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From Continent to Continent: ATP Washington and Kitzbuhel Previews

Juan Martin Del Potro looks to recapture his brilliant Wimbledon form.

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

Washington:

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

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

Semifinal:  Del Potro vs. Haas

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

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

Semifinal:  Simon vs. Isner

Final:  Del Potro vs. Isner

Kitzbuhel:

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

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

Semifinal:  Granollers vs. Verdasco

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

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

Semifinal:  Montanes vs. Monaco

Final:  Verdasco vs. Montanes

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

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

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

Atlanta:

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

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

Semifinal:  Isner vs. Hewitt

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

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

Semifinal:  Fish vs. Anderson

Final:  Hewitt vs. Anderson

Gstaad:

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

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

Semifinal:  Federer vs. Monaco 

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

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

Semifinal:  Granollers vs. Wawrinka

Final:  Federer vs. Wawrinka

Umag:

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

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

Semifinal:  Gasquet vs. Fognini

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

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

Semifinal:  Robredo vs. Berlocq

Final:  Fognini vs. Robredo

What to Watch in the ATP This Week: Bastad, Stuttgart, Newport Draw Previews

Returning to home soil should raise Sam Querrey

A day after the dust settled on the Wimbledon final, several notable men launch back into action at tournaments on clay and grass.

Bastad:

Top half:  The apparently indefatigable Tomas Berdych surges into Sweden just days after his appearance in the Wimbledon quarterfinals.  This spring, Berdych complained of fatigue caused by an overstuffed schedule, but a substantial appearance fee probably persuaded him to enter this small clay tournament.  Not at his best on clay this year, the top seed should cruise to the quarterfinals with no surface specialist in his area.  Viktor Troicki, his projected quarterfinal opponent, produced some encouraging results at Wimbledon but lacks meaningful clay credentials.

Much more compelling is the section from which Berdych’s semifinal opponent will emerge.  The fourth-seeded Tommy Robredo, a surprise quarterfinalist at Roland Garros, will hope to repeat his victory over the Czech in Barcelona.  On the other hand, Robredo cannot afford to dig the same early holes for himself in a best-of-three format that he did in Paris.  A first-round skirmish between fellow Argentines Carlos Berlocq and Horacio Zeballos features two thorns in Rafael Nadal’s side this year.  While Zeballos defeated the Spaniard to win Vina del Mar in February, Berlocq extended him deep into a third set soon afterward in Sao Paulo.

Bottom half:  The most famous tennis player to visit Stockholm this month will not appear in the Swedish Open.  Following her second-round exit at Wimbledon, Maria Sharapova accompanied boyfriend Grigor Dimitrov on a brief summer vacation before his appearance here.  Dimitrov holds the fifth seed in a wide-open quarter as he aims to thrust an epic Wimbledon loss behind him.  The man who stunned Novak Djokovic on Madrid clay this year has receded in recent weeks, and dirt devil Juan Monaco may test his questionable stamina in the quarterfinals.  Two Italian journeymen, Filippo Volandri and Paolo Lorenzi, look to squeeze out all that they can from their best surface.

Probably the most compelling quarterfinal would emerge in the lowest section of the draw between Spaniards Nicolas Almagro and Fernando Verdasco.  Like Berdych, Verdasco travels to Sweden on short rest after reaching the Wimbledon quarterfinals.  Unlike Berdych, his result there astonished as he suddenly rediscovered his form in a dismal 2013, even extending Andy Murray to five sets.  Verdasco can resuscitate his ranking during the weeks ahead if he builds on that breakthrough, and he has won five of seven meetings from Almagro on clay.  Slumping recently after a fine start to the year, Almagro faces a potential early challenge against Guillermo Garcia-Lopez.

Final: Robredo vs. Verdasco

Stuttgart:

Top half:  Often at his best on home soil, the top-seeded Tommy Haas eyes a rematch of his meeting in Munich this spring with Ernests Gulbis.  The veteran needed three sets to halt the Latvian firecracker that time.  But Marcel Granollers might intercept Gulbis in the first round, relying on his superior clay prowess.  In fact, plenty of quality clay tennis could await in a section that includes Monte Carlo semifinalist Fabio Fognini and Madrid semifinalist Pablo Andujar.  All of these men will have felt grateful to leave the brief grass season behind them as they return to the foundation of their success.

Much less deep in surface skills is the second quarter, headlined by Jeremy Chardy and Martin Klizan.  Despite his Australian Open quarterfinal when the season started, Chardy continues to languish below the elite level, which leaves this section ripe for surprises.  Granted, Klizan took a set from Nadal at Roland Garros, an achievement impressive under any circumstances.  He opens against Nice champion Albert Montanes, who once defeated Roger Federer on clay with a quintessential grinder’s game.  Perhaps Roberto Bautista-Agut will have gained confidence from his four-set tussle with David Ferrer at Wimbledon, or Daniel Gimeno-Traver from his upset of Richard Gasquet in Madrid.

Bottom half:   Never a threat at Wimbledon, Nikolay Davydenko chose to skip the third major this year to preserve his energy for more profitable surfaces.  Davydenko will begin to find out whether that decision made sense in Stuttgart, where he could face fourth seed Benoit Paire in the second round.  Both Paire and the other seed in this quarter, Lukas Rosol, seek to make amends for disappointing efforts at Wimbledon.  Each of them failed to capitalize on the Federer-Nadal quarter that imploded around them.  Another Russian seeking to make a comeback this year, Dmitry Tursunov, hopes to prove that February was no fluke.  Surprising successes at small tournaments that month have not led to anything greater for Tursunov so far, other than an odd upset of Ferrer.

Another player who skipped Wimbledon, Gael Monfils looks to extend a clay resurgence from his Nice final and a five-set thriller at Roland Garros against Berdych.  Two enigmatic Germans surround the even more enigmatic Frenchman, creating a section of unpredictability.  Philipp Kohlschreiber returns to action soon after he retired from a Wimbledon fifth set with alleged fatigue.  While compatriot Florian Mayer also fell in the first round, he had the much sturdier alibi of drawing Novak Djokovic.

Final:  Haas vs. Paire

Newport:

Top half:  Not part of the US Open Series, this cozy grass event at the Tennis Hall of Fame gives grass specialists one last opportunity to collect some victories.  Wildcard Nicolas Mahut could meet top seed Sam Querrey in round two, hoping that the American continues to stumble after an opening-round loss at Wimbledon.  But Querrey usually shines much more brightly on home soil, winning all but one of his career titles there.  A rising American star, Rhyne Williams, and doubles specialist Rajeev Ram look to pose his main pre-semifinal tests.  Ram has shone in Newport before, defeating Querrey in the 2009 final and reaching the semifinals last year with a victory over Kei Nishikori.

Among the most surprising names to reach the second week of Wimbledon was Kenny De Schepper, who outlasted fellow Frenchmen Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet.  De Schepper will try to exploit a section without any man in the top 50, but Igor Sijsling has played better than his ranking recently.  The Australian Open doubles finalist defeated Milos Raonic and won a set from Tsonga on grass this year, while extending Robredo to five sets at Roland Garros.  But Sijsling retired from Wimbledon with the flu, leaving his fitness in doubt.

Bottom half: Currently more dangerous on grass than anywhere else, Lleyton Hewitt reached the Newport final in his first appearance at the tournament last year.  The former Wimbledon champion more recently upset No. 11 seed Stanislas Wawrinka at Wimbledon after defeating Querrey, Dimitrov, and Juan Martin Del Potro at Queen’s Club.  Hewitt holds the fourth seed in Newport, where an all-Australian quarterfinal against Marinko Matosevic could unfold.   A former Newport runner-up in Prakash Amritraj and yet another Aussie in Matthew Ebden add their serve-volley repertoire to a section of contrasting playing styles.

Meeting for the fourth time this year are two struggling Americans, Ryan Harrison and the second-seeded John Isner.  The latter man aims to defend his Newport title as he regroups from a knee injury at the All England Club, but fellow giant Ivo Karlovic could loom in the quarterfinals.  Just back from a serious medical issue, Karlovic opens against Wimbledon doubles semifinalist Edouard Roger-Vasselin.  Potential talents Denis Kudla and Vasek Pospisil also square off, while Adrian Mannarino looks to recapture the form that took him to the brink of a Wimbledon quarterfinal.

Final:  Querrey vs. Hewitt

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

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

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

WTA:

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

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

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

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

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

ATP:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

The sun won't interfere with Berdych's ball toss this week.

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final:  Tsonga vs. Del Potro

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

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

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

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

Final:  Querrey vs. Verdasco

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

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

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

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

Final:  Nadal vs. Almagro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final:  Gasquet vs. Simon

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

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

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

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

Final:  Cilic vs. Melzer

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

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

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

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

Final:  Nadal vs. Monaco

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

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

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

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

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

Pick:  Canada

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

Pick:  Italy

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

Pick:  Serbia

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

Pick:  USA

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

Pick:  France

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

Pick:  Er, Argentina?

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

Pick:  Austria

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

Pick:  Czech Republic

Richard Bloomfield Is On The Verge Of Making Tennis History

Richard Bloomfield

Richard Bloomfield is on the verge of making tennis history.

Ranked No. 552 in the world, Bloomfield is two matches away from becoming the lowest ranked player to ever win an ATP World Tour event. The 27-year-old from Norwich is ranked two spots worse than Lleyton Hewitt, who was ranked No. 550 when he won the singles title in Adelaide, Australia in 1998 as a 16-year-old, as documented in the book THE BUD COLLINS HISTORY OF TENNIS ($35.95, New Chapter Press, www.NewChapterMedia.com)

Bloomfield reached his first career ATP World Tour semifinal with a 5-7, 7-6 (3), 7-5 win Friday over heralded 18-year-old American Ryan Harrison. He will play Mardy Fish of the United States, ranked No. 76, in the semifinals. The other semifinal features Olivier Rochus of Belgium, ranked No. 65, against Brian Dabul of Argentina, ranked No. 105.

Entering this week, Bloomfield had won only one career ATP World Tour level match – a 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 first-round win at Wimbledon in 2006 over Carlos Berlocq of Argentina – a victory that attracted world-wide attention due to the suspicious betting patterns during the match. Due to irregular betting patterns, suspicious amounts of money was bet on Bloomfield, alleging that perhaps Berlocq could have been injured or was paid to “tank” the match to allow for profiteering among gamblers. Coincidentally, Bloomfield’s first-round win here in Newport over Christophe Rochus also attracted similar unwanted gambling attention.

Online gambling exchange Betfair told The Associated Press on Friday that Bloomfield’s 7-6 (1), 6-3 win over Rochus Tuesday attracted an unusual $1.5 million in wagers and was the subject of dramatic price movement.

Bloomfield was rated even money against his Rochus, ranked No. 160. In the hours before the match, the odds on Bloomfield winning were shortened to 1-4. After he won the first set, the odds shorted to 1-8.

“If people are willing to risk 4 pounds to win one, that is indicative of a substantial gamble,” Betfair spokesman Tony Calvin said to the Associated Press.

Notification of the irregular betting pattern was reported to the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU), an independent body created by the sport’s governing bodies to lead the fight against corruption.

It is standard procedure for the betting industry to share irregular activity on its markets with the TIU.

“It is not operational policy of the TIU to make any comment about an investigation that it may or may not be involved in,” TIU spokesman Mark Harrison told the AP

Randy Walker is a communications and marketing specialist, writer, tennis historian and the managing partner of New Chapter Media – www.NewChapterMedia.com. He was a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Tennis Association’s marketing and communications division where he worked as the press officer for 22 U.S. Davis Cup ties, three Olympic tennis teams and was an integral part of USTA media services team for 14 US Opens. He is the author of the book ON THIS DAY IN TENNIS HISTORY (www.TennisHistoryBook.com).

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