benoit paire

The ATP Quarterly Review

By James A. Crabtree

 

So it’s April and that means two things. The first quarter of the year is over and the European clay court season is about to begin.

So what have we learned?

Well, rather a lot.

December 2012

The beginning of the tennis year started in December 2012. With this the whole of Australia became hysterical after Bernard Tomic went nuts at the Hopman Cup and beat both Tommy Haas and Novak Djokovic. After that young Bernie continued the streak and won his first title in Sydney prompting some to feel, including probably Bernie himself, that the second coming of Rod Laver was upon us. He did of course become unstuck at The Australian Open, after much hoopla, in a one sided loss to a certain Mr Federer. Bernie hasn’t done much since and it’s doubtful the European clay will help his cause.

During the same period Janko Tipsarevic quietly won in Chennai, Gasquet in Doha and Andy Murray in Brisbane. More fuss was made of the emergence of Baby Fed Grigor Dimitrov who made the Brisbane final, and the fact Tomas Berdych lost in the quarters and was wearing unbranded clothing – the poor darling. He has since signed with Swedish fashion brand H&M.

January 2013

A week later and David Ferrer was up to his usual tricks – cleaning up at ATP 250 events, this time in Auckland. As a matter of fact Ferrer should be banned from 250 events or at least given some sort of handicap like favoured racehorses. He has won 20 career tournaments 12 of which have been ATP 250 events. Not bad for a labourer from Spain.

Two weeks into 2013 and it was already the Australian Open, which went very boringly to Novak’s script. Highlights included Federer in pink shoes and Stan Wawrinka’s battle where he managed to scare Novak in his silver shoes, in the fourth round.

Davis Cup followed the first slam of the year with the surprise elimination of understrength Spain at the hands of Canada and a certain Mr Milos Raonic.

February 2013

By February Frenchman Richard Gasquet was proving he is still a force, beating the rising Benoit Paire who has severe difficulty against his countrymen.

Down in Zagreb Marin Cilic won his first tournament since Umag in July last year. We bet he wishes the entire tour was played in Croatia as he would surely be the world’s number one player, having won 5 of his 9 tournaments on home soil.

The week, however, belonged to Rafael Nadal who made his comeback to the tour in Chile after what felt like a ten year absence. Nadal lost to Argentinian Horacio Zeballos in the final who was on fire for the week, prompting many to say that Nadal was indeed finished and would never return to his best.

Over in Rotterdam Juan Martin del Potro beat Julian Benneteau, who had taken care of childhood rival Roger Federer earlier in the tournament. Sadly for Benneteau he lost his eighth successive ATP final, a streak he would surely like to break.

In Brazil Rafael Nadal seemed unfazed by his previous loss and romped to victory over taking out the ever moody David Nalbandian in the final. Nadal as usual bit the trophy he won and expressed how the win was dreamlike.

San Jose played out at the same time and for the last time with Milos taking out old and temperamental Renaissance man Tommy Haas, who may have found the secret of eternal youth.

Memphis indoors provided for Kei Nishikori his third title and hopefully some suede shoes. The Japanese star didn’t drop a set.

‘Allez’ in Marseille for Jo-Wilfred Tsonga where he ousted Tomas Berdych winning his tenth career title and fifth on home soil. Interestingly a player of Berdych’s stature has a pretty mediocre collection of titles with only eight since 2004.

In Buenos Aires David Ferrer picked up his second title of the year and probably breathed a sigh of relief that a certain Mr Nadal didn’t make the trip. A dream for him no doubt.

A week later and Berdych, after beating Federer in the semi’s, lost in another final this time in Dubai. This title went to Novak Djokovic, who was playing his first tournament since winning in Australia. Two out of two for the super Serb.

At Delray Beach the enigmatic Latvian Ernie Gulbis showed another glimpse of talent downing Edouard Roger-Vasselan in the final to win his second title there.

Meanwhile in Acapulco Nadal was playing havoc with Ferrer’s schedule and duly destroyed his fellow countryman in the final 6-0 6-2. Ouch.

March 2013

The onset of March brought two big tournaments and the end of the big hard court tournaments until after Wimbledon.

First was Indian Wells where Nadal was back to dreaming. Here he made it official he was back and could beat anyone after adding to Federer’s horrible 2013 with a quarterfinal win. He then outlasted Del Potro in the final. More than dream dream.

Over in Miami Andy Murray won his second tournament of the year and seemed more genuinely pleased than when he won the U.S. Open (insert Sean Connery accent – “where’s my watch”). Although it was a great win, the field was depleted with injuries and no-shows. One notable was Tommy Haas making his first 1000 event semi final since 1952 or something. The tournament should also be remembered for the first round squabble between Llodra and Paire that makes “Days of our Lives” look harmonious. And no, they won’t be on each other’s Christmas card list.

The Sum Up

The first three months has seen the emergence of new talent in Tomic, Dimitrov and Paire, and the revival of old in Haas and Gasquet. Most notably for the first time since 2004 Federer and Nadal are both ranked outside the top 3.

Only time will tell what the next quarter will bring.

Sony Open “Leftovers” with Murray, Petkovic, Tsonga, Paire and more

April 1, 2013 — The Sony Open may be over, but Tennis Grandstand’s stream of photos from the event is not. Below are all the photos we missed the first time around that are definitely worth a look.

We feature Andy Murray, Andrea Petkovic, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Ajla Tomljanovic, Caroline Wozniacki, Marion Bartoli, Rhyne Williams, Benoit Paire, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Feliciano Lopez and more.

[nggallery id=92]

Sony Open In Photos: Robson, Tursunov win, Lisicki, Putintseva, Sock out

MIAMI, FL (March 21, 2013) — Wednesday at the Sony Open was filled with great three-set wins, tumultuous matches and even some rain. Here is your full breakdown of results and a “best shots of the day” gallery by Tennis Grandstand photographer Christopher Levy at bottom.

Notable winners on Wednesday:

WTA
Donna Vekic (CRO) d Yulia Putintseva (KAZ) 76(4) 60
Magdalena Rybarikova (SVK) d Mallory Burdette (USA) 62 64
Laura Robson (GBR) d Camila Giorgi (ITA) 62 46 63
Eugenie Bouchard (CAN) d Shahar Peer (ISR) 46 61 64
Simona Halep (ROU) d Sabine Lisicki (GER) 62 36 75
Daniela Hantuchova (SVK) d Tsvetana Pironkova (BUL) 62 64
Madison Keys (USA) d Allie Kiick (USA) 60 60

ATP
[WC] L Hewitt (AUS) d J Sousa (POR) 61 76(3)
[Q] D Tursunov (RUS) d [Q] T Smyczek (USA) 76(4) 75
M Llodra (FRA) d B Paire (FRA) 76(7) 62
[WC] J Blake (USA) d R Harrison (USA) 62 62
J Melzer (AUT) d R Berankis (LTU) 36 63 76(1)
L Rosol (CZE) d G Muller (LUX) 75 64
S Devvarman (IND) d E Donskoy (RUS) 46 76(5) 62

No Mirage Are These Four: ATP Indian Wells Draw Preview

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

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

What to Watch in the ATP This Week: Previews of Marseille, Memphis, and Buenos Aires

 

While none of the ATP tournaments this week enjoys a field of the pedigree that the WTA has produced in Dubai, the 250 tournament in Marseille features every member of the top ten’s lower half.  We start with that event in our weekly preview, following it with the technically more significant tournament in Memphis and the latest edition of the South American clay swing.

Marseille:  Recovered from his Davis Cup marathon earlier this month, world #6 Berdych claims the top seed in this overstuffed draw.  At his best on these fast surfaces, he still cannot overlook the second-round challenge of Gulbis, who defeated him at Wimbledon last year.  An intriguing collection of unpredictable threats rounds out the quarter from Rotterdam finalist Benneteau, who upset Federer there, to the notorious Rosol and the rising Janowicz.  After breaking through on an indoor hard court in Paris last year, the latter has struggled to sustain his momentum in 2013.  Like Berdych, Janowicz must start the tournament in crisp form to survive his early challenges.

Somewhat less dangerous is the second quarter, where Tipsarevic would reach the quarterfinals after facing only a qualifier.  The fourth-seeded Serb will have welcomed this good fortune, considering an inconsistent start to the season that included a retirement at the Australian Open and an opening-round loss as the second seed in an indoor 250 this month.  Starting 2013 by winning fifteen of his first sixteen matches, by contrast, Gasquet became the first man to claim two titles this year in a surprising development that vindicated his top-ten status.  A second-round meeting with compatriot Monfils would intrigue, although the latter continues to rebuild his rhythm in a return from a long absence.

Two of the most notable figures in the third quarter lost their Rotterdam openers last week, one surprisingly and one less so.  While few expected Tsonga to stumble against Sijsling, familiar sighs issued from Australia when Tomic reverted to his wayward self.  The Aussie eyes a more accommodating draw this time, though, for higher-ranked opponnents Klizan and Paire will not overwhelm him.  A potential opener against Davydenko might cause concern among Tsonga’s fans on an indoor hard court, but the Russian has slumped significantly since reaching the Doha final to start the season.  In a quarterfinal, Tsonga and Tomic could engage in a battle of seismic serving that would test the focus of both.

Fresh from a strong effort in Rotterdam arrives the second-seeded Del Potro to a more challenging draw.  Rebounding from his Australian Open debacle, he held serve relentlessly on indoor hard courts last week and may need to do so again if he opens against home hope Michael Llodra.  A former semifinalist at the Paris Indoors, Llodra upset Tipsarevic in Montpellier two weeks ago and always relishes playing on this surface.  Less formidable is the Frenchman whom Del Potro could meet in the quarterfinals, for Simon lacks the shot-making ability to thrust the Argentine out of his comfort zone.

Final:  Berdych vs. Del Potro

Memphis:  The most important tournament of the week only on paper, this sequel to San Jose often features many of the same players.  This year departs somewhat from that trend, for top-seeded Cilic and fifth-seeded Nishikori arrive in North America for the first time this year.  Between them stand Zagreb finalist and Memphis defending champion Melzer, who could repeat his final there against Cilic, and Tsonga’s Rotterdam nemesis, Igor Sijsling.  Hampered by injury during the Australian Open, Nishikori aims to regain his groove before tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami where he could shine.  By contrast, Cilic hopes to build upon claiming his home tournament in Zagreb for the third time.  When they met at last year’s US Open, the latter prevailed in four sets.

Impressive in Davis Cup but less so in San Jose, Querrey looks to produce a more compelling serving performance as the fourth seed in a section without any giants of his size.  Compatriot Steve Johnson, who upset Karlovic last week, may fancy his chances against the mercurial Dolgopolov in the second round.  Withdrawing from San Jose with injury, the seventh seed may find the courts too fast for an entertaining style that requires time to improvise.  If Dolgopolov should meet Querrey, though, he could disrupt the rhythm on which the American relies.

Somewhat like Querrey, Isner achieved modest success in San Jose before subsiding meekly in the semifinals.  Since he missed much of the previous weeks with a knee injury, the matches accumulated there should serve him well in a tournament where he has finished runner-up to Querrey before.  The tenacious returning of Hewitt may test Isner’s fortitude, although the former has not left an impact on his recent tournaments.  Also in this section is the faltering Ryan Harrison, the victim of some challenging draws but also unable to show much evidence of improvement despite his visible will to win.  The home crowd might free Harrison from the passivity that has cost him lately.

The undisputed master of San Jose, Raonic moves from the top of the draw there to the bottom of the draw here.  His massive serve-forehand combinations will meet a similar style, albeit more raw, in American wildcard Jack Sock when the tournament begins.  Raonic can anticipate a rematch of the San Jose final against Haas in the Memphis quarterfinals, while the lefty serve of Feliciano Lopez should pose an intriguing upset threat.  Since Melzer rode similar weapons to last year’s title here, this fellow veteran could surprise the draw as well.

Final:  Querrey vs. Raonic

Buenos Aires:  After Nadal had dominated the South American headlines during the previous two weeks, another Spaniard attempts to follow in his footsteps.  Now the top-ranked man from his country, world #4 Ferrer will face the same task that Rafa did in Sao Paulo when he meets either Berlocq or Nalbandian in the second round.  Troubled by Nalbandian before, he will feel more comfortable against the unreliable Fognini in a more traditional battle of clay specialists a round later.  In the second quarter continue two surprise stories of the past two weeks, Horacio Zeballos and Martin Alund.  While the former won his first career title by toppling Nadal in Vina del Mar, the latter won a set from the Spaniard in a semifinal at Sao Paulo—the first tournament where he had won an ATP match.  The highest seed in this quarter, Bellucci, imploded on home soil last week but did defeat Ferrer in Monte Carlo last year.

Framing the lower half are the ATP’s two most notable hard-luck stories of the season.  Two days after Wawrinka had lost his epic five-setter to Djokovic, Almagro allowed a two-set lead to slip away against Ferrer in Melbourne after serving for the match three times.  That trend continued for both men in February, when Wawrinka lost the longest doubles match in tennis history and Almagro dropped a third-set tiebreak to Nalbandian despite serving 28 aces.  The Swiss #2 faces a mildly intriguing test to start the week in Paolo Lorenzi, and fellow Italian Simone Bolelli aims to continue his surge from a semifinal appearance in Sao Paulo.  Less imposing is the path ahead of Almagro, although the unseeded Albert Montanes can score the occasional headline victory on clay.

Final:  Ferrer vs. Wawrinka

 

 

Gallery: Federer, Dimitrov, Gasquet, Baghdatis Win in Rotterdam

ROTTERDAM (Feb. 13, 2013) — In just his first match after the Australian Open, defending champion Roger Federer dispatched of Slovene Grega Zemlja 6-3, 6-1 in just under an hour.

“I love playing here,” stated Federer after his match. “Last year I received a great welcome in this stadium after a long absence. And I won the tournament for a second time, it was a wonderful experience.”

And he’s already looked forward to his third round match against Thiemo De Bakker. “I will not underestimate him. He is an excellent player and with support of his home crowd he will probably step up his game.”

In other singles news, 21-year-old Grigor Dimitrov lost only four points on his first serve, defeating Nikolay Davydenko, 7-5, 6-3.

Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis also progressed as Benoit Paire was forced to retire at 6-0, 6-7(3), 4-0 with back trouble and sickness.

N0. 4 seed Richard Gasquet also notched his sixteenth win of the season by defeating Viktor Troicki, 7-6(3), 6-1.

“The victory in the tiebreak was crucial”, stated Gasquet. “At 5-3 I got one set point, but still lost my service. Luckily I kept fighting. It would have been very bitter if I had not won that set. But with the advantage of that set win, I got more confident.”

(Gallery by Tennis Grandstand photographer Rick Gleijm.)

[nggallery id=82]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final:  Tsonga vs. Del Potro

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

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

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

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

Final:  Querrey vs. Verdasco

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

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

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

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

Final:  Nadal vs. Almagro

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

The Fed Express Cruises: Recapping Federer’s First-Round Victory

Never had Roger Federer lost in the first round of the Australian Open, an event where he regularly has reached the semifinals in recent years despite less sparkling performances at the other majors.  All the same, the Swiss superstar had won in Melbourne only once since 2007, so he should bring plenty of appetite to this year’s quest.

Across from Federer stood unassuming Frenchman Benoit Paire, who has lurked around the fringes of the top 50 occasionally without delivering a signature breakthrough.  The world #2 wasted no time in asserting his authority by breaking Paire in the opening game, although an artfully angled pass handed the Frenchman two break points immediately.  Always at its most resilient in those situations, Federer’s serve dug him out of trouble and kept Paire off balance from the outset of the points.  As he often does against overmatched opponents (e.g., the vast majority of the ATP), the Swiss ventured to the net consistently and attempted to shorten the points while accepting greater risks.  That tactic not only conserved his energy but earned him an additional break late in the set as he denied Paire time to craft his usual improvisations.

In a 25-minute first set, nothing that the underdog did could trouble the favorite.  Paire found his footing early in the second set, as well as a steadier first serve, but still could not crack the code of Federer’s serve.  That weapon continued to fire at a high percentage, and the second seed’s excellent success rate on those points compensated for his average results on second serve.  In the third game, a series of explosive cross-court forehands opened the door for Federer again, through which he strolled with the aid of some careless shot-making from Paire.  The profligate Frenchman continued to spray errors from his groundstrokes, lacking the focus that he needed to mount a serious challenge.  Even his clenched fists felt forced, feigned episodes of exhortation.  Federer avoided all pressure as he cruised to a two-set lead with just six games lost and no real threats encountered.

The trend continued early in the third, when Federer claimed the lead with an opening break in the same way that he had to start the match.  Undone by a double fault on break point, Paire showed little inclination to mount any further resistance thereafter.  Nor did Federer seem inclined to unduly exert himself, letting the games slide past uneventfully en route to a routine 6-2 6-4 6-1 victory.

Like Sharapova on Rod Laver Arena a day before, the former Australian Open champion had revealed few signs of rust from his offseason once he moved past his first service game.  With more familiar names like Davydenko and Tomic directly ahead, Federer enjoyed the sort of tranquil afternoon that will leave him fully rested for those greater challenges.

 

Australian Open Grounds Pass: Beatlemania with Federer and “Team” Dimitrov

Jesse Pentecost is on the grounds of the Australian Open, covering matches and practice sessions and giving you an intimate behind-the-scenes look of the tennis season’s first Slam.

By Jesse Pentecost

I would be overstating the case to say that more than a minority believed Grigor Dimitrov to defeat Julien Benneteau. Even among those of us who predicted it, the prediction was for an upset, which by definition entails a lesser player beating his or her ostensible superior. But it was widely felt Dimitrov had a chance. After all, the two men are only ranked six places apart, and it was only by the grace of Rafael Nadal and John Isner’s knees that the Frenchman is actually seeded. Either way, it was sure to be a close match, and well-worth the meager effort of loitering next it.

Following an hour’s flânerie around the practice courts – I can declare with some authority that Dominika Cibulkova is shorter than Ana Ivanovic – I ensconced myself courtside for the match. The court was Court 13, and there was no camera, meaning I had one of the best views in the entire world of the famous upset destined to unfold at some unspecified time after 11am. I found myself seated next to Dimitrov’s coach and fitness trainer. I asked his trainer what ‘Come on’ was in Bulgarian. He didn’t know, but did concede he was nervous.

It’s never a bad idea to embed yourself with the support staff, if only so that when their charge begins glaring beseechingly at his coach, you can pretend he or she is looking at you. It also heightens the vibe. It probably would have heightened it even more had Dimitrov won, or even won a set. Word came through that Maria Sharapova had delivered the tournament’s first double bagel, against the appropriately named Olga Puchkova. Unfortunately this word didn’t reach Dimitrov, who clearly needed more inspiration than his support team and I could collectively muster. What he didn’t need was more backhand errors, although I suspect he’d already cornered the world’s supply. Benneteau, a true professional, was unrelenting in exposing that wing, and the Bulgarian seemed powerless to stop him.

I recommenced my ambling. The toilet block beside Court 14 had malfunctioned, and a noisome musk blanketed the far corner of the grounds. I fled to Court 8, where Sorana Cirstea was seeing off Coco Vanderweghe, the most American-sounding athlete since Misty Hyman. With time to kill before Ryan Harrison and Santiago Giraldo materialised, I loafed over to the practice courts, stopping briefly to see Victor Hanescu break Kei Nishikori back, eliciting a roar of stony silence from the predominantly Japanese crowd. Caroline Wozniacki was practicing nearby, perfecting the technique of scurrying backwards after returning serve, while Alexandr Dolgopolov had was hitting up with Marcel Granollers, for some reason.

I swung by Court 16 – the practice court of champions – in order to observe the purportedly fraught moment when Roger Federer made way for Bernard Tomic, an event that was apparently scheduled and symbolic. Lest you’ve missed the beat-up: Switzerland and Australia’s best male players have allegedly been engaged in a war or words, although from reading the press transcripts it seemed less like a war than an amiable cup of tea. Naturally the media had obtained one of the teacups, and discovered that it contained a storm. The storm was that, when asked about a possible third round encounter, each man pointed out that the other guy would have to get there first. This unremarkable point was immediately apprehended, and duly repurposed as a mortal insult. The only question really was who would throw the first punch.

I arrived to discover 4,700 less disinterested people had gotten there first. Federer was hitting up with Gilles Simon, who’d unfortunately misplaced his coach. Since the Swiss has two, he lent Severin Luthi to the Frenchman, which I thought generous. I did wonder precisely how usefully this would prepare Federer for Benoit Paire. I decided that nothing can usefully prepare one for Paire, so there’s no use even trying.

As ever, Federer’s practice session ended early, so that he could spend time appeasing the adoring masses. And a mass they were. I remarked at the time that it was like Beatlemania. There was a particularly hysterical timbre that female squeals attained whenever the Fab Four took the stage, an exaggerated ululating shriek that had gone unheard since primordial times. Young people were making exactly that noise today whenever Federer strayed within arm’s reach. Federer, working his way along line, took it in his stride as teenage girls swooned and cascaded to the ground in his wake. He knows as well as anyone that their adulation has little to do with his craft, and everything to do with his fame, and it’s to his credit that fame hasn’t overly insulated him from the appropriate human reaction. He hides his bemusement well, but it’s certainly there. Seated across the court, Simon’s bemusement wasn’t hidden at all – it was clear in his sardonic grin. Tomic turned up, but Federer was still being feted elsewhere, and I couldn’t see that they exchanged words, let alone blows. I am confident someone will spin it as an icy dismissal.

Next to me a boy proudly showed his friends the oversized souvenir ball whose value Federer had marginally enhanced by adding some ink to it. He wasn’t a young boy, and I’m not convinced a signature is something genuinely worth craving. But his friends’ awe was genuine enough, and the boy was authentically swept away. Directly behind me Xavier Malisse was easily accounting for Pablo Andujar. In 2002 I recall explaining to anyone who’d listen that Malisse was the next big thing, unlike Federer, whose game I found attractive even as I decried its inconsistency. It has been a long eleven years. Malisse won comfortably, but there was no squealing. Sam Stosur won, and there were merely long, shuddering sighs of relief, rippling across the grounds.

Harrison was by this time marshalling his forces on Court 8. Through a scrappy set and half the disparate components of his outrage were separately rehearsed, although he had yet to combine them all in a full-blown tantrum, as he is contractually obliged to do at least once per match. He dropped the first set to Giraldo – his proto-nemesis – then gradually climbed on top during a second set short on highlights, bar the backhand pass up the line with which the American finally broke and levelled the match. Since he looked to be going on with it, I left him to his toils.

From there I looked in Stan Wawrinka, who as expected was delivering stern lessons to Cedrik-Marcel Stebe. Upon losing Stebe tore off his ridiculous yellow headband, and stormed from the court with newfound purpose, knocking elderly spectators flying. Agnieszka Radwanska, after briefly flirting with the possibility of playing the odd tight set – and thus causing concerned journalists to quibble at her recent schedule – thought better of it and went back to dishing out bagels.

Margaret Court Arena was now free, and thither I sauntered, reflecting as I did that I was running dangerously short on similes for walking casually. Luckily the two men walking out onto MCA were Mikhail Youzhny and Matt Ebden, and they were about to commence a five set classic. I wouldn’t be casually walking anywhere for a while.

For the second year in a row, Ebden fell to a seed after holding a two set lead. Last year it was Nishikori, and this year it was heartbreaking, through being closer. Youzhny saved a match point late in the fourth, before forcing the fifth. It was tremendous, although I was quick to note that most of the crowd, extravagantly bunted in Australia’s flag and given to unharmonsied chanting, found the outcome less inspiring than I did. But they were generous in applauding the Colonel as he saluted them. He’d earned it. They’d earned it.

I strolled out, elated, and discovered someone had stolen my bicycle helmet. So it goes.