Sunday, June 1, 2008

Does American Tennis Suck?

by Savannah

At one point during NBC’s broadcast of the match between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco, John McEnroe casually stated that Donald Young had been invited by the Nadal family to come and work with them for three weeks in Mallorca. Now I’m sure many tennis parents heard that and immediately began emailing the family saying their precious was the best thing since sliced bread and would gladly take them up on the offer the Young camp refused. That’s right, they refused. I’ve said here before that Young has the potential to become an all court player, a man who will not run screaming into the night at the mention of terre battue, or whine that he just can’t learn how to slide the way “they” do. “They” of course are the European and South American players who have become the stars of the ATP, the men, and women, who grew up on the red dirt – not ground up tires or whatever “green” clay is, but real crushed red brick. You know them. They can construct points, think their way through a match, are patient enough to hit to the same spot, or near to it, until their opponent, frustrated, goes for too much and makes an error. Yeah, those people. They change speed and direction on the ball too.

If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile you’ll remember I posted about why the United States changed their surface of choice from clay - ! – to hard court. Economics? I mean it must be hard to keep up clay courts right? Forget the fact that many clubs had clay courts back then. It has to be economic right? Well, no. It had to do with the rise of some young Spaniards and South American’s who were bold enough to challenge the United States on a tennis court. They were christened “clay court specialists” and the United States tennis establishment made the move to hard courts.

So when the Nadal family made their offer to the Young camp imagine the alarm bells that went off in the United States. One of their own, recently exposed as being used and abused by the powers that be of U.S. tennis and who despite all that happened is now making his way up the rankings, go to Spain?! It would be the straw that broke the camels back, the exposure of the United States tennis system as a teetering house of cards. It could not, and would not happen. And it didn’t.

So will Donald Young’s potential be sacrificed on the altar of mindless ball bashing? Will he become like the generation that is now moving into the later years of their careers, unable to compete in Europe or South America? That remains to be seen. I should mention in passing that Young arrived in Europe in time for The French Open and played maybe one warm up event which he crashed out of early. Needless to say he was out of the French and on his way to his next event early as well.

So what happened to the American’s in Paris? Let’s see. Young we’ve discussed. Blake, who to his credit played a fairly full, for an American, clay court season, unraveled and departed. An injured Andy Roddick did not even make the trip to Paris. He headed back to the States after Rome and will presumably be ready to compete at Queens. I believe Andy is injured. He never misses a Slam.

Ah but on the women’s side we had Venus Williams and Serena Williams. Venus hadn’t played in weeks and not much was expected of her. The rustiness showed and she bowed out to Flavia Pennetta who played inspired tennis against her. Serena? I think the Serenabot made the trip. That woman who was spraying balls all over the place and didn’t seem to understand what to do with an opportunity when one presented itself lost to Katerina Srebotnik. Do I have to say that both Pennetta, and Srebotnik, lost to their next opponents? It seems beating one of the Williams Sisters is still something players want to do. The question is do the Williams sisters want to beat anyone they have to play these days? Ennui? I don’t know if I’d go that far. I have no inside track so I don’t know what is going on in their lives.

So not one American made it to the second week? Yes, one did. The oft maligned Robby Ginepri will take the court on Monday. It’s funny to me how when all the other American stars crash and burn somehow it’s a guy like Ginepri who emerges from the smoke and ruins. John Isner was a surprise to the tennis establishment. I often malign Sam “Kid Porsche” Querrey but I have to give the boy his props. He too played a decent clay court season and even paired with Isner in doubles. He has nothing to be ashamed of. And neither do the other American players who went to Europe and stayed trying to make their bones on the red dirt. When the top American man, James Blake, after playing horribly, finds nothing to do but pick a fight with the chair saying he deserves a “competent” chair umpire I have to say I wasn’t too sorry to see him go. It’s one thing to think someone is an idiot. It’s another to open your mouth and reinforce the ugly American stereotype overseas. For a Harvard man Blake can sometimes do, and say, the dumbest things.

But I digress. Will American kids learn to play on clay? One of the announcers calling a match I believe in Rome or Monte Carlo, said that clay is the ideal surface to learn on. It teaches patience, point construction, how to think your way through a match, and hones both your physical and mental abilities. Both have to be peak in order to play well in the dirt. If Brave New World goes into effect, the importance of the clay court season will be diminished. The tournaments that count will be played on American or Asian hard courts. I guess if you can’t compete the answer is to sandbag the opposition and reduce their favorite tournaments to second class citizenship during the tennis year. I’m sure that the Young camp was made aware of this as well.

All of this is not happening in a vacuum. Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are all running for the Players Council currently headed by Ivan Ljubicic and James Blake. The same guy I was talking about further up. If they succeed in making the council I think things will change. Already the argument is being made that they’ll only look to make their situations easier. It’s no secret that life at the top of the food chain is very different from life at the middle or bottom. Most tennisheads know this. The argument is spurious in my opinion but I’m not a guy staying at a Best Western on my own dime while Roger and Mirka dine on five star cuisine if they so desire. The election is taking place during Wimbledon.

So back to my question. Does American tennis suck? Will Venus, Serena, Lindsay, Andy and James have to play until they drop? Where are the American Jeremy Chardy’s or Carla Suarez-Navarro’s? Hell, do we have an Alize Cornet? Not to my knowledge. And that is the problem. Stacking the deck against the “others” is not the solution to the problems in American tennis. Patrick McEnroe has been tasked with turning the American System around. That is why I found his brother’s comments so intriguing today. John McEnroe said it was a mistake for the Young’s not to take the Nadal’s up on their offer. It was. If the McEnroe’s are allowed to reach out to those offering to help, if the American tennis establishment will admit it needs help, then maybe in a few years tennisheads won’t have to ask if American tennis sucks.


Cate said...

Well, I mean no offense but why is it that EVERY TIME there is a new American up-and-comer, people already label him/her as the next World Number One, only to bow out at the first round of EVERY tournament he/she enters?

The last time I checked, the LAST superstar of American tennis is Andy Roddick. After that, the torch was passed on to the Europeans -- and not only on clay. The Swiss, the Spaniard, and the Serb have been dominating the tour for the past years and the only Americans are the ones who were already there to begin with (Blake, Roddick).

I saw how Young was crushed by Nadal in Miami -- even did a play by play on it. I think it was a HUGE opportunity missed for Young... it's not everyday one of the top players, top teams offer to train you in their home turf. Heck, even RUSSIAN, French, and English players train in Spain (Safins, Kuznetsova, Gasquet, Murray).

(Side note: I don't like Cornet haha.)

Savannah said...

Cate you are so right. Craig has often written about the hype machine and the weight of expectations.
It almost destroyed Young and for him to not take the Nadal's up on this is stunning in it's shortsightedness. That's why I think pressure was brought to bear on the Young's for the reasons I give.

Too bad.

Helen W said...

I don't understand the ATP's apparent desire to push hard courts over clay & grass. Personally I like the more natural surfaces, and for sure they are easier on the players' bodies -- just like jogging on a dirt path is so much better on our joints than jogging on a paved street.

I hope that the top-echelon ATP players get actively involved in setting policy.

Helen W said...

Here is a study entitled Injury & Performance on Tennis Surfaces which supports what many players and fans have been discussing vis-a-vis clay & hard courts. In particular, their data (Table 1)shows that injuries are 6.6 times more frequent on asphalt/concrete than on clay.

Savannah said...

Thanks for the info Helen!

tristann said...

I wonder if anyone asked Donald Young why he turned down the offer. It was a great opportunity to improve his performance on clay. I always felt that Young could do well there.

Kamashki Tandon (sp?) mentioned in a post last week that some of the American men are shifting their views about playing on clay. All in all, I have noticed a difference this year and I think the results show it. While not spectacular, they have beat some good claycourters and done much better than in previous years. Hopefully this will be an upward trend, if only to help ingrain a different mindset in the younger american players coming up. We shall see.

Savannah said...

Tristann I noticed it too. It's long overdue and started last year. I hope that it continues (Young's brain dead refusal not withstanding) and that players other than Robby Ginepri - who seems to dance to his own drummer - make it into the second week of the clay Grand Slam.