Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A Rebuttal, And A Reply

by Savannah

Craig and I often share posts and he is my editor from time to time -- a lot. We've also talked about having discussions but the situation has never been right for having one. Craig did send me a reply to my post about Justin Gimelstob's blog entry about American men and their clay phobia that I thought needed its own post, and a bit of a reply from me.

Here is Craig's reply along with a correction he posted later. (Craig's note: This discussion actually began when Savannah posted her Monte Carlo draw and preview here. I thought to respond with a separate post, but I replied with a comment within that post instead. Savannah, as usual, has chosen the smarter, more accessible, route.)
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 it 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 absorb 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.

He then added this correction:

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.

My first response was to wonder if Craig was right, that people are projecting so much negativity towards American men right now that perhaps what we see is the law of diminishing returns. You see it all the time in the classroom. Tell a kid often enough that he or she is stupid and can't learn and what do you get but a kid who won't learn.

But the more I thought about it the more I thought that Craig is right as far as he goes but I think Gimelstob was making a bigger point.

In my opinion the critical paragraph in Justin's blog is the first one I quoted:

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.

How you see the world is how it presents to you. Your reactions to what is presented to you is based on how you have been taught to react to outside forces. The reactions are cultural, and especially today, societal. If you come from a culture which teaches you to shoot first and ask questions later you will be perceived as agressive, always on the move, and clearheaded. A culture which values analysis of what is coming at you and then trying to find a way to get around it or change it to suit you values patience, contemplation and a more laid back approach to things. People raised in the "ready-fire-aim" culture see those from the other culture as lazy and sneaky. People from the other culture see those from the "ready-fire-aim" culture as hotheads, hucksters, childlike and unable to plan ahead.

Of course I'm simplifying things here but this is a tennis forum and a certain shorthand is needed. In the paragraph cited above Gimelstob has used the same shorthand.

Does this mean that Americans have to hire European coaches in order to at least learn how to manuever on red clay? If they do this does this in some way alter American style tennis which is geared to hard court play? (I'm leaving out grass for now because that is a whole other can of worms. [Craig's note: Which I'm sure we'll get to!])

I am old enough to remember when being a good tennis player required knowledge of how to play on every surface. That is why you have Andre with decent clay court results. It's often said that Chang was only able to win the French Open but as an Asian, an ethnically Chinese friend of mine told me way back then Chang was too small to compete at the highest levels of tennis for any length of time. No one wants to say that though. Instead, his one Slam is cited as proof that those who win the FO can't win anywhere else.

I understand that positive reinforcement yields better results than negative reinforcement but as Craig points out Roddick was pressured to change his non-American coach and he did. I think his game has suffered for it.

Blake's problems are different. He has never been able to handle the pressure of a big event and has found his niche playing and sometimes winning smaller events. As more and more guys are making that same career choice, his road is going to be a lot harder. Ivo Karlovic won Houston this week beating Mariano Zabaleta who took Blake out rather easily.

Roddick and Blake are the top American players and thus come in for some criticism but I think they are the symptoms not the causes of the problems American tennis is facing now. What is scary is that the United States tennis establishment, working through the ATP seems to be saying to European and South American players "it's our way or the highway". The American tennis establishment would love to get their hands on players such as Rafael Nadal. Instead Nadal, Federer and their peers have closed ranks against the ATP and implicitly the American establishment in fighting the changes the ATP is trying to impose on the sport. As an aside, I have to give Andy Roddick his due and applaud him for signing the player petition against splitting the ATP into European and American branches.

So Craig, please understand that it's these issues that need airing. My comments are not meant to "pile on" and demean men who are playing their best within the system they represent. There are very serious problems with American tennis. Picking up their marbles and stalking off is not the answer the sport needs.

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