Florian Mayer

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

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

Atlanta:

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

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

Semifinal:  Isner vs. Hewitt

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

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

Semifinal:  Fish vs. Anderson

Final:  Hewitt vs. Anderson

Gstaad:

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

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

Semifinal:  Federer vs. Monaco 

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

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

Semifinal:  Granollers vs. Wawrinka

Final:  Federer vs. Wawrinka

Umag:

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

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

Semifinal:  Gasquet vs. Fognini

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

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

Semifinal:  Robredo vs. Berlocq

Final:  Fognini vs. Robredo

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

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

No Mirage Are These Four: ATP Indian Wells Draw Preview

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

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

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

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

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

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

Semifinalist:  Murray

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

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

Semifinalist:  Berdych

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

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

Semifinalist:  Federer

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

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

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

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

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

ATP:

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

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

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

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

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

WTA:

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

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

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

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

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

Australian Open ATP Round 1 Recap: Who Looked Good, Who Tanked

By Yeshayahu Ginsburg

None of the top players were troubled at all in the first round, with each of the top 8 seeds winning in straight sets. Some of the top favorites, like Murray and Federer, looked a bit more dominant than the rest; but all in all these were strong performances from the top players. None of them showed any major weaknesses and each of them, for the moment at least, look like they are primed to play their best to win this tournament.

Who Looked Good

Juan Martin Del Potro - Where has this Delpo been since 2009? His forehand was harder and more consistent while his footwork was better than it has been since he won the US Open 3 long years ago. I am not saying that he is in the form to win a Slam at the moment, nor am I saying that tougher opponents in later rounds won’t challenge him more, but he did bring out the level that we all have been waiting to see for a long time. Now the only question is if he can keep it up.

Stanislas Wawrinka - There were very few superlative performances in the first round by men this year, but I was impressed with Stan. He had a tricky opponent who has a lot of talent and played well. Wawrinka stuck with his game, played very well, and never let the pressure get to him. He really played a solid match, which he doesn’t always do in these situations. The consistency he showed is really a good sign for him moving forward.

Honorable Mention: Not that it was a great performance, but I have to give an honorable mention to Amir Weintraub. After 7 years as a professional, Weintraub just competed in and won his first-ever tour-level match (though he has played Davis Cup). Not that it’s a statistic that means anything, but very few players win their first-ever matches—and in a Slam to boot. I’m sure this will give him a great feeling before he gets destroyed by Kohlschreiber in the next round.

Who Looked Bad

Nicolas Almagro - I’m sorry, but top 10 seeds should not be taken to five sets by qualifiers, and certainly not by lower-tier qualifiers like Steve Johnson. Yes, Johnson is a former NCAA champion. But he has not played well on the main tour since then and really didn’t play great in this match. He fought his way to win two tiebreaks, but this was a match dominated by poor play by each player. This was close to being the biggest win, by far, of Johnson’s career, yet it was a far cry from the best match he’s ever played. Almagro should have been better, period, and should not have thrown away those two tiebreaks.

Florian Mayer - Not that we were able to watch the match, because it was on untelevised Court 20, but Rhyne Williams is not a player that anyone in the top 30 should lose two sets to, and certainly not with multiple breaks of serve. Williams barely competes at a top 200 level and held two match points against Mayer in the fourth-set tiebreak. If Mayer plays so poorly in the next round, he will not last very long against his opponent Ricardas Berankis.

Thomaz Bellucci - Once again, I’m commenting on a match that wasn’t televised. And I know that Bellucci is probably the biggest clay court specialist on tour right now. I don’t even care how well Blaz Kavcic played. Winning just 7 games against Kavcic in 3 sets is just inexcusable. It’s not what a top-level tennis player does. It just isn’t.

Match of the Round

The most entertaining match of this round (as least, of those that were televised) was pretty clearly Tatsuma Ito against John Millman. The match was not the highest level of tennis, but it was two evenly matched players gutting it out and fighting from the first ball. Ito took the first two sets by a single break but could not convert a single break point in the third or fourth sets. As this match went on and Millman looked to be moving forward with his comeback, the crowd got more and more into the match. And while the Aussie was a decisive crowd favorite, Ito had some very strong support as well. The crowd erupted after every strong and important point late in the match. They had just as much a part of this being the best match this round as the players did. Millman had a real chance to go up a break to serve for the match at 5-5 in the fifth, but he could not convert and was immediately broken to fall 7-5 in the fifth. It was a good match by both players and one of the most enjoyable to watch this entire round.

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

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

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

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

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Player to watch:  Querrey

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

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

Semifinalist:  Ferrer

Player to watch:  Dimitrov

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

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

Semifinalist:  Murray

Player to watch:  Del Potro

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

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

Semifinalist:  Federer

Player to watch:  Tomic

Final:  Djokovic vs. Murray

Champion:  Novak Djokovic

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

ATP Around the Corner: Clay court tennis previews in Casablanca and Houston

The clay court season will have its work cut out for it in terms of matching the fast paced start to the 2012 season on the ATP World Tour.

We are just over three months into the grueling professional tennis schedule but have already witnessed some outstanding performances and intriguing story lines.

World number one Novak Djokovic has won the first Grand Slam of the year and seems prepared to continue the brilliance we saw from a year ago.

Roger Federer has improved upon his end to 2011 and compiled a 44-3 record since the U.S. Open in September. Suddenly being thirty doesn’t seem so bad does it?

John Isner seems poised to carry the weight of American tennis hopes after nearly ten years of dominance from Andy Roddick.

Andy Murray is still a mystery containing all the talent one could hope for, yet waiting for his first Grand Slam triumph that many thought would have happened by now. Perhaps teaming with former eight time major champ Ivan Lendl will see him over that barrier.

Rafael Nadal’s season is already surrounded by question marks as his knees are once again threatening to stall the great heights he is capable of attaining. Will we see the king of clay this spring?

The shift in surface will force everyone to adjust and soon we’ll see if the players above can continue to dominate the headlines in the tennis world.

Gran Prix Hassan II: Casablanca, Morocco

This level 250 event has Pablo Andujar as its defending champion from a year ago. With plenty of clay court events coming up over the next two months, many players see no hurry to dive into the field, which explains why this one is certainly weaker than what we will witness in the weeks to come.

The number one seed here is an under-whelming one with Florian Mayer from Germany holding the pole position. Mayer was never able to reach the same heights as Nicolas Kiefer and Tommy Haas were able to attain and he clearly is not the second coming of Boris Becker.

Unseeded Albert Montanes and Guillermo Garcia Lopez represent the strongest clay court opponents in this half of the draw, and I’d bank on one of them making it to the finals rather than Mayer.

In the bottom half, second seeded Alexandr Dolgopolov might state that clay is his favorite surface, but over the previous year where he has risen into the top thirty in the world, I’ve seen little evidence that he should be feared on the red dirt with the exception of a small tournament victory in Umag. That being said, I suppose this is the perfect type of tournament for him to step-up at.

The previously mentioned Andujar is the third seed and will surely be confident he can win a few matches once more at this venue. Ranked 39th in the world, Andujar lost five of his first six matches of the year, but recently took a set off Novak Djokovic on hard courts in Indian Wells before falling 6-0, 6-7(5), 6-2 in their fourth round encounter.

U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship: Houston, Texas

Why anyone would waste their time playing on the har-tru courts in Houston has always been beyond me, yet there is decent field vying for the $79,000 winner’s check.

Seeded first is Mardy Fish who did not participate in this weekend’s Davis Cup victory over France due to exhaustion. I wouldn’t bet for Fish to go too far due to the surface here. He gets a first round bye which also likely won’t do him much good when he potentially faces Daniel Gimeno-Traver, who is a decent clay court player.

Juan Monaco is seeded fourth and is my pick to navigate his way through to the finals. Monaco has had a good run lately on hard courts where he surprisingly made it to the semi-finals of Miami. Look for that confidence to translate into further success on clay as well.

The bottom half of the draw is fairly wide open. I’d expect for the confident John Isner to continue to build on his break-out season. Isner has made his first ATP Masters final in Indian Wells and has performed quite well on clay as well, with huge Davis Cup victories over Roger Federer and the Swiss as well as Jo Wilfried-Tsonga and the French.

Feliciano Lopez is seeded third but has been his usual inconsistent self of late, while big-serving Ivo Karlovic is always a threat even on a slower surface like this one.

Fans of American veteran James Blake might want to check him out in what I’m sure will be his last season on the pro tour. Blake is currently ranked 74th in the world but has been plagued by injuries for the past few seasons and I can’t see him continuing to trudge along for much longer in this state. He opens against sixth seeded Carlos Berlocq.

After this week, things will heat up with the Monte Carlo Masters 1000 event that will surely draw all the big names back into the mix. Enjoy the transition and the build-up to next month’s French Open!

Rafael Nadal Shanghai loss ensures Novak Djokovic number 1 position for 2011 – The Friday Five

By Maud Watson

Significant Loss

In case you missed it in Thursday’s tennis headlines, Rafael Nadal suffered a shock straight-sets defeat to German Florian Mayer. While it is possible we’re witnessing a breakdown in the Nadal aura, it’s not the earth-shattering loss some fans have proposed. Nadal has historically struggled during the fall and exited Shanghai at the same stage last year. But this loss was still a significant one in that it officially ensures that Novak Djokovic will end 2011 as the No. 1 ranked player – the first player not named Federer or Nadal to end in the top spot since Andy Roddick in 2003. But Nadal will still be keen to gain on Djokovic as 2011 winds down in an effort to reclaim the coveted ranking in 2012.

Difficult to Weigh

Before the Shanghai Masters got underway, there was some chatter about Andy Murray’s victory in Tokyo this past weekend. It marked his second successive tournament win, but what made it so impressive was that he secured it by coming from a set down against Nadal, trouncing the Spaniard 6-0 in the third. It was a big win for Murray, because it came against the No. 2 player in the world, whom he had lost to the last five times they played. But there wasn’t a huge fuss about the result. Many saw Murray’s victory as having more to do with the psychological damage Djokovic has inflicted on Nadal this season rather than the Scot’s superior play. But that interpretation sells Murray short. There’s no doubt he played one of the best match of his career this past Sunday. But we’ve seen this song and dance before. He’s had the big wins. He’s shown he has the game and the smarts to defeat the best on any surface on any given day. But until he gets a major under his belt, this win is just another one of those breathtaking moments that leaves many a Murray fan begging the question that if he can produce this kind of tennis in Tokyo, why not on the game’s biggest stages?

Making her Move

In an era filled with what Mary Carillo has termed “big babe tennis,” it’s nice to see that there’s still some room for court craft and guile. This season it comes in the form of diminutive Pole Aggie Radwanska. Like Murray on the men’s side, Radwanska also won her second title in two weeks, winning Beijing over German Andrea Petkovic. It was a big match for the two players, as with the WTA Championships looming and only one spot in the field remaining, whoever won in China would be firmly in the driver’s seat to claim that coveted final berth. In the end, it was ultimately Aggie who proved the steadier of the two, finding a way to bounce back from an 0-6 second set to beat Petkovic. The win put her ahead of Petkovic and into that 8th spot. With Petkovic being forced to withdraw from Linz with a knee injury, the only player who can potentially stand in Radwanska’s way is Marion Bartoli, and there’s an awful lot that has to go right for Bartoli to snatch that spot away from the Pole. With injuries and the up and down nature of the women’s game right now, Radwanska might just find a way to use those WTA Championships to greater success in the majors, much the same way Amelie Mauresmo did.

Cart before the Horse

It seems like only yesterday we heard how the players were all going to get together in Shanghai and discuss how they were going to force change on the men’s tennis circuit. Now here we are, and nothing is happening. While Roddick remains fairly vocal, Murray and Nadal are backing off the initial bluntness of their prior statements. In seeing how this is all unfolding, it’s difficult to not feel that these players may not have put the proverbial cart before the horse. They rightfully agreed and realized that it would have been foolish to try and have a meeting without Federer and Djokovic present. They also seemed to concede that it would be difficult to get all the guys together for such a pow-wow, which may be a prime example of why tennis has never really had a union the same way other major sports have – individual players like to set their own schedules with their own individual priorities. It seems fans are growing more disgruntled with the complaints, too, as evidenced by the reaction of many when Nadal came out with a gripe about the number of ball changes during the Asian swing. The reality is that these players have brought up some good points and changes need to be made, but as they are realizing, they would be best served to avoid airing out their issues until they’re organized and ready to present viable solutions. Otherwise, it’s just going to come across as sour grapes from a handful of players bitter about the way their seasons have transpired.

Magic of a Major

As the Asian swing is underway and the players and fans are treated to some spectacular state-of-the art facilities, the annual talk of a fifth major somewhere in Asia has begun. But I was happy with Brad Drewitt’s comments, stating he thought it unlikely such a scenario would unfold. As great as the tennis boom in Asia is, having a major there would feel wrong. The Slams are where they are, because those were the first four countries to win the Davis Cup. They have some of the deepest roots in tennis history, and they’ve earned the right to be among the most elite through decades of endurance. Besides, unless there’s a way to sandwich it between the Australian Open and Roland Garros (unlikely), do you really want to ask the players to compete at a fifth major in the fall when many are citing fatigue and figuring out how to tackle the next season?

It’s never too early to start looking ahead: The race for London

For most tennis fans, that awkward period after the US Open and before the World Tour Finals is a time to relax and tend to some non tennis pursuits. For those of us who just can’t put tennis aside, it means watching blurry streams of Florian Mayer beating Pablo Andujar, on clay, in Bucharest or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga overcoming Ivan Ljubicic in Metz. Sure, for most players, and fans, the season is winding down, but for about twelve guys, things are just revving up. These are the guys still in contention for the last few coveted spots in the Barclays World Tour Finals in November.

If you are unfamiliar with the format, the World Tour Finals are held at the end of each season and the eight players who have compiled the most ranking points in that season are invited to participate in the event. They are divided into two groups for round robin matches, with the top two guys from each group advancing to the semifinals. So far, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, and Roger Federer have all qualified for this year’s event. That leaves four spots for the rest of the competition.

One guy will be conspicuously absent this year. Andy Roddick has qualified for the World Tour Finals for eight years in a row, but after a disappointing 2011, where he dropped out of the Top 20 for the first time in what seemed like forever, he just couldn’t keep the streak going. However, Andy’s absence could mean a first time appearance for his good friend Mardy Fish, who is currently in 6th place and will very likely make his World Tour Final debut in November just before his 30th birthday. Let’s look at the rest of the competition

Shoo-Ins

David Ferrer: At 5th in the race, David will most likely have no trouble qualifying for third trip to London. He previously qualified in 2007, where he lost to Roger Federer in the final and last year in 2010, where he bowed out in the round robin stage. He’s got a lead of nearly 1000 points (a Masters title worth of points) on his nearest competitor, so I would say it’s a safe bet to book him a spot.

Mardy Fish: As I mentioned, Fish is chasing his first appearance in the year end championships. Mardy had a great summer in 2010, but few people believed he would back up those results in 2011. However, Fish has had the best year of his career, reaching the Top 10 for the first time as well as the quarterfinals of Wimbledon. He’s done well taking on the demands of being the top US player, a crown Roddick has worn for many years. I have little doubt we’ll being seeing him at the O2 this year.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: Jo seems to have found his 2008 form again. He had career best appearances at Wimbledon (semifinals) and the US Open (quarterfinals) this year and has cracked the Top 10 again. This week, he beat Ivan Ljubicic to take home the title in Metz and he will seek to build on that momentum going into the Asia swing.

Tomas Berdych: Berdych currently holds the tenuous eighth spot in the race. He hasn’t had the best results this year, but he has been able to maintain his Top 10 ranking. If the reports are correct, he’s also had a tumultuous year in his personal life, breaking up with long time girlfriend Lucie Safarova. Perhaps he’ll be able to right the ship this fall. A good run in Shanghai or Paris, or a title run at one of the smaller events would certainly keep him in contention.

On the Cusp

Nicolas Almagro: When I looked at the race, I was actually shocked to see Almagro in 9th place. When did that happen? I couldn’t remember any significant Grand Slam contribution this year, because there weren’t any. But, once I did a little checking, sure enough, Nicolas has appeared in five ATP finals this year, and won three of those titles. They were all 250 and 500 events, but those points add up. He’s less than 100 points behind Tomas Berdych and has a real possibility of taking one of the remaining four spots.

Robin Soderling: Soderling made his debut in London in 2009, where he reached the semifinals, and followed it up with a second appearance in 2010. He had an amazing start to the year, winning titles in Brisbane, Rotterdam, and Marseille. However, since then it’s been a sea of injuries and illness that has kept him from competing in a lot of key events. He recently announced that a case of mono will keep him out for at least another month. The outlook is a bit grim for Robin’s third consecutive appearance at the World Tour Finals.

Juan Martin del Potro: After not playing for basically all of last year, Juan Martin del Potro has been making up for lost time. In January 2011, del Potro was ranked 485 in the world and depended on wildcards and a protected ranking to get him direct entry into tournaments. He started rising up the rankings after semifinal appearances in San Jose and Memphis and his first title back in Delray Beach. He topped his February performances by reaching the semifinals of Indian Wells. He won a second title for the year in Estoril in May. He’s now back in the Top 15.

Gilles Simon: Simon had a breakout year in 2008, reaching the semifinals in his lone appearance at the World Tour Finals and then reaching a career high ranking of 6 in January of 2009. However, he missed a great deal of 2010 due to a knee injury. Like his countryman Tsonga, Simon seems to have rediscovered his form and could be a force going into the final legs of the season.

Dark Horses

Janko Tisparevic: At 13th in the race, he’s a long shot, but it’s been quite a year for Tisparevic who reached the quarterfinals of the US Open and broke into the Top 15 for the first time a couple of weeks ago.

Gael Monfils: It would take some stellar results this fall for Monfils to leapfrog the other competitors and reserve a spot in London. I doubt he has the consistency for it, but Gael always brings the surprises.

Richard Gasquet: Like his French compatriots, Richard has had a pretty good year. He’s not quite back to his Top 10 form, but I would not be surprised if we see big things from him in 2012.

Alexandr Dolgopolov: At 22, Dolgopolov will have plenty more chances to qualify for the World Tour Finals. If he keeps up his current trajectory, we’ll likely be seeing a lot of him next year.