America's top male tennis pros have struggled on red clay, a surface that can cause even surefooted players to stumble, tending to reward patience and endurance, not power and aggression.
Hard-serving Andy Roddick, for example, the best American men's player of the past decade, has never made it past the fourth round of the French Open, played on clay at Roland Garros.
This history wasn't foremost on 16-year-old Sam Silver's mind last month on the flight to São Paulo, Brazil to compete in the 12th Pan American Maccabi Games played on — what else? — red clay courts.
But he had limited experience on such turf and wasn't feeling particularly confident.
"Nothing here even comes close. It was Roland Garros clay. It's a whole different game," said Silver, who trains on indoor hard courts at the Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis and Education Center in the East Falls section of Philadelphia. "It took a few practice matches and a few real matches to get acclimated."
Silver, who attends Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, came close to losing his first singles match in Brazil. But in the end, the Bryn Mawr native got more than acclimated. He won gold medals in both singles and doubles in the junior division, winning all 10 of his matches.
"It was awesome to win. It was so much fun," said the Friends Central High junior.
He was one of approximately 40 athletes from the Philadelphia/South Jersey region who competed in the quadrennial games, which were held from Dec. 26 to Jan. 3. The different divisions allow both teenagers and adults to compete.
Three other local athletes also took home gold medals. Leah Matusow of Dresher was part of the gold medal-winning open women's basketball team; Daniel Charen of Langhorne took the top prize in open men's golf; and Ross Rosner of Elkins Park was part of the winning open men's volleyball team.
Silver's introduction to Maccabi sports came through his participation in several JCC Maccabi games, held annually in different American cities. This past summer, he played on his home turf when the games were held here, winning a gold medal in doubles and a silver medal in singles.
After that experience, he thought about competing in Brazil, but was hesitant because he would have to skip at least one local tournament in which he had hoped to compete. Silver is currently ranked No. 20 in the boys 16 and under division in the United States Tennis Association's Middle States Region and hopes to play for a top-tier collegiate program in two years.
In the end, he decided the opportunity to travel abroad and experience another culture was one he couldn't pass up. Some of his favorite moments happened away from the courts, he said, hanging out with fellow athletes in the city, trying to use his Spanish to get around. Locals understood him more or less and answered in their native Portuguese, he said.
And the trip struck a meaningful Jewish chord, too.
Silver described attending Friday night services with hundreds of other athletes. Silver said it dawned on him that they had no common language. But he said he felt the athletes were united by the Hebrew words, liturgical melodies and a sense of Jewish peoplehood.