Defending champion Steve Johnson narrowly escaped an early exit at the hands of Ernesto Escobedo at the Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship on Tuesday night.
Johnson came within two points of defeat at 5-all in the second set tiebreak, before closing out last year’s semifinalist 3-6 7-6(5) 6-2 in two hours and 28 minutes. The 28-year-old California native, who has been ranked as high as No. 21 in the world, is looking to become the first player to repeat as champion since Andy Roddick in 2002.
“I’m very happy,” Johnson said after the match. “Any time you make a switch to a surface and get your first win on the first day, that’s a good thing.”
Making his sixth career appearance in Houston, Johnson will face 20-year-old Frances Tiafoe for a spot in the quarterfinals.
“I feel super comfortable here,” Johnson added. “Center court is an awesome, unique, country club center court. All the Americans love coming here, and we always come back.”
No. 7 seed Ryan Harrison was one of three Americans to advance on Tuesday with a straightforward 6-4, 6-3 win over 18-year-old qualifier Miomir Kecmanovic. The victory comes 10 years after Harrison captured his first ATP main draw match here in 2008 as a 15-year-old.
Harrison awaits 20-year-old Taylor Fritz who made a successful River Oaks debut with a 6-7(3) 6-2 7-6(6) defeat of Tim Smyczek. Fritz came back from a break down in the final set to notch his second career victory on clay.
Ivo Karlovic, a Houston titlist in 2007, took out Taro Daniel 7-6(5) 6-4 to set up a second-round battle with 25-year-old qualifier Denis Kudla. Kudla will look to upset back-to-back former champions after taking out 2014 winner Fernando Verdasco on Monday.
In other Tuesday action, Argentine Guido Pella ousted qualifier Stefan Kozlov 6-3 6-2 setting up a second-round meeting with No. 2 seed Sam Querrey.
Querrey and No. 4 seed Nick Kyrgios will take the court on Wednesday. See the full order of play.