U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships Preview

The U.S. Men's Clay Court Championships: it sounds pretty impressive and prestigious, but it's kind of not in the ATP grand scheme of things. In that light, it's a garden variety "250" tournament, the 250 in this case referring roughly to prize money and is the lowest designation of the main ATP tour.

Still, it's the last men's main tour event that will occur in the U.S. until July, so let's give it a closer look. Like many if not most 250 events, this one has a 28-man field (think of it like if they started the NCAA men's basketball tournament in round two, but gave the top four seeds byes to the sweet 16) and is rather top-heavy. Let's take it quadrant by quadrant. As I write this, a few first round matches have already gone final today.

Quadrant 1:

Michael Mmoh (bye to sweet 16)
Daniel Elahi Galan vs. Sam Querrey (Querrey won)
Mackey McDonald vs. Nick Kyrgios
Tommy Paul vs Peter Gojowczyk

Here's a tennis term you might not know but it extremely important here: Lucky Loser.

In each ATP tournament, most of the field is made up of players who are ranked high enough in the world that they automatically qualify for the main draw. But, four spots are also reserved for an actual qualification tournament.

In that qualification tournament, there will be (as I wrote) four qualifiers. Those four qualifiers played and won a "qualifying final." For the four losers of that qualifying final, not all hope is lost: if someone pulls out of the tournament (say, due to a nagging injury or family emergency), then they will replace him with one of those qualifying final losers. Hence the term, "Lucky Loser." It sounds insulting, but is a standard term in tennis.

It's important here because one of the players to drop out and be replaced by a Lucky Loser is the tournament's very top seed, Casper Ruud. So Lucky Loser Michael Mmoh not only replaces him, but gets his bye. And that's why Michael Mmoh, ranked 226th in the world and with zero ATP tour main draw appearances in the last 12 months, is in the final 16 here — and he gets the prize money that comes with that.

He will face Querrey, who you may have heard of but whose best days are seemingly behind him and who has won just two matches out of his last 14. It's kind of criminal that either Mmoh or Querrey will be a quarterfinalist here.

The other four players in this quadrant are all ranked better and frankly are better than the first three. It includes Kyrgios, who I've written about a lot of the years. Basically, he's ultra-talented, but also a boorish loudmouth who sometimes suffers from motivation problems and has said in the past that he doesn't even like tennis and his real passion is basketball.

Unfortunately for the field, Kyrgios seems motivated again. He's only lost to players ranked 12 or higher this year and if he can get by McKenzie and Paul or Gojowczyk (I think Paul), he has a walking bye to the semifinals.

Quadrant 2:

Reilly Opelka (bye)
Mitchell Krueger vs. JP Varillas (Krueger won)
Gjis Brouwer vs. Feliciano Lopez
JJ Wolf vs. Jenson Brooksby (Wolf won)

In watching the early matches on ESPN3, the commentators talked about what a great and deep draw this tournament has. They have to say stuff like that but, no, this is not a great and deep draw. I talked about it in quadrant one and it is even more glaring here. With Wolf's upset of Brooksby, Opelka is the only player left in this quadrant ranked in the top 100. In Wolf, Krueger, Querrey, and Mmoh, we have a four Americans in the top half that are not even in the top 12 of *American* players.

So speaking of walking byes, Opelka has one here to the semis, but his fitness is in question: In his last tournament, he dropped out due to injury.

Quadrant 3:

John Isner (bye)
Steve Johnson vs. Denis Kudla
Max Purcell vs. Pablo Cuevas
Frances Tiafoe vs. Marcos Giron

Except for Purcell/Cuevas, this quadrant is a little bit better in terms of quality, and unpredictability. Tiafoe and Isner are the two seeds here, but both have streaks of inconsistency in their form. Maybe it's time for Giron to take the next big step.

Quadrant 4:

Taylor Fritz (bye)
Christian Harrison vs. Alejandro Tabilo
Jordan Thompson vs. Stephen Diez (Thompson won)
Cristian Garin vs. Jack Sock

Garin vs. Sock is probably the most intriguing match of the first round, and both players are favorites at different sportsbooks. Garin is the defending champ (albeit from 2019; the last two editions have been cancelled), but has lost five matches in a row.

Sock has a career high ranking of 8th in the world before injuries and a complete loss of form saw him plummet all the way down to 388. He's spent the last two-plus years rebuilding, with mixed but promising results: his current ranking of 138 is his highest in three years. I think he can get by Garin, and then Thompson, but any further would be a surprise. Fritz had a watershed career moment in winning Indian Wells a few weeks ago, is up to a career high #13 in the rankings, and I don't see anyone on this half of the draw bothering him.

Semifinal Predictions: Kyrgios over Opelka, Fritz over Giron
Final Prediction: Kyrgios over Fritz

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