by David Foster
(The following is written by David Foster, who heads up the U.S. Davis Cup Team’s cheer squad “The Netheads.” David was the one and only non-USTA delegation fan from the United States to travel to Tashkent, Uzbekistan for the recent USA vs. Uzbekistan Davis Cup series. To get involved with the Netheads, email David at firstname.lastname@example.org and mentioned “Nethead” in the subject line)
Going to Tashkent, Uzbekistan for the USA vs. Uzbekistan Davis Cup Playoff Round was an unbelievable trip! There were super friendly Uzbeks, super pretty girls (for some reason as I get older girls keep getting prettier), awesome American support from the Marines and the Embassy staff, a beautiful city and beautiful weather.
I arrived in Tashkent at 2:45AM on the Wednesday before the Friday start. The USTA provided a special envoy to get me to VIP customs and then a ride to hotel. That was a nice start.
After a few hours sleep, I headed for Amir Temur park to see the statue of this great Uzbek leader from the 1300s. Within half hour of my first walk in Tashkent, two pretty Uzbek girls (students) asked if they could ask me survey questions on video. Never being able to turn down a pretty girl in any country, I consented. They asked me to compare US (60 years for me) to Uzbekistan (30 minutes on street). All I could say is Tashkent is much cleaner than American cities. After videos were done, one for each girl, they asked me if I thought Uzbek girls were pretty. Geez, did they pick the right person to ask? But what was funny was that in one article I read about going to Uzbekistan it stated you should not comment on ladies’ looks. Well, I bypassed the article and stated, yes, Uzbek girls are pretty.
I then sat on bench in park to watch people. Watching moms with their kids showed me once more people are all the same in the world. I just wish governments could get along. I had two folks ask me for directions before I could say “Ingliz.” It happens everywhere I go.
Then I committed my first American error. I stopped at ATM to get some “som” (Uzbek currency). The ATM had English on the initial screen but after I entered my card, there was no English option. Being a smart American, I thought I know what it is asking (pin number first, then do I want withdrawal) even though it was in Uzbek. I finally got to screen that had 50, 100, 150, 200, 300, 400. So I assumed this is stating how much in US dollars to I want to be given in som. I hit 100 and low and behold a Ben Franklin $100 bill came out of the machine. I have never been anywhere where foreign ATM had an option for US dollars.
To tell you what prices are like in Uzbekistan, when I went to hotel exchange desk to convert my Ben Franklin, the lady questioned why I would want to convert the whole thing. She asked “are you sure you are going to spend all that?”
The draw was held in courtyard at the hotel, the Lotte Palace Hotel. After draw I went on long walk (4 miles each way) to visit the US Embassy. Unfortunately, I followed the Google map directions I had and I never found it. I asked several Uzbeks for help but they couldn’t even recognize the street names. After wandering around neighborhood for a while I just headed back to hotel. But I did get to see non-downtown section of city and see mucho people so all was not lost.
On Friday, I took a taxi to tennis facility and had driver who had lived in Pittsburgh for awhile. The road to the tennis went by government offices so he pointed out presidential building (president works there and lives elsewhere) and Uzbek version of Pentagon. The highway signs on this road not only showed the speed limit but also signs indicating no pictures/videos allowed, for security purposes. The Pittsburgh driver pointed out that road was in great shape until after road where president turns to go home. Then two lanes have been under construction for years, finally turning into dirt and gravel before we got to tennis courts.
In Uzbekistan, they have instant Uber. As my Pittsburgh driver told me, every car in Tashkent is a taxi. Folks stand on side of road. A potential driver stops, they discuss location and price, and if agreement, the passenger climbs in for ride. On my taxi ride back to hotel, my driver picked up two extras and dropped one off. No official name for process – may be they should call it Uzber.
The tennis facility was interesting with seats only on one side. The capacity was maybe 2,000. Admission was free. School kids, probably age 12 to 16, filled the stadium on Friday and Saturday. They were wearing school uniforms consisting of a white shirt and black pants or skirts. We had a couple of folks from the U.S. Embassy and three U.S. Marines joining me in our small U.S. cheer section
After first match between Steve Johnson and Denis Istomin finished (Istomin winning in five sets), the students all left – but not before 50 or more stopped by me to ask for a selfie. I went off to concession store and had my picture taken with ball kids and two very pretty girls who then asked if I could get them a picture with players (never understand why they are not satisfied with me). The second match went quickly for Jack Sock in front of probably less than 300 fans. It rained, a light shower, during the match but they kept going on the clay.
In addition to selfies, I had a gentleman hand me some pictures at the end of the first match. When I got back to hotel, I discovered in middle of pictures was a visa/immigration request. I showed this info to one of embassy folks and he just assumed the person was asking me to help with visa process. That was very Interesting.
On Friday night, the Marines picked me up at hotel and we went to the embassy annex for movie and hot dogs night with embassy folks and families. They couldn’t believe I got visa to come to Uzbekistan in seven days.
On Saturday, I took a taxi early to stadium and posed for another twenty to twenty-five pictures before match. Students were there again in uniform. One young lady sat down next to me and when I told her USA girls do not go to school on Saturday and do not have to wear uniforms, she was ready to head to America. Before the match, I was able to get large group of students to do the “USA” cheer. Randy Walker, press guy for USTA, got the USA cheering on video and posted it here on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56KVDZGeREQ
Three Marines joined me for doubles and we won pretty easily in three sets. We had two good players (Johnson and Sam Querrey) against one good (Istomin) and one fair player (Farrukh Dustov). After the match, the Marines gave me a ride back to hotel. It’s nice to have those guys looking out for you.
On Sunday at breakfast, a Japanese lady decided I had interesting face and asked for obligatory picture. After I finished eating, I went upstairs and came back with Nethead on and she was really excited to take another picture. She asked for an autograph and was super excited when I signed “Robert Redford.”
At the match, there were more adults than students for a change. Besides the Marines, there were probably 25 embassy folks there, including the ambassador, who sat with the USTA folks. I did not get to meet her since she was gone after I had my last session of stadium selfies. It was a good match on Sunday with Sock trying to serve it out for tie and went back and forth several times with Istomin. It let our fans experience some tension before with Sock closed it out. I got a final ride back with the Marines and thanked them for their service for us.
After the matches on Sunday afternoon, I took another walk around Amir Temur Square. (A video of this area can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X-mf7VtKO8E. I saw two pretty girls ahead of me taking pictures towards the statue and, as I got close, I got another request for pictures with each one. I figured it was pictures No. 99 and 100 for the trip.
Everybody in the USTA contingent left on Sunday night, leaving me alone on Monday. I took a personal tour with an English-speaking guide, who was a very knowledgeable guy. He explained that Independence Square was originally Red Square under the Russian Empire and Lenin’s square under Soviet rule. At the 1966 earthquake statue, he explained how Soviets came in to rebuild and add new housing after earthquake damage. I then saw the World War II memorial which had books of gold with names of 500,000 Uzbek men who never came home. I also saw Osman’s Koran which many believe is oldest Koran in existence. The Koran shows Osman’s blood stains where legend is he was stabbed while reading the Koran.
My tour guide explained there is freedom of religion in Uzbekistan but not freedom of where to practice it. Muslims cannot pray in public. Minarets at mosques are for looks only. One cannot issue any calls to prayer. The government does not want religion to be involved in government at all, trying to avoid the problems of other countries – a true separation of church and state. He also told me the building secured with guards with AK-47s I had jogged past for five days was the National Security building, the old KGB. I never saw any indication of street crime during my time in Tashkent. I felt safe wherever I went. My guide indicated Uzbekistan is considered in top five safest countries in the world. In discussion on security with one of embassy staff, she stated there is security in a police state.
I left the hotel at 5PM (Monday) EST time (2AM Tuesday Uzbek time) and got back to my condo in Atlanta at midnight EST Tuesday – 31 hours of travel. It was an uneventful trip except for a two-hour delay on my Paris to Atlanta flight. In Moscow, I saw the prettiest TSA person I’ve ever seen. It was the only time I’ve ever wanted to set off the buzzer and require a pat down! I told her she was prettier than agents in USA, but either she did not understand or she was just giving me the normal cold shoulder I usually get!
No. 2 American men’s tennis player Jack Sock stepped foot on the Grandstand Thursday to chase balls with Ruben Bemelmans. Unfortunately he needed other feet to walk him off. Despite a 1-0 record against the Belgian, Sock succumbed to the unrelenting late-summer heat, collapsing on court while leading 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 1-2. In a statement released later, Sock said, “Playing in the US Open is the biggest and most important moment of the season for me, so having to retire from my match today is extremely disappointing. I want to thank everyone for their support and can’t wait to be back next year.”
Photo: Chris Nicholson, www.PhotographingTennis.com
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Play was derailed by play Wednesday evening, but not before plenty of action took place including Andrea Petkovic, John Isner, Tommy Haas, Grigor Dimitrov, Sorana Cirstea, Yanina Wickmayer, Marinko Matosevic, Jack Sock, Alex Kuznetsov, and even Sloane Stephens hit the practice courts.
Gallery by Tennis Grandstand photographer Christopher Levy.
WASHINGTON, D.C. (July 30, 2013) Tuesday at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. included players Jack Sock, Angelique Kerber, Ryan Harrison, Caroline Garcia, Heather Watson, Eugenie Bouchard, Alize Cornet, and Sorana Cirstea.
Gallery by Tennis Grandstand photographer Christopher Levy.
While the WTA divides its action between two coasts this week, the ATP spans the Atlantic Ocean with events on two different continents and surfaces. The 500 tournament in Washington, part of the US Open Series, takes center stage.
Top half: A champion in Washington four years ago, Juan Martin Del Potro holds the top seed at the 2013 edition. The Wimbledon semifinalist hopes to rediscover his torrid form against one of two men who shone in Atlanta. Producing semifinal runs there last week, Lleyton Hewitt and Ryan Harrison will square off in one of the most intriguing first-round matches. Nor can Del Potro relax if he survives the winner. A strong grass season, highlighted by a second-week appearance at Wimbledon, will have restored Bernard Tomic’s confidence. Although he continues to cope with controversy surrounding his father, Tomic has plenty of ways to disrupt Del Potro’s rhythm if the Argentine returns rusty from a leg injury. A more straightforward test awaits from Kevin Anderson, seeking his third semifinal in three weeks. Before he meets Del Potro in the quarterfinals, Anderson may find the returning Mardy Fish an opponent worthy of his steel.
If power dominates the top quarter, flair defines much of the second quarter. The flamboyant shot-making of Tommy Haas favors precision over physicality, while the graceful one-handed backhand of Grigor Dimitrov has a vintage appeal. Haas reached the final in Washington last year, perhaps using his training at the Bolletieri Academy in Florida as experience for coping with the humidity. But power never lags far behind in a draw filled with Americans. Sam Querrey will face one of two Atlanta quarterfinalists, Denis Istomin or Santiago Giraldo, in the second round. A contrast of styles would await if Querrey advances to face Dimitrov and then Haas, although a 5-8 record since April leaves a deep run far from guaranteed.
Semifinal: Del Potro vs. Haas
Bottom half: Filled with question marks, the third quarter could produce a surprise semifinalist. The favorite at first glance would seem Milos Raonic, by far the most powerful of the seeds. Raonic’s massive serve could sizzle on a hot hard court, but he has accomplished little since winning yet another San Jose title in February. Neither has fellow seed Nikolay Davydenko, who has struggled historically against possible second-round opponent James Blake. Some of Gilles Simon’s best results have come in North America, including a Miami quarterfinal this spring, and the fifth seed’s steadiness might suffice to ease him past the erratic men around him. Among them is former champion Radek Stepanek, who looks forward to American collegiate star Steve Johnson in his opener.
One might lose sight of defending champion Alexandr Dolgopolov in the fourth quarter. Not a threat for most of 2013, Dolgopolov faces an arduous route towards a title defense. Home hope John Isner looms in the third round if he can revive his energy after a draining title run in Atlanta. An easier route to the quarterfinals beckons for Kei Nishikori, who won a North American 500 tournament at Memphis this year. Bogota runner-up Alejandro Falla faded quickly in Atlanta, as did American teenage sensation Jack Sock. The clean, balanced baseline game of Nishikori should carry him past either of those opponents, after which a first meeting with Isner could await.
Semifinal: Simon vs. Isner
Final: Del Potro vs. Isner
Top half: An assortment of Europeans and clay specialists have headed to this Austrian event before venturing into the steamy American summer. German top seed Philipp Kohlschreiber aims to move one round further than he did at another clay 250 event. The finalist in Stuttgart a few weeks ago, Kohlschreiber can look ahead to a quarterfinal against Spanish dirt devil Marcel Granollers. This Rome quarterfinalist will welcome the opportunity to erase memories of an epic loss in Gstaad last week. Between them stand Horacio Zeballos of Nadal-defeating fame and Wimbledon surprise Kenny de Schepper, who reached the second week there.
A greater Wimbledon surprise than de Schepper came from Fernando Verdasco, who would not hold the third seed here if not for his quarterfinal appearance at the last major. To his credit, Verdasco parlayed that breakthrough into a strong July, highlighted by victories over Nicolas Almagro, Grigor Dimitrov, and Jerzy Janowicz. An all-lefty matchup against Brazilian clay specialist Thomaz Bellucci should not detain him for long en route to a rematch of the Bastad final. At that Swedish tournament, Verdasco fell to Carlos Berlocq, who faces an extremely challenging assignment as the fifth seed. Days after defeating Federer, the ominous Daniel Brands sets his sights on the Bastad champion. Also in this deep section is Robin Haase, arriving from a series of morale-boosting wins in Gstaad.
Semifinal: Granollers vs. Verdasco
Bottom half: A week of mixed omens for Albert Montanes in Umag included an upset over world No. 9 Richard Gasquet and a tight loss to Gasquet’s compatriot Gael Monfils. Twice a semifinalist on clay already this summer, Victor Hanescu finds himself on a collision course with Montanes, who won a clay title in Nice just before Roland Garros. The winner should feel confident heading into the quarterfinals, although home hope Jurgen Melzer will have most of the audience behind him. Melzer reached the second week of Wimbledon but has lost five consecutive clay matches dating back to Monte Carlo.
Arguably the softest section, the base of the Kitzbuhel draw lies at the mercy of second seed Juan Monaco. This recent member of the top 10 has shown altogether too much mercy in 2013, helplessly watching his ranking decline. All the same, Monaco has produced at least somewhat respectable tennis this summer on clay, his best surface. Three qualifiers and a wildcard offer little competition, so any challenge would need to come from one of two Spaniards. While Daniel Gimeno-Traver has struggled on clay this year, Roberto Bautista-Agut retired last week in Gstaad. Monaco thus looks safe unless he implodes, admittedly not unthinkable.
Semifinal: Montanes vs. Monaco
Final: Verdasco vs. Montanes
Among the annual narratives of the US Open Series are the glimpses of rising American talents on both Tours. The first week of the 2013 Series shone a spotlight on a dozen of these players in Atlanta and Stanford, small events without draws too daunting. Some took advantage of the breathing room this week, while others allowed opportunities to escape them.
Ryan Harrison: He had not reached an ATP quarterfinal since early January, compiling barely more wins in 2013 than one could count on the figures of one hand. But Harrison ended that drought and bolstered his sagging ranking by weathering a pair of rollercoasters against higher-ranked opponents. He outlasted Marinko Matosevic and the fourth-seeded Igor Sijsling more from superior determination than superior tennis. Under the Friday night lights, Harrison will face Santiago Giraldo in a rematch of an Australian Open meeting that he won comfortably. A first career final is not inconceivable.
Christian Harrison: Every player must remember the moment of their first victory in the main draw an ATP tournament. For Ryan’s 19-year-old brother, that moment came in the first round of Atlanta. While Alejandro Falla entered that match drained from last week’s Bogota finals run, Christian still showed impressive grit by battling through three tight sets to upset an opponent ranked 210 places higher. The grit resurfaced a round later, when he fell to the top-seeded Isner by the narrowest of margins. Christian battled a far more powerful, far more experienced opponent deep into the third set, nearly scoring a massive upset.
Jack Sock: A quarterfinalist at Atlanta last year, Sock could not recapture his success despite his clear advantage in power over Santiago Giraldo. This Colombian clay specialist even out-aced Sock on a hard court. Since reaching the quarterfinals in Memphis, Sock has not advanced past the second round of any ATP tournament. Accumulated frustration from those struggles may have contributed to his outbursts of temper in Atlanta. Fans should remember that Sock remains a raw, unfinished talent still a few years away from fulfilling his potential.
Rhyne Williams: Raining aces aplenty on both of his opponents, this prospect established himself as an intimidating server in the mold of many American men before him. Williams powered past compatriot higher-ranked compatriot Denis Kudla in the first round without dropping his serve. He threatened to spring an upset on the seventh-seeded, much more experienced Lleyton Hewitt behind another barrage of aces. But his inexperience showed in the first-set tiebreak, which Williams lost after holding four consecutive set points and donating a costly double fault.
Denis Kudla: The world No. 93 showed promise in North American challengers this spring and by reaching the quarterfinals at Queen’s Club. Kudla’s modest serve left him at a critical disadvantage against a torrid Williams, so Atlanta fans could not fully appreciate his skills in other areas. He will hope for more advantageous draws as the US Open Series continues.
Tim Smyczek: Just behind Williams in the rankings, Smyczek earned attention at the Australian Open when he upset Ivo Karlovic and won a set from David Ferrer. Since that promising statement, Smyczek has won just three main-draw matches at ATP tournaments. Curiously, two of those have come against notable opponents in Fernando Verdasco and Sam Querrey. Smyczek needs to exploit opportunities in winnable matches better than in his loss to James Blake. At 5-5 in the third set, he could not convert break points that might have sealed the match.
Jamie Hampton: Like Smyczek, Hampton emerged on the radar of observant fans in Melbourne, where she won a set from eventual champion Victoria Azarenka. A clay upset of Petra Kvitova signaled a second peak in June, marked by a stirring run to the Eastbourne final as a qualifier. The 23-year-old Hampton holds a seed for the first time this week. She carried that burden with mixed results in her opener, striking over 50 winners while spraying plenty of careless errors. A semifinal looms against Agnieszka Radwanska, whom she defeated in Eastbourne. She must clean up her game by then.
Madison Keys: In a tale of two matches, Keys dominated eighth seed Magdalena Rybarikova and then fell quietly to qualifier Vera Dushevina. Eagerness to find a successor to the Williams sisters, which Keys could become, should not blind onlookers to the inconsistency in her results this year. She often plays to the level of her competition, a trait common among young, raw talents, and more growing pains will lie ahead before we can rely on her as a late-week threat. Stanford brought a dose of optimism and a dash of realism, a healthy recipe for both Keys and her fans to consume.
Christina McHale: A once-promising talent veered off the rails when McHale fell victim last year to mononucleosis, often a death sentence for tennis careers. The New Jersey native has time to regroup, though, for she just turned 21 in May. McHale has advanced past the second round at only one tournament (Doha) in the last 11 months, but she has troubled top-15 opponents such as Li Na, Sara Errani, and Maria Kirilenko this year. Still searching for confidence, she won just four games from Urszula Radwanska in the first round of Stanford.
Coco Vandeweghe: Reaching last year’s Stanford final as a lucky loser, she qualified for the main draw this time and routed her first opponent. The somewhat less inconsistent Sorana Cirstea then ended Vandeweghe’s bid for another breakthrough. Back inside the top 200, the Southern California slugger wields a huge serve—and not much else. She accomplished about as much as one could expect in the context of her year overall.
Mallory Burdette: Unfortunate to draw Marion Bartoli in the first round last year, Burdette enjoyed only slightly better fortune by facing Francesca Schiavone in this year’s opener. The Italian has feasted on inexperienced players like the Stanford alum, who became a full-time pro last fall. Despite her dwindling form, Schiavone pulled away in straight sets to hand Burdette her fourth straight loss. She will hope for less thorny draws as the US Open Series progresses.
Nicole Gibbs: The best player in NCAA women’s tennis again received a wildcard to the tournament at her university. Gibbs produced a result similar on paper to her Stanford appearance in 2012, when she won one match before losing the second. But her three-set dogfight with the fourth-seeded Hampton revealed the toughness behind her gentle demeanor. Gibbs easily could have grown disheartened after failing to serve out the second set, or after falling behind 0-4 in the third. Her resilience in both of those situations suggested that she has the heart to succeed in the WTA, if perhaps not the weapons.
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.
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
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
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
The Emirates Airlines US Open Series begins next week with tournaments at Atlanta (ATP) and Stanford (WTA). More events on both Tours follow during each of the five weeks between now and the US Open, including consecutive Masters 1000/Premier Five tournaments in Canada and Cincinnati. As the action accelerates toward the final major of 2013, here are seven key narratives to follow.
1. Will Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray seize the upper hand?
The top two men in the world have contested the finals at the last three non-clay majors and enter the summer hard courts as co-favorites for the US Open. Fittingly, Djokovic and Murray each have won once in New York, although the Serb has reached four finals there to the Scot’s two. While Murray has won multiple titles at both Masters 1000 tournaments this summer, Djokovic never has conquered Cincinnati despite winning three times in Canada. A victory for either man over the other at one of those events would earn that player an edge heading into New York. So would a Canada/Cincinnati sweep, a feat that has occurred only three times on the men’s side in the Open era. Back on their best surface for the rest of 2013, Djokovic and Murray have an opportunity to take their rivalry another step forward. Abrupt shifts have defined it so far, so predict at your peril.
2. Will Serena Williams restore order in the WTA?
The world No. 1 has compiled a somewhat strange season, dominating Roland Garros and racing undefeated through the clay season but losing by the quarterfinals at the two non-clay majors. Serena usually responds with courage to adversity such as her stunning loss to Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon. One need think back barely a year to the second-half surge that she reeled off after a much more disheartening setback against Virginie Razzano. The dominance of the top three women since the start of 2012 prepared few viewers for the implosion at Wimbledon. That fortnight echoed the chaotic period in the WTA that preceded the current Serena/Maria/Vika Rule of Three. For reasons developed further below, the top-ranked woman and defending US Open champion stands the best positioned of that trio to curb her inferiors. Even as she approaches 32, her aura still intimidates.
3. Will Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal pose the greater challenge to the top two?
On the surface, literally and figuratively, this question seems easy. Federer has compiled the superior record of the two in the US Open Series and at the US Open. For most of their careers, he has been the better man on hard courts and the better man in the second half, when his rival’s energy wanes. That said, Nadal has surpassed Federer in recent years at the US Open, notching consecutive finals in 2010-11. He also has produced the stronger season of the two by far, reaching the final at every tournament except Wimbledon, claiming a key hard-court title at Indian Wells, and overcoming Djokovic at Roland Garros. Federer has won just one title in 2013 and has not defeated a top-five opponent. The two superstars never have met in the US Open Series or at the US Open. They responded in contrasting ways to early Wimbledon losses, Nadal resting his ever-fragile knees and Federer entering two clay tournaments in July.
4. Can the Wimbledon women’s finalists consolidate their breakthroughs?
Hovering over Murray’s quest to defend his US Open title is the question of how he will respond to his Wimbledon feat. The women’s champion there also faces the task of overcoming the inevitable post-breakthrough hangover. Like Murray, however, Marion Bartoli may have the maturity to avoid that lull. She has earned some of her finest successes on North American hard courts, including a Stanford title won from Venus Williams, finals at Indian Wells and San Diego, and semifinals at Miami and the Rogers Cup. Bartoli might return at Stanford next week.
Much more a grass specialist than Bartoli, the woman whom she defeated in the Wimbledon final has reached four quarterfinals there but none at any other major. Sabine Lisicki still looks to build on her victories over two top-four opponents at Wimbledon, and there is no reason why her massive serve cannot shine on fast hard courts. Her main challenge has consisted of staying healthy long enough to build momentum, so her ranking could climb if she does.
5. What to expect from Wimbledon’s walking wounded?
About five top-eight players limped out of the grass season with injuries that may linger. On the men’s side, Juan Martin Del Potro should recover quickly from a minor sprain caused by hyper-extending his left knee. The Wimbledon semifinalist and former US Open champion should prove the most compelling threat in New York outside the Big Four. World No. 3 David Ferrer may need more time to recover from his ankle injury, while Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has voiced uncertainty over whether he will return from a knee injury by the Open.
Eager to ignite her partnership with Jimmy Connors, Maria Sharapova withdrew from Stanford next week to rest a hip injury incurred at Wimbledon. Sharapova posted playful photos of her rehab work, not sounding overly concerned. Still, both Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka may need to brush off some rust early in the US Open Series. Limited to one match since Roland Garros, Azarenka has played only five tournaments in the last five months. Her coach, Sam Sumyk, reported that her knee incurred no structural damage, though.
6. Will home soil inspire the American men?
At the US Open last year and at Wimbledon this summer, nobody in this group reached the second week, something once taken for granted. With Andy Roddick retired and Mardy Fish chronically ill, American men’s tennis has plunged down an elevator shaft with embarrassing velocity. Not much light shines into the bottom of the shaft from former phenom Ryan Harrison, who has developed into an uninspired journeyman. The more explosive Jack Sock may evolve into a future star, as French sports magazine L’Equipe thinks, but his time will not come for at least a few years. Until then, the two lethargic giants John Isner and Sam Querrey remain the only real hopes for the US. The good news is that they have played their best tennis on home soil, winning 10 of 13 career titles there. The bad news is that neither has done anything meaningful on hard courts this year.
7. Which rising stars on each Tour will shine?
In the wake of a Wimbledon semifinal appearance, many eyes will focus on Jerzy Janowicz over the summer. The boyish, lanky Pole has virtually nothing to defend during the US Open Series as he aims to rise toward the top 10. Grigor Dimitrov has drawn attention mostly on account of his resemblance to Federer and his relationship with Sharapova, but he impressed at both Indian Wells and Miami this year. And the deeply talented, deeply enigmatic Bernard Tomic could build on a promising Wimbledon if he finds more discipline on the court and stability off the court.
The women’s game features some youngsters who have advanced faster than their male counterparts. One of three women to reach the second week at every major in 2013, the 20-year-old Sloane Stephens offers the home nation its most genuine threat outside Serena. Stephens needs to transfer some of her feistiness from verbal barbs to her game, not an obstacle confronted by the powerful Madison Keys. American fans should relish the sight of Keys this summer, showcasing a serve reminiscent of the Williams sisters and the penetrating groundstrokes designed for WTA success. Reaching the second week at Wimbledon and at last year’s US Open, meanwhile, British teenager Laura Robson has shown the power and belief to strike down the elite.