2016 ATP China Open Preview

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ATP Beijing Overview
For the first time since 2011, the China Open is guaranteed to have a new champion. That news came earlier in the week when four time defending champion, Novak Djokovic, withdrew from the tournament due to an elbow injury. Djokovic had been a dominant force at this tournament with six titles in the last seven years. Tomas Berdych is the only player to break that string and he did so back in 2011. Not coincidentally, Djokovic did not take part in the tournament that year either.

This year’s field will now be led by Andy Murray who playing in Beijing for just the third time. Murray last played here in 2014, when he lost to Djokovic in the semifinals. Rafael Nadal will be the second seed. Rafa is 18-4 all-time in Beijing and made the final last year. He has made the final three times, winning once back in 2005 and losing in 2013 and 2015 to Djokovic. Rounding out the top four seeds are Milos Raonic and Dominic Thiem. Both Raonic and Thiem will be playing this tournament for just the second time with both holding 0-1 marks in Beijing.

The final four seeds go to David Ferrer, Lucas Pouille, Roberto Bautista Agut and Richard Gasquet. Ferrer has the most experience in Beijing among those players with a 9-6 record and one trip to the final in 2010. Gasquet comes in with some decent form after making the final in Shenzhen, but he’ll have to shed the dreaded Championship hangover after falling in three sets to Tomas Berdych on Sunday.

Seeds have generally fared well in Beijing, especially the top seed who has made the final four years running. Of course that was Novak Djokovic, this year it is Andy Murray. The three seed has been lucky with finals appearances in four of the last five years. Unseeded players do have a good track record over the last five years of crashing the semifinals. An unseeded player has made the semifinals or finals in four of the last five years.

Early upsets among the seeds have been up and down in this tournament with three seeds losing their first matches in 2015. That included the second seed Tomas Berdych who had won the title at the Shenzhen Open the week before Beijing. In three of the last five years, at least three seeds have dropped their openers. With that in mind, let’s look at this week’s seeds and who might be prone to an early exit.

Seed Report

1. Andy Murray
The Scot is 5-2 at this tournament in two career trips. This is his first time back in Beijing since 2014. Murray has had a few weeks to rest after Great Britain’s Davis Cup defeat, so he should be a bit fresher. He draws Andreas Seppi to open. Murray is 7-1 against the Italian, having won their last seven encounters with just one set lost. This should be a nice way for Murray to get going in Beijing with another win.

2. Rafael Nadal
Nadal sports an 18-4 record in Beijing, but has won the title just once way back in 2005. He has made the final in two of the last three years and will need a deep run to defend finalist’s points from last year. He opens with Paolo Lorenzi, whom he has beaten two times on clay in their careers. Lorenzi should not pose a big threat to Rafa in round one.

3. Milos Raonic
Lucky seed three belongs to the Canadian who lost his lone match in Beijing last year to Viktor Troicki. Raonic will need to shake off his opening round loss to Mikhail Youzhny a couple weeks ago in St.Petersburg. He will look to do that against Florian Mayer. The German made a nice run on grass this summer after missing several months due to injury to start 2016. Mayer won their only meeting back in 2012 on clay in Rome. Raonic might not be in the best form, but this is still a tough ask for Mayer. His quirky game could give him a chance to put a scare into the Canadian though, so don’t be shocked if it’s a tough match.

4. Dominic Thiem
Thiem has a rough opener against in-form Alexander Zverev. The German teen is coming into this one off a title win in St.Petersburg. The plus for Thiem is that he has won all three previous matches against Zverev. All three have come this year and all three came on clay. Zverev has been competitive in each match, taking a set in all three. Thiem still doesn’t seem to have learned that he does not need to play every tournament as he comes to Beijing as a wild card entry. Thiem made a final in Metz a few weeks ago, but was dumped out in Chengdu last week by Albert Ramos-Vinolas in the quarters. The fresher player here is Sascha Zverev and he has a legit chance to score the upset.

5. David Ferrer
The Spaniard picked up a pair of confidence boosting wins in Davis Cup action a few weeks back against India. Any win these days for Ferrer is a good win. He has struggled in 2016 to a respectable, but front-heavy 30-18 record. Ferrer is just 7-7 in tour activity since the French Open. He gets Pablo Cuevas in round one. He has beaten Cuevas all three times they have met, but those have come on clay. Cuevas, like Ferrer, is better on clay. He efforts well, but Ferrer has done well on these courts. Even with his mediocre play, I think he avoids the upset.

6. Lucas Pouille
Pouille makes his main draw debut in Beijing, looking to cap off a stellar season with a strong finish. The Frenchman won his first career ATP title in Metz in his last tournament to add to his two Grand Slam quarterfinal appearances that have made him more of a household name. Pouille takes on Yen-Hsen Lu in round one and that won’t be easy. Pouille certainly has the talent edge, but outdoor hard courts have been a bit tricky for the sixth seed. Before his impressive U.S. Open run, Pouille struggled on the North American swing with a 1-2 record in Cincinnati and Toronto. I would not be stunned if he fell in round one.

7. Roberto Bautista Agut
RBA will open against John Millman in Beijing. He won their only career meeting which came in January in Chennai. Millman snuck into the main draw via qualifying and that could give him an early edge on the Spaniard. RBA has only played Beijing one time previously. That was in 2013 when he made it through qualifying, before losing to John Isner in the second round. Bautisa Agut generally has avoided losing to players ranked below him on this surface and I do think he will get through with steadier play overall. Still, Millman’s match play on the surface will make it possible for this to be an upset if RBA isn’t in the mood.

8. Richard Gasquet
Gasquet is 5-4 during his career in Beijing with a semifinal showing in 2013 as his best result. He faces Sam Querrey in the opening round. Querrey hasn’t played since the U.S. Open and has been pretty awful since his surprise quarterfinal run at Wimbledon. He is just 5-6 on hard courts this summer and has lost his first match in three of his last four tournaments. Gasquet and Querrey have split two career meetings on clay. Gasquet will have a day or so to acclimate as I believe this match is scheduled for Tuesday. It’s a tough turnaround though and that Championship hangover looms. Despite Querrey’s poor results, this could be a spot where the American surprises.

Quarter Previews

Quarter #1 (Andy Murray)
Murray will be pleased with his draw. The opener against Seppi should not test him much and then he would face one of two Russians, either Andrey Kuznetsov or Konstatin Kravchuk. The other seed in this quarter is Bautista Agut. RBA could be likely to face off against Murray in the quarters. He has the opener against Millman before he faces either Kyle Edmund or Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. GGL is 1-0 against Edmund, but the Brit got through qualifying to make the main draw here with wins over Pablo Andujar and Evgeny Donskoy. Edmund could well end up against RBA for a quarterfinal spot. Should the Spaniard survive, he would face Murray for the third time with Murray holding a 2-0 mark with wins on clay and grass. Unless Murray is really ragged from the long season, this quarter is his to take.

Quarter #2 (Dominic Thiem)
This quarter sees 4th seed Dominic Thiem and 5th seed David Ferrer. That means there could be plenty of upheaval here. Should Thiem survive that tough opener against Zverev, he could face another tough one against Jack Sock. Sock battles Chinese wild card Ze Zhang in round one. Ferrer has Cuevas in round one with the winner to get either Viktor Troicki or Fabio Fognini. Fognini has won three of five from the Serb with two career meetings on hard courts split. Troicki arrived with the better form after making the Chengdu semis, but Fognini made the semis in Beijing last season. That however seems an anomaly for him here as the Italian was just 3-5 here before that run. I think the winner of Troicki-Fognini gives Ferrer a run and potentially makes it an all-unseeded quarterfinal. This definitely looks like the quarter for that streak of unseeded semifinalists to continue. Zverev, Sock and Troicki look the best shots if they can get rolling early.

Quarter #3 (Milos Raonic)
Raonic could make a deep run here if he gets himself steadied from the start. He has Richard Gasquet as the other seed in this quarter, but I don’t fancy Gasquet to go deep back-to-back weeks. A win for Raonic in his opener will get him a shot at either Malek Jaziri or Guido Pella, both winnable match-ups. For Gasquet, he will need to navigate the quick turnaround and face Querrey in round one. If he survives the American, Gasquet would see either Bernard Tomic or Pablo Carreno Busta. Tomic beat PCB in three sets at the Paris Masters in 2013. The Spaniard has improved on this surface, winning the Winston-Salem Open this year. Tomic was his usually blase self last week in Shenzhen. He beat Ryan Harrison in three sets and then was smashed 6-2, 6-2 by Thomaz Bellucci. PCB could get that win and then give Gasquet a real run for his money. In the end, I’m looking for a more motivated Raonic to get through here, but it will be a bit bumpy.

Quarter #4 (Rafael Nadal)
There are already people talking about a potential Nadal-Pouille rematch from the U.S. Open in the quarterfinals here if seeding holds. Those are your two seeds in this quarter, but that potentialy match-up is anything but certain. Nadal, I do like here with Lorenzi to open and then either Ramos-Vinolas or Adrian Mannarino in round two. Ramos-Vinolas made the Chengdu final, so he could suffer from the dreaded Championship hangover. Mannarino made it through qualifying, so he’ll have an edge on the Spaniard. Either way, Nadal looks good to the quarters.

For Pouille as outlined above, he may be tested greatly in round one against Yen-Hsun Lu. If he survives there, he’s got another tough one against either Grigor Dimitrov or Steve Johnson. Dimitrov and Johnson meet for the fifth time with each having won two matches. This season, Johnson beat Dimitrov at Wimbledon and then Dimitrov beat Johnson in Cincinnati. Dimitrov got some match play in Chengdu last week, going 2-1. Johnson has not played since the U.S. Open. Edge to Dimitrov and I think the winner there gets through either Pouille or Lu to the quarters. If it’s Dimitrov, that’s a really comfortable match-up for Nadal. Rafa is 7-0 against Dimitrov.

AND THAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE BECAUSE THE PIG SAID SO …
I think this one is set up well for one of the top three seeds to net the title. Murray may have the easier route, while Nadal and Raonic may both have the better motivation to score a late title in 2016. Nadal needs this to defend those points from last season as he chases one of the eight ATP World Tour finals’ slots. He’s currently 8th, just five points behind Thiem and just a couple hundred against of Berdych. This could be a good final with either Murray vs Nadal or Murray vs Raonic looking possible. At tournament’s end, I’m looking for a motivated Nadal to have earned it.

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