While the tennis season has been underway for nearly a month and a half already, the sport has to make its way onto US soil – with the exception of five matches a few weeks ago, when the United States bested Belarus in Fed Cup competition in Worcester, Massachusetts. That encounter was just a taste, because from now until the middle of April, there will be at least one professional tennis tournament taking place in the United States every week.
The first tournament is the long-running SAP Open in San Jose, and it must be said that US tennis is slightly stumbling out of the blocks. Even before the tournament has officially begun, the draw has been dramatically weakened by some high-profile withdrawals, particularly the veterans Hewitt and Blake, along with up-and-coming Aussie phenom Bernard Tomic. As if that weren’t enough, all three of the tournament’s top three seeds (Roddick, Monfils, and defending champion Raonic) have been struggling with injuries recently, and their ability to perform at their top levels has to be considered something of a question mark.
Fortunately for the tournament organizers, the remainder of the field – while not necessarily star-studded – is certainly varied. There are a handful of tour veterans, including Tommy Haas, Radek Stepanek, Xavier Malisse, and Michael Russell. The showing from the younger contingent is just as strong, as it features Donald Young, Grigor Dimitrov, Ryan Harrison, and (probably) Milos Raonic. In addition to those young men, there is an excellent chance that we’ll have at least a couple more, once qualifying is completed on Monday. Ricardas Berankis, Yuki Bhambri, and Denis Kudla are all young players who have a shot at the main draw. Several years ago, Andy Murray won his first ATP title in San Jose, so we could see another young gun using this tournament as a springboard this year.
There are a handful of other interesting players scattered throughout the draw, including a pair of Americans fighting their way back from injuries last year (Sam Querrey and Robbie Ginepri), one of the shortest and one of the tallest players on tour (Olivier Rochus and Kevin Anderson), as well as the most successful active player without a tournament win (Julien Benneteau, who is 0-6 in finals). I also happen to think that Denis Istomin is one of the most entertaining players who you’ve probably never heard of. Just check out this point he played against Nadal a few years ago. He’s a guy that I keep expecting to make a breakthrough, but it hasn’t happened, yet.
It’s always tough to predict how a tournament will break down, before you can see what sort of form players are in and how well they like the conditions that particular week. It’s especially difficult for a tournament when the favorites are carrying injuries that aren’t going to be helping their chances. Roddick, Raonic, and Stepanek are all former champions here. Raonic has another title this year already, and Monfils made the final of the last tournament he played in, losing a close match to Berdych in Montpellier. Roddick looked to be in good form at the Australian Open until a hamstring injury sidelined him against Lleyton Hewitt. Roddick is one of two active players (the other being Federer) to have won at least one title per year for the last eleven years. I know that’s a streak that Andy would like to see continue, and if he’s fully recovered, he has an excellent shot this week in San Jose.
If Roddick and the other big dogs aren’t able to play their best, then it might be open season. There are plenty of wily veterans who would love to get their hands on the trophy and just as many hungry young players who want their first taste of victory.