Going into the 2019 season, no one could have predicted that an 18-year-old from Canada would have been one of the most consistent players on clay at this juncture.
And yet, Felix Auger-Aliassime’s first-round victory over Cordoba Open champion Juan Ignacio Londero in the first round of the Monte Carlo Masters was already his seventh main-draw win on clay this year. While the youngster fell to fellow NextGenner Alexander Zverev thereafter, Auger-Aliassime been a revelation on dirt, a surface that has vexed many top prospects that didn’t grow up slipping and sliding their way to success in Europe or South America.
But Auger-Aliassime isn’t alone, as the next wave of young players from Canada and the United States are making their marks on clay. Taylor Fritz—the tournament’s lone entrant from the U.S.—has advanced to the third round after defeating Diego Schwartzman of Argentina, a French Open quarterfinalist last year who’s been among the game’s best on clay. The American will get another stiff test in Novak Djokovic on Thursday.
“I think when I tell people I think clay could be my best surface they think I’m joking, but I really like it,” said Fritz. “I would encourage more Americans to come play here, because it’s awesome.”
Denis Shapovalov, who recently cracked the Top 20 after reaching the semifinals at the Miami Open, didn’t make as smooth a transition to the clay as his compatriot Auger-Aliassime: the 20-year-old lost his opening match in Monte Carlo to Jan-Lennard Struff in three sets. Still, Shapovalov has posted one of the best results of clay among young players from North America in recent years by advancing to the semifinals of the 2018 Madrid Masters.
And though he’s not in the field in Monte Carlo, American No. 2 Frances Tiafoe has an impressive result of his own on his resume: last year, he advanced to the final in Estoril, routing then-world No. 11 Pablo Carreno Busta along the way. Tiafoe is expected to make his spring debut on the dirt in Barcelona next week.
Gone, apparently, are the days when younger players were stepping into unfamiliar playing conditions and struggling to adapt, going down easily to a more seasoned opponent that might be ranked dozens of spaces below them. Though not every aspect of clay-court tennis abroad can be replicated, playing more junior tournaments on a similar surface has helped with developing strokes and strategy, especially in regard to point construction.
As surfaces play with more uniformity across the board, the adjustments of going from hard courts to clay to grass become less drastic, creating the opportunity to make waves in the rankings. Athleticism and powerful baseline games—the defining qualities of Shapovalov, Tiafoe and the rest—help to make the transitions easier, as well.
It’s been 20 years since Andre Agassi won the French Open—the most recent title by an American man—and he’s also the last American to triumph at a clay Masters event, with his 2002 title in Rome. Among the smaller-scale events, the most recent title won by a North American on European clay was Sam Querrey’s victory at the now-defunct Serbia Open, in 2010, over countryman John Isner.
The 25-and-under set—which also includes Reilly Opelka and Mackenzie McDonald, among the world’s Top 100—is better-equipped to start taking aim at some of those results.
“It’s going to be a really cool experience,” Fritz says of his match with Djokovic. Could it also be a triumphant one?