The US Claycourt Championships has a rich history and John Isner and Mardy Fish will be favourites to come away with the title this weekend. But the tournament is also noticeable for the presence of Wayne Odesnik, the American who was disgraced when he was caught by Australian customs with eight vials of HGH (Human Growth Hormone) in his luggage.
Odesnik never fully explained but an initial two-year ban was reduced to just seven months, in terms of actual playing time, for “substantial assistance provided in relation to the enforcement of professional rules of conduct.” Whatever dirt Odesnik revealed on some of his fellow players is still up for debate but since returning to the tour as the world No 1371 in January 2011, the 26-year-old has worked his way right up to No 109 and a first-round win in Houston might be enough to see him back inside the top 100.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of what he did, that is a pretty impressive achievement, even if he remains persona non grata with the rest of the American players. It will be fascinating to see how they respond to him this week. Ryan Harrison, whose reputation as a bit of a hot-head is gradually being overtaken by his tennis, reportedly called him a ”weasel” and “an embarrassment to American tennis” while Andy Roddick could barely contain his anger.
There can rarely have been more anticipation for a draw than there was for Houston, everyone wondering which fellow American would be put in Odesnik’s path. But fortunately, or should that be “fortunately”, he was put in a section away from almost all his countrymen. His first all-American clash would be Isner in the semi-finals and if he made it that far, I don’t think he would care one bit that none of the crowd would be on his side. He has already gone through worse receptions in his comeback and since clay is his best surface, it would not be that big a surprise if he did win a few matches.
Talking of Houston, it will be interesting to see how John Isner gets on this week as he jets back from Davis Cup duty in Monte Carlo. The world No 10’s loyalty is admirable even if the wisdom of flying over the Atlantic three times in as many weeks (he is due to play again in Monte Carlo next week) will eventually become clear. Isner is clearly on a bit of a roll, is showing that clay may be his best surface and at this rate, could arrive in Paris as a real threat, not only to the favourites but perhaps even for the title, at the French Open. He obviously wants to maintain his momentum but let’s hope that he doesn’t exhaust himself in the process.
The exact placement of the Davis Cup calendar is a contentious issue – one that we have discussed here many times already – but what interests me is the effect that a big effort in Davis Cup has on a player who goes on to compete on the ATP Tour the following week. Many players, especially the more experienced and higher-ranked ones, often choose not to play the following week, if they can, which would seem sensible. But others go for it, with variable success.
It seems, however, that there is little rhyme or reason as to how they will get on. Roger Federer lost both his singles match when Switzerland were humbled at home by the USA in February but then turned up in Rotterdam and won the tournament. Nicolas Almagro carried the momentum of two singles wins for Spain in their win over Kazakhstan over to Sao Paolo, where he won the title. Milos Raonic won one singles match for Canada in a 4-1 loss to France but then went to San Jose and won the title. But Marcel Granollers, who won two singles matches for Spain, lost in the first round in Rotterdam the following week.
Looking back on Federer’s win in Rotterdam, the Swiss had to come through some tough battles, especially early in the tournament, before finally hitting his stride in the later stages. Almagro scrambled through his first match in three sets in Sao Paolo and even Raonic had some tight early battles in San Jose. The higher-ranked players, of course, receive a first-round bye in most weeks on tour, so that must help, but it seems to be a case that if they can overcome that first, tough, match then their general form should kick in, despite the obvious tiredness.