Janko Tipsarevic

ATP Roland Garros Visions: Picks, Predictions, Dark Horses, Winners

(May 25, 2013) With tennis’ second Slam of the season about to get underway with main draw action, the dedicated panel of Tennis Grandstand writers have come together for a comprehensive preview of the men’s draw at Roland Garros. We’ve covered dark horses, seeded players crashing out early, first round upsets and matches to watch for, and potential semifinalists and eventual champion for the men’s tour.

In the table, you will find the entire Tennis Grandstand team’s “Quick Picks and Predictions” for the ATP draw, with further detailed analysis below by Lisa-Marie Burrows, James Crabtree, Romi Cvitkovic, Yeshayahu Ginsburg and Andrea Lubinsky.

Dark Horse

Lisa-Marie Burrows(6) Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Tsonga has the potential to sneak through to the quarterfinals relatively untroubled.  He may have Marin Cilic, Juan Mónaco and compatriot Jeremy Chardy in his section, but I feel that he can reach the quarters fairly easily. He could be a difficult quarterfinal opponent for Roger Federer to contend with.

James Crabtree: (12) Tommy Haas. The fairytale story has been waiting long enough, and Tommy Haas has the correct subplots to fulfill the fairytale. Not only that but his draw is favorable and rumor suggests he possesses magic beans, has a black cat, practices voodoo and is in fact Baron Samedi (James Bond reference for y’all).

Cvitkovic: Ernests Gulbis. The Latvian has a tough but very doable road to the semifinals. He could potentially take on Tomas Berdych in the second round, Tommy Robredo in the third and Nicolas Almagro in the fourth, before possibly outhitting David Ferrer in the quarterfinals if he has enough steam.  He may be a ticking time bomb on court, but Roland Garros has always been his best Slam result, having reached the quarterfinals in 2008. Now, more mature and experienced, he could make another solid run here.

Yeshayahu Ginsburg: (5) Tomas Berdych. Picking a dark horse in tennis is kind of an act of futility nowadays. When it comes to winning Grand Slams, it’s the “Big 4” and no one else. Take Andy Murray out of the equation due to injury (though he was weaker on clay anyway) and it’s Federer, Nadal, Djokovic or bust for the winner. But if I have to pick someone else, Berdych has been very strong recently, reaching the semifinals in both Madrid and Rome. He has a good chance at making a deep run—assuming he can get by Gael Monfils in the first round, that is.

Andrea Lubinsky(24) Benoit Paire. The good news? Paire is at a career high 26 in the rankings and scored wins over Juan Monaco, Julien Benneteau, and Juan Maritn del Potro en route to the semifinals in Rome, where he pushed Roger Federer in two close sets. The bad news? He’s in Nadal’s quarter. There are plenty of guys who have had a solid clay season, but what makes Paire a better Dark Horse is his inconsistency. His bad days are bad, but his great days are great…

Seeded Player Crashing Out Early

Burrows: (8) Janko Tipsarevic or (19) John Isner. For me it was a toss up between No.8 seed Tipsarevic losing to Verdasco in the second round and John Isner losing in the first.  I feel that an early exit may be on the cards for No.19 seed Isner as he faces Carlos Berlocq of Argentina in the opening round. He can prove to be a very tricky customer and enjoys playing on the clay.

Crabtree: It has to be (5) Tomas Berdych. If he doesn’t lose to Gael Monfils in the first round, a true son to his French faithful who is seemingly finding old form, he will have to battle Ernests Gulbis in the second round, another player destined for the top twenty.

Cvitkovic: (5) Tomas Berdych. If he can get past a newly in-form Gael Monfils in the first round, the Czech will likely encounter Ernests Gulbis, who took him out first round of Wimbledon last year and can easily out-play him again on the Latvian’s better surface.

Ginsburg: (8) Janko Tipsarevic. Tipsarevic is not facing any particularly good players on clay until at least the third round (Verdasco can be a challenge but has been horribly inconsistent for a few years now), but Tipsarevic has been playing just awful tennis this year. He probably gets by Nicolas Mahut, but I can’t see him winning more than two matches here unless he turns around fast.

Lubinsky(8) Janko Tipsarevic. Tipsarevic actually has a pretty cushy section of the draw, but for some reason I’m just not feeling it. That reason? He’s had an abysmal clay season, losing to the likes of Guido Pella, Daniel Brands, Guillermo Garcia Lopez, all ranked at least 50 places beneath him. If he beats Nicolas Mahut in the first round, the No. 8 seed could face Fernando Verdasco, who could pose a real challenge.

First Round Match to Watch For

Burrows(15) Gilles Simon vs Lleyton Hewitt.  The first thing that popped into my head when I saw their names drawn in the first round is ‘this is going to be a long match!’ Expect five long sets, each lasting around one hour each!  Both players are great defensive counter-punchers and it will be a battle of fitness on court to see who can edge out the other.

Crabtree: (1) Novak Djokovic vs David Goffin. It’s doubtful Novak will lose, but he should still be pushed by the rising Goffin who took a set off Federer last year. The other match is one that will get little press. Nevertheless watch out for qualifier James Duckworth and Blaz Kavcic. Their last encounter was a four hour and fifty two minute marathon in scolding heat at this years Aussie Open which Kavcic won 10-8 in the fifth.

Cvitkovic: (24) Benoit Paire vs Marcos Baghdatis. Both have eccentric personalities, so I would watch this match as much for the tennis as the hilarity or drama that could ensue. With Paire becoming a surprise semifinalist in Rome two weeks ago and Baghdatis the usual fan favorite, both are sure to bring crowds and opinionated people as well.

Ginsburg: (5) Tomas Berdych vs Gael Monfils. Can there be any better first-round match? Monfils was a top ten player before injuries stalled his career for a bit. He’s on the way back and isn’t fully at top form yet, but he always plays well in front of his home Paris crowd—at least in the early rounds. Both guys play hard-hitting power games and this should be some fun clay court tennis.

Lubinsky: (5) Tomas Berdych v. Gael Monfils. Gael Monfils is a wildcard. Yes, you read that correctly. After an extended injury break, the once world No. 7 has fallen to 109 in the rankings, but he’s working his way back up, winning a challenger in Bordeaux last week and reaching the finals in Nice. Will he win? Probably not. Berdych is in fine form, but generally any Monfils match provides plenty of entertainment. This is one not to be missed.

First Round Upset Special

Burrows: Gael Monfils d. (6) Tomas Berdych.  This match has entertainment written all over it.  This is a tough first round draw against the enigmatic Monfils, who would love to delight his home crowd with a victory over the fifth seed.  Should Monfils be feeling physically fit, this match has the potential to bring a closely fought contest, with the crowd firmly behind their man.

Crabtree: Lleyton Hewitt d. (15) Gilles Simon. Too much Aussie loyalty here. Hewitt will take down Gilles Simon in 5 brutally boring sets! Hewitt never has done much on clay, but he is a grand slam type player who hasn’t got too many of these chances left.

Cvitkovic: Dmitry Tursunov d. (22) Alexandr Dolgopolov. Dolgopolov has been struggling this year, barely winning over 50% of his matches and was defeated by both Robin Haase and Ivan Dodig on clay within the last month. What’s more, Tursunov took Dologopolov to two tiebreak sets in the second round of Munich where he eventually lost. It may be time to plot his revenge and garner more noise surrounding his comeback.

Ginsburg: Ricardas Berankis d. (30) Julien Benneteau. There are some good choices here, especially given Wawrinka’s injury. But I’ll take someone a little lower in the rankings. Ricardas Berankis is in a good position against Julien Benneteau, who is better on hard courts than clay. Berankis is a young player in his first French Open main draw and he has a real chance to make a splash by starting with an upset.

LubinskyPablo Andujar d. (29) Mikhail Youzhny. The No. 29 seed isn’t exactly a clay court specialist and while his clay court relsults this season haven’t been awful, they haven’t been great either. On the other hand, Andujar excels on the the red dirt. He reached the semi finals in Nice this week and even more impressively, the semi finals in Madrid earlier this month. Should he pull the upset, he has real potential to make the 4th round.

Semifinalists

Burrows: I have a feeling it will involve the two players that many expect to meet: Novak Djokovic vs Rafael Nadal. Neither player has got a particularly easy route to the final, but it will make for a mouthwatering encounter. It could be the dream final – but a round earlier.

The bottom half of the draw may see David Ferrer take on Roger Federer for a place in the final. If Ferrer can battle past a possible quarter-final meeting with Berdych or Almagro,  I think it would provide an interesting semifinal between him and Federer.

Crabtree: I am probably very alone on this but I see Jo-Wilfried Tsonga reunited with Roger Federer for another epic slam semi. Now I promise I am not on medication but Jo will take the winner of the Rafael Nadal and Tommy Haas match.

Cvitkovic: Outside of the top three who I expect to make the semifinals, Nadal, Djokovic and Federer, the fourth spot in Ferrer’s quarter is up for grabs. You could give the semifinal slot to Berdych, Almagro or Ferrer, but I’m going with Gulbis. He must be physical fit and be able to sustain all of his previous matches, then take it to Ferrer’s grinding game by hitting his signature wild winners.

Ginsburg: It would be foolish to pick Djokovic, Federer, or Nadal to lose early, but Djokovic has an absolutely brutal draw. If Tommy Haas ever had a chance for one last hurrah at a Major, this is it. I think he comes out of that quarter whether or not someone beats Djokovic before Haas would meet him. The other sections have some intrigue, with Federer/Tsonga and Berdych/Ferrer two very good potential quarterfinal matches, but I don’t know that there’s as much potential for an upset that massive in the other sections. Give me Haas, Nadal, Ferrer, and Federer as the four semifinalists.

Lubinsky: Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Tomas Berdych, Roger Federer. One of these things is not like the others. When one of the Top 4 misses a Grand Slam, it creates a huge void in the draw, a void for someone to take advantage of. Theoretically this section belongs to David Ferrer, but it’s tough to determine his form since he’s been impeded by Nadal in both Madrid and Rome. Berdych on the other hand made the semi finals at both tournaments, putting him in a prime location to take advantage of Andy Murray’s withdrawal. However, he does have a very tough draw including the likes of Monfils, Gulbis, Robredo and Almagro so he will have to find his best form yet.

And the Champion is …

Burrows(3) Rafael Nadal. Despite a potential tough meeting against Djokovic in the semis, I feel that if Nadal can surpass the world No.1 he will have beaten his biggest nemesis out there. Roland Garros is his stomping ground and I have a feeling Nadal is not willing to give up his crown in Paris just yet.

Crabtree: (3) Rafael Nadal. Nadal will defeat Tsonga in 4 sets, bite his trophy and tell everyone that it was ‘more than a dream!’

Cvitkovic: (3) Rafael Nadal. Ever since coming back from his injury layoff in January, the Spaniard seems to be a man on a mission. Racking up six titles already this year, and holding a record 31-2 on clay in 2013, one would be hard-pressed to pick an alternative. He could face Novak Djokovic in the semifinals, but given the Serbs tough road and any lingering ankle issue, Nadal should be able to get past him to the final with the hunger we’ve learned to love in the Spaniard.

Ginsburg: (3) Rafael Nadal. It would be foolish to pick anyone other than Nadal to win it all, especially with Djokovic’s draw. The only person I see with a decent chance to beat Nadal before the semis is Kei Nishikori, and he just isn’t good enough on clay (though a potential third-round match with Lukas Rosol will generate a lot of hype, that’s for sure). The only player I can see beating Nadal on clay this year in a Slam is David Ferrer (he sure came close twice this year already on clay) and Ferrer just can’t get that far because it means going through Federer. And we all know how Federer/Nadal French Open finals end.

Lubinsky(3) Rafael Nadal. Nadal is 52-1 at Roland Garros. Let that sink in. In 8 years, he has lost just once. Yes, he was out for an extended period of time, but the rust is all gone. He’s already won 6 titles since his return earlier this year and he’s already leading the race to London, despite having missed this year’s only Grand Slam.

French Open Fashion: Fila to Debut New Collection with Jankovic, Goerges, Tipsarevic

With the tennis season’s second Slam just around the corner, Fila gave Tennis Grandstand a sneak peak at their Roland Garros Spring 2013 line which will be worn by Janko Tipsarevic, Andreas Seppi, Jelena Jankovic, Julia Goerges and Nadia Petrova. Fila sticks to their signature combination of simplicity and comfort, while introducing a feminine mesh design to the “Baseline” women’s collection and unique contrast piping to the “Tour” men’s collection.

Women’s Baseline Collection worn by Jankovic, Goerges and Petrova

Baseline is a youthful runway-inspired collection which has been reinterpreted for tennis. The fresh color palette combines pink shock with navy and white, and the collection is highlighted by laser cut performance mesh details. The fabrication features laser cut holes in an abstract diagonal pattern and gradation of sizes. This detailing gives each style added movement and a subtle 3D effect.

The baseline dress worn by Jankovic features an athletic cut racer-back silhouette, with a slim fit though the torso and drop waist peplum-inspired skirt. A contrast under the mesh on the circle skirt adds a feminine twist.

The same added pop of color under the mesh continues through the collection with the baseline fashion skort which includes Fila’s new Forza ball short with excellent compression. The skort itself sports diagonal contrast taping from the hips to the back bottom hem for a flattering fit, and will be worn by both Petrova and Goerges.

The collection includes a complementary navy hooded jacket and pant combination in stretch jersey performance fabric which will be worn by Jankovic and Petrova. These pieces are reminiscent of tennis styles from Fila’s rich history and include contrast stripes in white and pink. The navy hooded jacket incorporates the laser cut mesh on the hood with an inside lining in pink.

The collection is also comfortably priced and retails from $54 – $76, available on www.fila.com.

Men’s Tour Collection worn by Tipsarevic and Seppi

Tour is a youthful, body conscious collection which features ebony, white and lemon color patterns. The design of the collection, specifically the contrast piping and taping, was inspired by the movement of the body during a tennis match.

The Tour piped polo worn by Seppi features piping on the back and side of the shirt to highlight the shoulder blades and torso.

The short sleeve crew in ebony/lemon worn by Tipsarevic has curved piping from the arm to the bottom back hem which also highlights the placement of the jacquard mesh panels. Contrast taping on the shoulder emphasizes the serving motion.

The Tour piped short worn by both players is a peached poly twill performance fabric with jacquard mesh panels down the side of the short. The contrast piping leads down the front side of the short and curves back to the side seam just above the bottom hem.

The Tour collection retails for $45 – $55 and is available on www.fila.com.

Photos courtesy of Fila. Follow Fila Tennis on Twitter for more brand and player updates!

The Glory That Is Rome: ATP Rome Draw Preview

No sooner does the dust settle in Madrid than the action kicks off at the last clay Masters 1000 tournament on the Road to Roland Garros.  In fact, the action in Rome’s Foro Italico starts on the day of the Madrid final, offering some extra entertainment for those unsatisfied with the prospect of just one ATP match in their Sunday.

First quarter:  A bit of an enigma this clay season, Novak Djokovic has accomplished the most when the least was expected (Monte Carlo) and accomplished the least when the most was expected (Madrid).  The world No. 1 has won two titles in Rome, one against potential third-round opponent Stanislas Wawrinka in 2008.  Most fans will remember the five-set thriller that they contested at the Australian Open, and Wawrinka will bring considerable momentum to Rome after reaching the final in Madrid with upsets over two top-eight men.  A third such victory does not lie beyond his reach, for he also has defeated Murray and Ferrer on clay this year.  But Wawrinka has not defeated Djokovic since 2006, dropping 11 straight meetings, and he may have accumulated fatigue from not just Madrid but his Portugal title the week before.

The lower part of the quarter features Tomas Berdych and three towers of power.  While Kevin Anderson collected a runner-up trophy in Casablanca, he has suffered a string of setbacks to Berdych in 2012-13 and has shown little sign of reversing that trend.  Fellow giants Marin Cilic and John Isner exited early in Madrid, as they usually do on a surface that exposes their indifferent footwork and mobility.  Berdych has thrived against opponents of a style similar to his, so his chances of meeting Djokovic or Wawrinka in the quarterfinals look strong.  Never has he defeated either man on clay, however, and Djokovic has dominated him relentlessly, including two victories this year.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Second quarter:  Much to the relief of his fans, Rafael Nadal will control his own destiny regarding a top-four seed at Roland Garros.  The defending champion landed in the same quarter as compatriot David Ferrer for the second straight week, which means that he will pass him in the rankings if he wins the title.  One feels a bit sorry for home hope Andreas Seppi, a quarterfinalist in Rome last year who seems likely to lose all or most of those points.  Even if survives an opener against fellow Italian Fabio Fognini, which he could not in Monte Carlo, Seppi will become Nadal’s first victim in the next round.  Finally gone from the top 10, a dormant Janko Tipsarevic meets an equally dormant compatriot in Viktor Troicki to start the tournament.   Nadal demolished Tipsarevic in their previous clay meetings, while Troicki has threatened him only on the fast hard court of Tokyo.  Neither Serb might even reach the Spaniard, though, if Monte Carlo quarterfinalist Jarkko Nieminen hopes to continue his unexpected clay success.

Blow after blow has fallen upon Ferrer on his favorite surface over the last few months, from two routs in clay finals to an opening-round loss in Barcelona to the painful collapse against Nadal last week.  That Madrid match surely will linger in his mind if they meet in the same round here, although Fernando Verdasco might prevent it.  This fading Spaniard looked suddenly improved in Madrid and has a handful of clay victories over Ferrer, but he has lost their last few meetings.  A semifinalist in Barcelona, Milos Raonic should struggle to find the consistency necessary to outlast Ferrer here.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Third quarter:  This section contains more intrigue than the  others because the two bold-faced names who anchor it have struggled this clay season.  Lucky to scrape through Madrid as long as he did, the third-seeded Andy Murray finds himself fortunate to find no clay specialists in his immediate area.  The man who knocked Federer out of Madrid, Kei Nishikori, will look to follow up that breakthrough by defeating Murray for the first time.  After he came within five points of upsetting Nadal in 2011, Paolo Lorenzi earned a wildcard into the main draw to become Nishikori’s opening test.  Veterans like Nikolay Davydenko and Feliciano Lopez have sunk too deeply into decline to mount sustained runs.

Absent from Madrid and tepid in Monte Carlo, Juan Martin Del Potro hopes to recapture the form that saw him notch two top-five upsets (and nearly a third) at Indian Wells.  He has earned successes on clay before, including twice taking Federer to five sets at Roland Garros and reaching a semifinal there in 2009.  Del Potro must beware of Nicolas Almagro in the third round despite the latter’s struggles at Masters 1000 tournaments this year.  Remarkably, the two men have not met at the ATP level, so it would be fascinating to see what their explosive shot-making can produce in unison.  Either possesses stronger clay-court expertise than Murray, as does Almagro’s potential second-round opponent Juan Monaco.  Regrouping from an early-season slump, Monaco has won a set from Djokovic and defeated Tipsarevic over the last month.  He also stopped the Scot in Rome before and won his only clay meeting with Del Potro, albeit seven years ago.

Semifinalist:  Del Potro

Fourth quarter:  The Foro Italico has witnessed some of Roger Federer’s most ignominious setbacks at events of this level, including losses to Filippo Volandri, Radek Stepanek, and Ernests Gulbis.  Slowest of the nine Masters 1000 tournaments, the surface left him more vulnerable than the others to the lapses in consistency that have increased as he has aged.  Former nemesis Stepanek could meet him again in the second round, although Federer defeated him comfortably in the same round of Madrid.  Also lurking in this section, with a wildcard, is Volandri.  That particular ghost of Romes past probably will not have the chance to haunt Federer, for Tommy Haas should continue his current string of solid results to reach him in the third round.  While Haas won their most recent meeting on the grass of Halle, he has lost all of their other matches since 2007, one of them after winning the first two sets at Roland Garros.  Another man who has troubled Federer late in his career, Gilles Simon, might test the German’s consistency in the second round.

Perhaps the most compelling figure of those vying to meet Federer in the quarterfinals is neither of the two seeds but Grigor Dimitrov.  Until now, though, Dimitrov has shown a tendency to alternate breakthroughs with breakdowns, so his upset of Djokovic in Madrid could precede a pedestrian effort in Rome.  Both of Richard Gasquet’s clay victories over Federer have come at clay Masters 1000 tournaments, heightening the significance of what otherwise would seem an easy test for the Swiss to conquer.  A shootout could unfold in the second round between Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and powerful young server Jerzy Janowicz, but neither man should last long on a surface antithetical to their strengths.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Final:  Nadal vs. Del Potro

Champion:  Rafael Nadal

 

What a Difference a Year Makes: Madrid in Blue vs. Madrid in Red

After the outcry caused by the audacious rhapsody in blue last year, the ATP essentially twisted the arm of the Madrid tournament into returning to its red roots.  But did the traditional surface really make a difference in the results of either the men’s or the women’s draw?  An analysis could use multiple angles, of which this article chooses just two.  First, it looks at the upsets of seeds by unseeded players in the first two rounds of Madrid over the last two years, the first on blue clay and the second on red clay.  Second, it looks at who ultimately reached the semifinals in both draws over those years.  This comparison between 2012 and 2013 aims to explore whether the change in surface correlates to significant differences in result patterns.

Of course, any single year can produce a skewed sample, so one could argue that singling out the current edition of Madrid does not fairly represent the overall trends of the event’s history on red clay.  That history remains quite young, however, for this year marks only its fourth on the surface.  And the blue-clay experiment lasted only a single year, so it seems appropriate to compare equal sample sizes highlighted by a comparable group of elite players.

 

Let’s start with the upsets angle, and with the WTA.  (Numbers refer to seeds.)

2012:

Lucie Hradecka d. 3 Petra Kvitova

Sorana Cirstea d. 7 Marion Bartoli

Petra Cetkovska d. 10 Vera Zvonareva

Varvara Lepchenko d. 11 Francesca Schiavone

Roberta Vinci d. 14 Dominika Cibulkova

Carla Suarez Navarro d. 15 Jelena Jankovic

Ekaterina Makarova d. 16 Maria Kirilenko

Almost half of the seeds (seven of sixteen) lost in the first or second round, a high number for an event of this quality.  On the other hand, five of the seven came from the 9-16 bracket, and Cirstea knocking off Bartoli on clay does not come as a huge surprise.  The latter has struggled regularly on the surface outside that single Roland Garros semifinal run in 2011, while the former earned her best result of any major with a quarterfinal there in 2009.  Another result that jumps out from this group, the Hradecka-Kvitova match, seems less startling in retrospect with the wild oscillations in Kvitova’s form over the last two years.  Kvitova also has made a habit of faltering against lower-ranked countrywomen, but this match still should raise an eyebrow because she was the defending champion in Madrid and fell to a heavy server, not a clay specialist.

Of the 9-16 upsets, Lepchenko defeating Schiavone surprises the most, and in fact the American ultimately reached the quarterfinals at this event.  That said, Madrid has witnessed other such unexpected results on red clay before, for which one need look no further than Aravane Rezai’s title in 2010.  Lepchenko also went back to work on the Italian battalions here this year, as you’ll see below.  Like Schiavone, Jankovic floundered through much of last season, so one should not read too much into her loss to rising clay talent Suarez Navarro.  Russians Zvonareva and Kirilenko usually have not enjoyed their clay seasons, and Vinci’s victory over Cibulkova looks merely like one clay specialist ousting another.  On the other hand, hindsight may dilute the magnitude of this upset, now that the Italian has risen above the Slovak in the rankings a year later. 

2013:

Ekaterina Makarova d. 3 Victoria Azarenka

Laura Robson d. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska

Madison Keys d. 5 Li Na

Daniela Hantuchova d. 8 Petra Kvitova

Carla Suarez Navarro d. 9 Sam Stosur

Yaroslava Shvedova d. 10 Caroline Wozniacki

Svetlana Kuznetsova d. 11 Nadia Petrova

Varvara Lepchenko d. 12 Roberta Vinci

Sabine Lisicki d. 15 Dominika Cibulkova

What comes around goes around for Vinci, it seems, an upset-maker in 2012 and the victim of an upset in 2012.  Kvitova also has found the Magic Box a house of horrors since winning the title here two years ago, her first career loss to Hantuchova this year adding some context to the Hradecka debacle last year.  And there’s just no curbing Lepchenko’s appetite for Italian cuisine in Madrid, while Cibulkova doesn’t seem to enjoy her time here in any color.  The heavy-hitting Lisicki’s upset of her in two tiebreaks suggests the impact of the Madrid altitude on amplifying serves, relevant no matter the surface.

Taking stock of the larger view, the carnage this week was staggering and becomes even more staggering considering the relative consistency that has developed at the top of the WTA over the last eighteen months or so.  Granted, Azarenka just returned from an injury absence and never plays her best on clay, nor does Radwanska.  But one would have expected the latter to win more than four games from a raw Laura Robson, even amid her recent slump, and Makarova did not topple Azarenka based on her superior clay-court expertise.  Madison Keys shares Robson’s and Makarova’s preference for faster surfaces, so her first-round rout of Li Na may have registered the greatest shock of all.  Just two years removed from her Roland Garros title, Li has continued to shine on clay with marquee finals in Rome last year and Stuttgart this year.  Any of those three upsets, though, came as a greater surprise than any of those in 2012.

The remaining upsets of top-10 players, those over Stosur and Wozniacki, spoke more to the recent struggles of both women and came at the hands of two players accomplished on clay.  They don’t add much to the overall picture.

The VerdictBoth years featured plenty of upsets, nearly half of the seeds falling in 2012 and over half of the seeds falling in 2013.  Three of the top ten fell last year and a ghastly six of the top ten this year in an even larger implosion.  Since most of the top women prefer somewhat faster surfaces to red clay anyway, that difference might actually demonstrate a point that the blue clay’s detractors cited:  the blue played more like other blue courts (e.g., hard courts) than like other clay courts.  Even so, seeing the best in the game play their best may matter more than any other goal, and last year offered more in that regard than this year did.

Let’s next see how the men fared in the upset category.

2012:

Marin Cilic d. 8 John Isner

Jurgen Melzer d. 13 Feliciano Lopez

Not much to see here, just two upsets before the final sixteen and both of men whom one would expect to exit early on clay.  In fact, these results counter perceptions of the blue clay as a much faster surface than the red, which the tournament’s later rounds would encourage.  Losses by Isner and Lopez, players built around explosive serves and short points, surprised much less than the upsets in the WTA draw in the same year.  I found the dearth of upsets by non-seeds in the ATP draw quite surprising, in retrospect, for it seemed amid the general tumult at the time that many more fell in the early rounds.

 2013:

Grigor Dimitrov d. 1 Novak Djokovic

Daniel Gimeno-Traver d. 8 Richard Gasquet

Juan Monaco d. 9 Janko Tipsarevic

Pablo Andujar d. 10 Marin Cilic

Mikhail Youzhny d. 11 Nicolas Almagro

Fernando Verdasco d. 12 Milos Raonic

In contrast to the previous year, the 2013 draw harvested a plentiful crop of upsets, including three members of the top ten.  The name looming above the list, of course, belongs to one of the two superstars who criticized the blue clay so vociferously.  We never will know how much a lingering ankle injury or the consequent lack of practice contributed to Djokovic’s opening-round loss.  Note, however, that he brought the injury and minimal practice to Monte Carlo two weeks before—and, surviving two early three-setters, ultimately won the title from Nadal.  While his slips, stumbles, and mishits on blue clay showed his discomfort with that surface, Djokovic slipped, stumbled, and mishit plenty of balls across three ragged hours of tennis.  Those parallels supported what some have observed over the last few years:  Madrid’s problems come not from the surface’s color but from its hasty, uneven preparation.

The second-most surprising result in my view came from Youzhny’s victory over Almagro, in which a seeded clay specialist near the top 10 fell to a rapidly fading fast-court specialist twenty slots below him.  That’s exactly the type of result that one might have expected on the blue clay, so its occurrence on the red reminds us that these counterintuitive results can happen there too.  Gasquet’s early loss also stands out (to a lesser extent) because of his past successes on clay and overall consistency in 2012-13.  All the same, Gimeno-Traver became the seventh player outside the top 30 to defeat the Frenchman since the US Open, showing that Gasquet remains more vulnerable to upsets than most of the top ten.

The upsets of Tipsarevic, Cilic, and Raonic registered little surprise because all three fell to players with much greater aptitude on clay.  By conquering the latter two, Andujar and Verdasco showed that the altitude perhaps does not offer massive servers as much of an advantage as some had thought.  Despite his top-ten ranking, Tipsarevic has lost to virtually every opponent imaginable this year as his dismal form has dogged him across all surfaces.

The Verdict:  In both quantity and quality, the Madrid men’s draw produced more notable upsets early in the week this year than last year, as did the women’s draw.  However you choose to interpret that difference, it certainly does not suggest that the traditional surface caused a return to normalcy—but quite the opposite.  Nevertheless, some more subtle thinkers might argue that rankings, and thus seedings, reflect a player’s performance on faster surfaces disproportionately compared with performance on clay.  Since the ATP still has plenty of clay specialists who make their living on the surface, the lack of upsets in 2012 ironically may suggest that the blue clay played more like a hard court, as many complained, since the seedings based predominantly on hard-court results dictated outcomes.  Food for thought…

Now let’s switch to the other angle of comparison and compare who reached the semifinals of Madrid in 2012 and 2013, ladies first.

2012:

1 Victoria Azarenka (d. 8 Li Na)

4 Agnieszka Radwanska (d. Varvara Lepchenko)

Lucie Hradecka (d. 5 Samantha Stosur)

9 Serena Williams (d. 2 Maria Sharapova)

To state the obvious, the top half played exactly according to form.  In fact, the only top-eight seed who did not reach the quarterfinals in that half was the aforementioned Bartoli, usually expected to underperform on any sort of clay.  Despite her ninth seed, Serena should be favored over Sharapova on any surface and merely extended her dominance in that rivalry.  Few would have been surprised to see her eliminate the higher-ranked Caroline Wozniacki in a three-setter a round before.  Having lost to Wozniacki in Miami earlier that spring, Serena was not going to let the Dane down her twice.

The only odd name in this lineup does pop the eyeballs a bit, even after we became acquainted with her in the upsets section.  Hradecka delivered the biggest shock there, and she built upon that run with another upset of the then-healthy and somewhat dangerous Stosur in two tense tiebreaks.  The serve-a-thon semifinal in which she battled Serena certainly departed from expectations for a clay match.  On the other hand, a single unseeded semifinalist has burst through the bracket into an otherwise studded lineup at many WTA tournaments over the past few years.  It’s unexpected but no more astonishing than Rezai two years before.

2013:

1 Serena Williams (d. Anabel Medina Garrigues)

8 Sara Errani (d. Ekaterina Makarova)

16 Ana Ivanovic (d. 6 Angelique Kerber)

2 Maria Sharapova (d. Kaia Kanepi)

This lineup makes considerably more sense for a clay tournament than what we saw at the same stage in 2012.  All four of these WTA semifinalists have reached Roland Garros finals, three of them winning the title, so their talents on the surface rise beyond doubt.  The only constant between the two years, Serena, has not shone in Paris for several years but still has accomplished far more there than fellow 2012 semifinalists Azarenka, Radwanska, and Hradecka.  And the narrowness of her victory over Medina Garrigues captured the ability of an unheralded clay specialist to challenge someone of far greater talent here.  The only quarterfinal upset, Ivanovic over Kerber, plays into the theme of surface expertise with a woman whose greatest exploits have come on clay toppling a higher-ranked woman who has built her career on hard courts.

The Verdict:  While the 2012 semifinalists comprised arguably a more accomplished group overall, the 2013 semifinalists more accurately align with expectations for clay.  The transition back to the red thus coincided with arguably more desirable results later in the week after the implosions earlier in the week.  What was lost at the beginning may have been gained at the end.

And now for the ATP comparison. 

2012:

7 Janko Tipsarevic (d. 1 Novak Djokovic)

3 Roger Federer (d. 5 David Ferrer)

10 Juan Martin Del Potro (d. 16 Alexander Dolgopolov)

6 Tomas Berdych (d. 15 Fernando Verdasco)

Let’s just go ahead and acknowledge the massive Mallorcan elephant in the room.  Barring injury or its aftereffects, Rafael Nadal never will fail to reach the quarterfinals of a Masters 1000 tournament on clay during his prime without raising questions about the tournament.  It felt especially awkward because Madrid is the most important Spanish tournament, the place where Nadal should have the opportunity to bask in the adulation of his compatriots.  A petulant side less attractive than his usual sportsmanlike self emerged there last year, but one could understand his frustration at the opportunity denied him.

One could make an almost equally compelling argument that Djokovic should reach the semifinals at every clay Masters 1000 event that he enters, again subject to injury and related matters (see this year’s case above).  Or, at least, he should not lose in that situation to Janko Tipsarevic, nobody’s idea of a clay specialist and someone characteristically content to play second fiddle to Nole.  While I hesitate to ever question someone who won a six-hour major final for lack of effort, I felt strongly that Djokovic held back his best in that quarterfinal.  As with Nadal, that attitude did not reflect especially well on him.  As with Nadal, it tarnished the tournament nonetheless.

 

Federer’s eventual victory offered Madrid the best possible resolution under the circumstances, and its top brass must have felt fortunate that he dodged the opening-round bullet of Milos Raonic in a third-set tiebreak.  Without Federer, the weekend designed as the tournament’s climax would have descended into chaos.  Quality players with plenty of accomplishments, Del Potro and Berdych illustrated all too clearly how much faster the blue clay appeared to play than its red cousin.  Their semifinal cost the tournament more of whatever credibility still clung to it, decided as it was by a style of tennis more common on hard courts than clay.  So was the final between Federer and Berdych, despite its entertaining twists and turns.

2013:

15 Stanislas Wawrinka (d. 7 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga)

6 Tomas Berdych (d. 3 Andy Murray)

5 Rafael Nadal (d. 4 David Ferrer)

Pablo Andujar (d. 14 Kei Nishikori)

Just looking at the seedings of the survivors, the end of the tournament appears as chaotic as the beginning.  The lower-ranked man won every quarterfinal, and none of the top four seeds reached the semifinals, unusual for a Masters 1000 tournament.  But a closer inspection reveals that each of these results fits with our expectations of how the distinctiveness of red clay affects results.  In all four quarterfinals, the man with superior expertise on the surface prevailed, just as in the 2013 women’s draw.  Granted, Rafa came within two points of defeat against a compatriot whom he long has throttled on this surface, recalling the stunning ambush by Verdasco last year.  Fellow Spaniard Pablo Andujar also had struggled to win any matches at all over the last several months, so his sudden semifinal appearance with upsets over two seeded opponents astonishes.

The two non-Spanish semifinalists possess strong credentials on this surface with Wawrinka once coming within a set of the Rome title and Berdych within a set of the Roland Garros final.  Berdych is the only man who reached the Madrid semifinals in both of these years, an intriguing comment on how well his game adapts to various surfaces—or perhaps a comment on how much the altitude assists it.  A slow-court player, Wawrinka showed how the more physical, grinding attributes of a clay specialist’s game can prevail over a mercurial shot-maker like Tsonga.  Last year, that result may well be reversed.

The Verdict:  As with the women’s draw, the men’s draw crystallized late in the week this year into a more characteristic set of semifinalists than what we saw on the blue clay.  Nadal’s appearance in the semifinals backed up his arguments last year about that surface’s flaws, and Wawrinka makes a more credible surprise semifinalist on a slow court than Tipsarevic did.  While the route to this stage earlier in the week was less than ideal, and certainly more volatile than in 2012, the marquee rounds have unfolded along more familiar lines.

***

Two patterns thus emerge from comparisons between the Madrid men’s and women’s draws of the last two years.  The red clay produced more upsets in the first two rounds, and in general upsets of greater significance.  By the semifinals, though, the rubble had settled into a form more recognizable for this season than what the blue clay produced.

As the years unfold, we will observe whether those trends continue, or whether the altitude at this tournament continues to create chaos.  Another possible contributing factor, unrelated to the surface color, will improve in 2014 when the clay becomes permanent in Madrid rather than laid down shortly before the tournament each year.  The slipperiness that has troubled an array of stars during its brief history as a spring event should dwindle after that change, pleasing players and fans alike.

 

 

 

 

Out of the Blue: ATP Madrid Draw Preview

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

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

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

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

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

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

Semifinalist:  Berdych

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

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

Semifinalist:  Nadal

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

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

Semifinalist:  Federer

Final:  Djokovic vs. Nadal

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

What to Watch in the ATP This Week: Portugal, Munich Previews

As consecutive Masters 1000 tournaments in Madrid and Rome loom on the horizon, the 250 events in Portugal and Munich provide a pleasant diversion.  Many of the men entered in each will hope to use their less star-studded surroundings to bounce back from ongoing slumps and build momentum for the rest of the Road to Roland Garros.

Portugal:

Top half:   After he played his worst match in years at Miami, Novak Djokovic bounced back with sparkling efforts in Davis Cup and Monte Carlo.  After a similar debacle in the opening round of Barcelona, David Ferrer hopes for a similar turnaround.  The disappointment of losing the Miami final after holding a match point may continue to weigh heavily on him, but he faces an even friendlier draw here than in Barcelona.  Imposing servers Gilles Muller and Igor Sijsling, the latter of whom earned a top-10 win in February, should threaten him less here than on hard courts.  While Benoit Paire nearly took a set from Rafa in Barcelona, his wild oscillations in form should allow Ferrer to grind past him in the quarterfinals.

Not far ahead of defending quarterfinal points in Rome, third seed Andreas Seppi must improve on his desultory start to the clay season.  Seppi exited early in both Monte Carlo and Bucharest, so he will look to build confidence in a section surrounded by fellow clay specialists.  Among them is Colombia’s Alejandro Falla, who has caused players more elite than Seppi to furrow their brows before.  One of three Spaniards could meet the Italian in the quarterfinals, including the last two Casablanca champions.  This year’s winner there, Tommy Robredo, extended his encouraging form to a Barcelona quarterfinal appearance after he upset Grigor Dimitrov and Tomas Berdych.  A heavy underdog there, Robredo must adjust to the position of a favorite as the eighth seed.

Semifinal:  Ferrer vs. Robredo

Bottom half:  Seppi may have felt relieved not to face compatriot Fabio Fognini in an early round, having become his first victim en route to a Monte Carlo semifinal.  That first such result at the Masters 1000 level, which included victories over Berdych and Richard Gasquet, does not necessarily signal a breakthrough for a habitual underachiever.  But Fognini still looks clearly the most convincing clay player in this section.  Paolo Lorenzi once took a set—and nearly a match—from Rafa in Rome, granted, and David Goffin reached the second week of Roland Garros last year.  All the same, neither man sustained what look increasingly like fluke results, while fifth seed Julien Benneteau prefers faster surfaces.  A fine opportunity beckons for Fognini to keep accumulating points and rising in the rankings.

Oddly absent from last week’s action in Barcelona and Bucharest, the second-seeded Stanislas Wawrinka did not miss another chance to collect victories on his best surface.  Wawrinka faces a compelling opener against either Carlos Berlocq, a Davis Cup hero for Argentina and a semifinalist in Vina Del Mar, or Barcelona quarterfinalist Albert Ramos, an underrated lefty.  The route might grow smoother for the Swiss No. 2 after that stage, though, for Nadal-killer Horacio Zeballos has tumbled precipitously since his notable triumph.  After suffering some acute disappointments this year, Wawrinka might bounce back here.

Semifinal:  Fognini vs. Wawrinka

Final:  Ferrer vs. Fognini

Munich:

Top half:  Trudging wearily from one tournament to the next and one week to the next, top-seeded Janko Tipsarevic has not played inspired tennis since his victory over Lleyton Hewitt in the first round of the Australian Open.  In his section stand two players who have fared well at Roland Garros before, former semifinalists Jurgen Melzer and Gael Monfils.  While Melzer has watched his talents dwindle with age, despite reaching a Miami quarterfinal this spring, Monfils has grown frustrated with a series of injuries that have dulled his athletic panache.  He retired from Bucharest last week, just as Tipsarevic’s possible opening-round opponent Thomaz Bellucci retired from Barcelona.  The Serb has battled injuries himself this spring, which means that this quarter could become a contest of who can stay physically fit the longest.

Impressed by his tight three-setter against Djokovic in Monte Carlo, I thought that Mikhail Youzhny could reach the Bucharest final.  That thought proved short-sighted when he exited the tournament early, reverting to his usual unimpressive clay form.  Most of the players in his section have struggled recently, from Viktor Troicki to the nearly vanished Marcos Baghdatis.  A surprise semifinalist in Barcelona, Philipp Kohlschreiber might advance deep into the draw at a home tournament.  The crowd helped propel Tommy Haas to notable upsets here last year, so his fellow German shot-maker can expect a similar boost.

Semifinal:  Melzer vs. Kohlschreiber

Bottom half:  The aforementioned Haas returns to Munich as the third seed, seeking to build upon his Miami semifinal performance after a well-deserved respite.  No such respite awaits him at the start of this draw, where he will meet either Ernests Gulbis or Jarkko Nieminen.  Although not at his best on clay, Gulbis has taken significant steps forward in recent months, and Nieminen reached the Monte Carlo quarterfinals with wins over Milos Raonic and Juan Martin Del Potro.  That possible battle of veterans between the 31-year-old Nieminen and the 35-year-old Haas would offer the latter a chance to avenge his five-set loss to the Finn at the Australian Open, where he squandered a match point.  Next might await an all-German quarterfinal against Florian Mayer, who has lost all of his matches with Haas.

Almost as intriguing is the fourth quarter, where the two seeds should find themselves sternly tested.  Former Roland Garros semifinalist Nikolay Davydenko might pose a second-round threat to Marin Cilic, since the Russian held a match point against Berdych at Barcelona last week and defeated Cilic at this tournament two years ago.  The other seed, Alexander Dolgopolov, has resembled Tipsarevic in his persistent underachievement this year.  His nemesis might emerge in the form of Dmitry Tursunov, a stunning victor over Ferrer in Barcelona.  Long ago abandoned as a relevant contender, the Russian began to reassert himself in February with strong results at Marseille and Dubai.

Semifinal:  Haas vs. Davydenko

Final:  Kohlschreiber vs. Haas

Check out the preview of WTA action this week published just above this article.

What to Watch in the ATP This Week: Barcelona and Bucharest Previews

After a week comprised of a single tournament, the Masters 1000 in Monte Carlo, the ATP plows further into the clay season with a 500 event in Barcelona and a 250 in Bucharest.  Three top-ten players appear at the former and just one at the latter as many of the leading figures conserve energy ahead of the marquee tournaments in Madrid and Rome.  For those who play their best tennis on clay, then, Barcelona and Bucharest offer opportunities to showcase that specialty in less fraught surroundings.

Barcelona:

Top half:  Absent from Monte Carlo with a leg injury, top seed David Ferrer may need to recover psychologically as well as physically from the end of the hard-court season.  The world No. 4 fell just one point short of his most significant accomplishment to date, a Miami title denied him by a (narrowly) unsuccessful challenge on match point.  Returning to his home country for the next two tournaments might salve the sting for the Spanish veteran.  Projected to meet him in the third round is Brazilian lefty Thomaz Bellucci, who upset him almost exactly a year ago in Monte Carlo.  Although Philipp Kohlschreiber anchors the lower part of his quarter, Ferrer might just as plausibly meet compatriot and fellow clay specialist Albert Montanes.  This Spaniard knocked off Gael Monfils in Monte Carlo as a qualifier and faces an intriguing opening test here against Ricardas Berankis, pegged as a future star.

Should Ferrer continue his history of strong results in Barcelona by advancing from his quarter, he could find the competition much stiffer in the semifinals.   Nicolas Almagro lost early in Monte Carlo last week, but that setback probably owed something to fatigue from reaching the Houston final on the previous Sunday.  As Almagro looks to continue his generally sturdy 2013 campaign, Juan Monaco hopes to continue his ascent from a miserable start to the season.  He had not won a match at an ATP event until Houston last week, where he reached the semifinals shortly before winning a set from Djokovic in Monte Carlo.  Australian Open quarterfinalist Jeremy Chardy and ultra-talented prodigy Bernard Tomic lack Monaco’s clay-court skills despite their inspired shot-making, so a clash in styles between his functional game and the flamboyance of Almagro might await.  The Spaniard has held a slight edge in their clay meetings, a contrast to his career of futility against Ferrer.

Bottom half:  Known much more for power than grinding are the key names in the third quarter, headlined by world No. 6 Tomas Berdych.  Disappointingly error-strewn in Monte Carlo, the Czech has suffered from fatigue in an overly front-loaded schedule, yet he seems reluctant to grant himself any respite.  Berdych faces a potentially perilous draw that could end his week early again, perhaps a blessing in disguise considering his circumstances.  In addition to Casablanca champion Tommy Robredo, Monte Carlo breakthrough artist Grigor Dimitrov lurks in the vicinity.  Having reached a Masters 1000 quarterfinal for the first time last week, the Bulgarian will bring confidence from an impressively competitive three-setter against Nadal.  Lately lacking in confidence, on the other hand, is aging Spaniard Fernando Verdasco, who has won only one match since the Australian Open.  Verdasco will tumble down the rankings if his drought continues on the clay, and the towering serve of Milos Raonic might ensure that it does.  After their third-round meeting, a quarterfinal pitting the Canadian against Dimitrov or Berdych would feature plenty of formidable serving.

Lurking at the bottom of the draw, serial Barcelona champion Rafael Nadal looks to bounce back from the end of his epic Monte Carlo winning streak at the hands of Novak Djokovic.  Although he lost a set (and nearly a match) to Carlos Berlocq in South America this February, the rejuvenated version of Rafa that swept through this spring should not struggle against the Argentine.  As unreliable as Nadal is reliable, the enigmatic Frenchman Benoit Paire and powerful Polish firecracker Jerzy Janowicz lack the durability to challenge him on clay.  The sixth-seeded Kei Nishikori much prefers faster surfaces, and he has won only one set in five career meetings with Nadal.

Semifinals:  Ferrer vs. Almagro, Raonic vs. Nadal

Final:  Ferrer vs. Nadal

Bucharest:

Top half:  Not long ago, world No. 10 Janko Tipsarevic claimed on Twitter that he needed to take a break from the tennis.  One could understand why, considering his miserable, nearly winless start to 2013, but apparently the Serb had second thoughts.  Entering Bucharest as the top seed, he finds himself surrounded by players more comfortable on clay than he is, from Colombian Santiago Giraldo to Nadal-killer Horacio Zeballos.  That latter figure has seen his form plummet since that stirring title run in Vina del Mar, so the top quarter may hinge on who can reach a passable level of play soonest.  The second quarter features a pair of Romanians to excite local fans, as well as 2011 Roland Garros sensation David Goffin.  Of greater note are its two seeds, although neither has produced their best tennis on clay.  The erratic German Florian Mayer eyes a quarterfinal bout with graceful but fading Russian Mikhail Youzhny, just three slots higher in the rankings.  Winning a set from Djokovic in Monte Carlo, Youzhny has surpassed expectations recently as other seeds in this half have fallen well short of theirs.

Bottom half:  A disaster in Davis Cup and an early casualty last week, the second-seeded Gilles Simon aims to rekindle the memories of his three titles in Bucharest.  Curiously, Simon has won half of his ten career titles on outdoor clay despite aligning his game more comfortably with hard courts.  His draw looks more ominous than Tipsarevic’s section, perhaps starting with Monte Carlo quarterfinalist Jarkko Nieminen.  Having upset Raonic and Del Potro there, Nieminen fared nearly as well as surprise semifinalist Fabio Fognini, who could meet Simon a round later.  The Italian’s expertise on clay could see him through an intriguing opener against wildcard Gael Monfils, a battle of two men with magnificent ball-striking skills and fluctuating competitive wills.  Like Dimitrov, Fognini might lack the focus to consolidate his Monte Carlo breakthrough immediately.  If he can emerge from his quarter, though, he might reach a rematch of a tense three-setter last week against compatriot Andreas Seppi, who shares his fondness for the terre battue.  At a modest 12-9 so far in 2013, Seppi may need to avoid the land mine of Lukas Rosol to build momentum early in the clay season.  He defends large quantities of points next month, on which his top-20 ranking rests.

Final:  Youzhny vs. Seppi

Check back shortly for a similar look at the two WTA tournaments this week in Stuttgart and Marrakech.

Rafa’s Redoubt: ATP Monte Carlo Draw Preview

No man ever has won nine straight titles at an ATP tournament, but no man ever has come close to defeating Rafael Nadal in Monte Carlo during the last decade.  Nadal has lost only two sets in his last six appearances in this principality perched on the Mediterranean, attaining a level of sustained brilliance that most mere mortals must struggle to imagine.

First quarter:  As he grapples with an ankle injury sustained in Davis Cup, Novak Djokovic also faces a section filled with potential challenges.  While his opener does not intimidate, he could meet a resurgent Ernests Gulbis in the third round.  Gulbis reeled off the longest winning streak of his career from February to March and can threaten even on clay when at his best, as an upset of Federer in Rome proved.  Winless outside Davis Cup until last week in Houston, Juan Monaco led the world No. 1 by a set in Rome last year.  To arrange a rematch, he would need either to solve Gulbis or reverse the result of his semifinal loss to John Isner on Saturday.   Although Isner notably extended Nadal to a fifth set at Roland Garros, becoming the only player ever to do so, neither he nor fellow towering server Milos Raonic looms as large on outdoor clay as during the rest of the season.  Djokovic’s greatest challenge probably will come from fifth-seeded wildcard Juan Martin Del Potro.  The Serb won both of their previous clay meetings, and Del Potro never has won a main-draw match in Monte Carlo.   Yet the Indian Wells runner-up holds the momentum edge against his fellow US Open champion, having ousted him in the desert, so Djokovic will need full health to withstand a rival playing his best tennis since 2009.

Semifinalist:  Del Potro

Second quarter:  Intersecting in Indian Wells and again in Miami, Tomas Berdych and Richard Gasquet could collide for a third straight Masters 1000 tournament.  Few barriers block that rubber match between the Czech who won at the former event and the Frenchman who won at the latter.  This quarter does contain a handful of clay specialists, such as Marcel Granollers and the suddenly notorious Nadal-killer Horacio Zeballos.  Of greater significance are two Italians destined to meet in the first round, both skilled on this surface but a sharp contrast in personalities.  The unseeded Fabio Fognini seeks to find his mercurial form when it matters most against Andreas Seppi, whose seeded position hinges on his ability to defend points over the next several weeks.  While those Italians lie in Berdych’s section, several powerful servers surround Gasquet.  Among them is Jerzy Janowicz, still learning how to cope with his elevated status, and the highly clay-averse Marin Cilic.  A finalist in Casablanca this week, Kevin Anderson will aim to build on that unexpected clay success in a third-round meeting with Gasquet, whom he defeated on French soil last fall.

Semifinalist:  Berdych

Third quarter:  A rematch of the 2010 final here, the possible second-round meeting between Nadal and compatriot Fernando Verdasco likely would prove little more competitive than that earlier demolition.  Despite his victory over his long-time nemesis on the blue clay last spring, Verdasco has struggled with injuries and a concomitant dip in confidence since the Australian Open.  Among the quarterfinalists there was Jeremy Chardy, a possible third-round opponent for Rafa.  Since the eight-time Monte Carlo champion dismissed early in his South American comeback, he should feel even more comfortable against him now.  Nadal also drew the least formidable of all possible quarterfinal opponents in Janko Tipsarevic, never a factor on clay and the recipient of three crushing defeats at the Spaniard’s hands.  Like Verdasco, the second-ranked Serb has accomplished virtually nothing since the Australian Open as injuries have crippled his weapons.  The flashy but raw Grigor Dimitrov and the experienced but underpowered Gilles Simon both conceal too many flaws to trouble Rafa for long.  Of course, one could say the same about all but a few players in this field.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Fourth quarter:  The highest-ranked Frenchman in the draw, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, shares a section with another man with little fondness for clay.  Although he reached the semifinals here before and even won a set from Nadal there, Andy Murray generally has produced modest results during this stage of the season except for a brilliant 2011 campaign.  He may suffer a lull after winning Miami, his first significant title since that US Open breakthrough, and occasional practice partner Stanislas Wawrinka could capitalize on a surface better suited to his strengths.  Scoring his only career victory over Federer here, Wawrinka has won both of his previous clay meetings with Murray in straight sets.  Former Roland Garros semifinalist Gael Monfils also lurks in the Scot’s vicinity, while Tsonga might encounter some resistance from two other former Roland Garros semifinalists in Nikolay Davydenko and Jurgen Melzer.  But the most dangerous opponent for the top seeds in this section probably is Nicolas Almagro, unless his run to the Houston final depletes his energies for a tournament thousands of miles away.

Semifinalist:  Almagro

Final:  Del Potro vs. Nadal

Champion:  Rafael Nadal

Tuesday in Total: Every Sony Open Match Previewed!

One day after the women arranged their quarterfinal lineup, the men do the same in a day that features all of the fourth-round ATP matches in Miami as well as the first two women’s quarterfinals.

David Ferrer vs. Kei Nishikori:  While their most recent meeting swung decisively in the veteran’s favor, the Japanese star won two of the previous three.  Among them was Nishikori’s breakthrough victory at the 2008 US Open, a pulsating five-setter in which the similarities between the two men became apparent, such as their fitness and their high-percentage shot selection.  Both can struggle to finish points at times, and both possess underrated weapons in crisp, streamlined two-handed backhands.  Neither bombs huge serves, despite improvements in that area, so their solid returning could produce plenty of service breaks on this slow surface.  The often-injured Nishikori recently won his third career championship in Memphis, while Ferrer already has claimed two titles this year.

Serena Williams vs. Li Na:  Muddling through her previous match, the top seed will need to raise her level significantly—or at least sooner—when the level of competition soars.  Li has stayed torrid for longer than she usually does, following her Australian rampage with three straight-sets victories here that revealed minimal rust after her injury.  Although she has won only one of their seven meetings, the six tiebreaks and three three-setters prove that she can trouble Serena with her pinpoint groundstrokes and penetrating first serve.  The Chinese star has moved much more alertly and sustained a more even level in matches than her quarterfinal opponent, who has traced the opposite of her usual progression through tournaments.  Instead of growing more intent with each round, Serena has looked increasingly disinterested, never a fault of which one could accuse Li.

Andreas Seppi vs. Andy Murray:  Having defeated two rising stars in Grigor Dimitrov and Bernard Tomic, Murray now faces someone on the opposite end of his career.  Lacking real weapons to hurt the Scot, Seppi can neither outhit him nor outlast him from the baseline, and his tepid second serve should allow his opponent to showcase his stinging return.  Murray lost his first meeting with Seppi on his home soil in Nottingham, but he has won all eight of their sets since then with one match on each of the four main surfaces (outdoor hard, indoor hard, clay, grass).  In one caveat, he has not faced the Italian since the latter’s surge that started a year ago and propelled him into the top 20.  This year has proved less successful for Seppi, who has not in fact defeated anyone in the top eight during his renaissance.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Marin Cilic:  A stark contrast to the preceding match, this clash of two heavy servers marks just the second hard-court meeting between them at an ATP tournament.  Tsonga moved past Cilic routinely at Cincinnati two years ago, but that much faster court played to his strengths more than the slow court does here.  Whereas he looks for chances to step inside the court and approach the net, Cilic remains tethered to the baseline and uses his steadier, symmetrical groundstrokes to stretch his opponents laterally.  He has won all seven of his tiebreaks at ATP events this year, a testament to this calm, lanky Croat’s poise when sets hang in the balance.  Also stellar in that area recently, the more flammable Tsonga won a small title in February two weeks after Cilic did the same.  Just three ranking spots separate them despite the Frenchman’s clearly more impressive career resume.

Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Kirsten Flipkens:  The Miami tournament has produced plenty of surprises, few more notable than the quarterfinal appearance of this Belgian.  Her mentor, Kim Clijsters, won this title twice with a more athletic, balanced game than what Flipkens needed to deploy in upsetting Petra Kvitova and backing up that statement with a victory over the raw Ajla Tomljanovic.  This match would not seem unduly concerning for the defending champion, although she faces an opponent who can take time away from her, shorten points, and cut off angles at the net.  Only once have they met, in Fed Cup three years ago, so both players may need time to adapt their distinctive styles to each other.  Each woman has played a series of three-setters lately, suggesting ebbs and flows in their form.  Having found the belief to win a set from Azarenka at Indian Wells, Flipkens needs to find it and keep it against the resilient Pole.

Novak Djokovic vs. Tommy Haas:  The German has troubled the Djoker occasionally, defeating him at Wimbledon in 2009 and extending him to a final set at the Rogers Cup just last year.  In three previous meetings at Masters 1000 hard-court tournaments, though, the world #1 has prevailed every time.  He looks far more focused and purposeful this week than he did at Indian Wells, mirroring the trajectory that he traced at the twin events in 2012.  That said, neither of his first two opponents approached the talents of the 18th-ranked Haas, who has drawn additional motivation this week from the presence of his daughter, Valentina.  Djokovic relishes the spectacle of playing under the lights, so an upset looks less probable than he might have if Miami had scheduled the match before Valentina’s bedtime.  The Serb’s consistency should undo the mercurial Haas on these slow courts as he extends the veteran into too many long, physically grinding rallies.

Albert Ramos vs. Jurgen Melzer:  Not the fourth-round match that anyone anticipated in this section, it unfolds amid the wreckage left behind by Juan Martin Del Potro’s early exit.  As one might expect, it marks the first career meeting between these two lefties, for either of whom a Masters 1000 quarterfinal would mark a substantial accomplishment.  After winning the Dallas challenger last week, Melzer carried his confidence through two comebacks from losing the first set here.  Ramos also weathered peaks and valleys in his form through consecutive three-setters against Juan Monaco, the second-highest seed in the section outside Del Potro, and home hope James Blake. Melzer owns the more imposing weapons, so the Spaniard should find himself in a counterpunching role.  But that role may be the easier to play on these courts with so much at stake.

Richard Gasquet vs. Nicolas Almagro:  For the second straight match, Gasquet faces a fellow practitioner of the one-handed backhand art.  The florid sweep of Almagro’s swing should contrast elegantly with the elongated but more explosive swat that Gasquet produces.  Like Tsonga and Cilic, these Europeans stand almost adjacent in the rankings, but the similarity in their backhands is echoed by other parallels in their playing styles.  Both can forget to put substance before style with their fondness for spectacular shot-making displays, and both have proven themselves vulnerable when the time arrives to finish matches.  Whereas Almagro spent last month on South American clay, Gasquet remained on hard courts in Europe.  That preparation might prove more meaningful in Miami, although he lost their only meeting on hard courts in 2011.

Sam Querrey vs. Tomas Berdych:  Flirting with disaster in each of his first two matches, Berdych lost the first set in both, rallied to win the second set in a tiebreak, and then established control early in the final set.  He even saved two match points against Alejandro Falla yesterday, one with an audacious second-serve ace, and displayed some uncharacteristic patience in constructing the rallies that turned the momentum.  Receiving a walkover from Milos Raonic, Querrey may have needed the respite after he too rallied from losing the first set to win the only match that he has played here.  He defeated Berdych at the 2008 US Open, but the Czech has sezied command since then with three straight victories in the second half of last year.  Once infamous for losses to anonymous opponents, the fourth seed has improved his consistency dramatically and rarely has lost to anyone outside the top eight over the last several months.  The last American man standing will enjoy the support of the home crowd as he attempts to outslug Berdych in a match of staccato serve-forehand combinations.

Gilles Simon vs. Janko Tipsarevic:  The world No. 9 trails the overall head-to-head 6-2 in a rivalry that has developed only recently.  Five of the matches have reached a final set, where Simon’s superior fitness has reaped rewards, and the surface speed appears to have played a role.  Tipsarevic’s two victories came on two of the fastest courts where they have met, the blue clay of Madrid and the fall Tokyo tournament, while Simon won here two years ago.  Almost comically dismal at Indian Wells, the Frenchman has sharpened his game considerably through the first two matches—but so has the Serb, who surprised some by defeating the recently more dangerous Kevin Anderson.  This match should feature plenty of long rallies, but Tipsarevic will try to redirect his groundstrokes down both lines to keep Simon on his heels.

Sunday at the Sony: Sharapova, Serbs, and More

As the third round begins in the men’s draw, the women finish deciding who will reach the final sixteen at the Sony Open.

Maria Sharapova vs. Elena Vesnina:  The world #2 has won 14 straight matches against fellow Russians, but she lost her last meeting with Vesnina in the fall of 2010.  An Indian Wells doubles champion, her opponent has compiled a quietly solid season in singles that has included her first career title and a second-week appearance at the Australian Open.  Each Russian handled a rising young star in her opener with ease, Sharapova crushing Eugenie Bouchard and Vesnina dismissing Donna Vekic.  The only Indian Wells finalist still in the Miami draw, the women’s champion there may face her greatest challenge from the heat and humidity of a tournament that she never has won.

Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Ana Ivanovic:  Sony Open organizers showed their knowledge of tennis when they chose this match for the evening marquee ahead of those featuring higher-ranked champions.  While neither Kuznetsova nor Ivanovic has won a major in nearly four years, one should not miss this battle of fellow major champions with ferocious forehands.  Kuznetsova possesses the superior athleticism and Ivanovic the superior serve, an advantage less compelling on a slow surface where she never has reached the quarterfinals.  A champion here in 2006, the Russian aims to build on her miniature upset of countrywoman Makarova, but Ivanovic looked as brilliant as she has all year in an opener beset by rain and power failures.  Nerves beset both women when they try to close out sets and matches, so no lead will be safe.

Albert Ramos vs. James Blake:  An unthinkable prospect when the tournament began, a quarterfinal appearance for James Blake now looms well within the range of plausibility.  Much improved from recent form at Indian Wells, he continued to turn back the clock with a resounding victory over seeded Frenchman Julien Benneteau.  Meanwhile, the upset of Juan Martin Del Potro in this section has left him no significant obstacle to overcome.  The Spanish lefty across the net plays a steady game that will test Blake’s consistency, but the American should relish the opportunity to showcase his flashy skills under the lights at this prestigious event.

Alexandr Dolgopolov vs. Tommy Haas:  Each man survived talented opponents in the previous round, Dolgopolov dominating 2008 champion Nikolay Davydenko and Haas weathering a three-setter against Igor Sijsling.  The unpredictable quirks in the Ukrainian’s game could fluster the veteran of the famously flammable temper, but the latter has produced more impressive results over the past several weeks.  When they met in last year’s Washington final, Dolgopolov rallied from losing the first set to outlast Haas.

Kevin Anderson vs. Janko Tipsarevic:  Profiting from his vast advantage in height, Anderson defeated the second-ranked Serb three years ago on North American hard courts.  He started this year more promisingly than any year before, outside a February injury, and has won multiple matches at every tournament.  In contrast, Tipsarevic had lost ten consecutive sets (some resoundingly) from the Australian Open through Indian Wells before snapping that skid against a qualifier here.  Hampered by nagging injuries, he has suffered a sharp loss of confidence that could trouble him when he attempts to break the South African’s intimidating serve.  When the rallies unfold, however, Tipsarevic’s superior movement and balance could reap rewards.

Roberta Vinci vs. Carla Suarez Navarro:  On the gritty, slow hard courts of Miami, these two clay specialists look to continue their encouraging results from last month.  While Vinci reached the semifinals in Dubai, Suarez Navarro reached the Premier final in Acapulco.  Gone early from the California desert to an unheralded opponent, the Italian narrowly avoided a similar disappointment in navigating past Christina McHale.  She has lost all of her previous meetings, and all of her previous sets, to Suarez Navarro in a surprising head-to-head record considering their relative experience.  Just six rankings spots separate these two women, so one can expect a tightly contested encounter of elegant one-handed backhands.

Jelena Jankovic vs. Nadia Petrova:  Among the most entertaining women’s finals in recent Miami history was the three-setter that Jankovic contested against Serena Williams in 2008.  The sluggish court speed showcased her counterpunching game at its best, a level from which it has long since receded.  While she has won her last four meetings from Petrova, none of those has come since her precipitous plunge from the #1 ranking that started in 2009.  The Russian’s game has aged more effectively, allowing her to stay within range of the top ten even at the age of 30, and she enjoyed an unexpected renaissance with two titles last fall.  Like Jankovic, her two-handed backhand down the line remains her signature shot, but she will look to set the tone with penetrating first serves and aggressive court positioning as well.

Alize Cornet vs. Lauren Davis:  The only singles match not on a televised court, this overlooked encounter pits a French former prodigy against an extraordinarily lucky loser.  When Azarenka withdrew from the Sony Open, Lauren Davis filled her shoes with poise in an epic victory over countrywoman Madison Keys that climaxed with a third-set tiebreak.  Having benefited from Azarenka’s bye as well, Davis has progressed through more rounds in the main draw than she did in the qualifying draw.  The last American woman left in this half, she faces a winnable match against Cornet, who also survived a tense clash with Laura Robson in which she remarkably never lost her serve through the last two sets.