Men's Preview: Week of June 6 (Exclusive)
Men's Look Forward: Queen's, Halle
It is, when you think about it, rather an interesting approach to the grass season. The ATP has, in total, four warmup events available: Queen's, Halle, Nottingham, 's-Hertogenbosch. Two of them -- Queen's and Halle -- stand fairly high on the optional events ladder. The other two are at the bottom of the scale.
At first glance, it might seem logical to schedule one big and one small event in each of the two weeks leading up to Wimbledon. But that isn't how it works. Halle and Queen's share the first week after Roland Garros, with the two small events getting the second week. That means this is the week when most of the top players turn out to get in their grass warmup, and the week's two events have to beg, cajole, and, perhaps, offer appearance fees to get as many big names as they can.
For years, the balance of power seemed to be tilting toward Halle in the contest to get the top players. It had, at the time, as many points, and more money, and it was only a 32-draw as opposed to the 56-draw at Queen's, so it wasn't as tiring.
But the decline of German tennis cost Halle a little of its prize money, and unlike Queen's, it's not a Gold event. So now the money is equal, and Queen's has more points. The balance shifted back. This year, it's close to a draw. Halle has the world's #1, but Queen's has #2. It also has the guy who was #3 going into Roland Garros. Halle had the then-#4 and #5. And so forth.
Certainly no one would call Halle weak. Roger Federer will be trying to bounce back from his ugly French Open semifinal as the #1 seed. Marat Safin will be attempting to overcome his ugly whole-year-since-Melbourne as #2. Rafael Nadal, despite his long fortnight at Roland Garros, is in the initial draw as the #3 seed, meaning that the tournament has three of the Top Five. It has a fourth Top Ten player in #4 seed Guillermo Canas. David Nalbandian's ranking just took a hit, but he gets the #5 seed even so (and, as a former Wimbledon finalist, he probably deserves it even if he doesn't "deserve" it). Big-serving Joachim Johansson, who missed Roland Garros because of an elbow problem (plus, one suspects, the fact that he had no chance on clay) will return to action as the #6 seed. Germany's current #1 player, Tommy Haas, is #7, and big-serving Feliciano Lopez, who has had his best Slam results at Wimbledon, is #8.
There is plenty of unseeded talent, too, including several guys who serve so well that they have to be considered threats on grass even if nowhere else. That includes two German wildcards, Alexander Popp and Alexander Waske. Also big in the serve department is Robin Soderling. More known for their all-around games are Mikhail Youzhny and Florian Mayer and Jiri Novak and Andrei Pavel (at least if he's over his stomach injury). Fernando Verdasco is a solid young player, though he needs to prove it away from clay. Germany has a solid veteran in Nicolas Kiefer, who won this event in 1999 and made the finals in 2002 and 2003. They also have Rainer Schuettler, though he wasn't much of a threat on grass even before his current decline. Fabrice Santoro can drive anyone crazy. Olivier Rochus has had some of his best results on grass, and he's having a pretty good year, as has brother Christophe. Jurgen Melzer has talent to burn -- at least on the days when he and it both take the court together. Michael Llodra, as befits a good doubles player, likes grass very much. And then there is Juan Carlos Ferrero, who took a wildcard here; it's ironic to see the one-time #1 trying to use grass to get back into the Top 30.
It's one of the oddities of the grass season, although everyone concedes the surface is hard to maintain, half the events have oversize fields (in all, men and women, there are eight grass events: Birmingham, Eastbourne, Halle, Newport, Nottingham, Queen's, 's-Hertogenbosch, Wimbledon. Birmingham and Queen's are 56-draws: 16 seeds, with the top eight seeds getting byes. Wimbledon is Wimbledon. 's-Hertogenbosch has normal-sized draws, but both men and women play, so it needs about as much court space as a 56-draw). That means that some of the lower seeds at Queen's are at the low end of the Top 50. But the top few are strong: Lleyton Hewitt will at last return to action as the #1 seed. Defending champion Andy Roddick is #2. Tim Henman, who has never won a grass event but who usually does well here, makes a last attempt for the #8 Wimbledon seed here; he's #3 at Queen's, and is the last of the Top Ten players. Radek Stepanek takes advantage of his recent strong results to earn the #4 spot. 2004 Wimbledon semifinalist Mario Ancic is #5. Thomas Johansson, who in his last 100% healthy year of 2001 won both Halle and Nottingham, this year plays Queen's as the #6 seed. Sebastien Grosjean, who absolutely loves grass (first title was Nottingham 2000; he made the Queen's final and the Wimbledon semifinal in both 2003 and 2004) is the #7 seed. The final bye goes to Fernando Gonzalez, seeded #8 even though he's really never done much on grass.
Taylor Dent, who like Hewitt skipped Roland Garros, returns to action as the #9 seed. Richard Gasquet, who has almost no grass history, will try to change that as the #10 seed. Paradorn Srichaphan, who won Nottingham last year, is #11. The listed #12 is Mariano Puerta, even though he's never done anything on grass and will be fresh off the Roland Garros final; he'd be seeded higher based on this week's rankings, of course. Igor Andreev is #13; Greg Rusedski, who has four career grass titles but none here, is #14; big-serving Max Mirnyi #15; and Karol Beck, who beat Henman here last year, is #16.
Notable unseeded players include last year's semifinalist Hyung-Taik Lee, 2002 Wimbledon semifinalist Xavier Malisse, once-promising Tomas Berdych, the recovering James Blake, netrushing expert Jonas Bjorkman, fastcourt-loving Arnaud Clement (who made the 's-Hertogenbosch final in 2002 and 2003) and power servers Wayne Arthurs and Mark Philippoussis -- the latter a wildcard, and iffy; he pulled out of Surbiton because his back was still not right. Plus Gael Monfils, who has finally gotten his ranking high enough that he earned direct entry.
Noteworthy First Round Matches
At Halle, both our top seeds could face trouble in the first round if their return games aren't on. #1 seed Federer faces Swedish power broker Robin Soderling; #2 seed Safin faces Alexander Popp, who is probably Top 15 on grass and maybe #200 or so on everything else. #3 seed Nadal will have to take on Alexander Waske, another German wildcard known mostly for his serve. #4 seed Canas -- who has a grass final and some semifinals in his career -- will have to face Fernando Verdasco. #5 seed Nalbandian will face yet another German -- though the German is Rainer Schuettler, so that may not pose much of a problem. #6 seed Joachim Johansson faces, yes, a German, Philipp Kohlschreiber; if Johansson is 100%, that shouldn't prove too difficult, but Kohlschreiber is steady enough to be some threat if the Swede isn't right. #7 seed Haas faces Jiri Novak, who hasn't done much on grass in singles but who made the 2001 Wimbledon doubles final. #8 seed Lopez has perhaps the easiest opener, against Kenneth Carlsen, but the Dane does like fast courts; he had a final at Newport in 1999, and Wimbledon is historically his best Slam.
The most noteworthy unseeded match is probably between Mikhail Youzhny and Florian Mayer, both of whom started this year slumping badly but both of whom have shown some signs of life lately. And both like grass; Youzhny made the fourth round of his first two Wimbledons, and Mayer made the quarterfinal of his only Wimbledon, last year. We also have an all-veteran match between Andrei Pavel and Fabrice Santoro. Santoro's grass record isn't great, but he did make the final here in 2001 -- and Pavel hasn't really been able to play for a couple of months.
Queen's, because of the byes for the top seeds, loses a few potentially-nice openers, but we will see Hyung-Taik Lee and Malisse face off in the first round; that's obviously very big for Lee, given what he has to defend. Tomas Berdych has had most of his success on slower surfaces, but he does have talent if he can ever find it again -- and he opens against Max Mirnyi, who hasn't had the success on grass that his serve and doubles skills would seem to imply. #12 seed Puerta, just in from Roland Garros, will have to take on wildcard James Blake, who is in solid form this year and much happier on grass. #16 seed Beck will take on Wayne Arthurs in a match that could hardly feature more contrast: The quicksilver Beck against the slow but powerful Arthurs. The other Australian power server, Philippoussis, will make his comeback against Raemon Sluiter, who is Dutch and has a fair amount of grass experience. The match between Marcos Baghdatis and Paul-Henri Mathieu also feels interesting, though neither has done enough on grass to justify our interest.
The part at the top is easy: Roger Federer stays #1.
Below that -- well, there is more to it than just the rankings. There is the Wimbledon seeding formula. With Andy Roddick being last year's Queen's champion, and Rafael Nadal having pretty well filled his optional card, it appears Lleyton Hewitt is safe at #2 -- but who gets the #2, #3, and #4 Wimbledon seeds? It's obvious that the #2 spot comes down to Hewitt or Roddick. In the two years that will probably be the basis for the formula, Hewitt has a first round loss to Ivo Karlovic at 2003 Wimbledon, a semifinal at Queen's 2004, and a quarterfinal at Wimbledon 2004. Roddick has a semifinal at Wimbledon 2003, a title at Queen's 2004, and a final at Wimbledon 2004. That's obviously a big advantage to Roddick, but the seeding committee could always adjust the seeding formula (one is tempted to say they will adjust the seeding formula). They may well feel that Hewitt -- the 2002 Wimbledon champion, and the winner of Queen's 2000, 2001, 2002, and 's-Hertogenbosch 2001 -- is the better grass player. The one thing that's nearly certain is that every point either man earns at Queen's counts twice: Once toward his ranking, if it's big enough to go toward his optional five, and again (guaranteed) as a grass point. A good enough result for Hewitt might make it possible for the committee to find a formula to seed him #2.
The contest for the #4 seed is even more complicated, because there are no really strong contenders. The gap from #5 Safin to #6 Agassi
is so wide that it can't be crossed (particularly with Agassi
hurt and unable to play this week, and #7 Davydenko also not playing); either Nadal or Safin will be the #4 seed. Nadal's sole grass result in the past two years is a third round at Wimbledon 2003. Safin missed the 2003 grass season, and lost first round at both Halle and Wimbledon in 2004. Again, points earned this week count double. That means that the results this week will settle it.
Whoever fails to get #4 will certainly be #5. It appears Andre Agassi
is also safe in the top eight seeds, assuming he's able to play. That leaves two Top Eight spots. Right now, Nikolay Davydenko and Guillermo Canas are #7 and #8, with Tim Henman a rather distant #9 going into the Roland Garros final and Joachim Johansson a still more distant #10. But Davydenko lost first round at Wimbledon 2003, first round at Halle 2004, first round at 's-Hertogenbosch 2004, first round at Wimbledon 2004. Canas was injured in 2003; he made the second round at 's-Hertogenbosch 2004 and lost first round at Wimbledon 2004. Henman made the quarterfinal at Wimbledon 2003, lost his opener at Queen's 2004, and made the quarterfinal at Wimbledon 2004. That's enough points, assuming Wimbledon uses a formula similar to recent ones, to move him past Davydenko and Canas. So it's Canas playing to try to overtake Davydenko. Best guess is that he needs a semifinal.
At least one guy will take a big hit: Halle finalist Mardy Fish, who isn't playing this week, will probably fall to around #65. Queens finalist Sebastien Grosjean won't be hit as hard, but he could fall to the #30 range.
It's hard to know just what is key when we don't know what formula players are being measured against. So all we can do is note which players have a lot on the line and what matches are most likely to get them in trouble.
This week doesn't really matter much to Roger Federer; he's #1 in rankings and Wimbledon seedings no matter what. But one suspects he wants the chance for a rematch with Rafael Nadal -- which could happen in the Halle semifinal. It's a rough road for Federer: Robin Soderling, then Mikhail Youzhny or Florian Mayer, then Joachim Johansson or Michael Llodra. Nadal's is a bit easier: Alexander Waske, them maybe Juan Carlos Ferrero, then potentially Tommy Haas.
The other guys with a lot on the line at Halle are Marat Safin and Guillermo Canas. Safin opens against power server Alexander Popp, then gets a complete change of pace in Fabrice Santoro or Andrei Pavel. Then it's potentially another power guy in Feliciano Lopez.
Canas's path is tough also. He starts against Verdasco, then faces Nicolas Kiefer, who just loves playing here. Then, potentially, the Argentine could face Argentina's other good grass player, #5 seed David Nalbandian. For Canas, winning that would probably earn him the #8 Roland Garros seed; for Nalbandian, it's just possible that winning could make him #12 there. If he could beat Safin in the next round, "possible" becomes "probable."
The biggest thing for Lleyton Hewitt is just to get back. His first match will be against Hyung-Taik Lee or Xavier Malisse -- not an easy task, in this context. Then, probably, Max Mirnyi. He won't have earned many points up to that point. It gets serious after that, when he faces Paradorn Srichaphan or Fernando Gonzalez or somebody. It gets really serious after than, when he faces Tim Henman or Thomas Johansson or Taylor Dent.
Henman, on paper, looks pretty good in the early rounds. The first really big threat, on grass, is Johansson or Dent in the quarterfinal, then Hewitt.
Poor Sebastien Grosjean has lost to Andy Roddick in two straight Queen's finals. It won't happen again -- because they meet in the quarterfinal. Assuming Grosjean stays healthy, he really ought to at least make it to the meeting with Roddick.
The American has a tougher path, on the whole: First Philippoussis or Sluiter, then maybe Karol Beck (in another of those opposites-attract matches), then Grosjean. Then, maybe, Mario Ancic or Greg Rusedski. The good news for Roddick is, he's probably going to be the Wimbledon #2 no matter what.
Andre Agassi forever