Mike McIntyre

Around The Corner: Life After The Davis Cup

With the opening round of the Davis Cup wrapping up on Sunday, the ATP World Tour will now shift back into form with three tournaments in Rotterdam, San Jose and Sao Paulo. Here’s a closer look at the draws from all three events and some analysis on who stands the best chance of making it to the final weekend.

ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament

The largest of the three being played this week, the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament is a level 500 event. An indoor hard-court event, Roger Federer will be looking for the surface to bring him some much needed success. A disastrous Davis Cup showing at home on clay has left Federer clearly confused about the status of his game. Rather than admit he played poorly, Federer instead shifted the blame onto country-man Stan Wawrinka. It was a rare moment of bad judgement from Federer. He opens with Nicolas Mahut from France and then could potentially face a dangerous opponent in Mikhail Youzhny who won the title recently in Zagreb.

The always tricky Alexandr Dolgopolov is also in the same quarter as Federer. The two have only played once, with Federer winning in Basel two years ago. Dolgopolov has come a long way since then and with the way Roger played this past week, you’d have to think this could be a great QF match.

Richard Gasquet, Feliciano Lopez and former top-ten presence Nikolay Davydenko are in the following quarter of the draw. I’d give a well-rested Gasquet (he did not travel to Canada for Davis Cup) the best shot of emerging here.

Juan Martin Del Potro is the third seed and should be able to navigate his way through the third quarter of the draw. He opens against Michael Llodra of France who has to get all the way from Vancouver, Canada to Rotterdam in the next twenty-four hours.

At the bottom of the draw is second seeded Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic who has had some success lately with a big win in Montpellier over Gael Monfils. Berdych had a very solid 2011 where he won one event and reached eight tournament semi-finals and seven tournament quarter-finals. He is really starting to find that consistency that will make him a mainstay in the top-ten. A meeting in the second round with Marcos Baghdatis looms, but otherwise Berdych should be able to set-up a semi-final encounter with Del Potro that would be highly entertaining.

Regardless of the results, the tournament is guaranteed a new winner this year as Robin Soderling is not yet healthy enough to defend the title which he has held for the past two years. I’m gonna give the nod to Berdych in this one and I have a feeling that Federer’s recent troubles might continue with an early exit this week.

Brasil Open 2012

Played on clay, the Brasil Open attracts some of the usual dirt-ballers one might expect to see. Nicolas Almagro is the defending champion and also won this event in 2008. He has played some pretty decent ball on hard-courts so far this year so we’ll see if that continues on his favourite surface. Almagro is seeded first and gets a bye into the second round. His quarter is pretty sparse which should help him get his clay-court wheels going.

Fernando Verdasco is the third seed and has a nice section in his quarter as well. Take a look at veteran Fernando Gonzalez from Chile if possible as he has already announced his retirement to take place in Miami this coming March. Injuries have really taken away Gonzo’s physical and mental endurance but hopefully he has a little magic left in him before he says goodbye.

In the bottom-half of the draw, aging Juan Carlos Ferrero the eighth seed and Thomaz Bellucci the fourth seed will likely fight it out for a spot in the quarter, while the bottom quarter is the most interesting with David Nalbandian who is unseeded, Albert Montanes and second seeded Gilles Simon.

Almagro gets my vote of confidence to take this one based on his clay-court prowess and success at this venue in previous years.

SAP Open

A year ago the ATP World Tour took notice of fast-rising Canadian sensation Milos Raonic when he won his first-ever event here in San Jose. Unfortunately for Canadian tennis fans, a repeat will be very difficult to achieve for several reasons.

Firstly, Raonic was forced to pull-out of the Davis Cup tie against France on Sunday with pain in his knee that had been already taped throughout the event. Will he even be healthy enough to play in San Jose?

Beyond the injury debate, Milos has a tough draw that sets him up with first-seeded Gael Monfils in a possible semi-final match-up. He will also have to contend with having the entire draw gunning for him as the defending champ. Coming into an event as the title-holder is quite different from what he experienced a year ago.

In the bottom-half things will be pretty wide-open with Andy Roddick returning from an injury he suffered at the Australian Open and occupying the second seed. Who knows what kind of game the former American No. 1 will bring with him but his lack of match play will hinder his changes.

Underachieving Sam Querrey, aging Radek Stepanek and vet Julien Benneteau round-out the bottom half in terms of potential contenders. I’d look for one of them rather than Roddick to make their way to the finals against Monfils who appears to be over the knee problems that he was dealing with upon his arrival to Canada for the Davis Cup.

Around The Corner: Life Continues on the ATP World Tour

After a hectic two weeks of Grand-Slam action from Melbourne, life returns to normal on the ATP World Tour. There are three 250-level tournaments this week and while the pace will be perhaps less enthralling than what we’ve just witnessed in Australia, here are some of the big names we can look forward to watching.

Open Sud de France

Formerly held in Lyon in October of each year, the Open Sud de France has now relocated to Montpelier at an earlier date within the tennis season.

Tomas Berdych is the number one seed and will try to win his first ATP title since his victory in Beijing this past October. That was the only title the Czech won in 2011, but he had an incredibly solid year reaching the semi-finals of eight tournaments and the quarter-finals of seven others. That type of consistency has made Berdych a main-stay in the top-ten in recent years but success at the Masters 1000 and Grand Slam level have still mostly eluded him with the exception of his win at the Paris Masters in 2005 and his Wimbledon final in 2010.

Berdych has a very manageable quarter of the tournament with no major obstacles in his way and a first-round bye to ease him into the draw.

Richard Gasquet is the fourth seed and is also in the top-half of the draw and he will likely face Nikolay Davydenko in the second round. Despite Davydenko’s rapid drop in play these past two years, the Russian will still give Gasquet a good challenge and provide fans with an entertaining early round match.

In the bottom half of the draw, look for two Frenchman to navigate their way through to the semi-finals. Both Gael Monfils and Gilles Simon are the highest two seeds and also the most likely to ride the support of the French fans to a solid showing.

Canadian number-two singles player Vasek Pospisil will undoubtedly be keeping his eye on the French, as Canada is scheduled to host the French in the first round of the Davis Cup on February 10th in Vancouver. Pospisil opens against French wildcard Guillaume Rufin.

PBZ Zagreb Indoors – Croatia

It was a moment for Croatian tennis fans to relish a year ago in Zagreb when Ivan Dodig captured his first ATP title against Michael Berrer. While the chances of Dodig repeating are not necessarily favored, he is one of three Croats who could lift the trophy on the final Sunday.

Veteran Ivan Ljubicic holds the top seed and opens against Karol Beck. Ljubicic has won the event before and has the best chance of emerging from his quarter of the draw.

Beneath him can be found monster-server Ivo Karlovic who will also receive plenty of home-country support. Mikhail Youzhny will try to bounce back from a disappointing first round loss in Melbourne as he holds the third seed and is my pick to emerge from the top-half of the draw.

In the bottom half, we have Marcos Baghdatis and the previously mentioned Dodig in one quarter. In the final section of the draw, Alex Bogomolov Jr. is the surprised second seed and leads the weakest section of the tournament. In other words, look for Baghdatis or possibly Dodig to have a good route to the finals.

VTR Open – Chile

Providing some contrast to the two hard-court tournaments this week, we have the VTR Open which is played on red clay. Last year’s champion in Vina del Mar is Tommy Robredo but he is not entered in this year’s edition. Meanwhile Fernando Gonzalez holds the most career titles at the event with four. Gonzalez has taken a wildcard into the main draw as he has struggled since returning to the tour last year from hip and knee injuries he sustained in 2010.

Clay court expert Juan Monaco takes the pole position this year and opens with a first round bye. Albert Montanes who is seeded fifth will likely be Monaco’s main source of opposition in the top-half of the draw.

In the bottom section look for Thomaz Bellucci, who won the event in 2010, to challenge once again for the title and for second seeded Juan Ignacio Chela to advance into the draw as well.

Don’t feel bad if you are feeling the effects of a tennis-hangover as these smaller events begin. Nothing can really compare to two weeks of elite level tennis like we have just experienced. There is a lot to look forward to however, with the first round of Davis Cup action just two weeks away and then a month after that we will enjoy back-to-back Masters 1000 events in Indian Wells and Miami.

Around The Corner: Sydney, Auckland and the Kooyong Classic

With just over a week until the start of the Australian Open, there is little time to tinker with one’s game for the first Grand Slam of the year.

While the top four players in the world will be taking the week to rest themselves in anticipation for a deep-run in Melbourne, there are plenty of other of the game’s great players who are in action.

The ATP has two tournaments, one in Sydney and another in Auckland, while the Kooyong Classic exhibition will boast a strong field as well. Here’s a closer look at what tennis fans can expect.

Apia Sydney International

Juan Martin Del Potro starts his year in Sydney as the top seed. After making a strong return to the circuit last season following a wrist injury, the 2009 U.S. Open champion is ready to make some noise this year. Del Potro is certainly capable of challenging anyone in the top four and I would put him in the  mix of the few serious contenders at the Aussie Open.

The Argentine could see Marcos Baghdatis in the quarters here and then Feliciano Lopez who is the fourth seed. I would however, put the winner of the first round match between Viktor Troicki and veteran Aussie Lleyton Hewitt to advance against Del Potro in this section of the draw.

Hewitt has won the even four times, in 2000, 2001, 2004 and 2005. Don’t expect a repeat as his career is clearly on the downward spiral and injuries have taken their toll on the two-time Grand Slam champion. This may be the last year we see Hewitt playing on the ATP Tour, so enjoy him while you still can.

John Isner from the United Statesis the second seed. Patrick McEnroe recently stated that he feels Isner has the potential to reach the top ten in the ATP rankings. While I do not see that as being a realistic assessment for the 6’9” Isner just yet, this guy is certainly a strong top-thirty player who can cause incredible damage on a hard court due to his imposing serve. It will be Isner’s first action of the year so it will be interesting to see how he comes out of the gate.

Isner could face either veteran Xavier Malisse or Radek Stepanek in the quarters and given his ranking he should be beating opponents like these. However, at this stage of the year anything is possible.

A likely semi-final opponent would be third seeded Richard Gasquet who had a solid week at the Hopman Cup where he defeated Fernando Verdasco, Lleyton Hewitt and Wu Di before falling to Tomas Berdych in the finals.

Heineken Open

All-court wonder and the always hustling David Ferrer is the number one seed in Auckland. Ferrer started the year off by making the finals of the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi and was the runner-up in that exhibition to Novak Djokovic. Ferrer starts his week off with a bye at the Heineken Open and will face the winner of the match between Albert Ramos and Lukas Rosol. In other words, a nice way to ease into the tournament.

Ferrer’s main opposition will be from third seeded Fernando Verdasco who has just competed in the Hopman Cup. There, the Spaniard defeated Lleyton Hewitt 6-3, 3-6, 7-5, knocked-off Wu Di of China 6-3, 6-4 and was beaten by Richard Gasquet 6-2, 6-4. So essentially, he won the two matches he was supposed to win and could not find a way to be competitive against a solid opponent in Gasquet. Never any consistency with Fernando, but he has the tools to go deep in any draw.

The second seed here is Nicolas Almagro, but unless we’re talking about a clay court match I wouldn’t count on this guy to get too far. While he did make the semi-finals in Chennai, the field was rather weak and he was no match for Canadian Milos Raonic who took him out 6-4, 6-4.

Look for guys like Philipp Kohlschreiber, Donald Young and perhaps Sam Querrey to enjoy some success in this draw. It is nice to see Young seeded in the tournament (7th) and hopefully able to build on a nice season in 2011. There is still so much potential with the American and he still has many years ahead of him despite already being a presence on the ATP Tour for several seasons.

AAMI Kooyong Classic

Always a high-quality exhibition tournament, the Kooyong Classic again boasts a strong field in 2012. Ten players make-up the draw that has both a championship and consolation side to it.

American Andy Roddick will be the most high-profile player involved and will make his season debut on the tennis court at Kooyong. Roddick’s buddy and current number-one American male tennis player, Mardy Fish, will also be present.

This year will be of the utmost importance to Roddick who struggled mightily a year ago. He needs to re-assert himself and prove to his fellow players that he is still relevant in the sport today. Usually a strong starter, Roddick will be one to watch closely here this week.

Continuing with North-American players, we have Canadian Milos Raonic who has just made the finals in Chennai. Raonic is going to be very exciting to watch this year, especially if he can stay healthy. This guy’s game is perfectly suited toWimbledonand it is no surprise that he grew up idolizing Pete Sampras.

The rest of the players here include Jurgen Melzer, Bernard Tomic, Tomas Berdych and recent Qatar finalists Gael Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Of all the stops this week, Kooyong will be the one I’m most interested in due to its very strong field.

Keep checking back with us all week long for updates and check out my Twitter feed as well if you like. Only one more week until the first Slam of 2012 so we have lots to look forward to!

Roger Federer Withdraws from Qatar with Back Injury

Roger Federer was forced to pull-out of the Qatar ExxonMobil Open on Friday due to a back injury he sustained in his quarter-final match against Andreas Seppi the day before.

Federer was supposed to play against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France for a spot in the finals but recognized the possibility to further aggravate the injury and made the decision to prevent missing the Australian Open which begins January 16th.

Federer has made it a point of avoiding injury for the better part of his stellar professional career, but something was clearly wrong as he was stretched to three sets against the 38th ranked Seppi on Thursday. Federer had held a 7-0 career head-to-head against the Italian prior to the match and had never lost a set in any of those encounters.

It was Swiss journalist and Federer biographer, Renee Stauffer, who broke the news of the back injury via twitter shortly after that match.

Stauffer’s tweet read as follows, “Federer has a bad back: ‘I wasn’t sure if i was going to play ag Seppi’, he revealed in Doha. It happened ag Zemlja (Wednesday).”

The injury withdrawal is only the second time Federer has had to do so in his career but fans should not worry as the world No. 3 seemed pretty confident he would be fine for Melbourne with a little time-off to heal.

“I don’t feel a whole lot of improvement for today, and I just don’t think it’s the right time to risk anything more right now,” Federer said. “I still have pain, and that’s why it was the only right decision, a difficult one for me … So it’s a sad moment for me and for the tournament and for the fans, but health goes first.”

Instead of the semi-final, Tsonga played a one-set exhibition match against former world No. one and six-time Grand Slam champion Stefan Edberg.

Rafael Nadal will play against Gael Monfils later in the day for a chance to play against Tsonga for the title.

Federer’s withdrawal guarantees a new champion in Doha this year, as the Swiss star had won the event a year ago.

The Importance of Week One

With the 2012 season of the ATP World Tour just getting officially underway this week, tennis fans and media alike will be closely watching how the pros come out of the starting blocks.

The Mubadala World Tennis Championship (an exhibition) in Abu Dhabi last week and now regular events in Brisbane, Chennai and Doha, have provided an alphabetically-related quartet of venues whose results may or may not mean anything by the end of the year.

Players who struggle initially and suffer early round losses will attempt to quickly put those disappointments behind them, while winners will try to keep an even keel moving forward. Still, we should not be so quick to discount these early results when looking at the big picture.

The mental consequences of victory versus defeat in the early stages will certainly impact a players progress in the first few weeks on tour. Banking some points in January provides a confidence boost along with either a jump in ranking points or at the very least the ability not to drop in the standings.

Losing yesterday in Doha to Roger Federer means that Nikolay Davydenko can kiss about 150 ranking points goodbye that he had accumulated in the same tournament a year ago. His current ranking of 41st in the world is about to take a big hit and he can clearly forget about any hopes of being seeded at the Australian Open in two weeks.

A player like American Sam Querrey will also be distraught about his opening round loss to Victor Hanescu in Chennai in the opening round. After missing three months midway through 2011 to elbow surgery, Querrey was no-doubt optimistic about starting on the right foot this season. On the plus side for Querrey, he suffered three opening round losses in-a-row a year ago, and thus has no ranking points to defend. There’s only one way for Sam to go in the rankings in January and that is up. Still, he must now regroup and move on to the next tournament hoping his luck will change.

For the top-four of Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Murray, these first couple of week’s will be used to jostle for the available confidence and swagger required to conquer the first Grand Slam of the year in Australia. Putting the seed of doubt in an opponent’s head is of equal value to owning that self-confidence. We all know how Djokovic was able to get into Nadal’s head last season and reel-off six consecutive victories in ATP finals on three different surfaces. That kind of dominance goes a long way into determining the final outcome of a match between two foes and getting an edge early-on is what all of these guys are hoping for.

Djokovic has already sent that opening message to his opponents with a strong result in Abu Dhabi. After needing three sets to defeat Gael Monfils, he thrashed Federer 6-2, 6-1 and then beat David Ferrer in the finals by the exact same dominating score. Lookout everybody, because Novak came ready to play.

Federer will hope to shake-off the loss to Djokovic and then Nadal in Abu Dhabi and instead look back to his impressive 17-0 finish to the 2011 season where he won three consecutive tournaments. Still, his early defeats to Djokovic and Nadal can’t make him feel great.

With Federer and Nadal playing in Doha and Murray in Brisbane this week, we’ll see who is ready to join Djokovic as an early front-runner prior to the January 16th start date in Melbourne. Regardless of what players of any ranking say to the press, the importance of week one is something we cannot deny.