Sunday, April 15, 2007

Justin Gimelstob-Telling It Like It Is

I've been on my soapbox a little about the American men not even pretending to compete seriously during the Clay Court Season. So while surfing tennis stories I came upon Justin Gimelstob's latest blog entry about the upcoming tournaments and the Road to Roland Garros. You can imagine my surprise when I read the following:

American players are raised to focus on building weapons and finding ways to attack and win points. Clay-court tennis puts a premium on defense and manipulating your opponent into low-percentage positions where he will eventually lose the point.

Justin goes on to say the following:

South Americans and Europeans who grew up on clay have such an overwhelming advantage because of years of practice combining the movement and the patience of developing a point that we Americans can't learn in a crash course.

I've pretty much said the same for the last couple of years. It's just a surprise to see a product of the American tennis system admit to it. Justin does say that there are red clay courts in Florida but doesn't state openly that American bred coaches can't teach their students how to play on it. He also says that Andy Roddick and James Blake can win on clay. Roddick won on clay before dropping Tariq as his coach. He's been miserable on it since. Blake? After his showing against Zabaleta this weekend I'm not sure he has the patience to actually do well on clay. He lost to Zabaleta the same way he lost to Monfils last year except it took two sets this time.

Here is Justin's entire blog entry. It makes for interesting reading.

Go Here


Craig Hickman said...

You're absolutely divine on your soapbox, but I'd like to dispel a few myths, if I may.

Under Tariq, Roddick won 3 claycourt titles (Atlanta, Houston, St. Poelton), made the semifinals of Rome, the third round of RG where he retired to Hewitt after twisting an ankle, and also lost in the first round the same year he won St. Poelten (2003. Incidentaly Federer lost first round that year as well). The press hounded Roddick to change coaches. He did. He also never won a Davis Cup match away on clay under Tariq.

Since Tariq Roddick has won two claycourt titles (Houston, 2x), made the quarterfinals of Rome, choked away two winnable second round matches at Roland Garros up two sets to one (Mutis - 2004) and two seets to love (Acasuso - 2005), and lost in the first round through retirement last year. He's also won four crucial Davis Cup matches away on clay.

In short, Roddick's record on clay post Tariq is only nominally worse, considering that he won exactly the same number of Roland Garros matches, finished a round earlier at Rome, qne one less title, but won 4 more Davis Cup matches.

Does "Roddick won on clay before dropping Tariq as his coach. He's been miserable on it since," still sound reasonable?

I don't generally defend Blake, BUT... before losing to Monfils and Zabaleta, he defeated Almagro (ESP) and Juan Monaco (ARG), respectively, neither of whom is any pushover on clay. It's also safe to say that his impatience against Zabaleta had to do with 1) his grueling 3 setter against Monaco the night before and 2) his recent Davis Cup efforts. His choke to Monfils was exactly that. I remember you saying he had that match and let it slip away. But that's Blake more than the surface.

If I recall, Blake choked to Ancic in the 16s or the quarterfinals of Hamburg last year, something he can do on the big stage on ANY surface.

Andre Agassi never backed off the baseline on clay, never slid, never imparted too much topspin on his shots. He didn't overadjust his game to the surface and didn't appear to have any mentally allergies to the surface. He won Rome once, Roland Garros once, and made another (two?) finals in Paris. He didn't grow up on clay.

Michael Chang won Roland Garros and never another Slam. Is clay supposed to be the supreme measure of a tennis player? Just because it tests your patience and your endurance but, by and large, penalizes your shotmaking? Just curiuos.

Tony Roche and Yannick Noah, to list just two, won Roland Garros by serve and volleying and chipping and charging. On a slower surface with wooden rackets. The points were short. Tony Roche didn't grow up on clay.

Martin Verkerk serve and volleyed and chipped and charged his way to a Roland Garros final on a medium slow surface with a high-tech racket, defeating at least one defending champion along the way. The points on his serve were short.

I'm not exactly sure what Justin Gimelstob is talking about. But it sounds familiar, that's for sure.

Roddick's biggest problems on clay are mental. See his results against Tommy Haas, a player he's never beaten on clay (but handled on other surfaces) and yet Ivo Karlovic, a player with a similar game and less athleticism, can defeat Haas on clay in straight sets the first time he plays him. Matchups. I know. Which support the same claim since matchups are more mental than anything else.

Every year we hear the same old story about American men on clay, even before the season is in full force. Isn't it entirely possible that the players' mental allergies to clay are simply reinforced by this barrage of redundancy?

Wouldn't be interesting if, for instance, an American journalist pointed out the improvement of American men on clay as their Davis Cup results and their collective TMS results on clay over the past two years have indicated? Even Mardy Fish won a claycourt title.

Wouldn't it be as revealing to compare Roddick's 5 claycourt titles to David Nalbandian's ZERO? Roddick's career claycourt record to [insert name of any second-tier claycourter from South America or Europe here]?

And speaking of Roddick and coaches, Jimmy Connors knew his way around the slow stuff with his flat strokes and big old heart.

I hope Roddick's hamstring heals well enough so that he can be competitive in the claycourt events he does contest. He's got Rome quarterfinal points to defend, afterall. Lord knows he played Verdasco like he was on a claycourt, drifting 20 feet behind the baseline to absorbe Verdasco's topspin and pace, and he still won the match in straight sets. On a fast indoor hardcourt. With a sore hamstring.

I've seen Roddick (and Blake) construct points on clay. Roddick, in particular, falls short because he doesn't expect anything of himself, doesn't believe in himself. Is he ever going to win Roland Garros? Only if a series of miracles occur. But I think he'd do a whole lot better there than he has if the talkers, whom he listens to and takes seriously, don't doom him before he even sets foot on Philippe Chartrier.

Our words have power. Perhaps, if we want to see more success from our men, we try pumpimg them up instead of cutting them down.

Craig Hickman said...

Oops. I think I stand corrected. I believe Nalbandian has won a claycourt title. One for sure. No more than two, I don't believe.