Sport

Day 2 of Clay Court Championship has a fine mix of players

A fine mix of oldsters and youngsters will be sharing center stage on River Oaks’ Center Court going forward at the Fayez Sarofim & Co. U. S. Men’s Clay Court Championship.

Once, being on the back side of 30 on the ATP World Tour meant being rendered largely irrelevant. But seven of the 16 players who made it through to the second round – or received byes into same – are thirtysomethings. At the other end of the age spectrum, the second half of tonight’s evening card features an intriguing showdown between two teenagers, 18-year-old Tommy Paul from North Carolina and the 19-year-old South Korean, Hyeon Chung.

Also, while U.S.-born players aren’t generally known for their clay-court prowess, North America’s only men’s clay-court tournament gives them a chance to strut their stuff on dirt. Seven Yanks are still chasing the Houston championship, including the top two seeds, John Isner and Jack Sock, the 2015 and 2013 champions respectively.

Further, the 23-year-old Sock and the boy wonder Paul actually insist that, all things being equal, they’d rather play on the gritty stuff than any other surface.

“I did a good job of keeping a lot of balls on the court and making first serves,” Paul said after his 6-2, 6-3 victory over the 34-year-old Italian, Paolo Lorenzo. “And it helped that I started strong. I’ve spent a lot of time in the gym recently so I came in feeling good. I felt pretty comfortable out there today. You know, I really love the clay.”

Wednesday’s Clay Court schedule

Stadium
Noon
Paolo Lorenzi-Diego Schwartzman vs. Philipp Petzschner-Alexander Peya
Not before 1 p.m.
Juan Monaco, Argentina, vs. Benoit Paire, France, followed by (5) Sam Querrey, U.S., vs. Benjamin Becker, Germany
Not before 6 p.m.
(1) John Isner, U.S., vs. Denis Kudla, U.S., followed by Hyeon Chung, South Korea, vs. Tommy Paul, U.S.

Court 3
4 p.m.
Brian Baker-Dmitry Tursunov vs. Victor Estrella Burgos-Santiago Gonzalez.

We know. He won the French Open junior title last June, a stunning triumph that had plenty to do with his decision to eschew a full tennis ride at the University of Georgia to hit the ATP highway. Perhaps more amazingly, he beat his countryman, Taylor Fritz, in the final at Roland Garros, the first time ever two Americans had squared off for the French trophy in the 68-year history of the competition open to players 18 and under.

A strapping 6-4 Californian from Rancho Santa Fe, Fritz admits he’s not crazy about clay, which had a lot to do with why he chose not to enter River Oaks even though, with his No. 79 ranking, he’d have easily made the field.

After Reilly Opelka prevailed in the junior draw at Wimbledon, Fritz claimed the U.S. Open juniors. Those three successive Grand Slam titles by three different kids suggest American tennis may finally be in full-on recovery mode. In February, Fritz became the second fastest U.S. player in history to reach an ATP World Tour final, finishing as the runner-up in Memphis to the No. 6-ranked Kei Nishikori.

The 6-10 Opelka was beaten during Clay Courts qualifying over the weekend, but he received a “lucky loser’s” spot in the draw when Dustin Brown pulled out with a wrist injury. On Tuesday, the towering, ace-hammering giant from Missouri who lives in Florida gave veteran American Sam Querrey all he could handle before succumbing 6-4, 7-6 (4).

“He’s tough,” said Querry, the only American so far to have claimed a title in 2016, at Delray Beach in February. “You don’t really get to play (against him). You can go 10 minutes without hitting a forehand. I’ll have to go hit a few balls tomorrow to get back on track. His serve is, I think, consistently faster than Isner’s or Ivo Karlovic’s.”

Karlovic, a former Clay Courts champion and also a 6-10 beanpole, holds the ATP career record for aces.

Aother American teenager who merits watching, Frances Tiafoe, also played at River Oaks Tuesday, losing to a rising Australian star, Matthew Barton, 6-3, 6-4. Tiafoe’s father immigrated to Maryland from Sierra Leone and, by the time his son had turned 15 three years ago, the American tennis community knew all about him because he’d become the youngest Orange Bowl champion ever. Tiafoe eventually climbed to No. 2 in the world junior rankings.

“There’s a lot of talent in that group,” Querrey admitted.

But Querrey, who lost to Sock in the final last spring and was also the runner-up here in 2010, wanted to brag about tennis’ older crowd, too. At 28, he’s getting up there himself, after all.

“Guys are winning Tour events at 30 or older,” Querrey said. “It motivates guys like me to think our best years are ahead of us.”

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