Although the ATP is gearing up for the first clay Masters Series tournament this coming week, the clay court season has quietly begun this week, with action taking place in Houston and Casablanca. Houston is an especially interesting event for American tennis fans, as it is the only American tournament played on clay. It's been a big week for American players in Texas, as underdogs Sam Querrey, Bobby Reynolds, and defending champion Ryan Sweeting all earned victories. For the most part, though, the big names have advanced with relative ease, with 2, 3, and 4 seeds John Isner, Feliciano Lopez and Juan Monaco looking to capture the title over the weekend.
Looking to crash their party is Michael Russell, who came out of nowhere (and through qualifying) to reach the semifinals. Russell has reached his first semi at age 33, and also notched his first win against a top ten player in 13 tries, after he dispatched the out-of-sorts #1 seed Mardy Fish in the second round. The Houston proceeded to defeat fellow Texan Ryan Harrison today, riding a wave of enthusiastic support after taking the court just ten miles away from his home. He will face a tough test against dirtballer Juan Monaco, but playing with great confidence and the crowd behind him, anything could happen.
Still, the winner of Isner-Lopez will be the favorite to take the title. For Isner, a victory could solidify him as a threat on clay and give him a boost heading into the bigger tournaments. Lopez is certainly more comfortable on the surface, but an in-form John Isner should have an edge in what will be a very even and exciting matchup.
With his quarterfinal loss to Isner, defending champion Ryan Sweeting lost over 200 ranking points and will be bounced from the top 100. Since winning as a qualifier last year, Sweeting was largely unable to take advantage of the year's worth of entry into big events that the tournament's points provided him. His ranking actually fell in the time between his Houston title, and with today's loss he will likely go back to being an upper-level player on the Challenger tour.
Be sure to keep an eye on what should be an exciting weekend in Houston. Matches will be broadcast on Tennis Channel Saturday and Sunday.