Albert Ramos

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To Each Their Own: Previews of ATP Atlanta, Gstaad, and Umag

Twice a champion in Atlanta, Fish goes for the three-peat this week.

The US Open Series kicks off this week in the sweltering summer heat of Atlanta.  Perhaps uninspired by those conditions, most of the leading ATP stars have spurned that stop on the road to New York.  But Atlanta still offers glimpses of rising stars, distinctive characters, and diverse playing styles.  For those who prefer familiar names, two tournaments on European clay offer more tantalizing fare.

Atlanta:

Top half:  The march toward the final major of the year starts with a whimper more than a roar, featuring only two men on track for a US Open seed and none in the top 20.  Fresh from his exploits at home in Bogota, Alejandro Falla travels north for a meeting with Ryan Harrison’s younger brother, Christian Harrison.  The winner of that match would face top seed John Isner, a former finalist in Atlanta.  Isner, who once spearheaded the University of Georgia tennis team, can expect fervent support as he attempts to master the conditions.  He towers over a section where the long goodbye of James Blake and the rise of Russian hope Evgeny Donskoy might collide.

Atlanta features plenty of young talent up and down its draw, not all of it American.  Two wildcards from the host nation will vie for a berth in the second round, both Denis Kudla and Rhyne Williams having shown flashes of promise.  On the other hand, Ricardas Berankis has shown more than just flashes of promise.  Destined for a clash with third seed Ivan Dodig, the compact Latvian combines a deceptively powerful serve with smooth touch and a pinpoint two-handed backhand.  His best result so far came on American soil last year, a runner-up appearance in Los Angeles.  Berankis will struggle to echo that feat in a section that includes Lleyton Hewitt.  A strong summer on grass, including a recent final in Newport, has infused the former US Open champion with plenty of momentum.

Semifinal:  Isner vs. Hewitt

Bottom half:  The older and more famous Harrison finds himself in a relatively soft section, important for a player who has reached just one quarterfinal in the last twelve months.  Ryan Harrison’s disturbingly long slump included a first-round loss in Atlanta last year, something that he will look to avoid against Australian No. 3 Marinko Matosevic.  Nearby looms Nebraska native Jack Sock, more explosive but also less reliable.  The draw has placed Sock on a collision course with returning veteran Mardy Fish, the sixth seed and twice an Atlanta champion.  Fish has played just one ATP tournament this year, Indian Wells, as he copes with physical issues.  Less intriguing is fourth seed Igor Sijsling, who upset Milos Raonic at Wimbledon but has not sustained consistency long enough to impress.

Bombing their way through the Bogota draw last week, Ivo Karlovic and Kevin Anderson enjoyed that tournament’s altitude.  They squared off in a three-set semifinal on Saturday but would meet as early as the second round in Atlanta.  Few of the other names in this section jump out at first glance, so one of the Americans in the section above might need to cope with not just the mind-melting heat but a mind-melting serve.

Semifinal:  Fish vs. Anderson

Final:  Hewitt vs. Anderson

Gstaad:

Top half:  As fellow blogger Josh Meiseles (@TheSixthSet) observed, Roger Federer should feel grateful to see neither Sergei Stakhovsky nor Federico Delbonis in his half of the draw.  Those last two nemeses of his will inspire other underdogs against the Swiss star in the weeks ahead, though.  Second-round opponent Daniel Brands needs little inspiration from others, for he won the first set from Federer in Hamburg last week.  Adjusting to his new racket, Federer will fancy his chances against the slow-footed Victor Hanescu if they meet in a quarterfinal.  But Roberto Bautista Agut has played some eye-opening tennis recently, including a strong effort against David Ferrer at Wimbledon.

A season of disappointments continued for fourth seed Juan Monaco last week when he fell well short of defending his Hamburg title.  The path looks a little easier for him at this lesser tournament, where relatively few clay specialists lurk in his half.  Madrid surprise semifinalist Pablo Andujar has not accomplished much of note since then, and sixth seed Mikhail Youzhny lost his first match in Hamburg.  Youzhny also lost his only previous meeting with Monaco, who may have more to fear from Bucharest finalist Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in the second round.

Semifinal:  Federer vs. Monaco 

Bottom half:  Welcome to the land of the giant-killers, spearheaded by seventh seed Lukas Rosol.  Gone early in Hamburg, Rosol did win the first title of his career on clay this spring.  But the surface seems poorly suited to his all-or-nothing style, and Marcel Granollers should have the patience to outlast him.  The aforementioned Federico Delbonis faces an intriguing start against Thomaz Bellucci, a lefty who can shine on clay when healthy (not recently true) and disciplined (rarely true).  Two of the ATP’s more notable headcases could collide as well.  The reeling Janko Tipsarevic seeks to regain a modicum of confidence against Robin Haase, who set the ATP record for consecutive tiebreaks lost this year.

That other Federer-killer, Sergiy Stakhovsky, can look forward to a battle of similar styles against fellow serve-volleyer Feliciano Lopez.  Neither man thrives on clay, so second seed Stanislas Wawrinka should advance comfortably through this section.  Unexpectedly reaching the second week of Wimbledon, Kenny de Schepper looks to prove himself more than a one-hit wonder.  Other than Wawrinka, the strongest clay credentials in this section belong to Daniel Gimeno-Traver.

Semifinal:  Granollers vs. Wawrinka

Final:  Federer vs. Wawrinka

Umag:

Top half:  Historically less than imposing in the role of the favorite, Richard Gasquet holds that role as the only top-20 man in the draw.  He cannot count on too easy a route despite his ranking, for Nice champion Albert Montanes could await in his opener and resurgent compatriot Gael Monfils a round later.  Gasquet has not played a single clay tournament this year below the Masters 1000 level, so his entry in Umag surprises.  The presence of those players makes more sense, considering the clay expertise of Montanes and the cheap points available for Monfils to rebuild his ranking.  Nearly able to upset Federer in Hamburg last week, seventh seed Florian Mayer will hope to make those points less cheap than Monfils expects.

In pursuit of his third straight title, Fabio Fognini sweeps from Stuttgart and Hamburg south to Gstaad.  This surprise story of the month will write its next chapter against men less dangerous on clay, such as  recent Berdych nemesis Thiemo de Bakker.  An exception to that trend, Albert Ramos has reached two clay quarterfinals this year.  Martin Klizan, Fognini’s main threat, prefers hard courts despite winning a set from Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros.

Semifinal:  Gasquet vs. Fognini

Bottom half:  Although he shone on clay at Roland Garros, Tommy Robredo could not recapture his mastery on the surface when he returned there after Wimbledon.  Early exits in each of the last two weeks leave him searching for answers as the fifth seed in Bastad.  A clash of steadiness against stylishness awaits in the quarterfinals if Robredo meets Alexandr Dolgopolov there.  The mercurial Dolgopolov has regressed this year from a breakthrough season in 2012.

The surprise champion in Bastad, Carlos Berlocq, may regret a draw that places him near compatriot Horacio Zeballos.  While he defeated Berlocq in Vina del Mar this February, Zeballos has won only a handful of matches since upsetting Nadal there.  Neither Argentine bore heavy expectations to start the season, unlike second seed Andreas Seppi.  On his best surface, Seppi has a losing record this year with first-round losses at six of eight clay tournaments.

Semifinal:  Robredo vs. Berlocq

Final:  Fognini vs. Robredo

Roland Garros Fast Forward: Li, Wozniacki, Berdych Face Intriguing Tests on Day 2

Tomas Berdych can't afford to take his eye off the ball against Gael Monfils.

As we look ahead to Day 2, three top-ten players feature intriguing tests.  Let’s start with the women this time.

WTA:

Li Na vs. Anabel Medina Garrigues:  Facing the 2011 Roland Garros champion is a classic clay counterpuncher of a mold rarely in use anymore.  Medina Garrigues came closer than anyone to defeating Serena on clay this spring, just two or three key misses from knocking off the world No. 1 to reach the Madrid semifinals.  Li started the clay season encouragingly with a final indoors in Stuttgart but won one total match in Madrid and Rome.  She will look to pounce on her opponent’s serve and take early control before any first-round nerves surface.

Caroline Wozniacki vs. Laura Robson:  When the draw appeared, many picked this match as the blue-chip upset of the first round.  Wozniacki has not won a match on red clay this year, tumbling into a slump that even has her father, Piotr, planning to relinquish his stranglehold on the coaching role.  (That should suffice to show how dire her situation is.)  Clay should suit Robson less well than faster surfaces, and she hits far too many double faults, but an upset of Agnieszka Radwanska in Madrid reminded everyone of her lefty weapons and her belief against elite opponents.

Mona Barthel vs. Angelique Kerber:  The eighth seed drew the short straw in the form of the draw’s highest-ranked unseeded player.  Barthel has won two of the three previous meetings between these Germans, all on hard courts.  Nevertheless, she has won only one match on red clay this year, over the hapless Bojana Jovanovski.  Withdrawing from Rome with a shoulder injury, Kerber had looked creditable if not sensational this clay season with a quarterfinal in Madrid and semifinal in Stuttgart, where she extended Maria Sharapova deep into a third set.

Simona Halep vs. Carla Suarez Navarro:  Both women arrive in fine form for a rare WTA match between two clay specialists.  Although Halep had not accomplished much this year until Rome, her semifinal appearance there included upsets of Svetlana Kuznetsova, Radwanska, Roberta Vinci, and Jelena Jankovic—easily the best run of 2013 by a qualifier.  Suarez Navarro cracked the top 20 for the first time this year, aided in part by two clay finals.  Her one-handed backhand is the only such stroke in that elite group and worth a trip to an outer court.

Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Ekaterina Makarova:  An all-Russian contest always intrigues because of the elevated volume of angst that it usually produces.  Kuznetsova owns a much stronger clay resume, including the 2009 title here, but she imploded against Halep in Rome and lost easily to Romina Oprandi in Portugal.  Better on faster surfaces like grass, Makarova did upset Victoria Azarenka on the surface this spring.  Both Russians reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, where Kuznetsova launched her surge back to relevance.

ATP:

Tomas Berdych vs. Gael Monfils:  Here is the popcorn match of the day on the men’s side, featuring a contrast in personalities between the dour Czech and the flamboyant Frenchman.  Both men are former Roland Garros semifinalists, even though 100 ranking slots separated them until Monfils reached the Nice final last week.  His athletic exuberance could fluster Berdych, as could the volatile French crowd.  The fifth seed lost to a French journeyman in the first round here two years ago and to Gulbis in the first round of Wimbledon last year, so an opening flop would not astonish.  But Berdych improved steadily throughout the clay season after a slow start, becoming the only player other than Nadal to reach the semifinals at both Madrid and Rome.

Julien Benneteau vs. Ricardas Berankis:  In singles, Benneteau is known for two things:  never winning a final and being a persistent thorn in Roger Federer’s side.  He would stay on track to meet the Swiss star again in the third round if he gets past this small Lithuanian bundle of talent.  Berankis had not won a clay match until this year, while Benneteau has won only one match since February.  It was a quality win, though, over Nicolas Almagro.

Carlos Berlocq vs. John Isner:  This match has the potential to offer a fascinating contrast of styles between the grinding Argentine and the serve-forehand quick strikes of the American.  Or it could descend into depths of ugliness that defy contemplation.  Isner started the year in dismal form before finding his footing with a Houston title—and then dropping four of his next five matches.  While Berlocq won a set from Nadal on South American clay, the fact that he tore his shirt in ecstasy when an opponent retired against him in February should give you a sense of how his season has gone.

Albert Ramos vs. Jerzy Janowicz:  Thinking that the explosive hitting of Poland’s young star will overwhelm the Spanish journeyman?  Maybe you should think again.  Ramos defeated Janowicz in three sets at Barcelona this spring and should benefit from the cold, damp conditions.  For all of the hubbub that he has generated at the Masters 1000 level, Janowicz has yet to leave his mark on a major.  He can hit through the slowest of surfaces, though, and brings momentum from two top-ten wins in Rome.

Steve Johnson vs. Albert Montanes:  The UCLA star took Nicolas Almagro to five sets in the first round of the Australian Open, where Almagro nearly reached the semifinals.  The opponent here is much less intimidating, although Montanes just won Nice last week, but the surface is much less comfortable.  Johnson should have chances and make it interesting before getting ground down in the end.

 

Tuesday in Total: Every Sony Open Match Previewed!

Novak trains his backhand on a 34-year-old veteran in Tuesday's night session.

One day after the women arranged their quarterfinal lineup, the men do the same in a day that features all of the fourth-round ATP matches in Miami as well as the first two women’s quarterfinals.

David Ferrer vs. Kei Nishikori:  While their most recent meeting swung decisively in the veteran’s favor, the Japanese star won two of the previous three.  Among them was Nishikori’s breakthrough victory at the 2008 US Open, a pulsating five-setter in which the similarities between the two men became apparent, such as their fitness and their high-percentage shot selection.  Both can struggle to finish points at times, and both possess underrated weapons in crisp, streamlined two-handed backhands.  Neither bombs huge serves, despite improvements in that area, so their solid returning could produce plenty of service breaks on this slow surface.  The often-injured Nishikori recently won his third career championship in Memphis, while Ferrer already has claimed two titles this year.

Serena Williams vs. Li Na:  Muddling through her previous match, the top seed will need to raise her level significantly—or at least sooner—when the level of competition soars.  Li has stayed torrid for longer than she usually does, following her Australian rampage with three straight-sets victories here that revealed minimal rust after her injury.  Although she has won only one of their seven meetings, the six tiebreaks and three three-setters prove that she can trouble Serena with her pinpoint groundstrokes and penetrating first serve.  The Chinese star has moved much more alertly and sustained a more even level in matches than her quarterfinal opponent, who has traced the opposite of her usual progression through tournaments.  Instead of growing more intent with each round, Serena has looked increasingly disinterested, never a fault of which one could accuse Li.

Andreas Seppi vs. Andy Murray:  Having defeated two rising stars in Grigor Dimitrov and Bernard Tomic, Murray now faces someone on the opposite end of his career.  Lacking real weapons to hurt the Scot, Seppi can neither outhit him nor outlast him from the baseline, and his tepid second serve should allow his opponent to showcase his stinging return.  Murray lost his first meeting with Seppi on his home soil in Nottingham, but he has won all eight of their sets since then with one match on each of the four main surfaces (outdoor hard, indoor hard, clay, grass).  In one caveat, he has not faced the Italian since the latter’s surge that started a year ago and propelled him into the top 20.  This year has proved less successful for Seppi, who has not in fact defeated anyone in the top eight during his renaissance.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Marin Cilic:  A stark contrast to the preceding match, this clash of two heavy servers marks just the second hard-court meeting between them at an ATP tournament.  Tsonga moved past Cilic routinely at Cincinnati two years ago, but that much faster court played to his strengths more than the slow court does here.  Whereas he looks for chances to step inside the court and approach the net, Cilic remains tethered to the baseline and uses his steadier, symmetrical groundstrokes to stretch his opponents laterally.  He has won all seven of his tiebreaks at ATP events this year, a testament to this calm, lanky Croat’s poise when sets hang in the balance.  Also stellar in that area recently, the more flammable Tsonga won a small title in February two weeks after Cilic did the same.  Just three ranking spots separate them despite the Frenchman’s clearly more impressive career resume.

Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Kirsten Flipkens:  The Miami tournament has produced plenty of surprises, few more notable than the quarterfinal appearance of this Belgian.  Her mentor, Kim Clijsters, won this title twice with a more athletic, balanced game than what Flipkens needed to deploy in upsetting Petra Kvitova and backing up that statement with a victory over the raw Ajla Tomljanovic.  This match would not seem unduly concerning for the defending champion, although she faces an opponent who can take time away from her, shorten points, and cut off angles at the net.  Only once have they met, in Fed Cup three years ago, so both players may need time to adapt their distinctive styles to each other.  Each woman has played a series of three-setters lately, suggesting ebbs and flows in their form.  Having found the belief to win a set from Azarenka at Indian Wells, Flipkens needs to find it and keep it against the resilient Pole.

Novak Djokovic vs. Tommy Haas:  The German has troubled the Djoker occasionally, defeating him at Wimbledon in 2009 and extending him to a final set at the Rogers Cup just last year.  In three previous meetings at Masters 1000 hard-court tournaments, though, the world #1 has prevailed every time.  He looks far more focused and purposeful this week than he did at Indian Wells, mirroring the trajectory that he traced at the twin events in 2012.  That said, neither of his first two opponents approached the talents of the 18th-ranked Haas, who has drawn additional motivation this week from the presence of his daughter, Valentina.  Djokovic relishes the spectacle of playing under the lights, so an upset looks less probable than he might have if Miami had scheduled the match before Valentina’s bedtime.  The Serb’s consistency should undo the mercurial Haas on these slow courts as he extends the veteran into too many long, physically grinding rallies.

Albert Ramos vs. Jurgen Melzer:  Not the fourth-round match that anyone anticipated in this section, it unfolds amid the wreckage left behind by Juan Martin Del Potro’s early exit.  As one might expect, it marks the first career meeting between these two lefties, for either of whom a Masters 1000 quarterfinal would mark a substantial accomplishment.  After winning the Dallas challenger last week, Melzer carried his confidence through two comebacks from losing the first set here.  Ramos also weathered peaks and valleys in his form through consecutive three-setters against Juan Monaco, the second-highest seed in the section outside Del Potro, and home hope James Blake. Melzer owns the more imposing weapons, so the Spaniard should find himself in a counterpunching role.  But that role may be the easier to play on these courts with so much at stake.

Richard Gasquet vs. Nicolas Almagro:  For the second straight match, Gasquet faces a fellow practitioner of the one-handed backhand art.  The florid sweep of Almagro’s swing should contrast elegantly with the elongated but more explosive swat that Gasquet produces.  Like Tsonga and Cilic, these Europeans stand almost adjacent in the rankings, but the similarity in their backhands is echoed by other parallels in their playing styles.  Both can forget to put substance before style with their fondness for spectacular shot-making displays, and both have proven themselves vulnerable when the time arrives to finish matches.  Whereas Almagro spent last month on South American clay, Gasquet remained on hard courts in Europe.  That preparation might prove more meaningful in Miami, although he lost their only meeting on hard courts in 2011.

Sam Querrey vs. Tomas Berdych:  Flirting with disaster in each of his first two matches, Berdych lost the first set in both, rallied to win the second set in a tiebreak, and then established control early in the final set.  He even saved two match points against Alejandro Falla yesterday, one with an audacious second-serve ace, and displayed some uncharacteristic patience in constructing the rallies that turned the momentum.  Receiving a walkover from Milos Raonic, Querrey may have needed the respite after he too rallied from losing the first set to win the only match that he has played here.  He defeated Berdych at the 2008 US Open, but the Czech has sezied command since then with three straight victories in the second half of last year.  Once infamous for losses to anonymous opponents, the fourth seed has improved his consistency dramatically and rarely has lost to anyone outside the top eight over the last several months.  The last American man standing will enjoy the support of the home crowd as he attempts to outslug Berdych in a match of staccato serve-forehand combinations.

Gilles Simon vs. Janko Tipsarevic:  The world No. 9 trails the overall head-to-head 6-2 in a rivalry that has developed only recently.  Five of the matches have reached a final set, where Simon’s superior fitness has reaped rewards, and the surface speed appears to have played a role.  Tipsarevic’s two victories came on two of the fastest courts where they have met, the blue clay of Madrid and the fall Tokyo tournament, while Simon won here two years ago.  Almost comically dismal at Indian Wells, the Frenchman has sharpened his game considerably through the first two matches—but so has the Serb, who surprised some by defeating the recently more dangerous Kevin Anderson.  This match should feature plenty of long rallies, but Tipsarevic will try to redirect his groundstrokes down both lines to keep Simon on his heels.

Sunday at the Sony: Sharapova, Serbs, and More

Sharapova has shown little love to fellow Russians lately.

As the third round begins in the men’s draw, the women finish deciding who will reach the final sixteen at the Sony Open.

Maria Sharapova vs. Elena Vesnina:  The world #2 has won 14 straight matches against fellow Russians, but she lost her last meeting with Vesnina in the fall of 2010.  An Indian Wells doubles champion, her opponent has compiled a quietly solid season in singles that has included her first career title and a second-week appearance at the Australian Open.  Each Russian handled a rising young star in her opener with ease, Sharapova crushing Eugenie Bouchard and Vesnina dismissing Donna Vekic.  The only Indian Wells finalist still in the Miami draw, the women’s champion there may face her greatest challenge from the heat and humidity of a tournament that she never has won.

Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Ana Ivanovic:  Sony Open organizers showed their knowledge of tennis when they chose this match for the evening marquee ahead of those featuring higher-ranked champions.  While neither Kuznetsova nor Ivanovic has won a major in nearly four years, one should not miss this battle of fellow major champions with ferocious forehands.  Kuznetsova possesses the superior athleticism and Ivanovic the superior serve, an advantage less compelling on a slow surface where she never has reached the quarterfinals.  A champion here in 2006, the Russian aims to build on her miniature upset of countrywoman Makarova, but Ivanovic looked as brilliant as she has all year in an opener beset by rain and power failures.  Nerves beset both women when they try to close out sets and matches, so no lead will be safe.

Albert Ramos vs. James Blake:  An unthinkable prospect when the tournament began, a quarterfinal appearance for James Blake now looms well within the range of plausibility.  Much improved from recent form at Indian Wells, he continued to turn back the clock with a resounding victory over seeded Frenchman Julien Benneteau.  Meanwhile, the upset of Juan Martin Del Potro in this section has left him no significant obstacle to overcome.  The Spanish lefty across the net plays a steady game that will test Blake’s consistency, but the American should relish the opportunity to showcase his flashy skills under the lights at this prestigious event.

Alexandr Dolgopolov vs. Tommy Haas:  Each man survived talented opponents in the previous round, Dolgopolov dominating 2008 champion Nikolay Davydenko and Haas weathering a three-setter against Igor Sijsling.  The unpredictable quirks in the Ukrainian’s game could fluster the veteran of the famously flammable temper, but the latter has produced more impressive results over the past several weeks.  When they met in last year’s Washington final, Dolgopolov rallied from losing the first set to outlast Haas.

Kevin Anderson vs. Janko Tipsarevic:  Profiting from his vast advantage in height, Anderson defeated the second-ranked Serb three years ago on North American hard courts.  He started this year more promisingly than any year before, outside a February injury, and has won multiple matches at every tournament.  In contrast, Tipsarevic had lost ten consecutive sets (some resoundingly) from the Australian Open through Indian Wells before snapping that skid against a qualifier here.  Hampered by nagging injuries, he has suffered a sharp loss of confidence that could trouble him when he attempts to break the South African’s intimidating serve.  When the rallies unfold, however, Tipsarevic’s superior movement and balance could reap rewards.

Roberta Vinci vs. Carla Suarez Navarro:  On the gritty, slow hard courts of Miami, these two clay specialists look to continue their encouraging results from last month.  While Vinci reached the semifinals in Dubai, Suarez Navarro reached the Premier final in Acapulco.  Gone early from the California desert to an unheralded opponent, the Italian narrowly avoided a similar disappointment in navigating past Christina McHale.  She has lost all of her previous meetings, and all of her previous sets, to Suarez Navarro in a surprising head-to-head record considering their relative experience.  Just six rankings spots separate these two women, so one can expect a tightly contested encounter of elegant one-handed backhands.

Jelena Jankovic vs. Nadia Petrova:  Among the most entertaining women’s finals in recent Miami history was the three-setter that Jankovic contested against Serena Williams in 2008.  The sluggish court speed showcased her counterpunching game at its best, a level from which it has long since receded.  While she has won her last four meetings from Petrova, none of those has come since her precipitous plunge from the #1 ranking that started in 2009.  The Russian’s game has aged more effectively, allowing her to stay within range of the top ten even at the age of 30, and she enjoyed an unexpected renaissance with two titles last fall.  Like Jankovic, her two-handed backhand down the line remains her signature shot, but she will look to set the tone with penetrating first serves and aggressive court positioning as well.

Alize Cornet vs. Lauren Davis:  The only singles match not on a televised court, this overlooked encounter pits a French former prodigy against an extraordinarily lucky loser.  When Azarenka withdrew from the Sony Open, Lauren Davis filled her shoes with poise in an epic victory over countrywoman Madison Keys that climaxed with a third-set tiebreak.  Having benefited from Azarenka’s bye as well, Davis has progressed through more rounds in the main draw than she did in the qualifying draw.  The last American woman left in this half, she faces a winnable match against Cornet, who also survived a tense clash with Laura Robson in which she remarkably never lost her serve through the last two sets.

What to Watch in the ATP This Week: Previews of Dubai, Acapulco, and Delray Beach

Has Djokovic recovered from his champagne hangover yet?

One of the strongest  ATP 500 tournaments on the calendar, Dubai follows its Premier women’s event by hosting six of the top ten men in the first significant outdoor hard-court tournament since the Australian Open.  This tournament claims pride of place in our weekly preview, although events in Acapulco and Delray Beach also feature key storylines that relate to what we can expect at Indian Wells.

Dubai:  A three-time champion at this event, world #1 Djokovic did not bring his best tennis to the Persian Gulf last year in the wake of a draining Australian Open.  The medium-paced hard court showcases his game splendidly, though, so he might bounce back in 2013 with a less exhausting Melbourne marathon behind him and a comfortable quarter ahead of him.  Not since his first meeting with Troicki has he lost to his compatriot, and rarely in the current twelve-match winning streak has the other Serb seriously troubled him.  That said, Djokovic did drop a set when they met here in 2010.  Also unlikely to threaten him on a hard court is the seventh-seeded Seppi, while Lukas Rosol does lurk but so far remains a one-upset man.

While three qualifiers form a soft center to the second quarter, its edges might feature some intrigue.  Seeking to avoid a third straight first-round loss here, former semifinalist Baghdatis faces a tall task in Del Potro, but he has won their last two clashes.  That battle of flat groundstrokes and inspired shot-making should offer some of the first round’s best entertainment.  Of lesser note is the encounter between the eighth-seeded Youzhny and rising Slovene Blaz Kavcic.  How much does the aging Russian with the graceful one-handed backhand have left?

Like the second half overall, the third quarter looks stronger than the two above it.  Top-eight threats Tsonga and Berdych bookend it, the former of whom faces a stern test in compatriot Michael Llodra.  Neither of those Frenchmen will relish the relatively slow courts here, nor will potential second-round opponent Tursunov.  A smart wildcard choice after his astonishing charge to the Marseille weekend as a qualifier, he ranks among the draw’s most notable dark horses.  Two comfortable rounds await Berdych, who excelled in Marseille as well as Tsonga and Tursunov.  Not known for his consistency, the Czech has maintained some of his steadiest tennis to date over the last several months, and he should fare better against Tsonga on an outdoor hard court than on the fast indoor court where he lost to him on Sunday.

After the hubbub last year when the tournament declined to offer Malek Jaziri a wildcard, the organizers may have smirked a bit when, having received that privilege this year, the Tunisian has landed adjacent to Federer.  More worthy of Swiss steel, surely, is the resurgent Tomic in a sequel to an Australian Open encounter closer than the score showed.  Never a man to doubt his own chances, the brash Aussie will feel confident of toppling whoever emerges from the Tipsarevic-Davydenko opener.  Although that match could present a battle of crisp two-handed backhands, both men have struggled this year and would enter a meeting with Tomic at a significant height disadvantage.  Realistically, however, only one man will come out of this quarter.

Final:  Djokovic vs. Federer

Acapulco:  Of the four top-ten men not participating in Dubai, two lend their illustrious presence to the clay 500 tournament in Mexico.  The end of the South American February swing, Acapulco usually offers an opportunity for top-seeded David Ferrer to bolster his rankings points.  While the presence of Nadal at the base of the draw will complicate his quest, the man who displaced Rafa as the top-ranked Spaniard brings momentum from winning Buenos Aires and faces no significant clay threats in his quarter.  Starting against left-handed compatriot Albert Ramos, Ferrer might face flaky Frenchman Benoit Paire in the quarterfinals, but another Spaniard in Pablo Andujar looms just as large.  Outside Nadal, the top seed has enjoyed plenty of success against his countrymen.

The last victim of Ferrer in Buenos Aires, Wawrinka faces a much more intriguing series of tests to secure a rematch in the semifinals.  Opening against Fabio Fognini of the famous eyebrows and unpredictable temperament, he might encounter the returning Nalbandian afterwards.  A finalist in the first tournament of his return, Sao Paulo, Nalbandian took a set from Ferrer at his home tournament last week before his stamina waned.  The fifth-seeded Jurgen Melzer has struggled this year outside a run to the Zagreb final on an indoor hard court, so Colombian clay threat Santiago Giraldo might seem a plausible dark horse to reach the quarterfinals.

Denied by Wawrinka in Buenos Aires, Almagro still looks to steady himself after that strange combination of breakthrough and breakdown that he endured in Melbourne.  His draw looks comfortable in its early stages, featuring nobody more dangerous than the long-faded Tommy Robredo.  In the quarterfinals, Almagro could meet one of three players who have recorded a strong result each during the South American clay season:  Vina del Mar champion Zeballos, Sao Paulo semifinalist Simone Bolelli, or Vina del Mar semifinalist Carlos Berlocq.  But Zeballos has not won a match since that stunning upset over Nadal, while Berlocq should struggle to match Almagro hold for hold despite winning a set from Nadal in Sao Paulo.

The easiest pre-semifinal route of all would seem to belong to the man who needs it least, or is it most?  Far from bulletproof in his two-week swing through Vina del Mar and Sao Paulo, Nadal managed to scrape out results that looked stronger on paper than on television.  He cannot face anyone of note in his first two matches, however, and the week-long respite may have freshened his body and spirits.  The heavy left-handed groundstrokes of sixth-seeded Thomaz Bellucci might pose a threat in view of the Zeballos result.  All the same, the Brazilian has accomplished nothing during this month’s clay tournaments so far and probably lacks the belief to threaten Nadal.

Final:  Ferrer vs. Nadal

Delray Beach:  In his last tournament before Indian Wells, where he defends finals points, top-seeded John Isner desperately needs to halt a slide that has seen him lose 10 of his last 17 matches.  Although a semifinal at San Jose hinted at a resurgence, he dropped a lackluster straight-setter in Memphis, where the indoor hard courts should have suited his massive serve just as well.  Fortunate to receive a modest first-round opponent in Jesse Levine, Isner then could meet Memphis semifinalist Marinko Matosevic.  The Aussie upset similarly powerful American giant Querrey last week and the talented Dolgopolov, so he brings much more momentum into this match than the top seed.  Before he succumbed to injury, Kevin Anderson enjoyed an excellent January by reaching the Sydney final and the second week of the Australian Open, the first South African to do so in a decade.  He could match Isner serve for serve, or more likely surpass him if his pre-injury form revives.

Quite a contrast to Isner’s week in Memphis was the breakthrough delivered by Jack Sock, who upset second-seeded Raonic in the most significant victory of his career.  Sock received a reward in a wildcard here, although he may not fancy a second-round rematch with the man who finally stopped him last week, Feliciano Lopez.  The American will have gained experience in facing a serve-volleyer in an opener against Aussie Matthew Ebden, which could stand him in good stead against Lopez.  And a third straight could loom in the quarterfinals if Karlovic can solve former champion Nishikori.  Suggesting otherwise is the recent form of both men, for Nishikori has produced generally solid results so far in a 2013 where Karlovic’s age and nagging injuries finally may have caught up with him.

A semifinalist in San Jose and gone early in Memphis, like Isner, third-seeded Sam Querrey inhabits a section filled with his compatriots.  That quirk of fate seems auspicious for him in view of his preference for straightforward opponents who allow him baseline rhythm and lack impressive retturns.  Surely able to overpower battered veterans Russell and Blake, he may need to raise his motivation a notch for the ever-impassioned Ryan Harrison.  That youngster has accomplished even less than Querrey lately, though, and a recent illness may have dulled his energies.  The other seed in this section, Xavier Malisse, retired last week in Memphis.

Also withdrawing from Memphis was San Jose runner-up Tommy Haas, who holds the second seed here but faces an intimidating opener against Igor Sijsling.  The Dutchman suddenly has burst into relevance after reaching the Australian Open doubles final, upsetting Tsonga at his home tournament in Rotterdam, and nearly toppling the top-seeded Cilic in Memphis.  If Haas can weather Sijsling’s impressive serve, he must slow the surge of Denis Istomin’s second straight sold February.  Ever an enigma and ever an entertainer, the fifth-seeded Dolgopolov rounds out this quarter and shares Tommy’s predicament of a dangerous first-round opponent.  As his 2011 victory over Nadal proved, Ivan Dodig can trouble anyone on the occasions when his high-risk game explodes rather than implodes.

Final:  Nishikori vs. Querrey

The Week Ahead in the ATP: Rotterdam, San Jose, Sao Paulo

Nadal had the spotlight all to himself last week.  Not anymore.

Like last week, the upcoming ATP slate features two European tournaments on indoor hard courts and a South American tournament on outdoor red clay.  Only one of the Big Four participated in last week’s action, but this week his archrival returns to the spotlight as well.

Rotterdam:  Back in action for the first time since those consecutive five-setters in Melbourne, Federer prepares for a title defense closer to home soil.  He often has produced his crispest tennis on indoor hard courts late in his career, and he finds himself near familiar victim Youzhny.  Tested by rising star Raonic last year, Federer could meet another rising star in Jerzy Janowicz at the quarterfinal stage.  Massive servers trouble him more than they once did, although Janowicz has looked less intimidating in the early events of 2013 than he did while reaching the Paris Indoors final last fall.  Of further interest in this section is the first-round clash between doubles partners Benneteau and Llodra, both of whom should shine on this surface.

Continuing the French theme from Benneteau-Llodra, the second quarter lies in the shadow of two top-20 Frenchmen:  the third-seeded Tsonga and the fifth-seeded Simon.  No player of note would bar their routes to a quarterfinal, which their recently solid form suggests that they should reach.  Both Frenchmen charted a course to the second week at the Australian Open, and Tsonga in particular excelled by extending Federer to a final set in their quarterfinal.  His meeting with Simon should present a compelling contrast of styles, in which one would fancy the third seed’s chances on a surface that favors aggression.

Although both men enter the tournament unseeded, Tomic and Dimitrov offer the most notable storyline of the third quarter with the looming first-round clash between these two phenoms.  Greatly celebrated for reaching the Brisbane final in January, the latter has not built upon that breakthrough but instead slipped back into the inconsistency that has slowed his progress.  A hero on home soil again, Tomic recaptured much of the reputation that he lost with his 2012 antics by showing a more professional attitude to start 2013.  Meanwhile, a strong week in Montpellier continued Gasquet’s strong start to the season and leaves him the favorite to reach the semifinal here.  The fourth seed could repeat the Montpellier final against compatriot Benoit Paire in the second round.

Leaping from the lowest part of the draw is the first-round match between wildcard Gael Monfils and second seed Del Potro.  While the former left Melbourne in mildly promising fashion, the latter fell well short of expectations in suffering a third-round exit to Jeremy Chardy.  Del Potro can waste little time in recapturing his rhythm at a tournament where he finished runner-up to Federer last year, for Monfils’ two finals at the Paris Indoors prove his ability to succeed on this surface.  Less likely to shine is the sixth-seeded Seppi, a player who prefers slow courts and lacks the firepower of either projected quarterfinal opponent.

Final:  Tsonga vs. Del Potro

San Jose:  In the last edition of this tournament, long a mainstay of Bay Area sports, Milos Raonic attempts to complete a title three-peat on the scene of his first trophy.  Among the faster indoor hard courts on the calendar, San Jose will showcase a serve nearly unanswerable at its best.  In the last two years, opponents struggled even to earn a break point against Raonic.  Fresh from his Davis Cup heroics, last year’s top seed could repeat the 2012 final against Denis Istomin in the quarterfinals, or he might meet home hope Ryan Harrison in a rematch of a 2012 semifinal.  Both of those men struggled to match Raonic hold for hold last year with their modest serves, and neither has taken a significant step forward since then.

Someone who can match the Canadian hold for hold, the third-seeded Sam Querrey seeks to continue building on his recent upward trend in the rankings.  Returning to relevance midway through last year, Querrey plays his best on American soil and mirrored Raonic’s contributions last weekend by lifting Team USA past Brazil with two singles victories.  He faces the possibility of consecutive matches against Australians, first the fading Lleyton Hewitt and then the surging Marinko Matosevic.  Near his career-high ranking, the latter man will meet the teenage sensation Jack Sock, still in the process of refining his explosive serve and forehand.

If North Americans dominate the top half of the San Jose draw, a more European flavor emerges from the third quarter.  Following his best season since his prime in the mid-2000s, Tommy Haas lurks near the edge of the top 20 after starting 2012 outside the top 200.  Injuries and recurrences of his volatile temper hampered him in January, but expect his forecourt skills to flourish on a court where he can shorten points.  Female fans would enjoy a quarterfinal between Haas and Fernando Verdasco, two slots below him in the rankings.  Unfortunately for them, former finalist Ivo Karlovic might topple the Spanish lefty in the second round, although he lost to him here two years ago.  Can wildcard Steve Johnson, who took Almagro to a fifth set at the Australian Open, build on that momentum to upset Dr. Ivo?

The only man in the ATP shorter than Karlovic, the second-seeded Isner needs to build momentum much more urgently than Johnson, for he defends finalist points at Indian Wells.  Still the top-ranked American man by a small margin over Querrey, Isner withdrew from the Australian Open with a knee injury and looked unimpressive in Davis Cup last weekend.  No player in his vicinity looks like a convincing dark horse, however, with the most notable resistance coming from Xavier Malisse.  Otherwise, this section features a handful of promising-but-not-quite-there-yet figures like Vasek Pospisil and Evgeny Donskoy, the latter of whom defeated Youzhny in Melbourne.

Final:  Querrey vs. Verdasco

Sao Paulo:  In a draw that greatly resembles Vina del Mar last week, Nadal again shares a half with Jeremy Chardy amid a collection of players from South America and southern Europe.  Few Spaniards have shown the determination to challenge Rafa on his favored red clay, and Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo should prove no exception.  One of the few Spanish journeymen to defeat him on any surface, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez could meet the man whom he defeated in Bangkok at the quarterfinal stage, although Vina del Mar semifinalist Carlos Berlocq seems more plausible.  Yet another Spaniard, the eighth-seeded Albert Ramos, opens against Garcia-Lopez.

Splitting his two Davis Cup rubbers in the United States, Thomaz Bellucci transitions back to his homeland and a friendlier surface for his traditional lefty game.  The fifth-seeded Brazilian would meet Chardy in the quarterfinals with no legitimate threat between them.  Fellow Brazilian Ricardo Mello, known better for his doubles success, received not only a wildcard but a winnable opening match as a reward for his victory over the Bryans in Davis Cup.  Facing aging Federer-killer Volandri is Vina del Mar quarterfinalist Daniel Gimeno-Traver, who mustered some decent resistance to Rafa last week.

World #15 Monaco looked nearly certain to meet Nadal in the Vina del Mar final until the unheralded Guillaume Rufin upset him, only to issue a walkover a round later.  At least the Argentine enjoyed accompanying Nadal through the doubles draw, which gave him plenty of opportunities to refine his clay skills before this second opportunity.  A former top-10 player, Spanish veteran Tommy Robredo could become Monaco’s first opponent in a grinding match of counterpunchers who rarely miss.  Cast from a similar mold is Robredo’s compatriot Albert Montanes, situated near the seventh-seeded Pablo Andujar.  The latter must start the tournament on a high note to escape Santiago Giraldo, a Colombian who has upset much more notable players on clay before.

The key difference between the draws in Vina del Mar and Sao Paulo, Nicolas Almagro hopes to rebound from a memorable fortnight in Melbourne.  While he reached an Australian Open quarterfinal, he may need time to forget his repeated inability to finish off Ferrer there and perhaps also to recover from a leg injury.  Like Nadal, though, Almagro will find the clay accommodating to his ailing body, and he has won a set from Rafa on the surface before.  Opening against surprise Vina del Mar champion Horacio Zeballos, he finds himself near the most dangerous unseeded player in the draw, David Nalbandian.  The grouchy gaucho languishes in a semi-retirement from which he emerges just often enough to remain relevant, and a player lacking in fitness, confidence, or both would seem plausible prey.  Nalbandian has tested Nadal severely before, even during his decline, but can he string together the solid efforts necessary to produce that tantalizing final?

Final:  Nadal vs. Almagro

Check out the companion preview of the WTA Premier Five tournament in Doha, and return on Friday for the next entry in my column.

The Return of Rafa Nadal, and More: What to Watch in Montpellier, Zagreb, and Vina Del Mar

Rafael Nadal digs back into his beloved clay this week in Chile.

Each Monday morning, I will break down ATP and WTA draws quarter by quarter with a prediction of who may meet in the final and perhaps the semifinals.  Fans can look forward this week to three ATP 250 tournaments in Montpellier, Zagreb, and Vina del Mar.  The most significant storyline concerns the highly anticipated return of Rafael Nadal in the last of those events, but the other two merit the attention of dedicated fans too.

Montpellier:  After a weekend satisfying but exhausting, Berdych travels from a Davis Cup tie in Switzerland to neighboring France and one of his most productive surfaces:  an indoor hard court.  Clearly the best player in his half and probably the best in the tournament, the top seed might face an intriguing quarterfinal test in Nikolay Davydenko, also proficient on this surface.  A champion in Doha last month, the Russian owns a stunning 9-2 record against the Czech.  But most of Davydenko’s success comes from before 2010, the year when his decline and Berdych’s breakthrough began.  The greatest pre-semifinal obstacle for the top seed probably lies in his ability to recover from the longest match in Davis Cup history, which spanned a remarkable 422 minutes.

As one would expect in a draw littered with Frenchmen (10 of the 24 direct entrants), the home crowd should find plenty of reasons to cheer.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the second quarter, where Gasquet could meet Monfils in the second round.  Both men shone at the Australian Open by their standards, as did occasional upset threat Julien Benneteau.  While all of these French stars have faltered on home soil at times, they also can point to notable achievements from Gael’s two appearances in the Paris Masters final to Julien’s upset of Federer at the same event.  Like that doubles specialist, the third-seeded Gasquet will bring momentum from a commanding Davis Cup effort on French soil.

Less impressive is the lower half of the draw, spearheaded in the third quarter by Gilles Simon.  The fourth seed shares Gasquet’s task of surmounting the compatriots scattered around him.  A group that features Benoit Paire, Adrian Mannarino, and Paul-Henri Mathieu includes no challenger of a competitive will comparable to Simon.  This Frenchman’s first real test should come in the semifinals against the winner of a tantalizing all-Serbian quarterfinal.

While the second-seeded Tipsarevic has produced much better tennis than Troicki lately, the former arrives from an injury and the latter from a fine Davis Cup performance in Belgium.  In a small, fervently patriotic nation like Serbia, rivalries among compatriots can prove more tightly contested than their relative talents would suggest.  Hoping to disrupt that projected clash, the aging Michael Llodra seeks to rekindle his former magic from the Paris Indoors with a net-rushing style that reaps rewards on these courts.  If Tipsarevic does advance, he will need to reverse a poor history against Simon, not an easy task in view of his unimpressive recent form.

Final:  Gasquet vs. Simon

Zagreb:  Twice a titlist at his home tournament, top-ranked Croat Marin Cilic has started to knock on the door of the top ten again after an encouraging campaign in the second half of 2012.  He holds the top seed in a draw that features several rising stars from the region, including Blaz Kavcic and Aljaz Bedene.  The former reached the third round of a major for the first time at the Australian Open in the wake of a five-set, five-hour marathon, while the latter reached a semifinal in Chennai by defeating Wawrinka (more impressive in retrospect) and winning a set from Tipsarevic.  If the winner can survive the mercurial Marcos Baghdatis, an exciting quarterfinal with Cilic would beckon.

Among the most notable figures in the second quarter is seventh-seeded Grigor Dimitrov, assigned a difficult opening assignment against serving leviathan Ivo Karlovic.  The young player popularly likened to Federer endured a January of extremes that lurched from his first career final in Brisbane to a first-round exit in straight sets at the Australian Open.  Beyond Karlovic, another local threat in Ivan Dodig would unleash his first-strike power against the maturing Dimitrov, which should test his focus.  The third-seeded Mikhail Youzhny, well past his prime, looks less intimidating in a quarterfinal that could showcase two elegant one-handed backhands.

Another aging veteran in lefty Jurgen Melzer holds the fourth seed in a tournament near his native Austria, where he will attempt to raise his level from an unimpressive Davis Cup display in Kazakhstan.  Explosive upset artist Lukas Rosol might test him in the quarterfinals should he survive another Lukas, the eighth-seeded Lacko.  The latter Lukas nearly upset Tipsarevic at the Australian Open, so he may fancy his chances against the Czech Lukas or a Polish Lukasz (Kubot), better known in doubles but dangerous in singles with his pinpoint serves and returns.

The bottom quarter may hold the least interest for local fans, since the only Croats received wildcards to compensate for their low rankings.  But its two seeds, Martin Klizan and Andreas Seppi, enjoyed their best seasons to date in 2012.  Seppi in particular has hinted at building upon that momentum in 2013 by reaching the second week in Melbourne, although this surface does not much suit his patient style.

Final:  Cilic vs. Melzer

Vina del Mar:  The toast of Chile when he arrived last week, Nadal celebrated his return to professional competition after a six-month absence by basking in a ceremonial welcome from the nation’s president and noted tennis stars.  Fans throughout the world, even those who never especially admired him, should welcome the return of a warrior whose presence injects much more intrigue into the ATP elite.  While Nadal probably will not find his finest form immediately, he may not need to find it here to win a title on the clay that he relishes so deeply.  Nobody in his quarter should muster the nerve to contemplate stopping the Spaniard, including compatriot Daniel Gimeno-Traver  and home hope Nicolas Massu, a former Olympic gold medalist.

The only clay tournament in a week otherwise spent on indoor hard courts, Vina del Mar has attracted a host of players from South America and the Mediterranean.  Australian Open quarterfinalist Jeremy Chardy will seek to shift his momentum from hard courts to clay, a surface that could reward his asymmetrical baseline game but not his preference for shortening points in the forecourt.  The third seed in Chile, this Frenchman might encounter veteran Spaniard and clay specialist Tommy Robredo in the quarterfinals.  Or perhaps Chardy will meet Lorenzi, who once nearly upset Nadal in Rome.

Often neglected among Spanish men, fourth-seeded Pablo Andujar occasionally drifts within range of an ardent fan’s radar during the clay season.  This week, he could collide with a compatriot ranked just six slots below him in Albert Ramos, who looked rather crisp at the Australian Open in a five-set loss to Baghdatis.  South Americans Rogerio Dutra Silva, Leonardo Mayer, and Horacio Zeballos add some local interest without heightening the level of competition significantly.

Like his fellow second seed Seppi in Zagreb, world #12 Juan Monaco produced a season far more productive last year than any before it.  A veteran clay specialist, he notched his greatest success last year on hard courts, where he reached the Miami semifinal.  But he regained his groove on his favorite surface while contributing to Argentina’s Davis Cup victory over Germany this weekend, and he often has excelled during the February South American clay swing.  Fellow Argentine Carlos Berlocq, known as the worst server in the top 100, should pose little threat in a weak section.  Can Monaco test Nadal in the final, as he has Djokovic and Murray on clay?  We will know better once the tournament unfolds.

Final:  Nadal vs. Monaco

I will return on Friday morning to look at the first round of Fed Cup.  Ahead on next Monday are previews of ATP events in Rotterdam, San Jose, and Sao Paulo, in addition to a more detailed preview of the WTA Premier Five tournament in Doha.

Up for the Cup! First-Round Davis Cup World Group Preview

Tomas prepares to defend his first Davis Cup title as plenty of intriguing ties await.

Eight first-round Davis Cup ties unfold around the world this weekend.  We discuss the key players and themes that might emerge from each of them.

Canada vs. Spain:  Without any of their top three men, Davis Cup Goliath Spain finds itself at a surprising disadvantage when it travels to the western coast of North America.  Had either Nadal or Ferrer participated in this tie against Canada, the visitors would remain heavy favorites even against a squad spearheaded by Milos Raonic and aging doubles star Daniel Nestor.  Instead, Canada now can rely on two victories from their singles #1 against the overmatched pair of Marcel Granollers and Albert Ramos, forcing Spain to sweep the remaining three matches.  Among those is a doubles rubber that pits Nestor against World Tour Finals champions Granollers and Marc Lopez, who lost three of their four Davis Cup doubles rubbers last year.  If the tie reaches a live fifth rubber, as seems plausible, Spanish champion Alex Corretja might consider substituting Guillermo Garcia-Lopez for Ramos against the net-rushing Frank Dancevic.  Buoyed by their home crowd, though, Canada should find a way to snatch one of the three non-Raonic rubbers and send Spain to the playoff round for the first time in recent memory.

Pick:  Canada

Italy vs. Croatia:  This tie should hinge on home-court advantage and the choice of ground that it entails.  On a fast hard court, the formidable serves of Marin Cilic and Ivan Dodig would stifle the less imposing firepower of the Italians.  But Croatia faces Andreas Seppi and Fabio Fognini on the red clay of Turin, a slow surface where the superior consistency of the hosts should lead them to victory.  The visitors will face the intriguing choice of whether to substitute their singles stars on Saturday for a doubles pairing almost certainly doomed to defeat.  Three straight days of best-of-five matches for Cilic, Dodig, or both would leave them even more vulnerable to the Italian war of attrition, though.  At any rate, the contrast of styles between the fearless first strikes of the Croats and the patient baseline rallying of the Italians should provide entertaining viewing.

Pick:  Italy

Belgium vs. Serbia:  One might see Djokovic’s name on the schedule and automatically checking off the “Serbia” box, but a few flickers of doubt persist.  First, the Australian Open champion may have arrived physically and mentally drained from his recent exploits, and he has struggled against Friday opponent Olivier Rochus throughout his career.  Breaking from a long history of Davis Cup participation, Serbian #2 Janko Tipsarevic cannot step into the breach if Djokovic falters.  That duty lies in the suspect hands of Viktor Troicki, who endured a miserable 2012, and in the aging hands of Nenad Zimonjic, well past his prime despite his many accomplishments.  Serbia thus might find itself in real trouble if they played a team with a notable talent, like Canada.  With just the 32-year-old Rochus and the volatile but unreliable David Goffin barring their path, however, they should advance even if their stars underperform.

Pick:  Serbia

USA vs. Brazil:  Tennis Grandstand will feature more detailed coverage of this tie over the weekend.  For the moment, we will note that Team USA stands in promising position with two serving leviathans on an indoor hard court, complemented by the reigning Australian Open doubles champions.  While Isner did not win a match in January as he struggled with a knee injury, and Querrey did not impress in Melbourne, both should steamroll the harmless Brazilian #2 Thiago Alves.  In the best-case scenario for Brazil, which would feature two victories for their #1 Bellucci, their doubles duo of Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares still should fall short against the Bryans.  All of these Americans have played some of their best tennis on home soil and in Davis Cup, including on less friendly surfaces, whereas Brazil has accomplished little of note in this competition recently.

Pick:  USA

France vs. Israel:  Across from one team that often proves less than the sum of its talents in Davis Cup stands a team that typically overperforms expectations at the national level.  Whereas France will bring two members of the top 10 to this tie, Israel can claim no top-100 threat in singles.  The fast indoor hard court should allow the offensive might of Tsonga to overwhelm Dudi Sela and Amir Weintraub, although the latter has developed into a more credible threat over the last several months.  In a tantalizing doubles rubber, a battle of all-stars pits Jonathan Ehrlich and Andy Ram against Julien Benneteau and Michael Llodra.  Underdogs in every singles rubber and arguably the doubles too, Israel can hope for an upset only if Gasquet crumbles under the pressure of playing for national pride on home soil as he has so infamously before.  Otherwise, the talent gap simply looms too large.

Pick:  France

Argentina vs. Germany:  Perhaps the most tightly contested tie, this battle on outdoor red clay will unfold in the absence of Del Potro, who would have given the home squad a clear edge.  While Argentina will field a squad of clay specialists, leading Germans Philipp Kohlschreiber and Florian Mayer have acquitted themselves well on the surafce and should not find themselves at a disadvantage parallel to Croatia in Italy.  Much rests on the shoulders of Juan Monaco, tasked with avoiding the daunting 0-2 deficit after Kohlschreiber likely opens the tie by dismissing Carlos Berlocq.  The top Argentine here enjoyed his best season to date last year but did not start 2013 especially well.  Lurking in the shadows, as he so often does, is long-time Argentine Davis Cup hero David Nalbandian.  Argentina will hope that Nalbandian’s contribution in doubles on Saturday will combine with two Monaco victories to give them the points that they need without reaching a live fifth rubber.  There, one would favor Mayer to overcome both Berlocq and the Argentine crowd.

Pick:  Er, Argentina?

Kazakhstan vs. Austria:  In a tie without a singles star of note, the opportunity beckons for someone to seize the spotlight in a way that he could not at a major.  The most likely candidate to do so would seem Austrian #1 Jurgen Melzer, the only top-100 singles player on either side.  His opponents can produce better tennis than their current rankings suggest, though, and Andrey Golubev already has started the tie in promising fashion with a straight-sets victory over Andreas Haider-Maurer.  The doubles edge probably belongs to Austria with the greater expertise of Alexander Peya and Julian Knowle, specialists who will allow the 31-year-old Melzer to rest for Sunday.  Excluded from the initial lineup is top-ranked Kazakh Mikhail Kukushkin, whose absence will force #211 Evgeny Korolev to win a best-of-five match for the hosts to survive.

Pick:  Austria

Switzerland vs. Czech Republic:  While Tomas Berdych is the highest-ranked man in this clash between nearby nations, the most intriguing role goes to opposing #1 Stanislas Wawrinka.  After he came far closer than anyone to toppling Djokovic at the Australian Open, the latter may suffer a hangover in a competition where he has struggled lately.  Moreover, Switzerland leans on Wawrinka to win both of his singles matches and contribute to a doubles victory on the intervening day, an enormous challenge for the sternest of competitors when the last of those matches involves Berdych.  The Czech Republic will not enlist the services of Radek Stepanek, a rare absentee this weekend like Tipsarevic, but singles #2 Lukas Rosol intimidates much more than anyone that Switzerland can throw at him.  In the Federer/Wawrinka era, no Swiss team ever has presented the united front that the defending champions have behind Berdych.  The medium-slow hard court should not trouble the broad-shouldered world #6 unduly.

Pick:  Czech Republic

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