US players need to get dirty, play more clay

Former US Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe said America’s hard-hitting tennis hopefuls must adopt a different strategy Thursday if they want to challenge the world’s elite and avoid the current slump of the nation’s professionals in the rankings.

McEnroe, who runs the US Tennis Association’s (USTA) player development program, said the emerging talents must be prepared to follow a European approach, which forces the players to dig harder, grind longer, slide better, and get dirtier.

"We fell behind a little bit in how we train our young kids," he said. "That’s not a knock on any individual, but a knock on our country."

Earlier this month, the US hit a low in tennis, when for the first time since the invention of the computer ranking system, almost 40 years ago, it did not have a single man or woman in the top 10 of the men’s or women’s tours.

When the French Open begins Sunday, Mardy Fish, ranked No. 10, will be the highest-ranked American in either the men’s or women’s field. The top nine men will call Europe home. To catch up, McEnroe said, the US must learn to take a page or two from the European playbook, which means training more on clay.

"Clay is where you learn how to move, you can’t cheat on clay," said Mats Wilander, the former No. 1 and three-time French Open champion. "On hard courts, you inevitably get lazy. There isn’t that big of a difference between Mardy Fish and Novak Djokovic in terms of hitting the ball, but Djokovic moves 10 times better." Djokovic, ranked No. 2 in the world, has yet to lose a match this season.

Jose Higueras, who was dangerous on clay back when it was more of a specialty surface, rather than a breeding ground for greatness, now travels the US as the USTA’s director of coaching (McEnroe hired him in 2008). His initial take on America’s young tennis players, he said, was holding up over time.

"Our kids don’t hit the ball worse than anybody else," he said. "They don’t play as well."

The shift to clay marked a sharp change in ideology for American tennis.

"The great American players over the years have been aggressive players, and we’re certainly trying to continue that," McEnroe said. "But if you can’t hit a lot of balls from the back of the court, it’s pretty unlikely you’re going to make it to the top."

Read more