Nicolas Almagro

Nicolas Almagro So Close to Stepping Up, But Still So Far

By Yeshayahu Ginsburg

Unfortunately for Nicolas Almagro, his last match against Rafael Nadal feels like it went pretty much the same way all of his other matches have. Almagro is very good against most players on tour, especially on clay. He has improved on all surfaces over the past few years and now consistently goes deep in a lot of tournaments. However, he also consistent loses to just about every top player on tour.

Almagro is a combined 1-21 against the “Big 4”, with that one win coming against Andy Murray at the French Open in 2008. Almagro is also 0-13 against David Ferrer, 3-9 against Tomas Berdych, and 0-6 versus Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. With records like that, it’s easy to see why Almagro likes to play a lot of 250-level tournaments and why it’s incredible that he manages to stay as close to the top 10 as consistently as he does.

It is often said that consistency is what separates the Big 4 from the rest of the tennis world. Most of these top players can win any given point against anyone else. But when it comes to the Big 4, they play at or near their top level for just about every point of a match. Thus, to beat them, any other top player would have to play at that level for an entire match as well.

Watching Almagro’s matches against the top players, it is easy to see why this rule is mostly true. Almagro always seems to start out strong, especially against Nadal. He plays a power game on clay and keeps the ball deep, pinning his opponents back until they finally can’t defend anymore. This works well, especially against Nadal, and Almagro often keeps things close or even jumps out to a lead. In Barcelona on Sunday, Almagro won the first three games of the match, going up a double break to start.

What Almagro cannot seem to do is to keep at this level for an entire match. Once Nadal gets back into things, Almagro crumbles. This was epitomized in the 4-4 game of the first set on Sunday, when Almagro was up 0-30 on Nadal’s serve. Nadal won an incredible point that Almagro must have felt should have been his (I’m sure that everyone has seen the video of that tweener by now), followed up by a massive Nadal forehand right down the line the next point. Almagro just couldn’t shake those points off. Nadal went on to win that game, broke to take the first set the very next game, and then picked up an early break in the second set with which he could cruise towards the win.

This was not an aberration or a one-match phenomenon. This seems to be how the majority of Almagro’s matches against the top players go. I honestly don’t know what Almagro has to do to get over that hump. He needs to find a way to put previous points out of his mind and to just play every point with the same level of consistency, just like the top players do. What I do know is that it is not for lack of talent that Almagro can’t beat these guys. And that, in my mind, is quite a shame.

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

After a week comprised of a single tournament, the Masters 1000 in Monte Carlo, the ATP plows further into the clay season with a 500 event in Barcelona and a 250 in Bucharest.  Three top-ten players appear at the former and just one at the latter as many of the leading figures conserve energy ahead of the marquee tournaments in Madrid and Rome.  For those who play their best tennis on clay, then, Barcelona and Bucharest offer opportunities to showcase that specialty in less fraught surroundings.

Barcelona:

Top half:  Absent from Monte Carlo with a leg injury, top seed David Ferrer may need to recover psychologically as well as physically from the end of the hard-court season.  The world No. 4 fell just one point short of his most significant accomplishment to date, a Miami title denied him by a (narrowly) unsuccessful challenge on match point.  Returning to his home country for the next two tournaments might salve the sting for the Spanish veteran.  Projected to meet him in the third round is Brazilian lefty Thomaz Bellucci, who upset him almost exactly a year ago in Monte Carlo.  Although Philipp Kohlschreiber anchors the lower part of his quarter, Ferrer might just as plausibly meet compatriot and fellow clay specialist Albert Montanes.  This Spaniard knocked off Gael Monfils in Monte Carlo as a qualifier and faces an intriguing opening test here against Ricardas Berankis, pegged as a future star.

Should Ferrer continue his history of strong results in Barcelona by advancing from his quarter, he could find the competition much stiffer in the semifinals.   Nicolas Almagro lost early in Monte Carlo last week, but that setback probably owed something to fatigue from reaching the Houston final on the previous Sunday.  As Almagro looks to continue his generally sturdy 2013 campaign, Juan Monaco hopes to continue his ascent from a miserable start to the season.  He had not won a match at an ATP event until Houston last week, where he reached the semifinals shortly before winning a set from Djokovic in Monte Carlo.  Australian Open quarterfinalist Jeremy Chardy and ultra-talented prodigy Bernard Tomic lack Monaco’s clay-court skills despite their inspired shot-making, so a clash in styles between his functional game and the flamboyance of Almagro might await.  The Spaniard has held a slight edge in their clay meetings, a contrast to his career of futility against Ferrer.

Bottom half:  Known much more for power than grinding are the key names in the third quarter, headlined by world No. 6 Tomas Berdych.  Disappointingly error-strewn in Monte Carlo, the Czech has suffered from fatigue in an overly front-loaded schedule, yet he seems reluctant to grant himself any respite.  Berdych faces a potentially perilous draw that could end his week early again, perhaps a blessing in disguise considering his circumstances.  In addition to Casablanca champion Tommy Robredo, Monte Carlo breakthrough artist Grigor Dimitrov lurks in the vicinity.  Having reached a Masters 1000 quarterfinal for the first time last week, the Bulgarian will bring confidence from an impressively competitive three-setter against Nadal.  Lately lacking in confidence, on the other hand, is aging Spaniard Fernando Verdasco, who has won only one match since the Australian Open.  Verdasco will tumble down the rankings if his drought continues on the clay, and the towering serve of Milos Raonic might ensure that it does.  After their third-round meeting, a quarterfinal pitting the Canadian against Dimitrov or Berdych would feature plenty of formidable serving.

Lurking at the bottom of the draw, serial Barcelona champion Rafael Nadal looks to bounce back from the end of his epic Monte Carlo winning streak at the hands of Novak Djokovic.  Although he lost a set (and nearly a match) to Carlos Berlocq in South America this February, the rejuvenated version of Rafa that swept through this spring should not struggle against the Argentine.  As unreliable as Nadal is reliable, the enigmatic Frenchman Benoit Paire and powerful Polish firecracker Jerzy Janowicz lack the durability to challenge him on clay.  The sixth-seeded Kei Nishikori much prefers faster surfaces, and he has won only one set in five career meetings with Nadal.

Semifinals:  Ferrer vs. Almagro, Raonic vs. Nadal

Final:  Ferrer vs. Nadal

Bucharest:

Top half:  Not long ago, world No. 10 Janko Tipsarevic claimed on Twitter that he needed to take a break from the tennis.  One could understand why, considering his miserable, nearly winless start to 2013, but apparently the Serb had second thoughts.  Entering Bucharest as the top seed, he finds himself surrounded by players more comfortable on clay than he is, from Colombian Santiago Giraldo to Nadal-killer Horacio Zeballos.  That latter figure has seen his form plummet since that stirring title run in Vina del Mar, so the top quarter may hinge on who can reach a passable level of play soonest.  The second quarter features a pair of Romanians to excite local fans, as well as 2011 Roland Garros sensation David Goffin.  Of greater note are its two seeds, although neither has produced their best tennis on clay.  The erratic German Florian Mayer eyes a quarterfinal bout with graceful but fading Russian Mikhail Youzhny, just three slots higher in the rankings.  Winning a set from Djokovic in Monte Carlo, Youzhny has surpassed expectations recently as other seeds in this half have fallen well short of theirs.

Bottom half:  A disaster in Davis Cup and an early casualty last week, the second-seeded Gilles Simon aims to rekindle the memories of his three titles in Bucharest.  Curiously, Simon has won half of his ten career titles on outdoor clay despite aligning his game more comfortably with hard courts.  His draw looks more ominous than Tipsarevic’s section, perhaps starting with Monte Carlo quarterfinalist Jarkko Nieminen.  Having upset Raonic and Del Potro there, Nieminen fared nearly as well as surprise semifinalist Fabio Fognini, who could meet Simon a round later.  The Italian’s expertise on clay could see him through an intriguing opener against wildcard Gael Monfils, a battle of two men with magnificent ball-striking skills and fluctuating competitive wills.  Like Dimitrov, Fognini might lack the focus to consolidate his Monte Carlo breakthrough immediately.  If he can emerge from his quarter, though, he might reach a rematch of a tense three-setter last week against compatriot Andreas Seppi, who shares his fondness for the terre battue.  At a modest 12-9 so far in 2013, Seppi may need to avoid the land mine of Lukas Rosol to build momentum early in the clay season.  He defends large quantities of points next month, on which his top-20 ranking rests.

Final:  Youzhny vs. Seppi

Check back shortly for a similar look at the two WTA tournaments this week in Stuttgart and Marrakech.

Rafa’s Redoubt: ATP Monte Carlo Draw Preview

No man ever has won nine straight titles at an ATP tournament, but no man ever has come close to defeating Rafael Nadal in Monte Carlo during the last decade.  Nadal has lost only two sets in his last six appearances in this principality perched on the Mediterranean, attaining a level of sustained brilliance that most mere mortals must struggle to imagine.

First quarter:  As he grapples with an ankle injury sustained in Davis Cup, Novak Djokovic also faces a section filled with potential challenges.  While his opener does not intimidate, he could meet a resurgent Ernests Gulbis in the third round.  Gulbis reeled off the longest winning streak of his career from February to March and can threaten even on clay when at his best, as an upset of Federer in Rome proved.  Winless outside Davis Cup until last week in Houston, Juan Monaco led the world No. 1 by a set in Rome last year.  To arrange a rematch, he would need either to solve Gulbis or reverse the result of his semifinal loss to John Isner on Saturday.   Although Isner notably extended Nadal to a fifth set at Roland Garros, becoming the only player ever to do so, neither he nor fellow towering server Milos Raonic looms as large on outdoor clay as during the rest of the season.  Djokovic’s greatest challenge probably will come from fifth-seeded wildcard Juan Martin Del Potro.  The Serb won both of their previous clay meetings, and Del Potro never has won a main-draw match in Monte Carlo.   Yet the Indian Wells runner-up holds the momentum edge against his fellow US Open champion, having ousted him in the desert, so Djokovic will need full health to withstand a rival playing his best tennis since 2009.

Semifinalist:  Del Potro

Second quarter:  Intersecting in Indian Wells and again in Miami, Tomas Berdych and Richard Gasquet could collide for a third straight Masters 1000 tournament.  Few barriers block that rubber match between the Czech who won at the former event and the Frenchman who won at the latter.  This quarter does contain a handful of clay specialists, such as Marcel Granollers and the suddenly notorious Nadal-killer Horacio Zeballos.  Of greater significance are two Italians destined to meet in the first round, both skilled on this surface but a sharp contrast in personalities.  The unseeded Fabio Fognini seeks to find his mercurial form when it matters most against Andreas Seppi, whose seeded position hinges on his ability to defend points over the next several weeks.  While those Italians lie in Berdych’s section, several powerful servers surround Gasquet.  Among them is Jerzy Janowicz, still learning how to cope with his elevated status, and the highly clay-averse Marin Cilic.  A finalist in Casablanca this week, Kevin Anderson will aim to build on that unexpected clay success in a third-round meeting with Gasquet, whom he defeated on French soil last fall.

Semifinalist:  Berdych

Third quarter:  A rematch of the 2010 final here, the possible second-round meeting between Nadal and compatriot Fernando Verdasco likely would prove little more competitive than that earlier demolition.  Despite his victory over his long-time nemesis on the blue clay last spring, Verdasco has struggled with injuries and a concomitant dip in confidence since the Australian Open.  Among the quarterfinalists there was Jeremy Chardy, a possible third-round opponent for Rafa.  Since the eight-time Monte Carlo champion dismissed early in his South American comeback, he should feel even more comfortable against him now.  Nadal also drew the least formidable of all possible quarterfinal opponents in Janko Tipsarevic, never a factor on clay and the recipient of three crushing defeats at the Spaniard’s hands.  Like Verdasco, the second-ranked Serb has accomplished virtually nothing since the Australian Open as injuries have crippled his weapons.  The flashy but raw Grigor Dimitrov and the experienced but underpowered Gilles Simon both conceal too many flaws to trouble Rafa for long.  Of course, one could say the same about all but a few players in this field.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Fourth quarter:  The highest-ranked Frenchman in the draw, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, shares a section with another man with little fondness for clay.  Although he reached the semifinals here before and even won a set from Nadal there, Andy Murray generally has produced modest results during this stage of the season except for a brilliant 2011 campaign.  He may suffer a lull after winning Miami, his first significant title since that US Open breakthrough, and occasional practice partner Stanislas Wawrinka could capitalize on a surface better suited to his strengths.  Scoring his only career victory over Federer here, Wawrinka has won both of his previous clay meetings with Murray in straight sets.  Former Roland Garros semifinalist Gael Monfils also lurks in the Scot’s vicinity, while Tsonga might encounter some resistance from two other former Roland Garros semifinalists in Nikolay Davydenko and Jurgen Melzer.  But the most dangerous opponent for the top seeds in this section probably is Nicolas Almagro, unless his run to the Houston final depletes his energies for a tournament thousands of miles away.

Semifinalist:  Almagro

Final:  Del Potro vs. Nadal

Champion:  Rafael Nadal

Is Rising American Tennis Player Rhyne Williams the Real Deal?

April 13, 2013 – In a semifinal that was physically much closer than the scoreline indicated, world No. 12 and US Men’s Clay Court Championship No. 1 seed Nicolas Almagro defeated 22-year-old rising American Rhyne Williams, 6-2, 6-1.

But don’t be fooled by the skewed scoreline, as eight of the first eleven games went to 30 or deuce on each player’s serve. Given Almagro’s commanding style to punish his opponents by running them around the court, Williams took the early initiative on most points in the first set, but his transition game and net play got over-powered by one of the best active players on clay.

Leading up the match, Williams had spent nearly seven hours on court in Houston, while Almagro not even half of that. After his win yesterday, Williams admitted that his left quad and glut were sore and that he was near cramping. He wasn’t sure how his body would hold up in the semi today, but he played through any pain to put on a stellar performance for the crowd.

On groundstrokes and serving alone, the match was nearly a draw. But it was Almagro’s experience on clay that proved most effective in the end and he advanced to his 19th career final on clay.

Despite today’s loss, Williams should feel confident with his performance this week and celebrate his breakthrough. Not only will he reach a career-high ranking of around 116 come Monday, but in only his first ATP-level clay court tournament, Williams recorded his first ATP quarterfinal and semifinal appearances — and no less on his favorite surface. “An American with his best surface on clay?” you might be asking. Yes. Despite his recent hard court title in Dallas, his first three tournament titles all came at clay events in Madrid, Florida and Pennsylvania.

Williams, who received a wildcard into Houston, earlier this week posted wins over Argentine Guido Pella 7-5, 7-5 in the first round, 2007 champion Ivo Karlovic 6-4, 6-7(5), 7-6(3) and Spaniard Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo 7-6(1), 1-6, 6-4 to reach the semis.

With his fiery and animated personality on court, it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether Williams is happy or angry from photos, and he has joked about the same. (For the record, the photo at right was taken after he defeated Ramirez Hidalgo to reach the semis. See? Not so simple.) But whether he’s smashing his racquet in disgust due to a bad serve, or fist-pumping after a wicked forehand winner, he always wears his heart on his sleeve – and it’s easy to get behind the American with his recent success.

So, where does Williams fit in with the current crop of fresh-faced Americans on tour? Well, for one, he is now the youngest and highest-ranked American of generation “next,” and the new No. 9 ranked American overall.

With the retirement of Andy Roddick last year and the ensuing hype of finding the next top American in the likes of players like Jack Sock and Steve Johnson, Williams has emerged onto the Tour a bit under the radar. Until now, that is. He has now not only out-ranked his fellow Americans, but outplayed them as well, leading their overall head-to-head matchups seven to four.

While it’s true that you shouldn’t judge a player based on one great run at a tournament, Williams’ trajectory has been far from that as his 2013 results show.

After finishing off the 2012 season ranked at a respectable 192 after starting the year outside of the top 500, Williams had a bit of a slow start during his first trip to Australia. He lost in the qualifying rounds of Brisbane and Sydney before falling in the first round of the Australian Open after being up two sets to love against No. 25 seed Florian Mayer. The former Tennessee Volunteer then kicked it into high gear and went on to win his first Challenger title in Dallas the following month by defeating veteran Robby Ginepri. Two weeks later, Williams qualified for his home state tournament in Memphis and defeated former USC Trojan Steve Johnson in the first round before falling to world No. 23 Alexandr Dolgopolov, 6-4 in the third.

After appearances in Indian Wells and Miami in March, Williams headed back to the USTA Training Center in Boca Raton, FL where he trains, to continue working on his fitness while making the transition to clay.

In heavy contrast, Williams’ compatriots have had somewhat inconsistent performances this year. Despite reaching the Memphis quarterfinals, Sock has failed to make it past the second round on all but one of his six other tournaments in 2013. Similarly, Johnson reached the Maui Challenger and San Jose quarterfinals, but failed to make it past the first round in any of his other six tournaments this year.

The reason for Williams’ consistency compared to his fellow Americans can stem from several things, but outside of his natural talent for the sport, two reasons come to mind: his focus on mental and physical fitness, and his family — and the two often intersect.

A native of Knoxville, TN, Williams turned pro in 2011 after playing two years at the University of Tennessee where he won the 2010 USTA/ITA National Indoor Intercollegiate Championship. After admitting to tipping the scales at just over 200 pounds after leaving college, the American put in the hard hours and is now listed on the ATP site at a fit 185lbs for his 6’1” frame. Though he admitted this week that he still needs to lose “5 to 8 pounds” to hang with the top players in long grueling matches, his attacking game style and rocket forehand are already competitive enough for the top 50.

His roots in tennis are also deeper than many players’ as Williams hails from a tennis family. His mother, father and both sisters have played or still currently play at the collegiate level, his grandfather is the co-founder of the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy and coached at Tennessee, his uncle Mike de Palmer Jr. was a top 35 ATP player and former coach of Boris Becker, and his cousin, Christopher, a former fellow Vol currently coaches and travels with Williams.

Few players – if any – hold this kind of tennis pedigree, but it hasn’t always been easy. Williams admitted last year that he decided to go to college in order to mature before hitting the pro tour, and that time spent learning the mental game in a team setting has helped him achieve his results today.

Furthermore, not only has his cousin Christopher’s master’s in sports psychology continued to fuel his mental game by bringing an emotional attachment to his goals, but his ability to travel as a coach also brings a unique stability to Williams’ training. Unless you’re John Isner or Sam Querrey, a travelling coach is financially not possible for players around Williams’ ranking, and it’s surprising still how many top players don’t travel with a mental coach. Given both his support system and focused approach to his training, Williams is on the right path to continue climbing the rankings steadily.

So what exactly is next for the Houston semifinalist?

Williams will now travel to three Challenger events in Sarasota, Savannah and Tallahassee which are all also on clay. The collective group of tournaments is part of the USTA Pro Circuit Wild Card Challenge which grants the winner an automatic bid into the main draw of Roland Garros through a reciprocal wildcard exchange with the French Tennis Federation.

If Williams had made the Houston final, he wouldn’t have needed to vie for the wildcard as his ranking would have been high enough to gain him direct entry, since the acceptance list is based on Monday’s rankings. However, with his ranking now hovering around 116, he will most likely need to either play the qualifying tournament or win the reciprocal wildcard this month if he hopes to make the main draw in Paris. But given his current form and the fact that he won the Australian Open Wildcard Challenge back in December to get a wildcard Down Under, he not only has the winning confidence but also the experience to pull off the feat.

What to Watch This Week: Houston, Casablanca, Katowice Previews

 

Perhaps no man has suffered as star-crossed a season as Nicolas Almagro, who won the first two sets of his Australian Open quarterfinal and served for it three times before succumbing to compatriot David Ferrer.  Almagro also has lost three matches in final-set tiebreaks this year, including both of his losses at the Masters 1000 tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami.  He also held a set point against Rafael Nadal in their Acapulco semifinal, only to spray a forehand flagrantly wide as his winlessness in that matchup continued.  This week, however, Almagro finds a chance to set his bad luck behind him by holding the top seed at the only red clay tournament on American soil.  We take a look at what he can expect there and what another hard-luck figure in the ATP this year can expect in Casablanca.

Houston:

At first, the title of “US Men’s Clay Court Championships” rings an odd note considering the general aversion of the aforementioned nation to the aforementioned surface.  While Davis Cup exploits perhaps have immunized some of the Americans against their allergies to clay, they do not dominate this draw as much as one would expect from a tournament of this level on their home soil.  As the top seed, Almagro faces an intriguing opener against Gael Monfils, which would pit a three-time Roland Garros quarterfinalist against a former semifinalist there.  Beset by injuries over the last several months, Monfils must beware of American veteran James Blake in the wake of the latter’s unexpected surge on the March hard courts.  Either Almagro or Monfils should feel confident in his ability to overpower the seventh-seeded Paolo Lorenzi, an archetypal grinder with no significant weapons.

Introducing a bit more of the “US” into the tournament’s title is the second quarter, where two American wildcards accompany Sam Querrey.  The highest-ranked player in this section, Querrey will look to build upon a gallant effort in Davis Cup while confronting the stark change in surface from indoor hard courts.  He finished runner-up to Juan Ignacio Chela here in 2010 and does own a title on outdoor clay (Belgrade that year), showing that his forehand-centered game can benefit from the time offered by clay to run around his backhand.  In addition to UCLA star Steve Johnson, who extended Almagro to five sets at the Australian Open, Rhyne Williams will intrigue local fans curious about what the next generation might bring.  Anchoring the quarter is Fernando Verdasco, seeking to emerge from the doldrums of a four-match losing streak before the European clay where his ranking could plunge swiftly.

Can Juan Monaco win a match outside Davis Cup this year?  A star when he takes the court in the Parque Roca of Buenos Aires with national pride at stake, he has exited all of his ATP tournaments in the opening round despite a top-20 ranking that has resulted in comfortable draws.  American hopeful Tim Smyczek and former champion Lleyton Hewitt stand ready to exploit any remnants of malaise from the Argentine, as does his compatriot Martin Alund.  Having reached the semifinals of Sao Paulo, and won a set from Nadal there, Alund already has reached the top 100 in his first season on the ATP circuit.

A runner-up at Houston last year, John Isner paradoxically played more encouraging tennis in his Davis Cup loss to Djokovic than in many of his victories this year.  Isner no longer labors under the pressure of holding the top ranking among American men, and he has admitted that he feels more comfortable outside the spotlight.  While Querrey holds that position now, Ryan Harrison and Jack Sock surely fancy themselves there someday.  The former could face Isner in the first round and the latter in the second, creating an intriguing series of matchups between the present and future.  His stirring run to the Miami semifinals behind him, Tommy Haas has lost little time in returning to action as the second seed.  Like Isner, he will confront a member of the ATP’s next generation in Ricardas Berankis.

Semifinals:  Almagro vs. Querrey; Hewitt vs. Haas

Final:  Almagro vs. Haas

Casablanca:

In a year of near-triumphs turned to heartbreaks, Stanislas Wawrinka has stood on the edge of upsetting Novak Djokovic and of winning the longest match in Davis Cup history, only to see both of those accomplishments to slip away.  The Casablanca top seed also has lost a three-set final on South American clay (albeit as an underdog to David Ferrer) and failed to close out an Indian Wells encounter with Roger Federer in which he led by a break in the final set.

At this sole ATP African outpost, where he lifted the trophy three years ago, Wawrinka could gain some solace for those disappointments by claiming a title as the top seed.  The highest-ranked rival in his quarter, Daniel Gimeno-Traver, suffered a recent disappointment himself when he let Berdych off the hook in what looked like a stunning Miami upset waiting to happen.   Perhaps more compelling is the test posed by Albert Montanes, who has won all five of his career titles on outdoor clay and even upset Federer once on the surface.  Delray Beach finalist Edouard Roger-Vasselin rounds out the quarter but shines more on hard courts.

Although a bye guarantees him at least a positive start to the tournament, the fourth-seeded Benoit Paire rarely appears in the same sentence with the word “reliable” and seems too streaky to excel on clay.  This temperamental Frenchman could face a similarly temperamental Austrian in the aging Jurgen Melzer, who obtained his best career result with a Roland Garros semifinal in 2010.  Stirring back into relevance only sporadically, the mercurial veteran will bring confidence from reaching a Miami quarterfinal and will open against a man whom he defeated there in an arduous three-setter, Tobias Kamke.  A former member of the top ten, Tommy Robredo, continues to spin out the final threads of an understated career.  As a South American semifinal this spring proved, his steadiness still can reap rewards in clay tournaments of this level.

In general, this draw contains fewer clay specialists than one might expect.  That fact especially emerges from the bottom half, where Kevin Anderson looks to boost his ranking higher into the top 30 by accumulating some comfortable ranking points.  A quarterfinalist at Indian Wells, Anderson has played the best tennis of his career in 2013 by complementing his overpowering serve with more consistent groundstrokes and a more refined sense of shot selection.  He will need those latter attributes to make any impact on a surface hostile to men of his height, or his ungainly movement could leave him vulnerable to the unremarkable but clean baseline game of Pablo Andujar.

Few of the other players in this half raise many eyebrows, however, since fellow seeds Grega Zemlja and Martin Klizan share Anderson’s preference for hard courts over clay.  For an unexpected surge, one might consider Roberto Bautista Agut, who came within a set of winning his first career title in Chennai but has struggled mightily since then.  But the seventh-seeded Robin Haase, twice a titlist on this surface, may present the stiffest resistance for Anderson if he can overcome his own recent struggles.

Semifinals:  Wawrinka vs. Melzer; Haase vs. Andujar

Final:  Wawrinka vs. Haase

***

Replacing the short-lived Copenhagen tournament on the WTA schedule, a new event in Poland offers the only WTA action of the week before the Fed Cup semifinals.

Katowice:

Like most fledgling tournaments in areas unfamiliar with hosting professional tennis, Katowice boasts one genuine star and a handful of journeywomen.  While fellow first-time event Florianopolis featured Venus Williams, the Polish tournament enlisted the services of former Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova.  But Kvitova may need Katowice almost as much as Katowice needs her, for her results this year outside Fed Cup generally have not impressed.  Picking up where she left off in a desultory 2012 campaign, the Czech has struggled to harness her three key weapons of serve, return, and forehand for more than a few games at a time.  Even on a sporadic day, though, she surely can outhit the Japanese double-fister Misaki Doi despite the latter’s improved results.  An all-Petra quarterfinal could pit Kvitova against Croat Petra Martic, but this prospect seems unlikely in view of Martic’s winless record this year.  At her best on clay, Alize Cornet could offer credible resistance if she has gained confidence from reaching the fourth round of Miami.  Kvitova may need to string more than one or two powerful blows together to outhit Cornet, although she should feast on this opponent’s meager serve.

Two Germans bookend the second quarter, where they will hope to regroup from disappointing weeks in Charleston.  Both Julia Goerges and Sabine Lisicki let winnable matches slip away on the green clay after winning the first set, a familiar narrative for both.  The more skilled of the Germans on red clay by far, Goerges also enjoys the more accommodating draw with two qualifiers in her vicinity and grass specialist Tsvetana Pironkova.  Drawn near slow-court specialist Irina-Camelia Begu, Lisicki must find ways to win points with shots other than her serve, on which she has leaned too heavily this year.  The two Germans split their two previous meetings, both on clay, with Goerges winning the more recent in what seems the logical outcome if they should meet here.

While neither Agnieszka nor Urszula Radwanska has entered this first edition of a Polish tournament, their countrywoman Marta Domachowska will give the home fans a reason to cheer.  Sustaining their cheers may prove difficult, however, for Laura Robson looms nearby.  Not nearly as effective on clay as on faster surfaces, the highest-ranked teenager in the WTA will hope to hit through the surface with her flat, penetrating groundstrokes before an opponent extends her deep into rallies.  Patience has failed the fiery Robson over the last several weeks, so someone who can stay within range may find an opportunity to frustrate her.  Seemingly suited to that task is Klara Zakopalova, a Czech who has won sets from Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova at Roland Garros.  Zakopalova excels at retrieving one ball after another until her foe’s mind numbs, so a test of Robson’s maturity awaits.

At the base of the draw lies Miami quarterfinalist Roberta Vinci, a genuine title threat at minor clay tournaments like these.  Vinci’s crafty mixture of spins and slices can befuddle less experienced or less disciplined opponents on a surface that gives her the time to create these combinations.  Another clay specialist who surpassed expectations on March hard courts, Lara Arruabarrena-Vecino, aims to repeat her three-set upset of Vinci at Indian Wells.  A quarterfinalist at Roland Garros last year, Kaia Kanepi belongs among the women who benefit from clay’s ability to mask their indifferent foot speed and long swings.  Kanepi has received an especially cozy draw before meeting Vinci or Arruabarrena-Vecino in the quarterfinals, but she has not played this year while recovering from a heel injury.

Semifinals:  Kvitova vs. Goerges; Zakopalova vs. Vinci

Final:  Kvitova vs. Vinci

 

Tuesday in Total: Every Sony Open Match Previewed!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indian Wells, Where Character is Destiny

In the final analysis, I wonder if my desire to be surprised is outweighed by my desire to be right. Would I prefer the talented headcases to pull themselves together and grind out tough wins under pressure, or do I secretly relish seeing them cave in yet again, abject in a deciding tiebreaker after squandering match point? Under light interrogation, many fans insist that they’d like to see the prodigious youngsters break through against top players. But who can forgo the hot flush of satisfaction when the youngster loses to a top player by the almost clichéd score-line of 7-6 6-1?

I’ve no doubt that part of it is garden-grade Schadenfreude, the default setting for many who spend their lives on the internet. Beyond that, however, I suspect people derive genuine pleasure from those moments when reality conforms to the stories we tell about it. It feeds into our latent belief that character is destiny, even in tennis. I assume no one is dismayed to hear this; everyone, at some level, must relish the idea that their special area of interest is structured like a Greek tragedy.

Two results from yesterday clearly stood out in this respect. These were the losses of Nicolas Almagro and Grigor Dimitrov, to Tommy Haas and Novak Djokovic respectively. Each loss cleaved closely to the standard view of each man. Both permitted the self-avowed experts among us to nod knowingly, as though these matches couldn’t have played out any other way. Strictly defined, Almagro’s loss was more a comedy than a tragedy, although we shouldn’t hold that against it. Sometimes it’s good to laugh.

Almagro has so far had a mixed year, ‘mixed’ in this sense being a euphemism for ‘poor’ (‘year’ means pretty much what you’d think). There was of course that Australian Open quarterfinal in January, in which he failed to serve out the match no fewer than thirty-seven times (I’m going from memory here). Afterwards it was debatable whether he was more spooked at the prospect of finally defeating David Ferrer (on his thirty-seventh attempt) or of reaching his first Major semifinal.

After Melbourne, Almagro made his way to South America, to join the so called Golden Swing he has recently made his own. This sequence of otherwise inconsequential clay court events has become interesting in recent years for the way it perfectly showcases the pecking order in men’s clay court tennis. The first tournament in Chile, lacking top players, is entirely a lottery involving South Americans and second-tier Spaniards. Almagro typically shows up for the second event in Brazil, and commences winning until David Ferrer arrives and takes over. Two years ago Ferrer didn’t show up until the fourth tournament, which is Acapulco. Almagro consequently won Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo. Last year Ferrer showed up a week earlier, leaving Almagro with just Sao Paulo. This year the whole was thrown into disarray by the presence of Rafael Nadal from the get-go. This resulted in Almagro winning no titles at all, a dismal outcome from a portion of the season that is his best opportunity to shine, and earn.

Today Almagro lost to Haas after failing to serve out the match at 6/5 in the final set, and, more specifically, failing properly to dispatch a frankly hopeless drop shot from the German on the first match point. Admittedly, the drop shot landed on the service line and might conceivably have been an even worse lob – context suggests otherwise – which might account for Almagro’s indecisive disposal of it. He planted it cross court, and was as interested as everyone else to discover his opponent had anticipated this possibility, and arrived just in time to plonk the passing shot into the acre of open court. Haas, encouraged, subsequently broke back, and then compiled a tiebreaker that was almost perfectly unlike the one he’d lost to conclude the second set.

I don’t mean to belittle Almagro, since I find his game stylish and attractive. It was an excellent match, as virtuosic and dramatic as one could hope for, and the Spaniard provided almost exactly half its entertainment. Theatrically, Haas displayed a greater capacity for histrionics (racquet tosses, shirt changes, and pointless remonstrations with the umpire), although Almagro was better able to project to the back row. I won’t pretend I’m displeased that Haas won, since he’s nearly as old as me and he won’t be around for ever. But my point is that I was also not displeased that Almagro’s manner of losing seemed so perfectly characteristic, not to say comedic.

At about the same time Almagro and Hass were breaking their tie in the third set, Dimitrov and Djokovic were doing the same in their first set. From a strict chronological perspective, Dimitrov’s match thus ended about twenty minutes after Almagro’s.  However, the loss occurred earlier. It happened as the Bulgarian served for the first set at 5/3, whereupon he set about confounding the persistent comparisons to Roger Federer. Federer would surely never serve four double faults to be broken back, but that’s precisely what Dimitrov did, proving emphatically that his spiritual progenitor is really Fernando Verdasco: He’s less Baby Fed than Baby Fer.

A tiebreaker ensued, which Djokovic won 7-4 (including one point that he graciously conceded). Dimitrov had led 5/2 in that first set, and hadn’t been all that far from 5-1. He made it to 5-1 in the second set, although he was sadly on the losing end by this time, and it was merely a prelude to going down 6-1. No one bothered to sound surprised as Djokovic galloped away with the match, especially among the Sky Sports commentators, who only briefly gave off excoriating Dimitrov in order to praise the world No.1’s professionalism.

They were hard to fault on both counts. Djokovic did everything he should have, right until the end, whereas Dimitrov only managed it for eight games. Once momentum has swung against them, it seems all but impossible for a young player to wrench it back, and instead they just spiral away. The score-line of 7-6 6-1 is a perfect illustration of this. It seems very common in these types of matchups. Once Djokovic had broken back – he afterwards admitted he hadn’t had to do much – even the contour of the result seemed grindingly inevitable. It felt like fate. It felt like a Greek tragedy, but not a very good one.

No Mirage Are These Four: ATP Indian Wells Draw Preview

For the first time since Wimbledon 2012, all of the Big Four convene at the same tournament.  We take a detailed look at a balanced Indian Wells ATP draw.

First quarter:  Twice a champion at Indian Wells, Djokovic brings a perfect 2013 record to the desert following titles at the Australian Open and Dubai.  Having faced Federer at neither tournament, he could face the Federer facsimile Grigor Dimitrov in the third round.  While his one-handed backhand certainly spurs thoughts of the Swiss star, this young Bulgarian continues to alternate encouraging results (Brisbane final) with disappointing setbacks (first-round loss in Melbourne).  The towering serve of Isner ultimately undid Djokovic in an Indian Wells semifinal last year, and Querrey’s similar game toppled him at the Paris Indoors last fall.  Now the Serb can eye an opportunity for revenge in the fourth round, where he could meet the latter and will hope to stay mentally sturdier than he did against Isner here.  A higher-ranked potential opponent does loom in Juan Monaco, but the world #14 has not won a match this year outside the Davis Cup as injuries have sapped his confidence.  Among the intriguing first-round matches in this section is serving leviathan Karlovic against future American star and forehand howitzer Jack Sock.

Winless against the top eight from the start of 2012 until last month, Tsonga may have gained confidence from finally snapping that skid against Berdych in the Marseille final.  On the other hand, he also lost immediately in Rotterdam to an unheralded opponent and thus still seems less trustworthy than most of those ranked around him.  Rarely has he made an impact on Indian Wells, outside a near-upset over Nadal in 2008, but his draw looks accommodating through the first few rounds.  Returning American Mardy Fish, a former finalist here, surely cannot sustain the level of tennis necessary to discomfit Tsonga at this stage of his comeback if they meet in the third round.  In the opposite side of this eighth lies Milos Raonic, tasked with outslugging the more balanced but less intimidating Marin Cilic in the third round.  Lesser players of note in this area include French serve-volleyer Michael Llodra, who upset Tsonga in Dubai, and Vina del Mar champion Horacio Zeballos, who has not won a match since stunning Nadal there.  Although Tsonga obtained considerable success early in his career, his results against him have tapered so sharply of late that one might think Raonic the sterner test for the Serb.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Second quarter:  Assigned probably the smoothest route of any top-four man, Murray cannot expect much resistance at a tournament where he reached the final four years ago.  Nevertheless, early losses to Donald Young and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in his last two appearances illustrated the Scot’s struggle to recover from his annual late-round disappointment in Australia.  Murray will want to bounce back more smoothly this time on a slow hard court that suits his counterpunching so well.  Looming in the fourth round is Memphis champion Kei Nishikori, who faces a potentially edgy opening test in Tursunov.  Resuscitating his career in February, the Russian reached the Marseille semifinals as a qualifier and qualified for this draw as well.  The mercurial Dolgopolov, the second-most notable player whom Murray could face in the fourth round, has floundered throughout 2013 and probably lacks the steadiness to threaten either Murray or Nishikori.

Of all the seeds whom he could have faced in the third round, Del Potro surely would have wished to avoid Australian Open nemesis Jeremy Chardy.  The Frenchman receded into obscurity again after reaching the quarterfinals there, but he may hold the mental edge over Del Potro should each win his opener.  Not since his first appearance in the desert five years ago, though, has the Tower of Tandil tumbled to anyone other than Federer or Nadal, and he has taken care of business against lower-ranked players with impressive consistency over the last year.  One of the most compelling third rounds in the men’s draw could pit Almagro against Haas in a clash of exquisite one-handed backhands and volatile shot-making arsenals.  The eleventh-seeded Spaniard has produced an early 2013 campaign inspiring and deflating in equal measure, but his Australian Open quarterfinal (nearly a semifinal) reminded viewers what a threat he can pose away from clay with his underrated serve.  Accustomed to wearing down mentally dubious opponents, Murray should handle either Almagro or Haas with ease, and he compiled a flawless hard-court record against Del Potro even during the latter’s 2009 heights.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Third quarter:  The section without any member of the Big Four often offers the most notable storylines of the early rounds, although Ferrer succeeded in living up to his top-four seed at both of the majors where he has held it.  Never at his best in the desert, however, he may find his transition from clay to hard courts complicated by the two towering servers whom he could face at the outset in Kevin Anderson and Igor Sijsling.  The latter upset Tsonga and nearly Cilic last month, while the former started the year impressively by reaching the second week of the Australian Open before injury sidelined him.  Curiously, the fourth round might hold a less formidable test for Ferrer because his grinding game matches up more effectively to the two seeds projected there, Simon or Kohlschreiber.  The quirky Benoit Paire and the lanky lefty from Luxembourg, Gilles Muller, add some individuality to an otherwise monochrome section, as does the invariably entertaining but terminally fading Verdasco.

Berdych may loom above the opposite eighth, considering his two February finals in strong fields at Marseille and Dubai.  But an equally intriuging storyline may come from Jerzy Janowicz, still attempting to find his footing in the crucial post-breakthrough period when players encounter scrutiny for which they are not yet prepared.  The next several months could prove critical for Janowicz in consolidating his seeded status, and he will deserve credit if he emerges from a neighborhood filled with diverse talent.  Nalbandian could await in his opener, and the trio of Bellucci, Tomic, and Gasquet will vie for the right to face the Pole in the third round.  Twice a titlist in 2013 already, the last of that trio has retained his top-ten ranking for a long time without scording a signature victory.  Such a win could come in the quarterfinals if he can solve Berdych, unlikely to expend much energy before that stage against the likes of Troicki and Florian Mayer.  The heavier serve of the Czech should propel him through on a hard court, though, as it should against a fourth seed who has not played as crisply this year as his results suggest.

Semifinalist:  Berdych

Fourth quarter:  Defending champion Federer can anticipate his first quarterfinal meeting with archrival Nadal in the history of their rivalry, but a few obstacles await before then.  Like Del Potro, the second seed probably drew the least auspicious third-round opponent imaginable in Benneteau, who nearly upset him at Wimbledon last year and succeeded in finishing the job at Rotterdam last month.  Federer obtained avenge for a February 2012 setback against Isner at Indian Wells a month later, so he can seek similar revenge this year.  A rematch of last year’s final beckons against Isner himself in the fourth round, although little about the American’s recent form can infuse his fans with confidence that he even can reach that stage.  Much more consistent this year is Stanislas Wawrinka, the Swiss #2 who played the most thrilling match of the Australian Open against Djokovic and backed it up with a February final.  This section also features the most curious match on Thursday, an encounter between the battered Hewitt and the one-match wonder Lukas Rosol that should offer a clash of playing styles and personalities.  Despite falling short of the final in his first three tournaments, Federer looks fully capable of sealing his side of the rendezvous with Nadal.

Not in much greater doubt is Rafa’s side of that appointment, for he could face no opponent more intimidating that Tipsarevic through the first four rounds.  Young American Ryan Harrison looks set to become Nadal’s first hard-court opponent of 2013 (exhibitions aside), and his woeful results of the last several months intersect with a non-competitive effort against Djokovic in Melbourne to suggest a lack of confidence fatal here.  While Youzhny has enjoyed several successes and near-successes against the Spaniard before, the Russian has left his prime several years behind him and lacks the power to outhit him for a full match.  Hampered by injuries recently, the ninth-seeded Tipsarevic never has tested Nadal in their previous meetings and should count himself lucky to reach that projected meeting.  The Serb’s current four-match losing streak could reach five in an opener against lefty serve-volleyer Feliciano Lopez or Delray Beach champion Gulbis, who carries a ten-match winning streak of his own.  Either the winner of that first-round meeting or the unpredictable Baghdatis seems a safer bet than Tipsarevic to meet Nadal one match before Federer.  Afterwards, the Swiss should repeat his victory in their semifinal last year.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Check out the companion piece that we wrote yesterday to preview the women’s draw if you enjoyed this article.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final:  Djokovic vs. Federer

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

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

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

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

Final:  Ferrer vs. Nadal

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

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

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

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

Final:  Nishikori vs. Querrey

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Final:  Berdych vs. Del Potro

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

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

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

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

Final:  Querrey vs. Raonic

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

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

Final:  Ferrer vs. Wawrinka