Grass Court Season Finale
The grass court season comes to an end this week at the traditional stop in Rhode Island at the Tennis Hall of Fame. The tournament formerly known as the Tennis Hall of Fame Championships flips to a new name this year as the Dell Technologies Hall of Fame Open or Dell Tech Open for short. The tournament serves as the back drop for the yearly Hall of Fame induction ceremony which this year will include Andy Roddick and Kim Clijsters among others.
This is the 41st year of the tournament which features John Isner as this year’s top seed. Isner is a two time champ here, last winning in 2012. The defending champion is seeded second in this year’s draw and that is Ivo Karlovic. Karlovic finally broke through in the final last year against Gilles Muller after losing in the final of this tournament in both 2014 and 2015. Adrian Mannarino and Pierre Hugues-Herbert round out of the top four seeds. Mannarino is a two-time quarterfinalists, while PHH makes his debut in Newport this year.
As a 250-level event the week after a Grand Slam, there is definitely a lesser field in attendance. That is highlighted by the remaining four seeds among the top eight seeds. The fifth seed is Victor Estrella-Burgos followed by Lukas Lacko, Tennys Sandgren and Illya Marchenko to round out the seeded field. Only Sandgren has never played in Newport among that group. The lack of grass court success among this part of the seeded field is rather astounding with Burgos at 4-11 on the green stuff for his career. Lacko is 12-21 on grass and perhaps has the “best” pedigree among the lower seeds. He made the third round at Wimbledon in 2016, beating Karlovic in round two. He has not registered a win at the ATP level on grass since that match.
Sandgren? He played his first career grass court matches this summer, going 1-2 in the Ilkey Challenger and Wimbledon qualifying. Marchenko has sporadic success on grass with a quarterfinal run at the 2015 Ricoh Open and he made it through qualifying at Wimbledn this year. He would lose in five sets to Jiri Vesely in round one. The fact of the matter is that among the seeds, this is a very top heavy field for a 250. After Mannarino, there is plenty of inexperience and also plenty of opportunity for someone to step up and make a name for themselves this week.
Early Bird Specials
Newport has traditionally been a bad place to be a seed, although last year very much bucked that trend. No seeds were upset in their first matches in 2016 and the semifinal field was all comprised of seeded players. Prior to 2016 however, there has been plenty of upheaval among the seeds. In 2015, Rajeev Ram won the title as an unseeded player and three seeds dropped their opening matches. That included top seed John Isner. Two of the four semifinal spots went to unseeded players.
2014 was another year where the seeds actually performed well with just one early upset. Seeds would make up three quarters of the semifinal spots. 2012 and 2013 were more like what you’d expect the week after a Slam with four seeds dropping their openers each year. Nicolas Mahut would win the title in 2013 as an unseeded wild card entry and Lleyton Hewitt made the final as an unseeded wild card in 2012. The one big constant over the last four years has been the inability of the top seed to get himself into the mix. Isner was the last top seed to win the title in 2012. Since then, no top seed has even reached the semifinals.
So chew on all that as we take a look at the seeds who could be prone to early trips home this week … which would pretty much be all the seeds in my opinion.
1. John Isner
Qualifying continues on Monday, so Isner does not have a set opponent yet. He will take on the winner of a first round match between two qualifiers. There are some intriguing qualifiers who could pose a risk to Isner depending on the match-up, but that’s neither here nor there until there is something set. Isner’s form in general might be the bigger worry with the American went just 2-3 on grass and lost to Dudi Sela in the second round at Wimbledon. He’s done reasonably well here at 15-5 for his career and the first round loss his last time here in 2015 was to Rajeev Ram. Ram won the title that year. Check the match-up once qualifying is done, but keep Big John on upset alert.
2. Ivo Karlovic
Karlovic could have an interesting first battle in Newport. He gets the winner between Americans Mitchell Krueger and Denis Kudla. Kudla is two years removed from his magical grass court season where he won a Challenger title and then made round four at Wimbledon in 2015. Since then, he’s failed to follow up that momentum. He is just 6-9 on grass since then with most of those wins at the Challenger level and in Wimbledon qualifying. Should he get through though, Kudla owns two wins against Karlovic in three career matches. He beat Ivo at this tournament in 2011 and then last year in clay on Spain.
3. Adrian Mannarino
Mannarino seems like a candidate to potentially take control of his draw if the seeds above him falter, but he also faces a possible landmine in his opener. He gets the winner between Taylor Fritz and Tobias Kamke. Neither is in superb form, but Fritz has efforted well on grass recently. He made it through Wimbledon qualifying before losing to Isner in round one. He also made the quarterfinals at the Ilkey Challenger and should expect to beat Kamke who played on clay last week. Fritz has played Mannarino twice and lost to him narrowly in three sets in Acapulco on hard courts earlier this year. He’ll be a threat if his serve is on.
4. Pierre Hugues-Herbert
Huge danger sign for the Frenchman in that he could open against a player who just hosed him in straight sets in June on grass. PHH opens against either Stefan Kozlov or Adrian Menendez-Maceiras. Kozlov is the danger. The young American torched him 6-4, 6-2 in qualifying at Queen’s Club. Maybe it was just a bad day for Herbert who had eight double faults in that match, but that rematch would make for a real tricky opener.
5. Victor Estrella Burgos
Burgos has been in the midst of a terrible season, losing his opening match at tournaments in eight of his last nine. He faces veteran Konstantin Kravchuk to start. Kravchuk is just 2-4 on grass this season, but his losses have been very tight for the most part. He has never won on grass at this level though, so it’s a bit of an ask for him to break through. Still with Burgos struggling, there may not be a better time for he Russian to nab his first win on grass.
6. Lukas Lacko
Lacko’s experience on grass is a plus, but his first round opponent has the ability to serve him off the court. American Reilly Opelka is that man. He’s got a monster serve, but his problem has been replicating it from set to set and in key moments. What you like about Opelka’s chanes to pull off the win though are that Lacko’s struggled a bit on grass this year against guys who can bring it on serve like Marius Copil and Jan-Lennard Struff.
The top seed in the quali field is Ramkumar Ramanathan who made a run to the Antalya quarterfinals a couple of weeks back, beating Dominic Thiem along the way. Sam Groth is also in the quali field as has the serve that can stick with Isner. Aussie John Patrick Smith is potential trouble if he makes it through the final round. He’s a 2015 semifinalist here and he is playing this tournament for the third straight season.
7. Tennys Sandgren
I touched on his lack of experience on grass and that he could get Novikov first-up would be a worry. It would be a big feather in his cap if he won his first match here to notch that inaugural grass court win at the ATP level. Still, he’s coming back from playing hard courts in Winnetka last week and none of his grass court matches suggested particularly that he’s taken to the surface jut yet. Whether it’s Novikov or Chiudinelli, he should be on upset alert.
8. Illya Marchenko
In spite of an experience edge, Marchenko could also be marked for an early upset. His resume on this surface at the ATP level reads six wins and 12 losses. He opens against American Bjorn Fratangelo who had a couple of decent quarterfinal showings on grass at the Challenger level this summer. The 23-year-old has still not recorded a grass court win at the ATP level however, so he has that to contend with in this spot. Still, there’s nothing especially noteworthy about Marchenko’s game, so Fratangelo might have a shot to get that W.
Unseeded players have a rich tradition of making noise in Newport. I previously mentioned Rajeev Ram winning the title in 2015 as a wild card entry, so there’s that. If you look back at the last five years and toss out last year’s seed-fest, you’ll find that unseeded players have nailed down seven of the 12 semifinal spots between 2012 and 2015. Three of the last ten finals spots have also gone to unseeded players, so there is definitely opportunity here. So of that can be attributed to the specialized surface and some of it can be attributed to the field of players that is usually lacking among the seeds.
As such, there are always unseeded players with room to make big runs. Here are a few to watch this week.
(WC) Rajeev Ram
A big fat duh on this one. The 2015 champ is 17-6 all-time at this tournament with two title runs. Three out of the last four years however, Ram has not progressed past the second round. This year, he opens against a yet-to-be determined qualifier and then would see either Lacko or Opelka. It’s a very winnable part of the draw for Ram to push through to the semifinals. Check the opening match-up and if it’s favorable, Ram could be some to consider backing as a dark horse this week.
The 23-year-old Russian-born, now Americanized Novikov is in another soft part of the draw. He opens against Marco Chiudinelli. The Swiss competition has lost seven of his last ten overall. Novikov played a lot on grass this summer, mostly at Challengers. He made it through qualifying three times on grass with the lone exception coming at Wimbledon, where he lost in the final round. Last year, Novikov made the main draw at Wimbledon and got to the second round. He’s got some grass game. A win over Chiudinelli would get him a shot against Sandgren or a qualifier. That’s a fairly winnable section which could get him to the quarterfinals. He might find John Isner there. It’s a longshot that he’d get there, but there is a route for him to win a few this week.
The Fritz Express has derailed over the past 18 months or so. In early 2016, Fritz was being touted as the next “it” guy in American tennis after winning a Challenger to start the season and showing well in a five set loss at the Australian Open against Jack Sock in round one. Fritz would make his first ATP level final in Memphis the next month. He would make a couple more quarterfinals in a solid season. Fritz’s 2017 has been full of change with a newborn child in his life now. His ranking is back outside the Top 100 now, well up from his career best #53 about 11 months ago.
I mentioned above that a win over Kamke in round one would get him a shot against Mannarino. Mannarino has been playing well on grass, so it would be a big win for Fritz who took him the distance in their last meeting. He’s in the same quarter as Lacko and Ram in what could be the most competitive section of the draw. Fritz is still just 19, so it’s not like he’s in danger of being labelled a bust. Still, there needs to be a time when the switch flips on again for him and this could be a spot for him to do just that. He’ll need to find the best version of his serve to do so.
The 19-year-old American has shown enough on grass that he can be included in the mix of outsiders. He beat Steve Johnson at Queen’s Club this year and also beat his potential second round opponent, Hugues-Herbert, in qualifying in that same tournament. This will be his third straight year playing in Newport, so he should be comfortable. That might make him dangerous, but it all depends on whether or not his serve is working. That’s been the part of his game that has struggled to develop consistency just yet.
Quarter #1 Seeds
John Isner (1)
Tennys Sandgren (7)
If there is a spot to break the #1 seed curse at Newport, this would be it. Isner is in a weak quarter, although the qualifiers who get plugged in after Monday might make it a bit more interesting. Still, having Sandgren as the other seed here is a big bonus for Isner. Unless there is a difficult qualifier in the mix, Isner should be in the quarterfinals. He would see Sandgren, Dennis Novikov or Marco Chiudinelli. Murderer’s Row that is not. Novikov is still the guy I would watch out for here if there is a surprise. If Isner can find a serve rhythm, it will be tough for most to match him still.
Quarter #2 Seeds
Pierre Hugues-Herbert (4)
Illya Marchenko (8)
Herbert is a guy who could do some damage here if he can harness his serve. That’s been one of his biggest problems on tour. As a top ten doubles player, he’s got the requisite volley skills that are handy on grass, so you would expect he could do some good things. He is only 5-7 on grass in his career. He will get either Stefan Kozlov or Adrian Menendez-Maceiras in his opener. As discussed earlier, Kozlov beat him recently on grass and could be a danger or it could ignite the revenge factor for PHH. I think if he gets past his opener, he has a chance to get through this quarter.
Marchenko has his own issues with Fratangelo to open. The winner of that gets either Michael Mmoh or Akira Santillan. Santillan is an intriguing prospect this week. The Australian won at Winnetka this past week on hard courts, so he comes in hot. He’s a real novice on grass, getting his first taste of it this year. He’s shown okay on it though with Challenger level matches and Wimbledon qualifying. His opener against Mmoh is a winnable match-up with the American also shy on grass experience.
This quarter is hard to predict. Santillan is the X-factor I think if he can get an opening round win, then he could keep rolling with his recent hot streak. Kozlov is also a guy who theoretically could come through here with some favorable match-ups.
Quarter #3 Seeds
Adrian Mannarino (3)
Lukas Lacko (6)
Mannarino almost seems too easy a choice to come through this quarter. Still, he has been in form on grass with a finals appearance in Antalya followed by making the fourth round at Wimbledon. His toughest test might be his first if he faces Taylor Fritz. In the other half, Lacko is going to be hard pressed to get much done with a hard draw. He starts against the big serving Reilly Opelka and then surviving that likely gets him a date with Rajeev Ram. Ram beat Opelka in Wimbledon qualifying, so he might have a good read on that big serve if that is the match-up. I think this could come down to Mannarino or Ram. Mannarino is 3-1 against Ram (including Challengers and qualifying), but the lone win for Ram – you guessed it – Ram beat Mannarino in a third set tiebreak at Newport in 2015.
Quarter #4 Seeds
Ivo Karlovic (2)
Victor Estrella Burgos (5)
If you look this quarter, you don’t see anyone who has the serve to go toe-to-toe with Karlovic. Yet so many of his matches come down to a few key points that it’s up in the air even against guys without power serves. Burgos for example owns the lone win over Karlovic in their one career meeting in Quito, Ecuador. That was on clay however, where grass figures to give Karlovic a better edge. Karlovic may only need to get past Kudla in round two to feel comfortable, that’s if Kudla can beat fellow American Mitchell Krueger. Burgos has Kravchuk to start with and then the survivor gets Peter Gojowcyzk or Thai Sun Kwiatkowski. Gojo is one to monitor. The German hadn’t done much on grass before making the main draw at Wimbledon through qualifying. He also won his first round match against Marius Copil before losing to Roberto Bautista Agut in four sets.
It’s hard to get excited about too much in this quarter outside of Karlovic. Ivo is 14-5 in Newport with three straight finals trips. Since making the Ricoh Open final though, he has lost three straight on grass. Still, Newport suits him and he’s actually shown quite decent with the serve and volley here in the past.
AND THAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE BECAUSE THE PIG SAID SO …
Karlovic looks to have a pretty good path to making it four finals appearances in a row at this tournament. Mannarino might be the toughest out in that half of the draw, but Karlovic has beaten him three of four times and that includes once this year on grass. Maybe Isner is the one to end the four year streak of the top seed not getting to the semifinals or final, but I just don’t trust his body at this stage. I think the top half could set up for a weird finalist or perhaps Herbert to actual find his best for a week. He’s capable, but just hasn’t shown the consistency in singles lately. If Karlovic wins, he becomes the 5th player to win back-to-back titles in the history of this tournament. He’d be the first since John Isner in 2011 and 2012.