The Dirtballer’s Convention

The U.S. men actually looked like they belonged on the dirt in Paris for a change.

I feel like I just stepped into the annual United States Dirtballer’s Convention. Five of the U.S. men won their first round matches at the French Open in Paris. One of them, Wayne Odesnik, actually won a second round match if you can believe that.

U.S. tennis players don’t typically have the mindset for grinding on dirt. Pete Sampras preferred his points shorter which may explain why he only got as far as the semifinals here, which, if you think about it, was a surprisingly good result. Andre Agassi won a title here but he wasn’t a grinder, he was a dictator. He moved the ball around and his opponent had to run after it.

Michael Chang won a title here too but he wasn’t a grinder as much as a trickster. I can still see John McEnroe muttering loudly to himself as Chang sent lob after lob over Mac’s outstretched racket. Then there were those underhand serves that knocked Ivan Lendl out of the French Open on the way to Chang’s 1989 title.

Jim Courier, now he was a grinder and he won two titles here. On the other hand, he also won two Australian Opens and reached a Wimbledon final before losing to Sampras, so he was an all-surface grinder.

Okay, so the U.S. isn’t immune to dirt but look who played well this year on clay: Andy Roddick got to the semifinals in Rome before he retired with an injury that is keeping him home this week, and Sam Querrey got to the quarterfinals at Monte Carlo. Querrey is one of those overfed, overtall U.S. players whose games are designed for concrete. Didn’t Querrery hit ten straight aces past the far from slow James Blake last year?

John Isner is even taller, almost Ivo Karlovic tall, and here he was up two sets to none before losing to Juan Ignacio Chela in five sets. I notice, by the way, that the French tennis federation is suppressing videos of the tournament uploaded to youtube. Wasn’t it bad enough that they tried to stop gambling on the French Open, do they have to take away our viewing pleasure too?

Vince Spadea is the ultimate scrapper. His goal is to annoy the hell out of you and that’s true off the court too. And I’m not referring to his rapping. He wrote a book called Break Point: The Secret Diary of a Pro Tennis Player in which he dished some dirt from the locker room. I haven’t read it yet and the dirt didn’t amount to much as far as I know, but players don’t appreciate their business leaving the locker room.

Spadea crawled back from two sets down in the first round to even his match with Julien Benneteau before losing in five sets. While he was at it, he got in the face of a few of Benneteau’s home crowd spectators. Feisty and scrappy tend to go together. Spadea is a poser with all his rapping and styling but you know what, he’s a poser who’s grown on me over time because his intensity is real.

I don’t know that he’ll ever develop an entertainment gene or write anything close to an interesting rhyme, but the guy has spent most of the past 14 years in the top one hundred and that says a lot. In 1999 he got just inside the top 20 then dropped down to the 200’s before climbing back to the top twenty in 2004. Can you think of anyone else who’s done something like that besides Agassi? Spadea started dropping out of the top 100 this month. If this is the end, it’s been a long and intense career.

U.S. player Donald Young played U.S. player Robbie Ginepri in the first round. Unless Young somehow managed to flip over the net and crash into Ginepri causing a double wipeout of epic proportions, a U.S. player was likely to win that match.

I’ve always worried about Young because he hasn’t grown with the rest of the crowd. He was 5ft 9in (175cm) while other U.S. players were sprouting to 6ft 6in (198cm) and higher. His profile says he’s six feet tall but that’s probably an exaggeration and he still looks like a spindly kid to me.

I love Young’s aggressive net game but I just don’t see him launching himself into his ground shots with as much forward directed force as I see with other players. Gustavo Kuerten, who played his last ceremonial match here this week, was also spindly but he generated a lot power. Young could go far with his speed but the other players who have less power and lots of speed – Nikolay Davydenko and David Ferrer immediately jump to mind – have more physically imposing games than Young.

Bobby Reynolds is Ginepri’s roommate and he beat Frenchman Thierry Ascione without annoying the crowd. Mardy Fish took out Agustin Calleri and that’s pretty good considering that Calleri is an Argentinian dirtball specialist who reached the semifinals at Casablanca last week.

Blake is the last of the five players still alive and he has a pretty good shot at reaching the fourth round. He’s lucky, though, because Odesnik gets Novak Djokovic next and Ginepri gets Igor Andreev so enjoy it while it lasts.