The clay masters had some surprises in store for the tour. Here's how it went down ...
Shyam Senepathy qualified, and was blasted, winning four games against Andres Guardado. Ujjaval did better, handing out a double-bagel to his qualifier opponent in the first round, while Mooljee achieved one himself. Poilblan continues his 'meh' prime, as the only seed to lose in the first round -- three sets to Rui Padilla, a dangerous Spaniard on this surface.
There were some stunning second-round results, and three of them involved Sri Lanka players. Girsh had a boring, dominant win. The others were not bored though. Antonin Iglar got dismissed 6-2, 7-6(4) by Mooljee in just their second career meeting! Everything was on Mooljee's side here, match fitness, he's quite a bit better on clay than the Czech, but anytime you beat the world no. 1 it's a cause for celebration. We'll see if this begins a trend ... Shreya Ujjaval had an upset as well, though less surprising of one, knocking off Roger Federer who usually does poorly here, in straight sets. On the other end of the spectrum, Anil Mehul was stunned by Zakirov 6-4, 3-6, 6-3. That's the second upset he's had against us in as many tournaments. Starting to not like that guy, though it's certainly been a good month for him. No two ways about the match either, he was clearly the better player on this day. The last time Mehul lost his first match in a Masters was only a year ago at Monte Carlo, but it was still a disappointment. A far cry from four years ago, when he was the champion here ...
The elder statesman was gone but we still had three left into the round of 16. It was an eventful but ultimately straightforward day with no upsets. Ujjaval was stopped by Prakash Mooljee 5-7, 6-2, 6-4, in what was rather surprisingly their first actual tournament meeting. Fairly close by the numbers, but Mooljee apparently controlled the action after dropping that first set. Girish Girsh had his first challenge as well against Condon, and was fairly fortunate to advance 6-7(1), 7-5, 6-4. Gaskell(over Cirakovic) and Kinczllers(over T. Herrera) both were pushed as well but made it through.
The quarterfinals then had seven players in the Top 10 ... and Mooljee. He wasn't finished yet, decisively dispatching Pierce Gaskell in the first match. Girsh's participation ended here though, courtesy of Agustin Herrera. He's become Peru's top player over the course of the past year, and was a finalist here last year. Something about Madrid, beyond just the clay, seems to agree with him. Benda and Caratti, to the surprise of exactly nobody, filled the other two spots.
I thought Mooljee might have a chance against Bjorn Benda despite the surface for their third career meeting. I was very wrong; he won five games. Still, a Masters semifinal! He's never gotten past the last 16 in any big event, so this is unquestionably the high water mark for him, a potential 'breakthrough' moment. It also puts him, temporarily I thought(more on this later), above Marcek and into the Top 16 for Rome(and beyond?). Doesn't erase the disappointments leading up to it, but he made himself an opportunity here by beating two of the world's top five players. The second match was much more of a surprise, as Herrera beat the tired Gustavo Caratti in a tough match that went the distance. Here was the first example of the Argentine's insistence on playing nearly everywhere during the clay season catching up to him. Little doubt he wins this if not worn out.
Benda had a shot here at becoming the world's oldest Masters champion ever, but Agustin Herrera dominated, allowing just nine points on his serve in a 6-3, 6-3 final. With none of the world's top eight making the final, quite a strange eventuality, Agustin went one better than last year and snagged his first Masters. His progression, still very much in his best years at 26, will definitely bear watching.
Not far away on the same continent, the same cast of characters assembled themselves just a couple days later for the final clay tune-up. Senepathy wasn't able to qualify, but otherwhise the first day went much the same ... seeded in the last(16th) spot this time, Mooljee had another easy first-round win.
Iglar started off this week by ... losing his first match again!! This time it was Juan de los Santos doing the damage. He's made his share of upsets the last couple of years, but for the top player in the world, even though he's not much of a clay-courter, to lose his first match in back-to-back Masters .... this was stunning. By doing so, he guaranteed that Girsh would ascend to the top spot, as he'd won Rome last year. A stunning turn of events after the way he'd surged to the top spot over the last several months. Easy wins for a couple of Sri Lanka players, while Shreya Ujjaval had the misfortune of playing Mehul in his second-round match. He made it close, but was defeated 6-4, 7-6(5). Another Frenchman left early, this time Bourdet(to Sava Cirakovic, who is quietly piling up solid results).
Girsh and Mehul had easy third-round matches, while Prakash Mooljee and Gustavo Caratti both came into their encounter tired. Caratti more so, but he had enough for a 6-4, 7-5 win. I had Mooljee in doubles last week in Madrid to get some matches, not expecting him to make it to the semifinals! So losing here is not such a bad thing, as it will give him a better chance to be rested for the FO. Beating the best clay player in the world was a bit much of an ask. Match of the day was Cirakovic over Thiago Herrera; a breadstick both ways followed by a tight tiebreak to decide it.
Straightforward quarterfinals for the most part, with Cirakovic this year's surprise entrant. He went out quickly to Caratti, Benda beat Alberti. Girsh had to deal with last week's champ Agustin Herrera. Possibly because he was better prepared physically, he came through with a solid straight-sets win. Anil Mehul had a rough go against Elias Trulsen, usually a non-entity on clay, but rallied for a 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 victory. Nice recovery for him after last week's early exit.
In the first semi, Gustavo Caratti easily handled Benda despite the fatigue issues, his 8th straight win in that matchup over the last two years, all of them coming on clay. Girish Girsh avenged his recent defeat to Mehul in two sets; the first was close, but after that it was over. In the final, the Argentine was just too spent to give Girsh a real effort. He lost all three break chances he faced, had as many double faults as aces, and in general nearly donated the championship. A rather anticlimactic end, but preparation is often half the battle. Girsh reclaims the #1 spot in style, taking his first Rome title.
Coming Up ...
Everyone has a week off going into the French Open. It looks like Mooljee will narrowly hold the 16th spot going into the second Slam of the year, though he does lose the Nice 250 title from last season. That will give him a good chance to improve on his third-round finishes there and at Wimbledon, and build some traction. The last couple weeks he appeared to really start finding his game, taking good advantage of his opportunities. If that continues better things could be ahead than we saw in the last few months before. Girsh will hang onto the top spot no matter what happens, but with Caratti definitively vulnerable right now due to overtaxing his body, he's got to be targeting making a run at the title. Mehul has a good chance to overtake the Argentine for third in the rankings if he falters as well. Ujjaval is presently at a career-high 21st and will look to keep pushing upwards as well.
I think this is the most wide-open, because of Caratti, French Open that I've yet seen. There are at least a half-dozen players that could be serious threats.