The claycourt season gets under way on the ATP World Tour this week but don’t make the mistake of expecting tried-and-tested dirtballers to come to the fore in Houston.
The clay in the Texan city has always played considerably faster to that in Europe, hence the reason you find the likes of Andy Roddick, Mardy Fish and John Isner on the roll of honour.
Another big server, Jack Sock, triumphed 12 months ago, landing a 33/1 success for this column.
I’ve not got anything that big for this year’s tournament but I do like the look of Sam Querrey at a double-figure price.
The American made the final here last year and in 2010, while he looked set to reach it in 2014 too only for injury to strike prior to his semi-final.
Steve Johnson, Feliciano Lopez and former champion Fernando Verdasco were among his victims here in 2015 so there’s no doubt his Houston record is a strong one.
With his big serve aided by the faster-than-usual clay, Querrey holds strong claims again.
He’s been in decent nick of late, too. After reaching the semis in Memphis, he won the title in Delray Beach before another semi-final run in Acapulco, where top-10 star Kei Nishikori was among his scalps.
Yes, those events were all on hardcourts but again I must stress conditions here aren’t going to be that alien to the likes of Querrey.
Home players have won eight of the last 15 renewals of the event and while previous winners Isner and Sock are both potential final foes, any such encounters could easily be decided by a handful of tie-break points.
That was how Sock beat Querrey in the 2015 final, while Querrey’s matches with Isner have often been decided in such fashion.
The week’s other tournament takes place in Morocco and is the tour’s only African stop.
However, it should be noted that this year sees the Grand Prix Hassan II move to Marrakech from Casablanca so there is no set course form to go on.
Here, though, the clay is expected to play similar to that across the Mediterranean in Europe with tennis history in the country showing that is usually the case.
Plenty of decent dirtballers have subsequently gathered here and the two I like are Albert Ramos-Vinolas and Daniel Gimeno-Traver.
Regular followers will know I put up Ramos-Vinolas in Sao Paulo fairly recently; he duly blew a 6-0 3-0 lead in the first round in losing to eventual finalist Pablo Carreno Busta.
However, that match did show he’s capable of playing good tennis, at least at times, and his other clay matches this season have hinted at more to come.
As well as a run to the semis in Quito, the Spaniard was beaten by David Ferrer in the last 16 in Rio but pushed the former French Open finalist to a third set.
Defeat to Pablo Cuevas in Buenos Aires was hardly a disaster either, given the victor that day went on to win titles in Sao Paulo and Rio in the following two weeks.
Since that South American clay swing ended, Ramos-Vinolas has beaten top-20 player Nick Kyrgios in Indian Wells and I reckon he’ll be in confident mood heading back onto his favoured clay.
Throw in the added bonus that Ramos-Vinolas made the Casablanca final in 2012, he’s worth a bet at 20/1.
In the bottom half of the draw, Gimeno-Traver is also worth a punt at a big price.
Last year’s runner-up is another whose clay form during the South American swing was better than simple results suggest.
Losing to eventual runner-up Guido Pella in the Rio quarter-finals was certainly forgivable, while it also took a subsequent finalist, Carreno Busta, to stop him in Sao Paulo, that match going the distance.
There are plenty of players struggling for wins of late in his section – think Teymuraz Gabashvili, Albert Montanes and Joao Sousa – and I just feel Gimeno-Traver has what it takes to take advantage of that at a tasty price.