Men's Preview: Week of April 11
Men's Look Forward: Monte Carlo
It's a good thing this week's clay Masters wasn't in Rome; they would never have pulled it off. (It's likely to be crazy enough three weeks from now!) Monte Carlo is in mourning also, for Prince Rainer, but at least the country hasn't been overwhelmed by pilgrims; the organizers vow the event will go on as scheduled.
And they do have one reason to rejoice: Roger Federer is actually playing. It's been three years since he made it to Monte Carlo, so this will be the first time he plays it as the world's #1.
One has to suspect a certain amount of ATP pressure behind that, because otherwise it's a fairly typical Monte Carlo field: not quite all there. Lleyton Hewitt is letting his surgically repaired toe heal, and Andy Roddick is resting is bad wrist, so Marat Safin takes the #2 seed. Tim Henman is #3; Gaston Gaudio is our first true clay player and is seeded #4. Carlos Moya, the 1998 champion and 2002 finalist (and a semifinalist for the last two years) is seeded #5 and is in Safin's quarter. David Nalbandian is missing, so defending champion Guillermo Coria gets the #6 seed; he is in Henman's quarter. Andre Agassi of course isn't here -- he hasn't played Monte Carlo since 1998, and has only won two matches in his career at this tournament -- meaning that we have only six of the Top Ten in the field. It also means that we have a rather un-clay-like #7 and #8 seeds: Joachim Johansson is #7 and in Federer's quarter (a nice draw for the top seed, that); Ivan Ljubicic is #8 and in Gaudio's quarter.
Guillermo Canas takes the #9 seed and would face Moya in the Round of 16. Tommy Robredo isn't playing, so Nikolay Davydenko is #10 and would face Joachim Johansson if the Swede can win two matches. Tommy Haas is also skipping the event, so Rafael Nadal will enjoy his new Top 20 status as the #11 seed; he would face Gaudio in the third round. Nicolas Massu is still not ready to play, giving the #12 spot to Thomas Johansson -- another clay hater, and he's in Coria's eighth of the draw. The #13 seed is Mario Ancic's; he's supposed to face Federer in the Round of Sixteen. And that's it for last week's Top 20. Mikhail Youzhny isn't playing, letting last weeks #22 Dominik Hrbaty earn the #14 position; he's to face Henman in the Round of Sixteen. Pals Radek Stepanek and Jiri Novak have the #15 and #16 seeds; thus we have 16 of the top 24 players in the field.
If the Top 25 didn't exactly turn out in force, though, things are pretty strong below that; we're missing some Americans such as Taylor Dent and Mardy Fish, but nearly everyone else who is eligible is in the field. (Of last week's Top 40, the only names other than the eight above who are missing the event are Dent, Andrei Pavel, and Sebastien Grosjean.) Which meant that we have some pretty big-name wildcards. Gael Monfils of course won't have to play qualifying (he'll probably die of shock if anyone ever turns down his request for a wildcard). Plus former champion Juan Carlos Ferrero was given direct entry -- one can only hope he's regained enough form to take some advantage. Other wildcards went to Paul-Henri Mathieu and Jean-Rene Lisnard.
Gustavo Kuerten will be playing his first required event of the year. Younes El Aynaoui will also be trying to get back on track after injury.
Noteworthy First Round Matches
In a way, the relative weakness at the top of the draw actually helps in this regard: We have lots and lots of strong unseeded players, and a weak crop of seeds. Nearly every match has something impressive about it:
(1) Federer vs. Rusedski. Not exactly a great Rusedski surface -- but Federer has confessed that he doesn't feel very comfortable returning on clay.
El Aynaoui vs. Montanes. Once again, El Aynaoui gets stuck playing a clay expert in the first round.
Verdasco vs. Gonzalez. Gonzalez just missed seeding. Verdasco is a solid young clay prospect, and he's a lot steadier than the Chilean. This one could offer real fireworks.
Kuerten vs. (13) Ancic. Ancic is a Croat, so he knows clay despite that big serve of his. Of course, Kuerten knows clay, too. The question -- which Valencia didn't really answer -- is how much the Brazilian has left.
(10) Davydenko vs. Melzer. Last week, Davydenko lost to Albert Costa. And he could face him in the second round. Will the Russian have adapted any better to clay? And can he deal with all the different stuff Melzer can throw at him?
Llodra vs. Costa. Llodra likes fast courts, and Costa slow, but there will likely be a lot more Frenchmen than Spaniards in the crowd.
Schuettler vs. Kiefer. An all-German match as Schuettler defends his one big result of 2004.
Spadea vs. Stepanek. The surface is more natural for Stepanek, but Spadea made the semifinal here two years ago, and he's about due for another big Masters result.
(11) Nadal vs. Monfils. Talk about a match between fast-rising players! Nadal has been hot, but he ran out of gas at Valencia. Has he had time to recover? On the other hand, Monfils to date has seemed to have a slight preference for faster surfaces. Maybe.
Chela vs. Malisse. On this surface, the edge it probably to Chela. But who knows what could happen if Malisse actually pulls out his best play?
Berdych vs. Horna. Youth versus middle age, with both liking clay. Both did better in 2004 than they've been doing so far this year.
Olivier Rochus vs. (8) Ljubicic. Both players are having the best years of their careers. Both have tended to like faster surfaces. They obviously bring very different tools to the courts. This could be another great one -- or it could be a Ljubicic blowout.
(6) Coria vs. Mathieu. Coria really, really should win this, but who knows what sort of shape he's in these days.
Starace vs. A. Martin. Two standard-model clay players. Odds are that no one will pay much attention -- except that the winner plays Thomas Johansson.
Lisnard vs. T. Johansson. Wouldn't you know: The weakest player in the field faces the most clay-hating seed. This is a "somebody-has-to-win-it" match.
(14) Hrbaty vs. Ferrer. The Spaniard has been very hot. Both like clay. It will probably take forever even if it's a blowout, but it could well be a nailbiter.
Soderling vs. Santoro. We haven't seen Robin Soderling for a while, and clay doesn't do much for his game, and Santoro is sneaky anyway. But the Frenchman is no great fan of clay either, and Soderling has a lot more weapons.
Zabaleta vs. (3) Henman. A good clay player against a high seed -- what more could you want?
(5) Moya vs. Puerta. If Puerta keeps playing the way he has played this spring, this just might be interesting.
Andreev vs. (9) Canas. Andreev fades in and out fast, and he'll be tired. Canas is always pretty close to the same level. How this turns out depends a lot on Andreev.
(16) Novak vs. Mirnyi. Should be a blowout, given the surface. Interesting contrast, though.
Ferrero vs. Karlovic. Another contrast of weapons. It's nice to see that Ferrero at least gets a draw where he has a chance.
Lee vs. (2) Safin. The Korean doesn't like clay at all. But Safin seems to be in I-can-lose-to-anyone mode right now.
You of course know how this starts: There will be no movement at the top. Roger Federer's #1 ranking is in absolutely no danger, and indeed, he can only increase his lead. Lleyton Hewitt is also secure at #2, though he's defending some points and will lose a small fraction of his lead.
We do have a contest at #3, though: Marat Safin has semifinalist points to defend, but he's barely behind Andy Roddick; if he can make the final, he'll be #3. No matter what he does, he's safe at #4.
Below that, we have our usual contest for the #5 spot. Right now, Tim Henman has it, but he has quarterfinalist points to defend, which means that Gaston Gaudio has the slight lead in safe points -- and, of course, he's the clay guy. #7 Carlos Moya is also vaguely in the contest, but he has semifinalist points to defend and is about 250 points off the pace. He'll need at least a semifinal to move up, and that's if Gaudio and Henman both lose early; odds are he'll need a final. He needs to reach the Round of Sixteen just to stay ahead of Andre Agassi.
Agassi himself is just about guaranteed to move above his current #10, because he didn't play last year, and the three players ahead of him -- Moya, David Nalbandian, and Guillermo Coria -- all have big points. Coria is the defending champion, Moya was the semifinalist, and Nalbandian was a quarterfinalist. Our guess is that Agassi will move up to at least #9 and probably #8, with Nalbandian falling to #9 or #10.
And there is a real contest for the final Top Ten spot. Coria came in at #9, but with champion's points on the line; he's #14 in safe points. Joachim Johansson is currently #10 in safe points, but he hates clay. Guillermo Canas is about a hundred points behind the Swede, but he likes clay, so he has a genuine chance. Ivan Ljubicic is also in the mix, though he has third round points to defend and would need a semifinal to pass Johansson. Even Coria has an outside shot -- but he would probably need a final to have any chance of staying Top Ten.
Three guys who aren't even close to the Top Ten also have big points to defend: Rainer Schuettler made the final last year; that's over a third of his points. An early loss could drop him to the #60 range. Alberto Martin was a quarterfinalist; he beat Canas and Grosjean and Calleri to get there. He too could end in the #60 range with an early loss. Nikolay Davydenko, also a quarterfinalist, has a lot more points in the bank, but if he goes down early, he could well end up near the bottom of the Top 20.
If we organize this by rankings contests, as above, the big one is the semifinal, theoretically Safin vs. Henman. In practice, it might well be Safin vs. Coria. If Safin wins that, he's #3 in the world. But there are a few obstacles in the way: His first two rounds aren't bad at all (Lee, then Srichaphan or Saulnier; even Safin in sleep mode might win those on clay), but then comes Jiri Novak (or, just maybe, Juan Carlos Ferrero), then Moya or Canas. Safin will have to get himself up for the latter of those matches at least.
And that quarterfinal is big for Moya, too, since he has to win it to have any chance to move up. If he wants even to stay where he is, he has to beat Puerta, then the slowly-coming-back-to-life Florian Mayer. Possibly the best match in that entire quarter, though, will be the Moya versus Canas Round of Sixteen.
If Tim Henman wants to stay #5, he has to win at least two matches -- Zabaleta, then Santoro or Soderling. Those he might be able to handle. Dominik Hrbaty or David Ferrer in the third round is tougher. Then comes Coria. And if Henman loses that, then he needs Gaudio to lose by the Round of Sixteen. Since the Argentine's draw consists of a qualifier, then Kiefer or Schuettler, then Stepanek or Calleri, that doesn't seem all that likely.
The most important of those matches in the Grand Scheme of Things may be the second, against Schuettler or Kiefer, because even if Schuettler beats his countryman, that's the one that's likely to drop him from the Top 50.
Our other guy with big points on the line, Coria, has a much easier path to almost everything: Mathieu, who likes his surfaces faster; a qualifier or Beck, who likes his surfaces faster. Then, theoretically, Thomas Johansson, who likes his surfaces faster, except that Potito Starace or Alberto Martin is likely to upset him. Then Tim Henman, who -- you guessed it -- likes his surfaces faster. Coria could hardly hope for a better path to his semifinal with Safin.
Federer is also fortunate in that regard: Rusedski, then Montanes (or El Aynaoui). Theoretically, he should face Ancic next, but it seems likely that it will be Gonzalez or Verdasco or maybe Kuerten. Then, on paper, Joachim Johansson; in practice probably Costa or Davydenko. Then Gaudio.
None of which actually affects his ranking, of course. But Federer does have some fairly big points coming up -- Hamburg and Wimbledon titles, among others. Every point he earns here raises the hurdle his opponents have to clear to catch up with him. And it's already just about the highest bar in ATP history. With nothing to defend, he has nothing but opportunity ahead of him this week.
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Kuerten waits again to sabotage Federer claycourt dream
Apr 9, 2005
MONACO (AFP) - Gustavo Kuerten, who destroyed Roger Federer's dream of securing an elusive French Open title last year, stands in the world number one's way of enjoying a flying start to the European claycourt season here this week.
Federer returns to the Monte Carlo Masters for the first time in three years to find Kuerten lying in wait as a possible third round opponent - less then 12 months after the Brazilian, a triple French Open champion, swept him aside at Roland Garros.
Federer, who has won the first two Masters events of the year on the fast, hard courts of Indian Wells and Key Biscayne, is in awesome form - he has five titles already this year.
His win, from two sets and 4-1 down against Rafael Nadal in Florida last Sunday, took his record for 2005 to 32 wins from 33 matches, his only blemish being his Australian Open semi-final loss to Marat Safin in January.
"The points on clay are a little longer than on other surfaces. So there's more endurance. I'll definitely work," said Federer.
"But there's only so much you can do before the French Open. You always have to watch out. My potential relies very much on my explosiveness. I've got to use that on clay as well."
Federer can certainly play on clay - he has won the Hamburg Masters title twice to hammer home the point - but his rivals know that if his aura of near-invincibility is to be shattered, their best chances will come on the dead-slow European surface between now and June.
"I know I have got the game for clay, and I know I can hang tough now for five sets without a problem, where in the past maybe that wasn't always the case.
"So I'm looking forward to the challenge," added Federer who starts his campaign here against big-serving Briton Greg Rusedski.
Kuerten, who won here in 1999 and 2001, takes on Croatian 13th seed Mario Ancic in the first round but is still struggling for fitness after missing seven months because of a second hip operation.
He made his comeback in Valencia last week where he reached the second round, but the popular 28-year-old believes he is a long way from full fitness.
"I still have a long way to go, I feel really good and I think it will be possible. My game is really going to improve," said Kuerten.
"I have changed a few techniques to see if I feel better on the court."
The Monte Carlo Masters is missing world number two Andy Roddick, who has a wrist injury, as well as number three Lleyton Hewitt who is sidelined with an injured toe.
Andre Agassi is also absent, not too surprising since the American hasn't stopped off here since 1998.
Safin has been his usual mercurial self since winning his second Grand Slam in Australia following up that triumph with a first round loss in Dubai and two third round exits at Indian Wells and Key Biscayne.
The Russian is seeded two here and starts against South Korea's Lee Hyung-Taik while Britain's Tim Henman, who made the French Open semi-finals in 2004, is seeded three and faces Argentina's Mariano Zabaleta.
French Open champion Gaston Gaudio of Argentina is the fourth seed and faces a qualifier while countryman Guillermo Coria, the defending champion, faces French wildcard Paul-Henri Mathieu.
One of the more intriguing first round clashes will see Nadal, tipped as a French Open bet this year, facing French wildcard Gael Monfils, who won three legs of the junior Grand Slam in 2004.
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Federer braced for clay-court backlash
Star would like to prove he can excel on surface
April 9, 2005
MONTE CARLO - Roger Federer rolls into Monte Carlo next week looking to continue his dominance of men’s tennis with a fourth consecutive Masters Series victory.
advertisementAfter winning the Masters Cup in Houston to cap a breathtaking 2004, the Swiss phenomenon has been virtually unbeatable this year and claimed back-to-back Masters Series titles in Indian Wells and Miami.
With just one defeat, in the semifinal of the Australian Open, since last year’s Olympics, Federer has established an aura of invincibility not seen since Pete Sampras was at his peak.
The start of the European clay-court season, however, could level the playing field, with a long list of baseline grinders lining up for a shot at the quadruple grand slam winner.
The 23-year-old Federer already has two Wimbledons under his belt, along with an Australian and a U.S. Open title, although he will be well aware that clay has proved a sticky surface for some of the game’s greatest players.
Federer, though, beat Argentina’s Guillermo Coria to win the Hamburg Masters last year and, unlike Sampras, has the all-court game to claim a French Open title.
The glitzy surrounds of the Monte Carlo Country Club will provide an early clue as to Federer’s chances at Roland Garros.
He took a week off after beating Spain’s Rafael Nadal in the final of the Nasdaq-100 and will need his batteries fully charged to come through a draw loaded with Argentines and Spaniards.
Coria, the 2004 champion, leads the Argentine challenge along with French Open champion Gaston Gaudio, while the 19-year-old Spaniard Nadal, who led Federer two sets to love in Miami, will be a formidable obstacle.
World No. 3 Andy Roddick,
Australian Open champion Marat Safin and Briton Tim Henman add weight to a high-quality draw, although Safin’s upbringing on Spanish claycourts makes him the better bet of that trio.
Brazil’s Gustavo Kuerten and Spaniard Juan Carlos-Ferrero will arrive at Monte Carlo with fond memories, having both won the title twice.
However Kuerten, winner in 1999 and 2001, was thrashed on his return from a hip injury in Valencia last week and Ferrero, winner in 2002 and 2003, was humbled by Nadal at the same tournament.