Tuesday Topspin: Seeing Red

ATP: A couple of days ago, I suggested that Grigor Dimitrov might have trouble with Rainer Schuettler in his opening round match in Houston.  I’m sorry, Grigor; I’ve been shown the error of my ways.  Dimitrov won 6-0 6-2.

Dimitrov’s was one of only a handful of main draw matches played in Houston yesterday, while the four qualifying matches took center stage.  An American was in each of the four, but only one U.S. player came out of qualifying.  Tim Smyczek scored the victory over Frank Dancevic, his first straight-setter of the week.  Smyczek plays Ryan Sweeting in the first round today.

The player who made a statement in qualifying was Ivo Karlovic.  He didn’t lose serve in three matches and handily disposed of Donald Young yesterday, 6-4 6-4.  (For Ivo, that’s a blowout.)  He draws Benjamin Becker today, in a match that may set records for most aces on clay.

A couple more highlights of the day in Houston are James Blake vs Carlos Berlocq, and Ryan Harrison vs Horacio Zeballos.  (I commented on those a couple of days ago.) Nine of the 28 players in the main draw are Americans, which is by far the highest proportion you’ll see all year for a clay court event.

Most of the first round is complete is Casablanca, as well.  I can’t imagine a more yawn-inducing draw.

Wild cards: By contrast, the Monte Carlo Masters, taking place next week, has a positively electrifying draw, and it just got better.  Neither Andy Murray nor Tomas Berdych were originally intending to play, but both have accepted wild cards.  That means nine of the ATP top 10–that is, everyone but Robin Soderling–is slated to be there.

Challengers: The strongest Challenger field this week is in Monza, Italy.  The most notable entrant, however, is the lowest-ranked man in the draw.  The tournament gave another wild card to Thomas Muster, who plays his opening-round match against Frenchman David Guez.  Also of interest in Monza is young Russian Evgeny Donskoy, who easily handled Lithuanian wild card Laurynas Grigelis, 6-1 6-2.

Two other challengers are taking place in South America.  The event in Pereira, Colombia is mostly worth mentioning because tournament organizers did what the planners in Barranquilla did not: They stacked the draw with Colombians.  Seven of 32 contestants are local boys, including top seed Alejandro Falla and three wild cards.  They are still drastically outnumbered by the Argentines, of whom 12 are in the main draw.

Finally, the challenger in Recife, Brazil, started out with a weak field and has already gotten weaker.  The cut was over 400, and top seed Marco Chiudinelli retired from his first-round match.  That leaves the highest-ranked player in the draw as #166 Tatsuma Ito.  There are futures events that are not so heavily tilted toward local players: 16 of the 32 men in the main draw are Brazilians.

Interview: Last week, I did a Q&A for a site called The Let Tennis about statistics in tennis.  You can read it here.

Finally, check back later today — I’ll be posting something this afternoon.  See you then!

Monday Topspin: Thriller

Djokovic undefeated: Novak Djokovic has yet to lose a match this season, and now holds two consecutive masters crowns.  In the process, he opened up some distance between himself and Roger Federer in the ATP rankings, and planted the seed in some people’s minds that he might be deserving of the #1 spot.  By just about any standard, he’s already the best player in the world on hard courts.

It wasn’t easy.  As in Indian Wells two weeks ago, Rafael Nadal came out in fine form, taking the first set after racing to a 5-1, double-break lead.  Djokovic narrowed the gap but was unable to make up the difference.  The Serbian won a hard-fought second set, then the two players settled in to trade service holds up to a tiebreak.  Djokovic got a couple of mini-breaks, including one on a Nadal double fault, and won the match 4-6 6-3 7-6(4).

What amazes me is how anybody beats either of these guys, particularly Nadal.  I know from the stats that he made his share of unforced errors (including several double faults), but I can’t remember very many of them.  What sticks in the mind is Rafa running down everything, turning defensive positions into offensive shots, over and over again.  Both players were near the top of their game yesterday, and Djokovic was able to rack up a just a few more winners.

The one baffling thing is Nadal’s reluctance to come to net.  (I know, I’m starting to sound like a TV announcer–I promise it’s just a coincidence that I’m making this sort of comment two days in a row.)  He was often standing right on the baseline, even hitting groundstrokes from a step inside the baseline.  Yet he almost never came forward unless forced.  Even with an imperfect net game, even against the passing-shot machine that is Djokovic, I think he would’ve been more successful taking advantage of some of those offensive positions.

Now, we have two streaks to watch going into the clay-court season.  Both players will be at the Monte Carlo Masters, where Djokovic will try to build on his 26-match winning streak.  Nadal has a 24-match winning streak on clay, including every match he played last year plus two Davis Cup rubbers in 2009.  One of them will have to fall by this time two weeks from now, and I suspect it will be Djokovic’s turn to play runner-up.

Rankings: The major storyline this week is the arrival of a new American #1.  Mardy Fish jumped four spots to #11 with his semifinal showing in Miami, while Andy Roddick fell to #14 by failing to defend his title.  That’s Roddick’s lowest ranking since Wimbledon, 2002, and it’s Fish’s career high.

Robin Soderling also failed to defend his 2010 points, and handed the #4 spot back to Andy Murray.

Other gainers this week are Gilles Simon (up 4 to #23), Kevin Anderson (up 7 to #33), Janko Tipsarevic (up 6 to #38), Juan Martin del Potro (up 6 to #45), and Olivier Rochus (up 13 to #73).

Four players hit important milestones with Challenger-level wins.  Andreas Haider-Maurer broke into the top 100 for the first time with a win at Caltanissetta and a semifinal showing at Barletta.  Facundo Bagnis and Maxime Teixeira won tournaments in Barranquilla and St. Brieuc, respectively, each reaching the top 200 for the first time in their young careers.  The most remarkable result belongs to Aljaz Bedene, a Slovenian who won in Barletta on a wild card.  Bedene ascends 206 ranking spots to #282, only 16 off his career high.

Houston qualifying: By the end of the day, the last four players will be entered into the draw at the U.S. Clay Court Championships.  The final four qualifying matches each have one American, with Alex Bogomolov, Donald Young, Tim Smyczek, and Rajeev Ram still in the running.  It won’t be easy for these guys to make the main draw, however, as Young must defeat Ivo Karlovic, and Ram needs to beat Paul Capdeville.

With less tennis to watch this week, I’m hoping to break out some clay-court rankings by next Monday, as well as a couple of other mini-studies I’m working on.  Stay tuned!

Sunday Topspin: Another Showdown

Top two: At 1:00 PM today, Novak Djokovic will attempt to remain undefeated for the season, and Rafael Nadal will try to claim his first title of 2011.  Neither will prove to be an easy task.

The top two players in the world last met two weeks ago, in the final at Indian Wells, where Djokovic won after dropping the first set.  Today may be more favorable to Nadal, given the humid conditions in Miami and the confidence gained by a thorough drubbing of Roger Federer.

For all that, I have a hard time picking Nadal for the win.  Djokovic has been so dominant this week as to be boring.  A few bagels make news until they are so routine that you stop noticing.  The Serbian hasn’t been pushed beyond 6-4 in any set, and has dropped only 18 games in five matches.  Nadal has been impressive, as well, but the set he lost to Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals remind us that he’s human.

The oddsmakers give Nadal a slender advantage, suggesting he has a 53% chance of winning.  I think Djokovic will triumph again–a short-lived victory, since their next meeting is likely to come on clay, where the percentages associated with Nadal will be much higher than 53%.

Challengers: In Barletta, the final will be contested today between Filippo Volandri and a surprise contender, Slovenian wild card Aljaz Bedene.  Bedene is currently ranked outside top 400, and has a career high in the 200s.  He is only 21, and appears to be coming back from an injury that kept him out of action for the entire second half of 2010.  It’s been a solid run to get him to the final, including victories over Albert Ramos and Alessio di Mauro, neither one an easy opponent on clay.

The final at St. Brieuc involves another up-and-comer, 22-year-old Frenchman Maxime Teixeira, who will face the younger, more heralded Benoit Paire.  Paire is hoping to inch a couple of spots closer to the top 100, while his opponent has more conservative goals.  A win for Paire would move him to #115, while Teixeira, who started last week at #267 and also reached the final in Marrakech, could climb as high as #189.

Finally, the Barranquilla challenger will be between two Argentines, Facundo Bagnis and Diego Junquiera.  Bagnis is yet another prospect, a 21-year-old who will break into the top 200 with his performance this week.  Bagnis shut down the persistent Flavio Cipolla in the semifinals, while Junquiera needed three sets (and two tiebreaks) to win his match with second-seeded Horacio Zeballos.

Clay already: Once the yellow fuzz is settled in Miami, our attention will turn to the clay-court season, with 250-level events in Casablanca and Houston.  The level of play will probably be higher in Casablanca, as more clay-courters will be there, but Houston is likely to host more intriguing matchups, for the very same reason.

The draws are already out; here are a few of the first-rounders in Texas:

  • James Blake vs Carlos Berlocq.  As we saw last week, Berlocq isn’t even an easy win on hard courts, and he’s had a ton of success lately in clay-court challengers.
  • Ryan Harrison vs Zeballos.  As I’ve said before, I’m not sure why Zeballos plays so much on clay; his game seems more versatile than that.  In any event, he wins a lot of matches against better clay-courters than Harrison.
  • Grigor Dimitrov vs Rainer Schuettler.  This probably isn’t a good draw for Dimitrov.  I suspect the Bulgarian could beat a lot of guys at this tournament, but Schuettler may be too consistent for him.

In a second-round qualifying match today, veterans Ivo Karlovic and Jose Acasuso will face off.  Also in action: top qualifying seed Alex Bogomolov will play Nicholas Massu.  Paul Capdeville is also in qualies, meaning that there could be a few dangerous guys coming out of qualifying, as well.

Bookmark it: A few days ago in the comments, Olivier called my attention to this site, which updates ATP rankings live.  Very impressive.  I’m already a frequent visitor.

See you tomorrow!

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!