Tomas Berdych

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

Of the Frenchmen who shone on Day 2, Gael Monfils shone most of all.

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

ATP:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WTA:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roland Garros Fast Forward: Li, Wozniacki, Berdych Face Intriguing Tests on Day 2

Tomas Berdych can't afford to take his eye off the ball against Gael Monfils.

As we look ahead to Day 2, three top-ten players feature intriguing tests.  Let’s start with the women this time.

WTA:

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.

ATP:

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.

 

ATP Roland Garros Visions: Picks, Predictions, Dark Horses, Winners

Rafael Nadal Roland Garros French Open 2012

(May 25, 2013) With tennis’ second Slam of the season about to get underway with main draw action, the dedicated panel of Tennis Grandstand writers have come together for a comprehensive preview of the men’s draw at Roland Garros. We’ve covered dark horses, seeded players crashing out early, first round upsets and matches to watch for, and potential semifinalists and eventual champion for the men’s tour.

In the table, you will find the entire Tennis Grandstand team’s “Quick Picks and Predictions” for the ATP draw, with further detailed analysis below by Lisa-Marie Burrows, James Crabtree, Romi Cvitkovic, Yeshayahu Ginsburg and Andrea Lubinsky.

Dark Horse

Lisa-Marie Burrows(6) Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Tsonga has the potential to sneak through to the quarterfinals relatively untroubled.  He may have Marin Cilic, Juan Mónaco and compatriot Jeremy Chardy in his section, but I feel that he can reach the quarters fairly easily. He could be a difficult quarterfinal opponent for Roger Federer to contend with.

James Crabtree: (12) Tommy Haas. The fairytale story has been waiting long enough, and Tommy Haas has the correct subplots to fulfill the fairytale. Not only that but his draw is favorable and rumor suggests he possesses magic beans, has a black cat, practices voodoo and is in fact Baron Samedi (James Bond reference for y’all).

Cvitkovic: Ernests Gulbis. The Latvian has a tough but very doable road to the semifinals. He could potentially take on Tomas Berdych in the second round, Tommy Robredo in the third and Nicolas Almagro in the fourth, before possibly outhitting David Ferrer in the quarterfinals if he has enough steam.  He may be a ticking time bomb on court, but Roland Garros has always been his best Slam result, having reached the quarterfinals in 2008. Now, more mature and experienced, he could make another solid run here.

Yeshayahu Ginsburg: (5) Tomas Berdych. Picking a dark horse in tennis is kind of an act of futility nowadays. When it comes to winning Grand Slams, it’s the “Big 4” and no one else. Take Andy Murray out of the equation due to injury (though he was weaker on clay anyway) and it’s Federer, Nadal, Djokovic or bust for the winner. But if I have to pick someone else, Berdych has been very strong recently, reaching the semifinals in both Madrid and Rome. He has a good chance at making a deep run—assuming he can get by Gael Monfils in the first round, that is.

Andrea Lubinsky(24) Benoit Paire. The good news? Paire is at a career high 26 in the rankings and scored wins over Juan Monaco, Julien Benneteau, and Juan Maritn del Potro en route to the semifinals in Rome, where he pushed Roger Federer in two close sets. The bad news? He’s in Nadal’s quarter. There are plenty of guys who have had a solid clay season, but what makes Paire a better Dark Horse is his inconsistency. His bad days are bad, but his great days are great…

Seeded Player Crashing Out Early

Burrows: (8) Janko Tipsarevic or (19) John Isner. For me it was a toss up between No.8 seed Tipsarevic losing to Verdasco in the second round and John Isner losing in the first.  I feel that an early exit may be on the cards for No.19 seed Isner as he faces Carlos Berlocq of Argentina in the opening round. He can prove to be a very tricky customer and enjoys playing on the clay.

Crabtree: It has to be (5) Tomas Berdych. If he doesn’t lose to Gael Monfils in the first round, a true son to his French faithful who is seemingly finding old form, he will have to battle Ernests Gulbis in the second round, another player destined for the top twenty.

Cvitkovic: (5) Tomas Berdych. If he can get past a newly in-form Gael Monfils in the first round, the Czech will likely encounter Ernests Gulbis, who took him out first round of Wimbledon last year and can easily out-play him again on the Latvian’s better surface.

Ginsburg: (8) Janko Tipsarevic. Tipsarevic is not facing any particularly good players on clay until at least the third round (Verdasco can be a challenge but has been horribly inconsistent for a few years now), but Tipsarevic has been playing just awful tennis this year. He probably gets by Nicolas Mahut, but I can’t see him winning more than two matches here unless he turns around fast.

Lubinsky(8) Janko Tipsarevic. Tipsarevic actually has a pretty cushy section of the draw, but for some reason I’m just not feeling it. That reason? He’s had an abysmal clay season, losing to the likes of Guido Pella, Daniel Brands, Guillermo Garcia Lopez, all ranked at least 50 places beneath him. If he beats Nicolas Mahut in the first round, the No. 8 seed could face Fernando Verdasco, who could pose a real challenge.

First Round Match to Watch For

Burrows(15) Gilles Simon vs Lleyton Hewitt.  The first thing that popped into my head when I saw their names drawn in the first round is ‘this is going to be a long match!’ Expect five long sets, each lasting around one hour each!  Both players are great defensive counter-punchers and it will be a battle of fitness on court to see who can edge out the other.

Crabtree: (1) Novak Djokovic vs David Goffin. It’s doubtful Novak will lose, but he should still be pushed by the rising Goffin who took a set off Federer last year. The other match is one that will get little press. Nevertheless watch out for qualifier James Duckworth and Blaz Kavcic. Their last encounter was a four hour and fifty two minute marathon in scolding heat at this years Aussie Open which Kavcic won 10-8 in the fifth.

Cvitkovic: (24) Benoit Paire vs Marcos Baghdatis. Both have eccentric personalities, so I would watch this match as much for the tennis as the hilarity or drama that could ensue. With Paire becoming a surprise semifinalist in Rome two weeks ago and Baghdatis the usual fan favorite, both are sure to bring crowds and opinionated people as well.

Ginsburg: (5) Tomas Berdych vs Gael Monfils. Can there be any better first-round match? Monfils was a top ten player before injuries stalled his career for a bit. He’s on the way back and isn’t fully at top form yet, but he always plays well in front of his home Paris crowd—at least in the early rounds. Both guys play hard-hitting power games and this should be some fun clay court tennis.

Lubinsky: (5) Tomas Berdych v. Gael Monfils. Gael Monfils is a wildcard. Yes, you read that correctly. After an extended injury break, the once world No. 7 has fallen to 109 in the rankings, but he’s working his way back up, winning a challenger in Bordeaux last week and reaching the finals in Nice. Will he win? Probably not. Berdych is in fine form, but generally any Monfils match provides plenty of entertainment. This is one not to be missed.

First Round Upset Special

Burrows: Gael Monfils d. (6) Tomas Berdych.  This match has entertainment written all over it.  This is a tough first round draw against the enigmatic Monfils, who would love to delight his home crowd with a victory over the fifth seed.  Should Monfils be feeling physically fit, this match has the potential to bring a closely fought contest, with the crowd firmly behind their man.

Crabtree: Lleyton Hewitt d. (15) Gilles Simon. Too much Aussie loyalty here. Hewitt will take down Gilles Simon in 5 brutally boring sets! Hewitt never has done much on clay, but he is a grand slam type player who hasn’t got too many of these chances left.

Cvitkovic: Dmitry Tursunov d. (22) Alexandr Dolgopolov. Dolgopolov has been struggling this year, barely winning over 50% of his matches and was defeated by both Robin Haase and Ivan Dodig on clay within the last month. What’s more, Tursunov took Dologopolov to two tiebreak sets in the second round of Munich where he eventually lost. It may be time to plot his revenge and garner more noise surrounding his comeback.

Ginsburg: Ricardas Berankis d. (30) Julien Benneteau. There are some good choices here, especially given Wawrinka’s injury. But I’ll take someone a little lower in the rankings. Ricardas Berankis is in a good position against Julien Benneteau, who is better on hard courts than clay. Berankis is a young player in his first French Open main draw and he has a real chance to make a splash by starting with an upset.

LubinskyPablo Andujar d. (29) Mikhail Youzhny. The No. 29 seed isn’t exactly a clay court specialist and while his clay court relsults this season haven’t been awful, they haven’t been great either. On the other hand, Andujar excels on the the red dirt. He reached the semi finals in Nice this week and even more impressively, the semi finals in Madrid earlier this month. Should he pull the upset, he has real potential to make the 4th round.

Semifinalists

Burrows: I have a feeling it will involve the two players that many expect to meet: Novak Djokovic vs Rafael Nadal. Neither player has got a particularly easy route to the final, but it will make for a mouthwatering encounter. It could be the dream final – but a round earlier.

The bottom half of the draw may see David Ferrer take on Roger Federer for a place in the final. If Ferrer can battle past a possible quarter-final meeting with Berdych or Almagro,  I think it would provide an interesting semifinal between him and Federer.

Crabtree: I am probably very alone on this but I see Jo-Wilfried Tsonga reunited with Roger Federer for another epic slam semi. Now I promise I am not on medication but Jo will take the winner of the Rafael Nadal and Tommy Haas match.

Cvitkovic: Outside of the top three who I expect to make the semifinals, Nadal, Djokovic and Federer, the fourth spot in Ferrer’s quarter is up for grabs. You could give the semifinal slot to Berdych, Almagro or Ferrer, but I’m going with Gulbis. He must be physical fit and be able to sustain all of his previous matches, then take it to Ferrer’s grinding game by hitting his signature wild winners.

Ginsburg: It would be foolish to pick Djokovic, Federer, or Nadal to lose early, but Djokovic has an absolutely brutal draw. If Tommy Haas ever had a chance for one last hurrah at a Major, this is it. I think he comes out of that quarter whether or not someone beats Djokovic before Haas would meet him. The other sections have some intrigue, with Federer/Tsonga and Berdych/Ferrer two very good potential quarterfinal matches, but I don’t know that there’s as much potential for an upset that massive in the other sections. Give me Haas, Nadal, Ferrer, and Federer as the four semifinalists.

Lubinsky: Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Tomas Berdych, Roger Federer. One of these things is not like the others. When one of the Top 4 misses a Grand Slam, it creates a huge void in the draw, a void for someone to take advantage of. Theoretically this section belongs to David Ferrer, but it’s tough to determine his form since he’s been impeded by Nadal in both Madrid and Rome. Berdych on the other hand made the semi finals at both tournaments, putting him in a prime location to take advantage of Andy Murray’s withdrawal. However, he does have a very tough draw including the likes of Monfils, Gulbis, Robredo and Almagro so he will have to find his best form yet.

And the Champion is …

Burrows(3) Rafael Nadal. Despite a potential tough meeting against Djokovic in the semis, I feel that if Nadal can surpass the world No.1 he will have beaten his biggest nemesis out there. Roland Garros is his stomping ground and I have a feeling Nadal is not willing to give up his crown in Paris just yet.

Crabtree: (3) Rafael Nadal. Nadal will defeat Tsonga in 4 sets, bite his trophy and tell everyone that it was ‘more than a dream!’

Cvitkovic: (3) Rafael Nadal. Ever since coming back from his injury layoff in January, the Spaniard seems to be a man on a mission. Racking up six titles already this year, and holding a record 31-2 on clay in 2013, one would be hard-pressed to pick an alternative. He could face Novak Djokovic in the semifinals, but given the Serbs tough road and any lingering ankle issue, Nadal should be able to get past him to the final with the hunger we’ve learned to love in the Spaniard.

Ginsburg: (3) Rafael Nadal. It would be foolish to pick anyone other than Nadal to win it all, especially with Djokovic’s draw. The only person I see with a decent chance to beat Nadal before the semis is Kei Nishikori, and he just isn’t good enough on clay (though a potential third-round match with Lukas Rosol will generate a lot of hype, that’s for sure). The only player I can see beating Nadal on clay this year in a Slam is David Ferrer (he sure came close twice this year already on clay) and Ferrer just can’t get that far because it means going through Federer. And we all know how Federer/Nadal French Open finals end.

Lubinsky(3) Rafael Nadal. Nadal is 52-1 at Roland Garros. Let that sink in. In 8 years, he has lost just once. Yes, he was out for an extended period of time, but the rust is all gone. He’s already won 6 titles since his return earlier this year and he’s already leading the race to London, despite having missed this year’s only Grand Slam.

The Fab Five (ATP): Previewing the Roland Garros Men’s Contenders

Rafa reacquaints himself with one of his old friends.  Another awaits in Paris.

One man looms above the rest in Paris, as usual.  But a few other champions could step into his shoes if he stumbles.  Meet the men to watch at Roland Garros.

The smart money:

1) Rafael Nadal:  What more can be said about the greatest clay player ever to brand his mark on the terre battue?  Nadal has reached the final at all eight events that he has entered this year, seven of them on clay, in a career-best streak that has accompanied ATP-leading tallies in titles (six) and matches won (36).  Not since he won Roland Garros for the first time in 2004 has he suffered three or more losses in one clay season, and he already has dropped two this year.  The Monte Carlo loss to Djokovic did not seem to derail Nadal’s confidence for long against other opponents as he swept through Barcelona, Madrid, and Rome to claim a top-four seed.

Even his most fervent fans could not have expected such an impressive comeback from the Spaniard, yet his detractors will note with some accuracy that he has produced form less overwhelming on this surface than in years past.  Nadal has played more final sets on clay this year, going the distance against players like Dimitrov, Gulbis, and Ferrer, and his movement looks a shade less naturally explosive on some days.  But those niggles are far from enough to consider him anything less than the presumptive favorite at the tournament where has lost only once.  He holds a perfect record there against his current archrival (Djokovic) and his former archrival (Federer), neither of whom even has taken him to a final set in Paris.

Knocking on the door:

2) Novak Djokovic:  The only man to defeat Rafa during the European clay-court swing, Djokovic joined Nadal in completing the trio of Masters 1000 titles on this surface.  Perhaps even more important is his trio of victories over the greatest clay player ever at each of the clay Masters 1000 tournaments, the most recent in Monte Carlo this year.  Nobody else has defeated Rafa at any of those three events since 2009, which shows how far Djokovic stands ahead of the Spaniard’s other rivals.  His Monte Carlo victory reminded observers how well his backhand matches up to Nadal’s heavy topspin and how he can cover a clay court as suffocatingly as the man who built his reputation on it.

Responding to adversity in that match with poise, the Serb stood less tall at the other 2013 clay events and brings little momentum to Roland Garros.  He has won just one set in their four meetings there, although he took a step forward by reaching his first final last year at the only major that he has not won.  Not seeking a Nole Slam of holding all four majors simultaneously, Djokovic may feel less pressure if he returns to that stage and especially if he faces Nadal before it.  He arrives in Paris with the momentum in their rivalry even if a host of more general concerns about his form surround him.

3) Roger Federer:  Not until Rome had he even reached a final, playing a reduced schedule and navigating around a back injury.  Other than Nadal, Federer is the only active man who ever has won Roland Garros, and his knowledge of what it takes to win there arms him mentally against the challenges that will arise.  Since that title in 2009, he has produced mixed results in Paris from a quarterfinal loss to Soderling and a tepid effort against Djokovic to a transcendent masterpiece that toppled the Serb in 2011.  Federer never has defeated Nadal at Roland Garros, of course, and he has registered just one victory over the Spaniard since his peak period in 2007.  That one win came with a  significant asterisk, a day after his rival’s 243-minute semifinal against Djokovic in Madrid.

Outclassed again by Nadal in Rome, Federer will hope to land in the opposite half of the draw and for someone to conveniently remove him in advance.  If that surprise should happen, he could repeat what he did in 2009, for the week in Rome restored him to normal operations after the Madrid fiasco and earlier concerns over his back.  Amid all of the scrutiny surrounding his futility against one particular opponent on the surface, people forget too often that Federer is clearly the second-best clay player of his generation.

With a hope and a prayer…:

4) Tomas Berdych:  A semifinalist in both Madrid and Rome, he bounced back from a dismal start to the clay season to become its second-most reliable performer behind Nadal.  Two monkeys have climbed onto his broad shoulders in recent years, from one of which he probably cannot escape at Roland Garros.  Perhaps as the result of some bad karma (google “Berdych Nadal Madrid 2006”), Berdych has gone winless against Rafa since the start of 2007 and rarely wins even a set from him.  On the other hand, he ended an 11-match losing streak against Djokovic in astonishing fashion with a three-set comeback over the world No. 1 in Rome.  His only other previous win in their matches came at a major, Wimbledon 2010, where he also upset Federer, so he does not shrink from the grand stage.

The same year, Berdych came within a set of the Roland Garros final after a straight-sets demolition of Andy Murray.  His explosive forehand penetrates even the slowest surfaces, and he benefits from the extra time to set his feet.  The closest equivalent in this year’s draw to two-time finalist Robin Soderling, Berdych has become more consistent than ever over the last year and grows more dangerous as he settles into a tournament.  The best-of-five format allows him to find his range, lose it, and find it again.

5) David  Ferrer:  Among the most consistent performers in 2012-13, the Spanish veteran has reached semifinals at three of the last four majors, including his first ever at Roland Garros.  If not for Nadal, Ferrer’s grinding baseline resilience should have earned him a title or two at the major traditionally designed for that playing style.  Years of subservience to Rafa have trickled into his lack of belief against other elite contenders, however, and at 31 that fatalism may have become too ingrained to erase.  Ferrer came very close to winning some notable matches this year, such as the Miami final and his Madrid meeting with Nadal, which might either encourage or discourage him.

Unlikely to halt a 16-match clay losing streak to his countryman, he never has defeated Federer on any surface.  Ferrer thus needs help from others in the draw, although he has earned his share of success against Djokovic on clay and against Berdych more generally.  A first Masters 1000 title at the Paris Indoors last year marked a late-career breakthrough that many doubted would ever come, so a larger breakthrough might not be inconceivable.

***

Return tomorrow for a look at the women’s title contenders in Paris.

The Glory That Is Rome: ATP Rome Draw Preview

Rafa and Novak can't divide the Rome hardware between them this year.

No sooner does the dust settle in Madrid than the action kicks off at the last clay Masters 1000 tournament on the Road to Roland Garros.  In fact, the action in Rome’s Foro Italico starts on the day of the Madrid final, offering some extra entertainment for those unsatisfied with the prospect of just one ATP match in their Sunday.

First quarter:  A bit of an enigma this clay season, Novak Djokovic has accomplished the most when the least was expected (Monte Carlo) and accomplished the least when the most was expected (Madrid).  The world No. 1 has won two titles in Rome, one against potential third-round opponent Stanislas Wawrinka in 2008.  Most fans will remember the five-set thriller that they contested at the Australian Open, and Wawrinka will bring considerable momentum to Rome after reaching the final in Madrid with upsets over two top-eight men.  A third such victory does not lie beyond his reach, for he also has defeated Murray and Ferrer on clay this year.  But Wawrinka has not defeated Djokovic since 2006, dropping 11 straight meetings, and he may have accumulated fatigue from not just Madrid but his Portugal title the week before.

The lower part of the quarter features Tomas Berdych and three towers of power.  While Kevin Anderson collected a runner-up trophy in Casablanca, he has suffered a string of setbacks to Berdych in 2012-13 and has shown little sign of reversing that trend.  Fellow giants Marin Cilic and John Isner exited early in Madrid, as they usually do on a surface that exposes their indifferent footwork and mobility.  Berdych has thrived against opponents of a style similar to his, so his chances of meeting Djokovic or Wawrinka in the quarterfinals look strong.  Never has he defeated either man on clay, however, and Djokovic has dominated him relentlessly, including two victories this year.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Second quarter:  Much to the relief of his fans, Rafael Nadal will control his own destiny regarding a top-four seed at Roland Garros.  The defending champion landed in the same quarter as compatriot David Ferrer for the second straight week, which means that he will pass him in the rankings if he wins the title.  One feels a bit sorry for home hope Andreas Seppi, a quarterfinalist in Rome last year who seems likely to lose all or most of those points.  Even if survives an opener against fellow Italian Fabio Fognini, which he could not in Monte Carlo, Seppi will become Nadal’s first victim in the next round.  Finally gone from the top 10, a dormant Janko Tipsarevic meets an equally dormant compatriot in Viktor Troicki to start the tournament.   Nadal demolished Tipsarevic in their previous clay meetings, while Troicki has threatened him only on the fast hard court of Tokyo.  Neither Serb might even reach the Spaniard, though, if Monte Carlo quarterfinalist Jarkko Nieminen hopes to continue his unexpected clay success.

Blow after blow has fallen upon Ferrer on his favorite surface over the last few months, from two routs in clay finals to an opening-round loss in Barcelona to the painful collapse against Nadal last week.  That Madrid match surely will linger in his mind if they meet in the same round here, although Fernando Verdasco might prevent it.  This fading Spaniard looked suddenly improved in Madrid and has a handful of clay victories over Ferrer, but he has lost their last few meetings.  A semifinalist in Barcelona, Milos Raonic should struggle to find the consistency necessary to outlast Ferrer here.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Third quarter:  This section contains more intrigue than the  others because the two bold-faced names who anchor it have struggled this clay season.  Lucky to scrape through Madrid as long as he did, the third-seeded Andy Murray finds himself fortunate to find no clay specialists in his immediate area.  The man who knocked Federer out of Madrid, Kei Nishikori, will look to follow up that breakthrough by defeating Murray for the first time.  After he came within five points of upsetting Nadal in 2011, Paolo Lorenzi earned a wildcard into the main draw to become Nishikori’s opening test.  Veterans like Nikolay Davydenko and Feliciano Lopez have sunk too deeply into decline to mount sustained runs.

Absent from Madrid and tepid in Monte Carlo, Juan Martin Del Potro hopes to recapture the form that saw him notch two top-five upsets (and nearly a third) at Indian Wells.  He has earned successes on clay before, including twice taking Federer to five sets at Roland Garros and reaching a semifinal there in 2009.  Del Potro must beware of Nicolas Almagro in the third round despite the latter’s struggles at Masters 1000 tournaments this year.  Remarkably, the two men have not met at the ATP level, so it would be fascinating to see what their explosive shot-making can produce in unison.  Either possesses stronger clay-court expertise than Murray, as does Almagro’s potential second-round opponent Juan Monaco.  Regrouping from an early-season slump, Monaco has won a set from Djokovic and defeated Tipsarevic over the last month.  He also stopped the Scot in Rome before and won his only clay meeting with Del Potro, albeit seven years ago.

Semifinalist:  Del Potro

Fourth quarter:  The Foro Italico has witnessed some of Roger Federer’s most ignominious setbacks at events of this level, including losses to Filippo Volandri, Radek Stepanek, and Ernests Gulbis.  Slowest of the nine Masters 1000 tournaments, the surface left him more vulnerable than the others to the lapses in consistency that have increased as he has aged.  Former nemesis Stepanek could meet him again in the second round, although Federer defeated him comfortably in the same round of Madrid.  Also lurking in this section, with a wildcard, is Volandri.  That particular ghost of Romes past probably will not have the chance to haunt Federer, for Tommy Haas should continue his current string of solid results to reach him in the third round.  While Haas won their most recent meeting on the grass of Halle, he has lost all of their other matches since 2007, one of them after winning the first two sets at Roland Garros.  Another man who has troubled Federer late in his career, Gilles Simon, might test the German’s consistency in the second round.

Perhaps the most compelling figure of those vying to meet Federer in the quarterfinals is neither of the two seeds but Grigor Dimitrov.  Until now, though, Dimitrov has shown a tendency to alternate breakthroughs with breakdowns, so his upset of Djokovic in Madrid could precede a pedestrian effort in Rome.  Both of Richard Gasquet’s clay victories over Federer have come at clay Masters 1000 tournaments, heightening the significance of what otherwise would seem an easy test for the Swiss to conquer.  A shootout could unfold in the second round between Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and powerful young server Jerzy Janowicz, but neither man should last long on a surface antithetical to their strengths.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Final:  Nadal vs. Del Potro

Champion:  Rafael Nadal

 

What a Difference a Year Makes: Madrid in Blue vs. Madrid in Red

Should Madrid's experimentation really have made the ATP see red?

After the outcry caused by the audacious rhapsody in blue last year, the ATP essentially twisted the arm of the Madrid tournament into returning to its red roots.  But did the traditional surface really make a difference in the results of either the men’s or the women’s draw?  An analysis could use multiple angles, of which this article chooses just two.  First, it looks at the upsets of seeds by unseeded players in the first two rounds of Madrid over the last two years, the first on blue clay and the second on red clay.  Second, it looks at who ultimately reached the semifinals in both draws over those years.  This comparison between 2012 and 2013 aims to explore whether the change in surface correlates to significant differences in result patterns.

Of course, any single year can produce a skewed sample, so one could argue that singling out the current edition of Madrid does not fairly represent the overall trends of the event’s history on red clay.  That history remains quite young, however, for this year marks only its fourth on the surface.  And the blue-clay experiment lasted only a single year, so it seems appropriate to compare equal sample sizes highlighted by a comparable group of elite players.

 

Let’s start with the upsets angle, and with the WTA.  (Numbers refer to seeds.)

2012:

Lucie Hradecka d. 3 Petra Kvitova

Sorana Cirstea d. 7 Marion Bartoli

Petra Cetkovska d. 10 Vera Zvonareva

Varvara Lepchenko d. 11 Francesca Schiavone

Roberta Vinci d. 14 Dominika Cibulkova

Carla Suarez Navarro d. 15 Jelena Jankovic

Ekaterina Makarova d. 16 Maria Kirilenko

Almost half of the seeds (seven of sixteen) lost in the first or second round, a high number for an event of this quality.  On the other hand, five of the seven came from the 9-16 bracket, and Cirstea knocking off Bartoli on clay does not come as a huge surprise.  The latter has struggled regularly on the surface outside that single Roland Garros semifinal run in 2011, while the former earned her best result of any major with a quarterfinal there in 2009.  Another result that jumps out from this group, the Hradecka-Kvitova match, seems less startling in retrospect with the wild oscillations in Kvitova’s form over the last two years.  Kvitova also has made a habit of faltering against lower-ranked countrywomen, but this match still should raise an eyebrow because she was the defending champion in Madrid and fell to a heavy server, not a clay specialist.

Of the 9-16 upsets, Lepchenko defeating Schiavone surprises the most, and in fact the American ultimately reached the quarterfinals at this event.  That said, Madrid has witnessed other such unexpected results on red clay before, for which one need look no further than Aravane Rezai’s title in 2010.  Lepchenko also went back to work on the Italian battalions here this year, as you’ll see below.  Like Schiavone, Jankovic floundered through much of last season, so one should not read too much into her loss to rising clay talent Suarez Navarro.  Russians Zvonareva and Kirilenko usually have not enjoyed their clay seasons, and Vinci’s victory over Cibulkova looks merely like one clay specialist ousting another.  On the other hand, hindsight may dilute the magnitude of this upset, now that the Italian has risen above the Slovak in the rankings a year later. 

2013:

Ekaterina Makarova d. 3 Victoria Azarenka

Laura Robson d. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska

Madison Keys d. 5 Li Na

Daniela Hantuchova d. 8 Petra Kvitova

Carla Suarez Navarro d. 9 Sam Stosur

Yaroslava Shvedova d. 10 Caroline Wozniacki

Svetlana Kuznetsova d. 11 Nadia Petrova

Varvara Lepchenko d. 12 Roberta Vinci

Sabine Lisicki d. 15 Dominika Cibulkova

What comes around goes around for Vinci, it seems, an upset-maker in 2012 and the victim of an upset in 2012.  Kvitova also has found the Magic Box a house of horrors since winning the title here two years ago, her first career loss to Hantuchova this year adding some context to the Hradecka debacle last year.  And there’s just no curbing Lepchenko’s appetite for Italian cuisine in Madrid, while Cibulkova doesn’t seem to enjoy her time here in any color.  The heavy-hitting Lisicki’s upset of her in two tiebreaks suggests the impact of the Madrid altitude on amplifying serves, relevant no matter the surface.

Taking stock of the larger view, the carnage this week was staggering and becomes even more staggering considering the relative consistency that has developed at the top of the WTA over the last eighteen months or so.  Granted, Azarenka just returned from an injury absence and never plays her best on clay, nor does Radwanska.  But one would have expected the latter to win more than four games from a raw Laura Robson, even amid her recent slump, and Makarova did not topple Azarenka based on her superior clay-court expertise.  Madison Keys shares Robson’s and Makarova’s preference for faster surfaces, so her first-round rout of Li Na may have registered the greatest shock of all.  Just two years removed from her Roland Garros title, Li has continued to shine on clay with marquee finals in Rome last year and Stuttgart this year.  Any of those three upsets, though, came as a greater surprise than any of those in 2012.

The remaining upsets of top-10 players, those over Stosur and Wozniacki, spoke more to the recent struggles of both women and came at the hands of two players accomplished on clay.  They don’t add much to the overall picture.

The VerdictBoth years featured plenty of upsets, nearly half of the seeds falling in 2012 and over half of the seeds falling in 2013.  Three of the top ten fell last year and a ghastly six of the top ten this year in an even larger implosion.  Since most of the top women prefer somewhat faster surfaces to red clay anyway, that difference might actually demonstrate a point that the blue clay’s detractors cited:  the blue played more like other blue courts (e.g., hard courts) than like other clay courts.  Even so, seeing the best in the game play their best may matter more than any other goal, and last year offered more in that regard than this year did.

Let’s next see how the men fared in the upset category.

2012:

Marin Cilic d. 8 John Isner

Jurgen Melzer d. 13 Feliciano Lopez

Not much to see here, just two upsets before the final sixteen and both of men whom one would expect to exit early on clay.  In fact, these results counter perceptions of the blue clay as a much faster surface than the red, which the tournament’s later rounds would encourage.  Losses by Isner and Lopez, players built around explosive serves and short points, surprised much less than the upsets in the WTA draw in the same year.  I found the dearth of upsets by non-seeds in the ATP draw quite surprising, in retrospect, for it seemed amid the general tumult at the time that many more fell in the early rounds.

 2013:

Grigor Dimitrov d. 1 Novak Djokovic

Daniel Gimeno-Traver d. 8 Richard Gasquet

Juan Monaco d. 9 Janko Tipsarevic

Pablo Andujar d. 10 Marin Cilic

Mikhail Youzhny d. 11 Nicolas Almagro

Fernando Verdasco d. 12 Milos Raonic

In contrast to the previous year, the 2013 draw harvested a plentiful crop of upsets, including three members of the top ten.  The name looming above the list, of course, belongs to one of the two superstars who criticized the blue clay so vociferously.  We never will know how much a lingering ankle injury or the consequent lack of practice contributed to Djokovic’s opening-round loss.  Note, however, that he brought the injury and minimal practice to Monte Carlo two weeks before—and, surviving two early three-setters, ultimately won the title from Nadal.  While his slips, stumbles, and mishits on blue clay showed his discomfort with that surface, Djokovic slipped, stumbled, and mishit plenty of balls across three ragged hours of tennis.  Those parallels supported what some have observed over the last few years:  Madrid’s problems come not from the surface’s color but from its hasty, uneven preparation.

The second-most surprising result in my view came from Youzhny’s victory over Almagro, in which a seeded clay specialist near the top 10 fell to a rapidly fading fast-court specialist twenty slots below him.  That’s exactly the type of result that one might have expected on the blue clay, so its occurrence on the red reminds us that these counterintuitive results can happen there too.  Gasquet’s early loss also stands out (to a lesser extent) because of his past successes on clay and overall consistency in 2012-13.  All the same, Gimeno-Traver became the seventh player outside the top 30 to defeat the Frenchman since the US Open, showing that Gasquet remains more vulnerable to upsets than most of the top ten.

The upsets of Tipsarevic, Cilic, and Raonic registered little surprise because all three fell to players with much greater aptitude on clay.  By conquering the latter two, Andujar and Verdasco showed that the altitude perhaps does not offer massive servers as much of an advantage as some had thought.  Despite his top-ten ranking, Tipsarevic has lost to virtually every opponent imaginable this year as his dismal form has dogged him across all surfaces.

The Verdict:  In both quantity and quality, the Madrid men’s draw produced more notable upsets early in the week this year than last year, as did the women’s draw.  However you choose to interpret that difference, it certainly does not suggest that the traditional surface caused a return to normalcy—but quite the opposite.  Nevertheless, some more subtle thinkers might argue that rankings, and thus seedings, reflect a player’s performance on faster surfaces disproportionately compared with performance on clay.  Since the ATP still has plenty of clay specialists who make their living on the surface, the lack of upsets in 2012 ironically may suggest that the blue clay played more like a hard court, as many complained, since the seedings based predominantly on hard-court results dictated outcomes.  Food for thought…

Now let’s switch to the other angle of comparison and compare who reached the semifinals of Madrid in 2012 and 2013, ladies first.

2012:

1 Victoria Azarenka (d. 8 Li Na)

4 Agnieszka Radwanska (d. Varvara Lepchenko)

Lucie Hradecka (d. 5 Samantha Stosur)

9 Serena Williams (d. 2 Maria Sharapova)

To state the obvious, the top half played exactly according to form.  In fact, the only top-eight seed who did not reach the quarterfinals in that half was the aforementioned Bartoli, usually expected to underperform on any sort of clay.  Despite her ninth seed, Serena should be favored over Sharapova on any surface and merely extended her dominance in that rivalry.  Few would have been surprised to see her eliminate the higher-ranked Caroline Wozniacki in a three-setter a round before.  Having lost to Wozniacki in Miami earlier that spring, Serena was not going to let the Dane down her twice.

The only odd name in this lineup does pop the eyeballs a bit, even after we became acquainted with her in the upsets section.  Hradecka delivered the biggest shock there, and she built upon that run with another upset of the then-healthy and somewhat dangerous Stosur in two tense tiebreaks.  The serve-a-thon semifinal in which she battled Serena certainly departed from expectations for a clay match.  On the other hand, a single unseeded semifinalist has burst through the bracket into an otherwise studded lineup at many WTA tournaments over the past few years.  It’s unexpected but no more astonishing than Rezai two years before.

2013:

1 Serena Williams (d. Anabel Medina Garrigues)

8 Sara Errani (d. Ekaterina Makarova)

16 Ana Ivanovic (d. 6 Angelique Kerber)

2 Maria Sharapova (d. Kaia Kanepi)

This lineup makes considerably more sense for a clay tournament than what we saw at the same stage in 2012.  All four of these WTA semifinalists have reached Roland Garros finals, three of them winning the title, so their talents on the surface rise beyond doubt.  The only constant between the two years, Serena, has not shone in Paris for several years but still has accomplished far more there than fellow 2012 semifinalists Azarenka, Radwanska, and Hradecka.  And the narrowness of her victory over Medina Garrigues captured the ability of an unheralded clay specialist to challenge someone of far greater talent here.  The only quarterfinal upset, Ivanovic over Kerber, plays into the theme of surface expertise with a woman whose greatest exploits have come on clay toppling a higher-ranked woman who has built her career on hard courts.

The Verdict:  While the 2012 semifinalists comprised arguably a more accomplished group overall, the 2013 semifinalists more accurately align with expectations for clay.  The transition back to the red thus coincided with arguably more desirable results later in the week after the implosions earlier in the week.  What was lost at the beginning may have been gained at the end.

And now for the ATP comparison. 

2012:

7 Janko Tipsarevic (d. 1 Novak Djokovic)

3 Roger Federer (d. 5 David Ferrer)

10 Juan Martin Del Potro (d. 16 Alexander Dolgopolov)

6 Tomas Berdych (d. 15 Fernando Verdasco)

Let’s just go ahead and acknowledge the massive Mallorcan elephant in the room.  Barring injury or its aftereffects, Rafael Nadal never will fail to reach the quarterfinals of a Masters 1000 tournament on clay during his prime without raising questions about the tournament.  It felt especially awkward because Madrid is the most important Spanish tournament, the place where Nadal should have the opportunity to bask in the adulation of his compatriots.  A petulant side less attractive than his usual sportsmanlike self emerged there last year, but one could understand his frustration at the opportunity denied him.

One could make an almost equally compelling argument that Djokovic should reach the semifinals at every clay Masters 1000 event that he enters, again subject to injury and related matters (see this year’s case above).  Or, at least, he should not lose in that situation to Janko Tipsarevic, nobody’s idea of a clay specialist and someone characteristically content to play second fiddle to Nole.  While I hesitate to ever question someone who won a six-hour major final for lack of effort, I felt strongly that Djokovic held back his best in that quarterfinal.  As with Nadal, that attitude did not reflect especially well on him.  As with Nadal, it tarnished the tournament nonetheless.

 

Federer’s eventual victory offered Madrid the best possible resolution under the circumstances, and its top brass must have felt fortunate that he dodged the opening-round bullet of Milos Raonic in a third-set tiebreak.  Without Federer, the weekend designed as the tournament’s climax would have descended into chaos.  Quality players with plenty of accomplishments, Del Potro and Berdych illustrated all too clearly how much faster the blue clay appeared to play than its red cousin.  Their semifinal cost the tournament more of whatever credibility still clung to it, decided as it was by a style of tennis more common on hard courts than clay.  So was the final between Federer and Berdych, despite its entertaining twists and turns.

2013:

15 Stanislas Wawrinka (d. 7 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga)

6 Tomas Berdych (d. 3 Andy Murray)

5 Rafael Nadal (d. 4 David Ferrer)

Pablo Andujar (d. 14 Kei Nishikori)

Just looking at the seedings of the survivors, the end of the tournament appears as chaotic as the beginning.  The lower-ranked man won every quarterfinal, and none of the top four seeds reached the semifinals, unusual for a Masters 1000 tournament.  But a closer inspection reveals that each of these results fits with our expectations of how the distinctiveness of red clay affects results.  In all four quarterfinals, the man with superior expertise on the surface prevailed, just as in the 2013 women’s draw.  Granted, Rafa came within two points of defeat against a compatriot whom he long has throttled on this surface, recalling the stunning ambush by Verdasco last year.  Fellow Spaniard Pablo Andujar also had struggled to win any matches at all over the last several months, so his sudden semifinal appearance with upsets over two seeded opponents astonishes.

The two non-Spanish semifinalists possess strong credentials on this surface with Wawrinka once coming within a set of the Rome title and Berdych within a set of the Roland Garros final.  Berdych is the only man who reached the Madrid semifinals in both of these years, an intriguing comment on how well his game adapts to various surfaces—or perhaps a comment on how much the altitude assists it.  A slow-court player, Wawrinka showed how the more physical, grinding attributes of a clay specialist’s game can prevail over a mercurial shot-maker like Tsonga.  Last year, that result may well be reversed.

The Verdict:  As with the women’s draw, the men’s draw crystallized late in the week this year into a more characteristic set of semifinalists than what we saw on the blue clay.  Nadal’s appearance in the semifinals backed up his arguments last year about that surface’s flaws, and Wawrinka makes a more credible surprise semifinalist on a slow court than Tipsarevic did.  While the route to this stage earlier in the week was less than ideal, and certainly more volatile than in 2012, the marquee rounds have unfolded along more familiar lines.

***

Two patterns thus emerge from comparisons between the Madrid men’s and women’s draws of the last two years.  The red clay produced more upsets in the first two rounds, and in general upsets of greater significance.  By the semifinals, though, the rubble had settled into a form more recognizable for this season than what the blue clay produced.

As the years unfold, we will observe whether those trends continue, or whether the altitude at this tournament continues to create chaos.  Another possible contributing factor, unrelated to the surface color, will improve in 2014 when the clay becomes permanent in Madrid rather than laid down shortly before the tournament each year.  The slipperiness that has troubled an array of stars during its brief history as a spring event should dwindle after that change, pleasing players and fans alike.

 

 

 

 

Out of the Blue: ATP Madrid Draw Preview

Nobody will challenge Federer's status as the GOAT of blue clay.

After the controversy over the blue clay undermined Madrid last year, this Masters 1000 tournament hopes for a week filled with more familiar forms of excitement.  All of the top ten men except Juan Martin Del Potro have returned to the Magic Box, creating plenty of storylines to explore.

First quarter:  Among the men who most resented last year’s surface, Novak Djokovic needs to prove that a more traditional court will inspire a stronger effort than his desultory quarterfinal loss last year.  Like Azarenka in the women’s draw, the world No. 1 must hit the red dirt running with a possible opener against Grigor Dimitrov.  Sharapova’s boyfriend would have won a set from Djokovic at Indian Wells had he not double-faulted a game away, and his three-set tussle with Nadal in Monte Carlo edged him closer to his first headline-seizing upset.  But Djokovic shone as brightly as he ever has on clay in winning that earlier Masters 1000 tournament for the first time.  That form would carry him past not only Dimitrov but Stanislas Wawrinka in the following round, a rematch of their Australian Open epic.  Wawrinka prefers clay among all surfaces and has displayed some his best tennis ever early this year, so one can expect a stirring encounter that may whet Djokovic’s appetite for battle moving forward.

More curious than compelling are the matches surrounding the seventh-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.  An opener against Alexander Dolgopolov could develop into an acrobatic thriller reminiscent of a Wimbledon five-setter between them, or it could fall very flat depending on the moods of both men.  Last year’s quarterfinalist Fernando Verdasco may miss the blue clay more than anyone, for he looks unlikely to reawaken the memories of his upset over Nadal on it.  This lesser Spanish lefty could face the winner of a contrast in heights and styles between Milos Raonic and Nikolay Davydenko should he reach the second round.  If Tsonga does survive the streaky but dangerous challengers around him, he will not want to relive his Roland Garros quarterfinal against Djokovic last year, when he squandered four match points.  A matchup once on even terms, their rivalry has tilted overwhelmingly in the Serb’s direction since 2011.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Second quarter:  Neither of the two men bookending this section has impressed on clay this year, and world No. 3 Andy Murray has enjoyed only one outstanding season on his least comfortable surface (2011).  The improvements that he made two years ago seemed to slip away last year and this year, when Wawrinka demolished him in Monte Carlo.  Murray seeks his 400th career victory in his first match here and may feel thankful to find few clay specialists in his vicinity.  Those who are, like Thomaz Bellucci and Horacio Zeballos, have struggled with both form and health over the last few months.  Gilles Simon always has struggled against Murray, and his recent mediocrity suggests little hope for change on the surface where he plays his worst tennis as well.

Nor do clay specialists proliferate in the area surrounding the sixth-seeded Tomas Berdych, a finalist on Tiriac’s blue clay last year.  Like Murray, Berdych slumped to an early exit at Monte Carlo, and his struggles continued a week later in Barcelona.  An extended slump looms if he cannot escape this recent malaise, although the prospect of facing Sam Querrey may lift his spirits.  Annihilating the American giant in Miami, Berdych also knocked off another giant in potential third-round opponent Kevin Anderson at Indian Wells.  Perhaps a greater test will arrive in clay specialist Juan Monaco, who set his horrific start to 2013 behind him by winning two matches in each of his last three tournaments.  This Argentine should fancy his chances of upsetting the weary, battered Janko Tipsarevic in the first round despite the latter’s semifinal appearance here last year.  Between Berdych and Murray, it’s hard to choose.  Give the Czech a slight edge based on his 2-0 lead in their clay head-to-head.

Semifinalist:  Berdych

Third quarter:  Quelling any fears of a tournament climaxing too early, the draw cast Rafael Nadal into the ideal section for him.  Even with his fifth seed, the reigning Roland Garros champion cannot face anyone more imposing than Ferrer until the semifinals.  Nadal struggled for most of a set in Barcelona against Benoit Paire, against whom he might open here, and more Barcelona déjà vu could arrive in a third-round clash with Nicolas Almagro.  This recently star-crossed Spaniard won a set from him here in a 2010 semifinal, just before Rafa claimed his only clay title in Madrid.  In their Barcelona final, moreover, Almagro raced to an early lead before his more accomplished compatriot wore him down.  Almost as plausible an opponent at that stage as Almagro is Fabio Fognini, a Monte Carlo semifinalist with smooth, effortless strokes.

The Spanish flavor of this quarter would extends below to the fourth-seeded David Ferrer, who stumbled at the outset of the clay season for the second straight year.  Felled in his Barcelona opener after missing Monte Carlo with an injury, Ferrer regained some of his confidence with a more convincing week in Portugal.  He may arrive a bit tired for his early Madrid matches, though, which could include a rematch with an equally tired Tommy Haas.  The 35-year-old German, who nearly upset Ferrer in Miami, plowed deep into the Munich draw for the second straight year and might well exit in his opener to clay specialist Andreas Seppi.  A thoroughly deserving wildcard, Tommy Robredo hopes to build on his Barcelona upset of Berdych but may need to reverse his Portugal loss to Seppi to do so.  If Ferrer does advance to meet Nadal, there are no prizes for predicting the outcome of that quarterfinal.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Fourth quarter:  One-handed backhands bookend this section, anchored by defending champion Roger Federer and that surprisingly persistent resident of the top ten, Richard Gasquet.  The GOAT could open against wannabe GOAT Bernard Tomic, whose exploits in Australia have inflated his reputation elsewhere.  This troubled prodigy still must prove that he can compete with credit throughout an entire season, recent improvements notwithstanding.  Otherwise, Federer and the fourteenth-seeded Kei Nishikori must salivate over the handful of slumping veterans around them.  While an experienced clay player like Jurgen Melzer might ambush the clay-averse Nishikori, the latter’s steadiness should propel him into a third-round meeting with the Swiss.

Likely to survive that obstacle with ease, Federer may find Gasquet a more compelling test.  The Frenchman has defeated the Swiss at the other two Masters 1000 tournaments on clay while leaving no impact on their rivalry elsewhere.  His route to their quarterfinal looks almost equally smooth, for the height of John Isner and Marin Cilic often works to their disadvantage on clay.  The altitude of Madrid can cause serves to fly through the court more effectively than at other clay tournaments, though, so those two giants and faded lefty Feliciano Lopez might win a larger quantity of free points.  Even though Federer labored with a back injury at Indian Wells, his most recent tournament, the long hiatus that he has enjoyed since then should have allowed his injury to heal and his focus to sharpen.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Final:  Djokovic vs. Nadal

Champion:  A coin-flip, really.  Djokovic won one of his Madrid meetings with Rafa and held match points in the other, plus he has the momentum in their rivalry, whereas Nadal actually has a losing record in clay finals here, so let’s go with Novak Djokovic.

What to Watch in the ATP This Week: Barcelona and Bucharest Previews

Denied a defense in Monte Carlo, Nadal returns to home soil for another attempt.

After a week comprised of a single tournament, the Masters 1000 in Monte Carlo, the ATP plows further into the clay season with a 500 event in Barcelona and a 250 in Bucharest.  Three top-ten players appear at the former and just one at the latter as many of the leading figures conserve energy ahead of the marquee tournaments in Madrid and Rome.  For those who play their best tennis on clay, then, Barcelona and Bucharest offer opportunities to showcase that specialty in less fraught surroundings.

Barcelona:

Top half:  Absent from Monte Carlo with a leg injury, top seed David Ferrer may need to recover psychologically as well as physically from the end of the hard-court season.  The world No. 4 fell just one point short of his most significant accomplishment to date, a Miami title denied him by a (narrowly) unsuccessful challenge on match point.  Returning to his home country for the next two tournaments might salve the sting for the Spanish veteran.  Projected to meet him in the third round is Brazilian lefty Thomaz Bellucci, who upset him almost exactly a year ago in Monte Carlo.  Although Philipp Kohlschreiber anchors the lower part of his quarter, Ferrer might just as plausibly meet compatriot and fellow clay specialist Albert Montanes.  This Spaniard knocked off Gael Monfils in Monte Carlo as a qualifier and faces an intriguing opening test here against Ricardas Berankis, pegged as a future star.

Should Ferrer continue his history of strong results in Barcelona by advancing from his quarter, he could find the competition much stiffer in the semifinals.   Nicolas Almagro lost early in Monte Carlo last week, but that setback probably owed something to fatigue from reaching the Houston final on the previous Sunday.  As Almagro looks to continue his generally sturdy 2013 campaign, Juan Monaco hopes to continue his ascent from a miserable start to the season.  He had not won a match at an ATP event until Houston last week, where he reached the semifinals shortly before winning a set from Djokovic in Monte Carlo.  Australian Open quarterfinalist Jeremy Chardy and ultra-talented prodigy Bernard Tomic lack Monaco’s clay-court skills despite their inspired shot-making, so a clash in styles between his functional game and the flamboyance of Almagro might await.  The Spaniard has held a slight edge in their clay meetings, a contrast to his career of futility against Ferrer.

Bottom half:  Known much more for power than grinding are the key names in the third quarter, headlined by world No. 6 Tomas Berdych.  Disappointingly error-strewn in Monte Carlo, the Czech has suffered from fatigue in an overly front-loaded schedule, yet he seems reluctant to grant himself any respite.  Berdych faces a potentially perilous draw that could end his week early again, perhaps a blessing in disguise considering his circumstances.  In addition to Casablanca champion Tommy Robredo, Monte Carlo breakthrough artist Grigor Dimitrov lurks in the vicinity.  Having reached a Masters 1000 quarterfinal for the first time last week, the Bulgarian will bring confidence from an impressively competitive three-setter against Nadal.  Lately lacking in confidence, on the other hand, is aging Spaniard Fernando Verdasco, who has won only one match since the Australian Open.  Verdasco will tumble down the rankings if his drought continues on the clay, and the towering serve of Milos Raonic might ensure that it does.  After their third-round meeting, a quarterfinal pitting the Canadian against Dimitrov or Berdych would feature plenty of formidable serving.

Lurking at the bottom of the draw, serial Barcelona champion Rafael Nadal looks to bounce back from the end of his epic Monte Carlo winning streak at the hands of Novak Djokovic.  Although he lost a set (and nearly a match) to Carlos Berlocq in South America this February, the rejuvenated version of Rafa that swept through this spring should not struggle against the Argentine.  As unreliable as Nadal is reliable, the enigmatic Frenchman Benoit Paire and powerful Polish firecracker Jerzy Janowicz lack the durability to challenge him on clay.  The sixth-seeded Kei Nishikori much prefers faster surfaces, and he has won only one set in five career meetings with Nadal.

Semifinals:  Ferrer vs. Almagro, Raonic vs. Nadal

Final:  Ferrer vs. Nadal

Bucharest:

Top half:  Not long ago, world No. 10 Janko Tipsarevic claimed on Twitter that he needed to take a break from the tennis.  One could understand why, considering his miserable, nearly winless start to 2013, but apparently the Serb had second thoughts.  Entering Bucharest as the top seed, he finds himself surrounded by players more comfortable on clay than he is, from Colombian Santiago Giraldo to Nadal-killer Horacio Zeballos.  That latter figure has seen his form plummet since that stirring title run in Vina del Mar, so the top quarter may hinge on who can reach a passable level of play soonest.  The second quarter features a pair of Romanians to excite local fans, as well as 2011 Roland Garros sensation David Goffin.  Of greater note are its two seeds, although neither has produced their best tennis on clay.  The erratic German Florian Mayer eyes a quarterfinal bout with graceful but fading Russian Mikhail Youzhny, just three slots higher in the rankings.  Winning a set from Djokovic in Monte Carlo, Youzhny has surpassed expectations recently as other seeds in this half have fallen well short of theirs.

Bottom half:  A disaster in Davis Cup and an early casualty last week, the second-seeded Gilles Simon aims to rekindle the memories of his three titles in Bucharest.  Curiously, Simon has won half of his ten career titles on outdoor clay despite aligning his game more comfortably with hard courts.  His draw looks more ominous than Tipsarevic’s section, perhaps starting with Monte Carlo quarterfinalist Jarkko Nieminen.  Having upset Raonic and Del Potro there, Nieminen fared nearly as well as surprise semifinalist Fabio Fognini, who could meet Simon a round later.  The Italian’s expertise on clay could see him through an intriguing opener against wildcard Gael Monfils, a battle of two men with magnificent ball-striking skills and fluctuating competitive wills.  Like Dimitrov, Fognini might lack the focus to consolidate his Monte Carlo breakthrough immediately.  If he can emerge from his quarter, though, he might reach a rematch of a tense three-setter last week against compatriot Andreas Seppi, who shares his fondness for the terre battue.  At a modest 12-9 so far in 2013, Seppi may need to avoid the land mine of Lukas Rosol to build momentum early in the clay season.  He defends large quantities of points next month, on which his top-20 ranking rests.

Final:  Youzhny vs. Seppi

Check back shortly for a similar look at the two WTA tournaments this week in Stuttgart and Marrakech.

Rafa’s Redoubt: ATP Monte Carlo Draw Preview

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No man ever has won nine straight titles at an ATP tournament, but no man ever has come close to defeating Rafael Nadal in Monte Carlo during the last decade.  Nadal has lost only two sets in his last six appearances in this principality perched on the Mediterranean, attaining a level of sustained brilliance that most mere mortals must struggle to imagine.

First quarter:  As he grapples with an ankle injury sustained in Davis Cup, Novak Djokovic also faces a section filled with potential challenges.  While his opener does not intimidate, he could meet a resurgent Ernests Gulbis in the third round.  Gulbis reeled off the longest winning streak of his career from February to March and can threaten even on clay when at his best, as an upset of Federer in Rome proved.  Winless outside Davis Cup until last week in Houston, Juan Monaco led the world No. 1 by a set in Rome last year.  To arrange a rematch, he would need either to solve Gulbis or reverse the result of his semifinal loss to John Isner on Saturday.   Although Isner notably extended Nadal to a fifth set at Roland Garros, becoming the only player ever to do so, neither he nor fellow towering server Milos Raonic looms as large on outdoor clay as during the rest of the season.  Djokovic’s greatest challenge probably will come from fifth-seeded wildcard Juan Martin Del Potro.  The Serb won both of their previous clay meetings, and Del Potro never has won a main-draw match in Monte Carlo.   Yet the Indian Wells runner-up holds the momentum edge against his fellow US Open champion, having ousted him in the desert, so Djokovic will need full health to withstand a rival playing his best tennis since 2009.

Semifinalist:  Del Potro

Second quarter:  Intersecting in Indian Wells and again in Miami, Tomas Berdych and Richard Gasquet could collide for a third straight Masters 1000 tournament.  Few barriers block that rubber match between the Czech who won at the former event and the Frenchman who won at the latter.  This quarter does contain a handful of clay specialists, such as Marcel Granollers and the suddenly notorious Nadal-killer Horacio Zeballos.  Of greater significance are two Italians destined to meet in the first round, both skilled on this surface but a sharp contrast in personalities.  The unseeded Fabio Fognini seeks to find his mercurial form when it matters most against Andreas Seppi, whose seeded position hinges on his ability to defend points over the next several weeks.  While those Italians lie in Berdych’s section, several powerful servers surround Gasquet.  Among them is Jerzy Janowicz, still learning how to cope with his elevated status, and the highly clay-averse Marin Cilic.  A finalist in Casablanca this week, Kevin Anderson will aim to build on that unexpected clay success in a third-round meeting with Gasquet, whom he defeated on French soil last fall.

Semifinalist:  Berdych

Third quarter:  A rematch of the 2010 final here, the possible second-round meeting between Nadal and compatriot Fernando Verdasco likely would prove little more competitive than that earlier demolition.  Despite his victory over his long-time nemesis on the blue clay last spring, Verdasco has struggled with injuries and a concomitant dip in confidence since the Australian Open.  Among the quarterfinalists there was Jeremy Chardy, a possible third-round opponent for Rafa.  Since the eight-time Monte Carlo champion dismissed early in his South American comeback, he should feel even more comfortable against him now.  Nadal also drew the least formidable of all possible quarterfinal opponents in Janko Tipsarevic, never a factor on clay and the recipient of three crushing defeats at the Spaniard’s hands.  Like Verdasco, the second-ranked Serb has accomplished virtually nothing since the Australian Open as injuries have crippled his weapons.  The flashy but raw Grigor Dimitrov and the experienced but underpowered Gilles Simon both conceal too many flaws to trouble Rafa for long.  Of course, one could say the same about all but a few players in this field.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Fourth quarter:  The highest-ranked Frenchman in the draw, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, shares a section with another man with little fondness for clay.  Although he reached the semifinals here before and even won a set from Nadal there, Andy Murray generally has produced modest results during this stage of the season except for a brilliant 2011 campaign.  He may suffer a lull after winning Miami, his first significant title since that US Open breakthrough, and occasional practice partner Stanislas Wawrinka could capitalize on a surface better suited to his strengths.  Scoring his only career victory over Federer here, Wawrinka has won both of his previous clay meetings with Murray in straight sets.  Former Roland Garros semifinalist Gael Monfils also lurks in the Scot’s vicinity, while Tsonga might encounter some resistance from two other former Roland Garros semifinalists in Nikolay Davydenko and Jurgen Melzer.  But the most dangerous opponent for the top seeds in this section probably is Nicolas Almagro, unless his run to the Houston final depletes his energies for a tournament thousands of miles away.

Semifinalist:  Almagro

Final:  Del Potro vs. Nadal

Champion:  Rafael Nadal

Eyes on the Prize: Sharapova, Serena, Murray, and Berdych on Thursday in Miami

Now the men's favorite in Key Biscayne, Murray can't take his eye off the ball.

As the Sony Open nears its conclusion, Thursday will determine the leading ladies in Saturday’s women’s final, while the men still have some quarterfinal business to settle.

Maria Sharapova vs. Jelena Jankovic:  Even on an afternoon when her serve chronically deserted, Sharapova found the will and the focus to fire past world No. 7 Sara Errani in two tortuous sets.  If fourteen double faults cannot blunt her confidence, not many opponents can either.  Jankovic has managed to chip away at Sharapova’s steeliness on a few previous occasions despite emerging triumphant only once in seven attempts.  In their only completed meeting since 2008, when both women occupied the top five, a temporarily resurgent Serb came within a tiebreak of upsetting the Russian in the Cincinnati final two years ago.  Not a single shot can Jankovic hit more impressively than Sharapova, so she relies on her superior movement and durability.  Years of overstuffed schedules have undermined those strengths, and the 22nd seed enters the semifinal as a heavy underdog in view both of ranking and of recent form, which fluctuated wildly throughout her three-set victory over Vinci.  Needing to recover from that rollercoaster within fifteen hours, Jankovic must hope for another erratic afternoon from Sharapova while refining her own consistency.

Marin Cilic vs. Andy Murray:  Recalling the Sharapova-Jankovic rivalry, Cilic has won only one of nine meetings with his higher-ranked opponent.  That lone victory came on a momentous stage, the 2009 US Open, but a wrist injury may have contributed to that upset.  On the other hand, Cilic came close to repeating the feat at the same tournament last year when he nearly built a two-set lead, only to see Murray snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and ultimately run away with the match.  Astonishingly, they never have met at an outdoor Masters 1000 tournament while colliding at each of the four majors.  Cilic’s dominant serve and first-strike combinations often play into the hands of Murray’s crisp returning, alert instincts, and cleverly threaded passing shots.  The Croat impressed in extending his tiebreak record this year to 8-1 when he ambushed Tsonga, but the highest-ranked man remaining has not lost a set here and has become the heavy favorite to claim the title.

Richard Gasquet vs. Tomas Berdych:  What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, or so it seems in the case of Berdych.  Thrust to the brink in each of his first two matches, he enjoyed a greatly needed respite in the third with a swift victory over Querrey in which he regained his rhythm.  Quite the opposite was the last outing of the Frenchman ranked four places below him, an epic that ended in a third-set tiebreak that showcased his enhanced resilience under pressure.  When this pair met at Indian Wells, Berdych earned a deceptively straightforward victory as his opponent converted just one of fourteen break points amid some dismal serving from both men.  Unlike the histories among the other three pairs, however, their history stands deadlocked at 4-4 with Gasquet holding a slight edge on outdoor hard courts.  If he can find Berdych’s backhand and extend the rallies, his more balanced groundstrokes and more flowing movement could compensate for his disadvantage in raw power on this slow Miami court.

Serena Williams vs. Agnieszka Radwanska:  A leg injury and a flurry of double faults raised question marks over the world No. 1’s health during an edgy, uneven victory over Li Na.  Good enough to (narrowly) avoid a second straight three-setters, Serena now sets her sights on the defending champion in Miami, who has survived a string of long matches herself.  Radwanska has played final sets in five of her last six matches, including consecutive comebacks from losing the first set here.  Clearly below her 2012 form for most of 2013, she must hope to start more auspiciously against Serena, an excellent front-runner.  But a disastrous start in the Wimbledon final did not stop Radwanska from clawing a path back into that encounter with the heavily favored American, the only occasion in their four meetings when she has won a set from her.  In each of the other three, she has won four or fewer games, so this matchup may prove less compelling than their top-four rankings would suggest.  Serena has not won a title since Brisbane in the first week of the season, and the hunger for something more prestigious surely gnaws at her, as does a determination to atone for last year’s embarrassing result here.  If her body does not betray her, nor does her focus, she should rout Radwanska again.  If either falters, the consistency and unpredictable all-court artistry of the Pole could keep her off balance and the outcome in doubt.

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