Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Surprises and Disappointments of 2013

Just like any other year of ATP tennis, 2013 has had its fair share of unexpected events. Here is a look at five players who have surpassed expectations and five players who have been major disappointments.

1. Kevin Anderson- The South African is on a tear right now, and every time you think it is going to come to an end, he upsets another high ranked player. He has even posted great results on clay as his ranking reached a career-high of 26 earlier this year. Anderson started the year well with a record of 7-2 down under. Then as he went to the states his continued to play well, reaching the quarterfinals of Delray Beach and Indian Wells. In Indian Wells had his two biggest surprises of the year, defeating Gilles Simon and David Ferrer. On clay, where he has a career record of 15-19, he reached a final in Casablanca and defeated Jerzy Janowicz in Monte Carlo.

2. Tommy Haas- Haas provided us with one of the biggest upsets of the year this year with a win over Novak Djokovic in Miami and has seen his ranking rise to No. 14 in the world. The former No. 2 started the year poorly with a couple of losses down under following a season-opening win over Igor Sijsling. After that, the German went on a tear in the United States, compiling a record of 11-4. Haas reached the round of 16 in Houston, Indian Wells, and Memphis. He reached the semifinals in Delray Beach and Miami and played in the final in San Jose. Haas is now in a very good position to return to the top 10 with a good result in Roland Garros.

3. Tommy Robredo- The former world No. 5 turns 31 tomorrow as he continues his comeback on the ATP world tour. Almost 12 months ago, the Spaniard saw his ranking drop down to 471, but following a quarterfinal appearance in Barcelona last week, his ranking rose to 38. Robredo had a slow start to the year losing five of his first seven matches. But with today's win, he has now won nine of his last ten to bring his record on the year to 15-9. Robredo's ranking has risen 71 spots already this year.

4. Horacio Zeballos- Zeballos provided the biggest surprise in the tennis world since Lukas Rosol beat Rafael Nadal in Wimbledon by winning the title in Vina del Mar with a three-set win over Nadal. It took Zeballos almost three hours, but the Argentine came back from a set down to hand Nadal his first loss on a red clay court since 2011 in Rome.

5. Daniel Brands- Brands has not had an easy road this year to reaching No. 69 in the world at this points. The German has had to fight his way through qualifiers in every tournament he has played except for Bucharest last week. However, Brands has reached the main draw of every tournament he has competed in, and only needed one lucky loser. Brands is 15-1 in qualifiers this year and 9-8 in the main draws of tournaments. His best result came in Doha where he reached the semifinals with wins over Chardy and Monfils. He has also defeated Klizan, Youzhny, and Baghdatis, while improving his ranking 86 spots from 153 to a season-high of 67.

Honorable Mention: Fabio Fognini

1. Roger Federer- It has been a rough start to the year for Federer. The GOAT has failed to reach a final at any tournament so far this year. He only has one win and three losses to players in the top 10 on tour this year. He may be the No. 2 in the world right now, but it doesn't feel like it. Of all the players in the top 10, he is having the second worst season so far, which is far worse than we expected from the 17-time grand slam champion. His low point this year came in a quarterfinal loss to Julien Benneteau and there is nothing to suggest that he will be able to turn it around any time soon. Federer lost in the quarterfinals to Rafael Nadal in Indian Wells before opting not to play in Maimi or Monte Carlo.

2. Janko Tipsarevic- If you were wondering who in the top 10 is having a worse season than Federer, it is Janko Tipsarevic. He is lower on the list than Federer only because expectations for Tipsarevic were not nearly as high as they were for the GOAT, yet he still fell way short. Tipsarevic has a record of 10-8, which actually isn't bad for someone who went on a five-match losing streak. The Serb won the title in Chennai, but after that failed to reach the quarterfinals of seven events in a row. He finally ended the streak with a win over Santiago Giraldo in his first match in Bucharest before promptly losing to 87-ranked Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in the next round. Tipsarevic is the No. 1 seed in Munich this week, so he has an opportunity to turn the season around, but if he misses this one, he may never see the top 10 again.

3. Juan Monaco- The Argentine has already had his ranking drop eight spots already this year, starting the year at 12 and dropping to 20. Monaco started the year cold as ice with five first round losses in his first five tournaments. Monaco has begun to find his groove, getting his record this season back up to .500, but that is not something to celebrate for a top 20 player, who has tons of points to defend coming up soon. Last year, Monaco proved he wasn't just a clay specialist by making his way to the top 10 following a semifinal appearance in Miami. However, this year, all nine of his wins have come on clay.

4. Alexandr Dolgopolov- Get ready to see the Ukrainian's ranking plummet over the next five months. Dolgopolov has over half of his points in just two tournaments, and less than 15% of all the points he has right now are from this year. Dolgopolov has already had his ranking drop five spots, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Dolgopolov is 5-7 in tournaments this year and four of his losses came to players outside of the top 50. Dolgopolov has not beat anyone ranked in the top 40 all year. It looks like his funky style isn't fooling anybody anymore. This could be a serious problem for Dolgopolov for his whole career. If his style doesn't fool anybody, then it might be time for him to reinvent himself.

5. John Isner- I remember reading an article on Isner around this time last year that claimed that he had a shot to win Roland Garros in 2012. That idea now is even more ridiculous than it was back then. Isner was struggling with a serious lack of motivation to begin the year, but it looks like he might finally be turning that around now. Isner has lost five first round matches this year, including a few weeks ago in Monte Carlo. However, at the beginning of April, Isner showed us that he might turn this season around and make his way back into the top 20. Isner won five solid matches in Houston for his first title of the year. He started the tournament with wins over young fellow countrymen Jack Sock and Ryan Harrison. Then he backed that up by cooling down the red hot Ricardas Berankis. He finished the week with his first two wins of the season over top 20 players in Juan Monaco and Nicolas Almagro to win the title.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Federer's top ten run at risk

Since October of 2002, (when the Angels won the World Series; when Emmitt Smith passed Walter Peyton as the leading rusher; when Jimmy Carter won the Nobel Piece Prize) one thing has been consistent throughout the tennis rankings, and that is that Roger Federer has been in the top ten. Just over ten and a half years later, and now it is time to start thinking about what a top ten without Federer would look like.

Ever since 2008, when Rafael Nadal became the world No. 1, people have been saying that Federer's era is over. And twice Federer has silenced the critics by returning to top ranked position in the world. Federer has gone in and out of dry spells over the last five years and has always come back to play his best tennis when it matters most.

However, this time Federer is in a slump like he has never been in before. He has a record of 13-4 and has failed to reach a final at any event this year. All of his losses have come to lower ranked players and his worst loss of the year come to 39th ranked Julien Benneteau.

Federer has not won a title since his run at ATP Masters Series 1000 Cincinnati. Federer is has a record of 1-8 since Cincinnati against Berdych, Del Potro, Nadal, Murray, and Djokovic. However, the most surprising number of all to describe Federer's slump is his Race Ranking of 10. With a run to the final in Barcelona, Nicolas Almagro surpassed Federer in the Race Rankings this week.

Normally it would be easy to dismiss Race Rankings, since it is only a tool for predicting. But as the season gets longer, the more accurate of a predictor the Race Rankings are. Now, we are over a third of the way through the season, so it is hard to ignore Federer's dismal ranking at 10. Federer fans will come to his defense and say that his ranking is only so low because he skipped Miami and Monte Carlo. That is a fair point, but Federer cannot make up the points he missed in those two tournaments, so the excuse does not mean Federer will automatically keep his ranking up.

What the Race Rankings are very important for, aside from predicting year-end rankings, is determining who gets to compete in the year-end finals. Right now, the Swiss Maestro is two spots out of qualifying for the round-robin tournament. If Federer fails to qualify for the tournament in London, that is when the possibility of dropping out of the top ten becomes serious.  Federer has 800 points to defend in the year-end finals, so if Federer is not in the top 8 for Race Rankings after Paris he won't be in the top 10 for much longer in the Emirates ATP Rankings.

The chances of Federer dropping out of the top 10 at any time this season is slim, but at this rate, Federer would not be able to stay in the top 10. I expect Federer to turn this season around and stay in the top 10, but not before he sees his ranking slip several more spots. Federer still has to defend semifinal appearances in Rome and Roland Garros (two results that are almost impossible to improve upon), finals in Halle and London Olympics (which he will not get the opportunity to defend this year, but he will compete in Montreal this year), and titles in Madrid, Wimbledon, and Cincinnati.

Federer might be the No. 2 in the world, but his ranking can only go down between now and the US Open. At that point, Nadal will have nothing left to defend for the rest of the year, which makes a No. 3 ranking at the end of the year seem like wishful thinking for Fedfans. Federer's ranking may drop over the next five to eight months, but he can still compete for grand slam titles, which is his motivation for continuing the play the game.

Road to the Final Four

I just finished talking about the potential titanic clashes we could see in the semifinals, but the path to the semifinals could make Munich the most exciting 250 event all year. A lot of players are coming into this tournament playing their best tennis all year, which could lead to a lot of upsets and thrilling matches.

So here are some looks at the best match ups of the first round:

Daniel Brands vs. Tobias Kamke: This will be their first ever meeting in an ATP event. Brands is having one of the best years of his career so far compiling a 9-8 record with wins over Baghdatis, Youzhny, Klizan, Chardy, and Monfils twice. He has won four of his last six matches, which were all on clay. Kamke has had his own impressive giant-killing spree while also trying to achieve a career-high ranking. He got his second career win over a top 10 opponent, and also defeated the tournament's No. 8 seed Jugen Melzer. I am picking Kamke to win this matchup.

Jurgen Melzer vs. Gael Monfils: This pair met twice in Roland Garros producing two highly competitive matches. Monfils won the first in four sets and was pushed to the final set in 2009 before getting the win. These two former top 10 players have struggled at times this year, but have also proven that they can still compete for titles. Melzer this year has a 13-12 record while reaching the final in Zagreb and winning the challenger in Dallas before advancing to the Miami quarterfinals. Monfils has struggled to get his ranking back into the top 100 after his injury, but has knocked out some big names in tournaments this year with wins over Kohlschreiber, Haas, and Dolgopolov. I am going with Melzer to win this one.

Ernests Gulbis vs. Jarkko Nieminen: The unpredictable Ernests Gulbis is at it again. He has come out of nowhere to win tournaments after playing some terrible tennis. He owns the head-to-head against Nieminen, but the only real question in this match is: Which head will he wear? Gulbis is like two different players when he is focused and determined and when he simply does not care. He has compiled an incredible 14-4 record, and reached the round of 16 at Barcelona and Indian Wells after winning the tournament in Delray Beach. However, he also lost in the first round of a challenger to a player ranked outside the top 200. Nieminen on the other hand has been a little more consistent. In fact, his only loss to a player ranked outside of the top 70 was to none other than Ernests Gulbis. He has claimed wins against Benneteau, Haas, Davydenko, Goffin, Verdasco, and Klizan. Then just over a week ago, he defeated Milos Raonic, and top 10 player Juan Martin Del Potro. All of his last three wins have come in a third set tiebreaker. However I am predicting his luck will run out with a thrilling win from Gulbis.

Paul-Henri Mathieu vs. Dimitry Tursunov: Both times these two have played, Tursunov has won in an exciting three-set encounter. One of which was the Metz final for one of Tursunov's seven career titles. Tursunov has been a tough player to pin down this year. He has defeated two top 10 players (Ferrer and Tipsarevic), but has lost three matches to players outside the top 200. Mathieu on the flip side has been very easy to predict. He has lost all seven of his ATP matches this year. Any other year, on this surface, Mathieu would win this match up in straight sets. However, Tursunov has been playing well enough to get a win here.

So on we go to the second round:

Thomaz Bellucci vs. Janko Tipsarevic: Bellucci has to get past Grega Zemlja for this meeting to take place, but if it does happen, it would be a golden opportunity for Bellucci to take out the No. 1 seed. Janko Tipsarevic has had a lot of trouble since winning Chennai to open the season. Since then, he has only won six of his last 14 matches with all losses. Tipsarevic's 10-8 record is shockingly bad considering that all 18 of his matches have been against lower-ranked opponents. At one point in the year, he went on a five-match losing streak. Bellucci's season hasn't been a ton better, but his best results have always been on the clay. He is 3-4 this year on clay and won 73 matches and three titles in his career on clay. I think Bellucci can make Tipsarevic feel the pressure, but I think the Serb will begin to turn around his season with a win in Munich against the Brazilian.

Philipp Kohlschreiber vs. Marcos Baghdatis: In terms of sheer entertainment value, this will be the best match of the first two rounds. These are two of the best shot makers in tennis right now, which will cause some mouth-watering rallies. These two have met in this tournament both in 2007 and in 2010. If Baghdatis gets past the first round, this will be the pair's fifth meeting on German soil. Baghdatis leads the head-to-head 4-2. I am picking Kohlschreiber to defeat Baghdatis and make his way back into the top 20 of the world this week by reaching the final.

Ernests Gulbis vs. Tommy Haas: If this match up does happen (and that is a big if), we could see one of the most competitive matches of the week. These two have developed a bit of history with each other over the past nine months. Ernests Gulbis has defeated Tommy Haas in two epic matches. The first was a dramatic five-set win in the first round of the US Open after Haas led by two sets and a break. Then earlier this year, Gulbis defeated Haas in a final set tiebreaker in the semifinals at Delray Beach. As I talked about in my last post, this tournament is very important for Haas, but a win over Gulbis would have extra meaning for him. I am picking Haas to get his revenge and defeat Gulbis in the second round in Munich.

There should be some thrilling matches in the German tournament this year. It hasn't been typically known for having a star-studded lineup or the best matches of any 250 tournament, but it is hard to imagine a tournament that will have story lines like this one will at any point this season. Each round at the BMW Open presents something different to talk about. This is not a tournament that you should wait until Sunday to tune into.

Munich becomes becomes battleground for top 10

If you thought Munich would be just another boring 250 event, you could not be more wrong. With the top nine ranking spots basically set in stone before Roland Garros, the race has heated up for that final top 10 spot before the second grand slam of the year. As we prepare for the tournament in Munich, three of the five main candidates for that final spot represent the top three seeds at the tournament.

The current No. 10 in the world Janko Tipsarevic is the top seed in Munich. He reached the semifinals of Madrid last year, but with the return of red clay, that will be tough to defend. Tipsarevic basically must win in Munich in order to be the No. 10 seed in Paris.

Marin Cilic is the No. 2 seed in Munich and is No. 11 in the world. Cilic was the finalist in Munich last year, so another return to the final will put him in good position to pass Tipsarevic in the Emirates ATP Rankings. Especially since he only has 100 points to defend at the two Masters Series tournaments leading up to Roland Garros.

However, on his side of the draw is the No. 3 seed and No. 14 player in the world Tommy Haas. The former No. 2 player in the world lost to Cilic in the semifinals of the event last year, and is looking for some revenge in his home country. Haas has a grand total of ZERO points to defend after Munich leading up to Roland Garros, so a good performance in Munich could be the spark he needs on clay to make a run for the top 10.

Nicolas Almagro and Milos Raonic are the other top competitors for the final spot in the top 10. Each player helped themselves out in their rankings with good performances in Barcelona before each lost to Rafael Nadal in straight sets as he won his eight title in his home country's tournament.

Almagro will have to defend a title in Nice and two runs to the Round of 16 in each of the Masters Series events between now and Roland Garros. It will be a tough battle for Almagro to get in the top 10, but he always plays his best on the clay.

Raonic has basically nothing to defend before heading to Roland Garros, but he has always struggled on the slow surface. A good performance in Barcelona could be the spark he needs to crack the top 10 for the first time in his career, but his best chance to do so will be at Wimbledon this year.

This tournament in Munich will be very important in determining who will take the tenth seed at Roland Garros, and will be a good chance for Tipsarevic to get out of a massive slump. Meanwhile Haas and Cilic could provide an epic semifinal battle in the bottom half of the draw. It may just be another clay court 250 event, but a lot is at stake for the top three seeds in the tournament. Below are my predictions for the top 15 seeds at Roland Garros. I could rearrange 10 through 14 any way and still not feel confident about it. That will be fun to watch, because anyone can do well there. Also Kei Nishikori has nothing to defend for the clay season, because of an injury last year. If he can be healthy during that stretch this year, he could put himself in the conversation.

My Projected Roland Garros Seeds
1. Novak Djokovic
2. Andy Murray
3. Roger Federer
4. David Ferrer
5. Rafael Nadal (Pray that he will be in the same quarter of the draw as Ferrer!)
6. Juan Martin Del Potro
7. Tomas Berdych
8. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
9. Richard Gasquet
10. Marin Cilic
11. Janko Tipsarevic
12. Tommy Haas
13. Milos Raonic
14. Nicolas Almagro
15. Kei Nishikori