American Tennis Talent to Get Clay-Court Grounding at Site of U.S. Open

The U.S. Tennis Association would like developing American players to do some sliding on clay.

With the French Open -- the only tennis Grand Slam to use clay courts -- starting in 10 days in Paris, four clay-surfaced tennis courts are being installed at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in the Queens borough of New York. It is part of a push to improve Americans’ play on clay, and it’s the first appearance of such courts since the facility opened in 1978.

A decade ago there was little effort to introduce future U.S. tennis pros to clay-court tennis, Gordon Smith, the executive director of the USTA, said today at a media gathering in New York to promote Tennis Month. Poor international results during the clay-court season and the criticism that has followed have led to change.

“Clay was definitely not a high priority,” Smith said. “Now, every player who comes through the USTA system will have a very strong grounding in clay-court tennis.”

Statistics show that a foundation on clay can help the top pros. Of the 103 men who have reached the top 10 since the ATP rankings were created, 91 of them grew up on clay, according to playtheclay.com.

The U.S. Open, which was held at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, New York, before its move to Queens, was played on clay from 1975-1977.

The last American to win the French Open was Serena Williams in 2002, one year after countrywoman Jennifer Capriati accomplished the feat. Since then, Americans have claimed 16 Grand Slam titles at other events.

Chris Evert, who won a record seven French Open singles titles in 1974-1986, said her background on clay kept her healthy in a sport in which injuries are common.

Better for Body

“It’s much better for your body,” she told reporters today. “I never had one injury and I was brought up on clay. If you want to prolong your career, grow up on clay.”

Evert, 55, now runs a tennis academy for top young players in Boca Raton, Florida. She teaches her students how to play on the chalky surface -- which slows the ball down much more than hard courts -- and explains fundamentals likely already known by players who have grown up on clay.

“They’re so awkward when they slide,” Evert said of her pupils. “That’s the question I get a lot. How do you slide? When you learn at a young age, like anything in life, you don’t think about it. When you learn later on, it’s hard to learn.”

On May 9, American Sam Querrey beat countryman John Isner in three sets to claim the Serbia Open, marking the first all- American clay-court final in Europe since the 1991 French Open, when Jim Courier topped Andre Agassi.

U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe gave Querrey a sliding lesson at a March practice in Serbia, Smith said. It’s an example of how much there is for Americans to learn about the surface.

“Sam’s 20th in the world and he was sliding after he hit the ball instead of into the ball,” Smith said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Mason Levinson in New York at mlevinson@bloomberg.net.

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