Even without Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the Sony Open ATP draw features plenty of dazzling stars to sparkle on Miami spring nights. Here is the companion to the women’s quarter-by-quarter preview.
First quarter: When he absorbed a disappointing loss in an Indian Wells semifinal last year, Novak Djokovic bounced back by winning his third Miami title without the loss of a set. The world #1 benefited from a comfortable route to the final that year, and he can anticipate a similarly undemanding route at least until the semifinals this time. His returns and passing shots should ward off the closest seed to him, Feliciano Lopez, while another potential third-round opponent in Evgeny Donskoy won a set from Murray at Indian Wells but lacks the experience to finish the job. Aligned to meet Djokovic in the following round is Tommy Haas, who defeated him at Wimbledon four years ago and became the only man to win a set from him at the Rogers Cup last summer. The 34-year-old German may find a few obstacles barring his path to the Serb, however, such as 2008 champion Nikolay Davydenko. An upset of the seeded but struggling Alexandr Dolgopolov lies well within the Russian’s grasp.
Unable to win a match since the Australian Open, where he exited via retirement, Janko Tipsarevic absorbed ignominious routs at Dubai and Indian Wells. Djokovic’s compatriot thus would count any victories in Miami as a step forward, and a quarterfinal appearance opposite his fellow Serb would surpass expectations. A menacing figure in his section, the South African leviathan Kevin Anderson reached his second Masters 1000 quarterfinal last week, continuing a strong upward trend from the season’s beginning. If Anderson can upset Tipsarevic, he might face Gilles Simon for the second straight tournament. Also of some interest in this area is Lleyton Hewitt, who justified his Indian Wells wildcard with a third-round appearance and received another here. Anderson defeated Djokovic in Miami during the latter’s sophomore slump in 2009-10, creating a revenge subplot should they meet again.
Second quarter: As he did at Indian Wells, Juan Martin Del Potro finds himself in a quarter with the draw’s third seed and in the same half as the world #1. The Indian Wells runner-up expressed his eagerness to build on his accomplishments there in Miami, where he reached the semifinals in 2009 by upsetting Nadal. But the arduous finish to that fortnight, playing three three-setters against the top five in three days, may have blunted his energy. Fortunately for Del Potro, the highest-ranked man in his eighth has not won a set this year outside Davis Cup. A surprise semifinalist in Miami last year, Juan Monaco briefly reached the top ten afterwards before struggling with injuries in recent months. Perhaps more likely to meet Del Potro in the fourth round is the mercurial Julien Benneteau, who reached the Rotterdam final in February following another upset of Federer. This section also contains two young stars still searching to fulfill their promise in Ryan Harrison and Ricardas Berankis. Both have draws that could allow them to win a match or two, gaining crucial ground in the rankings.
The leading Spaniard here following Nadal’s withdrawal, David Ferrer hopes to bounce back from his opening loss to Anderson in the California desert, which cost him his top-four status. Some dangerous shot-makers on recent hot streaks lurk in his section, including Dmitry Tursunov and Jeremy Chardy. A qualifier here like Gulbis in Indian Wells, the Russian scored several victories at February main-draw events, while the Frenchman recorded his best career result by far with an Australian Open quarterfinal. An all-French first-round clash between Benoit Paire and Michael Llodra also intrigues, as does the presence of Memphis champion Kei Nishikori. The recurrently injured Japanese star has collected some success against Ferrer on prominent stages, but his physical condition looked questionable at Indian Wells. Defeating Del Potro here last year, Ferrer may find the Argentine a more challenging opponent with his confidence restored.
Semifinalist: Del Potro
Third quarter: Not for some time, if ever, has Tomas Berdych held a top-four seed at an event of this magnitude. When the Indian Wells draw opened for him in the wake of Ferrer’s early loss, he capitalized on the opportunity to reach the semifinals without losing a set. Berdych rarely has excelled at stringing together impressive results, though, despite some improvements in that area over the last year. He has dominated his hard-court meetings with third-round opponent Fernando Verdasco, who played so poorly at Indian Wells that he apologized on Twitter afterward. Towering servers Milos Raonic and Sam Querrey look set to collide in the third round above, for only a few qualifiers stand between them. The new top-ranked American man, Querrey has enjoyed previous success against Raonic, whom most consider the more promising talent. Either would present an intriguing test for Berdych in the final sixteen, likely to produce a battle of few break points or long rallies.
Unable to take a set from the Czech at Indian Wells, notwithstanding a string of break points, Richard Gasquet could meet him again in the Miami quarterfinals. Already a two-time titlist in 2013, the Frenchman has defeated most of the opponents whom he should without registering a single notable victory. That level of achievement has sufficed to keep him in the top ten, just ahead of projected fourth-round opponent Nicolas Almagro. Emotional peaks and valleys have defined this Spaniard’s season, filled with accomplishments like an Australian Open quarterfinal and disappointments like the two-set lead that escaped him in that match. In addition to those of Gasquet and Almagro, other graceful one-handed backhands populate this eighth of the draw, such as those of Mikhail Youzhny and Philipp Kohlschreiber. All more flamboyant and less reliable than Berdych, any of these four men would create an intriguing contrast in styles with him, but another episode of the Berdych-Almagro feud might offer the best entertainment.
Fourth quarter: Somewhat rusty in his return from a long hiatus at Indian Wells, Andy Murray should bring crisper form to the second Masters 1000 tournament in North America, where he has enjoyed better results than at its predecessor. A runner-up here last year, Murray can look ahead to a potentially thorny draw filled with ambitious rising stars. First in line is Bernard Tomic, the enigmatic Aussie who has shown signs of growing more mature—and hence more consistent—in 2013, although only by the Death Valley level that he had set previously. Next would come Grigor Dimitrov, on the verge of taking a set from Djokovic at Indian Wells had he not double-faulted away his chance in an embarrassing implosion from which he may need time to recover. Adjusting to his status as a seeded player in these marquee draws, Jerzy Janowicz has won a handful of matches this year but has not approached the quality of first-strike tennis that ambushed so many higher-ranked opponents in Paris.
Once he moves past Janowicz or Andreas Seppi in the fourth round, Murray should fancy his chances of progressing further against an odd collection of players who have underachieved over the last several months. Foremost among them is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who produced a similar result to Murray at Indian Wells in that he advanced with greater difficulty than expected against his first few opponents and departed when he met his first elite opponent. That trend has grown routine for Tsonga since the start of 2012, though, since when he possesses just a single victory over a higher-ranked opponent despite a handful of competitive matches against that group. Far more desperate is the situation confronted by John Isner, gone in his Indian Wells opener as a miserable season that started with a knee injury grows no brighter. The luster also has dimmed on the strong 2012 summer recorded by Marin Cilic, who won Zagreb but has left no impact on tournaments of greater note. Murray’s agility and talent for disrupting powerful games seems well-designed to defusing any of these men, all of whom have struggled against him before.
Coverage of Miami will continue as the tournament progresses with previews of key matches and reflections on any intriguing stories as they unfold.
In the early stages of a draw as large as Indian Wells, more questions often are asked than answered as we learn just enough to know what we don’t know—and what we want to know. Here are twelve burning questions to ponder while the core of the tournament approaches.
1. Will Federer and Nadal meet for the first time in a year?
For the first time since their rivalry took flight, the archrivals did not clash on clay or grass last season. By placing them in the same quarter, the draw gods have done their best to ensure that they will meet at Indian Wells for the second straight year. Especially promising is Federer’s path, for only Ivan Dodig and the winner of Hewitt vs. Wawrinka stand between a Swiss star who looked crisp in his opening demolition of Denis Istomin. Nadal’s route looks generally benign as well on paper, but the surging Ernests Gulbis could pose a severe test if he can keep up the form that has carried him through his longest winning streak ever.
2. Will Azarenka and Wozniacki meet for the first time in two years?
The two BFFs last faced each other on this court in 2011, when Wozniacki held the #1 ranking and Azarenka faced serious questions about her physical and emotional durability. How times have changed since then. Now, Wozniacki must field questions about her continued relevance as a contender, while Azarenka has become the face of the WTA’s new generation (albeit not always the face that the WTA would want). What makes this potential quarterfinal between the last two Indian Wells champions intriguing is Wozniacki’s former control of their rivalry, which seemed not so much technical as psychological. Still undefeated this year, Vika looks nearly certain to reach that rendezvous if she can keep injuries at bay. Chronic nemesis Goerges still might intercept Caro, as might a revived Petrova.
3. Can Berdych take care of business?
As if the weakest quarter in the men’s draw needed to get any weaker, Kevin Anderson upset the only serious threat to the Czech in David Ferrer. With his route to the semifinals wide open, Berdych need not worry about anyone more dangerous than Gasquet. The Frenchman does happen to be rather dangerous at the moment, granted, since he has won two (small) titles this year and should prosper on the slow surface. But Berdych also has enjoyed a consistent season to date, so his superior weapons leave him in control of his own destiny.
4. Can Sharapova take care of business?
Lara Arruabarrena-Vecino. Sara Errani. Marion Bartoli. None of these potential pre-semifinal opponents ever has defeated Sharapova, and only once has any of them threatened her. That occasion did come recently at last year’s US Open, when Bartoli won the first set before Maria stormed back. All the same, the 2006 champion should overwhelm the Spanish journeywoman in the fourth round and rely on her dominance over those rivals to reach a third straight semifinal in the desert. Even without her best form against a top-25 opponent, Suarez Navarro, she eased through in straight sets by—as usual—growing more aggressive rather than less when the match could have tilted in either direction.
5. Should Murray’s fans be concerned?
After an easy third-round assignment, the competition will get stiff for the Scot as Nishikori and Del Potro loom. With those obstacles ahead, Murray would have benefited from a strong and efficient start to the tournament, but he didn’t get it in a three-set scare against Evgeny Donskoy. While the Russian has plenty of talent and ambition, he is not the sort of player expected to trouble one of the Big Four. Anybody and everybody has troubled Murray here recently, though, for he dropped seven consecutive sets at Indian Wells between a 2010 quarterfinal and the first set of his opener here. Hangovers from Australian Open disappointment have hampered him emotionally in those appearances, so his body language will bear watching if more sustained adversity arises. That said, he matches up extremely well to Nishikori and Del Potro, neither of whom ever has defeated him on a hard court.
6. Should Radwanska’s fans be concerned?
The sun of Indian Wells usually has not shone brightly on Radwanska, usually more successful at the tournament’s sequel in Miami. But her draw looks more comfortable than it often does, or at least it did until she toiled for two and a half hours to suppress Sorana Cirstea in the third round. The type of player whom Radwanska tends to dismantle with ease, the erratic yet powerful Romanian hit through her surprisingly often considering the court speed and her defensive skills. Radwanska also twice failed to serve out the match in the third set once she had reversed the momentum, a strange lapse for someone who has established herself as a fine competitor over the last eighteen months. Her next two projected opponents, Kirilenko and Kvitova, have spelled trouble for her at significant events before.
7. Which Novak will show up?
This question would have sounded ridiculous a set and a half into what looked like a humiliating rout of Fabio Fognini. When Djokovic threw away the second set and did not immediately reassert himself in the third, some eyebrows raised over this extended lapse. Also suggesting competitive fatigue was a minor altercation over a time violation warning that he received. Djokovic is not nearly as dangerous a player when his head is not in the right place, and early signs of trouble historically have spelled trouble later in the draw. If the man who smoothly struck every shot in the book during the first set returns, however, he will remain the title favorite. Djokovic may have time to collect himself, for his next two opponents do not look intimidating, nor did quarterfinal foe Tsonga in his convoluted victory over Blake.
8. Which Petra will show up?
Always a woman of two sides, Kvitova brought her bad version to the Australian hard courts and her good version to the Persian Gulf. As remarkable as it sounds, the same woman who won two games from Cibulkova one month came within two games of knocking off Serena (and demolished Radwanska) the next. More of a lamb than a lion in March recently, Kvitova showed some of both extremes in a three-set victory over the pedestrian Govortsova and a third-round battle with a qualifier that nearly reached a third set as well. She can contend for the title as convincingly as anyone, especially with her past success against Azarenka, but every opponent whom she faces should enter that match knowing that they have a chance.
9. Can a former US Open champion prove himself (again)?
When he knocked off Nadal and Federer in succession to win the 2009 US Open, Del Potro looked like the next big thing for the ATP. He still could be, but the odds of his becoming one of his generation’s great champions grow slimmer with every season since his wrist surgery in which the Big Four and even players like Ferrer throttle him. One of the few men who has won a major but not a Masters 1000 tournament, Del Potro may need to walk before he can run. In the peaceful environment of Indian Wells, where he has produced strong results before, he should take heart from the early frailty displayed by Djokovic and Murray.
10. Can a former US Open champion prove herself (again)?
Compared to Stosur’s recent results, those of Del Potro look positively brilliant. The 2011 US Open champion has not won a title since that miraculous breakthrough against Serena, and winning a single match lay beyond her abilities early in 2013. Unlike most players who win a major, the Aussie drew no fresh confidence from her achievement. The good news is that she finally has strung together a few victories in her recent tournaments, and a commanding victory over Keys showed form that could prove good enough to carry her through the weakest quarter in the women’s draw. When she last faced Azarenka at the US Open, Stosur extended her to a third-set tiebreak. Who knows what could happen in a semifinal against her if she accumulates some momentum before then?
11. Who will be the last American man standing?
There are two candidates left at this stage: Mardy Fish and Sam Querrey. Both find themselves uncomfortably close to Djokovic, never a good place to be. Fish is just grateful to have started to play matches again after his health scares, and anyone who believes that Querrey can become the next great American champion probably just clicked on an email from Nigeria. That said, the Californian deserves credit for surviving the elephantine serve of Ivo Karlovic, and it will be intriguing to see how he handles bearing the mantle of the top-ranked man from a nation frustrated with its tennis underachievement.
12. Who will be the last American woman standing?
Well, let’s take a look at the options. There’s Stephens and,…oh, she lost already? Anyway, there’s Keys, who…she’s gone too? Maybe Christina McHale with…hmm, Kirilenko came back? Time to do a Ctrl+F for USA on the women’s draw.
1 match. Jamie Hampton.
Enjoy the rest of the tournament, and feel free to suggest answers for questions 1-11 in the comments.
For the first time since Wimbledon 2012, all of the Big Four convene at the same tournament. We take a detailed look at a balanced Indian Wells ATP draw.
First quarter: Twice a champion at Indian Wells, Djokovic brings a perfect 2013 record to the desert following titles at the Australian Open and Dubai. Having faced Federer at neither tournament, he could face the Federer facsimile Grigor Dimitrov in the third round. While his one-handed backhand certainly spurs thoughts of the Swiss star, this young Bulgarian continues to alternate encouraging results (Brisbane final) with disappointing setbacks (first-round loss in Melbourne). The towering serve of Isner ultimately undid Djokovic in an Indian Wells semifinal last year, and Querrey’s similar game toppled him at the Paris Indoors last fall. Now the Serb can eye an opportunity for revenge in the fourth round, where he could meet the latter and will hope to stay mentally sturdier than he did against Isner here. A higher-ranked potential opponent does loom in Juan Monaco, but the world #14 has not won a match this year outside the Davis Cup as injuries have sapped his confidence. Among the intriguing first-round matches in this section is serving leviathan Karlovic against future American star and forehand howitzer Jack Sock.
Winless against the top eight from the start of 2012 until last month, Tsonga may have gained confidence from finally snapping that skid against Berdych in the Marseille final. On the other hand, he also lost immediately in Rotterdam to an unheralded opponent and thus still seems less trustworthy than most of those ranked around him. Rarely has he made an impact on Indian Wells, outside a near-upset over Nadal in 2008, but his draw looks accommodating through the first few rounds. Returning American Mardy Fish, a former finalist here, surely cannot sustain the level of tennis necessary to discomfit Tsonga at this stage of his comeback if they meet in the third round. In the opposite side of this eighth lies Milos Raonic, tasked with outslugging the more balanced but less intimidating Marin Cilic in the third round. Lesser players of note in this area include French serve-volleyer Michael Llodra, who upset Tsonga in Dubai, and Vina del Mar champion Horacio Zeballos, who has not won a match since stunning Nadal there. Although Tsonga obtained considerable success early in his career, his results against him have tapered so sharply of late that one might think Raonic the sterner test for the Serb.
Second quarter: Assigned probably the smoothest route of any top-four man, Murray cannot expect much resistance at a tournament where he reached the final four years ago. Nevertheless, early losses to Donald Young and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in his last two appearances illustrated the Scot’s struggle to recover from his annual late-round disappointment in Australia. Murray will want to bounce back more smoothly this time on a slow hard court that suits his counterpunching so well. Looming in the fourth round is Memphis champion Kei Nishikori, who faces a potentially edgy opening test in Tursunov. Resuscitating his career in February, the Russian reached the Marseille semifinals as a qualifier and qualified for this draw as well. The mercurial Dolgopolov, the second-most notable player whom Murray could face in the fourth round, has floundered throughout 2013 and probably lacks the steadiness to threaten either Murray or Nishikori.
Of all the seeds whom he could have faced in the third round, Del Potro surely would have wished to avoid Australian Open nemesis Jeremy Chardy. The Frenchman receded into obscurity again after reaching the quarterfinals there, but he may hold the mental edge over Del Potro should each win his opener. Not since his first appearance in the desert five years ago, though, has the Tower of Tandil tumbled to anyone other than Federer or Nadal, and he has taken care of business against lower-ranked players with impressive consistency over the last year. One of the most compelling third rounds in the men’s draw could pit Almagro against Haas in a clash of exquisite one-handed backhands and volatile shot-making arsenals. The eleventh-seeded Spaniard has produced an early 2013 campaign inspiring and deflating in equal measure, but his Australian Open quarterfinal (nearly a semifinal) reminded viewers what a threat he can pose away from clay with his underrated serve. Accustomed to wearing down mentally dubious opponents, Murray should handle either Almagro or Haas with ease, and he compiled a flawless hard-court record against Del Potro even during the latter’s 2009 heights.
Third quarter: The section without any member of the Big Four often offers the most notable storylines of the early rounds, although Ferrer succeeded in living up to his top-four seed at both of the majors where he has held it. Never at his best in the desert, however, he may find his transition from clay to hard courts complicated by the two towering servers whom he could face at the outset in Kevin Anderson and Igor Sijsling. The latter upset Tsonga and nearly Cilic last month, while the former started the year impressively by reaching the second week of the Australian Open before injury sidelined him. Curiously, the fourth round might hold a less formidable test for Ferrer because his grinding game matches up more effectively to the two seeds projected there, Simon or Kohlschreiber. The quirky Benoit Paire and the lanky lefty from Luxembourg, Gilles Muller, add some individuality to an otherwise monochrome section, as does the invariably entertaining but terminally fading Verdasco.
Berdych may loom above the opposite eighth, considering his two February finals in strong fields at Marseille and Dubai. But an equally intriuging storyline may come from Jerzy Janowicz, still attempting to find his footing in the crucial post-breakthrough period when players encounter scrutiny for which they are not yet prepared. The next several months could prove critical for Janowicz in consolidating his seeded status, and he will deserve credit if he emerges from a neighborhood filled with diverse talent. Nalbandian could await in his opener, and the trio of Bellucci, Tomic, and Gasquet will vie for the right to face the Pole in the third round. Twice a titlist in 2013 already, the last of that trio has retained his top-ten ranking for a long time without scording a signature victory. Such a win could come in the quarterfinals if he can solve Berdych, unlikely to expend much energy before that stage against the likes of Troicki and Florian Mayer. The heavier serve of the Czech should propel him through on a hard court, though, as it should against a fourth seed who has not played as crisply this year as his results suggest.
Fourth quarter: Defending champion Federer can anticipate his first quarterfinal meeting with archrival Nadal in the history of their rivalry, but a few obstacles await before then. Like Del Potro, the second seed probably drew the least auspicious third-round opponent imaginable in Benneteau, who nearly upset him at Wimbledon last year and succeeded in finishing the job at Rotterdam last month. Federer obtained avenge for a February 2012 setback against Isner at Indian Wells a month later, so he can seek similar revenge this year. A rematch of last year’s final beckons against Isner himself in the fourth round, although little about the American’s recent form can infuse his fans with confidence that he even can reach that stage. Much more consistent this year is Stanislas Wawrinka, the Swiss #2 who played the most thrilling match of the Australian Open against Djokovic and backed it up with a February final. This section also features the most curious match on Thursday, an encounter between the battered Hewitt and the one-match wonder Lukas Rosol that should offer a clash of playing styles and personalities. Despite falling short of the final in his first three tournaments, Federer looks fully capable of sealing his side of the rendezvous with Nadal.
Not in much greater doubt is Rafa’s side of that appointment, for he could face no opponent more intimidating that Tipsarevic through the first four rounds. Young American Ryan Harrison looks set to become Nadal’s first hard-court opponent of 2013 (exhibitions aside), and his woeful results of the last several months intersect with a non-competitive effort against Djokovic in Melbourne to suggest a lack of confidence fatal here. While Youzhny has enjoyed several successes and near-successes against the Spaniard before, the Russian has left his prime several years behind him and lacks the power to outhit him for a full match. Hampered by injuries recently, the ninth-seeded Tipsarevic never has tested Nadal in their previous meetings and should count himself lucky to reach that projected meeting. The Serb’s current four-match losing streak could reach five in an opener against lefty serve-volleyer Feliciano Lopez or Delray Beach champion Gulbis, who carries a ten-match winning streak of his own. Either the winner of that first-round meeting or the unpredictable Baghdatis seems a safer bet than Tipsarevic to meet Nadal one match before Federer. Afterwards, the Swiss should repeat his victory in their semifinal last year.
Check out the companion piece that we wrote yesterday to preview the women’s draw if you enjoyed this article.
by James A. Crabtree
What a disappointment the American men currently are.
For a country that is so rich in tennis history it is heart breaking to see a power house such as the United States limp through the season.
True, some players have been playing well. Sam Querrey has displayed a mild resurgence, James Blake is attempting one last hurrah, Jack Sock could well be a diamond in the rough and Mardy Fish is back at Indian Wells but hasn’t played since the 2012 U.S. Open. Outside of the top 100 Tim Smyczek looks to be a hustling player making waves. The players hanging in the bottom half of the top 100 such as Brian Baker and Michael Russell, are those with heart whilst the majority of the new batch, thus far, are all hype.
The real disappointment lies with the supposed new generation of stars. Granted, they do all talk a good game, profess their commitment to hard work and assure us that they are just that one big win from joining the elite. At this point none look like worthy candidates to propel the stars and stripes forward during the teenage years of this decade and for the most part lack true grit.
Ryan Harrison is still only twenty years old, and players tend to show their potential at around twenty two these days. Impressively Harrison has the skills to battle with the elite, just not the temperament to outclass anybody notable so far.
In 2011 Donald Young reached a career high ranking of 38, the fourth round of the U.S. Open and made the final of a 250 event in Thailand. The John McEnroe prophecies were starting to ring true until 2012, when Young pressed the self-destruct button and lost seventeen matches in a row. 2013 hasn’t been so bad, but Young is way off in the rankings.
Back in the early eighties many players from the eastern bloc looked to defect their homeland for the American dream. These days the reverse is happening. After some financial disputes with the USTA, Russian born Alex Bogolmov Jnr decided he was more Russian than American in 2012. Jesse Levine is another with eyes on being part of a Davis Cup team, having aligned with Canada, the country of his birth. Reportedly both players still live in Florida.
None of the current crop look poised to make a leap.
For those who can remember, rewind ten years prior and it was a much different story.
Pete Sampras was sailing off into the distance after his fourteenth slam. Andre Agassi had recently collected his fourth Australian title, and Andy Roddick was only months away from cracking the big time.
In many people’s eyes Roddick didn’t win enough, mainly because he failed to win a second slam. It must be remembered that his second chance was always going to be a lot tougher thanks to a certain Mr Federer who spoilt many careers. Now with the oft-criticised Roddick gone, and enjoying retirement, the torch as America’s best player hasn’t been passed onto a worthy candidate.
Now before the stomach acid of the Isner fans starts churning let’s remember that big John does very little outside of the U.S. or Davis Cup duties and has been looking rather out of sorts this year. Is it too soon to count him out?
And when was the U.S. this unsubstantial? Certainly not twenty years ago when the Americans were surely the majority in any draw.
So what has happened in the years since? Is the college system watered down, do the Academies need a revamp, is American tennis stuck in the past or just stuck in a lull?
As much as champions are formed at the grass root level, the formative years are spent idolising a hero. Naturally, an idol a young player can relate to will only help to cultivate progression.
With so many tournaments stateside, roughly 18% of the total tour, it is bad for tennis to have a weak America. And with so few American contenders a sense of complacent mediocrity can set in quickly.
More remarkable than any feat in tennis outside the majors, the Indian Wells-Miami double title requires many factors to fall together for those who would complete it: sustained form across twelve matches, resilient fitness in heat and humidity, efficiency in early rounds, the ability to raise one’s level in later rounds, adjustments to contrasting playing styles, and—perhaps—a bit of luck from fortuitous upsets late in the draw. Since Federer completed a stunning pair of doubles in 2005-06, only one player on either Tour has matched his accomplishment, but several have come close. We take a look at each of the leading threats to rampage through March in both the ATP and WTA.
Djokovic: The aforementioned architect of an Indian Wells/Miami double, the Serb demonstrated his improved fitness by sweeping these arduous draws early in his spectacular 2011 campaign. Even before he became the fearsome member of the big four, moreover, he came within a match of the same feat by finishing runner-up at the first and champion at the latter in 2007. Last year, Djokovic came within a tiebreak of the Indian Wells final before defending his Miami crown. The slow courts should favor his more physical style over Federer’s preference for short points, and he currently holds the momentum in his rivalry against Murray with three straight victories. Entering the Dubai semifinals, Djokovic had won 16 straight matches and 26 of his last 27, opening a massive lead as world #1.
Murray: Four years ago, he came within a win of the double when he fell to Nadal in the Indian Wells final before sweeping Del Potro and Djokovic to win Miami. Often at his best on North American hard courts, Murray has won six of his eight Masters 1000 titles there—but has lost three straight matches at Indian Wells, where he has advanced past the quarterfinals just once That futility in the desert, which should suit a high-percentage game adaptable to variable conditions, has stemmed from emotional hangovers after losses in the Australian Open final. Although he lost there again this year, Murray seemed less distraught afterward, so he could bounce back sooner. He might well avoid long-time nemesis Nadal at both events but probably will have to reconquer the Djoker at least once.
Berdych: A Miami finalist in 2010, he never has reached the final at either of the tournaments in any other year and has won just one Masters 1000 shield. Nevertheless, Berdych has grown more consistent in the last several months against players outside the elite, and he will take comfort from the knowledge that he may not face either Federer or Nadal. Securing his fair share of success against Murray over the years, he never has defeated Djokovic on a hard court. For a player of his size and (limited) mobility, Berdych handles slow courts unusually well because his groundstrokes still can power through them, while he often will have the time to run around his backhand for forehands.
Del Potro: The only active major champion outside the Big Four, he does own a somewhat recent victory over Djokovic and momentum against Federer following two victories last fall. But Del Potro never has defeated either Djokovic or Murray on an outdoor hard court, at least pending his Dubai semifinal against the former. Most of his notable successes have come on faster courts like those at the US Open or the year-end championships, where his forehand can break open rallies more quickly. Although his fitness has proved unreliable in the heat, his four-title surge during the summer of 2008 showed that he can stay torrid for a long time when his game starts to sizzle.
Federer cannot complete the double because he has not entered Miami. Nadal? Well, he remains entered in both tournaments as of this writing and thus will have a chance to complete a feat that he never quite has approached. In the reality of his comeback, however, Nadal surely cannot sweep twelve straight hard-court matches in elite draws and conclude an exhausting four weeks by winning Miami for the first time after losing three finals there. Nor might he want that accomplishment, for it surely would drain him before the crucial clay season.
Sharapova: Within one win of a 2006 double, when she won Indian Wells and finished runner-up to Kuznetsova in Miami, she has produced outstanding results at each of the March mini-majors in the last two years. Denied only in the finals of both 2012 tournaments, Sharapova has started this year with a relentlessness similar to what she showed last year despite a surprising loss to Li Na in the Australian Open semifinals. She has not defeated Azarenka on an outdoor hard court since 2009, but she towers above the rest of the Indian Wells field in credentials. Much more complicated is Miami, where she has lost all four of her finals and must hope for someone else to dispatch Serena.
Azarenka: Undefeated entering Indian Wells for the second straight year, she often has raced to a fast start early in the season before losing momentum as injuries accumulate. Last year, she won Indian Wells with ease but arrived significantly depleted in Miami, where she could not survive the quarterfinals. The world #2 shares Djokovic’s affinity for a surface that showcases her transitions from defense to offense as well as her returning prowess. Apparent niggles with her fitness already have surfaced this year in every tournament that she has played, however, leaving her durability still in doubt. Rarely has she won titles in consecutive weeks.
Radwanska: By contrast, the Pole whom Azarenka ruthlessly has suppressed since the start of 2012 has demonstrated her ability to win key titles in consecutive weeks. Radwanska swept the Premier Five/Premier Mandatory pair of Tokyo and Beijing in 2011, catalyzing a surge that has not yet ended, and she should welcome the slow courts. The defending champion in Miami, where she defeated Venus and Sharapova last year, she should approach the pressure of that status with her characteristic tenacity. But Radwanska has reached a major semifinal only once because of her failure to outlast the WTA’s fiercest aggressors through a seven-round tournament, and the same pattern might undo her in the attempt to win consecutive six-round tournaments against the best in the sport.
Kvitova: Feckless in North America until last year, she suddenly erupted during the US Open Series with two titles and a semifinal. Kvitova can tear through a draw or multiple draws without warning, as she showed by emerging from a slump to claim the Premier title in Dubai without dropping a set, including a victory over Radwanska. She never has defeated Serena and has struggled lately against Sharapova, while she astonishingly has not faced Azarenka since the latter’s rise early last year. More dangerous with every round that she advances further into a tournament, Kvitova will hope to avoid dark horses early in both draws and find the patience necessary to win rallies on the slow courts.
Among the key reasons why no woman has completed the double lately is the presence of the Williams sisters in Miami but not in Indian Wells. Their dominance at the former tournament, near their Palm Beach Gardens home, once inevitably forestalled the champion of the desert from repeating in Miami. While the tottering Venus probably cannot win a title of this magnitude, Serena remains the favorite at any non-clay tournament that she enters when healthy. Healthy she may not be, considering her injury-hampered hobbles through Melbourne and Doha, but the month of rest since the latter tournament may have allowed the world #1 to recover.
One of the strongest ATP 500 tournaments on the calendar, Dubai follows its Premier women’s event by hosting six of the top ten men in the first significant outdoor hard-court tournament since the Australian Open. This tournament claims pride of place in our weekly preview, although events in Acapulco and Delray Beach also feature key storylines that relate to what we can expect at Indian Wells.
Dubai: A three-time champion at this event, world #1 Djokovic did not bring his best tennis to the Persian Gulf last year in the wake of a draining Australian Open. The medium-paced hard court showcases his game splendidly, though, so he might bounce back in 2013 with a less exhausting Melbourne marathon behind him and a comfortable quarter ahead of him. Not since his first meeting with Troicki has he lost to his compatriot, and rarely in the current twelve-match winning streak has the other Serb seriously troubled him. That said, Djokovic did drop a set when they met here in 2010. Also unlikely to threaten him on a hard court is the seventh-seeded Seppi, while Lukas Rosol does lurk but so far remains a one-upset man.
While three qualifiers form a soft center to the second quarter, its edges might feature some intrigue. Seeking to avoid a third straight first-round loss here, former semifinalist Baghdatis faces a tall task in Del Potro, but he has won their last two clashes. That battle of flat groundstrokes and inspired shot-making should offer some of the first round’s best entertainment. Of lesser note is the encounter between the eighth-seeded Youzhny and rising Slovene Blaz Kavcic. How much does the aging Russian with the graceful one-handed backhand have left?
Like the second half overall, the third quarter looks stronger than the two above it. Top-eight threats Tsonga and Berdych bookend it, the former of whom faces a stern test in compatriot Michael Llodra. Neither of those Frenchmen will relish the relatively slow courts here, nor will potential second-round opponent Tursunov. A smart wildcard choice after his astonishing charge to the Marseille weekend as a qualifier, he ranks among the draw’s most notable dark horses. Two comfortable rounds await Berdych, who excelled in Marseille as well as Tsonga and Tursunov. Not known for his consistency, the Czech has maintained some of his steadiest tennis to date over the last several months, and he should fare better against Tsonga on an outdoor hard court than on the fast indoor court where he lost to him on Sunday.
After the hubbub last year when the tournament declined to offer Malek Jaziri a wildcard, the organizers may have smirked a bit when, having received that privilege this year, the Tunisian has landed adjacent to Federer. More worthy of Swiss steel, surely, is the resurgent Tomic in a sequel to an Australian Open encounter closer than the score showed. Never a man to doubt his own chances, the brash Aussie will feel confident of toppling whoever emerges from the Tipsarevic-Davydenko opener. Although that match could present a battle of crisp two-handed backhands, both men have struggled this year and would enter a meeting with Tomic at a significant height disadvantage. Realistically, however, only one man will come out of this quarter.
Final: Djokovic vs. Federer
Acapulco: Of the four top-ten men not participating in Dubai, two lend their illustrious presence to the clay 500 tournament in Mexico. The end of the South American February swing, Acapulco usually offers an opportunity for top-seeded David Ferrer to bolster his rankings points. While the presence of Nadal at the base of the draw will complicate his quest, the man who displaced Rafa as the top-ranked Spaniard brings momentum from winning Buenos Aires and faces no significant clay threats in his quarter. Starting against left-handed compatriot Albert Ramos, Ferrer might face flaky Frenchman Benoit Paire in the quarterfinals, but another Spaniard in Pablo Andujar looms just as large. Outside Nadal, the top seed has enjoyed plenty of success against his countrymen.
The last victim of Ferrer in Buenos Aires, Wawrinka faces a much more intriguing series of tests to secure a rematch in the semifinals. Opening against Fabio Fognini of the famous eyebrows and unpredictable temperament, he might encounter the returning Nalbandian afterwards. A finalist in the first tournament of his return, Sao Paulo, Nalbandian took a set from Ferrer at his home tournament last week before his stamina waned. The fifth-seeded Jurgen Melzer has struggled this year outside a run to the Zagreb final on an indoor hard court, so Colombian clay threat Santiago Giraldo might seem a plausible dark horse to reach the quarterfinals.
Denied by Wawrinka in Buenos Aires, Almagro still looks to steady himself after that strange combination of breakthrough and breakdown that he endured in Melbourne. His draw looks comfortable in its early stages, featuring nobody more dangerous than the long-faded Tommy Robredo. In the quarterfinals, Almagro could meet one of three players who have recorded a strong result each during the South American clay season: Vina del Mar champion Zeballos, Sao Paulo semifinalist Simone Bolelli, or Vina del Mar semifinalist Carlos Berlocq. But Zeballos has not won a match since that stunning upset over Nadal, while Berlocq should struggle to match Almagro hold for hold despite winning a set from Nadal in Sao Paulo.
The easiest pre-semifinal route of all would seem to belong to the man who needs it least, or is it most? Far from bulletproof in his two-week swing through Vina del Mar and Sao Paulo, Nadal managed to scrape out results that looked stronger on paper than on television. He cannot face anyone of note in his first two matches, however, and the week-long respite may have freshened his body and spirits. The heavy left-handed groundstrokes of sixth-seeded Thomaz Bellucci might pose a threat in view of the Zeballos result. All the same, the Brazilian has accomplished nothing during this month’s clay tournaments so far and probably lacks the belief to threaten Nadal.
Final: Ferrer vs. Nadal
Delray Beach: In his last tournament before Indian Wells, where he defends finals points, top-seeded John Isner desperately needs to halt a slide that has seen him lose 10 of his last 17 matches. Although a semifinal at San Jose hinted at a resurgence, he dropped a lackluster straight-setter in Memphis, where the indoor hard courts should have suited his massive serve just as well. Fortunate to receive a modest first-round opponent in Jesse Levine, Isner then could meet Memphis semifinalist Marinko Matosevic. The Aussie upset similarly powerful American giant Querrey last week and the talented Dolgopolov, so he brings much more momentum into this match than the top seed. Before he succumbed to injury, Kevin Anderson enjoyed an excellent January by reaching the Sydney final and the second week of the Australian Open, the first South African to do so in a decade. He could match Isner serve for serve, or more likely surpass him if his pre-injury form revives.
Quite a contrast to Isner’s week in Memphis was the breakthrough delivered by Jack Sock, who upset second-seeded Raonic in the most significant victory of his career. Sock received a reward in a wildcard here, although he may not fancy a second-round rematch with the man who finally stopped him last week, Feliciano Lopez. The American will have gained experience in facing a serve-volleyer in an opener against Aussie Matthew Ebden, which could stand him in good stead against Lopez. And a third straight could loom in the quarterfinals if Karlovic can solve former champion Nishikori. Suggesting otherwise is the recent form of both men, for Nishikori has produced generally solid results so far in a 2013 where Karlovic’s age and nagging injuries finally may have caught up with him.
A semifinalist in San Jose and gone early in Memphis, like Isner, third-seeded Sam Querrey inhabits a section filled with his compatriots. That quirk of fate seems auspicious for him in view of his preference for straightforward opponents who allow him baseline rhythm and lack impressive retturns. Surely able to overpower battered veterans Russell and Blake, he may need to raise his motivation a notch for the ever-impassioned Ryan Harrison. That youngster has accomplished even less than Querrey lately, though, and a recent illness may have dulled his energies. The other seed in this section, Xavier Malisse, retired last week in Memphis.
Also withdrawing from Memphis was San Jose runner-up Tommy Haas, who holds the second seed here but faces an intimidating opener against Igor Sijsling. The Dutchman suddenly has burst into relevance after reaching the Australian Open doubles final, upsetting Tsonga at his home tournament in Rotterdam, and nearly toppling the top-seeded Cilic in Memphis. If Haas can weather Sijsling’s impressive serve, he must slow the surge of Denis Istomin’s second straight sold February. Ever an enigma and ever an entertainer, the fifth-seeded Dolgopolov rounds out this quarter and shares Tommy’s predicament of a dangerous first-round opponent. As his 2011 victory over Nadal proved, Ivan Dodig can trouble anyone on the occasions when his high-risk game explodes rather than implodes.
Final: Nishikori vs. Querrey
Turn on a tennis tournament sometime during the dreary month of February, and more likely than not you will see a blue court under artificial lighting with players who end matches quickly behind cascades of unreturnable serves. But then there’s the odd chance, especially this year with Nadal’s comeback, that you will turn on a tennis tournament and see—red clay. Outdoors. With actual rallies.
The South American clay season often raises eyebrows in its position between marquee hard courts in Australia and North America. An anomaly as a procession of indoor hard tournaments unfold through Europe and the United States this month, these tournaments lack intuitive logic from a fan’s perspective and have caused many to wonder whether they would benefit from shifting to hard courts. If they did, skeptics argue, they would lure a more balanced field of players rather than the usual group of clay specialists who pounce on them so eagerly. Moreover, the results there actually would become relevant to the mega-Masters 1000 tournaments ahead in Indian Wells and Miami, for barometers of hard-court form they are not at the moment. Perhaps less persuasive but still credible is the thought that change itself can inject new life into a tournament, generating publicity that adds energy to it and bringing it to the attention of the sport’s international audience. (Somewhat like what Nadal did this year. Until he announced his comeback schedule, many fans probably did not even remember the order in which these events unfold.)
Of course, Ion Tiriac plunged his tournament into a great blue sea of change last year that illustrated the distinction between good and bad publicity, or perhaps that the latter exists. And there are plenty of other reasons why the South American tournaments should defy the pressures of conformity to remain paradises of dirt devils. Clay specialists they may be, but players like Ferrer, Almagro, and Wawrinka (all in the Buenos Aires 250 this week) showcase excellent talents that can entertain anyone with a true passion for and knowedge of the sport. By contrast, the more prestigious 500 tournament in Memphis this week attracted nobody more scintillating than Cilic and the usual parade of towering servers from North America, unmatched in monotony by any other type of player. Even assuming that a tournament would benefit from their inclusion, it is far from clear that changing to hard courts would convince many of these players to take the long trip south. Appearance fees, local connections, physical condition, and current career goals generally drive scheduling decisions in the sub-Masters 1000 tiers for the marquee names. Nor should one underestimate the appeal of a sunny South American vacation when much of the Northern Hemisphere lies shrouded deep in winter, something irrelevant to the surface.
For fans, meanwhile, that South American sun can come as an invigorating jolt of energy, much like the Australian summer that enlivens our post-Christmas doldrums. The saturated colors and warm light that flickers onto our televisions and desktops in a sense presages the springtime experience of Indian Wells and Miami more than do the sterile arenas of February’s indoor hard-court tournaments. Diversity stands as one of the sport’s great strengths, and playing tournaments on two different surfaces in the same week bolsters it no less than playing tournaments on three different continents in the same week.
Finally, there seems something to be said for adhering to local traditions and preserving ties to each region’s distinctive history. Hard courts have come to dominate the sport and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The “if you can’t beat them, join them” theory clearly does not apply to tennis, though, for the specialty surfaces that remain in Europe arguably have enhanced their prestige by becoming less common. People are drawn to the unusual and the unfamiliar, which provides an independent reason for the South American tournaments to keep the one key element that distinguishes them from others during the same span.
That said, those eager to import hard courts to South America will look forward to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, an experiment that may cause some to consider embracing the surface more enthusiastically. Seeing hard courts in this region, though, may look even odder than seeing clay courts in February.
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
After a tenure of nearly a century and a quarter, the ATP event in San Jose will end this weekend. The second-oldest tennis tournament in the United States, the SAP Open lately represented the only outpost of the men’s game in the Bay Area, which has hosted a successful WTA event early in the US Open Series for the last four decades.
As historic as it is, the end of men’s tennis in the Bay Area—for now—comes as scant surprise to someone like me who once attended the SAP Open. Unlike the WTA Stanford tournament, which regularly attracted champions from around the world, San Jose had declined steadily over the last several years as it languished in the lowest tier of the ATP’s 250/500/1000 system. With each year, fewer and fewer of Silicon Valley’s citizens trickled through the turnstiles of the HP Arena. Less committed to tennis than their predecessors was the tournament’s new management, meanwhile, which grew increasingly frustrated with scheduling long road trips for the San Jose Sharks, the hockey team that makes its home there. The venue also has only a single court, a logistical handicap unique or nearly so among ATP tournaments outside the year-end championships, which requires only one court for its eight-player field. But the most significant obstacle confronted by the SAP Open was the task of luring European players across an ocean and a continent to a tournament diminished in status.
Attempting to bolster San Jose by signing multi-year participation agreements several years ago, Roddick and the Bryan Brothers had signaled their support for an event that had given them precious opportunities earlier in their careers. (It now seems fitting that Roddick will appear in an exhibition on the SAP Open’s final weekend.) Nevertheless, the tournament’s inability to consistently draw prestigious foreign players combined with the recent stagnation of American men’s tennis to thrust this event in a converted hockey arena onto very thin ice. Exhibitions between Sampras and a top seed provided some mild entertainment, to be sure, as did the rise of two-time defending champion Milos Raonic. Offered a wealth of professional sports options in their vicinity, however, Bay Area fans who lack a strong attachment to tennis found little reason to prevent them from drifting elsewhere.
As for tennis fans like myself, the prospect of attending a Raonic-Harrison or Istomin-Benneteau semifinal in San Jose (the 2012 lineup) seemed a poor alternative to watching tournaments with elite contenders on television or the internet. In February, the most compelling action in men’s tennis occurs thousands of miles away at tournaments in Rotterdam and Dubai, while the women’s Premier Five tournament in Doha grasps the attention of those who follow both Tours. Looming just a month ahead, meanwhile, the marquee tournament at Indian Wells offered a reminder that the world’s best would return soon to California. With Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, and the rest scheduled to compete in a beautifully situated, meticulously maintained “tennis garden,” who can blame the region’s fans for ignoring the journeymen on display in a drafty hockey rink near the San Jose Airport?
Blighted by a disinterested management and dwindling commitment from both players and fans, therefore, the tournament tottered towards its inevitable fate: a transfer to a region where it will earn more success in all three areas. Planned to coincide with the 2016 Olympics there, the new joint ATP/WTA tournament in Rio de Janeiro should gain an early boost in publicity from which it will profit. To achieve the stability that San Jose once enjoyed, though, Rio will want to avoid the flaws that doomed its predecessor. As the most important tennis tournament on the South American continent, it stands well poised to do so.
Where one tradition ends, perhaps another will begin.
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.