The start of the spring clay-court season coincides with tax time, fitting for the surface that can exact a demanding toll on players—even those typically exempt from early-round upsets.
Let's dive into the dirt to explore some of the skids, streaks, and story lines emerging from this week's clay-court tournaments in Bogota, Katowice, Casablanca, and Houston.
In Charleston last week, Jelena Jankovic revealed that she wears her game-face to bring a fear factor into play: The former No. 1 no longer wears make-up on court.
"I want to look like a beast. I just want to look as scary as possible," Jankovic said. "I don't want to look all pretty and nice and dolled up. For what? I'm going to get dirty and sweaty."
A year ago, the then-No. 24 captured her first WTA title in over three years in Bogotá. She's adjusted to the high altitude shrewdly this year in her opening win, and could face seventh-seeded Argentine Paula Ormaechea in a quarterfinal clash that would be a rematch of the 2013 final (6-1, 6-2). Should JJ, one of three former Bogotá champions still standing (two-time champion Lourdes Dominquez Lino and 2010 champion Mariana Duque Marino are the others) prevail, it will be the second time she's successfully defended a title following successive victories in Rome in 2007 and 2008.
Basketball junkie John Isner tipped off defense of his Houston title with an exhibition against former Houston Rockets star and University of Houston standout Clyde Drexler, a tennis enthusiast and former high school classmate of Wimbledon finalist Zina Garrison.
The 6'10" Long John prevailed over the 6'7" Drexler, but was boxed out by 6'5" Dustin Brown, who showed eye-popping hops in nearly leaping the back wall to retrieve a ball in his 6-4, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (4) upset of the top seed, who called his own performance "pathetic." Breaking serve remains a stumbling block for the mammoth-serving Isner, who failed to convert any of his nine break-point chances against the dreaded drop-shot artist.
Hours before Isner fell, 6'6" Victor Hanescu, who aspired to play basketball as a kid but took up tennis when he was informed he was "too young" for hoops by a youth basketball coach, toppled 6'8" top seed Kevin Anderson, 6-4, 6-4, in Casablanca. It was the second straight win for the 32-year-old Romanian, who was 2-7 in his prior nine matches.
The 2010 Casablanca runner-up to Stanislas Wawrinka, Hanescu will put his one-handed backhand to the test against the red-hot Federico Delbonis for a spot in the semis. The 43rd-ranked Argentine, who made an inspired run through qualifying to the Hamburg final last July, has won seven straight clay-court matches, including his first career ATP title in Sao Paulo earlier this season.
Agnieszka Radwanska made a winning home return. In Katowice, the top-seeded Pole hit three consecutive aces at one point in defeating Kristyna Pliskova, 6-3, 6-2, before defeating 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone to reach the quarters. Radwanska extended her winning streak at International-level tournaments to 14 matches, including titles in Seoul, Auckland, and Brussels. The Indian Wells runner-up has reached the semifinals or better in three of her last five tournaments and is the favorite to win her first title on home soil.
Last September, Roberta Vinci sliced Italian compatriot Camila Giorgi to shreds, 6-4, 6-2, in the fourth round of the U.S. Open. Giorgi avenged that loss dispatching defending champion Vinci this week in Katowice, 6-3, 6-7 (7), 6-0, despite squandering a 6-3, 5-3 lead.
The result reinforced the trend of two players going in different directions: Vinci, who beat Petra Kvitova in the 2013 final and reached a career-high rank of No. 11 last year, dropped to 1-9 this season, while the 22-year-old Giorgi scored her seventh Top 20 victory and edged closer to her 200th career win.
Eternally energetic grinder Juan Monaco defeated former NCAA champion Somdev Devvarman, 7-6 (4), 6-2 yesterday in Houston to score his 200th career win on clay and join exclusive company. The sixth-seeded Argentine, who owns a 200-113 career mark on dirt, is only the fifth active man to reach the 200 clay-court win club.
Three of those five players—Tommy Robredo (235 clay-court wins), Nicolas Almagro (234), and 2012 tournament champion Monaco—are still alive in the Houston field. Rafael Nadal (298) and David Ferrer (267) lead the list of active players on the clay-court victory leader list.
Twelve years ago this week, Robredo was a singles starter on the Spanish Davis Cup team that lost to an American squad consisting of Pete Sampras, Andy Roddick, James Blake, and Todd Martin in the quarterfinals. Staged on grass at Houston's Westside Tennis Club, Alex Corretja scored the lone Spanish point, fighting back from a two-set deficit to surprise Sampras in a rare lawn loss for the seven-time Wimbledon champion.
Times have changed and the 31-year-old Robredo, the only player from that tie still active on the ATP tour, returns to Houston as the No. 2 seed at the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championships. He opens today against No. 84 Santiago Giraldo. Robredo, who has won 11 of his 12 career titles on clay, joins No. 3 seed Almagro, No. 4 seed Fernando Verdasco, and No. 5 seed Feliciano Lopez as one of four Spaniards to reach the round of 16 at River Oaks, as the odds of a first Spanish champion since Marcel Granollers in 2008 continue to rise.