Jeremy Chardy

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What to Watch in the ATP This Week: Hamburg and Bogota Previews

Fed up.

Only one member of the top 10 takes the court in next week’s two ATP tournaments.  But he’s someone who might merit your attention.

Hamburg:

Top half:  After his second-round loss at Wimbledon, Roger Federer admitted that he needed to regain his rhythm and poise at key moments in matches.  Taking a wildcard into Hamburg, which he won as a Masters 1000 tournament, Federer seeks his first title of the season above the 250 level.  That triumph came at the grass event in Halle, so the world No. 5 will hope to make it two for two on German soil.  Home favorite Daniel Brands could prove an intriguing opening test, considering the challenge that Brands posed for Rafael Nadal in a Roland Garros four-setter.  But the headline match of the quarter, or perhaps the half, comes in the next round with Ernests Gulbis.  Defeating Federer on clay in Rome before, Gulbis has taken at least one set in all three of their previous meetings.  Most of the other players in this section, such as Feliciano Lopez or Nikolay Davydenko, have grown accustomed to Federer’s superiority.

All four seeds in the second quarter reached a quarterfinal at a major this year, rare for an event of Hamburg’s diminished stature.  Jerzy Janowicz and Fernando Verdasco both launched their surprise runs at Wimbledon, and Verdasco extended his surge from grass to clay by winning his first title since 2010 last week.  In his first tournament as a member of the top 20, Janowicz has built his ranking less on consistency than on a handful of notable achievements at key tournaments.  Similarly, Australian Open quarterfinalist Jeremy Chardy has struggled to string together momentum and has secured just one semifinal berth since that breakthrough.  An all-Spanish quarterfinal might await if Verdasco and Roland Garros quarterfinalist Tommy Robredo use their superior clay expertise to halt the higher-ranked Janowicz and Chardy, respectively.  Federer never has lost to any of these men, or to anyone else in a section where Madrid semifinalist Pablo Andujar also lurks.

Semifinal:  Federer vs. Verdasco

Bottom half:  The sight of Nicolas Almagro and Mikhail Youzhny in the same vicinity calls to mind their Miami clash five years ago.  Youzhny famously won that match with blood dripping down his head after banging his racket on it repeatedly.  Undefeated in their previous meetings, Youzhny stopped Almagro in another three-setter this spring without reacquainting his racket with his head.  While the Spaniard has faltered after a promising start to 2013, he still holds the surface edge on his nemesis.  This section also contains four unseeded players who have reached clay finals this year.  Bucharest champion Lukas Rosol could derail Almagro straight out of the gate, while Bucharest runner-up Guillermo Garcia-Lopez sets his sights on Youzhny.  A champion in Nice, Albert Montanes could eye a rematch of his final there against Gael Monfils, but only if the latter can upset defending champion Juan Monaco.  The Argentine won a clay title in Dusseldorf on the day that Montanes won Nice, his fourth on clay in 2012-13.

Second seed Tommy Haas usually shines on German soil during these latter stages of his career.  Winning Munich on clay and taking a set from Federer in a Halle semifinal, Haas finished runner-up to Monaco in Hamburg last year.  On the verge of the top 10, he showed some traces of fatigue by falling early in Stuttgart as the top seed.  A semifinalist at that tournament, Victor Hanescu could face Haas in his opener, while Bastad runner-up Carlos Berlocq looms a round later.  The other side of the section exudes a distinctly Italian flavor, bookended by Andreas Seppi and Fabio Fognini.  A semifinalist in Monte Carlo, Fognini started his campaign there by defeating Seppi in three sets, and he has enjoyed far stronger clay results than his compatriot this year.  Of minor note are Vina del Mar champion Horacio Zeballos, just 4-14 since that breakthrough, and Rome quarterfinalist Marcel Granollers, who owed that result in large part to Andy Murray’s retirement.

Semifinal:  Monaco vs. Haas

Final:  Federer vs. Monaco

Bogota:

Top half:  Not since the Australian Open has Janko Tipsarevic won more than two matches in a tournament.  The beleaguered Serb saw his ranking slide out of the top 10 this summer, unable to salvage it even with several appearances at the 250 level.  Another such effort to gobble up easy points as the top seed unfolds in Bogota.  This draw looks more accommodating to Tipsarevic than others in which he has held that position.  A pair of Colombians, Alejandro Falla and a wildcard, join a pair of Belgians and Australian serve-volleyer Matthew Ebden in his vicinity.  If he can rediscover the tennis that brought him to the top 10, Tipsarevic should cruise.  If he plays as he has for most of the year, anything could happen.

Among the most intriguing names in the second quarter is rising Canadian star Vasek Pospisil.  Depending on how fast the courts play in Bogota, Pospisil could deploy his serve and shot-making to devastating effect against less powerful opponents.  Australian journeyman James Duckworth showed his mettle in two epics at his home major this year, while Aljaz Bedene owns a win over Stanislas Wawrinka—but not much else.  A finalist in Delray Beach, fourth seed Edouard Roger-Vasselin hopes to halt a four-match losing streak.  At least Mr. Bye cannot stop him in the first round.

Bottom half:  Surprising most observers by reaching the second week of Wimbledon, Adrian Mannarino came back to earth with a modest result in Newport.  At an event of similar caliber, he will hope to build on his momentum from grass while it still lingers.  The same motivation probably spurs third seed Igor Sijsling, who upset Milos Raonic at Wimbledon after bursting on the scene with a victory over Tsonga in February.  Back into action with a quarterfinal showing in Newport, Ivo Karlovic brings his towering serve to an altitude ideal for it.  At 7,000 feet above sea level, Dr. Ivo might be nearly unbreakable if his fitness weathers the thin air.

Also armed with a massive serve, second seed Kevin Anderson eyes a cluster of Colombians.  Two home hopes meet in the first round, but Santiago Giraldo will fancy his chances to reach the quarterfinals.  Near him is Kazakh loose cannon Evgeny Korolev, who oozes with talent while lacking the reins to harness it.  Anderson has won all three of his meetings with Korolev and his only previous encounter with Giraldo, so his path to the weekend looks clear.

Final:  Unseeded player vs. Anderson

 

 

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

Returning to home soil should raise Sam Querrey

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

Bastad:

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

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

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

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

Final: Robredo vs. Verdasco

Stuttgart:

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

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

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

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

Final:  Haas vs. Paire

Newport:

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

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

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

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

Final:  Querrey vs. Hewitt

Wimbledon Rewind: Murray Shines, Janowicz Soars, Kerber Crumbles, Ferrer Survives, Kvitova Wobbles on Day 5

Andy Murray might not be the only British quarterfinalist at this Wimbledon.

The rain continued to make its presence felt on Friday as a mixture of postponed second-round matches and third-round matches unfolded.  Here are the studs and duds from the fifth day of Midsummer Mayhem, where no seed is safe.

ATP:

Match of the day:  The tremors of Wednesday’s earthquakes have not quite left Wimbledon.  In his second-round match, David Ferrer split the first two sets with compatriot Roberto-Bautista Agut and needed a tiebreak to salvage the third.  Perhaps emboldened by the feats of other underdogs, Bautista-Agut battled deep into the fourth set before the last Spanish man left in the draw limped through.  After arduous four-set victories in the first two rounds, though, blood is in the water around Ferrer, the victim of multiple turf tumbles.  His future opponents await their chances to pounce.

Upset of the day:  This upset mostly happened yesterday, in fact, when Grega Zemlja and Grigor Dimitrov exited the court locked at 9-8 in the fifth set.  The longest final set of the tournament in terms of games ended with Dimitrov excused to join Maria Sharapova at a sunnier location.  Despite his enormous promise, he still has not reached the second week of a major and continues to struggle in the best-of-five format.

Gold star:  A non-entity a year ago, Jerzy Janowicz hammered 30 aces against the 15th-seeded Nicolas Almagro to reach the second week of a major for the first time.  Janowicz has not dropped a set in the tournament and should be considered the favorite to reach the (gasp) semifinals in the quarter vacated by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.  He has shown far more discipline this week than at most previous tournaments this year.

Silver star:  Last year’s runner-up has become the only top-15 man left in the bottom half of the draw.  Andy Murray dispatched Tommy Robredo methodically for a third consecutive straight-sets win.  He will enter every match until the final as an overwhelming favorite, adding to the pressure already on him at his home major.

One-hit wonder:  The man who slew Roger Federer fell victim just one round later, no more able to build on his accomplishment than the man who slew Rafael Nadal.  Sergiy Stakhovsky dropped a four-setter to Jurgen Melzer two days after Steve Darcis withdrew from the tournament with a shoulder injury.  But both of these men outside the top 100 will have a story to tell for the rest of their lives.

Question of the day:  Brought back today for the third and fourth sets of his second-round match, Jeremy Chardy returns tomorrow to face Novak Djokovic.  The French shot-maker reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open this year and could threaten the Serb on grass with his forward-moving attack.  But will he lack the energy to make a match of it?

WTA:

Upset of the day:  Six of the top ten women have started their midsummer holiday already, most exiting in uneventful fashion.  World No. 7 and 2012 semifinalist Angelique Kerber looked likely to survive the tsunami of upsets when she led the dangerous Kaia Kanepi, a former Wimbledon quarterfinalist, by a set and by 5-1 in the second-set tiebreak.  Undeterred by those odds, Kanepi swept five straight points and eventually the tiebreak.  She asserted control early in the final set against a reeling Kerber, who suffered the latest in a string of painful three-set losses this year.

Comeback of the day:  Still in the draw with Victoria Azarenka’s withdrawal, Flavia Pennetta has made the most of the opportunity.  The Italian veteran had earned mostly tepid results since returning from injury this spring, but she now finds herself in the second week of Wimbledon.  Pennetta dropped a first-set bagel to fellow clay specialist Alize Cornet, only to wrest away the momentum in a second-set tiebreak and cruise through the third.  Call it Kanepi-Kerber Lite.

Gold star:   Depending on the result of a postponed match, Marion Bartoli might find herself the highest-ranked woman in the bottom half of the draw when Monday arrives.  The 15th seed and 2007 finalist notched another straight-sets win over another mediocre opponent.  It is possible that Bartoli could reach the semifinals without facing anyone ranked higher than No. 70 Christina McHale, but one cannot fault her for the shortcomings of those around her.

Silver star:  The adrenaline of playing a top-ten woman at Wimbledon probably carried Laura Robson to her first-round upset of Maria Kirilenko.  Another rush of adrenaline arrived when Robson stepped onto Centre Court for her next match.  She used it to her advantage in a comfortable victory over Mariana Duque Marino.  With no seed left in her vicinity, a quarterfinal berth would not come as a shock.

One-hit wonder:  Like Stakhovsky, Michelle Larcher de Brito subsided meekly in the wake of her massive upset.  She fell to the equally unremarkable Karin Knapp, giving Italy at least two women in the second week pending Roberta Vinci’s match tomorrow.  The last supposedly rising star who defeated Maria Sharapova in the second round of Wimbledon, Alla Kudryavtseva, never went on to achieve anything more significant.  We will see whether Larcher de Brito can build something stronger from it.

Americans in London:  In a tale of two very different sets, No. 17 Sloane Stephens eked out a tiebreak against qualifier Petra Cetkovska—and then gulped down a bagel in the second set.  She will return tomorrow with one set to decide who reaches the second week.  If Stephens does, she would have advanced to that stage at every major this year, more than eight of the top ten women can say.  Meanwhile, Alison Riske avenged compatriot Mallory Burdette’s loss to Urszula Radwanska by battling past Agnieszka’s sister in three sets.

Question of the day:  Leading fellow lefty Ekaterina Makarova by a set and 2-1, world No. 8 Petra Kvitova lost seven straight games.  The easily flustered former champion now trails Makarova by a break in the final set as a golden opportunity to plow deep into a major draw threatens to slip away.  Can Kvitova collect herself when play resumes tomorrow?

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

Talk to my fist.

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

ATP:

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

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

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

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

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

WTA:

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

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

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

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

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

 

No Mirage Are These Four: ATP Indian Wells Draw Preview

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

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

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

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

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

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

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

Semifinalist:  Murray

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

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

Semifinalist:  Berdych

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

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

Semifinalist:  Federer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final:  Tsonga vs. Del Potro

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

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

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

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

Final:  Querrey vs. Verdasco

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

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

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

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

Final:  Nadal vs. Almagro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final:  Gasquet vs. Simon

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

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

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

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

Final:  Cilic vs. Melzer

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

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

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

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

Final:  Nadal vs. Monaco

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

More Memories of Melbourne: Grading the Australian Open (ATP)

Djokovic gets cozy with an old flame.  Should Jelena Ristic be jealous?

 

Having completed the recap of the WTA field at the Australian Open, we issue report cards for the ATP.  As before, grading reflects not just results but expectations, quality of opposition, and other factors. 

Djokovic:  The master of Melbourne like none before him, the Serb became the first man in the Open era to finish on top Down Under three straight years.  That record span of dominance over a tournament that famously has eluded dominance came with a satisfying serving (note the word choice) of revenge over Murray, who had defeated him in the US Open final.  Consolidating his current control over what looks like the ATP’s next marquee rivalry, Djokovic won his third straight match in it after losing the first set in all of them.  Vital to his success was the series of 44 consecutive holds with which he ended the tournament, strangling two of the game’s best returners in Ferrer and Murray.  Those top-five opponents managed break points in just two of Djokovic’s service games through the semifinal and final as he repeatedly won 30-30 and deuce points throughout the tournament—with one notable exception in his epic against Wawrinka.  The undisputed world #1 survived and then thrived in running his winning streak over top-eight opponents to eleven.  Overpowering Ferrer and outlasting Murray, Djokovic showed that he can—and will—do virtually anything to win.  A+

Murray:  The US Open champion came closer than many anticipated to becoming the first man to win his second major on the next opportunity after his first.  Murray admittedly benefited from a puff pastry of a pre-semifinal draw, which allowed him to conserve energy for that five-setter against Federer.  Threatening to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory at the end of the fourth set in that match, he showed remarkable resilience by bouncing back to claim an early lead in the fifth and close out the man who had tormented him at majors.  Murray maintained a nearly impenetrable rhythm on serve throughout that match, and his forehand continued its maturation into a real weapon.  He will rue the three break points that he let escape early in the second set of the final, which could have unfolded entirely differently otherwise.  But Murray was right to consider the tournament an important consolidation of last year’s success.  A

Federer:  Handed the most difficult draw of the top three, he showed just how well his game can silence players who rely heavily on their serves in ousting Tomic and then Raonic.  Federer defended crisply and moved as alertly as he has in years past during the five-set quarterfinal with Tsonga that followed, which unveiled the full range of his weapons from the explosive to the delicate.  But his struggles to break serve caught up with him against Murray, whom he could not crack for three and a half sets even as his own serve came under frequent pressure.  Probably drained by the Tsonga epic, Federer faded in the fifth set despite mounting an impressive surge to swipe the fourth.  He finished the tournament by winning all six of his tiebreaks, a sure sign that he remains one of the sport’s best competitors under pressure.  A

Ferrer:  Never looking his best during the fortnight, he backed into the #4 ranking rather than charging into it with confidence.  Ferrer probably should have lost to Almagro in the fourth round, outplayed for most of the first four sets and kept alive only by his compatriot’s shocking inability to deliver the coup de grace.  Thoroughly exposed by Djokovic in the semifinals, he suffered his second humiliating defeat at that stage of a major over the last twelve months as he offered little better than batting practice for the Serb’s weaponry.  Ferrer said consistently this fortnight that he considers himself a clear level below the Big Four, and his results against them on grand stages continue to make his point for him.  B

Tsonga:  The Frenchman slipped to 13 straight losses against top-eight opponents here, but the manner in which he did contained kernels of hope for the season.  Not folding meekly to Federer as he had in an earlier Australian Open, Tsonga regrouped from losing the first set in a tiebreak to win the second and regrouped from losing the third set in a tiebreak to win the fourth.  He even spared no effort in battling Federer down to the finish in a fifth set tenser than the scoreline showed.  Also likely to please new coach Roger Rasheed was his greater efficiency in closing out overmatched opponents in the previous four rounds.  Docked a notch for his Neanderthal-like comments about women’s tennis.  B+

Almagro:  As the percipient Steve Tignor of Tennis.com noted, sometimes a player’s greatest achievement can turn into his greatest catastrophe within a handful of points.  Jerking Ferrer around the court for two and a half sets, Almagro astonished audiences by his newfound courage against an opponent who had won all 12 of their previous meetings.  He will remember his first quarterfinal at a hard-court major for the wrong reasons, though, once he failed to serve it out three times across the third and fourth sets before succumbing to cramps as well as the crushing weight of his disappointment in the fifth.  B-

Chardy:  Not only did he upset Del Potro with inspired attacking tennis, but he followed up that five-set victory by grinding out a four-setter against the recently dangerous Seppi.  The Frenchman came from nowhere to reach his first major quarterfinal and in the process showed considerable courage. Chardy almost pulled off an Almagro against the Tower of Tandil, gagging on triple break point midway through the third set when he had won the first two.  Unlike the Spaniard, he mustered one last surge in the fifth with an unexpected fearlessness to finish what he had started.  A-

Berdych:  Drawn against the top seed in a quarterfinal for the second straight major, he could not find the same thunderbolts that he had hurled at the US Open.  Or perhaps Berdych simply matches up more effectively to Federer than to Djokovic, who has won all eleven of their hard-court meetings.  Before that relatively tame four-set loss, however, he recorded four straight-sets victories that bode well for his consistency, always the main question for him.  He leaves the Australian Open as the man outside the Big Four most likely to win a major this year, although he will need some help to do so.  B+

Del Potro:  Through the first two rounds, the Tower of Tandil looked not only sturdy but downright terrifying.  Just when people began to take him seriously as a dark horse title threat, Del Potro turned into the Leaning Tower of Pisa when he tottered to the exit in a strangely enervated effort.  That five-set loss to Chardy at the end of the first week marked a setback in a surge that started with his bronze-medal victory at the Olympics, departing from his recent steadiness against opponents outside the top ten.  F

Tipsarevic:  He looked every inch a top-eight seed in dismantling sentimental favorite Hewitt before his home crowd on Rod Laver Arena, where the Aussie had wrought so many miracles before.  Striking winners down both lines with abandon, Tipsarevic appeared to make an imposing statement.  Then he wobbled through two five-setters and retired against Almagro, not a surprising result for a man who has completed a career Golden Slam of retirements.  C

ATP young guns:  Heralded with enthusiasm when the tournament began, none of these prodigies left a meaningful impact on the tournament.  Brisbane finalist Dimitrov became the first man to exit Melbourne, failing to win a set in his opener, and Raonic succumbed to Federer much more routinely than he had in their three meetings last year.  Tomic produced a stronger effort against the Swiss star than he did last year but still lost in straight sets after struggling mightily with a qualifier in the previous round.  And American fans need not have watched Harrison’s ignominious loss to Djokovic for long to realize how far this alleged future star must improve before mounting a credible threat.  Last but not least, Paris finalist Jerzy Janowicz narrowly avoided a second-round implosion over a dubious line call and rallied to win after losing the first two sets—sets that he should not have lost in the first place.  Janowicz did at least progress as far as his seed projected, and many of these young men received difficult draws, but the breakthrough of young stars that many expected here happened almost entirely on the women’s side.  C+

Bryan brothers:  At their most productive major, they closed within four major titles of Federer by comfortably winning the final after some close scrapes earlier in the fortnight.  The Bryans have earned some of their most consistent success in Australia, where they have reached nine finals and five consecutively.  Djokovic still has some work to do before he can approach the numbers of these twins whose talents never seem to fade.  A

Djokovic vs. Wawrinka:  Undoubtedly the match of the tournament, it represented the high point of Wawrinka’s career to date.  The Swiss #2 basked in the spotlight while cracking his exquisite one-handed backhands to all corners of the court and taking control of rallies with his penetrating cross-court forehand.  Wawrinka even served at Federer-like heights for much of the match, outside a predictable stumble when he approached a two-set lead.  Stunned by the brio of his opponent, Djokovic needed a set and a half to settle into the match.  The underdog then needed about a set and a half to regroup from the favorite’s charge, at which point the fourth and fifth sets featured spellbinding tennis all the more remarkable for the ability of both men to sustain their quality.  Fittingly, the match ended only after Wawrinka had saved two match points with breathtaking shot-making and only with a rally that forced both men to pull out nearly every weapon in their arsenals.  A+

Simon vs. Monfils:  Not much shorter than Djokovic vs. Wawrinka in terms of time, it felt considerably longer to watch.  This mindless war of attrition featured rally after rally of the sort that one more commonly finds on practice courts, including a 71-shot meander to nowhere that contributed to the inevitable cramping suffered by both men late in the match.  If the previous epic offered an argument to keep the best-of-five format, this match argued just as eloquently for its abandonment.  Simon, the winner, had no chance of recovering in time for his next match, nor would Monfils if he had won.  C-

Men’s final:  Not a classic by any means, it compared poorly both to the women’s melodrama on the previous night and to the marathon of the 2012 men’s final.  The 2013 edition illustrated some troubling reasons why the Djokovic-Murray rivalry never may capture the imagination to the extent of Federer-Nadal, Federer-Djokovic, and Djokovic-Nadal.  Presenting no contrast in styles, these two men played essentially the same games in a match of mirror images that came down to execution in any given situation—interesting but not exactly stimulating to watch.  Moreover, they continued to bring out the passivity in each other by showing so much respect for each other’s defense that many rallies featured sequence after sequence of cautious, low-risk shots designed to coax errors rather than force the issue.  These tactics worked perfectly for Djokovic, just as they worked for Murray at last year’s US Open, but they left fans waiting for a spark that never came in a match that trudged towards anticlimax.  B-

And that is a wrap of the 2013 Australian Open!  Up next is a look ahead to the first round in Davis Cup World Group action:  all eight ties previewed and predicted.

Wizards of Oz (X): Federer, Murray, Azarenka, Serena, Tsonga, and More in the Australian Open Quarterfinals

Can Federer glide as effortlessly past Tsonga as past his earlier opponents?

Today unfold the remaining quarterfinals in Melbourne, which will decide who joins Sharapova, Li, Djokovic, and Ferrer in the final four of the season’s first major.  We break down key facts to know and trends to watch in these four matches on Rod Laver Arena.

Azarenka vs. Kuznetsova:  Fans who have followed women’s tennis only over the last few years might find it surprising that an unseeded Russian owns a winning record against the world #1, who has looked nearly unstoppable at hard-court majors in 2012-13.  A two-time major champion, Kuznetsova won their first three clashes several years ago, while she remained in her prime and Azarenka still early in her development.  More relevant are their two meetings last year, both won by Vika in straight sets.  The world #1 routed Kuznetsova in their only recent hard-court encounter, ten months ago at Indian Wells, as her baseline consistency proved more than adequate to exploit the erratic lapses in her opponent’s fading game.

Reviving her career this month, the Russian has swept nine of her last ten matches and showed surprising poise in closing out a tense three-set contest against Caroline Wozniacki.  Also shown by Kuznetsova in that fourth-round match were her skills at the net, where she won all but two of twenty-five points as she relied on her natural athleticism to improvise as necessary.  A player of equal athleticism, Azarenka prefers to play rallies tethered to the baseline unless she can move forward to finish points easily.  The Russian will need to continue her all-court play to trouble Vika, for her meager serve will win her few free points, and—recent improvements notwithstanding—she cannot outhit her consistently from the baseline.  Kuznetsova might win a set if she catches fire at the right time, but she ebbs and flows too much to defeat an opponent of this caliber.

Serena vs. Stephens:  Three weeks ago, they met in a Brisbane encounter that showed how much promise the future of Stephens may hold.  The young American did not look overawed by a veteran who mentors her at times outside competition, swinging freely and even looking disappointed when a close first set slipped away from her, as though she had expected to win.  Nevertheless, Serena did stifle her routinely in the end, and one expects the 14-time major champion to bring a greater level of intensity to a major quarterfinal.  Stephens thus must raise her level even higher to keep this match competitive.

Due to enter the top 20 after the Australian Open, the highest-ranked teenager in the WTA sparkled in ousting fellow prodigy Laura Robson after the latter’s victory over Kvitova.  Somewhat less splendid was her three-set battle against the less dangerous Bojana Jovanovski, who nearly snatched away their match after Stephens had won the first set.  In her first major quarterfinal, the 19-year-old must play less passively than she did then, for the authoritative progress of Serena leaves her little margin for error.  Only slightly less commanding than Sharapova, the older American has lost just eight games in four matches as opponents have found no answers to her first strikes on serve and return.

Chardy vs. Murray:  Before he vaulted into unexpected prominence by toppling Del Potro, Jeremy Chardy recorded two victories over top-eight opponents at consecutive Masters 1000 tournaments last summer.  The latter of those, in Cincinnati, came against a Murray weary from his gold-medal campaign at the Olympics.  Exploiting that opportunity, Chardy had claimed no success at all in their previous four meetings, winning one total set.

The outlook on this match depends in part upon how much one attributes the Frenchman’s upset of the former US Open champion to his own brilliance and how much to his opponent’s listless tennis.  Chardy deserves credit for building upon that victory by overcoming the tenacious Seppi in four sets, but he remains a diamond in the rough with no prior experience at this stage of majors.  Also very raw is his game, which relies almost exclusively upon his forehand in a groundstroke asymmetry that the balanced Murray tends to dissect in other opponents.  The Scot has not found his most convincing form this fortnight, despite winning all twelve of his sets, and he has complained of inconsistent timing during practice as well as matches.  Known for several days now, those issues have persisted and could deplete his confidence if the underdog bursts out to a sizzling start.  Heavy hitters on a hot streak, even those much lower in the rankings, often blasted through Murray before he soared to major glory.  Has that pattern ended, or will Chardy become the latest in an Australian Open tradition of surprise finalists and semifinalists, from Gonzalez and Baghdatis to Tsonga and Verdasco?

Federer vs. Tsonga:  Beyond the Montreal tournament, the GOAT has impaled Tsonga on his horns in eight of their nine matches, establishing him as the clear favorite here.  Among those victories was a straight-sets demolition in an Australian Open semifinal three years ago and another in a quarterfinal at the 2011 US Open.  Tsonga’s only victory outside Montreal does raise some eyebrows, though, for this upset in a Wimbledon quarterfinal marked the first time that Federer had lost a major after winning the first two sets.  He never broke serve in the final three sets of that match, a slightly concerning fact in view of his struggles to break serve through much of his first four rounds here.

But Federer has looked the better player of the two by a distinct margin, and perhaps the best player of the tournament despite the most challenging draw of any contender.  The Swiss superstar still has not dropped a set after dispatching rising stars Tomic and Raonic.  Even areas of frailty in recent years have held firm for him, such as his backhand and his movement, while he has not even lost his serve or faced serious pressure in more than a handful of service games.  Not an elite returner, Tsonga should not test Federer much more severely in that department than his previous victims, and he suffered familiar lapses of focus in meandering past an overmatched Gasquet a round ago.  The immensely talented Frenchman could not claim a victory over any top-eight opponent in 2012, an alarming trend for someone with his previous successes against them.  At the outset of 2013, a sturdy effort against Federer would give Tsonga and new coach Roger Rasheed a reason to believe that the worm may turn.

Wizards of Oz (VIII): Federer, Serena, Murray, Azarenka, Tsonga, and More on Australian Open

Tsonga braces himself for a battle with a fellow Frenchman today.

On Monday, the rest of the quarterfinals take form in both the men’s and women’s draws.  The action shrinks to Rod Laver and Hisense, by which we divide the previews.

Rod Laver Arena:

Wozniacki vs. Kuznetsova:  Fans may remember their pair of US Open three-setters, both of which Wozniacki won when her retrieving skills and superior fitness outlasted Kuznetsova’s fiery shot-making and athleticism.  Those victories formed part of a four-match streak for the Dane against the Russian that halted abruptly last week in Sydney, where the latter astonished the former in a three-setter played under sweltering conditions.  All but irrelevant last year, Kuznetsova appeared to have regained her motivation during the offseason before charging back into contention with one of her best results to date here.  For her part, Wozniacki recovered from a dismal first-round effort to play cleaner tennis through her next two matches, albeit less impressive than what she produced as world #1.  Long rallies and service breaks should await as both players focus on what they do best in this strength-on-strength matchup:  offense for Sveta, defense for Caro.

Azarenka vs. Vesnina:  On the surface, this match would seem like a rout in the making, and it might well turn out that way in reality.  But Vesnina has played some of her best tennis in recent memory this month, starting an eight-match winning streak with her first career singles title last week.  Meanwhile, Azarenka has looked vulnerable in two of three matches and staggered through an unexpected three-setter against Jamie Hampton, who likely would not have trouble the Vika who swaggered to last year’s title.  Unable to hold serve consistently, the defending champion has relied on her return to break opponents regularly, possibly a more difficult task against Vesnina than the three before her.  Still, Azarenka has won all six of their previous sets.

Tsonga vs. Gasquet:  If the passivity of Simon and Monfils bored you, rest assured that this pair of Frenchman will not produce the same lethargy.  Outstanding shot-makers each, they shine most in different areas.  Whereas Tsonga unleashes titanic serves and forehands, often rumbling to the net behind them, Gasquet favors one of the ATP’s most delicious one-handed backhands.  He ventures to the forecourt often as well, displaying a fine touch that has contributed to his success in their rivalry.  Gasquet has won four of their seven meetings, but Tsonga looked the sharper player during the first week.  Not dropping a set in three matches, he has maintained the focus and discipline lacking from his disappointing 2012, so he will fancy his chances of halting Gasquet’s eight-match winning streak.

Serena vs. Kirilenko:  Apparently recovered from her ankle scare, Serena remains the favorite to win a third straight major title here.  Outside an odd three-game span in the second set of her last match, she has ravaged a series of overmatched opponents while reaffirming the dominance of her serve.  The competition does elevate in quality with the 14th-seeded Kirilenko, much improved in singles over the last year or two.  Serena has won all five of their previous meetings, though, and the weight of her shot should leave the Russian struggling to match her hold for hold.  Only on an especially erratic day for the 14-time major champion would Kirilenko’s balanced all-court game and high-percentage brand of tennis threaten her.

Raonic vs. Federer:  Perhaps useful in preparing him for the titanic serve across the net was Federer’s previous match against Tomic, who regularly found huge deliveries when it mattered most.  As brilliant as the Swiss looked in other aspects of his game, he struggled to convert break points and nearly lost the second set as a result.  Nevertheless, Federer did not lose his serve in the first week or even encounter significant pressure on his service games.  That trend should continue against the unreliable return of Raonic, while the veteran’s struggles to break should as well.  Combining those two threads, one can expect some tiebreaks to settle sets that should hinge upon just a handful of points.  All three of their previous meetings, on three different surfaces, reached final sets—and two a final-set tiebreak, illustrating Raonic’s ability to trouble Federer.  The younger man’s belief fell slightly short last year, but he has looked more assured in his status as a legitimate threat by brushing aside his first-week opponents here.

Hisense Arena:

Chardy vs. Seppi:  A match of survivors pits the man who defeated Del Potro in five sets against the man who defeated Cilic in five sets.  Spectators who expected to see two baseline behemoths dueling today may feel surprised to see one of the ATP’s most asymmetrical games square off against a baseline grinder.  Striking nearly 80 winners to topple the Tower of Tandil, Chardy produced nearly all of his offense from his forehand and at the net, where he will want to travel frequently again.  A clay-courter who has enjoyed his best result here to date, Seppi wore down Cilic by staying deep behind the baseline, absorbing pace, and extending the rallies.  That positioning leaves him vulnerable to someone as adept moving forward as Chardy, but the main theme of this match may revolve around who can recover more effectively, mentally and physically, from their notable but exhausting victories in the last round.

Jovanovski vs. Stephens:  Somewhat surprisingly, Stephens enters her first fourth-round match here as a clear favorite.  Probably the most unexpected member of the last sixteen, Jovanovski upset Safarova and weathered the distinctive game of Kimiko Date-Krumm to record a potential breakthrough.  She plays an orthodox power baseline style, more raw than the game honed by Stephens, and she has struggled at times to contain her emotions.  That said, one wonders how the young American will respond to the pressure of the favorite’s status at a stage where she has little more familiarity than her opponent.  This match marks the first meeting of what could become an intriguing rivalry.

Simon vs. Murray:  After his epic battle with countryman Monfils, which nearly reached five hours, Simon should have little energy left for the Scot.  He tellingly said that he would appear for the match but estimated his probability of winning it as slim.  Despite the issues with holding serve that Murray has experienced here, and his troubles with timing in the third round, he probably needs to play no better than his average level—or even below it—to advance.  Even a rested Simon would have few weapons to harm an opponent who has defeated him nine straight times, much less this battered version.

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