, the statistics and errata, and toward more consideration about today and tomorrow in more practical terms.

During the drought, the American talent level has been the focus. John Isner returned to the top 10 during Indian Wells, but the American slide in the rankings is quite pronounced. Sam Querrey, who three years ago reached a career-best 17th, is 9-10 this year and ranked 64th, just ahead of Steve Johnson at 67th and Bradley Klahn at 73. Querrey said 2014 was to be his resurgence, but little has gone well, highlighted in San Diego by losing both singles Davis Cup matches at home, on clay, to James Ward and Andy Murray. Ryan Harrison, once a top 50 player two years ago and Davis Cup member, is out of the top 100, at 129. He is 4-8 this year.

Americans do not win on clay because, both in point construction and mentally, they are not built to win on clay. It isn't just a raw talent deficiency because the country's best athletes are playing in the NBA's Eastern Conference finals. The game, because of the technology, is now built on the boa constrictor style of 15-shot rallies, relentless side-to-side movement and mental and physical conditioning. American players, born on hard courts and with big weapons, are the equivalent of roadsters in a game increasing played by Jeeps. They are sprinters entering a marathon.

"That's why we're building so much clay at our new facilities," Patrick McEnroe told me before boarding a flight to Paris. "Basically it comes down to where the kid is from. Most parts of the country don't have a lot of clay. The northeast is a cold, indoor environment. Chicago, Detroit, hard court. Florida has a lot of clay courts, but even the clay we do have, which is green, is not quite the same as the red stuff, which is why we're building more clay courts. There are virtually no clay courts in California."

The new USTA headquarters in Orlando has 40 clay courts, eight of which are red clay. "Some are green clay, but if you water it down, it plays like red," he said. "You have to have patience and what I call 'shot tolerance,' which is the ability to absorb more shots."

I would always refer to the current generation of American players -- giants such as John Isner and Sam Querrey as well as the Harrisons and the hat-backward Socks -- as "the little Roddicks" because of their approach to the game. All have massive serves and forehands in a tennis universe that today is predicated on repetition and punishment, tree choppers such as David Ferrer and Andy Murray.

Roddick, history is revealing more and more each year, was a special player both in temperament and skill, and it is often folly to try to reproduce their gifts. He could get away with it because he was a big-weapon player with a grinder's mentality. Isner and Querrey bludgeon their opponents with aces and forehand winners then sink into quicksand when asked to play a rally over six shots.

"Clay forces you to play a longer, more thoughtful brand of tennis. Where most of our kids play the hard-court indoors [style], which are lightning fast," McEnroe said. "One hard shot down the middle on those hard courts and the point is over. The whole game today is working the point."

Like constructing a point on clay, McEnroe is right about having patience as American players develop. A radical re-engineering of American tennis to adapt to the game's changes is the massive undertaking that is reflected in the results. Roland Garros is the surface that exposes how deeply American players have not adjusted to the way the world now plays the game.

[+] EnlargeJohn Isner
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesIt's a stretch to think John Isner or any other American man will win more than two matches in Paris.
The "it" is also the larger conversation that, because of globalization, the sun has finally set on the American tennis empire, just as it did on the British and the Australian, just as it did on the French-Canadian domination of hockey. The NBA is 77 percent African-American, but the white American player has virtually disappeared at the NBA level. The American domination over the world game diminished years ago, even though the Dream Teams have often restored order. Perhaps the world finally caught up to the Evert-King-Connors-Ashe-McEnroe-Sampras-Williams dynasty and American expectations simply must be recalibrated.

"I disagree with that," McEnroe said. "I think we have young guys who can have good results. It's a mentality. Work the point. Michael Chang and Agassi both grew up on the hard. Andre didn't even slide. Both became champions. The reasons clay has become such a big issue for becoming a top player is because every surface is now started at the back of the court. You don't serve and volley. That could happen if they sped up the surfaces, and I really don't see that happening.

"We're trying to have our kids play more on clay to make them better players, not better clay-court players. You can't play bang-bang tennis anymore and be at the top of the game."

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