Nicolas Almagro

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

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

Hamburg:

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

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

Semifinal:  Federer vs. Verdasco

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

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

Semifinal:  Monaco vs. Haas

Final:  Federer vs. Monaco

Bogota:

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

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

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

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

Final:  Unseeded player vs. Anderson

 

 

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

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

When the Red Dust Settles: Favorite Memories of Roland Garros 2013

Matches and events fly past in the fortnight of a major too quickly to absorb everything that happens.  But, now that the red dust has settled, here are the memories that I will take from Roland Garros 2013.

Gael Monfils and the Paris crowd making each other believe that he could accomplish the impossible, and then Monfils accomplishing it.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands looking completely lost at the start of her match against Li Na and then gradually finding her baseline range, one rain delay at a time.

The courteous handshake and smile that Li gave her conqueror despite the bitter defeat.

Shelby Rogers justifying her USTA wildcard by winning a main-draw match and a set from a seed.

Grigor Dimitrov learning how to reach the third round of a major, and learning that what happens in Madrid stays in Madrid.

Bojana Jovanovski teaching Caroline Wozniacki that what happens in Rome doesn’t stay in Rome.

Ernests Gulbis calling the Big Four boring, and former top-four man Nikolay Davydenko calling him back into line.

Petra Kvitova and Samantha Stosur settling their features into resigned masks they underachieved yet again at a major.

John Isner winning 8-6 in the fifth and then coming back the next day to save 12 match points before losing 10-8 in the fifth.

Virginie Razzano winning twice as many matches as she did here last year.

Tommy Haas dominating a man fourteen years his junior and then coming back the next day to save a match point and outlast Isner when the thirteenth time proved the charm.

Benoit Paire losing his mind after a code violation cost him a set point, and Kei Nishikori quietly going about his business afterwards.

Ana Ivanovic telling journalists that “ajde” is her favorite word, and sympathizing with Nadal for the scheduling woes.

Tommy Robredo crumpling to the terre battue in ecstasy after a third consecutive comeback from losing the first two sets carried him to a major quarterfinal.

Sloane Stephens calling herself one of the world’s most interesting 20-year-olds.

Nicolas Almagro swallowing the bitter taste of a second straight collapse when opportunity knocked to go deep in a major.

Victoria Azarenka reminding us that it is, after all, rather impressive to win a match when your serve completely fails to show up.

Fernando Verdasco clawing back from the brink of defeat against Janko Tipsarevic to the brink of an upset that would have cracked his draw open—only to lose anyway.

Alize Cornet pumping her fist manically in one game and sobbing in despair the next.

Mikhail Youzhny remembering to bang a racket against his chair instead of his head.

Francesca Schiavone catching lightning in a bottle one more time in Paris, just when everyone thought that she no longer could.

Stanislas Wawrinka and Richard Gasquet putting on a master class of the one-handed backhand.

Svetlana Kuznetsova walking onto Chatrier to face Angelique Kerber and playing like she belonged there as a contender of the present, not a champion of the past.

Roger Federer joining alter ego @PseudoFed on Twitter, and fledgling tweeter Tomas Berdych telling one of his followers that his most challenging opponent is…Tomas Berdych.

Agnieszka Radwanska proving that her newly blonde hair wasn’t a jinx, but that major quarterfinals still might be.

Jo-Wifried Tsonga showing us his best and worst in the course of two matches, illustrating why he could win a major and why he has not.

Sara Errani looking the part of last year’s finalist while tying much bigger, stronger women up in knots.

Novak Djokovic overcoming a significant personal loss midway through the tournament and standing taller than ever before at the one major that still eludes him.

Jelena Jankovic completing a dramatic come-from-behind win and a dramatic come-from-ahead loss against two top-ten women in the same tournament.

David Ferrer, the forgotten man, reaching his first major final at age 31 in a reward for all of those years toiling away from the spotlight.

Maria Sharapova staying true to her uncompromising self and ending a match in which she hit 11 double faults with—an ace.

Serena Williams consigning her last trip here to the dustbin of history.

Rafael Nadal collapsing on the Chatrier clay just as ecstatically the eighth time as he did the first.

Staying up until 5 AM to watch a certain match, and wanting to stay up longer for one more game or one more point.

Looking forward to jumping back on the rollercoaster at the All England Club.

Roland Garros Rewind: Serena, Ferrer, Radwanska Thrive; Federer, Errani, Kuznetsova Survive

The schedule of play in singles has shrunk to two courts as the second week starts at Roland Garros.  Categories have started to shrink as well in the latter stages of these recaps.

ATP:

Match of the day:  That pesky Gilles Simon just won’t do the decent thing and retreat respectfully from Roger Federer, bowing every two steps.  Simon has defeated Federer twice and now taken him to a fifth set in both of their major meetings.  Reeling off 10 of 13 games in one stretch, the Frenchman even led the former champion by two sets to one until Federer compiled a seven-game surge of his own and eased through the final set without drama.

Comeback of the day:  Maybe we should rename this category the “Tommy Robredo Comeback of the Day.”  The Spanish veteran became the first man in the Open era to win three consecutive matches at a major after losing the first two sets.  At least Robredo did not need to save match points this time, as he did against Gael Monfils, but he trailed Nicolas Almagro by a break in both the fourth and fifth sets.  Of course, this was Nicolas Almagro.

Gold star:  Assigned the tallest man in the draw, David Ferrer trimmed him down to size with a clinical efficiency worthy of Procrustes.  Serena Williams also would have appreciated Ferrer’s demolition of Kevin Anderson and his massive serve, which ended with consecutive breadsticks.  Alone among the men in his half, he has not dropped a set or played a tiebreak through four matches.

Silver star:  Like Ferrer, Tsonga has not lost a set en route to a second straight quarterfinal here.  His victory over Viktor Troicki produced a routine scoreline like those before it, a departure from his usual trends but good news for his future here.

Stat of the day:  By rallying against Simon, Federer extended his streak of consecutive quarterfinals at majors to 36.  That’s nine years, reaching back to Wimbledon 2004.

Question of the day:  Tsonga threw quite a scare into world No. 1 Novak Djokovic at the quarterfinal stage here last year, holding four match points in the fourth set.  He took Federer to a fifth set in the same round at the Australian Open this year.  Does another heart-stopping epic lie in store?

WTA:

Match of the day:  A 48-winner barrage from Svetlana Kuznetsova avenged a loss in Madrid to world No. 8 Angelique Kerber.  Kuznetsova has reached the quarterfinals at both majors this year, something that at least half of the WTA top ten cannot say pending tomorrow’s results.  Unseeded former champions plowing deep into the draw always adds an extra layer of interest to the second week of a major.

Comeback of the day:  Her first three matches had tumbled into the win column almost too easily.  Like Federer, Sara Errani encountered her first serious test of the tournament today against Carla Suarez Navarro and nearly flunked it.  She regrouped to secure her tenth win at Roland Garros in the last two years, having won one match in four previous appearances.  Predictably, neither woman hit an ace.

Gold star:  Never at her best on clay, Agnieszka Radwanska seemed ripe for an early upset when she lost early at the key clay non-majors and withdrew from Brussels last week with a shoulder injury.  Radwanska thus has surprised by reaching the quarterfinals without losing a set, comfortably knocking off 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic to set up an intriguing clash with Errani.  All of the top four women are still in the draw.

Silver star:  To Roberta Vinci’s credit, she gave Serena Williams something to ponder in the second set as she stayed level until 3-3 and made inroads toward a break in the seventh game.  Unwilling to throw her opponent a lifeline, Serena snuffed out the threat, broke, and then served out her 28th straight win.  Four matches, ten games lost.

Stat of the day:  In five years and 20 majors since she won her in 2008, Ana Ivanovic has reached one major quarterfinal.

Question of the day:  Four years ago, Serena and Kuznetsova combined on a quarterfinal thriller that the Russian snatched late in the third set.  Could we see a worthy sequel in the same round on Tuesday, or is Serena simply too bulletproof at present?

Roland Garros Fast Forward: Tsonga, Federer, Ferrer, Serena, Ivanovic-Radwanska and More on Sunday

Now that the second week has arrived, you can find previews of every match on this site.  This article covers all eight on Sunday.

ATP:

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Viktor Troicki:  While their head-to-head stands more evenly balanced than you might think, Tsonga has won both of their clay meetings convincingly.  Troicki has sandwiched a tortuous five-set win over a clay specialist between two straight-sets victories, the latter an upset of Marin Cilic.  For a man with a losing record this season headed into the tournament, an appearance in the second week marks an excellent step forward.  The bad news for Troicki is that Tsonga has not lost a set through three matches, showing uncommon discipline and purpose.  With the French crowd behind him on the biggest tennis stadium in his nation, he should make short work of a man who often gets rattled in hostile or tense environments.

Gilles Simon vs. Roger Federer:  When they first started to collide in the second half of 2008, Simon seemed to have Federer’s number.  He rallied from losing the first set to grind past him twice that year on the hard courts of the Rogers Cup and the year-end championships.  Surely chagrined that his stylistic flights of fancy could not trump a mechanical counterpuncher, Federer labored to finish him off at the 2011 Australian Open after squandering a two-set lead.  Rome this month marked the first time that he finally seemed to solve his “Simon problem.”  Displaying his superior clay skills, Federer yielded just three games to a Frenchman who lost his first two sets at his home major and needed to come from behind in the third round as well.  Simon lost 23 games in his last match.  Federer has lost 23 games in the tournament.  Not even the crowd, which adores Federer, will give him a meaningful edge.

Kevin Anderson vs. David Ferrer:  The tallest man in the draw faces the shortest man in the draw.  On clay, though, David Ferrer looms much larger than does Kevin Anderson despite the South African’s appearance in the Casablanca final this spring.  Ferrer has dominated all of his first three opponents without dropping a set, pouncing on a weak draw after Madrid and Rome assigned him quarterfinals against Nadal.  The Spanish veteran has made a living out of defanging huge servers like Anderson, using his deft reflexes and compact swings to blunt their single overwhelming weapon before outmaneuvering them along the baseline. Anderson bounced Ferrer from the second round of Indian Wells in March, but that victory may have owed something to Ferrer’s busy South American clay schedule just before and the deflating loss to Nadal that ended it.

Tommy Robredo vs. Nicolas Almagro:  This all-Spanish battle should feature plenty of traditional clay tennis with extended rallies from behind the baseline.  A former member of the top ten, Robredo launched an impressive comeback from injury this spring by winning the Casablanca title and upsetting Tomas Berdych in Barcelona.  He has emerged from one of the draw’s most star-studded nuggets, which included not only Berdych but Gael Monfils and Ernests Gulbis.  Saving match points against Monfils in the last round, Robredo has rallied from losing the first two sets in each of his last two matches.  By contrast, Almagro has grown famous for choking away huge leads.  But he has won all five of his meetings with Robredo, all on clay, while losing one total set.  Look for him to control the rallies as Robredo slips into retrieving mode.

WTA:

Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Angelique Kerber:  Two of their three previous meetings have gone deep into a final set and ended with almost identical scores, the most recent in Madrid this spring.  Kerber’s burst from anonymity into the top 10 occurred near the same time that Kuznetsova plummeted from trendy dark horse to forgotten woman.  True to those trends, the German lefty has won both of their matches this year.  Kuznetsova should hold a clear surface edge, however, and she showed by reaching the Australian Open quarterfinals that she still can bring her best tennis to the biggest tournaments.  An upset of Agnieszka Radwanska at Roland Garros last year suggests that Kerber has plenty to fear, although she will bring momentum from gritting through a hard-fought contest with dirt devil Varvara Lepchenko.  This match may hinge on whose forehand does the dictating.

Serena Williams vs. Roberta Vinci:  Headlines would ripple through the tennis world if somebody merely stands up to Serena, much less defeats her.  A canny veteran with plenty of clay skills, Vinci will resist more tenaciously than most of her previous victims.  Serena will deny her the time to construct her artful combinations, though, and handled her doubles partner Sara Errani with ease.  This match could develop some intrigue if the world No. 1 struggles with her timing on her return, which can happen on clay.  But otherwise Serena should break serve too consistently and land too many punishing punches with her own serve to feel any serious pressure.

Carla Suarez Navarro vs. Sara Errani:  The answer to Robredo vs. Almagro in the men’s draw features a contest between two clay specialists of the sort rarely witnessed in the WTA these days.  Errani routed Suarez Navarro in the Acapulco final, which makes sense.  In no area of her game is the tiny Spaniard better than the small Italian, who even aced her in Acapulco.  On the other hand, Suarez Navarro scored a stunning upset over Errani in the first round of the last major, signaling an appropriate start to the best year of her career.  The two women combined for just a handful of service holds in that match, a pattern that could resurface.  Having conceded only nine games through three matches, barely more than Serena, Errani has looked as dominant as a woman without weapons other than drop shots ever will.

Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Ana Ivanovic:  To state the obvious, the most important shots of a point are the first and the last.  (If you’re Serena Williams, it’s often the same thing.)  In the language of the WTA, that means penetrating first serves, aggressive returns, and the ability to finish points with clean winners.  Ivanovic has struggled in both of those categories during her current six-match losing streak to Radwanska over the last three years.  Earlier in her career, she controlled her matches with the Pole by excelling in both of them, but the tide turned in 2009 when the Serb let a 4-0 lead slip away in a third set.  The pace of her serve and forehand has dwindled since she won Roland Garros five years ago, although Ivanovic has grown more comfortable in the forecourt with time.  Beyond tactics and technique, though, her main challenge lies in believing that she can defeat a top-five woman at a major.  The last time that Ivanovic did?  Two days before she lifted the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.

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

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

ATP:

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

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

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

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

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

WTA:

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

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

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

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

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

 

Roland Garros Day 2: Links Roundup with Monfils, Ivanovic, Stakhovsky, Kyrgios and more

Roland Garros Roundup takes you through the Slam’s hot stories of the day, both on and off the court.

  • Shot of the day: Gael Monfils’ surprise win over world No. 6 Tomas Berdych has been the result of the tournament so far. His four-hour, 7-6(8), 6-4, 6-7(3), 6-7(4), 7-5 win had the Parisian crowd on their feet, and commentators and fans alike dropping their jaws at the athleticism of both players, particularly the Frenchman.
  • Li Na’s first round victory clouded by chaotic officiating:  Serving a set down and 4-4 30-40 in the second set, Na’s opponent, Annabel Medina Garrigues hit a backhand down the line which was initially called out, overruled by umpire Louise Engzell, and then as Ben Rothenberg of the New York Times reports, “Engzell pivoted to face Medina Garrigues and told her she would lose the point because she softly said ‘no’ constituting hindrance” after Na argued with Engzell over the call.   Medina Garrigues conceded the point and engaged Engzell in a lengthy debate over the hindrance rule on the changeover before losing the final game of the match. Oh, and she brought up Maria Sharapova’s grunting. Of course.
  • Sergiy Stakhovsky moonlights as tennis’s newest photojournalist: Sergiy Stakhovsky was visibly frustrated over an out call in the first set of his opening match with Richard Gasquet so much so, that he took a picture of the mark in question and posted it for the twitter world to see.  As Courtney Nguyen of Sports Illustrated points out, Stakhovsky’s photography prowess has precedent as the Ukranian took a photo of a disputed call several weeks ago also in Munich. Will this become a monthly occurrence by the Ukranian? 
  • John Tomic banned for good:  Despite the International Tennis Federation permitting Bernard Tomic’s father from entering the French Open as paying spectator after he assaulted Bernard’s hitting partner in Madrid, the French Open organizers, as ESPN reports, “will not let Bernard Tomic’s father into Roland Garros, even as paying spectator.” 

“That I was an honest person, that I always tried to look for the silver lining. And I hope people will say that I was a great tennis player, even if there are more important things in life.”

  • American women flying high:  Though Americans are usually not known for their clay court skills, the American woman had a stellar day at the French Open, going 6-1 on the day including wins by Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Melanie Oudin, who ousted 28th-seeded Tamira Paszek in straight sets.  Lauren Davis,  Coco Vandeweghe, and Jamie Hampton hope to repeat the success the American women had Monday as they take to the court for their opening round matches tomorrow. 

“When you’re good in the juniors, it doesn’t mean you’re automatically going to be good in men’s tennis,” Stepanek said.  “But definitely he has some talent. He’s serving big and if he keeps working hard, he definitely has a chance.”

Check back on Wednesday for more “Roland Garros Roundup”!

The Dirty Dozen: Roland Garros Dark Horses Preview

While attention focuses annually on a small group of contenders, Roland Garros would be much less intriguing without the upset threats that populate each year’s draw.  A look at the contenders lies ahead next week, but the spotlight this weekend shines on the dark horses.  None of these men or women can win the title in Paris, almost certainly, so their triumphs will consist of stopping those who could.

ATP:

Stanislas Wawrinka:  Almost ranked too high to fit in this category, he cracked the top ten after reaching the final in Madrid.  There, Wawrinka recorded consecutive victories over top-eight opponents Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych, rallying from multiple deficits in the latter match.  Well before then, the Swiss No. 2 had established himself as a formidable underdog by taking Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer to final sets at the Australian Open and Indian Wells, respectively.  When the battlefield shifted to clay, he routed Andy Murray in Monte Carlo and David Ferrer to win the Portugal Open title.  Wawrinka’s resilient fitness and physical baseline style prepare him well for best-of-five on clay, although he never has reached the quarterfinals in Paris.  Nor has he ever won a set from Rafael Nadal.

Nicolas Almagro:  The third-ranked Spanish man struggled at the Masters 1000 clay tournaments, continuing a trend of futility at that level.  Almagro deserves inclusion here because of his three Roland Garros quarterfinal runs, all ended by losses to Nadal, and his finals appearance at the Barcelona 500 tournament.  During the overlooked clay season in North and South America, moreover, he reached the semifinals or better at three of four tournaments, holding set points against Nadal in Acapulco.  Almagro often has snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, for he let a substantial early lead escape him when he faced Rafa in Barcelona.  That flaw emerged in equal proportion to his potential at the Australian Open, where he raced to within two points of the semifinal before surrendering an even larger lead.

Tommy Haas:  Thirty-five years young, the evergreen German soared to another title on home soil in Munich, losing only one set all week.  Haas brought that momentum to Madrid the next week, where he recorded impressively convincing victories over clay specialists Tommy Robredo and Andreas Seppi.  Able to win a set from Ferrer, whom he never has defeated, he arrived in Rome a bit weary and promptly exited to Mikhail Youzhny.  His decision to play another home tournament in Dusseldorf next week makes sense for the top-ranked German but will permit him no respite before Roland Garros.  Haas has won his most recent meetings against both Novak Djokovic and Federer, however, while he came closer than anyone to stopping the Swiss short of the career Grand Slam.

Jerzy Janowicz:  His game would seem more suited to fast courts like those at the Paris indoors, where he achieved his breakthrough last fall.  But Janowicz fitted his explosive weapons to the slow clay of Rome with impressive results, scoring top-ten upsets over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet.  Against Federer, far more proficient on clay, he imposed his mixture of bullet forehands and delicate drop shots well enough to nearly steal a set.  Janowicz sometimes reminds of Ernests Gulbis, who reached a Roland Garros quarterfinal before with a similar combination of power and finesse.  Until Rome, however, he had accomplished little on the surface with first-round losses in Monte Carlo and Barcelona.  And the restless Paris crowd may fray his raw emotions.

Fabio Fognini:  Like Almagro, this Italian opened his clay season in South America and soon struck a rich vein of form by reaching the Acapulco semifinals.  Taking a set from Ferrer there, Fognini also defeated Wawrinka in a result that presaged his Monte Carlo surge.  At the first of the clay Masters 1000 tournaments, this man who never had reached a quarterfinal at this level reached his first semifinal there.  Fognini did it the hard way, upsetting Berdych and Richard Gasquet in stunningly routine fashion.  Since then, the bloom of those successes has faded a bit with early exits over the next three weeks.  Fognini came close to reaching the Roland Garros quarterfinals two years ago, and he has played a series of memorable five-setters in Paris.

Grigor Dimitrov:  Sharapova’s leading man usually spurs parallels to Federer, particularly his serve and backhand.  Not yet worthy of the comparison, Dimitrov achieved the greatest feat of his career so far when he upset Djokovic in an epic, contentious three-setter of exceptional quality.  That Madrid breakthrough concluded a series of matches against top-five opponents that he gradually grew closer to winning.  Winning a set from Nadal in Monte Carlo, Dimitrov handled Rafa’s topspin much more effectively than the man on whom he modeled his game.  Outside nerve-induced cramps, his fitness and movement have improved dramatically over the last year.  Dimitrov has struggled to follow one impressive result with another, so an early Rome loss may bode well for Paris.  Never has he passed the second round of a major.

WTA:

Roberta Vinci:  Italians have built a recent tradition of exceeding expectations at Roland Garros, so this veteran aims to follow in the footsteps of Francesca Schiavone and Sara Errani.  A doubles titlist there with Errani, Vinci won the first edition of the Katowice clay event over Petra Kvitova and repeated that result while spearheading Italy’s Fed Cup victory a week later.  Benefited by a comfortable Rome draw, she reached the quarterfinals there despite a shaky start.  Even before the clay season, she had accumulated impressive results by reaching a Dubai semifinal and Miami quarterfinal.  Vinci’s veering backhand slice becomes especially lethal on clay, although she has suffered a series of first-round losses at Roland Garros and will want to stay away from Varvara Lepchenko, who has defeated her twice on clay recently.

Ana Ivanovic:  The 2008 Roland Garros champion already has accumulated more clay victories this year than in any other season since she won Paris and ascended to No. 1.  Ivanovic followed two Fed Cup victories and a quarterfinal in Stuttgart with a semifinal in Madrid, her best result at an event of that magnitude in over four years.  Defeating Angelique Kerber twice this clay season, she also won a set from Sharapova.  These achievements surprised in view of her meager results through February and March, but Ivanovic always has produced the unexpected.  In the wake of her Madrid run, she suffered an inexplicable opening loss in Rome to Urszula Radwanska, and that Madrid run itself might not have happened if not for the woeful serving of Laura Robson, whom she edged past in a third-set tiebreak.

Jelena Jankovic:  Echoing the exploits of her countrywoman, the elder Serb reached the quarterfinals in Rome with an upset over 2011 Roland Garros champion Li Na.  Jankovic also won her first 10 matches this year on clay as she swept past overmatched competition in Bogota and Charleston.  At the latter tournament, on green clay rather than the conventional terre battue, she even won a set from Serena Williams.  JJ fans will remind you that she often delivers the least when most is expected, while she lost early at the other two key WTA clay events in Stuttgart and Madrid.  Roland Garros has witnessed her most consistent results of any major, however, including three semifinals between 2007 and 2010.  Well past her peak now, can she turn back the clock?

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova:  Either very good or very bad this year, the Russian is the only woman outside the top four to win multiple titles.  The second of those came on the clay of Portugal, where she weathered two three-setters and early adversity in the final.  Pavlyuchenkova largely has kept in check a serve that can veer out of control, and she held three set points in each set of her loss to Azarenka in Madrid.  The guidance of new coach Martina Hingis could offer this former Roland Garros quarterfinalist the boost that she needs to score that type of upset, although this major notoriously eluded Hingis during her playing days.  If she gets past her first opponent in Paris, Pavlyuchenkova should keep building momentum from there.

Carla Suarez Navarro:   Armed with a backhand that recalls Justine Henin’s flamboyant stroke, she has risen to a career-high ranking this year with finals in Acapulco and Portugal.  Suarez Navarro also upset Samantha Stosur on European clay before advancing to the quarterfinals in Rome.  An underrated competitor, she excels in long matches and rallied to defeat Petrova there after saving two match points.  Suarez Navarro’s serve leaves her vulnerable to the massive returners at the top of the women’s game, but a similar flaw did not prevent Sara Errani from reaching the Roland Garros final last year.  Gone in the first week of her last three trips to Paris, she reached the quarterfinals as a qualifier in her first appearance there, winning as many matches as the eventual champion.

Kaia Kanepi:  Sidelined until April with injury, this two-time Roland Garros quarterfinalist found her form surprisingly soon .  Kanepi has not played on any surface but clay this year, which leaves her both well-adjusted and relatively fresh.  Three straight-sets victories carried her to the Portugal semifinals, while her most impressive achievement may have consisted of reaching the Madrid quarterfinals.  Among her victims there was Suarez Navarro, against whom she avenged a Portugal loss.  Kanepi did not play Rome but will return to action in Brussels next week.  Her playing style succeeds there for the same reasons that Sharapova won the title last year:  heavy ball-striking that penetrates even the slowest surfaces, combined with extra time to line up her targets.

And, to make it a baker’s dozen, let’s add…

Simona Halep:  Strong on clay in 2012, she reached the quarterfinals or better at three tournaments and finished runner-up in Brussels.  Halep had sunk to the status of an aspiring qualifier for key tournaments by the time that she arrived in Rome, where she enjoyed the strongest week of a WTA quaifier in recent memory.  Notching six straight victories to reach the quarterfinals, Halep demolished former Roland Garros champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, rallied past world No. 4 Radwanska, dominated Vinci, and mounted another comeback to edge past Jankovic after saving a match point.  That string of victories over players with far superior credentials popped plenty of eyes and will cause her ranking to soar, although probably not high enough for a Roland Garros seed.

 

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

 

Out of the Blue: ATP Madrid Draw Preview

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

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

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

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

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

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

Semifinalist:  Berdych

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

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

Semifinalist:  Nadal

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

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

Semifinalist:  Federer

Final:  Djokovic vs. Nadal

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