Men's Look Forward: Valencia, Casablanca
If the organizers at Casablanca eventually develop a persecution complex, who could blame them?
The event has never been very popular with the players; most of the clay types, after all, prefer to spend their time in Europe, and they have Valencia as an alternative this week. Add to that the fact that the tournament has been stuck in absolutely the worst possible spot in the clay season, right after Miami, when everyone is trying to adapt to the shift from hardcourt to clay plus the time zone shift.
The result is an event with no Top 30 players; the #1 seed is Rainer Schuettler, with Filippo Volandri #2, Luis Horna #3, Fabrice Santoro #4, Florian Mayer #5 (though he'd be higher if this week's rankings were used), Mariano Puerta #6, Gilles Muller #7, and Christophe Rochus #8. And that's about it for Top 100 players.
Though there are some interesting unseeded men in the draw: Santiago Ventura was last year's champion, and Jarkko Nieminen and Arnaud Clement are also here. Plus both of Morocco's Tour players are here, both as wildcards because they've been injured so much. Too bad their draws are so lousy: Younes El Aynaoui has to open against #2 seed Volandri, and Hicham Arazi will face defending champion Ventura.
Valencia is a rather different thing: Still no Top Ten players, but it at least has a Top 20 player at the top of the draw in Nikolay Davydenko. Indeed, its top four seeds (Davydenko, Fernando Gonzalez, Rafael Nadal, Olivier Rochus) are all ranked higher than anyone at Casablanca. But it's a tired field: In addition to Nadal, fresh from the Miami final, Miami semifinalist David Ferrer is the #5 seed. How that will affect the outcome remains to be seen.
Rounding out the seeds are #6 Fernando Verdasco, the defending champion; #7 Igor Andreev, who despite being Russian has spent a lot of time in Spain; and #8 Kenneth Carlsen.
The biggest name, though is unseeded: Gustavo Kuerten will be making his long-awaited comeback. Also unseeded is Juan Carlos Ferrero, who won this event two years ago, back when he was the real Ferrero. We also have Alex Corretja as a wildcard, though he's even farther removed from his old self than is Ferrero (who, after all, had a decent result at Miami and may finally be breaking out of it).
Noteworthy First Round Matches
We have more of these than you'd think. A lot of unseeded players must think they're cursed. At Valencia, we have the following:
(1) Davydenko vs. Costa. Top seed versus former Roland Garros winner, on clay? Whew!
(4) Olivier Rochus vs. Kuerten. Another unseeded Roland Garros winner. And while Rochus is off to the best start of his career, his history says that he would prefer a faster surface.
Ferrero vs. (3) Nadal. And yet another unseeded Roland Garros winner against a top four seed! Both played well at Miami; Nadal played superbly, but it remains to be seen if he'll even make it back for the tournament.
Karlovic vs. Labadze. Given how badly Labadze has been playing, this is likely to be a blowout -- but it's also likely to be hilarious as these two kooks face off.
At Casablanca, our main stories are the two Moroccan wildcards: El Aynaoui vs. (2) Volandri and Arazi vs. Ventura. But we'll also see Arnaud Clement (who finally seems to be coming back to life, though clay has never been his surface) take on #3 seed Luis Horna, and Jarkko Nieminen could also find himself in a tussle with Victor Hanesco.
This is a funny week; last year, they played Davis Cup at this time, so neither Casablanca champion Ventura nor Valencia winner Verdasco has to worry about defending; there is nothing coming off except Challenger points, and not much even of that (Ivo Karlovic will see points from winning a $25K event come off).
In other words, the players in action this week can only move up (and those who are not in action might theoretically slip a little). Though it won't matter much; the post-Miami seeding list will be used to seed Monte Carlo. But several people do have opportunities. We'd mention especially Fernando Gonzalez and David Ferrer. Gonzalez can't possibly regain the ranking he had before Miami, but a title could put him back in the Top 20, and a semifinal would make him Top 25.
Ferrer, who is at a career high after his Miami semifinal, is just a few points shy of the Top 30. Our rough cut is that a semifinal would do it.
There won't be anything at the top of the rankings. The Top Ten won't change at all. The first player with a chance to move is Nadal, and he has pretty well filled his optional card, plus he has to be bone tired. In any case, he can only gain one spot.
It's close to certain that someone will make a big move at Casablanca, where we're nearly certain to see a lot of seeds fall -- but unless you can magically tell us who that player will be, we can't guess how much he'll move.
There are two classes of these. One is the "how well will X spring back" type. Two of those are at Casablanca: "Can El Aynaoui hand Volandri?" "Can Arazi beat Ventura and then Schuettler?" Though there are also some at Valencia: "How will Kuerten come back from his myriad hip problems?" "Can Ferrero keep up the form he rediscovered at Miami?"
The other group involves Ferrer and Gonzalez and their rankings quests. Ferrer, if he wants to hit the Top 30, has to beat Julien Benneteau, then probably Ivo Karlovic, then potentially Kuerten or Olivier Rochus. On clay, the first two should be possible, especially if he plays at Miami. The second -- well, it all depends on how Kuerten is playing.
Gonzalez's chances for a return to the Top 25 look better: His path is Bjorn Phau, then Felix Mantilla or Oscar Hernandez, then Kenneth Carlsen, surely the worst clay player among the seeds. Then, theoretically, Nadal -- but he'll at least have made above #25 if that match happens.
The lack of top players at this week's events is reflected in the doubles, where we see some odd pairings. The top seeds at Valencia are Lucas Arnold and Mariano Hood, who play together regularly -- but Martin Rodriguez is with Fernando Gonzalez rather than Gaston Etlis; they're seeded #3. The #2 seeds are Julian Knowle and Petr Pala. Also, Rick Leach is with Travis Parrott rather than Brian MacPhie.
Casablanca has even more players "out of position." Paul Hanley is here without Wayne Arthurs; he and Todd Perry (playing without Simon Aspelin) are the top seeds. #2 Frantisek Cermak and Leos Friedl are regulars. But Fabrice Santoro is playing with Rainer Schuettler rather than a French partner; they're #4. And Arnaud Clement hooked up with Arnaud Di Pasquale; they needed a wildcard. Plus Marcin Matkowski is here without Mariusz Fyrstenberg; he's playing with Enzo Artoni.
There are no Top Ten players in action; it appears the doubles Top Ten will be unchanged.