If there was ever a day in recent years that it appeared American men were going to fully leave their mark on the biggest clay-court events and keep pace with their countrywomen, it was May 6, 2019.
Frances Tiafoe, Taylor Fritz and Reilly Opelka—three of the nation’s brightest young stars—beat Nikoloz Basilashvili, Grigor Dimitrov and Pablo Carreno Busta, respectively, in the first round of the Madrid Open. All three of their foes were Top-15 caliber talents with impressive results on the clay over the course of their careers.
However, the Americans were unable to mount a run at the title, continuing a streak that has lasted up to the approaching start of the French Open.
The last time a male player from the U.S. captured a 500-level event or above on clay—including Roland Garros—was 2002, when Andre Agassi won the Masters title in Rome. In fact, that was the last final appearance by a man representing the Stars and Stripes.
Here’s the breakdown of the most recent U.S. winners at the 500, 1000 and Grand Slam levels on clay:
MONTE CARLO (1956: Hugh Stewart)
BARCELONA (1998: Todd Martin)
MADRID (None since the tournament’s switch to clay)
ROME (2002: Agassi)
ROLAND GARROS (1999: Agassi)
HAMBURG (1980: Harold Solomon)
For the American women, though, the rewards have been much more plentiful. At the biggest clay-court events on the WTA Tour, the women have more than held their own:
CHARLESTON (Madison Keys: 2019)
STUTTGART (None since the tournament’s switch to clay)
MADRID (Serena Williams: 2013)
ROME (Serena Williams: 2016. She defeated compatriot Madison Keys in the first all-American final since 1970)
ROLAND GARROS (Serena Williams: 2015)
Of course, as she’s dominated the game for the better part of two decades, Williams has proven that a change of surface doesn’t affect her. She could be considered the most dominant American on clay since Chris Evert—arguably the greatest clay-courter, male or female, of all time—left the game.
Conquering the red clay is always going to be a daunting task for the men. History, though, has shown that it can be done.
Michael Chang famously ended a decades-long drought for the men when he won in Paris in 1989. Two years later, Jim Courier won consecutive titles and Agassi closed out the ‘90s with his win.
The current crop of young Americans have shown an eagerness to tackle the task. Fritz just finished his sixth straight week of play on the clay in Europe with a semifinal appearance in Lyon. Over that period, he’s defeated Diego Schwartzman, Guido Pella and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, as well as Dimitrov.
Momentum’s on the Californian’s side as he enters Roland Garros, but he’s still far down the list of contenders for the title. Stephens, last year’s runner-up, and three-time winner Williams are firmly entrenched as favorites for the title. Should Fritz, Tiafoe, Opelka and the rest continue to build upon the strides they took this year, they’ll be in a position to put those droughts on the dirt to rest.
Follow Van on Twitter: @Van_Sias