Men's Look Forward: Vienna, Lyon
Bob Larson's previews
Men's Look Forward: Vienna, Lyon
Into every top player's year there comes a moment when he has to put up or shut up. For Tommy Haas, that time is now.
Last year, there were six cases of players winning back to back titles -- and Haas's was the last of them; he won Vienna and Stuttgart. This year, there have been only two (Gaston Gaudio won Barcelona and Mallorca; Carlos Moya won Bastad and Umag.) Those two events represent a quarter of Haas's points, and are what is keeping him in the Top Five. If he's to make the Masters Cup this year, he needs big results around now. And Stuttgart isn't Stuttgart any more; it's been moved to Madrid. It's still indoors, but he won't have the same fan support.
Which makes Vienna that much more important for Haas, who hasn't won a title this year after having won four last year.
Other players in action this week, like Juan Carlos Ferrero and Carlos Moya, have titles this year, but they too have reason to come out and play: They want to qualify for the Masters Cup.
What all this adds up to is a pair of pretty strong optional events. Particularly at the top. Both Vienna and Lyon have a good quota of players in the top twelve or so, but get rather weaker below that.
Though that's small comfort to Haas, who at Vienna opens against Mikhail Youzhny. Youzhny hasn't been at his best since his injury this summer, but each week helps in cases like this. And Haas himself hasn't been in the best shape as a result of his bad arm.
Most of the other early matches are equally strong. Let's go down the list:
(1) Haas vs. Youzhny. Covered above.
Zabaleta vs. Melzer. Melzer is still a kid, but he's Austrian and starting to post good results. Zabaleta isn't that old himself, and seems to be on the rise -- but he likes clay.
(5) Novak vs. A. Martin. Novak hasn't been playing quite as well in the second half of the year as in the first, and indoors isn't really his surface. It isn't Martin's, either -- but the Spaniard gets enough balls back to cause trouble.
(3) Costa vs. Pavel. Costa wants to go to the Masters Cup, and is ranked higher. But Pavel is surely a better indoor player.
(7) Schalken vs. Kiefer. Kiefer's ranking is sagging again, but Schalken has just played five straight matches.
Blake vs. Spadea. Both just in from Tokyo. That probably hurts Spadea more, since he lasted longer. But Blake didn't look good over there....
(6) Federer vs. Malisse. Now we'll learn how far Federer has come since his tough summer! He fell rather tamely to Marat Safin in Moscow; can he throw that off?
Jarkko Nieminen vs. Tommy Robredo. Young talent everywhere. Nieminen perhaps likes indoors better.
Lapentti vs. (5) Novak. The very fact that Lapentti is unseeded tells you how strong this event is.
Schuettler (or Hrbaty) vs. (3) Costa or Pavel. Rainer Schuettler likes modern surfaces, and he makes you pay if you're sloppy.
Koubek vs. (8) Nalbandian. Nalbandian really doesn't like indoors. Koubek also prefers clay, and his ranking is low -- but he's Austrian.
Dent vs. (4) Moya. Remember, this is an indoor court. Good for Dent, bad for Moya. And Moya has more on the line (as in, a chance at the Masters Cup).
Kratochvil vs. (2) Ferrero. Ferrero is the better player, and Kratochvil is slumping -- but the surface favors Kratochvil.
Lyon can't claim quite as many big names at the top, but it's if anything stronger in the middle. The top seed is Marat Safin, still looking for that first title of 2002; the #2 seed is Yevgeny Kafelnikov, coming off his first loss in Moscow in six years. The other Top Ten player here is #3 Sebastien Grosjean, looking to a French crowd to get him back on track after a rather difficult year. The event is also big for #4 seed Thomas Johansson, who is making his last run at a place in the Masters Cup.
The next two seeds, Younes El Aynaoui and Fernando Gonzalez, are players with tools that should work indoors but whose best success has been on slow courts. The final two seeds, though, are both big servers: #7 Max Mirnyi, who next week has to defend big points at Madrid, and #8 Ivan Ljubicic, who is on an even shorter deadline: He's the defending Lyon champion, so he has to earn points now.
Let's again go down the draw and look at the matches.
(1) Safin vs. Gasquet (WC). It isn't often that Marat Safin has reason to feel old, but this may be an exception as he faces teenager Gasquet. Obviously it's Safin's match to win or lose -- but the crowd will definitely have something to say.
Arthurs vs. Vicente. Big server vs. clay courter. The surface should help Arthurs. Will it help enough?
Kuerten vs. (5) El Aynaoui. That's right, El Aynaoui is seeded and Kuerten isn't. Neither one likes the surface much. It may not be a great indoor match -- but it could well be very close. In defense of both players, we note that El Aynaoui reached the final last year, and of course Kuerten won the Masters Cup two years ago.
(3) Grosjean vs. Pioline (WC). Those wildcards didn't get much luck in the draw, did they? The crowd presumably will be neutral. Which is bad news for Pioline, who got the wildcard only because Paul-Henri Mathieu is in as a special exempt.
Acasuso vs. (6) Gonzalez. More young clay talent. Gonzalez has had better results, and more experience, on non-clay surfaces -- but Acasuso has been improving fast.
(7) Mirnyi vs. Olivier Rochus. The best way to beat Mirnyi is to make him play a lot of balls, testing his ground game and exploiting his tendency to wear down when he has to work hard. Mirnyi is big enough to make two of Rochus. Can the Beast of Belarus exploit his big edge in power before he wears down?
Gambill vs. Bjorkman. Big serve and return with no mobility versus weak serve, good net game, and good return. If both are on, this could provide a nice stylistic contrast.
Boutter vs. Mathieu. Both French. Boutter loves fast courts. But if Moscow is any indication, Mathieu does too. Mathieu will come in tired -- but he's young.
Santoro vs. (4) Johansson. French touchmaster against a big hitter. Johansson has struggled since his injury, but Santoro has been struggling too. Johansson has more motivation -- he wants to make the Masters Cup.
Clement vs. (6) Gonzalez. Clement likes indoor surfaces, and he's French. Neither description applies to Gonzalez. Can the Frenchman's speed control the Chilean's power?
(7) Mirnyi vs. Bjorkman. We say this exact matchup in the Moscow first round. Our description then still fits: 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). Bjorkman won in Moscow, but it was a very close match indeed.
Boutter or Mathieu vs. Santoro or Johansson. Tentatively, our pick of the tournament for match we most want to watch. We'd really like to see Mathieu vs. Santoro -- but all the combinations are good.
Escude vs. (2) Kafelnikov. Escude came back fairly strong at Moscow. He's had another week to get in form. And he loves indoor surfaces. And he's French. Watch out!
The Rankings. It's crunch time for a lot of folks. A clunker here will drop Tommy Haas from #2 to #4. As for Ivan Ljubicic, #37 coming in, he could find himself around #50 if he loses early.
Guaranteed to drop is Guillermo Canas, last year's Vienna finalist, who is still recovering from a stress fracture in his wrist. Also in potential trouble is Younes El Aynaoui, last year's surprise Lyon finalist. He has lots of other points available, though, so it likely won't hurt him much. Canas, by contrast, is just about sure to lose a spot or two.
But the big news at this point is surely the ATP Race, not the rankings. Last week, the Top Ten changed not at all. Indeed, of the guys in the Top Twenty, only Sjeng Schalken made a real move, and he's too far back to be a real threat.
It's hard to imagine that situation continuing this week. Right now, we have four guys who are pretty well set for the Masters Cup (Hewitt and Agassi have officially clinched, and Safin and Ferrero look unassailable.) Henman, Moya, and Costa are next up, and then there is the Grand Slam Wildcard. But Tommy Haas is only five points behind Costa, and Roger Federer is only 33 back.
Costa will go to the Masters Cup, either as a direct entry or the Grand Slam wildcard. If he goes in directly (unlikely but possible), then Thomas Johansson needs to overtake Pete Sampras to get the wildcard.
Thus we have Tim Henman (not playing this week), Carlos Moya, Tommy Haas, Andy Roddick (also not playing), Thomas Johansson, Pete Sampras (out for the rest of the indoor season), and even Jiri Novak with chances for, but no guarantees of, spots in the Masters Cup -- and a few guys lower down who still have an outside shot if they can win Madrid or Paris. There is a lot to look forward to.