Evan Valeri

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Building the Ultimate ATP Player: Part 2

Rafael Nadal Chile

By Evan Valeri

In my previous article I discussed which ATP players in the modern game have the most desirable strokes. As we have all seen before, the player with the superior technique is not always the winner. In this article we will take a look at which players have a strong mentality on court as well as other supporting aspects of the mental game.

Man with a Plan – Roger Federer

You don’t become number one in the world for more than 300 weeks without having a plan when you step on court for battle. Not only plan “a” but also plans b, c, and d. Federer has the ability to dissect a player and exploit their weaknesses while playing to his strength. He moves opponents around all areas of the court better than anyone and it appears as though he often has them on a string, playing a well conceived game of cat and mouse. You can often see Federer pull opponents into the net with a short slice backhand, forcing a weak approach, which allows him to blast a ball which they are unable to handle. Roger is smart and adaptable on court. If his first plan isn’t working he changes gears so he can stay ahead of any foe.

Winning the Clutch Moments – Novak Djokovic

Having a better deciding fifth set record (.721 win percentage) than any of the other players in the top ten says it all. When the pressure moment arrives, Novak knows how to win and that is why he has won the most majors the last few years and is the number one player in the world. Novak knows what points he can afford to lose and save energy if need be. He can also understand which points and games of each set are the most important. At these times he elevates his game and makes his opponent crack under the pressure. Djokovic flat out knows what it takes to win and how to play his highest level of tennis during the biggest moments.

Mental Toughness – Rafael Nadal

This category represents a variety of aspects of the mental game combined into one. Level headedness is the ability for someone to glance at you, and whether you are ahead 5-0 or down 0-5, they won’t be able to tell. Mental toughness also includes the ability to front run and not relax if you are ahead, and not stress out if you’re behind in a match. There is one man on the ATP tour who is better than anyone else at keeping the pressure on, fighting his way back, and keeping his cool. That man is Rafael Nadal. Rafa has an amazing .827 career winning percentage because he is the most mentally tough player on tour.

Physical Fitness – David Ferrer

Being in the best possible physical shape on a tennis court gives a player a huge advantage mentally. David Ferrer is not only one of the fastest players on tour but can play at the highest level for longer than anyone else out there. This is a huge advantage during a five set match. Knowing that even if your opponent is winning, if you can force a fifth set your victory is almost inevitable. David knows this and embraces it with twice as many five set wins throughout his career as losses. Just as important as being fast and having superior stamina is the ability to avoid injury and David has done a great job staying healthy during his years on tour.

Court Coverage – Andy Murray

You won’t find a player who can cover more of the court during a match than Scot Andy Murray. Murray is fast on the tennis court but more importantly he knows how and where to recover. Like a great chess player, he is fantastic at anticipating his opponent’s next shot. Murray has been known for being content at playing rallies from 30-50 hits in length and move better side to side as well as forward and back than anyone out there.

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A player who has the best strokes in the world and a complete mental game would be difficult to beat. No matter how efficient your technique or how mentally strong you are, a player still needs to know how to execute on court. The ability to play a winning style of game is pivotal in defeating your opponent. In the final article in this series I will take a look at the different game styles and which players excel at putting them into play.

Building the Ultimate ATP Player

Rafael Nadal racquet

By Evan Valeri

In this series of articles, I will break down what the ultimate ATP player’s game would look like in today’s singles game. This first article will dive into which modern players have the most desirable strokes.

Serve: Milos Raonic

In 2012, Milos “The Missile” Raonic led the ATP Tour in service games won (winning 93%), 1st serve points won (winning 82%), and break points saved (74% saved). He also ranked second in the field in aces, by serving 1002 untouchable bombs, only three behind big serving American John Isner. Milos is able to keep opponents guessing because he has a full artillery of serves to choose from. At the 2012 Rogers Cup he served the third fastest serve ever at 155.3mph. Milos backs the heater up by mixing in kick serves that can jump over the heads of opponents as they curve way outside the doubles alley, and sliding slices that are tough to retrieve unless you are stretch Armstrong. And to top it off he can vary the pace and combine the spins so opponents are left standing like the house beside the road as the ball flies past. The serve of Milos Raonic is the ultimate shot anyone would love to start a point with.

Forehand: Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal’s forehand is so good it has a nickname, “The Fearhand”. Fearhand is a very fitting name for the forehand of Nadal. He hits the heaviest ball that the ATP has ever seen. With nearly a full western grip he bludgeons the ball with never before seen power and spin from anywhere on the court. Nadal can hit the ball just as effective from shoulder height as he can from his shins. Rafa’s spin gives him a huge advantage over the rest of the field. It allows him to hit the ball higher over the net giving him great margin for error. Nadal can hit the ball harder and also bend and dip passing shots like no one else because of this tremendous amount of topspin. The fearhand is a weapon desired by many and is the best on the ATP Tour.

Backhand: Novak Djokovic

This could be the most complete shot in the game today. Novak is able to do anything with his backhand. He hits it offensively and defensively with equal effectiveness because he is just as comfortable hitting from an open stance as he is stepping into the shot. Djokovic can pull his backhand flat up the line for a winner at the drop of a hat, roll it with topspin on a crosscourt angle, or hit a deft slice to stay in the point or keep the ball low. Novak Djokovic strikes the backhand better than anyone in the world from anywhere on the court and it’s practically impossible for opponents to dissect and breakdown this stroke.

Volleys: Roger Federer

Many people may view this pick as a bit of a surprise. It would have been easier to choose more of a doubles specialist like Bob or Mike Bryan, Radek Stepanek, or Michael Llodra, but the volley in today’s game is more than just hitting the ball out of the air. Having a good volley in singles consists of not only getting it done once you get to net, but choosing the right time to attack and having the approach shot skill set to put you in the best position to hit effective volleys. Roger owns all of these skills that make up a great volleyer in today’s singles game. He picks smart opportunities to come in; hits his approaches to the correct locations, and once he arrives at net he can place his volleys anywhere. Federer can hit soft drop volleys, angles, deep penetrating skidding volleys, and can put away overheads on both the forehand and backhand sides. Roger Federer has the volleys that the best singles player in the world would need.

Return of Serve: Novak Djokovic

Considered by many to be the best returner in the modern game, he also appears in the conversation of best returner of all time for good reason. Djokovic is better than anyone at getting the ball back in play. In 2012 Djokovic ranked second behind Nadal in first serve return points won, break points converted and return games won, but those people that believe Nadal is the superior returner are construing this information incorrectly . Djokovic played nearly twice as many matches as Nadal, and Nadal’s shortened season was dominated by playing on the dirt. Djokovic also ranked second in second serve return points won, behind Andy Murray. While there have been better aggressive return players in the long history of tennis, think Agassi, Djokovic has a complete return game. He has the ability to be aggressive with returns while also somehow getting a stick on serves that catch him leaning in the wrong direction. He gives himself a chance to get into points, and with the game becoming more and more about staying in points rather than ending them, this is crucial and is what makes him the best in today’s game.

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Combine the strokes of all these players and you would have a player with the most complete, rock solid, all around physical game. But as we have seen in the past, just because a player has superior technique and strokes doesn’t mean they will win every match. Tennis is said to be eighty percent mental, and without a good game upstairs, a player will never rise to the top of the ranks. The next article in the series will discuss what it would take to own an opponent mentally.

Defense as the New Offense: Analyzing Ferrer and Djokovic

Novak Djokovic lunges to make a shot

By Evan Valeri

While Berdych didn’t have what it took to defeat the world number one in their quarterfinal matchup, he played well. It was right along the lines of some of the other matches the two have played over the course of the past two seasons. Berdych seems to squeak a set out of him every now and then sandwiched between a couple lopsided whoopings. Tomas wasn’t able to capitalize on a few keys to winning the match. He needed to keep points short and win a majority of the rallies that lasted between four and nine shots. Tomas was unable to complete this task with Novak winning 60% of those points. Tomas also needed to serve well and win most of his first serve points. This was also a bust with him winning just 66% against the best returner in the game.

It’s tough to play your best tennis and capitalize on the key points every time when you are playing the best in the world. Even though Djokovic was coming off a five hour marathon match with Stan Wawrinka, he looked fresh and fitter than ever. For the number six ranked Berdych to win sets more consistently against the top players, he needs to become a more complete player. It’s possible for him to elevate his game and play top tier tennis, hitting big winners against these players for a set, but to do it for three is another story. He lacks the ability to play grinding, retrieving, defensive tennis, which the top five players in the world are able to do.

A player’s ability to run down ball after ball has become a must. Look at the Ferrer vs. Almagro quarterfinal a few days ago. Almagro was able to play at a very high level the first four sets, but after the fourth set ended and the two players were past the three hour mark on court, he looked weary. He wasn’t hitting his shots with the same zip they had early in the match and he was moving as though he had glue on the bottom of his shoes. Ferrer on the other hand, who is considered to possibly be the fittest man on tour by his peers, looked fresh as a daisy as though the two players were just starting the second set. Because of his superior fitness, Ferrer cruised to a 6-2 win of the fifth set, and won the match after clawing back from two sets to love down.

The Djokovic vs. Ferrer semifinal matchup tonight at the Australian Open will show any casual fan the importance of being fit and being able to stay in the point. These two are masters of pulling out points after it appears their opponent has won the point two or three different times. They are bound to trade blows for at least four sets and several hours. Fitness most likely won’t be an issue tonight with these two. They have proven they can both play at the highest level for over five hours. The match will feature many points where these guys are moving each other side to side behind the baseline, waiting for that carefully calculated, high percentage chance to be aggressive and finish the point.

While tennis seems to be following the “defense wins championships” trend, it takes more than just running down ball after ball and staying consistent to be the best. Players need to be able to combine that with the ability to play aggressive, point ending, all court tennis when the opportunities present themselves. If players can’t master the transition ball and they just counterpunch every shot, eventually they will get too far out of position and the opponent will seize that moment to change the tides and win the point. If you look at the five best players in the world, they are able to play defense better than anyone and transition that defense to offense at the drop of a hat.

The fitness of modern players has changed the game of tennis. Tennis used to be a game dominated by the serve and volley, but with the introduction of more powerful racquets, the change to more western grips, and polyester strings, the trend has favored the hard hitting baseline player. During the serve and volley era, points were short and although the top players were in good shape, fitness wasn’t a priority like it is to athletes today. With the amount of topspin players are putting on the ball in today’s game, they are able to swing more powerfully while staying consistent. If players aren’t able to run down ball after ball to stay in points they are going to lose every match. The open stance has also grown in popularity and is hit on both the forehand and backhand wings. It allows players to generate loads of angular momentum and apply tons of spin and pace to each shot, while also recovering quicker towards the center. As time goes on we are seeing courts get slower, which also encourages defensive play and long rallies. Players have advanced from quick serve and volley points to grinding 20 plus shot rallies and five hour matches.

Combine all of this together and it is easy to see that defense is the new offense.

Lucky Number 13? Previewing Djokovic vs. Berdych

Tomas Berdych is set to take on Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals of the 2013 Australian Open

By Evan Valeri

The upcoming 2013 Australian Open quarterfinal match between Novak Djokovic and Tomas Berdych marks the thirteenth time the two players will face off. Out of the previous twelve matches the Birdman was only able to capitalize once, taking out the Serb in straight sets during the 2010 Wimbledon semi finals. The last time the two met in a major was down under in 2011, a contest which Djokovic won, 6-1, 7-6, 6-1. Throughout the course of the last two years the two have played six other times. Berdych was able to take first set during three of the matchups, just to lose the next two. Does Berdych have what it takes to beat the reigning champ and world number one and advance to the semifinals in Melbourne?

The two players have very unique games which are quite different from one another. Djokovic plays a great all court style which has shown very few chinks in the armor over the past two seasons. He is able to play magically from all areas of the court. Opponents have said that even when he is playing defense he seems to stay offensive. He has a serve which has came together nicely over the years, giving him the ability to mix up spin, placement, and speed. He keeps his opponents guessing better than anyone. Djokovic is capable of ripping forehands and backhands from anywhere on the court with equal success. It’s hard to pick on one wing over the other when playing the Djoker. Whenever necessary he stays on top of the baseline and plays aggressively ,moving players wherever he pleases as though he has them on a string.

Berdych on the other hand has an aggressive baseliner’s mentality. He has a very conventional style of game compared to many other players on tour. Where you see players like Novak running side to side and hitting a majority of groundstrokes from an open stance, Berdych prefers to step into the ball often hitting from a square or semi open stance. He holds the racquet with a semi-western forehand grip, which is the most popular forehand grip on tour today. Where he differs is that many players follow-through lower on the forehand side, somewhere between the elbow and shoulder. This allows them to quickly come over the ball and apply tremendous amounts of topspin. Many of Tomas’ forehand follow-throughs are high over his shoulder. He has a smooth, classic, flat hitting style, barely dropping the racquet below the ball and driving through with great extension. This flat hitting style allows him to be very aggressive and hit massive groundstrokes which keep opponents on the defensive. Berdych moves well for his 6’5” height but playing defense isn’t exactly a strength for the Czech.

Djokovic is number one in the world because he has the most complete game physically but more important, mentally. He knows how to get it done. As I stated earlier throughout the past two years Berdych was able to win the first set fifty percent of the time, yet couldn’t capitalize. Novak has no problem playing from behind and is one of those guys who is hard to stay in front of. He copes better with high pressure situations than anyone else on tour.

Take a look at Djokovic’s last two five set matches during the Australian Open. At one point against Nadal in the final last year it seemed like he was gassed and had nothing left in the tank. Where in reality, he saved some energy and stayed in the match by cranking winners and ending points quickly at opportune moments. This allowed him to really turn it on and play spectacular tennis when it counted in the fifth set and come away the victor. During this tournament his previous round match against Stan Wawrinka was another epic, which he won 12-10 in the fifth. The last point of the match said it all. A grinding rally which included Wawrinka ripping two balls to Novak’s backhand side that didn’t seem retrievable that late in the fifth set, to set up a short approach shot, which Novak flicked a backhand off from knee level for a crosscourt passing shot winner to end the match. To cap it all off Novak knows how to win and Berdych has had a hard time throughout his career getting it done against the best players on the biggest of stages.

Besides the physical and mental matchups, this battle features many intangibles that shouldn’t be overlooked. First of all is the amount of time both players have spent on court. Berdych hasn’t dropped a set all tournament and should go into the night match feeling very fresh. Djokovic on the other hand is coming off that grueling five hour victory over Wawrinka in the previous round. Will the world number one come out with a full tank of energy against the world number six player? It’s tough to really say, Novak is probably in the best shape of anyone out there, but when was the last time he had to play a match a day after a five hour dogfight. Secondly, players have said that the courts are playing slightly faster than previous years. This could be in the big hitting Birdman’s favor. The third thing to keep in mind if you are Tomas, is the daunting task of erasing that 1-11 win loss record against Djokovic from memory.

Berdych has a tough task in front of him tonight as he tries to knock off Djokovic but then again nothing is impossible. If he is to prove victorious he will most likely have to keep points short, attacking weak returns, and pulling the trigger whenever he gets a good look. He will also need to win the majority of the rallies lasting less than ten shots. Berdych will also have to serve well and keep Djokovic from getting away early in sets. Tiebreaks could prove to be life or death situations for Tomas, and he needs to win them in order to get it done. Djokovic is the favorite and Berdych will most likely have to play nearly flawless tennis and have a little luck on his side to win. No matter who comes out victorious it should prove to be a fun match for spectators featuring some huge hit winners, unbelievable defensive retrievals, and emotions running high as these two titans battle for a spot in the 2013 Australian Open semifinals.

Evan Valeri is a USPTA P2 tennis teaching professional and has a USTA Sports Science Level 1 certification. He graduated from Ferris State University with a degree in Professional Tennis Management/Marketing and enjoys the technical and coaching side of tennis. You can view his website here: www.totaltennisplayer.com.

Janko Tipsarevic: Rebel with a Cause

Janko Tipsarevic in press

By Evan Valeri

“Beauty will save the world.”

Written in Japanese and adorning the left arm of current ATP number nine ranked player Janko Tipsarevic, this is just one of many tattoos that make Tipsarevic stand out from the crowd. His tattoos along with the sporty Oakley glasses he wears make Janko an unforgettable figure in tennis. Separating himself from the traditional gentlemen’s sport stereotype of tennis, he brings a modern day Andre Agassi rebel type figure to the game. This tennis rebel is out to prove to opponents and fans that he is more than just another player doing what he can to stand out. Janko is on a mission to beat the best in the world, and after finishing in the ATP top ten the previous two seasons, he has cemented himself at the top of the game.

Janko Tipsarevic has earned himself a reputation as one of the hardest working players in the game over the 2012 season. Having changed his diet, losing weight, and adding muscle, he has made sure he can play with the same amount of energy deep in the fifth as he did the first point of the match. Janko is ready to go the distance with anyone. He is fast, but has made strides learning how to move more efficiently around the court. Tipsarevic controls his emotions on court as well as anyone. He uses positive energy to pump himself up, not allowing negative thoughts or energy to impact his play. Combine his hard work, positive attitude, and newfound drive to compete and emerge victorious every time he enters a stadium for battle, and you have a new gladiator at the top of men’s tennis.

The world number ninth ranked player likes to stalk the baseline and play a unique hybrid aggressive/counterpunching baseliner style of game. He will often change the direction of the ball when opponents are not expecting it. Tipsarevic has the ability to flatten the ball out from both sides and likes backpedaling around balls to the backhand wing, striking inside out forehands. You won’t see as many winners fly off Janko’s racquet as other players but he won’t litter the stat sheet with unforced errors either. He often wins points by running opponents ragged until he forces an error from them or they cough up a short ball he is able to capitalize on. While the 5’11” Serb doesn’t benefit from being able to bomb aces past opponents several times a game, he mixes his serve up well. His arsenal includes a bending slice, hard flat ball, pinpoint placement, and a kick serve. He gives opponents a different look by sliding closer to the sideline on the ad side to deliver his kick, which pulls returners out wide and opens up the court so he can hit aggressive forehands. Tipsarevic has a complete game with the necessary tools to continue his rise up the rankings.

If Janko is to start defeating the big four on a regular basis he needs to improve his defensive abilities. The game has become more about defense rather than offense. This can be attributed to slower court surfaces and the improved fitness of players, which gives them the ability to run down winner after winner, point after point for hours. During a press conference after losing to Novak Djokovic at the 2012 ATP World Tour Finals Roger Federer said, “What he does well – even in defense he stays somewhat offensive. That, I think, is what separates him from the rest a little bit.” Now don’t get me wrong, Janko Tipsarevic plays great defense, but what separates the top four from him is their ability to quickly transition from defense to offense. Within three shots you can see Novak, Rafa, Andy, and Roger on the full stretch slicing a ball from ten feet behind the baseline to stepping inside the court and cracking a winner.

Tipsarevic has the quickness around the court needed to retrieve many balls but at the pinnacle of the game you need to be able to hit defensive shots that are hard for opponents to capitalize on. Watching Janko play Federer during the ATP World Tour Finals last November, Federer always appeared to be one shot ahead. Janko would hit an offensive shot just to have Fed pull him into the net with a short ball and pounce on Tipsarevic’s approach passing him before he even knew what happened. His improved fitness and new understanding of playing defensive tennis could bring increased success in 2013.

Tipsarevic plays his best tennis when he is dictating play and moving opponents side to side. This higher risk type of tennis is hard to play for an entire match against the top players in the world. By improving his defensive abilities and learning to capitalize on transitioning from defense to offense, he will feel less pressure to play perfect tennis every point. With that weight lifted off his shoulders; Janko will make deep runs in the majors more often, improve his ranking, and more regularly defeat the big four. Janko Tipsarevic isn’t a rebel without a cause, but more a rebel with a cause to be the best in the world. With the drive he possesses Djokovic, Federer, Nadal, and Murray better watch their backs.

ATP Australian Open Visions: Predictions, Matchups and Winners

2012 Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic

January 12, 2013 — The Australian Open kicks off main draw play on Monday, January 14th, but what exactly do we have in store in this year’s men’s draw? Your trusty panel of Tennis Grandstand writers delve into the hot topics surrounding the first Slam, including dark horses, seeded players crashing out early, first round upsets, and potential semifinalists and champion for the men’s tour. You won’t have to look anywhere further than our comprehensive coverage!

Check out our women’s Australian Open draw preview here!

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Dark Horse

Romi CvitkovicGrigor Dimitrov.The men’s draw this Slam seems to be very forgiving to the top 8, but not so much to the players just under them. Despite that, the 21-year-old has finally been delivering this year, reaching his first ATP final en route taking out three players ranked considerably higher than him. His road to the quarterfinal is fairly open after his first round encounter with No. 32 seed Julien Benneteau, against whom he holds a 2-0 winning record.

Yeshayahu GinsburgJo-Wilfried Tsonga. Dark horse is a relative term, because the fact remains that in men’s tennis today it’s the top 4 and then everybody else. Nadal is out, so the odds of anyone but Murray, Federer, and Djokovic winning are incredibly low. But if I had to take someone from the field, I’d go with Tsonga. The AO is historically his best Slam and Federer is probably the one of the top 4 he’s most comfortable against in a quarterfinal. The fact that his draw is not particularly challenging until then helps too.

David KaneTommy Haas. The German has had more lives than a cat as he enters 2013 in the midst of his third career. With a pretty nice draw that pits him against a tournament’s supply of wild cards and a pair of Frenchmen, Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Haas could keep things interesting for nostalgic fans that remember the German’s glory days. Should he make the second week, he could get a war-weary Roger Federer, who has more than his fair share of tough opponents early on. It might not be too late to party like it’s 2002.

Andrea LubinskyRichard Gasquet. Perhaps it’s a risky pick, at 26, it’s unlikely the Frenchman will all of the sudden start to consistently maximize his talent. However, after hitting a career high of No. 7 in 2007, Gasquet is back in the Top 10. He’s already 5-0 this season after winning his eighth career title, in Doha. His draw isn’t exactly a cake walk, but that backhand should get him to Week 2.

Chris SkeltonMilos Raonic. His towering serve makes him a threat in any draw on any surface, and he nearly toppled potential fourth-round opponent Federer on three occasions in 2012, losing two final-set tiebreaks and a 6-4 final set. Raonic will need to win his previous matches efficiently, something that has troubled him before but certainly within his abilities considering his accommodating draw.

Evan ValeriRichard Gasquet. Winning a three set match against Davydenko in the Doha final to start the year, had Richard fist pumping left and right. Looking reenergized and in a favorable section of the draw, Gasquet is poised to make a deep run during the first major of the season. Look for a potential quarterfinal match up between the current world number ten player and Roger Federer.

Maud WatsonJuan Martin del Potro. Assuming anyone outside of the Big 4 is a dark horse, Delpo is in with a real shot.  He had two big victories over Federer at the end of last season and gave Djokovic all he could handle at the 2012 ATP World Tour Finals.  He’s looking an awful lot like that guy who won the 2009 US Open, and let’s not forget that he is the only one outside of the Big 4 to have won a slam in over half a decade.

Seeded Player Crashing Out Early

CvitkovicFernando Verdasco. Sadly, “Fer” has become my go-to player for crashing out early in Slams. But this time the strengths of his first round opponent, David Goffin, warrant it. The two have never played each other, and though Goffin’s best Slam result came in the fourth round of Roland Garros last year, the young Belgian has had consistent results on the hard courts as well. Fer had a nice showing in Hopman Cup the other week, but we all know those good results come in all too-short bursts for him.

GinsburgJanko Tipsarevic. Nothing against Janko here, but there is no tougher atmosphere in tennis than playing against Lleyton Hewitt in Rod Laver Arena. Hewitt will feed off the crowd and will give Tipsarevic the match of his life. And even if Janko gets through this, it will be physically and emotionally draining, possibly leading to potential problems in his next few matches.

PentecostAlexandr Dolgopolov. His encounter with Gael Monfils may well be the match of the first round, but I suspect it’s one the Dog won’t survive intact. This will of course depend on Monfils’ recovery from Auckland. I also doubt whether Juan Monaco will get past Kevin Anderson in the second round.

SkeltonJanko Tipsarevic.  The second-ranked Serb doesn’t have as many weapons as the rest of the top eight seeds and never has left an impact on Australia other than a first-week epic against Federer in 2008.  He may find himself in trouble against Hewitt in his opener, for the Aussie crowd always galvanizes their champion, but Tipsarevic’s section also includes rising young stars like Janowicz and Dimitrov who look ready to take the next step.

ValeriMarin Cilic. The fourteen seed will lose in the first round to Australian Marinko Matosevic. The two played a tough five setter at the U.S. Open last year where Cilic came out on top but don’t expect the same result this time. Cilic is off to a so so start of the season, losing to Benoit Paire in the quarterfinals of Chennai. The 2012 ATP Most Improved Player of the Year will beat Cilic and advance to the second round.

WatsonJuan Monaco. Monaco was actually given a decent draw, but a hand injury that took him out of the Kooyong Classic has certainly hurt his chances.  Now even his opening match against Kuznetsov is a tricky proposition, and a possible second round encounter with South Africa’s Kevin Anderson may be all she wrote.

First Round and Potential Second Round Matches to Watch For

CvitkovicGael Monfils vs Alexandr Dolgopolov. Though a first-rounder, this match has the potential to be a highlight of the tournament. Both players employ vastly unorthodox playing styles and they will run each other down until someone lands in the hospital. Be certain there will be plenty of diving, slicing, acrobatics and “Ooo’s” and “Aaa’s” from both the audience and the players. I recommend this match over any quarterfinal matchup of the top eight, and that’s saying something.

KaneRobin Haase vs. Andy Murray. That this rematch is nigh may only serve to prove that the end of the Mayan calendar was not so much wrong as they were merely a few weeks late. I was in Armstrong Stadium for the last three sets of their US Open 2011 encounter, which has a similar effect to admitting that one was in the eye of Hurricane Sandy. Murray had seemingly righted the ship after falling two sets behind, only to suddenly take his foot off the proverbial gas pedal within feet of the finish line. Buoyed by support from perennial Armstrong courtside ticketholders (who are usually the ones behind the unnerving “What time is it? Break time!” call and response), Haase took advantage and nearly took the match before Murray once again regained composure. Can these two recreate the magic in the crazy bottle? Can you resist finding out?

PentecostJanko Tipsarevic vs. Lleyton Hewitt. This is sure to be a night match, and here in Australia neither effort nor expense will be spared in whipping the nation to a patriotic froth. It’s hard to see this one lasting less than five sets, or finishing before 2am, which history has shown to be Hewitt’s preferred timeframes.

Skelton: For tennis reasons, Julien Benneteau vs. Grigor Dimitrov.  The Sydney semifinalist faces the Brisbane finalist in an match that pits two hot hands at opposite ends of their careers.  Also featured here is an intriguing contrast in styles between the streamlined two-handed backhand of Benneteau and the graceful one-handed flick of Dimitrov, often compared to Federer’s backhand.  For the best atmosphere in a first-round match, though, nothing  will top Hewitt vs. Tipsarevic, which seems destined for a Rod Laver Arena night session.

First Round Upset Special

CvitkovicLleyton Hewitt d. Janko Tipsarevic. This may be a bold prediction given Tipsarevic is sitting nicely as the 8th seed and Hewitt is ranked 82nd, but Hewitt can surprise anyone, anywhere, and especially on his home turf. Though Hewitt leads their head-to-head 3-1, the two haven’t played since 2009, so dynamics have completely changed. If Hewitt doesn’t pull off the upset, you can be sure it’ll at least go the distance with five sets.

LubinskyLleyton Hewitt d. Janko Tipsarevic. If there’s ever been a player who has played to their maximum potential, it’s Lleyton Hewitt. The 31 year old’s ‘never say die’ attitude makes him a difficult opponent regardless of his health and playing on his home turf seems to give him an extra kick. He’s made the fourth round in three of his last five appearances and has played some excellent tennis at the Kooyong Classic this week, which puts in him a prime position for the upset.

PentecostGrigor Dimitrov d. Julien Benneteau. Dimitrov seems congenitally incapable of playing well for consecutive weeks, but the bad news for Benneteau is that the young Bulgarian got his bad week out of the way in Sydney. Benneteau on the other hand went deep in Sydney, and may balk at a best of five in the Melbourne heat.

Skelton: Gael Monfils d. Alexandr Dolgopolov.  The Frenchman with talent in spades and consistency in spoonfuls moved back into the fringes of relevance with a series of solid victories in Doha and Auckland.  Meanwhile, the mercurial Dolgopolov struggled even against anonymous opponents at every major last year, needing a fifth set to escape the first round here against the world #198.  If Monfils starts well, his opponent may lack the resilience to launch a counterattack.

ValeriGrigor Dimitrov takes down number 32 seed Julien Benneteau. Grigor started the year by taking down seeded players Raonic, Melzer, and Baghdatis to reach his first ATP final in Brisbane, where he lost a tight two setter to Andy Murray,  6-7, 4-6. With new girlfriend Maria Sharapova in his corner, Dimitrov is on a roll to start 2013. This kid has loads of talent and is backing it up by playing smarter than ever, which will prove to be too much to handle for 31 year old Benneteau.

Semifinalists

Cvitkovic: I like to take risks in Slam draws, but with Rafael Nadal out of the loop, the draw gods have been nice to the top eight seeds, and I’m expecting the majority of them to make the semifinals. Djokovic will take on Berdych, while Ferrer will battle compatriot Almagro in the top half. The bottom half will most likely see Del Potro taking on Murray in one semifinal while Tsonga will battle Federer in the other.

Ginsburg: Well, I can’t be that boring with this pick. Then again, in today’s ATP world, not going with the obvious choices at the top is usually just silly. But there are a few potential surprises in the draw. I will take Tsonga, Murray, Djokovic, and Kei Nishikori as my semifinalists. Kei has a 2-1 career head-to-head against Ferrer and I think that Tipsarevic loses early. Nishikori also has the power to overpower Nicolas Almagro in the quarterfinals. This would be a perfect draw for Lleyton Hewitt to make one final miracle run through, but he just doesn’t have the legs to play that many matches anymore. I think Nishikori becomes Japan’s first Grand Slam semifinalist in recent history.

Kane: Djokovic/Ferrer. Despite the loss to Bernard Tomic at Hopman Cup, there’s no reason to believe the No. 1 seed won’t waltz into his third straight Australian Open semifinal (and beyond). That is, assuming he gets past Tomas Berdych. The one major stumbling block to the Big Four, Berdych does not fear the upset, but getting there may prove the bigger challenge for the inconsistent Czech, who lost to Roberto Bautista-Agut in Chennai (I’m forgiven for not knowing who that is, right?). Murray/Federer. Murray has his work cut out for him after an unconvincing (although successful) display in Brisbane two weeks ago, but aside from a potential run-in with Juan Martin del Potro, the Scot will have few problems en route to defending his semifinal points from one year ago. As for the Swiss Maestro, his draw is something of a minefield, littered with upset fodder like Nickolay Davydenko, Tomic, Milos Raonic. Even Lukas Rosol landed in Fed’s section! Yet, for all the talk about his age, Federer has rarely showed it in the first week, and unless Tsonga strings together a nice run, I can’t seen anyone posing a sufficient threat.

Pentecost: Novak Djokovic vs David Ferrer. If anything Ferrer has a cleaner run to the semifinals than Djokovic, although this depends on which version of Berdych shows up. Nonetheless, Djokovic should move through to the final in four sets at most. Roger Federer vs Juan Martin del Potro. I suspect Delpo will push deep here, and upset Murray in the quarterfinals. Federer’s draw is not kind, but he remains the favourite to make it through. I suspect the semifinal will come down to fitness, where the Swiss has the advantage.

Valeri: Novak Djokovic, Janko Tipsarevic, Andy Murray, Roger Federer. I expect the big three to all make the semis, although Federer and Murray will have a harder route than Djokovic, with many potential four and five set hurdles along their way, whereas Novak should cruise. Tipsarevic is set to have a breakthrough and has some momentum coming in with a win in Chennai. He has a tough first rounder against home crowd favorite Lleyton Hewitt, but should get through it and advance to the quarterfinals where he will defeat the number four seed David Ferrer.

And the Winner is …

CvitkovicNovak Djokovic. I can’t really go against the Serb who is the favorite and defending champion. Hard courts are clearly his expertise, though Berdych can prove his most likely nemesis in the quarterfinals. If Federer prevails over Del Potro in the other half, it will be the first time Djokovic and Federer will have met in the final of a Slam since the 2007 U.S. Open. It’s been a long time coming.

Ginsburg: I have to go with Novak Djokovic to three-peat here. Australia is his best Slam and, while he hasn’t been playing at his seemingly-invincible level in a while, he still is the man to beat here in Melbourne.

KaneNovak Djokovic. Ok, Nole fans; you can relax now (or at least stop flailing so violently). For the third year in a row, the Serb has started the year looking the fittest and making the strongest case for supremacy. Odds are strong that he will punctuate that assertion with a hat trick of Australian Open crowns. With Murray and Federer to duke it out in the other semifinal, Djokovic will only have to play one of them for the title, and likely relishes the thought of a rematch with Murray, the man who took his US Open title a few months ago. Had Murray shown more authority in Brisbane, it could have been a toss-up, but he still lacks that consistent killer instinct of his peers.

LubinskyNovak Djokovic. Djokovic/Murray may be the new big rivalry in tennis, but when it comes to the Australian Open, Djokovic is on top. He’s won this tournament three of the last five years, and after finishing runner up at the French Open and US Open, he’s likely to be hungry for another trophy to add to his collection.

PentecostNovak Djokovic. By this point one has to come up with good reasons why Djokovic won’t win his fourth Australian Open, and I can’t think of any. He appears supremely fit, calm, driven and in good form. Of course, Federer is still Federer, and he demonstrated amply last year that age has yet to weary him. On his day, he can still ascend to unplayable heights. But I still feel Djokovic, on blue plexicushion, has the decisive edge.

SkeltonNovak Djokovic.  He has won three of his five major titles in Australia and probably has played his most dominant tennis during those runs.  If playing 11 hours in two matches against Murray and Nadal doesn’t stop this man Down Under, it’s hard to think of anything short of an asteroid strike that will.  He also receives the softer side (e.g., the Ferrer side) of the draw, as though he needs any help.

Valeri:  Novak Djokovic. Djoker is in a great section of the draw and should make the final relatively unscathed. I have never seen a player who can will himself to victory as much as Novak. After a well rested off-season the worlds number one will be ready to fight off any challenges to his throne from Murray or Federer. The two time defending champ has great memories and too much support in Melbourne not to be crowned the 2013 Australian Open Champion.

WatsonNovak Djokovic. Murray ended up in Federer’s half.  Djokovic has won it the last two years.  Federer said that the current World No. 1 has been the best hard court player the last couple of seasons.  Is Djokovic a strong favorite to win the title and pull off the three-peat in Melbourne?  You bet!

***

And there you have it: 8 of 8 Tennis Grandstand writers pick Djokovic as the heavy favorite. That’s pretty good odds for the Serb.

5 ATP Players Ready To Make an Impact in 2013

Grigor Dimitrov

By Evan Valeri

Summer has arrived in Australia and the first ATP tournaments of the year are underway. This means it’s time to start making some hot predictions for the 2013 season. The ATP tour has been dominated by the big four in recent years, Federer, Djokovic, Nadal and Murray. But for 2013, change is in the air. Many young players have infiltrated the top 60 in the world and you can count on the five below to make their mark in 2013.

Milos Raonic

The Canadian youngster, nicknamed “The Missile”, has already made waves with his cannon of a serve and fierce forehand. Not only can he hit serves upwards of 140 mph, he has one of the nastiest kick serves I have seen in years. This is a serious threat on any surface, especially the faster ones. Milos is a good mover and prefers to run around his backhand to hit devastating inside out forehands whenever he gets a chance.

Having won two titles and making two more finals in 2012 proves that Milos is a legitimate threat in 2013. Raonic went 6-6 against the top ten last year, including two wins over Andy Murray. He has a more well-rounded game than other huge servers such as Isner and Karlovic. I expect Milos to make his first Grand Slam quarterfinal this season and finish the year in the top ten.

Jerzy Janowicz

Jerzy Janowicz was an unknown player to most fans until the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournament in Paris. The number one ranked Pole tore through the field all the way to the final, which he lost to David Ferrer in straight sets. Along the way, he beat three top twenty and two top ten players.

The 6 foot 8 inch monster of a 22 year old has a modern game with the tools to be successful at the highest level. He moves well for a big man, reminiscent of a 2009 U.S. Open Del Potro. His serves appear to be shot down from the sky, he can end the point with big flat winners on both ground stroke wings, and he isn’t afraid to follow his big shots into the net with solid volleys. Besides the physical tools, the kid has something hard to teach, heart. Saving a match point against Murray in Paris and coming back to win proves this. Look for Jerzy to break into the top twenty this season with more consistent results.

Martin Klizan

The top ranked player from Slovakia had a great 2012 season, winning his first ATP title in St. Petersburg and finishing ranked inside the top 50 for the first time in his career. Some people will recognize Klizan’s name because of his run to the round of 16 at the U.S Open, where he lost to Cilic. Along the way he took down number six seed Tsonga in four lopsided sets.

Klizan has a big game and when he is on, opponents better look out. Martin can blast forehand winners from anywhere on the court and if he is having a good day, he is capable of beating anyone. If Klizan can tame his heavy southpaw groundstrokes and reduce his unforced errors, look for him to make a run to the quarterfinals of a major and break into the top 20.

Grigor Dimitrov

Baby Fed. This kid has been touted for years as the next Roger Federer. He moves gracefully around the court like a gazelle, and has one of the best looking one handed backhands in today’s game. Grigor is also one of the most pure shot-makers around. If you haven’t seen his behind the back, half volley, drop shot winner against Victor Troicki, its worth a look, as it was one of the best shots of the 2012 season.

Dimitrov reminds me of a young Federer at times, in that he can get too creative on court. He will go for shots that are totally unnecessary, almost out of pure boredom with working the point any further. In 2013, we will see a smarter Dimitrov on court. A guy who instead of going for the flashy crowd pleasing shot, learns to play the percentages and wins more matches. Expect him to make a final in 2013, improving on his three semifinal appearances during 2012.

Bernard Tomic

Australian Bernard Tomic had a rough finish to 2012, after a good start which included a semifinal in Brisbane and a round of 16 result at the Aussie Open. These results catapulted him to a career high ranking of 27. Pressure from the Australian media may be of some blame for Tomic’s lack of results thus far. He had a very promising junior career and is the youngest player ranked in the top 100 for the second straight year. As Tomic matures and spends another year on tour, look for him to relax and embrace his role as heir to the Australian tennis throne.

Tomic has a very smooth, effortless counter punching game. Bernard is a player who possesses a great arsenal of shots. Often luring opponents into a consistent crosscourt rally, just to run around his backhand and slap a forehand winner. With a solid serve, modern two handed backhand, biting slice backhand, deft touch, and an unorthodox but effective forehand, he’s got the game to become a top player. With a nice 6-4, 6-4 win over Novak Djokovic at the Hopman Cup this week, Tomic will roll with his newfound confidence in 2013, making his first final appearance.

***

2013 is bound to bring dark horses, upsets, surprises and lots of excitement. Be sure to keep an eye on these five youngsters. They all feature games with the potential to rise in the rankings, shaking things up at the top, and taking down the big four at any time.

Evan Valeri is a USPTA P2 tennis teaching professional and has a USTA Sports Science Level 1 certification. He graduated from Ferris State University with a degree in Professional Tennis Management/Marketing and enjoys the technical and coaching side of tennis. You can view his website here: www.totaltennisplayer.com.

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