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Out of the Blue: ATP Madrid Draw Preview

Nobody will challenge Federer's status as the GOAT of blue clay.

After the controversy over the blue clay undermined Madrid last year, this Masters 1000 tournament hopes for a week filled with more familiar forms of excitement.  All of the top ten men except Juan Martin Del Potro have returned to the Magic Box, creating plenty of storylines to explore.

First quarter:  Among the men who most resented last year’s surface, Novak Djokovic needs to prove that a more traditional court will inspire a stronger effort than his desultory quarterfinal loss last year.  Like Azarenka in the women’s draw, the world No. 1 must hit the red dirt running with a possible opener against Grigor Dimitrov.  Sharapova’s boyfriend would have won a set from Djokovic at Indian Wells had he not double-faulted a game away, and his three-set tussle with Nadal in Monte Carlo edged him closer to his first headline-seizing upset.  But Djokovic shone as brightly as he ever has on clay in winning that earlier Masters 1000 tournament for the first time.  That form would carry him past not only Dimitrov but Stanislas Wawrinka in the following round, a rematch of their Australian Open epic.  Wawrinka prefers clay among all surfaces and has displayed some his best tennis ever early this year, so one can expect a stirring encounter that may whet Djokovic’s appetite for battle moving forward.

More curious than compelling are the matches surrounding the seventh-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.  An opener against Alexander Dolgopolov could develop into an acrobatic thriller reminiscent of a Wimbledon five-setter between them, or it could fall very flat depending on the moods of both men.  Last year’s quarterfinalist Fernando Verdasco may miss the blue clay more than anyone, for he looks unlikely to reawaken the memories of his upset over Nadal on it.  This lesser Spanish lefty could face the winner of a contrast in heights and styles between Milos Raonic and Nikolay Davydenko should he reach the second round.  If Tsonga does survive the streaky but dangerous challengers around him, he will not want to relive his Roland Garros quarterfinal against Djokovic last year, when he squandered four match points.  A matchup once on even terms, their rivalry has tilted overwhelmingly in the Serb’s direction since 2011.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Second quarter:  Neither of the two men bookending this section has impressed on clay this year, and world No. 3 Andy Murray has enjoyed only one outstanding season on his least comfortable surface (2011).  The improvements that he made two years ago seemed to slip away last year and this year, when Wawrinka demolished him in Monte Carlo.  Murray seeks his 400th career victory in his first match here and may feel thankful to find few clay specialists in his vicinity.  Those who are, like Thomaz Bellucci and Horacio Zeballos, have struggled with both form and health over the last few months.  Gilles Simon always has struggled against Murray, and his recent mediocrity suggests little hope for change on the surface where he plays his worst tennis as well.

Nor do clay specialists proliferate in the area surrounding the sixth-seeded Tomas Berdych, a finalist on Tiriac’s blue clay last year.  Like Murray, Berdych slumped to an early exit at Monte Carlo, and his struggles continued a week later in Barcelona.  An extended slump looms if he cannot escape this recent malaise, although the prospect of facing Sam Querrey may lift his spirits.  Annihilating the American giant in Miami, Berdych also knocked off another giant in potential third-round opponent Kevin Anderson at Indian Wells.  Perhaps a greater test will arrive in clay specialist Juan Monaco, who set his horrific start to 2013 behind him by winning two matches in each of his last three tournaments.  This Argentine should fancy his chances of upsetting the weary, battered Janko Tipsarevic in the first round despite the latter’s semifinal appearance here last year.  Between Berdych and Murray, it’s hard to choose.  Give the Czech a slight edge based on his 2-0 lead in their clay head-to-head.

Semifinalist:  Berdych

Third quarter:  Quelling any fears of a tournament climaxing too early, the draw cast Rafael Nadal into the ideal section for him.  Even with his fifth seed, the reigning Roland Garros champion cannot face anyone more imposing than Ferrer until the semifinals.  Nadal struggled for most of a set in Barcelona against Benoit Paire, against whom he might open here, and more Barcelona déjà vu could arrive in a third-round clash with Nicolas Almagro.  This recently star-crossed Spaniard won a set from him here in a 2010 semifinal, just before Rafa claimed his only clay title in Madrid.  In their Barcelona final, moreover, Almagro raced to an early lead before his more accomplished compatriot wore him down.  Almost as plausible an opponent at that stage as Almagro is Fabio Fognini, a Monte Carlo semifinalist with smooth, effortless strokes.

The Spanish flavor of this quarter would extends below to the fourth-seeded David Ferrer, who stumbled at the outset of the clay season for the second straight year.  Felled in his Barcelona opener after missing Monte Carlo with an injury, Ferrer regained some of his confidence with a more convincing week in Portugal.  He may arrive a bit tired for his early Madrid matches, though, which could include a rematch with an equally tired Tommy Haas.  The 35-year-old German, who nearly upset Ferrer in Miami, plowed deep into the Munich draw for the second straight year and might well exit in his opener to clay specialist Andreas Seppi.  A thoroughly deserving wildcard, Tommy Robredo hopes to build on his Barcelona upset of Berdych but may need to reverse his Portugal loss to Seppi to do so.  If Ferrer does advance to meet Nadal, there are no prizes for predicting the outcome of that quarterfinal.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Fourth quarter:  One-handed backhands bookend this section, anchored by defending champion Roger Federer and that surprisingly persistent resident of the top ten, Richard Gasquet.  The GOAT could open against wannabe GOAT Bernard Tomic, whose exploits in Australia have inflated his reputation elsewhere.  This troubled prodigy still must prove that he can compete with credit throughout an entire season, recent improvements notwithstanding.  Otherwise, Federer and the fourteenth-seeded Kei Nishikori must salivate over the handful of slumping veterans around them.  While an experienced clay player like Jurgen Melzer might ambush the clay-averse Nishikori, the latter’s steadiness should propel him into a third-round meeting with the Swiss.

Likely to survive that obstacle with ease, Federer may find Gasquet a more compelling test.  The Frenchman has defeated the Swiss at the other two Masters 1000 tournaments on clay while leaving no impact on their rivalry elsewhere.  His route to their quarterfinal looks almost equally smooth, for the height of John Isner and Marin Cilic often works to their disadvantage on clay.  The altitude of Madrid can cause serves to fly through the court more effectively than at other clay tournaments, though, so those two giants and faded lefty Feliciano Lopez might win a larger quantity of free points.  Even though Federer labored with a back injury at Indian Wells, his most recent tournament, the long hiatus that he has enjoyed since then should have allowed his injury to heal and his focus to sharpen.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Final:  Djokovic vs. Nadal

Champion:  A coin-flip, really.  Djokovic won one of his Madrid meetings with Rafa and held match points in the other, plus he has the momentum in their rivalry, whereas Nadal actually has a losing record in clay finals here, so let’s go with Novak Djokovic.

What to Watch in the ATP This Week: Portugal, Munich Previews

Tennis balls have always been to David Ferrer's taste.

As consecutive Masters 1000 tournaments in Madrid and Rome loom on the horizon, the 250 events in Portugal and Munich provide a pleasant diversion.  Many of the men entered in each will hope to use their less star-studded surroundings to bounce back from ongoing slumps and build momentum for the rest of the Road to Roland Garros.

Portugal:

Top half:   After he played his worst match in years at Miami, Novak Djokovic bounced back with sparkling efforts in Davis Cup and Monte Carlo.  After a similar debacle in the opening round of Barcelona, David Ferrer hopes for a similar turnaround.  The disappointment of losing the Miami final after holding a match point may continue to weigh heavily on him, but he faces an even friendlier draw here than in Barcelona.  Imposing servers Gilles Muller and Igor Sijsling, the latter of whom earned a top-10 win in February, should threaten him less here than on hard courts.  While Benoit Paire nearly took a set from Rafa in Barcelona, his wild oscillations in form should allow Ferrer to grind past him in the quarterfinals.

Not far ahead of defending quarterfinal points in Rome, third seed Andreas Seppi must improve on his desultory start to the clay season.  Seppi exited early in both Monte Carlo and Bucharest, so he will look to build confidence in a section surrounded by fellow clay specialists.  Among them is Colombia’s Alejandro Falla, who has caused players more elite than Seppi to furrow their brows before.  One of three Spaniards could meet the Italian in the quarterfinals, including the last two Casablanca champions.  This year’s winner there, Tommy Robredo, extended his encouraging form to a Barcelona quarterfinal appearance after he upset Grigor Dimitrov and Tomas Berdych.  A heavy underdog there, Robredo must adjust to the position of a favorite as the eighth seed.

Semifinal:  Ferrer vs. Robredo

Bottom half:  Seppi may have felt relieved not to face compatriot Fabio Fognini in an early round, having become his first victim en route to a Monte Carlo semifinal.  That first such result at the Masters 1000 level, which included victories over Berdych and Richard Gasquet, does not necessarily signal a breakthrough for a habitual underachiever.  But Fognini still looks clearly the most convincing clay player in this section.  Paolo Lorenzi once took a set—and nearly a match—from Rafa in Rome, granted, and David Goffin reached the second week of Roland Garros last year.  All the same, neither man sustained what look increasingly like fluke results, while fifth seed Julien Benneteau prefers faster surfaces.  A fine opportunity beckons for Fognini to keep accumulating points and rising in the rankings.

Oddly absent from last week’s action in Barcelona and Bucharest, the second-seeded Stanislas Wawrinka did not miss another chance to collect victories on his best surface.  Wawrinka faces a compelling opener against either Carlos Berlocq, a Davis Cup hero for Argentina and a semifinalist in Vina Del Mar, or Barcelona quarterfinalist Albert Ramos, an underrated lefty.  The route might grow smoother for the Swiss No. 2 after that stage, though, for Nadal-killer Horacio Zeballos has tumbled precipitously since his notable triumph.  After suffering some acute disappointments this year, Wawrinka might bounce back here.

Semifinal:  Fognini vs. Wawrinka

Final:  Ferrer vs. Fognini

Munich:

Top half:  Trudging wearily from one tournament to the next and one week to the next, top-seeded Janko Tipsarevic has not played inspired tennis since his victory over Lleyton Hewitt in the first round of the Australian Open.  In his section stand two players who have fared well at Roland Garros before, former semifinalists Jurgen Melzer and Gael Monfils.  While Melzer has watched his talents dwindle with age, despite reaching a Miami quarterfinal this spring, Monfils has grown frustrated with a series of injuries that have dulled his athletic panache.  He retired from Bucharest last week, just as Tipsarevic’s possible opening-round opponent Thomaz Bellucci retired from Barcelona.  The Serb has battled injuries himself this spring, which means that this quarter could become a contest of who can stay physically fit the longest.

Impressed by his tight three-setter against Djokovic in Monte Carlo, I thought that Mikhail Youzhny could reach the Bucharest final.  That thought proved short-sighted when he exited the tournament early, reverting to his usual unimpressive clay form.  Most of the players in his section have struggled recently, from Viktor Troicki to the nearly vanished Marcos Baghdatis.  A surprise semifinalist in Barcelona, Philipp Kohlschreiber might advance deep into the draw at a home tournament.  The crowd helped propel Tommy Haas to notable upsets here last year, so his fellow German shot-maker can expect a similar boost.

Semifinal:  Melzer vs. Kohlschreiber

Bottom half:  The aforementioned Haas returns to Munich as the third seed, seeking to build upon his Miami semifinal performance after a well-deserved respite.  No such respite awaits him at the start of this draw, where he will meet either Ernests Gulbis or Jarkko Nieminen.  Although not at his best on clay, Gulbis has taken significant steps forward in recent months, and Nieminen reached the Monte Carlo quarterfinals with wins over Milos Raonic and Juan Martin Del Potro.  That possible battle of veterans between the 31-year-old Nieminen and the 35-year-old Haas would offer the latter a chance to avenge his five-set loss to the Finn at the Australian Open, where he squandered a match point.  Next might await an all-German quarterfinal against Florian Mayer, who has lost all of his matches with Haas.

Almost as intriguing is the fourth quarter, where the two seeds should find themselves sternly tested.  Former Roland Garros semifinalist Nikolay Davydenko might pose a second-round threat to Marin Cilic, since the Russian held a match point against Berdych at Barcelona last week and defeated Cilic at this tournament two years ago.  The other seed, Alexander Dolgopolov, has resembled Tipsarevic in his persistent underachievement this year.  His nemesis might emerge in the form of Dmitry Tursunov, a stunning victor over Ferrer in Barcelona.  Long ago abandoned as a relevant contender, the Russian began to reassert himself in February with strong results at Marseille and Dubai.

Semifinal:  Haas vs. Davydenko

Final:  Kohlschreiber vs. Haas

Check out the preview of WTA action this week published just above this article.

No Mirage Are These Four: ATP Indian Wells Draw Preview

Federer couldn't defend Rotterdam or Dubai, but can he cling to Indian Wells?

For the first time since Wimbledon 2012, all of the Big Four convene at the same tournament.  We take a detailed look at a balanced Indian Wells ATP draw.

First quarter:  Twice a champion at Indian Wells, Djokovic brings a perfect 2013 record to the desert following titles at the Australian Open and Dubai.  Having faced Federer at neither tournament, he could face the Federer facsimile Grigor Dimitrov in the third round.  While his one-handed backhand certainly spurs thoughts of the Swiss star, this young Bulgarian continues to alternate encouraging results (Brisbane final) with disappointing setbacks (first-round loss in Melbourne).  The towering serve of Isner ultimately undid Djokovic in an Indian Wells semifinal last year, and Querrey’s similar game toppled him at the Paris Indoors last fall.  Now the Serb can eye an opportunity for revenge in the fourth round, where he could meet the latter and will hope to stay mentally sturdier than he did against Isner here.  A higher-ranked potential opponent does loom in Juan Monaco, but the world #14 has not won a match this year outside the Davis Cup as injuries have sapped his confidence.  Among the intriguing first-round matches in this section is serving leviathan Karlovic against future American star and forehand howitzer Jack Sock.

Winless against the top eight from the start of 2012 until last month, Tsonga may have gained confidence from finally snapping that skid against Berdych in the Marseille final.  On the other hand, he also lost immediately in Rotterdam to an unheralded opponent and thus still seems less trustworthy than most of those ranked around him.  Rarely has he made an impact on Indian Wells, outside a near-upset over Nadal in 2008, but his draw looks accommodating through the first few rounds.  Returning American Mardy Fish, a former finalist here, surely cannot sustain the level of tennis necessary to discomfit Tsonga at this stage of his comeback if they meet in the third round.  In the opposite side of this eighth lies Milos Raonic, tasked with outslugging the more balanced but less intimidating Marin Cilic in the third round.  Lesser players of note in this area include French serve-volleyer Michael Llodra, who upset Tsonga in Dubai, and Vina del Mar champion Horacio Zeballos, who has not won a match since stunning Nadal there.  Although Tsonga obtained considerable success early in his career, his results against him have tapered so sharply of late that one might think Raonic the sterner test for the Serb.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Second quarter:  Assigned probably the smoothest route of any top-four man, Murray cannot expect much resistance at a tournament where he reached the final four years ago.  Nevertheless, early losses to Donald Young and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in his last two appearances illustrated the Scot’s struggle to recover from his annual late-round disappointment in Australia.  Murray will want to bounce back more smoothly this time on a slow hard court that suits his counterpunching so well.  Looming in the fourth round is Memphis champion Kei Nishikori, who faces a potentially edgy opening test in Tursunov.  Resuscitating his career in February, the Russian reached the Marseille semifinals as a qualifier and qualified for this draw as well.  The mercurial Dolgopolov, the second-most notable player whom Murray could face in the fourth round, has floundered throughout 2013 and probably lacks the steadiness to threaten either Murray or Nishikori.

Of all the seeds whom he could have faced in the third round, Del Potro surely would have wished to avoid Australian Open nemesis Jeremy Chardy.  The Frenchman receded into obscurity again after reaching the quarterfinals there, but he may hold the mental edge over Del Potro should each win his opener.  Not since his first appearance in the desert five years ago, though, has the Tower of Tandil tumbled to anyone other than Federer or Nadal, and he has taken care of business against lower-ranked players with impressive consistency over the last year.  One of the most compelling third rounds in the men’s draw could pit Almagro against Haas in a clash of exquisite one-handed backhands and volatile shot-making arsenals.  The eleventh-seeded Spaniard has produced an early 2013 campaign inspiring and deflating in equal measure, but his Australian Open quarterfinal (nearly a semifinal) reminded viewers what a threat he can pose away from clay with his underrated serve.  Accustomed to wearing down mentally dubious opponents, Murray should handle either Almagro or Haas with ease, and he compiled a flawless hard-court record against Del Potro even during the latter’s 2009 heights.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Third quarter:  The section without any member of the Big Four often offers the most notable storylines of the early rounds, although Ferrer succeeded in living up to his top-four seed at both of the majors where he has held it.  Never at his best in the desert, however, he may find his transition from clay to hard courts complicated by the two towering servers whom he could face at the outset in Kevin Anderson and Igor Sijsling.  The latter upset Tsonga and nearly Cilic last month, while the former started the year impressively by reaching the second week of the Australian Open before injury sidelined him.  Curiously, the fourth round might hold a less formidable test for Ferrer because his grinding game matches up more effectively to the two seeds projected there, Simon or Kohlschreiber.  The quirky Benoit Paire and the lanky lefty from Luxembourg, Gilles Muller, add some individuality to an otherwise monochrome section, as does the invariably entertaining but terminally fading Verdasco.

Berdych may loom above the opposite eighth, considering his two February finals in strong fields at Marseille and Dubai.  But an equally intriuging storyline may come from Jerzy Janowicz, still attempting to find his footing in the crucial post-breakthrough period when players encounter scrutiny for which they are not yet prepared.  The next several months could prove critical for Janowicz in consolidating his seeded status, and he will deserve credit if he emerges from a neighborhood filled with diverse talent.  Nalbandian could await in his opener, and the trio of Bellucci, Tomic, and Gasquet will vie for the right to face the Pole in the third round.  Twice a titlist in 2013 already, the last of that trio has retained his top-ten ranking for a long time without scording a signature victory.  Such a win could come in the quarterfinals if he can solve Berdych, unlikely to expend much energy before that stage against the likes of Troicki and Florian Mayer.  The heavier serve of the Czech should propel him through on a hard court, though, as it should against a fourth seed who has not played as crisply this year as his results suggest.

Semifinalist:  Berdych

Fourth quarter:  Defending champion Federer can anticipate his first quarterfinal meeting with archrival Nadal in the history of their rivalry, but a few obstacles await before then.  Like Del Potro, the second seed probably drew the least auspicious third-round opponent imaginable in Benneteau, who nearly upset him at Wimbledon last year and succeeded in finishing the job at Rotterdam last month.  Federer obtained avenge for a February 2012 setback against Isner at Indian Wells a month later, so he can seek similar revenge this year.  A rematch of last year’s final beckons against Isner himself in the fourth round, although little about the American’s recent form can infuse his fans with confidence that he even can reach that stage.  Much more consistent this year is Stanislas Wawrinka, the Swiss #2 who played the most thrilling match of the Australian Open against Djokovic and backed it up with a February final.  This section also features the most curious match on Thursday, an encounter between the battered Hewitt and the one-match wonder Lukas Rosol that should offer a clash of playing styles and personalities.  Despite falling short of the final in his first three tournaments, Federer looks fully capable of sealing his side of the rendezvous with Nadal.

Not in much greater doubt is Rafa’s side of that appointment, for he could face no opponent more intimidating that Tipsarevic through the first four rounds.  Young American Ryan Harrison looks set to become Nadal’s first hard-court opponent of 2013 (exhibitions aside), and his woeful results of the last several months intersect with a non-competitive effort against Djokovic in Melbourne to suggest a lack of confidence fatal here.  While Youzhny has enjoyed several successes and near-successes against the Spaniard before, the Russian has left his prime several years behind him and lacks the power to outhit him for a full match.  Hampered by injuries recently, the ninth-seeded Tipsarevic never has tested Nadal in their previous meetings and should count himself lucky to reach that projected meeting.  The Serb’s current four-match losing streak could reach five in an opener against lefty serve-volleyer Feliciano Lopez or Delray Beach champion Gulbis, who carries a ten-match winning streak of his own.  Either the winner of that first-round meeting or the unpredictable Baghdatis seems a safer bet than Tipsarevic to meet Nadal one match before Federer.  Afterwards, the Swiss should repeat his victory in their semifinal last year.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Check out the companion piece that we wrote yesterday to preview the women’s draw if you enjoyed this article.

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

Wizards of Oz (II): Murray, Tomic, Tsonga, Wozniacki, Kvitova, and More from Day 2

Can the Scot fasten his jaws around a Dutchman who troubled him before?

Our daily preview series continues with six matches from each Tour.

ATP:

Haase vs. Murray (Rod Laver Arena):  When they met at the 2011 US Open, the underdog nearly stunned the Scot by building a two-set lead.  Haase then won just six games over the last three sets as he continued a bizarre career trend of disappearing in matches that he started with a lead.  This match marks Murray’s first as a major champion, and one wonders whether the tension that he so often has displayed on these stages will abate in proportion to the pressure.  Although he won Brisbane, he looked imperfect in doing so and alluded to some emotional turmoil hovering around him.

Tomic vs. Mayer (RLA):  Shortly after he reached the Brisbane final, Grigor Dimitrov experience a rude awakening when he became the first man to crash out of the Australian Open.  Sydney champion Tomic must guard against the concern of having peaked too soon after winning his first career title, amidst  chatter about his upcoming clash with Federer.  But Leonardo Mayer should lack the consistency to pose any sustained challenge, while Tomic has excelled on home soil and reached the second week here last year with victories over much superior opponents.

Tsonga vs. Llodra (Hisense):  A battle of two flamboyant Frenchmen rarely fails to entertain, no matter the scoreline.  Formerly a finalist and semifinalist here, Tsonga embarks on his first season with coach Roger Rasheed, attempting to rebound from a paradoxical 2012 season in which he stayed in the top eight without conquering anyone in it.  Across the net stands a compatriot who shares his fondness for hurtling towards the net and finishing points with sharply slashed volleys.  Expect plenty of explosive, staccato tennis from a rollicking match filled with ebbs and flows.

Matosevic vs. Cilic (Margaret Court Arena):  Like Haase and Murray, their meeting follows in the wake of some notable US Open history.  Extending the Croat to a fifth set there last year, Matosevic built upon the best year of his career that saw him reach the top 50 and become the top Aussie man until Tomic surpassed him in Sydney (both on the court and in the rankings).  Cilic has stabilized at a mezzanine level of the ATP since his initial breakthrough in 2008-09, when he looked likely to emulate Del Potro’s accomplishments.  Of a similar stature and playing style to the former US Open champion, he appears to lack the competitive will necessary to take the next step forward.

Monfils vs. Dolgopolov (MCA):  The first week of a major offers an ideal opportunity to check out unusual shot-makers who usually fall before the tournament’s marquee rounds.  Recognizing this potential, the Melbourne schedulers have featured on a show court this fascinating pas de deux between two men who can produce—or at least attempt—any shot in the book.  Their match should remind viewers of the imaginative quality to tennis, often lost in this era of fitness and raw power.  Both men focus more on the journey than the destination, and style than substance:  not a recipe for major titles but certainly a recipe for entertainment.

Haas vs. Nieminen (Court 3):  Most had abandoned hope in the German when he started last year outside the top 200.  Bursting back into relevance over the spring and summer, the 34-year-old Haas should inspire other men near the twilight of their careers.  Among them is Nieminen, a veteran Finnish lefty without much polish but perhaps with enough wrinkles in his game to frustrate the easily ruffled Haas.

WTA:

Wozniacki vs. Lisicki (Hisense):  The world #1 at this tournament last year, Wozniacki has plummeted to the edge of the top 10 while losing four of her last six matches at majors.  Despite a hopeful fall, the Danish counterpuncher started this year in deflating fashion with early losses at Brisbane and Sydney, still mired in doubt and anxiety.  Lisicki has won two of their three previous meetings behind a booming serve that allowed her to seize and retain control of the points before Wozniacki could settle into neutral mode.  Outside the grass season, she struggled even more than her opponent did last year, and a surface that seems very slow may dilute her greatest weapon.  In theory, though, her huge game could unnerve Wozniacki again by denying her the rhythm that she prefers.

Suarez Navarro vs. Errani (MCA):  A pair of clay specialists meet on a slow, high-bouncing hard court that should not feel too foreign to them.  Suarez Navarro has become a credible dark horse in Melbourne, defeating Venus in the second round a few years ago and extending the then-formidable Kvitova to a third set in the same round last year.  Meanwhile, Errani reached the quarterfinals at last year’s Australian Open, the first significant result that signaled her breakthrough and thus the first key bundle of points that she must defend.

Schiavone vs. Kvitova (MCA):  This match could get gruesome quickly if both of them play as they did earlier in January.  At the Hopman Cup, the aging Schiavone struggled to find the service box or her groundstroke timing, while Kvitova struggled to find any part of the court in Brisbane and Sydney.  Those efforts prolonged a span in which the former Wimbledon champion has lost seven of her last ten matches, suggesting that she will bring little of the confidence necessary to execute her high-risk game.  Schiavone nearly ended Kvitova’s title defense at the All England Club last year, suggesting that this match may contain as much upset potential as Wozniacki-Lisicki.

Oudin vs. Robson (Court 3):  Phenoms past and present collide in this meeting of careers headed in opposite directions.  While Oudin did resurface last summer with her first career title, she has extracted little from her counterpunching game since the US Open quarterfinal that vaulted her to fame perhaps too early.  A highly awaited presence as soon as she won junior Wimbledon, Robson progressed significantly last season in both power and consistency, ultimately reaching the second week of the US Open.  Will both of their trends continue, or will Oudin blunt the British lefty’s attack?

Petrova vs. Date-Krumm (Court 6):  Surely not much longer on display, the age-defying Date-Krumm merits a trip to the outer courts for her sharply angled groundstrokes and the joy with which she competes.  As if one needed any further reason to watch this match, Petrova produces ample entertainment with her percussive serves and crisp volleys, not to mention her bursts of classically Russian angst.

Putintseva vs. McHale (Court 7):  As she recovers from the mono that sidelined her last year, the young American might have preferred a less intense opponent than the yowling, perpetually emoting bundle of energy that is Putintseva.  The junior exudes with talent as well as aggression, so the quiet McHale cannot take her opponent in this stark clash of personalities too lightly.

Quarters for Your Thoughts: 2013 Australian Open Men’s Draw Preview

Will we see this man with this trophy again in two weeks?

Looking for a jumbo preview of the Australian Open men’s draw that breaks down each section of the brackets?  Look no further.  We take one quarter at a time in tracing the route of each leading contender, locating the most intriguing matches, projecting the semifinalists, and identifying one notable player to watch in each section.

First quarter:  Seeking the first men’s three-peat Down Under of the Open era, Djokovic will want to conserve his energy during the first week and probably will.  Although rising American star Ryan Harrison could threaten briefly in the second round, he lacks the experience to test the Serb in a best-of-five format, while potential third-round opponent Stepanek lacks the consistency to do so as his career wanes.  Among the other figures of note in this vicinity are two resurgent Americans in Querrey and Baker, destined to meet in the second round.  The winner may fancy his chances against Wawrinka, more comfortable on clay, and Querrey in particular could bring confidence from his upset of Djokovic in Paris to another clash with the Serb when the second week starts.

The quarter’s lower section features several men who share Wawrinka’s affinity for clay, such as Monaco and Verdasco.  While the Spaniard’s career has sagged over the past year or two, the Argentine enjoyed his best season to date in 2012 as he reached the top ten for the first time.  His reward lies in a  clear route to the second week and an appointment with the enigmatic Berdych.  Always susceptible to ebbs and flows, the world #6 ended last season optimistically with a semifinal at the US Open, where he upset Federer.  But then Berdych started this season miserably by falling in Chennai to an opponent outside the top 50.  He has won just one of his twelve career meetings with Djokovic, although the only victory came in one of their most important matches:  a Wimbledon semifinal.  While Berdych’s route to the quarterfinals looks comfortable, then, only a superb serving performance can shield him from the Serb’s more balanced array of weapons when he arrives there.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Player to watch:  Querrey

Second quarter:  The only section without a clear favorite proliferates with question marks but also with talent and intriguing narratives.  In the draw’s most notable first-round match, Hewitt will open his 17th Australian Open campaign against the eighth-seeded Tipsarevic.  A mismatch on paper, this encounter could develop into one of the late-night thrillers that have become a Melbourne tradition, and the home crowd might lift their Aussie to an improbable victory over an opponent less untouchable than those ranked above him.  Other storylines include the apparent emergence of Grigor Dimitrov, previously familiar only for his facsimile of Federer’s playing style but now a Brisbane finalist.  While the Bulgarian never has reached the third round of a major, his recent accomplishments and his desire to impress romantic interest Maria Sharapova might inspire him.  He faces a challenging initial test against Benneteau, who fell just short of his second straight Sydney final.

Awarded his first seed in the main draw of a major, Jerzy Janowicz looks to continue his momentum from last fall when he reached the final at the Paris Masters 1000 tournament.  Unlike Dimitrov, his route through the first round or two looks clear, and projected third-round opponent Almagro does not pose an insurmountable obstacle.  Unless Janowicz improves upon his January efforts so far, however, Almagro can look ahead to the second week and perhaps even a quarterfinal against compatriot Ferrer.  The highest seed in this section, the latter Spaniard will reach the top four after the tournament no matter his result.  His fitness should carry him past erratic opponents like Baghdatis or Youzhny, although the titanic serve of Karlovic has troubled him before and merits watching in their second-round match.  Having recorded multiple victories over Ferrer on marquee stages, Nishikori poses his most convincing pre-quarterfinal threat.  But he has struggled with injury recently and may prove no better able to grind past the Spaniard in the heat than Almagro, who never has defeated him.  If Tipsarevic reaches the quarterfinals, on the other hand, he will aim to reverse the outcome of their US Open quarterfinal last year, which he lost to Ferrer in a fifth-set tiebreak.

Semifinalist:  Ferrer

Player to watch:  Dimitrov

Third quarter:  Never has a man won his second major immediately after winning his first.  Never, however, in the Open era had a British man won any major at all, so this bit of history should not intimidate the reigning US Open champion.  Murray will start his campaign by reprising an odd encounter with Robin Haase at the 2011 US Open, which he rallied to win in five sets after losing the first two.  The lanky Dutchman behind him, he will face nobody over the next few rounds with the firepower to discomfit him over this extended format.  Throughout his section lie counterpunchers like Simon or Robredo or tactically limited players like Mayer and Stakhovsky.  The two exceptions who could threaten Murray will meet in the first round.  Reviving his career with solid results in Doha and Auckland, Monfils will pit his momentum against fellow showman Dolgopolov in a match likely to showcase plenty of electrifying shot-making.

Perhaps of more interest is the route traced by Del Potro, the most likely title contender outside the top three seeds.  In the second round, the Tower of Tandil could meet surprising Slovakian Aljaz Bedene, who reached the Chennai semifinals to start the year and nearly upset Tipsarevic there.  Owning more than enough weapons to dispatch the passive baseliner Granollers afterwards, Del Potro would open the second week against Marin Cilic.  The Croat developed around the same time as the Argentine and honed a similar playing style to complement his similar physique.  But Cilic has disappointed those who anointed him a future major champion and top-10 fixture, appearing to content himself with a lesser level of accomplishment.  He must brace himself for an opening battle against home hope Marinko Matosevic, who took him to five sets in New York last fall.  If Del Potro can reverse his 2009 loss to Cilic in that projected fourth-round encounter, he also must halt his winless hard-court record against Murray.  The task does not loom as large as it might appear, for he has won sets in all four of those matches.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Player to watch:  Del Potro

Fourth quarter:  What a pity that leading Aussie hope Bernard Tomic can play only two rounds before descending into the maw of the GOAT, as he did in the fourth round here last year.  All the same, Tomic will have the opportunity to knock off a seeded opponent in Martin Klizan while praying for a miracle from Federer’s second-round opponent, Nikolay Davydenko.  (Those who saw their match at the 2010 Australian Open will remember how impressive the Russian looked against the Swiss—for a set and a half, after which he utterly collapsed.)  Perhaps more formidable than the momentum of Tomic is the mighty serve of Milos Raonic, which nearly toppled Federer three times last year.  In each of their matches, Federer managed to win the crucial handful of points late in final sets, but can he continue to escape so narrowly?  The younger man cannot look too far ahead too soon, however, for a second-round match against Lukas Rosol lurks, and everyone knows what Rosol has done in the second round of majors.

Winless against top-eight opponents in 2012, former finalist Tsonga hopes to turn over a new leaf in 2013.  To snap that streak, though, he must survive the early stages of the tournament against dangerous lurkers like Llodra and Bellucci.  Tsonga has struggled at times against compatriots and has a losing career record against Gasquet, his projected fourth-round opponent.  Fresh from his title in Doha, the world #10 never has plowed deep into the Australian draw and may not benefit this time from the weak first-week slates that he received at majors last year.  Eyeing a possible upset is Haas, another artist of the one-handed backhand who has collaborated with Gasquet on memorable matches before.  But the question remains whether any of these men currently can compete with Federer across a best-of-five match, and the answer seems clear.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Player to watch:  Tomic

Final:  Djokovic vs. Murray

Champion:  Novak Djokovic

Come back tomorrow for the women’s preview, designed with the same level of detail!

Battle of the Eastern Europeans: Tipsarevic Trounces Dolgopolov as Dimitrov Ousts Berdych

Grigor Dimitrov celebrates win over Tomas Berdych (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)


The first two matches of the day on Stadium Court and Grandstand at the Sony Ericsson Open progressed in a similar fashion and showcased four of the ATP Tour’s most eccentric on-court thinkers who are known to overanalyze strategy often inhibiting their own play. Today, however, Janko Tipsarevic and Grigor Dimitrov were able to stay composed and bested their respective opponents, Alexander Dolgopolov and Tomas Berych.

Both matches went the distance  as Serb Janko Tipsarevic defeated Ukranian Alexander Dolgopolov on Grandstand while Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov ousted Czech player Tomas Berdych on Stadium Court. The two matches were spinning images of each other as initially Tipsarevic and Dimitrov took their respective first sets, followed by Dolgopolov and Berdych taking their respective second sets. In the end, the Serb and the Bulgarian reclaimed their momentum from their respective first set wins.

On Grandstand court, Tipsarevic took a commanding lead in the first set as he broke Dologopolov twice in the first set and never looked back. He held triple set point serving at 5-4, and hit an easy approach shot winner that Dolgopolov basically watched go past him without attempting any kind of retrieval.

Dolgopolov’s errors continued as he saw himself down 15-40 serving in the fifth game, but managed to come back and win the game with an inside-out forehand planted deeply in the back ad corner.

On serve at 3-3, Dolgopolov easily took the next game with four straight points and ended with a service winner. The two picked up their pace of play as both went for more winners, forcing a tiebreak until Dolgopolov held set point on Tipsarevic’s serve, 5-6, 30-40. After a successful Dolgopolov challenge, the replay of the point saw Dolgopolov hit an unreachable winner to give him the second set at 7-5.

The deciding set saw Tipsarevic re-establish his composure quickly as he broke Dolgopolov twice early on, to go up 3-0. The Ukranian once again began to be visibly frustrated as he began hitting his shoes with his racquet and talking to himself between points. Dolgopolov was granted a generous break point opportunity down 1-4 on Tipsarevic’s serve that he just refused to convert, failing to hit into a basically open court as Tipsarevic was caught off-balance mid-point. Tipsarevic finally edged out his opponent on his first matchpoint and let out a roar as he won 6-2 in the third.

In his post-match interview, Tipsarevic commented on why a lead on Dolgopolov early in a match helps:

“It’s much easier to play against him if you have a break lead, especially against him, because he’s really tricky and you don’t know what to expect. A few of the times he looks like he’s not even trying to win; he’s like pissed at himself for being on the court, and then out of nowhere, it’s love-30 or love-4o on your serve. So I’m happy that in the first and in the third set, I managed the early breaks better. I had semi-chances in the second set which I did not use, and this resulted on him breaking me on forehand-backhand slices.”

Meanwhile on stadium court, a familiar face to the tennis world watched Grigor Dimitrov take on Tomas Berdych. Serena Williams tried her hand at being an inconspicuous onlooker, but with the stands relatively empty, the cameras picked up on her presence right away.  The famous onlooker is perhaps exactly what Dimitrov needed in his camp to pull out a forceful first set that finished with an ace to go up 6-3.

But of course, every confidence boost in the young Bulgarians blood causes him to start thinking too much about his shot selection and he was broken straightway in the second game of the second set. The more ‘headcasey’ of the two players would tend to be Berdych, but surprisingly, he kept calm and focused on his own game without being affected by what was across the net.

Dimitrov struggled to hold serve in the fourth game, going to deuce several times, before finally getting on the scoreboard at 1-3. The two continued to hold serve with Berdych moving well and staying composed. Dimitrov meanwhile continued to struggle with his own psyche and shot choice as he time and again would hit a lob instead of a passing shot, or hesitate to go for a clear put away winner. The end of the set saw Dimitrov double fault, giving Berdych the second set, 6-2.

The final set saw a bit of everything as both players fought for every point and took risks at the baseline. There was self-deprecation, yelling and even some slipping and sliding by Dimitrov. The men stayed on each other’s serves not allowing the slightest chance to break, until Dimitrov finally broke in the ninth game of the set and held serve to win, 6-3, 2-6, 6-4.

In his post-match press conference Dimitrov admits that “I didn’t expect to play that well … I had a couple of things that I knew if they were not going in the right way I would have lost the match. Got a bit lucky at 4‑All in the third, and, yeah, I was happy to close the match.”

This is Dimitrov’s first top 10 win in 10 career outings and certainly only the beginning of his illustrious young career. Maybe he should bring Serena with him when he travels all the time; seems to be his good luck charm.

In a battle of the Eastern Europeans, Tipsarevic and Dimitrov will next face off in fourth round play on Tuesday at the Sony Ericsson Open.

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