Last Chance to Fine Tune Ahead of U.S. Open
It’s a final shot for form as the ATP World Tour makes its final stop before the U.S. Open. This week, the Winston-Salem Open serves as a last ditch effort for many to tune their games up in preparation for the year’s final Grand Slam. It is a large field of 48 players in the singles draw for this 250-level event. Last year’s champion, Pablo Carreno Busta, is back to defend his title. In the brief six year history of this tournament, only John Isner has successfully done been able to defend the title. The American achieved that in 2011 and 2012, the first two years of the tournament. Success at Winston-Salem hasn’t often translated to bigger success at the U.S. Open, but twice the winner here has gone to the quarterfinals in New York. Isner went that route in 2011 and Kevin Anderson followed suit in 2015. Last year, Carreno Busta made it to round three at the U.S. Open following his Winston-Salem triumph.
The 48 player field affords for 16 seeds overall, all of whom receive a first round bye. The top seed does not have a good track record of going deep at this tournament. In it’s six year history, Winston-Salem has never had a #1 seed make the final and in the last four years, the top seed has not made it to the semifinals. A seeded player has always won the tournament, but it’s been the lower seeds with a better track record of late. Three of the last four champions have been seeded 7th or lower with Carreno Busta seeded 16th last year when he took home the title.
Seeded Field Full of Hit or Miss Types
One player who will not be in this week’s field is Sam Querrey. The 20th ranked American would have been one of the top seeds in Winston-Salem, but cited fatigue as he announced his withdrawal earlier this week. This year’s lead seed is Roberto Bautista Agut. RBA is 6-2 all-time at this event with last year’s finals showing of course as his best. Carreno Busta is slotted in as the second seed with John Isner as the third. With Querrey’s withdrawal, Pablo Cuevas is the next seed, but comes in at #5. Following Cuevas are Steve Johnson, Paolo Lorenzi, Fernando Verdasco, Gilles Simon and Yuichi Sugita to round out the top ten. Johnson is a one-time semifinalist (2015), while Verdasco has made the quarterfinals twice in 2013 and 2016.
The rest of the seeded field includes Viktor Troicki, Aljaz Bedene, Hyeon Chung, Borna Coric, Daniil Medvedev, Jiri Vesely and Joao Sousa who is actually the 17th seed due to Querrey pulling out of the tournament. Only Medvedev has not played at Winston-Salem among that group. Troicki has the best result of the group with a semifinal showing last year. Without a doubt, Isner is really the only “form” player you can tout among the seeded field after he made the semifinals in Cincinnati last week. Otherwise, the questions are many for the rest of the group.
Early Bird Special
As you would expect with a tournament the week before a Grand Slam, seeds fall plenty in their opening matches in Winston-Salem. You can blame that on fatigue for some, bad form for others and questionable motivation for many. Over the history of this tournament, at least four seeds have lost their first match each year. The last two years heve featured the most early upsets of seeds with half (8) the seeded field losing their openers in 2015 and six seeds losing their openers in 2016.
That means there will be plenty of honking coming from the upset vuvuzela this week. Here’s a look at the seeds who figure to have the toughest time escaping an early loss.
2. Pablo Carreno Busta
The defending champion has a difficult first match with either Julien Benneteau or Pierre-Hugues Herbert on tap. PHH is 2-0 against PCB, including a win here in 2015 when the Frenchman made the final as a qualifier. PHH did lose in his opener last year to Donald Young. Benneteau has had trouble getting wins at this level, but an opening round win can breed confidence and make him a more difficult out in round two against PCB.
7. Paolo Lorenzi
Lorenzi draws Thiago Monteiro after the Brazilian beat Alexandr Dolgopolov in straights to open round one play on Sunday. Monteiro was solid considering he had not played on hard courts since March in Miami. The win was his first on the surface at this level. Lorenzi is 5-8 on hard courts this season, but is usually tricky and fairly solid against similar or lesser opponents. Monteiro has the match play on these courts and that will be a small bonus for him, but I’d put Lorenzi on the lower side of the upset spectrum. It could still be very tough though.
6. Steve Johnson
The draw is a bit more kind to Johnson this week, but his run of first-up losses has stretched to three after losing to David Ferrer last week in Cincinnati.This time, Johnson will see either Yen-Hsun Lu or Dimitry Tursunov. Lu is 0-4 against Tursunov, but arrives with back-to-back Challenger titles on this surface. Tursunov has two main draw match wins in the last 20 months. Lu would figure to give Johnson a better go with a 2-1 record against the American, although the one Johnson win came this year in Auckland.
9. Giiles Simon
The Frenchman is 0-2 in Winston-Salem for his career and will be matched up against either Denis Istomin or Damir Dzumhur in round two. Simon will be playing on this surface for the first time since Miami back in March. He is just 3-3 on the surface this season with all three losses coming in his first matches at tournaments. Dzumur made the semis in Los Cabos a few weeks ago and could be an interesting one to watch this week in a smaller setting. Istomin hasn’t won a main draw match on this surface since his stunning fourth round run at the Australian Open this year.
10. Yuichi Sugita
Even though Sugita scored a quarterfinal result in Cincinnati last week, that’s more out of the norm for him than something to be expected in back-to-back weeks. This is Sugita’s first trip to Winston-Salem and he starts against either Taylor Fritz or Malek Jaziri. Both will present a stiff test even if they arrive with not a ton of success recently.
11. Viktor Troicki
Troicki has losses in his first match at tournaments in five of his last six tourneys played. Carlos Berlocq or qualifier Alex Bolt await the Serb in round two. Bolt won his way into the main draw on Sunday, but the 24-year-old Aussie has never won a main draw event on the ATP World Tour. Berlocq has just one main draw win in the last couple of months, so it could be Bolt’s time to get that first tour win. Berlocq is a vet though and he usually battles his ass off to the end. Despite Troicki’s struggles of late, this would seem to be a decent set up for him to break that streak of first-up losses. But can you trust him in a 250?
14. Borna Coric
Coric did not get things going in Cincy last week, so he arrives at Winston-Salem without any momentum. He did make the quarterfinals in his previous trip here in 2015, but lost his opener last year. He will face qualifier Rogerio Dutra Silva or Donald Young. Coric beat Young in their lone meeting on grass in 2015. Coric beat Dutra Silva on clay in 2016 in their only career meeting. Given that the Croat has lost his opener in seven of his last ten tournaments, it’s highly likely that either Young or Dutra Silva will have a legit shot to win.
15. Daniil Medvedev
The Russian has looked worse for the wear since his quarterfinal run at the Citi Open. He’s lost his opening match in both Montreal and Cincinnati and not looked good in either match. Medvedev will have a better match-up this time around with either Thomas Fabbiano or Kyle Edmund who went through qualifying. Fabbiano is 0-4 in main draw matches on this summer hard court swing, so Edmund should expect to get the win. I think he’s the tougher out for Medvedev and the Brit should have a chance to extend the Russian’s woes of late.
16. Jiri Vesely
Vesely has played just one match on hard courts this summer and that was a three set loss to Ivo Karlovic last week in Cincy. He will open against either Marcos Baghdatis who won his opener on Sunday against Ricardas Bernakis. Baggy is 3-0 against Vesely, including a win in Auckland at the beginning of 2017. Sound that upset vuvuzela.
17. Joao Sousa
An easy inclusion on this list with the Portugese having lost all four of his previous matches in Winston-Salem. He draws Ernests Gulbis or qualifier Marton Fucsovics. Sousa’s four first-up losses here have been to mostly good players, so perhaps a better draw will help this time around. I still think Gulbis who has found some wins lately is going to be a problematic out if he can get off with a win. Fucsovics owns one career win against El Gulbis last year on dirt, but he’s winless for his career in main draw matches on outdoor hard courts on the ATP tour.
Unseeded players have a rich tradition of making deep runs at this tournament as you might expect the week prior to a Grand Slam. Their motivation levels often are bit higher as they take advantage of the loose draws. An unseeded player has made the final twice in the history of this tournament and has made the semifinals three straight years. Two of the past three years, two unseeded players have crashed the semis and there have been multiple unseeded players in the quarterfinals each year except 2011.
Here is a look at this year’s potential darkhorses.
Lu has some tricky matches early against Tursunov and then Steve Johnson. Both though are match-ups that could favor him right now with neither the Russian or American in the best vein of form. This is also the section of the draw with Troicki as the other seed in the way to a quarterfinal. Lu comes in hot off the Challenger wins and this could be a quarter he takes advantage of with perhaps a bit better motivation than the rest.
After going more than a year without winning a main draw match on tour, Gulbis has actually been scoring wins consistently since Wimbledon .He is 5-4 and his losses have all come in three sets outside of his straight sets defeat to Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon. His draw looks conducive to a possible tun if he can get that first win in round one. The seeds in his part of the draw are Sousa and Medvedev, both beatable I think. Gulbis might seem an after-thought, but he could easily find himself in the quarterfinal mix.
Assuming Dzumhur can get past Istomin to start, he’s got Simon and Verdasco as the seeds potentially in his path to a quarterfinal. He’s never played either one, but showed more in Los Cabos than either has shown for most of the year on this surface. Don’t forget he also beat Stan Wawrinka in Dubai on this surface and took Del Potro to three sets at Delray Beach. He’s got some chops on this surface and seemingly just needs the confidence of that first win to get rolling.
Quarter #1 Seeds
Roberto Bautista Agut (1)
Paolo Lorenzi (7)
Yuichi Sugita (10)
Jiri Vesely (16)
Bautista Agut clearly is the cream of the crop here and he should be looking for some form this week after an early exit in Cincinnati last week. There is no particularly poor match-up in this quarter for him no matter how it shakes down. It could simply be a case of whether RBA wants to push to the end or get a few wins and then check out to rest for the U.S. Open. Baghdatis is the dangerous floater in this quarter with a win under his belt and a favorable R2 match-up against Vesely. Lorenzi could sneak into the quarters as a seed no one really expects much from this week. The Fritz-Jaziri winner I still think could take down Sugita and open themselves up for a darkhorse run.
Assuming RBA wants to be here for the week, I think the Spaniard is the clear pick to get to the semifinals out of this quarter.
Quarter #2 Seeds
John Isner (3)
Pablo Cuevas (5)
Aljaz Bedene (12)
Borna Coric (14)
This is another quarter you look at the lead seed and say, well there isn’t much to beat him here. Isner has two titles and a semifinal showing last week in Cincinnati to show for the period post-Wimbledon. It’s been five years since Isner has played here, but let’s not forget that he’s 12-0 all-time with titles in both trips to Winston-Salem in 2011 and 2012. His biggest speed bump might be Donald Young if Young can get to the third round. He’s 1-3 against Isner, but usually plays him very tough. A spot opposite of Isner in the quarters could truly go to anyone from Cuevas or Bedene to an outsider like Janko Tipsarevic or Andreas Seppi.
Much like RBA, Isner is the clear and present danger out of this quarter. He’s gotten himself on a nice roll this summer and arrives fairly fresh. I don’t see anyone in this quarter who can out serve him, so if Isner is on his game – this is his spot to make the run to the semis.
Quarter #3 Seeds
Steve Johnson (6)
Viktor Troicki (11)
Daniil Medvedev (15)
Joao Sousa (17)
This quarter looks ripe for a possible unseeded player to take control with all of the seeds not arriving with the greatest form. Johnson of course is a player who could easily take this, but he’s had a difficult time contending with the passing of his father and trying to turn in positive results on the court. He can flip the switch any time and perhaps this is the week with a weaker draw and better early match-ups compared to the other events he has played this summer. He may simply need the first match to fall his way to get things going in the right direction.
Two of the outsiders I highlighted are in this quarter with Lu and Gulbis. This quarter also got an unseeded boost with Kyle Edmund getting into the mix through qualifying. For me, this is the quarter where the seeds are in peril. Lu and Edmund are the more confident picks to make noise, but there’s still something burpy that says Gulbis has a shot to win a few this week and surprise.
Quarter #4 Seeds
Pablo Carreno Busta (2)
Fernando Verdasco (8)
Gilles Simon (9)
Hyeon Chung (13)
Carreno Busta doesn’t have an easy path to defending his title. If he survives Benneteau or Hugues-Herbert to open, he still could have to contend with Chung or perhaps upstart Andrey Rublev. It’s not an impossible task, but PCB will have to improve on his last match against Ferrer in Cincy that resulted in a fairly lopsided loss. The other half with Simon and Verdasco as the seeds also has Dzumhur, one of the outsiders I highlighted above. He’s the one to watch with those two seeds not having a ton of success on hard courts at this point in the year. Don’t discount Chung either. He looks a bit more comfortable with some match play coming back from the ankle injury and again with a lesser field, this seems like the type of tournament where he could make a bit of a run if he finds his best.
This quarter looks wide open with all the seeds having some questions about them coming into the week. Dzumhur and maybe Andrey Rublev would be the outsiders to watch in this quarter. I do think this one will fall to a seed and my order of confidence is Carreno Busta, Chung and Verdasco. Dzumhur is still my sleeper if he can get out of round one.
AND THAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE BECAUSE THE PIG SAID SO ….
The funniest result this week would be a carbon copy result of the 2016 final with the top two seeds in 2017 getting all the way through. History though is not on the side of the top seed Bautista Agut nor with Carreno Busta defending his title. I think Isner is a better option among the top tier seeds to run to the title, especially considering how he’s done here in the past. My oddball Spidey sense “outside” selection to watch is Chung. In the end though, Isner I think has the best shot to take home the title with Carreno Busta perhaps in the mix at the business end as well as a second option.