BobLarson's Previews:Moscow & Tokyo
Look Forward: Moscow, Tokyo
Call it the week of "less is more." We have two tournaments this week, both featuring both men and women. Moscow, with 32 players, offers fewer matches than Tokyo. Will that mean less quality tennis? It doesn't automatically follow....
The draw at Tokyo always raises our funny little suspicions: Did they go to a 56-draw to gain more room for Japanese wildcards? The way tennis has gone lately -- with stress on power and the serve rather than speed or shot selection -- seems almost designed to stop the Japanese, who now find themselves with no top male players. It's shown in the tournaments they support: They have one men's event and three women's events -- and even this one men's event has a women's side. But they still have a 56-draw, meaning that they have to put eight courts in service.
At least there is plenty of variety for those who come early.
This is the last outdoor event of the year; not surprisingly, it has more slowcourt players than we find at Moscow. Still, it's a fairly balanced mix: The #1 seed is Lleyton Hewitt, the defending champion. Hewitt, though, finds himself in an ironic situation: Despite being #1 and a great hardcourt player, he's trying to reestablish himself on the stuff; he hasn't won a hardcourt event since Indian Wells, or any titles at all since Wimbledon.
The next four seeds down are all clay-lovers: #2 Juan Carlos Ferrero, #3 Carlos Moya, #4 Alex Corretja, and #5 Juan Ignacio Chela -- all here from Hong Kong, where Ferrero beat Moya in the final. (We'll see if they both manage to play.) Also happiest on the slow stuff are #7 Nicolas Lapentti, #9 Stefan Koubek, #12 Agustin Calleri, #14 Nicolas Massu, and #15 David Ferrer, plus perhaps #11 Dominik Hrbaty. But #6 James Blake, #8 Paradorn Srichaphan, and #10 Jan-Michael Gambill like hardcourts, and #13 Wayne Arthurs and perhaps #16 Taylor Dent are happiest on grass (our guess is that, in the long run, indoors may be Dent's best surface). Whatever your pleasure, someone can probably supply it.
At least, as long as you're willing to wait a few days. With sixteen seeds (the top eight of whom get first round byes), there is something of a shortage of great early-round matches, especially in the first round. Here is what we notice:
Chang vs. Clavet. The geriatric contingent meets in a match with big consequences for Chang, who has third round points to defend. Another early loss would be very bad. Tough enough that the winner has to face Hewitt!
F. Lopez vs. (9) Koubek. Stefan Koubek is ranked fairly high, but he's done it by playing a lot. Feliciano Lopez is ranked a lot lower, but is better at supplying upsets. Can he supply one here?
Morrison or D. Norman vs. (14) Massu. High stylistic contrast -- and perhaps a good chance to assess the speed of the court.
(10) Gambill vs. Vahaly. Two Americans with a big contrast in speed and in power.
Fish vs. F. Lopez or (9) Koubek. Another contrast-in-styles match, and another one where court speed could make a big difference.
(15) Ferrer vs. Spadea. Ferrer is the real deal on clay. But how will he do on something else?
(7) Lapentti vs. Ancic. Ancic, unlike a lot of the big servers here, grew up on clay. It perhaps affects his style. Can Lapentti take advantage of the big-serving Croat's inexperience?
Golmard vs. (12) Calleri. Golmard seems to be finally finding himself, and he likes the surface better than Calleri. Is that enough to produce an upset?
Moscow has only half the number of players in the field, but what a field! It's a bit weak at the top, with only three Top Ten players (Marat Safin, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, and Albert Costa) -- but below that, it's almost incredible. We count about nineteen guys who are serious threats to win this thing.
Or, at least, they'd be serious threats at any other event. At Moscow, it's not so clear. Much depends on how much Yevgeny Kafelnikov has left. There aren't many things in the world more predictable than Kafelnikov winning Moscow. He's done it five straight times.
And if ever there was a draw stacked to help a defending champion, this is it. One quarter -- Jiri Novak's -- has seven major players in it: Novak himself, David Nalbandian, Mikhail Youzhny, Tommy Robredo, Jonas Bjorkman, Max Mirnyi, and Rainer Schuettler. But Kafelnikov's has two wildcards (Vladimir Voltchkov and Andrei Stoliarov), three qualifiers, two players who aren't really threats on this surface (Bohdan Ulihrach and Davide Sanguinetti) -- plus Thomas Johansson, Kafelnikov's personal nemesis but a guy just back from a long injury. In the semifinal, Kafelnikov would, if the seeds held, face Albert Costa, among the most indoor-hating players on the ATP. Is this a gift or what?
This is one of those tournaments where we love to look for great matches, because there are so many of them. In fact, we'll look at every first round match, because we'd be so close to mentioning them all anyway.
(1) Safin vs. Meligeni. Safin is, of course, far the better player. But he seems to be self-destructing more and more lately, and Meligeni gets enough balls back that he might encourage Safin's suicidal tendencies.
Sa vs. Kratochvil. These are big times for Kratochvil, who seemed to be turning into a great hardcourt player at this time last year, but who has stalled since. A finalist last year, he really needs to get back on track.
Nieminen vs. Rios. How well will the talented youngster react to Rios's selection of stuff? And how well will Rios react to having to play on a fairly fast court?
Golovanov (WC) vs. (5) Federer. OK, not much to say here -- unless Federer reverts to his midsummer couldn't-beat-anyone form.
(4) Novak vs. Youzhny. Youzhny just recently came back from injury -- but before the injury, he was hot indeed. If he's back in shape, this looks like trouble.
Qualifier vs. Robredo. The young Spaniard is slumping, and this isn't clay. He has the talent; can he do something with it?
Bjorkman vs. Mirnyi. Who can get to net more, and who can do more damage from the baseline? It's strength against strength (Mirnyi's serve and Bjorkman's return) and weakness against weakness (Mirnyi's ground game and Bjorkman's serve). We'd really like to see this one.
Schuettler vs. (8) Nalbandian. The Argentines think so little of Nalbandian's indoor game that they held him out of Davis Cup singles. Schuettler is more used to the surface. Will that be enough to equalize the difference in raw talent?
(7) Schalken vs. Qualifier. Schalken's game is rather stiff for indoors, but he did win in Stockholm last year. It's his only indoor title. Given how well he's done this year, can he do more damage?
Vicente vs. Wayne Ferreira. It's hard to say what is Ferreira's best surface; he's won everywhere. But he has four indoor titles, including the Stuttgart Masters. He's another floater who looks like trouble.
El Aynaoui vs. Ljubicic. The Moroccan likes clay, but he serves pretty well. Ljubicic -- well, he's your standard Croat with a Monster Serve. (The Croats seem to have a secret genetic engineering program to produce players like that.) His one title was indoors, and El Aynaoui doesn't like it at all. But he has a big edge in guile.
Escude vs. (3) Costa. If Escude were healthy, this would look like a blowout; Escude love fast surfaces, and Costa hates them. How much has Escude's long injury cost him? And can Costa win indoors at all?
(6) Johansson vs. Ulihrach. This is the exact same situation as the previous match: A good indoor player who has been injured (Johansson) against an indoor-hater who is healthy. How well will Johansson come back?
Sanguinetti vs. Qualifier. Sanguinetti started the year hot, then cooled. How cool is cool?
Stoliarov (WC) vs. Qualifier. Stoliarov is a prospect well past his freshness date -- but he's Russian. Will that be enough to help him against a qualifier who, at any other tournament, would probably be better than he is?
Voltchkov (WC) vs. Kafelnikov. They played two weeks ago in the Tashkent final, and Kafelnikov won despite being hurt. Now Kafelnikov is healthier, and he's Russian -- but the court is faster, and there is nothing Voltchkov likes better than fast courts. Will it be enough of an equalizer?
In the second round, we'd want to watch Rios or Nieminen vs. Federer, Mirnyi or Bjorkman vs. Schuettler or Nalbandian, Schalken vs. Ferreira, El Aynaoui or Ljubicic vs. Escude or Costa. The quarterfinals are all great: Safin vs. Rios or Federer, Novak vs. Bjorkman or Mirnyi or Schuettler or Nalbandian, Schalken or Ferreira against Escude or El Aynaoui or Ljubicic or Costa, Johansson vs. Kafelnikov.
Just watch every match you can. You won't regret it.
We may see some fairly big rankings moves this week. Nicolas Kiefer was the Moscow finalist last year -- one of his few really decent results of 2001 -- and he isn't playing this year. That's going to hit his #65 ranking very hard indeed.
Defending champion Kafelnikov isn't all that much better off. A bad enough result, combined with a few other things, could possibly knock him out of the Top Ten. Even if it doesn't go that far, he probably has to defend his title to hold his current position.
Moscow semifinalists Tommy Haas and Dominik Hrbaty also look to be in trouble. Not only does Haas have points to defend this week, but he has Vienna to defend next week. Expect Andre Agassi to become #2 in the not-too-distant future. As for Hrbaty, he's looking at falling out of the Top Fifty.
Last year's Tokyo winner has no such problems; Lleyton Hewitt will stay #1 no matter what (though his point total is starting to look pretty weak). But finalist Michel Kratochvil could easily fall out of the Top Fifty, and semifinalists James Blake and (especially) Karol Kucera also find their rankings at risk.
Upward movement is a lot harder to predict. But we'd say someone at Tokyo will take a nice upward jump.