On a busy Monday in Miami, all of the women’s fourth-round matches unfold. You can find a preview of all eight here in addition to a few of the remaining men’s third-round encounters.
Garbine Muguruza vs. Li Na: Into the fourth round for the second straight Premier Mandatory tournament, the Spanish rising star continues to consolidate her position as a player to watch this year. Indian Wells finalist Caroline Wozniacki became the latest player to learn about Muguruza’s ascendancy the hard way, thoroughly dismantled on Sunday. A day later, the youngster trains her weapons on Li Na, who has produced consistently outstanding tennis in the few tournaments that she has played this year. The Australian Open runner-up has lost only to Agnieszka Radwanska and Victoria Azarenka in 2013, although a knee injury sidelined her for several weeks after Melbourne. When she returned this week, her ball-striking looked as clean if not as audacious as it had in January. Never at her best in Miami, Li could turn a page now.
Serena Williams vs. Dominika Cibulkova: Awaiting the winner of the previous match in the quarterfinals is the world No. 1, assuming that she can survive the test posed by the shortest woman in the top 30. Cibulkova vanished from relevance after reaching the Sydney final, where Radwanska double-bageled her, but she pushed Serena’s predecessor in the spot to the brink in the same round here a year ago. That match against Azarenka, for which she served twice, revealed how much her explosive forehand can threaten taller opponents with more effortless power. Against a server like Serena, who struck 20 aces against her at Wimbledon in 2010, Cibulkova’s short wingspan may prevent her from creating pressure in return games and exploiting the erratic baseline play that Williams showed in the last round.
Grigor Dimitrov vs. Andy Murray: The memory of what unfolded when he faced Novak Djokovic at Indian Wells may reverberate through Dimitrov’s mind if he takes a lead against Murray. Serving for the first set that time, he conceded four double faults in a painful display of nerves. Dimitrov also took Murray to a first-set tiebreak wen they met in the Brisbane final this year, only to lose the tiebreak decisively and fade thereafter. Much more impressive than he looked at Indian Wells, Murray showed minimal mercy to another rising phenom in Bernard Tomic. His two-handed backhand should break down Dimitrov’s one-hander unless the Bulgarian enjoys an excellent serving day that allows him to dictate points with his forehand.
John Isner vs. Marin Cilic: Among the stranger statistics of the ATP is Cilic’s undefeated record against Americans, which includes victories over playesr like Roddick and Querrey. That perfection might continue against a giant exhausted from his epic victory over Ivan Dodig in the sweltering Miami heat. Mired in a slump for the last several months, Isner will have gained confidence from winning the type of close match that he so often plays, but he generally does not recover well after winning them and does not have an impressive history in Miami. The slow surface will blunt the serves of both men, a greater concern for Isner than the more balanced Cilic.
Maria Sharapova vs. Klara Zakopalova: The only woman in the lower half of the women’s draw who has defeated Sharapova on a hard court, Zakopalova halted the other Russian Maria in the wake of the latter’s strong fortnight at Indian Wells. That sole victory came a decade agao at the Australian Open, however, and the Czech subsided uneventfully when they met in Doha this February. Sharapova struggled on serve when Zakopalova took her to a third set at Roland Garros last year, and she struggled on serve again on the windy afternoon of her previous match. But she should break Zakopalova’s serve frequently with her rapier-like returns, keeping this counterpuncher on her heels from the outset.
Richard Gasquet vs. Mikhail Youzhny: These two men have developed a reputation for suffering ignominious meltdowns, including an occasion here when Youzhny drew blood from his head by smashing his racket against it. Another of those occasions featured the Frenchman surrendering a two-set lead to his fellow headcase at the Australian Open. Well past his prime, the Russian still can uncork one-handed backhands scarcely less lovely than Gasquet’s signature shot. Moreover, Youzhny has won four of their seven career meetings, surprising considering his opponent’s superior weapons.
Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Sloane Stephens: The defending champion has suffered a lull in form since winning consecutive titles to start 2013, dominated by Li and Petra Kvitova before Kirilenko upset her at Indian Wells. Radwanska dropped a set in the third round to Magdalena Rybarikova, a talented player but still a journeywoman, so she must raise her level against an Australian Open semifinalist. That said, Stephens ate a bagel from Olga Govortsova in her first set of the tournament, and she had lost four of her previous five matches before that victory. At Cincinnati last summer, she extended Radwanska to a third set despite lacking the firepower that normally troubles the Pole. Something similar could happen here in a match filled with long rallies.
Milos Raonic vs. Sam Querrey: Meeting for the fourth time since the start of 2012, these two giants play essentially the same styles in a matchup determined by execution on the day. In that regard, one must give the edge to Raonic, who defeated Querrey comfortably at San Jose last month in avenging two losses to the American last year. The slow outdoor courts of Miami favor the Canadian’s massive weapons and preference for short points much less than does the indoor arena in San Jose. In rallying past former nemesis Lukasz Kubot, Querrey continued to look vulnerable in a year when few victories have come easily. (Or, the more pessimistic might say, at all.) This match should come down to first-serve percentage and focus, critical in a match that hinges upon a tiny handful of points and in which any mistake can prove fatal.
Ajla Tomljanovic vs. Kirsten Flipkens: Recovered from a serious issue with blood clots last year, Flipkens reached the second week of the Australian Open and upset Kvitova yesterday in an oddly oscillating three-setter. Some of her better results have come on grass, which showcases her biting slice and her fine hands at net. Aligned opposite her is a Croat who clawed past Petkovic in a third-set tiebreak after upsetting Julia Goerges in the previous round. Like Flipkens, Tomljanovic has struggled with sporadic injuries, and she has played only a handful of WTA tournaments in the last several months. Transitioning overnight from the underdog to the favorite, the Belgian should fancy her chances to reach the most significant quarterfinal of her career.
Roberta Vinci vs. Alize Cornet: In a section that imploded, either of these women plausibly could reach a semifinal and collect the valuable ranking points that come with it. The main question regarding this match concerns whether Cornet can recover in time from a three-set victory that forced her to leave the court in a wheelchair. On the other hand, Vinci needed plenty of energy to grind through a three-setter of her own against Suarez Navarro, testing the veteran’s stamina. Her backhand slices could prove vital in testing the patience of an ever-edgy Cornet.
Sara Errani vs. Ana Ivanovic: After the Serb had won their two previous meetings, the Italian turned the tables at Roland Garros last year in a match that Ivanovic controlled initially before letting it slip away. The steadiness of Errani has allowed her to outlast streaky shot-makers like the former Roland Garros champion over the last year, but the latter displayed her best form in several months during her two victories here. For her part, Errani has lost just five games in two matches, the fewest of any woman left in the draw. If Ivanovic bursts to a fast start and sustains it, as she did against Kuznetsova, she could overwhelm this opponent before she settles. If Errani can find her footing and extend the rallies, meanwhile, she could complicate the plot for a woman who prefers her matches straightforward.
Sorana Cirstea vs. Jelena Jankovic: Until Jankovic won their most recent encounter in Dallas last summer, Cirstea had swept all of her meetings against an opponent consistently ranked higher than her, although each stretched into a final set and none came on an outdoor hard court. The Romanian brunette managed to upset Kerber a round after barely eking out a victory over Silvia Soler-Espinosa, a pair of results that illustrates how wide her range of form extends. Almost as impressive as the Kerber upset was Jankovic’s victory over Nadia Petrova, her seventh win in her last eight matches with the only loss coming in an airtight clash with Kuznetsova. Both women thus should enter this match with confidence, and they eye a similar opportunity to Vinci and Cornet, the winner of whom would meet the winner of this match in the quarterfinals.
March 23, 2013 — It has been barely a year since John Isner defeated world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of Indian Wells to reach his first career final at a Masters 1000 tournament. While he could not claim the title there, Isner appeared to have notched a decisive breakthrough in his career that would propel the top-ranked American man forward.
Events since then have questioned this interpretation of that memorable fortnight in the desert, especially over the last few months. Struggling for form from the US Open onward, Isner absorbed a serious blow when a knee injury forced him to withdraw from the Australian Open. That injury, not unexpected for a player of his height, disrupted the rhythm of his preparations for the 2013 season and undermined his confidence. At the Memphis indoor tournament in February, he lost his opener in straight sets to Denis Istomin, a player who normally should not have troubled him. But his slump reached its nadir at Indian Wells, the scene of his greatest triumph to date. Returning to the California desert, Isner lost his first match to Lleyton Hewitt as virtually every component of his game abandoned him at critical moments. With that loss came the loss of his status as the top-ranked American man, now held by Sam Querrey.
A man who shines most on home soil, Isner desperately needed to avoid a similar exit at the outset of the Miami tournament. With the long European swing ahead, he could not afford to let his confidence sink any lower before the inevitable setbacks on the red clay that dulls his greatest weapons. The Sony Open thus loomed large in the trajectory of his season as his last chance to regroup before the US Open Series in July. Against the occasionally dangerous Croat Ivan Dodig, who has defeated Nadal on North American hard courts before, Isner needed all of his perseverance and first-strike power to survive.
While he dropped serve four times across the three sets, an uncharacteristic number for him, the towering man from the University of Georgia showed resilience in rallying from losing the first set and from the brink of defeat in the third. Breaking Isner at 5-5 in the final set, Dodig served for the match at a stage when the reeling competitor across the net might well have resigned himself to a third straight loss. Despite the sweltering heat and his inconsistent form, Isner persevered to strike some of his best returns and play some of his most opportunistic tennis in the twelfth game and in the tiebreak that followed. Taking a lead at the outset, he never trailed in the tiebreak as he approached the net aggressively behind his serves and stayed just consistent enough from the baseline to earn the crucial mini-break that he needed for a 4-6, 7-5, 7-6(5) victory.
Finishing the match with a thunderous first serve out wide, Isner showed just how much the victory meant to him by leaping in the air on his way to the net for the handshake. Even in view of the match’s airtight scoreline, that reaction might have surprised some onlookers because of his favored status and the early-round setting. But the context in which this victory came provided ample explanation for Isner’s delight in eking out the type of nail-biting epic that he has played so often in his career. These are the matches that can restore a player’s confidence in his ability to deliver at key moments, so the tenuous nature of his triumph in fact might have boosted him more than a routine win would have.
Always a perfectionist who demands a lot from himself, Isner expressed disappointment about losing his serve so often on a day when he otherwise had strong serving statistics. But he found it “a positive that I lost my serve four times and was still able to win the match.” Isner also acknowledged that he “needed [the win] for sure” because of a difficult season in which he had “lost matches I feel like I could have won,” always a demoralizing feeling for a tennis player.
It will not get any easier from here for the tall American, who faces another imposing server in Marin Cilic next and likely would meet Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the fourth round should he reach that stage. But, considering how his 2013 season has gone, Isner should continue to take one step at a time and see how far each of them can lead him. As he put it, “I’m just happy to get through. I certainly could have easily lost that match.” “But once I got that little spark, gave me a little extra energy, and you know, it went from there.”
By Maud Watson
With many of the world’s top-ranked female stars in attendance, the BNP Paribas Open started off so promising. It’s losing steam as it heads to the finale, however, thanks to a couple of key upsets and unfortunate withdrawals. Kirilenko upset both Aga Radwanska and Kvitova to set up a semifinal clash with Sharapova, which is a matchup the World No. 3 likely prefers with the No. 2 ranking up for grabs should she advance to the final. On the opposite side of the draw, Kerber and Wozniacki find themselves in the semis after both Stosur and Azarenka withdrew with leg and ankle injuries. All four women are accomplished players, but with only one of the top-four-ranked women present in the semis, the tournament no longer possesses quite the same level of excitement. It’s a shame for the tournament organizers, but if one person can take these lemons and turn them into lemonade, it’s Sharapova, who is now the strong favorite to take home the title.
Just Won’t Die
Just when you thought that ugly issue would go away, the topic of grunting is once again making tennis headlines. This time, it’s actual grunting, with the latest complaint coming from Murray against ATP pro Berlocq. Murray was moved to complain about the Argentine’s long and loud grunts after his opponent complained to the umpire that he thought Murray was taking longer than the permitted 25 second between points. Irrespective of what prompted the complaint, it was legitimate. But Berlocq isn’t the only loud competitor on the ATP World Tour. Granollers has long been touted as having one of the most distracting grunts, and others, like Nadal, Djokovic, and Ferrer, have also been known to get a little too vocal. Federer hit the nail on the head when he said it’s all about respecting your opponent and suggested that there is such a thing has being too loud. Unfortunately, the ATP players are less likely to pursue a solution to the grunting problem, but with any luck, perhaps they will. Pursuing a solution might then have a spillover effect to the WTA and force the governing bodies to do something now. There are too many positives in the sport for it to be hounded by this issue, but there’s no denying its impact on the sport is growing, and not for the better.
One to Watch
Okay, Ernests Gulbis has been “one to watch” on more than one occasion throughout his career, but after a thirteen match win-streak and a near upset of Nadal in the Round of 16 in Indian Wells, maybe this time, the label will stick. The Latvian may lack the looks and some of the charm of Marat Safin, but he’s definitely the closest thing tennis currently has to the charismatic Russian. He’s unabashedly confident and honest, from declaring he didn’t fear Nadal and had the goods to beat the Spaniard, to his calling out his peers for what he perceives to be fake congratulations. Love him or hate him, he calls it like he sees it. He’s also always had the talent to pull off a plethora of shots to flummox his opponents and thrill the crowds, but the consistency has been lacking. After winning a title in Delray Beach and nearly booking a quarterfinal berth in Indian Wells, however, things could be turning around. At 24, Gulbis is starting to mature. He’s starting to make strides at controlling his temper and keeping the bad patches of play short and to a minimum over the course of a match. We’ll have to wait and see how he fares in the coming weeks, but if this guy has truly put it together, the rest of the field better be on alert.
Mardy Fish fans will be anxious as the Miami Masters approaches, as the second Masters of 2013 may ultimately turn out to be the American’s last tournament as a professional. Fish has in no way committed to anything, but he made it clear that he hasn’t ruled out walking away from the game after just his second event this season. After Miami, he plans to assess where he is, if he feels comfortable competing and can do so at a high level. After his stint at Indian Wells, things certainly look dicey. He did win a match, and if you just saw the score line, you’d be impressed that he took a player of Tsonga’s caliber to two tiebreak sets in the third round. But Fish blew a 4-0 lead in the second, and he also served for it at 5-4. That may haunt him as he takes to the court in Florida, which given all that he’s dealing with, will make competing there all the more difficult. Hopefully Fish won’t be ready to throw in the towel. Even if he opts to skip the clay court season, it would be nice to see him give it one last go on the lawns of Wimbledon or see if he can rediscover some magic during the US Open Series. But he’s got to feel comfortable with it, and based on the statements he’s made of late, his fans would be well served to hope for the best but prepare for the worst.
With 2012 finalist Isner being bounced out of Indian Wells early (and projected to fall out of the top 20 as a result), Sam Querrey will become the new No. 1 for the United States next week. It’s a great achievement for Querrey, who has had his ups and down with injuries and mental attitude. But what was even better was Querrey’s response to becoming the top American. He recognized it for the honor that it is but was quick to point out that with tennis being such a global sport, what really matters is the world ranking. On that front, Querrey still has plenty of work to do, but with a Round of 16 showing in Indian Wells, he’s moving in the right direction. He’ll be looking to post a respectable result in Miami, and if he can continue to grow and improve, he could be poised for a big summer.
By Romi Cvitkovic
UPDATE 2 (March 14, 2013 – 5:30PM): USTA and Sportska Centrala are working together to sort through this media credential miscommunication. Full update here.
UPDATE 1 (March 14, 2013 – 12:10AM): Tim Curry, spokesperson for the USTA, just tweeted the following statement: “Contrary to reports there are multiple Serbian outlets credentialed for Davis Cup quarterfinal in Boise.” Will update further as needed.
March 13, 2013 — With Novak Djokovic joining team Serbia, and Jim Courier set to announce the US team of John Isner, Sam Querrey, and Bob and Mike Bryan, the Davis Cup quarterfinal scheduled for next month in Boise, ID is boasting a nearly sellout crowd. But at what price to visiting Serbian journalists?
According to Alex Krstanovic, cheif editor at Sportska Centrala, a media credential request for his reporter Nebojsa Petrovacki was made to the USTA by the March 8th deadline. Petrovacki has reported for Sportska Centrala for more than ten years and covered dozens of ATP and WTA events, and is currently at the BNP Paribas Open as a credentialed media member.
Despite the qualifications, the USTA responded today with the following statement: “It is with great regret that we are unable to accommodate your request(s) for media credentials for the 2013 Davis Cup quarterfinal tie in Boise, Idaho. Unfortunately, we have received more requests than we are able to accommodate at this time.”
The issue is not in the denial of the request itself, as media centers tend to fill up fairly quickly for popular events like these; the issue is in the very limited number of spots open for Serbian media at this event.
According to the Serbian Tennis Federation, only one Serbian journalist and one Serbian photographer have been credentialed for the USA-Serbia Davis Cup tie next month. Given this staggering confirmation, the denial of Petrovacki’s request becomes all the more bizarre as he would have only been the SECOND Serbian journalist at the event.
In unique fashion, it’s difficult to grasp that the USTA could not allocate more than one seat for Serbian media in its entire press room and arena. Regardless of how many Serbian media members actually end up covering the event, a few select spots (let’s say 5, at the very least) should have been held open for the visiting country’s media.
When Novak Djokovic won the U.S. Open in 2011, the media room was booming with Serbian press, and rightfully so. Imagine if the Serbian press had been limited that day to only one journalist and one reporter — there would have been immense backlash. And while it’s obvious that the USTA welcomes the Serbian Davis Cup team members, the same can’t necessarily be said for their “welcome” of the Serbian media.
“Not great.” That’s how John Isner described his season to date in press on Saturday after losing his opening match 7-6, 3-6, 4-6 to Lleyton Hewitt. After today’s defeat, Isner has a 6-6 win/loss record for the 2013 season thus far. After the Indian Wells event last year, the American had a 14-5 record and his finals appearance here at the BNP Paribas Open sent him into the Top 10. Saturday’s loss will catapult him out of the Top 20… The American’s troubles started early this season when he had to sit out the Australian Open with a knee injury; however, Isner is adamant that his current struggles have nothing to do with health, it’s all about the confidence.
After his five set loss to Thomaz Bellucci in last month’s USA-Brazil Davis Cup tie, Isner said, “For me, you know, my confidence, it sort of comes and goes very quickly for me it seems like. I think a lot of that out there today was between the ears.” He uttered similar sentiments in press after his Indian Wells defeat saying he’s been practicing well but can’t seem to bring that momentum into his matches. When asked why, he quipped back, “You tell me. I don’t know.” Confidence certainly wasn’t the only factor in the match considering Isner’s opponent, Lleyton Hewitt, is a two time Grand Slam champion and well known for his ‘never say die’ attitude on the court. The Australian veteran may be ranked 98 in the world, but there is no sure thing when it comes to facing Hewitt. At 32, he can still give even the best players a run for their money. As Isner put it, “there’s no shame in losing to him, certainly.”
John Isner isn’t ready to throw in the towel on this season quite yet, saying, “I believe things will get better. As long as I continue to believe that, then you know, I just hope that things will get better, and I do believe that they will. Just gotta keep plugging away.” He’s only defending 45 points in Miami (1 match win) so that’s a great chance for Isner to win back some of the points that will drop off after his poor showing this week in Indian Wells. Isner was unwilling to comment on the upcoming Davis Cup tie against Serbia, which will take place in Boise, Idaho from April 5th-7th. After his disappointing loss in Jacksonville, a good showing against Serbia could be just the confidence boost he needs.
We’ve all been there: worn something that we wish we hadn’t, only to have pictures of our mistake permanently ingrained on Facebook to haunt us for the rest of our lives. Well, tennis players face the same predicament — just on a much grander scale.
This week at the BNP Paribas Open, we’ve seen some unfortunate apparel disasters from some of tennis’ biggest names, and we’ll give you the full (and hilarious!) rundown, starting with the one and only Jelena Jankovic.
When Jelena Jankovic stepped onto Stadium 2 on Friday, not only did she catch her opponent Svetlana Kuznetsova off guard (she served her first set bagel), but Twitter exploded with puns regarding Jankovic’s kit. Bottom line: When your skirt looks like a legitimate stand-in for the mops at a carwash, you know there’s a problem.
Unfortunately, fellow Fila athlete Julia Goerges suffered the same skirt fate on Saturday during her own second round win. The colors and design of the top are good, but they detract heavily from the unfortunate carwash skirt.
Keeping with the somewhat “cheerleading” theme, Chanelle Scheepers looked more like she belonged on the NBA’s Sacramento Kings dance lineup than a tennis court.
With the drop in temperatures on Friday, the ladies came out in full legging force. While a few of them were able to pull it off (ahem, Maria Sharapova’s was passable), several decided to pair their kits with black leggings, which already had some sort of random design. Marion Bartoli and Francesca Schiavone were two of the worst offenders and the outcome was not pleasant on the eyes in any way, shape or form.
Another legging offender was the usually do-no-wrong Maria Kirilenko, but boy did her legging/skirt combination do A LOT of wrong this time around. When she dipped low in her yellow lizard leggings, it made her legs look like something out of Dr. Seuss book. And the stark delineation between the leggings and shorts make it look all the more extraterrestrial.
Leather on a tennis court is never a goo—- Oh, wait. How did this get in here? Moving along …
In the case of David Nalbandian‘s Topper kit, “X” does NOT mark the spot. It could have done without a few of those criss-crossed lines.
Petra Kvitova may not be debuting this kit at the BNP Paribas Open, but the Nike color block of orange and purple simply don’t work for the Czech lady. From the starry two-tone top to a skirt that doesn’t even match the neon orange on the shirt/sweat bands/shoes, this kit is all wrong for her — or anybody, for that matter. Kvitova has always looked good in simple lines and colors, and this attempt to spice her up has failed miserably. Good form on that wide forehand though, Petra.
Lleyton Hewitt‘s very own clothing line “C’mon” has missed the mark as well. The shoulders take a cue from Andy Murray’s adidas kit, and the frontal design just adds to the confusion. It’s just a little too much going on for any one shirt.
Vania King had the potential to be “pretty in pink” with her kit, but instead her clothing sponsor made her look like she got into a serious fight with a pink tiger, claw marks and all. And I can’t figure out if that skirt is suede or just makes really awkward sweat stains. You decide.
Laura Robson‘s all-white kit is also not new as she wore it at the Australian Open, but that is part of the problem. While the lines themselves are great, the color is what bothers me. Not only should all-white be reserved almost exclusively for Wimbledon, but come summer, adidas will have had Robson in all white all year! What fun is it putting a rising sparkling 19-year-old in a dull tone for that much of the season?
Much like Robson above, Lacoste decided to put John Isner in oversimplified colors: black and white. And what a mistake — it sent him home on his first match in Indian Wells after having reached the final here last year. Lacoste has been doing great yet simple designs the last few years; let’s hope this was just a momentary oversight.
Agree/Disagree? Did I miss any fashion disasters from this year’s BNP Paribas Open? Sound off in the comments below!
For the first time since Wimbledon 2012, all of the Big Four convene at the same tournament. We take a detailed look at a balanced Indian Wells ATP draw.
First quarter: Twice a champion at Indian Wells, Djokovic brings a perfect 2013 record to the desert following titles at the Australian Open and Dubai. Having faced Federer at neither tournament, he could face the Federer facsimile Grigor Dimitrov in the third round. While his one-handed backhand certainly spurs thoughts of the Swiss star, this young Bulgarian continues to alternate encouraging results (Brisbane final) with disappointing setbacks (first-round loss in Melbourne). The towering serve of Isner ultimately undid Djokovic in an Indian Wells semifinal last year, and Querrey’s similar game toppled him at the Paris Indoors last fall. Now the Serb can eye an opportunity for revenge in the fourth round, where he could meet the latter and will hope to stay mentally sturdier than he did against Isner here. A higher-ranked potential opponent does loom in Juan Monaco, but the world #14 has not won a match this year outside the Davis Cup as injuries have sapped his confidence. Among the intriguing first-round matches in this section is serving leviathan Karlovic against future American star and forehand howitzer Jack Sock.
Winless against the top eight from the start of 2012 until last month, Tsonga may have gained confidence from finally snapping that skid against Berdych in the Marseille final. On the other hand, he also lost immediately in Rotterdam to an unheralded opponent and thus still seems less trustworthy than most of those ranked around him. Rarely has he made an impact on Indian Wells, outside a near-upset over Nadal in 2008, but his draw looks accommodating through the first few rounds. Returning American Mardy Fish, a former finalist here, surely cannot sustain the level of tennis necessary to discomfit Tsonga at this stage of his comeback if they meet in the third round. In the opposite side of this eighth lies Milos Raonic, tasked with outslugging the more balanced but less intimidating Marin Cilic in the third round. Lesser players of note in this area include French serve-volleyer Michael Llodra, who upset Tsonga in Dubai, and Vina del Mar champion Horacio Zeballos, who has not won a match since stunning Nadal there. Although Tsonga obtained considerable success early in his career, his results against him have tapered so sharply of late that one might think Raonic the sterner test for the Serb.
Second quarter: Assigned probably the smoothest route of any top-four man, Murray cannot expect much resistance at a tournament where he reached the final four years ago. Nevertheless, early losses to Donald Young and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in his last two appearances illustrated the Scot’s struggle to recover from his annual late-round disappointment in Australia. Murray will want to bounce back more smoothly this time on a slow hard court that suits his counterpunching so well. Looming in the fourth round is Memphis champion Kei Nishikori, who faces a potentially edgy opening test in Tursunov. Resuscitating his career in February, the Russian reached the Marseille semifinals as a qualifier and qualified for this draw as well. The mercurial Dolgopolov, the second-most notable player whom Murray could face in the fourth round, has floundered throughout 2013 and probably lacks the steadiness to threaten either Murray or Nishikori.
Of all the seeds whom he could have faced in the third round, Del Potro surely would have wished to avoid Australian Open nemesis Jeremy Chardy. The Frenchman receded into obscurity again after reaching the quarterfinals there, but he may hold the mental edge over Del Potro should each win his opener. Not since his first appearance in the desert five years ago, though, has the Tower of Tandil tumbled to anyone other than Federer or Nadal, and he has taken care of business against lower-ranked players with impressive consistency over the last year. One of the most compelling third rounds in the men’s draw could pit Almagro against Haas in a clash of exquisite one-handed backhands and volatile shot-making arsenals. The eleventh-seeded Spaniard has produced an early 2013 campaign inspiring and deflating in equal measure, but his Australian Open quarterfinal (nearly a semifinal) reminded viewers what a threat he can pose away from clay with his underrated serve. Accustomed to wearing down mentally dubious opponents, Murray should handle either Almagro or Haas with ease, and he compiled a flawless hard-court record against Del Potro even during the latter’s 2009 heights.
Third quarter: The section without any member of the Big Four often offers the most notable storylines of the early rounds, although Ferrer succeeded in living up to his top-four seed at both of the majors where he has held it. Never at his best in the desert, however, he may find his transition from clay to hard courts complicated by the two towering servers whom he could face at the outset in Kevin Anderson and Igor Sijsling. The latter upset Tsonga and nearly Cilic last month, while the former started the year impressively by reaching the second week of the Australian Open before injury sidelined him. Curiously, the fourth round might hold a less formidable test for Ferrer because his grinding game matches up more effectively to the two seeds projected there, Simon or Kohlschreiber. The quirky Benoit Paire and the lanky lefty from Luxembourg, Gilles Muller, add some individuality to an otherwise monochrome section, as does the invariably entertaining but terminally fading Verdasco.
Berdych may loom above the opposite eighth, considering his two February finals in strong fields at Marseille and Dubai. But an equally intriuging storyline may come from Jerzy Janowicz, still attempting to find his footing in the crucial post-breakthrough period when players encounter scrutiny for which they are not yet prepared. The next several months could prove critical for Janowicz in consolidating his seeded status, and he will deserve credit if he emerges from a neighborhood filled with diverse talent. Nalbandian could await in his opener, and the trio of Bellucci, Tomic, and Gasquet will vie for the right to face the Pole in the third round. Twice a titlist in 2013 already, the last of that trio has retained his top-ten ranking for a long time without scording a signature victory. Such a win could come in the quarterfinals if he can solve Berdych, unlikely to expend much energy before that stage against the likes of Troicki and Florian Mayer. The heavier serve of the Czech should propel him through on a hard court, though, as it should against a fourth seed who has not played as crisply this year as his results suggest.
Fourth quarter: Defending champion Federer can anticipate his first quarterfinal meeting with archrival Nadal in the history of their rivalry, but a few obstacles await before then. Like Del Potro, the second seed probably drew the least auspicious third-round opponent imaginable in Benneteau, who nearly upset him at Wimbledon last year and succeeded in finishing the job at Rotterdam last month. Federer obtained avenge for a February 2012 setback against Isner at Indian Wells a month later, so he can seek similar revenge this year. A rematch of last year’s final beckons against Isner himself in the fourth round, although little about the American’s recent form can infuse his fans with confidence that he even can reach that stage. Much more consistent this year is Stanislas Wawrinka, the Swiss #2 who played the most thrilling match of the Australian Open against Djokovic and backed it up with a February final. This section also features the most curious match on Thursday, an encounter between the battered Hewitt and the one-match wonder Lukas Rosol that should offer a clash of playing styles and personalities. Despite falling short of the final in his first three tournaments, Federer looks fully capable of sealing his side of the rendezvous with Nadal.
Not in much greater doubt is Rafa’s side of that appointment, for he could face no opponent more intimidating that Tipsarevic through the first four rounds. Young American Ryan Harrison looks set to become Nadal’s first hard-court opponent of 2013 (exhibitions aside), and his woeful results of the last several months intersect with a non-competitive effort against Djokovic in Melbourne to suggest a lack of confidence fatal here. While Youzhny has enjoyed several successes and near-successes against the Spaniard before, the Russian has left his prime several years behind him and lacks the power to outhit him for a full match. Hampered by injuries recently, the ninth-seeded Tipsarevic never has tested Nadal in their previous meetings and should count himself lucky to reach that projected meeting. The Serb’s current four-match losing streak could reach five in an opener against lefty serve-volleyer Feliciano Lopez or Delray Beach champion Gulbis, who carries a ten-match winning streak of his own. Either the winner of that first-round meeting or the unpredictable Baghdatis seems a safer bet than Tipsarevic to meet Nadal one match before Federer. Afterwards, the Swiss should repeat his victory in their semifinal last year.
Check out the companion piece that we wrote yesterday to preview the women’s draw if you enjoyed this article.
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
By Yeshayahu Ginsburg
John Isner is honestly baffling as a player. He has probably the best serve in the world. It is certainly one of the biggest, it is quite accurate, and his height allows him to do things with it that most others can’t. Even when compared to similar players like Milos Raonic or Kevin Anderson, Isner’s serve just seems more effective. So it would stand to reason that, like other powerful servers and big hitters, Isner’s best bet at being a top-level player is to play as much on hard courts as possible and to try and just power his way through as many matches as he can.
This theory has worked for him and brought him into the top 20 in the early years of his career. Unfortunately, it is the wrong outlook. Because if there is one surface that can put Isner over the top—if there is one area in which he can truly become a top player in the world—it is the red clay courts of Europe. Does this sound strange? After all, Americans and big servers are not known for their prowess on this surface. So why would Isner be at his best on clay? Let’s look at Isner’s history.
Isner has played several memorable and historic matches, the highlight obviously being his record-shattering marathon against Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010. But, if I was forced to judge, the best match that Isner has played in his career was actually one that he lost. After a poor 2010, Isner’s ranking had fallen into the 50s. As such, he was unseeded at the 2011 French Open. Unluckily for him, he drew Rafael Nadal in the first round.
It was a match that was expected to be potentially troublesome for Nadal but no one had thought for a second that Isner could win. Isner played the match of his life, serving well and really hanging with Nadal on clay. He managed to break Rafa once and took two tiebreaks to really give him a chance to win the match. No one else took two sets off Rafa that entire tournament. What doesn’t often get mentioned, however, is that Isner could have played that match even better.
Isner’s forehand on any ball sitting up in the middle of the court is lethal. Isner’s kick serve on the high-bouncing clay is nearly unreturnable, and certainly cannot be kept low if put back in play. This is a combination that Isner used during that match, but not nearly enough. He had serves that would bounce over Rafa’s head. Rafa would sometimes stand as far as 15 feet back to return Isner’s second serves. This is a potent weapon that Isner for some reason just doesn’t use.
Isner’s clay skills were not only shown once, though. If he has had one match in his career as impressive as that Roland Garros match against Rafa, it was his first-round Davis Cup rubber against Roger Federer last year. Isner used his variety of serves and massive forehand to really just beat Federer off of the high-bouncing clay court. Isner has these skills and has shown that they are not only flukes, the only real question is why isn’t he embracing his clay court potential. Not to mention, of course, that Isner also took Djokovic to 5 sets on clay in a Davis Cup match back in 2010 and really could have won that match. Now, 2010 Djokovic is not quite the Djokovic of today, but he was still a top 3 player in the world and was one of the best on clay. That match showed us the beginning of Isner’s potential on clay. The Nadal and Federer matches cemented it.
Isner is playing at least five tournaments in a row at this point in the year. Last week he played in San Jose, losing in the semifinals to Tommy Haas. He is currently playing the 500-level tournament in Memphis and will follow with Delray Beach, Indian Wells, Miami, and then probably Davis Cup. These are all on hard courts. I can understand why he wants to stay in the United States and that he might not want to go to clay before coming back to the two hard court Masters events in Indian Wells and Miami. But this is his chance. He could be playing in the South American clay court swing instead, which in turn would prepare him well for the European clay court swing in a few months and Roland Garros at the end of May.
Isner is a very good player. His lack of a real baseline game is a major inhibition, but it certainly isn’t so prohibitively bad that he can’t compete with the top players. He needs to embrace who he is, though, and realize what surface and style will best suit his game. He is muddling around in the top 10-20 right now, which isn’t bad. But he could definitely do better. He needs to work on his baseline game (obviously). Most of all, though, he just needs to play on clay, utilize his lethal high-bouncing serves and shots, and attack at every opportunity he gets. Doing that almost earned him an epic upset over the best clay-courter of all time. Doing that did earn him an upset over arguably the greatest player of all time. If he can finally realize that and consistently utilize his game in that fashion, there really is no telling how much he can achieve.
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