Stuck in the dirt: no end in sight as US men’s French Open slump hits 25

Wthen a twitching Michael Chang and his infamous underhanded serve shocked tournament favorite Ivan Lendl and the entire tennis world en route to winning the 1989 French Open, it was the first time an American man had won at Roland Garros since Tony Trabert in 1955, an infamous 34-year streak.

After Chang’s one major triumph, a sort of mini-renaissance took place for the American men in Paris over the next ten years and it seemed that the futility of the Americans on clay was a thing of the past; Jim Courier would take home back-to-back French trophies in 1991 and 1992, and Andre Agassi capped his career grand slam with the title in 1999.

But here we are again, embroiled in another slump for the Americans on the tarmac, as 25 years have passed since Agassi’s only French victory. And from the looks of it, this line shows no signs of abating.

Of course, American men have not fared well at any slam in the past two decades, with Andy Roddick’s US Open victory in 2003 being the last time an American won a major title. But Roddick went on to reach four additional slam finals. And the current top-ranked Americans (Taylor Fritz, Tommy Paul, Ben Shelton, Frances Tiafoe and Sebastian Korda) are at least a viable threat in the non-clay majors. But on the terre battu? The brutal truth is that most would be shocked if an American man even made it to the quarterfinals in Paris. None of the above made it to Roland Garros last week.

The reasons or theories for the Americans’ epic battle on the red soil are numerous, depending on who you ask: Americans play mainly on hard courts as juniors and it is too late to adapt to the clay; because they are not used to the clay, they do not develop the sliding skills necessary for agile covering on the surface; American men concentrate too much on the one-two punch of the big serve and forehand and use the drop shot too little (see: Alcaraz, Carlos); Finally, it may have something to do with the American ethos of impatience, where dawdling is considered lazy and therefore they don’t have the mentality necessary to construct the long points on the clay.

What’s interesting is that this clay infertility that affects American men has not affected women. Consider: American women have won fifteen French titles in the open era (from 1968), including perhaps the greatest female clay court player of all time, Chris Evert. Serena Williams was the last American woman to win in Paris, in 2015, and since then two other Americans, Sloane Stephens in 2018 and Coco Gauff in 2022, have reached the final. And Gauff will certainly be considered one of the two main contenders behind the increasingly clay-dominant Iga Świątek when the French fortnight kicks off on Sunday.

Of the American men, it seems that Shelton and Korda would be the two who could break through in Paris in the coming years. Ironically, both hold titles on clay, with Shelton winning in Houston a few weeks ago. (Korda’s only ATP title came at a clay court event in Romania in 2021) Shelton’s deadly serve will always give him a chance on any surface, although the clay dampens that power somewhat. He is also expanding his arsenal of shots and will likely develop into a serious threat on the surface. But can he beat Alcaraz or Novak Djokovic or Caspar Ruud or even the aging Nadal this year? The odds are heavily against you.

Roland Garros and its famous Terre Battue have been a house of horrors for American men for the past 25 years. Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images

Korda, whose seemingly limitless potential in all areas has been the talk of the American tennis world for years, has been labeled a disappointment by some, which is unfair as he has struggled with injuries. Korda has the full game to challenge for the French championship in his career. And he also has the intangibles on his side: his father, Petr Korda, reached the French final in 1992, losing to Courier.

Granted, if an American wants to wow the tennis world and do well against the French, there are some wild cards in play here. Nadal is at the end of his career and has yet to find his form, even on his beloved surface, since returning to the tour sparingly this year. Djokovic has been a big question mark all year as he has yet to win a title heading into Paris (he’s playing the Geneva event this week in an effort to be ready for Roland Garros). And Alcaraz, after winning Indian Wells, has been struggling with persistent arm problems and has not played for three weeks, having competed in only one clay court event this season (Madrid). So it is not impossible that Shelton or even Taylor Fritz, if they serve at their peak, make a favorable draw and go deep into the tournament.

And while it has been the Americans who have struggled to make inroads into the French Open in recent decades, it is instructive to consider that for much of the open era, most of the top players – American or elsewhere – also failed to make it managed to win in Paris. Apart from two major standouts – Bjorn Borg and Lendl – the best players all struggled: Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and Pete Sampras could never crack the clay code. Of this group, only McEnroe and Edberg even reached the final in Paris. It was almost an unfortunate badge of honor, not winning in Paris, similar to so many of the best directors who never won an Academy Award (Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, et al.).

In fact, of all slams, the French have produced far more one-surface slam champions than the other majors, proof that for years Roland Garros was a hunting ground for the clay court specialists who didn’t fare as well as the other majors. the other major championships.

Think of the number of players in the open era who won the French but never the other Slams: Andres Gimeno, Adriano Panatta, Yannick Noah, Michael Chang, Sergie Brugera, Tomas Muster, Carlos Moya, Gustavo Kuerten, Albert Costa, Juan Carlos Ferrerro and Gaston Gaudio. Compare that number to those who only won Wimbledon (Pat Cash, Michael Stich, Richard Krajicek, Goran Ivansevic) or the US Open (Manuel Orantes, Pat Rafter, Roddick, Juan Martin del Potro, Marin Cilic, Dominic Thiem and Medvedev). There have been many more ‘clay-only’ champions than those who did mainly well on grass or hard courts. It wasn’t until the Big Three era of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic – an era we’re technically still living in – that all the very best players were competitive on the court.

Is there any way a young American can come from nowhere and win the French Open like Chang did 35 years ago? Yes. But then again, no one saw Chang’s miracle coming.