Questions Among the Top Four Seeds
The U.S. Open hard court series hits its high note this week as the tour stops in Cincinnati for the Western & Southern Open. For many, this is the final tuneup before the U.S. Open. The new week arrives with new questions. We thought the biggest would be how Rafael Nadal bounced back after his shock loss to Denis Shapovalov in Montreal last week. Now, even with Alexander Zverev as the biggest story – the key question is how healthy is Roger Federer? Zverev truly played some of his best tennis and was a deserving winner in the Rogers Cup final on Sunday. However, there was little doubt that Federer seemed tight and not-so-fluid in the second set. Many observers believe the Swiss tweaked his back at some point with the focus on his change in service motion from set one to set two. Federer was typically mum after the match, so it remains to be seen what his status will be for this week.
As for the man who is the current main attraction on the ATP World Tour in Sascha Zverev, he arrives on a ten match winning streak and with plenty of confidence. The key for Sascha this week as was the case in Montreal is balance. Winning your second Masters title and beating Federer will obviously have him on an emotional high, so it’s big if he can prove again that he can come off that feeling and continue his run of great play. Zverev will serve as the fourth seed in Cincy behind Nadal, Federer and Dominic Thiem. Thiem himself will have something to prove with a 1-2 mark for his summer swing on hard courts. His loss to Diego Schwartzman in his opener last week in Montreal will be particularly troubling. The Austrian will want to gain some momentum this week.
Number One Ranking in Sight for Nadal or Federer
As for Nadal, he’ll look to shake off the disappointment of last week and focus on recapturing form at the Western & Southern Open with an eye on the top spot in the rankings. From the sounds of his comments after losing to Shapovalov in Montreal, one wouldn’t be wrong in thinking he fully expected to be in that spot entering the week. Instead, he’s still just behind Andy Murray at #2 by just 195 points. With Murray out this week again due to injury, Rafa can regain the top spot for the first time since 2014 if the chips fall right for him. Federer also has plenty to say about that if healthy enough to compete. Rafa lost in the round of 16 last year, so has plenty of points to gain with each win after that round. Federer did not play Cincinnati at all in 2016 due to injury, so will have nothing but points to gain with each win.
Seeded Field Struggling
If we’re honest, most of the seeded field in Cincinnati not named Sascha Zverev will be looking to establish a rhythm and find their best form this week. One player we won’t see is Kei NIshikori, who pulled out with a wrist injury. Nishikori has been set to be seeded fifth, a slot that will now go to lucky loser Janko Tipsarevic. Sixth seed Milos Raonic arrives off an injury concern last week in Montreal where he lost his opening match. He revealed after that he had played through some pain in his left wrist. The Canadian does not believe it to be a long term issue. What has been an issue for Raonic is his uneven play. He is a two-time semifinalist at this tournament, making that round last year.
The seventh seed this week is Grigor Dimitrov who has become the poster child for struggling on tour. Last week showcased that again as he beat Mischa Zverev in his opener before losing to Robin Haase going away 7-6, 4-6, 6-1. Dimitrov did have his best run here last year in making the semifinals, scoring four of his nine career wins in Cincinnati in that stretch. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (8) comes to the midwest with a poor record at this event (2-5) and just one match since Wimbledon. That was last week’s three set loss to Sam Querrey at the Rogers Cup.
David Goffin slots in as the 9th seed and another player who has been rough around the edges of late. The Belgian returned to tour in late July after missing time with an ankle injury. He is 3-3 since returning with his losses coming to unexpected sources like Ivan Dodig, Robin Haase and Hyeon Chung. Goffin is 5-3 in his career in Cincy, never making it past the round of 16. Tomas Berdych rounds out the top ten seeds. The Czech pulled out of Montreal last week with a rib injury or perhaps due to his lengthy run in Los Cabos the week prior. He made the final in Mexico, where he lost to Thanasi Kokkinakis in a grueling three set match.Berdych is 18-12 all-time at this tournament with semifinal runs in 2011 and 2013.
The last part of the seeded field includes Pablo Carreno Busta, Roberto Bautista Agut and a glut of Americans. The American contingent has the most history here. That includes 14th seed John Isner who won his Sunday opener against Viktor Troicki in straight sets. Isner has not done well since making the final in 2013. Since then, he has failed to get past the second round in two of the past three years. Sam Querrey (15) is 10-10 in Cincy, but has also not been past round two in the last six years. The final seed, Gilles Muller, won his opener on Sunday against Ryan Harrison in three sets. It was his first victory in just two career matches at this event.
Early Bird Specials
Last year was the lowest number of first-up upsets in Cincinnati a good bit. Only two seeds lost their openers last year. Prior to that, four seeds lost first-up in 2015, three in 2014 and six in 2013. Interestingly, a top eight seed has not lost their opener in Cincy since 2014. That could be up for a change this year with so many in this seeded field short on form and results of late. Let’s take a look at the players who could be most likely to struggle early.
3. Dominic Thiem
An intriguing opponent awaits Thiem either way the first round match between Fabio Fognini and Daniil Medvedev shakes down. Medvedev was unable to get off the ground in Montreal last week after his surprise run to the quarterfinals the week before in D.C. Fognini has a good run on clay after Wimbledon with a title in Gstaad. He did make a shock run to the quarterfinals in 2014 in Cincinnati, but has lost his first match each of the last two years. Thiem whipped Fognini in their lone career meeting on clay back in 2015 and he’s never played Medvedev. Both Fognini and Medvedev can play that smash and grab style on hard courts, so both can pose problems for Thiem and both can be overwhelmed when they are not hitting their spots. Keep the upset alert button handy in any case.
6. Milos Raonic
Keeping the Canadian here simply because we’re not sure what percentage that wrist is going to be at to start this week. He’ll face either Nikoloz Basilashvili or Borna Coric. Raonic is 1-0 against both, but consider Coric a possible trouble spot for the Canadian. Coric has taken to these courts well in two previous trips with wins over Alexander Zverev (2015) and then Nadal and Kyrgios last year. With Raonic up and down this year, there’s every reason to believe that match could be very tight.
7. Grigor Dimitrov
Dimitrov is a regular on this list and why not? He has stretched his streak of non first-up losses to four straight tournaments now, but he’s been pushed to three sets both in DC and Montreal in his first match before losing in the next round. He has lost his first-up match in five tournaments this year. Dimitrov gets Feliciano Lopez or Hyeon Chung to open this week. Lopez is 2-2 against Dimitrov, including a win on grass this year and a three set loss last year in Cincy in a third set tiebreak. Chung played well against Dimitrov in a four set loss at the Australian Open. Chung beat Lopez last week in Montreal, so it will be an intriguing first round clash that could lead to an even more intriguing second round match.
8. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Tsonga wasn’t done any favors with his draw. He is going to face the winner of Ivo Karlovic vs Jiri Vesely. Tsonga would probably prefer Vesely who he beat in a strenuous four set Davis Cup win on hard courts in 2016. Karlovic is 2-1 against the Frenchman with both wins coming on grass at Wimbledon. The plus for Tsonga is neither arrives with much done on this surface lately. Vesely has beaten Karlovic twice, but the last meeting came in 2015 at the U.S. Open. Either player is definitely capable of giving Tsonga fits with their power, especially considering Tsonga’s poor record here.
9. David Goffin
An easy inclusion on this list even if his first round opponent is about as trustworthy as a politician. Goffin faces Nick Kyrgios to start. The Aussie did put together two wins in a row in Montreal last week, his best showing since Madrid way back in May. His performance against Alexander Zverev in his loss was less than inspiring, but he at least showed some mobility and his shoulder held up. Does that mean he holds up this week? Of course not. He has beaten Goffin both times they have played in the past though with the last coming in Miami earlier this season when the Belgian was playing reasonably well. With the quick conditions in Cincy, Kyrgios will be a big bother for Goffin – IF he cares to be. That is the question.
10, Tomas Berdych
Berdych draws the first round Juan Martin Del Potro short stick this week. DelPo was up and down again last week. Looking decent in a win against John Isner in Montreal before looking very flat against Denis Shapovalov in the next round. He is 4-3 against Berdych. The Berdman has won both of their meetings on this surface, including the last at Indian Wells last season. With Berdych’s status unknown with the rib and DelPo always seemingly unknown with the wrist, this really looks 50-50.
12. Roberto Bautista Agut
RBA faces off against Jared Donaldson who brings some confidence to Cincy after back-to-back third round runs in D.C. and Montreal. The Spaniard was solid in his own right last week with a quarterfinal run at the Rogers Cup, where he lost to Federer 6-4, 6-4. RBA is just 2-3 at this event however and lost in round one to Nicolas Mahut last year. JD is 2-2 at this event in two career trips and he took Stan Wawrinka to three sets in a loss last year. If he finds his serve early, he’s a threat to upset.
Cincinnati has been a regular haven for outsiders the past five years with an unseeded player crashing the semifinals each year. That includes John Isner’s 2013 finals appearance as an outsider. With some of the questions surrounding this week’s seeded field, there could definitely be room for a new addition to the outsider’s club at the Western & Southern Open. Let’s take a look at some possibilities.
There are too many unseeded possibilities in this quarter to list them individually. Yes, Nadal will be expecting to make a big run here, but he’s lost in the round of 16 each of his last two trips to the midwest. In this quarter, there is Nick Kyrgios, Kevin Anderson, Alexandr Dolgpolov, Ivo Karlovic and Jiri Vesely. Kyrgios, Dolgopolov and Anderson would have to go through each other in round two in some combination, but could benefit from having Tsonga and Goffin as the lead seeds in that half of the quarter. That would keep them away from Nadal longer if the Spaniard is able to make a run. Anderson probably carries the best form, but is 0-4 against Nadal. He might need help to get through to the semifinals out of this group.
Steve Johnson/David Ferrer
Johnson continues to ride the roller coaster from week to week and he gets another tough opener with David Ferrer. Ferrer scored two of his best wins this season last week at the Rogers Cup against Kyle Edmund and Jack Sock. He also took a set off of Federer before losing in three sets. The winner of their first round match gets to take advantage of Nishikori’s injury withdraw in round two. Ferrer is 2-0 against Johnson and perhaps arriving with the most confidence he has had in a long time. The winner would only have Carreno Busta seeded in their way to the quarterfinals and Thiem or Querrey as the possible seed blocking a semifinal. It’s a weaker draw that could open up nicely.
Fabio Fognini/Daniil Medvedev
The winner of their first round clash will have to beat Thiem in round two, but that’s not an unimaginable task right now on this surface. A couple wins and they could be in the driver’s seat for a quarterfinal run or better.
The Frenchman scored wins over Johnson and Nishikori last week to boost his confidence. He lost a tough three set match to Bautista Agut in round three in a third set tiebreak, but appears to be trending upward. He’s in the quarter with Zverev and Raonic as the top seeds. His half could be easier to at least push to the quarterfinals as La Monf is 3-3 against Raonic and had beaten RBA three straight before last week’s loss.
The Russian’s potential this week would hinge on Federer’s status. Khachanov opens against Diego Schwartzman in round one. Schwartzman did beat him in Miami this year in three sets, but the quicker conditions in Cincy could help the Russian in this one. The winner would meet Federer in round two if the Swiss is able to go. Khachanov lost to Fed 6-4, 7-6 in Halle this year and proved he can stick with him in quick conditions. If things fall right, he would likely only need to get past Sock to get to the quarters. Then, it’s Dimitrov and Berdych as the highest seeds in the other part of the quarter to block a semifinal berth. It’s a long shot sure, but there is potential depending on what happens with Federer.
Quarter #1 Seeds
Rafael Nadal (1)
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (8)
David Goffin (9)
Gilles Muller (16)
Nadal’s route to the quarterfinals could run through Muller, a repeat of their five set classic at Wimbledon this year. Muller has taken a set off of Rafa in their last two meetings and likely would provide another stiff test. Nadal will face Richard Gasquet or John Parick Smith to start. He is 14-0 against Gasquet and will likely feel comfortable in either case. Muller would need to get past Mikhail Youzhny or Albert Ramos-Vinolas in round two to make that rematch come true.
In the bottom half, Goffin and Tsonga are shaky seeds. Kevin Anderson could be the one to take advantage in this part of the draw if he gets past Dolgopolov to begin. Anderson made the Citi Open final and then followed up with a quarterfinal run last week. There is no Sascha Zverev in his way this week, so if he’s not fatigued, watch out for him again. I’d favor Tsonga over Goffin as far as the seed who could reasonably do better here.
For me, I think this quarter could boil down to the potential Nadal-Muller match in round three. Rafa will have confidence from getting those tough wins over the big lefty, but it also leaves this quarter the potential for someone other than Rafa to get through to the semis.
Quarter #2 Seeds
Dominic Thiem (3)
Pablo Carreno Busta (11)
Sam Querrey (15)
The departure of Nishikori in this quarter leaves room for some jostling in this quarter. Thiem is the lead seed, but far from a sure shot. His first match may be his toughest with either Fognini or Medvedev waiting. If the Austrian gets past that, he could get on a better roll. Querrey has a nice match-up in his half of the quarter to begin with Stefan Kozlov. His next match could be tougher with either Adrian Mannarino or Robin Haase as the foe. Mannarino is 2-0 against Querrey and Haase played very well in Montreal last week. I would not be surprised if this half of the quarter did fall to Thiem so long as he can get past his opener.
In the bottom half, Carreno Busta is the only seed with Janko Tipsarevic sliding into Nishikori’s slot. Carreno Busta could have a nice path with Paolo Lorenzi to open and then either Fernando Verdasco or Mischa Zverev. PCB is 1-1 against Zverev and 2-1 against Verdasco. Neither has been good of late on hard courts. Carreno Busta will have to overcome his lack of experience in this venue with just one career match, but he’s got the talent to make the run.
This quarter looks like it’s either Thiem or a total blowup with an unseeded player making their way through. Thiem has yet to master this Masters swing in his young career, so it’s not definite that he will this time around. Still, I do like him here if he gets past that opener. But that is a fairly large IF.
Quarter #3 Seeds
Alexander Zverev (4)
Milos Raonic (6)
Roberto Bautisra Agut (12)
John Isner (14)
All of a sudden, Zverev isn’t a future star – he’s a current star. This is sure to be a test for Sascha as one of the few players in the draw playing for a third straight week. No matter the form, that is a big ask for a player to continue to roll day after day. As usual in these situations, the first match could be the trickiest. Zverev faces either Frances Tiafoe or qualifier Maximillian Marterer. That will help alleviate some of the stress as both are inferior players to Sascha. He has already handled Tiafoe in straight sets twice at the Aussie Open and Wimbledon. Isner looks the larger threat from ending his run. Isner will need to get by Donald Young or Tommy Paul next round, but could be waiting for Zverev in round three. Sascha is 3-0 against Isner, including two wins this year, but Big John has taken a set off of him in each match. With a lot of mileage on Zverev, I would not be surprised if Isner ended Sascha’s win streak.
In the other half, Raonic arrives with the health question and is definitely a candidate for an early exit if the wrist is still bothersome. Coric, if he takes down Basilashvili in round one, could be the one to do it. Bautista Agut has the tough opener against Donaldson and then could face Monfils for a second straight week. This definitely looks like a part of the bracket that could see an unseeded player sneak through. Think Monfils or Donaldson, but Coric could also be a possibility with a good track record of playing tough in Cincy.
If Zverev can avoid burn out this week, you’d be a fool to bet against him as I did last week in Montreal. He’s the form player on tour the last few weeks and has proven it over and over. A healthy and in-form Raonic would obviously be tough here, but he’s neither coming into this week. If not Sascha, Bautista Agut is an interesting and under-the-radar seed to sneak into the mix. Monfils or Donaldson to me seems the likelier of the unseeded guys to surprise.
Quarter #4 Seeds
Roger Federer (2)
Grigor Dimitrov (7)
Tomas Berdych (10)
Jack Sock (13)
*See Updated thoughts below due to Federer announcing he would withdraw due to a back injury
The pluses for Federer this week are listed above. None of the seeds have been particularly consistent lately and none of them have traditionally bothered the Swiss. The big question for Fed is health. With the U.S. Open less than two weeks away, he’s going to be very careful not to overextend himself. Grand Slams are what it’s all about for the Swiss at this stage. Fed seemed to characterize his problems on Sunday as the aches and pains you would expect after being on vacation for a while and then playing a full week. To me, it sounds like he will give it a go in Cincy. If healthy, Federer has a good path to the quarters although Khachanov potentially in round two would be a tough out as laid out earlier. Sock has Yuichi Sugita to start and then may face Kyle Edmund in round two. Edmund smoked him in Atlanta.
In the other half, you have the enigma that is Dimitrov and the questionable status of Berdych. There are dangerous floaters like Del Potro, Benoit Paire, Feliciano Lopez and Hyeon Chung in this half as well. I trust Berdych more than Dimitrov since the Czech efforted well in Los Cabos. If he’s healthy, Berdych has a shot to get going if he can work past DelPo – that’s the big one for him early. This is pretty wide open with everyone here lacking consistency, so it’s really a pretty big guessing game as to who the quarterfinalist could be.
The hope will be that Federer’s body responds to a few days off and some treatment. If he bounces back, Cincy has always been pretty good to the Swiss. He is a seven time champ here after all. If he falters, it’s a big guessing game to the next best shot. I’d meagerly side with Berdych.
Federer’s withdrawal announcement on Monday gives everyone in this quarter some hope, albeit there are still many, many questions here. The winner of the R1 clash between Schwartzman and Khachanov is the immediate beneficiary with Thomas Fabbiano as their second round opponent instead of Federer. Jack Sock would be the seed to benefit the most, but his lackluster history in Cincy and uneven play this summer still makes him a big question. Kyle Edmund could be a quarterfinal sleeper in this part of the draw now, if he can get going early.
The other obvious duo to benefit by Federer’s exit are the other seeds in this quarter, Dimitrov and Berych, who both had poor records against the Swiss. Both have tough paths just to avoid early upsets though, so in all, this quarter now really looks like it is ripe for the taking by anyone who can get hot early. I still look to the winner of that Schwartzman-Khachanov match as a big player as to what shakes out in this quarter now.
AND THAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE BECAUSE THE PIG SAID SO …
Going into Montreal last week, it was all about Fedal. A Nadal loss to Shapovalov and Federer’s withdrawal changes that dynamic this week. Zverev is an obvious choice too, but as well as he’s playing, a third consecutive week of play is going to be a major challenge. Marin Cilic was a surprise winner in Cincinnati last year as the 12th seed and I could see Cincy falling to an unexpected name this year too. End of the day though, the motivation is there for Nadal especially this week and he’s in full health. I’ll give a small edge to him, but something weird in me (wine) says watch out for Thiem.