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
Our daily preview series continues with six matches from each Tour.
Haase vs. Murray (Rod Laver Arena): When they met at the 2011 US Open, the underdog nearly stunned the Scot by building a two-set lead. Haase then won just six games over the last three sets as he continued a bizarre career trend of disappearing in matches that he started with a lead. This match marks Murray’s first as a major champion, and one wonders whether the tension that he so often has displayed on these stages will abate in proportion to the pressure. Although he won Brisbane, he looked imperfect in doing so and alluded to some emotional turmoil hovering around him.
Tomic vs. Mayer (RLA): Shortly after he reached the Brisbane final, Grigor Dimitrov experience a rude awakening when he became the first man to crash out of the Australian Open. Sydney champion Tomic must guard against the concern of having peaked too soon after winning his first career title, amidst chatter about his upcoming clash with Federer. But Leonardo Mayer should lack the consistency to pose any sustained challenge, while Tomic has excelled on home soil and reached the second week here last year with victories over much superior opponents.
Tsonga vs. Llodra (Hisense): A battle of two flamboyant Frenchmen rarely fails to entertain, no matter the scoreline. Formerly a finalist and semifinalist here, Tsonga embarks on his first season with coach Roger Rasheed, attempting to rebound from a paradoxical 2012 season in which he stayed in the top eight without conquering anyone in it. Across the net stands a compatriot who shares his fondness for hurtling towards the net and finishing points with sharply slashed volleys. Expect plenty of explosive, staccato tennis from a rollicking match filled with ebbs and flows.
Matosevic vs. Cilic (Margaret Court Arena): Like Haase and Murray, their meeting follows in the wake of some notable US Open history. Extending the Croat to a fifth set there last year, Matosevic built upon the best year of his career that saw him reach the top 50 and become the top Aussie man until Tomic surpassed him in Sydney (both on the court and in the rankings). Cilic has stabilized at a mezzanine level of the ATP since his initial breakthrough in 2008-09, when he looked likely to emulate Del Potro’s accomplishments. Of a similar stature and playing style to the former US Open champion, he appears to lack the competitive will necessary to take the next step forward.
Monfils vs. Dolgopolov (MCA): The first week of a major offers an ideal opportunity to check out unusual shot-makers who usually fall before the tournament’s marquee rounds. Recognizing this potential, the Melbourne schedulers have featured on a show court this fascinating pas de deux between two men who can produce—or at least attempt—any shot in the book. Their match should remind viewers of the imaginative quality to tennis, often lost in this era of fitness and raw power. Both men focus more on the journey than the destination, and style than substance: not a recipe for major titles but certainly a recipe for entertainment.
Haas vs. Nieminen (Court 3): Most had abandoned hope in the German when he started last year outside the top 200. Bursting back into relevance over the spring and summer, the 34-year-old Haas should inspire other men near the twilight of their careers. Among them is Nieminen, a veteran Finnish lefty without much polish but perhaps with enough wrinkles in his game to frustrate the easily ruffled Haas.
Wozniacki vs. Lisicki (Hisense): The world #1 at this tournament last year, Wozniacki has plummeted to the edge of the top 10 while losing four of her last six matches at majors. Despite a hopeful fall, the Danish counterpuncher started this year in deflating fashion with early losses at Brisbane and Sydney, still mired in doubt and anxiety. Lisicki has won two of their three previous meetings behind a booming serve that allowed her to seize and retain control of the points before Wozniacki could settle into neutral mode. Outside the grass season, she struggled even more than her opponent did last year, and a surface that seems very slow may dilute her greatest weapon. In theory, though, her huge game could unnerve Wozniacki again by denying her the rhythm that she prefers.
Suarez Navarro vs. Errani (MCA): A pair of clay specialists meet on a slow, high-bouncing hard court that should not feel too foreign to them. Suarez Navarro has become a credible dark horse in Melbourne, defeating Venus in the second round a few years ago and extending the then-formidable Kvitova to a third set in the same round last year. Meanwhile, Errani reached the quarterfinals at last year’s Australian Open, the first significant result that signaled her breakthrough and thus the first key bundle of points that she must defend.
Schiavone vs. Kvitova (MCA): This match could get gruesome quickly if both of them play as they did earlier in January. At the Hopman Cup, the aging Schiavone struggled to find the service box or her groundstroke timing, while Kvitova struggled to find any part of the court in Brisbane and Sydney. Those efforts prolonged a span in which the former Wimbledon champion has lost seven of her last ten matches, suggesting that she will bring little of the confidence necessary to execute her high-risk game. Schiavone nearly ended Kvitova’s title defense at the All England Club last year, suggesting that this match may contain as much upset potential as Wozniacki-Lisicki.
Oudin vs. Robson (Court 3): Phenoms past and present collide in this meeting of careers headed in opposite directions. While Oudin did resurface last summer with her first career title, she has extracted little from her counterpunching game since the US Open quarterfinal that vaulted her to fame perhaps too early. A highly awaited presence as soon as she won junior Wimbledon, Robson progressed significantly last season in both power and consistency, ultimately reaching the second week of the US Open. Will both of their trends continue, or will Oudin blunt the British lefty’s attack?
Petrova vs. Date-Krumm (Court 6): Surely not much longer on display, the age-defying Date-Krumm merits a trip to the outer courts for her sharply angled groundstrokes and the joy with which she competes. As if one needed any further reason to watch this match, Petrova produces ample entertainment with her percussive serves and crisp volleys, not to mention her bursts of classically Russian angst.
Putintseva vs. McHale (Court 7): As she recovers from the mono that sidelined her last year, the young American might have preferred a less intense opponent than the yowling, perpetually emoting bundle of energy that is Putintseva. The junior exudes with talent as well as aggression, so the quiet McHale cannot take her opponent in this stark clash of personalities too lightly.
Looking for a jumbo preview of the Australian Open men’s draw that breaks down each section of the brackets? Look no further. We take one quarter at a time in tracing the route of each leading contender, locating the most intriguing matches, projecting the semifinalists, and identifying one notable player to watch in each section.
First quarter: Seeking the first men’s three-peat Down Under of the Open era, Djokovic will want to conserve his energy during the first week and probably will. Although rising American star Ryan Harrison could threaten briefly in the second round, he lacks the experience to test the Serb in a best-of-five format, while potential third-round opponent Stepanek lacks the consistency to do so as his career wanes. Among the other figures of note in this vicinity are two resurgent Americans in Querrey and Baker, destined to meet in the second round. The winner may fancy his chances against Wawrinka, more comfortable on clay, and Querrey in particular could bring confidence from his upset of Djokovic in Paris to another clash with the Serb when the second week starts.
The quarter’s lower section features several men who share Wawrinka’s affinity for clay, such as Monaco and Verdasco. While the Spaniard’s career has sagged over the past year or two, the Argentine enjoyed his best season to date in 2012 as he reached the top ten for the first time. His reward lies in a clear route to the second week and an appointment with the enigmatic Berdych. Always susceptible to ebbs and flows, the world #6 ended last season optimistically with a semifinal at the US Open, where he upset Federer. But then Berdych started this season miserably by falling in Chennai to an opponent outside the top 50. He has won just one of his twelve career meetings with Djokovic, although the only victory came in one of their most important matches: a Wimbledon semifinal. While Berdych’s route to the quarterfinals looks comfortable, then, only a superb serving performance can shield him from the Serb’s more balanced array of weapons when he arrives there.
Player to watch: Querrey
Second quarter: The only section without a clear favorite proliferates with question marks but also with talent and intriguing narratives. In the draw’s most notable first-round match, Hewitt will open his 17th Australian Open campaign against the eighth-seeded Tipsarevic. A mismatch on paper, this encounter could develop into one of the late-night thrillers that have become a Melbourne tradition, and the home crowd might lift their Aussie to an improbable victory over an opponent less untouchable than those ranked above him. Other storylines include the apparent emergence of Grigor Dimitrov, previously familiar only for his facsimile of Federer’s playing style but now a Brisbane finalist. While the Bulgarian never has reached the third round of a major, his recent accomplishments and his desire to impress romantic interest Maria Sharapova might inspire him. He faces a challenging initial test against Benneteau, who fell just short of his second straight Sydney final.
Awarded his first seed in the main draw of a major, Jerzy Janowicz looks to continue his momentum from last fall when he reached the final at the Paris Masters 1000 tournament. Unlike Dimitrov, his route through the first round or two looks clear, and projected third-round opponent Almagro does not pose an insurmountable obstacle. Unless Janowicz improves upon his January efforts so far, however, Almagro can look ahead to the second week and perhaps even a quarterfinal against compatriot Ferrer. The highest seed in this section, the latter Spaniard will reach the top four after the tournament no matter his result. His fitness should carry him past erratic opponents like Baghdatis or Youzhny, although the titanic serve of Karlovic has troubled him before and merits watching in their second-round match. Having recorded multiple victories over Ferrer on marquee stages, Nishikori poses his most convincing pre-quarterfinal threat. But he has struggled with injury recently and may prove no better able to grind past the Spaniard in the heat than Almagro, who never has defeated him. If Tipsarevic reaches the quarterfinals, on the other hand, he will aim to reverse the outcome of their US Open quarterfinal last year, which he lost to Ferrer in a fifth-set tiebreak.
Player to watch: Dimitrov
Third quarter: Never has a man won his second major immediately after winning his first. Never, however, in the Open era had a British man won any major at all, so this bit of history should not intimidate the reigning US Open champion. Murray will start his campaign by reprising an odd encounter with Robin Haase at the 2011 US Open, which he rallied to win in five sets after losing the first two. The lanky Dutchman behind him, he will face nobody over the next few rounds with the firepower to discomfit him over this extended format. Throughout his section lie counterpunchers like Simon or Robredo or tactically limited players like Mayer and Stakhovsky. The two exceptions who could threaten Murray will meet in the first round. Reviving his career with solid results in Doha and Auckland, Monfils will pit his momentum against fellow showman Dolgopolov in a match likely to showcase plenty of electrifying shot-making.
Perhaps of more interest is the route traced by Del Potro, the most likely title contender outside the top three seeds. In the second round, the Tower of Tandil could meet surprising Slovakian Aljaz Bedene, who reached the Chennai semifinals to start the year and nearly upset Tipsarevic there. Owning more than enough weapons to dispatch the passive baseliner Granollers afterwards, Del Potro would open the second week against Marin Cilic. The Croat developed around the same time as the Argentine and honed a similar playing style to complement his similar physique. But Cilic has disappointed those who anointed him a future major champion and top-10 fixture, appearing to content himself with a lesser level of accomplishment. He must brace himself for an opening battle against home hope Marinko Matosevic, who took him to five sets in New York last fall. If Del Potro can reverse his 2009 loss to Cilic in that projected fourth-round encounter, he also must halt his winless hard-court record against Murray. The task does not loom as large as it might appear, for he has won sets in all four of those matches.
Player to watch: Del Potro
Fourth quarter: What a pity that leading Aussie hope Bernard Tomic can play only two rounds before descending into the maw of the GOAT, as he did in the fourth round here last year. All the same, Tomic will have the opportunity to knock off a seeded opponent in Martin Klizan while praying for a miracle from Federer’s second-round opponent, Nikolay Davydenko. (Those who saw their match at the 2010 Australian Open will remember how impressive the Russian looked against the Swiss—for a set and a half, after which he utterly collapsed.) Perhaps more formidable than the momentum of Tomic is the mighty serve of Milos Raonic, which nearly toppled Federer three times last year. In each of their matches, Federer managed to win the crucial handful of points late in final sets, but can he continue to escape so narrowly? The younger man cannot look too far ahead too soon, however, for a second-round match against Lukas Rosol lurks, and everyone knows what Rosol has done in the second round of majors.
Winless against top-eight opponents in 2012, former finalist Tsonga hopes to turn over a new leaf in 2013. To snap that streak, though, he must survive the early stages of the tournament against dangerous lurkers like Llodra and Bellucci. Tsonga has struggled at times against compatriots and has a losing career record against Gasquet, his projected fourth-round opponent. Fresh from his title in Doha, the world #10 never has plowed deep into the Australian draw and may not benefit this time from the weak first-week slates that he received at majors last year. Eyeing a possible upset is Haas, another artist of the one-handed backhand who has collaborated with Gasquet on memorable matches before. But the question remains whether any of these men currently can compete with Federer across a best-of-five match, and the answer seems clear.
Player to watch: Tomic
Final: Djokovic vs. Murray
Champion: Novak Djokovic
Come back tomorrow for the women’s preview, designed with the same level of detail!
By James Crabtree
The countdown to the Australian Open has begun! January 14 is getting closer.
Not long to go now.
So, whats been happening?
Let’s just say Melbourne Park has been hectic, and its not just the renovations (indoor courts, clay courts, plexi courts, plunge pools, training rooms etc), which have been immense.
Firstly, whenever you are in Melbourne chances are somebody will say “it’s like four seasons in one day.” This is funny the first few times, then drives you up the wall, then you find yourself saying to somebody you think isn’t from here: “Did I mention Melbourne is like four seasons in one day?”
Anyway, the tennis.
Doubles legend Todd Woodbridge has been on court, seemingly everyday. More impressive than that is the fact the guy simply does not age, L’Oreal really needs to sign this guy up because he could have easily snuck into the under 18 event.
Speaking of juniors, there is a ton playing right now from the 12’s to the 18’s as part of the Optus Championships, and all trying to make their mark. Notable attendees at their matches have been U.S. college recruiters from some pretty big schools.
Australian No. 1 Marinko Matosevic has also seen working hard on the his court fitness drills with Greg Jones and the sort of trainer who should be yelling at people on The Biggest Loser.
Sam Stosur has been spotted drinking coffee in the cafeteria. Reports of what kind of coffee have yet to be verified although the barista believed it was a caffè latte with one sugar even though she wasn’t really paying attention. Consequently the same barista messed up my order, I wanted a mocha and got a cappuccino.
The world’s fastest server Sam Groth (with a record of 163.4 mph), has been on the practice court everyday and is looking very confident. The world’s 216th-ranked player should be a good bet to win next week’s December Showdown and claim the Australian Open Wild Card. Still don’t count out last year’s Showdown finalist though, James Duckworth, who made the second round of the Australian Open main draw and gave top 10 player Janko Tipsarevic a real scare.
That’s all from here for now. Did I mention Melbourne has four seasons in one day?
James Crabtree will be covering the December Showdown for the tournament’s website, and will also be covering next month’s Australian Open.