Steve Johnson beats Jack Sock to advance to U.S. Clay Court final

Steve Johnson (above) will face Thomaz Bellucci in the finals of the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championship on Sunday.
Steve Johnson (above) will face Thomaz Bellucci in the finals of the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship on Sunday.
(Yi-Chin Lee / Houston Chronicle via AP)

Fourth-seeded Steve Johnson beat top-seeded Jack Sock 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 on Saturday in an all-American semifinal at the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship in Houston.

Johnson won his lone ATP Tour title last year on grass at Nottingham in England. He will face eighth-seeded Thomaz Bellucci of Brazil, a 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 winner over American Ernesto Escobedo.

“I just got lucky in the end,” said the 27-year-old Johnson, a two-time NCAA champion at USC. “He missed some first serves and a couple forehands, which is abnormal for him, and I just took my chances and was able to get it. This is great, my first final on U.S. soil. It’s fun to give myself a chance.”

A week ago, Sock and Johnson were on the same side, coming up short together in a losing effort by the U.S. Davis Cup team in the quarterfinals against Australia.


“Whomever I’m playing, it’s business,” said Johnson, who had dropped four of his five previous ATP World Tour matches against Sock. “That’s sports. You’re going to play guys you’re buddies with. You’ve got to put it aside and go about your business.”

Sock won the 2015 event at Forest Oaks for the first of his three tour titles, and finished second last year. He’s the highest-ranked U.S. player at No. 16.

“He played well at the end and deserved to win,” Sock said. “He does what he does. He slices his return well and puts some in the corners.”

Sock served almost flawlessly until the eighth game of the second set, when he double-faulted for the first time and faced double-break point. He extricated himself from that jam, but was finally broken in the 10th game, setting up another third set — his third in three days.


Sock broke back straight away, then held for 2-0 and 3-1 before Johnson charged, winning the final five games of the match. Sock save one match point with a crosscourt forehand winner, then ripped a forehand return down the line to reach break point himself before Johnson re-composed himself, leveling the game and putting Sock away with his 11th ace.

Bellucci has won four tour events, all on clay. Making his first appearance in the only ATP event played on clay in North America, he won his fourth three-set match in four days. It marked the first time in 27 years, going back to David Wheaton in 1990, that a player needed 12 sets to reach the final.

The 20-year-old Escobedo, a wild-card entry into the tournament, reached his first ATP-level semifinal after taking out John Isner, the 2013 champion and the No. 2 seed.

After breaking Bellucci in the 12th game of the first set to gain the upper hand, Escobedo struggled with his own serve the rest of the way. Before Houston, he’d never won an ATP match on clay. But getting to the semifinals lifted him to a provisional 72nd in the world.


Escobedo, having spent his formative tennis years on public hard courts in the West Covina area of Los Angeles, is the first Mexican-American to crack the top 200 since Pancho Gonzalez.

“I learned a lot of things this week, like that I can play on the clay,” Escobedo said. “I like it a lot. It’s fun. I’m enjoying myself on the court. So many players say it’s not their best surface so they just tank. I feel like I belong in the ATP. I think my game is there. I just have to keep working. It’s a long journey . . . I can’t wait for the future.”

Schiavone wins her eighth title

Former French Open champion Francesca Schiavone captured her eighth career title with a 6-4, 7-5 win over fourth-seeded Lara Arruabarrena at the Claro Open Colsanitas in Bogota, Colombia, showing she still has plenty of good tennis left in her as she winds down her career.


The 36-year-old Schiavone hadn’t won a main-draw WTA match all year before stunning 2016 French Open semifinalist Kiki Bertens and three other seeded players to win her first title since last year’s Rio Open.

Schiavone, the 2010 Roland Garros champion, has announced she will retire at the end of this season. With the win in Bogota, her ranking will improve from No. 168 to near the top 100, helping her chances of gaining direct entry to the French Open for her final appearance.

“I’m not thinking about retirement,” the Italian said after the match, according to the WTA website. “I’m enjoying tennis.”