Monday Topspin: Djokovic Keeps Winning

Another day at the office: Novak Djokovic is still undefeated in 2011.  For the second time, he earned a championship the hard way, beating Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the same tournament.  He wins the Indian Wells crown for the second time as well, and his victory moves him into the #2 spot in the ATP rankings.

Nadal may not be playing his best tennis, but the first set, at least, was absolutely gripping.  Both players are so athletic and skilled on the defense that many rallies made them look like counterpunchers, except both guys were hitting the ball too hard for that.  In the first set and the beginning of the second, Djokovic appeared to suffer the same lapse that lost him a set against Federer.  But as in the semifinal, he came back in plenty of time.

It was Nadal whose racquet ultimately let him down.  The biggest difference between the Rafa of last September and the Rafa of right now is his serve.  In the sets he lost, the first serve percentage was dreadful: 25% in the second and 45% in the third.  Even when it was going in, it was hardly a weapon.  Nadal’s return game alone is good enough to beat most people, but not Djokovic, certainly not right now.

In Miami, Djokovic can pad his lead over Federer, but #2 remains in play.  Last year, Djokovic lost in the 2nd round to Olivier Rochus, while Federer fell in the 4th to Tomas Berdych.  To take back #2, Federer needs to win the tournament, and even then, he’ll need Novak to lose in the semis or earlier.

Federer at #3 makes every tournament draw a little more interesting: There’s the possibility of a Nadal-Federer semifinal.  If not, Federer could line up to face Djokovic is the semi.  The latter is a familiar sight, and it’s still an exciting one.

New rankings: With Indian Wells on the board along with two weeks worth of challengers, there is an enormous amount of movement.  The biggest winner is Djokovic, moving one spot closer to #1.  Both Juan Martin del Potro and Ivo Karlovic made big strides in their comebacks: Delpo jumped 39 spots to #51, and Karlovic is up 86 places to 153.

Four players reached a new career high thanks to their performances in California: Milos Raonic gained three more places to #34, Somdev Devvarman goes up to #73, Ryan Sweeting breaks into the top 100 at #91, and Ryan Harrison advances 22 spots to #130.

Several players made triple-digit jumps as well.  Cedrik-Marcel Stebe moves into the top 250, landing at #234 after challenger semifinal appearances in two consecutive weeks.  Amer Delic, a former top-60 player returning from injury, gains 141 places to #303 after his championship in Sarajevo.  Rohan Bopanna, on the strength of qualifying for Indian Wells, jumps 119 spots to #510, and Wayne Odesnik, winner at USA F7 two weeks ago, lands at #538, an 135-place improvement.

Challenger results: Yesterday I reported on the final in Guangzhou, which leaves us four more challengers to touch on.  In Le Gosier, Olivier Rochus triumphed over countryman Stephane Robert.  It’s a bigger accomplishment than the usual victory at that level: Le Gosier is at one of the highest rungs of prize money ($100,000), and the draw was full of top-100 players who made early exits from Indian Wells.

In fact, while Rochus won the title and advanced back into the top 100, Robert could be said to have had the better week.  En route to the final, he defeated Dustin Brown, Pablo Andujar, Marsel Ilhan, and top seed Jarkko Nieminen.  As if that wasn’t enough, he teamed with Riccardo Ghedin to win the doubles–over Rochus and Arnaud Clement.

At an indoor tourney in Rimouski, Canada, the field wasn’t nearly as strong.  The title match was plenty exciting, as Fritz Wolmarans defeated Bobby Reynolds in a third-set tiebreak.

The San Jose challenger, in Costa Rica, attracted plenty of South American talent, despite its hard courts.  Returning to the winner’s circle was Ecuador’s Giovanni Lapentti, who won in straight sets over Igor Kunitsyn.

Finally, a clay court challenger took place in Rabat, where the Czech Ivo Minar won the title, getting past Peter Luczak in the final.  The surprise performance of the week belongs to the unheralded Tunisian Malek Jaziri, who entered on a wild card.  His second and third round opponents were a wild card and a qualifier, respectively, but to get there, he had to defeat fourth-seed Jaroslav Pospisil in his opening match.

Tomorrow we’ll take a look at the fields in the coming week.  See you then!

Sunday Topspin: A Nadal-Djokovic Final

1 and 2: It’s only fitting that the new world #2 takes on the world #1 in the Indian Wells final today.  Let’s see how they got there.

Rafael Nadal‘s semifinal went more or less as expected.  It was close, about as tight as a 6-4, 6-4 match can be, but once Nadal went up a break in the first, the result was never really in doubt.  Juan Martin del Potro is close to his pre-injury form, but he didn’t show quite the confidence necessary to boss Nadal around the court the way that he does at his best.

The semi may well have been Nadal’s best win since the tour finals last November.  The highest-ranked player Nadal has beaten this year is Marin Cilic, and del Potro is at a higher level than that right now.  Given the weak draw and the less-than-convincing wins over Somdev Devvarman and Ivo Karlovic, a straight-setter yesterday was the best possible outcome for Rafa.

The other semifinal, the battle for #2, was oddly inconsistent.  Roger Federer‘s service game was below his usual standard which, combined with Novak Djokovic‘s rock-solid return game, meant that Federer was constantly stuck in ground battles that he isn’t terribly well suited to win.  Djokovic’s steady, deep groundstrokes expose holes in Roger’s game that few other players can, forcing errors that make the Swiss look like he barely belongs on the same court.

Yet Federer won the second set, and he seemed on the brink of taking control of the third before his service game completely collapsed.  It’s a big win for Djokovic–his third in a row over Federer–and it puts him back at his career-high ranking of #2.

The final matchup: Rafa is probably the better overall player; Novak might have the edge on hard courts, and he definitely is the hot player right now.

Yet the last two times these two guys faced each other on hard courts–the only two head-to-head encounters in the last 15 months–Nadal won, on big stages in London and New York.  Djokovic leads the hard-court head-to-head 7-6, and the two players have split a pair of matches at Indian Wells.

The sportsbook line gives Djokovic the slight edge, suggesting he has a 54% chance of winning.  My system concurs, favoring the Serb at 53.5%.

Doubles: I don’t really know what to say about a championship for Xavier Malisse and Alexandr Dolgopolov in the most loaded doubles draw in recent memory.  They won every single match in a super-tiebreak of 10-7 or 10-8, and had to beat either a top-10 singles player or a top-10 doubles team in all five rounds.

Oddly enough, they aren’t slated to team up in Miami: Malisse is on the entry list with Jamie Murray.  And Murray’s brother, his partner this past week, is apparently planning to join forces with Djokovic.  We aren’t likely to see a doubles draw in Miami quite like this week’s, but it is nonetheless shaping up to make for another event full of surprises.

Challengers: A couple of times recently, I’ve mentioned the young German Cedrik-Marcel Stebe, who qualified in Kyoto last week, reached the semifinals, then made it to the semis again this week at the challenger in Guangzhou.  He lost to Uladzimir Ignatik, another promising young player, who went on to win the tournament.  Ignatik, from Belarus, is only 20 years of age, and the win yesterday will inch him further inside the top 200.

Both Stebe and Ignatik will play the challenger in Pingguo next week.  Ignatik is seeded eighth and will play a first-round matchup with a qualifier, while Stebe drew Guangzhou finalist Alexander Kudryavtsev, the fourth seed.

The Indian Wells final is on the card after the women’s final, not before 1 P.M. local.  I’ll be watching!

Saturday Topspin: Slam Winner Semifinals

Bored and quartered: Who would’ve guessed that Rafael Nadal vs. Ivo Karlovic would make for the most exciting men’s quarterfinal at Indian Wells?  Both Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer were impressive yesterday, but they didn’t have to be.  Richard Gasquet put together a few strings of solid play, including the first few games of the match, but couldn’t keep up with the Serb.  Stanislas Wawrinka looked like he lost his match before he came on court.

The story of the tournament thus far (and perhaps the entire season) has been Djokovic’s dominance.  Gasquet was quoted yesterday saying that Novak’s return game is better than Federer’s or Nadal’s.  He may be right, and it’s an understandable thing to say for a guy who just had his service games demolished.

Gasquet didn’t even win half of his service points yesterday, and he lost nearly half of his first serve points.  Djokovic had 12 break points (of which he converted five) which, if anything, seems low considering how ineffective the Frenchman was on his serve.

Much has been written about Djokovic’s string of bagels.  Though Gasquet managed to win games in each set, the Serb may still be setting records for the Indian Wells event.  Reader Jovan emailed me the following:

Losing a total of 12 games over the first four matches has never been done before.  Up to now the best has been 14, done by Jimmy Connors in 1976 and Eliot Teltscher in 1982.  Connors went on to win the tourney without dropping a set,  Teltscher lost in the semi.

Wow.  For comparison’s sake, Nadal lost 14 games in the Karlovic match alone.

Marquee matchups: The positive outcome of a predictable set of quarterfinals is a blockbuster pair of semis.  Today we start with Nadal vs. Juan Martin del Potro and then watch the battle for #2: Federer vs. Djokovic.

It’s been a tough road for del Potro, even with the free pass through the quarterfinals.  Nadal will be his toughest test yet.  Nadal is a better hard-court player than he was two years ago, when del Potro won their last three contests, including a 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 drubbing at the U.S. Open.  Oddly enough, the last time the Spainard won a head-to-head matchup was two years ago at Indian Wells.

Sportsbooks give Nadal a comfortable edge: about a 67% chance of winning.  My system is less optimistic for the world #1, at 55%, in part because of that head-to-head record.  Nadal always seems able to raise his game, but his struggles against Karlovic and Somdev Devvarman make me think that my 55/45 odds are more accurate than anything higher.

The other semifinal is equally difficult to pick.  It would be easy to point to Djokovic’s dominance this week, along with his two recent wins against Federer, and pick him for the win.  But before Australia and Dubai, Federer came out on top in Shanghai, Basel, and at the World Tour Finals.  Roger also brings a different game than anything the Serb has seen this week, as he’ll attack far more than a player like Gasquet.

The betting lines suggest that Djokovic has a 60% chance of winning.  My algorithm says Federer is the favorite, with a 55% shot.  But I admit, I’d have a hard time wagering real money against Novak right now.

I think that wraps things up for today.  If your schedule doesn’t allow you to watch the semifinals today, I suggest you rearrange your schedule.

Friday Topspin: Dr. Ivo Down

Nadal through: After Tommy Robredo withdrew, leaving Juan Martin del Potro with a place in the semis, that left only one men’s singles match on the slate at Indian Wells yesterday.  While Ivo Karlovic had never beaten Rafael Nadal, he had taken a set in every meeting.  Last night was no different.

In fact, we were excruciatingly close to an upset.  It took a 9-7 third-set tiebreak to decide the match in the Spaniard’s favor.  Karlovic got that far by saving six of eight break points, while he converted the only one he earned, at 5-5 in the first set.

What amazes me about one-dimensional servers like Karlovic and John Isner is how their overall serving numbers aren’t always that great.  Sure, they rack up the ace totals–Ivo hit 23 last night–but Nadal won 78% of first serve points yesterday against Karlovic’s 74%.  On all service points, Nadal won 80%, Karlovic 65%.  Of course, Rafa is responsible for some of that, but it’s not uncommon.  While the match turned on a single point or two, Nadal won 55% of total points, a figure you sometimes see in a 6-3, 6-3 match.

All that said, the first set showed a more versatile and confident Karlovic that I’m accustomed to.  He still wouldn’t be inside the top 100 without the serve, but he as aggressive as ever getting to the net, and would follow up serves with strong forehands in both directions.  I still don’t particularly like watching him play, but it’s not hard to understand how he upset so many higher-ranked players this week.

Two more: After so many great matchups in the tournament, the quarters are something of a letdown.  Starting the session today is Novak Djokovic vs. Richard Gasquet.  Six months ago, I would’ve been excited about that, wondering if the Frenchman might be able to pull the upset.  The way Novak is playing this week, you wonder whether he’ll pull out another bagel.

Later in the afternoon, Roger Federer looks to extend his dominance over doubles partner Stanislas Wawrinka, who managed a three-set upset of Tomas Berdych two days ago.  Wawrinka has only beaten Federer on clay, and there’s no reason to expect today to be different.

Sportsbooks give Gasquet about a 12% chance of advancing; Wawrinka a 22% shot.  My system says the same for the Swiss, but is more optimistic for Gasquet, setting his number at 18%.  Then again, my system only uses results from before the tournament; it doesn’t know that Djokovic has only dropped six games in three matches thus far.

Doubles: The upsets continue, as the doubles specialists are all gone.  Alexandr Dolgopolov and Xavier Malisse defeated Bopanna/Qureshi in a 10-8 super-tiebreak.  All four of their matches have gone to a super-tiebreak, and three have ended at 10-8.  (The other one finished at 10-7.)  They are in the final.

The other finalist will be determined in what sounds more like an exhibition lineup than an ATP doubles semifinal: Federer/Wawrinka vs. Nadal/Lopez.  It will be interesting to see how the Swiss players perform; they’ll get some rest, but they’ll basically play two matches back-to-back.  Fortunately for those of us with subscriptions, will broadcast the match.

See you tomorrow!

Thursday Topspin: Delpo Rolling

Straight sets: For the second day in a row, eight men’s matches resulted in only one third set.  Thankfully, yesterday’s contests were generally much tighter than Tuesday’s.  Nobody felt that more keenly than Juan Martin del Potro.

Delpo, playing Philipp Kohlschreiber, was out of sorts for much of the first set, apparently dealing with a stomach issue.   He stayed on the defense, trading protracted holds with the German into a tiebreak.  A brilliant down-the-line backhand flick on the first point of the tiebreak seemed to be all he needed–his energy came back, and he only lost a single point in the breaker.

Kohlschreiber took his time recovering, dropping to 1-4 before breaking back and evening the score.  The German made it to another tiebreak, which in its way, had a chance of deciding the match.  Kohl was obviously in better shape for a third set after more than two hours of play.  He ran out to a 6-1 lead in the tiebreak, and proceeded to lose five match points before falling 9-7.  Ouch.

Today, del Potro draws Tommy Robredo, who had a surprisingly easy time with Sam Querrey, beating him 6-1, 6-3.  Here’s a shocker from the sportsbooks: Delpo is more heavily favored over Robredo than Rafael Nadal over Ivo Karlovic.  The difference is slight, as both are given a roughly 85% chance of winning.

The other half: Four quarterfinalists get the day off today.  Richard Gasquet pulled an upset, downing Andy Roddick in straight sets, and he’ll meet Novak Djokovic.  The tour should be terrified right now: Djokovic beat Viktor Troicki 6-0, 6-1.  A drubbing of Ernests Gulbis–that you can understand.  But while the Serbs are close friends, there’s no explanation for such a lopsided victory over Troicki except for the obvious one: Novak is playing unbelievable tennis right now.

The final quarter will be all Swiss, between Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka.  (First, they play their quarterfinal doubles match, for a chance to face–of all people–Nadal and Marc Lopez.)  Wawrinka snuck through against Tomas Berdych in the one three-setter of the day, while Federer was pushed to a first-set breaker by Ryan Harrison.

Clearly, a Djokovic-Federer semi is very much in the cards, and for the first time in my life, I might have to pick the Serb.

Also in doubles: The pairing of Alexandr Dolgopolov and Xavier Malisse recorded another win yesterday, this time over the Murray brothers.  Today, they face Bopanna/Qureshi.  Dolgo and Malisse have won all three of their matches in a champion’s tiebreak: 10-8, 10-7, and 10-8.

Up and coming: Watch out for the 20-year-old Cedrik-Marcel Stebe.  Quick recap: He started the year winning two consecutive futures events in Turkey, then qualified for the Kyoto challenger last week.  In Kyoto, he reached the final before losing to Dominik Meffert.

That effort got him into the main draw of the Guangzhou challenger, where he recorded a big win over Lucas Lacko in the second round and then a revenge victory over Meffert in the quarters.  Today, Stebe plays Uladzamir Ignatik for a spot in a second consecutive final.  Since the Kyoto results haven’t gone on the computer yet and Stebe has few points to defend, look for him to make a massive leap in the rankings next week.

Pim Pim’s brief return: After Joachim Johansson‘s impressive performance in Davis Cup, it was exciting to see him in the draw at Switzerland F1.  He beat Mate Pavic in the first round, but has withdrawn, presumably with injury.  Too bad.

Another comeback: Here’s another name you might know: Crazy Dani, Daniel Koellerer.  The Austrian has also struggled with injury, and he’s the third seed this week at Turkey F9.  He’s through to the second round, and perhaps more remarkably, he’s through to the semifinals in doubles with his countryman Michael Linzer.

See you tomorrow!

Wednesday Topspin: Harrison d. Raonic

7-6(1), 4-6, 6-4: The battle of the young guns lived up to its billing, and more.  Ryan Harrison came out swinging, attacking Milos Raonic‘s serve as if he hadn’t heard about the record-setting ace totals.  Raonic proved as unflappable as ever, firing off 140 mph serves and huge forehands on break points.

In the end, Harrison came out on top.  He played the Canadian as aggressively as anyone has this year, and it paid off.  On the Raonic second serve, which guys like Fernando Verdasco couldn’t handle, Harrison charged in and crushed backhands from well inside the baseline.  The American’s game isn’t fully developed, but his attitude surely is.

There was certainly no question that these two guys have earned the big stage.  With the exception of some clunky forehands from Raonic, the level of play was extremely high, and especially for the Canadian, the level went up on the big points.  It was hard not to think that we were watching two future top-10 players.

If there was only one revelation from the match, it was Harrison’s return game.  He wasn’t just aggressive on the second serves, he whacked away at everything he could get a racquet on.  He broke serve three times, and just as importantly, took the first set tiebreak 7-1.  In other words, he did what just about every Raonic opponent in 2011 couldn’t do–a favorable comparison with a lot of good players.

Today, Harrison gets to play Roger Federer for a spot in the quarterfinals.

Breaking big serves: The bottom half of the draw has continued to proceed according to plan.  Of the eight spots in the round of 16, the seeded player has six of them; the seventh went to Harrison, and the eighth is Richard Gasquet‘s, earned after a stellar performance upsetting Jurgen Melzer.

Gasquet will face Andy Roddick, who also put on a good show last night, breaking John Isner‘s serve three times and winning more than 80% of points on his own delivery.  It’s a solid outing from Roddick, who has struggled with Isner in the past.

Two guys who didn’t struggle at all were Federer and Novak Djokovic.  Djokovic started the day with a 6-0, 6-1 drubbing of Ernests Gulbis, and Federer repeated the act, crushing Juan Ignacio Chela 6-0, 6-2 in under an hour.  Think these guys are looking ahead to the semifinal?  At the least, both should advance easily to the quarters; Federer draws Harrison, while Djokovic plays Viktor Troicki.

Round of 16: Yesterday’s players don’t get a day off, as the entire round of 16 is scheduled for today.  Here’s quick rundown of the matchups:

  • Sam Querrey vs. Tommy Robredo: The surface seems to favor the American, but Querrey has hardly been untouchable lately.
  • Troicki vs. Djokovic: Troicki has pushed Novak in the past, but I see this one coming out about 6-4, 6-4.
  • Roddick vs. Gasquet: Potential to be the match of the day.  Roddick has to be favored, but definite upset potential here.
  • Rafael Nadal vs. Somdev Devvarman: Nadal’s third straight opponent out of qualifying.  Devvarman is playing great tennis and might give Nadal a few things to think about in the first set.
  • Federer vs. Harrison: Big day for the American, regardless of how badly Fed beats him.
  • Phillip Kohlschreiber vs. Juan Martin del Potro: Kohl benefitted from Robin Soderling‘s injury; Delpo should have an easy time getting through this one.
  • Tomas Berdych vs. Stanislas Wawrinka: Another one with a chance to be the match of the day.  The Swiss has been playing well, so we could see an upset.
  • Albert Montanes vs. Ivo Karlovic: Seriously, this is in the round of 16?

Doubles: If that isn’t enough, how about the Murray brothers against Alexandr Dolgopolov and Xavier Malisse?  The Dog/Malisse pairing is hardly a familiar sight on the tour, but they took out the Bryan brothers yesterday, 10-7 in the champion’s tiebreak.

There’s an equally star-studded doubles match this afternoon, between Qureshi/Bopanna (who beat Paes/Bhupathi yesterday) and Djokovic/Troicki.  Nadal/Lopez advanced to the semis yesterday, and it looks like Federer will be back on the doubles court tomorrow.

Doubles matches aren’t nearly as predictable as singles, especially with all of the top singles players in the draw.  But how about this: Four of the eight seeded teams didn’t make it out of the first round.  The other four seeded teams lost in the second round.  So we have eight teams in the quarterfinals, none of which were seeded coming into the tournament.  Crazy.

Enjoy the tennis!

Tuesday Topspin: Underachievers

Surprise: The top half of the draw continued to prove unpredictable–it seems the only thing we can rely on is that if Rafael Nadal faces someone outside the top 100, he’ll get the job done.  Amazingly, Rafa will face his third straight qualifier, Somdev Devvarman, in the round of 16 tomorrow.

The shock of the day belongs to Phillip Kohlschreiber, who defeated Robin Soderling is straight sets.  While Kohlschreiber is a solid player capable of great tennis, that match seemed almost as much of a lock as Nadal’s contest against Ryan Sweeting.  The German executed the upset with a stellar return game: Soderling won on 60% of his service points, and a mere 67% of first service points.  For a player with a big game like the Swede’s, the latter number should be around 80%.

The Soderling upset means that the top half of the draw is down to only one seed (Nadal) in the top sixteen.  Three of the eight spots belong to unseeded players: Devvarman, Ivo Karlovic, and Juan Martin Del Potro.

22: For one set, anyway, the most enjoyable match of the day was between Del Potro and Alexandr Dolgopolov.  The Ukrainian was on his game for much of the first set, and the two players were trading both impressive winners and remarkably defensive shots.  Delpo ended up taking a first-set tiebreak and then running away with the second set.  Neither player made more than about half of their first serves–not a good sign for the Argentine going forward, but something that made for some enjoyable points.

Underachieving: Another upset: Sam Querrey beat Fernando Verdasco in straight sets.  Based on recent returns, you might think both of these guys would figure out a way to lose the match.  Coming into the tournament, Verdasco hadn’t won a match since the semifinal in San Jose, and his victory over Richard Berankis in the second round was thanks to a retirement.

Querrey has been even less impressive.  Before beating Verdasco yesterday, he hadn’t defeated a player ranked about #50 since last year’s U.S. Open.  In the round of 16, the American draws Tommy Robredo, which makes a great opportunity for him after the early upset of Andy Murray.

Doubles champions: The men’s doubles continues to fascinate.  I always wonder just how good the top singles players would be if they regularly entered doubles events.  Based on the evidence at hand this week, the answer is: Pretty good.  Both Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic won their doubles matches yesterday; Djokovic and Viktor Troicki took down the 7th-seeded duo of Lukasz Kubot and Oliver Marach.

On the card today, Nadal and Marc Lopez will play specialists Paul Hanley and Lukas Dlouhy, while the Bryan Brothers draw another wacky team, this one of Dolgopolov and Xavier Malisse.

Today’s big match(es): In contrast to the top half, the bottom half of the draw has seen virtually no upsets, leaving us with a lot of semi-predictable contests, like Tomas Berdych vs. Thomaz Bellucci and Djokovic vs. Ernests Gulbis.

One match with some potential is on Court 2: Richard Gasquet against Jurgen Melzer.  The Frenchman has been playing solid tennis of late, albeit not at a level that seems likely to take down a top-10 player.

The match that I’ll be scheduling my day around is the result of the only two seeded losses in the bottom half.  Fourth match, Court 2: Milos Raonic vs. Ryan Harrison.  Raonic, obviously, has been playing outstanding tennis all year.  Harrison hasn’t been at the same level, but he’s beaten both Jeremy Chardy and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez to get here.  This is a matchup we’ll probably be watching for the better part of the next decade, and in another year or two, it won’t be happening in the round of 32 any more.

Best of all, the winner draws Federer.

See you tomorrow!