Men's Look Forward: Palermo, Hong Kong
Men's Look Forward: Palermo, Hong Kong
This is definitely last call for the clay-courters.
It's hard to understand why the ATP still allows two clay events to exist after the U. S. Open, but it does. Still, no matter how many nooks and crannies clay lurks in, there comes an end. And this is it: Once this week is over, there is no more dirt.
Hardcourt fans don't have much more time. Hong Kong is the next-to-last outdoor hardcourt event of the year. (Tokyo is the last.) The odd thing, though, is how clay-heavy its draw is. #1 seed Marat Safin is fine with clay, and the next three seeds -- #2 Juan Carlos Ferrero, #3 Carlos Moya, and #4 Alex Corretja -- are all clay-lovers. Indeed, the only true hardcourt seeds appear to be #6 James Blake and #8 Paradorn Srichaphan -- and they'll both be flying in from other surfaces; Blake just played on clay and Srichaphan indoors in Davis Cup.
There are some pretty good hardcourt floaters here, though, notably Jan-Michael Gambill, but we wouldn't count out Taylor Dent, either. And Jerome Golmard is a pretty good player who is trying to overcome a long injury layoff. Then there is Michael Chang -- who has three titles here but who needed a wildcard to get in; his last title here came five years ago.
Going down the seeding list, here is what each seed faces: #1 Safin opens against Lars Burgsmuller -- another guy we would have expected to be in Palermo. If Safin has trouble, it will only be because he worked so hard in Davis Cup. The second round is more interesting, as he faces the winner of Dominik Hrbaty vs. Feliciano Lopez.
#2 seed Juan Carlos Ferrero may think he's back on clay; he'll open against Stefan Koubek, then a qualifier. Ferrero should have little trouble if he plays his best. But, of course, we haven't seen much of his best this year.
#3 seed Carlos Moya has perhaps the toughest draw, since he opens against Jan-Michael Gambill. In the second round, he'll be facing another very big serve, either that of Wayne Arthurs or that of Jan Vacek. Moya had better have all his shots working.
#4 Alex Corretja starts against Chang. These days, that may not be much of a test. In the second round, he may get to see how well Golmard has recovered, assuming Golmard gets past Karol Kucera.
#5 Juan Ignacio Chela will start against Magnus Norman, who took a very strange tournament to take a wildcard into. (Why not Palermo?) It seems unlikely, given his recent results, that Norman is ready to be a hardcourt threat. After that, it's either up-and-coming Radek Stepanek or up-and-coming Nicolas Massu. Chela, even though he's an Argentine, probably has better hardcourt credentials than either.
#6 James Blake opens against a qualifier, but will face Hyung-Taik Lee (or Julian Knowle) in the second round. Both are at their best on hardcourts. And Lee won't have just flown in from Paris....
#7 Nicolas Lapentti also will face his test in the second round; he ought, theoretically, to be able to handle Agustin Calleri in the first. But then it's either Cecil Mamiit -- who, if nothing else, really likes hardcourts -- or Jonas Bjorkman.
#8 seed Paradorn Srichaphan can't seem to buy any luck; he opens against Taylor Dent. Whoever wins that should have an easier time in the second round; he'll face either Francisco Clavet or a qualifier.
The turnaround in this tournament since last year is significant. Marcelo Rios won it last year, and he isn't back -- though he'll be at Palermo, so he may be able to defend his points. Last year's finalist Rainer Schuettler isn't here, either, and that will probably cost him in the rankings. Also not returning are last year's semifinalists Andrew Ilie and Andre Sa; Ilie in particular will see his already-badly-damaged ranking take another blow. Last year's top two seeds were the same as last year, Safin and Ferrero, though they've swapped order. But last year's #3 Sebastien Grosjean and #4 Andy Roddick will not be returning; neither will #5 Mark Philippoussis. Srichaphan was here last year as a qualifier; he lost in the first round to Ferrero. That isn't likely to happen again. And Michael Chang was a seed, rather than a wildcard, last year.
Palermo also looks very different this year. Last year's champion Felix Mantilla isn't back; neither is finalist David Nalbandian or semifinalist Tommy Robredo or last year's #1 seed Alex Corretja, though semifinalist Albert Portas will be returning, this time unseeded (and, obviously, in danger of another rankings knock). Marcelo Rios is the #1 seed this year, having decided to play here instead of Hong Kong. There aren't many other big names in the field, either; the #2 seed is Fernando Gonzalez, and the rest of the draw is mostly "usual clay suspects."
Looking at players' draws, #1 seed Rios has a rather nice one, opening against a qualifier, then either Attila Savolt or another qualifier. #2 seed Gonzalez has it a bit tougher; first Zeljko Krajan, who seems to like clay and is on the rise, then Albert Montanes or Andrea Gaudenzi, both of whom like dirt -- but both of whom are slumping. Montanes probably has the slightly better chance; he's a lot younger.
#3 seed Jose Acasuso is another promising youngster, but his draw isn't all that promising; he opens against Andreas Vinciguerra (though Vinciguerra is another player in trouble), then either Nicolas Coutelot or Albert Portas.
#4 Fernando Vicente also opens against a player in a slump, Bohdan Ulihrach -- but Ulihrach certainly has the talent to cause trouble on clay. After that, it's either long-injured Jiri Vanek or Fernando Meligeni, fresh off Brazil's Davis Cup win over Canada.
#5 David Ferrer is rising fast; he has to be happy with a draw that includes Irakli "Freak Show" Labadze and then either a qualifier or Luis Horna. But #6 David Sanchez faces youth and more youth; he will open against Richard Gasquet, the clay wunderkind of the spring who beat Franco Squillari at Monte Carlo. After that, it's likely to be another kid, Paul-Henri Mathieu. Sanchez may be feeling pretty old by the time this is over.
Speaking of Squillari, he'll need to beat Christophe Rochus if he wants a look at #7 seed Alberto Martin. And that's only if Martin beats Nicolay Davydenko. This is a section full of players trying to finally get their 2002 seasons in gear.
That description applies also to #8 seed Hicham Arazi, who was a mess in Davis Cup. Clay is probably his best surface, but a draw in which he faces first Sargis Sargsian and then Stefano Galvani or a qualifier hardly looks like a sure cure.
We've already mentioned the key facts regarding the Rankings. Rios, with titleist points to defend, appears to be safe in the Top 30, but he'll need to reach the Palermo final if he wants to stay in the Top 25. Palermo winner Felix Mantilla is up to #41, but he'll be falling out of the Top Fifty. Palermo finalist Nalbandian is probably safe in the Top 20, but expect him to fall from #18 to #19. Rainer Schuettler, surprisingly, probably won't drop more than one or two spots and will stay in the Top 30.
If we were going to pick a "player to watch" this week, it would probably be Ferrer; a title here would put him in the Top Fifty, and while that's probably too much to expect, he really does seem to be on the rise.