Portugal tennis

What to Watch in the WTA This Week: Portugal Open Preview

Sandwiched between busy weeks in Stuttgart and Madrid is a lovely smaller event between Lisbon and the ocean.  Formerly known as the Estoril tournament, the Portugal Open has moved to nearby Oeiras and a location more convenient for those traveling from the capital.  It lacks top-ten entrants or other names familiar to the casual fan, but the tennis aficionado will appreciate the mixture of clay specialists and rising stars on display.

Portugal:

Top half:  Least comfortable on clay among all surfaces, the top-seeded Marion Bartoli seems ripe for an upset in view of her recent struggles.  Bartoli fell in her first match at each of her last two tournaments and has lost five of her last six matches on clay.  Opening against fellow double-fister Peng Shuai, she could face a compelling in the quarterfinals against the winner of an intriguing first-round encounter.  Varvara Lepchenko, the sixth seed, achieved her breakthrough on clay last year with a Madrid quarterfinal and an upset over Francesca Schiavone at Roland Garros.  Continuing that trend for her in an otherwise poor 2013 were victories in Fed Cup over both Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, two of the WTA’s leading clay specialists.  But Lepchenko faces the most dangerous unseeded player in the draw to start the week in 2009 Roland Garros champion Svetlana Kuznetsova.  Although she has cooled over her last few events, Kuznetsova signaled a resurgence with an outstanding start to the season that included an Australian Open quarterfinal.  She also reached the second week of Roland Garros in her last tournament on the terre battue.

Less intriguing is a second quarter stacked with three qualifiers, grass-court specialist Tamira Paszek, and two inconsistent Russian seeds.  A champion in Monterrey and a finalist in Brisbane, the third-seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova has wobbled through five first-round losses as well.  This former Roland Garros quarterfinalist has lost two of three on clay this year.  Perhaps buoyed by Russia’s Fed Cup comeback, to which Pavlyuchenkova did not contribute, compatriot and fellow seed Elena Vesnina looks to exploit this soft section.  Vesnina raced to a 10-1 start this year, including her first career title, but she won just four games in her first-round Stuttgart loss and has struggled overall since that initial spurt.  Also winning her first career title this year, Romanian junkballer Monica Niculescu rounds out this section.

Semifinal:  Kuznetsova vs. Pavlyuchenkova

Bottom half:  Scoring a mini-upset over Caroline Wozniacki in Stuttgart, Carla Suarez Navarro started her favorite span of the year with modest success.  With a ranking near its career high, the fourth seed will showcase her elegant one-handed backhand and agile defense against a group of heavier hitters.  Foremost among them is Julia Goerges, who has proved that she can win on clay with a Stuttgart title two years ago.  Those two years feel like an eternity ago sometimes, but Goerges did stir to life with a strong effort at that tournament against Petra Kvitova.  She faces a challenging second-round match against one of the two Marrakech finalists.  Having faced each other on Sunday, Francesca Schiavone and Lourdes Dominguez Lino will meet again on Tuesday or Wednesday.  The 2010 Roland Garros champion and 2011 finalist, Schiavone seemed to hover near the verge of retirement when she struggled to win a match earlier this year.  One wonders whether her week in Marrakech will have boosted her confidence a bit.

Initially projected as the top seed in that Moroccan event, Dominika Cibulkova withdrew from it in the wake of Slovakia’s Fed Cup catastrophe.  Her team became the first in Fed Cup history to lose a World Group semifinal after leading 2-0, a collapse that began with her loss to Maria Kirilenko.  Cibulkova owns the best clay skills of anyone in her immediate vicinity, for she upset Victoria Azarenka at Roland Garros last year en route to the quarterfinals and also reached the semifinals there four years ago.  A pair of young players, Urszula Radwanska and Laura Robson, hope to gain traction at a small event without any notable names.  Robson in particular could use an injection of morale after dropping six three-setters since the Australian Open, having won the first set in three.  Elsewhere in this section, another 2012 Roland Garros quarterfinalist in Kaia Kanepi aims to accelerate a comeback in its third tournament.  She might face the fifth-seeded Sorana Cirstea in the second round, or ageless Spanish clay specialist Anabel Medina Garrigues.  Cirstea has trended upward recently and benefits from the extra time on the surface to prepare her savage forehand.

Semifinal:  Suarez Navarro vs. Cirstea

Final:  Kuznetsova vs. Suarez Navarro

Since Madrid starts on Saturday, May 4, my Friday article will preview the two draws rather than offering a viewpoint on a current issue.  I might write that type of article for the following Monday, depending on whether something arises.  Apologies for any confusion caused by the scheduling switch.

 

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

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

Portugal:

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

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

Semifinal:  Ferrer vs. Robredo

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

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

Semifinal:  Fognini vs. Wawrinka

Final:  Ferrer vs. Fognini

Munich:

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

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

Semifinal:  Melzer vs. Kohlschreiber

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

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

Semifinal:  Haas vs. Davydenko

Final:  Kohlschreiber vs. Haas

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