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.
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
ROTTERDAM (Feb. 17, 2013) — Juan Martin del Potro came out the victor at the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament today, earning his 14th career title by defeating Julien Benneteau, 7-6(2), 6-3.
“I cannot believe I’ve won”, stated the Argentine in his final press conference. “I’m so happy. Before I came to Rotterdam, I saw all the big names on the participants list. I did not dare to think that I would leave with the title, but I’ve played well from the first round. And that was really necessary.”
As the first set went to a tiebreak, both players had their chance, but experience won over as Del Potro kept his cool to seal the first set. “It cost me so much energy to keep up,” stated Benneteau. “In almost all of my service games Del Potro got break points. Given the intensity of the game it was very difficult to stay fresh. In the tie-break I gave away some points too easy.”
Del Potro also paid respect to the Frechman’s game and perseverance: “Julien was giving me a hard time. He had an excellent game plan, played every point aggressive and continued fighting until the end. He made me do a lot of running and I don’t like that. Benneteau earned to play this final.”
In the doubles final, the team of Robert Lindstedt and Nenad Zimonjic overcame crowd favorites Thiemo De Bakker and Jesse Huta Galung, 5-7, 6-3, 10-8.
“It’s always great to win your first title [as a team],” stated Zimonjic. “This is our fourth tournament of the year and we were definitely struggling. The beginning of the week was really tough and we were lucky at times. We managed to play better and better.”
(Full gallery by Tennis Grandstand photographer Rick Gleijm.)
ROTTERDAM (Feb. 16, 2013) — After not dropping a set or a service game all week, Juan Martin del Potro once again finds himself in the finals in the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament after overcoming Grigor Dimitrov, 6-4, 6-4, in the semifinals.
“I played a really good match today – maybe the best match of the week against Dimitrov,” stated Del Potro during his post-match press conference. “I only broke twice in the match and that was the key, for sure … I’m feeling well, serving well … [but] I need to play better [tomorrow] than today for sure.”
Like his thoughts earlier in the week about a resurgent Ernest Gulbis, Del Potro also admiringly commented on Dimitrov’s game: “I can see him become number one in the future.”
In the other singles’ semifinals of the day, Julien Benneteau continued his surprise run to the finals by defeating fellow Frenchman Gilles Simon, 6-5, 7-6(2).
Benneateau is 0-7 in finals while Del Potro is going for his fourteenth career title, but it will be the the two player’s first meeting on Tour.
“Against a top ten player like Del Potro I’ve got nothing to lose,” Benneteau admitted. “Rotterdam is a nice place for my first tournament win.”
(Gallery by Tennis Grandstand photographer Rick Gleijm.)
ROTTERDAM (Feb. 15, 2013) — While one player notched his 200th career win, the other notched his 200th career loss — but the order is not what you might expect, as world No. 39 Julien Benneteau shocked Roger Federer to reach the semifinals with an 80 minute 6-3, 7-5 win.
“Benneteau deserved to win”, Federer admitted. “He played strong and created more chances than I did.” This is not something you expect of the Swiss’ game, but all champions have off days no matter their degree of preparation. Federer continued: “I had a fine preparation, but that’s no guarantee for success. It is unfortunate for the people who hoped to see me play on Saturday and Sunday. Instead, I’m now going to South Africa to promote my foundation. Hopefully I will meet Nelson Mandela.”
But that’s not a bad way to spend one’s weekend either.
In other singles’ news, world No. 41 Grigor Dimitrov dispatched of his good friend and doubles partner Marcos Baghdatis, 7-6(4), 6-7(0), 6-3 and not without a few insane runs, slides and falls by the young Bulgarian.
As Baghdatis’ final ball went long, the 21-year-old celebrated his victory by jumping over the net and warmly embracing the Cypriot.
“That was the last bit of energy I got left in me “, Dimitrov joked afterward. “Fortunately, I didn’t hurt myself. I’m tired after this tough fight as it’s always difficult to play against a good friend.”
Dimitrov will next face Juan Martin del Potro in the semifinals who defeated Jarkko Nieminen in straight sets. The other semifinal will pit Benneteau against fellow countryman Gilles Simon who progressed through when Martin Klizan retired due to cramping.
(Gallery by Tennis Grandstand photographer Rick Gleijm.)
ROTTERDAM (Feb. 12, 2013) — Last year’s finalist Juan Martin del Potro was among the winners on Tuesday at the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament in Rotterdam. The Argentine dispatched of Frenchman Gael Monfils in 71 minutes, never having really been tested in his 6-3, 6-4 win.
Del Potro will next take on qualifier Ernests Gulbis who handed Robin Haase his fourth straight first round defeat in Rotterdam, winning 6-2, 6-1 in only 50 minutes.
During his on-court interview Gulbis apologized to the audience for defeating the country’s highest-ranked player: “Sorry Holland. Too bad for the spectators that I defeated a Dutchman.”
In doubles’ action, the team of Marcos Baghdatis and Grigor Dimitrov lost to last week’s Zagreb titlists Julian Knowle and Filip Polasek, 7-6(4), 6-1, while the French tandem of Julien Benneteau and Richard Gasquet defeated the tournament No. 2 seed Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi and Jean-Julien Rojer.
Other singles players through to the first round include wildcard Thiemo DeBakker (when Mikhail Youzhny retired), Julien Benneteau, and Jarkko Nieminen.
(Gallery by Tennis Grandstand photographer Rick Gleijm.)
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.
Each Monday morning, I will break down ATP and WTA draws quarter by quarter with a prediction of who may meet in the final and perhaps the semifinals. Fans can look forward this week to three ATP 250 tournaments in Montpellier, Zagreb, and Vina del Mar. The most significant storyline concerns the highly anticipated return of Rafael Nadal in the last of those events, but the other two merit the attention of dedicated fans too.
Montpellier: After a weekend satisfying but exhausting, Berdych travels from a Davis Cup tie in Switzerland to neighboring France and one of his most productive surfaces: an indoor hard court. Clearly the best player in his half and probably the best in the tournament, the top seed might face an intriguing quarterfinal test in Nikolay Davydenko, also proficient on this surface. A champion in Doha last month, the Russian owns a stunning 9-2 record against the Czech. But most of Davydenko’s success comes from before 2010, the year when his decline and Berdych’s breakthrough began. The greatest pre-semifinal obstacle for the top seed probably lies in his ability to recover from the longest match in Davis Cup history, which spanned a remarkable 422 minutes.
As one would expect in a draw littered with Frenchmen (10 of the 24 direct entrants), the home crowd should find plenty of reasons to cheer. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the second quarter, where Gasquet could meet Monfils in the second round. Both men shone at the Australian Open by their standards, as did occasional upset threat Julien Benneteau. While all of these French stars have faltered on home soil at times, they also can point to notable achievements from Gael’s two appearances in the Paris Masters final to Julien’s upset of Federer at the same event. Like that doubles specialist, the third-seeded Gasquet will bring momentum from a commanding Davis Cup effort on French soil.
Less impressive is the lower half of the draw, spearheaded in the third quarter by Gilles Simon. The fourth seed shares Gasquet’s task of surmounting the compatriots scattered around him. A group that features Benoit Paire, Adrian Mannarino, and Paul-Henri Mathieu includes no challenger of a competitive will comparable to Simon. This Frenchman’s first real test should come in the semifinals against the winner of a tantalizing all-Serbian quarterfinal.
While the second-seeded Tipsarevic has produced much better tennis than Troicki lately, the former arrives from an injury and the latter from a fine Davis Cup performance in Belgium. In a small, fervently patriotic nation like Serbia, rivalries among compatriots can prove more tightly contested than their relative talents would suggest. Hoping to disrupt that projected clash, the aging Michael Llodra seeks to rekindle his former magic from the Paris Indoors with a net-rushing style that reaps rewards on these courts. If Tipsarevic does advance, he will need to reverse a poor history against Simon, not an easy task in view of his unimpressive recent form.
Final: Gasquet vs. Simon
Zagreb: Twice a titlist at his home tournament, top-ranked Croat Marin Cilic has started to knock on the door of the top ten again after an encouraging campaign in the second half of 2012. He holds the top seed in a draw that features several rising stars from the region, including Blaz Kavcic and Aljaz Bedene. The former reached the third round of a major for the first time at the Australian Open in the wake of a five-set, five-hour marathon, while the latter reached a semifinal in Chennai by defeating Wawrinka (more impressive in retrospect) and winning a set from Tipsarevic. If the winner can survive the mercurial Marcos Baghdatis, an exciting quarterfinal with Cilic would beckon.
Among the most notable figures in the second quarter is seventh-seeded Grigor Dimitrov, assigned a difficult opening assignment against serving leviathan Ivo Karlovic. The young player popularly likened to Federer endured a January of extremes that lurched from his first career final in Brisbane to a first-round exit in straight sets at the Australian Open. Beyond Karlovic, another local threat in Ivan Dodig would unleash his first-strike power against the maturing Dimitrov, which should test his focus. The third-seeded Mikhail Youzhny, well past his prime, looks less intimidating in a quarterfinal that could showcase two elegant one-handed backhands.
Another aging veteran in lefty Jurgen Melzer holds the fourth seed in a tournament near his native Austria, where he will attempt to raise his level from an unimpressive Davis Cup display in Kazakhstan. Explosive upset artist Lukas Rosol might test him in the quarterfinals should he survive another Lukas, the eighth-seeded Lacko. The latter Lukas nearly upset Tipsarevic at the Australian Open, so he may fancy his chances against the Czech Lukas or a Polish Lukasz (Kubot), better known in doubles but dangerous in singles with his pinpoint serves and returns.
The bottom quarter may hold the least interest for local fans, since the only Croats received wildcards to compensate for their low rankings. But its two seeds, Martin Klizan and Andreas Seppi, enjoyed their best seasons to date in 2012. Seppi in particular has hinted at building upon that momentum in 2013 by reaching the second week in Melbourne, although this surface does not much suit his patient style.
Final: Cilic vs. Melzer
Vina del Mar: The toast of Chile when he arrived last week, Nadal celebrated his return to professional competition after a six-month absence by basking in a ceremonial welcome from the nation’s president and noted tennis stars. Fans throughout the world, even those who never especially admired him, should welcome the return of a warrior whose presence injects much more intrigue into the ATP elite. While Nadal probably will not find his finest form immediately, he may not need to find it here to win a title on the clay that he relishes so deeply. Nobody in his quarter should muster the nerve to contemplate stopping the Spaniard, including compatriot Daniel Gimeno-Traver and home hope Nicolas Massu, a former Olympic gold medalist.
The only clay tournament in a week otherwise spent on indoor hard courts, Vina del Mar has attracted a host of players from South America and the Mediterranean. Australian Open quarterfinalist Jeremy Chardy will seek to shift his momentum from hard courts to clay, a surface that could reward his asymmetrical baseline game but not his preference for shortening points in the forecourt. The third seed in Chile, this Frenchman might encounter veteran Spaniard and clay specialist Tommy Robredo in the quarterfinals. Or perhaps Chardy will meet Lorenzi, who once nearly upset Nadal in Rome.
Often neglected among Spanish men, fourth-seeded Pablo Andujar occasionally drifts within range of an ardent fan’s radar during the clay season. This week, he could collide with a compatriot ranked just six slots below him in Albert Ramos, who looked rather crisp at the Australian Open in a five-set loss to Baghdatis. South Americans Rogerio Dutra Silva, Leonardo Mayer, and Horacio Zeballos add some local interest without heightening the level of competition significantly.
Like his fellow second seed Seppi in Zagreb, world #12 Juan Monaco produced a season far more productive last year than any before it. A veteran clay specialist, he notched his greatest success last year on hard courts, where he reached the Miami semifinal. But he regained his groove on his favorite surface while contributing to Argentina’s Davis Cup victory over Germany this weekend, and he often has excelled during the February South American clay swing. Fellow Argentine Carlos Berlocq, known as the worst server in the top 100, should pose little threat in a weak section. Can Monaco test Nadal in the final, as he has Djokovic and Murray on clay? We will know better once the tournament unfolds.
Final: Nadal vs. Monaco
I will return on Friday morning to look at the first round of Fed Cup. Ahead on next Monday are previews of ATP events in Rotterdam, San Jose, and Sao Paulo, in addition to a more detailed preview of the WTA Premier Five tournament in Doha.
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
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.