Roberto Bautista-Agut

From Continent to Continent: ATP Washington and Kitzbuhel Previews

While the WTA divides its action between two coasts this week, the ATP spans the Atlantic Ocean with events on two different continents and surfaces.  The 500 tournament in Washington, part of the US Open Series, takes center stage.

Washington:

Top half:  A champion in Washington four years ago, Juan Martin Del Potro holds the top seed at the 2013 edition.  The Wimbledon semifinalist hopes to rediscover his torrid form against one of two men who shone in Atlanta.  Producing semifinal runs there last week, Lleyton Hewitt and Ryan Harrison will square off in one of the most intriguing first-round matches.  Nor can Del Potro relax if he survives the winner.  A strong grass season, highlighted by a second-week appearance at Wimbledon, will have restored Bernard Tomic’s confidence.  Although he continues to cope with controversy surrounding his father, Tomic has plenty of ways to disrupt Del Potro’s rhythm if the Argentine returns rusty from a leg injury.  A more straightforward test awaits from Kevin Anderson, seeking his third semifinal in three weeks.  Before he meets Del Potro in the quarterfinals, Anderson may find the returning Mardy Fish an opponent worthy of his steel.

If power dominates the top quarter, flair defines much of the second quarter.  The flamboyant shot-making of Tommy Haas favors precision over physicality, while the graceful one-handed backhand of Grigor Dimitrov has a vintage appeal.  Haas reached the final in Washington last year, perhaps using his training at the Bolletieri Academy in Florida as experience for coping with the humidity.  But power never lags far behind in a draw filled with Americans.  Sam Querrey will face one of two Atlanta quarterfinalists, Denis Istomin or Santiago Giraldo, in the second round.   A contrast of styles would await if Querrey advances to face Dimitrov and then Haas, although a 5-8 record since April leaves a deep run far from guaranteed.

Semifinal:  Del Potro vs. Haas

Bottom half:  Filled with question marks, the third quarter could produce a surprise semifinalist.  The favorite at first glance would seem Milos Raonic, by far the most powerful of the seeds.  Raonic’s massive serve could sizzle on a hot hard court, but he has accomplished little since winning yet another San Jose title in February.  Neither has fellow seed Nikolay Davydenko, who has struggled historically against possible second-round opponent James Blake.  Some of Gilles Simon’s best results have come in North America, including a Miami quarterfinal this spring, and the fifth seed’s steadiness might suffice to ease him past the erratic men around him.  Among them is former champion Radek Stepanek, who looks forward to American collegiate star Steve Johnson in his opener.

One might lose sight of defending champion Alexandr Dolgopolov in the fourth quarter.  Not a threat for most of 2013, Dolgopolov faces an arduous route towards a title defense.  Home hope John Isner looms in the third round if he can revive his energy after a draining title run in Atlanta.  An easier route to the quarterfinals beckons for Kei Nishikori, who won a North American 500 tournament at Memphis this year.  Bogota runner-up Alejandro Falla faded quickly in Atlanta, as did American teenage sensation Jack Sock.  The clean, balanced baseline game of Nishikori should carry him past either of those opponents, after which a first meeting with Isner could await.

Semifinal:  Simon vs. Isner

Final:  Del Potro vs. Isner

Kitzbuhel:

Top half:  An assortment of Europeans and clay specialists have headed to this Austrian event before venturing into the steamy American summer.  German top seed Philipp Kohlschreiber aims to move one round further than he did at another clay 250 event.  The finalist in Stuttgart a few weeks ago, Kohlschreiber can look ahead to a quarterfinal against Spanish dirt devil Marcel Granollers.  This Rome quarterfinalist will welcome the opportunity to erase memories of an epic loss in Gstaad last week.  Between them stand Horacio Zeballos of Nadal-defeating fame and Wimbledon surprise Kenny de Schepper, who reached the second week there.

A greater Wimbledon surprise than de Schepper came from Fernando Verdasco, who would not hold the third seed here if not for his quarterfinal appearance at the last major.  To his credit, Verdasco parlayed that breakthrough into a strong July, highlighted by victories over Nicolas Almagro, Grigor Dimitrov, and Jerzy Janowicz.  An all-lefty matchup against Brazilian clay specialist Thomaz Bellucci should not detain him for long en route to a rematch of the Bastad final.  At that Swedish tournament, Verdasco fell to Carlos Berlocq, who faces an extremely challenging assignment as the fifth seed.  Days after defeating Federer, the ominous Daniel Brands sets his sights on the Bastad champion.  Also in this deep section is Robin Haase, arriving from a series of morale-boosting wins in Gstaad.

Semifinal:  Granollers vs. Verdasco

Bottom half:   A week of mixed omens for Albert Montanes in Umag included an upset over world No. 9 Richard Gasquet and a tight loss to Gasquet’s compatriot Gael Monfils.  Twice a semifinalist on clay already this summer, Victor Hanescu finds himself on a collision course with Montanes, who won a clay title in Nice just before Roland Garros.  The winner should feel confident heading into the quarterfinals, although home hope Jurgen Melzer will have most of the audience behind him.  Melzer reached the second week of Wimbledon but has lost five consecutive clay matches dating back to Monte Carlo.

Arguably the softest section, the base of the Kitzbuhel draw lies at the mercy of second seed Juan Monaco.  This recent member of the top 10 has shown altogether too much mercy in 2013, helplessly watching his ranking decline.  All the same, Monaco has produced at least somewhat respectable tennis this summer on clay, his best surface.  Three qualifiers and a wildcard offer little competition, so any challenge would need to come from one of two Spaniards.  While Daniel Gimeno-Traver has struggled on clay this year, Roberto Bautista-Agut retired last week in Gstaad.  Monaco thus looks safe unless he implodes, admittedly not unthinkable.

Semifinal:  Montanes vs. Monaco

Final:  Verdasco vs. Montanes

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

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

Atlanta:

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

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

Semifinal:  Isner vs. Hewitt

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

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

Semifinal:  Fish vs. Anderson

Final:  Hewitt vs. Anderson

Gstaad:

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

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

Semifinal:  Federer vs. Monaco 

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

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

Semifinal:  Granollers vs. Wawrinka

Final:  Federer vs. Wawrinka

Umag:

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

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

Semifinal:  Gasquet vs. Fognini

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

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

Semifinal:  Robredo vs. Berlocq

Final:  Fognini vs. Robredo

The Fault of Untelevised Matches at the Australian Open

By Yeshayahu Ginsburg

There was a lot of very good tennis scheduled and played on the first day of the Australian Open. Unlike other Slams, which split up the first round into three days, the Australian Open plays exactly half of the first-round singles matches on each of the first two days. That means 32 of each men’s and women’s matches on Day 1, with the same scheduled for Day 2. The problem with that, for myself and for every other fan not actually on the grounds in Melbourne, is that less than half of them are available to be viewed.

The tournament uses 16 courts on each of these first two days for singles play. Of those 16, only 7 of those have television cameras. If you want to watch a certain player or match, the first thing you have to do is check what court he or she is playing on. Unless you go to Melbourne, you can’t see the match if it’s not on one of those courts (Rod Laver Arena, Hisense Arena, Margaret Court Arena, and Courts 2, 3, 6, and 8).

Of course, it’s also not just about planning what matches you want to watch. Tennis is so unpredictable and amazing matches can come out of anywhere. We should have the availability of turning to those at any time should a compelling match come up. Three of the six 5-setters on Day 1 weren’t televised. Three matches went past 6-6 in the final set of Day 1 (two men’s and one women’s), two of which were on untelevised courts, including Radek Stepanek’s defeat of Viktor Troicki and Fabio Fognini’s loss to Roberto Bautista Agut. I can’t speak for anyone else, but when I know that a match in a Slam is at 6-6 in the final set, I want to turn to it. People pay money for tennis packages so that they can watch every match. So why can’t the watch every match?

The real travesty in all of this, of course, is that the year is 2013. It’s so easy to have cameras on the courts. It doesn’t even have to be anything really special. Just put a camera there. This isn’t the 90s, where companies had only one channel and could only show one match at a time anyway. Cable could get you a second channel. This is the day of digital and satellite packages; with live streaming of every available court on the internet. Is it really so impossible to just put cameras on every court? No commentary is necessary; just have a camera at every match so fans can watch their favorite players or good developing matches.

The most disappointing thing of all is that it shows that the Slams refuse to learn from potential disasters. Can anyone imagine what would have happened if, in 2010, Isner/Mahut had been on untelevised Court 19 instead of Court 18? I’m sure there would have been some sort of mad scramble to get a camera crew and commentators to that court. But that’s not the point. It’s so easy nowadays to have everything televised. I just hope that it won’t have to take us fans missing out on a historic match before those in charge come to their senses.

Surprise runs by Davydenko, Dimitrov a sign of the future?

By Yeshayahu Ginsburg

There are two things that we always need to keep in mind while watching these tournaments right before the Slams. The first is that there is a ton that we can learn about who is ready and who isn’t; the second is that it is very easy to overreact to results. Also, every match is a tale of two players. You can’t just look at a scoreline to determine how well or poorly a player is playing.

The most glaring result from the first week of the year was the Doha semifinal, where Nikolay Davydenko beat World No. 5 David Ferrer in straight sets. It was Davydenko’s first win over a top 5 player since the Doha semifinals in 2011, where he beat Rafael Nadal. So what does this match teach us and how much does that mean? First of all, it really doesn’t say anything bad about Ferrer. Ferrer plays a very strong counterattacking defensive style, which is prone to get beaten down by heavy hitters. He played his game and did not play badly. He was just not the better player on court that day and that’s okay. It doesn’t say anything bad about Ferrer’s chances of going deep in Melbourne next week.

Davydenko, on the other hand, looked incredible. He played at a level that we haven’t seen from him in years. He was striking the ball hard and true and would have troubled even Federer or Djokovic with that level of play. He really looked like a player that could challenge to win the Australian Open, something that we haven’t been able to say about him since 2010, really. This, however, is where we need to keep in mind not to overreact to individual results. Davydenko showed a sustained high level for an entire match for the first time in a long time. He seemed to sustain it also for a while against Richard Gasquet in the final until an injury surfaced. He is definitely one to keep an eye on in Melbourne (assuming he’s healthy), but we have to be careful not to expect too much at this point. A little more than one good match does not indicate the ability to sustain success, but it definitely would be nice to see if he could do it.

The runner-up in Chennai also deserves for us to take a look at. Roberto Bautista-Agut played the best tournament of his life so far (well, at the World Tour level), upsetting Tomas Berdych and reaching the final. This result, also, is something that we should not overreact to. Bautista-Agut played well and scrapped his way to winning those matches, but those wins came over players who were not playing at their best. Bautista-Agut has good upside, but he is not quite a top tour-level player yet. If he fights just as hard in Melbourne he could get a few wins with a favorable draw, but don’t expect this Chennai result to be indicative of future performance.

The final two players I want to look at heading into the Australian Open are two who met in the semifinals in Brisbane—Marcos Baghdatis and Grigor Dimitrov. Baghdatis is a former Australian Open runner-up who peaked in his third year on tour and hasn’t really done much since. He reached the Australian Open final and Wimbledon semifinal in 2006 but has only been past the fourth round of a Slam once afterwards (quarterfinalist in 2007 Wimbledon). Baghdatis has shown flashes of that old brilliance since then but has never really kept it up. He showed flashes once again in Brisbane, so maybe he can gain some confidence and momentum going into the Australian Open and make a nice run. Until then, though, he will still be more famous for his racket-smashing than his performance on the court.

Dimitrov is a player that a lot of fans have been waiting to see come out of his shell for a long time. Once known as “Baby Fed”, due to a perceived similarity in talent and playing style, Dimitrov is often mentioned along with Ryan Harrison as an undeveloped talent. He is not at the top mentally yet, but the more I see him play the more impressed I am. Yes, he still loses bad matches. But he is clearly developing and clearly has incredible potential, and seems to get more consistent as time goes on. I think he learned a lot from playing Andy Murray in the final and he, more than anyone else mentioned here, has the potential to do something special in Melbourne. A real test will be if he can keep this good form in Sydney this week as well. You don’t want to see him playing too much so that he isn’t too fatigued heading into Melbourne, but you want to see him at least have good showings. A lot depends on the draw, obviously, but if Dimitrov can continue this form, I expect to start seeing the big things that we all know he is capable of very soon.