2015 ATP Houston and Casablanca Preview/Prediction
Steen Kirby, Tennis Atlantic
After a pair of Masters level events, the ATP will return to regularly scheduled programming with a pair of 250s, as the clay court season kicks off with the event in Houston, where we will have onsite midweek coverage from our staff writer Jeff McMillan, and in Casablanca, the lone stop for the ATP World Tour on the African continent.
2015 ATP Houston Preview
Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship
ATP World Tour 250
Houston, TX, USA
April 6-April 12, 2015
Prize Money: $488,225
Top 4 seeds (who all receive first round byes) (ATP ranking in parentheses)
1: Feliciano Lopez (12)
2: Roberto Bautista Agut (15)
3: Kevin Anderson (16)
4: John Isner (19)
Houston has four top 20 players, and the seed cutoff is the top 45, making it a solid 250 level event, as many players are delaying traveling across the pond and opting to stay in the states for an extra week.
First round matchups to watch:
Steve Johnson vs. Donald Young
Many consider this match to be a battle for the second slot on the US Davis Cup team, as Johnson has steadily been on the rise, and for that matter Young has had a good season himself. Their h2h is split 1-1, but they have never met on clay before. Young earned 3 wins in the two hard court masters events, and only lost to top 5 players Nadal and Murray, while Johnson won two matches in Indian Wells, but was ousted by Mikhail Kukushkin in Miami. On clay, this match is very much a toss-up, and I give the slightest edge to Young, though I would give Stevie J the edge on a hard court right now, Young has played relatively well all season against all but the top tier of players, while Johnson has been a bit more up and down.
Joao Souza vs. Jack Sock
In-form American Jack Sock will have an interesting test with Brazilian dirtballer Joao Souza. He’s higher ranked, and has greater raw talent than Souza, but as with almost every American male tennis player, he’s far more comfortable and better on hard courts and fast surfaces, compared to clay, a surface he only plays minimally on. Since turning pro, Sock is 7-5 on clay on the main tour level, which of course most notably points out he’s only played 12 ATP matches on clay in the past two seasons, for contrast, Souza has already played 8 matches on clay at the ATP level just this year, and if you include the challenger tour his total is 12.
In 2013 he went 35-24 on clay between ATP and challengers, and in 2014 he went 45-24 as the world number 70 is much more comfortable moving on the dirt. Sock is 5-2 since returning from hip surgery as he played quite well in the Masters events but his loss to Dominic Thiem in Miami exposed problems with his game, and given Souza already has an ATP semi and a quarterfinal on clay, I have him pulling off an upset ranking wise.
Feliciano Lopez reached a clay final earlier this year in Quito, but for a Spaniard, he’s never come close to being a clay court master like some of his peers. That said, Feli has cemented himself as a top 15 player these days and his game is overall dangerous with his slice serve and ability to cause his opponents trouble at the net. Lopez was upset in his opening match in Miami, but he didn’t play poorly in that one per say, and he also reached the quarterfinals in Indian Wells. Right off the bat, Lopez is likely to get a rematch of his opponent in the Quito final, Victor Estrella. The speedy Dominican will need to defeat big server Sam Groth, who is playing on his worst surface, in the opening round. The veteran Estrella is an inspiring story, and he outlasted Lopez in 3 sets in that Quito final, but he’s currently riding a three match losing streak, and all of his losses came to players ranked outside the top 40, thus I have Lopez through to the quarters in a match that should be easier than in Quito where history was on the line for Estrella.
Sam Querrey, who has reached a final here before, opens with Marinko Matosevic, a relatively poor clay court player. Matosevic has been awful all year (3-9 with four straight losses), so Querrey, who has continued to struggle with his mental toughness this season, should be safe for round 2 where Young/Johnson will present a challenge. I have the winner of Young/Johnson getting into the quarters from that match, so thus in my own bracket it’s Donald Young to face Lopez in the quarters. Young actually upset Lopez at the French last year (overall the h2h is 3-2 Young), but Feli seems to be the safer pick regardless to reach the semis.
4 seed John Isner comes off playing one of the best tournaments of his life in Miami, very much out of the blue, and the former champion is likely to be a threat in the lone star state. Since Davis Cup play, Isner is 6-2 with his only losses coming to the world number 1 Djokovic, and in Miami he beat top 15 players Dimitrov, Raonic and Nishkori in consecutive matches to reach the semis, a remarkable streak of wins. Isner played one of the best ATP matches of his career against Nishikori, and it seemed the disaster that was Davis Cup lit a fire under him and recommitted him to tennis. Isner should have little trouble with either Tim Smyczek or Temyuraz Gabashvili in round 2 (Gabashvili recently snapped a losing streak, while Smyczek is struggling but seems to play well in Texas), but Fernando Verdasco, the defending champ, and a streakily dangerous player, is going to be a tough opponent in the quarters. Dasco will need to defeat Paolo Lorenzi and an unnamed qualifier to get that far.
Verdasco and Isner have a 1-1 h2h on hard courts, and have never met on clay, Verdasco of course upset Nadal for a huge win in Miami, but then meekly bowed out to Juan Monaco in the next round, and his consistency is all over the place, with that in mind, Isner actually seems like the more reliable pick right now, and thus I have him into the semis, both players have big weapons to bring to the table, as Verdasco has his world class forehand and Isner continues to have one of the best serves in the game, that said I see Isner frustrating Verdasco with said serve, and Verdasco is known to have slip ups on his own serve that Isner can capitalize on.
Should Sock beat Souza, Roberto Bautista Agut will be his opponent, an opponent he just beat in Indian Wells in a three setter. RBA is just 2-3 in his last five and is struggling at the moment, thusly he seems to be the top seed most likely to be upset, by either Sock or Souza. RBA went 12-5 on clay last year at the ATP level, after going 8-7 in 2013, seemingly improving on the surface. With a limited sample to size to gather from, I’m picking Souza in an upset myself and have him into the quarters.
The section above RBA/Souza/Sock is most interesting, the seed is Santiago Giraldo, who has been unreliable this year after a career year in 2014, and the other spots are taken by a pair of unnamed qualifiers, and Janko Tipsarevic, who after making his doubles debut in Miami with Djokovic last week, is now returning to the ATP World Tour on the singles side. Tipsarevic has been out for over a year due to a tumor on his foot that was removed, and though he’s sure to be rusty and has aged, he still has the talent deep down of a top 10 player, as he used to play remarkable tennis against the best players in the world across surfaces. Giraldo, who had his best result of 2015 in Sao Paulo on clay (semifinalist) is the odds on fave to reach the quarters from here, though a qualifier or Tipsarevic could make a run, and in such a wide open section, it’s hard to pick who will reach the semis, but I have Giraldo over Souza myself (Giraldo 3-1 h2h edge, all matches on clay).
Kevin Anderson, another big server in this draw, will open with Federico Delbonis or Ricardas Berankis in his opening match, most likely Delbonis. Anderson is 2-0 against Delbo and beat him on clay in 2012 (along with a close win in Indian Wells a couple of weeks ago). That said, Delbonis is at his best on clay and will have a punchers chance. Delbonis has two clay court quarterfinals already on his resume this year while Anderson has played well this year, but has, as to be expected, never been a top tier clay court player. Similar to the Souza/RBA situation, given the sample size, I’m going with Delbonis in another upset over a seed as the Argentinian will be aiming for his third quarterfinal of the season.
Above Anderson/Delbonis is the section featuring Jeremy Chardy as the seed, and also Lleyton Hewitt, a former champion in Houston, as a wild card. Hewitt continues to struggle in his final season on tour, as the magic, and more seriously the reliability, appears to finally be fading for the former world number 1. Still, he should beat Go Soeda, a hard court player, in the opening round. I see Chardy going out to another unseeded player, Dusan Lajovic. The Serb has two clay court quarterfinals this year on his resume at the ATP level, and though he has lost three straight and retired in Miami, he again, much prefers clay. Chardy has not had a good season as he’s just 2-3 in his last five matches. Though he’s French, Chardy has never been better than a 50/50 proposition on clay. Look for Lajovic to beat Hewitt to reach the quarters and face Delbonis. Lajovic beat Delbonis at the French last year, but Delbonis is 3-1 overall in the h2h (the other three meetings on hard court) and I trust his tennis more at the moment, thus I have Delbonis in the semis.
Dark Horse: Federico Delbonis
I have Delbonis reaching the final as an unseeded player this week, and thus he gets the dark horse designation. He played well against Anderson at IW, and if he gets through that Lajovic/Hewitt/Chardy are all beatable, likewise in the semis, any of RBA/Souza/Giraldo/Tipsarevic are beatable. Given this is clay, he’d also have a shot to take the title in any hypothetical final that could be drummed up. The Argentina is unlikely to be a world beater, but at events like this he is perfectly talented enough to do well if he can keep his error count down and stay aggressive.
Isner d. Lopez
Delbonis d. Giraldo
Isner has been so impressive in IW and Miami that I have to pick him to beat Flopez if they meet, he scored a h2h win in their lone match on clay here in 2012 in three sets, and though Lopez has a 3-2 overall h2h lead, the matches have been relatively close. Given form, and the fact Isner plays his best on clay in Houston, this tournament setups up nicely for him.
Delbonis and Giraldo have never played before, Giraldo has tons of talent but something has been off with him this year and his game doesn’t seem reliable enough to reach an ATP final right now.
Isner d. Delbonis
Delbonis will get a test run for facing Isner with a match against Anderson in round 2, and that should help prepare him, should he reach the final and face the American #1, that said, Isner is playing great right now and thus I have him winning this match. Delbonis won a 3 setter against Isner on clay in France in their lone meeting last year but Houston clay is very different from European clay.
2015 ATP Casablanca Preview
Grand Prix Hassan II
ATP World Tour 250
April 6-April 12, 2015
Prize Money: €439,405
Top 4 seeds (who all receive first round byes) (ATP ranking in parentheses)
1: Guillermo Garcia-Lopez (24)
2: Martin Klizan (41)
3: Jiri Vesely (49)
4: Marcel Granollers (50)
With only 1 top 40 player, Casablanca is almost certain to be one of the weakest ATP tour events this season, which is quite a shame given African, and Arab tennis in general could use a boost.
First round matchups to watch:
(WC)Lamine Ouahab vs. Robin Haase
This is quite an interesting round 1 matchup, Ouahab, who, no offense intended, is known to be one of the most physically out of shape players on tour (career high ranking 114 in 2009), but has plenty of skills with a racquet, will take on Haase who is the favorite. Haase had a terrible start to his season (0-7) but the Dutchman who is relatively adept on clay is 5-2 in his last 7 matches and seems to have turned the corner as he beat Stan Wawrinka in Indian Wells. Ouahab is also in good form, in fact he’s on a 15 match winning streak as he won three consecutive futures titles on clay in Morocco (F1, F2, F3). Though he failed to face any player to the level of Haase, that still bodes well for him, and of course the home fans will be behind the wild card, it’s worth watching no matter what happens, though I have Haase advancing.
(6)Andreas Haider-Maurer vs. Jan-Lennard Struff
Two unpredictable players will meet in this round 1 match, AHM, who lost to Struff on clay last year in Gstaad, has lost three straight but he was a surprise semifinalist on clay in Rio. and it’s by far his best surface. Struff is more versatile but has failed to catch fire at any tournament this season and is looking to break a pedestrian run of results. Both have enough clay court prowess to make this a quality match, and I give AHM a slight edge to advance.
(5)Pablo Carreno Busta vs. Carlos Berlocq
PCB beat Berlocq in Rio this year, but overall the Spanish seed is very much struggling in 2015. He is reeling from four straight losses presently, including 2 on clay. Berlocq reached the semis on clay in Buenos Aires, and has had an up and down season. In theory, this is a great chance for PCB to kickstart his season, but I’m not sure that will happen, and Berlocq has at least even odds to advance into round 2.
Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, the defending champion, will face off with the Haase/Ouahab winner. GGL is struggling with just two wins in his six matches, and this presents an opportunity for Haase to reach the quarters, I’m not picking it myself, but Haase vs. GGL strikes me as a 50/50 match. Albert Ramos is the main threat in the quarters, Ramos will need to beat Mikhail Kukushkin in the opening round, and then Daniel Gimeno-Traver/Malek Jaziri. Ramos is 4-3 in his last seven matches and is playing relatively well at the moment, given he’s a clay courter, he should be happy to return to his surface of choice. Kukushkin is inconsistent, thus I have him as unlikely to advance from that one. Jaziri is a local favorite from neighboring Tunisia but he prefers fast surfaces to clay, and the veteran DGT is favored, though he’s not playing that well either.
I have Ramos beating GGL in the quarters. He has a lone clay h2h win and he’s in better form at the moment.
3 seed Jiri Vesely is another player in poor form, but luck has shone on him, as he is likely to face a player in even worse form, Mikhail Youzhny, in his opening match. The declined Youzhny, who is nearing retirement, will face wild card Yassine Idmbarek, who is 28 and has never been ranked in the top 600. Honestly, if Youzhny loses that match, he should be announcing his retirement that very night, because that would be rock bottom. Even with Vesely on a seven match losing streak, I see clay treating him better than Youzhny, the streak has to end at some point, and Youzhny is the type of player to end it against. That said, it’s a great chance for a qualifier or Diego Schwartzman to reach the semifinals under the radar. DSS opens with a qualifier, and then Maximo Gonzalez or a qualifier. Though the young Argentine went just 1-3 on clay during the Golden Swing, I see him having a nice run, pending the qualifier, and reaching said semis, as Vesely is playing so poorly at the moment (Youzhny as well). DSS is a young gun and he’s due for a big result.
Martin Klizan will open with Andrey Kuznetsov or Dustin Brown, Kuznetsov has turned into a disappointment with his career thus far after showing signs of promise in years prior. Look for Klizan to reach the quarters, he’s had an up and down year and has failed to get much of a rhythm going, but even still he should be able to earn a win, he hasn’t lost an opening match a tournament since Sydney at the start of the season, but he’s never won consecutive matches in 2015. The Berlocq/PCB winner will play a big part in what happens with this section, but wild card Nicolas Almagro also lurks. Almagro is by far the most talented non-seeded player in the draw and it’s bad news for Klizan and also PCB/Berlocq he’s buried in this section, after opening with a qualifier. Almagro, a semifinalist in Buenos Aires and a quarterfinalist in Sao Paulo on clay, is 2-0 against Berlocq on clay and he beat Klizan in Barcelona last year on the surface. Thusly, Almagro should be one of the semifinalists this week if he plays up to par.
Marcel Granollers will open with Damir Dzumhur or a qualifier, even though he’s not playing well (5 straight losses), Granollers should still be able to win that and setup a possible meeting with Pablo Andujar, his countryman, in the quarters. Andujar, a two time champ here, opens with veteran journeyman Tobias Kamke of Germany, and then will have to face the Struff/AHM winner. Both of those players are threats, but given his previous Casablanca success Andujar is the favorite. Andujar retired in his last match at a challenger however and he has a six match losing streak ongoing (two of those losses coming on clay), thusly I have Haider-Maurer into the quarters myself, and I also have him defeating Granollers for a spot in the semis.
Dark Horse: Nicolas Almagro
It’s quite strange to see Almagro as an unseeded wild card at a 250 level event, and I don’t see that situation lasting long. He should be the favorite to take the title this week quite honestly, as he is the most talented player in this field on clay, and the most accomplished, at a minimum he should reach the final out of the bottom section.
Ramos d. Schwartzman
Almagro d. Haider-Maurer
The two more accomplished players, in better form, should make the final, and Ramos-GGL in the quarters may well be the best match of the tournament.
Almagro d. Ramos
Almagro beat Ramos this year on clay in Buenos Aires and is 4-0 against him overall, thus giving him the inside track to take the title this week.