After losing his last five matches on clay, Dudi Sela was back to winning ways on the surface he so detests in Houston on Monday.
Sela, who has won just one of nine matches on clay since the start of 2009, beat Jesse Levine of the United States 6-4, 7-6 (6) to advance to the second round of the US Men’s Clay Court Championships.
Next up for Sela, who climbed earlier this week two places to No. 69 in the world, is a meeting with Horacio Zeballos, from Argentina, who advanced Tuesday when Taylor Dent retired after the first set.
Meanwhile, Roger Federer is looking forward to the clay-court season after a couple of disappointing results.
Only hours after his upset loss at the Sony Ericsson Open last week, Federer was back at practice, hitting across the street on the Ritz Carlton’s courts.
The men’s tour switches to the red surface this week, and Federer has already started preparing to defend the French Open title he won last year to complete a career Grand Slam. He no longer approaches with trepidation the surface that for so long tripped him up, and in the wake of a so-so showing last month on US hard courts, he’s ready for a switch.
“It helps to move on to a different surface,” Federer said. “I’m looking forward to the clay-court season.”
Ranked No. 1, as he has been for most of the past six years, Federer won his 16th Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in January. He withdrew from Dubai in February because of a lung infection, then lost in March at Indian Wells and Key Biscayne, both Masters 1000 events.
Marcos Baghdatis beat him in a third-set tiebreaker in the third round at Indian Wells after Federer held three match points. Thomas Berdych beat him in a third-set tiebreaker in the fourth round at Key Biscayne last week after Federer held one match point.
“Maybe the sickness did take it out of me more than I thought,” Federer said. “I could have done much better.”
Federer’s record in Masters 1000 tournaments – one level below the majors – has been mixed for several years. Since the beginning of 2007, he has won seven of the 13 Grand Slam events (54 percent) but only four of 28 Masters 1000 tournaments (14 percent).
That shows his priorities. Federer has entered clay-court events this spring in Rome, Estoril and Madrid, but everyone knows he’s pointing primarily toward Paris, where the French Open begins May 24.
Despite unimpressive results over the past month, Federer is expected to be a title contender at Roland Garros. Nemesis Rafael Nadal will be the favorite, but he has slipped a notch while battling knee problems that sidelined him for more than two months last year.
Nadal lost in the semifinals at Indian Wells and Key Biscayne, and it has been 11 months since his most recent title, in Rome. He’s without a title victory in his past 13 tournaments after losing to Andy Roddick last week.
Nonetheless, Nadal expressed satisfaction with his 16-4 record this year on hard courts. The four-time French Open champion said he’s ready for a big season on the clay he loves, begin at Monte Carlo next week.
“I’m very happy how I am doing,” Nadal said. “I think I am ready to play my best.”
Nadal remains Federer’s biggest threat on clay, while other contenders at the French Open will include Robin Soderling and Novak Djokovic. Soderling last week reached the Key Biscayne semifinals, and last year ended Nadal’s Roland Garros winning streak at 31 matches. Djokovic is a two-time semifinalist at Roland Garros.
Unlikely to be a French Open title threat is Key Biscayne champion Andy Roddick, who leads the tour with 26 victories this year. He’s only 7-8 at Roland Garros, although last year’s run to the fourth round was his best yet.
“We always say we play well for 20 percent of the year, badly for 20 percent of the year, and that middle 60 percent makes the difference,” Roddick said. “That middle 60 is a lot more vulnerable on clay for me. It’s never going to be my best surface. It’s always going to be the most challenging.”
On clay, Federer will happily take his chances with Roddick – or anyone
who’s not Nadal. Since 2005, Federer is 0-4 at Roland Garros against
Nadal and 30-0 against everyone else.
They haven’t met since May, when Federer ended Nadal’s 33-match
clay-court winning streak in the Madrid final. Odds are the rivalry
will be renewed this spring.
“It’s great for the game,” Federer said. “I think it’s great for our
own game, because I have the feeling we always have tendencies to go
back to the practice courts and say, OK, whoever has won or lost has to
go work harder.
“It has been always a lot of fun playing against him, and I hope that day is going to come soon again.”
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