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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Monday action at the Citi Open took place over five courts, with the last ball being played just before midnight, earning American Melanie Oudin a spot in the second round.
Players roamed, stretched, practice and played all over the grounds, including Angelique Kerber, David Goffin, Steve Johnson, Alexandr Dolgopolov, Dmitry Tursunov, Radek Stepanek, Juan Martin del Potro, Sloane Stephens, Magdalena Rybarikova, Alize Cornet, Bernard Tomic, Tim Smyczek, Eugenie Bouchard, and Taylor Townsend.
Gallery by Tennis Grandstand photographer Christopher Levy.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Despite home soil advantage, it was a rocky day for American tennis players on the grounds of the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. as nine players went out in the first round of play on the men’s and women’s side.
In the biggest stunner of the day, 19-year-old Sloane Stephens went down to world No. 88 Olga Puchkova in very uncharacteristic form, 7-5, 6-3. From her first service game, Stephens was broken and it continued downhill through five more breaks. She continued to send balls long and mid-way through the second set, she seemed void of energy, just standing in frustration looking to her team in the stands after errors.
But Stephens herself isn’t that worried about Monday night’s performance, citing the quick turn around from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., the differing courts and her poor practice in the days prior to her match.
“Leading up (to the match), I didn’t practice that great,” admitted Stephens. “I just wasn’t feeling the ball that well. Sometimes you just have tough days like that. Unfortunate that it came today and I couldn’t really get it together.”
Physically, she “felt fine,” even joking that “when I’m injured I play great, and then when I’m healthy I can’t hit a ball right.”
Looking forward to the US Open, she feels the home pressure is inevitable based on her recent Slam results, but chooses to focus on her game, saying “I don’t care anymore” about the buzz.
“Everyone is going to be like, ‘You should do really well here because you’ve done well in all of the Slams,’” commented Stephens. “If I lose first round, you guys, just don’t be upset.”
Earlier in the day in just his fourth tournament of the year, Mardy Fish continued his comeback on unsteady ground as he found himself down a set against Australian Matt Ebden, 6-2. He opened up the second set by winning a 22-point game, breaking Ebden three times before taking it 6-1, and closing it 6-3 in the final set.
A sober Fish arrived in press, feeling healthy and “satisfied to win,” but he admitted to being drained of energy.
“It’s a process. Fitness is a big a part of playing, and sometimes that spells trouble for me … My expectations as far as winning the tournament are pretty low. I’m just enjoying competing right now.”
2002 champion James Blake also faced a tough opponent in another fellow Aussie, Marinko Matosevic, except the end results didn’t favor the American as he went down 6-2, 7-6(6).
“I never really got any real rhythm at all on my serve, and that made all the difference in the first set,” said Blake. “I got back into the second set, and had my chances … but missed it.”
Despite the early exit, Blake still has fond memories of the tournament, and enjoys the support he gets from fans
“(Washington, D.C.) was the first tournament I ever won,” he said. “It was an unbelievable week beating one of my idols, Andre Agassi in the semis. And really fond memories of beating Paradorn Srichaphan in the final.”
So, what is next for the 33-year-old father?
“I don’t know. Right now, that’s a tough question. I don’t feel great about the way I played today. My plan has always been, play through the summer and then see where I’m at. See where my body is at, where my head’s at, how I’m feeling, how much I want to travel, how much I still enjoy it all — if my body allows me to keep going.”
Monday play also included a late night win by 21-year-old Melanie Oudin. However, seven additional Americans failed to reach the second round, including Steve Johnson, Denis Kudla, Rhyne Williams, Rajeev Ram, Christian McHale, Jessica Pegula, and Beatrice Capra.
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.
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
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
Welcome back to your daily review of the studs and duds at Roland Garros 2013.
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?
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?
As we look ahead to Day 2, three top-ten players feature intriguing tests. Let’s start with the women this time.
Li Na vs. Anabel Medina Garrigues: Facing the 2011 Roland Garros champion is a classic clay counterpuncher of a mold rarely in use anymore. Medina Garrigues came closer than anyone to defeating Serena on clay this spring, just two or three key misses from knocking off the world No. 1 to reach the Madrid semifinals. Li started the clay season encouragingly with a final indoors in Stuttgart but won one total match in Madrid and Rome. She will look to pounce on her opponent’s serve and take early control before any first-round nerves surface.
Caroline Wozniacki vs. Laura Robson: When the draw appeared, many picked this match as the blue-chip upset of the first round. Wozniacki has not won a match on red clay this year, tumbling into a slump that even has her father, Piotr, planning to relinquish his stranglehold on the coaching role. (That should suffice to show how dire her situation is.) Clay should suit Robson less well than faster surfaces, and she hits far too many double faults, but an upset of Agnieszka Radwanska in Madrid reminded everyone of her lefty weapons and her belief against elite opponents.
Mona Barthel vs. Angelique Kerber: The eighth seed drew the short straw in the form of the draw’s highest-ranked unseeded player. Barthel has won two of the three previous meetings between these Germans, all on hard courts. Nevertheless, she has won only one match on red clay this year, over the hapless Bojana Jovanovski. Withdrawing from Rome with a shoulder injury, Kerber had looked creditable if not sensational this clay season with a quarterfinal in Madrid and semifinal in Stuttgart, where she extended Maria Sharapova deep into a third set.
Simona Halep vs. Carla Suarez Navarro: Both women arrive in fine form for a rare WTA match between two clay specialists. Although Halep had not accomplished much this year until Rome, her semifinal appearance there included upsets of Svetlana Kuznetsova, Radwanska, Roberta Vinci, and Jelena Jankovic—easily the best run of 2013 by a qualifier. Suarez Navarro cracked the top 20 for the first time this year, aided in part by two clay finals. Her one-handed backhand is the only such stroke in that elite group and worth a trip to an outer court.
Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Ekaterina Makarova: An all-Russian contest always intrigues because of the elevated volume of angst that it usually produces. Kuznetsova owns a much stronger clay resume, including the 2009 title here, but she imploded against Halep in Rome and lost easily to Romina Oprandi in Portugal. Better on faster surfaces like grass, Makarova did upset Victoria Azarenka on the surface this spring. Both Russians reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, where Kuznetsova launched her surge back to relevance.
Tomas Berdych vs. Gael Monfils: Here is the popcorn match of the day on the men’s side, featuring a contrast in personalities between the dour Czech and the flamboyant Frenchman. Both men are former Roland Garros semifinalists, even though 100 ranking slots separated them until Monfils reached the Nice final last week. His athletic exuberance could fluster Berdych, as could the volatile French crowd. The fifth seed lost to a French journeyman in the first round here two years ago and to Gulbis in the first round of Wimbledon last year, so an opening flop would not astonish. But Berdych improved steadily throughout the clay season after a slow start, becoming the only player other than Nadal to reach the semifinals at both Madrid and Rome.
Julien Benneteau vs. Ricardas Berankis: In singles, Benneteau is known for two things: never winning a final and being a persistent thorn in Roger Federer’s side. He would stay on track to meet the Swiss star again in the third round if he gets past this small Lithuanian bundle of talent. Berankis had not won a clay match until this year, while Benneteau has won only one match since February. It was a quality win, though, over Nicolas Almagro.
Carlos Berlocq vs. John Isner: This match has the potential to offer a fascinating contrast of styles between the grinding Argentine and the serve-forehand quick strikes of the American. Or it could descend into depths of ugliness that defy contemplation. Isner started the year in dismal form before finding his footing with a Houston title—and then dropping four of his next five matches. While Berlocq won a set from Nadal on South American clay, the fact that he tore his shirt in ecstasy when an opponent retired against him in February should give you a sense of how his season has gone.
Albert Ramos vs. Jerzy Janowicz: Thinking that the explosive hitting of Poland’s young star will overwhelm the Spanish journeyman? Maybe you should think again. Ramos defeated Janowicz in three sets at Barcelona this spring and should benefit from the cold, damp conditions. For all of the hubbub that he has generated at the Masters 1000 level, Janowicz has yet to leave his mark on a major. He can hit through the slowest of surfaces, though, and brings momentum from two top-ten wins in Rome.
Steve Johnson vs. Albert Montanes: The UCLA star took Nicolas Almagro to five sets in the first round of the Australian Open, where Almagro nearly reached the semifinals. The opponent here is much less intimidating, although Montanes just won Nice last week, but the surface is much less comfortable. Johnson should have chances and make it interesting before getting ground down in the end.
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
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.
With all of the American men gone by the third round of the Australian Open, we look back on how each of them fared. Interestingly, the greatest accomplishments came from some of the least expected names, while the more familiar figures often fizzled.
Ryan Harrison: Avenging his Olympics loss to Giraldo with a four-set victory, he relied on defensive tennis to a startling degree and could not trouble Djokovic at all in the second round. Harrison’s serve looked sharp, but he appears to have improved his game little over the last year or so.
Sam Querrey: The last man to fall fulfilled the expectations for the 20th seed, falling only to the higher-ranked Wawrinka. That straight-sets loss ended a reasonably good week for Querrey, although he benefited from Baker’s retirement and did not defeat anyone of note.
Brian Baker: Perhaps the saddest story of the tournament, he injured his knee in the second round against Querrey and may miss the next four months. That said, Baker impressed by battling through a tight five-setter against former American Bogomolov, and he had won the first set from Querrey in a match that looked like an upset before his injury.
Michael Russell: He drew Berdych in the first round and unsurprisingly had no answer for the Czech’s offensive arsenal, unable to match him hold for hold in a straight-sets defeat.
Tim Smyczek: The most pleasant surprise of the tournament among American men, he entered the draw as a lucky loser when Isner withdrew and made the most of his opportunity. Smyczek somehow tamed the towering serve of Ivo Karlovic in the first round, not even losing a set, and he snatched a set from world #5 David Ferrer in the second round before succumbing gallantly. Especially impressive was his comeback from losing the first nine games of that match to make Ferrer earn his victory.
Steve Johnson: Making his main-draw debut at the Australian Open, this former UCLA star qualified for the main draw and then received the unpleasant tidings of an opener against Almagro. But Johnson rose to the occasion with panache, firing first strikes with abandon through five entertaining sets as he stood toe to toe with a top-15 opponent despite his inexperience. His passion captivated and suggested that he can score an occasional surprise if he can refine his game.
Rajeev Ram: More noted for his doubles expertise, this serve-volley specialist surprised by winning his first match over baseliner Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. Falling meekly to Cilic in the next round, Ram still probably overachieved by reaching that stage.
Rhyne Williams: The winner of the Australian Open wildcard playoff, he deployed his booming serve and forehand to brilliant effect in claiming a two-set lead over top-30 opponent Florian Mayer. Williams later would hold match points in the fourth-set tiebreak before the German wriggled out of the trap to complete a comeback in five. But the experience should help this promising young star evolve into a fitter, more tenacious competitor, which could prove a dangerous combination with his obvious talents.
All things considered, the American men produced respectable results in view of prominent absences like Fish, Isner, and the retired Roddick. With expectations especially low, they competed with credit and, in some cases, produced results on which they can build.
By Romi Cvitkovic
With Andy Roddick’s mid-season retirement, John Isner’s recent slump and Mardy Fish’s ensuing health issues, the 2012 tennis season has been tough on American tennis fans. The constant background noise regarding the decline in quality and quantity of players coming out of the U.S. in recent years is, in fact, just that – noise.
With 19 American ATP players in the top 200, the U.S. field deserves more credit than it receives. Well-lauded tennis powerhouses Spain and France boast 20 and 18 players in the top 200, respectively, yet the U.S. with 19 is somehow not stacking up to the competition? Clearly, perspective needs to be reevaluated here.
The U.S. boasts their deepest men’s field in three years, and thanks to the Challenger Tour, four of these players even reached career-high rankings this past week making the start to the 2013 season all the more energizing.
We’ll take a look at the U.S. players on the verge of breakthrough in 2013, in order of their current ranking: Sam Querrey, Ryan Harrison, Tim Smyczek, Denis Kudla, Jack Sock, Steve Johnson, Rhyne Williams.
Currently ranked 22 and just five spots from his career-high, many would say reaching top 25 is a breakthrough already. But not for Querrey, who, after returning from elbow surgery and a rare umbilical cord infection, has shot up the rankings after having fallen out of the top 100 as recently as April. He capped off his season by beating world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in Paris just last month, and his confidence is running high going into the off-season.
With 1295 of his 1650 season ranking points coming from June on, Querrey has all of 355 points to defend in the first five month of 2013. If he reaches just one 500-level tournament final during the Australian or U.S. spring hard court season (a prize bag of 300 points), he would be nearly there ranking-wise with only that.
After admitting he had “no motivation” to win back in 2010, Querrey has recommitted himself this year and just last week told ESPN reporter Ravi Ubha that “it would mean a lot” to become the top ranked American player on his own accord: “I want to do it off of my good results, by going deep at the Masters events and Slams, not off the other guys not doing well. I don’t want to be the U.S. No. 1 ranked 22nd because other guys fell off in the rankings.”
Welcoming himself to the tennis world last year, Harrison took David Ferrer to five sets in the second round of Wimbledon and then followed that up with back-to-back semifinal runs in Atlanta and Los Angeles. Many were eager to see him breakthrough in 2012, but he fell terribly short.
After finishing 2009 ranked 360, 2010 ranked 173, and 2011 ranked 79, Harrison shot up to world No. 43 in July of this year but has since quickly fallen to end the season ranked 69. His mediocre results are perplexing as his game holds immense weapons that could drive him into the top 20. So what is holding him back?
While charming and thoughtful in interviews, he can quickly snap on court and reveal a heated temper – something that today’s tennis fans don’t always agree with. Physically well-developed, the 20-year-old is notorious for going through more than his share of coaches. In the past 20 months, Harrison has gone through four coaches and has yet to find a stabilizing force.
A product of the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Florida, Ryan’s first full-time “mentor” (as his father coach Pat Harrison called him at the time) was newly-retired doubles specialist and IMG teaching pro Martin Damm. After only seven months together, Ryan moved on to coach Scott McCain who was having great results with Somdev Devvarman. The one catch was that McCain was coaching both players at the same time and couldn’t devote the time Harrison needed. McCain recommended that Harrison work with Grant Doyle who had his own successful tennis academy in Texas. Although that partnership lasted the longest – a full season – the results did not follow.
Speaking bluntly, for a player as supposedly rattled with meltdowns and quick coaching changes as Harrison to hold onto a coach for a full season with minimal results takes an immense amount of patience. He has now teamed up with Tres Davis of the Austin Tennis Academy and we’ll see not only how that relationship holds up, but whether this younger coach can find Ryan’s tennis “voice”. The weapons are there, and perhaps Harrison just needed a year to get his footing on the ATP Tour, but now, it’s just a matter of having the right combination going into the new year and posting some big upsets.
Wisconsin native Smyczek may not fit the current mold of top American tennis players: giants with booming serves and forehands. But at 5’9” he has defied physical trends and reached his career-high ranking of 128 this past week by winning the Champaign, Ill. Challenger. He began the year ranked 273, and while no breakthrough runs occurred this season, he’s had consistent outcomes: always bettering the previous week’s results – a stark contrast to his poor 2011 results.
While his best wins have come at the Challenger-level this year, his ranking is now high enough to bypass many tour-level qualifying draws and grant him main draw access. He’s had success playing through weekly qualifying draws in the past, only to get caught not being fresh enough for main draw play. That should change at the start of 2013 with San Jose, Memphis and Delray Beach where he could make some nice runs early on.
One of the youngest in the top 200 and quite willing to indulge reporters on video (see video at right), Kudla’s on court sense is even more refreshing as his all-court game and mentality keep him grounded. At just 20-years-old, the Ukranian-born Virginian has won two Challengers since July and is sitting at a career-high ranking of 137. Earlier this year in San Jose, he even took Andy Roddick to three sets – including two tiebreakers – so a changing of the guards may very well lie in his hands in the next couple of years.
Physically lean and quick on-court, Kudla is another player who opted against college and decided to turn pro straight out of high school. The one difference between Kudla and Smyczek though, is that Kudla is four years younger and at nearly the same ranking as Smyczek – quite telling of his talent. And as a former world No. 3 junior player, Kudla knows a great deal about winning.
I had a chance to briefly chat with Kudla’s parents last year at their son’s old stomping ground, the USTA Regional Training Center in College Park, MD. Although many players have supportive family members, Kudla’s parents seem like unique advocates: his father is a proud no-nonsense kind of guy when it comes to Denis’ training, while his mother is cheerful and optimistic any time she speaks about her son and his future. Add USTA coach and clay court specialist Diego Moyano to his budding team, and you have a winning combination. Kudla’s poorest results come on this surface, so a strategic relationship with Moyano, the former coach of Fernando Gonzalez and Guillermo Coria, may be just what he needs to kick it up a notch next season.
The name “Jack Sock” has been thrown around in tennis circles for over a year now and with good reason. Sock went undefeated in high school, opted out of college for the pro tour, went on to win the 2011 U.S. Open Mixed Doubles Championship with Melanie Oudin only months after graduating high school and has been a solid force on the Challengers circuit ever since, with memorable appearances in tour-level tournaments such as this year’s third round run at the U.S. Open.
At 6’2” and 162 pounds, Sock has grown into his body and game, and after an injury earlier this year, he is set to take 2013 by storm. Never having played a pro tournament outside of North America, Sock will make his way to Australia in January after a rigorous off-season. He started 2012 ranked 380 and playing Futures tournaments, so nearly any result in Australia will bump up his current career-high ranking of 137.
If he can lean up a bit and shed the few extra pounds he put on during his injury lay-off, Sock’s speed will turn into a strength instead of a liability. His rocket serve and forehand will then nicely complement his new agility, and the rest as they say, would be history.
Out of all the Americans on this list, I expect to see the biggest rankings jump from Sock next year given his crafty and powerful game, and don’t be surprised if he has a few tour-level final appearances or titles. (For an exclusive interview I did with Sock last month discussing his injury, goals and off-season plans, check out the USA Today article here.)
Johnson stands as the only player on this list to graduate from college – a telling aspect consistent with his character. While some players feel ready to transition into the pros after only two years of college play, Johnson took his time to develop in the NCAAs winning 72 straight matches and back-to-back NCAA Championships.
After graduating from the University of Southern California this past spring, Johnson started playing pro tournaments in July and notched his first Challenger title in Aptos in August without dropping a set. By winning the 2012 NCAA Championships, he was awarded a wildcard entry into the U.S. Open a couple of weeks after Aptos, and boy, did he capitalize. He lost to world No. 14 Richard Gasquet in the third round but not before taking home $65,000 in winnings and jump starting his pro career.
For the first six months of 2013, Johnson will have ZERO points to defend from 2012, as he only had two first round losses in Honolulu and San Jose while still in college. Talk about an advantage for the new season.
Tennessee native Williams comes from a tennis family and won his first pro tournament at just 16 years of age. He possesses a surprisingly cunning serve and an accurate forehand that could consistently paint the lines, and Williams decided to attend the University of Tennessee to further develop both his skills and his mental game.
Since turning pro after playing college tennis for two years, Williams has had a steady climb up the rankings ladder, reaching a career-high of 190 this week after reaching the quarterfinals or better on his last four Challenger tournaments. What used to be his liability – his vocal self-deprecating comments on-court when down – has turned into a weapon most of the time. Now, instead of talking his way out of match through a loss, he successfully channels his anger toward a win. Sure, there are still slip-ups when he gets unnecessarily down on himself and doesn’t believe he can win through grit (we are always our own worst enemies on court), but they are rarer and far in between. And his on-court demeanor otherwise is infused with candor and smiles – especially during doubles with good friend Tennys Sandgren.
The first two full months of 2012 (when Williams was ranked 511 in the world) were spent playing Futures tournaments and scrounging for points. If he continues to build confidence in his beautifully-crafted game, and after a rigorous off-season training block in Florida this winter, the start to his 2013 can hold a great deal of hope for his entire year. Add to that the support of his cousin and former Tennessee Vols player and coach, Chris Williams, who travels with him, and he just may continue believing in his strengths and game even more.