The ATP 250 tournament in Houston brings together two elements of the game that are rarely associated with one another, the USA and clay courts. America’s male players, with their big serves and forehands but weaker all-round games, have not historically enjoyed massive success on clay. America has provided just three French Open champions in the Open Era, the country’s worst record at any of the Majors by some distance. But in Houston, the two do mix, usually with some fine tennis and some unexpected results.
The tournament is led by American #1 and recent Miami champion, John Isner. After having won just two matches going into the Miami Open, Isner found his form in the Sunshine State and was almost unstoppable as he won his first ever Masters 1000 title. Isner was the champion in Houston back in 2013, defeating veteran clay courter Nicolas Almagro in the final. He also made the semifinals at the Italian Open last year and his game is fairly well-suited to clay. If he can find the form he had in Miami, he will take some stopping.
Sam Querrey, the second seed and American #2, will be hoping to get his hands on the title in Houston, which would be his first of the season. After a career-year last year, Querrey has had a mixed-start to 2018. He’s twice been a finalist in Houston, losing in 2010 to Chela and 2015 to Sock. But when he is on song, his powerful ball striking can be almost impossible to handle and he is rightly amongst the favourites this year.
Jack Sock is the third seed in Houston. Sock has yet to get going in 2018, having posted just three wins so far. That will be a real concern for the Paris Masters champion considering it is now April. His ranking has already fallen out of the top ten down to world #16. Like Isner and Querrey, he featured in the USA’s comfortable Davis Cup win over Belgium, though he only played doubles. He lifted his first ever Tour-level title in Houston three years ago, he would dearly love to do so again.
Seeded fourth and fifth respectively are Nick Kyrgios and Fernando Verdasco. Injuries have yet again been a problem for Nick Kyrgios, but the Australian has been playing well in spite of them. He brings a good record of 10-3 for the season into Houston and has already won a title. If he is healthy, he has every chance of doubling his trophy haul for the year. Verdasco, another former champion, looked dangerous during the Sunshine Double and his fearsome forehand could give anyone in the draw pause.
Seeded sixth is defending champion Steve Johnson, who like a number of players in the draw could use a turnaround in his form. Rounding out the seeds are two more Americans, Ryan Harrison and Tennys Sandgren. Both players have been involved in controversies this year, but are having good seasons in spite of it, particularly Sandgren who shocked the tennis world by reaching the Australian Open quarterfinals. But neither look like being title threats this week.
First round matches to watch
The clash between the always-entertaining Dustin Brown and the fiery Swiss Henri Laaksonen looks to be the pick of the first round. How Brown’s ultra-attacking brand of tennis will transition to a slower clay court should make an interesting watch. And watching players adapt to the unorthodox tactics employed by the Jamaican is always good viewing. Expect Laaksonen to come through, but Brown to make the highlights reel.
Serbian teenager Miroslav Kecmanovic could provide an early test for Ryan Harrison. Kecmanovic, of whom much is expected in the Serbian tennis world, already has one Challenger title to his name, and having qualified into the main draw may have a better feel for the surface than Harrison. Of course, Harrison will represent a major step up in the quality of opponent for Kecmanovic. It will be interesting to see how the 18-year-old acquits himself against a well-established member of the top 100.
Isner’s exploits in Miami and the Davis Cup may have left him with too little physically to go all the way this week. But Fernando Verdasco has been looking fired up in recent weeks, one need look no further than his Miami match up with Kokkinakis for the evidence. He also has arguably the game best-suited to clay of all the top names playing in Houston. That could well be enough to fire him to title number two at the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships.
Who do you think will win the title in Houston? Let us know in the comments below!