Men's Look Forward: Week of January 5
Men's Look Forward: Week of January 5
Posted on 1/4/2004 at 2:12 PM
Men's Look Forward: Doha, Adelaide, Chennai
Even more than any other time, this is the period when one looks back and says, "He won that?"
Case very much in point: Doha and Stefan Koubek. You may, if you're attentive, recall that Koubek had a great January way back sometime. But last January? Was it really that recent?
Well, you're probably thinking of his Australian Open run two years ago, but in fact Koubek's January 2003 nearly equalled that outcome. Koubek beat Nicolas Escude in the first round, Younes El Aynaoui in the semifinal, and Jan-Michael Gambill in the final to win the title of his life.
Unfortunately, he then turned back into his old self, and did almost nothing for the rest of the year: Despite winning a very big title, he ended 2003 below #50, and with about 40% of his points to defend in the first week of the year. A complete washout could leave him around #80.
The other two winners at this time last year aren't in quite such trouble. When Nikolay Davydenko won Adelaide, it told the world that this young Russian had finally arrived -- but he would win another title in the course of 2003, so although an early loss could cause him to fall below #50, it won't be quite as devastating. As for Paradorn Srichaphan, the Chennai winner, he has enough other results on his record that he should stay safely in the Top 16 -- which, of course, is what counts right now, because the rankings after this week will be used to seed the Australian Open.
Despite the importance of the week, the tournaments which open the year are never particularly strong. The main reason is probably geography. Doha is played on Rebound Ace, and it's at the top of the optional event scale in terms of points and prize money -- but it's a half dozen time zones west (the bad direction) of Melbourne. Chennai also is far to the west. That leaves Adelaide as the only ATP event close to where players want to be. And even it has to contend with the drain represented by Hopman Cup and exhibitions.
And Australian tournaments seem to have their pride. Since Australians actually like tennis, they are willing to watch whoever turns out. And so Adelaide doesn't feel the need to pay big appearance fees. The price is a field relatively lacking in big names. Topping the field is Wayne Ferreira; Vincent Spadea is the #2 seed. Arnaud Clement is #3, Robby Ginepri #4, Taylor Dent #5, Jarkko Nieminen #6, Alberto Martin #7, and Nicolas Lapentti #8. (David Nalbandian was supposed to be the top seed, but his continuing wrist problems forced him to pull out.)
Ironically, the real strength of this field lies in the unseeded players. Guillermo Canas, who hardly played last year due to injury, opens against Raemon Sluiter for the right to face Ferreira; Sluiter certainly has had more match practice lately, but the slow surface surely helps Canas. Greg Rusedski won't be too thrilled with Rebound Ace either, but he opens against a qualifier with the winner likely to face Ginepri. And 2002 Australian Open champion Thomas Johansson is here as a wildcard; he'll face Christophe Rochus for the right to face Clement.
Australia's hopes are borne largely by a pair of wildcards, Todd Reid (who is likely to be thumped by Ferreira) and Wayne Arthurs, whose singles results have fallen badly even as he's turned into a top doubles player. He will play a huge-serving battle against Ivo Karlovic for the right to face Spadea.
Also of note is the first round matches which pits attacking Weslie Moodie against defensive expert Jarkko Nieminen.
And, of course, this is the tournament where Patrick Rafter makes his sort-of-comeback: He will join Joshua Eagle in a match against Mark Merklein and Vincent Spadea. Given that Rafter is a past Slam champion, and Eagle a pretty good doubles player, they might even have a chance -- though top seeds the Bryan Twins will be the obvious favorites.
Doha may not have all the field you would expect of the year's first bonus tournament, but its large purse does bring it at least one reward: The world's #1 player. Andy Roddick, who after last year's Masters Cup can feel Roger Federer's breath on his tail, is here to see what he can do about building some breathing space in the rankings.
He will emphatically have his work cut out for him. If they gave tournaments nicknames, you might find the players calling this one "lousy-draws-for-seeds." There are two players in this draw defending titleist points, and both of them are facing top seeds. That's especially tough for Roddick, who opens against last year's Adelaide champion Nikolay Davydenko. The surface won't help, either; the slow court will blunt his serve a little, and Davydenko is quite good at getting to balls.
It won't get much easier after that. In the second round, Roddick will face either Jonas Bjorkman, whose returns could rattle the Roddick serve and whose net game could test his groundstrokes, or Radek Stepanek, who has developed a nice all-around game and could well find a weakness if there is one to be found.
The #2 seed is Rainer Schuettler, who has only two more chances to put points in the bank before his Australian Open final comes off. He of course likes Rebound Ace very much, and this tournament is full of good memories for him -- he won his first title here in 1999, and made the final the year after. But he too has a tough draw which sees him start against a young Russian: He will open against Mikhail Youzhny. He may be a little luckier in his second round match: He'll face either Gregory Carraz (who rose fast last fall, but how much better can such a long-time journeyman get?) or Sargis Sargsian.
The #3 seed is a bit shocking: Mark Philippoussis is playing here rather than in Adelaide. Money is probably the biggest reason for that -- but the surface may play a role, too. It's an ironic fact that Australia's national surface, Rebound Ace, is not very suitable for most of her players. Lleyton Hewitt likes the stuff well enough, but Philippoussis likes things faster, and so does Wayne Arthurs, and was perhaps the worst surface for Patrick Rafter, and the Woodies were at their best in doubles on grass. The female Australians are the same way: Alicia Molik likes things faster, and their top doubles player, Rennae Stubbs, clearly prefers quicker surfaces. So Philippoussis may be here for money -- but the prospect of a speedier surface can't hurt.
It's still Rebound Ace, though. And Philippoussis, like Roddick, must contend with a defending title-holder -- in this case, the Doha title-holder himself, Stefan Koubek. If the court is slow enough, that just might be interesting. The winner will likely have an easier time in the second round; he'll face Hyung-Taik Lee or a qualifier.
#4 seed Sebastien Grosjean is the first seed who had some luck in his draw; he opens against a qualifier, then another qualifier or Nicolas Kiefer -- who recovered his form a bit at the end of last year, but who still has a long way to go.
#5 seed Nicolas Massu is on the hot seat, though. He wants to clinch the #12 seed for the Australian Open, and the slow surface will probably help -- but he has to open against big-serving Ivan Ljubicic, then either last year's finalist Jan-Michael Gambill or talented young Swede Robin Soderling. None of the seeds have it easy, but Massu's draw may be the toughest of all -- and he has to face Grosjean in the quarterfinal.
#6 seed Younes El Aynaoui is yet another who could easily have gotten a much easier draw. He opens against a wildcard -- but that wildcard is none other than Nicolas Escude. El Aynaoui will be the local favorite, and the slow surface is surely to his liking; he won here in 2002. But he'd better not show up in poor form. If he's going to be sloppy, best to save it for the second round, when he'll face either a wildcard (a real wildcard, Sultan Khalfan, who is this year's Official Sacrificial Victim) or a qualifier. In the quarterfinal, he's supposed to take on Philippoussis. If that match happens, El Aynaoui could well add another to his amazing collection of highlight film matches.
#7 seed Tim Henman showed at the end of last year that he's really and truly back. But he's also really and truly a fastcourt player. He's had some success on Rebound Ace; he made the final here in 1997 (it was, in fact, his first ever final), went on to win his first title at Sydney the next week, scored another Doha final in 1999, and won Adelaide in 2002. But you get the feeling that he's just a little shaky on the surface. And he'll be facing a lot of steady clay types: First David Sanchez, who won two titles last year, then Juan Ignacio Chela or Olivier Rochus. And then he faces Schuettler. Even if he comes through all that, he's likely to be exhausted by the time it's over; all of his opopnents chase down amazing numbers of balls.
#8 seed Agustin Calleri also risks weariness; he opens against another clay expert, Filippo Volandri. That could be a rather long match. The next one is much harder to predict; Calleri will face either big, slow, strong Thomas Enqvist (who is a wildcard, but who has had extra time to finally try to get back into shape) or small, quick, handy Hicham Arazi. Arazi/Enqvist, assuming they're in something like their old form, could give us a fine first round match -- and a fine second round against Calleri, also. And any of them might give Roddick trouble in the quarterfinal -- Enqvist with his returns, Arazi with his hands, Calleri or Volandri with steadiness.
Expect most of the week's highlight clips to come from this tournament.
Chennai is usually the weakest of the week's three events, but -- dare we say it -- this week it has a real whiff of the appearance fee about it. At the top, it's not bad at all -- Carlos Moya is the #1 seed, Paradorn Srichaphan #2, Sjeng Schalken #3, Tommy Robredo #4, and Felix Mantilla #5. But then things start to fall off fast. Rafael Nadal is the #6 seed, but while he's a popular draw, he's barely Top 50. #7 seed David Ferrer and #8 Anthony Dupuis aren't even that high. Counting qualifiers and wildcards, over a third of the players in the field aren't even Top 100.
Still, there are some interesting names among the unseeded players. Paul-Henri Mathieu never really got things together in 2003 after his injury, but he's had plenty of time to recover now -- and he's in a quarter where both seeds (Robredo and Dupuis) seem to prefer clay. Harel Levy was doing quite well before he got hurt. Kristian Pless wasn't in the Mathieu/Levy league, but he seems to have talent, and maybe his time off will have mellowed him a little. And there are a handful of canny veterans such as Galo Blanco and Albert Portas in the draw as well.
Though the real question is, Can anyone stop Paradorn Srichaphan? In 2002, he made the final; in 2003, he won the whole thing. Obviously it's a comfortable place for him. His draw is generally good: He opens against Albert Montanes, who has been struggling for a couple of years now, then takes on Levy or Portas. The first seed he would face would be David Ferrer, who likes slow surfaces but is still learning hardcourts. In the semifinal, Srichaphan faces Robredo or Dupuis. Given that the Thai's biggest problem seems to be that he tends to play himself to exhaustion, this seems like a relatively small challenge.
Though #1 seed Moya has an even easier time: A qualifier, then Olivier Mutis or Paul Goldstein -- meaning that he won't face a Top 100 player until he faces protege Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinal (and it will almost certainly be Nadal, since Nadal faces first Thierry Ascione then a wildcard).
#3 seed Schalken, the other primary threat, has perhaps the smoothest path of all: A qualifier, then a wildcard or a qualifier, then clay-loving #5 seed Felix Mantilla. If you're waiting for a big upset in India, you may have a long wait.
The Rankings. We already noted the big issue: The Australian Open seeds. It's really too bad the ATP can't figure out a way to schedule a required event at this time of the year, so that the results this week might make a difference. As it is, we won't see much happening. Andy Roddick could lose the #1 spot at the Australian Open, but he can't lose it here; he's playing solely to increase his lead. Roger Federer is guaranteed to be the #2 seed, Juan Carlos Ferrero #3, Andre Agassi #4. Rainer Schuettler could put some heat on Guillermo Coria, but that's all, and of course there is no difference between the #5 and #6 seeds anyway. Carlos Moya is safe at #7, though he can't move up. David Nalbandian will be #8 if he can play. Mark Philippoussis and Sebastien Grosjean will be two of the seeds from #9 to #12 (assuming Nalbandian plays), with Srichaphan, Nicolas Massu, Jiri Novak, Younes El Aynaoui, and Tim Henman competing for the other spots (Massu is almost a lock, it appears, but Srichaphan has enough to defend that it could get interesting). Gustavo Kuerten currently holds the #16 seed, but Schalken could yet nab it. Seeds #17-#24 will be Schalken or Kuerten, Lleyton Hewitt, Martin Verkerk, Mardy Fish, Tommy Robredo, Felix Mantilla, and two others, with Max Mirnyi being likely but not clinched and Agustin Calleri, Wayne Ferreira, and Vincent Spadea looking for the other spot.
Seeds #25-32 will belong to the two in the above list who don't make the Top 24, plus Albert Costa, Mariano Zabalera, Feliciano Lopez, Jonas Bjorkman, and two others from the list Arnaud Clement, Robby Ginepri, Taylor Dent, Jarkko Nieminen, Juan Ignacio Chela, and Sargis Sargsian.
As for the Race, we know that the winner of Doha will be a completely meaningless #1 next Monday, the Doha finalist and the Adelaide and Chennai winners will be in an equally meaningless tie for #2 (assuming none of them are qualifiers), the Adelaide and Chennai finalists co-#5, and the Doha semifinalists co-#7.