Men's Look Forward: Week of January 12
Men's Look Forward: Week of January 12
Posted on 1/11/2004 at 3:04 PM
Men's Look Forward: Sydney, Auckland
Juan Carlos Ferrero is going to be ready for the Australian Open. He may be exhausted, he may be injured, but he's going to be match-tough whatever it takes.
Ferrero already won the Hong Kong exhibition, but even so, he's the only one of the top four men to be in official action this week.
That obviously means that Sydney won't be quite as strong as it might have hoped. But it's still quite a good event, with four Top Ten players: Ferrero, #2 seed Rainer Schuettler, #3 Carlos Moya (another guy who is going to be very ready -- though a withdrawal wouldn't be at all surprising) and Mark Philippoussis. Rounding out the seeds are Paradorn Srichaphan (another guy who will be just off the plane), Nicolas Massu, Lleyton Hewitt, and Martin Verkerk -- all Top 20 players.
Obviously it's a very strong Rebound Ace field (note that Hewitt, after skipping last year, is finally back to playing on the surface where he first made his mark). There are quite a few good floaters, too: One-time Australian Open finalist Arnaud Clement is unseeded. So is Mardy Fish, who last year beat Richard Krajicek and Moya here before losing to Schuettler. Fish and Clement, in fact, face off in the first round, with the winner to face Schuettler. Ouch.
Similar "ouch" matches occur in almost every seed's section. Ferrero, for instance, opens against a wildcard, but then has to face the winner of a match between Wayne Ferreira, who looked bad last week but who thinks that may mean good luck, and James Blake, just off winning Hopman Cup for the U. S.
Todd Reid, the wildcard who made so much noise at Adelaide (and, for once, justified the ATP's label of "one to watch") is a wildcard here also, and he starts against Massu. The winner of that will have to face Felix Mantilla, who is unseeded.
#3 seed Moya, who has already played five matches this year, gets a slight break in the first round when he faces a qualifier, but after that he'll probably face Mikhail Youzhny -- unless Youzhny loses to Michael Llodra, who of course came out of nowhere at Adelaide but came back to earth in the final.
It perhaps is an illustration of how strong this event is that one of the potential quarterfinals was the final at Chennai: Moya is supposed to face Paradorn Srichaphan. But Srichaphan has an even tougher draw: He starts against Jonas Bjorkman, who beat Andy Roddick last week at Doha, then the winner of the match between Tommy Robredo (who was the #4 seed at Chennai and whom the Thai barely beat in the Chennai semifinal, but who here goes unseeded) and Albert Costa.
The big servers, for some reason, are concentrated in the next quarter, which features #4 seed Mark Philippoussis, #8 Martin Verkerk, Greg Rusedski, Max Mirnyi, and Wayne Arthurs. (Talk about firepower!) Verkerk will open against Arthurs (who is here as a wildcard), then will face either Mirnyi or Agustin Calleri. Given Verkerk's recent results, the unseeded Calleri may be the favorite, but it's a hard section to call.
Philippoussis has an easier start, since he opens against a qualifier, but then will face either Rusedski or Juan Ignacio Chela. (Come to think of it, that's also the Failed a Drug Test section. Whatever that says.) It's worth noting that all of these guys struggled last week.
#7 seed Lleyton Hewitt has the peculiar habit of being brilliant on Rebound Ace everywhere except in Melbourne. In his section, he'll need that skill. He opens against Sargis Sargsian, who like Hewitt is happy when he's running and who is having surely the best stretch of his career. After that, the Australian will face either the other big lefty server, Feliciano Lopez, or Karol Kucera. If he gets through that, he'll face the Clement/Fish/Schuettler winner. Chances are that that quarterfinal will feature a lot of scrambling.
The strength of Sydney doesn't leave much for Auckland. Although both are $380,000 events, Sydney has always been the stronger -- and this year is no exception. Sydney has four Top Ten players. Auckland has one -- and, as at Sydney, the top player in the field tends to prefer clay. He's Guillermo Coria -- though given that this is Rebound Ace, the fact that this is technically a hardcourt probably won't slow him down -- especially since very many of the other players are also fans of clay.
The field gets dramatically weaker below that. Every seed at Sydney is Top 20. But the last few seeds at Auckland are wearing back toward the bottom of the Top 40. It's a big chance for someone. The #2 seed is Jiri Novak; defending champion Gustavo Kuerten is #3, Sjeng Schalken #4, Vincent Spadea #5, Gaston Gaudio #6, Fernando Gonzalez #7, and Jarkko Nieminen #8.
That still leaves room for some pretty good floaters. Nicolas Kiefer seemed finally to be getting has game back together at the end of last year, and he starts against Coria. If the top seed makes it through that, he'll probably have to face Adelaide champion Dominik Hrbaty.
#6 seed Gaudio also gets his test in the first round, when he faced Radek Stepanek.
#3 seed Kuerten may help us solve a mystery: Just what is going on with Alex Corretja? Corretja seemed to pick things up a little at the end of last year, but he's still way down in the rankings and needed a wildcard to get into the tournament. How much does he have left? Of course, Kuerten himself is rather a question mark these days, having done well early in 2003 on hardcourts, faded on clay and summer hardcourts, then actually won an indoor title at the end of the year. We've no idea what to expect from him.
#5 seed Spadea is another of those busy players who is playing his second event of the year. He'll face a fellow American veteran, Todd Martin, in the first round. Spadea, who turns 30 this summer, has recently shown that a veteran can still put his career back together. Could that inspire Martin? Whichever veteran advances, he's likely to face a future star in the second round in the form of Robin Soderling.
#8 seed Nieminen will have his own veteran to deal with; he opens against Fabrice Santoro. Last year was very bad for Santoro, at least in singles, but this is a good surface for him and his game, theoretically, should age well. The winner will have to face either journeyman Gregory Carraz, who found some very surprising success last year, or fast-moving Karol Beck.
#4 seed Schalken probably has the easiest draw of any of the seeds, but that's not saying much; he opens against Rafael Nadal. The second round is better; he'll face a qualifier or a wildcard.
#7 seed Gonzalez will probably have a fairly easy opener against Raemon Sluiter, who prefers his courts faster. His second round is more interesting, when he will face either Jan-Michael Gambill or David Sanchez. Rebound Ace would seem to be Gambill's ideal surface, but except for Doha last year, it's given him fits. Sanchez is much happier on slow courts, but he hasn't Gambill's power though he has a huge edge in speed. This is another section where we don't even have a guess as to the outcome.
#2 seed Jiri Novak will be tested in both of his early matches: He faces Xavier Malisse in the first round, then Nicolas Lapentti or a qualifier in the second. Novak has been easily the most consistent of the bunch over the last few years, which is why he's seeded. But the others have been at least as good when at their best. And it's a decent surface for all involved.
The Rankings. This is about as unimportant a week as you can find on the ATP, rankings-wise. The events are optional, and both are at the very bottom of the points table. That translates into very little action at the top of the rankings (not that it would matter much anyway, since the week after the Australian Open is Davis Cup, meaning that next week's rankings won't even be used to set seeds anywhere). It appears the top eight will remain exactly as they are. The one real move might come at #9, since Sebastien Grosjean and Mark Philippoussis are nearly tied and Philippoussis will be playing.
Of course, there are players with a lot to defend. Auckland champion Gustavo Kuerten could drop out of the Top 20 with a bad result, and Sydney champion .Hyung-Taik Lee will fall several dozen spots (the more so since he has qualifying points as well as titleist points to defend). Dominik Hrbaty, who just made a big move at Adelaide, is the defending finalist at Auckland, so he could give up most of what he's just gained. The week's other finalist is Ferrero, who will stay at #3 but who will obviously have a hard time closing the gap on the top two.