Taiwan’s top tennis player Lu Yen-hsun has never been a fan of playing on clay. Long ranked in the top 100, Lu once declared he would have trouble beating any top-500 clay-court specialist on the quirky surface.
So when he drew the formidable world No. 17 Fernando Verdasco of Spain in the first round of this week’s clay-court Madrid Masters, most observers — including Lu — figured Verdasco winning was a virtual lock.
Figuring he was headed for an early exit, Lu asked his elder brother to book an earlier flight for him back to Taiwan so he could spend more time preparing for a Challenger Tour event in South Korea next week.
Those plans were put on hold, however, after Lu shocked the 15th-seeded Madrid native 7-6 (9/7), 7-5 in just over two hours on Tuesday to notch his first ATP tour win on clay in his 10-year pro career.
Attacking Verdasco at every opportunity rather than playing a patient baseline game, Lu jumped to a 5-2 first-set lead and held on in the tiebreaker after squandering three set points.
Lu then broke Verdasco in the 11th game of the second set and saved two break points in the final game with a winner on his serve and powerful crosscourt forehand, before serving out the match.
“The strategy to attack whenever possible and put pressure on him really worked well today,” Lu said. “But Verdasco was really tough. He kept me pinned back with heavy topspin shots to my backhand that were difficult to handle.”
The victory, which set up a second-round encounter against world No. 49 Xavier Malisse of Belgium, was even more unexpected because of Lu’s recent form.
He came into the Madrid tournament with only two wins in 11 matches in main ATP Tour draws this season and his only performance on clay this year was a desultory 6-0, 6-4 loss to world No. 411 Ervin Eleskovic of Sweden in a first-round qualifier for last week’s Serbia Open in Belgrade.
Though Verdasco has had an inconsistent year by his standards, he seemed to be getting back into the groove after reaching the finals of last week’s Estoril Open in Portugal.
Lu’s coach Dirk Hordorff, who has repeatedly pressed Lu to make playing on clay a higher priority, described the 27-year-old’s performance as “brave” and hoped the breakthrough victory would give him more confidence on the surface in the future.
Also on Tuesday, Estoril champion Juan Martin del Potro reached the second round, defeating 13th seed Mikhail Youzhny 6-1, 3-6, 6-3.
Del Potro, the 2009 US Open champion, missed more than eight months of play last season after wrist surgery, but has now won two titles this year. He has claimed victories in 24 or 28 matches since February, as his return toward the elite gains pace.
He admitted he felt pain in his hip and called for the trainer at one point.
“I’ve had it since Estoril, maybe since it’s been so long since I played on clay, but I wanted to win no matter what the pain,” Del Potro said.”
German Florian Mayer eliminated 16th-seeded Serb Viktor Troicki 4-6, 7-5, 6-4, while Frenchman Gilles Simon booked a second-round spot against fourth-seeded Andy Murray through a win over Ivan Ljubicic 7-5, 7-6 (10/9).
And Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga advanced to the third round over Spain’s Per Riba 6-4, 6-2.
On the women’s side, four seeds reached the third round, with No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki leading the way as she held off Serbia’s Bojana Jovanovski 6-4, 6-4.
Australian Samantha Stosur defeated Daniela Hantuchova for the second time in a fortnight on red clay, winning 7-6 (7/1), 7-5 in a match that was almost interrupted by a huge thunderclap in the skies over the Caja Magica. The noise caught Hantuchova off-guard, with the flinching Slovak asking to stop play.
However, with Stosur closing in on victory, the match went ahead, with the French Open finalist advancing on her second match point in just under two hours of play moments later.
Stosur lifted her clay record for this year to 6-2 as she closes in on her career-best in Madrid, a quarter-final last year.
“It was a tough match and I’m glad to get through. I was ready to play a third set if it had gone to that. I just tried to stay in the moment and play each point as it came,” Stosur said.
Later, the woman who denied her the French Open title, Francesca Schiavone, joined her in the next round, but the third seed had to go the distance to put out Italian compatriot Sara Errani 6-0, 2-6, 6-3. Czech 16th seed Petra Kvitova also advanced 6-3, 6-3 past South African Chanelle Scheepers, as Bethanie Mattek-Sands hammered fellow American Vania King 6-0, 6-2.
Aussie Jarmila Gajdosova dismissed 10th seed Agnieszka Radwanska 3-6, 6-3, 6-3.