For many players, the nightmare of playing on dirt is over and the sweet smell of grass court season takes over. There are two stops on the ATP tour this week. ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands for the Topshelf Open and the Mercedes Cup in Stuttgart, Germany. It is the first year for this tournament in Stuttgart to be played on grass as it was previously held on clay each year. As usual, it’s a quick sprint from the French Open to Wimbledon in the span of just about one month, so it’s important for these players to get their grass prep in and get used to the surface.
This tournament has seen six different winners in the past six years with David Ferrer as the only multiple winner since 2008 as he also won the tournament in 2012. Already there has been some shuffling with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga choosing to skip this week due to an abdominal injury suffered in the French Open. He was set to be the top seed. With his withdraw, David Goffin is the highest seed and a debutant at this tournament. Following Goffin are Roberto Bautista-Agut as the third seed and defending champ, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez as the 4th seed and Ivo Karlovic as the 5th seed. Karlovic was slotted into Tsonga’s spot in the draw with the shake-up.
Being a 250 level tournament, there are always surprises. Over the past four years, nine of the 16 semifinalists spots have been claimed by an unseeded player. Since 2009, four of the six Champions at the Topshelf Open have been unseeded. So there’s a good possibility that come Sunday, we’ll be seeing at least one non-seed involved in the Final. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the dangerous floaters out there that don’t have a number attached to their names this week.
A no-brainer as Hewitt has been one of the legendary players of this generation on grass courts. He took a wild card into this tournament & brings a career winning percentage on grass at the ATP level of 77% at 128-38. Even into his 30s, he has continued to be a threat on this surface with a title last year in Newport. He does have a tough draw. After facing a qualifier TBD in his opener, he would be slated to take on defending Champion Bautista-Agut. RBA is still a relative novice on this surface though at 15-7 in his career. He is 7-1 at this tournament the last two years, so he will be a tough out. Still, his level of play this season has been somewhat tame. Hewitt will have a definite chance and you can expect him to be motivated as usual.
Rendy Lu will always be brought up in the grass court conversation as far as upsets due to his marvelous 2010 Wimbledon run that saw him through to the quarters. Still, he’s only 29-34 on this surface. He does in general give a good effort at smaller tournaments on grass like this though. He faces the 8th seed Adrian Mannarino to open. Mannarino made the 4th round at Wimbledon back in 2013, so he’s no slouch on the surface. Neither has a fantastic track record at this tournament with Lu 1-2 in main draws & Mannarino at 0-2. If Lu can slip through this opener, he’s in the part of the draw with Hewitt & the rollercoaster ride that is Benoit Paire that could produce an unseeded semifinalist.
You will notice the trend continuing here. Veteran players with experience on grass who know what to expect form the surface. Melzer is in the bottom quarter with seeds David Goffin, and Sousa. He opens with a qualifier and then would see Goffin in the 2nd round. Goffin has yet to figure out grass with a 7-11 mark and just one main draw win on the surface since 2012. Melzer meanwhile comes in at a 55% win rate on grass. Last year at Wimbledon, he stretched Tsonga to five sets and made the semis of this tournament, losing to eventual champ RBA in a third set tie break. It won’t be easy, but his experience could put him deep again at this tournament with a decent draw.
The final round of qualifying takes place on Monday as the main draw begins, so this is a bit of a crapshoot to outline anyone who might make noise here. Still, let’s take a look at the potential if they can get into the main draw.
Nicolas Mahut or Kenny de Schepper
It’s an all-French final qualifier and either of these guys will make for a tricky out in the 1R. de Schepper is 29-14 on grass & has proven his mettle on grass with a 4th round showing at Wimbledon in 2013 and a quarterfinal appearance at Queen’s Club last year. Mahut has always enjoyed some positive results on grass, especially in the smaller tournaments like this where he’s already won once. He is 7-1 in main draw matches at the Topshelf Open and has beaten de Schepper three of four times they have met.
The German has always been a danger on grass when the pressure is low in qualifying and smaller tourneys, winning 33 of his last 50 matches on the surface. A lot of that damage has come in qualifying. This tournament has been good to him with quarterfinal runs every year he has made the main draw; 2005, 2006 & 2013. He has to get by Ito first, but if he does, definitely check out his 1st round match-up for upset possibilities.
The Frenchman has a big serve that is conducive to some of these slick grass surfaces. He has won 87% of his 1st serves through two qualifying rounds and could cause trouble for anyone in the main draw if it stays stout. He plays Chiudinelli in the final qualifying round.
Quick Draw McGraw
David Goffin’s quarter looks like one that could go to a non-seed or at the very least not in the favor of the Belgian. Goffin is a novice still on grass at just 7-11 and has veteran Jurgen Melzer and 8th seeded Joao Sousa to contend with in this part of the draw. Also keep an eye on Mikhail Youzhny. He’s had a woeful 2015, but has always has a good grass court game. Sousa was a surprise semifinalist here last year and took Federer to a third set in Halle. Although he only has a handful of events on the surface, he looks comfortable and could be the one to slip through this quarter. If it goes to a non-seed, I do like Melzer.
Garcia-Lopez’s quarter looks ripe for the taking for the Spaniard potentially. GGL is 23-22 on grass in main draws at this level. He didn’t do much on grass last season, but is back in The Netherlands where he made the semis in 2013. He will get Nieminen or Copil after a 1st round bye. That is winnable. Up top, Vasek Pospisil takes on Matosevic to open. The Canadian is 5-10 on grass. He did score three of those wins in 2014, including a quarterfinal run at this tournament. So perhaps he is growing into the surface. If he sneaks by Matosevic, he could see big serving Gilles Muller who battles Marsel Ilhan in the opening round. Muller made the quarters here in 2012, but lost his 1st round match in three other trips. Tend to like the seeds in this quarter, either GGL or Pospisil to move on.
Karlovic leads what would have been Tsonga’s quarter and it might be a two horse race between Ivo and 7th seeded Fernando Verdasco. Verdasco opens against fellow Spaniard Gimeno-Traver. to say DGT loathes grass is an understatement. He is 2-14 in main draw matches on grass. Verdasco should ease through to the 2nd round where he has a winnable match-up with Haase or Kavcic. Karlovic will have either Berankis or a qualifier. Berankis is in a deep funk, so it likely will be the qualifier. Karlovic has a solid 48-27 mark on grass. It’s been a bit since he has tasted success on grass though, so he is no sure thing this week. If it does come down to Karlovic vs. Verdasco, Karlovic has beaten him twice at Wimbledon, but it’s been about five years since the last meeting on grass.
Bautista-Agut didn’t get a good draw as the defending champion. He’s got the likes of Hewitt, Mannarino, Paire & Lu in this quarter. There are also two qualifiers yet to be placed in this draw. Needless to say, I don’t dig his chances of a repeat. He may not even win his 1st match which would be Hewitt or a qualifier. Mannarino as the seed in the bottom of the quarter also has a tough draw with Lu up first. To me, this is the quarter were a non-seed or qualifier has a great shot to upset the apple cart. Hewitt has played a real light load this season with just five matches and a 1-4 mark. I do think though that part of that was done with this part of the season in mind to be perhaps his heaviest activity of the year. He will play Queen’s Club also as a wild card and of course his final Wimbledon. Don’t count him out for a deep run here and check which qualifiers land here.
AND THAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE BECAUSE THE PIG SAID SO…
This is without a doubt a tournament that looks ready to provide some nice surprises to start the grass court swing. I can see a couple seeds possibly involved in the business end of things in the semis, but I like the lower seeds like Verdasco and Sousa to potentially fill that bill. For me, this may also serve as the fifth time in the last seven years that an unseeded player grabs the trophy at the Topshelf Open. Watch those qualifiers and the tour vets like Hewitt and Melzer who would love to grab an unexpected title.