I was all set to write a post about this week’s ATP event in Barcelona when a certain malaise set over me. It was then I realized that my innate American lack of interest in clay court tennis kicked in again. And it’s not just me. Even top American pros Andy Roddick and Serena Williams are showing signs as well. Although many express that clay court tennis is the sport at its best because it forces players to construct points rather than just go for outright winners, the argument still falls on deaf ears to us Yanks. Why is that?
Although many Americans have played on a clay court at least once, hard courts remain our surface of choice. Even in Southern California where I live, unless you swing by an exclusive resort, you will be hard pressed to find a clay court nearby. But I also think this lack of interest or exposure to clay owes something to television coverage of clay court events in the past. Back in the day when NBC was really the only source of televised tennis, the network’s showing of the French Open was relegated to tape-delayed highlights from several days prior. Even during the heyday of Chris Evert’s seven French Open titles, the matches were treated as a second cousin to the more “prestigious” Wimbledon just a few weeks later.
And even when ESPN got off the ground and started showing early round play on the “terre battue”, the prospect of watching a four hour, three set match didn’t sound great once you settled in for it. I remember during my high school playing days eagerly taping seven hours of French Open coverage with the plan to watch it later that night. But when I realized that I would actually have to watch seven hours of guys hitting groundstroke after groundstroke, I soon gave up that notion. Plus this was back in the day when unknown dirtballers from South America or Europe would emerge from nowhere to win the French Open before settling into relative obscurity again. It all added up to most Americans tuning out.
Although America did have a nice run back in the 1990’s of Jim Courier, Michael Chang and Andre Agassi taking the Coupe des Mousquetaires, we aren’t expecting the same run to take place soon. Andy Roddick, although a winner of several clay court titles, has regularly pared back his schedule before Roland Garros. He’s doing it again this year by just announcing he won’t be playing in Rome in a few weeks. Although some suspect injury, I think he just wants to spend more time with his wife while she shoots a movie in Hawaii. And can you blame him? Meanwhile Serena Williams, who did win in Paris back in 2002, swears up and down she will take the courts in Rome. She probably will, but I have a feeling she may put more effort in asking “Quanto Costa” in the shopping avenues of the Via Dei Condotti than hitting a ball on the Italian courts.
But it’s not all blasé on the clay for the Americans. Melanie Oudin, the young American star, professes the dirt is her favorite surface and aims to be in the top 30 by the time Roland Garros rolls around. If Oudin will a be threat in Paris remains to be seen, but at least she has the right attitude. The only thing else that might get our attention is if Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal finally meet up again on the clay. But if and when that dream matchup happens, most Americans will have to endure another month of long, slow rallies before we wind our way into the heart of Paris.
It’s a sad fact but true. Or as the French would say, Quel Dommage!