Approach Shots: Nadal rests, Djokovic hosts
"Approach Shots" is Ricky's weekly look at what's ahead (or "approaching") on the ATP Tour. Every Sunday he'll preview all the tournaments scheduled for the upcoming week.
Hey, Rafa, you think you're too good for the smaller 250-point tournaments this week?
OK, you're right. You are.
After winning Monte-Carlo, Barcelona, and Rome in consecutive weeks, Rafael Nadal is finally taking a break. That means by the end of this week, three players will have picked up a rare clay-court title.
Novak Djokovic, runner-up to Nadal in both Monte-Carlo and Rome, is one of two Top 10 players in action and he is heavily favored to capture the first-ever winner's trophy in Belgrade, Serbia. Gilles Simon is the other representative of the Top 10, headlining a relatively strong field in Estoril. In Munich, would-be No. 1 seed Fernando Gonzalez pulled out with an ankle injury. If by "ankle injury" he means, "I've been winning too much and therefore playing too much tennis recently," then yeah.
Where: Estoril, Portugal
Prize Money: 450,000 Euros
Top Seed: Gilles Simon
Defending Champion: Roger Federer (not playing)
Draw Analysis: It's no Masters Series event—not even a 500-point tournament—but the Estoril Open boasts by far the best field of the week. Although James Blake is in a serious slump at the moment, the top five seeds in Estoril are impressive: Gilles Simon, Nikolay Davydenko, David Ferrer, Blake, and David Nalbandian.
The second quarter of the draw is definitely the toughest with both Ferrer and Nalbandian. Those two former Top 5 stars could do battle as early as the quarterfinals, and there is no reason to think that either man won't make it that far. Simon should be able to cruise past American Robert Kendrick in round one, but he would then get either Fabio Fognini or Gaston Gaudio. Fognini took Simon to three sets last week in Rome and Gaudio is coming off a Challenger title in Tunisia.
The bottom half of the draw is far less imposing. Blake and Mardy Fish—like most Americans—are no fans of clay, Florent Serra won't strike fear into any opponent, and Nikolay Davydenko is still trying to bounce back from a long layoff. Keep an eye on unseeded threats in the bottom half, especially Juan Monaco, Juan Carlos Ferrero, and even Frederico Gil. It would not be shocking to see one unseeded finalist in Estoril.
First-Round Upset Alert: Frederico Gil over (4) James Blake. This would only be an upset according to the seeds. In fact, I would not even be surprised if the official oddsmakers favor Gil in this one. Gil does most his damage on clay while Blake is nothing short of abysmal on the slow stuff. To make matters worse for the American, he has not even been playing well on hard courts this season. Gil reached the Casablanca semifinals last month and just last week made it to the Tunisia Challenger final before falling to Gaudio.
Blake and Fish could both be out before the second round. Although Fish beat Igor Andreev in Rome and gave Fernando Verdasco a three-set test, he is almost as bad as Blake on clay. He is also going up against a rather tough opponent in Teimuraz Gabashvili, who does not mind the dirt.
Momentum Builders (Players looking to continue recent good form): David Ferrer, Gaston Gaudio, Juan Monaco, Frederico Gil
Slump Busters (Players hoping to resurrect their games): Gilles Simon, James Blake, David Nalbandian, Mardy Fish
Semifinal Predictions: David Ferrer over Gilles Simon and Juan Monaco over Nikolay Davydenko
Final Prediction: Ferrer over Monaco
Where: Munich, Germany
Prize Money: 450,000 Euros
Top Seed: Marin Cilic (No. 2 seed, but No. 1 seed withdrew)
Defending Champion: Fernando Gonzalez (not playing)
Draw Analysis: Rarely has a tournament title been more up for grabs than the one in Munich this week. Last year's champion Fernando Gonzalez just pulled out citing an ankle injury, otherwise he would have been the clear favorite; not only because he is the defending champ, but also because he is in great form. In fact the real reason he withdrew is almost certainly that he has been winning too much recently and therefore playing too much tennis in the buildup to the French Open.
With Gonzo out, it's anyone's title to win. No. 2 seed Marin Cilic would be the clear favorite in this draw on a faster surface, but not on clay. Nicolas Almagro would normally be the clear favorite since this is on clay, but he has been slumping ever since winning a title on the dirt of Acapulco. Tomas Berdych is always dangerous due to his talent, but as is the case with Cilic, it's hard to imagine him winning a title on the slow stuff at this point.
Is the door open for a surprise champion? Lleyton Hewitt won a clay-court title in Houston last month, Mischa Zverev reached the Rome quarterfinals last week, and Jeremy Chardy made it to the fourth round of the French Open last year and began this season in fine form.
As for the draw itself? With no dominant players of any kind, it's borderline impossible to say that anyone got either a good draw or a bad draw. It's just that wide open.
First-Round Upset Alert: With one seed (Gonzalez) already out and four other seeds facing to-be-announced qualifiers in the opening round, there is not much room with which to predict an upset. Don't be shocked, however, if Evgeny Korolev (ranked 84th) defeats Chardy (No. 40 in the world). Chardy enjoyed a surprising run to the French Open fourth round last year, but in general he is not a force on clay. Korolev recently made it to the Houston semifinals and because he goes for broke on almost every forehand, he is always a scary opponent.
Potito Starace and Ernests Gulbis have some chance against eighth-seeded Igor Kunitsyn and No. 6 seed Nicolas Kiefer, respectively; but not good chances. Kunitsyn is solid on clay and neither Starace nor Gulbis—especially not Gulbis—is in good form at the moment.
Momentum Builders (Players looking to continue recent good form): Mischa Zverev, Andreas Beck
Slump Busters (Players hoping to resurrect their games): Tomas Berdych, Rainer Schuettler, Nicolas Kiefer, Julien Benneteau, Stefan Koubek, Mikhail Youzhny, Philipp Petzschner, Ernests Gulbis
Semifinal Predictions: Nicolas Almagro over Simone Bolelli and Philipp Kohlschreiber over Lleyton Hewitt
Final Prediction: Almagro over Kohlschreiber
Where: Belgrade, Serbia
Prize Money: 450,000 Euros
Top Seed: Novak Djokovic
Defending Champion: None (inaugural tournament)
Draw Analysis: Djokovic had envisioned hosting an ATP tournament in Serbia for a while, and Serbian fans have to be ecstatic over the fact that the dream has become a reality. No matter that the field is definitely the weakest of the three this week. They have a tournament, and they have Djokovic himself.
The Serbs cannot, however, be happy with how the draw played out over the weekend. All three of the directly-entered Serbs are in the same quarter of the draw. If Janko Tipsarevic wins his opener, he will face Djokovic in the second round (Djokovic and the rest of the top four seeds get first-round byes). Viktor Troicki, the No. 5 seed, is slated to do battle with either Djokovic or Tipsarevic in the quarterfinals. That means only one of Serbia's top three players can reach the semifinals. To make matters worse for Troicki, he has to go up against dangerous American Sam Querrey in the first round on Monday night.
Also getting byes along with Djokovic and Karlovic are solid clay-court players Igor Andreev and Andreas Seppi. Rounding out the eight seeds are Troicki, Ivan Ljubicic, Arnaud Clement, and Christophe Rochus. Dangerous unseeded threats (other than Querrey and Tipsarevic) include Nicolas Massu, Wayne Odesnik, Guillermo Canas, Steve Darcis, and wildcard Marcos Baghdatis.
First-Round Upset Alert: Steve Darcis over (7) Arnaud Clement. Darcis is a dismal 1-8 at the ATP level this season, but that is in part due to physical problems. The 5'10'' Belgian took to the Challenger circuit the past two weeks in order to find some form, and he appeared to do just that, reaching consecutive semifinals. Clement has been slightly better than Darcis this season, but the veteran Frenchman has won just a single match in the main draw of an ATP event since late February. Neither man is a clay-court specialist, but the surface should favor Darcis just a bit.
Also keep an eye on Querrey vs. Troicki. By American standards, Querrey is actually decent on clay. Last season he made a shock appearance in the Monte-Carlo quarterfinals and he even took a set off Nadal in a clay-court Davis Cup singles rubber.
Momentum Builders (Players looking to continue recent good form): Novak Djokovic
Slump Busters (Players hoping to resurrect their games): Ivo Karlovic, Marcel Granollers, Guillermo Canas, Steve Darcis, Marcos Baghdatis
Semifinal Predictions: Novak Djokovic over Andreas Seppi and Igor Andreev over Marcos Baghdatis
Final Prediction: Djokovic over Andreev
Comments and your own predictions are appreciated!