alejandro falla

From Continent to Continent: ATP Washington and Kitzbuhel Previews

While the WTA divides its action between two coasts this week, the ATP spans the Atlantic Ocean with events on two different continents and surfaces.  The 500 tournament in Washington, part of the US Open Series, takes center stage.

Washington:

Top half:  A champion in Washington four years ago, Juan Martin Del Potro holds the top seed at the 2013 edition.  The Wimbledon semifinalist hopes to rediscover his torrid form against one of two men who shone in Atlanta.  Producing semifinal runs there last week, Lleyton Hewitt and Ryan Harrison will square off in one of the most intriguing first-round matches.  Nor can Del Potro relax if he survives the winner.  A strong grass season, highlighted by a second-week appearance at Wimbledon, will have restored Bernard Tomic’s confidence.  Although he continues to cope with controversy surrounding his father, Tomic has plenty of ways to disrupt Del Potro’s rhythm if the Argentine returns rusty from a leg injury.  A more straightforward test awaits from Kevin Anderson, seeking his third semifinal in three weeks.  Before he meets Del Potro in the quarterfinals, Anderson may find the returning Mardy Fish an opponent worthy of his steel.

If power dominates the top quarter, flair defines much of the second quarter.  The flamboyant shot-making of Tommy Haas favors precision over physicality, while the graceful one-handed backhand of Grigor Dimitrov has a vintage appeal.  Haas reached the final in Washington last year, perhaps using his training at the Bolletieri Academy in Florida as experience for coping with the humidity.  But power never lags far behind in a draw filled with Americans.  Sam Querrey will face one of two Atlanta quarterfinalists, Denis Istomin or Santiago Giraldo, in the second round.   A contrast of styles would await if Querrey advances to face Dimitrov and then Haas, although a 5-8 record since April leaves a deep run far from guaranteed.

Semifinal:  Del Potro vs. Haas

Bottom half:  Filled with question marks, the third quarter could produce a surprise semifinalist.  The favorite at first glance would seem Milos Raonic, by far the most powerful of the seeds.  Raonic’s massive serve could sizzle on a hot hard court, but he has accomplished little since winning yet another San Jose title in February.  Neither has fellow seed Nikolay Davydenko, who has struggled historically against possible second-round opponent James Blake.  Some of Gilles Simon’s best results have come in North America, including a Miami quarterfinal this spring, and the fifth seed’s steadiness might suffice to ease him past the erratic men around him.  Among them is former champion Radek Stepanek, who looks forward to American collegiate star Steve Johnson in his opener.

One might lose sight of defending champion Alexandr Dolgopolov in the fourth quarter.  Not a threat for most of 2013, Dolgopolov faces an arduous route towards a title defense.  Home hope John Isner looms in the third round if he can revive his energy after a draining title run in Atlanta.  An easier route to the quarterfinals beckons for Kei Nishikori, who won a North American 500 tournament at Memphis this year.  Bogota runner-up Alejandro Falla faded quickly in Atlanta, as did American teenage sensation Jack Sock.  The clean, balanced baseline game of Nishikori should carry him past either of those opponents, after which a first meeting with Isner could await.

Semifinal:  Simon vs. Isner

Final:  Del Potro vs. Isner

Kitzbuhel:

Top half:  An assortment of Europeans and clay specialists have headed to this Austrian event before venturing into the steamy American summer.  German top seed Philipp Kohlschreiber aims to move one round further than he did at another clay 250 event.  The finalist in Stuttgart a few weeks ago, Kohlschreiber can look ahead to a quarterfinal against Spanish dirt devil Marcel Granollers.  This Rome quarterfinalist will welcome the opportunity to erase memories of an epic loss in Gstaad last week.  Between them stand Horacio Zeballos of Nadal-defeating fame and Wimbledon surprise Kenny de Schepper, who reached the second week there.

A greater Wimbledon surprise than de Schepper came from Fernando Verdasco, who would not hold the third seed here if not for his quarterfinal appearance at the last major.  To his credit, Verdasco parlayed that breakthrough into a strong July, highlighted by victories over Nicolas Almagro, Grigor Dimitrov, and Jerzy Janowicz.  An all-lefty matchup against Brazilian clay specialist Thomaz Bellucci should not detain him for long en route to a rematch of the Bastad final.  At that Swedish tournament, Verdasco fell to Carlos Berlocq, who faces an extremely challenging assignment as the fifth seed.  Days after defeating Federer, the ominous Daniel Brands sets his sights on the Bastad champion.  Also in this deep section is Robin Haase, arriving from a series of morale-boosting wins in Gstaad.

Semifinal:  Granollers vs. Verdasco

Bottom half:   A week of mixed omens for Albert Montanes in Umag included an upset over world No. 9 Richard Gasquet and a tight loss to Gasquet’s compatriot Gael Monfils.  Twice a semifinalist on clay already this summer, Victor Hanescu finds himself on a collision course with Montanes, who won a clay title in Nice just before Roland Garros.  The winner should feel confident heading into the quarterfinals, although home hope Jurgen Melzer will have most of the audience behind him.  Melzer reached the second week of Wimbledon but has lost five consecutive clay matches dating back to Monte Carlo.

Arguably the softest section, the base of the Kitzbuhel draw lies at the mercy of second seed Juan Monaco.  This recent member of the top 10 has shown altogether too much mercy in 2013, helplessly watching his ranking decline.  All the same, Monaco has produced at least somewhat respectable tennis this summer on clay, his best surface.  Three qualifiers and a wildcard offer little competition, so any challenge would need to come from one of two Spaniards.  While Daniel Gimeno-Traver has struggled on clay this year, Roberto Bautista-Agut retired last week in Gstaad.  Monaco thus looks safe unless he implodes, admittedly not unthinkable.

Semifinal:  Montanes vs. Monaco

Final:  Verdasco vs. Montanes

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

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

What to Watch in the ATP This Week: Hamburg and Bogota Previews

Only one member of the top 10 takes the court in next week’s two ATP tournaments.  But he’s someone who might merit your attention.

Hamburg:

Top half:  After his second-round loss at Wimbledon, Roger Federer admitted that he needed to regain his rhythm and poise at key moments in matches.  Taking a wildcard into Hamburg, which he won as a Masters 1000 tournament, Federer seeks his first title of the season above the 250 level.  That triumph came at the grass event in Halle, so the world No. 5 will hope to make it two for two on German soil.  Home favorite Daniel Brands could prove an intriguing opening test, considering the challenge that Brands posed for Rafael Nadal in a Roland Garros four-setter.  But the headline match of the quarter, or perhaps the half, comes in the next round with Ernests Gulbis.  Defeating Federer on clay in Rome before, Gulbis has taken at least one set in all three of their previous meetings.  Most of the other players in this section, such as Feliciano Lopez or Nikolay Davydenko, have grown accustomed to Federer’s superiority.

All four seeds in the second quarter reached a quarterfinal at a major this year, rare for an event of Hamburg’s diminished stature.  Jerzy Janowicz and Fernando Verdasco both launched their surprise runs at Wimbledon, and Verdasco extended his surge from grass to clay by winning his first title since 2010 last week.  In his first tournament as a member of the top 20, Janowicz has built his ranking less on consistency than on a handful of notable achievements at key tournaments.  Similarly, Australian Open quarterfinalist Jeremy Chardy has struggled to string together momentum and has secured just one semifinal berth since that breakthrough.  An all-Spanish quarterfinal might await if Verdasco and Roland Garros quarterfinalist Tommy Robredo use their superior clay expertise to halt the higher-ranked Janowicz and Chardy, respectively.  Federer never has lost to any of these men, or to anyone else in a section where Madrid semifinalist Pablo Andujar also lurks.

Semifinal:  Federer vs. Verdasco

Bottom half:  The sight of Nicolas Almagro and Mikhail Youzhny in the same vicinity calls to mind their Miami clash five years ago.  Youzhny famously won that match with blood dripping down his head after banging his racket on it repeatedly.  Undefeated in their previous meetings, Youzhny stopped Almagro in another three-setter this spring without reacquainting his racket with his head.  While the Spaniard has faltered after a promising start to 2013, he still holds the surface edge on his nemesis.  This section also contains four unseeded players who have reached clay finals this year.  Bucharest champion Lukas Rosol could derail Almagro straight out of the gate, while Bucharest runner-up Guillermo Garcia-Lopez sets his sights on Youzhny.  A champion in Nice, Albert Montanes could eye a rematch of his final there against Gael Monfils, but only if the latter can upset defending champion Juan Monaco.  The Argentine won a clay title in Dusseldorf on the day that Montanes won Nice, his fourth on clay in 2012-13.

Second seed Tommy Haas usually shines on German soil during these latter stages of his career.  Winning Munich on clay and taking a set from Federer in a Halle semifinal, Haas finished runner-up to Monaco in Hamburg last year.  On the verge of the top 10, he showed some traces of fatigue by falling early in Stuttgart as the top seed.  A semifinalist at that tournament, Victor Hanescu could face Haas in his opener, while Bastad runner-up Carlos Berlocq looms a round later.  The other side of the section exudes a distinctly Italian flavor, bookended by Andreas Seppi and Fabio Fognini.  A semifinalist in Monte Carlo, Fognini started his campaign there by defeating Seppi in three sets, and he has enjoyed far stronger clay results than his compatriot this year.  Of minor note are Vina del Mar champion Horacio Zeballos, just 4-14 since that breakthrough, and Rome quarterfinalist Marcel Granollers, who owed that result in large part to Andy Murray’s retirement.

Semifinal:  Monaco vs. Haas

Final:  Federer vs. Monaco

Bogota:

Top half:  Not since the Australian Open has Janko Tipsarevic won more than two matches in a tournament.  The beleaguered Serb saw his ranking slide out of the top 10 this summer, unable to salvage it even with several appearances at the 250 level.  Another such effort to gobble up easy points as the top seed unfolds in Bogota.  This draw looks more accommodating to Tipsarevic than others in which he has held that position.  A pair of Colombians, Alejandro Falla and a wildcard, join a pair of Belgians and Australian serve-volleyer Matthew Ebden in his vicinity.  If he can rediscover the tennis that brought him to the top 10, Tipsarevic should cruise.  If he plays as he has for most of the year, anything could happen.

Among the most intriguing names in the second quarter is rising Canadian star Vasek Pospisil.  Depending on how fast the courts play in Bogota, Pospisil could deploy his serve and shot-making to devastating effect against less powerful opponents.  Australian journeyman James Duckworth showed his mettle in two epics at his home major this year, while Aljaz Bedene owns a win over Stanislas Wawrinka—but not much else.  A finalist in Delray Beach, fourth seed Edouard Roger-Vasselin hopes to halt a four-match losing streak.  At least Mr. Bye cannot stop him in the first round.

Bottom half:  Surprising most observers by reaching the second week of Wimbledon, Adrian Mannarino came back to earth with a modest result in Newport.  At an event of similar caliber, he will hope to build on his momentum from grass while it still lingers.  The same motivation probably spurs third seed Igor Sijsling, who upset Milos Raonic at Wimbledon after bursting on the scene with a victory over Tsonga in February.  Back into action with a quarterfinal showing in Newport, Ivo Karlovic brings his towering serve to an altitude ideal for it.  At 7,000 feet above sea level, Dr. Ivo might be nearly unbreakable if his fitness weathers the thin air.

Also armed with a massive serve, second seed Kevin Anderson eyes a cluster of Colombians.  Two home hopes meet in the first round, but Santiago Giraldo will fancy his chances to reach the quarterfinals.  Near him is Kazakh loose cannon Evgeny Korolev, who oozes with talent while lacking the reins to harness it.  Anderson has won all three of his meetings with Korolev and his only previous encounter with Giraldo, so his path to the weekend looks clear.

Final:  Unseeded player vs. Anderson

 

 

Roland Garros Fast Forward: Djokovic, Wawrinka, Azarenka, Kvitova Start Campaigns on Day 3

Here’s the breakdown of matches to watch as the first round concludes.

ATP:

Novak Djokovic vs. David Goffin:  The baby-faced Belgian spurred a flurry of headlines last year when he reached the second week of Roland Garros and took a set from Roger Federer there.  Goffin has mustered barely any quality wins since then, losing to Grega Zemlja in Dusseldorf last week.  An enigmatic Masters 1000 clay season behind him, Djokovic hopes to resemble the man who defeated Rafael Nadal in Monte Carlo more than the man who lost to Grigor Dimitrov in Madrid.

Nicolas Mahut vs. Janko Tipsarevic:  Just about anyone has managed to knock off Tipsarevic this year, from Dmitry Tursunov to Guido Pella.  Struggling for confidence and fitness, the Serb briefly slumped outside the top 10 before currently returning to its edge.  Mahut has not won a main-draw match at the ATP level all season, losing to such unremarkable figures as Laime Ouahab and Romain Jouan.  An ugly encounters on both sides could ensue, in which Mahut could gain strength from the vigorous show-court crowd.  A second top-ten upset by a Frenchman in two days still seems like a long shot.

Stanislas Wawrinka vs. Thiemo De Bakker:  An untimely muscle tear in Wawrinka’s thigh cast his participation here into doubt.  The Madrid finalist has defeated four top-eight opponents on clay this spring, and his high volume of matches might have contributed to his injury.  De Bakker should not challenge a healthy Wawrinka, so this match will offer a barometer for the Swiss No. 2’s health.

Jack Sock vs. Guillermo Garcia-Lopez:  On Sock’s shoes are written the names of two friends who recently passed away, extra motivation for him this fortnight.  He will look to extend the encouraging and unexpected trend of American success here against Bucharest finalist Garcia-Lopez, less of a clay threat than most Spaniards.  Big servers also have fared well here in general from Querrey and Isner to Milos Raonic and Kevin Anderson.

Bernard Tomic vs. Victor Hanescu:  Without his father to monitor him relentlessly, Tomic enjoys his first taste of independence.  Off-court distractions should undermine his focus on his weakest surface, though, and he is still nowhere near the player outside Australia that he is on home soil.

Mikhail Youzhny vs. Pablo Andujar:  On the heels of reaching the Madrid semifinals as a wildcard, Andujar reached the semifinals of Nice as well.  He did not defeat anyone more notable than Gilles Simon at either tournament, but he will hold the surface advantage against Youzhny.  The Russian did win a set from Djokovic in Monte Carlo before recording consecutive victories over clay specialists Fabio Fognini and Nicolas Almagro in Madrid.

Alejandro Falla vs. Grigor Dimitrov:  Despite the increasing threat that he poses to the ATP elite, Dimitrov never has won more than one match at a major.  Questionable fitness may cost him in the best-of-five format, or these events may expose his lack of experience more starkly.  A duel with a Colombian dirt devil could test Dimitrov’s resilience two rounds ahead of a rematch with Djokovic.

WTA:

Elena Vesnina vs. Victoria Azarenka:  With the other top-four women’s seeds advancing so convincingly, Azarenka needs to keep pace with a statement of her own.  After a 10-1 start to 2012, Vesnina has cooled off and lost in the first round at three of four clay tournaments.  Azarenka started cooling her off by dismissing her in the fourth round of the Australian Open, where Vesnina lacked the weapons to threaten her.  Never past the quarterfinals in Paris, Vika should conserve energy with some quick early wins in a weak section of the draw.

Petra Kvitova vs. Aravane Rezai:  Three long years have passed since Rezai won the Premier Mandatory title in Madrid over Venus Williams.  The fiery Frenchwoman with a fondness for flamboyant outfits has won just one main-draw match since last year’s clay season.  Kvitova has made a habit of struggling at the most unexpected moments against the most anonymous opponents, so a three-setter would not surprise in this slugfest of wildly erratic shot-makers.

Jelena Jankovic vs. Daniela Hantuchova:  This match struck me as the most interesting of the women’s first round, partly because of the history between them.  Meeting more than once in the fraught environment of Fed Cup, the two have collaborated on several tight encounters and have played their last five matches on clay.  Jankovic has regained traces of her vintage clay form by winning Bogota and upsetting Li to reach the Rome quarterfinals, while Hantuchova upset Kvitova in Madrid.  Both lost to Simona Halep in the wake of those top-ten ambushes, though, showing how much they struggle to sustain momentum as they age.

Kristina Mladenovic vs. Lauren Davis: After American women posted a perfect record on Day 2, Davis hopes to continue that trend despite winning just two clay matches this year (one against Christina McHale).  That task will prove difficult against a Frenchwoman who shone on home soil in February, reaching the semifinals of the Paris Indoors.  Mladenovic has struggled almost as much on clay as Davis has, but she won sets from Maria Kirilenko and Dominika Cibulkova in difficult early-round draws.

Klara Zakopalova vs. Kaia Kanepi:  A tireless counterpuncher with a vulnerable serve, Zakopalova has extended both Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova to final sets at Roland Garros.  She came closer than anyone to threatening Sharapova’s surge to the career Slam, and her retrieving should test Kanepi’s patience as well.  Returning impressively from injury last month, Kanepi won Brussels on Saturday after collecting six wins at her two previous tournaments.  To continue defending her quarterfinal points, she will need to take control of rallies immediately with serve and return.

Jamie Hampton vs. Lucie Safarova:  The small American won three consecutive three-setters over higher-ranked opponents, including Roberta Vinci, to earn a semifinal berth in Brussels.  Limited in her clay experience, Hampton attracted international attention by severely testing Azarenka in the first week of the Australian Open.  Flaky Czech lefty Safarova also arrives with momentum after winning her home challenger in Prague and taking a set from Sharapova in Stuttgart.

Wizards of Oz (IV): Tomic, Gasquet, Raonic, Kvitova, Wozniacki, And More on Day 4

Leaving Federer vs. Davydenko for a special, detailed preview by one of our colleagues here, we break down some highlights from the latter half of second-round action on Day 4.

ATP:

Brands vs. Tomic (Rod Laver Arena):  A tall German who once caused a stir at Wimbledon, Brands has won four of his first five matches in 2013 with upsets over Chardy, Monfils, and Martin Klizan among them.  As sharp as Tomic looked in his opener, he cannot afford to get caught looking ahead to Federer in the next round.  Brands can match him bomb for bomb, so the last legitimate Aussie threat left needs to build an early lead that denies the underdog reason to hope.

Lu vs. Monfils (Hisense Arena):  Is La Monf finally back?  He somehow survived 16 double faults and numerous service breaks in a messy but entertaining four-set victory over Dolgopolov.  Perhaps facilitated by his opponent’s similar quirkiness, the vibrant imagination of Monfils surfaced again with shot-making that few other men can produce.  This match should produce an intriguing contrast of personalities and styles with the understated, technically solid Lu, who cannot outshine the Frenchman in flair but could outlast him by exploiting his unpredictable lapses.

Falla vs. Gasquet (Court 3):  The Colombian clay specialist has established himself as an occasional upset threat at non-clay majors, intriguingly, for he nearly toppled Federer in the first round of Wimbledon three years ago and bounced Fish from this tournament last year.  A strange world #10, Gasquet struggled initially in his first match against a similar clay specialist in Montanes.  He recorded a series of steady results at majors last year, benefiting in part from facing opponents less accomplished than Falla.  The strength-against-strength collision of his backhand against Falla’s lefty forehand should create some scintillating rallies as Gasquet seeks to extend his momentum from the Doha title two weeks ago.

Mayer vs. Berankis (Court 6):  While Berankis comfortably defeated the erratic Sergei Stakhovsky in his debut, Mayer rallied from a two-set abyss to fend off American wildcard Rhyne Williams after saving multiple match points.  He must recover quickly from that draining affair to silence the compact Latvian, who punches well above his size.  Sometimes touted as a key figure of the ATP’s next generation, Berankis has not plowed forward as impressively as others like Raonic and Harrison, so this unintimidating draw offers him an opportunity for a breakthrough.

Raonic vs. Rosol (Court 13):  The cherubic Canadian sprung onto the international scene when he reached the second week in Melbourne two years ago.  The lean Czech sprung onto the international scene when he stunned Nadal in the second round of Wimbledon last year.  Either outstanding or abysmal on any given day, Rosol delivered an ominous message simply by winning his first match.  For his part, Raonic looked far from ominous while narrowly avoiding a fifth set against a player outside the top 100.  He needs to win more efficiently in early rounds before becoming a genuine contender for major titles.

WTA:

Robson vs. Kvitova (RLA):  Finally starting to string together some solid results, the formerly unreliable Robson took a clear step forward by notching an upset over Clijsters in the second round of the US Open.  Having played not only on Arthur Ashe Stadium there but on Centre Court at the All England Club before, she often produces her finest tennis for the grandest stages.  If Robson will not lack for inspiration, Kvitova will continue to search for confidence.  She found just enough of her familiarly explosive weapons to navigate through an inconsistent three-setter against Schiavone, but she will have little hope of defending her semifinal points if she fails to raise her level significantly.  That said, Kvitova will appreciate playing at night rather than during the most scorching day of the week, for the heat has contributed to her struggles in Australia this month.

Peng vs. Kirilenko (Hisense):  A pair of women better known in singles than in doubles, they have collaborated on some tightly contested matches.  Among them was a Wimbledon three-setter last year, won by Kirilenko en route to the quarterfinals.  The “other Maria” has faltered a bit lately with six losses in ten matches before she dispatched Vania King here.  But Peng also has regressed since injuries ended her 2011 surge, so each of these two women looks to turn around her fortunes at the other’s expense.  The Russian’s all-court style and fine net play should offer a pleasant foil for Peng’s heavy serve and double-fisted groundstrokes, although the latter can find success in the forecourt as well.

Wozniacki vs. Vekic (Hisense):  Like Kvitova, Wozniacki seeks to build upon the few rays of optimism that emanated from a nearly unwatchable three-set opener.  Gifted that match by Lisicki’s avalanche of grisly errors, the former #1 could take advantage of the opportunity to settle into the tournament.  Wozniacki now faces the youngest player in either draw, who may catch her breath as she walks onto a show court at a major for the first time.  Or she may not, since the 16-year-old Donna Vekic crushed Hlavackova without a glimpse of nerves to start the tournament and will have nothing to lose here.

Hsieh vs. Kuznetsova (Margaret Court Arena):  A surprise quarterfinalist in Sydney, the two-time major champion defeated Goerges and Wozniacki after qualifying for that elite draw.  Kuznetsova rarely has produced her best tennis in Melbourne, outside a near-victory over Serena in 2009.  But the Sydney revival almost did not materialize at all when she floundered through a three-setter in the qualifying.  If that version of Kuznetsova shows up, the quietly steady Hsieh could present a capable foil.

Putintseva vs. Suarez Navarro (Court 7) / Gavrilova vs. Tsurenko (Court 8):  Two of the WTA’s most promising juniors, Putintseva and Gavrilova face women who delivered two of the draw’s most notable first-round surprises.  After Suarez Navarro dismissed world #7 Errani, Tsurenko halted the surge of Brisbane finalist Pavlyuchenkova in a tense three-setter.  Momentum thus carries all four of these women into matches likely to feature plenty of emotion despite the relatively low stakes.

John Isner and Nicolas Almagro win on Day One of the Miami Tennis Cup

Miami, FL – December 1st, 2012: Attendance grew on stadium court at Crandon Park Tennis Center in Key Biscayne, FL. on Friday evening, as tennis enthusiasts flocked to see some of the world’s best players perform during the night session on day one of the Miami Tennis Cup.

As the vodka bottles were uncorked in the VIP Lounge, for the select few lucky enough to purchase lounge passes, Alejadro Falla, Colombia’s top-ranked player, took to the court against Spain’s Nicolás Almagro, ranked number 11 in the world. The first set was closer than expected, as Falla put up a hard fought battle from the baseline, after conceding the first set 6-4, lasting well over an hour. His first set spirit diminished during the second set that lasted only 35 minutes, as Almagro demonstrated why he was eleventh in the world, winning 6-1.

“It was tough because every match against Alejandro is complicated,” said Almagro about the left-handed Falla. “I’m quite happy with how I’m playing at the moment and I’m glad to be in the warmth of Miami for the first year of the Miami Tennis Cup. Hopefully the crowds were treated to an enjoyable game.”

Shortly after the tournament’s opening match, the top-ranked American, John Isner, squared away against the former number one player from Spain, Juan Carlos Ferrero. Fans were treated to a thrilling first set that reached a tie-break, that was easily won by Isner 7-2. The second set was a close fought battle, but Isner stepped-up his game to take the second set 6-3.

“I’ve a pleasing 2012, and this is a nice way to round off the year,” said Isner during his post-match press conference. “I’m happy to be competing in the Miami Tennis Cup. It’s a good crowd with some top players competing. I’m looking forward to seeing Andy Roddick play Andy Murray and hope to meet one of them in Sunday’s final.”

Day two of the Miami Tennis Cup will feature the tournament’s headline match between the retired Andy Roddick and the reigning U.S Open and Olympic Champion, Andy Murray, currently ranked number three in the world. The match on Stadium Court starts at 5:00pm and is expected to draw a capacity crowd.

Quotable Quotes – Day 4 of Sony Ericsson Open with Ivanovic, Isner, Djokovic, Murray


Andy Murray, The “Coach”

First up on Stadium Court was Andy Murray who advanced over Alejandro Falla in straight sets with little resistance from the Colombian, 6-2, 6-3. In Murray’s press conference, he acknowledged Falla’s presence in tennis as a “tough player” since he “pushed Federer in Wimbledon” and beat Mardy Fish at the Australian Open.

The other day I commented on how Ivan Lendl didn’t seem to be “coaching” during Murray’s practice session, rather being a bit passive. It seems that Lendl posing questions to Murray has worked better for their relationship than Lendl simply directing Murray as to what needs to be done on court. Murray, the always independent thinker, commented thoroughly and honestly on the way his relationship with his coach has developed.

“A lot of ex‑players view things like ‘This is how I would have done it in that situation,’ or ‘That’s how I would have played,’ or whatever. Whereas Ivan has been actually very, very good with that.

He asks a lot of questions, as well, to understand why you maybe chose to hit a certain shot or what your favorite shots in certain moments are. He’s been very, very good with that — which is not the case with all coaches.  He also understands that there are a lot of things that coaches can do that maybe annoy players. (Murray then cited Tony Roche feeding balls from the side of the court as one of these annoyances.)

He just asks the questions and I give him the answers.  We have had no problems so far (smiling).”

Yes, smiling.

***

Ana Ivanovic, The Wine Taster

Serbian Ana Ivanovic had a tougher time against her opponent Vania King, but finally prevailed after being broken in the second set, 6-4, 7-5. The American moved well and executed her backhand down-the-line especially well, making her a tough riddle for Ivanovic to solve. Ivanovic mentioned the heat as not being a factor and the minimal wind to be the difference between here and Indian Wells. The Serb also wasn’t shy talking about how she will celebrate reaching one of her goals this year.

“I’m just really happy with where my game is at the moment.  Also, I was real excited to be ranked 10 in the race, which was kind of my goal for the year.  So that kind of was exciting.  I was like, ‘Oh, we have to have a glass of wine tonight.’”

When asked about what kind of wine, she answered: “I like Australian shiraz.  Red wine.  I don’t drink white.  That’s actually the only thing I can drink.”

***

Novak Djokovic, The Ambassador

Although Novak Djokovic had no match today, he conducted a special media press conference answering questions on a variety of topics. He was quick to remind the media that the Sony Ericsson Open was the first ATP-level tournament he won in his career back in 2007. What a path this current world #1 has paved in the last five years!

Usually the entertainer, Djokovic took a more serious yet still cheerful tone to his interview as he talked about enjoying the island life at Key Biscayne, “walking” and “biking” around. He also commented on Serbia’s influence in tennis, but in a slightly different wording than the tennis world is used to:

“[The Serbian tennis players] are always seeking to improve and get better.  I believe that our past that we had in our country, which was very turbulent, I have to say, helped us to discover that great desire for success and to become one of the world’s best tennis players. This mentality — very, very strong mentality — is actually something that separates, I think, people from that region from any other.”

***

John Isner, The Wannabe Singleton

Newly-crowned world number 10 John Isner found himself in a jam when he soundly lost the first set to Nikolay Davydenko, 6-2. He was able to recover and win in three, and even finished off with four of his fastest serves of the night — 137, 135, 136 and 129 mph. In his post-match presser he elaborated what the new ranking meant, or rather didn’t mean, to him.

I didn’t look at the rankings and stare at it or anything like that.  It’s something I thought I could accomplish. Now that I have, I’m happy, but I’m definitely not satisfied.

But for sure, it has sunk in.  It sunk in, I guess, as soon as I got into the top 10. But, you know, I’m number 10.  As my coach says, I want to become a singleton.  I want to … have a single digit by my name instead of two.”

Does ‘9’ count, John?

Nadal Comments on Federer, Early Australian Open Exits – The Friday Five

by Maud Watson

Just Play

Unfortunately, one of the biggest stories in the first week of the Aussie Open has been Nadal’s comments about Federer and his response (or lack thereof, in Nadal’s opinion) to tour issues. There was no mincing of words either, as he launched his verbal attack in his native tongue. Whether you agree with Nadal’s stance on the issues of the schedule and prize money is irrelevant. He had no business taking it outside the locker room and publicly attacking Federer. It’s frowned upon in team sports when one team member decides to air dirty laundry in public, and this is no different. Then, shortly after these controversial comments, Nadal announced he hurt his knee while sitting/getting up from in a chair, and that the pain was so bad, he was unsure he was going to play. Granted, the press asked him why his knee was wrapped. But he knew it was a freak thing, and the tests all came back negative. Just say it was precautionary, end of story. Not sure who handles PR for Nadal, but someone needs to get a hold of him and tell him to just shut up and play. When he announced he wouldn’t play in February due to his shoulder, it caused more than a few to roll their eyes and suggest he was preparing his excuse should he fall short of the title in Melbourne. His unprofessionalism in attacking Federer in the press prompted even some Nadal fans to say they had lost respect for him. Then this latest bit about hurting his knee while in a chair has sadly caused many to laugh and makes cracks about him. He’s achieved too much already in his career to slowly morph into a joke, especially at his own hands.

Flame Out

It didn’t take long for the tournament to suffer a couple of high-profile losses. On the women’s side, Sam Stosur crashed out early to big-hitting Sorana Cirstea. Not sure why some were insistent on calling this a shocker. Sam had a poor lead up to Melbourne, and it’s been evident she’s nervous playing in front of the home crowd. She was ripe for the upset. The slightly bigger surprise was Fish exiting early. Again, this wasn’t completely unforeseen. We saw shades of the old Fish in Perth, and unfortunately for him, it was the old Fish who showed up to play Falla. That’s what made his loss so much more disappointing. Falla played a complete match, and rather than digging in his heels, Fish decided to whine and complain about it. If he’s going to start behaving that way again, he’s in for an agonizing and frustrating season.

Impressive Youth

Fans may have witnessed some key moments in the careers of young guns Christina McHale and Bernard Tomic. American teenager McHale showed more than a hint of promise last season, and she’s backing it up well here in 2012. She won her opening match in straight sets over 24 seed Safarova before digging deep to pull out a victory against local favorite Erakovic. She still has plenty of room for growth, but for sure she’s looking like the real deal. On the men’s side, Tomic gave fans plenty to cheer. Down two sets to none against Verdasco, it appeared that Tomic was going to falter under the weight of his nation’s expectations in the opening round of Day 1 on Rod Laver Arena. But he kept his head about him, Verdasco got nervous, and Tomic delivered in five. He followed that up with a nice come-from-behind four-set win against Sam Querrey. These are the kind of matches that build character, and Tomic is showing that he’s continuing to mature and develop. 2012 most likely will be a growing year for both, but expect great things from each of these upstarts in the near future.

Wily Veterans

Someone who wasn’t talked up too much coming into Australia was Maria Sharapova. But in both of her opening matches, Sharapova has been a pillar of consistency, striking the ball as cleanly as ever. She should now be considered a strong contender to reach the quarters, where Serena Williams may await. Serena clipped her badly last they met, but based on current form, Serena should be the more worried if that quarterfinal clash comes to pass. On the men’s side, a tip of the hat to Lleyton Hewitt. He’s a longer shot than Sharapova to go far here, and an Andy Roddick injury helped his cause in reaching the third round. But considering his many injuries and the type of surgeries he’s undergone, he’s moving extremely well. There’s definitely some fight and game left in the tank, so don’t be surprised to see him post some impressive runs this season.

Inconsistency

That’s the problem with ambiguous rules, and unfortunately, it leaves some players on the short end of the stick. Coming off a heart-breaking five-set loss to John Isner, Nalbandian criticized what he (rightfully) considered poor officiating at the end of the enthralling encounter. In looking at the replay, Nalbandian definitely took some time in looking for the mark after he had confirmed that Chair Umpire Nouni had overruled the linesperson and called an Isner serve in. As a result, when he made the challenge, Nouni ruled Nalbandian had taken too long and didn’t allow the challenge. In principle, I agree with Nouni. Challenges are supposed to be in a timelier manner. But in Nalbandian’s defense, when is that rule ever truly enforced? And in a moment like that, as ambiguous as the challenge time rule is, you gotta let Nalbandian have that challenge (especially since it was revealed Nouni’s overrule was incorrect).

Sharapova Survives Watson Scare as Federer Grumbles Through

With the sight of Petra Kvitova crashing out fresh in her memory Maria Sharapova took to the court against British teenager Heather Watson hoping that she could curb the early seed rot on day one.

The 2006 US Open winner looked all at sea throughout much of the first set as the 19-year-old from Guernsey refused to be intimidated by Sharapova’s heavy hitting and incessant shrieking.

Watson went in to this match ranked 100 places below Sharapova on the WTA Tour but you wouldn’t have been able to tell as the 2009 Junior US Open winner took the game to her opponent.

She went stroke for stroke from the baseline and chased every ball Sharapova tried to pull her out of position with. At her first opportunity she broke the tournament’s second favourite to love and the hush of surprise surrounding the court soon turned to cheers for the Briton.

Sharapova broke straight back, but the first of a series of terrible double faults handed Watson the initiative and she didn’t let it go again on her way to taking the first set.

She broke again at the start of the second, but Sharapova broke straight back again and the fighting spirit that has embodied the world No.4 over the past 18 months through her injury and form problems clicked back in to gear and she began to take control of the set.

Watson pulled back to parity, and eventually took Sharapova to 5-5, but the Russian’s class began to shine through and she eventually took the set 7-5.

From there on she began to assert her dominance and, other than a few wobbles, eventually saw out the match 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 to secure her place in round two.

“I had a lot of fun today,” Watson said of her Arthur Ashe Stadium debut afterwards. “It’s what I want to do. I want to be out there on the big courts playing the top players. It was a really great match, very competitive. We played some really great tennis.

“I had my chances in the second set. You have to create the opportunity but also execute, and I was probably a bit too defensive on those important points,” she admitted.

Roger Federer also secured safe passage to the second round with victory over Columbia’s Santiago Giraldo, but not without an early scare.

At 5-1 in the first he looked set to dominate but then he let a double-break lead slip before eventually seeing it out.

If he fails to win here it will be the first time he has gone through a calendar year without lifting a Grand Slam since 2002 and the pressure appeared to show a few signs of rearing its ugly head through his post match grumbles about the courts that followed his 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 win.

“It’s just unfortunate maybe that all the slams are too equal,” he said afterwards. “This should feel very different to the Australian Open and it doesn’t. I don’t think it’s really what tennis needs.”

However, another seed to bite the day one dust was Serbia’s Viktor Troicki as the fifteenth- seeded star crashed out 3-6, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5, 7-5 to Alejandro Falla.

There were easy wins for Kevin Anderson, Alexandr Dolgopolov, Radek Stepanek, Marcel Granollers and Gael Monfils in the men’s draw, while Agnieszka Radwanska had the painful task of defeating her sister Ursula in round one of the women’s tournament. She will be joined in round two by the likes of Lucie Safarova, Venus Williams, Flavia Pennetta  and Marion Bartoli.

We Really Need a New Davis Cup Logo

It’s too plain and generic (hmm… just like the guy wearing it?).

North and South: The American team (Mardy Fish, Sam Querrey, John Isner, and Ryan Harrison) hopes to overcome the clay courts in Bogota as they go up against the Colombians (led by Santiago Giraldo and Alejandro Falla) in the Davis Cup World Group play-offs. Get more details about the tie here.

(image via Getty Images)