Juan Monaco

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From Continent to Continent: ATP Washington and Kitzbuhel Previews

Juan Martin Del Potro looks to recapture his brilliant Wimbledon form.

While the WTA divides its action between two coasts this week, the ATP spans the Atlantic Ocean with events on two different continents and surfaces.  The 500 tournament in Washington, part of the US Open Series, takes center stage.

Washington:

Top half:  A champion in Washington four years ago, Juan Martin Del Potro holds the top seed at the 2013 edition.  The Wimbledon semifinalist hopes to rediscover his torrid form against one of two men who shone in Atlanta.  Producing semifinal runs there last week, Lleyton Hewitt and Ryan Harrison will square off in one of the most intriguing first-round matches.  Nor can Del Potro relax if he survives the winner.  A strong grass season, highlighted by a second-week appearance at Wimbledon, will have restored Bernard Tomic’s confidence.  Although he continues to cope with controversy surrounding his father, Tomic has plenty of ways to disrupt Del Potro’s rhythm if the Argentine returns rusty from a leg injury.  A more straightforward test awaits from Kevin Anderson, seeking his third semifinal in three weeks.  Before he meets Del Potro in the quarterfinals, Anderson may find the returning Mardy Fish an opponent worthy of his steel.

If power dominates the top quarter, flair defines much of the second quarter.  The flamboyant shot-making of Tommy Haas favors precision over physicality, while the graceful one-handed backhand of Grigor Dimitrov has a vintage appeal.  Haas reached the final in Washington last year, perhaps using his training at the Bolletieri Academy in Florida as experience for coping with the humidity.  But power never lags far behind in a draw filled with Americans.  Sam Querrey will face one of two Atlanta quarterfinalists, Denis Istomin or Santiago Giraldo, in the second round.   A contrast of styles would await if Querrey advances to face Dimitrov and then Haas, although a 5-8 record since April leaves a deep run far from guaranteed.

Semifinal:  Del Potro vs. Haas

Bottom half:  Filled with question marks, the third quarter could produce a surprise semifinalist.  The favorite at first glance would seem Milos Raonic, by far the most powerful of the seeds.  Raonic’s massive serve could sizzle on a hot hard court, but he has accomplished little since winning yet another San Jose title in February.  Neither has fellow seed Nikolay Davydenko, who has struggled historically against possible second-round opponent James Blake.  Some of Gilles Simon’s best results have come in North America, including a Miami quarterfinal this spring, and the fifth seed’s steadiness might suffice to ease him past the erratic men around him.  Among them is former champion Radek Stepanek, who looks forward to American collegiate star Steve Johnson in his opener.

One might lose sight of defending champion Alexandr Dolgopolov in the fourth quarter.  Not a threat for most of 2013, Dolgopolov faces an arduous route towards a title defense.  Home hope John Isner looms in the third round if he can revive his energy after a draining title run in Atlanta.  An easier route to the quarterfinals beckons for Kei Nishikori, who won a North American 500 tournament at Memphis this year.  Bogota runner-up Alejandro Falla faded quickly in Atlanta, as did American teenage sensation Jack Sock.  The clean, balanced baseline game of Nishikori should carry him past either of those opponents, after which a first meeting with Isner could await.

Semifinal:  Simon vs. Isner

Final:  Del Potro vs. Isner

Kitzbuhel:

Top half:  An assortment of Europeans and clay specialists have headed to this Austrian event before venturing into the steamy American summer.  German top seed Philipp Kohlschreiber aims to move one round further than he did at another clay 250 event.  The finalist in Stuttgart a few weeks ago, Kohlschreiber can look ahead to a quarterfinal against Spanish dirt devil Marcel Granollers.  This Rome quarterfinalist will welcome the opportunity to erase memories of an epic loss in Gstaad last week.  Between them stand Horacio Zeballos of Nadal-defeating fame and Wimbledon surprise Kenny de Schepper, who reached the second week there.

A greater Wimbledon surprise than de Schepper came from Fernando Verdasco, who would not hold the third seed here if not for his quarterfinal appearance at the last major.  To his credit, Verdasco parlayed that breakthrough into a strong July, highlighted by victories over Nicolas Almagro, Grigor Dimitrov, and Jerzy Janowicz.  An all-lefty matchup against Brazilian clay specialist Thomaz Bellucci should not detain him for long en route to a rematch of the Bastad final.  At that Swedish tournament, Verdasco fell to Carlos Berlocq, who faces an extremely challenging assignment as the fifth seed.  Days after defeating Federer, the ominous Daniel Brands sets his sights on the Bastad champion.  Also in this deep section is Robin Haase, arriving from a series of morale-boosting wins in Gstaad.

Semifinal:  Granollers vs. Verdasco

Bottom half:   A week of mixed omens for Albert Montanes in Umag included an upset over world No. 9 Richard Gasquet and a tight loss to Gasquet’s compatriot Gael Monfils.  Twice a semifinalist on clay already this summer, Victor Hanescu finds himself on a collision course with Montanes, who won a clay title in Nice just before Roland Garros.  The winner should feel confident heading into the quarterfinals, although home hope Jurgen Melzer will have most of the audience behind him.  Melzer reached the second week of Wimbledon but has lost five consecutive clay matches dating back to Monte Carlo.

Arguably the softest section, the base of the Kitzbuhel draw lies at the mercy of second seed Juan Monaco.  This recent member of the top 10 has shown altogether too much mercy in 2013, helplessly watching his ranking decline.  All the same, Monaco has produced at least somewhat respectable tennis this summer on clay, his best surface.  Three qualifiers and a wildcard offer little competition, so any challenge would need to come from one of two Spaniards.  While Daniel Gimeno-Traver has struggled on clay this year, Roberto Bautista-Agut retired last week in Gstaad.  Monaco thus looks safe unless he implodes, admittedly not unthinkable.

Semifinal:  Montanes vs. Monaco

Final:  Verdasco vs. Montanes

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

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

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

Atlanta:

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

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

Semifinal:  Isner vs. Hewitt

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

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

Semifinal:  Fish vs. Anderson

Final:  Hewitt vs. Anderson

Gstaad:

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

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

Semifinal:  Federer vs. Monaco 

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

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

Semifinal:  Granollers vs. Wawrinka

Final:  Federer vs. Wawrinka

Umag:

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

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

Semifinal:  Gasquet vs. Fognini

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

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

Semifinal:  Robredo vs. Berlocq

Final:  Fognini vs. Robredo

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

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

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

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

ATP:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WTA:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of the Blue: ATP Madrid Draw Preview

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

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

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

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

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

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

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

Semifinalist:  Berdych

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

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

Semifinalist:  Nadal

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

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

Semifinalist:  Federer

Final:  Djokovic vs. Nadal

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

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

Denied a defense in Monte Carlo, Nadal returns to home soil for another attempt.

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.

From Canucks to Kazakhs: Previewing the Davis Cup World Group Quarterfinals

Yes, Novak, the challenge confronting Team USA this weekend is THAT big.

Balanced among four continents, the Davis Cup World Group quarterfinals illustrate the diversity of excellence in this sport.  From Vancouver, Canada to Astana, Kazakhstan, each of the ties contains multiple storylines that we discuss in a preview.

Canada vs. Italy:  Choice of surface often plays a crucial role in handing the home team a Davis Cup advantage, and such may prove the case again when a nation of fast-court players hosts a nation of clay specialists.  While Andreas Seppi and Fabio Fognini excel on the prevailing surface of Europe, the edge swings to the massive serves of Milos Raonic and the similarly aggressive style of Vasek Pospisil on the indoor hard court that Canada has laid in Vancouver.  Thumping Davis Cup superpower Spain in this arena to start 2013 World Group play, Raonic and his compatriots should have gained a valuable boost of confidence, albeit a little mitigated by the Canadian No. 1’s recent illness.  If Pospisil’s youth undoes him against the more experienced Italians, doubles specialist Daniel Nestor might suffice to supplement Raonic’s effort in propelling Canada through.  He has accumulated more renown in that area than any of the Italians, although Pospisil may be the weakest link of the four on the court.  The Canadians certainly will hope to win in three or four rubbers, for nobody wants to gamble on what Italian No. 2 Fognini can produce when inspiration strikes him.

Winner:  Canada

USA vs. Serbia:  With world No. 1 Novak Djokovic towering ominously above this tie, Team USA must rest its hopes on winning the three rubbers that he does not play.  Or must they?  Both of the American singles players, Sam Querrey and John Isner, defeated Djokovic on hard courts last season.  Querrey’s victory came on fast indoor courts in Paris, perhaps similar to those in Boise, while Isner’s triumph came on the marquee stage of Indian Wells, illustrating his tendency to excel on home soil.  Appearing to nurse an abdominal strain in Miami, Djokovic produced one of his least impressive performances on the spring hard courts in years and can fluster under the pressure of overpowering serves.  Much less impressive all season are the two American giants, however, so sustaining a Djokovic-stifling level of play in a best-of-five format seems beyond their grasp.  Instead, they will hope to win the doubles behind Bob and Mike Bryan and pounce on Serbian #2 Viktor Troicki.  Despite a first-round setback against Brazil, the Bryans almost always deliver for Team USA.  But Troicki holds a 5-2 edge over Querrey and Isner, so they will need all of the assistance that the home crowd can give them to make it 5-4.

Winner:  Serbia

Argentina vs. France:  Arguably the best Davis Cup team on paper, France enjoys the rare balance of star power and depth not only two top-15 singles players but an elite doubles squad in Julien Benneteau and Michael Llodra.  Still, all of the Frenchmen will confront the challenge of playing on their worst surface against a team playing on its best.  Hoping that home-court advantage will narrow the talent gap, Argentina welcomes them to the Parque Roca with clay specialists Juan Monaco and Carlos Berlocq.  The former man has watched his ranking skid this year as he has not won a match outside Davis Cup, but he did sweep his two first-round rubbers against Germany.  Playing above his usual level in that tie, Berlocq defeated French No. 2 Simon twice in three clay meetings last year, which could offer the Argentines an edge if the tie reaches a fifth rubber.  To do so, and circumvent French No. 1 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, they likely would have to win the doubles match with their seasoned pair of Horacio Zeballos and David Nalbandian.  Those two have played many a Davis Cup thriller before and usually rise to the occasion, but Benneteau and Llodra usually do too, so the doubles could be the highlight of the weekend.

Winner:  France

Kazakhstan vs. Czech Republic:  If this regularly overachieving group of Kazakhs stunned a Czech team in their native Ostrava two years ago, they must feel sanguine about their chances against the Czechs in Kazakhstan. More important than the location of the tie, moreover, is the absence of Czech #1 Tomas Berdych, which leaves a massive void in the visitors’ singles lineup.  Stepping into the gap, Lukas Rosol hopes to recapture the magic that he found on a single day at Wimbledon but that has eluded him since then.  Neither Rosol nor the other Czech singles entrant, Jan Hajek, boasts much experience of success in Davis Cup.  In contrast, this same Kazakh team has delivered surprise after surprise against favored opponents in this competition.  Lurking in the doubles and perhaps in the Sunday reverse singles, Radek Stepanek must fill the leadership role for the defending champions, but the 34-year-old’s energy is limited and skills fading.  Without a single man in the top 150, the home team should reach the World Group semifinals for the first time.  Whether this reflects poorly or well on Davis Cup is open to debate.

Winner:  Kazakhstan

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 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.

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