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
Last Sunday afternoon, Milos Raonic became the first man to win three consecutive titles at the SAP Open, at precisely the same moment he became the last man to win one at all. This edition of the San Jose was the last, bringing the rich history of professional tennis in northern California to a close. Raonic will therefore reign as defending champion approximately forever.
It can be a tricky matter to define precisely when a tournament actually expires, or even if it has. There are technical points to be made about licences and ownership, such that it is theoretically possible for an event to survive across endless variations of geography, surface and draw. Has Los Angeles really gone, or has it just moved to Bogota, simultaneously shifting continent and soaring into low orbit? What about the Memphis 500 event, which will relocate to Rio? What, if anything, about that tournament will truly endure?
Such discussions are apt to grow philosophical, as we’re compelled to wonder at the ineradicable essence of a tennis tournament, such that it can retain its identity when everything important about it has ostensibly changed. Apparently these things have ineffable souls, or at least durable traditions that might be strung out indefinitely.
On the other hand, aficionados of professional tennis in southern California are in no doubt that the LA tournament has ascended, not to Columbia, but to that great tennis boneyard in the sky. They might well be insulted if the next champion in Bogota was appended to the long and illustrious list of past LA champions, which includes Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe. The fans often know when a tournament has really perished, just as they know when it is being artificially sustained on life support.
Indeed, reading down the past champion’s lists for many of these cancelled events is bittersweet, evoking sepia-tinted glories, now fading irrecoverably with the tournament’s passing. While some were new ventures that evidently didn’t pan out, many more were decades old, and the winner’s list tells a salutary tale of prestige giving way, gradually or suddenly, to irrelevance. You can understand what is lost, even as you can see why it had to go.
Sometimes what is lost is an invaluable start. It is fascinating to note that each of the Big Four won his first title at a tournament that has since been cancelled: Roger Federer (Milan 2001), Rafael Nadal (Sopot 2004), Novak Djokovic (Amersfoort 2006), and Andy Murray (San Jose 2006).*
In any case, today I’m going to look at those men currently active on the ATP tour who won the ultimate edition of a tournament, whose names will remain the last one on the trophy. I won’t pretend that great insight will be thereby gleaned – perhaps a pattern will emerge – but sometimes it is enough merely to catalogue such things as they pass. There is a sense in which such compilations are subjective; I think I could mount a good argument why the tournament in Sao Paulo is the basically same one that was in Costa do Sauipe, while disputing the idea that Brisbane is a continuation of Adelaide, but I understand that others may not feel the same way. (I do encourage anyone who spots glaring factual inaccuracies to let me know.)
Milos Raonic (San Jose 2013)
The Canadian is only man on this list who goes out as back-to-back-to-back champion. He has won three San Jose titles in a row without dropping a set, in the process breaking records and Fernando Verdasco’s mind. It’s interesting to think how different it might have been had Gael Monfils contested their semifinal in 2011. He didn’t, Raonic gained free passage to the final, and the rest is history, in every sense. It’s even more interesting to think what the tournament’s disappearance will mean for Raonic from here. San Jose accounts for 75% of his career titles.
Sam Querrey (Los Angeles 2012 and Las Vegas 2008)
Querrey is one of two men who merit inclusion on this list twice. He is the forever champion in Los Angeles, which he won a total of three times. Indeed, one report archly implied that his dominance was part of the reason the event was consigned to oblivion (or Columbia). He was also the last man to win the ill-fated Las Vegas event, which is where the Scottsdale tourney went to undergo palliative care.
Andreas Seppi (Belgrade 2012)
When the old Dutch Open was sold to the Djokovic family, they probably dreamed it would last longer in their home city than five years. Alas, the event more or less lived and died according to the presence of the family’s most famed member, which is a parlous situation for any tournament. Nonetheless, Seppi was a worthy final winner.
Kevin Anderson (Johannesburg 2011)
At the time, I joked that Joburg’s days were numbered when Feliciano Lopez was marketed as the star attraction in 2011. Initially things seemed okay, with players such as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and David Ferrer lured to South Africa, presumably with their consent. But geography and scheduling proved a fatal cocktail. Staged the week after the Australian Open, at the far end of the earth, it just couldn’t work. It was, nonetheless, Anderson’s first title. It also boasted a truly ludicrous trophy, as so many do.
Nikolay Davydenko (Pörtschach 2008 and Warsaw 2008)
Davydenko is the other twice-tainted forever man. He remains the eternal champion in both Pörtschach and in Warsaw (which were to St Poeten and Sopot what Las Vegas was to Scottsdale: a nice spot for the tournament to sit with a rug over its knees as it quickly slid into its eternal goodnight). Both of these events were staged for the last time in 2008, which was something of a watershed year as far as these matters go. If the prevailing trend is for the United States to shed tournaments, five years ago Europe was suffering a similar affliction. It is curious that almost alone among this list, Davydenko is rare for being a player who was at the top of the game when he won these tournaments (ranked world No.4), although this says more about how modest his profile was even in his hey-day.
Ivo Karlovic (Nottingham 2008)
In 1998, the towering Croat became the two-time defending champion in Nottingham, which used to be the Wimbledon warm-up that almost no one played. On this surface, facing a weak field with his serve, Karlovic had no trouble making hay from the emerald sward. Nottingham was replaced (but not relocated) on the calendar by Eastbourne, which became a dual-gender event. The current Nottingham Challenger is a totally new tournament.
Michael Llodra (Adelaide 2008)
The French net-rusher was the last man ever to win the ATP event in Adelaide, also in 2008. The technical argument is that this tournament was moved to Brisbane, and combined with the existing WTA event. Technically this may be true, but really the Brisbane International is nothing like the old warhorse at Memorial Drive, where Lleyton Hewitt famously won his first career title as a 16 year old.
Richard Gasquet (Mumbai 2007)
The tournament that finally found peace in Mumbai had led a troubled journey through what some Australians quaintly persist in calling the Far East, beginning in Shanghai, moving briefly to Ho Chi Minh City, and finally gasping its last in Mumbai. After Gasquet won the final instalment, it was supposed to move to Bangalore, but security concerns cancelled the event the following year, and after that everyone seemed to lose interest. It was replaced by Kuala Lumpur, meaning that India, the second largest country in the Asia, lacks a tournament within the now-unified Asian Swing.
Filippo Volandri (Palermo 2006)
I confess I don’t know too much about this one, although I’d suggest that the days were numbered on any tournament whose final featured Volandri three years in a row.
Robin Soderling (Milan 2005)
The Milan Indoors was one of those tournaments with a tremendous history and a champion’s list that scans like a who’s who of the Open Era (McEnroe and Becker won four times each. Lendl, Borg, Edberg, and Vilas also hoisted the trophy). Roger Federer won his first title here in 2001. Nonetheless, the entry list had thinned calamitously by the time Soderling won in 2005, years before the Swede found his place in the loftier echelons of the sport. At the time he was just another in a lengthening line of journeyman champions, a line that leads smaller regional tournaments inevitably to the scrapheap.
*Amersfoort later moved to Belgrade, which has also been cancelled.
While none of the ATP tournaments this week enjoys a field of the pedigree that the WTA has produced in Dubai, the 250 tournament in Marseille features every member of the top ten’s lower half. We start with that event in our weekly preview, following it with the technically more significant tournament in Memphis and the latest edition of the South American clay swing.
Marseille: Recovered from his Davis Cup marathon earlier this month, world #6 Berdych claims the top seed in this overstuffed draw. At his best on these fast surfaces, he still cannot overlook the second-round challenge of Gulbis, who defeated him at Wimbledon last year. An intriguing collection of unpredictable threats rounds out the quarter from Rotterdam finalist Benneteau, who upset Federer there, to the notorious Rosol and the rising Janowicz. After breaking through on an indoor hard court in Paris last year, the latter has struggled to sustain his momentum in 2013. Like Berdych, Janowicz must start the tournament in crisp form to survive his early challenges.
Somewhat less dangerous is the second quarter, where Tipsarevic would reach the quarterfinals after facing only a qualifier. The fourth-seeded Serb will have welcomed this good fortune, considering an inconsistent start to the season that included a retirement at the Australian Open and an opening-round loss as the second seed in an indoor 250 this month. Starting 2013 by winning fifteen of his first sixteen matches, by contrast, Gasquet became the first man to claim two titles this year in a surprising development that vindicated his top-ten status. A second-round meeting with compatriot Monfils would intrigue, although the latter continues to rebuild his rhythm in a return from a long absence.
Two of the most notable figures in the third quarter lost their Rotterdam openers last week, one surprisingly and one less so. While few expected Tsonga to stumble against Sijsling, familiar sighs issued from Australia when Tomic reverted to his wayward self. The Aussie eyes a more accommodating draw this time, though, for higher-ranked opponnents Klizan and Paire will not overwhelm him. A potential opener against Davydenko might cause concern among Tsonga’s fans on an indoor hard court, but the Russian has slumped significantly since reaching the Doha final to start the season. In a quarterfinal, Tsonga and Tomic could engage in a battle of seismic serving that would test the focus of both.
Fresh from a strong effort in Rotterdam arrives the second-seeded Del Potro to a more challenging draw. Rebounding from his Australian Open debacle, he held serve relentlessly on indoor hard courts last week and may need to do so again if he opens against home hope Michael Llodra. A former semifinalist at the Paris Indoors, Llodra upset Tipsarevic in Montpellier two weeks ago and always relishes playing on this surface. Less formidable is the Frenchman whom Del Potro could meet in the quarterfinals, for Simon lacks the shot-making ability to thrust the Argentine out of his comfort zone.
Final: Berdych vs. Del Potro
Memphis: The most important tournament of the week only on paper, this sequel to San Jose often features many of the same players. This year departs somewhat from that trend, for top-seeded Cilic and fifth-seeded Nishikori arrive in North America for the first time this year. Between them stand Zagreb finalist and Memphis defending champion Melzer, who could repeat his final there against Cilic, and Tsonga’s Rotterdam nemesis, Igor Sijsling. Hampered by injury during the Australian Open, Nishikori aims to regain his groove before tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami where he could shine. By contrast, Cilic hopes to build upon claiming his home tournament in Zagreb for the third time. When they met at last year’s US Open, the latter prevailed in four sets.
Impressive in Davis Cup but less so in San Jose, Querrey looks to produce a more compelling serving performance as the fourth seed in a section without any giants of his size. Compatriot Steve Johnson, who upset Karlovic last week, may fancy his chances against the mercurial Dolgopolov in the second round. Withdrawing from San Jose with injury, the seventh seed may find the courts too fast for an entertaining style that requires time to improvise. If Dolgopolov should meet Querrey, though, he could disrupt the rhythm on which the American relies.
Somewhat like Querrey, Isner achieved modest success in San Jose before subsiding meekly in the semifinals. Since he missed much of the previous weeks with a knee injury, the matches accumulated there should serve him well in a tournament where he has finished runner-up to Querrey before. The tenacious returning of Hewitt may test Isner’s fortitude, although the former has not left an impact on his recent tournaments. Also in this section is the faltering Ryan Harrison, the victim of some challenging draws but also unable to show much evidence of improvement despite his visible will to win. The home crowd might free Harrison from the passivity that has cost him lately.
The undisputed master of San Jose, Raonic moves from the top of the draw there to the bottom of the draw here. His massive serve-forehand combinations will meet a similar style, albeit more raw, in American wildcard Jack Sock when the tournament begins. Raonic can anticipate a rematch of the San Jose final against Haas in the Memphis quarterfinals, while the lefty serve of Feliciano Lopez should pose an intriguing upset threat. Since Melzer rode similar weapons to last year’s title here, this fellow veteran could surprise the draw as well.
Final: Querrey vs. Raonic
Buenos Aires: After Nadal had dominated the South American headlines during the previous two weeks, another Spaniard attempts to follow in his footsteps. Now the top-ranked man from his country, world #4 Ferrer will face the same task that Rafa did in Sao Paulo when he meets either Berlocq or Nalbandian in the second round. Troubled by Nalbandian before, he will feel more comfortable against the unreliable Fognini in a more traditional battle of clay specialists a round later. In the second quarter continue two surprise stories of the past two weeks, Horacio Zeballos and Martin Alund. While the former won his first career title by toppling Nadal in Vina del Mar, the latter won a set from the Spaniard in a semifinal at Sao Paulo—the first tournament where he had won an ATP match. The highest seed in this quarter, Bellucci, imploded on home soil last week but did defeat Ferrer in Monte Carlo last year.
Framing the lower half are the ATP’s two most notable hard-luck stories of the season. Two days after Wawrinka had lost his epic five-setter to Djokovic, Almagro allowed a two-set lead to slip away against Ferrer in Melbourne after serving for the match three times. That trend continued for both men in February, when Wawrinka lost the longest doubles match in tennis history and Almagro dropped a third-set tiebreak to Nalbandian despite serving 28 aces. The Swiss #2 faces a mildly intriguing test to start the week in Paolo Lorenzi, and fellow Italian Simone Bolelli aims to continue his surge from a semifinal appearance in Sao Paulo. Less imposing is the path ahead of Almagro, although the unseeded Albert Montanes can score the occasional headline victory on clay.
Final: Ferrer vs. Wawrinka
Like last week, the upcoming ATP slate features two European tournaments on indoor hard courts and a South American tournament on outdoor red clay. Only one of the Big Four participated in last week’s action, but this week his archrival returns to the spotlight as well.
Rotterdam: Back in action for the first time since those consecutive five-setters in Melbourne, Federer prepares for a title defense closer to home soil. He often has produced his crispest tennis on indoor hard courts late in his career, and he finds himself near familiar victim Youzhny. Tested by rising star Raonic last year, Federer could meet another rising star in Jerzy Janowicz at the quarterfinal stage. Massive servers trouble him more than they once did, although Janowicz has looked less intimidating in the early events of 2013 than he did while reaching the Paris Indoors final last fall. Of further interest in this section is the first-round clash between doubles partners Benneteau and Llodra, both of whom should shine on this surface.
Continuing the French theme from Benneteau-Llodra, the second quarter lies in the shadow of two top-20 Frenchmen: the third-seeded Tsonga and the fifth-seeded Simon. No player of note would bar their routes to a quarterfinal, which their recently solid form suggests that they should reach. Both Frenchmen charted a course to the second week at the Australian Open, and Tsonga in particular excelled by extending Federer to a final set in their quarterfinal. His meeting with Simon should present a compelling contrast of styles, in which one would fancy the third seed’s chances on a surface that favors aggression.
Although both men enter the tournament unseeded, Tomic and Dimitrov offer the most notable storyline of the third quarter with the looming first-round clash between these two phenoms. Greatly celebrated for reaching the Brisbane final in January, the latter has not built upon that breakthrough but instead slipped back into the inconsistency that has slowed his progress. A hero on home soil again, Tomic recaptured much of the reputation that he lost with his 2012 antics by showing a more professional attitude to start 2013. Meanwhile, a strong week in Montpellier continued Gasquet’s strong start to the season and leaves him the favorite to reach the semifinal here. The fourth seed could repeat the Montpellier final against compatriot Benoit Paire in the second round.
Leaping from the lowest part of the draw is the first-round match between wildcard Gael Monfils and second seed Del Potro. While the former left Melbourne in mildly promising fashion, the latter fell well short of expectations in suffering a third-round exit to Jeremy Chardy. Del Potro can waste little time in recapturing his rhythm at a tournament where he finished runner-up to Federer last year, for Monfils’ two finals at the Paris Indoors prove his ability to succeed on this surface. Less likely to shine is the sixth-seeded Seppi, a player who prefers slow courts and lacks the firepower of either projected quarterfinal opponent.
Final: Tsonga vs. Del Potro
San Jose: In the last edition of this tournament, long a mainstay of Bay Area sports, Milos Raonic attempts to complete a title three-peat on the scene of his first trophy. Among the faster indoor hard courts on the calendar, San Jose will showcase a serve nearly unanswerable at its best. In the last two years, opponents struggled even to earn a break point against Raonic. Fresh from his Davis Cup heroics, last year’s top seed could repeat the 2012 final against Denis Istomin in the quarterfinals, or he might meet home hope Ryan Harrison in a rematch of a 2012 semifinal. Both of those men struggled to match Raonic hold for hold last year with their modest serves, and neither has taken a significant step forward since then.
Someone who can match the Canadian hold for hold, the third-seeded Sam Querrey seeks to continue building on his recent upward trend in the rankings. Returning to relevance midway through last year, Querrey plays his best on American soil and mirrored Raonic’s contributions last weekend by lifting Team USA past Brazil with two singles victories. He faces the possibility of consecutive matches against Australians, first the fading Lleyton Hewitt and then the surging Marinko Matosevic. Near his career-high ranking, the latter man will meet the teenage sensation Jack Sock, still in the process of refining his explosive serve and forehand.
If North Americans dominate the top half of the San Jose draw, a more European flavor emerges from the third quarter. Following his best season since his prime in the mid-2000s, Tommy Haas lurks near the edge of the top 20 after starting 2012 outside the top 200. Injuries and recurrences of his volatile temper hampered him in January, but expect his forecourt skills to flourish on a court where he can shorten points. Female fans would enjoy a quarterfinal between Haas and Fernando Verdasco, two slots below him in the rankings. Unfortunately for them, former finalist Ivo Karlovic might topple the Spanish lefty in the second round, although he lost to him here two years ago. Can wildcard Steve Johnson, who took Almagro to a fifth set at the Australian Open, build on that momentum to upset Dr. Ivo?
The only man in the ATP shorter than Karlovic, the second-seeded Isner needs to build momentum much more urgently than Johnson, for he defends finalist points at Indian Wells. Still the top-ranked American man by a small margin over Querrey, Isner withdrew from the Australian Open with a knee injury and looked unimpressive in Davis Cup last weekend. No player in his vicinity looks like a convincing dark horse, however, with the most notable resistance coming from Xavier Malisse. Otherwise, this section features a handful of promising-but-not-quite-there-yet figures like Vasek Pospisil and Evgeny Donskoy, the latter of whom defeated Youzhny in Melbourne.
Final: Querrey vs. Verdasco
Sao Paulo: In a draw that greatly resembles Vina del Mar last week, Nadal again shares a half with Jeremy Chardy amid a collection of players from South America and southern Europe. Few Spaniards have shown the determination to challenge Rafa on his favored red clay, and Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo should prove no exception. One of the few Spanish journeymen to defeat him on any surface, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez could meet the man whom he defeated in Bangkok at the quarterfinal stage, although Vina del Mar semifinalist Carlos Berlocq seems more plausible. Yet another Spaniard, the eighth-seeded Albert Ramos, opens against Garcia-Lopez.
Splitting his two Davis Cup rubbers in the United States, Thomaz Bellucci transitions back to his homeland and a friendlier surface for his traditional lefty game. The fifth-seeded Brazilian would meet Chardy in the quarterfinals with no legitimate threat between them. Fellow Brazilian Ricardo Mello, known better for his doubles success, received not only a wildcard but a winnable opening match as a reward for his victory over the Bryans in Davis Cup. Facing aging Federer-killer Volandri is Vina del Mar quarterfinalist Daniel Gimeno-Traver, who mustered some decent resistance to Rafa last week.
World #15 Monaco looked nearly certain to meet Nadal in the Vina del Mar final until the unheralded Guillaume Rufin upset him, only to issue a walkover a round later. At least the Argentine enjoyed accompanying Nadal through the doubles draw, which gave him plenty of opportunities to refine his clay skills before this second opportunity. A former top-10 player, Spanish veteran Tommy Robredo could become Monaco’s first opponent in a grinding match of counterpunchers who rarely miss. Cast from a similar mold is Robredo’s compatriot Albert Montanes, situated near the seventh-seeded Pablo Andujar. The latter must start the tournament on a high note to escape Santiago Giraldo, a Colombian who has upset much more notable players on clay before.
The key difference between the draws in Vina del Mar and Sao Paulo, Nicolas Almagro hopes to rebound from a memorable fortnight in Melbourne. While he reached an Australian Open quarterfinal, he may need time to forget his repeated inability to finish off Ferrer there and perhaps also to recover from a leg injury. Like Nadal, though, Almagro will find the clay accommodating to his ailing body, and he has won a set from Rafa on the surface before. Opening against surprise Vina del Mar champion Horacio Zeballos, he finds himself near the most dangerous unseeded player in the draw, David Nalbandian. The grouchy gaucho languishes in a semi-retirement from which he emerges just often enough to remain relevant, and a player lacking in fitness, confidence, or both would seem plausible prey. Nalbandian has tested Nadal severely before, even during his decline, but can he string together the solid efforts necessary to produce that tantalizing final?
Final: Nadal vs. Almagro
Check out the companion preview of the WTA Premier Five tournament in Doha, and return on Friday for the next entry in my column.
If the USA wins a hotly contested, live, fifth rubber against Brazil, and no one’s there to see it, did it still happen? This past weekend’s first round Davis Cup tie is a fine example of why you can never count on anything in tennis. On paper, the USA should’ve had no trouble dispatching the Brazilians. Not only did they have the privilege of choosing the venue and surface, Team USA has two Top 20 singles players and the best doubles team in the world. Surely it should’ve been no problem to win three matches against a team whose singles players were ranked 36 and 141 and are generally considered clay court specialists. But that’s the magic of Davis Cup.
While the United States rushed to an easy 2-0 lead on Friday, Saturday’s doubles rubber brought the drama. The Brazilian doubles team of Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares played lights out in the five set match to keep their team alive. Suddenly Brazilian fans surfaced in the crowd and there was a real Davis Cup atmosphere going in the stadium, complete with drama between the two teams. Could the Brazilians maintain focus and possibly carry their winning momentum into Sunday’s reverse singles?
Sunday had a decidedly more reserved atmosphere, possibly due to the sparse crowd. It was Super Bowl Sunday after all… John Isner had the first chance to clinch the tie for the US and set up a second round tie against 2010 Davis Cup champions, Serbia. After winning the first set against Thomaz Bellucci 6-2, the momentum should’ve been securely with the Americans. They were just two sets away from victory. All of the sudden it looked as if the weight of the world was dropped on the American’s shoulders. He simply didn’t look like a man who intended to win a tennis match. Although, with John Isner that can mean anything. He’s spoken to the fact that his body language is often misconstrued as negative. That wasn’t quite the case here as Bellucci came back to take the second set. Rinse and repeat as the two once again exchanged sets and the match went to the decisive no tie break fifth set. As it would happen Bellucci wouldn’t have needed the tie break anyway, as he broke Isner to take the set 6-3. This was a devastating blow to the US team, who had once had a 2-0 lead in the tie and was now facing a live fifth rubber at 2-2.
John Isner did not mince words about his loss. He was quick to point out his not so stellar five set record, saying, “today was extremely disappointing for me. You know, can’t sugarcoat it with me. My five-set record is atrocious, it’s simple as that. It falls on me 100%. You know, I got to try to get better personally with that. I feel bad. I didn’t come through for the team today.” Isner was clearly pretty devastated by this loss, a match he was not only expected to win, a match that would’ve meant victory for his team. That’s what sets Davis Cup apart from regular tournament play. The players are dependent on each other. No one can win a Davis Cup tie on their own. At the end of his press conference, he was asked about his personal goals for the year and was quick to point out that his first responsibility was to his team in that moment, “I’m not thinking about my personal goals this year right now at all. Sam lost the first set, I don’t know if y’all know that. Got to try to pull him through. I didn’t do my part today, and that’s what’s tough about being on a team. It feels a lot worse than it does had this been a regular tournament.”
The good news was that the lost set Isner was referring to would be the team’s last. Sam Querrey came back to win the next three sets against Brazilian Thiago Alves, who made quite an impressive showing over the weekend. Post match, Querrey also wanted to point out the team effort that goes into Davis Cup, telling reporters, “I was thrilled I could help the guys out. It’s a team thing. We’re all moving on to the next round.” He’s absolutely right. Anyone can have a bad day and that’s what the other guys are there for. As captain Jim Courier put it, “That’s what these teams are all about, catching each other when we fall down, helping each other over the line.”
The Americans face a much tougher foe in their quarter final tie against Serbia, a team which will likely feature world No. 1, Novak Djokovic. The tie will be played April 5th-7th in Boise, Idaho.
Tennis, at heart, is not the most complicated of human endeavours, and the number of things one can usefully say about it is limited. The trick (though sadly not always the goal) for those determined to talk about it at all is to say the same things in interesting ways.
Even so, there are limits. The most skilful and thoughtful commentators in the world will still inevitably repeat themselves from time to time, and most commentators by definition aren’t the best. This isn’t to say most commentators are wrong – some are, but tennis, broadly speaking, is a hard topic to misread – merely that they are endlessly right in the same way. The average commentator peddles repetition without relent. This is why, whenever Davis Cup comes round, we hear . . .
1. ‘Isn’t it great that doubles matters?’
Saturday was by broad consensus the greatest day of doubles in living memory. The centrepiece was of course the record-shattering match in Geneva between Switzerland and the Czech Republic, which ended 24-22 in the fifth set. That is the match destined to endure – breaking records tends to cement at least a temporary place in the annals – but there were others that were great in their own way.
Slovenia’s Blaž Kavčič and Grega Žemlja both suffered straightforward singles losses, then somehow backed up to defeat Poland’s mighty duo of Marcin Matkowski and Mariusz Fyrstenberg, 13-11 in the fifth. Marc López and Marcel Granollers kept Spanish hopes from guttering out entirely, defeating Daniel Nestor and Vasek Pospisil, again in five sets. Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares commenced Brazil’s audacious recovery with a five set victory over the Bryan brothers.
There were others, and taken as a whole they guaranteed that the middle day was the key to a fine weekend. Over and over again, the doubles rubber proved pivotal, stopping momentum or confirming it, inspiring a comeback or clinching the tie. It is ever thus – that’s the beauty of the format – but this weekend showcased it more succinctly than ever. If ever the Davis Cup format is altered, the crucial function of the doubles must surely remain.
2. ‘How about that Davis Cup atmosphere?’
When Pete Sampras defeated Gustavo Kuerten in the final of the Miami Masters in 2000, the day was cloyingly warm, the crowd was rambunctious, and the air was dense with samba. Local players often struggle with the Miami crowd – think of Andy Roddick facing Pablo Cuevas a few of years ago – since the support for South American players is overwhelming. There is close harmony chanting. There are jeers on double-faults. It is, in the parlance of tennis commentary, ‘a Davis Cup atmosphere’.
For all that some would dearly wish it to be otherwise, tennis has few opportunities for blatant and macho patriotism in the normal run of events, at least beyond the early rounds where the wildcards and local hopefuls are weeded out. Davis Cup is all nationalism, all the time. Of course, local customs still prevail. The crowd in Ariake Stadium that watched Japan see off Indonesia was utterly unlike the one in Buenos Aires that witnessed Argentina dismantling Germany, but it was also more spirited than a usual Japanese audience. I’m not entirely sure why the USA chose to host Brazil in Florida this weekend, thus neatly ceding the crowd support to the visitors. After his loss to Thomaz Bellucci, John Isner professed not to appreciate the Brazilian supporters, although it probably wouldn’t have mattered so much had more than a handful of Americans turned up.
The atmosphere doesn’t merely inspire the players on to greater heroism, it alters the way they go about it. Would Bob Bryan have yelled ‘Come on’ so vehemently at Melo at a normal tournament? According to Bryan, no: ‘Davis Cup is an emotional atmosphere . . .There were some words said. You know, no hard feelings, no grudges. It’s Davis Cup. This sort of stuff happens all the time.’ Would Carlos Berlocq have shredded his shirt so exultantly upon achieving a win via retirement in any other situation?
Part of the function of Davis Cup is to provide a context in which overtly nationalistic behaviour is more or less tolerated, if not encouraged, so that the rest of the sport can relatively remain free of it. When such behaviour seeps across the other events – with exceptions – it tends to feel misplaced and leaden-handed. At best we indulgently chuckle and call it ‘a Davis Cup atmosphere’.
3. ‘Davis Cup allows lesser players to shine.’
Fabio Fognini clinched the tie for Italy. If he’d lost that crucial fifth rubber, then Ivan Dodig would have clinched it for Croatia. Frank Dancevic played a crucial role in seeing off Spain. Andrey Golubev, among the most gifted underachievers in the sport, won both his singles rubbers, including a four set defeat of Jurgen Melzer to seal the tie for Kazakhstan. Who honestly saw that coming? How many of you had heard of Thiago Alves before he nearly sent the mighty USA crashing out yesterday?
None of these fellows are household names, except perhaps in their own countries, and, one presumes, in their own homes. The point of Davis Cup isn’t that lower-profile players achieve wins. These guys regularly win matches at the levels at which they compete (the exception being Golubev, who’s been known to indulge in losing-sprees that rival Donald Young’s). The Davis Cup enables them to secure meaningful victories in a tournament of global importance. Winning a tie means a great deal. Winning the Cup itself means everything.
Last year the deciding rubber in the final was won by Radek Stepanek over Nicolas Almagro. There is no event in the sport of comparable stature in which that might happen. A reformatted biennial format (the most commonly proposed alternative) surely would work against such an outcome.
4. ‘It’s time to look at tiebreaks in fifth sets.’
Every Davis Cup weekend features at least one match whose heroic proportions compel most onlookers to shake their heads in wonderment, yet oblige others to resume their call for fifth set tiebreaks to be made universal, in order that so arresting a spectacle might never be repeated. This weekend it was the seven hour doubles match between Switzerland and the Czech Republic.
As far as I can make out, the most heated discussion around this issue occurs in the United States. Discussion elsewhere seems more measured and sporadic, and I can’t imagine the debate reaches any special incandescence in countries where cricket is popular. A test match has barely hit its stride by the seven hour mark. I’m also yet to hear many players vociferously calling for tiebreaks to be introduced in deciding sets, whether it be in Davis Cup, at the Majors (besides the US Open) or the Olympics.
If it all becomes too much, there is always a mechanism whereby any match can be shortened. It’s called losing. As it was, even the longest doubles match in history had little material impact on the tie.
5. ‘Davis Cup matters!’
Anyone who watched Alves huffing and heaving as he failed to contain his disappointment after losing in the live fifth rubber to Sam Querrey in Jacksonville was left in little doubt about what this match, and by extension the Davis Cup means to him. Ditto for Milos Raonic’s exuberant roar as he sealed the tie against Spain. Or Fognini collapsing triumphantly to the dirt in Turin. Or Stan Wawrinka prostrate on the hard Geneva surface. There were uncounted similar moments, twinkling and flaring across the entire weekend, pricks and gashes of light, all joining up to form a long archipelago across the doubting world, proving to us that for unnumbered players and fans, the Davis Cup matters as much as ever.
The USA Davis Cup squad got off to a quick start on Friday in their first round tie against Brazil. Sam Querrey easily overcame Brazil’s No. 1 player, Thomaz Bellucci, in straight sets. Sam Querrey served very well, but Bellucci definitely handed him a few games. He admitted to being a bit nervous in the first few games, but settled in after the first break.
This is the first home tie for both Querrey and Isner and this was Sam Querrey’s first victory in a live singles rubber. Unfortunately, the crowd for the first match was about as flat as Bellucci’s game. However, the sparse audience did a great job of supporting the home team. When asked about the crowd support, Querrey responded, “they got surprisingly loud there at the end for an arena that wasn’t full.” He also urged fans to come out tomorrow to watch the Bryan brothers, who he unequivocally deemed the greatest doubles team of all time.
The crowd had an easier time getting into the second match, which was surprisingly less one sided than the first. Where Thomaz Bellucci seemed resigned to lose, Thiago Alves maintained a very positive attitude against John Isner, a player ranked 125 spots higher than him. After losing the first set 6-3, Alves hung in there in the second and had plenty of chances against the American. All of the sudden the Brazilian bench was on its feet and Brazilian fans surfaced in the crowd, forcing the US fans to step up their game.
Based on the players’ body language, an onlooker would have easily mistaken the score of the match in favor of Brazil. Alves was fist pumping after every winning point, while Isner lumbered around the court, a point he was quick to address in his post match press conference, saying, ” I don’t realize it when I’m out there, but I guess I am pretty slow and pretty deliberate, especially in a three-out-of-five-set match.” The good news was that the attitude had nothing to do with the knee pain that sidelined Isner during the Australian Open. Regardless of Saturday’s outcome, John Isner stated that he plans to play the reverse singles rubber on Sunday.
Saturday’s schedule features Bob and Mike Bryan against Brazilian players Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares. This match gives the brothers a chances to clinch the tie for the United States. The last time the Bryan brothers lost a Davis Cup match was 2008, but their not prepared to write in that “W” quite yet. In Thursday’s post-draw press conference, Bob Bryan said, “we have to go out there and play good tennis, have to execute. This is a team that has beaten us before. They beat us in a big match at the French. We really respect them. We know a lot about them, they know a lot about us.” It’s smart never to take the competition likely, but the Bryans have an impressive 22-2 record in Davis Cup doubles.
Eight first-round Davis Cup ties unfold around the world this weekend. We discuss the key players and themes that might emerge from each of them.
Canada vs. Spain: Without any of their top three men, Davis Cup Goliath Spain finds itself at a surprising disadvantage when it travels to the western coast of North America. Had either Nadal or Ferrer participated in this tie against Canada, the visitors would remain heavy favorites even against a squad spearheaded by Milos Raonic and aging doubles star Daniel Nestor. Instead, Canada now can rely on two victories from their singles #1 against the overmatched pair of Marcel Granollers and Albert Ramos, forcing Spain to sweep the remaining three matches. Among those is a doubles rubber that pits Nestor against World Tour Finals champions Granollers and Marc Lopez, who lost three of their four Davis Cup doubles rubbers last year. If the tie reaches a live fifth rubber, as seems plausible, Spanish champion Alex Corretja might consider substituting Guillermo Garcia-Lopez for Ramos against the net-rushing Frank Dancevic. Buoyed by their home crowd, though, Canada should find a way to snatch one of the three non-Raonic rubbers and send Spain to the playoff round for the first time in recent memory.
Italy vs. Croatia: This tie should hinge on home-court advantage and the choice of ground that it entails. On a fast hard court, the formidable serves of Marin Cilic and Ivan Dodig would stifle the less imposing firepower of the Italians. But Croatia faces Andreas Seppi and Fabio Fognini on the red clay of Turin, a slow surface where the superior consistency of the hosts should lead them to victory. The visitors will face the intriguing choice of whether to substitute their singles stars on Saturday for a doubles pairing almost certainly doomed to defeat. Three straight days of best-of-five matches for Cilic, Dodig, or both would leave them even more vulnerable to the Italian war of attrition, though. At any rate, the contrast of styles between the fearless first strikes of the Croats and the patient baseline rallying of the Italians should provide entertaining viewing.
Belgium vs. Serbia: One might see Djokovic’s name on the schedule and automatically checking off the “Serbia” box, but a few flickers of doubt persist. First, the Australian Open champion may have arrived physically and mentally drained from his recent exploits, and he has struggled against Friday opponent Olivier Rochus throughout his career. Breaking from a long history of Davis Cup participation, Serbian #2 Janko Tipsarevic cannot step into the breach if Djokovic falters. That duty lies in the suspect hands of Viktor Troicki, who endured a miserable 2012, and in the aging hands of Nenad Zimonjic, well past his prime despite his many accomplishments. Serbia thus might find itself in real trouble if they played a team with a notable talent, like Canada. With just the 32-year-old Rochus and the volatile but unreliable David Goffin barring their path, however, they should advance even if their stars underperform.
USA vs. Brazil: Tennis Grandstand will feature more detailed coverage of this tie over the weekend. For the moment, we will note that Team USA stands in promising position with two serving leviathans on an indoor hard court, complemented by the reigning Australian Open doubles champions. While Isner did not win a match in January as he struggled with a knee injury, and Querrey did not impress in Melbourne, both should steamroll the harmless Brazilian #2 Thiago Alves. In the best-case scenario for Brazil, which would feature two victories for their #1 Bellucci, their doubles duo of Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares still should fall short against the Bryans. All of these Americans have played some of their best tennis on home soil and in Davis Cup, including on less friendly surfaces, whereas Brazil has accomplished little of note in this competition recently.
France vs. Israel: Across from one team that often proves less than the sum of its talents in Davis Cup stands a team that typically overperforms expectations at the national level. Whereas France will bring two members of the top 10 to this tie, Israel can claim no top-100 threat in singles. The fast indoor hard court should allow the offensive might of Tsonga to overwhelm Dudi Sela and Amir Weintraub, although the latter has developed into a more credible threat over the last several months. In a tantalizing doubles rubber, a battle of all-stars pits Jonathan Ehrlich and Andy Ram against Julien Benneteau and Michael Llodra. Underdogs in every singles rubber and arguably the doubles too, Israel can hope for an upset only if Gasquet crumbles under the pressure of playing for national pride on home soil as he has so infamously before. Otherwise, the talent gap simply looms too large.
Argentina vs. Germany: Perhaps the most tightly contested tie, this battle on outdoor red clay will unfold in the absence of Del Potro, who would have given the home squad a clear edge. While Argentina will field a squad of clay specialists, leading Germans Philipp Kohlschreiber and Florian Mayer have acquitted themselves well on the surafce and should not find themselves at a disadvantage parallel to Croatia in Italy. Much rests on the shoulders of Juan Monaco, tasked with avoiding the daunting 0-2 deficit after Kohlschreiber likely opens the tie by dismissing Carlos Berlocq. The top Argentine here enjoyed his best season to date last year but did not start 2013 especially well. Lurking in the shadows, as he so often does, is long-time Argentine Davis Cup hero David Nalbandian. Argentina will hope that Nalbandian’s contribution in doubles on Saturday will combine with two Monaco victories to give them the points that they need without reaching a live fifth rubber. There, one would favor Mayer to overcome both Berlocq and the Argentine crowd.
Pick: Er, Argentina?
Kazakhstan vs. Austria: In a tie without a singles star of note, the opportunity beckons for someone to seize the spotlight in a way that he could not at a major. The most likely candidate to do so would seem Austrian #1 Jurgen Melzer, the only top-100 singles player on either side. His opponents can produce better tennis than their current rankings suggest, though, and Andrey Golubev already has started the tie in promising fashion with a straight-sets victory over Andreas Haider-Maurer. The doubles edge probably belongs to Austria with the greater expertise of Alexander Peya and Julian Knowle, specialists who will allow the 31-year-old Melzer to rest for Sunday. Excluded from the initial lineup is top-ranked Kazakh Mikhail Kukushkin, whose absence will force #211 Evgeny Korolev to win a best-of-five match for the hosts to survive.
Switzerland vs. Czech Republic: While Tomas Berdych is the highest-ranked man in this clash between nearby nations, the most intriguing role goes to opposing #1 Stanislas Wawrinka. After he came far closer than anyone to toppling Djokovic at the Australian Open, the latter may suffer a hangover in a competition where he has struggled lately. Moreover, Switzerland leans on Wawrinka to win both of his singles matches and contribute to a doubles victory on the intervening day, an enormous challenge for the sternest of competitors when the last of those matches involves Berdych. The Czech Republic will not enlist the services of Radek Stepanek, a rare absentee this weekend like Tipsarevic, but singles #2 Lukas Rosol intimidates much more than anyone that Switzerland can throw at him. In the Federer/Wawrinka era, no Swiss team ever has presented the united front that the defending champions have behind Berdych. The medium-slow hard court should not trouble the broad-shouldered world #6 unduly.
Pick: Czech Republic
With all of the American men gone by the third round of the Australian Open, we look back on how each of them fared. Interestingly, the greatest accomplishments came from some of the least expected names, while the more familiar figures often fizzled.
Ryan Harrison: Avenging his Olympics loss to Giraldo with a four-set victory, he relied on defensive tennis to a startling degree and could not trouble Djokovic at all in the second round. Harrison’s serve looked sharp, but he appears to have improved his game little over the last year or so.
Sam Querrey: The last man to fall fulfilled the expectations for the 20th seed, falling only to the higher-ranked Wawrinka. That straight-sets loss ended a reasonably good week for Querrey, although he benefited from Baker’s retirement and did not defeat anyone of note.
Brian Baker: Perhaps the saddest story of the tournament, he injured his knee in the second round against Querrey and may miss the next four months. That said, Baker impressed by battling through a tight five-setter against former American Bogomolov, and he had won the first set from Querrey in a match that looked like an upset before his injury.
Michael Russell: He drew Berdych in the first round and unsurprisingly had no answer for the Czech’s offensive arsenal, unable to match him hold for hold in a straight-sets defeat.
Tim Smyczek: The most pleasant surprise of the tournament among American men, he entered the draw as a lucky loser when Isner withdrew and made the most of his opportunity. Smyczek somehow tamed the towering serve of Ivo Karlovic in the first round, not even losing a set, and he snatched a set from world #5 David Ferrer in the second round before succumbing gallantly. Especially impressive was his comeback from losing the first nine games of that match to make Ferrer earn his victory.
Steve Johnson: Making his main-draw debut at the Australian Open, this former UCLA star qualified for the main draw and then received the unpleasant tidings of an opener against Almagro. But Johnson rose to the occasion with panache, firing first strikes with abandon through five entertaining sets as he stood toe to toe with a top-15 opponent despite his inexperience. His passion captivated and suggested that he can score an occasional surprise if he can refine his game.
Rajeev Ram: More noted for his doubles expertise, this serve-volley specialist surprised by winning his first match over baseliner Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. Falling meekly to Cilic in the next round, Ram still probably overachieved by reaching that stage.
Rhyne Williams: The winner of the Australian Open wildcard playoff, he deployed his booming serve and forehand to brilliant effect in claiming a two-set lead over top-30 opponent Florian Mayer. Williams later would hold match points in the fourth-set tiebreak before the German wriggled out of the trap to complete a comeback in five. But the experience should help this promising young star evolve into a fitter, more tenacious competitor, which could prove a dangerous combination with his obvious talents.
All things considered, the American men produced respectable results in view of prominent absences like Fish, Isner, and the retired Roddick. With expectations especially low, they competed with credit and, in some cases, produced results on which they can build.
A plethora of intriguing encounters awaits audiences as the third round begins at the Australian Open. Foremost among them are two in the women’s draw, which we include in our latest preview.
Kerber vs. Keys (Rod Laver Arena): Long hovering on the horizon, the 17-year-old Madison Keys has soared into the consciousness of the tennis world by winning four main-draw matches in the last two weeks. Moreover, she has won most of them decisively, including routs of top-20 opponent Safarova in Sydney and the 30th-seeded Paszek here. The teenager’s serve could prove a crucial weapon against Kerber, whose superior steadiness and experience should prevail in rallies unless Keys can find a way to unsettle her, which she could with a strong start. Featured on the show court of a major for the first time, she seems more likely to rise to the occasion than crumble under the weight of the moment.
Li vs. Cirstea (RLA): Familiar with both rising and crumbling in spectacular style, the 2011 Australian Open runner-up split her two meetings with Cirstea at majors last year. Li defeated the heavy-hitting Romanian at Roland Garros but lost to her at Wimbledon before battling past her in a Cincinnati three-setter, so she will know what to expect. While Cirstea defeated Stosur in the first round here last year and can hope to capture that magic again, the moderately paced hard court in Australia would seem to favor Li’s more balanced game.
Sharapova vs. Williams (RLA): Scanning the WTA elite, one might not find two champions more similar in playing style than these two legends of first-strike tennis. Both Sharapova and Venus can hammer lethal missiles from both groundstroke wings, and both compete with the ferocity of women whose lungs illustrate their loathing for losing. Both have the ability to win free points in bunches with their serves, but both also can lose control of that shot beyond repair amidst cascades of double faults. Both have survived significant bouts of adversity, Sharapova by battling back from a career-threatening shoulder surgery and Venus by battling back from a career-threatening illness. While the American has accumulated a richer title haul, the Russian owns the more balanced resume.
Their record reflects much of the above, neatly balanced at 4-3 in Sharapova’s favor but skewed 4-1 in her favor away from Wimbledon, where Venus has claimed her greatest achievements. Not dropping a single game through her first two matches, Maria can expect a steep elevation in her opponent’s quality and must come as prepared to elevate her own quality as she did five years ago here against Davenport. Like her sister, Venus has produced some of her most dazzling surges when least expected, and she has looked quietly impressive if less overtly overpowering so far.
Ivanovic vs. Jankovic (Hisense): Those who appreciate tennis largely from an aesthetic perspective may wish to cover their eyes in a pairing of two women who sprayed disheveled errors to every corner of the court in their previous matches. Meanwhile, those who fancy their tennis served (or double-faulted) with a dollop of drama should enjoy this battle between two countrywomen who have feuded chronically but bitterly. The superior player by most measures, Ivanovic has dominated their head-to-head as her versatile forehand has hit through Jankovic’s baseline defense. So high do the emotions run in these matches, though, that one never knows what to expect from one point to the next.
Djokovic vs. Stepanek (RLA): In addition to their five-set epic at the 2007 US Open, Stepanek has troubled the Serb on two other occasions. He won a set from him at Wimbledon last year by using his idiosyncratic style to disrupt Djokovic’s rhythm. Even as his career has faded, Stepanek continues to revel in the spotlight and ended 2012 on a high note by winning the decisive match in Davis Cup. That momentum probably cannot lift him high enough to disturb Djokovic in Australia, where he looks as dominant as ever in all facets of his game.
Ferrer vs. Baghdatis (RLA): The fourth seed in Nadal’s absence, Ferrer can falter at times with the distractions caused by partisan crowds. Supported vociferously by Melbourne legions of Greeks and Cypriots, Baghdatis hopes to revive the memories of his charge to the 2006 final. At this tournament two years ago, he became the first man ever to win after losing the first two sets to Ferrer at a major, surprising in view of their relative fitness. The fourth seed looked vulnerable in stretches against an overmatched opponent in the last round, while Baghdatis did likewise in another mismatch. His flat, net-skimming groundstrokes should offer an intriguing contrast to Ferrer’s safer topspin.
Anderson vs. Verdasco (Hisense): Reprising their meeting at the Hopman Cup this month, this match pits a rising against a fading star. Like Baghdatis, Verdasco has failed to duplicate his breakthrough performance in Melbourne (a 2009 semifinal), and he should count himself fortunate to escape a five-setter to start the tournament. On the other hand, Anderson followed his strong results in Perth with a final in Sydney, where he showed poise under pressure. Expect plenty of quick holds as each man struggles to crack the other’s serve.
Benneteau vs. Tipsarevic (MCA): Which Tipsarevic will show up here? The man who fired his way past Hewitt with a blizzard of electric shot-making, or the man who barely edged past Lacko in an unimaginative performance? Tipsarevic looked a bit drained after the heroics of his opener, and he may pay the price if he enters this match flat, for Benneteau rolled past trendy dark horse pick Dimitrov in the first round. Although streaky, the Frenchman represents a clear notch upward in quality from Lacko.
Querrey vs. Wawrinka (MCA): The lanky American with the casual power got a little too casual early in each of his first two matches, dropping the opening sets in both. Against Wawrinka, a natural grinder who thrives on long rallies, Querrey should discipline himself to eliminate such gifts. Having lost both of his previous meetings to the Swiss, including a US Open five-setter, he will need to maintain a higher first-serve percentage this time and aim to end points more efficiently.
Almagro vs. Janowicz (Court 3): In the wake of a bizarre five-set comeback against Devvarman, one wondered whether to praise Janowicz for his tenacity in roaring back after losing the first two sets, or to linger on his immaturity for letting his emotions run astray early in the match. Without that costly burst of petulance, the match likely would not have lasted as long as it did. Similarly, Almagro needed much longer than expected to dismiss American neophyte Steve Johnson in another five-setter. Between the Spaniard’s backhand and the Pole’s forehand, fans should see risky, flamboyant shot-making as each man hopes to exploit a weak section of the draw.