American men’s tennis has gained ground in the past 2 years, with three men inside the Top 20 heading into clay court season. Indications are, it’s not just a mirage. But the one area where they lag is on red European clay.
Taylor Fritz, the top-ranked American at #10 in the world, has never won a title on clay. His overall record on the surface is just 25-24. Francis Tiafoe, ranked #15, also has no titles and an even more lackluster clay record of 21-30.
Earlier in his career, Fritz skipped clay entirely. That will not pay dividends.
Young American upstart Ben Shelton was recently tagged on social media as a guy who has the kind of arc and depth to his forehand that clay usually loves.
However, the big caveat is that Shelton has only recently been physically outside of the United States. The red clay in Europe is a completely different beast than anything the American will have seen before.
It’s not the surface itself, or getting used to the bounce. Americans play on scores of different surfaces and in vastly different conditions in a given year. It’s what the other guy’s ball does on the surface. And the “other guy” is very often a European who grew up playing on the dirt and knows how to massage it.
Because clay gobbles up topspin and thrusts it forward spinning toward the player, that player must then use an incredible amount of force to stop that directional spin and in fact, spin it the opposite way. The vast majority of shots require much more effort than is needed to topspin a ball on a hard court.
In addition, balls that are back spun, like drop shots, require an extra step to chase down on clay because they are spinning back toward the net even more.
One American who you might think would be adept on clay is Tommy Paul because of his freakish movement abilities and wiry strength. Alas, Paul is only 13-18 on clay and simply doesn’t have the body of work. Disappointingly, Paul has opted to play Houston as a clay warmup. For some reason, the clay there just isn’t the same as it is in Europe, and it may relate to how clay behaves in humid versus a little more arid conditions. Or a different latitude might be a factor.
Finally, Sebastian Korda, whose father was a European tennis star and certainly understands the surface, has a nice early record of 17-11 on clay. Last year, the American famously ousted Carlos Alcaraz in Monte Carlo. However, Korda has been injured with a persistent wrist problem and hasn’t played since the Australian Open.
The bottom line: I will believe the American men can make a run on clay when I see it. Until then, don’t expect a dirt-covered miracle.