Bob Larson's Cincinatti Preview
Men's Look Forward: Cincinnati
Perhaps the most astonishing thing we can say about Cincinnati is, It looks even tougher than Toronto.
Some of that is geography. The U. S. has a bigger field of strong wildcards (e.g. Jan-Michael Gambill, Taylor Dent) to put in the draw. It's also more attractive to the Andre Agassis of the world. But most of it seems to just be the way things worked out in the draw. First round matches between Agassi and Younes El Aynaoui, Tim Henman and Gustavo Kuerten, Pete Sampras and Guillermo Canas, Marat Safin and Greg Rusedski... the list just doesn't end. There are only two sorts of opponents in this draw: Tough ones, and qualifiers (who may also be tough).
And there is extra incentive to do well here, because this is the event that largely decide the U. S. Open seeds. Oh, Indianapolis and Washington will influence the seeds -- but they're optional events and they carry only half as many points. There will doubtless be a few small ranking shifts after this week, but quote possible that every seeding tier will be fixed this week.
With so many great matches, let's just look at each seed's draw and see what we find.
#1 Lleyton Hewitt is spending more time under a microscope than an anthrax spore after losing to Felix Mantilla last week. He has what ought to be a nice little draw, starting with a qualifier and then either Jonas Bjorkman or Davide Sanguinetti. But, of course, we thought that at Toronto -- and look what happened. His chances still look good, but you can't take anything for granted at an event like this....
#2 Marat Safin's draw isn't as bad as last week's (though Guillermo Canas is in his eighth again...), but it isn't great, either. He'll start against Greg Rusedski, and this time Rusedski won't be playing in Canada. Both, of course, serve bombs. Both have mental problems. The edge, on this surface, is probably to Safin, since he's better off the ground. But it's probably heart, not groundstrokes, that will settle this one. And the second round won't be much better; next up is either Todd Martin or the steady clay-courter Tommy Robredo. If the weather isn't too extreme, Martin certainly has the head to give Safin problems.
#3 Tommy Haas just had a long and wearing week, and all on a bad shoulder. It seemed to be fine in Toronto -- but the time off may just give it more time to stiffen up. The good news is, he opens against Michael Chang, and Chang needed a wildcard to get in. After that, it's either clay-courter Fernando Vicente or wildcard Jeff Morrison. If Haas can play the way he did in Toronto, he should have no trouble.
What can you say about #4 Tim Henman's draw? He opens against defending champion Gustavo Kuerten -- unseeded for the second Masters Series in a row. This is a rerun of last year's semifinal. We hate to use the overused word "huge" -- but this is huge. For Henman, a loss here means losing the #4 seed at the U. S. Open. For Kuerten, it means, in all likelihood, not getting seeded at all at the year's final Slam. After that, facing Arnaud Clement or Fernando Gonzalez in the second round must feel like an anticlimax. And yet, Clement in particular loves this sort of surface, and he's actually playing fairly well again.
#5 Yevgeny Kafelnikov is running out of time. He really needs to get the juices flowing, and it hasn't happened yet. He opens against Rainer Schuettler, and Schuettler is enjoying his best career year. Plus he gets a lot of balls back, which cannot but increase Kafelnikov's frustration. The winner of that faces the winner of Jan-Michael Gambill vs. Magnus Norman. Gambill didn't earn direct entry, but he showed at Los Angeles that he still has it on hardcourts. Norman -- well, if we were him, we'd have used his injury exemptions to get into some tournaments where he has better chances; he doesn't look like much of a threat here. But presumably he'll get it together one of these days.
#6 Andre Agassi may have learned some sort of lesson last year, when he won Los Angeles but then lost at both the Canadian Open and Cincinnati. This time, he didn't bother with the trip to Toronto. It cost him a fair bit of cash (well, a fair bit of cash by our standards; perhaps not by his) -- but it's not likely to hurt his ranking; he has nowhere to go this week but up. And while he has a couple of tough opponents -- Younes El Aynaoui and then Juan Ignacio Chela or a qualifier -- they're mostly clay-courters.
#7 Albert Costa also has some clay experts in his section; he starts against Nicolas Lapentti (who came so very close against Andy Roddick last week). Then it's either Mariano Zabaleta or Wayne Ferreira. Ordinarily, one might say the odds favor Ferreira -- but he's on a four-match losing streak at this event, and has only once made the quarterfinal. If there is an explanation, we haven't heard it.
#8 Juan Carlos Ferrero continues to play below himself, and that could well spell trouble. In the first round, he plays a qualifier -- but in the second round, it will be either James Blake or Andrei Pavel. Pavel just took a dive in the rankings, but his game is still solid. And it was here, just a year ago, that Blake suddenly hit the big time. It would be a nice time to take another step forward.
It would be nice for #9 Thomas Johansson, too, who has finally seen reality catch up with him: He's no longer Top Ten (let alone Top Eight) in the ATP Race. He might still make it to the Masters Cup, but if he can't pick it up soon, he'll be dependent on the grace of Albert Costa: He'll only get to the Cup if Costa doesn't get the Grand Slam wildcard. Johansson will open against Taylor Dent, probably the hottest of the American wildcards right now. After that, it will be a complete change of pace as he faces either Marcelo Rios or Gaston Gaudio -- both tough clay players, both inconsistent for day to day. Rios is the sort of guy to drive Johansson crazy, though he can also melt down fast.
For Roger Federer, anything he does here is a bonus. But will he do anything? He's looked pretty horrid lately -- and he opens against big-serving Ivan Ljubicic, meaning that he'll have to raise his level if he wants to go anywhere. (Plus Ljubicic was a quarterfinalist here last year, so he wants to do well.) The winner of that will face either big-serving Julien Boutter or smooth-returning Xavier Malisse. Federer at his best is better than any of his potential opponents. But Federer seemed to leave his best somewhere on the court at Hamburg....
#11 Sebastien Grosjean, like Federer, isn't defending anything. Like Federer, he isn't playing well. But he at least gets a fairly easy opening match by Masters Series standards: He opens against Dominik Hrbaty. But then the bad news hits like a ton of bricks (which is a pretty good description of a Thomas Enqvist forehand): all that stands between Enqvist, the 2000 champion and a semifinalist two other years, and Grosjean is Stefan Koubek. Grosjean can run rings around Enqvist -- but, lately, power has been more than the Frenchman can handle.
#12 Andy Roddick seems at last to have gotten his ranking unstuck from the #12-#14 range; he's in the Top Ten for the first time. Now he has to see how he fares in one of the greatest tests in men's tennis: Back-to-back Masters Series. And he will face a real contrast in his early opponents: First Michel Kratochvil (another player who likes hardcourts), then big Max Mirnyi, assuming Mirnyi can handle Nicolas Kiefer. Mirnyi can serve with Roddick, and both have problems on the return, and Mirnyi likes getting in a lot more. Obviously it will be a slugfest. It could well be a very close slugfest.
#13 Jiri Novak, Roddick's semifinal opponent at Toronto, is also taking big, long-legged strides. And he's going to face a path like Roddick's in reverse: First the big server, then the guy with all the shots. Novak opens against Richard Krajicek, who didn't look too good at Toronto but who has now had another week to practice. Then it's Fabrice "How Did He Do That?" Santoro or a qualifier. We don't expect that one to be on television -- but it should be.
#14 David Nalbandian seems to have turned into a fast-courter. That could be good news in his opening match, where he faces Jarkko Nieminin. Nieminen, so far, has been happiest on clay this year. But it's a tough match between top young prospects. The winner faces Bohdan Ulihrach (more a threat on clay than here) or a qualifier.
#15 Pete Sampras lost at Cincinnati to Tommy Haas. Haas lost to Guillermo Canas. Does that mean Sampras will lose to Canas? Not automatically, especially since Canas had a very long week. But even though Canas is unseeded, he's now ranked higher than Sampras, and has lapped Sampras in Race points this year. Talk about a tough start to the draw! The winner will get to face a qualifier.
#16 Carlos Moya also opens against a qualifier, but then life gets tough. In the second round, it's either Felix Mantilla, who beat Lleyton Hewitt at Toronto, or Sjeng Schalken, on the best ride of his career. Moya has been having a solid year, but mostly on clay; Schalken has a very good shot here.
It's hardly even worth discussing the matchups if the seeds hold, since very many won't hold, but the theoretical matchups would be
(1) Hewitt vs. (14) Nalbandian -- Wimbledon rematch
(11) Grosjean vs. (6) Agassi -- Agassi hot, Grosjean not
(4) Henman vs. (13) Novak -- at least Henman is rested
(12) Roddick vs. (7) Costa -- if Roddick isn't too tired, he has a huge hardcourt edge
(5) Kafelnikov vs. (10) Federer -- Whose slump is worse?
(16) Moya vs. (3) Haas -- Can Haas keep serving as well as he did?
(8) Ferrero vs. (9) Johansson -- Can someone break out?
(15) Sampras vs. (2) Safin -- Will Safin face Sampras, or a rematch with Canas?
Past champions in the draw include Andre Agassi (1995, 1996), Michael Chang (1993, 1994), Thomas Enqvist (2000), Gustavo Kuerten (2001), and Pete Sampras (1992, 1997, 1999). But Chang is not a factor this year, and Sampras may not be much of one. Kuerten is still struggling with his hip. Enqvist has been solid but not at his best. On the whole, current results look more important than past experience. Which makes it a mildly top-heavy draw, with Hewitt and Agassi both in the top quarter.
The Rankings Toronto didn't do much at the top, but it had significant effects on the players below #4. Andy Roddick, for instance, hit the Top Ten, and Guillermo Canas the Top Fifteen. The story at Cincinnati is likely to be about the same. Lleyton Hewitt was a semifinalist last year, but his lead is so large that he can't possibly be threatened -- indeed, it looks like he'll probably be safe even if he goes out early at the U. S. Open.
The #2 ranking is being contested only by Marat Safin and Tommy Haas, with neither having much to defend (Safin lost first round last year to Canas, and Haas in the second to Kuerten). Haas has to reach at least the final to pass Safin.
Haas is fairly safe at #3. Only Yevgeny Kafelnikov has a shot at him, and only if he wins.
The first player in real danger is Tim Henman; although he and Kafelnikov come in with the same score, Henman has semifinalist points to Kafelnikov's quarterfinalist points. And Andre Agassi, with nothing to defend, could catch up to them with a good result.
Below #6, they're fairly bunched up; eight players are within 500 points of Albert Costa's #7 ranking. The biggest potential mover is Roddick, who lost in the first round last year to Kuerten. If he holds seed, he'll probably reach #8; a quarterfinal might get him to #7.
In addition to Kuerten, who will probably fall out of the Top Thirty if he loses to Henman, the guys with the most on the line are Patrick Rafter, last year's finalist, whose ranking naturally is falling fast; last year's semifinalist Henman, who could end up at #6 but probably not lower; and Hewitt, the other semifinalist, who is safe in his ranking. The 2001 quarterfinalists were Kafelnikov, Jan-Michael Gambill, Ivan Ljubicic, and Greg Rusedski; this is particularly important for the last three.