Premier League Matchday 35: Tricky Away Trip For Manchester United
They compete on red clay in Houston, although it certainly doesn’t play the same way as we’ll see in Europe in the coming weeks.
The conditions here are fast for a claycourt event and the list of winners pretty much proves that – big servers Steve Johnson, Jack Sock, John Isner and Ivo Karlovic are all former champions here but none has won a claycourt title elsewhere.
That doesn’t mean more traditional claycourters can’t win here – Argentine Juan Monaco did twice – but it will likely help their case if they also possess a decent serve.
With that in mind, I am happy to nominate Pablo Cuevas as my first choice.
His serve is underrated and his recent Miami Open qualifying win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga saw him hold his own delivery throughout which is pretty impressive.
Overall in 2019, he’s ranked in the top 30 in terms of service games won and first-serve points won, and is 32nd for second-serve points won. Such figures are well above his actual world ranking of 82.
He’ll be glad to back on clay – this is his domain and he enjoyed some good results on the surface during February’s Golden Swing in South America.
He made the semis in both Cordoba and Rio and only lost in three sets to top seed Dominic Thiem in Buenos Aires.
The Uruguayan admittedly has a bit of a tricky draw, facing Sao Paulo runner-up Christian Garin first with the winner up against Jeremy Chardy but Cuevas has won both previous clay meetings with Chardy (he’s yet to face Garin).
If he comes through that, Cuevas should be confident of making the final with Sam Querrey, a potential semi-final foe, probably most likely to stop him but the two-time finalist has been a poor form this season.
Two-time defending champion Steve Johnson heads up the top half of the draw and he’s the 9/2 favourite.
However, the other top-four seed in the section, Reilly Opelka, is almost twice the price and has the profile to go well here.
His huge serve helped followers of this column to a 18/1 winner at the New York Open in February and it’s likely to do some damage here.
He’s no mug on clay having won a Challenger title on it in Bordeaux last season and now he’s got conditions which are more favourable.
Yes, the quality of opposition is greater, although this is hardly a fearsome field. The fact that 56th-ranked Opelka is the fourth seed tells you plenty and there are actually only two top-50 players in attendance.
As fourth seed, Opelka gets a first-round bye so only needs to win four matches to lift the trophy. Two of those could be serve-dominated affairs with Taylor Fritz and Johnson his slated opponents in the last eight and four respectively.
8/1 isn’t the greatest price ever but it could still be worth a small bet on a player who looked in decent enough nick when reaching the last 32 in Miami last time out as a qualifier.
Pablo Cuevas to win at 10/1
Reilly Opelka to win at 8/1
Having lost three of his last four matches – the only win coming via a retirement – Alex Zverev has opted to take a wild card into this tournament.
Given he’s already entered in the three Masters 1000 events, plus Munich before Roland Garros, it smacks a little of desperation. The German is clearly looking for wins before next week’s Monte Carlo Masters but he’s far from guaranteed to get them and he looks a shaky favourite to me at 11/5.
The draw certainly hasn’t helped Zverev with a potential second-round meeting with Jaume Munar looking particularly tricky.
As those who read my ‘ones to watch’ feature at the start of the season will know, the 21-year-old is a rising star of the claycourt scene, a player who trains at the Rafael Nadal Academy in Mallorca. He knows the great man well and seems to be learning from him.
His results in South America earlier this season certainly suggest so with French Open semi-finalist Marco Cecchinato and Fabio Fognini among the scalps he claimed there.
Overall, the Golden Swing didn’t produce a standout run – he bowed out at the quarter-final stage on three occasions which means last year’s semi-final showing in Kitzbuhel remains his best ATP effort (he also won two Challenger titles in 2018).
However, a main-tour final appearance doesn’t look too far away and this event offers a decent chance for it to happen.
At 33/1, I’m certainly prepared to pay to find out.
Down in the bottom half, defending champion Pablo Andujar holds decent claims once again.
Having won here in 2018 when ranked 355th (the lowest-ranked winner on the ATP Tour in 20 years), the Spaniard is now a three-time champion of the event, although you do have to remember that two of those victories came when it was staged in Casablanca. It moved inland to Marrakech in 2016.
Overall, he’s now 15-2 in the Grand Prix Hassan II and he’s coming into this year’s renewal riding a wave of confidence, one gained by winning a Challenger last week and, at time of writing, playing in another such final.
That’s perfect preparation for what must be considered his favourite ATP Tour tournament – his three titles at it make up 75 per cent of his career wins.
I’m happy to take on the likes of unpredictable second seed Fabio Fognini with course specialist Andujar, who looks a good each-way shout at 20/1.
Jaume Munar each way at 33/1
Pablo Andujar each way at 20/1