The High Point of the Season

The Monte Carlo draw isn’t out until tomorrow, but, alone among tournaments, this offers no reason not to analyse it. The two salient features are already known: Rafael Nadal will play, and so will Novak Djokovic. Just this once, we can permit ourselves to pre-tape the weather report, so to speak. Anyway, what’s the alternative? To talk about Houston, and the bombastically titled US Men’s Clay Court Championship (named with typical restraint; this is a nation that calls its baseball competition the World Series. Don’t get me started on Miss Universe)? The draw is admittedly more cosmopolitan than, say, Atlanta’s, although there is still a preponderance of locals. This is their right, of course, since they’re US Men, and this is their championships.

Endless threnodies on the shortage of American clay court prowess are not unmerited. Formally, they’re all passacaglias on the same theme, and it’s a theme that rings true. The reigning US Men’s Clay Court champion is Ryan Sweeting. It’s debatable which surface Sweeting is a specialist on, but I’ll hazard that this isn’t it. He’s through to the quarterfinals, having beaten Bobby Reynolds, who despite knowing better, I usually picture as Richie Cunningham. Michael Russell, who once led the mighty Gustavo Kuerten by two sets at Roland Garros, has finally earned the upset we believed was in him, by seeing off Mardy Fish. Fish was the top seed, but he isn’t well. Most reports are citing fatigue. Some are insisting that it’s chronic, and a syndrome. Fish is still ranked No.9, but in the 2012 race he’s a lowly No.37, one spot below the illustrious Bjorn Phau. Nadal’s yearned-for two year ranking system would delay Fish’s departure from the top ten by months, which is surely a pretty succinct argument against it.

The match of the tournament so far was Kevin Anderson’s three set win over Sam Querrey today. Querrey’s coach Brad Gilbert appeared on Twitter remarking that his charge won more points and games, and yet still lost, apparently having just discovered this is possible. Hopefully, empowered with this new knowledge, Gilbert can teach Querrey that some points are more important than others, and that the very important ones habitually congregate in the third set tiebreaker. Lose those, and little else matters. Still more people are treating this as an upset, despite Anderson being ranked 70 places higher. Querrey remains stranded at No.103 (ten spots below the illustrious Bjorn Bhau). Where do these expectations come from? Phau, incidentally and illustriously, lost 6/1 6/0 to Carlos Berloq. Bummer.

The unfortunate fact is that only John Isner has displayed much aptitude for dirt lately (don’t imagine that as an Australian I feel at all superior about this). The decision to play Houston was thus baffling – one assumes the appearance fee played as definitive a role as the ‘love’ he professes to feel – especially since it has resulted in the predictable and foolish decision to pull out of Monte Carlo next week, despite his Davis Cup heroics just last week. I’ll always be the last one to say that Monte Carlo matters, but it should matter more than Houston, even if the latter is a National Championship. As I write, Isner has just seen off Horacio Zeballos in three sets. Ryan Harrison is also through to the quarterfinals, having defeated a ‘pair’ of Russians in Alex Bogomolov and Igor Kunitsyn. Harrison was also in Monte Carlo last weekend, and is not going back.

This aversion to European dirt merely reinforces a tendency that has lately hardened into a policy among US men. In the six years since 2005, only once has an American entered the main draw for Monte Carlo (Querrey in 2008). For all that Monte Carlo is the only Masters tournament that isn’t mandatory, and although its value as preparation for Roland Garros is questionable, this statistic still reveals the extent to which American players have largely given up on clay. They subsequently turn up in Europe by ones and twos during Madrid and Rome, but even then they don’t seem to take it very seriously. Of course, they’re unlikely to win these events, especially Monte Carlo, but there’s such a thing as playing to improve, and mastering all aspects of the sport. There’s a great deal to be said for professionalism. As a consequence, the top American players – Roddick, Fish, previously Blake – never look adequately prepared for Paris. The year’s second major seems merely to be something to be endured before Wimbledon. From that perspective, Houston’s status as the US Men’s Clay Court Championship is not overstated at all. For the US men, it really is the high point of their clay court season.

Anyway, back to the Monte Carlo draw . . . Oh, we’re out of time.

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