Picks for this week’s tournaments in Houston and Valencia

This is the official start of the clay court season, the cluster of tournaments leading up to the French Open at the end of May. Clay court specialists have been at it for a while but they will now be joined by players who are allergic to clay; namely, U.S. players.

All the more unfortunate, then, that the U.S. will probably lose its only ATP clay court event. The tournament in Houston started in 1969 and ends this year. If the ATP doesn’t replace it with another clay court tournament, that’s it, there are no more. On the WTA side, Amelia Island ends this year leaving Charleston as the only clay court event on U.S. soil.

Now that Andre Agassi is gone, it’ll be a long time before another U.S. player wins the French Open, let alone one of the Masters Series clay events, especially if this allergy to the red stuff continues.

HOUSTON (outdoor clay)

Watch out for Luis Horna, James Blake’s first round opponent. He’s 9-2 on clay this year and I have him into the second round because Blake usually starts slow on clay. Also watch out for Nicolas Devilder who plays Tommy Haas in the first round. He hasn’t played a lot of ATP level tournaments but he’s 96-63 on clay overall for his carrer.

Mardy Fish and Jurgen Melzer should meet in the quarterfinals. Fish beat Melzer in the final here last year but that was the only ATP level clay event Fish played last year so I’m going with Melzer.

If Andy Roddick and Tommy Haas meet in the semis it doesn’t look good for Roddick; Haas has beaten him all four times they’ve met on clay. That’s if Roddick makes it here. He still hasn’t completely recovered from a strained hamstring.

What is Argentine Juan Monaco doing in Houston? Why isn’t he in Valencia where he can speak Spanish? Probably the same reason Luis Horna and Ruben Ramirez-Hidalgo are here: it looks easier to pick up rankings points off the fast court U.S. players than those clay court specialists over there in Valencia. Last year Monaco lost in the first round to Fish but I have him all the way to the final where he could meet Tommy Haas. If he does, I think he beats him.

Quarterfinals: Roddick, Michael Russell, Haas, Sebastien Grosjean, Melzer, Fish, Monaco.
Semifinals: Roddick, Haas, Melzer, Monaco.
Final: Haas, Monaco.
Winner: Monaco.

VALENCIA (outdoor clay)

Oscar Hernandez has played 312 tournaments in the last five years – the vast majority in challengers and qualifiers. All but eight of those tournaments were on clay. You can bet he’s not playing in a U.S. tournament any time soon. His probable opponent in the second round, Igor Andreev, should beat him.

Gilles Simon beat Fernando Verdasco in the semifinals here last year but that lookes like an aberration. Verdasco should knock Simon out in the quarterfinals this time around.

David Ferrer and Fernando Verdasco are closely matched on clay. When a match is too close to call I would normally pick the hometown player – Ferrer lives in Valencia – but he lost in the first round last year. I’m picking him anyway because he’s 17-7 on the year and Verdasco has a losing record.

Nicolas Almagro has beaten Juan Carlos Ferrero both times they’ve met so I have him facing Ferrer in the final. Then again, Ferrer has beaten Almagro both times they’ve met so Ferrer could get his second title of the year.

Quarterfinals: Ferrer, Evegeny Korolev, Verdasco, Simon, Andreev, Almagro, Florian Mayer, Ferrero.
Semifinals: Ferrer, Verdasco, Almagro, Ferrero.
Final: Ferrer, Almagro.
Winner: Ferrer.

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