What to Watch This Week: Houston, Casablanca, Katowice Previews
Perhaps no man has suffered as star-crossed a season as Nicolas Almagro, who won the first two sets of his Australian Open quarterfinal and served for it three times before succumbing to compatriot David Ferrer. Almagro also has lost three matches in final-set tiebreaks this year, including both of his losses at the Masters 1000 tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami. He also held a set point against Rafael Nadal in their Acapulco semifinal, only to spray a forehand flagrantly wide as his winlessness in that matchup continued. This week, however, Almagro finds a chance to set his bad luck behind him by holding the top seed at the only red clay tournament on American soil. We take a look at what he can expect there and what another hard-luck figure in the ATP this year can expect in Casablanca.
At first, the title of “US Men’s Clay Court Championships” rings an odd note considering the general aversion of the aforementioned nation to the aforementioned surface. While Davis Cup exploits perhaps have immunized some of the Americans against their allergies to clay, they do not dominate this draw as much as one would expect from a tournament of this level on their home soil. As the top seed, Almagro faces an intriguing opener against Gael Monfils, which would pit a three-time Roland Garros quarterfinalist against a former semifinalist there. Beset by injuries over the last several months, Monfils must beware of American veteran James Blake in the wake of the latter’s unexpected surge on the March hard courts. Either Almagro or Monfils should feel confident in his ability to overpower the seventh-seeded Paolo Lorenzi, an archetypal grinder with no significant weapons.
Introducing a bit more of the “US” into the tournament’s title is the second quarter, where two American wildcards accompany Sam Querrey. The highest-ranked player in this section, Querrey will look to build upon a gallant effort in Davis Cup while confronting the stark change in surface from indoor hard courts. He finished runner-up to Juan Ignacio Chela here in 2010 and does own a title on outdoor clay (Belgrade that year), showing that his forehand-centered game can benefit from the time offered by clay to run around his backhand. In addition to UCLA star Steve Johnson, who extended Almagro to five sets at the Australian Open, Rhyne Williams will intrigue local fans curious about what the next generation might bring. Anchoring the quarter is Fernando Verdasco, seeking to emerge from the doldrums of a four-match losing streak before the European clay where his ranking could plunge swiftly.
Can Juan Monaco win a match outside Davis Cup this year? A star when he takes the court in the Parque Roca of Buenos Aires with national pride at stake, he has exited all of his ATP tournaments in the opening round despite a top-20 ranking that has resulted in comfortable draws. American hopeful Tim Smyczek and former champion Lleyton Hewitt stand ready to exploit any remnants of malaise from the Argentine, as does his compatriot Martin Alund. Having reached the semifinals of Sao Paulo, and won a set from Nadal there, Alund already has reached the top 100 in his first season on the ATP circuit.
A runner-up at Houston last year, John Isner paradoxically played more encouraging tennis in his Davis Cup loss to Djokovic than in many of his victories this year. Isner no longer labors under the pressure of holding the top ranking among American men, and he has admitted that he feels more comfortable outside the spotlight. While Querrey holds that position now, Ryan Harrison and Jack Sock surely fancy themselves there someday. The former could face Isner in the first round and the latter in the second, creating an intriguing series of matchups between the present and future. His stirring run to the Miami semifinals behind him, Tommy Haas has lost little time in returning to action as the second seed. Like Isner, he will confront a member of the ATP’s next generation in Ricardas Berankis.
Semifinals: Almagro vs. Querrey; Hewitt vs. Haas
Final: Almagro vs. Haas
In a year of near-triumphs turned to heartbreaks, Stanislas Wawrinka has stood on the edge of upsetting Novak Djokovic and of winning the longest match in Davis Cup history, only to see both of those accomplishments to slip away. The Casablanca top seed also has lost a three-set final on South American clay (albeit as an underdog to David Ferrer) and failed to close out an Indian Wells encounter with Roger Federer in which he led by a break in the final set.
At this sole ATP African outpost, where he lifted the trophy three years ago, Wawrinka could gain some solace for those disappointments by claiming a title as the top seed. The highest-ranked rival in his quarter, Daniel Gimeno-Traver, suffered a recent disappointment himself when he let Berdych off the hook in what looked like a stunning Miami upset waiting to happen. Perhaps more compelling is the test posed by Albert Montanes, who has won all five of his career titles on outdoor clay and even upset Federer once on the surface. Delray Beach finalist Edouard Roger-Vasselin rounds out the quarter but shines more on hard courts.
Although a bye guarantees him at least a positive start to the tournament, the fourth-seeded Benoit Paire rarely appears in the same sentence with the word “reliable” and seems too streaky to excel on clay. This temperamental Frenchman could face a similarly temperamental Austrian in the aging Jurgen Melzer, who obtained his best career result with a Roland Garros semifinal in 2010. Stirring back into relevance only sporadically, the mercurial veteran will bring confidence from reaching a Miami quarterfinal and will open against a man whom he defeated there in an arduous three-setter, Tobias Kamke. A former member of the top ten, Tommy Robredo, continues to spin out the final threads of an understated career. As a South American semifinal this spring proved, his steadiness still can reap rewards in clay tournaments of this level.
In general, this draw contains fewer clay specialists than one might expect. That fact especially emerges from the bottom half, where Kevin Anderson looks to boost his ranking higher into the top 30 by accumulating some comfortable ranking points. A quarterfinalist at Indian Wells, Anderson has played the best tennis of his career in 2013 by complementing his overpowering serve with more consistent groundstrokes and a more refined sense of shot selection. He will need those latter attributes to make any impact on a surface hostile to men of his height, or his ungainly movement could leave him vulnerable to the unremarkable but clean baseline game of Pablo Andujar.
Few of the other players in this half raise many eyebrows, however, since fellow seeds Grega Zemlja and Martin Klizan share Anderson’s preference for hard courts over clay. For an unexpected surge, one might consider Roberto Bautista Agut, who came within a set of winning his first career title in Chennai but has struggled mightily since then. But the seventh-seeded Robin Haase, twice a titlist on this surface, may present the stiffest resistance for Anderson if he can overcome his own recent struggles.
Semifinals: Wawrinka vs. Melzer; Haase vs. Andujar
Final: Wawrinka vs. Haase
Replacing the short-lived Copenhagen tournament on the WTA schedule, a new event in Poland offers the only WTA action of the week before the Fed Cup semifinals.
Like most fledgling tournaments in areas unfamiliar with hosting professional tennis, Katowice boasts one genuine star and a handful of journeywomen. While fellow first-time event Florianopolis featured Venus Williams, the Polish tournament enlisted the services of former Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova. But Kvitova may need Katowice almost as much as Katowice needs her, for her results this year outside Fed Cup generally have not impressed. Picking up where she left off in a desultory 2012 campaign, the Czech has struggled to harness her three key weapons of serve, return, and forehand for more than a few games at a time. Even on a sporadic day, though, she surely can outhit the Japanese double-fister Misaki Doi despite the latter’s improved results. An all-Petra quarterfinal could pit Kvitova against Croat Petra Martic, but this prospect seems unlikely in view of Martic’s winless record this year. At her best on clay, Alize Cornet could offer credible resistance if she has gained confidence from reaching the fourth round of Miami. Kvitova may need to string more than one or two powerful blows together to outhit Cornet, although she should feast on this opponent’s meager serve.
Two Germans bookend the second quarter, where they will hope to regroup from disappointing weeks in Charleston. Both Julia Goerges and Sabine Lisicki let winnable matches slip away on the green clay after winning the first set, a familiar narrative for both. The more skilled of the Germans on red clay by far, Goerges also enjoys the more accommodating draw with two qualifiers in her vicinity and grass specialist Tsvetana Pironkova. Drawn near slow-court specialist Irina-Camelia Begu, Lisicki must find ways to win points with shots other than her serve, on which she has leaned too heavily this year. The two Germans split their two previous meetings, both on clay, with Goerges winning the more recent in what seems the logical outcome if they should meet here.
While neither Agnieszka nor Urszula Radwanska has entered this first edition of a Polish tournament, their countrywoman Marta Domachowska will give the home fans a reason to cheer. Sustaining their cheers may prove difficult, however, for Laura Robson looms nearby. Not nearly as effective on clay as on faster surfaces, the highest-ranked teenager in the WTA will hope to hit through the surface with her flat, penetrating groundstrokes before an opponent extends her deep into rallies. Patience has failed the fiery Robson over the last several weeks, so someone who can stay within range may find an opportunity to frustrate her. Seemingly suited to that task is Klara Zakopalova, a Czech who has won sets from Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova at Roland Garros. Zakopalova excels at retrieving one ball after another until her foe’s mind numbs, so a test of Robson’s maturity awaits.
At the base of the draw lies Miami quarterfinalist Roberta Vinci, a genuine title threat at minor clay tournaments like these. Vinci’s crafty mixture of spins and slices can befuddle less experienced or less disciplined opponents on a surface that gives her the time to create these combinations. Another clay specialist who surpassed expectations on March hard courts, Lara Arruabarrena-Vecino, aims to repeat her three-set upset of Vinci at Indian Wells. A quarterfinalist at Roland Garros last year, Kaia Kanepi belongs among the women who benefit from clay’s ability to mask their indifferent foot speed and long swings. Kanepi has received an especially cozy draw before meeting Vinci or Arruabarrena-Vecino in the quarterfinals, but she has not played this year while recovering from a heel injury.
Semifinals: Kvitova vs. Goerges; Zakopalova vs. Vinci
Final: Kvitova vs. Vinci