20 Things To Watch In Houston & Marrakech
The ATP World Tour’s only clay-court event in North America and the Tour's lone event in Africa take place this week at Houston and Marrakech, respectively. Twelve clay-court tournaments will be held over the next seven weeks leading into Roland Garros, with thousands of ATP Rankings points at stake.
In Houston at the Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men's Clay Court Championship, top seed John Isner will attempt to back up his terrific performance to win the second ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event of the year in Miami, while 2017 Monte-Carlo finalist and top seed Albert Ramos-Vinolas will look to start his clay-court stretch off on a high note, leading the field at the Grand Prix Hassan II in Marrakech.
10 THINGS TO WATCH IN HOUSTON
1) In-Form Isner: The Houston field is led by 32-year-old John Isner, who won the Miami title on 1 April to become the oldest first-time ATP World Tour Masters 1000 champion. Isner has played in Houston every year since 2008. He is a career-high No. 9 in the ATP Rankings, which he first achieved on 16 April 2012 after reaching the Houston final. Isner won the title one year later.
2) Home Favourites: Isner is one of six seeded Americans, and 14 players from the United States in the main draw. No. 2 seed Sam Querrey is making his 10th appearance. He reached the Houston final in 2010 and 2015.
3) Much-Anticipated Debut: Nick Kyrgios received a wild card on 26 March and will make his Houston debut as the No. 4 seed. Kyrgios got off to an excellent start to the year by winning his fourth ATP World Tour title at the Brisbane International presented by Suncorp. He owns three Top 10 tour-level wins on clay (3-5).
4) Jack's Maiden Title: Jack Sock won the biggest title of his career by claiming his maiden ATP World Tour Masters 1000 trophy last year in Paris, which helped him qualify for his first appearance at the Nitto ATP Finals. Sock is appearing for the sixth straight spring in Houston, home of another tournament he'll never forget — Sock claimed his first ATP World Tour title here in 2015.
5) The Champ is Here: Steve Johnson battled through a fantastic three-set match in last year's Houston final to claim his second ATP World Tour title. The American battled through visible cramps to defeat Brazilian Thomaz Bellucci in a third-set tie-break. Johnson returns this week as the No. 6 seed.
6) Tenth Anniversary: As a 15-year-old, Ryan Harrison qualified at 2008 Houston and defeated Pablo Cuevas in the first round. Harrison remains the youngest player to win an ATP World Tour match since Rafael Nadal at 2002 Mallorca. The No. 7 seed's best result at the event came in 2012, when he lost to his current coach, Michael Russell, in the quarter-finals.
7) Familiar Fernando: Returning to Houston for a sixth straight year is No. 5 seed Fernando Verdasco. The Spaniard won the Houston title in 2014 and is one of five former champions in the field, joining Johnson (2017), Sock (2015), Isner (2013) and 6'11" Croatian Ivo Karlovic (2007). The lefty is just two victories from win No. 500 in his career, and he faces qualifier Denis Kudla in the first round.
8) Young Americans: #NextGenATP Americans Frances Tiafoe and Taylor Fritz reached the Round of 16 last month at Masters 1000 events in Miami and Indian Wells, respectively. They are joined this week by 21-year-old American Ernesto Escobedo, a surprise semi-finalist in Houston last year.
9) Champion Slayer: Dustin Brown was awarded a wild card into Houston, and he has eliminated the defending champion in his previous two appearances. The third wild card in the main draw is Mackenzie Mcdonald, who pushed reigning Nitto ATP Finals champion Grigor Dimitrov to five sets at the Australian Open earlier this year.
10) Bros Are Back: Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan have captured a record 115 tour-level doubles titles, including a team-best six at three events including Houston. The Bryans have reached three straight finals this season, highlighted by the Miami title.
10 THINGS TO WATCH IN MARRAKECH
1) Pressure is a Privilege: World No. 23 Albert Ramos-Vinolas leads the Marrakech field nearly a year since the best performance of his career, when he reached the final at the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event in Monte-Carlo (l. to Nadal). The Spaniard was a quarter-finalist at 2017 Marrakech before that run. The left-hander's maiden ATP World Tour final came in Casablanca, the previous home of this week's event, in 2012 (l. to Andujar).
2) Brit Continuing His Climb: No. 2 seed Kyle Edmund reached his first Grand Slam semi-final at the Australian Open, then ended Andy Murray’s 12-year reign as the No. 1 Brit on 5 March. Edmund will look to build more momentum on the clay, a surface on which he went 8-8 in tour-level matches last year.
3) Trying Again: No. 3 seed Philipp Kohlschreiber returns a year after holding five championship points against Borna Coric in the Marrakech final. Despite finishing as the Marrakech runner-up, Kohlschreiber did not slow down, going on to win 32 matches in 2018 and finishing the year in the Top 50 of the ATP Rankings. for the 11th consecutive season.
4) French Flair: Two former Top 10 players are in the Marrakech field, both of whom are from France: former World No. 7 Richard Gasquet and former World No. 6 Gilles Simon. Gasquet has captured 14 ATP World Tour titles and Simon has won 13, including a season-opening championship at Pune on 6 January.
5) Ten-Year Anniversary: Simon makes his Marrakech debut after winning the event’s predecessor at Casablanca as a qualifier in 2008. That was the first of a career-best three titles that year for the Frenchman, helping him qualify for the Nitto ATP Finals, at which he beat Roger Federer and advanced to the semi-finals.
6) Beware of Dog: Welcome back to the ATP World Tour, Alexandr Dolgopolov! The former World No. 13 has missed the past nine weeks with a right-wrist injury. The Ukrainian seeks his first win at the event — he played in the Casablanca main draw twice (2010, 2012), but lost in the first round on both occasions.
7) Surprise, Surprise: Mirza Basic and Roberto Carballes Baena won the first ATP World Tour titles of their respective careers on 11 February. Both the Bosnian and Spaniard were qualifiers ranked outside of the Top 100 when they won championships at Sofia and Quito, respectively. Now, both competitors are inside the Top 100 and looking to continue climbing the ATP Rankings.
8) Born to be Wild: Tunisian Malek Jaziri is one of three wild cards this week. Jaziri was also a wild card when he upset then-World No. 4 Grigor Dimitrov on 27 February en route to the Dubai semi-finals. As the World No. 117, Jaziri became the lowest-ranked semi-finalist in Dubai tournament history.
9) International Flair: Players from 15 different countries are in the main draw of the Grand Prix Hassan II (before qualifying), while there are competitors from 22 different countries in the doubles draw. There have been singles champions in Marrakech from nine different countries since the events inception in 1990.
10) Flying Dutchmen: Robin Haase and Matwe Middelkoop of The Netherlands are among the doubles teams competing in Marrakech. They reached the 2017 US Open quarter-finals in their tournament debut as a team, and have gone on to win titles at Pune and Sofia already this season.