Jurgen Melzer

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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

Wimbledon Rewind: Serena Stunned, Djokovic Dominant, Radwanska Resilient, Li Lethal, Ferrer Fierce on Manic Monday

The grass snake stings, then smiles.

Monday got manic in a hurry with a titanic upset in the women’s draw, only to settle down into more predictable outcomes for most of the day.  Catch up on any of the fourth-round action that you may have missed with the daily Wimbledon rewind.

ATP:

Match of the day:  Twists and turns pervaded the clash of rising star Jerzy Janowicz and grizzled veteran Jurgen Melzer.  In the intimate surroundings of Court 12, Melzer started the match on fire but gradually lost his momentum in the second set and later trailed two sets to one.  Able to rally in the fourth, he secured a clutch break in the tenth game to force a deciding set.  With his first major quarterfinal on the line, though, Janowicz refused to let the opportunity escape him as he edged across the finish line 6-4 in the fifth.

Comeback of the day:  The other half of an all-Polish men’s quarterfinal, Lukas Kubot trailed Adrian Mannarino by a set and later by two sets to one in the most important match of his career so far.  Nobody would have expected Kubot to reach a major quarterfinal in singles, yet he wrested away this five-set encounter from his fellow journeyman.  His semifinal chances may hinge on whether Janowicz or he can recover from their draining victories more efficiently.

Upset of the day:  None.  Tomas Berdych deserves credit for snuffing out the most plausible upset threat in Bernard Tomic.  Splitting the first two sets in tiebreaks, Berdych gradually asserted himself against the Aussie talent in the next two sets and avoided the nerve-jangling scenario of a fifth set.

Gold star:  Before 2013, Juan Martin Del Potro never had reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon.  This year, he has reached the quarterfinals without losing a set.  Del Potro overcame a knee injury to defeat Andreas Seppi after wondering whether he would be fit to play on Monday.  Despite all of the surprises at Wimbledon this year, all of the top-eight seeds in the men’s top half reached the quarterfinals.

Silver star:  Winless in two previous grass meetings with Tommy Haas, Novak Djokovic seized control of the third from the outset and never let the veteran catch his breath.  Like Del Potro, Djokovic has not lost a set en route to the quarterfinals, but this victory impressed more than those that came before because of his history against Haas.  He will seek his fourth straight Wimbledon semifinal, not bad for a man whose worst surface is grass.

What doesn’t kill you…:  …makes you stronger?  World No. 4 David Ferrer has not won any of his four matches in straight sets, three of them against unseeded opponents.  Struggling with a painful ankle injury, Ferrer fell behind early again on Monday before dominating the latter stages of the match, as he had in the third round.  Wimbledon is the only major where he has not reached the semifinals, so he will aim to end that futility by repeating last year’s victory there over Del Potro.

Foregone conclusion of the day:  Even with Nadal’s early exit, two Spaniards reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals.  Joining Ferrer there was Fernando Verdasco, who rolled past Kenny de Schepper in straight sets.

Stat of the day: In addition to Agnieszka Radwanska in the women’s draw, the quarterfinal appearances of Kubot and Janowicz gave Poland more Wimbledon quarterfinalists than any other nation.

Question of the day:  World No. 2 Andy Murray again took care of business efficiently today, dispatching 20th seed Mikhail Youzhny.  Can Murray continue his uneventful progress to the final, his path barred only by Verdasco and one of the Poles?  Or will the escalating pressure of the second week lead to some unexpected drama in the bottom half?

WTA:

Match of the day:  One of the greatest grass specialists in WTA history, Sabine Lisicki reached her fourth Wimbledon quarterfinal by shocking heavy title favorite, defending champion, and world No. 1 Serena Williams in three sets.  Serena had not looked as sharp in the first week as she had at Roland Garros, but one expected her to prevail once she recovered from a dismal first set.  The defending champion dominated Lisicki in the second set and rolled to an early lead in the third, at which point many underdogs might have surrendered.  Lisicki is a different player on this court than she is anywhere else, though, and she swung freely with the match in the balance at 4-4 in the final set.  Hitting through her nerves and a staggering Serena, she scored perhaps the biggest upset in an upset-riddled draw.

Comeback of the day:  When Tsvetana Pironkova claimed the first set from Agnieszka Radwanska, Wimbledon suddenly looked in danger of losing all of the top five women before the quarterfinals.  But grass specialists would split their two meetings with top-four seeds on Monday as Radwanska ground through a second straight three-set victory.  As has been the case with much of her 2013 campaign, she has not shown her best form while doing just enough to win.

Gold star:  Li Na had survived consecutive three-setters to end the first week, including an 8-6 epic against Klara Zakopalova.  She needed to fasten her teeth into the tournament more firmly, and she did by losing just two games to the 11th seed, Roberta Vinci.  Having defeated Radwanska in a quarterfinal at the Australian Open, Li will hope to repeat the feat in a Tuesday match between the two highest-ranked women remaining in the draw.

Silver star:  Only one woman has reached the quarterfinals without losing a set or playing a tiebreak.  Take a bow, world No. 15 Marion Bartoli, who has threatened only occasionally at majors since reaching the Wimbledon final in 2007.  Granted, Bartoli has faced no opponent in the top 50 to this stage.  She participated in a bloodbath of Italians by ousting Karin Knapp for the loss of just five games.  (None of the four Italians who reached the fourth round won a set on Manic Monday.)

What doesn’t kill you…:  …makes you stronger?  The only former Wimbledon champion left in the women’s draw, Petra Kvitova had dropped sets in both of her first-week victories and easily could have done so again on Monday.  Former nemesis Carla Suarez Navarro took Kvitova to a first-set tiebreak and the brink of an emotional meltdown, but the Czech steadied herself once she survived it.  Kvitova can look ahead to a quarterfinal against Kirsten Flipkens, also fortunate to avoid losing a first set for which her opponent served twice.  Flipkens won their previous meeting this year in Miami.

All eyes on Andy:  A round after she upset Angelique Kerber, Kaia Kanepi sent home local darling Laura Robson in two tight sets.  The match could have tilted in either direction, so Kanepi’s experience probably proved vital in securing her second Wimbledon quarterfinal appearance.  She also earned the last laugh on British tabloids that lampooned her burly physique before the Robson match.

Americans in London:  In the wake of Serena’s loss, the United States plausibly might have gone home without a single quarterfinalist in either singles draw.  Sloane Stephens averted that disappointment by winning a second straight three-setter, this time against Monica Puig.  Trailing by a set, Stephens showed resilience in battling through a tight second set and then dominating the third.  She has won twelve matches at majors this year, more than many higher-ranked women.

Stat of the day: In Lisicki’s last four Wimbledon appearances, she has defeated the current Roland Garros champion every time.  Her repeated denials of Channel Slams protect a record held by compatriot Steffi Graf, who completed the Roland Garros-Wimbledon double four times.

Question of the day:  The first three majors will crown three different women’s champions for the third straight year.  With all of the top three gone before the quarterfinals, who becomes the new title favorite?  One might favor Kvitova, the only woman who has won here before, but conventional wisdom has taken it on the chin all fortnight.

 

Buy, Hold, Sell: The Unseeded Thirteen (Plus Memo on Wimbledon’s Middle Sunday)

Should we stay on the Laura Robson bandwagon for another round?

Although I enjoy most Wimbledon traditions, one of the exceptions is the Middle Sunday.  Before I launch into today’s topic, the unseeded players who have reached the second week, I wanted to share some thoughts about this lacuna.  Feel free to jump down below the asterisks if you’d prefer.  Otherwise, let me explain why I would dispense with the Middle Sunday.

Not just because Great Britain is a secular state, and the AELTC a secular organization.

Not just because it seems capricious to toss aside a quarter of your tournament’s weekend days.  (You know, the days when people are best able to actually sit on their couches and watch things like tennis.)

Not just because it seems slightly elitist to separate the haves of the second week so sharply from the have-nots of the first.

Not just because arbitrarily removing an entire day from your schedule makes every rain delay loom that much larger.  (This is exacerbated by the tournament’s refusal to start play on show courts earlier than 1 PM, leaving room for only three matches on each.)  Nature has a sense of humor, by the way.  Rarely does it rain on Middle Sunday.

Not just because “we do it this way because we’ve always done it this way” is one of the worst possible justifications for doing anything.

No, my main issue with Middle Sunday, and really the only issue that matters, is its impact on the schedule for the rest of the tournament.  Almost a tradition in its own right, Manic Monday has a certain gaudy appeal at first glance.  Lots of exciting stuff is happening!  All at the same time!  Everywhere!  It’s a channel-surfer’s paradise:  instant gratification, saturating the senses.

But the day rushes past before you know it, leaving no time to thoroughly savor and digest the delicious matches on the menu.  We could appreciate each of these fascinating encounters better if the tournament divided the fourth round, the round that usually separates contenders from pretenders, into two days of four ATP and four WTA matches apiece.

Even more importantly, Middle Sunday and Manic Monday result in a gender-based bifurcation of the entire second week.  At other majors, for example, fans can watch two men’s and two women’s quarterfinals on Tuesday, and the same lineup on Wednesday.  At Wimbledon, fans must watch the ladies on Tuesday, the gentlemen on Wednesday, and so forth alternating each day to the end.  Doubles is an exception, of course.

While I never have attended Wimbledon in person, I know that I prefer watching tournaments that interweave the men and the women in their schedules.  General fans who follow both the ATP and the WTA appreciate the variety that the rich contrasts between them offer.  The Australian Open has the ideal schedule in my view:  two quarterfinals from each Tour on Tuesday, the rest of the quarterfinals on Wednesday, women’s semifinals and one men’s semifinal on Thursday, the remaining men’s semifinal on Friday, and night sessions for each of the singles finals.  By the time that Friday arrives, obviously, there is almost no alternative to splitting the Tours.  But starting that rigid alternation on Tuesday takes away part of what makes a major feel like a major:   the chance to see the best players of both genders trading places with each other on the same court.

The US Open has scrapped its version of Middle Sunday, the “Super Saturday” on the second weekend that forced the men’s finalists to play best-of-five matches on consecutive days.  That version of cruel and unusual punishment died a slower death than it should have.  It’s time for Middle Sunday to start dying its slow death too.

***

At any rate, on to the tennis!  The chaos of the first week has left us with thirteen unseeded players in the fourth round.  This article takes a look at how each of them reached Manic Monday, the biggest stage on which many have starred.  And we discuss which of these underdogs you should buy, hold, or sell.

ATP:

Bernard Tomic:  Into the second week of Wimbledon for the second time, he knocked off top-25 opponent Sam Querrey to start the tournament.  Unlike many of those who started the tournament with a bang, Tomic used that victory to light the fuse of two more. His latest came against world No. 9 Richard Gasquet.  Now looms his first career meeting with Tomas Berdych at the ATP level.  While Berdych enters that match as the favorite, dark horses have intercepted him at majors before.

Buy, hold, or sell?   Buy

Ivan Dodig:  A bit of a Typhoid Mary last week, Dodig received two retirements in three matches.  The Croat fell behind Philipp Kohlschreiber by two sets in the first round, but he recovered to sneak out the next two before Kohlschreiber’s odd “I feel tired” retirement.  Not one to let this sort of opportunity go for naught, Dodig has not lost a set since.  Now he faces David Ferrer, who has not had an easy win in the tournament and needed five sets to escape Alexandr Dolgopolov.

Buy, hold, or sell?  Hold

Lukas Kubot:  Sandwiched around a walkover were two straight-sets victories, the second against a seeded opponent in Benoit Paire.  Kubot’s game fits the grass neatly with his reliance on quick strikes and ability to open the court.  He looks to arrange an intriguing all-Polish quarterfinal in the section where everyone envisioned an epic Nadal-Federer collision.

Buy, hold, or sell?  Buy

Adrian Mannarino:  The man who vies with Kubot for that quarterfinal berth never had reached the second week at any major before.  Like Kubot, Mannarino enjoyed a second-round boost when his opponent withdrew.  John Isner’s retirement opened the door for him to exploit the sequence of upsets when Dustin Brown defeated Lleyton Hewitt, who had defeated Stanislas Wawrinka.  Mannarino’s presence here thus seems more fortuitous than ferocious.

Buy, hold, or sell?  Sell

Jurgen Melzer:  Emerging from Roger Federer’s section of the draw, Melzer has advanced this far at a major before.  A Roland Garros semifinalist in 2010, the veteran lefty has played exactly four sets in each of his three matches.  He slew the man who slew the defending champion, benefiting from Sergiy Stakhovsky’s predictable lull.  Jerzy Janowicz’s thunderous serve and youthful exuberance should prove a test much more arduous.

Buy, hold, or sell?  Sell

Fernando Verdasco:  2013 could not have started much worse for Verdasco, who sagged outside the top 50 by the clay season.  Wimbledon could turn his entire season around if he can take care of business against the anonymous man below him on this list.  Verdasco did not benefit from the injuries of those around him, straight-setting both Julien Benneteau and the dangerous Ernests Gulbis.  If his lefty serve keeps firing, his attitude of relentless aggression should play well on grass.

Buy, hold, or sell?  Buy

Kenny de Schepper:  Ranked somewhat higher than Mannarino, de Schepper is only the tenth-best Frenchman in the ATP.  His presence in the fourth round reveals his nation’s tennis depth.  Although he ousted the grass-averse Juan Monaco to end the first week, his debut in the second week of a major pits him against the far more experienced Verdasco.  De Schepper’s best hope consists of a Verdasco letdown, which is not implausible, but he also must manage a moment to which he is unaccustomed.

Buy, hold, or sell?  Sell

WTA:

Laura Robson:  The darling of local fans caused British hearts to palpitate when Marina Erakovic served for the match against her in the third round.  Lackluster in the early stages of that encounter, Robson found the poise to regroup as she turned the fraught atmosphere to her advantage.  She upset world No. 10 Maria Kirilenko to start the tournament and can penetrate the grass smoothly with a massive lefty forehand.  But she faces a daunting test in the next round against former Wimbledon quarterfinalist Kanepi.

Buy, hold, or sell?  Buy

Kaia Kanepi:  Eager to engage in a slugfest with Robson, Kanepi knows what it feels like to reach this stage of this tournament.  A quarterfinalist as a qualifier in 2010, she built on those memories by upsetting the seventh-ranked Angelique Kerber in the second round.  Kanepi showed as much toughness in that match as Robson did against Erakovic, mounting a similar comeback from a deep deficit.  She struggled against a British journeywoman in her opener, which might not bode well for Monday, but Robson can expect a battle.

Buy, hold, or sell?  Hold

Tsvetana Pironkova:  Perhaps the least surprising of the unseeded women in the second week, Pironkova announced her presence by nearly double-bageling top-25 opponent Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova to start the tournament.  Her form has dwindled a bit since then, including a three-setter against Petra Martic, and Radwanska has owned her for most of their careers.  Pironkova lacks the power to hit through the Pole consistently, but she did defeat Radwanska on grass last year.

Buy, hold, or sell?  Hold

Monica Puig:  Scoring an upset against a top-five opponent is an excellent achievement in itself, as Puig did against Sara Errani.  Building upon it is even more impressive, and that is where Puig separated herself from Steve Darcis, Sergiy Stakhovsky, and Michelle Larcher de Brito last week.  Her lack of experience at majors may catch up with her against the suddenly seasoned Stephens, one of only three women to reach the second week at every major this year.  Still, Stephens looked far from formidable in a three-set struggle against qualifier Petra Cetkovska.

Buy, hold, or sell?  Hold

Karin Knapp:  A victory over the ever-enigmatic Lucie Safarova highlighted Knapp’s unexpected three-match winning streak.  The world No. 104 won just a single game from Marion Bartoli in their only previous meeting, though, and she would shock the tennis world if she solves the 15th seed.  A 2007 finalist here, Bartoli has played surprisingly steady tennis and did not lose a set in the first week.

Buy, hold, or sell?  Sell

Flavia Pennetta:  When world No. 2 Victoria Azarenka withdrew, Pennetta sniffed a chance to reassert her presence.  Her ranking has tumbled outside the top 150 after injury, but the Italian veteran twice before reached the second week at Wimbledon and can threaten on any surface.  A stirring comeback against Alize Cornet brings her into a Monday match with the 20th-ranked Kirsten Flipkens.  Reaching the final at the Dutch Open a week ago, Flipkens has won all of her matches in straight sets as the grass has rewarded her deft touch and forecourt skills.

Buy, hold, or sell?  Sell

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?

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

Tennis balls have always been to David Ferrer's taste.

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

Portugal:

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

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

Semifinal:  Ferrer vs. Robredo

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

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

Semifinal:  Fognini vs. Wawrinka

Final:  Ferrer vs. Fognini

Munich:

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

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

Semifinal:  Melzer vs. Kohlschreiber

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

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

Semifinal:  Haas vs. Davydenko

Final:  Kohlschreiber vs. Haas

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

Quarters for Our Thoughts: Sharapova, Ferrer, and More on Wednesday in Miami

Sharapova powered past Errani at Indian Wells.  Will she do it again?

After a handful of upsets in the men’s draw on Tuesday, Wednesday offers the start of the quarterfinals and the end of that round in the women’s draw.

Maria Sharapova vs. Sara Errani:  While nearly all of the other Indian Wells headliners have vanished, the women’s champion there keeps chugging through a streak of eighteen consecutive sets won, most in dominant fashion.  But Sharapova looked less crisp in focus, accuracy, and movement during her last two matches than during the climax of her desert run.  And her sternest test at Indian Wells awaits her for a second straight quarterfinal, continuing to show the hard-court consistency that has elevated her into the top eight.  Few people can have welcomed Errani’s ascent more enthusiastically than Sharapova, who crushed her in the Roland Garros final to claim a career Grand Slam.  While she repeated the same scoreline at the year-end championships, their meeting two weeks ago started with an 80-minute set that showcased the contrast between the flat baseline lasers of one and the artful net play of the other.  Sharapova saved set point before wearing down Errani, who feathered drop shot after drop shot to perfection but could not build a victory on that foundation alone.  The Italian already weathered the first strikes of Ana Ivanovic, though, and will probe her opponent diligently for cracks in her armor.

David Ferrer vs. Jurgen Melzer:  Of their eight previous meetings, not one has come on the Tour’s dominant surface of outdoor hard courts.  This anomaly complicates efforts to predict the outcome based on history, although Ferrer holds a meaningful 6-2 lead.  One of their most significant matches ended decisively in Melzer’s ledger at Roland Garros three years ago, where he achieved the best result of his career in upsetting Novak Djokovic to reach the semifinals.  Both over 30, the two men have traveled in opposite directions since then with the Austrian fading at most tournaments of note and the Spaniard claiming an ATP-leading nine titles since the start of 2012.  Into his second straight Miami quarterfinal, Ferrer has impressed with comprehensive victories over two seeded opponents, one of whom (Kei Nishikori) had troubled him before.  For his part, Melzer has defeated no challenger more prominent than Marcel Granollers, and he has needed final sets to secure three of his four victories.  The man who exploited Del Potro’s exit should crumble, physically and mentally, under the pressure of Ferrer’s resilient baseline defense.

Jelena Jankovic vs. Roberta Vinci:  To judge from their history, one can expect a highly competitive encounter.  Three times in five encounters, these two slow-court specialists have reached a final-set tiebreak to decide matches highlighted by their contrasting backhands.  Whereas Jankovic redirects the ball with her two-hander down the line, Vinci disrupts the rhythm of opponents with the versatility of the only one-hander in the WTA top 20.  Especially effective is her backhand slice, which floats deep into the court to keep aggressive baseliners at bay.  Somewhat the superior server, Jankovic still does not win many free points from her delivery and will need to outmaneuver the Italian in extended rallies.  The 2008 runner-up has not dropped a set in three matches, so she reaches the quarterfinal with more energy in reserve than a fellow veteran who has played three sets in all of hers.  Losing the first set in all of them, Vinci will hope to start more auspiciously against Jankovic, although she rallied from the same situation to edge past her in Sydney two months ago.

Tommy Haas vs. Gilles Simon:  Not the match that anyone anticipated for Wednesday’s night session, the battle of Serb slayers pits the opportunistic aggression of Haas against the impenetrable counterpunching of Simon.  While the Frenchman prefers to construct a fortress behind the baseline and rally in neutral mode until his opponent blinks, the 34-year-old German must force the issue by opening the court and cutting off angles.  Simon’s upset over Tipsarevic felt relatively minor because of the second-ranked Serb’s recent woes, but he still must feel satisfied to have restored his level from Indian Wells mediocrity to the solid results that he submitted in February.  For his part, Haas cannot afford to let his focus slide in the aftermath of a stunning triumph over the world No. 1.  Djokovic did not reach his normal heights in that match, but his opponent still displayed a level of shot-making precision that can carry him past Simon if he maintains it.  Having won two of his three hard-court meetings with Simon, he will hope to build upon his pair of victories last year on contrasting surfaces in Hamburg and Toronto.  The Frenchman’s only success in their history comes from an Indianapolis three-setter in 2008, when the heat and the slow court enabled him to outlast the older man.  With a rare window open to reach a Masters 1000 semifinal, each man hopes to capture key rankings territory.

Tuesday in Total: Every Sony Open Match Previewed!

Novak trains his backhand on a 34-year-old veteran in Tuesday's night session.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to Watch in the ATP This Week: Previews of Dubai, Acapulco, and Delray Beach

Has Djokovic recovered from his champagne hangover yet?

One of the strongest  ATP 500 tournaments on the calendar, Dubai follows its Premier women’s event by hosting six of the top ten men in the first significant outdoor hard-court tournament since the Australian Open.  This tournament claims pride of place in our weekly preview, although events in Acapulco and Delray Beach also feature key storylines that relate to what we can expect at Indian Wells.

Dubai:  A three-time champion at this event, world #1 Djokovic did not bring his best tennis to the Persian Gulf last year in the wake of a draining Australian Open.  The medium-paced hard court showcases his game splendidly, though, so he might bounce back in 2013 with a less exhausting Melbourne marathon behind him and a comfortable quarter ahead of him.  Not since his first meeting with Troicki has he lost to his compatriot, and rarely in the current twelve-match winning streak has the other Serb seriously troubled him.  That said, Djokovic did drop a set when they met here in 2010.  Also unlikely to threaten him on a hard court is the seventh-seeded Seppi, while Lukas Rosol does lurk but so far remains a one-upset man.

While three qualifiers form a soft center to the second quarter, its edges might feature some intrigue.  Seeking to avoid a third straight first-round loss here, former semifinalist Baghdatis faces a tall task in Del Potro, but he has won their last two clashes.  That battle of flat groundstrokes and inspired shot-making should offer some of the first round’s best entertainment.  Of lesser note is the encounter between the eighth-seeded Youzhny and rising Slovene Blaz Kavcic.  How much does the aging Russian with the graceful one-handed backhand have left?

Like the second half overall, the third quarter looks stronger than the two above it.  Top-eight threats Tsonga and Berdych bookend it, the former of whom faces a stern test in compatriot Michael Llodra.  Neither of those Frenchmen will relish the relatively slow courts here, nor will potential second-round opponent Tursunov.  A smart wildcard choice after his astonishing charge to the Marseille weekend as a qualifier, he ranks among the draw’s most notable dark horses.  Two comfortable rounds await Berdych, who excelled in Marseille as well as Tsonga and Tursunov.  Not known for his consistency, the Czech has maintained some of his steadiest tennis to date over the last several months, and he should fare better against Tsonga on an outdoor hard court than on the fast indoor court where he lost to him on Sunday.

After the hubbub last year when the tournament declined to offer Malek Jaziri a wildcard, the organizers may have smirked a bit when, having received that privilege this year, the Tunisian has landed adjacent to Federer.  More worthy of Swiss steel, surely, is the resurgent Tomic in a sequel to an Australian Open encounter closer than the score showed.  Never a man to doubt his own chances, the brash Aussie will feel confident of toppling whoever emerges from the Tipsarevic-Davydenko opener.  Although that match could present a battle of crisp two-handed backhands, both men have struggled this year and would enter a meeting with Tomic at a significant height disadvantage.  Realistically, however, only one man will come out of this quarter.

Final:  Djokovic vs. Federer

Acapulco:  Of the four top-ten men not participating in Dubai, two lend their illustrious presence to the clay 500 tournament in Mexico.  The end of the South American February swing, Acapulco usually offers an opportunity for top-seeded David Ferrer to bolster his rankings points.  While the presence of Nadal at the base of the draw will complicate his quest, the man who displaced Rafa as the top-ranked Spaniard brings momentum from winning Buenos Aires and faces no significant clay threats in his quarter.  Starting against left-handed compatriot Albert Ramos, Ferrer might face flaky Frenchman Benoit Paire in the quarterfinals, but another Spaniard in Pablo Andujar looms just as large.  Outside Nadal, the top seed has enjoyed plenty of success against his countrymen.

The last victim of Ferrer in Buenos Aires, Wawrinka faces a much more intriguing series of tests to secure a rematch in the semifinals.  Opening against Fabio Fognini of the famous eyebrows and unpredictable temperament, he might encounter the returning Nalbandian afterwards.  A finalist in the first tournament of his return, Sao Paulo, Nalbandian took a set from Ferrer at his home tournament last week before his stamina waned.  The fifth-seeded Jurgen Melzer has struggled this year outside a run to the Zagreb final on an indoor hard court, so Colombian clay threat Santiago Giraldo might seem a plausible dark horse to reach the quarterfinals.

Denied by Wawrinka in Buenos Aires, Almagro still looks to steady himself after that strange combination of breakthrough and breakdown that he endured in Melbourne.  His draw looks comfortable in its early stages, featuring nobody more dangerous than the long-faded Tommy Robredo.  In the quarterfinals, Almagro could meet one of three players who have recorded a strong result each during the South American clay season:  Vina del Mar champion Zeballos, Sao Paulo semifinalist Simone Bolelli, or Vina del Mar semifinalist Carlos Berlocq.  But Zeballos has not won a match since that stunning upset over Nadal, while Berlocq should struggle to match Almagro hold for hold despite winning a set from Nadal in Sao Paulo.

The easiest pre-semifinal route of all would seem to belong to the man who needs it least, or is it most?  Far from bulletproof in his two-week swing through Vina del Mar and Sao Paulo, Nadal managed to scrape out results that looked stronger on paper than on television.  He cannot face anyone of note in his first two matches, however, and the week-long respite may have freshened his body and spirits.  The heavy left-handed groundstrokes of sixth-seeded Thomaz Bellucci might pose a threat in view of the Zeballos result.  All the same, the Brazilian has accomplished nothing during this month’s clay tournaments so far and probably lacks the belief to threaten Nadal.

Final:  Ferrer vs. Nadal

Delray Beach:  In his last tournament before Indian Wells, where he defends finals points, top-seeded John Isner desperately needs to halt a slide that has seen him lose 10 of his last 17 matches.  Although a semifinal at San Jose hinted at a resurgence, he dropped a lackluster straight-setter in Memphis, where the indoor hard courts should have suited his massive serve just as well.  Fortunate to receive a modest first-round opponent in Jesse Levine, Isner then could meet Memphis semifinalist Marinko Matosevic.  The Aussie upset similarly powerful American giant Querrey last week and the talented Dolgopolov, so he brings much more momentum into this match than the top seed.  Before he succumbed to injury, Kevin Anderson enjoyed an excellent January by reaching the Sydney final and the second week of the Australian Open, the first South African to do so in a decade.  He could match Isner serve for serve, or more likely surpass him if his pre-injury form revives.

Quite a contrast to Isner’s week in Memphis was the breakthrough delivered by Jack Sock, who upset second-seeded Raonic in the most significant victory of his career.  Sock received a reward in a wildcard here, although he may not fancy a second-round rematch with the man who finally stopped him last week, Feliciano Lopez.  The American will have gained experience in facing a serve-volleyer in an opener against Aussie Matthew Ebden, which could stand him in good stead against Lopez.  And a third straight could loom in the quarterfinals if Karlovic can solve former champion Nishikori.  Suggesting otherwise is the recent form of both men, for Nishikori has produced generally solid results so far in a 2013 where Karlovic’s age and nagging injuries finally may have caught up with him.

A semifinalist in San Jose and gone early in Memphis, like Isner, third-seeded Sam Querrey inhabits a section filled with his compatriots.  That quirk of fate seems auspicious for him in view of his preference for straightforward opponents who allow him baseline rhythm and lack impressive retturns.  Surely able to overpower battered veterans Russell and Blake, he may need to raise his motivation a notch for the ever-impassioned Ryan Harrison.  That youngster has accomplished even less than Querrey lately, though, and a recent illness may have dulled his energies.  The other seed in this section, Xavier Malisse, retired last week in Memphis.

Also withdrawing from Memphis was San Jose runner-up Tommy Haas, who holds the second seed here but faces an intimidating opener against Igor Sijsling.  The Dutchman suddenly has burst into relevance after reaching the Australian Open doubles final, upsetting Tsonga at his home tournament in Rotterdam, and nearly toppling the top-seeded Cilic in Memphis.  If Haas can weather Sijsling’s impressive serve, he must slow the surge of Denis Istomin’s second straight sold February.  Ever an enigma and ever an entertainer, the fifth-seeded Dolgopolov rounds out this quarter and shares Tommy’s predicament of a dangerous first-round opponent.  As his 2011 victory over Nadal proved, Ivan Dodig can trouble anyone on the occasions when his high-risk game explodes rather than implodes.

Final:  Nishikori vs. Querrey

What to Watch in the ATP This Week: Previews of Marseille, Memphis, and Buenos Aires

The sun won't interfere with Berdych's ball toss this week.

 

While none of the ATP tournaments this week enjoys a field of the pedigree that the WTA has produced in Dubai, the 250 tournament in Marseille features every member of the top ten’s lower half.  We start with that event in our weekly preview, following it with the technically more significant tournament in Memphis and the latest edition of the South American clay swing.

Marseille:  Recovered from his Davis Cup marathon earlier this month, world #6 Berdych claims the top seed in this overstuffed draw.  At his best on these fast surfaces, he still cannot overlook the second-round challenge of Gulbis, who defeated him at Wimbledon last year.  An intriguing collection of unpredictable threats rounds out the quarter from Rotterdam finalist Benneteau, who upset Federer there, to the notorious Rosol and the rising Janowicz.  After breaking through on an indoor hard court in Paris last year, the latter has struggled to sustain his momentum in 2013.  Like Berdych, Janowicz must start the tournament in crisp form to survive his early challenges.

Somewhat less dangerous is the second quarter, where Tipsarevic would reach the quarterfinals after facing only a qualifier.  The fourth-seeded Serb will have welcomed this good fortune, considering an inconsistent start to the season that included a retirement at the Australian Open and an opening-round loss as the second seed in an indoor 250 this month.  Starting 2013 by winning fifteen of his first sixteen matches, by contrast, Gasquet became the first man to claim two titles this year in a surprising development that vindicated his top-ten status.  A second-round meeting with compatriot Monfils would intrigue, although the latter continues to rebuild his rhythm in a return from a long absence.

Two of the most notable figures in the third quarter lost their Rotterdam openers last week, one surprisingly and one less so.  While few expected Tsonga to stumble against Sijsling, familiar sighs issued from Australia when Tomic reverted to his wayward self.  The Aussie eyes a more accommodating draw this time, though, for higher-ranked opponnents Klizan and Paire will not overwhelm him.  A potential opener against Davydenko might cause concern among Tsonga’s fans on an indoor hard court, but the Russian has slumped significantly since reaching the Doha final to start the season.  In a quarterfinal, Tsonga and Tomic could engage in a battle of seismic serving that would test the focus of both.

Fresh from a strong effort in Rotterdam arrives the second-seeded Del Potro to a more challenging draw.  Rebounding from his Australian Open debacle, he held serve relentlessly on indoor hard courts last week and may need to do so again if he opens against home hope Michael Llodra.  A former semifinalist at the Paris Indoors, Llodra upset Tipsarevic in Montpellier two weeks ago and always relishes playing on this surface.  Less formidable is the Frenchman whom Del Potro could meet in the quarterfinals, for Simon lacks the shot-making ability to thrust the Argentine out of his comfort zone.

Final:  Berdych vs. Del Potro

Memphis:  The most important tournament of the week only on paper, this sequel to San Jose often features many of the same players.  This year departs somewhat from that trend, for top-seeded Cilic and fifth-seeded Nishikori arrive in North America for the first time this year.  Between them stand Zagreb finalist and Memphis defending champion Melzer, who could repeat his final there against Cilic, and Tsonga’s Rotterdam nemesis, Igor Sijsling.  Hampered by injury during the Australian Open, Nishikori aims to regain his groove before tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami where he could shine.  By contrast, Cilic hopes to build upon claiming his home tournament in Zagreb for the third time.  When they met at last year’s US Open, the latter prevailed in four sets.

Impressive in Davis Cup but less so in San Jose, Querrey looks to produce a more compelling serving performance as the fourth seed in a section without any giants of his size.  Compatriot Steve Johnson, who upset Karlovic last week, may fancy his chances against the mercurial Dolgopolov in the second round.  Withdrawing from San Jose with injury, the seventh seed may find the courts too fast for an entertaining style that requires time to improvise.  If Dolgopolov should meet Querrey, though, he could disrupt the rhythm on which the American relies.

Somewhat like Querrey, Isner achieved modest success in San Jose before subsiding meekly in the semifinals.  Since he missed much of the previous weeks with a knee injury, the matches accumulated there should serve him well in a tournament where he has finished runner-up to Querrey before.  The tenacious returning of Hewitt may test Isner’s fortitude, although the former has not left an impact on his recent tournaments.  Also in this section is the faltering Ryan Harrison, the victim of some challenging draws but also unable to show much evidence of improvement despite his visible will to win.  The home crowd might free Harrison from the passivity that has cost him lately.

The undisputed master of San Jose, Raonic moves from the top of the draw there to the bottom of the draw here.  His massive serve-forehand combinations will meet a similar style, albeit more raw, in American wildcard Jack Sock when the tournament begins.  Raonic can anticipate a rematch of the San Jose final against Haas in the Memphis quarterfinals, while the lefty serve of Feliciano Lopez should pose an intriguing upset threat.  Since Melzer rode similar weapons to last year’s title here, this fellow veteran could surprise the draw as well.

Final:  Querrey vs. Raonic

Buenos Aires:  After Nadal had dominated the South American headlines during the previous two weeks, another Spaniard attempts to follow in his footsteps.  Now the top-ranked man from his country, world #4 Ferrer will face the same task that Rafa did in Sao Paulo when he meets either Berlocq or Nalbandian in the second round.  Troubled by Nalbandian before, he will feel more comfortable against the unreliable Fognini in a more traditional battle of clay specialists a round later.  In the second quarter continue two surprise stories of the past two weeks, Horacio Zeballos and Martin Alund.  While the former won his first career title by toppling Nadal in Vina del Mar, the latter won a set from the Spaniard in a semifinal at Sao Paulo—the first tournament where he had won an ATP match.  The highest seed in this quarter, Bellucci, imploded on home soil last week but did defeat Ferrer in Monte Carlo last year.

Framing the lower half are the ATP’s two most notable hard-luck stories of the season.  Two days after Wawrinka had lost his epic five-setter to Djokovic, Almagro allowed a two-set lead to slip away against Ferrer in Melbourne after serving for the match three times.  That trend continued for both men in February, when Wawrinka lost the longest doubles match in tennis history and Almagro dropped a third-set tiebreak to Nalbandian despite serving 28 aces.  The Swiss #2 faces a mildly intriguing test to start the week in Paolo Lorenzi, and fellow Italian Simone Bolelli aims to continue his surge from a semifinal appearance in Sao Paulo.  Less imposing is the path ahead of Almagro, although the unseeded Albert Montanes can score the occasional headline victory on clay.

Final:  Ferrer vs. Wawrinka

 

 

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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