Kei Nishikori

Roland Garros Fast Forward: Djokovic, Nadal, Sharapova, Azarenka Highlight Day 9 Action

On the second Monday of Roland Garros, the remaining quarterfinal lineups take shape.  We continue our comprehensive look at the round of 16.

ATP:

Novak Djokovic vs. Philipp Kohlschreiber:  Four long years ago, Kohlschreiber stunned the future No. 1 in the third round here, their only clay meeting.  Never have they met since Djokovic became the Djuggernaut in 2011, so that history offers little guide.  Growing more impressive with each round, he demolished Grigor Dimitrov to reach the second week without dropping a set.  Kohlschreiber has played only two matches here, receiving a second-round walkover, but he too has shone in limited action and appears to have recovered from a recent injury.  Highlighted by his elegant one-handed backhand, the German’s shot-making talent should produce flurries of winners and an ideal foil for Djokovic’s court coverage.  But he lacks the consistent explosiveness to hit through the Serb from the baseline.

Tommy Haas vs. Mikhail Youzhny:  Two veterans wield their one-handed backhands in hopes of a quarterfinal rendezvous with Djokovic.  Far from a clay specialist, Youzhny may have surprised even himself by reaching the second week here, although he did win a set from the Serb in Monte Carlo and compiled a solid week in Madrid.  A week later, he halted Haas routinely in Rome for his second win of the clay season over a top-20 opponent.  Youzhny’s third such victory came over Janko Tipsarevic on Saturday, perhaps aided by the Serb’s fatigue in playing the day after a grueling five-setter.  Meanwhile, Haas found the stamina to win a five-set epic from John Isner on Saturday without a day of rest, putting younger men to shame.  Able to weather the adversity of twelve match points squandered, he looks as physically and mentally fit at age 35 as he ever has.

Rafael Nadal vs. Kei Nishikori: After Nadal lost a set to the Japanese star in their first meeting five years ago, he has swept their remaining three meetings without losing more than four games in any set.  None of them has come on clay, which should tilt the balance of power even more clearly in Nadal’s favor.  If he brings his flustered, disheveled form of the first week into the second week, however, Nishikori has the coolness, consistency, and belief to punish him.  The last Asian player left in either draw recently defeated Federer on the Madrid clay, and he owns a victory over Djokovic as well.  Nadal needs to start this match more solidly than he did his three previous matches, or he might dig an early hole for himself again.  Even if he does, Nishikori’s vanilla baseline game should play into Rafa’s hands eventually.

Stanislas Wawrinka vs. Richard Gasquet:  The Swiss No. 2 could have renamed himself “Wowrinka” after a clay season in which he surged back to the top 10.  Just outside it now, he seeks to reach his first Roland Garros quarterfinal with a fifth victory over a top-ten opponent this spring.  This match will feature a scintillating battle of the two finest backhands in the men’s game, Wawrinka’s the sturdiest and Gasquet’s the most aesthetically pleasing.  A strong four-set victory over fellow dark horse Jerzy Janowicz will give the former man valuable momentum for tackling an opponent who did not lose a set in the first week.  Once fallible when playing in or for France, Gasquet has improved in that area during this mature phase of his career.  He remains highly unreliable when sustained adversity strikes or when a match grows tense, as this match should.

WTA:

Bethanie Mattek-Sands vs. Maria Kirilenko:  When they collided on hard courts this spring, the Russian prevailed uneventfully.  That result captured the relative status of their games then, Mattek-Sands struggling to gain traction in the main draws of key tournaments and Kirilenko arriving from a semifinal at Indian Wells.  The gap separating their trajectories has narrowed during the clay season, where Mattek-Sands suddenly has emerged as a credible threat.  A victory over Sara Errani launched her toward a semifinal in Stuttgart, while an upset over Li Na here has catalyzed this second-week run.  The American will dictate the terms of this engagement by attempting to bomb winners down the line before Kirilenko settles into the rallies.  Against someone who defends as adeptly as the Russian, that tactic could reap mixed results for someone whose accuracy ebbs and flows.

Francesca Schiavone vs. Victoria Azarenka:  In a bizarre head-to-head considering their histories, Azarenka has won both of their clay meetings and Schiavone their only match on hard courts.  Those trends do not reflect the surface advantage that one would hand the Italian, once a champion and twice a finalist here.  Azarenka never has ventured past the quarterfinals, by contrast, and has struggled both mentally and physically with the demands of clay.  She may need more experience on it to solve its riddles, but Schiavone could confront her with an intriguing test.  A player who prefers rhythmic exchanges from the baseline, Azarenka can expect to find herself stretched into uncomfortable positions and forced to contend with an array of spins and slices.  If she serves as woefully as she did against Cornet a round ago, Schiavone might have a real chance at another miracle.

Jamie Hampton vs. Jelena Jankovic:  It looks like a clear mismatch on paper, and it could prove a mismatch in reality.  A three-time Roland Garros semifinalist and former No. 1 confronts an American who never has reached a major quarterfinal or the top 20.  But Hampton will bring confidence from her upset of Petra Kvitova, an opponent with much more dangerous weapons than Jankovic can wield.  The bad news for the underdog is that the Serb also will have brought confidence from her previous round, a three-set comeback against former Roland Garros finalist Samantha Stosur.  Jankovic often follows an excellent performance with a clunker, though, as she showed in Rome when she collapsed against Simona Halep after upsetting Li Na.  And Hampton won their only prior meeting last year at Indian Wells.

Maria Sharapova vs. Sloane Stephens:  The defending champion looked a few degrees less than bulletproof in the second sets of her last two victories.  Perhaps Sharapova relaxed her steeliness a bit in both when she won the first sets resoundingly from her overmatched prey.  While she deserves credit for finishing both in style, future opponents may find hope in those lulls.  On the other hand, Sharapova struggled on serve throughout her match against Stephens in Rome—and lost a whopping three games.  Her experience buttressed her on the key deuce points, which she dominated, while her return devastated the Stephens serve.  The 20-year-old American has surpassed expectations by reaching the second week here again, although she has benefited from a toothless draw.  Needing help from Serena to stun the world in Melbourne, Stephens will need help from Sharapova to stun the world in Paris.

Roland Garros Rewind: Djokovic, Nadal Thrive; Haas, Isner Thrill; Sharapova, Azarenka Survive

The remaining second-week lineups fell into place on Saturday at Roland Garros.  Here’s a look back at the studs and duds.

ATP:

Match of the day:  Returning to the battlefield after playing an 8-6 fifth set yesterday, John Isner outdid himself in the effort department.  The American giant rallied from two sets down against Tommy Haas, saving twelve match points in the fourth set.  Isner even claimed a 4-1 lead in the fifth set as a second comeback in two days from losing the first two sets loomed.  Somehow managing to break and saving a match point at 4-5, Haas hung on until Isner finally cracked at 8-8.  The thirteenth match point proved the charm.

Unsurprising surprise of the day:  Also back in action a day after an 8-6 fifth set, Janko Tipsarevic predictably responded less impressively than Isner did.  The eighth seed fell to Mikhail Youzhny in straight sets.  Whoever thought that Youzhny would reach the second week of Roland Garros and have a real chance at a quarterfinal berth deserves a glass of Champagne’s finest.

Nice story of the day:  Overshadowed this tournament by someone else from Switzerland, as he usually is, Stanislas Wawrinka posted a solid four-set win over the dangerous Jerzy Janowicz.  Wawrinka had not known whether he would participate in Roland Garros this year because of a leg injury, so he will feel confident that he made the right decision.

Scandal of the day:  A set point against Kei Nishikori awaited Benoit Paire—or so it seemed.  Umpire Enric Molina took away the opportunity with a coaching code violation, resulting in a point penalty.  An infuriated Paire argued his case at length, but Molina appeared to have ruled correctly.  Probably spurred by the incident, Paire bludgeoned his way to win the set anyway, although he lost the match.

Gold star:  Like fellow Head endorser Maria Sharapova, Novak Djokovic always fancies a taste of revenge.  He ravaged Grigor Dimitrov’s serve without mercy just weeks after finding it nearly invulnerable in Madrid.  Toppled in three sets that time, Djokovic lost just seven games here.

Silver star:  Baby steps for Rafael Nadal, who looked far from his overwhelming King of Clay self again but at least advanced in straight sets.  Nadal had thrashed third-round opponent Fabio Fognini in Rome.  This match proved much more competitive but never really in doubt once he survived a slow start to win a first-set tiebreak.

Stat of the day:  The twelve match points saved by Isner were the most ever saved by any man in a match at a major.

American men in Paris:  None reach the second week.  RIP, this category.

Question of the day:  Djokovic’s fourth-round opponent, Philipp Kohlschreiber has advanced routinely to this stage and upset the Serb here in 2009.  Can he make things interesting on Monday?

WTA:

Match of the day:  Just like Monfils-Berdych, the Stosur-Jankovic duel of veteran clay specialists lived up to its billing.  Jankovic repeated her Stuttgart upset of the world No. 9 after losing the first set and closing out a long, tight decider.  Her clay revival this year should lead to her first major quarterfinal in recent memory,…

Surprise of the day:  …although Jamie Hampton might have something to say about it.  The small American who gave Victoria Azarenka a scare in Melbourne bundled Petra Kvitova out of the tournament. Facing little resistance early, Hampton needed to navigate a long second-set tiebreak to prevent the advantage shifting back to the favorite in the third set.  Kvitova has lost before the quarterfinals at three straight majors.

Nice story of the day:  Perhaps the nicest story of the tournament, in fact.  2010 champion and 2011 finalist Francesca Schiavone returns to the second week in Paris despite a disappointing season, finishing off top-ranked Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli without much ado.

Top seeds show frailty…:  Victoria Azarenka barely could hold serve at all for a set-plus against Alize Cornet, dropping a break at love to concede the first set to someone with a 24-match losing streak against top-30 opponents.  After an emphatic first set, Maria Sharapova suddenly lost the plot and fell behind by a double break to the persistent but faded Zheng Jie amid serving struggles.

…but finish strong:  Once adversity struck, both top women showed their spine.  World No. 3 Azarenka raced through a 6-1 third set, while world No. 2 Sharapova swept six of the last seven games.  If you want to score a huge upset, you cannot afford to labor as consistently on serve as Cornet and Zheng did.  That is too much additional pressure stacked on top of the pressure created by the circumstances.

Adieu, les bleues:  Barely wobbling through her two previous matches, Bartoli followed Cornet to the exit as the last Frenchwomen faded from the draw in the first week.  Credit to each of them for fighting bard, but France simply is not a first-tier tennis power in the women’s game.

Stat of the day:  Sharapova converted all eight of her break points against Zheng, who held serve exactly once in the match.

Americans in Paris:  Who would have thought that the stars and stripes would supply a quarter of the women’s final sixteen on the clay of Roland Garros?  In addition to Hampton and Serena Williams, Bethanie Mattek-Sands rallied from losing the first set for the second straight match to dominate clay specialist Paula Ormaechea late.  Sloane Stephens took advantage of a soft draw to repeat her second-week result here from last year.  Now 8-1 at majors and 11-1 at non-majors, Stephens saves her best for when it means the most.

Questions of the day:  Can Schiavone flap the visibly flappable Azarenka on Monday?  And how many women’s quarterfinalists will the USA produce?  All but Serena will be underdogs next round.

 

Roland Garros Fast Forward: Azarenka, Sharapova, Stosur, Nadal, Gasquet and More Highlight Day 7

While Yeshayahu Ginsburg focuses his spotlight on the marquee clash between Novak Djokovic and Grigor Dimitrov, this article focuses on nine other matches to watch as the first week concludes in Paris.

WTA:

Alize Cornet vs. Victoria Azarenka:  The champion in Strasbourg last week, Cornet has won seven straight matches in her home nation on her favorite surface.  She faces a daunting test against a woman whom she lacks the power to hit through her with either serve or groundstrokes.  Simple and steady should suffice for Azarenka, who looked crisp in her first round and shaky in her second.  The wildcard in this match could consist of the French crowd, likely to try anything possible to fluster her.  If Vika can keep her composure and perhaps draw energy from the hostility, she should reach the second week in a feisty mood.

Maria Sharapova vs. Zheng Jie:  A massive height advantage should help the defending champion collect some free points against the last Chinese woman left in the draw.  Zheng has a winning record against top-10 opponents this year and a victory over Sharapova at Indian Wells in 2010, but her meek serve will cause the WTA’s most vicious returner to salivate.  If she can dig herself into some rallies, her groundstroke depth could make this match competitive, like their other meetings.  Sharapova fell a few notches short of flawless in the second round, wobbling slightly near the finish line, and Zheng owns a reputation for never going away.

Marion Bartoli vs. Francesca Schiavone:  The top-ranked Frenchwoman probably should consider herself fortunate to have reached this stage.  Bartoli saved two match points in a three-hour match to start the tournament and came from behind in both sets of her second-round match after her opponent served for both.  While she has underachieved for her ranking, Schiavone has overachieved in upsetting top-30 player Kirsten Flipkens.  She holds a clear surface edge over Bartoli, whom she defeated in a 2011 semifinal here.  Less clear is whether her serve can withstand the double-fister’s return well enough to secure the holds that eluded Bartoli’s previous challengers at key moments.

Jelena Jankovic vs. Samantha Stosur:  Also a rematch of a Roland Garros semifinal, this match offers Jankovic the opportunity to avenge a rout at the Australian’s hands here in 2010.  On the other hand, it offers Stosur a chance to secure retribution for a loss to the Serb in Stuttgart this spring.  These two women wield weapons almost mirror images of each other, from Stosur’s forehand to Jankovic’s backhand and Stosur’s serving power to Jankovic’s movement.  Both have found contrasting ways to shine on clay, the Aussie utilizing heavy topspin and a kick serve while the Serb bolsters her counterpunching with sliding retrievals.  Both have looked especially crisp this tournament by advancing in straight sets, Stosur more convincingly but Jankovic against stronger opposition.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands vs. Paula Ormaechea:  Both women enter this match riding a wave of momentum from upsetting a seeded opponent.  While the Argentine clay specialist bounced Yaroslava Shvedova, one of last year’s quarterfinalists, the American power-hitter knocked off 2011 champion Li Na in the surprise of the tournament so far.  This match will come down to whether Mattek-Sands can continue to strike her targets relentlessly or whether Ormaechea can find ways to survive her opponent’s first strikes and lengthen the points.  Almost nobody would have expected either to reach the second week of a major when the season began.

Petra Kvitova vs. Jamie Hampton: The American’s two victories could not have differed much more from each other.  First winning a three-set thriller from the 25th-seeded Lucie Safarova, Hampton then eased past a qualifier comfortably.  She may or may not have a chance to affect the outcome of this match, depending on which Kvitova shows up.  The bad Petra flirted with first-round disaster by spraying groundstrokes aimlessly midway through the match, while the disciplined and focused Petra returned for a victory over Peng Shuai.  Kvitova’s weapons will overwhelm Hampton if she sustains her accuracy, but this underdog has the talent to exploit one of her feckless days.

ATP:

Rafael Nadal vs. Fabio Fognini:  Never having faced the Italian before this month, Nadal now will meet him for the second time in two tournaments.  His Rome rout of Fognini mutes the intrigue of this match despite the short rest for Rafa, forced to play best-of-five matches on consecutive days.  Fognini maintained his regular schedule and will need all of the rest to prepare for a competitor in some ways the antithesis of him.  While both men play their best tennis on clay, Nadal views it as trench warfare and Fognini as art form.

Benoit Paire vs. Kei Nishikori:  Outside a wobble late in the second set of his second match, Nishikori has not defeated his opponents so much as annihilated them.  While he stunned Roger Federer in Madrid, this imposing form still surprises from someone who has accomplished little on clay, losing to Jeremy Chardy and Albert Ramos this spring.  Barely ten ranking slots behind Nishikori, Paire had not loomed any larger in more extensive clay action—until he suddenly reached the semifinals in Rome.  He has won nine of his last ten matches against opponents other than Federer and Rafael Nadal, although he never has reached the second week at a major.  Nishikori won their only meeting last fall, also in Paris, but the indoor hard courts of Bercy bear scant resemblance to the terre battue of Roland Garros.

Nikolay Davydenko vs. Richard Gasquet:  While Davydenko holds the stronger career record at Roland Garros, having reached the semifinals here before, Gasquet has found much stronger form this year.  Among his more notable accomplishments was a Doha final in which he rallied from within a tiebreak of defeat to overcome Davydenko.  They have not met on clay since 2005, but both have advanced convincingly so far.  In contrast to the earlier stages of his career, Gasquet has won most of the matches that he should win over the past twelve months.  This match belongs in that category, although the contrast between the elongated one-handed swing of the Frenchman’s backhand and the streamlined two-hander of the Russian merits watching alone.

Stanislas Wawrinka vs. Jerzy Janowicz:  After he played four sets on Friday, Janowicz finds himself at a fitness disadvantage against one of the ATP’s premier grinders.  Wawrinka brought some physical issues of his own into the tournament with a muscle tear in his leg, issues that have receded as he has settled into the tournament.  These men number among the leading dark horses in the men’s field, and the winner would stay on track to meet a fallible Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals.  Janowicz’s heavy serve and flat groundstrokes should allow him to take the initiative in most points, which he will want to finish quickly before fatigue descends.

 

The Glory That Is Rome: ATP Rome Draw Preview

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

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

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

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

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

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

Semifinalist:  Nadal

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

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

Semifinalist:  Del Potro

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

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

Semifinalist:  Federer

Final:  Nadal vs. Del Potro

Champion:  Rafael Nadal

 

Tuesday in Total: Every Sony Open Match Previewed!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ITF Release 2012 Testing Summary

By Lisa-Marie Burrows

“Last year, through the Dubai, Rotterdam and Indian Wells swing where I won all three, I didn’t get tested once. That shouldn’t be OK.”

At the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Roger Federer once again shared his thoughts about doping and testing. He revealed that in 2012, there was a lack of frequent and consistent testing for doping whilst he was competing, despite having won three consecutive tournaments.

This week, the ITF (International Tennis Federation) have shared their plans for biological passports. They have been busy of late redesigning their Davis Cup and Fed Cup websites and their latest relaunch has been the official website of its Anti-Doping department.

The website aims to share detailed information on the Tennis Anti-Doping programme and it has uploaded many PDFs from recent years of blood testing which has been carried out on the athletes.

A summary of testing conducted under the 2012 ITF Tennis Anti-Doping Programme is now available on their website of all players who hold an ATP or WTA ranking. The results show the amount of times the athletes have been tested during the year whilst competing and also when they are out of competition. The results do not include samples collected during the London Olympics by the National Anti-Doping Organisations.

During 2012, the statistics show that a total of 1727 in-competition urine specimen samples were taken from male and female athletes and 124 specimens of blood.

Out of-competition testing was slightly lower with 271 specimens for urine and 63 for blood. Overall, 2185 total specimens were taken and it is interesting to see how consistently players were tested, particularly the higher ranked players.  I have put together a table of results for the current top 20 ATP and WTA players.

ATP Top 20 Testing Summary

These are the sample testing results for the players ranked in the top 20 in the ATP rankings as of this week.

The samples are fairly consistent with Djokovic, Murray, Ferrer, Berdych, Del Potro, Tsonga. Tipsarevic, Gasquet, Cilic, Wawrinka and Seppi all tested on seven and above occasions, whilst the other players were largely tested four to six times.

The only exceptions are Rafael Nadal, who due to injury was not tested for in-competition as frequently and therefore has a higher out-of-competition sample compared to his colleagues. Milos Raonic was also tested on one to three in-competition occasions.

For further names of athletes and their testing summary, you can access the ITF anti-doping website here:

WTA Top 20 Testing Summary

These are the sample testing results for the players ranked in the top 20 in the WTA rankings as of this week.

Half of the WTA top 20 players were tested during competitions on seven or more occasions and surprisingly four out of the current top 5 have been tested fewer times than some of their counterparts. Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova and Na Li have been tested on one to three occasions and four to six occasions respectively.

For further names of athletes and their testing summary, you can access the ITF anti-doping website here:

Over the next few years, expect the number of overall testing to rise, as the ITF have made it clear that they are going to increase the number of blood tests done each year under its anti-doping programme.

Federer was pleased by the announcement and said at the BNP Paribas Open:

“I think tennis has done a good job of trying everything to be as clean as possible but we are entering a new era. We have to do everything to ensure our tour is as clean as it possibly can be.”

 

No Mirage Are These Four: ATP Indian Wells Draw Preview

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.

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

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

 

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

 

 

Steady As It Goes: Ferrer Cruises Past Nishikori Into Australian Open Quarterfinals

In a strange match that fell short of expectations, fourth seed David Ferrer claimed his revenge for an Olympics loss to Kei Nishikori by halting last year’s quarterfinalist here in the fourth round.  Nishikori looked sporadically hampered after a brief but impressive surge to open the match, whereas Ferrer played generally solid baseline tennis to prevail 6-2 6-1 6-4.

Saving break points in the opening game with an ace and a service winner, Ferrer struggled to survive deep groundstrokes from Nishikori that showed his improved pace.  The Japanese star opened the court efficiently before closing to the net and finishing points with crisp technique.  Although he could not claim the early lead, he held confidently in his first service game, always important for an underdog.  Nishikori lost little time in thrusting Ferrer under pressure on serve again, constructing points with care as he outmaneuvered his opponent from the baseline.  The Spaniard saved three more break points in a demonstration of his tenacity.

A multiple-deuce game ensued on Nishikori’s own serve, which he erased with an inside-out forehand approach.  With a double fault, though, he conceded the break in deflating fashion.  For a change, Ferrer jumped ahead 40-0 on his serve and held without facing a break point for the first time.  Nishikori again found himself mired in deuce after deuce despite taking an initial 30-0 lead, but he saved a crucial break point with a serve-forehand combination.  Still just a single break behind, he started to look a bit dejected and tossed his racket after a netted groundstroke moved Ferrer to 5-2.  Probably sensing that tone, the fourth seed redoubled his persistence and closed out the set with a break as Nishikori donated a handful of uninspired errors.

In addition to his mental strength, groundstroke depth had played a crucial role in winning the first set for Ferrer.  The run of games for him continued with a difficult hold during which he saved a break point.  But the war of attrition appeared to reap continuing rewards for the Spaniard who specializes in it, Nishikori quickly surrendering his own serve at love with a series of errors.  A quick hold with an ace confirmed the lead for Ferrer.  Summoning the trainer at the changeover, Nishikori again lost his serve at love as the match that had looked so promising began to fade.  Ferrer oddly threw his tottering opponent a lifeline by falling behind triple break point.

Erasing each of them, the last with a spectacular running pass, the fourth seed served out the set with aplomb.  He had yielded just three games over two sets in a surprising display of dominance for someone who had faced five break points in his first two service games.   Unable to convert any of his nine break points, Nishikori must have nourished little hope of a comeback, but Ferrer again fell behind 0-40 at that stage.  He nearly executed another miraculous escape before finally sending a backhand long to level the set.

Not maintaining the positive momentum for long, Nishikori dropped serve for the sixth time in seven games, although the rallies grew more intriguing as his effort level rose.  After Ferrer had led 40-0 in the sixth game, the revitalized Japanese star won five straight points to pull back on even terms, again dictating play by stepping inside his baseline and keeping the veteran well behind his.  The two men traded holds that set up a critical game at 4-4.  Nishikori survived several deuces and earned multiple game points to put Ferrer on the brink of serving to stay in the set.  As his unforced-error total climbed above 60, however, he could not hit through the Spaniard often enough to nudge ahead.

Ferrer served out the match at love with some well-placed first serves, advancing to his third straight Australian Open quarterfinal and his fifth straight major quarterfinal overall.  There, he will face either compatriot Nicolas Almagro or Janko Tipsarevic, against whom he played an epic quarterfinal that reached a fifth-set tiebreak at the US Open.