With the early exits of Serena Williams and James Blake, I wanted to try and figure out why Americans can’t win on clay. Growing up in the US, we are mostly exposed to hardcourts. When you play on these, you get the true bounce of the ball which makes it easier for muscle memory to figure out where the ball will be. This doesn’t happen at the French Open as the surface might slightly be uneven with the clay sliding from one area to another. The ball might take a funny hop or just hit a dead spot.
American tennis players are taught to take the ball earlier and attack. The clay takes away from that strategy as it slows the ball down. That is why you see such a longer rally than you do on hardcourts. Power is another advantage that is neutralized by the red surface. Many of the top US players like to generate power with long deep swings, but on clay it is more important to play angles and redirect momentum of the ball. A reason why counterpunchers do so well on clay. They take the pace you create and use it against you. When you swing hard and long the time to regain your balance is longer, something that is essential on this surface. By the time you recover and make a move, your opponent is already figuring how to counter. Let’s use James Blake for example. He is extremely fast on the court and can get to just about any ball, but not being used to the slide off the clay has made his recovery time that much longer. Resulting in many more lost points.
The American tennis game stresses power. But on the clay of Roland Garros it couldn’t be farther from the point. This could be the reason why Americans get so frustrated playing there. You will understand, just watch any player from Spain or South America play. The amount of topspin forehands and sliced backhands you will see will frustrate you as well.