The Dirt Road to Roland Garros Begins
The transition to clay begins this week on the ATP World Tour with two stops. One is in Morocco, with the other being the traditional state-side stop in Houston, Texas at the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships. The tournament remains the only US-based clay court tournament on the ATP tour. With the surface transition, there have been plenty of upsets in Houston over the years and that means this tournament has been a wasteland for the top seed. The top seed has made just two finals since 2008 and has not won this tournament since 2005. That year, Andy Roddick won in Houston for the third and final time in his career.
The 2017 version of this tournament will be a return home for the defeated USA Davis Cup squad as all four members of the team are in this week’s field in Houston. Jack Sock leads the seeds at #1, followed by John Isner, Sam Querrey and Steve Johnson as the top four seeds. Sock and Isner have both won in Houston once each and Querrey is a two-time finalist with his last finals trip in 2015. Johnson is the least accomplished of the quartet with a 2-4 mark all-time at the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship.
Early Exodus For Top Seeds
As a transitional tournament to a new surface, seeds are often prey for early upsets. Over the last four years, at least two seeds have dropped their openers in Houston. The number two seed has been especially prone, losing match number one for four straight years. That’s tough news for John Isner, who isn’t in the best form any how. As previously mentioned, the top seed has also had a rough time at this tournament. The top seed has only lost once in the last four years in their first match, but has also only made it to the semifinals twice in that span.
Nearly every seed looks to be a bit iffy this week. Here is a closer look.
1. Jack Sock
I put Sock on this list mainly because of where is head might be at right now. He looked lost against Jordan Thompson in Davis Cup play on Friday. So lost that Captain Jim Courier subbed him out on Sunday in favor of Querrey. Sock has played well at this tournament though, with an 11-3 career mark. He has made the final each of the last two years and never lost in his opener in four tries. He’ll face Reilly Opelka or Tommy Haas. Neither should possess the consistency need to take down Sock, but if Sock’s head is still caught up in another Davis Cup flop – watch out.
2. John Isner
The Big “Is” is a meager 7-7 this season and comes back to the states after losing to Nick Kyrgios over the weekend and then beating Sam Groth in a dead rubber. Isner is 13-8 in Houston in his career with the one title in 2013, but he has lost his first match two of the last three years. He’ll face either Leonardo Mayer or Adam Pavlasek in his opener. Isner owns one win over Mayer in Rome in 2015 in straights and has not faced Pavlasek. Mayer should pose the bigger threat after making a Challenger final on clay last week, he’s run through qualifying this week to make the main draw. With Isner’s usualy margin for error being very small, Mayer defintely could spring the upset and after all, Isner is that pesky second seed that has struggled here recently.
4. Steve Johnson
Johnson’s poor record in Houston has seen him lose twice in his opening match in four trips to the Bayou City. Johnson will face Juan Monaco or Dustin Brown in his first match. Monaco owns one win over the American, beating him on clay in Rome last year. Brown lost his lone match to Johnson in a third set tiebreak in Memphis two years ago. Brown has never been at his best on clay and Monaco has just two matches on tour this year due to his return from continuing wrist problems. Oh BTW, Monaco is your returning champion at this event and sports a 14-4 record in his career here. He’s the obvious danger.
6. Feliciano Lopez
His match-up against wild card Bjorn Fratangelo might not sound an alarm, but the Flodonis is only 2-6 in 2017. That includes a five match losing skid. Lopez did make the semis here last year, but seems a far cry from his best right now. Fratangelo hasn’t done much at the ATP level on this surface, but he has been a fairly decent player on clay at the Challenger level. The 23-year-old’s last title was on clay in Savannah last year.
7. Donald Young
Even though the one true Donald is on pretty decent form heading to Houston, having made the fourth round in both Indian Wells and Miami, he should be on alert in his opener. He’ll face Brazilian Thiago Monteiro who comes in off a pair of Davis Cup wins on clay. Young is 4-6 in Houston with a quarterfinal run in 2014 as his best finish. Monteiro has tallied all 12 of his career ATP wins on clay and he made back-to-back quarterfinal runs in Buenos Aires and Rio on dirt earlier this season. He’ll post a threat to Young.
8. Thomaz Bellucci
It’s Frances Tiafoe up first for the Brazilian. Bellucci usually saves his best for clay and won a pair of matches in Davis Cup action this weekend. Still, it’s a quick weekend against a player in Tiafoe who is comfortable on this surface. Tiafoe’s trouble of course is winning consistently at this level with just two wins this season and just a 4-17 mark all-time on the ATP World Tour. Probably an unlikely win for Tiafoe, but it’s a set up that gives him a chance to push Bellucci to the edge.
The last two seasons in Houston have features unseeded title winners with Juan Monaco in 2016 and Jack Sock in 2015. At least one unseeded player has made the semifinals each of the last four years and multiple unseeded players have been involved in the quarterfinals in that same stretch. So who are the possible usurpers this year? Let’s focus on a few.
An obvious choice as the defending champ, although I think he might be a longer shot this year. He’s just making his way back on tour from continuing wrist issues, so he’s played just a couple of matches this year. He’s got the clay court prowess to win, but he might have to go through Johnson, Verdasco and Sock just to get to another final here. Count him out at your peril, but I’m just not sure he’s ready for that just yet this year.
The Brazilian has shown well on clay this year with a 6-4 mark on clay and couple of quarterfinals in South America during that swing earlier this year. He has to prove he can win in different conditions and despite the seeds (Isner/Young) in his quarter, he’s not without a shot to do some damage. If he can get past Young in his opener, his confidence will be boosted and then keep watching how far he might go.
Mayer seems the logicial click to pick as a non-seed. He’s a veteran player with the savvy and game on this surface to trouble anyone. After a delayed start to 2017, he seems to be in rhythm now. The Argentina made a Challenger final on clay last month in Buenos Aires and got through qualifying in Houston this week. That could set him up for success, but he’ll need to beat John Isner to get him into legit position to make a run. That’s not as large an ask as it’s been in the past.
Quarter #1 Seeds
Jack Sock (1)
Feliciano Lopez (6)
Sock is the clear favorite in this quarter if he’s mentally there. That is the biggest question. Lopez has not won in nearly two months and faces a tough task just to get to the quarters. Watch out for the winner of the Hyeon Chung-Victor Estrella Burgos match to be a spoiler here. Chung beat VEB in round one last year in Houston and made a quarterfinal run. He could be that spoiler despite a pretty mediocre start to 2017 for the 20-year-old. Honestly, it’s hard to look past Sock despite his Davis Cup failure. He was in rock solid form prior to that, so perhaps the DC loss was just a blip on the radar in a tough spot.
Quarter #2 Seeds
Steve Johnson (4)
Fernando Verdasco (5)
This quarter is difficult to predict. Johnson hasn’t been able to match his form from early in 2016 to this year. The quick surface switch and travel from Australia won’t aid his case for a turnaround in form either. The plus is that even if he gets Monaco in his opener, it won’t be a version of Juan Monaco that is close to the form that won this title in 2016. Still, that is a very tricky match and Johnson could easily be one and done. Verdasco too has a rough first match agaisnt Kevin Anderson. The pair have split four career meetings with the Spaniard taking both of the clay court clashes, though the last one was in 2012. Anderson has never done a ton on clay, but Houston has jived better with his game than other stops on tour. He made the semifinals in his last trip to this event in 2015. If a seed advances out of his quarter, I like Verdasco. However, this one does look ripe for an upset or two. Monaco and Anderson will be the ones to watch there.
Quarter #3 Seeds
Sam Querrey (3)
Thomaz Bellucci (8)
The two seeds here look boom or bust. Querrey does have a decent pedigree at this tournament and the bye has its advantages as he works back from Australia. His opener comes against Horacio Zeballos or Rogerio Dutra Silva. Zeballos is the tougher of the two there with a serve that can match Querrey. Bellucci will be tested by Frances Tiafoe in his opener, but as mentioned, Tiafoe has a tough time finishing off opponents for actual wins at this level. He’s managed a few wins this year, so he might be getting closer to figuring it out. You get the feeling that when he does, the wins could come in bursts.
The winner will get either Jared Donaldson or qualifier Maximo Gonzalez. Donaldson is without a win on this surface at the ATP level, so it’s a tough ask for him against a veteran like Gonzalez. Gonzalez isn’t a great player, but he knows this surface and will make Donaldson work if he’s going to win. The plus for Donaldson is that the conditions in Houston seem to suit big hitters. I do like one of the seeds to get through here with Bellucci being a slightly better shot for me.
Quarter #4 Seeds
John Isner (2)
Donald Young (7)
Isner is plagued with that pesky #2 seed. Remember, the two seed has not advanced past their opening match each of the last four years. Isner will try to change that against either Leonardo Mayer or Adam Pavlasek. Mayer looks more likely with Pavlasek struggling to get wins right now. A Mayer-Isner clash brings definite upset potential. Young will have his own struggles perhaps with Thiago Monteiro in round one. The Brazilian is good on clay, albeit he’s shown his best results in South America. Still, I think Young is on high alert for an upset here. The survivor of that match gets one of two Americans, wild card Ernesto Escobedo or qualifier Tennys Sandgren. Escobedo beat Sandgren twice at the Challenger level on hard courts, but they’ve never met on clay. Neither is too accomplished on clay, but Sandgren might have a small advantage due to playing in qualies.
I would not be surprised to see an unseeded semifinalist out of this quarter. Mayer seems obvious as a possibility, but Monteiro also looks a good fit if this quarter falls that way. I’d think Young more so than isner if a seed gets through.
AND THAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE BECAUSE THE PIG SAID SO ….
Something has to give this week. The top seeds have not fared well in Houston recently, but this year’s top seed has been a stud at this tournament. Sock has a title in his pocket and back-to-back finals appearances in Houston that make him the heavy favorite. Given his ATP form prior to the quick Davis Cup flip this past weekend, you’d be hard pressed to argue against Sock at least making the final yet again.
While being the two seed (Isner) has been poison, the three seed (Querrey) has actually been a steady performer among the top four seeds since 2013. The #3 has made the semis four straight years and been involved in one final in 2014. That could bode well for Sam Querrey who could reasonably make the run through the bottom half of the draw.
Sock and Querrey are the seeds I think that have the best shot at taking this title home. If it does fall to an unseeded player, I favor Mayer first and Monteiro second.