Martin Klizan

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

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

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

Atlanta:

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

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

Semifinal:  Isner vs. Hewitt

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

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

Semifinal:  Fish vs. Anderson

Final:  Hewitt vs. Anderson

Gstaad:

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

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

Semifinal:  Federer vs. Monaco 

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

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

Semifinal:  Granollers vs. Wawrinka

Final:  Federer vs. Wawrinka

Umag:

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

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

Semifinal:  Gasquet vs. Fognini

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

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

Semifinal:  Robredo vs. Berlocq

Final:  Fognini vs. Robredo

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

Returning to home soil should raise Sam Querrey

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

Bastad:

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

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

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

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

Final: Robredo vs. Verdasco

Stuttgart:

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

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

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

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

Final:  Haas vs. Paire

Newport:

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

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

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

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

Final:  Querrey vs. Hewitt

Roland Garros Fast Forward: Sharapova, Li, Stosur, Nadal, and More Set to Shine on Day 5

Flying under the radar, Stosur owns one of the tournament's biggest forehands.

Our Thursday preview discusses eight matches from each singles draw, starting this time with the WTA.

WTA:

Kristina Mladenovic vs. Samantha Stosur:  Her opening victory over Kimiko Date-Krumm looked impressive on paper with the loss of just two games.  Now, however, Stosur must face a Frenchwoman much more worthy of her steel.  Mladenovic caught fire on home soil in February when she reached the semifinals of the Paris Indoors, although she faces an uphill battle against an opponent more accomplished on clay and much more experienced at this level.

Maria Sharapova vs. Eugenie Bouchard:  Teenagers have troubled Sharapova in the first week of majors before, from the Melanie Oudin catastrophe at the US Open to a hard-fought encounter with Laura Robson at Wimbledon and a narrowly avoided stumble against Caroline Garcia here.  Bouchard reached the semifinals of Strasbourg last week, where she threatened eventual champion Alize Cornet.  On the other hand, the 19-year-old Canadian eked out only two games from the woman who designs her Nike outfits when they met in Miami this spring.

Francesca Schiavone vs. Kirsten Flipkens:  Logic suggests that the second round marks the end of the road for Schiavone, who faces a seeded opponent there.  Her history at this tournament suggests that we should not lean too heavily on logic and give her a fighting chance against a young Belgian more successful on faster surfaces.

Li Na vs. Bethanie Mattek-Sands:  When they met in Stuttgart this spring, the 2011 Roland Garros champion eased past her fellow veteran.  Mattek-Sands pulled off a series of impressive victories that week, reaching the semifinals as a qualifier.  The indoor conditions in Stuttgart fit her game better than the outdoor terre battue here, and Li looked much crisper in her opener against Anabel Medina Garrigues than she had earlier this clay season.

Marion Bartoli vs. Mariana Duque-Marino:  Surviving the grueling three-hour trainwreck in her first-round match may have liberated Bartoli to swing more boldly henceforth.  Or Colombian clay specialist Duque-Marino might finish what Govortsova started, capitalizng on the double faults that continue to flow.  Bartoli cannot count on the Chatrier crowd to rescue her this time.

Ashleigh Barty vs. Maria Kirilenko:  Both women enter this match in excellent form, the Australian teenager having scored her first career victory at a major and the Russian having yielded just a single game.  This tournament has offered a fine showcase for some of the WTA’s rising stars, although Kirilenko’s consistency should leave Barty few options.

Jelena Jankovic vs. Garbine Muguruza:  Continuing her clay success this spring, Jankovic won more of the key points than she often does in fending off occasional nemesis Daniela Hantuchova.  A heavy-hitting Spaniard awaits in Muguruza, who knocked off another Slam-less No. 1 this year in Caroline Woznacki.  Consecutive fourth-round appearances at Indian Wells and Miami suggested Muguruza’s readiness to take the next step forward on a hard court, but her clay results have lagged behind.

Petra Kvitova vs. Peng Shuai:  Yet another three-set rollercoaster defined Kvitova’s path to the second round.  While she looks invincible at her best, seemingly anyone will have a chance against her on her vulnerable days.  Far from just anyone, Peng won a set from Kvitova on a hard court this year and another set on grass last year.  Last week, she reached a Premier final in Brussels, by far her most notable result since her career year in 2011.

ATP:

Lucas Pouille vs. Grigor Dimitrov:  Never has Dimitrov advanced past the second round of a major.  Barring unforeseen circumstances, that streak of futility should end here.  Ranked outside the top 300, Pouille has spent most of his limited career at the challenger level, although he did win his first match in straight sets.  Dimitrov aims to set up a third-round rematch of his Madrid meeting with Novak Djokovic.

Rafael Nadal vs. Martin Klizan:  Unable to deliver a strong opening statement in his first match, Nadal instead revealed some notable signs of frailty.  He should settle into a groove more smoothly against a less explosive opponent, using the opportunity to reassert his clay supremacy.  Few players bounce back from a shaky effort better than Nadal.

Fernando Verdasco vs. Janko Tipsarevic:  In their most significant match to date, Tipsarevic held match points against Verdasco at the 2011 Australian Open before tanking the fifth set when the fourth slipped away. The Serb remains an enigmatic competitor who has struggled through a barren season, but he did win their two meetings since then.  Also in dismal form for most of 2013, Verdasco appeared to raise his confidence over the last month.  He demolished his first opponent and should hold a clear surface edge.

Tommy Haas vs. Jack Sock:  The raw American won his first main-draw match at Roland Garros in scintillaing fashion after notching three wins in qualifying just as easily.  Fourteen years his senior, Haas shares Sock’s preference for faster surfaces.  He has produced some solid clay results this year, though, whereas his opponent lost five straight matches before arriving in Paris.  If Sock maintains a high first-serve percentage, this match could become very competitive but still probably not an upset.

Lukas Rosol vs. Fabio Fognini:  With the winner almost certianly destined to face Rafael Nadal, this match bears the whiff of intrigue over the possibility of a Wimbledon rematch.  Fognini’s superior clay game should snuff out Rosol’s hopes for another chance at the Spaniard, especially across a best-of-five match.  The Italian reached a Masters 1000 semifinal in Monte Carlo, although his results have tapered since then.  For his part, Rosol won his first career title in Bucharest, defeating Gilles Simon en route.

Ryan Harrison vs. John Isner:  Rare is the all-American match in the second round of Roland Garros, created this time by an odd quirk of the draw.  Harrison defeated Isner at Sydney just before the older American withdrew from the Australian Open, the start of a disastrous season for him outside a small title in Houston.  Nor did the upset launch Harrison’s season in style, for he fell outside the top 100 this spring and has won just two main-draw matches since that January victory over Isner.  The latter can draw inspiration from his five-setter here against Rafael Nadal in 2010.

Stanislas Wawrinka vs. Horacio Zeballos:  One of these men barely finished off his match on Tuesday, while the other needed to return on Wednesday for two more sets.  Both Wawrinka and Zeballos defeated marquee Spaniards to win clay titles this spring, Zeballos stunning Nadal in Vina del Mar and Wawrinka dominating Ferrer in Portugal.  The Swiss No. 2’s achievement marked merely one episode in a general upward trend, though, whereas the Argentine’s breakthrough has remained an anomaly.

Robin Haase vs. Jerzy Janowicz:  Haase recently collected the ATP record for consecutive tiebreaks lost, halting at the same number as Roger Federer’s record of major titles won.  The floundering Dutchman might play a few more tiebreaks against a man who can match him hold for hold.  The clay-court savvy of both men languishes relatively low, causing them to battle the surface as well as each other.

 

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.

Quarters for Your Thoughts: 2013 Australian Open Men’s Draw Preview

Will we see this man with this trophy again in two weeks?

Looking for a jumbo preview of the Australian Open men’s draw that breaks down each section of the brackets?  Look no further.  We take one quarter at a time in tracing the route of each leading contender, locating the most intriguing matches, projecting the semifinalists, and identifying one notable player to watch in each section.

First quarter:  Seeking the first men’s three-peat Down Under of the Open era, Djokovic will want to conserve his energy during the first week and probably will.  Although rising American star Ryan Harrison could threaten briefly in the second round, he lacks the experience to test the Serb in a best-of-five format, while potential third-round opponent Stepanek lacks the consistency to do so as his career wanes.  Among the other figures of note in this vicinity are two resurgent Americans in Querrey and Baker, destined to meet in the second round.  The winner may fancy his chances against Wawrinka, more comfortable on clay, and Querrey in particular could bring confidence from his upset of Djokovic in Paris to another clash with the Serb when the second week starts.

The quarter’s lower section features several men who share Wawrinka’s affinity for clay, such as Monaco and Verdasco.  While the Spaniard’s career has sagged over the past year or two, the Argentine enjoyed his best season to date in 2012 as he reached the top ten for the first time.  His reward lies in a  clear route to the second week and an appointment with the enigmatic Berdych.  Always susceptible to ebbs and flows, the world #6 ended last season optimistically with a semifinal at the US Open, where he upset Federer.  But then Berdych started this season miserably by falling in Chennai to an opponent outside the top 50.  He has won just one of his twelve career meetings with Djokovic, although the only victory came in one of their most important matches:  a Wimbledon semifinal.  While Berdych’s route to the quarterfinals looks comfortable, then, only a superb serving performance can shield him from the Serb’s more balanced array of weapons when he arrives there.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Player to watch:  Querrey

Second quarter:  The only section without a clear favorite proliferates with question marks but also with talent and intriguing narratives.  In the draw’s most notable first-round match, Hewitt will open his 17th Australian Open campaign against the eighth-seeded Tipsarevic.  A mismatch on paper, this encounter could develop into one of the late-night thrillers that have become a Melbourne tradition, and the home crowd might lift their Aussie to an improbable victory over an opponent less untouchable than those ranked above him.  Other storylines include the apparent emergence of Grigor Dimitrov, previously familiar only for his facsimile of Federer’s playing style but now a Brisbane finalist.  While the Bulgarian never has reached the third round of a major, his recent accomplishments and his desire to impress romantic interest Maria Sharapova might inspire him.  He faces a challenging initial test against Benneteau, who fell just short of his second straight Sydney final.

Awarded his first seed in the main draw of a major, Jerzy Janowicz looks to continue his momentum from last fall when he reached the final at the Paris Masters 1000 tournament.  Unlike Dimitrov, his route through the first round or two looks clear, and projected third-round opponent Almagro does not pose an insurmountable obstacle.  Unless Janowicz improves upon his January efforts so far, however, Almagro can look ahead to the second week and perhaps even a quarterfinal against compatriot Ferrer.  The highest seed in this section, the latter Spaniard will reach the top four after the tournament no matter his result.  His fitness should carry him past erratic opponents like Baghdatis or Youzhny, although the titanic serve of Karlovic has troubled him before and merits watching in their second-round match.  Having recorded multiple victories over Ferrer on marquee stages, Nishikori poses his most convincing pre-quarterfinal threat.  But he has struggled with injury recently and may prove no better able to grind past the Spaniard in the heat than Almagro, who never has defeated him.  If Tipsarevic reaches the quarterfinals, on the other hand, he will aim to reverse the outcome of their US Open quarterfinal last year, which he lost to Ferrer in a fifth-set tiebreak.

Semifinalist:  Ferrer

Player to watch:  Dimitrov

Third quarter:  Never has a man won his second major immediately after winning his first.  Never, however, in the Open era had a British man won any major at all, so this bit of history should not intimidate the reigning US Open champion.  Murray will start his campaign by reprising an odd encounter with Robin Haase at the 2011 US Open, which he rallied to win in five sets after losing the first two.  The lanky Dutchman behind him, he will face nobody over the next few rounds with the firepower to discomfit him over this extended format.  Throughout his section lie counterpunchers like Simon or Robredo or tactically limited players like Mayer and Stakhovsky.  The two exceptions who could threaten Murray will meet in the first round.  Reviving his career with solid results in Doha and Auckland, Monfils will pit his momentum against fellow showman Dolgopolov in a match likely to showcase plenty of electrifying shot-making.

Perhaps of more interest is the route traced by Del Potro, the most likely title contender outside the top three seeds.  In the second round, the Tower of Tandil could meet surprising Slovakian Aljaz Bedene, who reached the Chennai semifinals to start the year and nearly upset Tipsarevic there.  Owning more than enough weapons to dispatch the passive baseliner Granollers afterwards, Del Potro would open the second week against Marin Cilic.  The Croat developed around the same time as the Argentine and honed a similar playing style to complement his similar physique.  But Cilic has disappointed those who anointed him a future major champion and top-10 fixture, appearing to content himself with a lesser level of accomplishment.  He must brace himself for an opening battle against home hope Marinko Matosevic, who took him to five sets in New York last fall.  If Del Potro can reverse his 2009 loss to Cilic in that projected fourth-round encounter, he also must halt his winless hard-court record against Murray.  The task does not loom as large as it might appear, for he has won sets in all four of those matches.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Player to watch:  Del Potro

Fourth quarter:  What a pity that leading Aussie hope Bernard Tomic can play only two rounds before descending into the maw of the GOAT, as he did in the fourth round here last year.  All the same, Tomic will have the opportunity to knock off a seeded opponent in Martin Klizan while praying for a miracle from Federer’s second-round opponent, Nikolay Davydenko.  (Those who saw their match at the 2010 Australian Open will remember how impressive the Russian looked against the Swiss—for a set and a half, after which he utterly collapsed.)  Perhaps more formidable than the momentum of Tomic is the mighty serve of Milos Raonic, which nearly toppled Federer three times last year.  In each of their matches, Federer managed to win the crucial handful of points late in final sets, but can he continue to escape so narrowly?  The younger man cannot look too far ahead too soon, however, for a second-round match against Lukas Rosol lurks, and everyone knows what Rosol has done in the second round of majors.

Winless against top-eight opponents in 2012, former finalist Tsonga hopes to turn over a new leaf in 2013.  To snap that streak, though, he must survive the early stages of the tournament against dangerous lurkers like Llodra and Bellucci.  Tsonga has struggled at times against compatriots and has a losing career record against Gasquet, his projected fourth-round opponent.  Fresh from his title in Doha, the world #10 never has plowed deep into the Australian draw and may not benefit this time from the weak first-week slates that he received at majors last year.  Eyeing a possible upset is Haas, another artist of the one-handed backhand who has collaborated with Gasquet on memorable matches before.  But the question remains whether any of these men currently can compete with Federer across a best-of-five match, and the answer seems clear.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Player to watch:  Tomic

Final:  Djokovic vs. Murray

Champion:  Novak Djokovic

Come back tomorrow for the women’s preview, designed with the same level of detail!

The Rafael Nadal dilemma, Caroline Wozniacki’s defense — The Friday Five

Rafael Nadal

By Maud Watson

Beating a Dead Horse

Rafael Nadal made headlines this week, and quite frankly, the reasons behind the headlines are getting old. First he announced that he isn’t setting a return date, which had already been established. Until it seriously looks likely he’ll miss the Australian Open, it’s a topic that doesn’t need attention until 2013. The second reason was for Nadal’s incessant complaining about the number of hard court tournaments on the calendar. Nobody denies that hard courts are more taxing on the body, but he seems to be the only player with a major gripe about the surface. If anything, Nadal’s remarks came across as self-serving. A number of players call the hard courts their best and favorite surface, and many of those past and present players have enjoyed fruitful careers with few to no injuries. Furthermore, the Spaniard didn’t seem to complain about the general slowing of the surfaces, which has allowed for more extended rallies, which in turn has arguably contributed to his physical woes. But most disappointing of all is Nadal’s blindness, or perhaps unwillingness, to recognize his own role in contributing to his physical breakdown. Yes, a genetic problem has been partially to blame, but pundits have said for years that his grinding style would catch up with him. Now it appears it may be time to pay the piper. If that now means adjusting his schedule to pick up a few more clay court events – something he sounds almost bitter about – then so be it. We all want to see a healthy Nadal competing at the highest level year round, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of tailoring the calendar to suit one player’s needs.

Off the Mark

Coming on the heels of the 39th anniversary of the famous “Battle of the Sexes,” Billie Jean King was asked about the topic of equal prize money, which became a hot-button issue in 2012. “The guys can’t stand it,” she said in reference to the subject. She cited how dominant groups have historically struggled to share with non-dominant groups, and she expressed her disappointment in Federer’s lack of open support for equal pay to help overcome this barrier, particularly given the number of influential females in his life. She also called out players who have openly opposed equal prize money, like Simon and Tipsarevic, suggesting that they think of their possible future daughters. She stressed that, “It’s not about the money – it’s about the message.” But what exactly is the message? That the WTA players deserve the same pay as the ATP players just because they’re both professional athletes playing many of the same tournaments? There should be more to it than that. BJK may have refuted the “best-of-five vs. best-of-three” argument, but she didn’t address other points raised by opponents of equal pay – namely that the men consistently do a better job packing the stands, which in turn leads to higher ticket sales and more lucrative television deals. The ATP also doesn’t suffer from the shrieking epidemic that has turned some fans away from the game. Furthermore, until recently, the WTA has struggled to find consistency at the top, and the last couple of years, some of their biggest draws have been inconsistent performers at best, and part-time competitors at worst. Essentially, the men are currently offering a better product. What would BJK do if the shoe were on the other foot? Would she be so quick to say the men deserved equal prize money if it were the WTA offering the better deal? The WTA is moving closer to creating a comparable product, but with all due respect to BJK, until that product is established those who oppose equal prize money have a solid argument.

Closing In

Current No. 1 Victoria Azarenka may have had to withdraw from Tokyo citing dizziness potentially brought on by chronic fatigue, but with her run to the quarters, she’s moved ever closer to clinching the year-end No. 1 ranking. The Belarusian presently doesn’t know for certain the source of the dizziness, but she’ll be looking to be rested and ready to go in Beijing. As if she needed added incentive, Serena Williams has announced her withdrawal from the upcoming mandatory event in China due to a bad bout of the flu. Despite a history of playing very little in the fall throughout her career, many thought the younger Williams would look to make a push this autumn in an effort to finish the year atop the rankings. If Azarenka can get herself healthy and put together a run to the final next week, however, it will be mathematically impossible for the American to overtake her young rival. It’s a big ask for Azarenka, but it’s certainly added a bit more intrigue to the conclusion of 2012.

Always on the Defense

Danish superstar Caroline Wozniacki ended her long title drought with a win last week in Korea. She absolutely thumped Kaia Kanepi with just the lost of one game in the title match. Despite the win, however, reporters instead chose to take digs at the former No. 1, suggesting that her ranking of No. 11 was a disappointment. It’s natural that questions would have been asked when she initially fell out of the top spot, but at this stage, enough is enough. Wozniacki can’t be blamed for reaching the apex of the women’s game just because she proved the most capable player of showing up week in and week out. And while 2012 has been rough on her as far as where the majors were concerned, she’s shown a willingness to try retooling her game. She’s still young enough to do that, and it’s too early to pass judgment. So for now, let her enjoy the win in Korea, the quarterfinal showing in Tokyo, and wait and see what 2013 holds before we write her off as another Jankovic or Safina.

Breakthrough

Suddenly Jo-Willie Tsonga’s surprising loss at the US Open isn’t looking so bad. 23-year-old Martin Klizan, who knocked the Frenchman out of the year’s final major, has following up his success by claiming his first ATP title with his victory in St. Petersburg over Fabio Fognini in straight sets. Seven months ago, the Slovak was ranked 121, but with his win in Russia, he stands at a career high ranking of 33. Keep an eye on this fast-rising Slovak. He’s one spot away from being guaranteed a seed at a major, and he could cause some problems for some of the game’s best if his upset of Tsonga is any indication.

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