Americans Embracing Clay-Court Season
U.S. players competing in full ATP World Tour schedule on the red clay
Who said Americans can’t or won’t play on clay? With 12 Americans in the singles main draw this week at the Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship in Houston, more Americans than ever are playing a loaded clay-court schedule.
And not only are U.S. players showing up on the dirt, but they're winning. Steve Johnson is through to the Houston final after defeating fellow American Jack Sock, while #NextGenATP American Ernesto Escobedo reached his first ATP World Tour semi-final. In doubles, another #NextGenATP player in Frances Tiafoe reached his first ATP World Tour final with German Dustin Brown.
“I feel like Americans can play on clay. There’s a stereoype that we can’t, but I think it can be our best surface,” said Escobedo. “I grew up in Los Angeles, so there’s maybe only one or two clay courts in the whole city, but I always loved sliding around on it. It teaches you how to be patient, work the point a little bit more. It’s a different game.”
The 2016 season saw Sock finish runner-up in Houston and John Isner record a fourth-round showing at Roland Garros. At the ATP Challenger Tour level last year, Bjorn Fratangelo prevailed in Savannah and was a finalist in Bordeaux, while Jared Donaldson and Tiafoe finished runner-up in Savannah and Tallahassee, respectively. And in doubles, Americans won ATP World Tour doubles titles in Houston, Barcelona, Rome (all Bryan/Bryan), Estoril (Butorac/Lipsky) and Geneva (Johnson/Querrey).
“There were plenty of clay courts growing up in Florida, so I played a ton on it. It was actually my main surface to hit on,” said #NextGenATP American Reilly Opelka. “Some clay courts are a little bit faster as well, so it’s a perfect surface for the Americans.”
However, other Americans said they had far more limited experience on the surface until turning pro. Until recently, the U.S. only held one major junior tournament per year on green clay, a much faster surface compared to red clay. Many had never played on red dirt until they began to compete internationally, but quickly realised it was a surface they would need to excel on.
“I didn’t really know what to do [on red clay] at first. But when I started playing doubles with Simon Stadler, he solely wanted to play on clay, so I had to start getting used to it,” said 35-year-old Nicholas Monroe. “Eventually I stopped overthinking the movement on the surface, started focusing more on our game plan out there and ended up having fun on it.”
Learning how to become versatile, all-surface players is a large part of why many Americans are now at or near career-high Emirates ATP Rankings, including Donald Young, Ryan Harrison, Sock, Donaldson, Tiafoe and Escobedo. As the ATP World Tour moves to Europe next week for a long stretch of clay-court tournaments, beginning on Sunday with the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters, it’s a part of the season they not only embrace, but believe can benefit them for the rest of the year.
“We have to do well on clay to get our ranking where we want it. It’s a long, important part of the season,” said Young. “You have a Grand Slam, three ATP World Tour Masters 1000 events, some 500-level events. If you can do well on it, it can set your whole year up and not put so much pressure on the American summer events. And it helps you with all aspects of your game, different spins, movement. It’s a great building block for the rest of the season.”