Friday, March 5, 2010

Davis Cup 2010: Americans on Clay

Those who don't follow tennis closely might be forgiven for not knowing that the Davis Cup first round is being contested this weekend. The USA is in Belgrade taking on the Serbs. Andy Roddick and James Blake each took a pass this time but let's be clear: even if they'd made the trip, they'd be completely over-matched in this one. For starters, they'd each have to play Novak Djokovic. At first glance, that wouldn't be too bad. Roddick's record against the World #2 is 4-2. Blake is 0-1. However, neither has ever played the Serb on clay. Roddick and Blake both stink on clay whereas Djokovic is one of the world's best.

While the French Open titles of Jim Courier, Andre Agassi and Michael Chang might lead you to believe otherwise, American men usually perform horribly on clay. One need only look at the otherwise magnificent career of Pete Sampras: 7 Slam titles on grass, 7 on hard courts but a big goose egg on clay. In fact, he never even made it past the semis at Roland Garros.

The explanation is not complicated. Players in Latin America, Continental Europe and North Africa grow up playing on clay courts. The rest of the world does not. The power game which American boys learn to play is negated by the higher bounce when the ball hits dirt. To make up for this deficiency, there is a strong movement within the American tennis community to build more clay courts in the States. Until the Yanks learn to play on the slower surface, a good mover and strong tactician like Djokovic is going to tear them apart every time.

So, Roddick's and Blake's no-shows may have as much to do with saving face as needing to rest. I don't blame them. Why make the trip just to get schooled when Sam Querrey and John Isner can enjoy the rare opportunity to play on the first team.

The US lost both singles matches today so the pressure is on the Bryan brothers to keep the tie alive tomorrow. The Bryans' clay court credentials are actually quite strong, having a French Open title to their name among their dozens. But they have a tall task nonetheless as they must contend with Nenad Zimonjic who shares the top ranking with his usual partner in crime, Daniel Nestor (Canada). Zimonjic teams with Janko Tipsarevic tomorrow and the Bryans will have their hands full. If they win, the Americans still must win both singles matches on Sunday. If the Bryans lose, it's all over.

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