Wednesday, April 18, 2007

It's All About the Schedule

And Other Musings: A Reply to Savannah

by Craig Hickman

Q. Sounds like you're not playing Monte-Carlo. How does that happen?
JAMES BLAKE: Well, for me it's something that doesn't quite fit into the schedule. It's going to be real tough to go from Houston all the way over to Monte-Carlo, then come back just for a week or two to train for Rome.
For the Americans, that tournament has never been exactly the easiest one in the schedule. I'm not going to be able to make it to that one.

Q. Any sanctions for not doing that, because it's a mandatory event?
JAMES BLAKE: Well, I think I'll get a zero pointer. I'll lose my chance to get points there. I believe there's a way that you're allowed to miss one and not get fined. This will be the one I miss.

As I've been saying for years, Monte Carlo just doesn't fit the Americans' schedule. Nothing more; nothing less. (The Europeans who live in the States such as Grosjean and Haas don't tend to play the event either, opting for Houston instead. Hewitt hasn't played much on clay for the last few years and though I'm not sure what the Australian media says about his absence on the dirt, but I'd be suprised if he were verbally hung every spring. I bet the Swedish media don't shout that their players are inferior to Europeans. Oh, yeah. Sweden's in Europe, isn't it?)

Quiet as it's kept, most top players play only two of the three claycourt TMS events in Europe, no matter where they live on the globe. Quieter still, most eligible Americans still play Rome and Hamburg every year.

And Roddick has made the quaterfinals (last year) and semifinals (2002) in Rome, which is more than many a top European or South American claycourter can claim.

I just think this whole subject about Americans not playing Monte Carlo or other European clay events is blown way out of proportion.

Quick--how many top Europeans play the US hardcourt events leading up to TMS Canada in the summer?

Where's the outrage for their absence? Perhaps it comes in the European media, but I doubt it.

Savannah, I think I mostly took issue with your characterizion that 1) Roddick is miserable on clay since parting with Tariq and 2) the American men's absence in Monte Carlo and other European claycourt events is an insult to the sport. You seemed to be making the argument, by extension, that our men are playing into what Mr. Disney is trying to do to the tour. Maybe some are. I don't know who has or hasn't signed the petition against separating the tour. But even before Mr. Disney came along, Americans didn't play in Monte Carlo with any consistency. The U.S. Men's Claycourt Championships is a legitimate claycourt event and has quite a history in the States. Just because it isn't a TMS event doesn't mean that the players who chose to play it aren't becoming acclimated to the surface in preparation for the big event.

As for the other points in your post, I think it would engender better discussion to separate them out instead of throwing them all into a pot of gumbo. What Mr. Disney is doing might be connected to the American approach to tennis, but it's largely a business decision that I don't agree with. That's a separate issue from developing players who are comfortable on clay.

But even that, I feel, deserves a different kind of discussion than the one usually put forth. Clay is a surface. What it takes to win on it, in and of itself, doesn't encapsulate what makes a great player great. You call it the Great Equalizer. I call it the Great Penalizer. The history of the surface and Roland Garros supports this persepective. Back in the day, the four French Musketeers couldn't defeat the Australians and Americans with any regularity on grass so they introduced terre battue in 1928 the same year the French Championships became Roland Garros as a way to give themselves a better chance. It didn't actually work. Even though Henri Cochet won it the first time it was contested on the crushed brick, following the Second World War the championships were dominated by American and Australian players, with French names rarely making the honor roll.

Throughout the years, men who executed their aggressive games were still able to win Roland Garrros. Yannick Noah and Tony Roche immediately spring to mind. Ivan Lendl, Andre Agassi, and Jim Courier were aggressive baseliners. At the top of his game, you might even call Juan Carlos Ferrero an aggressive baseliner.

The grinding-wear-them-out style of play that many south American and Spanish "specialists" have perfected over the last few decades has changed the nature of what constitutes "true" claycourt play, and by and large, the male players have succumbed to this myth. It's too bad. When a player begins to believe that his biggest weapons won't work on clay, he steps onto the court in a losing position. But the truth remains: big weapons work on any surface. Players can be aggressive on clay, they've just got to expect to hit one or two more shots to win a point. But make no mistake, claycourt rallies can end in three shots just as they can on any other surface. Good first serve, decent return, volley winner (or error). End of point. Martin Verkerk contested the 2003 Roland Garros final.

Look at the list of women players who've won Roland Garros over the last two decades. Why have women with aggressive games had better success on clay than men? Why is the greatest claycourt player the game has ever seen a woman -- a flat striker of the ball, no less -- from southern California? Another discussion indeed.

Nowadays, it takes an exceptional player to be able to win on every surface the sport has to offer: grass, outdoor hard, indoor hard, indoor carpet, and clay. (Would love to have seen matches on wood!) Roddick is an exceptional player. It takes an extraordinary player to be able to win big on every surface. Federer is an extraordinary player. As of this writing, these are the only two active singles players on the ATP who have managed to win ATP titles on every available surface today.

It seems, then, come spring, that what spoiled Americans are really complaining about is that we don't have more than one exceptional man and no extraordinary men. And in our arrogant complaining, we have lumped our exceptional one together with our good ones and have worn out the gloom and doom cry, "We suck on clay. We don't know how to play tennis. We suck, period. We'll never do America proud in Paris." So be it. There are many of us who feel that clay sucks much more than we suck on it. Regardless, our complaining has seemed to work. We have brought down our exceptional one. In 2004 and 2005, Andy put himself in a position to advance the the last 32 in Paris. Both times, he faltered.

Way back when, I wrote a Fleeting Thought about the torrid relatinship between Andy Roddick and Roland Garros. Roger Federer, whom no one would dispute is a far better player than Andy Roddick, has also had a spotty affair with the event. Yes, Roger's last two outings have been noteworthy, but nothing short of winning the title will be considered success by him (or his many disciples) at this point. And media's readiness to declare him the definitive Greatest of All Time (GOAT) with a victory there has created the situation. Because of this added pressure, Roger may never win Roland Garros. And those who overexalt claycourt play will call him a failure if he doesn't. From GOAT to failure in 10 seconds flat.

We talkers like to hear ourselves talk. Some of us feel better about our words if everyone else is singing the same old song. Such herd mentality transcends race, nationality, gender, and achievement.

So while Roddick and Blake elicit criticism as the top American men, let's criticize with facts, not regurgitated myths. If Mr. Disney is to be criticized for trying to tear up the tour, let's keep the focus on his ineptitude and related issues and petition the ATP for his ouster. If American tennis is to be criticized, let's offer up suggestions to make it better.

The pen is still mightier than the sword.


oddman said...

Interesting points, both of you. Your comment 'they just have to expect to hit one or two more shots...' is key, I think. At least one or two, frankly, players should be going in with the expectation of engaging in long rallies for each point. And Savannah's point about 'culture' makes sense too. If you had success by repeatedly playing a certain way (shorter rallies, go for the winner) wouldn't you be more likely to play this way, as you've been rewarded in the past for it? Perhaps that's why those players not 'brought up' on clay have some trouble adjusting. Patience would seem to be the key, IMP. Part of why I think Andy's reasonable clay success in past has been that as a junior, he was a smaller lad and known to be a grinder. If he waits for the right opp to hit the huge forehand, and 'chooses' to grind it out with his opponent, he has more success. Think that's why Blake hasn't been quite as sterling, he doesn't come across to me as a patient player.

Craig Hickman said...

Oddman, thanks for joining the discussion!

I think patience is the key for someone like Roddick. He clearly can play on clay. His serve is still a weapon, he defends okay (perhaps not well enough to want to be engaged in protracted rallies, but still...) and he actually does slide quite well. I remember when Grosjean finally lost to Roddick on clay in the finals of Houston a few years ago, Sebastien mentioned how surprised he was by how well Andy moved on the surface.

On the other hand, Roddick doesn't like to be patient throughout the longer best of five matches Roland Garros requires. He's gotten better as his recent Davis Cup results on clay indicate, but it's also clear that at Roland Garros, he just can wrap his mind around all the tennis he'd have to play to get into the second week. So he loses early, even when he has a decent draw.

Still, Roddick could keep all the points short on his own serve if he chose to. The better volleyer he becomes, the more variety he employs in his second serve, the more points he wins instead of loses. The more points he wins, the more confidence he builds, etc....

Breaking serve is something he has trouble with on any surface. He's simply too passive on breakpoints.

It's mental.

Blake, who defends the court as well as anyone with his speed, is short on patience in a different way. But it's still one of the mental hurdles he'd have to overcome if he were to win a few more rounds at Roland Garros.

Blake, on the other hand, is aggressive on breakpoints, and that can and does pay off on any surface.

Jim Courier always said that one of the problems Americans face on clay is that they overadjust their games and try to play a style that doesn't suit them.

I agree.

No matter the surface, you've got to stick to your strengths. My ramblings have tried to say that one simple thing.

oddman said...

It's mental - yes, so much. And confidence, too. That long ago DC tie with Spain that Rafa won over Andy, was it 2005? or 2004? It's not like Rafa beat up on Andy, from what I remember they had a dogfight of a match, and in Spain too. He can sure pump himself up for Davis Cup - he must just love the team aspect of it. He's gotta find more of that fire when playing for himself.

Craig Hickman said...

It was 2004, and you are correct. The third set breaker was the key. Roddick had the set on his serve for a two set to one lead but he faltered, Nadal rose up, and that was the end of that.

It's clear that Roddick needs to motivate himself in big claycourt events as he does during Davis Cup ties on clay.

Think it has to do with seeing a finish line. Davis Cup is two matches, max. A big tournament is at least five.

edma1022 said...

I read both entries 2 times. I'm particularly impressed how you can touch on clay/RG not as a watershed argument that makes a great player great, then touch on American predilection of blaming things as a result of the pursuit of an extraordinary US player inspite of having already a (or a slew of) exceptional player/s.

And you are right about people ragging on Roger's inability to get an RG title while the banner of GOAT hangs in the back of him.

Clay is just one surface. And i support your notion that scheduling is the culprit. No more no less.

As usual, thanks for an interesting read, Mr. Hickman.


Craig Hickman said...

Twice? You're a gem, Mr. Ed.

Thanks for taking the time and entering the discussion.

Always good to see you.