Mary Carillo analyzes why American men suck on clay

Tennis Fool
05-13-2005, 07:48 PM
Yes, I have no life today. I hope you guys enjoy the reads. :)

American men will struggle on clay
Dan Weil / Special to
Posted: 8 days ago

The tennis world is revving up for the meat of the clay-court season, which culminates with the French Open May 23-June 5. But experts say the U.S.' top two male stars, Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick, have little chance to win in Paris. The outlook for Roddick after the French is rosy, while for Agassi, who just turned 35, it's murky.

As for Paris, which holds the second Grand Slam tournament of the year, the slow red clay is quicksand for the dynamic duo. "No matter how fit Andre is or Roddick, it's still the hardest stinking tournament for those guys to win," said Mary Carillo, who won the 1977 French mixed doubles title with John McEnroe and is now a TV commentator.
Clay is the worst surface for both American stars. Roddick's powerful serve and forehand give him little advantage on the dirt. "All that stuff will keep coming back to him," Carillo said. "He hits a huge serve, and it comes back like a meatball."

That makes the French frustrating for the 22-year-old Roddick, who hasn't advanced past the third round there. "He has to a hit a winner three or four times on each point instead of just once like on hard courts," said TV analyst Fred Stolle, who won the French in 1965.

Although Roddick won the recent clay-court event in Houston for the third time, that carries little weight in Paris, noted Gene Scott, publisher of Tennis Week magazine and a world-ranked player himself in the 1960s. The Houston tournament is played on clay much faster than that of Paris and lasts only for a week, with best-of-three set matches. "It's not grind-'em-up five-set matches, where the serve doesn't mean a lot," Scott said. "Roddick doesn't have the aptitude for European clay."

Andre Agassi's game is no longer suited to the slow clay courts. ( / Associated Press)

Agassi in a sense faces the same predicament as Roddick, Carillo said. "The kind of stuff he does best isn't rewarded on clay." The Las Vegas native likes to outlast his opponents, using his precise groundstrokes and close-in court position to run them into exhaustion. But at the French, "guys have more topspin and more resilience in their legs. They bring their lunch pail and want to work the points," Carillo said, just like Agassi.

He won the French in 1999 and was twice a finalist in the early '90s. But age and other players have caught up to him. "He's in great shape but not in 20-year-old shape, where conditioning on clay isn't an issue. It is for someone who's older," Scott said. And given what Agassi already has accomplished — he is one of only five men to win all four Grand Slam tournaments — it will be difficult mentally to persevere through the seven matches needed to win in Paris.

"There's a psychological tug to let go if he's down two sets in a match and has to stay out three hours to win," Scott said. "There's something underneath that tugs and says, 'I can't do this.' It's a huge triumph if he gets to the semifinals."

Brad Gilbert, who formerly coached both Roddick and Agassi, said that for the pair to have a good shot at the French, they must do well at the clay tournaments in Rome and Hamburg over the next two weeks. "They need to get confidence and matches in," he said. Hot, dry weather, which makes the red clay play faster, would also boost their chances in Paris, Gilbert said, citing that as a key element in Agassi's 1999 title run.

Beyond the French, views are mixed as to how long Agassi can continue playing, though all agree he will stop when it becomes clear he can't win a Grand Slam tournament. He's won eight so far, most recently the Australian Open in 2003.

Gilbert said if Agassi doesn't tire of the pro tennis grind, he can play until he's 40. "Andre sees guys like Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Barry Bonds and Jerry Rice still productive in other sports that are tough physically," said Gilbert, who is still close to his former protege. "That adds inspiration for him. He doesn't see it as that tough." Agassi's amazing ball-striking ability, hand-eye coordination and conditioning will let him keep going if he wants, according to Gilbert.

But Scott and Stolle wouldn't be surprised if Agassi quits within a year. "He has other priorities, like a wife (Steffi Graf) and two kids," Scott said. "I don't think he will do well at any of the three remaining majors this year, because of the inevitable evolution — him getting older and other players getting better. Others hit the ball just as hard or harder with less effort."

Events could conspire to push Agassi out of the game quickly. "The big worry is that he gets injured or gets beaten a lot in a hot summer before the U.S. Open," Scott said. "It doesn't take a lot of that before he'd want to retire."

Roddick, who won the U.S. Open in 2003, has plenty of time to conquer more Grand Slam tournaments. "The meat of his career is coming up," Gilbert said. "He has a great opportunity to win a bunch of majors in the next five to seven years."

In addition to his strong serve and forehand, Roddick has improved his backhand and conditioning, and is very fast around the court. But the amiable American will have to improve his game to challenge the incomparable Roger Federer.

The Swiss wunderkind, 23, already has won four majors and beaten Roddick in eight of nine matches. Roddick also has lost six of seven matches to Australia's Lleyton Hewitt.

Commentator Carillo sees Roddick's main problem as court positioning: he stands too far back. "If he wants to use his power and to end some points at the net, he should be tighter into the court," she said. Roddick and his coach Dean Goldfine are well aware of the problem, but it's not an easy one to solve, Carillo noted. "It's like if you're used to standing two feet away talking to someone and all of the sudden you have to get a foot closer."

To Stolle and Scott, Roddick's key deficiency is his volley. "That's far and away the weakest part of his game," said Stolle, the Australian TV commentator. "He hits some good ones, but he will make a lot of errors. If he refines that, he's a great player and can win more majors."

But Scott thinks that will be difficult. "He's a great kid, but in my opinion, he'll never learn to volley to the point where it's fun for him. He didn't learn it early. For Pete Sampras and the old Australians, it was part of their life — like eating breakfast."

Scott sees one other problem for Roddick: the stressful style of his strokes. "His serve and forehand are tortured shots. His game isn't facile and fluid." The big question: "Will he make it through without injuring himself?" Scott said. "My worry is that he'll spend more time in the trainer's room than in the training room."

Dan Weil is a contributor to He can be reached at

05-13-2005, 09:15 PM
Good article, TF.

05-13-2005, 09:22 PM
yes, but I don't like the fact that they refer to clay as "dirt" :(

05-13-2005, 10:22 PM
The just have not enought tradition, in Spain all promising tennis players grow up playing in clay courts specially in Barcelona, Mallorca and Valencia.

05-13-2005, 10:48 PM
Great article

05-13-2005, 11:32 PM
Yes, good article and to the point. Roddick in addition does seem to have a mental problem that causes him to tank when things are not going his way. There are now innumerable examples of this.