Ryan Harrison

Roland Garros Rewind: Monfils Stuns, Nadal Survives, Sharapova and Radwanska Cruise

Welcome back to your daily review of the studs and duds at Roland Garros 2013.

ATP:

Match of the day:  Five sets and four hours.  Three tiebreaks and a 7-5 final set.  A two-set lead squandered by the man who eventually won—after saving triple break point midway through the fifth.  A home underdog firing 26 aces and 66 winners on his nation’s biggest stage to upset a top-eight seed who hit 72 winners of his own.  Rarely is the match that looks like the best of the day in the first round actually the best of the day, but Gael Monfils and Tomas Berdych put on perhaps the best show of any men’s match that we will see all week.  The section has opened a bit for Monfils if he can defuse the equally dangerous dark horse Ernests Gulbis in the second round.  That match looks like the highlight of Thursday, although it has a hard act to follow.

Comeback of the day:  Last week’s Dusseldorf champion Juan Monaco looked well on his way to a routine victory when he won the first two sets by single-break margins and reached a tiebreak in the third.  Perhaps aided by his opponent’s fatigue, Daniel Gimeno-Traver thrust himself back into the match by snatching that tiebreak and stormed all the way back to an upset over the seventeenth seed.

Surprise of the day:  It was not an upset in the end,  but Daniel Brands surely turned more heads than anyone when he came within a tiebreak of leading Rafael Nadal by two sets to love.  The master of Roland Garros had not lost the first set in a first-week match there since 2006, although he once  survived a five-setter against John Isner.  Brands channeled his inner Soderling in explosive serving and bullet forehands that thrust Nadal on his heels for far longer than anyone could have expected.

Gold star:  Australian youngster Nick Kyrgios gave his nation something to cheer amid the latest Bernard Tomic controversy.  Kyrgios defeated veteran Radek Stepanek in three tiebreaks, saving several set points in each of the last two.  The 53 total tiebreak points played might survive as a tournament record.

Silver star:  Allez les bleus.  While Nadal battled with Brands on Philippe Chatrier, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga rolled through in straight sets on Suzanne Lenglen.  Later in the day, second-ranked Frenchman Richard Gasquet did the same, and even Julien Benneteau won a match on clay for just the second time this year.  Combined with the Monfils upset, these victories added up to an excellent day for the hosts.

Wooden spoon:  When Andy Murray withdrew, Marcel Granollers moved up from unseeded to seeded position.  That promotion served him no benefit as he lost his first match to countryman Feliciano Lopez in five sets and two days.  By contrast, Tommy Robredo profited from the seed that he received with Juan Martin Del Potro’s withdrawal by advancing further into the section vacated by Berdych.

Americans in Paris:  John Isner and Ryan Harrison, both of whom have struggled for most of the year, each notched comfortable straight-sets victories.  Assigned Nice champion Albert Montanes, Steve Johnson battled gallantly into a fifth set as he had against Nicolas Almagro at the Australian Open.  American men have no reason to feel shame so far at historically their worst major.

Question of the day:  Who comes out of Berdych’s section of the draw to reach the quarterfinals?

Question of the day, II:  Does Nadal’s first-round frailty reduce your confidence in him as a title threat?

WTA:

Match of the day:  None could compete with Berdych-Monfils or with Urszula-Venus the day before.  This award goes to a battle between two clay-courters who have produced outstanding recent results.  Rome semifinalist Simona Halep won the first set from world No. 20 Carla Suarez Navarro, but the Spaniard rallied with the form that brought her to two clay finals this year.  A pity that the draw forced them to meet in the first round, and a pity that the match was not scheduled on a televised court.

Comeback of the day:  Channeling a little of her inner Monfils, Garbine Muguruza scorched 46 winners and dropped serve just twice in three sets to ambush fellow power-hitter Karolina Pliskova.  The Venezuelan-born citizen of Spain recorded her first career win at Roland Garros barely a year after her first appearance in a WTA main draw.

Statements of the day:  Although they fell a bit short of Serena’s suffocating brilliance, top-four seeds Maria Sharapova and Agnieszka Radwanska started the tournament in emphatic style.  Defending champion Sharapova conceded just three games to top-50 opponent Hsieh Su-wei, while Radwanska yielded just two games to former top-15 player Shahar Peer.  The latter result came as a mild surprise because of the newly blonde Pole’s struggles on clay this year.

Gold star:  Everyone thought that Laura Robson would knock off world No. 10 Caroline Wozniacki in the first round, and everyone thought very wrong.  Wozniacki ended a five-match losing streak by dominating the British teenager from start to finish.  Perhaps a movie night with Rory McIlroy the day before (they saw Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained) allowed her to forget her recent futility.

Silver star:  The most unsurprising surprise of the day came when the 2009 Roland Garros champion dispatched compatriot Ekaterina Makarova.  In Serena’s quarter, Kuznetsova could meet Wozniacki in a rematch of their Australian Open three-set thriller.  Sveta bounced back impressively from one of the worst losses of her career in Rome.

Wooden spoon:  Outstanding performances on grass last year meant that Tamira Paszek received a seed at Roland Garros despite winning only one match in 2013.  When the slightly less moribund Melanie Oudin dispatched her with ease, Paszek will head to the grass season with the vast majority of points at stake.  Early losses at Eastbourne and Wimbledon will push her ranking down an elevator shaft.

Americans in Paris:  In addition to the aforementioned Oudin, several other women from the United States fared well on Day 2.  Bethanie Mattek-Sands set up a second-round meeting with Li Na, while newer talents Varvara Lepchenko and Madison Keys cruised.  Vania King also advanced in straight sets to complete a perfect record today for the USA.

Question of the day:  Which American woman of those who won day will go furthest?

Question of the day, II:  Should we feel more impressed by Wozniacki or more disappointed by Robson?

Dimitrov, Raonic, Harrison Brothers Among ATP Stars Featured in Men’s Journal Spread

Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic and Ryan and Christian Harrison lead the next generation of ATP players in a Men’s Journal feature entitled “Hit Squad” where they divulge what opponents fear most about their game. Though Twitter followers of Ryan Harrison may recall the photoshoot involving extravagant colors, photographer Theo Wenner opted to bring the shoot to life in black and white. Also featured are David Goffin, Ricardas Berankis and Bernard Tomic.

GRIGOR DIMITROV: “Called ‘little Federer’ for his fluid strokes, he’s a perpetual threat, particularly on hard court, with a dangerous topspin forehand and a creative, some say restless, style of play.”

RYAN HARRISON: ”When he was 11, Harrison met his tennis-pro dad in the finals of the Shreveport City Tournament which his father won, and they knew Ryan needed more competition.”

MILOS RAONIC: ”The son of engineers, the 6-foot-5 Raonic was college-bound until he persuaded his parents to let him go pro. They gave him a year to crack the top 100, and he did, rising from 150 to 37 in just six weeks.”

DAVID GOFFIN and RICARDAS BERANKIS: Berankis says of what opponents fear about him, “I never give up. I fight till the end.”

CHRISTIAN HARRISON: ”When big brother Ryan was battling Dad in the Shreveport City Tournament, nine-year-old Christian was in the stands pouring Coke on his little sister. He’s since learned to pay the game some respect.”

BERNARD TOMIC: On his indulgence, “Cars. A lot of people say I’m being the bad boy, but who doesn’t love a nice car? I just did things that a normal teenager dreams of doing.”

DAVID GOFFIN: On the best compliment he’s received, “I saw John McEnroe in the locker room of the US Open after a match, and he said, ‘Hey, I love your game. Just work on your legs’ — because my legs were too thin.”

(Quotes and photos via ATP World Tour and Men’s Journal)

Grigor Dimitrov: Slow and Steady Leads to Greatness

By Yeshayahu Ginsburg

During Wimbledon 2011, three young players that were expected by many to someday be top tennis players were all playing their second-round matches at the same time. Two of them were competing in what many thought would be their coming-out parties. One was playing quite poorly against a middling opponent.

The names in reference are Ryan Harrison, Grigor Dimitrov and Bernard Tomic. Harrison was fighting tooth and nail in an epic clash against David Ferrer. Over the course of two days, Ferrer would win in a tough five-setter that showed that Harrison did not quite have the mentality to compete at the top levels but that he would get there someday. Dimitrov was playing top-level tennis against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and looked like he could beat just about anyone in the world. Unfortunately it was not to be his day and Tsonga and his nearly-unbreakable serve prevailed. And Tomic was down two sets to none to Igor Andreev before Andreev faltered and Tomic came back to win in five.

What happened to these players since then? Tomic went on to the quarterfinals where he took a set off of Novak Djokovic. Since then, he has done nothing really of note aside from winning his first career tournament in Sydney right before this year’s Australian Open. Harrison has also not really done much, showing flashes of brilliance amidst a lot of mediocrity and now mostly competing back on the Challenger tour. Dimitrov likewise also faded into relative anonymity, but of the three, has managed to improve with each passing tournament seeing his ranking slowly and steadily rise, week by week.

After Tuesday’s valiant display in Madrid though, Dimitrov is anonymous no more. He battled world no. 1 Novak Djokovic in what turned out to be a flawless and epic match by the Bulgarian in the second round. Dimitrov overcame a few mental hiccups, second-set cramps, and the best opponent in the world in what was without a doubt the biggest win of his young career so far.

Fans (and detractors) of Dimitrov will say that he is finally utilizing his talent. He is blessed with great abilities and has finally sustained the top level that he can play at and won a big match. And, more importantly, this will allow him to move forward and win future big matches and tournaments. The sky is the limit for young Grigor and he proved it by beating the best player in the world.

And I agree; Dimitrov has nowhere to go but up. But the notion that he could have been winning like this for two years now—since he first showed this potential in that Wimbledon match—is foolish. Maybe we have been spoiled by the great players who burst on to the scene at a young age and were there to stay. Maybe we expect the great talents to reach the top 10 as a late teenager or in their early 20s and be a top player for their career.

Not everyone can do what Pete Sampras, Lleyton Hewitt, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and others have done. Not everyone can immediately assert their dominance on a strong tour and do it on a consistent basis. Everyone is waiting for players like Tomic, Harrison, and Dimitrov to suddenly be in every discussion. These insane expectations do nothing but hurt these players.

Tomic and Harrison haven’t really realized this. They pick up flashes of interest by showing flashes of greatness but really don’t do anything noteworthy on a consistent enough basis. They are still young players and have incredible talent, but they are not really moving forward in their careers yet. They are stuck wherever they are, which means being decent players on average that can throw in a great match or run here and there.

Dimitrov, on the other hand, is doing things the right way. He is consistently playing well and getting better and more confident as each season moves along. He almost took a set off Djokovic in March. He came close to beating Nadal in April. And now he has beaten Djokovic in May. This victory, the biggest of his career so far, is not the culmination of many hard years of work nor the showcasing of a great hidden talent. It is just one step on a long, slow, and gradual journey that could someday lead to greatness.

Americans Harrison, Smyczek, Kudla Book Semifinal Spots at Tallahassee Tennis Challenger

TALLAHASSEE, FL, May 2, 2013 – The red, white and blue rolled on Thursday at the Tallahassee Tennis Challenger.

No. 2 seed Ryan Harrison played some of his best tennis of the week at the $50,000 USTA Pro Circuit event, beating fellow American Donald Young 7-6 (5), 6-4 to book a place in the semifinals at Forestmeadows Tennis Complex.

Harrison is joined by two other Americans – No. 7 seed Denis Kudla and defending champion Tim Smyczek – as well as Cedrik-Marcel Stebe of Germany in the semifinals.

Alex Kuznetsov, who earned the Har-Tru USTA Pro Circuit Wild Card Challenge birth in the French Open Wednesday, retired in his evening match against Smyczek, a close friend, with a shoulder injury. The No. 5 seed Smyczek was leading 6-4.

The day, however, was all about Harrison, who gave a spirited fist pump following a back-and-forth battle with Young, who won this title in 2011.

“The biggest thing I was trying to do was just stay calm, stay focused, and keep after it,” Harrison said of his win. “We’re both young, American, and have played a few matches against each other; so there was a little bit of competitiveness going on. I would say it was a tough win.”

It was a tough win for Kudla, who took down Facundo Arguello of Argentina 7-6 (3), 6-4. Arguello has been hot during the last few weeks, winning seven of nine matches leading up to Thursday.

The Cinderella story of the tournament has been Stebe, who as an unseeded player has won three straight matches to book his place in the semifinals. The German beat 2012 finalist Frank Dancevic 6-4, 6-3 to earn the right to play Smyczek.

In doubles, the American duo of Sekou Bangora and Reid Carleton were winners over Takura Happy and Salif Kante of Florida A&M University, booking a semifinal spot. They’ll be joined by Greg Jones and Peter Polansky, who beat former Florida State University standouts Jean-Yves Abone and Vahid Mirzadeh in the evening session.

Harrison, the world No. 81, is looking for his ninth straight win after capturing the Savannah title last week. The 20 year old won eight in a row in 2009 at a futures event then a challenger in California.

“I came out today, and I was ready to play. I feel a lot more energetic,” said Harrison, who has been as high as No. 43 in the world. “This is my eighth straight match win. The biggest thing I have to focus on is just tomorrow. You can’t think about the finals or two more before you get through the next one. I’ve played Dennis before. He’s tough, he’s a great competitor, and he’s playing well. I’m excited about the match, and that what I’m going to be focusing on.”

Harrison and Kudla will play their semifinal during the evening session, following doubles at 6 pm. Smyczek and Stebe are set for an afternoon tussle.

RESULTS – MAY 2, 2013

Singles – Quarterfinals
[2] Ryan Harrison, United States, def. Donald Young, United States, 7-6 (5), 6-4
[5] Tim Smyczek, United States, def. Alex Kuznetsov, United States, 6-4, Ret.
[7] Denis Kudla, United States, def. Facundo Arguello, Argentina, 7-6 (3), 6-4
Cedrik-Marcel Stebe, Germany, def. Frank Dancevic, Canada, 6-4, 6-3

Doubles – Quarterfinals
Sekou Bangoura and Reid Carleton, United States, def. [WC] Takura Happy, Senegal, and Salif Kante, Senegal, 6-3, 6-2
Greg Jones, Australia, and Peter Polansky, Canada, def. Jean-Yves Aubone and Vahid Mirzadeh, United States, 6-3, 6-4

Daily updates on this tournament can be found at www.procircuit.usta.com and www.tallahasseechallenger.com. Live streaming is also available on www.procircuit.usta.com. The tournament can be followed on Facebook at “USTA Tallahassee Tennis Challenger” and on Twitter @TallyChallenger or by using the #TallyChallenger hashtag.

The tournament is part of the Har-Tru USTA Pro Circuit Wild Card Challenge and can be followed on Twitter at #USTAHarTruWC and www.USTAHarTruWC.com.

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

 

 

Another Typical Day Watching San Jose

The ATP 250 tournament currently called the SAP Open, and currently hosted in San Jose, California, has been continuously operating in some form since 1889, making it the second oldest tennis tournament in the United States. The current edition will be its last. Next year the tournament relocates to Memphis.

One would hope that in its final year the SAP Open would make a strenuous effort to honor its golden past. If today was anything to go by, the tournament instead appears content merely to showcase its dreary present, and to illustrate just why it had to go.

Last Saturday night an attendee at the San Jose Sharks ice-hockey game tweeted their disbelief that within twenty-four hours the playing surface would be replaced by a tennis court. Attached pictures attested that the floor of the HP Pavilion was indeed composed of ice, and that the stands were packed with people. Really, one must have greater faith in modern technology. Stage-managing the set switch from a hockey rink to a tennis court is relatively easy to accomplish. Convincing the people to hang around, on the other hand, is apparently an insurmountable problem. As ever during the SAP Open, the stadium today looked like it had been converted into a storage facility for unused bleachers.

It is debatable whether the prevailing vibe is more depressed in San Jose than it was in Montpellier last week, which attained transcendent new levels of banality in striving to entertain its few attendees. (The best moment – if ‘best’ is the word – came when the court was invaded by a dance troupe pretending to be synchronized swimmers. Unfortunately for those of us watching, the impression was uncanny, achieving a manic exuberance unmatched anywhere outside of a North Korean military parade.) The SAP Open boasts nothing as overtly weird, although ones awareness that this is its last edition certainly helps to deflate proceedings. It didn’t have to, though: you’d hope the imminence of its loss would lend proceedings a bittersweet piquancy. But the organisers seem determined that blandness will prevail, at least until the weekend.

It shares every other current event’s penchant for incongruous and blaring music at the changeovers. This is staple fare during the slow month of February, and each region has its own preferred playlist, although the selection never seems quite to align with local tastes. Montpellier had a great time with ‘Part Time Lover’. San Jose differs in that fans may make requests of the DJ via Twitter. So far today I’ve heard Bon Jovi, Nickelback, Bruno Mars and Chumbawamba, among others. It is therefore theoretically possible to track down those responsible.

In the spirit of commercialism, the SAP Open periodically alleviates these pop-medleys by advertising local businesses. I now know that Blue Mango was recently voted best Thai restaurant in Silicon Valley, which will come in handy the next time I want to travel 8,000 miles for dinner. Admittedly the ads are intended for those in the stadium itself, but given that there were only about twelve people there today, I’m not convinced Blue Mango is seeing a decent return for its advertising dollar. Along with sparse attendance, the tournament has struggled with sponsorship for years. The impression, across the board, is that the event has been left to drift aimlessly for a good decade, a far cry from the days when Barry MacKay toiled tirelessly in its promotion. As ever, the whole thing feels provincial, and, despite its cavernous venue, cramped.

For those fans who unfortunately cannot attend in person – apparently nearly all of them – the television coverage hardly encourages them to tune in. It is seemingly directed by Terry Gilliam in full Twelve Monkeys mode, and assembled from whatever security footage he has at hand. The default camera is positioned along the doubles sideline on the umpire’s side of the court, on a shallow angle. This is periodically switched out for a useful low-angle behind the opposite baseline, or to another less-useful camera suspended from the ceiling. The perspective and the ends switch about restlessly, thereby making it easier to lose track of which player is which. I know this is the tournament’s last year, but could they not have positioned a camera in the conventional spot?

Ryan Harrison today was the tiny but vociferous figure who wasn’t wearing a hat, while Benjamin Becker was the one in white, with his hat turned backwards. Harrison was by all accounts unwell, although as far as I could make out from the bird’s nest vantage he was competing with undiminished gusto, especially when he fought to break back in the final set. The crowd went wild, although their meagre cheers were immediately drowned out by the sound system’s efforts to entertain them. Alas, Harrison was broken again immediately, and Becker eventually served out the match. The best points came at the end, as Harrison saved a couple of match points.

Jack Sock was clad in yellow, and like Becker wore a hat, which counts as a highlight. Marinko Matosevic was hatless, in white. Sock led by a break throughout much of the first set, lost it, then lost the set in a tiebreaker. Thereafter he lost interest, and soon afterwards, the match. The hatless Ryan Sweeting fared no better against the presumably be-goggled Denis Istomin (the security footage made it hard to be sure), losing in straight sets. Later on Tim Smyczek upset Fernando Verdasco, thus saving Milos Raonic the trouble.

It was thus a mixed day for the young American men, but a bad day for an old American tournament. At least for the former there is some hope that better days will come. For the San Jose tournament the best days, in which the world’s top players would do vigorous battle for a coveted title, are only fading memories. The ATP website put up a nice video to commemorate the passing, appropriately valedictory in tone, rich with recollection, and entirely contrasting with the limping haggardness of the event so far. Thankfully, they’ve planned something special for the weekend. I hope it’s an appropriate send-off.

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.

More Memories of Melbourne: Grading the Australian Open (ATP)

 

Having completed the recap of the WTA field at the Australian Open, we issue report cards for the ATP.  As before, grading reflects not just results but expectations, quality of opposition, and other factors. 

Djokovic:  The master of Melbourne like none before him, the Serb became the first man in the Open era to finish on top Down Under three straight years.  That record span of dominance over a tournament that famously has eluded dominance came with a satisfying serving (note the word choice) of revenge over Murray, who had defeated him in the US Open final.  Consolidating his current control over what looks like the ATP’s next marquee rivalry, Djokovic won his third straight match in it after losing the first set in all of them.  Vital to his success was the series of 44 consecutive holds with which he ended the tournament, strangling two of the game’s best returners in Ferrer and Murray.  Those top-five opponents managed break points in just two of Djokovic’s service games through the semifinal and final as he repeatedly won 30-30 and deuce points throughout the tournament—with one notable exception in his epic against Wawrinka.  The undisputed world #1 survived and then thrived in running his winning streak over top-eight opponents to eleven.  Overpowering Ferrer and outlasting Murray, Djokovic showed that he can—and will—do virtually anything to win.  A+

Murray:  The US Open champion came closer than many anticipated to becoming the first man to win his second major on the next opportunity after his first.  Murray admittedly benefited from a puff pastry of a pre-semifinal draw, which allowed him to conserve energy for that five-setter against Federer.  Threatening to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory at the end of the fourth set in that match, he showed remarkable resilience by bouncing back to claim an early lead in the fifth and close out the man who had tormented him at majors.  Murray maintained a nearly impenetrable rhythm on serve throughout that match, and his forehand continued its maturation into a real weapon.  He will rue the three break points that he let escape early in the second set of the final, which could have unfolded entirely differently otherwise.  But Murray was right to consider the tournament an important consolidation of last year’s success.  A

Federer:  Handed the most difficult draw of the top three, he showed just how well his game can silence players who rely heavily on their serves in ousting Tomic and then Raonic.  Federer defended crisply and moved as alertly as he has in years past during the five-set quarterfinal with Tsonga that followed, which unveiled the full range of his weapons from the explosive to the delicate.  But his struggles to break serve caught up with him against Murray, whom he could not crack for three and a half sets even as his own serve came under frequent pressure.  Probably drained by the Tsonga epic, Federer faded in the fifth set despite mounting an impressive surge to swipe the fourth.  He finished the tournament by winning all six of his tiebreaks, a sure sign that he remains one of the sport’s best competitors under pressure.  A

Ferrer:  Never looking his best during the fortnight, he backed into the #4 ranking rather than charging into it with confidence.  Ferrer probably should have lost to Almagro in the fourth round, outplayed for most of the first four sets and kept alive only by his compatriot’s shocking inability to deliver the coup de grace.  Thoroughly exposed by Djokovic in the semifinals, he suffered his second humiliating defeat at that stage of a major over the last twelve months as he offered little better than batting practice for the Serb’s weaponry.  Ferrer said consistently this fortnight that he considers himself a clear level below the Big Four, and his results against them on grand stages continue to make his point for him.  B

Tsonga:  The Frenchman slipped to 13 straight losses against top-eight opponents here, but the manner in which he did contained kernels of hope for the season.  Not folding meekly to Federer as he had in an earlier Australian Open, Tsonga regrouped from losing the first set in a tiebreak to win the second and regrouped from losing the third set in a tiebreak to win the fourth.  He even spared no effort in battling Federer down to the finish in a fifth set tenser than the scoreline showed.  Also likely to please new coach Roger Rasheed was his greater efficiency in closing out overmatched opponents in the previous four rounds.  Docked a notch for his Neanderthal-like comments about women’s tennis.  B+

Almagro:  As the percipient Steve Tignor of Tennis.com noted, sometimes a player’s greatest achievement can turn into his greatest catastrophe within a handful of points.  Jerking Ferrer around the court for two and a half sets, Almagro astonished audiences by his newfound courage against an opponent who had won all 12 of their previous meetings.  He will remember his first quarterfinal at a hard-court major for the wrong reasons, though, once he failed to serve it out three times across the third and fourth sets before succumbing to cramps as well as the crushing weight of his disappointment in the fifth.  B-

Chardy:  Not only did he upset Del Potro with inspired attacking tennis, but he followed up that five-set victory by grinding out a four-setter against the recently dangerous Seppi.  The Frenchman came from nowhere to reach his first major quarterfinal and in the process showed considerable courage. Chardy almost pulled off an Almagro against the Tower of Tandil, gagging on triple break point midway through the third set when he had won the first two.  Unlike the Spaniard, he mustered one last surge in the fifth with an unexpected fearlessness to finish what he had started.  A-

Berdych:  Drawn against the top seed in a quarterfinal for the second straight major, he could not find the same thunderbolts that he had hurled at the US Open.  Or perhaps Berdych simply matches up more effectively to Federer than to Djokovic, who has won all eleven of their hard-court meetings.  Before that relatively tame four-set loss, however, he recorded four straight-sets victories that bode well for his consistency, always the main question for him.  He leaves the Australian Open as the man outside the Big Four most likely to win a major this year, although he will need some help to do so.  B+

Del Potro:  Through the first two rounds, the Tower of Tandil looked not only sturdy but downright terrifying.  Just when people began to take him seriously as a dark horse title threat, Del Potro turned into the Leaning Tower of Pisa when he tottered to the exit in a strangely enervated effort.  That five-set loss to Chardy at the end of the first week marked a setback in a surge that started with his bronze-medal victory at the Olympics, departing from his recent steadiness against opponents outside the top ten.  F

Tipsarevic:  He looked every inch a top-eight seed in dismantling sentimental favorite Hewitt before his home crowd on Rod Laver Arena, where the Aussie had wrought so many miracles before.  Striking winners down both lines with abandon, Tipsarevic appeared to make an imposing statement.  Then he wobbled through two five-setters and retired against Almagro, not a surprising result for a man who has completed a career Golden Slam of retirements.  C

ATP young guns:  Heralded with enthusiasm when the tournament began, none of these prodigies left a meaningful impact on the tournament.  Brisbane finalist Dimitrov became the first man to exit Melbourne, failing to win a set in his opener, and Raonic succumbed to Federer much more routinely than he had in their three meetings last year.  Tomic produced a stronger effort against the Swiss star than he did last year but still lost in straight sets after struggling mightily with a qualifier in the previous round.  And American fans need not have watched Harrison’s ignominious loss to Djokovic for long to realize how far this alleged future star must improve before mounting a credible threat.  Last but not least, Paris finalist Jerzy Janowicz narrowly avoided a second-round implosion over a dubious line call and rallied to win after losing the first two sets—sets that he should not have lost in the first place.  Janowicz did at least progress as far as his seed projected, and many of these young men received difficult draws, but the breakthrough of young stars that many expected here happened almost entirely on the women’s side.  C+

Bryan brothers:  At their most productive major, they closed within four major titles of Federer by comfortably winning the final after some close scrapes earlier in the fortnight.  The Bryans have earned some of their most consistent success in Australia, where they have reached nine finals and five consecutively.  Djokovic still has some work to do before he can approach the numbers of these twins whose talents never seem to fade.  A

Djokovic vs. Wawrinka:  Undoubtedly the match of the tournament, it represented the high point of Wawrinka’s career to date.  The Swiss #2 basked in the spotlight while cracking his exquisite one-handed backhands to all corners of the court and taking control of rallies with his penetrating cross-court forehand.  Wawrinka even served at Federer-like heights for much of the match, outside a predictable stumble when he approached a two-set lead.  Stunned by the brio of his opponent, Djokovic needed a set and a half to settle into the match.  The underdog then needed about a set and a half to regroup from the favorite’s charge, at which point the fourth and fifth sets featured spellbinding tennis all the more remarkable for the ability of both men to sustain their quality.  Fittingly, the match ended only after Wawrinka had saved two match points with breathtaking shot-making and only with a rally that forced both men to pull out nearly every weapon in their arsenals.  A+

Simon vs. Monfils:  Not much shorter than Djokovic vs. Wawrinka in terms of time, it felt considerably longer to watch.  This mindless war of attrition featured rally after rally of the sort that one more commonly finds on practice courts, including a 71-shot meander to nowhere that contributed to the inevitable cramping suffered by both men late in the match.  If the previous epic offered an argument to keep the best-of-five format, this match argued just as eloquently for its abandonment.  Simon, the winner, had no chance of recovering in time for his next match, nor would Monfils if he had won.  C-

Men’s final:  Not a classic by any means, it compared poorly both to the women’s melodrama on the previous night and to the marathon of the 2012 men’s final.  The 2013 edition illustrated some troubling reasons why the Djokovic-Murray rivalry never may capture the imagination to the extent of Federer-Nadal, Federer-Djokovic, and Djokovic-Nadal.  Presenting no contrast in styles, these two men played essentially the same games in a match of mirror images that came down to execution in any given situation—interesting but not exactly stimulating to watch.  Moreover, they continued to bring out the passivity in each other by showing so much respect for each other’s defense that many rallies featured sequence after sequence of cautious, low-risk shots designed to coax errors rather than force the issue.  These tactics worked perfectly for Djokovic, just as they worked for Murray at last year’s US Open, but they left fans waiting for a spark that never came in a match that trudged towards anticlimax.  B-

And that is a wrap of the 2013 Australian Open!  Up next is a look ahead to the first round in Davis Cup World Group action:  all eight ties previewed and predicted.