With draws including such standouts as Dominic Thiem, Diego Schwartzman and Fabio Fognini, three of the four tournaments during the recently completed “Golden Swing” saw players like Juan Ignacio Londero, Guido Pella and Laslo Djere emerge as first-time champions.
Before his win in Cordoba, Argentina, Londero had yet to win a match at the tour level, while Djere contested his first final against another debutant, Felix Auger-Aliassime, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The unexpected appeared to be the norm during that four-week stretch, but now, with the clay-court season getting fully underway this week with tournaments in Houston and Morocco, will the proven performers on the surface make their presence felt, or are more surprises in store?
Between the two tournaments being played this week, only two members of the world Top 20 hit the courts: world No. 3 Alexander Zverev and Fognini, the top two seeds in Marrakech. Fognini’s disappointing year has continued with a first-round loss to Jiri Vesely, while Zverev—who has yet to win a title in 2019—is getting an earlier-than-usual start on the dirt with his appearance at the tournament. Over the past couple of seasons, the young German has had a strong spring leading up to Roland Garros, with his biggest title on the surface coming last year at the Masters event in Madrid.
While Zverev is considered the favorite for the Grand Prix Hassan II, the draw there is still filled with dangerous players who’ve won multiple clay-court titles, such as Gilles Simon, Philipp Kohlschreiber and Pablo Andujar, the defending champion.
Andujar is currently riding the longest winning streak of any player on the ATP Tour right now, having claimed two Challenger tournaments in a row. Will he be able to sustain that momentum and trip up some highly ranked players in the weeks ahead or could he be done in by the depth on display right now?
In Houston, the most prolific title-winners on clay left in this year’s draw are the Spaniards, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez and Marcel Granollers, who won the event back in 2008. Top seed Steve Johnson has proven himself on the clay as the two-time defending champion but has yet to maintain that form through Europe. There are young players competing at the River Oaks Country Club that had some solid performances in Latin America, such as Casper Ruud and Christian Garin, both of whom went deep in Sao Paolo, Brazil.
In the not-too-distant past, players such as Dominic Thiem, Nicolas Almagro and David Ferrer have shined during the tournaments in Latin America and Europe, picking up most of the titles that would have inextricably slipped through Rafael Nadal’s grasp. The Masters events and Roland Garros have been locked up by the former world No. 1 for more than a decade, but the aforementioned three have made their presence felt through the years. With Almagro and Ferrer on their way out of the sport, Thiem—last year’s French Open runner-up—becomes the closest to a sure thing the tour has to offer on clay outside of Nadal.
When the Austrian returns to competition, he’s capable of setting up a sense of normalcy in the weeks ahead, as is Zverev—and of course, Nadal. However, emboldened by what took place on the clay a few weeks ago, ceding titles to the more consistent performers might be a thing of the past as a wave of young players and veterans look to establish their own foothold on the demanding surface.