It's that time of year again. The annual bemoaning of American men losing early at clay events in Europe. Only this year, it's been a little different. They haven't been losing early -- because they haven't even been playing.
There has been only one ATP match involving an American on European clay courts so far this year -- John Isner's first-round loss in Monte Carlo three weeks ago. Subsequent tournaments in Barcelona, Bucharest, Oeiras and Munich have proceeded devoid of U.S. singles representatives, and all with a deafening lack of reaction from local crowds.
The American presence improves a little this week at the Mutua Madrid Open as Isner and Sam Querrey take their spots in the draw, though no players made the trip across the Atlantic to contest the qualifying rounds. It'll be a similar story next week in Rome, though a few Americans are choosing to play in Nice to try to pick up some last-minute matches on red clay heading into the French Open.
All in all, however, U.S. participation in the lead-up to Roland Garros this year will end up being notably low -- even lower than last year, when accusations of staying away got a heated reaction from the Americans.
So is it a case of if you can't beat 'em, don't join 'em?
Not exactly. Part of the absence can be explained by rankings. Apart from No. 18 Querrey and No. 21 Isner, the only Americans ranked high enough to be able to get into these tournaments are No. 44 Mardy Fish and maybe No. 72 Brian Baker, who have both been sidelined with health issues. For the other 14 Americans in the top 200, going across to Europe would have meant playing qualifying events packed with continental and South American dirt-ballers.
But it's not like they've been skipping the clay. Far from it. Instead, most have been taking part in a series of USTA challengers at Sarasota, Savannah and Tallahassee over the past three weeks. All are on clay, even if it is the green variety. Before that came the ATP event in Houston on red clay, which Isner won.
Maybe it's if you can't beat them, play somewhere else instead.
Apart from being a lot closer to home for Americans, the three-week group of challengers also had an extra prize to offer for those who might need it -- a French Open wild card. The USTA gets one in return for offering a U.S. Open wild card to a French player every year, and for the past few years has offered it to the player who earns the most main draw points at two of these three challengers. A similar arrangement is in place for the women's draw.
This year, the men's wild card goes to 26-year-old Alex Kuznetsov, who won the Sarasota challenger as a qualifier. Kuznetsov reached the French Open junior final in 2004 before being injured in a car accident that led to a metal rod being inserted in his right leg.
Now he is set to play in the main draw for the first time. He's raised his ranking more than 100 spots to No. 171 in the process.
It has also been a profitable period for other Americans playing the minor leagues. Ryan Harrison is ranked high enough not to need a wild card for the French Open, but he did need some victories after winning just one match in six ATP events since the Australian Open. He decided to play the USTA challengers rather than the ATP European events to try to regain some ground and avoid some of the tough draws he's faced in bigger tournaments.
"Just for my ranking. I dropped a little bit. I lost a few matches. Those masters series in Europe are tough. If you win a round, you can easily play a guy [ranked in the top 10]," Harrison told ESPN.com.
The 20-year-old American got Novak Djokovic in the second round of the Australian Open and Rafael Nadal in the second round of the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, as well as an in-form James Blake and Isner in the first round of two other tournaments this year.
"I wanted to play a lot of matches; I wanted to build some confidence, play some tournaments where I'll be seeded and play some guys I feel like I can win," he said. "The location of the tournaments didn't really have as much to do with it as the schedule. Obviously, if I can choose where to play, I'd rather play in the States, but I'm not opposed to going to tournaments in Europe, to play on the red clay over there."
After winning the Savannah challenger and then making the semifinals of Tallahassee last week, he is now ranked No. 78, up 22 spots over two weeks.
Donald Young fell out of the top 200 in February after a long winless streak last year, but is now back in the top 150, thanks mostly to a few weeks of challengers in Mexico and the United States. "I feel a lot better than last year for sure," the 23-year-old told ESPN.com. "I am stringing matches together, so that's helping me out a lot."
Up and coming Denis Kudla, 20, is up 26 spots to No. 116 after winning Tallahassee.
Despite these solid performances, however, it's at the French Open that the clay performances of the American men will really be under the microscope. It's not clear that the form will translate.
"The big thing is for any American to go over to Paris and feel like they can do some damage, you've got to put the work in in the weeks before," ESPN analyst Darren Cahill said. "I feel like the players who go and play three or four lead-in tournaments are giving themselves the best shot of making something happen over there.
"I think it's a little bit unrealistic to expect to go over there without playing a good chunk of clay-court tennis leading into the French Open and expect to play really well in Paris over five sets."
Both Harrison and Young said there were a lot of differences between red clay and the faster, more granular green clay, though both also said they can adjust in just a few days.
They'll need to. Harrison will now take a break before heading over to Nice to play qualifying there a week before the French Open, while Young plans to play one more challenger before French Open qualifying. Kuznetsov will also be concentrating on training ahead of his appearance.
Other prospective main-draw hopes already have taken a hit. Fish, who played a round in Savannah and then withdrew from Tallahassee, is expected to try to return again after the French Open, while Brian Baker is only just starting to train properly after hurting his knee at the Australian Open. Michael Russell, who just turned 35, has the game for clay but struggled during the American challengers.
That means most of the attention will be on Isner, 28, and Querrey, 25, both of whom have done damage on European clay in the past. They are scheduled to play three straight weeks heading into the French Open, which should provide a good idea of their form heading into the year's second major.
Will they end up getting beat by the clay-court masses or beating them? Either way, at least they're joining 'em.