The Tennis Channel, thanks to River Oaks Country Club’s largesse, is ramping up its presence at the Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship this week with daily coverage — starting with Monday’s opening first-round match, Dustin Brown vs. Henri Laaksonen at 3 p.m. — and installing a fan-friendly “anchor desk” directly behind the stadium.
The winners will go straight from the court to do interviews with the network’s team of Brett Haber and former ATP pros Paul Annacone, Leif Shiras and Justin Gimelstob. Gimelstob will be the full-time host with the other three revolving in and out from their regular spot atop the south grandstand. Spectators, of course, will be permitted to gather on the perimeter to listen in.
It’s the first time the Tennis Channel will be broadcasting start to finish with an anchor desk on site at an ATP 250-level tournament, although it’s standard for the 1000- and 500-level events (The number refers to how many ranking points are awarded to the champion).
“It’s something we’ve talked for a couple years now in order to elevate the profile of our event,” tournament director Bronwyn Greer said. “We wanted to show off what a fantastic field we have this year and what an intimate setting we have here at River Oaks. There’s no place like it. Having (the anchor desk) where it is gives our fans the chance to really and truly be up close and personal with the players and (the broadcasters).”
Houston’s top three seeds — Americans John Isner, Sam Querry and Jack Sock — plus defending champion Steve Johnson and Ryan Harrison are coming in from Nashville, where they teamed up to defeat Belgium 3-0 in the Davis Cup quarterfinals. Isner and Querry won their singles matches; Sock and Ryan Harrison, who’s also in the Houston singles draw, prevailed in doubles. Johnson’s help wasn’t needed because of the sweep.
The top-seeded Isner (2013), the third-seeded Sock (2015) and Johnson are three of the five former champions in the field. They’re joined by Fernando Verdasco (2014) and Ivo Karlovic, whose 2007 title was the last one to be claimed at Westside Tennis and Fitness, where the tournament was for seven years before moving to River Oaks. Querrey, the second seed, was the runner-up to Sock in 2015 and Juan Ignacio Chela in 2010.
The 28-man field for the only ATP event on clay in the U.S. was completed Sunday with Americans Denis Kudla and Stefan Kozlov advancing from qualifying along with Yoshihito Nishioka of Japan and Miomir Kecmanovic of Serbia. Kozlov had beaten last year’s runner-up to Johnson, Thomaz Belluci of Brazil, in Saturday’s first round.
Isner, 32, who won his first Masters 1000 title in Miami last Sunday, is ranked a career-high ninth. Querrey (14), Sock (16) and fourth seed Nick Krygios (24) are also in the top 25 and received first-round byes. The three Americans won’t play their second-round singles matches before Wednesday, but emotive Australian Krygios, 22, will be on Court 3 about 4:30 p.m. Monday, playing doubles with countryman Matt Reid against Karlovic and Daniel Nestor, who are 39 and 45, respectively.
Five singles matches are on the schedule with Spain’s Verdasco facing the American qualifier Kudla on the stadium court after Brown-Laaksonen, with that winner moving on to face Isner. From Tuesday through Friday there will be two sessions beginning at noon and 6 p.m. The singles semifinals begin at 1 p.m. Saturday with the doubles final following at 6 p.m. The singles final is 2 p.m. Sunday.
Six-time Clay Courts champions Bob and Mike Bryan, who claimed their fifth Miami title and a record-by-a-long shot 117th on the ATP Tour, are returning as the top seeds in doubles. The Canadian Nestor ranks third behind the Bryans in all-time doubles championships with 91.