The 2013 French Open began this past weekend in Paris. The tournament is one of pro tennis’s four Grand Slam events, the others being Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and the Australian Open.
The French Open is the biggest clay court tournament in the world. When tennis fans think of this tournament, the first image that comes to mind is the red clay surface at Roland-Garros Stadium. This surface can be unforgiving for even the best tennis players. The clay is actually crushed brick that has an outer layer of loose particles, which causes a lot of slipping and sliding. Because of this, and because of the tennis ball bouncing abnormally high, the tournament is not suited for serve-and-volley players. To win the French, you have to be exceptionally fit and be able to persevere through long rallies.
Since the Open era began in 1968, American male tennis players have had a very difficult time winning the French. While U.S. women have taken the title 13 times (seven times by Chris Evert), only three American men have won it: Michael Chang, Jim Courier (twice), and Andre Agassi. Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, and Pete Sampras never won it. And of these three, only McEnroe reached the finals. Since 1999, when Agassi defeated Andrei Medvedev in five sets, no American male has won it.
Why is the French Open so troublesome to American male tennis pros?
Well, to be honest, America has only had a few top-tier male tennis players since Sampras and Agassi, whose heyday was the ‘80s and ‘90s. Since then, America’s highest ranked player has been Andy Roddick. But Roddick held the No. 1 spot for only a few months, and won only one Grand Slam event his entire career: the 2003 U.S. Open. What helped him there was his powerful first serve. But on the clay courts of Stade Roland-Garros, forget it.
Another reason is that clay court surfaces are far less common in the states than “hard court” surfaces. Most of the clay courts are green or maroon “Har-Tru” clay, made of crushed basalt, but which are harder and faster than red clay. Only one men’s ATP tournament in the U.S. is held on any type of clay: the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships in Houston.
And although it sounds silly, Americans really struggle with the French language. Because of our proximity to Mexico, Central and South America, Spanish is the most popular foreign language in the states. Americans can “Excusé moi” and “Merci beaucoup,” but beyond that, most have a difficult time. The language barrier at the annual French Open can’t be downplayed.
It would be nice if tennis could be as popular in the U.S. as during its Golden Age in the 1970s. For baby boomer Yanks like me, who can forget those exciting Battle-of-the-Sexes matches between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs? Or the coolness and grace of Chris Evert and Arthur Ashe? Or the explosive play (and cocky behavior) of Jimmy “The Brat” Connors? How about the launching of World Team Tennis, assisted by Elton John’s tribute song to his favorite team, “Philadelphia Freedom”? Does anyone remember the late, great Vitas Gerulaitas??
There are probably a dozen reasons why the U.S. lags behind Europe in tennis. But I started talking only about the French Open, so I won’t digress. I just have a few suggestions for improving our prospects at Stade Roland-Garros:
First, go back to wooden rackets and deemphasize the serve-and-volley style of play. Second, destroy all the hard courts and replace them with bright red clay (they’re prettier, anyway). Third, mandate that students learn conversational French. And last: find out what Rafael Nadal eats for breakfast and make it required fare at all our junior tennis camps.