Saturday Topspin: One-Two Punch

Federer’s future: That was brutal.  It took barely an hour for Rafael Nadal to beat Roger Federer 6-3 6-2.  On a hard court.  It felt like Fed made about 30 unforced errors and Nadal made three.  The actual totals weren’t that bad, but they weren’t exactly good, either.

Every once in a while, Federer would play a great point, matching Nadal shot for shot through a 15 or 20-stroke rally.  But he couldn’t sustain that level.  Instead, he went for a lot of low-percentage shots, netting way too many offensive groundstrokes.  In the second set, he was a little more aggressive coming to net, but even then, the spectre of Nadal running down another return meant that he tried too much.

It may still be possible for Federer to beat Nadal on a hard court–after all, we’re not six months removed from last year’s tour finals, in which he did so–but increasingly, such a victory would require a brilliant day from Roger and a sub-standard performance from Rafa.  And Roger’s brilliant days are less frequent than they used to be.

It seems like every discussion of Federer’s fall eventually turns to tactics.  Nadal’s game makes Federer’s look inadequate or ill-advised.  And as I’ve said, last night was riddled with low-percentage attempts that might not have won him the point even if they cleared the net.  But is there another option?  Last night, Nadal seemingly went games without making an unforced error.  Fed had to serve an ace or quickly come in and make a volley winner to win the point.  Nobody can do that consistently, least of all against Rafa.

What must be particularly frustrating to Roger is that this very game, the one that is failing so clearly against Nadal and Novak Djokovic, is still making almost everybody else look bad.  The guy lost only one set in five consecutive victories against top-10 players in last year’s tour finals.  It’s possible to defeat Nadal, but it may not be possible for Federer to do so without a radical makeover of his game.

Of course, we know he’ll keep trying, and no matter how the clay court season goes, there will be a high-profile showdown (or several!) this summer or fall.  Roger may suffer some ugly losses, but he’s not going away.

Twenty-five: Djokovic made it look easy again yesterday, beating Mardy Fish 6-3 6-1.  The first set was tighter than the score suggests, especially in the handful of games before an early rain delay.  Fish was surprisingly competitive from the back of the court.  Unfortunately, he had no chance in rallies with the Serbian, and the final set was just as lopsided as the tally indicates.

Still, Fish will climb to #11 in Monday’s rankings, with an excellent chance of ascending further in the clay season.  Last year, he only won two matches on clay, so he has very few points to defend, and his seeding in the top 16 will help him improve on that.

Djokovic, of course, will face Nadal in tomorrow’s final.  Interestingly, oddsmakers have that match almost dead even, very slightly favoring Nadal.  That’s a shift from the Indian Wells final, in which they gave Djokovic a 55% chance of winning.  The thinking must be that the conditions in Miami make that much of a difference.  Or that since Djokovic lost five games to Viktor Troicki, he must be off his game.

The onion: HT.com favorite Flavio Cipolla is having a heck of a week at the challenger in Barranquilla.  In the first round, he defeated the French #6 seed Eric Prodon; after that, he went to a third-set tiebreak to beat local boy Robert Farah.  Yesterday, he once against needed a third set in getting past Martin Vassallo Arguello, who himself turned in a very solid week.

The Cipolla-Farah match got some confusing publicity over the last couple days, as it was incorrectly reported to have taken four hours and 23 minutes.  The match was delayed 40 minutes, so the actual time is under four hours.  Not record-breaking, but it’s still enough to ensure that for a few weeks, Farah will have nightmares in which a diminutive Italian scurries around the court, always getting the next ball back.

See you tomorrow!

Friday Topspin: Uno, Dos, Tres, Catorce

Semifinals in place: By an unexpected route, yesterday’s two quarterfinals netting the predicted results.  Roger Federer played three lopsided games before Gilles Simon retired with a shoulder injury.  Rafael Nadal had to work much harder.

Tomas Berdych pushed Nadal to three sets –undoubtedly the best the Czech has played this week, and the first time he has won a set against Nadal for years.  Berdych’s consistency with the serve has been something of an achilles heel of late, and he failed to land more than 55% of first serves during the match.  He was more successful on first serve points than Nadal was, but he just didn’t get enough of them.

Semifinal #1: At 1:00 EST today, Novak Djokovic takes on Mardy Fish.  The sportsbooks see this one as a foregone conclusion, giving Djokovic a 90% chance of winning.  My system is more conservative, setting the probability at about 80%.  That said, the oddsmakers have been more aggressive on almost all of Djokovic’s matches over the last few weeks, and that has worked out quite nicely for them.

Fish has been a bit of an enigma to me this week.  There’s no doubting that he has scored two big wins, over Juan Martin del Potro and David Ferrer.  But I wasn’t convinced in either match that his opponent was playing his best; Fish didn’t beat the del Potro who went deep in Indian Wells, and the Ferrer of Wednesday’s second set didn’t look like a top 10 player at all.

Fish’s forehand is still a weak spot, and both Ferrer and del Potro let him get away with half-hearted defense.  Maybe I’m not giving the American enough credit–perhaps it was his game that made his last two opponents look sub-standard.  Constant net-rushing can have that effect.  But I doubt it will have any such effect on Djokovic.

Semifinal #2: Then, at 7:00 EST, it’s Nadal and Federer.  Thanks to yesterday’s match, Nadal has worked harder to get here, but I don’t think that falls in Federer’s favor.  The Swiss has had a few easy matches, notably a 6-3 6-1 drubbing of Olivier Rochus.  Yet he hasn’t demonstrated that the holes in his game–namely, consistency from the baseline–have been remedied.

Oddsmakers set this match at about 57/43 in favor of Nadal; my system gives Federer the edge at 55/45.  Their last two hard-court matchups–at last year’s finals, and at the 2009 Australian–have gone the distance.  I expect that this one will be decided in three sets as well.

Barranquilla: The most interesting challenger to this point is the tournament in Barranquilla, which I mentioned earlier in the week because Wayne Odesnik was in the draw.  The Odesnik storyline ended quickly, but that’s not all on offer.  As I noted yesterday, the tournament didn’t hand any of its wild cards to Colombians, and after two rounds, all of the local boys are gone.  That’s a disappointment, as Alejandro Falla was seeded fourth, and Robert Farah had a third-set tiebreak against Flavio Cipolla.

Instead, the event has been dominated by Argentines, five of whom are in the quarterfinals.  Notable among them is Martin Vassallo Arguello, a former top 50 player who had to qualify.  He beat top-seed Teymuraz Gabashvili in straight sets yesterday, and now he will face Cipolla in an attempt for his sixth-consecutive match win.

See you tomorrow!

Thursday Topspin: Twenty-Two and Counting

Another win: Novak Djokovic has now strung together 22 straight wins to start the season.  He’ll probably make it 23 tomorrow against Mardy Fish.

As usual, he made it look easy last night.  Kevin Anderson played reasonably well, particularly from the baseline, where he was often able to match Djokovic shot for shot … at least for a while.  He was aggressive, frequently forcing Novak to make an excellent shot to pass him at the net, though of course his opponent was usually up to the challenge.  Djokovic wasn’t perfect, but the outcome was never in doubt.

What caught me by surprise is how easy it seemed to be for Anderson to return many of Djokovic’s shots.  I’d never thought of Djokovic as someone defined by his topspin, but on groundstrokes and second serves, Novak’s balls often bounced right up into Anderson’s hitting zone–that is, above the hitting zone for anyone shorter than Anderson.  That makes me think that Djokovic might be vulnerable to a player like Tomas Berdych, who beat him at Wimbledon last year and challenged him in Dubai recently, or Juan Martin del Potro, who he hasn’t played for nearly two years.

In any event, Anderson’s stature wasn’t a problem last night, and barring the unlikely event of Berdych reaching the final, it won’t be an issue this week.

New #1: By beating David Ferrer yesterday, Fish cemented his position as the new top-ranked American.  He’ll also reach a new personal high of #12 (I think), and with a decent clay result or two, he’ll have a shot at breaking into the top 10.

I’m assuming he’ll only get semifinalist points for Miami, because he needs to beat Djokovic to get any farther.  Novak has won all five meetings, though Fish has taken a set on three occasions, including last year at Indian Wells.

Two more quarters: Today, Roger Federer plays Gilles Simon, while Rafael Nadal faces Berdych.  Neither match is projected to be close, but that’s no reason not to watch.

Both my system and the oddsmakers now give Federer an 82-83% chance of winning.  That’s surprising, since Simon has won two of three head-to-heads, and Federer’s one win was the five-setter in Australia.  Of course, there’s little doubt Roger is the better player, and Simon has hardly been impressive this week.  He barely got past Janko Tipsarevic, so he doesn’t seem to be close to his best form.

Sportsbooks favor Nadal to the tune of 87%, while my system gives Berdych a much better chance, cutting Rafa down to 71%.  Of course, my system hasn’t been watching as Berdych did anything but dominate Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo, Carlos Berlocq, and Florian Mayer.

Federer plays the afternoon match, scheduled for 3:00 EST, while Nadal opens the night session.

In the minors: Wayne Odesnik’s comeback will have to wait at least one more week.  After qualifying for the challenger in Barranquilla, he lost in the first round to Juan Pablo Brzezicki.  He did take the first set.  At least he didn’t suffer the fate of Norweigan wild card Sander Brendmoe, who was double-bagelled by Martin Vasallo Arguello.

Speaking of wild cards, the folks at Barranquilla are awfully open-minded.  The majority of wild cards go to native sons, but none of the tourney’s four wild cards went to a Colombian.  However, there are four local boys in the draw, and three of them advanced to the second round.

At the challenger in St. Brieuc, France, two up-and-comers are among the first men into the quarterfinals.  Both Jerzy Janowicz and Benoit Paire got through three-setters to win their second-round matches yesterday.

Finally, we have another run of upsets to report, this time at USA F8 in Oklahoma City.  Six of the eight seeds, including the top three, fell in yesterday’s first round.  Most notably, top seed Chris Guccione lost a three-setter to Vladimir Obradovic, a Serbian ranked outside of the top 600.  The top-ranked player left in the draw is #300, the fourth-seeded American, Greg Ouellette.

See you tomorrow!

Wednesday Topspin: Cruise Control

Domination: The top four remaining seeds at Miami–Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, and David Ferrer–had an easy time of it yesterday.  None had to face a fellow member of the top 20; Nadal was the only one of the four who played a seed.

Amazingly, Djokovic dropped the most games.  Playing his friend Viktor Troicki, Novak’s  6-0 6-1 victim at Indian Wells, he lost five games, coming through 6-3 6-2.  Olivier Rochus took four games from Federer, while Nadal and Ferrer both got past their opponents with a score of 6-1 6-2.

Squeakers: Tomas Berdych, the next seed in line, also drew an unseeded opponent: Florian Mayer.  But the Czech’s route to the quarters was not nearly so easy.  He breezed through the first set, winning 6-3, before the rain halted play.  Back on court, Berdych suddenly couldn’t land a first serve, making only 42% in the second set.  Mayer capitalized, evening the tally, then neither player took command en route to a third-set tiebreak.

Mayer played some excellent tennis at times, and he had his chances–Berdych double faulted five times in the final set, yet never allowed even a break point.  Berdych makes it look so easy, and the German just didn’t have the weaponry to hold him off.

Every bit as tight was yesterday’s first match, between Mardy Fish and Juan Martin del Potro.  Neither player was at their best; it seemed that Delpo had a tough time getting in a rhythm against Fish’s less-than-elite groundstrokes.  Ultimately, it took two very long sets, in which Fish triumphed, 7-5 7-6(5).  That puts Fish one match away from becoming the top-ranked American.  He’ll have to beat Ferrer to do so.

Quarters: We’re left with eight men to decide among.  The first two quarterfinal contests are scheduled for today; the first is Fish-Ferrer, and the night match is between Djokovic and Kevin Anderson, who got past John Isner in straight sets yesterday. Tomorrow, Federer faces Gilles Simon, and Nadal plays Berdych.

Fish-Ferrer may be the only pairing in the quarters that makes for a close match.  Oddsmakers certainly think so: They give Mardy a 36% chance of reaching the semis, while the other three matches are at least 85/15 splits.

Challengers: It’s already a bizarre week in Barletta, a clay-court challenger with the strongest field of the three events this week at that level.  Of the top six seeds, only one–third seed Filippo Volandri–survived to the second round.  Fabio Fognini and Pere Riba, the two top seeds, both lost three-setters.

An equally notable but less surprising loser is 43-year-old former #1 Thomas Muster, who fell to Martin Fischer today, 6-0 6-3.

Another strong field is contesting the challenger in Barranquilla, Colombia, another clay court event, where the top seeds are Teymuraz Gabashvili and Horacio Zeballos.  The draw looks a lot like many of the other South American events of the last couple months, with one exception: Wayne Odesnik came through qualifying for a spot in the main draw.

This is Odesnik’s first challenger-level event since his drug suspension.  The qualifying draw was reasonably competitive, as he had to beat three top-500 players, including Marcel Felder.  His first-round opponent is Juan Pablo Brzezicki, the first top-200 guy he’s faced since Houston, almost exactly one year ago.

See you tomorrow!

Tuesday Topspin: 17 Men Standing

Round of 17: All eight matches in the round of 16 are scheduled for today, but before the draw is set, Alexandr Dolgopolov will have to finish his match with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.  The players split sets in their rain-muddled match, and will resume in a few hours at 3-2 in the third.

Let’s look at each of the fourth-rounders:

  • Rafael Nadal vs. TBA. Here’s a tall order: finish off a match that went late, take a few hours rest, and come back to face Nadal.  Not exactly a recipe for success.  Whoever comes through to meet him, it will be Rafa’s first real challenge since Indian Wells.  The fact that Tsonga played Dolgo to a draw is promising–after the loss in California to Xavier Malisse and the near-crash against Teymuraz Gabashvili, it wouldn’t have been that surprising if Dolgo had run away with it last night.
  • Florian Mayer vs. Tomas Berdych.  Berdych played what was, to me, the most interesting of yesterday’s matches.  He barely held off Carlos Berlocq, 7-6 7-5.  I’ve been a little rough on Berlocq lately, since he has no hard-court track record, yet he made it to the third round and pushed a top-10 player to a tiebreak.  He crumbled under pressure a few times with very inconvenient double faults, but generally played a very aggressive game from the baseline.  Consider me impressed.
  • Roger Federer vs. Olivier Rochus.  It’s been a big tournament for the Belgian, who upset Mikhail Youhzny yesterday after the Russian bludgeoned him in the first set.  Rochus has never beat Federer, but he has won a set three times, including a match in Halle five years ago, which was decided by a third-set tiebreak.  It’s been said that Federer has a harder time playing against guys he likes, and he certainly likes Rochus.
  • Janko Tipsarevic vs. Gilles Simon.  What a day for the Serbian–he breezed through his third-rounder against Philipp Petzschner, then teamed with Oliver Marach to defeat the Bryan brothers in doubles.  Simon had a tougher time of it, dropping the first set to Pablo Cuevas.  The oddsmakers give Simon a slight edge, suggesting he has a roughly 57% chance of reaching the quarters.
  • David Ferrer vs. Marcel Granollers.  Granollers has fought through three three-setters, an upset every one, while Ferrer lost only nine games in his first two matches combined.  It’s hard to imagine this one going any differently for the sixth seed.
  • Mardy Fish vs. Juan Martin del Potro.  Delpo made a huge statement in the third round with a drubbing of Robin Soderling.  Even if the Swede was far from his best, del Potro demonstrated why he belongs in the top five.  Delpo beat Fish in straights last month en route to the Delray Beach title, and today should be no different.
  • John Isner vs. Kevin Anderson.  I won’t be watching this one.  Someone will win 7-6(4) 6-4, and then he’ll lose to Djokovic.
  • Novak Djokovic vs. Viktor Troicki.  Last time the two friends played, Troicki won a single game.  This week, in two matches, Djokovic has lost only three games.  This match should take just about as long as the conclusion of the Tsonga-Dolgopolov contest.

As you can see, lots of great tennis today.  It all starts at 11:00 EST, with the Delpo-Fish match leading off.  See you tomorrow!

Monday Topspin: Who’s Number Four?

World number four: I can’t remember the last time Robin Soderling looked so helpless on court.  He never earned a break point against Juan Martin del Potro and managed to win a paltry five games.  His position in the top five is safe for now, but you have to wonder how much longer it will be before Delpo climbs over him.

The part of del Potro’s game that doesn’t get enough credit is his defense.  Even on a bad day, Soderling unleashed some monster forehands, and the Argentine sent them right back–often to within a couple feet of the baseline.  More so than any of the other “big” players active right now, Delpo can play like a counterpuncher for a lengthy rally.

As long as del Potro keeps winning, we’ll see some interesting matchups.  In the fourth round tomorrow, he’ll face Mardy Fish, who scored a solid straight-set win yesterday over Richard Gasquet.  In the quarters, he’s seeded to face David Ferrer.  And if he makes it to the semifinals, his likely opponent is Novak Djokovic.  Even with Federer-Nadal possible in the other semi, Djokovic-Delpo could be the event of the tournament.

Novak’s quarter: Of course, Djokovic has to win a few matches to get there, too.  The way he’s playing, that sounds like a mere formality.  Even the draw is cooperating.  Last night, he won yet another set at love, beating James Blake 6-2 6-0.

Tomorrow, he’ll face Viktor Troicki, who won only one game against him at Indian Wells.  After that, he gets the winner of John Isner vs. Kevin Anderson, a strong contender for the most boring match of the event.  He may not bagel either of those big servers, but if Delpo reaches the semifinals, it’s a sure thing that Djokovic will be waiting.

Wild card: The biggest surprise still left in the bottom half of the draw is Marcel Granollers, author of three straight upsets.  In the first round, the Spainard defeated Benjamin Becker; not a huge coup as measured by ATP rankings, but a match in which sportsbooks gave him less than a 38% chance of winning.  He followed that up with a big three-set win over Stanislas Wawrinka, and yesterday he defeated Michael Llodra in his third-straight three-setter.

What makes Granollers’s success even more surprising is that he had only won two matches in his previous seven tournaments.  (Some of that is due to unlucky draws, including Djokovic in the first round of the Australian and Roger Federer in the second round in Dubai.)  He hadn’t won three straight matches since the indoor event in Valencia, where he reached the final as a lucky loser, finally falling to Ferrer.

His opponent tomorrow?  Ferrer.

Top half: Today, we’ll determine the remaining eight spots in the round of 16.  From where I’m sitting, the match of day pits Jo-Wilfried Tsonga against Alexandr Dolgopolov.  Tsonga is beatable right now, having just slipped past Teymuraz Gabashvili in the second round and losing to Xavier Malisse last week.  Dolgo will be able to absorb most of Tsonga’s power and force the Frenchman to play more consistently than he has in months.  It’s no surprise that sportsbooks give Dolgo a 59% chance of winning.

As I mentioned yesterday, there’s a wide-open draw section where Andy Roddick and Jurgen Melzer used to be.  Today we’ll find out who seizes the opportunity.  Janko Tipsarevic will play Philipp Petzschner, and Pablo Cuevas will try to follow up on his big upset over Roddick in his match against Gilles Simon.

Three of today’s matches seem extremely lopsided: Rafael Nadal vs Feliciano Lopez, Federer vs Juan Monaco, and Tomas Berdych vs Carlos Berlocq.  I’ve underestimated Berlocq before, so on that last one, I guess you never know.

Barletta: The clay-court challenger in Barletta, Italy this week has a strong draw, much like Le Gosier two weeks ago.  Several players headed straight to Italy after losing in the first round in Miami, so the top seeds include Fabio Fognini and Pere Riba.  Most notable in the draw is someone who wasn’t in Miami: Thomas Muster, who is apparently still on the comeback trail.

Muster was granted a wild card, and he’ll face countryman Martin Fischer in the first round.  The former world #1 is 43 years old and won a single match in eight tournament appearances last year.

See you tomorrow!

Sunday Topspin: Goodbye, Top Ten

Roddick suffering: In sixteen matches yesterday, seven were upsets, with a seeded player losing to an unseeded one.  The most extreme of the seven was Pablo Cuevas’s defeat of Andy Roddick.

Roddick was clearly hurting, seeing the trainer three times.  Still, he put up a good fight, allowing only one break of serve and pushing Cuevas to a second-set tiebreak.  For his part, the Uruguayan served even better than his opponent, launching 15 aces.

Andy won the tournament last year, so the hit to his ranking will be enormous.  He’ll drop into the mid-teens, and given his usual lack of success on clay, it could be months before he gets back in the top ten.  It’s really a shame that after all the work he has put in reinventing his game, and the handful of great results he’s gotten from the effort, that he’s struggled as much as he has lately just to stay on the court.

Open quarters: Roddick’s loss creates a big opportunity for three other guys.  In the third round, Cuevas will face Gilles Simon; also in the quarter are Philipp Petzschner and Janko Tipsarevic, each of whom scored a straight-set upset, over Jurgen Melzer and Marin Cilic, respectively.  That leaves Simon as the only seeded player in that part of the draw, and the slight favorite to made it to a quarterfinal with Roger Federer.

An even more wide open section is the quarter that was meant to be Andy Murray’s.  Murray fell to Alex Bogomolov, and Pablo Andujar took out Fernando Verdasco.  That leaves John Isner as the presumptive quarterfinal matchup for Novak Djokovic.  Today, Isner will play Bogomolov, and Andujar will play Kevin Anderson, author of yet another upset on Friday against Guillermo Garcia-Lopez.

Finishing the second round: As I’ve mentioned, seven seeded players went down yesterday.  A few of those were easily forseeable: Feliciano Lopez over Juan Ignacio Chela, Florian Mayer over Albert Montanes, and Olivier Rochus over Marcos Baghdatis.

The real surprise of the tournament has been some clay-court specialists, the sort of guys who sit in the bottom half of the top 100, show up at slams and 1000-level events, but rarely win a match.  I’ve been dismissive of Carlos Berlocq–rightfully so, I still think, because he has virtually no success on hard courts in his pro career.  Yet he upset Ernests Gulbis yesterday to earn a berth in the third round.

Berlocq’s opponent tomorrow, Tomas Berdych, had a scare against another clay-courter, Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo.  The Czech came through, but only after dropping a set to the Spaniard.

And then there’s Andujar.  His track record coming into the tournament was little better than Berlocq’s, yet he has defeated both Bernard Tomic and Verdasco.  The conditions in Miami are said to be closer to a clay event than the typical hard-court tournament, and based on the results so far, that seems to be the case.

Today: For the third round, we’re looking at a lot of tight matches.  In fact, Djokovic vs. Blake is the only truly lopsided contest.  Sportsbook odds suggest that four of the eight matches on today’s schedule are 60/40 or closer.

The highlight is Robin Soderling vs. Juan Martin del Potro.  Both men had to fight through three-setters to get this far, Soderling against Ivan Dodig and del Potro against Philipp Kohlschreiber.  They’ve only played each other three times; the last head-to-head encounter was in the 2009 tour finals, where del Potro won a semifinal match in a third-set tiebreak.

Also of interest is David Ferrer vs. Somdev Devvarman.  I didn’t give the Indian much of a chance against Milos Raonic, and he proved me wrong.  I have to imagine that Ferrer will have an answer for anything Devvarman offers; neither player does a lot of attacking, and Ferrer’s better than just about anybody on the defense.

With Roddick out, all of the Americans in the draw are in the bottom half, meaning they are all in action today.  In another potential highlight, Mardy Fish takes on Richard Gasquet.  And another one of the near-even tilts is between Sam Querrey and Viktor Troicki.  No matter how pessimistic you are about U.S. chances, though, rest assured that either Isner or Bogomolov will advance to the fourth round.

See you tomorrow!