Feliciano Lopez

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

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

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

Atlanta:

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

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

Semifinal:  Isner vs. Hewitt

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

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

Semifinal:  Fish vs. Anderson

Final:  Hewitt vs. Anderson

Gstaad:

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

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

Semifinal:  Federer vs. Monaco 

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

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

Semifinal:  Granollers vs. Wawrinka

Final:  Federer vs. Wawrinka

Umag:

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

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

Semifinal:  Gasquet vs. Fognini

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

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

Semifinal:  Robredo vs. Berlocq

Final:  Fognini vs. Robredo

Wimbledon Rewind: Favorites and Fifth Sets (Mostly) Dominate on Day 2

Yes, British tennis does extend beyond Andy Murray.

The first round concluded at Wimbledon today without any seismic shock similar to Day 1 but with many more tightly contested matches than yesterday.  Check out the intriguing events below.

ATP:

Match of the day:  The top-ranked American squared off against the top-ranked Australian in a five-set rollercoaster of two giants.  After Bernard Tomic eked out the first two sets in tiebreaks, he characteristically lost the plot and allowed Sam Querrey to win two routine sets.  But Tomic got the last word, repeating his 2012 Australian Open victory over the American by zoning back into the action for the final set.  When he catches fire, he can ignite a draw.

Comeback of the day:  An Eastbourne semifinalist last week, Ivan Dodig fell behind 16th seed Philipp Kohlschreiber two sets to none and came within a tiebreak of losing in straights.  Dominating that tiebreak, Dodig carried that momentum through the fourth set and reaped the reward of his perseverance when Kohlschreiber retired early in the fifth.

Trend of the day:  The first day featured only one five-setter, but the second day brought fans no fewer than nine.  Five Americans played fifth sets.  In four of those nine matches, one player won the first two sets before letting the opponent back into the match.  None of the nine extended past 6-6 in the final set, however, and two ended in fifth-set retirements, a strange anticlimax.

Symmetry of the day:  On the same day that Tomic defeated Querrey, a different American defeated a different Aussie in the same manner.  Denis Kudla won the first two sets, lost the next two, and then recovered to win the fifth from James Duckworth.  Taken together, those results accurately reflect the superior promise of Australian tennis at the top and the superior depth of American tennis overall.

Gold star:  A three-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist and a champion at Eastbourne, Feliciano Lopez plays his best tennis on grass.  He extended his winning streak to the All England Club by knocking off the tenacious Gilles Simon in straight sets.  The upset recalled Lleyton Hewitt’s victory over Stanislas Wawrinka yesterday, in which an unseeded grass specialist also defeated a seeded counterpuncher.

Silver star:  The volatile game of Florian Mayer does not make the easiest way to settle into a major, especially for a man who had not played a match on grass this year.  In his first match since the epic Roland Garros loss to Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic stood tall as the Wimbledon top seed in dispatching Mayer uneventfully.

Americans in London:  Beyond the previously noted Querrey and Kudla, the stars and stripes produced mixed results on Tuesday.  Ryan Harrison unsurprisingly fell to Jeremy Chardy, although he did win a set, while James Blake unexpectedly dominated Thiemo de Bakker for the loss of just six games.  Bobby Reynolds cannibalized Steve Johnson, who now has lost a five-setter in the first round of every major this year.  Court 9 saw the little-lamented departures of Wayne Odesnik and Michael Russell to a pair of fellow journeymen.

Question of the day:  While rivals Djokovic, Tomas Berdych, and Juan Martin Del Potro all advanced in straight sets, David Ferrer struggled through a four-setter against an unheralded South American.  He also lost his opener last week at the Dutch Open.  Do these struggles suggest an early exit for the other Spanish finalist at Roland Garros, or will Ferrer find his grass groove with time?

WTA:

Match of the day:  Former Wimbledon quarterfinalist Kaia Kanepi sought to continue building her momentum in a comeback from a long injury absence.  Home hope Tara Moore sought to justify her wildcard and earn her first main-draw victory at Wimbledon.  The two waged a relentless 7-5, 5-7, 7-5 duel in the confines of Court 17, which ended in hope for Kanepi and familiar heartbreak for Moore.

Comeback of the day:  The pugnacious Barbara Zahlavova Strycova refused to fade after dropping a tight first set to Magdalena Rybarikova.  Over the next two sets, the Czech yielded one total game to the Slovak who had reached the Birmingham semifinals (and won that tournament before).  Compatriot and Birmingham champion Daniela Hantuchova also fell to a Czech opponent in Klara Zakopalova as the western half of the former Czechoslovakia held their neighboring rivals in check.

Upset of the day:  Not the highest-ranked player to lose today, Nadia Petrova suffered the most surprising loss in falling to Katerina Pliskova in two tepid sets.  Petrova owes her top-15 status to a series of strong results last fall, but she could not consolidate them this year and now has little margin for error in the second half.

Gold star:  Thorny draws often have awaited Laura Robson at Wimbledon, and this year proved no exception with world No. 10 Maria Kirilenko awaiting her on Court 1.  The leading British women’s hope delighted her compatriots with her second victory over a top-ten opponent at a major this year.  Robson now eyes a relatively open draw after that initial upset, although she cannot relax her guard.

Silver star:  Both of last year’s finalists advanced with ease, Serena Williams and Agnieszka Radwanska losing six games between them.  But perhaps even more impressive was the double breadstick that Li Na served to Michaella Krajicek, a player whose massive weapons could threaten on grass.  Li has struggled for most of the spring, and she has not shone on grass since 2010, so this victory might raise her spirits for the challenging road ahead.

Wooden spoon:  A quarterfinalist at Wimbledon last year, Tamira Paszek fell in the first round this year to the anonymous Alexandra Cadantu.  She has dropped nearly 1,000 points in two weeks, combining Eastbourne with Wimbledon, and will plummet from the top 30 in May to outside the top 100 in July.

Americans in London:  Outside Serena, most of the main American threats are (or were) in the other half of the draw.  Two youngsters suffered contrasting fates on Tuesday, Madison Keys dismissing British talent Heather Watson and Mallory Burdette falling short in a tight three-setter to Urszula Radwanska.  The only other American woman in action, Birmingham semifinalist Allison Riske, earned an upset of sorts over clay specialist Romina Oprandi when the latter retired in the third set.

Question of the day:  It’s grass season, which means that it’s Tsvetana Pironkova season.  The willow Bulgarian, twice a quarterfinalist or better at Wimbledon, routed top-25 opponent Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova for the loss of just one game.  How far can Pironkova’s grass magic carry her?

Snakes in the Grass: Previewing the Wimbledon 2013 Dark Horses

Sabine Lisicki has defeated five top-ten women in her last three Wimbledon appearances.

With the Wimbledon draw just a week ahead, the time has arrived to scan the ATP and WTA rankings in search of dark horses who could grab some unexpected attention.  This survey features only players outside the top 20 at the start of the grass season, likely to meet an opponent of greater note in the first week.  On any given day, these snakes in the grass could strike for an upset or two.

ATP:

John Isner:  Forever famous for his Wimbledon epic against Nicolas Mahut, Isner never has fared as well there as top-ranked compatriot Sam Querrey.  His lack of impact surprises, considering a playing style that should flourish on grass with a nearly impenetrable serve and a preference for short points.  Isner has languished in a slump for most of 2013, but he nearly reached the second week at Roland Garros with another valiant run.  The American would benefit from exchanging his pattern of endless epics for some more efficient first-week victories, conserving his energy early in the fortnight.

Grigor Dimitrov:  Reaching the third round of a major for the first time at Roland Garros, the Bulgarian rising star tends to perform better at non-majors than majors.  But Dimitrov took Tsonga to the brink of a final set at Wimbledon two years ago, and he has threatened every member of the Big Four this year except Roger Federer, whom he has not faced.  His combination of an explosive first serve with dexterity around the net could shine on the grass.  Less impressive is his movement and his ability to convincingly take care of business against overmatched opposition.

Julien Benneteau:  He came closer than anyone last year to knocking off eventual champion Roger Federer at Wimbledon, snatching the first two sets before the match slipped away.  Benneteau has struggled to win any matches at all in singles since March, not long after he upset Federer in Rotterdam.  His doubles expertise could help on a court that rewards net-rushers, and he reached the second week in 2010.  Formidable early draws have stunted his progress in most Wimbledon appearances, but Benneteau has lost to only one opponent outside the top eight there since 2005.

Lukas Rosol:  His presence on this list should need little explanation.  Had Rosol won no matches at all after defeating Rafael Nadal in the second round last year, he still would merit a mention.  As it stands, he built upon that upset to rise from the edge of the top 100 to well inside the top 50.  Rosol faces the pressure of defending something meaningful for the first time, and he will need to insulate himself from the inevitable media scrutiny.  He often brings out his best tennis against the best while growing careless or unfocused against the journeymen of the Tour.

Ernests Gulbis:  Slinging ferocious forehands and controversial comments indiscriminately, the Latvian shot-maker once again has become someone intriguing to watch.  Gulbis upset Tomas Berdych in the first round of Wimbledon last year, and he twice has won sets from Nadal this year.  More distant achievements include victories over Federer and Novak Djokovic, showing that no elite opponent can feel safe when Gulbis finds his groove.  He may struggle to stay in that groove in the best-of-five format, perhaps a reason why his greatest headlines have come at Masters 1000 events.  Still, grass usually rewards the Jekyll-and-Hyde mixture of overwhelming power and deft finesse that Gulbis can wield.

Feliciano Lopez:  The Spaniard’s best tennis lies well behind him, and he accumulated a losing record this season through the end of Roland Garros.  Lopez has reached three Wimbledon quarterfinals behind his lefty serve-volley style, though, the rarity of which can unsettle younger opponents.  His notable victims there include Andy Roddick and Marat Safin, as well as Tim Henman in his last match on home soil.  Keep an eye on Lopez if he draws a relatively passive baseliner or grinder such as David Ferrer, who long has struggled against him on fast surfaces.

Daniel Brands:  Like Rosol, Brands typically plays to the level of the competition.  He lost resoundingly to Jan Hajek one week before he thrust Nadal to the brink of a two-set deficit at Roland Garros.  Wimbledon marks the scene of his greatest accomplishment, a second-week appearance in 2010, although he lost in the first round of qualifying each of the two subsequent years.  Beware of getting into a fifth set against Brands, who shares Isner’s asymmetry between a massive serve and a woeful return.  That stark contrast leaves him vulnerable against anyone and dangerous to everyone.

WTA:

Ekaterina Makarova:  Only one woman has defeated both Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka in 2012-13:  not Maria Sharapova, not Li Na, not Petra Kvitova, but Ekaterina Makarova.  This fiery Russian also won Eastbourne on grass as a qualifier in 2010, her only title to date.  Her lefty serve swings wide in the ad court effectively on this surface, a valuable asset on break points.  Makarova’s doubles expertise has honed her net talents to a higher level than most of the women ranked near her, and she has proved that she can excel at majors by reaching two Australian Open quarterfinals.

Sabine Lisicki:  Four or five years ago, Lisicki looked like a future Wimbledon champion.  She honed the best serve in the women’s game outside the Williams sisters, even outdueling Venus to win a Charleston title.  In three Wimbledon appearances from 2009-12, Lisicki reached the quarterfinals or better every time and even notched her first major semifinal there in 2011.  An impressive list of marquee upsets in those appearances includes Maria Sharapova, Li Na, Caroline Wozniacki, and Marion Bartoli.  Somewhat like Gulbis in her ability to combine first-strike power with the finesse of delicate drop shots, Lisicki has struggled to stay healthy long enough to develop momentum and consistency.

Tamira Paszek:  A hideous 1-12 this season, Paszek has won barely any matches since last August but still held a seed at Roland Garros.  She defends the majority of her total rankings points during the short grass season, when she won Eastbourne and reached a second straight Wimbledon quarterfinal last year.  The good news is that Paszek rebounded from a similar sequence of futility at this time in 2012 to record those excellent results.  The bad news is that the pressure will lie heavily on her with the penalty so great for a misstep at either event.

Venus Williams:  Once a champion, always a champion, and never more so than at the greatest bastion of tennis tradition.  Venus will appear in this type of article before every Wimbledon that she plays, no matter her current form.  To be sure, that current form is far from impressive with losses this spring to Olga Puckhova, Laura Robson, and Urszula Radwanska.  Venus wins many fewer matches than she once did on her poise and experience alone, and she probably cannot ration her energy efficiently enough to survive deep into the fortnight.  But nobody wants to face that serve or that wingspan on grass, for one never knows when an aging champion will catch fire.

Laura Robson:  Combined with a junior Wimbledon title, two compelling efforts against Maria Sharapova on home soil suggest that the top British women’s talent could rise to the occasion.  Robson has proved twice in the last twelve months that she can shine at majors, upsetting Kim Clijsters to reach the second week of the US Open and outlasting Petra Kvitova in a nail-biting if ugly epic in Melbourne.  Since the serve plays a heightened role on grass, she must limit the double faults that have grown too frequent this year.  Robson never lacks for courage or belief, often aggressive to the point of reckless.

Zheng Jie:  If she had finished off Serena Williams in the first week of Wimbledon last year, the trajectory of women’s tennis since then would have followed a completely different course.  As it was, Zheng took Serena to 8-6 in the final set, displaying how well her compact swings and crisp footwork suit the low, variable bounces of the grass.  This less intuitive model for surface success than heavy serves and first strikes carried her to the Wimbledon semifinals in 2008.  Like Benneteau, Zheng has found herself saddled with some extremely challenging draws and has lost to few sub-elite opponents there.

Tsvetana Pironkova:  Two years ago, it seemed that Pironkova existed solely to prevent Venus Williams from winning another Wimbledon title.  The willowy Bulgarian defeated Venus in consecutive Wimbledons by identical scores, and she even came within a set of the final in 2010.  Proving that success no anomaly, Pironkova extended Sharapova to a final set last year.  A glance at her game reveals no clear reason why she enjoys grass so much.  Pironkova owns a vulnerable serve and little baseline firepower, earning her living with court coverage and touch.  Her Wimbledon feats show that counterpunchers can find ways to thrive on an offensively oriented surface.

Roland Garros Fast Forward: Tsonga, Monfils, Ivanovic, Kuznetsova, Errani and More on Day 6

Talk to my fist.

Here are ten matches to note on Friday at Roland Garros, five from the men and five from the women.  Roger Federer vs. Julien Benneteau makes a fine eleventh offering, but Yeshayahu Ginsburg gives you all of the details that you want to know about that pairing in another article on this site.  (Also note that many of the postponed matches from Thursday feature in that day’s preview.)

ATP:

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Jeremy Chardy:  This clash of January’s Australian Open quarterfinalists may divide the loyalties of the Paris crowd.  The flamboyance on both sides should thrill spectators as both men aim to pummel with a forehand the first attackable ball that they see.  While both Tsonga and Chardy easily lose focus, both have kept their eyes on the ball through two straight-sets victories.  A quarterfinalist at Roland Garros last year, Tsonga rode his usual rollercoaster through a clay season with a semifinal in Monte Carlo and a second-round loss in Rome.  The two Frenchmen rarely have clashed, splitting their two matches by identical 6-4 7-6 scores.

Gael Monfils vs. Tommy Robredo:  After he slugged a path past two fellow shot-makers, the story of the men’s tournament faces a different challenge altogether.  In a contrast of styles, Monfils will look to break through the defenses of a resilient veteran who has compiled his greatest successes on clay.  For his part, Robredo will look to grind down his opponent and exploit any lingering fatigue from the Frenchman’s overstuffed recent schedule.  If Monfils blows a massive lead, as he did against Berdych, Robredo probably will punish him.

Feliciano Lopez vs. David Ferrer:  The second-ranked Spaniard has planted himself firmly in the driver’s seat of his quarter, although Monfils might beg to differ.  With two comprehensive victories, Ferrer has looked more formidable than anyone here except Roger Federer.  He often has found fellow Spaniards trickier than expected, though, even beyond the inexorable Rafael Nadal.  Fortunately for him, Lopez poses a much greater threat on a faster court with his lefty net-rushing style.  Their head-to-head illustrates this trend with Ferrer sweeping their clay matches and Lopez dominating on hard courts.  Still, the latter held match point in Barcelona last year before Ferrer fastened his jaws around him.

Andreas Seppi vs. Nicolas Almagro:  Few would have given Seppi much chance to reach the second week for the second straight week here, but he is a plausible upset from doing exactly that.  Seppi had won only two matches at six clay tournaments entering Roland Garros, only to eke out consecutive five-set victories.  Laboring through an equally poor season at clay Masters 1000 events, Almagro did reach the final in Barcelona and has dropped just one set through his first two matches here.  The Italian has won both of their previous matches, although neither came on clay.  Whoever wins will be favored to reach the quarterfinals against David Ferrer.

Milos Raonic vs. Kevin Anderson:  This match sounds more like Wimbledon than Roland Garros, and in fact their only previous meeting came on an indoor hard court.  Each man has recorded one notable result on his least favorite surface, Raonic reaching the semifinals in Barcelona and Anderson reaching the final in Casablanca.  Doubtless glad to see his perennial nemesis Tomas Berdych gone from this section, Anderson has produced somewhat more consistency on clay than Raonic with victories over Juan Monaco and Marin Cilic.  But this match will hinge on a few key points, as it would elsewhere, and on the ability of both men to execute fundamentals while finding timely first serves.

WTA:

Virginie Razzano vs. Ana Ivanovic:  Much improved from the first round, Ivanovic started her second match with another flurry of winners and this time largely continued her dominance through the second set.  She can take nothing for granted against a woman who refuses to go away when she falls behind here, no matter the opponent.  Razzano will benefit from the support of those who remember last year’s miracle, which will encourage her to believe that anything is possible.  As remarkable as Razzano’s repeat run is, however, her two victories came against Claire Feuerstein and Zuzana Kucova.  And they were close, which this match will not be unless Ivanovic has a bad day, when anything can happen.

Bojana Jovanovski vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova:  Some players specialize in clay, some players specialize in grass, and Bojana Jovanovski specializes in tormenting Caroline Wozniacki on clay.  Jovanovski defeated the Dane twice this month while notching just one other victory since the Australian Open, where she reached the second week.  One win from doing the same here, the Serb perhaps saves her best tennis for the biggest stages.  While she went AWOL for a set in the second round, as she often does, Kuznetsova regrouped impressively to dictate play from there.  She should have a decent chance to face Serena in the quarterfinals, not that anyone envies the honor.

Sabine Lisicki vs. Sara Errani:  The greatest contrast of styles on the WTA schedule should test Errani much more than her first two opponents.  Living up to her billing as a member of the top five, last year’s finalist has dropped just five games in the tournament, or one more than Serena Williams.  A first meeting with Lisicki may require an adjustment period to the weight of the German’s explosive first serve, able to penetrate surfaces of any speed.  Fans could see plenty of drop shots as both women love to use that gambit more often than most rivals.  Very steady on outdoor clay this year, Errani has lost only to Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, and Petra Kvitova on her favorite surface.  All of those women can and did pounce on her serve, which will be the key for Lisicki and her less lethal return.

Varvara Lepchenko vs. Angelique Kerber:  Losing just ten games in two matches, Lepchenko owns three clay victories this year over the daunting Italian duo of Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci.  This battle of lefties pits her against a woman at her least effective on clay, so the American should hold the surface edge.  On the other hand, Kerber did reach the Roland Garros quarterfinals last year and has produced consistent if not outstanding results over the last few months.  Perhaps her best performances of the year came in two three-set semifinal losses when she battled Caroline Wozniacki and Maria Sharapova to the finish.  Kerber wins fewer of those epics now than she did last year, but she won’t play an epic if she brings that form here.

Monica Puig vs. Carla Suarez Navarro:  Progressing by leaps and bounds, the charming Puig stands within range of the second week at a major.  Puig did not reach this stage by feasting on cupcakes, upsetting top-15 opponent Nadia Petrova in three sets and winning a clash of future stars from Madison Keys.  While Suarez Navarro should be favored with her superior clay prowess and overall experience, she has not looked this week like someone enjoying the best year of her career.  The finalist in Acapulco and Portugal dropped the first set in both of her matches, including against anonymous American Shelby Rogers.  Suarez Navarro can’t afford to overlook Puig, although she dismantled her in Portugal.

 

Ernests Gulbis: Top Four are Boring; Lower-Ranked Players are Treated like Crap

Ernests Gulbis

(May 29, 2013) In an interview with L’Equipe, the ever-vocal Ernests Gulbis took to the presses once again, this time calling out the ATP “Big Four” consisting of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.

“I respect Roger, Rafa, Novak and Murray, but for me, all four player are boring,” Gulbis stated. “Their interviews are boring. Honestly, they are boring.”

According to Gulbis, when it comes down to it,  ”Federer set this trend,” which gives the spectators a “polite” game and not “war, blood and emotions” as in boxing, he says. He believes that “people want to see broken rackets and hear the on-court bursts. ”

Basically, Gulbis wants players to be more like, well, him.

I can’t really argue with the last point about the game, but boring? I wouldn’t necessarily call Djokovic boring. He has had his fair share of code violations for swearing in Serbian on court and smashing more racquets than I can count. Murray too.

But the Gulbis fun doesn’t end there – not even close. Never one to shy away from voicing his talents on and off the court, he continues with two more captivating quotes from his L’Equipe interview:

1. “I do not want to hear in an interview a guy – who I will not name, but who I know well, that he thinks all his opponents are assholes – putting on an act” in his pressers.

Without naming the player, Gulbis is calling someone out — and I bet they know exactly who they are even if they are not reading his interviews. In truth, it piques my curiosity, and now I, strangely, want to know who it is, too. But will we ever find out or will the truth die on Gulbis’ lips?

The fact that he forces us to pose questions like this is precisely what makes the Latvian so intriguing and frustrating. Even if you don’t want to listen, he makes you listen. Whether it’s on a tennis court or in a presser, his character is hard to ignore. It makes you wonder just how many players actually pay attention to what he says, given how consistently he dishes it out. It seems like quite a few, in fact, including Feliciano Lopez who says that “Gulbis is a nice guy but always says things that can create some interest.” Clearly, fans and media are not the only ones being baited.

2.  ”The system is much too bureaucratic. The top guys need to talk so things can change, but they’re pretty happy that (lower-ranked) players are treated like shit and do not have enough money to pay for good coaches.”

Do the selection of words coming out of the Latvian’s mouth even surprise anymore? In a way, yes. His constant stream of opinion is refreshing, but there are many who would rather tennis be without Gulbis. Both sides have enough footage to use as support.

He not only calls the “top guys” boring, but also insists that despite all their talks for higher compensation at tournaments, equality and change in the men’s game, it essentially doesn’t matter to them because they are above it. And how bold of Gulbis to use the word “happy” when describing how the top guys must feel when looking at their counterparts being treated badly by the system. That’s either stupid or takes guts to stand up against if true.

However, given Gulbis’ trajectory up the rankings, he may soon find himself in one of those top positions as well. What then? Will what he says in defense of lower-ranked players then be also a sham when he’s holding the mic and talking of change, or will he have enough influence to actually contribute to making these changes?

In an interview with Sport 360, Gulbis commented that despite all his off court opinions, he’s still a tennis player first.

“I can sometimes be somewhat disrespectful in some press conferences but when I play I really want to respect the opponent. I don’t want to take medical timeouts. I don’t like to screw up the other player’s rhythm. I don’t like this. I want that the better player wins without any screwing games.”

Gulbis was an intriguing figure when he first came onto the scene as a fresh 19-year-old defeating then world No. 8 Tommy Robredo in three easy sets at the US Open, and he is still an intriguing figure today.

True to his extravagant nature, Carole Bouchard of L’Equipe reveals that after his loss to Gael Monfils on Wednesday, the Latvian stuck around the press center eating a banana, and even requested a copy of his L’Equipe interview from the newspaper. This guy, indeed!

https://twitter.com/carole_bouchard/status/339800871523192833

Roland Garros Rewind: Monfils Stuns, Nadal Survives, Sharapova and Radwanska Cruise

Of the Frenchmen who shone on Day 2, Gael Monfils shone most of all.

Welcome back to your daily review of the studs and duds at Roland Garros 2013.

ATP:

Match of the day:  Five sets and four hours.  Three tiebreaks and a 7-5 final set.  A two-set lead squandered by the man who eventually won—after saving triple break point midway through the fifth.  A home underdog firing 26 aces and 66 winners on his nation’s biggest stage to upset a top-eight seed who hit 72 winners of his own.  Rarely is the match that looks like the best of the day in the first round actually the best of the day, but Gael Monfils and Tomas Berdych put on perhaps the best show of any men’s match that we will see all week.  The section has opened a bit for Monfils if he can defuse the equally dangerous dark horse Ernests Gulbis in the second round.  That match looks like the highlight of Thursday, although it has a hard act to follow.

Comeback of the day:  Last week’s Dusseldorf champion Juan Monaco looked well on his way to a routine victory when he won the first two sets by single-break margins and reached a tiebreak in the third.  Perhaps aided by his opponent’s fatigue, Daniel Gimeno-Traver thrust himself back into the match by snatching that tiebreak and stormed all the way back to an upset over the seventeenth seed.

Surprise of the day:  It was not an upset in the end,  but Daniel Brands surely turned more heads than anyone when he came within a tiebreak of leading Rafael Nadal by two sets to love.  The master of Roland Garros had not lost the first set in a first-week match there since 2006, although he once  survived a five-setter against John Isner.  Brands channeled his inner Soderling in explosive serving and bullet forehands that thrust Nadal on his heels for far longer than anyone could have expected.

Gold star:  Australian youngster Nick Kyrgios gave his nation something to cheer amid the latest Bernard Tomic controversy.  Kyrgios defeated veteran Radek Stepanek in three tiebreaks, saving several set points in each of the last two.  The 53 total tiebreak points played might survive as a tournament record.

Silver star:  Allez les bleus.  While Nadal battled with Brands on Philippe Chatrier, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga rolled through in straight sets on Suzanne Lenglen.  Later in the day, second-ranked Frenchman Richard Gasquet did the same, and even Julien Benneteau won a match on clay for just the second time this year.  Combined with the Monfils upset, these victories added up to an excellent day for the hosts.

Wooden spoon:  When Andy Murray withdrew, Marcel Granollers moved up from unseeded to seeded position.  That promotion served him no benefit as he lost his first match to countryman Feliciano Lopez in five sets and two days.  By contrast, Tommy Robredo profited from the seed that he received with Juan Martin Del Potro’s withdrawal by advancing further into the section vacated by Berdych.

Americans in Paris:  John Isner and Ryan Harrison, both of whom have struggled for most of the year, each notched comfortable straight-sets victories.  Assigned Nice champion Albert Montanes, Steve Johnson battled gallantly into a fifth set as he had against Nicolas Almagro at the Australian Open.  American men have no reason to feel shame so far at historically their worst major.

Question of the day:  Who comes out of Berdych’s section of the draw to reach the quarterfinals?

Question of the day, II:  Does Nadal’s first-round frailty reduce your confidence in him as a title threat?

WTA:

Match of the day:  None could compete with Berdych-Monfils or with Urszula-Venus the day before.  This award goes to a battle between two clay-courters who have produced outstanding recent results.  Rome semifinalist Simona Halep won the first set from world No. 20 Carla Suarez Navarro, but the Spaniard rallied with the form that brought her to two clay finals this year.  A pity that the draw forced them to meet in the first round, and a pity that the match was not scheduled on a televised court.

Comeback of the day:  Channeling a little of her inner Monfils, Garbine Muguruza scorched 46 winners and dropped serve just twice in three sets to ambush fellow power-hitter Karolina Pliskova.  The Venezuelan-born citizen of Spain recorded her first career win at Roland Garros barely a year after her first appearance in a WTA main draw.

Statements of the day:  Although they fell a bit short of Serena’s suffocating brilliance, top-four seeds Maria Sharapova and Agnieszka Radwanska started the tournament in emphatic style.  Defending champion Sharapova conceded just three games to top-50 opponent Hsieh Su-wei, while Radwanska yielded just two games to former top-15 player Shahar Peer.  The latter result came as a mild surprise because of the newly blonde Pole’s struggles on clay this year.

Gold star:  Everyone thought that Laura Robson would knock off world No. 10 Caroline Wozniacki in the first round, and everyone thought very wrong.  Wozniacki ended a five-match losing streak by dominating the British teenager from start to finish.  Perhaps a movie night with Rory McIlroy the day before (they saw Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained) allowed her to forget her recent futility.

Silver star:  The most unsurprising surprise of the day came when the 2009 Roland Garros champion dispatched compatriot Ekaterina Makarova.  In Serena’s quarter, Kuznetsova could meet Wozniacki in a rematch of their Australian Open three-set thriller.  Sveta bounced back impressively from one of the worst losses of her career in Rome.

Wooden spoon:  Outstanding performances on grass last year meant that Tamira Paszek received a seed at Roland Garros despite winning only one match in 2013.  When the slightly less moribund Melanie Oudin dispatched her with ease, Paszek will head to the grass season with the vast majority of points at stake.  Early losses at Eastbourne and Wimbledon will push her ranking down an elevator shaft.

Americans in Paris:  In addition to the aforementioned Oudin, several other women from the United States fared well on Day 2.  Bethanie Mattek-Sands set up a second-round meeting with Li Na, while newer talents Varvara Lepchenko and Madison Keys cruised.  Vania King also advanced in straight sets to complete a perfect record today for the USA.

Question of the day:  Which American woman of those who won day will go furthest?

Question of the day, II:  Should we feel more impressed by Wozniacki or more disappointed by Robson?

Roland Garros Fast Forward: Federer, Serena, Venus, Headline Day 1

What difference will a year make for Serena?

Today features the first edition of a daily Roland Garros preview series that offers a few notes on the next day’s most interesting matches.  After each day ends, moreover, a recap of similar length will guide you through the key headlines.

ATP:

Pablo Carreno-Busta vs. Roger Federer:  This qualifier reeled off a long winning streak at lower-level events over the last year and reached the Portugal semifinals, also as a qualifier, with victories over Julien Benneteau and Fabio Fognini. Carreno-Busta also upset defending champion Pablo Andujar in Casablanca, shortly before the latter stormed to the Madrid semifinals, and won a set from Stanislas Wawrinka in Portugal.  Paris is not Portugal or Casablanca, though, nor is it even Bordeaux, where Carreno-Busta lost in the first round of a challenger.

Gilles Simon vs. Lleyton Hewitt:  This tournament might mark Hewitt’s final appearance at Roland Garros.  If it does, a match on a show court against a fellow grinder, likely with a strong crowd, seems a fitting way to go.  Simon has flown under the radar for most of the year, stringing together some victories at small events and upsetting two top-ten opponents.  He reached the second week at the Australian Open despite largely unimpressive form, so he should muddle through here too.

Andreas Seppi vs. Leonardo Mayer:  The Italian must defend fourth-round points at Roland Garros, where he won two sets from Novak Djokovic last year.  Seppi’s 14-14 record this year does not bode well, and he has survived his first match at only one of six clay tournaments.  Fortunately for him, Mayer lost his only clay match this year.

Marcel Granollers vs. Feliciano Lopez:  A quarterfinalist in Rome, Granollers owes Andy Murray twice over in recent weeks.  First, the world No. 2 retired from their match there, allowing the Spaniard to gobble extra ranking points.  Then, Murray’s withdrawal nudged Granollers into a seeded position at Roland Garros.  He should take advantage of it against the fading serve-volley specialist Feliciano Lopez, although matches between two Spaniards often get trickier than expected.

WTA:

Serena Williams vs. Anna Tatishvili:  Everyone remembers what happened to Serena in the first round here last year.  Nobody remembers it more clearly than Serena does.  Expect her to put this match away early, exorcising Razzano’s ghosts.

Urszula Radwanska vs. Venus Williams:  Both of these women must cope with being the second-best women’s tennis player in their respective families.  Hampered by a back injury, Venus has played just one match on red clay this year, losing routinely to Laura Robson.  Urszula is not quite Robson at this stage, but she recorded clay wins over Dominika Cibulkova and Ana Ivanovic this year.  Venus should pull through in the end after some edgy moments.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova vs. Andrea Hlavackova:  When Pavlyuchenkova gets through her first match, she has reached the semifinals at four of five tournaments this year, winning two.  The problem is that she has lost her first match no fewer than seven times against opponents of varying quality. (Azarenka and Ivanovic are understandable, Lesya Tsurenko and Johanna Larsson less so.)  Since reaching the second week of the US Open, Hlavackova has won one main-draw singles match,  over the hapless Melanie Oudin. Surely Pavlyuchenkova won’t double that total?

Kiki Bertens vs. Sorana Cirstea:  Their big weapons and questionable movement would seem better designed for fast-court tennis.  But both of them have found their greatest success on clay, Cirstea reaching the Roland Garros quarterfinals four years ago and Bertens winning her only WTA title so far at Fes last year.  This match looks among the most evenly contested of the day with plenty of heavy groundstrokes to go around.

Mallory Burdette vs. Donna Vekic:  One of the top American collegiate prospects, Burdette left Stanford last fall to turn pro and has reaped some solid results.  Her victims so far include Lucie Hradecka, Ksenia Pervak, and Sabine Lisicki as well as fellow American rising star Madison Keys.  Burdette will train her vicious backhand on Croatian rising star Donna Vekic, who reached her first WTA final last year as a qualifier.  Vekic has not accomplished much above the challenger level since then, losing her only clay match this year to Chanelle Scheepers in Madrid.

Ayumi Morita vs. Yulia Putintseva:  Is Paris ready for Putintseva?  The volatile French crowd pounced on fellow pocket rocket Michelle Larcher de Brito, but the distant venue of Court 7 should take some of the scrutiny off the strong-lunged youngster.  Putintseva took Serena to a first-set tiebreak in Madrid but will have her work cut out with Morita’s double-fisted strokes.  Unlike Coco Vandeweghe, the Japanese star will win points with more than her serve.

Out of the Blue: ATP Madrid Draw Preview

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

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

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

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

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

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

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

Semifinalist:  Berdych

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

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

Semifinalist:  Nadal

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

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

Semifinalist:  Federer

Final:  Djokovic vs. Nadal

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

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

Sony Open Petkovic Seaquarium Murray Tennis

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.

No Mirage Are These Four: ATP Indian Wells Draw Preview

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

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

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

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

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

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

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

Semifinalist:  Murray

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

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

Semifinalist:  Berdych

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

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

Semifinalist:  Federer

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

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