When it comes to the clay season, we might call this the slow-build period. It’s been a little haphazard, but we’re getting there. This past weekend we had four Davis Cup ties on red dirt, and an old-fashioned thumping by Serena Williams on Har-Tru—I’d call it a beat down if I hadn’t forbid myself from ever using that term again. We even had an early sighting of world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who was doing some clay-court watching with his girlfriend in Monte Carlo, right around the time his fellow Serbs were getting knocked out in Prague.
What’s next? For U.S. tennis fans, it was a return to the clay norm after a banner weekend. Today fifth seed Donald Young was upset in the first round in Casablanca by Benoit Paire. The great American hope of late 2011 is now 2-8 in 2012.
As for the rest of the U.S. men, they’re Stateside for the next round on dirt, the U.S. Clay Court Championships at the old-line River Oaks Country Club in Houston. Here’s a preview.
U.S. Clay Court Championships
Red clay; $442,500
Draw is here
For such an upper-crusty locale, River Oaks has seen its share of controversy. Ilie Nastase hated the place so much that . . . well, I won’t say what he did. (It's a shame that so many Nastase stories have to end that way.) A couple of years ago, River Oaks was also the site of the "I refuse to lose" grudge match between Sam Querrey and his countryman non grata Wayne Odesnik. What’s going to go down at the Country Club this time? Sam and Wayne are in the draw, but, alas, they’re on opposite sides. HGH Bowl II could only happen in the final.
To start, there's another issue to consider: What is John Isner doing here? He’s flying in from Monte Carlo, and flying back to Monte Carlo at the beginning of next week. He says he loves this event, that’s why he’s here. I’ll be interested to see if he can leverage his positive energy from Davis Cup into a solid result. He struggled at first after beating Roger Federer in February. Isner will start with the winner of Ungur and Zeballos, and then could get defending champ Ryan Sweeting or mirror image Ivo Karlovic. Feliciano Lopez is the second-highest seed in his half. What kind of long-term threat is Isner on clay? Is this former college player better suited to the short-and-sweet team dynamics of a Davis Cup weekend than he is to the longer haul of a tournament—specifically, a Grand Slam tournament? We’ll start to get some answers this week.
Also in Isner’s half: James Blake, who opens against Carlos Berloq, a man he once double-bageled.
On the other side is top seed Mardy Fish. Rather than a Davis Cup win, Fish is coming off what he termed a “health scare” in Miami. He says he’s ready for this tournament, where he’s been practicing with new coach Mark Knowles. Fish won’t reveal what happened exactly, but he told the Houston Chronicle yesterday that, “Some changes need to be made. It’s been a long year . . . The lifestyle [of a pro], it’s not a normal thing to put the body through. There’s been some stress, and I’m sure that played a huge part in what happened.”
It’s been a tough start to the season for Fish in general, from his play to his edgy attitude, which began right away with his confrontation with Grigor Dimitrov in Hopman Cup in January. It’s hard to expect much out of him in Houston as well. Fish’s half includes the man who beat him badly in Key Biscayne, Juan Monaco, as well as Querrey, Kevin Anderson, and Ryan Harrison. The youngest Yank, after a respectable showing on clay in Davis Cup, opens with a test against seventh-seeded Alex Bogomolov, Jr. That’s what makes Harrison so interesting these days: Every match is still a test.