Last weekend, American Jack Sock became the fifth American in the last 10 years to win the United States National Clay Court championships, joining countrymen Andy Roddick, Mardy Fish, Ryan Sweeting and John Isner in claiming the title in Houston over the last decade. However, the clay court success Americans have had in Houston hasn’t been translated to the bigger events and certainly not the French Open, where only four Americans have advanced to the third round in the last 11 years.
Let’s not for a second take anything away from what Sock did in Houston. After what he’s gone through over the first part of the season dealing with injuries and his brother’s medical issues, Sock displayed tremendous composure and resilience to capture his first ATP World Tour title, losing only one set along the way.
With this laid out, Sock’s Houston title and Querrey’s runner-up finish shouldn’t be seen as a sign that the Americans are suddenly ready to become legitimate and consistent threats to the to upper echelon players on clay.
Earlier today, Isner edged Viktor Troicki in two tiebreaks at the Monte Carlo Masters to set up a third round meeting with Rafael Nadal — a rematch of their fateful five-set, first round encounter at Roland Garros.
…An encounter that Isner did not win.
The question to be asked is what it will take for the American men to start seeing more improved and more consistent results on the red dirt. The solutions are not lost somewhere in the ether nor are they impossible for the players to achieve. In the same breath, the changes that need to occur will not happen overnight nor should we expect current players to want to make these changes.
Watching the vast majority of American men play, it quickly becomes evidently that they love dictating the action with their serves and forehands. This is not groundbreaking information. Isner, Querrey, Sock and Steve Johnson all have big serves and all love to run around their backhands to smack forehands.
The problem with this strategy is that clay court tennis is a marathon, not a sprint. One Davis Cup win does not a Roland Garros favorite make, and matches, sets, games and even points needed to be treated more like a long race and not a 100-meter dash. Based off the way they play, it is unreasonable to expect someone like Sock or Isner to grind.
The second major problem with the American men is off the backhand side. Sock, Querrey, Isner and Johnson all prefer their forehands and it’s not just because their forehands are fantastic shots.
It also has to do with how much of a liability their backhands can be.
If a player can’t hit backhands, his opponents are going to start going after his backhands regularly, forcing him to play inside-out forehands. The inside-out forehand is a shot that must be hit with more force and less margin. If he is unable to put it out of your opponent’s reach, he has left the entire court exposed and given his opponent ample space to hit a winner. If the aforementioned Americans were more confident off the backhand side, it would better allow them to enter in longer rallies and work the points as opposed to simply relying on playing offense with their forehand.
The root cause of all the woes Americans have had on clay is that there are not enough red clay court tournaments held in the United States at the junior level. Practice really does make perfect and with little ability to hone their clay court skills, Americans have fallen behind the curve in a big way. In addition, they have engineered their games to be successful on faster surfaces. Why would young up-and-coming-player in the United States look to play clay court style tennis when they are playing on faster hard courts the majority of the time. It would be hard to imagine a 12-year-old beginning to build a clay court game just because they may need on the off-chance they eventually turn pro years down the road.
All hope is not lost for Americans on the European dirt, however. If you’re looking for an American that may end up being very successful on clay in the future, watch out for young Francis Tiafoe, who describes clay as his favorite surface. That’s not something most Americans would say and is hopefully a positive sign for the years to come.