AEGON International Returns to Eastbourne
A familiar grass court stop returns to the ATP World Tour this week. After playing the AEGON International the past two years in Nottingham, the tournament goes back to Eastbourne this year. The tournament was hosted in Nottingham from its beginning in 1995 through 2008, before moving to Eastbourne from 2009 to 2014. An unexpected participant this week is top seed Novak Djokovic who took a wild card entry into the tournament.
Traditionally, Djokovic has skipped the grass court lead-ins to Wimbledon with 2010 as the last year that he had taken part in a grass court tournament (Queen’s Club) before Wimbledon. It speaks volumes to where his confidence is at to me, but it seems a very wise choice too given his rude exit at the French Open.
Rounding out the top four seeds are Gael Monfils, John Isner and Steve Johnson. Johnson won this event last year in Nottingham, but has never played on the courts in Eastbourne. Monfils and Isner have never played this tournament at Eastbourne with both last playing this tournament in 2008 in Nottingham. Monfils did make the semifinals that year.
There is a bit more experience at this tournament in the back end of the seeded field with Sam Querrey, Mischa Zverev, Richard Gasquet and Diego Schwartzman finishing out the seeds. Querrey has had success in both locations for the AEGON International, making the semifinals in Eastbourne in 2014 and the final in Nottingham in 2015. Gasquet is a two-time winner of this tournament. but those wins came duing the AEGON International’s first run in Nottimgham. The Frenchman won the title in 2005 and 2006. He made the final during the last run in Eastbourne in 2014.
All Eyes on Djokovic
It’s a rare occasion to see a top four player in the field of a 250-level event, although grass does see that a bit more often due to its shortened swing on the tour. Still, this is a first for Djokovic and is a double edged sword. A title run would certainly boost Djokovic’s confidence after being demolished in the French Open quarterfinals by Dominic Thiem. Conversely, an early loss could further damage the Serb’s frail psyche. It’s a calculated gamble for him, but certainly with his mediocre 2017, something he needs if he’s going to be a player at the business end of Wimbledon.
Djokovic has been tight lipped since taking the wild card entry, only saying that he looked forward to fine tuning his grass court game this week. The Serb will again be without new “coach” Andre Agassi this week. Agassi seems more like a consultant to me than a coach at this point as he works around his busy personal schedule. He is likely to be with Djokovic for some or all of Wimbledon, but a player lacking right now in results and confidence would seem to need more than a part-time consultant.
It’s been seven years since Djokovic has been at this stage of the season with only one title to his credit, so whether he admits it or not, I do believe this is a very big week for him.
Early Bird Specials
Data on this tournament for upsets would be somewhat useless due to the changing locations in recent years and the bigger field size in Nottingham. I think most know by now that tournaments the week before Grand Slams can yield a variety of things from players due to questionable motivation from some. That can leave the door open for others to slide in and take advantage of seeds who don’t feel the need to expend a lot of energy this week.
So let’s focus solely on the seeds and the match-ups that look a bit rough for the seeds coming into the week as potential early upsets.
1. Novak Djokovic
The Serb is going to open against either Jiri Vesely or Vasek Pospisil. While neither is having much of a season, we all famously know about Vesely’s win over Djokovic in Monte Carlo last year. Vesely chose to play a clay Challenger after the French Open and won it, but that’s not exactly helpful to getting going on grass. Pospisil got into the main draw through qualifying, so he could have a leg up. Vesely did make the fourth round at Wimbledon last year though and has always been tough on grass because of his big game. Pospisil would provide a bit more of a serve and volley challenge. Either way, Djokovic’s opening match could be tough as he gets his first taste of the greenery. Given how his season has gone, you have to have him on early upset alert for his first grass court match.
3. John Isner
Isner looked off his game against Marin Cilic in his first grass match last week at Queen’s Club. The big serving American had the requisite aces (14) you’d expect, but he won just 71 percent of his first serve points and a paltry 39 percent off his second. His opening match in Eastbourne could be extremely difficult depending on what happens between Jeremy Chardy and Dusan Lajovic in round one. Chardy is the talent. He’s 2-2 on grass this year with both losses to a scorching hot Feliciano Lopez. Lajovic has just one career win on grass, so Chardy should be the expected winner. The Frenchman is 4-0 against Isner with three of those wins on hard surfaces. He’ll pose a big threat in round two if that is the match-up.
8. Diego Schwartzman
Classic case of a David vs Goliath with the power of Jared Donaldson serving as goliath in this scenario against the diminutive Argentine. Schwartzman makes his 2017 grass debut in this tournament and he’s 0-5 lifetime on grass. Donaldson had one prep match at Queen’s Club, losing in qualifying to Tobias Kamke in straight sets. His lone grass court win came in Newport last year, so it’s not like he’s got a tremendous advantage even with his power. Still, with both not having great grass results – the power player still gets a slight nod and a chance to score the upset.
Here, I think it is important to look at this tournament’s history regardless of whether it’s been in Nottingham or Eastbourne. It just gives you insight into how the week before Slams can go. Last year in Nottingham, seeds ruled the roost. Seven of the eight quarterfinal slots went to seeds and it was sixth seed Steve Johnson beating second seed Pablo Cuevas for the title. In 2015 however, three of the four semifinalists including champion Denis Istomin, were unseeded.
The last year in Eastbourne (2014) before the location flip saw Felciano Lopez win as the third seed over top seed Richard Gasquet. Two of the semifinalist were not seeded though and that trend was also there in 2013 when Lopez won for the first time as an unseeded player with Ivan Dodig also not seeded as a semifinalist. So 2016 seems to be the deviation from the pattern and as such, let’s identify some unseeded players who could be in the mix late this week at the AEGON International.
Nicolas Mahut/Robin Haase
This could be one of the most competitive matches of the tournament and it happens in round one. Both players are solid on this surface although Mahut has struggled this season with just a 1-2 mark. Haase made the quarterfinals in Stuttgart beating David Ferrer and Dominic Thiem in that span. Mahut owns the lone win in this head-to-head and it came at his best grass court tournament, the Ricoh Open, in 2015.
The survivor of this first rounder likely goes against fifth seed Sam Querrey who opens against an injured Daniil Medvedev (shoulder). Mahut is 1-1 against the American on grass and Querrey has not met Haase at all. Either one could score the win and find themselves in the quarterfinals and with a legit shot a the semifinals with Steve Johnson as the other seed in this quarter.
I touched on Chardy’s chances to knock off John Isner if the Frenchman gets out of round one. Gasquet could ultimately block him from anything else in this tournament, but he’s got a chance to make some noise.
Anderson exited the French Open early due to illness, but should be recovered here. His big game has always been good on grass. He’ll need to find his serve rhythm and consistency from the down time, but he’ll be a tough out. He opens with Bellucci and then could see Gasquet, whom he has beaten three of the last four times they have met. A path to the semifinals isn’t all that far fetched, if he gets off to a good start against Thomaz Bellucci.
Although I hesitate to put the Aussie on this list, he avoids a big name seed early which could suit him better. Tomic opens against qualifier Norbert Gambos. If Tomic wins, then it’s likely Mischa Zverev who opens with Ryan Harrison. While Zverev has had good results on grass, they’ve come almost exclusively in Germany. This seems like one of those spots where Tomic could get to a quarterfinal just to keep his name in the conversation on grass for a couple more days before he inevitably blows up.
Quarter #1 Seeds
Novak Djokovic (1)
Diego Schwartzman (8)
On paper, this looks like a quarter that Djokovic should get through. The toughest match may indeed be his opener against either Vesely or Pospisil. A win there and he could face anyone really. Schwartzman opens against Donaldson in a match where neither player has produced much on grass. The winner there gets either Donald Young or Kyle Edmund. It would be easy for American fans to get hopeful after Young made the quarters at Queen’s Club with an injury shortened win over Nick Kyrgios and a straight sets win over Viktor Troicki. Still, Young 12-21 on grass for a reason. Edmund lost a tough three set match to Denis Shapovalov. The Brit still has not found consistently positive results on grass in spite of a game that would seem to be suited for some success. The winner of that Young-Edmund match should sneak into the quarterfinal mix given the relative weakness of the other players.
Even given Djokovic’s question marks, this is a quarter he has to win and should be expected to win. Anything less and it’s another massive setback for the Serb.
Quarter #2 Seeds
Steve Johnson (4)
Sam Querrey (5)
This should be a highly competitive quarter and might have been even more so if Daniil Medvedev was headed here in full health. The Russian scored back-to-back quarterfinals at ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Queen’s Club, but appeared to injury his should against Grigor Dimitrov in a three set loss in London. The good news was that he finished the match after injuring the shoulder in warmups, so he still took a set. The bad news of course is that he has this to contend with ahead of Wimbledon. He starts against Querrey and I would expect the Russian to be very cautious with the shoulder and there could even be a chance he pulls out of the tournament. Querrey will still have to worry though as he would face Mahut or Haase in round two.
Johnson has the better route to a deep run this week. He gets a bye and then opens against Thomas Fabbiano or Frank Skugor. Johnson should expect to win and be in the quarterfinals. Johnson might prefer Haase in a potential quarterfinal as he stands a combined 0-5 against Querrey and Mahut. This quarter looks like it might be one of those that goes to an unseeded player.
Quarter #3 Seeds
John Isner (3)
Richard Gasquet (7)
This quarter also could feature a run by an unseeded player. Isner opens against the Chardy-Lajovic winner and as laid out, Chardy has four wins over Isner in four tries. In the other half, Gasquet gets American Frances Tiafoe to open. Tiafoe has not won a main draw match on grass yet at this level and asking for that against Gasquet seems unlikely. Gasquet likely sees Kevin Anderson in round two. Anderson opens against Bellucci in a favorable match-up for the big serving South African. Anderson can definitely push Gasquet who lost to Big Kev on clay and hard courts last year with Anderson taking three of their four meetings in the last two seasons.
I don’t expect much from Isner after his poor showing at Queen’s Club, so watch Chardy and Anderson if this goes to an unseeded player. It won’t be easy to get past Gasquet though who looked solid in Halle before losing in the semifinals to Alexander Zverev.
Quarter #4 Seeds
Gael Monfils (2)
Mischa Zverev (6)
As usual, it’s one big question mark when Monfils comes to town. The Frenchman missed time before the French Open, but still made the fourth round. Last week in his grass debut, he lost to Gasquet in three sets. La Monf pounded 22 aces, but also let Gasquet see 15 break points. Monfils could improve with the match play. Grass has not been his favorite, but he does have a booming serve that makes him a threat. He should get off to a winning start with either Cameron Norrie or Horacio Zeballos as his first opponent.
The other half has more questions with Zverev opening against Ryan Harrison. Harrison does own a 4-3 mark against the German, but Zverev has won their last two meetings. Harrison has not figured out grass for the most part, but he had some good results in Eastbourne. In 2012, he made the semifinals and he went 1-1 the following year. Since then, he’s 0-7 in main draw matches on grass at this level. A win for Zverev and he likely sees Bernard Tomic who is up against Norbert Gambos in round one.
Monfils has the draw to make the semifinals here, but he’s still so hard to trust. He’s rarely played the week before Grand Slams, so this is new territory. Whether that equals a more motivated Monfils or not is the question. If not La Monf, I still have the crazy notion that Tomic could pull a rabbit out of his ass this week.
AND THAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE BECAUSE THE PIG SAID SO …
Djokovic’s focus level this week will be a key to how he does. I think he needs this title ahead of Wimbledon and I am expecting his effort level to be there. Whether the results follow is the question. Gasquet looks like the better option in the bottom half to make a run if he’s engaged this week. If an Anderson or Chardy gets on a roll in that bottom half though, you could see an unseeded player in the final and those are the two I would watch.