Santiago Giraldo

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From Continent to Continent: ATP Washington and Kitzbuhel Previews

Juan Martin Del Potro looks to recapture his brilliant Wimbledon form.

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

What to Watch in the ATP This Week: Hamburg and Bogota Previews

Fed up.

Only one member of the top 10 takes the court in next week’s two ATP tournaments.  But he’s someone who might merit your attention.

Hamburg:

Top half:  After his second-round loss at Wimbledon, Roger Federer admitted that he needed to regain his rhythm and poise at key moments in matches.  Taking a wildcard into Hamburg, which he won as a Masters 1000 tournament, Federer seeks his first title of the season above the 250 level.  That triumph came at the grass event in Halle, so the world No. 5 will hope to make it two for two on German soil.  Home favorite Daniel Brands could prove an intriguing opening test, considering the challenge that Brands posed for Rafael Nadal in a Roland Garros four-setter.  But the headline match of the quarter, or perhaps the half, comes in the next round with Ernests Gulbis.  Defeating Federer on clay in Rome before, Gulbis has taken at least one set in all three of their previous meetings.  Most of the other players in this section, such as Feliciano Lopez or Nikolay Davydenko, have grown accustomed to Federer’s superiority.

All four seeds in the second quarter reached a quarterfinal at a major this year, rare for an event of Hamburg’s diminished stature.  Jerzy Janowicz and Fernando Verdasco both launched their surprise runs at Wimbledon, and Verdasco extended his surge from grass to clay by winning his first title since 2010 last week.  In his first tournament as a member of the top 20, Janowicz has built his ranking less on consistency than on a handful of notable achievements at key tournaments.  Similarly, Australian Open quarterfinalist Jeremy Chardy has struggled to string together momentum and has secured just one semifinal berth since that breakthrough.  An all-Spanish quarterfinal might await if Verdasco and Roland Garros quarterfinalist Tommy Robredo use their superior clay expertise to halt the higher-ranked Janowicz and Chardy, respectively.  Federer never has lost to any of these men, or to anyone else in a section where Madrid semifinalist Pablo Andujar also lurks.

Semifinal:  Federer vs. Verdasco

Bottom half:  The sight of Nicolas Almagro and Mikhail Youzhny in the same vicinity calls to mind their Miami clash five years ago.  Youzhny famously won that match with blood dripping down his head after banging his racket on it repeatedly.  Undefeated in their previous meetings, Youzhny stopped Almagro in another three-setter this spring without reacquainting his racket with his head.  While the Spaniard has faltered after a promising start to 2013, he still holds the surface edge on his nemesis.  This section also contains four unseeded players who have reached clay finals this year.  Bucharest champion Lukas Rosol could derail Almagro straight out of the gate, while Bucharest runner-up Guillermo Garcia-Lopez sets his sights on Youzhny.  A champion in Nice, Albert Montanes could eye a rematch of his final there against Gael Monfils, but only if the latter can upset defending champion Juan Monaco.  The Argentine won a clay title in Dusseldorf on the day that Montanes won Nice, his fourth on clay in 2012-13.

Second seed Tommy Haas usually shines on German soil during these latter stages of his career.  Winning Munich on clay and taking a set from Federer in a Halle semifinal, Haas finished runner-up to Monaco in Hamburg last year.  On the verge of the top 10, he showed some traces of fatigue by falling early in Stuttgart as the top seed.  A semifinalist at that tournament, Victor Hanescu could face Haas in his opener, while Bastad runner-up Carlos Berlocq looms a round later.  The other side of the section exudes a distinctly Italian flavor, bookended by Andreas Seppi and Fabio Fognini.  A semifinalist in Monte Carlo, Fognini started his campaign there by defeating Seppi in three sets, and he has enjoyed far stronger clay results than his compatriot this year.  Of minor note are Vina del Mar champion Horacio Zeballos, just 4-14 since that breakthrough, and Rome quarterfinalist Marcel Granollers, who owed that result in large part to Andy Murray’s retirement.

Semifinal:  Monaco vs. Haas

Final:  Federer vs. Monaco

Bogota:

Top half:  Not since the Australian Open has Janko Tipsarevic won more than two matches in a tournament.  The beleaguered Serb saw his ranking slide out of the top 10 this summer, unable to salvage it even with several appearances at the 250 level.  Another such effort to gobble up easy points as the top seed unfolds in Bogota.  This draw looks more accommodating to Tipsarevic than others in which he has held that position.  A pair of Colombians, Alejandro Falla and a wildcard, join a pair of Belgians and Australian serve-volleyer Matthew Ebden in his vicinity.  If he can rediscover the tennis that brought him to the top 10, Tipsarevic should cruise.  If he plays as he has for most of the year, anything could happen.

Among the most intriguing names in the second quarter is rising Canadian star Vasek Pospisil.  Depending on how fast the courts play in Bogota, Pospisil could deploy his serve and shot-making to devastating effect against less powerful opponents.  Australian journeyman James Duckworth showed his mettle in two epics at his home major this year, while Aljaz Bedene owns a win over Stanislas Wawrinka—but not much else.  A finalist in Delray Beach, fourth seed Edouard Roger-Vasselin hopes to halt a four-match losing streak.  At least Mr. Bye cannot stop him in the first round.

Bottom half:  Surprising most observers by reaching the second week of Wimbledon, Adrian Mannarino came back to earth with a modest result in Newport.  At an event of similar caliber, he will hope to build on his momentum from grass while it still lingers.  The same motivation probably spurs third seed Igor Sijsling, who upset Milos Raonic at Wimbledon after bursting on the scene with a victory over Tsonga in February.  Back into action with a quarterfinal showing in Newport, Ivo Karlovic brings his towering serve to an altitude ideal for it.  At 7,000 feet above sea level, Dr. Ivo might be nearly unbreakable if his fitness weathers the thin air.

Also armed with a massive serve, second seed Kevin Anderson eyes a cluster of Colombians.  Two home hopes meet in the first round, but Santiago Giraldo will fancy his chances to reach the quarterfinals.  Near him is Kazakh loose cannon Evgeny Korolev, who oozes with talent while lacking the reins to harness it.  Anderson has won all three of his meetings with Korolev and his only previous encounter with Giraldo, so his path to the weekend looks clear.

Final:  Unseeded player vs. Anderson

 

 

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

Has Djokovic recovered from his champagne hangover yet?

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

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

Nadal had the spotlight all to himself last week.  Not anymore.

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.

Wizards of Oz (I): Australian Open Day 1 Preview

Pack lunch, dinner, and a midnight snack when this man enters Rod Laver Arena.

While some of the stars opening play in Melbourne should encounter little resistance, others might want to tread carefully.  We look at some of the most notable matches on Day 1 from Rod Laver Arena to the outer courts.

Chang vs. Stosur (Rod Laver Arena):  A flustered bundle of nerves on home soil, Stosur has lost six of her last seven matches in Australia and exited in the first round here last year to Sorana Cirstea.  Despite her smooth game, Chang lacks Cirstea’s intimidating weapons and thus should pose a less severe test.  But an 0-2 start to 2013 with losses to unheralded opponents in Brisbane and Sydney inspire little confidence in Stosur as she rebounds from an ankle injury.

Hewitt vs. Tipsarevic (RLA):  Quite the contrast to Stosur, the greatest Aussie champion in recent memory typically thrives under the adoring gaze of his compatriots.  In his 17th Australian Open appearance, Hewitt thoroughly deserves this showcase setting in the first night session on Rod Laver Arena.  Recent years have seen him deliver upsets over opponents like Baghdatis, Safin, and Raonic on this court, so Tipsarevic cannot take this match lightly.  The second-ranked Serb looked solid but mortal while winning Chennai, and he won’t overpower Hewitt like many opponents near his ranking.

Ivanovic vs. Czink (RLA):  This match may start very late indeed in the aftermath of Hewitt-Tipsarevic, possibly a bad sign for Ivanovic.  A morning person, the Serb can grow weary quickly when she plays late at night, and she has struggled against lefties sporadically in her career.  That said, Czink has declined since she upset Ivanovic on the much faster court of Cincinnati in 2009, and the former finalist built confidence with three decisive wins at the Hopman Cup before Medina Garrigues outlasted her in the final.  She should aim to avoid a third set whenever possible, and probably will here.

Goffin vs. Verdasco (Hisense Arena):  Four years after he reached the semifinals (and nearly the final) here, Verdasco has regressed back to his former incarnation in which he can win or lose to anyone on any given day.  Startlingly boyish in appearance, Goffin reached the second week of Roland Garros last year and recorded fall upsets over Troicki and Isner, among others.  The 22-year-old must refine his game, especially his shot selection, to rise further into the top 50, although Verdasco can teach him little in that area.

Cibulkova vs. Barty (Hisense):  The Slovak pocket rocket unleashes impressive power when on a hot streak and can collapse completely when she loses her range even a little.  Last week in Sydney, Cibulkova showed her best and worst in defeating three top-eight opponents before eating a double bagel from Radwanska.  Which memory lingers longer in her mind may define how far she goes here, while Aussie prodigy Barty will try to gain confidence from the Hopman Cup memory of upsetting Schiavone.

Bobusic vs. Radwanska (Margaret Court Arena):  For winning the Australian Open wildcard playoff, Bobusic received a berth in the main draw—against the world #4.  Radwanska also happens to have won both of her tournaments this year, so the challenge looms very large for the home hope.  The Pole sometimes does need time to settle into an event, though, wobbling through uneasy three-setters in the first round here before.

Youzhny vs. Ebden (MCA):  Yet another Aussie faces a Russian well into the twilight of his career.  Still lovely to watch with its one-handed backhand and crisp volleys, his game matches up well to the net-rushing style of Ebden.  Both men feel comfortable all over the court, which should create some variety in the ways that points unfold.

Dellacqua vs. Keys (MCA):  After reaching the Sydney quarterfinals, the 17-year-old American should have soared in self-belief by proving that she could compete with much more experience and accomplished opponents.  She eyes a winnable match against an Aussie returning from injury, not for the first time, but with a memorable run here five years ago to inspire her.

Medina Garrigues vs. Bartoli (Show Court 3):  The Spaniard enters on a somewhat hot streak from winning the Hopman Cup with Verdasco, although she defeated no notable opponent other than Ivanovic.  Bartoli has dominated their head-to-head on hard courts but has suffered a series of early upsets at the Australian Open in recent years.  The match will rest on her racket, for better or for worse.

Harrison vs. Giraldo (Court 8):  From their last meeting at the Olympics came the regrettable temper tantrum that led to Harrison’s equally regrettable apology.  He still lets his competitive fire burn too brightly at times, although a victory over Isner in Sydney may bode well for this fortnight.  Not averse to emitting some sparks himself, Giraldo will fancy his chances in the best-of-five format if he can claim an early lead.

Bolelli vs. Janowicz (Court 8):  The toast of Paris last fall when he reached the Bercy final, Janowicz reverted to ordinary toast this month in a sloppy loss to Brian Baker.  The moribund game of Bolelli, an Italian with much more flair than power, should not trouble the huge-serving Pole as long as he stays out of his own way better than he did in Auckland.

Barthel vs. Pervak (Court 11):  Reaching the fourth round here last year, Barthel recalled her strong start to 2012 when she finished runner-up in Hobart (becoming the first woman ever to lose a final to Vesnina in the process).  The gawky German owns a formidable but fickle serve and can climb into double digits in aces and double faults during the same match.  Russian by birth and Kazakh by passport, the lefty gunslinger Pervak upset Wozniacki in Brisbane by showing more fortitude than usual.

Benneteau vs. Dimitrov (Court 13):  At Wimbledon last year, the French doubles specialist came within two points of upsetting Federer as he proved again how lethal his game can become when all of its parts coalesce.  A strong server with a penetrating two-hander and excellent net skills, Benneteau held match points in the Sydney semifinal last week before his habit of losing close matches resurfaced.  The bad news for him is that he faces a man who served for the first set in the Brisbane final the previous week.  The good news is that Dimitrov never has brought his best game to any major, nor has he developed a habit of stringing together solid results.

Makarova vs. Larcher de Brito (Court 19):  Once at the vortex of the shrieking controversy, Larcher de Brito plunged into the tennis wilderness shortly after her uniquely piercing yodels had alienated fans.  She returns to the main draw of a major for the first time in years.  Is she ready for her comeback?  Perhaps more to the point, are we?

Bogomolov vs. Baker (Court 20):  From an American perspective, this match presents a good guy vs. bad guy narrative.  Fans around the world warmed to Baker when he completed an odyssey through several injury absences to rejoin the ATP with a bang last year by reaching the final at his first tournament.  His results faded a little afterwards, as one would expect, so his confidence probably rose when he defeated Janowicz in Auckland.  Whatever one thinks of Bogomolov’s shifting national allegiances, they did nothing to disturb his reputation as one of the players least likely to induce empathy in the ATP.

Hradecka vs. Bertens (Court 22):  Half of the world’s second-ranked doubles team, the Czech with an explosive serve faces one of last spring’s most surprising headlines.  Bertens became the first Dutchwoman to win a title since 2006 when she took home the hardware from Casablanca as a qualifier who never had played a main-draw match at the WTA level.  Summer upsets over Safarova and Petrova consolidated that breakthrough, so she will look to take the next step forward in 2013.

Excited about these matches and others on Day 1?  Join our live chat at newyorkobservertennis.com, which extends from the start of play through the Rod Laver Arena night session.

Sharapova Survives Watson Scare as Federer Grumbles Through

With the sight of Petra Kvitova crashing out fresh in her memory Maria Sharapova took to the court against British teenager Heather Watson hoping that she could curb the early seed rot on day one.

The 2006 US Open winner looked all at sea throughout much of the first set as the 19-year-old from Guernsey refused to be intimidated by Sharapova’s heavy hitting and incessant shrieking.

Watson went in to this match ranked 100 places below Sharapova on the WTA Tour but you wouldn’t have been able to tell as the 2009 Junior US Open winner took the game to her opponent.

She went stroke for stroke from the baseline and chased every ball Sharapova tried to pull her out of position with. At her first opportunity she broke the tournament’s second favourite to love and the hush of surprise surrounding the court soon turned to cheers for the Briton.

Sharapova broke straight back, but the first of a series of terrible double faults handed Watson the initiative and she didn’t let it go again on her way to taking the first set.

She broke again at the start of the second, but Sharapova broke straight back again and the fighting spirit that has embodied the world No.4 over the past 18 months through her injury and form problems clicked back in to gear and she began to take control of the set.

Watson pulled back to parity, and eventually took Sharapova to 5-5, but the Russian’s class began to shine through and she eventually took the set 7-5.

From there on she began to assert her dominance and, other than a few wobbles, eventually saw out the match 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 to secure her place in round two.

“I had a lot of fun today,” Watson said of her Arthur Ashe Stadium debut afterwards. “It’s what I want to do. I want to be out there on the big courts playing the top players. It was a really great match, very competitive. We played some really great tennis.

“I had my chances in the second set. You have to create the opportunity but also execute, and I was probably a bit too defensive on those important points,” she admitted.

Roger Federer also secured safe passage to the second round with victory over Columbia’s Santiago Giraldo, but not without an early scare.

At 5-1 in the first he looked set to dominate but then he let a double-break lead slip before eventually seeing it out.

If he fails to win here it will be the first time he has gone through a calendar year without lifting a Grand Slam since 2002 and the pressure appeared to show a few signs of rearing its ugly head through his post match grumbles about the courts that followed his 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 win.

“It’s just unfortunate maybe that all the slams are too equal,” he said afterwards. “This should feel very different to the Australian Open and it doesn’t. I don’t think it’s really what tennis needs.”

However, another seed to bite the day one dust was Serbia’s Viktor Troicki as the fifteenth- seeded star crashed out 3-6, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5, 7-5 to Alejandro Falla.

There were easy wins for Kevin Anderson, Alexandr Dolgopolov, Radek Stepanek, Marcel Granollers and Gael Monfils in the men’s draw, while Agnieszka Radwanska had the painful task of defeating her sister Ursula in round one of the women’s tournament. She will be joined in round two by the likes of Lucie Safarova, Venus Williams, Flavia Pennetta  and Marion Bartoli.

Roger Federer sails into the next – US Open day 1

Roger Federer

The final Grand Slam of the year got underway on Monday in New York and with hurricane Irene no longer looming, the tournament was able to get through all of its scheduled matches.

On the men’s side we saw third seeded Roger Federer advance with relative ease against clay-court specialist Santiago Giraldo in straight sets by a score of 6-4, 6-3, 6-2.

Federer very likely could have closed his opponent out in a much more devastating manner but was off his game at times throughout the match. He fully admitted afterwards that he rarely plays his best tennis in the opening rounds and is happy to be through to the next round where he will face Dudi Sela of Israel.

Elsewhere, seeded players Alexandr Dolgopolov, Tomas Berdych, RIchard Gasquet Janko Tipsarevic, Marcel Granollers, Gael Monfils, Marin Cilic, Radek Stepanek and Mardy Fish all advanced in straight sets as well.

Granollers, known more for his clay court exploits, dispatched tough veteran Xavier Maliss 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.

Monfils, the flying frenchman, took out a future star in Grigor Dimitrov, 7-6(4), 6-3, 6-4. He will next face 2003 finalist Juan Carlos Ferrero who needed five sets to get past Pablo Andujar. Ferrero is still capable of solid results on clay as evidenced by his recent title in Stuttgart, but forget about him making it far on the hard-courts here.

Another veteran player who had a decent result today was Germany’s Tommy Haas who advanced past French qualifier Jonathan Dasnieres de Veigy (good thing tennis players don’t wear their names on the back of their shirts!) Haas has had a real tough-go since returning from a year long layoff earlier this year. He is currently ranked 475th in the world and has a record of 2-8 so far this season. Haas actually has a pretty good draw here and if he can get on a roll is someone you can never count out.

Mardy Fish looked every bit the part as the top-ranked American in the world as he easily defeated Tobias Kamke 6-2, 6-2, 6-1. Fish has somehow managed to top his solid summer of 2010 and made the finals of the Masters 1000 event in Montreal and then the semi-finals in Cincinnati the week after that. Seeded eighth in this event, Fish is no longer going to be content with making the round of sixteen in a major. With the way he has been playing the past two months, he must be considered a title contender for perhaps the first time in his career.

The only upset on day one was to see Serbia’s Viktor Troicki be beaten by Alejandro Falla 3-6, 6-3, 4-7, 7-5, 7-5. Fortunately for fans of that nation, there is a guy who opens tomorrow who has a decent shot of going deep into the draw. Novak Djokovic will open against Conor Niland of Ireland, a man who will need all the luck of the Irish he can muster.

Davis Cup: Colombian Color Coordination

santiago-giraldo-daviscup10semisb


Babolat and Li Ning did a wonderful job bringing together the Colombian Davis Cup as they host the USA at the World Group Play-offs this weekend in Bogota. Santiago Giraldo defeated Sam Querrey 6-2, 6-4, 7-5, in the second rubber and is now serving at 6-5 in the fifth set against Mardy Fish. (The Americans are up 2-1, so Giraldo needs a win to give Colombia a chance to advance.)

More: All the tie info available here.

Yellow, red, and blue: See another shot of Santiago’s crew (Babolat) and doubles player Carlos Salamanca in Li Ning:

We Really Need a New Davis Cup Logo

sam-querrey-daviscup10semisa

It’s too plain and generic (hmm… just like the guy wearing it?).

North and South: The American team (Mardy Fish, Sam Querrey, John Isner, and Ryan Harrison) hopes to overcome the clay courts in Bogota as they go up against the Colombians (led by Santiago Giraldo and Alejandro Falla) in the Davis Cup World Group play-offs. Get more details about the tie here.

(image via Getty Images)

Player Bounces Racquet Over Fence, Where It Gets Stuck!

Santiago Giraldo of Colombia was involved in a very unusual circumstance in his first-round US Open match Tuesday against Feliciano Lopez of Spain.

Playing on Court No. 7 at the Billie Jean King USTA National Tennis Center, Giraldo was disgusted in his play, trailing two sets to love and a service break in the third set. After he committed an unforced error, Giraldo smashed his Babolat racquet to the hard court surface, where it bounced over the 10-foot fence landing in the shrubbery that lined the back of the court. The racquet was out of reach for the Colombian Davis Cupper and he had to go to his bag sitting courtside and pick up another stick to play with.

After receiving a code of conduct warning for the abuse of his racquet, Giraldo finished the game and then grabbed a lines person’s chair and stood on it to reach and grab the bounced racquet.

In the corresponding photos, note Giraldo’s racquet sitting in the shrubbery in the middle of the back of the court and him retrieving it with the linesperson’s chair. Lopez went on to win the match 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.

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