America's Tennis Hopes Rise at French Open

The French Open is underway in Paris. It's tennis' second major tournament of the year. James Blake won Sunday and is the first American man to advance to the second round since 2006.

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ROBERT SMITH, Host:

The French Open, the second major tennis tournament of the year, is underway in Paris with one defending champion looking for a fourth straight title and the other one retired, gone. Commentator John Feinstein joins me to discuss Rafael Nadal's attempt to make history on the men's side a wide open field on the women's side. Good morning, John.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Good morning, Robert.

SMITH: It seems as we watch the men, there is one simple question: Can anyone beat Nadal?

FEINSTEIN: And that's a heck of a question, given that he's won 108 of his last 110 matches on clay, the slow, red surface that they play the French Open on in Paris. No other major championship is conducted on clay, so it's completely different than the other three majors.

And Nadal has won the last three titles, as you mentioned. He beat Roger Federer, the world's number-one player, the last two years in the final. And the question as you said is can anybody, Federer, or Novak Djokovic, who won the Australian Open earlier this year, or someone we're not even thinking about somehow beat Nadal on this surface?

SMITH: Well get down to the physics of this for me. What is it about playing on clay that makes it so different than grass or even a hard court that we've all played on?

FEINSTEIN: The ball bounces so much higher, Robert, and you have to have tremendous patience to play on clay. The rallies are much longer. You can't dominate at the net the way you certainly can at Wimbledon on grass and the way some people can on hard courts. You have to just stay back and wait for that high bounce and wait for your chance to hit a winner.

Nadal is not only big and strong, but he's also extremely patient. That's why he's so good on the surface.

SMITH: Well what about the number-one seed, Roger Federer? He's won the other three major tournaments but not the French Open.

FEINSTEIN: Yeah, you're absolutely right. He's won 12 majors all together, but like a lot of great male players, has struggled on the clay. Pete Sampras, who's the all-time major winner with 14 titles, never won in Paris. A lot of great players - John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, others - never won in Paris.

Federer is a good clay-court player. He just hasn't been good enough to beat Nadal, and this year, he's off to, for him, a very slow start. He didn't win in Australia, he had a bout with mononucleosis, and he has his worst record coming in to Paris in the last five years.

So maybe that'll be good luck for him. Who knows?

SMITH: Let's go to the women's side. Justine Henin isn't playing, she retired recently, so who's left in the women's field to watch?

FEINSTEIN: Well, you start with Maria Sharapova, who has replaced Henin as the number-one player in the world and won in Australia - and like Federer, is trying to complete her career grand slam here. She's won the other three majors. She's never won in Paris. So she is the favorite by virtue of Henin not being here to go for a fourth straight title - not being in Paris, excuse me. And the only woman in the field who's won at Roland Garros is Serena Williams, who's the fifth seed and always dangerous in the majors.

SMITH: What about the American men? Can they improve on recent performances in this event? They haven't been strong.

FEINSTEIN: Well, they already have, Robert. They already have because James Blake won his first-round match yesterday. Last year, no American man won a single match.

SMITH: That's something.

FEINSTEIN: So there's an improvement. No American's made the round of 16, the fourth round here, since 2003. If Blake does it, he's the best American by far because Andy Roddick is injured and not playing - it'll be a major breakthrough for the Americans.

Since Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Michael Chang retired, none of this current crop of American men have played well on clay at all.

SMITH: The comments of John Feinstein, whose new book is "Living on the Black: Two Pitchers, Two Teams, One Season to Remember."

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