April 15, 2012

And So It Begins...

It's that time of year again -- the boys have officially made the shift to the clay season, and began their French Open warm-ups in earnest this week.

The Casablanca field was full of dirt specialists, with the top four seeds winning all of their titles on the surface. But that didn't mean the favorites all advanced without drama -- top seeded Florian Mayer lost his opener in a fairly one-sided straight setter to Jeremy Chardy while Alexandr Dolgopolov, playing well off the game that brought him to #13 in the world earlier this year, dropped just as quickly to Flavio Cipolla in his first match. In fact only two seeds made it to the quarterfinals -- defending champion Pablo Andujar and rising star Albert Ramos, who'd already beaten the likes of Fernando Verdasco, Richard Gasquet and Feliciano Lopez this year.

The two Spaniards eventually made their way to final on Sunday, though Ramos had a slightly easier trip -- though he lost serve a handful of times during the week, he never dropped a set. Andujar, on the other hand, was breadstick-ed in his middle quarterfinal set by qualifier Sergio Guttierrez-Ferrol before rebounding in the semis. But he took control early in his third career meeting with Ramos today, allowing his countryman just eight points on serve in the first set. The underdog raised his game in the second, though, but it was too late -- he managed to eke out one more point than Andujar, but eventually fell in the tiebreak, 7-5, and last year's champion kept his record against Ramos undefeated.

Things got a little more interesting in Houston where, even though most of the top seeds stayed deep into the draw, a couple big story-lines emerged. Thirty-three year old Michael Russell, ranked #136 in the world, dismissed top-seed Mardy Fish in the second round and kept his run going all the way to the semis. And fellow Americans Ryan Harrison, Sam Querrey and 2011 champ Ryan Sweeting, all put in some nice showings during the week, proving the country may not be quite as hard-up on the clay as so many think.

But in the end it was two of the players who've been on the hottest roll in recent month. John Isner, recent vanquisher of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, faced fifteen break points in his first three matches and never lost serve -- his win over Feliciano Lopez in the semis earned him the #1 ranking in the U.S. And Juan Monaco, who made a run to the Miami semis with wins over Gael Monfils, Andy Roddick and Fish, survived a test from Russell on Saturday, but came to his second final of the year the fresher man. Finally delivering the first break of serve to Isner in the opening set, he was the one to get the go-ahead in the third, winning the last three games of the two-and-a-half hour match and sealing the deal.

So with the first salvos of this year's clay court season now launched, it's now up to these guys to follow through. The winners, of course, have a bit of a leg up for now, but every player who showed he can put up a fight this week can turn himself into a force during the spring. And with the way things have shaken out so far this year, any one of them might make an even deeper impact than anyone expects.

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