Men's Look Forward: Week of September 9
Men's Look Forward: Tashkent, Salvador, Bucharest
If there was any doubt that tennis is an international sport, this should dispel it. With the ATP staging events in Brazil, Rumania, and Uzbekistan, plus the WTA having events in Brazil, China, and Hawaii, there is literally going to be tennis happening every minute of the day and night.
Under the circumstances, you'd probably expect some pretty weak events. It hasn't bothered Tashkent, though. From the looks of things, they went out and did what needed to be done to get three Top Ten players: Marat Safin, Yevgeny Kafelnikov (regulars here) and -- Tommy Haas. Why Haas isn't resting his bad arm we don't know; we suspect something with the initials A-P-P-E-A-R-A-N-C-E F-E-E.
This especially since there is a distinct shortage of players ranked #9-#20; the #4 seed is Rainer Schuettler, #5 is Paradorn Srichaphan (and isn't he due for a break also?), #6 is Ivan Ljubicic, #7 is Mikhail Youzhny, and #8 is Davide Sanguinetti.
There are some interesting floaters, though. Harel Levy is finally back, and he was in the Top Forty about a year ago; if he's actually healthy, he might do damage. Nicolas Kiefer is here as an unseeded player, but he showed at the U. S. Open that he's back. And then there is Magnus Norman. If he's back, he's one of the best players here.
Plus there is the great question of, How will Yevgeny Kafelnikov do? Last year, he made the final, and the way things have been going lately, he needs those points. And he faces Kiefer in the second round.
The result isn't trivial for Safin, either; he's already down to #4, and his margin over Tim Henman is starting to wear thin. He should be safe for now, but it's getting to be a close thing.
Looking down the draw, here are the early matches that look most interesting to us:
Verkerk vs. (6) Ljubicic. Verkerk announced his presence at the U. S. Open, and he, like Ljubicic, serves pretty well. This could be tight just because it will be so hard to break serve.
(8) Sanguinetti vs. Magnus Norman. Sanguinetti was posting very good results early in the year, but reality seems to have set in. Norman hasn't been posting good results, but he's getting more match practice. Might it matter?
Pless vs. (4) Schuettler. It was about this time last year that Schuettler started making his big move in the rankings. Can he maintain it? Pless is a young talent who might give him trouble -- or might self-destruct; he's good at that.
Rosset vs. (2) Haas. Not much of a match, ordinarily, but Haas is hurting....
Levy vs. (5) Srichaphan. Srichaphan is, of course, on the run of his life, and he likes hardcourts. But except for the time since he lost at the U. S. Open, he's had almost no time off this summer. How much gas does he have left?
Kafelnikov vs. Kiefer. Kafelnikov is slumping. Kiefer seems to be finally pulling things together. Could this spell an upset?
Sargsian vs. (2) Haas. Even if Rosset can't hurt Haas with his serve, Sargsian might do it by getting a lot of balls back.
As is often the case in a week with multiple events, when one is strong, another is very weak. Case in point: Bucharest. This is the clay-courter's last shot of the year, and you'd think they'd turn out in droves. In one sense, they did: Nearly everyone here is a clay-lover. But there aren't many big names -- even last year's champion, Younes El Aynaoui, isn't returning.
The two major exceptions to the "all clay" rule are, ironically, the top two seeds, Andrei Pavel (an all-surface player) and Michel Kratochvil (who clearly is at his best on hardcourts). For Pavel, that could spell trouble early, since he faces Alberto Martin in the first round and possibly Albert Portas (a threat on clay, if nowhere else) in the second. Kratochvil is a bit better off, since his early opponents just aren't as tough, but even he could face danger in the quarterfinal, when he faces Albert Montanes.
That makes the informal favorite #3 seed Felix Mantilla, who didn't do much on clay this year, but who of course loves the stuff -- and he did do very well on hardcourt. He too has a fairly nice draw; the best player in his section, historically, is Galo Blanco -- but Blanco has fallen so far this year that he had to qualify.
Also a significant threat is #4 Fernando Vicente. His second round match will be interesting; he'll face either Franco Squillari or Andreas Vinciguerra. Both have had some pretty nice clay results -- but both have come completely unglued this year.
In the young talent department, in addition to #6 Montanes (who has a pretty easy draw), we have #5 seed Jose Acasuso, who won his last clay event at Sopot. Can he extend his winning streak? His draw should help; he opens against Dick Norman, who is about as anti-clay as they get (big serve and no speed). After that, it's a wildcard or serve-and-volleying Juan Balcells.
Also facing a tough draw is #7 David Sanchez, who opens against Cedric Pioline, followed by probably Christophe Rochus.
In such a draw, there is a very good chance for a surprise winner. And, since fewer than half the players here have a career title, it could be a very happy winner.
Given the field at Bucharest, you could be forgiven if you looked at the draw at Bahia and assumed that it was the week's clay event. It isn't; it's on hardcourts. It's just that, being in Latin America, it naturally drew most of the players from that part of the world. Including, of course, Gustavo Kuerten -- seeded a mere #6, but obviously the #1 draw -- and a significant threat in a draw now headed by Sjeng Schalken (seeded #2), Tommy Robredo, and Mariano Zabaleta. Nor is Kuerten the only seeded Brazilian; Andre Sa is #8, and Fernando Meligeni is the #9 seed (and in the place vacated by the #1).
It's mostly a weak draw below the seeds, but there are some significant floaters -- notably Guillermo Coria. Just his luck to play Flavio Saretta, the guy who upset Kuerten here last year. Also fairly dangerous, now that he's playing again, is Jerome Golmard.
One player who isn't back is defending champion Jan Vacek, whose ranking looks likely to go through the floor; he's had a very poor year since winning this title.
Frankly, it's a draw we have trouble getting excited about. Few of the seeds look to be in much early danger (though of course upsets are always possible, this being the ATP). #3 Tommy Robredo pretty definitely has it toughest; he starts against Luis Horna, then the Coria/Saretta winner. #4 Mariano Zabaleta will probably be tested in the second round, either by Golmard or by Ramon Delgado. But that's about it.
Given the field and the surface, Schalken and Kuerten definitely look like favorites. And they are in opposite ends of the draw....
(bob larson...who else?)