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The Week Ahead in the ATP: Rotterdam, San Jose, Sao Paulo

Like last week, the upcoming ATP slate features two European tournaments on indoor hard courts and a South American tournament on outdoor red clay.  Only one of the Big Four participated in last week’s action, but this week his archrival returns to the spotlight as well.

Rotterdam:  Back in action for the first time since those consecutive five-setters in Melbourne, Federer prepares for a title defense closer to home soil.  He often has produced his crispest tennis on indoor hard courts late in his career, and he finds himself near familiar victim Youzhny.  Tested by rising star Raonic last year, Federer could meet another rising star in Jerzy Janowicz at the quarterfinal stage.  Massive servers trouble him more than they once did, although Janowicz has looked less intimidating in the early events of 2013 than he did while reaching the Paris Indoors final last fall.  Of further interest in this section is the first-round clash between doubles partners Benneteau and Llodra, both of whom should shine on this surface.

Continuing the French theme from Benneteau-Llodra, the second quarter lies in the shadow of two top-20 Frenchmen:  the third-seeded Tsonga and the fifth-seeded Simon.  No player of note would bar their routes to a quarterfinal, which their recently solid form suggests that they should reach.  Both Frenchmen charted a course to the second week at the Australian Open, and Tsonga in particular excelled by extending Federer to a final set in their quarterfinal.  His meeting with Simon should present a compelling contrast of styles, in which one would fancy the third seed’s chances on a surface that favors aggression.

Although both men enter the tournament unseeded, Tomic and Dimitrov offer the most notable storyline of the third quarter with the looming first-round clash between these two phenoms.  Greatly celebrated for reaching the Brisbane final in January, the latter has not built upon that breakthrough but instead slipped back into the inconsistency that has slowed his progress.  A hero on home soil again, Tomic recaptured much of the reputation that he lost with his 2012 antics by showing a more professional attitude to start 2013.  Meanwhile, a strong week in Montpellier continued Gasquet’s strong start to the season and leaves him the favorite to reach the semifinal here.  The fourth seed could repeat the Montpellier final against compatriot Benoit Paire in the second round.

Leaping from the lowest part of the draw is the first-round match between wildcard Gael Monfils and second seed Del Potro.  While the former left Melbourne in mildly promising fashion, the latter fell well short of expectations in suffering a third-round exit to Jeremy Chardy.  Del Potro can waste little time in recapturing his rhythm at a tournament where he finished runner-up to Federer last year, for Monfils’ two finals at the Paris Indoors prove his ability to succeed on this surface.  Less likely to shine is the sixth-seeded Seppi, a player who prefers slow courts and lacks the firepower of either projected quarterfinal opponent.

Final:  Tsonga vs. Del Potro

San Jose:  In the last edition of this tournament, long a mainstay of Bay Area sports, Milos Raonic attempts to complete a title three-peat on the scene of his first trophy.  Among the faster indoor hard courts on the calendar, San Jose will showcase a serve nearly unanswerable at its best.  In the last two years, opponents struggled even to earn a break point against Raonic.  Fresh from his Davis Cup heroics, last year’s top seed could repeat the 2012 final against Denis Istomin in the quarterfinals, or he might meet home hope Ryan Harrison in a rematch of a 2012 semifinal.  Both of those men struggled to match Raonic hold for hold last year with their modest serves, and neither has taken a significant step forward since then.

Someone who can match the Canadian hold for hold, the third-seeded Sam Querrey seeks to continue building on his recent upward trend in the rankings.  Returning to relevance midway through last year, Querrey plays his best on American soil and mirrored Raonic’s contributions last weekend by lifting Team USA past Brazil with two singles victories.  He faces the possibility of consecutive matches against Australians, first the fading Lleyton Hewitt and then the surging Marinko Matosevic.  Near his career-high ranking, the latter man will meet the teenage sensation Jack Sock, still in the process of refining his explosive serve and forehand.

If North Americans dominate the top half of the San Jose draw, a more European flavor emerges from the third quarter.  Following his best season since his prime in the mid-2000s, Tommy Haas lurks near the edge of the top 20 after starting 2012 outside the top 200.  Injuries and recurrences of his volatile temper hampered him in January, but expect his forecourt skills to flourish on a court where he can shorten points.  Female fans would enjoy a quarterfinal between Haas and Fernando Verdasco, two slots below him in the rankings.  Unfortunately for them, former finalist Ivo Karlovic might topple the Spanish lefty in the second round, although he lost to him here two years ago.  Can wildcard Steve Johnson, who took Almagro to a fifth set at the Australian Open, build on that momentum to upset Dr. Ivo?

The only man in the ATP shorter than Karlovic, the second-seeded Isner needs to build momentum much more urgently than Johnson, for he defends finalist points at Indian Wells.  Still the top-ranked American man by a small margin over Querrey, Isner withdrew from the Australian Open with a knee injury and looked unimpressive in Davis Cup last weekend.  No player in his vicinity looks like a convincing dark horse, however, with the most notable resistance coming from Xavier Malisse.  Otherwise, this section features a handful of promising-but-not-quite-there-yet figures like Vasek Pospisil and Evgeny Donskoy, the latter of whom defeated Youzhny in Melbourne.

Final:  Querrey vs. Verdasco

Sao Paulo:  In a draw that greatly resembles Vina del Mar last week, Nadal again shares a half with Jeremy Chardy amid a collection of players from South America and southern Europe.  Few Spaniards have shown the determination to challenge Rafa on his favored red clay, and Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo should prove no exception.  One of the few Spanish journeymen to defeat him on any surface, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez could meet the man whom he defeated in Bangkok at the quarterfinal stage, although Vina del Mar semifinalist Carlos Berlocq seems more plausible.  Yet another Spaniard, the eighth-seeded Albert Ramos, opens against Garcia-Lopez.

Splitting his two Davis Cup rubbers in the United States, Thomaz Bellucci transitions back to his homeland and a friendlier surface for his traditional lefty game.  The fifth-seeded Brazilian would meet Chardy in the quarterfinals with no legitimate threat between them.  Fellow Brazilian Ricardo Mello, known better for his doubles success, received not only a wildcard but a winnable opening match as a reward for his victory over the Bryans in Davis Cup.  Facing aging Federer-killer Volandri is Vina del Mar quarterfinalist Daniel Gimeno-Traver, who mustered some decent resistance to Rafa last week.

World #15 Monaco looked nearly certain to meet Nadal in the Vina del Mar final until the unheralded Guillaume Rufin upset him, only to issue a walkover a round later.  At least the Argentine enjoyed accompanying Nadal through the doubles draw, which gave him plenty of opportunities to refine his clay skills before this second opportunity.  A former top-10 player, Spanish veteran Tommy Robredo could become Monaco’s first opponent in a grinding match of counterpunchers who rarely miss.  Cast from a similar mold is Robredo’s compatriot Albert Montanes, situated near the seventh-seeded Pablo Andujar.  The latter must start the tournament on a high note to escape Santiago Giraldo, a Colombian who has upset much more notable players on clay before.

The key difference between the draws in Vina del Mar and Sao Paulo, Nicolas Almagro hopes to rebound from a memorable fortnight in Melbourne.  While he reached an Australian Open quarterfinal, he may need time to forget his repeated inability to finish off Ferrer there and perhaps also to recover from a leg injury.  Like Nadal, though, Almagro will find the clay accommodating to his ailing body, and he has won a set from Rafa on the surface before.  Opening against surprise Vina del Mar champion Horacio Zeballos, he finds himself near the most dangerous unseeded player in the draw, David Nalbandian.  The grouchy gaucho languishes in a semi-retirement from which he emerges just often enough to remain relevant, and a player lacking in fitness, confidence, or both would seem plausible prey.  Nalbandian has tested Nadal severely before, even during his decline, but can he string together the solid efforts necessary to produce that tantalizing final?

Final:  Nadal vs. Almagro

Check out the companion preview of the WTA Premier Five tournament in Doha, and return on Friday for the next entry in my column.

Early Roland Garros casualties, Wozniacki wins in Brussels and Almagro triumphs in Nice

Berdych First Major FO Casualty:

Czech star Tomas Berdych became the first major casualty of the 2011 French Open when he fell to French qualifier Stephane Robert in the first round. He led the 32-year-old qualifier by two sets to love but let it slip to crash out in five. He was a semi-finalist here on route to the Wimbledon final in 2010 so his early exit here is a big shock. “I gave it all today,” said an ecstatic Robert, the world No.140 who had never previously won at Roland Garros. “I fought for my life. In the third set, he started to give me some points. Winning that set gave me confidence and I became more aggressive on the return.” The giant Croat Marin Cilic was also a first round casualty as he bowed out on day one to Spain’s Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo 6-7(5), 4-6, 4-6. Nicolas Almagro was also another early-round casualty. The Spaniard had recently been on an excellent run that saw him climb in to the world’s Top 10, but despite leading by two sets to love on his favoured surface he, like Berdych, let it slip. The Polish world No.122 Lukas Kubot was the beneficiary, profiting to win 3-6, 2-6, 7-3(3), 7-6(5), 6-4. In the women’s draw, former world No.1 Ana Ivanovic struggled with recent injuries as she fell to the Swedish No.1 Johanna Larsson 6-7(3), 6-0, 2-6 amid fits of tears. The 22-year-old Larsson’s only previous Grand Slam win came here a year ago, which makes her victory over the Serbian star doubly impressive.


Wozniacki Lifts Brussels Open:

World number one Caroline Wozniacki lifted her fourth title of the year on the eve of the French Open when she overcame Peng Shuai 2-6, 6-3, 6-3 in the final of the Brussels Open. Shuai started the stronger on the clay-court surface Wozniacki usually finds difficult to play on and it wasn’t long before she took the first set. But the Dane rallied to take her WTA finals record to 16-10. “It’s my fourth title of the season. I was pleased with the way I played and fought today,” Wozniacki said afterwards. “I’m happy to be the first winner of this [inaugral] tournament. It’s a beautiful city and the crowd has been great all week. Now I’m looking forward to Roland Garros.” Despite the result Shuai was happy with her week’s performance. “I’m really happy to have reached the final here and to play so many good matches on the clay,” Peng said. “I played really well in the first set today but then Caroline fought and came back. I’m really looking forward to Paris.”

Almagro Secures Nice Title:

Nicolas Almagro’s early French Open exit was a surprise given his recent good form in the sport, including lifting the Open de Nice Cote d’Azur last weekend with a 6-7(5), 6-3, 6-3 win over Romania’s Victor Hanescu. It was his third clay-court title of the season and cemented his place among tennis’ top tier in 2011. He was made to work hard during the win but showed good poise to overcome his industrious opponent. “I feel good. I’m very happy with the victory today,” said Almagro. “I think I didn’t play my best tennis at the beginning of the match, but in the second set I started to play better, hitting my forehand with more confidence, and finally I was able to win the match.”

Petkovic Triumphs in Strasbourg:

It’s not the way any player wants to win, but Germany’s Andrea Petkovic lifted her second WTA title via an opponent’s retirement as France’s Marion Bartoli limped out of the final of the Internationaux de Strasbourg. Petkovic led 6-4, 1-0 when a thigh strain meant that Bartoli could no longer continue. “It’s always a strange feeling when someone retires because you feel happy and sad at the same time,” Petkovic said. “I’m happy to win the title and the points – we’re all in a rush for points during the year! But I was sad to end there because I was playing really well. I also feel sad for Marion – I really like her; she’s a really nice girl. I had a bad injury in 2008 so I know how it feels.”

Germany Claim Record Fifth Team Cup:

Germany claimed its record fifth Power Horse World Team Cup in Dusseldorf on the weekend following a 2-1 win over Argentina in the final. World No.19 Florian Mayer got them off to a great start with a 7-6(4), 6-0 victory over Juan Monaco in the first singles rubber but Juan Ignacio Chela tied proceedings with a 6-4, 7-6(4) win over Philipp Kohlschreiber. So it fell to the doubles rubber, where Kohlschreiber and Philipp Petzschner teamed up to overcome Chela and Maximo Gonzalez 6-3, 7-6(5) to secure the title. “Every title is important, but a team title is something very special in tennis,” said Kohlschreiber afterwards. “We have a great team, it’s real fun. I lost my singles match, but I came out strongly for the doubles and it’s great to have a happy ending. We’ve been looking forward to this event because we knew we had a great team spirit and this success is a really great honour for everybody.”

Del Potro Back in LA:

2008 Farmers Classic winner Juan Martin del Potro will return to the event this summer. The 2009 US Open winner is returning to top form after missing most of 2010 with a wrist injury and organisers are delighted that the Argentine star is returning to the site of his first hard court title when he overcame Andy Roddick in the final three years ago. He is the only man other than Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer to have won a Grand Slam title since the 2005 French Open. “I really look forward to returning to the Farmers Classic and Los Angeles this summer where I won my first major American event,” del Potro said. “My tremendous early success and victory over Andy Roddick really helped me launch my run to the world’s Top 10. I have many great memories of the Farmers Classic fans, UCLA Tennis Center, and the beautiful city of Los Angeles.”

Querrey in for Newport:

Sam Querrey has signed up to play at the Campbell’s Hall of Fame Tennis Championships at the International Tennis Hall of Fame, Newport, RI, this summer. The world No.28 was a finalist there in 2009 and joins a field already including Ivo Karlovic as well as young Americans Ryan Harrison and Ryan Sweeting. The tournament week also includes the 2011 induction ceremony where this year Andre Agassi takes his seat among the sport’s greats.

Federer Bemoans Ball Choice:

Roger Federer, head of the ATP Players Council, says that there are too many types of ball in use around the tour, and that players are struggling to come to terms with the continual changes. The comments come after many players, including Novak Djokovic and David Ferrer, criticised the new Babolat balls used in the 2011 French Open for being harder and faster than many of their contemporaries. “I guess the disappointing part here in this whole story, because I’m hearing a lot of conversations about the balls, it’s just that they’re not the same from what we’ve just played for the last month,” said Federer. “And that for us is the most frustrating part, is that the tournaments all changed to the Roland Garros ball after last year; Roland Garros has changed their balls again. Now we’re stuck with a different deal for all the different ATP Tour events. That is the frustrating part that we need to adjust before the French, different balls.”

Battling Razzano Falls:

Brave French star Virginie Razzano has spoken about playing her first round French Open match just days after losing her fiancé and former coach Stephane Vidal due to a brain tumor, aged just 32. “I can’t explain this strength. It took me a lot of courage to get on the Philippe Chatrier court today,” Razzano told reporters after she fell 3-6, 1-6 to Jarmila Gajdosova. “I had lots of emotions and sighs because it’s difficult for me to be here today. It’s painful. It’s hard. If I did it, it’s for Stephane. But also for me, because [he] wanted me to play. He wanted me to continue to go on with my life, even if in these very painful circumstances, very difficult circumstances. He had faith in me. He knows I have this strength that he also had, and this is also why we worked so well together. We had courage. We fought together day after day. And if I played today, it was as if it was something written. I grabbed all my courage. I don’t have much. I’m very fragile. I feel lonely, and even though there are many people around me supporting me, but I still have the strength in me that keeps me standing up and moving on step by step. I’m mourning right now, and it’s difficult.”

Myskina Jets In for Russian Mission:

Two-time Grand Slam winner Svetlana Kuznetsova has confirmed that former French Open Champion Anastasia Myskina is jetting in to Paris to coach her through the tournament. The 2004 winner has flown in to help the 2009 champ who has recently been through a flurry of coaches due to her continued slump in form. Young American Ryan Harrison also told a small group of reporters that he has hired coach Scott McCain through to the end of the US Open. McCain will split his time between Harrison and Indian star Somdev Devvarman.

Vaidisova still Happily Married:

A representative for Nicole Vaidisova has denied that her and husband Radek Stepanek have split. The two, who married last summer, are at RG together this week.

Ferrer Improves Clay Record:

David Ferrer’s 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 second-round win over Julien Benneteau at Roland Garros was the Spaniard’s 200th win on clay during his career. Rafael Nadal’s five-set thriller against John Isner in round one was the first time the Spaniard has ever had to go the distance at the French Open. Last week at the Power Horse World Team Cup in Dusseldorf, Germany, Swedish star Robin Soderling notched the 300th win of his career when he beat Andrey Golubev of Kazakhstan 6-7(4), 7-6(7), 6-3.

Little Pre-Slam Change in Rankings Watch:

Germany’s Florian Mayer entered the Top 20 of the South African Airways ATP World Rankings at No.19 following last week’s play. Romania’s Victor Hanescu climbs nine to No.60 while Igor Kunitsyn jumps 11 to No.75. The Israeli Dudi Sela’s 17-slot climb sees him enter the Top 100 at No.91 while Germany’s Rainer Schuettler climbs three to No.98. Andrea Petkovic’s victory in Strasbourg saw her rise to a career-high No.12 in the Sony Ericsson WTA World Rankings while Brussels finalist Peng Shuai is a career-high No.25 after her title defeat to Caroline Wozniacki. Sam Stosur climbs back above Maria Sharapova and Li Na to No.6 in the world. Bojana Jovanovski makes her Top 50 debut while Ayumi Morita joins her there at No.47. Mirjana Lucic returns to the Top 100 at No.96, her highest slot since 2000.

GOAT Race Update:

Both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have earned themselves 20 extra points in the 2011 GOAT race for entering the French Open, Nadal edging himself over 1,000 points. All points are doubled for Grand Slam events.

Roger: 685 Rafa: 1010