Monday, March 30, 2015

The ATP Race to Number One Could be Over Before it Begins

One of the most intriguing aspects of the ATP season is often following the race to the year end number one.  However, it's looking like the 2015 race could be short on competition after Novak Djokovic's strong start to the year.  While he may not be dominating the season as much as he did in 2011 (where he probably doesn't get enough credit for not losing a single match until the French Open finals), he's already building a sizable lead in the points race.  If he wins Miami as expected, it's hard to see anyone catching him the rest of the year.

Even if Murray (who is currently in second in the race) makes the finals, Djokovic would have nearly a 2,000 point lead over him.  Murray seems to be over his post Aussie Open funk, but is still prone to the occasional early loss.  Furthermore, he usually gives up too many points during the clay court season to Nadal and Djokovic to be a serious threat to end the year end number one. 

Nadal will likely close the gap during the clay court season, but it's unlikely to be enough given how far behind he is.  Djokovic is an excellent clay court player himself, and may have his best chance ever to capture the title at Roland Garros.  Even if Nadal does get close to Djokovic after the clay court season, it's hard to see him keeping up the rest of the year.  Unless Nadal miraculously finds his 2013 hard court form, he'll slip further and further away without the dirt under his feet. 

Federer is 16-2 to start the year, and will likely make a run of his own.  However, he's already well behind Djokovic and it's not clear if he's going to play enough tournaments to catch up.  Skipping Miami didn't help his chances, and he may struggle to keep up on the clay.  To have any chance at number one Federer will likely have to win either Wimbledon or the US Open, if not both.  Given that he hasn't won a grand slam since Wimbledon in 2012, that seems to be asking a bit much despite his excellent form.  Federer could make it interesting, but he'll have to be nearly flawless to catch the Serbian number one.  

Some Thoughts from the Men's Draw Midway Through the Miami Open

Rafael Nadal:  Nadal seemed to be making steady progress in his comeback heading into the Miami Open, and his surprising loss to Fernando Verdasco is certainly a set back.  However, it's not likely to have much of an effect on Nadal going forward as he enters the clay court season.  If Nadal isn't himself on the clay it may be time to worry, but we shouldn't overreact from one bad loss in a tournament Nadal has never won.  That said, more players seem to be taking the court against Nadal thinking they can win, and Nadal will be looking to reestablish the fear everyone in the locker-room once held of him.

Stan Wawrinka:  For the second year in a row, Wawrinka had a surprisingly bad Indian Wells/Miami swing.  Wawrinka had been off to a great start to the year, wining a 250 in Chennai, reaching the semis of Australia and winning a 500 level tournament in Rotterdam.  However, he suffered an early loss to Robin Haase in Indian Wells before going down to Adrian Mannarino in the third round in Miami.  While Wawrinka's highs have been higher over the last few years than they ever had been, it's clear he's never going to be the most reliable top guy.  As deep as the men's game is it shouldn't be shocking when guys in the top ten lose to lower ranked opponents, but for some reason Wawrinka seems to suffer more bad losses than his fellow members of this group.  Wawrinka should be able to rebound with a strong clay court season, but he'll be sure to throw in a couple of losses to the James Duckworths and Jarkko Nieminens of the tennis world.

Young Guys:  The current crop of 17-19 year olds continue to make their mark on the tennis world.  In Miami, Borna Coric, Alexander Zverev, Hyeon Chung and Andrey Rublev all won matches.  So many teens have been doing well lately that tennis analysts appear to have overstated the case that tennis is too physical for teens to compete with guys in their mid twenties.  While this is certainly true to some extent, in hindsight part of the problem was we were simply dealing with a fairly unimpressive group of young players (i.e. guys currently in the 21-24 range).  It's unlikely all of this young crop will become superstars, but tennis should be in good hands for several years to come.

Americans:  American men seemed to be off to a good start in Miami (we're counting the first day here), however things soon went south.  Only John Isner remains following his straight set win over Dimitrov (which isn't as meaningful of a win as it should be given Dimitrov's slump).  Steve Johnson went down in the first round in a very winnable match against Mikhail Kukushkin, and Ryan Harrison couldn't get past Jurgen Melzer.  Jack Sock won his first two matches, but couldn't get past the struggling Dominic Thiem in round three.  Sam Querrey expectedly blew a lead against Kevin Anderson and Querrey's junior rival Donald Young went down meekly to Andy Murray.  Austin Krajicek and Tim Smyczek played well in their matches, but fell to higher ranked opponents in round two.  A lot of American men appear headed in the right direction, but as Miami has shown they still have a ways to go.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Is it Realistic for Sock and Pospisil to be Top Singles and Doubles Players?

After Jack Sock and Vasek Pospisil won the doubles title at Indian Wells, it's clear their Wimbledon title was no fluke and that they are legitimately one of the best doubles teams in the world.  Apparently they plan to play together at the grand slams and Masters events throughout the rest of the year, and wherever else their schedules overlap.  This is a positive development for the game, as doubles benefits when there are bigger names (i.e. singles players) in the field.  It's also a logical move on their part, as they are making good money and building their name recognition and confidence on the doubles tour.  What remains to be seen is how realistic it is for Sock and Pospisil to be both highly ranked singles and doubles players. 

On the women's tour we know it can be done, as the Williams sisters have teamed together to win 13 grand slam doubles titles.  While they mostly play together during slams, they clearly weren't held back by playing both singles and doubles.  However, its much easier to go deep in singles and doubles when singles is only best of three sets as opposed to best of five.  If Sock and Pospisil continue to develop their singles games and become threats to go deep in majors and masters (not completely unrealistic), it will be interesting to see if they continue their partnership. 

It's one thing to play singles and doubles at Indian Wells and Miami when the tournaments are spread out over a week and a half, and you don't have to play every day.  However, other Masters events aren't so forgiving, and it's very tough to cram both events into the same tournament without days off in between matches.  The switch to third set tie-breakers in doubles definitely makes the task easier, but playing several doubles matches throughout the week still makes it tougher to be fresh for a big singles match in the tournament's later rounds. 

At the slams, if one of them is coming off a draining five set win in an early round match, playing a long doubles match the next day could ruin any chance they have in the next round.  However, if one pulls out to focus on singles this could create tension in their partnership and make them question whether they should bother playing together in the future.  There's clearly a reason almost all of the top ranked doubles players are doubles specialists, and many top singles players don't want to take the risk of sacrificing their success in the more lucrative singles competition. 

This isn't to say Sock and Pospisil can't be successful in both, but there will likely come a time in the near future where they will have to make some hard choices.  They can clearly play plenty of doubles and excel while hanging around 50 in the world in singles, but it won't be so easy if they're committed to making a run to the top 20 or even top 10 in singles.  For now they've decided it wouldn't be right to break up such a good team, and seem content to see how far they can go.  However, fans of the pairing should enjoy them while it lasts, because they could be over before we know it.   

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Indian Wells: Bottom Half Preview

The top section of the bottom half has lots of young(ish) talent, with Milos Raonic, Grigor Dimitrov and Nick Kyrgios falling in this part of the draw.  Raonic shouldn't have much trouble reaching the round of sixteen, but it's harder to guess who he'll be playing.  The best bet is 11th seeded Grigor Dimitrov, despite his recent drop in form.  This is Kyrgios' first tournament back since Australia, so it's likely he'll be a bit rusty in his return.  Robredo is the other seed in this section, but he doesn't appear to be at the level we have come to expect from him.  In the round of 16, Dimitrov should be able to squeak past the higher ranked Canadian.  He's won their last two meetings, and will be extremely motivated to get his season going with a big result.  The slower surface at Indian Wells should be all he needs, so expect the Bulgarian to make it through to the quarters.

In the next section, Nadal has to be happy with his draw.  The other seeds are the French trifecta of Gilles Simon, Richard Gasquet and Jeremy Chardy, none of whom seem capable of challenging Nadal.  Nadal should be finding his better form now that he's got some tournaments under his belt, and he should coast into the quarterfinals. 

The next quarter features Stan Wawrinka and Tomas Berdych, both of whom have been playing well to start 2015.  Karlovic is in this section too, and while he's always dangerous the slower surface won't do him any favors.  Also present in this section is reality dating television star/tennis player Sam Querrey, who should be ready to focus on tennis after meeting his "match" on Millionaire Matchmaker.  In the round of 16, expect Wawrinka to get past Berdych for the seventh time in a row.  One would think the two might have a closer rivalry, but history shows the matchup clearly favors the Swiss.

In the bottom quarter, it's hard to see anyone slowing down Roger Federer, unless Andreas Seppi can rekindle the magic from Australia.  However, Seppi has come back down to earth since pulling the upset, and Federer appears to be back on track after winning Dubai.  Roberto Bautista-Agut and Gilles Muller are your other seeds in this section, and aren't likely to give the Swiss legend much to worry about.  Jack Sock is also in this section, and is playing his first tournament in 2015 after offseason hip surgery.  Sock's draw is manageable, and he definitely improved at the end of last year, but it's hard to expect too much of anyone playing their first tournament after a relatively long layoff. 

In the quarters, Nadal should be able to get past Dimitrov without too much trouble.  Dimitrov has played Nadal close in the past, but has never beaten the world number three.  Neither player is at their best heading in, but Nadal never seems to lose to players with one-handed backhands.  Unless Nadal is rusty being back on hard courts, its tough to even see this match going three.

In the all Swiss matchup between Wawrinka and Federer, the younger Swiss is the pick here.  Wawrinka has been great so far this year, and should be well rested heading into the tournament.  Federer has only had the one slip up himself this year, winning both of his other tournaments.  While it's always risky to bet against Federer (particularly against his countryman), the high bouncing court should add weight to Wawrinka's already heavy shots and help him reach the semifinals.

In the semis, Nadal would enter a matchup against Wawrinka with a 12-1 head-to head edge.  The two haven't played since Wawrinka's 2014 Australian Open triumph, and Nadal will be looking to get revenge against the Swiss.  Current form may favor Wawrinka, but Nadal has previously won Indian Wells after coming back from a layoff (see 2013).  Nadal will head into this match with a lot of confidence giving their track record (and the fact he was battling injuries in his only loss to Wawrinka during the Aussie Open finals), and he'll find a way to get past the big hitting world number seven.  The rest of the tour may be hoping Nadal isn't yet fully back, he should be ready to make his move back to the top of the game.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Indian Wells: What to Expect from the Top Half of the Draw

A quick glance at the draw shows that Novak Djokovic couldn't have asked for a much easier path to the finals.  He could face the talented and young Jiri Vesely in his first match, but Vesely has lost five straight matches since winning the title in Auckland.  Other seeds in Djokovic's section include Julien Benneteau (who has a grand total of one win on the year), the slumping John Isner and Kevin Anderson, to whom he hasn't lost since 2008.  Djokovic should reach the quarterfinals with little trouble, though Anderson could potentially bother him for a set if he wakes up on the right side of the bed.

The next section features US Open champion Marin Cilic, who is playing his first tournament of the year, and David Ferrer.  While its nice to see Cilic back from his wrist injury, its hard to imagine he'll be much of a threat in his first tournament back.  18 year old future superstar Thanasi Kokkinakis could take advantage of Cilic's rust and make a run if he can get past the talented Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in the first round.  However, David Ferrer has been on fire to start the year, and its hard to see anyone else making the quarters.

On paper Andy Murray shouldn't have any trouble reaching the quarters out of his section, though if the Murray who only managed 4 games against Borna Coric shows up it could be a different story.  The next highest seed in Murray's quarter is Ernests Gulbis, who still hasn't won a match in 2015.  While Philipp Kohlschreiber and Fabio Fognini have their moments, neither look like they're in good enough form to challenge Murray.

Waiting for Murray in the quarters should be Kei Nishikori, who has a relatively easy path himself.  Nishikori will face the winner of the match between Mardy Fish (making his return from health/anxiety issues) and Ryan Harrison.  Harrison has been playing well lately and played Nishikori close a month ago, but neither Harrison, Fernando Verdasco or Feliciano Lopez will keep Nishikori from reaching the quarters.

In the first quarterfinal, Ferrer should put up a tough fight against Djokovic, but it would be a big surprise if he actually pulls the upset.  Djokovic has won their last seven matches, and generally plays well at Indian Wells.  As good as Ferrer has been playing, expect his run to come to an end against the Serbian world number one.

In the next quarterfinal, Murray vs. Nishikori is a tougher match to predict.  Nishikori won their last match, but Murray won the three before that.  While Murray has slipped off since reaching the Australian Open finals, he should be rejuvenated from his Davis Cup win.  Murray gets the edge based on his movement and variety, but it certainly won't be surprising if Nishikori is the one to advance.

In the semifinals, Djokovic vs. Murray would give us a rematch of the Australian Open finals.  This is a rivalry that has increasingly gotten away from Murray, as he's now lost five straight and eight of the last nine.  Djokovic may be coming off a loss to Federer in Dubai, but he is more suited to the slower courts at Indian Wells.  There's simply no reason to believe Murray will turn around the rivalry here, and Djokovic should be the last man standing in the top half.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

USA vs. Great Britain- Davis Cup review

Going into this tie, it seemed pretty clear what each team needed to accomplish.  The United States needed to win both singles matches against James Ward, and have the Bryans take the doubles point.  Great Britain needed Andy Murray to win both of his singles matches and have Jamie Murray and Dominic Inglot steal the doubles from the Bryans

It was no surprise that Murray took out Donald Young in four sets, as this was part of the plan.  However, U.S. fans could sense the trouble as John Isner and Ward began to go deep into the fifth set.  After taking the first two sets it seemed Isner was well in control, but he simply couldn't put the British number two away.  As everybody knew, Isner's loss 15-13 in the fifth proved to be the difference, as the U.S. simply couldn't afford to lose a match to James Ward.

The Bryan Brothers did their part, holding off a tough challenge from Jamie Murray and Dominic Inglot.  It looked like the Bryans were going to cruise, but the talented British pair fought back to send it to five sets.  With the tie riding in the balance the Bryan Brothers' experience paid off, as they managed to pull it out 9-7 in the fifth.

However, it wasn't enough, as Andy Murray didn't drop a set to John Isner in the matchup of the team's top players.  Isner clearly was upset about his weekend, but the real problem was his loss to Ward, not Murray.  A win over Murray was considered a bonus heading into the weekend, but a win over Ward was a must.  For the second year in a row, Ward ruined the United States' plans and essentially knocked them out of the competition. 

Realistically, this US team was never going to go too far in this year's competition, but this was a very winnable tie that they let slip away.  Going forward, Courier needs to figure out why this team keeps underperforming, and figure out which players he'll be able to rely on over the next couple of years.  

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Which Countries Are The Future Of Davis Cup?

Davis Cup has been dominated by European countries over the last ten years (notably Spain), but success should be more widespread over the next decade.  Below are some countries that could be forces to reckon with starting in the next few years.  Taken into account is the fact that while Davis Cup is a team event, it doesn't demand a particularly deep team.  One or two dominant players are generally enough to win the cup.  However, given that top players rarely play every tie (or sometimes sit entire years out), it is a big boost if a country does have depth.  This allows a team to make up for any one player's absence, and goes a long way to ensuring a team will be a consistent threat year in and year out.

Australia:  Australia looks like they will be the team to beat in this event starting in the next few years.  They've got great young players and lots of them.  Nick Kyrgios is the leader of the pack, and if he can ever stay healthy should become one of the best players in the world.  18 year old Thanasi Kokkinakis just won a big five setter for his country in this weekend's Davis Cup tie against the Czech Republic, coming back from two sets down.  He has a huge game, and should be a major presence for the Australian team over the next decade.  Bernard Tomic could also play a big role in Australia's Davis Cup success, as the talented young player seems to have gotten his career back on track.  It may take a few years, but Australia could win multiple Davis Cup titles over the next decade.

United States:  The United States has been struggling lately in Davis Cup, but this should change within the next few years.  We can't know which of the young American players on the verge will actually break through and become great players, but the emerging group includes so many talented players its hard to believe at least a few won't make it.  Between Jared Donaldson, Stefan Kozlov, Francis Tiafoe, Michael Mmoh and a host of other talented teenagers, the U.S. team could become a force starting in a few years.  If Jack Sock keeps improving, he could play an important role in the team's success as well, given his singles and doubles ability.  Donald Young (and potentially Ryan Harrison if his latest comeback is for real) could also help bridge the gap and provide veteran leadership when the next group is ready for the big stage.

Croatia:  If Marin Cilic comes back healthy from his wrist injury and returns to form, Croatia's Davis Cup team could be nasty over the next five years.  Cilic is only 26, so he should still be around for 6 or 7 more years.  18 year old Borna Coric is already ranked around 60 in the world, and is widely considered one of the games best prospects.  If Coric develops into the superstar many think he is destined to be, Croatia will be a team no one will want to face.

Japan: Kei Nishikori is now a top five player in the world, and is just entering his prime as he hits his mid-twenties.  It appears like he may have some help on the way, as 19 year old Yoshihito Nishioka has just cracked the top 150 in the world.  It's hard to project just how far Nishioka will go, but people are expecting big things out of him.  If he can develop into a solid number two for the Japanese team, they will be set with strong singles player for the next several years.  However, doubles could be a problem, as they don't currently have anyone in the top 200 in the world.

Other countries a few years further behind, but still on their way: South Korea, Russia and France:  A look at the junior and ATP under 20 rankings shows South Korea could be a force to be reckoned with a bit down the road.  They have 3 players in the top 10 in the junior world rankings, and a couple others starting to make strides in the pros.  Russia also has a couple of top junior players that seem ready to take the next step, and could be a very competitive team within the next four years.  Similarly, after France's current group of Tsonga, Monfils, Gasquet and Simon begin to wind down, France appears to have some talent waiting in the wings.  They currently have 3 of the top 20 teenagers in the world.  There may be a few down years for the French while they are in transition, but after that their current crop of teenagers should be able to return the team to relevance.  

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Davis Cup Preview- USA vs. Great Britain

Andy Murray vs. Donald Young:  After Murray reached the finals of the Australian Open, it looked like he was back to where he was in 2013.  However, he's been in poor form lately and has recent losses to Gilles Simon and 18 year old Borna Coric.  If he's still in his post Aussie Open funk, Donald Young could give him trouble.  Young's been having a great season so far, and just reached the finals of Delray Beach.  Despite Young's drastic improvement over the last few months, this match will still be in Murray's hands.  In a best of five set match, its hard to imagine Murray doesn't find his good form at some point.  Donald Young will put up a better fight than many people think (especially those who haven't been paying close attention to his season) but Murray should get the victory in four sets.

James Ward vs. John Isner: Neither Isner nor Ward are off to good starts in 2015.  Ward did have a respectable 2014 and shouldn't be overlooked (particularly after last year's Davis Cup) but people shouldn't be unreasonable in building him up.  Ward is ranked outside of the top 100, and has no top 100 wins so far this year.  Picking him to beat Isner is a major stretch, even given Isner's recent form.  After Ward's upset over Querrey last year Isner will be sure not to overlook this match, and should get the victory in 3 or 4 sets.

Bryan Brothers vs. Murray Brothers:  The biggest question here is why the Murray brothers were apparently chosen to represent Great Britain in this doubles match (barring a change).  Dominic Inglot is on the British squad, and has already beaten the Bryans brothers twice this year.  Failing to play Inglot seems like a huge strategic error, and makes Britain look like they are just seeking publicity by playing their own set of brothers.  Andy Murray has only had one good doubles tournament in the last three years, and the smarter choice would be to pair Jamie Murray with Dominic Inglot.  Assuming its an all brothers matchup, the Bryans should prevail fairly easily. 

John Isner vs. Andy Murray:  Isner has never beaten Murray, though he did take him to a third-set tiebreaker in Cincinnati last year.  If Isner's serve is on he's certainly capable of giving Murray trouble, but its hard to see Isner pulling this one out.  Murray's great defense and anticipation should be enough to neutralize the American's power, and he will likely get the win in 4 sets or less.

James Ward vs. Donald Young:  When these two played on grass in Eastbourne last year, Young won easily in straight sets.  While it can be difficult to determine how much weight to give a result on grass, the result shouldn't be any different this time around.  Young is having the much better season of the two, and will be confident based on their previous meeting.  Stranger things have happened in Davis Cup before, but don't be surprised if Young wins this one without dropping a set.

Final Result: 3-2 United States