- Associated Press - Monday, May 23, 2011

PARIS (AP) - Summing up a 6-2, 6-0 loss to defending champion Francesca Schiavone at the French Open, Melanie Oudin of Marietta, Ga., said Monday: “Basically, I pretty much got a clay-court lesson.”

If the U.S. Tennis Association gets its way, more and more young Americans will be schooled closer to home in the ways of playing on clay.

That’s why a significant junior tournament in Florida is switching from hard to clay courts, and why four clay courts were installed last year at the USTA training center where the U.S. Open is held in New York. The idea is not simply to help kids have more success on the slow surface used at Roland Garros, but also to improve their games on faster hard or grass courts.

“I don’t get to play on clay, and she’s grown up on clay,” Oudin said after facing the 30-year-old Schiavone, an Italian. “I mean, she’s a lot older than me, like 10 years, 12 years. That definitely helps for experience for her. But also, I mean, she’s just really, really good on the clay.”

Oudin _ best known to date for her surprising, upset-filled run to the 2009 U.S. Open quarterfinals _ was one of three 19-year-old women from the United States in first-round action at the French Open on Monday.

As if to highlight the issue of the future of U.S. tennis on clay, all three met older opponents from Europe, and all three lost, none more painfully than Christina McHale of Englewood Cliffs, N.J. She led 5-0 in the third set but let that slip away and was beaten 6-7 (4), 6-2, 9-7 by Sara Errani, a 24-year-old from Italy.

“I just wasn’t making my shots anymore, and I panicked, and she started feeding off of that,” McHale said, fighting tears, “and before I knew it, it was 5-all.”

CoCo Vandeweghe of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., was eliminated 7-6 (5), 6-2 by 25th-seeded Maria Kirilenko, a 24-year-old from Russia. It was the first time playing at Roland Garros for Vandeweghe, who never entered the French Open junior tournament _ and who said her former coach dissuaded her from entering the U.S. junior championships played on the surface.

“I never got to play on clay; I always wanted to,” said Vandeweghe, the niece of former NBA All-Star and general manager Kiki Vandeweghe. “My game is pretty good for clay. I don’t mind it. I can slide pretty well.”

The fourth American woman in action Monday, 36-year-old Jill Craybas of Huntington Beach, Calif., advanced to the second round by beating Eleni Daniilidou of Greece 6-3, 6-3.

Two U.S. men played, and 10th-seeded Mardy Fish of Tampa, Fla., defeated Ricardo Mello of Brazil 6-2, 6-7 (11), 6-2, 6-4, while Alex Bogomolov Jr., of Miami, lost to Marcel Granollers of Spain 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (6), 6-2.

There hasn’t been a U.S. man in the French Open quarterfinals since Andre Agassi in 2003. There hasn’t been a U.S. woman other than Serena or Venus Williams in the third round since 2006.

One prevailing theory is that Americans play far less on clay as kids than players from some other parts of the world.

“We were talking about this the other day, a bunch of us: We don’t know why there aren’t many clay courts in the States. … It would be kind of good to get a variety, because you learn a lot about your game on different surfaces,” Craybas said. “It would be good for kids to kind of play on all different surfaces as they’re growing up, but it’s tough for Americans, because we don’t have a lot of clay courts available. So, I mean, we’re always practicing on hard courts when we’re younger.”

As general manager of player development for the USTA, former U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe is a major proponent of changing that. He wants youngsters from the country to train on clay, as many Europeans and South Americans do.

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