The American clay court championships come down to a last four with a unique mix

The final four at the River Oaks Country Club this weekend offer a compelling mix of demographics, tennis skills and personalities.

The sentimental favorite off the charts is John Isner, who turns 37 later this month and has been coming to Houston since 2006, when what is now called the Fayez Sarofim & Co. US Men’s Clay Court Championship was still played at Westside. Tennis club.

Asked about his status as a senior citizen following a predictable scenario – that is, a myriad of twists and turns – longer than it should have lasted 6-4, 2-6, 6-3 dispatch of fellow American Frances Tiafoe, Isner replied, “I spot everyone from many years.”

But, if seeds/rankings are the ultimate solution and if recent tangible results matter, Reilly Opelka should be the last man standing on Sunday. At No. 3 and No. 17 among ATP Touring pros, Opelka is undefeated in Texas in 2022. He won the new hard-court stoppage in Dallas in February, then reached the final in Delray Beach, in Florida. , a short time later.

Moreover, Opelka’s 6-3, 7-5 quarter-final victory over Gijs Brouwer was by far the easiest on Friday – at least among the quarter-finals that were actually played. Nick Kyrgios advanced without hitting a ball when the lucky loser became the unlucky incumbent Michael Mhoh begged, blaming a strained groin muscle he suffered in a lengthy second-round win over Sam Querrey. Kyrgios, who faces Opelka at 1 p.m. Saturday in the first semi-final, is the X factor guy.

The emotional and unstable 26-year-old Australian is the tennis version of Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates because you never know what you’re going to get from him. As Opelka said, calling it an “infuriating” adversary: ​​”It’s one of the best servers in the world. Its intangibles are off the charts. It’s just a matter of how badly he wants it. If he wants it, he probably will. That’s the ultimate question.”

Kyrgios was once the No. 1 junior in the world. He reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon and the Australian Open while still a teenager and reached No. 13 in the ATP rankings. Today, although ranked only 94th, he has won nine of his 12 matches in 2022 and also won the Australian Open doubles championship after he and his partner scored a wildcard spot.

At the end of the day, though, if there’s a betting favorite, it would be Christian Garin, who is a perfect 8-0 in his two visits to Houston. But the 25-year-old Chilean, the last real footballer left, needed nine sets to reach the semi-finals, and he found himself embroiled in the tournament’s longest match to date on Friday.

The grueling whiplash against second-seeded Taylor Fritz on another fiendishly windy afternoon — Fritz called it a “windy mess” — could have gone either way half a dozen times until ’til it finally goes its own way after 2 hours, 43 minutes.

The score of 6-2, 6-7 (5), 6-3 paints a misleading picture of the proceedings. Fritz, less than three weeks away from upsetting the greatest clay-court tennis maestro of all time, Rafael Nadal – albeit on a California hard court – got steamrolled in the opening set. But following a sloppy serve patch from both players, resulting in four straight breaks, he seized all the momentum to force the tiebreaker, which he quickly started badly.

But a crushing forehand on the decisive spot seemed to send an emphatic message to Garin that his undefeated run in Houston was over. This was not the case. Next thing we knew, Garin had saved a break point to hold in the first game of the third set and then broke into tears which saw him claim 12 of the next 13 points, including seven in a row and eight on nine against Fritz’s serve. . So it was 5-0, Garin.

Just as suddenly, it was 5-3. In the end, Fritz would save four match points before Garin, after fending off another break point with an ace, closing with a clean backhand followed by a laser forehand into the backhand corner that Fritz had no chance of returning. .

Although he’s not the most emotional of guys – in temperament, Garin is normally the opposite of Kyrgios – he took a ball and smashed it somewhere towards the River Oaks golf course.

“I’m so happy,” he said later. “It’s a very important victory in my career. Me and Taylor played at a very good level, very intense, during the first two sets. It was an incredible match. I put my 100 percent into it. We we both play very hard on every point, but I think I played the most important points better in the third set.

And certainly his biggest W of late. Having lost the opportunity to repeat in 2020 and again in 2021 because what he calls “my favorite ATP 250 level tournament” was canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic, he returned to Texas after taking a months off to train, soothe a sore shoulder and regroup after a 3-7 start to the season.

The mini-crisis had dropped him 12 spots from a career high of 17 at the end of 2022 and left him seeded fifth, a notch too low for a first-round bye.

It remains to be seen how much Garin left in the tank for Isner. The 6ft 10in American, who won the tournament nine years ago when he was ‘only’ 27, and his hammer serve from Thor present a whole different set of problems. With all his aces – 445 in 27 starts in Houston, more than 16 par – you’d think his games would go fast, but he entered his semifinal against Tiafoe after a marathon 2 hour and 22 minute victory over Steve Johnson.

Why? Because he breaks the serve about as often as the others find a way to break his. Johnson saved eight break points in one of their games. Tiafoe saved five to go up 3-1 in the second set. But those burgeoning services, more often than not over the years, gave Isner a chance to play another day. He reached 8th place in the rankings.

Garin, to be sure, knows he’s in another slog. But to put his momentum into perspective, only Andy Roddick has had more consecutive unbeaten streaks in his first US Clay Court appearances. From 2001 to 2003, Roddick was 14-0 with two titles before finally losing the final to Andre Agassi in his third year.

Comments are closed.