ATP Around the Corner: Clay court tennis previews in Casablanca and Houston

The clay court season will have its work cut out for it in terms of matching the fast paced start to the 2012 season on the ATP World Tour.

We are just over three months into the grueling professional tennis schedule but have already witnessed some outstanding performances and intriguing story lines.

World number one Novak Djokovic has won the first Grand Slam of the year and seems prepared to continue the brilliance we saw from a year ago.

Roger Federer has improved upon his end to 2011 and compiled a 44-3 record since the U.S. Open in September. Suddenly being thirty doesn’t seem so bad does it?

John Isner seems poised to carry the weight of American tennis hopes after nearly ten years of dominance from Andy Roddick.

Andy Murray is still a mystery containing all the talent one could hope for, yet waiting for his first Grand Slam triumph that many thought would have happened by now. Perhaps teaming with former eight time major champ Ivan Lendl will see him over that barrier.

Rafael Nadal’s season is already surrounded by question marks as his knees are once again threatening to stall the great heights he is capable of attaining. Will we see the king of clay this spring?

The shift in surface will force everyone to adjust and soon we’ll see if the players above can continue to dominate the headlines in the tennis world.

Gran Prix Hassan II: Casablanca, Morocco

This level 250 event has Pablo Andujar as its defending champion from a year ago. With plenty of clay court events coming up over the next two months, many players see no hurry to dive into the field, which explains why this one is certainly weaker than what we will witness in the weeks to come.

The number one seed here is an under-whelming one with Florian Mayer from Germany holding the pole position. Mayer was never able to reach the same heights as Nicolas Kiefer and Tommy Haas were able to attain and he clearly is not the second coming of Boris Becker.

Unseeded Albert Montanes and Guillermo Garcia Lopez represent the strongest clay court opponents in this half of the draw, and I’d bank on one of them making it to the finals rather than Mayer.

In the bottom half, second seeded Alexandr Dolgopolov might state that clay is his favorite surface, but over the previous year where he has risen into the top thirty in the world, I’ve seen little evidence that he should be feared on the red dirt with the exception of a small tournament victory in Umag. That being said, I suppose this is the perfect type of tournament for him to step-up at.

The previously mentioned Andujar is the third seed and will surely be confident he can win a few matches once more at this venue. Ranked 39th in the world, Andujar lost five of his first six matches of the year, but recently took a set off Novak Djokovic on hard courts in Indian Wells before falling 6-0, 6-7(5), 6-2 in their fourth round encounter.

U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship: Houston, Texas

John Isner (VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images)

Why anyone would waste their time playing on the har-tru courts in Houston has always been beyond me, yet there is decent field vying for the $79,000 winner’s check.

Seeded first is Mardy Fish who did not participate in this weekend’s Davis Cup victory over France due to exhaustion. I wouldn’t bet for Fish to go too far due to the surface here. He gets a first round bye which also likely won’t do him much good when he potentially faces Daniel Gimeno-Traver, who is a decent clay court player.

Juan Monaco is seeded fourth and is my pick to navigate his way through to the finals. Monaco has had a good run lately on hard courts where he surprisingly made it to the semi-finals of Miami. Look for that confidence to translate into further success on clay as well.

The bottom half of the draw is fairly wide open. I’d expect for the confident John Isner to continue to build on his break-out season. Isner has made his first ATP Masters final in Indian Wells and has performed quite well on clay as well, with huge Davis Cup victories over Roger Federer and the Swiss as well as Jo Wilfried-Tsonga and the French.

Feliciano Lopez is seeded third but has been his usual inconsistent self of late, while big-serving Ivo Karlovic is always a threat even on a slower surface like this one.

Fans of American veteran James Blake might want to check him out in what I’m sure will be his last season on the pro tour. Blake is currently ranked 74th in the world but has been plagued by injuries for the past few seasons and I can’t see him continuing to trudge along for much longer in this state. He opens against sixth seeded Carlos Berlocq.

After this week, things will heat up with the Monte Carlo Masters 1000 event that will surely draw all the big names back into the mix. Enjoy the transition and the build-up to next month’s French Open!