- Kamakshi Tandon
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ROME -- There has been speculation that the recently retired Ivan Ljubicic will get involved in running tennis once again now that he's no longer playing. The well-liked, thoughtful Croat was the president of the ATP Player Council, preceding Roger Federer, and was even on the tour's board of directors for a little while.
If he needed any reminding about what a minefield the issues can be, he got it this weekend after posting a tweet about American absences during this part of the season, with neither Andy Roddick nor Mardy Fish participating in the recent clay Masters events in Madrid and Rome.
"Wonder how our tour would look if European players were skipping American tourneys the way Americans are skipping European Tournaments," Ljubicic wrote.
The backlash was swift. "I was the first one to bring it to light; I just want to say," a grinning John Isner noted during an interview with ESPN.com at the International BNL d'Italia in Rome this week. "I saw it first; I wrote something back first."
"Pretty sure Mardy Fish is sick," Isner replied.
Fish has not played since the Sony Open in Miami after being diagnosed with an undisclosed illness, which he told the Associated Press he was not "comfortable talking about" but was a "scare." His reply to Ljubicic appears in retweets but not on his account, suggesting he may have thought better of it afterward. "Some of us aren't skipping tournaments bc we want to do ur homework before u make dumb generalized comments," was Fish's apparent response.
Roddick wasn't happy either: "I know for a fact that @mardyfish is going through some serious physical issues right now. Irresponsible tweet by @ivanljubicic1. also I definitely always respect the choices of ATP tour veterans because I know all of us do what's in the best interest of our health and our careers. I expect the same in return "
One of the Americans who was grinding it out in Europe also wanted his voice heard: "Isner, Young, Querrey, Raonic, Pospisil, Harrison. All here in Rome. Let's do a little research before making comments," wrote Ryan Harrison, including Canadians Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil in the count.
Those who didn't see the controversy online soon heard about it. Sam Querrey, who left Twitter a while ago, heard about it from doubles partner Isner. "It's a little unfair for Ljubicic to say he's comparing all of Europe to America. It's a little bit like saying there's no Croatians playing in America, or no Spanish playing in America," said Querrey, who was interviewed alongside Isner after their first-round doubles match.
Donald Young, also no longer on Twitter, weighed in, too: "I guess a lot of them are here, actually, besides two, and one is injured," he told ESPN.com. "But I don't want to get into any Twitter incidents at all right now, so I'm going stay out of it," he added with a laugh, referring to his expletive-laced tweet last year when he complained about not getting a wild card into the French Open.
The only other U.S. player in the top 100, James Blake, has played sparingly after knee surgery last year (though he did win the Houston doubles with Querrey) and would not have been ranked high enough to play in a Masters event.
The minor storm didn't last long. Ljubicic posted some of the critical tweets he received and also wrote, "My tweet regarding american &european players was to open the discussion rather than offend somebody. But I see some people got offended. And I am sorry for that. Wasn't the plan. And I definitely wish @MardyFish fast recovery!!!"
"I think it was a little bit ill-advised," Isner said of Ljubicic's original comment. "I don't think he thought before he tweeted that. But he apologized."
"And you know, he obviously didn't know that Mardy was sick," Querrey said. "But he apologized, and it's fine now."
The reaction to Ljubicic's comments have been strong. The Americans who were playing this week feel they have, in fact, made a serious commitment to this part of the season. "John and I feel like we've played a pretty heavy clay-court season the last three or four years. We played Houston; we've played Belgrade in the past, the Masters Series, the [French Open], Dusseldorf," Querrey said.
This year, with his fallen ranking after elbow surgery last year, Querrey played Houston, the only ATP stop on red clay in the United States and then won the Sarasota challenger on green clay before heading over to play qualifying in Rome. Next week, he might try to play Nice, a week before the French Open begins.
Isner began his clay season by beating Federer in Davis Cup on indoor clay, played Houston right after and then, understandably, pulled out of the Monte Carlo Masters the following week. He headed back to Europe for the Mutua Madrid Open last week, Rome this week and plans to play Nice next week.
Young played on clay in Casablanca, Calif.; Monte Carlo; Madrid; Rome; and is also entered in Nice. Harrison played the Davis Cup tie against Switzerland, Houston, Belgrade, Madrid, Rome and indicates he's going to fill in during the World Team Cup in Dusseldorf next week.
This younger group is still getting used to the cultural differences on this side of the Atlantic, but they are trying to adapt, much like trying to learn how to slide on the clay.
"I enjoy it a little more every year," Querrey said. "I feel like it gets easier every year we come over."
"Yeah, it does," Isner said. "It's an adjustment. And I think a lot of that has to do with your schedule, if you make a good schedule. You don't want to be over here too long. Give yourself breaks. I enjoy it for sure.
"The places we get to go to play tennis is pretty neat."
"Europe is different, definitely. Being an American, it's a lot different," Young said. "But if I'm going to play the sport I have to learn how to be over here. And I'm starting to like it, it's starting to be actually quite cool, and enjoyable for sure.
The 22-year-old says he's been trying to play as many clay tournaments as he can. "It's actually the first year I'm able to make the main draw of all these tournaments, so wanted to see what it's about," he explained. "It's definitely a part of the year you have to learn to enjoy, because it's quite long."
For the first time, Young has also been traveling without supervision from either his parents or a coach or the last few weeks -- just a younger hitting partner in tow. His parents, who are also his coaches, will return for the French Open. "It's different for sure. Freedom is good in some ways and not in others," he said, sounding rather mature. "Just to have someone to bounce tennis ideas off and get coaching from is definitely not something to take for granted."
The places may get more familiar but the language barrier looks likely to remain, however. Isner reports he can "sort of get by in Spanish." In French, not so much.
"How many words? I bet I know four," Querrey said.
"I might know five," Isner said. He laughed. "I can't even think of one right now."
After a pause, "Merci beaucoup."
How about Italian?
"Ciao," summed up Querrey.
Looks like they'll have to let their rackets do the talking. And that's where this campaign has fallen short in the past few weeks, with none of them, not even top-ranked American Isner, getting past the second round of a European clay event. It's a contrast with the odd moments of isolated success in the past, such as Isner and Querrey playing each other in the final of Belgrade in 2010 or Isner defeating Federer in Davis Cup earlier this year.
There have been a couple of decent moments, such as Harrison marking his 20th birthday with a win over 2010 U.S. Open conqueror Sergiy Stakhovsky or Querrey qualifying for Rome and reaching the second round. But nothing to cause the kind of stir Isner did last year at the French Open by taking king of clay Rafael Nadal to five sets, setting himself up for a run that has taken him to the top 10.
"I think that was very big," Isner said. "Up until that point I wasn't playing well at all. I'd had a pretty crummy season up to that point. And yeah, that was a bad draw, but I think it helped me going forward in 2011. It made me realize I could play with anyone.
"And it was a lot of fun. I'd rather lose to him on that court than maybe even lose second or third round on an outer court. I remember just being out there and enjoying it. And even though I lost in the first round, I gained some confidence from it."
So though most of the Americans have been present and accounted for on the European clay this season, they're still hoping to make the kind of impact that will make their presence felt once again.
So how about them fightin' words from Ivan Ljubicic, who said the Americans are running scared from the European clay? Let's just say the U.S. contingent didn't take it too kindly.