By Alex Botoman
Melzer Wins Battle of Winston-Salem Champions
The Winston-Salem Open’s only two champions John Isner and Jurgen Melzer faced off in the first round of the Italian Open in Rome this week with Melzer scoring a straight set victory over his top 10 opponent.
The Austrian, who won the Winston-Salem Open last August, is on the comeback trail after a shoulder injury that sidelined him for six months. He returned to the courts for the first time in April and reached the third round in Barcelona but also suffered first round exits in Monte-Carlo and Madrid. Melzer will take on Marin Cilic in the second round in Rome.
Clay is Isner’s worst surface, and despite the early loss in Rome, this portion of the schedule hasn’t been all negative. Last week the Triad native reached the third round in Madrid, the first time in four years that he’s made the Round of 16 at a clay court Masters 1000 tournament. Isner is scheduled to play in Nice next week where he should be the No. 2 seed in a final tune-up on clay before Roland Garros.
The spring clay court season always seems to bring surprises, especially from under-the-radar players who have games suited for the surface, and this year is no exception. Here’s a look at some of the players who have excelled on the dirt this year and could be dark horse threats at Roland Garros later this month.
Kei Nishikori: Nobody has been hotter in the past month than Kei Nishikori who this week came in at No. 9 in the ATP Rankings, becoming the Japanese player ever to crack the top 10 and the first Asian player to reach those heights since 2004.
Nishikori won his first clay court title in Barcelona, coming through a draw that featured all of the top Spanish players, and then outplayed clay court king Rafael Nadal for a set and a half in the Madrid Masters 1000 final last week before a back spasm slowed him down and eventually forced him to retire in the third. Nishikori pulled out of Rome this week with the same injury, but if he can get healthy in time for Paris, you can guarantee that none of the top players will want to see him in their section.
Ernests Gulbis: Long touted as one of the ATP’s rising stars, Ernests Gulbis has finally found some consistent success at age 25, reaching at least the quarterfinals in seven of the 10 tournaments he’s played this year. Currently ranked No. 17 – a career high – the Austrian beat three top 30 players to make the quarterfinals in Madrid last week, a few weeks after a semifinal run in Barcelona.
Gulbis has the draw to make some noise in Rome this week with qualifier Stephane Robert up next in the second round after a first round win over lucky loser Alejandro Falla. If he can beat Robert and pull off a win in the third round against potential opponent David Ferrer, Gulbis will legitimize himself as a threat in two weeks in Paris.
Santiago Giraldo: A long-time journeyman on the ATP World Tour, Santiago Giraldo has had the spring of his life, jumping 48 spots in the past month to reach a career-high No. 36 in the rankings after deep runs in his last three tournaments, all on clay.
The Colombian reached his first final in three years in Barcelona before falling to Nishikori and followed it up by coming through qualifying to reach the quarterfinals in Madrid, beating Andy Murray and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on the way. Giraldo has only reached the third round of a Grand Slam once in his 10-year professional career, but with the chance of sneaking into a seed at Roland Garros combined with his strong play of late, he could be primed for a career-defining run.
Fabio Fognini: Mercurial Italian Fabio Fognini has had one of the best springs of his career, especially on clay, but after disappointing results in his past two tournaments, he may have peaked too soon to be a serious dark horse at Roland Garros.
Fognini has reached three clay court finals this year and captured the third title of his career at Vina del Mar back in February. More recently he made the final in Munich last month, but he has bowed out in the first round of his last two tournaments, including a loss this week at his home Italian Open. To add to his recent woes, Fognini embarrassed himself in his first round loss in Madrid when he got in an ugly confrontation with the chair umpire. As always with Fognini, if he can keep his mental game in check, he has the talent to play with anybody on tour. But if recent weeks are any indication, that may be too much to ask for in Paris.