By Joe McGovern
HOUSTON, Texas – No one can take away from Ryan Sweeting that he is the defending champion at the US Menâ€™s Clay Court Championships. Yet after beginning his title defenseâ€”his first ever, as Houston remains his lone ATP titleâ€”with a 6-2, 7-6(6) win over Ricardo Mello, the Bahamian-born American spoke candidly about the consequences of this yearâ€™s event.
â€œThis week is important for me, obviously. I have a lot of points on the board from this week. Weâ€™ll really assess my goals and my schedule after this tournament. How I do in this tournament will determine a lot about how the next three of four months go for me. Right now my only goal is to perform well here.â€
Sweeting’s world ranking plummeted 55 spots earlier this week when his points from last yearâ€™s victory fell off. He is now ranked World No. 143, his lowest position in 24 months.Â An early round exit here would deny him direct entry to most tour events, including next monthâ€™s French Open.
â€œLast year, coming into this tournament, I had just started playing tour events,â€ he said. â€œIt was new and fresh for me, and ever since I won at this event Iâ€™ve been playing at the tour level consistently. Itâ€™s a lot harder, a lot more intense, and the level is a lot higher, and it basically makes it tougher to win matches.â€
But he is still upbeat about his chances one year later in Texas. â€œI definitely feel like my serve is stronger, I feel like my movement on the court is better, I feel like Iâ€™m physically stronger. But thereâ€™s a lot of good players in the field so Iâ€™m just trying to take it one match at a time. Iâ€™m not trying to win the whole tournament in one match.â€
In other first round play on Tuesday, Igor Kunitsyn defeated Belgian veteran Xavier Malisse, 6-4, 6-2, Paolo Lorenzi advanced over Wayne Odesnik, 6-7(3), 6-2, 6-3, and 2010 Houston semifinalist Horacio Zeballos rolled past Adrian Ungur, 6-3, 6-3.
In a rare all Japanese contest, Tatsuma Ito beat Go Soeda, 6-4, 7-5. And Houston resident Michael Russell gave his friends and neighbors a reason to cheer as he came back from a set and a break down to win against Daniel Gimeno-Traver, 2-6, 7-5, 6-1. Russell faces fellow American and top seed Mardy Fish in the second round on Thursday.