Another European clay tournament, another dire performance by the American players.
Andy Roddick, Mardy Fish and Sam Querrey all bowed at first hurdle in Madrid while John Isner fell the first time he came up against a non-American.
When you consider that for the first three it was their first tournament on the European dirt of the year it’s hardly surprising that they performed so badly.
Roddick, Fish and Querrey only showed up to play when it became mandatory for them to do so. With a mindset like that results such as Roddick’s defeat to Flavio Cipolla are inevitable and it’s probably no coincidence that John Isner, the only player to play a clay tournament in Europe before Madrid, was the only player to pick up a win.
Quite simply, the attitude of the leading American players stinks.
Querrey arguably offers the most striking example of the American approach towards clay.
In 2008, he played Monte Carlo and reached the quarter-final, beating Carlos Moya (then ranked #14) and Richard Gasquet (#9) along the way. It took Novak Djokovic to stop him.
For reasons only known to him, he hasn’t show up since. It completely beggars belief that a player could have such a great run at a tournament, a highly prestigious tournament steeped in tennis history at that, yet never show up again.
Sure, maybe his run in 2008 was a fluke but if he can’t be bothered to come back and try again how can he tell?
It’s almost as if there’s a sort of peer pressure at work. My friends don’t show up so it’s not right that I do. And as for the prestige and history of Monte Carlo, given the current attitude of his peers I doubt it even occurred to him.
That the status of the tournament has been damaged by the ATP, who designated it non-mandatory in a rather pathetic attempt to appease the American players is another sore point for me that is worth a separate entry of its own.
The Monte Carlo situation isn’t unique for Querrey either. Last year he played in Belgrade and won the title. This year? Well he apparently wasn’t willing to come to Europe a week earlier than deemed mandatory by the ATP so skipped the event entirely.
Turning up to play Madrid without any preparation, it’s hardly surprising that he picked up just five games in a miserable defeat to Michael Llodra. (The latter proving with his quarter-final showing here that you don’t need to be a born and bred dirtballer to pick up good results on clay).
Andy Roddick’s first round exit to world number 160 Flavio Cipolla was equally dire. Roddick underperforming on European clay is nothing new but his contempt for the red stuff is particularly counter-productive this year given his current ranking predicament.
Roddick is currently ranked 12 in the world but is just 760 points behind Jurgen Melzer who sits in eight place. A top eight seeding for Wimbledon can still be his with Melzer likely to drop some points after Roland Garros.
That’s potentially huge for Roddick. Wimbledon is his only hope of adding that elusive second slam and the difference between 12 and eight is the difference between meeting one of the top four in the last 16 or the quarter-final.
Given the paucity of grass court talent in the modern game, Roddick should get that far easily and an extra round to play himself into top form could make all the difference.
He’s already proven in the past that he can push the very best on that surface and it’s less than two years since he was arguably one shanked backhand volley away from taking the title.
Is his dirtphobia so deeply engrained that can’t even see the bigger picture?
You also have to wonder to what extent Roddick is responsible for the prevailing attitude towards clay among the American players as a whole.
You can’t overestimate the esteem he is held in by the likes of Fish, Isner and Querrey. If Roddick was grinding it out in Monte Carlo and elsewhere year after year it’s utterly inconceivable that the younger guys could get away with staying at home.
I don’t believe for a second it’s anything deliberate or overt on his part and there’s a good chance that it hasn’t even occurred to him.
Of course American clay issues go back further than Roddick and Pete Sampras played Monte Carlo just four times.
There’s one key difference between Sampras and the current crop of American also-rans though.
Sampras was generally coming in off the back of huge performances in Miami and Indian Wells while knowing that from Wimbledon onwards he would most likely be in contention for all the biggest titles. Taking a couple of weeks to recharge the batteries made sense.
In other words Sampras earned the right to skip some clay events. Querrey, Isner and Fish haven’t. It’s that simple.
Roddick falls somewhere in between. At his best he was at least competing for the biggest titles so taking a breather was arguably the sensible thing to do. It’s time to reconsider his approach.
One concern is that this prevailing disdain for the dirt will infect the next generation of Americans.
I maintain that the dog eat dog world of the European minor league clay circuit is the best education in tennis that a player can have. It’s a circuit that produced all the elite players in the modern game so the argument hardly needs much further articulation.
It’s a circuit that Donald Young has avoided to his own great cost and it would be a tragedy if Ryan Harrison and the next crop of American players did the same.
The USTA has belatedly recognised the benefits of clay courts and set about getting things right from the bottom upwards.
However, those moves have come too late to make much of a difference for any player from their late teens upwards and if the attitude coming down from the leading American professionals doesn’t change it could have a damaging effect on American tennis for years to come.