All it took was 1 match for US men to improve at French Open
PARIS – To James Blake, 1-0 sounds a lot better than 0-9.A year after all nine U.S. men competing at the French Open lost in the first round, Blake won his opener at the clay-court Grand Slam tournament Sunday, beating former top-10 player Rainer Schuettler 6-4, 6-1, 7-6 (3).”We’ve already done more,” the No. 7-seeded Blake said with a laugh. “We set the bar low enough that we’re over the bar by 3 o’clock on Sunday afternoon. It was a tough situation last year, but now maybe it’s just like playing with house money this year.”He lost to Ivo Karlovic in four sets at Roland Garros in 2007, part of the worst showing by American men at any major tennis championship in 34 years. It also continued their recent trend of struggling on clay.”We all feel like, you know, last year was an aberration that should never happen again,” Blake said, “and this year we’re definitely looking for better results.”Or as U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe confidently predicted before the tournament began: “American men are going to do better this year than last year.”Not really saying a whole lot, huh?From 2004-07, only one man representing the United States made it as far as the third round in Paris: Blake, two years ago. That was his career-best showing in five previous visits to Roland Garros.”I feel like I’m playing a little bit better, (with) a little bit more experience on the clay,” said Blake, 9-6 on the slow surface in 2008. “Hopefully this will be the year I put it all together.”He is one of 10 U.S. men in the field this time, a contingent that does not include sixth-ranked Andy Roddick, the 2003 U.S. Open champion who pulled out of the French Open because of a shoulder injury.The only other American man scheduled to play Sunday was John Isner, the 6-foot-9 big server who led Georgia to the 2007 NCAA team title and won a set against No. 1 Roger Federer at the U.S. Open last year. But Isner’s match against Juan Ignacio Chela of Argentina was postponed until Monday because earlier action on their court took too long; there are no lights at Roland Garros.Blake was peeved to have to play on Day 1 – the French Open is the only Grand Slam event that begins on Sunday instead of Monday – although at least he wasn’t exactly staring at a clay expert across the net.Schuettler was the 2003 Australian Open runner-up, losing the final to Andre Agassi, but he dropped out of the top 150 in the rankings last year and currently stands 90th. He’s 60-83 for his career on clay and has lost seven of his nine first-round matches in Paris, including four in a row.The German, though, had won both previous head-to-head meetings with Blake.”For him, it doesn’t really matter if he plays on hard court or if he plays on clay or on grass. He plays his game. He goes for the shots,” Schuettler said. “If he hits the shot and he hits it well, (and) he feels comfortable with the balls on the court, then he’s dangerous everywhere.”Still, clay tends to slow serves and groundstrokes and make for longer points, often rewarding patience while punishing aggressiveness. It also requires plenty of good footwork. Because people in the United States tend to grow up practicing and playing on speedier hard courts, they often find it difficult to be successful on clay, which is more commonly found in Europe and South America.No one from the United States won the men’s singles championship in Paris between Tony Trabert’s title in 1955 and Michael Chang’s in 1989.Blake used to find himself attempting to dramatically alter his approach on clay. Not anymore.”I tried to be a ‘clay courter,’ and I’m not. I’m not a natural mover, playing defensively on the stuff, looping balls back, standing 8 feet behind the baseline to return serves and just pushing it in. That’s not my game. I’m not good at it,” he said.”I can’t try to be that person, that type of player. I’m going to lose to guys who are much more skilled at that. So I need to play my game and adjust a little bit, be a little bit more patient, learn to play defense a little bit better, maybe work in the drop shot a little bit more – but not completely changing my game.”There are still moments when Blake clearly is not nearly as comfortable as he is on hard courts. After sailing one forehand long on a bit of an awkward lunge in the second set against Schuettler, Blake scolded himself: “Don’t slide into that! Just get over there!”After building a 5-1 lead in the third set, Blake began to bungle things, losing five consecutive games. He twice was broken while serving for the match, but did eventually pull it out in the tiebreaker, getting to match point by ending a 16-stroke exchange with a runaround forehand winner just inside the line.”Maybe this will help my confidence even more to know that no matter what happens I can deal with ups and downs in matches,” Blake said. “There was quite a few ups until that point, and then there’s one little valley. I dealt with it, so I’m happy about that.”
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