The clay season warm-up events get underway this week as the tour transitions from hard courts to the spring-summer dirt game. There is an event in Houston, Texas that most Americans and a few South Americans stay behind after Miami to attend before heading to Europe and there is an event in Marrakech, Morocco (formerly Casablanca) that is usually lightly attended and has been won by many of the traditional clay grinders on tour.
Being that the jump start to the clay season is actually the showcase event in Monte Carlo next week there are very few big names in action in these two tournaments so value abounds.
Let’s dig into some clay.
Houston is a unique animal on the ATP tour. It is the only clay event in North America and it isn’t really true traditional clay. This venue is different in that it plays pretty fast and loose, for clay, and seems to favor big hitting, big serving Americans. Now, it helps that the field is routinely loaded with the Americans, it being the last event on the continent for four months, but the fact remains there are a quite a few past American champions.
The last decade has seen such winners as Steve Johnson (twice), Jack Sock, and John Isner; big-hitting American’s all, players a tennis observer would never say favor clay. Johnson has 27 career wins on clay and 11 of them (41%) have come at Houston alone. A whopping amount considering how many clay tournaments there are on tour. It is no different for Sock, who has 32 clay wins on tour and 14 have come in Houston, good for 44% of his total. This is no ordinary clay tournament. Last year the four semi-finalists were Karlovic, Sandgren. Johnson, and Fritz. Four guys who all have better numbers on hards than clay and who hold serve over 80% of the time, even on clay. In 2017 the final four was very similar, as it included Johnson, Bellucci, Escobedo and Sock. Again three big servers who are better on hards but this time with an outlier in Bellucci (Bellucci is a traditional clay court guy).
So, this week it’ll be best to look for big servers who hold over 80% of the time, Americans who are comfortable on home soil, and people who are good in tiebreaks — SJ had to play five tiebreaks in five matches last year and Sandgren had to play four (the two finalists).
When looking at the list of entrants there are a few names that jump right out. One is defending champion Steve Johnson. The initial reaction should be, wow, the TWO-TIME defending champion is +700!! But, consider this, Johnson has beaten ONE top 50 player in 2019. He has four wins total on the year — #131 Jason Jung, #105 Paolo Lorenzi, #552 Gerardo Lopez and #46 Taylor Fritz. It is hard to put money on that resume, regardless of draw, price or history.
Karlovic has the requisite big serve, tiebreak comfort and history in Houston but he hasn’t won a title since 2016 and he hasn’t made a clay final since 2014.
Chardy has a big serve and plenty of tiebreak experience but he has only been to three finals in his lengthy career and has only one title (2009).
Sam Querrey also has the requisite qualifications to go deep here and has actually won this title twice. He is in a fairly open third quarter with another guy who fits the bill for this week in Cameron Norrie. At 11/1 they are both solid options and will probably face off in the quarter-finals. Too hard to choose.
That leaves two intriguing options. Reilly Opelka in the top half and Pablo Cuevas in the bottom half. They are both big, big servers. They both play a ton of tiebreaks and do very well in them (Opelka has a narrow losing record at the ATP level but a massive winning one at the Challenger level). They both hold serve at 85% of the time or better. Opelka proved earlier this year he already has what it takes to win a title on tour. Cuevas hasn’t looked great since about 2017 to be honest but this surface should suit his specific game and he has, obviously, tons of clay experience (6 clay titles and 8 finals altogether). Opelkas drew a Ruud or Dellien in the second round while they both showed well on the Golden Swing, that was traditional red dirt clay and this isn’t so much. Opelka should be able to hit past them. And the bottom section of his quarter doesn’t hold many threats. The top quarter is filled with three qualifiers, so if Opelka survives match one, he should have a great shot at the final.
Cuevas has a quarter filled with heavy hitters like himself — Chardy and Karlovic chief amoung them. Cuevas is 3–0 head-to-head with Chardy and the Argentine should have the advantage over Dr. Ivo on clay as opposed to hard courts or grass.
Oh boy. What have we here? A quaint tournament that usually has a few young players and a few clay grinders, playing in the wee hours of the morning with, literally, zero people in the crowd. Suddenly, this year, we have some blockbuster names. Since 2015 Grigor Dimitrov is the only top 20 player to attend this event. The guess here would be the location and the fact that it usually followed Davis Cup action and preceded a marquee event in Monte Carlo led to poor turnout. Well, there was no Davis Cup last week. People need action. They need matches. So, this event is blessed this year with Alex Zverev, Fabio Fognini, Jo Willy Tsonga, and Fernando Verdasco, just to name a few of the big ones.
This development makes this event almost impossible to handicap. What is usually a wide-open event (Pablo Andujar has won three times…) is now super top heavy. And top heavy with guys who are actually comfortable on clay. It could be argued that every name mentioned above (except Tsonga) along with guys like Kyle Edmund and Kohlschreiber would consider clay their best surface.
So, this comes down to simply motivation. Look at Dimitrov, the one example we have of a big name coming to Morocco. He took a nice paycheque and went out in the first round.
So, who is the most motivated? Fognini has been terrible this year… Zverev may be looking ahead to a bigger event like Monte Carlo next week… Verdasco hasn’t played in four weeks… Tsonga and Krajinovic haven’t been on clay in over two years…
Kyle Edmund has the most to lose among the big names here. He was the finalist last year, his clay hold/breaks stats are above average, clay is the surface he has the best winning percentage on. The concerns for Edmund are two-fold. One, he is only 8/1. Consider the Houston break-down. There is ONE player in the TOP 50!! in the Houston draw. Yet, the four favorites in Houston are lined between 7/1 and 9/1. How can Edmund be lined at 8/1 with Fog and AZ and Tsonga in the draw?
So, what’s the alternative? Well, the third quarter looks the most wide-open. Almost anyone could come out of there. The issue is, can any of them win the semi-final match? Doubtful. It’s highly probable all of them would lose to Kohl or Fog or even Andujar in the semi.
The best bet may be to actually tackle Edmund in the second quarter. There HAS been red dirt clay tournaments this year… four of them. And someone who did remarkably well in them was Laslo Djere. A title in Rio backed up by a semi in Sao Paulo. Breakout stuff. Look at Djere’s hold/break numbers in 2019? They are incredible. In retrospect, they were actually decent in 2018 and 2017. And his price this week is way, way, way better than Edmunds. Let’s all cheer for Zverev to get one win under his belt and turn his attention to Europe and then we can cheer for Djere to skate to the final at 33/1.
Opelka +800, x0.5
Cuevas +900, x0.5