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Since Eggy's not here :(


Men's Look Forward: Marseilles, San Jose, Vina del Mar


It's a week of turnarounds. All sorts of things are going to change: Fernando Gonzalez's ranking, probably Thomas Enqvist's, and of course the spring indoor schedule.

That's because San Jose, among the oldest events on the ATP and long-established at the end of February, suddenly finds itself in early February. That's changed a lot of players' scheduling plans. Two time winner Pete Sampras won't be there. Neither will last year's champion Lleyton Hewitt, who would have to fly in from Australia. The tournament isn't exactly Andre Agassi and the seven dwarfs -- no tournament with Agassi and Paradorn Srichaphan in it can be considered really weak -- but it's no longer at the top end of the scale.

It's going to be a pretty jet-lagged group, too. Listing just the players who are here from Davis Cup world group, we have Mark Philippoussis, who will perhaps be in the worst shape, having flown from Australia; James Blake, Taylor Dent, Robby Ginepri, Nikolay Davydenko, Mardy Fish, Lars Burgsmuller (though he isn't covering many time zones), and Michael Llodra. We didn't even try to count the players like Vladimir Voltchkov who are just in from zonal competition.

Still, the American fans have reason to come out: Not only Agassi, playing his second event of the year, but Blake and Jan-Michael Gambill, as well as Todd Martin, who is playing his first event of the year. And then there is Michael Chang, in as a wildcard. As luck would have it, he opens against Agassi. Not exactly the way he wanted to start his "farewell tour."

Looking down the draw, here are our favorite matches (We're sorry, but Agassi vs. Chang can't make the list. It's likely to be poor, nasty, brutish, and most especially short; the post-surgery Chang just doesn't have anything to threaten Agassi these days).

First Round:

(5) Todd Martin vs. Vahaly. How well will the old guy come back from his long off season?

(3) Blake vs. Wayne Black. Blake should win this, if Davis Cup didn't really debilitate him. But we want to watch it just to hear the announcers struggle with Blake vs. Black. Especially since Blake is black and Black is white. Even if you ignore the metaphysical aspects, just try saying that three times fast.

H. Lee vs. Dent. Dent didn't play Davis Cup, but this is a good surface for him. Not bad for Lee, either. It's hard to believe that neither earned a seed here.

(8) Carlsen vs. Magnus Norman. Don't ask us why Norman chose to play indoors rather than on clay. What it earned him was a rematch with the player who beat him in the Tokyo final. And this is a better surface for Carlsen than Norman. And yet, Norman is the better player -- if he's healthy.

Second Round:

(1) Agassi vs. Philippoussis. Not much doubt about the outcome, but it's strength versus strength.

Voltchkov vs. (5) Todd Martin. A good surface for both. It's Martin's knowledge verses Voltchkov's generally bigger shots.

(3) Blake vs. Lee or Dent. A good surface for all, with perhaps some interesting contrast in style as well.

(6) Sanguinetti vs. Fish. Fish can't feel too good after Davis Cup, but this is close to an ideal surface for him, and Sanguinetti is in a deep funk.

All in all, though, we can't help but think that this tournament "ought" to come down to a Srichaphan vs. Agassi final. That's so obvious that it's almost certainly wrong.

The watchword for Vina del Mar might almost be "calling all clay players." They aren't really all here -- in particular the Big Two, Gustavo Kuerten and Juan Carlos Ferrero, evidently didn't want to fly in from Davis Cup; neither did Carlos Moya or Albert Costa or Alex Corretja. But most of the second tier is here: Gaston Gaudio, Marcelo Rios, Felix Mantilla. And, of course, the guys like Alberto Martin and Albert Portas and Andrea Gaudenzi and Franco Squillari who live for dirt.

There are also some solid youngsters here, such as Jose Acasuso and David Ferrer. Markus Hipfl is trying to get his year started. Within the broad theme of clay, there are many interesting variations. Looking at the matches, here are our favorites.

First Round

(1) Gaudio vs. Massu. We haven't heard much from Nicolas Massu this year, and he has a title to defend next week. We've no idea if he's really ready to play. If he is, though, there is much to be said for this match.

Alberto Martin vs. (7) Mantilla. Two Spaniards. Martin has been a bit off lately, but he never gives up. Both should be well rested.

Gaudenzi vs. Hipfl. Both ranked low, Gaudenzi because he hasn't been winning and Hipfl because he hasn't been playing. Someone has to come through.

Squillari vs. (2) Lapentti. Lapentti is the better player on any other surface, but clay makes it much more interesting.

Second Round

Meligeni vs. (7) Mantilla. Even Spaniards rarely see people who get as many balls back as Meligeni.

(3) Rios vs. Portas. The really interesting part is actually Rios's return to the court, and Portas's return to clay. But Rios opens against a wildcard, and Portas against a qualifier, so the real fireworks -- if any -- won't be until the second round.

Also of note is the potential quarterfinal between #4 Acasuso and #8 Ferrer. Both are young, both like clay a lot; both have very bright prospects. The real question is, when will they be ready to do big things?

The biggest event of this week, though is surely Marseilles. Just witness the fact that Nicolas Escude -- a very good indoor player! -- is unseeded. He'd have been seeded at either of the week's other events, but here, he has to open against #2 seed Jiri Novak. Also unseeded is last year's champion Thomas Enqvist, though he doesn't start against a seed. But the fact that he skipped Davis Cup this weekend shows that he still isn't in the best of shape. Also unseeded is Jarkko Nieminen. And Ivan Ljubicic. And Dominik Hrbaty. And Max Mirnyi. We think we've made our point.

Good matches are all over this draw. In fact, we like nearly all of them. #1 seed Roger Federer opens against Ivan Ljubicic, just off his Davis Cup heroics. (Federer, of course, has some Davis Cup results of his own, but it was Michel Kratochvil who finally won for Switzerland.) The winner will face the winner of the contest between fast-rising Jarkko Nieminen and fast-rising Radek Stepanek. And all these guys seem to like indoors -- it's probably the best surface for both Federer and Ljubicic, and Nieminen made his start indoors, too. It's harder to tell with Stepanek, because of all the time he's spent in low-level events, but we suspect he's happy here too.

#2 seed Novak, who hasn't been having as much fun this year as last, opens against Escude in what may be the best match of the first round. The winner will face another interesting challenge: Either big-serving Mario Ancic or steady Anthony Dupuis. Novak and Escude are probably hoping it will be Dupuis. We wouldn't bet on them getting their wish.

#3 seed Sebastien Grosjean -- who seems to like indoor surfaces a lot, and who is French anyway -- gets to start against a qualifier. But then he'll have to face either Michel Kratochvil or Karol Kucera. Kratochvil will be feeling triumphant after Davis Cup, but probably tired as well, and we're not sure which will be stronger.

#4 seed Rainer Schuettler starts against Olivier Mutis, who hasn't gotten much attention because he played mostly Challengers last year. But it's a pretty fair accomplishment to make the Top 100 based on Challengers, and Schuettler will be just back from clay in Argentina. That's not as easy a draw as it sounds. The winner will face Dominik Hrbaty or a qualifier; that section is surprisingly wide open.

#5 Younes El Aynaoui had better have his passing shots ready; he starts against Jonas Bjorkman, and on this court, Bjorkman is surely going to be looking to come in. After that, he faces the winner of the match between Wayne Arthurs and Adrian Voinea. Arthurs will be just in from Australia, but this is indoors; he may be able to win in his sleep.

#6 Yevgeny Kafelnikov has one of the better draws, though he'd better not be too sloppy in the first round against scrambling Olivier Rochus. After that, he'll have a shot at Richard Gasquet or Feliciano Lopez.

#7 Fabrice Santoro starts against a qualifier, then either Enqvist or Raemon Sluiter, both of whom like indoors a fair bit. Enqvist vs. Santoro is one of those matches we'd really like to see -- incredible power versus unbelievable shots.

#8 Tommy Robredo has to deal with Max Mirnyi in the first round, though he will be helped by the fact that Mirnyi will have had to work in Davis Cup and Robredo will be rested. The winner should have an easier time in the second round, when he'll play a qualifier or Irakli Labadze.

We can only wish we could see more of this tournament.

The Rankings. It's worth remembering that San Jose has been moved forward in the calendar, so Lleyton Hewitt's titleist points will not come off this week. And Andre Agassi will have finalist points come off when we get to the "old" date of San Jose. What that all adds up to is that Agassi can't threaten Hewitt quite yet. But the time is getting close. And Agassi really should win this tournament if he plays his best.

The absence of Gonzalez from the Vina del Mar draw means that he will be dropping out of the Top 20, with either Gaston Gaudio or Younes El Aynaoui taking his place.

It's not likely that Paradorn Srichaphan, who has to be thinking about a Top Ten ranking, can move this week; he just doesn't have any optional spots left. If he can play the required events the way he plays the optional, he could get there by the end of Miami.

In addition to Gonzalez, Enqvist is obviously in trouble, points-wise. Others with reason to be concerned include last year's Marseilles finalist Escude (all the more so since he has Rotterdam to defend next week; he really needs to get it in gear fast) and last year's Vina del Mar finalist Lapentti.
 

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nice to see that Agassi is serious about his RG preparation...;)

and great to see that old man Todd is back -- and not a bandage on him anywhere! fatherhood must be good for him! :D
 

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Rebecca said:
I wonder which Spaniard he'll lose to this year ;) Or maybe an Argentinian will surprise us ;)
as long as it's an Argie, i could live with it...;) ;)
 

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and great to see that old man Todd is back


"Fifth-seeded Todd Martin withdrew from the tournament because of a family emergency and returned to his home in Florida. Martin's son Jack, born Jan. 21, will undergo a surgical procedure for an undisclosed condition according to Martin's agent, Tom Ross."
 

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Oh no! Best wishes to the Martins! Jack has the same birthday with my son (not same year).
 
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