Saturday, May 30, 2015

Does Sock Have A Chance Against Nadal?

After pummeling 18 year old Borna Coric, American Jack Sock has set up an intriguing Round of 16 matchup against nine time French Open champion Rafael Nadal.  While Nadal is obviously the heavy favorite (regardless of his recent slump), some people think Sock's extreme firepower could give Nadal trouble. 

While Sock's power should let him make inroads against nearly anyone, Sock could find himself playing a lot more defense in this matchup than he would like.  The second Nadal gets control of a rally, he'll use his heavy crosscourt forehand to attack Sock's relatively weak (though improving) backhand.  When Sock tries to run around it to hit forehands like he always does, he'll be leaving a huge chunk of the court open.  This will mean Nadal can crack his down the line forehand into the open court. 

Most of the players who have beaten Nadal this year have great backhands (i.e. Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka, Berdych, Fognini) or are left-handed (Verdasco).  Beating Nadal without a strong backhand is nearly impossible, given how well Nadal hits his regular forehand to that side of the court.  Sock does like to hit his backhand down the line, which means he may be able to change the pattern of the point and make Nadal hit backhands.  However, having to consistently rely on down the line backhands isn't a high percentage tactic. 

Sock's best chance is to be extremely aggressive early in the point before Nadal can gain control.  If he can be the one dictating with his forehand he may have a chance, but Nadal's defense will likely make Sock play more shots than he's used to.  If Nadal is misfiring and is truly off his game (as has been the case several times this year) and Sock is on fire, it's possible he pulls the upset.  But it's a very difficult matchup on paper for the American, and we shouldn't be surprised if it's not particularly competitive.  Sock is clearly improving quickly and may not be far away from challenging the top players in the world, but beating Nadal at Roland Garros is likely asking for a little too much a little too soon.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Matches To Look Forward To On Thursday's Roland Garros Schedule

Rafael Nadal vs. Nicolas Almagro:  Almagro has played okay in 2015 following his injury layoff, but he shouldn't be able to trouble Nadal.  He's lost badly to Nadal twice this year, and it's hard to see what Almagro can do to make this one competitive.  But given the question marks surrounding Nadal, it will be interesting to see how he handles his fellow talented Spaniard.  Nadal likely would have had a tougher matchup against Alexander Dolgopolov had Dolgopolov beaten Almagro in the first round, but Nadal won't take Almagro lightly.  Beating Almagro handily would help boost Nadal's confidence, which is something Nadal has been uncharacteristically lacking for much of 2015.    

Borna Coric vs. Tommy Robredo:  The 33 year old Spaniard seems to be beginning his decline, and is just be 8-8 on the year.  However, he's never going to be an easy out at an important clay court tournament, and certainly won't want to get knocked out by an 18 year old.  Meanwhile, the 18 year old Coric is considered by many to be the most promising young player in the game (out of a very deep group).  He recently cracked the top 50, but is still a few years away from hitting his peak.  Coric should make it interesting and has a realistic shot of pulling the upset, but Robredo's experience should be enough to hold off the talented youngster. 

Madison Keys vs. Belinda Bencic:  This matchup features two potential stars on the WTA Tour who are trying to find some consistency.  Keys made a run to the Australian Open semifinals, but hasn't done much of note since.  Bencic is a former top junior who is trying to make her mark at the professional level.  Keys has more firepower and is the higher ranked player of the two, and she should get the win.  Their contrasts in style should make for an interesting matchup, and it could be one we'll be seeing a lot more of in the years to come.

Thanasi Kokkinakis vs. Bernard Tomic:  This is a matchup of two of the most promising young Australians in the game, and Tomic has already beaten the younger Kokkinakis twice this year.  Tomic entered Roland Garros on a 4 match losing streak (though one was by retirement and the other three all came in third-set tiebreaks), and is looking to turn his season around.  Kokkinakis just cracked the top 100, and will continue to rise up the rankings.  Tomic has the edge coming in, but don't be surprised if Kokkinakis pulls the upset. 


Tuesday, May 26, 2015

What We've Learned So Far At Roland Garros

Jack Sock appears headed in the right direction, Grigor Dimitrov not so much: This was probably the most appealing first round matchup in the men's draw, as it featured two of the games young(ish) stars.  Sock missed the early part of the year with an injury, but has posted mostly good results since returning to the tour.  Dimitrov is the more established player of the two, but has struggled to live up to his strong 2014 all year.  Despite Dimitrov's status as the 10th seed, this match was largely a toss up coming in.  It wasn't particularly surprising that Sock pulled the upset, but it was surprising how convincingly he beat the 24 year old Bulgarian.  After a tight first set, Sock rolled Dimitrov in the next two.  Sock has a good chance to reach the Round of 16, where he would likely face Rafael Nadal.  For Dimitrov, there's no shame in losing to Sock, but it's concerning how much of a step back he has taken in 2015.  Most people thought Dimitrov would hit his peak when he reached his mid-twenties, as his game is of the type that takes a bit longer to develop.  Now, its looking more like Dimitrov is simply a talented player who is too inconsistent to be taken seriously as a contender.

Eugenie Bouchard's "ability to win matches when it counts" didn't overcome her recent slump:  A lot of tennis commentators praise players who perform well at slams but poorly at regular tour events, because they "raise their games at the biggest stages."  However, generally such success is a result of a small sample size and a little bit of luck (i.e. a couple good draws at the slams), and doesn't change the fact that the player has issues they need to overcome.  If a player isn't having regular success on tour, it's highly unlikely they will continue to "raise their games" at the slams.  We saw this with Sloane Stephens a few years ago, and are seeing it with Eugenie Bouchard now.  Bouchard has barely won matches on tour this year, and she fell first round to a player ranked outside the top 40.  Bouchard very well may figure it out and turn everything around, but she's going to have to raise her level of play significantly before she starts having serious success at the slams again. 

Gulbis can win matches after all-just don't make him play anyone in the top 100:  Some people like Gulbis because he's got a different personality from the Big Four, and isn't afraid to speak his mind.  Others find his act tiresome, and aren't a fan of his antics.  Either way, it's hard to deny that tennis is a little more interesting when he's around.  Gulbis' draw was as easy as they come, and he took advantage by winning his first round match.  Maybe all he needed was an easy match to remember how it feels to win, and perhaps he will grow in confidence as the tournament goes on.  If anyone would go from barely winning matches all year to making a deep run at a grand slam, Gulbis is your guy. 

These young guys can play- but really we already knew that:  It's no secret that the current group of 17-20 year olds is very deep, and we finally have a group of emerging young stars worth paying attention to.  Several have won matches so far at Roland Garros, including Thanasi Kokkinakis, Borna Coric, Kyle Edmund and Nick Kyrgios.  A host of others teenagers are on their way up, and it won't be long before this current crop is making their presence known on the ATP Tour.     

Friday, May 22, 2015

Winners And Losers From The Men's Draw At Roland Garros


Novak Djokovic- No when said completing the career Grand Slam should be easy.  Djokovic may have to beat all the other members of the Big Four to win the title, beginning with Nadal in the quarters, followed by Murray in the semis.   If he has to play Nadal the quarters isn't necessarily a bad time to do it, but facing an in form Murray right after playing Nadal certainly isn't ideal.  We may be making too much of a Djokovic/Nadal quarterfinal given Nadal's recent poor form, but there's at least the possibility Nadal shows flashes of his old self.  Djokovic should be able to work his way through the draw, and there's no guarantee it will end up being as tough as it could be on paper, but he surely wasn't thrilled when the draw was revealed. 

Rafael Nadal-  Based on the combination of his draw and current form, it's almost impossible to see Nadal winning the French Open.  (Not a sentence anyone thought they would ever see).  If Nadal had Federer's draw, it's possible he could slowly gain confidence and work his way to the finals based on will alone.  However, having to beat Djokovic and Murray back to back as well as both are playing makes Nadal's path to the finals extremely difficult.  He also has a tricky second round matchup against Alexandr Dolgopolov.  Don't expect Nadal to go down without a fight, but Nadal's draw isn't doing his French Open chances any favors.

Grigor Dimitrov/Jack Sock- These two have the misfortune of opening against each other first round in perhaps the most interesting first round matchup.  Sock just missed being seeded, and had he not missed the early part of the year likely would have had a good chance of being ranked high enough.  Given Dimitrov's recent slump and Sock's fine form this match is pretty much a toss up, but neither is happy with this tricky first round matchup.  On the bright side, the winner has a good chance to reach the Round of 16 where they could face Nadal.


Roger Federer-  Anytime Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray land in the other half, your draw can't be too bad.  Federer finds himself in a half with Nishikori, Berdych and Wawrinka, and has a great chance to reach the finals.  He could face the always dangerous Gael Monfils in the Round of 16, who he has already lost to on clay this year.  But assuming he can get past the talented Frenchman, seeing Federer playing on the final Sunday won't be a surprise.

Kei Nishikori- Nishikori lost to Djokovic and Murray on the clay court swing, and no one else.  With both of them and Nadal on the other half, Nishikori has to love his draw.  He could play Berdych in the quarters (against whom he has a 3-1 career edge), and should be able to ride his favorable draw into the tournament's latter stages. 

Ernests Gulbis- Based on his incredibly easy draw, Gulbis has a chance to equal his win total (2) for the entire year at the French Open alone.  He opens with Igor Sijsling, who is now out of the top 150 in the world.  Next, he could play Nicolas Mahut or Kimmer Coppejans (who doesn't even have a picture on the ATP Website), both of whom are outside of the top 100.  The seed he is scheduled to face in the third round is Gilles Simon, who is battling a back injury.  If he reaches the round of 16, he could face Wawrinka, who himself has been up and down and may be vulnerable to an upset.  If Federer falls to Monfils, then all the sudden Gulbis' path to the. . .ok, we've taken this too far, but Gulbis really does have a great draw and an actual chance of winning a few matches.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Who Needs a Big French Open?

By the time the French Open rolls around the season is far enough along that we have a pretty good sense of how players' years are going.  For those named Novak Djokovic, the answer is "quite well".  For players named Ernests Gulbis, the answer is "the season started?"  Below is a look at those players whose seasons have been a bit (or a lot) lacking, and could really use a strong performance at the French Open.

Eugenie Bouchard:  Heading into the year everyone was wondering if Bouchard was going to win a grand slam.  Now, people are wondering whether she will lose first round or second in any random tournament.  She was able to make the quarters of the Australian Open, but since then her season has been a complete disaster.  Not only has she struggled to win matches against anyone, but "handshake gate" hurt her likability.  If anyone on the WTA Tour needs some positive momentum and press, it's Bouchard.

Ernests Gulbis:  While Gulbis did reach (at least) the quarters in Nice this week, it's hard to find a healthy professional athlete in any sport who is having a worse season than Gulbis.  After entering the year in the top 15 in the world, Gulbis has completely forgotten how to win tennis matches.  He entered this week with a 1-11 record, and is defending semifinals points at the French Open.  If he loses early his ranking will plummet, and at this rate he'll be lucky to win a round. 

Grigor Dimitrov:  Dimitrov's year may not be a disaster like Gulbis', but it has certainly been disappointing.  After a strong 2014 in which he appeared to break through at the top level, Dimitrov has clearly taken a step back in 2015.  He's so talented that he could stay a top 15 player in his sleep, but now people are starting to question how good he truly is.  Yes he looks like a great player out there, but why does he have a tendency to mis-time so many shots and leave his backhands so short?  Now that he's a top level athlete and in great shape, shouldn't he be posting better results?  A deep run at the French Open would go a long way to setting Dimitrov back on the right track.

Ana Ivanovic:  Every time it seems like Ivanovic is going to become a consistently great player she seems to take a step back.  While she's currently number 7 in the world, most of her points come from a strong end to 2014.  If she doesn't pick up her level and fast, her ranking will fall accordingly.  She's got the talent and has won the French Open before (albeit a long time ago) and is certainly capable of making a deep run.  Why she hasn't posted better results so far this year is puzzling, as she looked to be hitting the ball well during the clay court swing.  If she can survive being upset in the first few rounds, her increased confidence may help her reach the tournament's latter stages.   

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Djokovic's Dominant Year

With his win over Roger Federer in Rome, Novak Djokovic has now won every important tournament he has played in 2015.  In addition to the Australian Open, he's won Masters titles in Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo and Rome.  As in 2011 when Djokovic entered Roland Garros undefeated, Djokovic is on pace for an all time great year.  If he's able to break through and complete the career grand slam at the French Open, expect the tennis world to start focusing on whether Djokovic can win the 2015 Grand Slam by taking every major title. 

On paper Djokovic is the fairly heavy favorite to win every remaining slam, but actually winning all three is a different story.  The pressure and media attention will increase exponentially if he's entering Wimbledon or the US Open with a shot to do so, which will make the task even more difficult.  However, even if he "only" wins three slams this year, it looks like Djokovic may put together one of the best years we've seen in a long time.  This is particularly impressive, given that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have all had all-time great years within the last 10 years.

It's possible that Djokovic cools off a bit after his hot start, given that fatigue may become a factor.  Djokovic wisely pulled out of Madrid, and may have to make some hard scheduling decisions as the year progresses.  His exclusive focus will be on peaking for the grand slams and Masters tournaments, but he still might find himself a bit worn down in the second part of the year.  However, Djokovic can rely on his 2011 season (in which he ran out of steam by the fall) as a learning experience for how best to pace himself in a year in which he's winning nearly every tournament he plays. 

It would also be good for tennis if Djokovic is able to make a run at the Grand Slam this year, as it's a story that could gain traction in the broader sports world.  Surprisingly, it's been quite some time since a male player has won the Australian Open and French Open in the same year, and tennis has accordingly missed out on a big opportunity for attention.  If Djokovic is able to make a run it would be a great story in tennis, particularly with the likes of Federer, Murray and Nadal trying to stop history.  Even if he falls short, it looks like this will be a season by Djokovic that the tennis world will remember for quite some time.  

Hyeon Chung: The Next Superstar?

18 year old Hyeon Chung has been rocketing up the rankings since 2015 began, and is fast approaching the top 50 in the world.  He's won several Challengers already this year, and reached the finals of another this week.  He's quickly becoming one of the most promising prospects in men's tennis, though it remains to be seen how his success will translate on the ATP Tour. 

Chung plays a somewhat unorthodox game, and he has a tendency to "guide" some of his forehands, somewhat reminiscent of Bernard Tomic.  He's capable of hitting out on it, but seems to leave more than he'd like a bit short.  Part of the problem is he tends to keep his left hand in front of his body for too long, which stops him from swinging across his body on his follow through.  If he can fix this it would make life on the ATP Tour much easier, as it's hard to dominate without a reliably big forehand. 

The most successful pros generally spend relatively little time on the Challenger circuit, as they're good enough to get enough points to reach the ATP level in little time.  Chung appears to be well on his way to becoming an ATP Tour regular, which is a promising sign at only 18.  However, just because players dominate at the Challenger level doesn't mean their success will translate to the ATP Tour. 

A few years ago, Pablo Carreno-Busta won countless Challengers and futures titles, and surged onto the ATP Tour.  However, once he had to start playing ATP tournaments as opposed to Challengers, he discovered it became much more difficult to rack up ranking points.  He hasn't been a disaster on the ATP tour, but he's hardly seen big time success.  This isn't to say the same will happen to Chung, just that there's no guarantee Challenger dominance will turn into ATP Tour success. 

If Chung continues to tweak with and improve his forehand and serve he could be a serious factor on tour within the next few years.  He's clearly got a lot to work with, and seems to get better each week.  Few teenagers have reached the levels he has in recent years, and it's time for more people to take notice of his success. If he can keep it up at the next level, getting people to take notice won't be a problem.  

Saturday, May 16, 2015

What Does The Future Hold For Rafael Nadal?

It wasn't particularly surprising that Rafael Nadal struggled at the beginning of the season.  He was coming of an injury break at the end of 2014, and hadn't played many matches in a long time.  The consensus was that Nadal would slowly gain momentum on the hard courts early in the year, before finding his peak form once the clay season rolled around.  However, heading into Roland Garros, if anything Nadal seems to have taken a step back.

His results may not be bad by most player's standards, as reaching the semis of Monte Carlo, finals of Madrid and quarterfinals of Rome is nothing to sneeze at.  However, Nadal was badly outclassed in his losses to Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka, and also lost to Fabio Fognini in Barcelona.  More concerning than the mere fact that he lost on clay is the way he looked in doing so.  Nadal simply appeared overmatched, left shots far too short and missed easy balls that he never missed in years past. 

While one of Nadal's biggest strengths has traditionally been his ability to come back strong from injuries or layoffs, he clearly isn't having the same level of success this time around.  He's nearly 29, and it's fair to wonder if we'll ever see Nadal be truly dominant again.  If the clay season didn't fix his issues, it's hard to see what else will.  His confidence seems to be falling with each loss, and it seems to be affecting his strokes. 

Nadal is so talented that even when he's playing like a shell of his former self he's still good enough to beat almost everyone else on tour.  However, when he fails to get more than 3 games in a set against Djokovic or Murray on clay, it's clear he's got a ways to go to get back to their level.  Further, once the tour sees Nadal's invincibility fade further and further away, more people will start taking the court thinking they can beat him.   

Everyone knew from the beginning that Nadal wasn't a player who was going to age particularly well, given his physical and extreme style of play.  It's impressive he's lasted as long as he has (given that he was a full time ATP pro by 17), and the credit goes to Nadal for tweaking and expanding his skill set.  However, if his slump continues (to the point where it's no longer just a slump), it will be interesting to see how Nadal responds.  Will he continue to stay on the tour from age 29-32 as a top 5-10 player who occasionally wins a big tournament but consistently loses to Djokovic, Murray, etc?  Or will he hang it up within a year if he gets tired of losing to players he used to consistently beat? 

Federer decided he'd rather remain on tour as a top 5 player even if it means taking losses he never would have in his prime.  However, Federer's love of the game (and the tour lifestyle) is unparalleled, and everyone handles a drop in status differently.  It's certainly possible that Nadal reaches an opposite conclusion, and determines it's not worth remaining on tour if he's not going to be the dominant player he once was. 

Nadal may go on to win the 2015 French Open and put all the questions to rest (for the time being at least), but anything less a than a title there will only increase the questions.  If he isn't the champion at Roland Garros, his confidence will fall even further and he may start to wonder what he can rely on.  It would also mean he hasn't won a big tournament in over a year. 

Nadal was so dominant for so many years that it's hard to accept those days may be over.  However, after a long enough period it's hard to overlook the results (and our eyes).  There's no reason he should feel he has to retire when he hits 30 just because his results have slipped (regardless of what tennis fans begin to say), but the thought may creep into Nadal's mind sooner than many people expected.  Thirteen years on tour while consistently going deep in tournaments is about all anyone can ask for, and Nadal may have finally hit a wall that he simply doesn't know how to get through.  

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Rome Masters Preview

World number one Novak Djokovic makes his return in Rome after sitting out Madrid, and is the favorite to take home yet another Masters title.  Like usual it's a loaded field, and everyone will be hoping to peak leading up to Roland Garros.  While there will be lots of worthy challengers, it's hard to see anyone keeping Djokovic from holding the trophy.

The first quarter features Djokovic and 5th seed Kei Nishikori, with the dangerous Nick Kyrgios lurking in this section.  Kyrgios has been playing better on clay than was expected, and could give Nishikori a run for his money in the round of 16.  However, the more experienced Nishikori should be able to sneak past the young Australian, before falling to Djokovic in the quarters.

Andy Murray and David Ferrer headline the next quarter, with the dangerous Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Richard Gasquet and Marin Cilic also present.  Murray has really had no break for the last two weeks, and is ripe for an upset based on fatigue.  Look for Tsonga to face Ferrer in the quarters, with the veteran Spaniard prevailing in a tight affair. 

The first quarter in the bottom half includes Rafael Nadal, Stan Wawrinka, and big hitting Americans Jack Sock and John Isner.  Sock has been in good form lately, and appears ready to make a big run.  Look for Sock to knock out Gilles Simon and Wawrinka on his way to the quarters.  Isner could certainly give Nadal trouble in the round of 16, but it's hard to imagine him actually pulling the upset.  Unless Nadal is gassed from his run in Madrid, Nadal should be way too much for Sock in the quarters, and should prevail over the American in straight sets. 

The bottom quarter is led by Tomas Berdych and Roger Federer, who are heavy favorites to meet in the quarters.  Dimitrov traditionally matches up well with Berdych and could trouble him in the round of 16, but Berdych has been the far superior player in 2015.  Look for Federer to top Phillip Kohlschreiber on his way to a matchup with Berdych, as the German has been finding his form of late.  In the quarters Berdych should be able to top Federer, who hasn't really looked like himself this clay court season.  Federer has lost to Monfils and Kyrgios in recent weeks, and could struggle against Berdych's power. 

In the semifinals, Djokovic should top Ferrer without much difficulty.  He hasn't lost to Ferrer since 2011, and it's unlikely that changes in Rome.  In a rematch of the Madrid semifinals, look for Rafael Nadal once again to take out Tomas Berdych.  Unless Nadal has nothing left, Berdych will likely have little confidence following his weak performance against Nadal in Madrid

In the finals, Djokovic should be able to get past the quickly improving Nadal.  This match may not mean a whole lot in terms of the French Open, as Djokovic is fresh and Nadal is coming off a long week in Madrid.  However, as far as this week goes, Djokovic is the man to beat.  It won't end up meaning much if he doesn't get it done again at the French, but Djokovic's confidence will be high after winning another Masters title in Rome.  

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Do We Place Too Much Value On Grand Slam Titles?

Tomas Berdych is well on his way to finishing yet another season in the top 10.  He's actually finished the past 5 years at either 6 or 7 in the world, and has a good chance at a spot in the top 5 in 2015.  However, many tennis fans consider his career somewhat disappointing because of his failure to win a grand slam. 

Berdych clearly had the talent to win a major, and perhaps he'll sneak one in before he retires.  But due to some mental weakness and being stuck in one of the most difficult eras of all time, he's had to settle with a Wimbledon final to his name.  Tennis has always valued grand slam titles above all else (at least in the modern era), and it's hard to see this changing in the foreseeable future.  Winning a grand slam drastically elevates how a player's entire career is perceived (see Wawrinka, Stan and Cilic, Marin), and opens up a host of new opportunities.  However, by any other account Berdych's career has been tremendously successful, and his lack of a grand slam title shouldn't be the defining feature of his career. 

Cilic will never have to answer such questions after winning the 2014 US Open, but is it really fair that one incredible two week stretch over an entire career forever absolves him of questions relating to his accomplishments?  Cilic has similar talent and hasn't been nearly as consistently good as Berdych (though injuries are certainly a factor), but will be thought of as a "disappointment" by far fewer people. 

In a sense, the criticism is a compliment to Berdych and his abilities.  Watching him play it's obvious how talented he is, and few have ever hit the ball so cleanly.  Thus, it's natural to wonder why someone with so much skill hasn't been able to break through at tennis' biggest stage.  However, his inability to win a grand slam shouldn't take away from his decade of near excellence, and he should be remembered as one of the best players of his era (outside of the Big Four of course). 

If the younger Raonic or Dimitrov win a grand slam title in the next 3 or 4 years, they'll be remember completely differently than Berdych, even though the only likely difference between them would be the timing of their careers in relation to the Big Four.  Similarly, the grand slams won by Thomas Johansson, Gaston Gaudio and Albert Costa during a weak couple of years on tour over a decade ago shouldn't necessarily put them in a higher class than Berdych. 

Consistency over a long period of time should count for more than a random grand slam title, although it's much easier to perceive someone as a "winner" based on their success in a single, high profile event.  Winning a grand slam is obviously an amazing accomplishment, but putting too much emphasis on it skews how careers are perceived and fails to reward players for continued excellence.  

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

It's Okay To Get Excited About Frances Tiafoe

After winning the USTA's French Open wildcard based on his strong performances in a series of Challengers, Frances Tiafoe has moved to the front of the pack in terms of American men's tennis prospects.  Some tennis fans appear to be genuinely excited about Tiafoe's future, but many others are responding by referencing the recent string of hyped up American prospects who failed to deliver.  It's understandable why tennis fans are skeptical, but arguing Tiafoe will similarly be a "bust" just because he's the next in line is simply lazy and unfair.  Instead, Tiafoe's potential should be evaluated based on the evidence at hand, which indicates he may be better suited for pro success than many of his predecessors. 

Tiafoe only turned 17 a few months ago, and his ranking has rocketed from outside the top 1,000 at the beginning of the year to inside the top 300.  Further, this is without a full year's worth of tournaments on his schedule, as he only played sparingly in 2014.  He appears to be playing at a level closer to someone in the top 150 than merely the top 300. 

Though his strokes aren't the prettiest, Tiafoe is a fairly big hitter.  His forehand can be particularly lethal, and his backhand is slightly more effective than it should be despite some awkward technique.  He moves well around the court, and his serve is already decent and should only improve.  Further, he's got a good build for tennis and is already a muscular six foot one.  This isn't to say he's a sure thing to be an astounding success, just that the tools are there for a successful pro career.  He certainly needs to keep improving or else his weaknesses will be exposed on the ATP Tour, but he's starting with a lot to work with.

Nobody knows what the future holds for Tiafoe-be it Grand Slam titles, a relatively successful pro career or years of bouncing around on the Challenger tour.  However, fans of American tennis shouldn't be afraid to get excited merely because others before him failed to pan out how they hoped.  He's the second highest ranked 17 year old in the world, and appears to be rising fast.  Nobody has to buy the hype, but tennis fans should at least take the time to base their "anti-Tiafoe" arguments on something other than the fact that he happens to be the next American hope.  

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Madrid Open Preview

The Madrid Open may be missing the best player in the world in Novak Djokovic, but the otherwise loaded Masters field should provide plenty of intriguing matchups.  With the clay court season well underway players have made their adjustment to the dirt, and are in the process of fine-tuning their games for the approaching French Open.

Federer is the top seed, but probably not the favorite after looking shaky in Istanbul despite taking the title.  It doesn't look like he'll have any easy matches along the way, as he could open with the talented Nick Kyrgios before having to face John Isner, Tomas Berdych and Rafael Nadal on his way to the finals.  However, Isner is the pick to pull the upset over Federer in the round of 16.  Federer will be coming off a busy week in Istanbul and may not be fully ready (mentally or physically) for Madrid. 

Waiting for Isner in the quarters will be Tomas Berdych, who will have to get through a tricky section including Gasquet, Karlovic, Sock and Tsonga.  Sock should be able to get past Andujar and the still coming back Tsonga, but will likely fall short against Berdych, who is currently 2nd in the ATP Race to London.  In the quarters, expect Berdych to take his winning streak against the American to five, as he's just a little to solid for the unpredictable Isner.

Nadal is the heavy favorite to reach the semis out of the next section, even if he's playing like a shell of his former self.  He should coast into the quarterfinals, before facing Wawrinka or Dimitrov.  While its tough to pick Dimitov to reach much of anything these days, he should be able to reach the quarters based on his beneficial draw.  If Wawrinka isn't affected by his personal issues (as he was in Monte Carlo) perhaps this will be different, but Dimitrov gets the honor of falling to Nadal in straights in the quarters.

Ferrer's section includes lots of talented Spaniards and the not yet fully back Marin Cilic, and it's hard to see someone topping Ferrer before the quarters.  To make the semis Ferrer will likely have to beat the 4th seed Kei Nishikori.  Ferrer may have won their last matchup, but Nishikori won the 5 before that and is the pick to reach the semifinals. 

The bottom of the draw features Milos Raonic and Andy Murray.  While there are some solid players in this section, it's hard to see anyone keeping these two seeds from playing in the quarters unless Murray is feeling the effects of a busy week in Munich.  13th seed Gael Monfils is the most likely to take advantage of a sluggish Murray, but the world number three should be able to sneak past the talented Frenchman.  However, Raonic will have a good chance to knock out Murray in the quarters and should be able to pull the minor upset.  He'll be the fresher of the two and hold a 3-2 career edge, including a win in the pair's only prior match on clay.

In the first semifinals look for Berdych to continue his very solid 2015 with a win over Nadal.  Picking Berdych over Nadal on clay (or any surface) may never seem right, but based on Nadal's form this year it's hard to justify picking him to reach the finals. 

In the second semifinals between emerging rivals Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic, Nishikori should be able to get past the big serving Canadian in three sets.  He holds a 5-2 head-to-head edge, and is the better player on clay.  Raonic isn't bad on the dirt himself, but his game is naturally better suited to a quicker hard court.  Raonic will put up a good fight, but it will have to settle for a semifinal performance in Madrid.

While Berdych may be having an excellent season by most standards, there's one thing he doesn't seem to do- actually win tournaments.  Because of this, and Nishikori's 3-1 head-to-head advantage, Nishikori is the pick to take the title.  Berdych is having the better season of the two so far, but never seems to be able to seal the deal at the ends of tournaments.  Nishikori has had better luck in finals (we're not going to knock him here for falling to an in the zone Cilic in the US Open finals) and should gain lots of clay court confidence after taking the title in Madrid.