Tough day for 3 American teens at French Open

Summing up a 6-2, 6-0 loss to defending champion Francesca

Schiavone at the French Open, Melanie Oudin of Marietta, Ga., said

Monday: ”Basically, I pretty much got a clay-court lesson.”

If the U.S. Tennis Association gets its way, more and more young

Americans will be schooled closer to home in the ways of playing on

clay.

That’s why a significant junior tournament in Florida is

switching from hard to clay courts, and why four clay courts were

installed last year at the USTA training center where the U.S. Open

is held in New York. The idea is not simply to help kids have more

success on the slow surface used at Roland Garros, but also to

improve their games on faster hard or grass courts.

”I don’t get to play on clay, and she’s grown up on clay,”

Oudin said after facing the 30-year-old Schiavone, an Italian. ”I

mean, she’s a lot older than me, like 10 years, 12 years. That

definitely helps for experience for her. But also, I mean, she’s

just really, really good on the clay.”

Oudin – best known to date for her surprising, upset-filled run

to the 2009 U.S. Open quarterfinals – was one of three 19-year-old

women from the United States in first-round action at the French

Open on Monday.

As if to highlight the issue of the future of U.S. tennis on

clay, all three met older opponents from Europe, and all three

lost, none more painfully than Christina McHale of Englewood

Cliffs, N.J. She led 5-0 in the third set but let that slip away

and was beaten 6-7 (4), 6-2, 9-7 by Sara Errani, a 24-year-old from

Italy.

”I just wasn’t making my shots anymore, and I panicked, and she

started feeding off of that,” McHale said, fighting tears, ”and

before I knew it, it was 5-all.”

CoCo Vandeweghe of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., was eliminated 7-6

(5), 6-2 by 25th-seeded Maria Kirilenko, a 24-year-old from Russia.

It was the first time playing at Roland Garros for Vandeweghe, who

never entered the French Open junior tournament – and who said her

former coach dissuaded her from entering the U.S. junior

championships played on the surface.

”I never got to play on clay; I always wanted to,” said

Vandeweghe, the niece of former NBA All-Star and general manager

Kiki Vandeweghe. ”My game is pretty good for clay. I don’t mind

it. I can slide pretty well.”

The fourth American woman in action Monday, 36-year-old Jill

Craybas of Huntington Beach, Calif., advanced to the second round

by beating Eleni Daniilidou of Greece 6-3, 6-3.

Two U.S. men played, and 10th-seeded Mardy Fish of Tampa, Fla.,

defeated Ricardo Mello of Brazil 6-2, 6-7 (11), 6-2, 6-4, while

Alex Bogomolov Jr., of Miami, lost to Marcel Granollers of Spain

6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (6), 6-2.

There hasn’t been a U.S. man in the French Open quarterfinals

since Andre Agassi in 2003. There hasn’t been a U.S. woman other

than Serena or Venus Williams in the third round since 2006.

One prevailing theory is that Americans play far less on clay as

kids than players from some other parts of the world.

”We were talking about this the other day, a bunch of us: We

don’t know why there aren’t many clay courts in the States. … It

would be kind of good to get a variety, because you learn a lot

about your game on different surfaces,” Craybas said. ”It would

be good for kids to kind of play on all different surfaces as

they’re growing up, but it’s tough for Americans, because we don’t

have a lot of clay courts available. So, I mean, we’re always

practicing on hard courts when we’re younger.”

As general manager of player development for the USTA, former

U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe is a major proponent of

changing that. He wants youngsters from the country to train on

clay, as many Europeans and South Americans do.

That’s also why he wanted to shift this year’s Orange Bowl

International Tennis Championships from hard courts back to clay

this year.

”You learn how to use the court a lot better; you learn to move

a lot better; you learn to hit more balls and construct points,”

McEnroe said. ”It’s a lot easier to go from a background of

growing up on clay and adjusting your game to a faster surface than

it is to go vice versa.”

In addition to the four clay courts at the USTA Billie Jean King

Nationals Tennis Center, there are 14 at the USTA training center

in Boca Raton, Fla., and four at its center in Carson, Calif. Plus,

the USTA encourages the 20 privately owned clubs and programs that

serve as regional training centers elsewhere in the United States

to work with their top young players on clay as much as

possible.

”I definitely think it can’t hurt to practice on clay,” McHale

said. ”It helps with point construction, patience, and all of

that.”

The 22 courts at the main USTA centers are all green clay, which

is far more common than red in the U.S., primarily because upkeep

costs less. McEnroe said that if the green clay is maintained the

right way, it’s a ”very good simulation” of the red.

Oudin’s not so sure.

”It’s completely different. It’s nothing like here,” she said.

”Green clay courts, you can almost play on it like a hard court in

the States. It’s a lot faster; the ball doesn’t bounce as

high.”

Most of all, Oudin lamented her unlucky draw: She was forced to

face Schiavone, of all people, in the first round at Roland

Garros.

”Whenever I come to Europe and play the red clay, I always get

Spanish or Italian grinders. I can never get one that hits the ball

hard and flat,” Oudin said. ”So, I mean, I’ll be looking forward

to the grass-court season.”

When it comes to tennis, that’s become a familiar refrain for

Americans in Paris this time of year.

Howard Fendrich can be reached at

http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich