Harrison’s Luck, Karlovic’s Danger, and Vesely’s Prep

When Ryan Harrison drew Rafael Nadal in the first round of the US Open, the reaction in the twitterverse was instantaneous and unanimous. A guy with horrible luck in Grand Slam draws just saw his luck get even worse.

Certainly, drawing one of the big four (or big seven?) means an almost guaranteed early exit.  Harrison could’ve drawn a seed ranked much-lower, or better yet, one of the many anonymous characters required to fill up the 128-man field.

But has Ryan’s luck really been that bad?  In his previous twelve Slam appearances, Harrison has drawn a seed six times in the first time.  (An unseeded player has a one-in-three chance of pulling a seed, so he “should” have faced four seeds instead.)  Only one of those was a member of the big four–Andy Murray at the 2012 Australian–and two of them have been seeded 27th or worse.

The real complaint for Harrison’s supporters has been his second round draws.  In Melbourne this year and Wimbledon last year, he faced Novak Djokovic in the second round. One year ago in Flushing, his R64 opponent was Juan Martin del Potro.

Alright–that’s pretty bad luck.  But keep in mind that any unseeded player is very likely to face a seed in one of the first two rounds.  Harrison lucked into a slightly fortunate draw at Roland Garros this year, drawing Andrey Kuznetsov in the first then 19th-seeded John Isner in the second.

And of course, lucky or unlucky, there’s the question of whether Harrison is likely to beat anyone at a Grand Slam right now.  Ranked 97th, he’s one of the weakest players in the draw.  Given a luckier draw, there still wouldn’t be much hope that he would take advantage.

Yesterday Ivo Karlovic qualified for the US Open main draw, and again the twitterverse responded unanimously.  To paraphrase everyone: “He’s a dangerous floater. No one wants to see him in the first round.”

I can’t speak to the psychological preferences of players, so maybe that’s right–maybe no one wants to see him in their section. But at this point in his career, there’s little reason to fear Dr. Ivo.

In fact, I wrote about this specific issue almost two years ago: “Karlovic has shown himself far less likely than the average player to perform above or below his ranking.”

Aside from a victory over Kevin Anderson in the thin air of Bogota and two wins by retirement, the highest-ranked player Karlovic has beaten in the last year was (then) #40 Grigor Dimitrov in Zagreb–indoors. He hasn’t scored a complete-match win against a top-20 player since he played Kei Nishikori in Davis Cup 18 months ago.

It’s true, Karlovic has a very good chance of advancing past James Blake in his first main draw match.  But that says more about the 33-year-old Blake than it does about Ivo.

Diego Sebastian Schwartzman was so close to qualifying.  In yesterday’s final round, he took the first set from Albano Olivetti.  He saved a break in the third, went up a break for 4-2, but couldn’t close it out.

It would’ve been a remarkable achivement for the newly-minted 21-year-old.  He has built his ranking up to 131 entirely on the back of clay-court challengers.  In fact, he had played only eight career hard-court matches before this week, winning just two–both against fellow clay specialists in Melbourne qualifying this year.

For all that, Schwartzman would not have been the main draw contender with the least hard-court preparation this year!  That honor goes to Jiri Vesely, the 20-year-old Czech, who has not played a hard-court match since the Sarajevo (ice-rink) Challenger in March.

These two youngters’ routes to success reveal an interesting quirk of the ATP schedule.  While clay-court events are a distinct minority at tour level, they make up a slight majority among Challengers.  Furthermore, it is easier to fill out a minor-league schedule with clay events because of the dearth of hard-court options in April and May.  For instance, in the ten-week span this year from 22 April to 1 July, there were only four hard-court challengers–in Johannesburg, Kun-Ming, Karshi, and Busan.

For his part, Vesely has had an outstanding season.  In March, he was ranked outside the top 200.  After three Challenger titles (and two more finals, with losses to Radek Stepanek and Florian Mayer), he sits comfortably inside the top 100, with no need to qualify in New York.

Despite his scheduling choices, Vesely isn’t hopeless on hard courts.  Two years ago, he reached the final in the US Open junior tournament and won in Melbourne.

For his first match on the surface in months, the youngster got a manageable first-round opponent in Denis Kudla.  The winner of that battle of counterpunching youngsters will likely go no further, thanks to a second-round date with Tomas Berdych.

Finally, my draw forecasts are up for both singles main draws. Men are here, and women are here.  With a little luck, they’ll update hourly throughout the tournament.