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  • Chris Sobey

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Novak Djokovic total dominance of the ATP Tour continued at Miami Masters this week when he defeated fifth seed Kei Nishikori 6-3 6-3 in yesterday’s final. This was Djokovic’s third consecutive Miami title and sixth in total, which equalled Andre Agassi'slong standing record. It also insured he claimed an unprecedented fourth Indian Wells and Miami Masters Series double and 28th Masters Series title win in total.

On to this week and the European Clay Court Swing gets underway today at Marrakesh, Morocco, which leads up to the second Grand Slam of the season the French Open next month. There’s also one remaining tournament in North America, at Houston Texas, before the tour returns for the US Open hard court swing in August.

Marrakesh is a new tournament that replaces Casablanca, but conditions will be almost identical so past form should be a good indicator, while Houston is a long standing event that goes back to the 1970’s and is played on fast green clay courts that suit big servers.

2015 Casablanca winner Martin Klizan does not return to defend his title in 2016 due to injury, but 2015 finalist and veteran Gimeno-Traver does return and is unseeded again this year. Jack Sock was unseeded in 2015 when he won his maiden ATP title in Houston, beating eighth seed and compatriot Sam Querrey in the final, and both players return again in 2016 and are seeded four and five respectively.

Marrakesh has been a good hunting ground for Spanish players over the last decade and they have won four of the last five titles and made seven of the last ten finals, including the last five in a row. The top two seeds both have poor records at this event and the number one seed has won only one title over the last decade (2010) and they were a losing finalist once in this period also (2006). The second seed has also won only one of the last ten titles (2015) and they were a losing finalist only once in this period (2013).

In the top half of the draw it’s worth opposing top seed Garcia-Lopez based on the above statistics and with Spanish players having a good record at this event Nicolas Almagro and Inigo Cervantes, who are both unseeded this week and sixth seed Ramos-Vinolas could be the players to benefit. All three are well at home on the red dirt at this level and Almagro has already reached a clay court final this year at Buenos Aires (lost to Thiem 7-6 3-6 7-6) and Cervantes and Ramos-Vinolas have both made semi-finals, Cervantes at Sao Paulo and Ramos-Vinolas at Quito.

Of the three Almagro at 6/1 and Cervantes at 33/1 appeal the most based on their form this season, especially Cervantes who has improved dramatically over the last few seasons and is approaching the top-50 for the first time in his career. Ramos-Vinolas did make the final at Casablanca in 2012, but that is the only ATP final in his long career and with that in mind he makes little appeal, especially as third seed Coric is in his section of the draw.

In the bottom half of the draw seventh seed Pablo Carreno-Busta at 11/1 is finally starting to deliver on his big talent and potential at the age of 24. He reached his first ATP final on clay at Sao Paulo this year (lost to Cuevas 7-6 6-3) where he beat Ramos-Vinolas, Gimeno-Traver and Cervantes on route to that final and all take part this week.

If Carreno-Busta reaches the quarter-finals he is likely to face his toughest challenge against fourth seed Frederico Del-Bonis. The Argentine leads their head-to-head 3-0, including two wins on clay last year, but no South American player has reached the final at this event since Massu in 2006 and with Carreno-Busta much improved this season he is more than capable of re-addressing the balance this time round should they meet.

Two-time Houston champion John Isner is the top-seed this year, but as no top-seed has won the title over the last decade he has to be opposed on this occasion. The same can be said for Benoit Paire as the second seed has never won the title over the last decade and only made one final in this period back in 2012 (Isner).

Seeded players have performed well in general over the last decade and a player seeded no higher than seven has won four titles, including three of the last four; the last coming in 2014 when fourth seed Verdasco beat compatriot third seed Almagro in the final. Also, a seeded player no higher than eight has made eight of the last ten finals at Houston, including the last six in a row.

Unseeded players also have a reasonable record at Houston winning four of the last ten titles, the last being Jack Sock in 2015, and an unseeded player was a losing finalist three times in this period, the last time being 2009 when Wayne Odesnik lost to Leyton Hewitt. Not surprisingly American players have the best record at Houston winning four of the last ten titles, including three of the last five; they’ve had a representative in eight of the last ten finals overall and five of the players were seeded.

In the top half of the draw,defending champion and fourth seed Jack Sock at 7/1 has to be followed given his love of clay and in the bottom half of the draw last year’s finalist Sam Querrey at 12/1 also has a great chance of reaching the final again judging by his form on home soil this year at Memphis, where he reached the semi-finals (lost to Nishikori) and Delray Beach where he made the final (lost to Ram).

Also, with unseeded players having such a good record at Houston American Wild Card Tim Smyczek at 80/1 has been playing well enough this year to suggest he could spring a surprise from the bottom half of the draw. He has a good record against compatriots Johnson seeded six and Young, who he’s drawn to meet in the second round, and if he can reach the quarter-finals he looks more than capable of beating any three of his potential opponents on current form.

A potential semi-final with compatriot and fifth seed Sam Querrey would be his toughest challenge on paper, but as the advice is to back both this week, either would guarantee a profitable outcome so it’s worth siding with Smyczek at a very attractive price.


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