April 10, 2015

Shooting for #1

Okay, it's probably a long shot to think that any of the players I'm going to talk about here will be rising to the very top of the ATP rankings any time soon -- but with some impressive performances in the early days of the clay court season, there are a couple men in action this week who have a real shot at picking up their first career titles. And you might be a little surprised to see who's still in the mix.

In Casablanca top seeded Guillermo Garcia Lopez was stunned by wildcard Lamine Ouahab of Morocco, and that created a big hole in the top half of the draw -- so far Daniel Gimeno-Traver has seemed more than happy to fill it. The world #95 has picked up a handful of wins over top ten players during his career, but has never made a significant run in the rankings himself. He's got fourteen Challengers titles to his name though, and seems ready to make a stand on the ATP Tour now. He was well in control of his match against Mikhail Kukushkin when the seventh seed retired in their second round and then dismissed Ouahab with little drama today to reach the semis. Though he'll face wünderkind Jiri Vesely next, he could use experience to his advantage and may finally be able to get his big break. Young Damir Dzumhur has a similar opportunity -- the twenty-two year old Bosnian had only won eleven matches on Tour during his career and had to qualify for most of the events he's played this year. But at the Grand Prix Hassan he's so far looked on-point -- he got a straight-set win over veteran Paul-Henri Mathieu in his opener and on Friday notched an easy win over sixth seed Andreas Haider-Maurer in just over an hour. Next he'll meet Martin Klizan, a man who's had ups and downs throughout his career, and it's not impossible to think Dzumhur has a real shot at getting the upset.

Things have been just as interesting in Houston, even with most of the seeds doing well through their early rounds. It hasn't been all smooth sailing though -- 2013 titleist John Isner, fresh off a stellar run in Miami couldn't keep his momentum going on the dirt and fell in yesterday's late night match. His vanquisher, Teymuraz Gabashvili has pulled off big wins in the past -- he stunned Andy Roddick at Roland Garros back in 2010 and took out David Ferrer in Barcelona just last year. Still at #79 in the world he's usually far off the radar. But he still could surprise us -- he faces defending champion Fernando Verdasco next, and the Spaniard has been famously spotty of late. He could be caught off guard this time too. And Jack Sock, back in action after surgery cut short his breakout 2014 season, scored his second straight win over second seeded Roberto Bautista-Agut yesterday. His next opponent, Colombian Santiago Giraldo may be the on-paper favorite, but with a middling 7-9 record on the year he's been far from impressive, and the young American could surely take advantage.

Sure there are still a couple more matches left before this weekend's champions are crowned, but the performances these guys have put up so far this week may show just how hungry they are to nab that elusive first title. And once they break the seal, there's no telling how far they can go.

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