2017 China Open Final Preview: Rafael Nadal vs Nick Kyrgios

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Rafael Nadal contests his fourth final in Beijing as he seeks his first China Open title since 2005. He faces 8th seed Nick kyrgios, who is looking to secure his first title of 2017.

(1) Rafael Nadal vs (8) Nick Kyrgios

Nadal survived his toughest test this week in Beijing in beating third seed Grigor Dimitrov 6-3, 4-6, 6-1. Rafa racked up his 60th win of the season in victory, the 9th time in his career that he has reached that mark in a single season. Nadal will be a bit perturbed to have been stretched to three sets after getting an opening break to start set two. Dimitrov would get the break back to even up the set at 3-3 and then break the top seed to close out the second set. After that though, it was all Rafa in the final set. Nadal wasn’t as clean on serve in the quarters as he has been, doling out 12 break chances. Dimitrov would convert on two with Rafa grinding out five breaks on 13 chances against the third seeded Bulgarian. Rafa’s win rates on serve were 67 percent off his first serve and 64 percent off his second.

Kyrgios followed a familiar pattern against Alexander Zverev in the semifinals. He again dominated the second seed on serve, taking 87 percent of the points off his first serve and 71 percent off his second. Kyrgios saw just one break point against his serve, but saved it en route to a 6-3, 7-5 win. The Aussie has now defeated Zverev three of four meetings this season with the lone loss coming at the Rogers Cup when NK was suffering with hip issues. Otherwise, his power has been too much for Sascha each of the three times that he has won. For the week, Kyrgios has tallied 46 aces and won 84 percent or better off his first serve in all four rounds.

2017 Rubber Match

Nadal and Kyrgios have met twice this season and have split those two meetings. Nadal crushed Kyrgios in Miami 6-3, 6-1 with Kyrgios beat Rafa 6-2, 7-5 in Cincinnati on the way to his only other final this season. The Cincy meeting was perfect execution for Kyrgios, taking 86 percent of the points off his first serve and winning 69 percent of the points off his second. He was broken once on three chances, but took better advantage of a faulty serving day for Nadal. The Spaniard won just 33 percent of the points off his second serve and was broken four times on seven chances.

The Miami match as you would expect saw Kyrgios with poor serving numbers, winning just 30 of his 63 points on serve. Rafa broke him five times on eleven chances. Their other two career meetings were also split with Kyrgios winning their first at Wimbledon in 2014 in four sets and Nadal winning on clay in Rome last season in three sets. The motus operandi has been very apparent for NK in the wins as you would expect, serve big and win.

Match Tactics

There will be nothing surprising with how Nadal will try to contend with the Kyrgios’ serve. He’s going to set up super deep behind the baseline with an eye on trying to get his racquet on the NK serve. Good luck. The interesting part will be watching how Rafa attacks Kyrgios’ second serve. We’ve seen him move in towards a more normal return position on second serves, but against the power and pace of the Aussie – he may stay deep a lot early in the match. There’s nothing tricky for Kyrgios on serve. He’s going to grip it and rip it. If he’s in a rhythm, Nadal is not going to get many returns in play. Rafa will hope however that his deep positioning will pay off enough for him to get Kyrgios to have to play more balls.

Nadal will need to be strong on his own serve and avoid the number of break chances that he gave out against Dimitrov. I think in that match-up, Nadal had more wiggle room in knowing that he could break back against Dimitrov. Against Kyrgios, he doesn’t have that luxury. Any time Nadal gets broken, it could well be the decisive break in the set if Kyrgios is in a groove on serve. Nadal’s serve has been adequate this week, but I think he’ll need to find another gear on Sunday to help match Kyrgios blow for blow.

Kyrgios will of course be looking to utilize his serve as a weapon in setting up the second ball, when he doesn’t get aces. It’s a bit more difficult to get Nadal off balance with the serve due to his deep positioning. Still, if he is hitting his serve with precision, he can make it to where Nadal’s return doesn’t have much on it. That will give Kyrgios plenty of opportunity to make his move on the next ball and try to finish off points quickly and aggressively. He does not want to get involved in a rally fest with Rafa. It will be on Rafa to find a way to get solid strokes on return to help craft him into a good position in order to get Kyrgios to have to play an extra ball.

Look for Nadal to try and attack the backhand side of Kyrgios as often as possible. Going to Kyrgios’ forehand side is a losing proposition over the long haul, unless you’re forcing him to move across the court and stay on-the-run. Nadal is very good at moving players around the court, so that will be the place to push balls to Kyrgios’ forehand. If they’re in neutral positions along the baseline, look for him to avoid the forehand whenever possible. Kyrgios would be wise to employ a similar defense to stay away from Nadal’s whipping forehand. The good thing for both players is the natural lefty-righty match-up sees the flow off their forehand go to their opponent’s weaker wing.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

This is an interesting spot for Kyrgios who has had a hard time getting to finals. Last year, he went 3-0 in finals. Rafa is 5-3 in finals in 2017 with all three losses coming on outdoor hard courts. This is another match-up that I think Kyrgios will be keyed in to play his best. Rafa will need to play a bit better than the last round to pull through here, but it’s difficult to go against him in title situations. I will not be surprised if Kyrgios serves his way to the title, but I’ll stick with the original inclination this week – that Nadal finds a way to get it done.

Prediction: Nadal wins in three sets

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2017 China Open SF Preview: Alexander Zverev vs Nick Kyrgios

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Alexander Zverev and Nick Kyrgios meet for the fourth time this season with Zverev looking to make it two straight in a quest for a spot in the China Open final. Zverev won the last matchup between these BFFs at the Rogers Cup 6-4, 6-3.

(2) Alexander Zverev vs (8) Nick Kyrgios

Zverev has won all three of his matches in straight sets this week with the latest being a 6-2, 6-3 win over Andrey Rublev in the quarterfinals. Rublev could not find his best on serve, winning just 50 percent off his first serve for the match. Zverev was able to break him four times on five chances. Sascha was solid enough on his own serve, taking 71 percent of his first serve points and 63 percent off his second. He was very good in key moments, saving six of seven break points. For the tournament, the second seed has been broken once in each round (3) on eleven total chances.

Kyrgios annihilated Steve Darcis before the Belgian called it quits midway through the second set with the score at 6-0, 3-0. Darcis had received treatment during the match for a neck problem and found it to be too much late in the match. It was a stark contrast to their entertaining five set match in September during Davis Cup play that saw Darcis win to help lead Belgium into the Davis Cup final. This time, Kyrgios continued to obliterate his opponent on serve. He smashed 12 aces and took 94 percent of the first serve points before play was stopped. He didn’t dish out a single break chance and has only seen one break chance against him through three rounds. The 8th seeded Aussie was ruthless in converting breaks again, taking four breaks from Darcis’ serve on six chances. For the week, he’s converted 12 breaks on 16 chances.

Healthy Kyrgios Could Make Big Difference

When these two last met at the Rogers Cup in the Summer, Kyrgios was still battling hip and shoulder issues. The end result was Zverev’s first win over his buddy 6-4, 6-3. Kyrgios’ win rates on serve reflect his less-than-average numbers, winning just 71 percent off his first serve and 57 percent off his second. Kyrgios had work done on his troublesome hip during the match and certainly appeared to be less than 100 percent. Sascha broke him three times on four chances. Oppositely, Zverev won 45 of 62 points overall on serve and managed to save all eight break points against his serve.

When Kyrgios was healthier in the Spring, he got the better of Zverev in Indian Wells and Miami. Sascha won 6-3, 6-4 in Miami and then fought hard to get through 6-3, 6-7 (9), 6-3 in their second meeting at Indian Wells. To no surprise, the Aussie had the better serve numbers in the wins, taking over 80 percent of the first serve points and not giving Sascha a single break chance against his serve. Zverev was decent on serve, but was broken five times on ten break chances. There’s little doubt that Kyrgios holds the key to this match on his serve. He’s looked fit this week with very few chances against his serve.

Match Tactics

Zverev will once again see pressure early to find his rhythm on serve to match Kyrgios’ rocket pace. The Aussie has shown no signs of cracking much on serve this week, so Zverev will need to expect that he will see very few break chances if any again. That means Sascha must find a way to fight through his service games to hold against Kyrgios and look to take advantage of any slip ups from the 8th seed as the match Kyrgios isn’t a plus returner, but he’s definitely capable of doing the old grip it and rip it return if Sascha can’t find that rhythm. Zverev will need to find some pop on serve and use precision to keep Kyrgios off balance on return. That will enable the second seed to take the second ball and work into winnable court position.

Kyrgios does best when he’s serving big and able to work quick and aggressive shots when he’s not collecting aces. If he’s in rhythm, he can move in and finish off the second ball quickly against Zverev and not allow the German to craft his way into longer rallies. I think longer rallies do favor Sascha as he possesses better variety off both wings. Kyrgios’ power cannot be matched off the forehand side, so Zverev will again do better to work to the Aussie’s backhand both on serve and in rallies.

One of the big difference makers in the wins for Kyrgios in the Spring was his willingness to come to net and force Sascha into a more uncomfortable role. Zverev would much prefer this to be a pure baseline battle. It’s not that Zverev can’t move or isn’t adept at hitting shots on-the-run, but his best moments usually come along the baseline where he can unload off either wing with precision. The other thing Kyrgios did that will likely come into play again with a good bill of health is going for what you would call “imaginative” shots.

By imaginative, I mean he hit more tweeners for winning points in those first two wins that a lot of guys could hit for their career. It’s been very clear that Kyrgios wants to put on a show when these two meet and to his credit, he’s found the measure of the circus shots more often than not. Zverev will simply need to be prepared for those again and if NK hits them precisely, tap the racquet in respect and move on. I think he did a good job of not letting those hot shots effect his overall plan in any of their meetings and that’s big. If you get unnerved by those winners or try to match the showmanship, it’s not going to be good if that isn’t a regular part of your repertoire. It’s not for Sascha.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

This should be one of the more entertaining matches we get down the stretch run of the 2017 season. Both are in good form this week and both appear relatively fresh and healthy. That Zverev’s lone win in this series has come when Kyrgios was less than fit is problematic heading into Saturday’s semifinal showdown. I think Kyrgios’ serve is the X-factor again in this one and something that Zverev just cannot match right now. When Kyrgios is in rhythm on serve, he gets quick winners, easy points and can demoralize an opponent with his quick pace of racking up games.

For Zverev, he’s got to be on point with his own serve and realize that his best opportunity could come in tiebreaks – if he gets there against the Aussie. Kyrgios is 16-7 in breakers this year and spots a win percentage right around 60 percent for his career. Zverev is 18-11 this year in breakers, above his 54 percent win rate for his career. Sascha is the only one of these two to play a tiebreak this week and he won it against Kyle Edmund. That could help, but he may still need some magic to pull this one out.

This is the kind of match that Kyrgios lives for – a marquee matchup in a big tournament on a big court in front of a ton of people. I expect his energy level to be high and it will be on Zverev to try and sap some of that energy from him by getting him involved in some longer baseline rallies. I’m not sure that Zverev can accomplish that consistently as he’s not shown that ability against Kyrgios. For me, if the Aussie is serving at a high level – this is his match to win again.

Prediction: Kyrgios wins in three sets

2017 China Open QF Previews

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The top three seeds remain alive as quarterfinal play takes place on Friday in Beijing. Top seed Rafael Nadal leads the charge against John Isner.

(1) Rafael Nadal vs (6) John Isner

Nadal and Isner are meeting for the second time in the last few weeks after Isner defeated Nadal in Laver Cup play. That is the only time that Isner has managed to beat Rafa with Nadal holding a 6-0 edge in official ATP World Tour events. After a tough opener versus Lucas Pouille, Nadal had an easier time in round two against Karen Khachanov. Rafa kept constant pressure on the young Russian’s serve as he broken him three times on ten chances. Nadal would not allow a break off of six chances against his own serve. He had solid win rates at 70 and 68 percent off his serve, albeit the first serve was down from 81 percent against Pouille. The top seed has been broken just once on ten chances through two rounds.

Isner blasted another opponent off the court in the second round, taking care of Leonardo Mayer easily 6-0, 6-3. That came after he whipped Malek Jaziri 6-2, 6-3 in round one. Isner pounded out eight aces against Mayer and let him see just one break point, that the American was able to save. Isner won 84 percent of his first serve points and 57 percent of his second serve points. Both were down slightly from against Jaziiri, when he won 93 and 62 percent respectively. There were no break chances against Isner in that match.

The meeting at the Laver Cup was the first between Nadal and Isner since 2015, when Rafa won twice against Isner on clay. At the Laver Cup, Isner edged Nadal 7-5, 7-6 (1). In the match, Nadal lost serve twice with Isner dropping serve once. Isner was especially dominant on serve in the second set, where he lost just two points on serve. That is obviously a huge key heading into this one and Isner should have some confidence from that win. It will be interesting to see how Nadal adjusts to seeing a big serve again, although you’d expect his court positioning to remain fairly consistent. Rafa almost always plays deep behind the baseline to set himself up for a better shot on return and in rallies.

For Isner, he knows he has to serve at an elite level to win. One break can easily decide a set in this matchup, so the American will want to put the pressure on Nadal’s serve with some easy holds of his own. I wouldn’t expect much more than the usual power display from Isner and attempts to finish points quickly when Rafa does get a racquet on those serves. Isner shouldn’t be afraid to move in on the second ball to accomplish that feat. Nadal must continue to serve solidly and try to get Isner into rallies where he can wear the big man down a bit in an attempt to take the American’s legs. That in turn could take a little bite off the serve and make a big difference in critical points late in the match.

I said in the tournament preview that this matchup might be the toughest of the tournament for Nadal and I do expect it to be just that. I also expect Rafa will take the Laver Cup experience and have himself in better position for success. This should be tight and Isner can easily pull off an upset, but I’ll side with Rafa just barely.

Prediction: Nadal wins in three sets

(2) Alexander Zverev vs Andrey Rublev

These two young stars will contest their second clash of 2017. Zverev crushed Rublev in Monte Carlo on clay 6-3, 6-1 early in the Spring. Certainly a lot has changed for the 19-year-old Rublev since then with his first Grand Slam quarterfinal coming at the U.S. Open. After a horrid transition back to the tour after the USO, Rublev has scored two big wins this week over Jack Sock and Tomas Berdych. Impressively, he has rallied from down a set both times to pull away to victory. The latest against Berdych saw Rublev roll late 1-6, 6-4, 6-1 to get to the quarters in his first trip to Beijing. He will need improvement to get past Zverev though with 18 double faults in the first two rounds combined. His serve has been a bit faulty, broken five times on 15 chances.

For Zverev, he rebounded from an early flame out in Shenzhen last week to win both his matches at the China Open in straight sets this week. The latest came on Thursday with a 6-4, 6-2 thumping of Fabio Fognini. After Fognini broke Sascha for the only time in the match to even the first set at 4-4, the second seed proceeded to win eight of the next ten games to secure a relatively simple win in the end. The win rates on serve were solid for Zverev at 75 and 56 percent with both numbers down a bit from his first round win over Kyle Edmund. Zverev has been broken twice on four chances so far this tournament.

Their Monte Carlo meeting featured a serve clinic from Sascha as he won 88 percent of the points on first serve and 65 percent off his second. He we rarely threatened, only forced to save two break points. Rublev looked completely overwhelmed with a faulty serve that was broken four times on six chances. He would win just 46 percent of the points off his first serve in that match. The serve has been the sticking point for Rublev in his development. It’s big enough to dominant, but he has had some issues landing his first serve consistently. His second serve until recently has been more of a liability. That will be something Zverev will look to pounce on Friday.

For Sascha, I think the recipe is the same as usual. Find rhythm on serve early and the rest of his game seems to flow well off of that. This will be a baseline basher for sure with both preferring to do damage from the back of the court. Zverev would do well to focus on Rublev’s backhand, which is the weaker side. Zverev is more solid off both wings, which will make it harder for Rublev to break him down in rallies. I see Rublev’s best chance to contend if he can serve consistently big with his first serve and find the range on his power forehand early and often. If not, Zverev could find a similar scoreline to Monte Carlo.

Prediction: Zverev wins in straight sets

(3) Grigor Dimitrov vs (5) Roberto Bautista Agut

This could wind up being the most competitive of the quarterfinals in Beijing. Dimitrov and RBA will be meeting for the third time, splitting the wo previous meetings. This will be their first match against each other since the 2014 Australian Open where Dimitrov won in four sets. Dimitrov has been fairly solid this week in beating Damir Dzumhur and Juan Martin Del Potro. He edged DelPo 7-6 (6), 7-5 last round. His win rates on serve have been steady at around 745 percent on first serve through the two rounds of play and 58 percent off his second. He has had to fend off 16 break chances so far, saving 13. He has converted six of 12 break chances against his opponents.

Bautista Agut has barely broken a sweat in beating Ze Zhang 6-1, 6-3 and then leading Aljaz Bedene 6-0, 4-0 when the Brit retired with a knee injury. RBA Has only been forced to save three break chances against his serve, all of which he has done successfully. He’s won a lofty 82 percent of his first serve points through the first two rounds. It’s difficult to gauge exactly where his form is this week heading into the match after he played an outmatched and then injured opponent. This will be a truer test against Dimitrov.

Both their previous matches took place on hard courts with Dimitrov winning the Australian Open battle and RBA beating him here in Beijing in straights back in 2013. Serve was a big determining factor in the wins for both with the opponent serving much less effectively in losing. Both won’t really overpower on serve, but really more on placement to get easy points or set themselves up well for the next ball. In the ground rallies, both are good at crafting points overall. Dimitrov has more variety I think to his ground game, but that has also been a detriment with Dimitrov unsure of what shot to use as a finisher. RBA is more simplistic off both wings, hitting the ball flat but with effectiveness.

Consistency would be a good key word for both of these guys and it’s RBA that I find normally has better overall consistent in these even or plus matchups. The Spaniard may not beat the elite players on tour, but guys in his weight class like Dimitrov are guys I think he feels comfortable going against. This is RBA’s furthest progression in Beijing in three visits, while Dimitrov has now made the quarters or better in each of his last three trips. With Dimitrov showing some confidence this week, I tilt the scales back from slightly favoring RBA to making this about dead even. Waffle time.

Prediction: Bautista Agut wins in three sets

(8) Nick Kyrgios vs (q) Steve Darcis

A very unexpected matchup here with Kyrgios looking fairly engaged so far this week. He overcame a slow start against Mischa Zverev last round to rally for a 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 win. Kyrgios has been electric on serve this week with 23 aces and only one break of serve against him. He has won a rock solid 85 percent off his first serve through two rounds with his second serve stout at a 73 percent win rate. The Aussie has been ruthless in converting breaks against his opponents, taking eight breaks on ten chances this week.

With back-to-back wins this week, Darcis broke a five month drought of not winning more than one match at an ATP-level event. He dispatched of both fourth seeded Pablo Careeno Busta and qualifier Dusan Lajovic in straight sets. The Belgian’s serve has also only been broken once on eight chances against. He’s kept steady win rates on both first and second serve around 77 and 60 percent respectively. Darcis is crediting his new coach this season, Yannis Demeroutis, with keeping him in better physical condition as the season progressed. The Belgian says he believes that is why he might be playing some of his best tennis late in the season, including his usual Davis Cup heroics for Belgium.

This will be the first all-time meeting between Kyrgios and Darcis. Job one for Darcis will obviously be trying to figure out a way to interrupt NK’s serve. The Aussie has been in rhythm all week with simple holds the norm for him. Darcis will have to be prepared to see plenty of balls go as not returnable and hope that he can bide his time to find a few openings to punish. Any time you go up against an elite serve, it’s obviously imperative to take care of your own as well. Darcis has the ability to get a roll and get easy holds too and he’s shown a good ability to fight off break points this week. He’ll need to be about perfect in that category to have a chance in the quarterfinals.

The method of operation off the ground will be similar with both wanting to hit big from the forehand side and finish points quickly. Kyrgios is deadliest when his serve is in rhythm and he is able to keep his opponent off balance for simple 1-2 punches on his serve for quick points. Darcis will need to find a way to push Kyrgios into longer rallies than that, perhaps looking to chip the ball back to give Kyrgios some offspeed looks for the next ball. Darcis should obviously look to go to Kyrgios’ backhand whenever possible to stay away from the power off his forehand.

This may seem like a mismatch to most, but I pointed out in the tournament preview than an unseeded player has made it to the semifinals three years in a row at this event. Rublev is the other player with a shot to extend that streak, but Darcis for me seems a better option. This one I think either falls into an upset or Kyrgios blows the Belgian off the court. I’ll go with insanity please.

Prediction: Darcis wins in three sets

2017 China Open Preview

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Nadal Leads Beijing Field

The ATP World Tour continues its tour of the Far East with more of the big names returning to play this week. That includes the top seed in Beijing in 2017 U.S. Open Champion Rafael Nadal. Nadal sports a 20-5 all-time record in Beijing, but has only won the title once back in 2005. He should benefit from a weaker draw with more Top 20 players opting to play Tokyo this week. Behind Nadal in the draw are second seed Alexander Zverev who will be playing the China Open for just the second time. Sascha was a quarterfinalist last year. Rounding out the top four seeds are Grigor Dimitrov and Pablo Carreno Busta. Dimitrov made the final last year, losing to Andy Murray. PCB made a quarterfinal run in 2016 in his Beijing debut.

The rest of the seeded field features Roberto Bautista Agut, John Isner, Tomas Berdych and Nick Kyrgios. Berdych has the most experience of those remaining seeds with an 11-4 record and one title (2011). Kyrgios is the lone seeded player who has not played at this tournament in the past. The Aussie will be looking to get back on the winning track after losing his first round U.S. Open match to John Millman. Kyrgios did look solid in Laver Cup play with a win over Berdych and a tough match tiebreak loss to Roger Federer. He could be primed for a strong finish to the season with his health seemingly not a looming question mark every week at this point.

Top Seed Traditionally Decides Title

The top seed has won in Beijing five straight seasons and six of the last six trips to Beijing overall. That’s been Novak Djokovic five of those times with Andy Murray joining him last year. That could mean good things for Rafa this week if he can overcome his own lack of success at this tournament. He has made the final three times in his six trips, but has only been able to close out the title match once against Guillermo Coria in 2005 when the tournament wasn’t a 500-level tournament. Rafa also has a bit of a problematic draw that I’ll get to below.

Seeds in general have fared well in Beijing with only three of the past 12 semifinalists being unseeded players. They have also done a pretty solid job at avoiding early upsets with only four seeds losing their openers in the last four years. 2017 of course has been a different type of season with injuries and inconsistency, so perhaps more seeds could be in peril this year. With that in mind, let’s take a look at this week’s seeds who could be prone to an early upset.

Early Bird Specials

1. Rafael Nadal
Nadal could not have asked for a much tougher round one matchup. He opens with Lucas Pouille who scored the stunning upset of Nadal at the 2016 U.S. Open in five sets. The good news for Rafa is that version of Pouille has not been seen consistently in 2017. Pouille has lost his first match at three of his last four tournaments overall. The Frenchman went 1-1 in his first main draw appearance here last year. I would keep this on the lower side of the upset scale, but Pouille has the game to trouble Nadal if he can find it.

2. Alexander Zverev
Sascha goes on this list after a very mediocre showing last week in Chengdu, where he barely beat Steve Darcis in his opener and then lost to red hot Damir Dzumhur in the next round. Perhaps it was the turnaround from the Laver Cup that had him not quite at his best, but he’ll bear watching this week with a tough opener against Kyle Edmund. The Brit wasn’t great in Chengdu either, losing to Donaldson in his second match – but he did contest a solid match against Zverev in their lone meeting on clay last season. Edmund was forced to retire due to injury after splitting the first two sets. I also think this might be on the lower tier of upset possibilities, but late in the season you never know who is motivated.

3. Grigor Dimitrov
Dimitrov faces off against Damir Dzumhur in round one .Dzumhur is red hot after winning his first ATP title in St.Petersburg, he followed that with a semifinal push in Shenzhen last week. That included a win over Sascha Zverev. With Dimitrov not having played since the U.S. Open, there is definitely a chance he could come out flat this week.

4. Pablo Carreno Busta
PCB plays for the first time since making his first Slam semifinal at the U.S. Open. He could be rusty early and that gives qualifier Steve Darcis a shot in round one. Darcis showed improvement in Shenzhen last week, winning a rare main draw match and pushing Alexander Zverev to a third set tiebreak before losing in the next round. Maybe it’s his Davis Cup heroics propelling him to a late season surge, but the Belgian definitely isn’t without a chance here if his body holds up. That would be my lone concern on him being competitive.

7. Tomas Berdych
A tough early match for Berdych against Jared Donaldson. Donaldson had a decent week in Chengu as he made the quarterfinals. Berdych got some match play in at the Laver Cup, so he’ll be ready to go this week in a tournament that has been good to him for the most part. The Czech has lost twice in his first match though and one of those came in his last trip here in 2015. This will be a tricky one and I won’t be stunned if the American gets the W.

8. Nick Kyrgios
I put the Aussie on this list simply because of who he is and what he has said about it being difficult to get up for tournaments sometimes based on matchups. He opens with Nikoloz Basilashvili, which is going to be one of those “meh” matchups in Kyrgios’ mind. Basilashvili is one of those guys who does have a good enough game to contend with top tier guys. If NK find a rhythm, he can get rolling and make this an easy match. He could also show up a bit disinterested and turn this into a tight one.

Outsider’s Edge

While seeds traditionally have settled who raises the trophy in Beijing, unseeded players have managed to weasel their way into the semifinals consistently in recent times. Grigor Dimitrov parlayed that into a finals visit last year. Only Marin Cilic has made it to the final as an unseeded player other than Dimitrov since 2011. It could be slim pickings to find a player who could make the final, but there are several unseeded players who could make noise this week.

Juan Martin Del Potro
DelPo is back for the first time since the U.S. Open and he’s got some possibilities to ruffle the pecking order. The Argentine opens against Pablo Cuevas and then would see the winner of Dimitrov-Dzumhur in round two. Bautista Agut is the only other seed in his path to the semifinals and DelPo has beaten RBA twice this season, including a straight sets crush job at the U.S. Open. If he gets on a run, we could get Rafa vs Del Potro in the semis.

Dusan Lajovic
The Serb qualified to get into the main draw this week and comes in after a quarterfinal run in Chengdu. He scored the seeded scalp of Albert Ramos-Vinolas last week and will face Spaniards again this week. Lajovic starts with Fernando Verdasco who has lost his openers in five of his last nine tournaments. The Serb has beaten Nando twice in three meetings. A win could net him an encounter with Carreno Busta in round two. Those two have split two career meetings with PCB winning the most recent at Indian Wells this year. With some heightened expectations for the Spaniard now, it’s possible he could cave in early with this being his first matches since his U.S. Open semifinals run.

Jared Donaldson, Jack Sock, Andrey Rublev, Robin Haase, Fabio Fognini
The stacked unseeded quarter belongs to Alexander Zverev and Tomas Berdych. All of the players listed above could reasonably cause some shockwaves this week. Sock and Rublev face off in round one as do Haase and Fognini. The two survivors will reasonably be tough outs for Zverev and Berdych if they advance to round two. Both Sascha and the Berd have first round matches that they will need to be up for or it will be an early exit in Beijing. I would not be surprised if one of these unseeded players cut up this quarter and made a deep run.

Draw Preview

Quarter #1 Seeds
Rafael Nadal (1)
John Isner (6)

Breakdown
Nadal has some youngsters he’ll need to take care of, but the feeling is that the veteran is still better suited to the grind at the end of the season. He starts with Pouille and a win there could get him a visit from Karen Khachanov. The young Russian has been disappointing of late, but is someone who can turn it on at any time. He starts with Chinese wild card Di Wu. Wu used to be a competent Challenger-type on this surface, but has fallen off. A loss for Khachanov would be poor.

Isner could be a dark horse here, especially after beating Nadal at the Laver Cup in straight sets. The American has had mostly mediocre season save for a good stretch right after WImbledon where he won back-to-back titles in Newport and Atlanta. He is 9-4 lifetime in Beijing with one finals trip way back in 2010. Isner opens against Malek Jaziri. The winner gets either Leonardo Mayer or Paolo Lorenzi. This is a winnable stretch for Isner to get another shot at Rafa. Rafa is 6-0 against Isner at official ATP World Tour events.

Bottom line for me in this quarter is I think it falls to a seed, be it Nadal or Isner. I’ll give Nadal the small edge.

Quarter #2 Seeds
Grigor Dimitrov (3)
Roberto Bautista Agut (5)

Breakdown
Dimitrov has the tougher draw, possibly going back to back against Dzumhur and then Del Potro. DelPo is of course the big X-factor in this section. He should have a chance to get off to a good start against Pabloc Cuevas who has lost six straight coming into the China Open. If we get Dimitrov vs Del Potro, it will be the third time we’ve seen it this season. Dimitrov won the last time in Cincinnati in a disappointing match for the Argentine, whereas DelPo won the first meeting this year in Rome on clay. Overall, Del Potro is 6-1 against Dimitrov.

The bottom half looks ripe for Bautista Agut to get a couple of relatively smooth wins with an opener against wild card Ze Zhang. A win would see RBA go up against either Marcel Granollers or Aljaz Bedene. Bedene has played RBA tough in four meetings, taking a pair from the Spaniard. He would be the tougher out for sure, but I think Bautista Agut’s overall consistency is a better bet to push through to the quarterfinals.

This looks like it could come down to Dimitrov, Del Potro or Bautista Agut as your likely semifinalist. RBA might get the benefit of the draw if Dimitrov and DelPo take enough out of each other in a potential quarterfinal. Slight nod to RBA to inch through in this section.

Quarter #3 Seeds
Pablo Carreno Busta (4)
Nick Kyrgios (8)

Breakdown
This quarter looks like it could have some upheaval to it. Kyrgios is still always going to be a question mark on motivation. He could get on a roll and be in the semis or he could go out round one to Basilashvili. I’m not keen on Kyrgios’ route as he could see Mischa Zverev in round two. Zverev starts with Jan-Lennard Struff. I wouldn’t be stunned if Mischa turned up in the quarterfinals as I could see his serve and volley giving NK some problems again. He won their lone career meeting in Shanghai last year.

The other half features Carreno Busta who opens with qualifier Steve Darcis. Darcis has been short on wins on tour, but looked better in Shenzhen last week. His game can trouble a rusty Carreno Busta, but I think PCB’s overall game likely gets him through if he can find some rhythm. The survivor there gets either Verdasco or Lajovic. This part of the draw looks like it could go any which way. The biggest surprise to me in this quarter might be seeing a seed in the semifinals.

Watch out for Zverev and Darcis here as outsiders and Lajovic might have a hand in an upset or two as well.

Quarter #4 Seeds
Alexander Zverev (2)
Tomas Berdych (7)

Breakdown
The thought here will be that one of the seeds seizes control of this quarter. That isn’t necessarily a good bet though with plenty of unseeded talent in this quarter. Zverev starts with Edmund in round one and a win would see him battle Fognini or Haase. Sascha is 3-0 against those two combined, but recall that Haase took him to five sets at the Australian Open this year. Berdych has the tough opener against Jared Donaldson and then would meet the survivor of Jack Sock and Andrey Rublev.

Rublev was predictably out of sorts in Chengdu where he was punished in round one 6-2, 6-1 by Yen-Hsun Lu. This could be a golden opportunity for Sock who has been short on big wins in the last three to four months. Berdych has been fairly disappointing since making the Wimbledon semifinals, so an earlier than expected exit might not be too shocking all things considered. This is a tough quarter to predict and part of me thinks one of the Americans might slip through. If they don’t, I think I trust Sascha just a shade more than Berdych to punch into the semis.

AND THAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE BECAUSE THE PIG SAID SO …

You might think it easy for Nadal to let off the pedal a bit here in the latter part of the season, but let’s be honest – that isn’t in his DNA. I think he has the goods here to continue the top seed’s run of success in Beijing. If he falters, don’t be shocked if John Isner isn’t part of the championship mix. I think this is a big spot for Sascha Zverev to prove or disprove his spot in the rankings. He wasn’t overly impressive in his first tournament back last week following his U.S. Open disappointment, so he has plenty or prove. In the end though, this smells like Rafa’s tournament to lose.

2017 Chengdu Open Preview

CHENGDU17

Far East Swing Begins

This will be another typical tricky ATP 250 to predict as the ATP World Tour heads to the Far East. Last week’s champions in St.Petersburg and Metz showed the unpredictability again of these smaller events with Damir Dzumhur and Peter Gojowczyk respectively scoring their maiden ATP titles. Both finalists from last year’s inaugural edition of the Chengdu Open return in this year’s field as the ATP World Tour grinds towards October. Karen Khachanov won his first ATP title here last year and is seeded third. 2016 runner-up Albert Ramos-Vinolas is back again and will serve as the second seed.

This week’s top seed in Chengdu will be Dominic Thiem. Thiem made the quarterfinals last year. Of the remaining seeds, only Viktor Troicki has made the trip for the second straight season. The Serb made a semifinal run in 2016 and is seeded seventh this week. The rest of the seeded field includes young Russian Andrey Rublev as the four seed, Yuichi Sugita as the five, Kyle Edmund as the six and Leonardo Mayer as the 8th seed.

Last year’s tournament highlights that unpredictability you can expect this year with Khachanov winning as an unseeded player. There were three seeds in the semifinals with Ramos-Vinolas as the five, Grigor Dimitrov as the three and Troicki as the six. Nick Kyrgios lost his first match as the second seed last year, surprisingly, as one of only two seeds who lost their openers in Chengdu.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at this year’s possible upset victims – which I do think includes all eight seeds.

Early Bird Specials

1. Dominic Thiem
Thiem gets a bye which will help a little bit, but he’s transitioning quickly after playing in the Laver Cup this weekend. He will see either Borna Coric or Guido Pella in his opener in round two. He’s split two matches with Coric in 2017 with the Croat winning on hard courts in Miami and then Thiem taking their clay court showdown in Madrid. Pella owns a win over Thiem in their lone meeting last year on clay in Rio. The top seed will be in a tough spot to start.

2. Albert Ramos-Vinolas
ARV will face Dusan Lajovic or Adrian Menendez-Maceiras to start. Ramos-Vinolas is 5-9 on outdoor hard courts this season. Lajovic should have some added confidence from his Davis Cup semifinal experience, beating Lucas Pouille before falling to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. He’s definitely an up and down performer though, so you’re not quite sure what to expect. Menendez-Maceiras made it through qualifying, but has just two main draw wins at this level on this surface since 2015. I’d be more concerned about Lajovic if I were ARV I have the Spaniard a little lower on the upset-o-meter than others in the seeded field.

3. Karen Khachanov
The defending champion will of course have a target on his back and the 21-year-old isn’t exactly a model of consistency yet. He had a disappointing first round exit at the U.S. Open to Lu. The Russian has the same amount of wins on this surface that he collected at Chengdu last year (5) in the 12 months since that title. He faces the winner of the first round battle between Denis Istomin and Jan-Lennard Struff. Both players have been in decent form since first round losses at the U.S. Open. Struff lost to Dzumhur in the semis in St.Petersburg last week and looks a better shot to score the upset with Istomin having gone 0-6 on outdoor hard courts since his fourth round run at the Australian Open.

4. Andrey Rublev
This will be the Russian teenager’s first match since his first-ever Grand Slam quarterfinal at the U.S. Open. He will be more of a marked man now with that on his resume and I think how he responds to that is key to his development. If he’s going to be the player people think he can be, then he will win his opener. He is scheduled to get Yen-Hsun Lu or Mikael Ymer. Lu is a question mark after retiring in his last match, the final of the Shanghai Challenger. He played Rublev at the Australian Open and lost in four back in January. He’d be the bigger threat to me over Ymer who is much more at home on clay. All of that could mean Rublev gets off to a good start, but if Lu is healthy, I think he will test the Russian.

5. Yuichi Sugita
He draws qualifier Mate Pavic who is more known for his doubles prowess, but has a big serve and big forehand that could overwhelm Sugita. Sugita has had some good moments this summer, including a Masters quarterfinal showing in Cincinnati. He’s also pretty solid on this surface albeit more on Challengers, but that’s largely the feel some of these 250s bring. I think he’ll be pushed some by Pavic’s power, so this still could be an upset spot.

6. Kyle Edmund
An injury question mark and a quirky first round opponent make Edmund’s chances hard to gauge. Edmund hasn’t been seen since a neck injury forced him from his third round match against Denis Shapovalov. He battles Bernard Tomic to start and your guess is as good as anyone’s as to whether Tomic cares to be in China this week or not. His most engaging spell of the season has passed with the grass season long gone. Tomic is an abysmal 2-6 on hard courts this year, so you would think Edmund – if fit – can find a way to win, but Tomic’s quirky game could be tough if the Aussie cares enough to play.

7. Viktor Troicki
Even though the Serb made the semis here last year, his first round matchup is a difficult one and puts him on upset alert. Troicki draws Nikoloz Basilashvili who beat him in straights at Roland Garros earlier this season. Both played indoors last week with Troicki losing in the quarters to Roberto Bautista-Agut in the St.Petersburg quarterfinals. Basilashvili made the semis at the Moselle Open, losing to Benoit Paire. There is definite upset possibility here.

8. Leonardo Mayer
Mayer will battle Metz champ Peter Gojowczyk who took a special exemption onto this draw in Chengdu. The obvious issue for Gojo is dealing with the emotion of winning his first ATP title and then turning around and going back on the grind. That may give the edge to Mayer even though hard courts aren’t his best surface. I just don’t know that Gojo will be able to deal with the emotional roller coaster plus travel and a quick turn-around to start a new week. There is a chance he carries that form over, but this is a lesser upset shot than others for me.

Outsider’s Edge

As a 250, there is always a chance that an unseeded player can make a run as Khachanov did a year ago. In looking around this year’s draw, there are some intriguing players who could make runs if the chips fall right.

Borna Coric
He would need to get by Thiem, but the Austrian may be a big drained emotionally and physically from Laver Cup play and lack motivation. That might open the door for Coric to make a run if he can get out of round one against Guido Pella. Troicki could be a tricky road block to a semifinal, but he’s still an iffy proposition most weeks.

Marcos Baghdatis
Baggy has been mired in mediocrity with a 12-14 record this year, but he’s in what I think is the weakest quarter with seeds Rublev and Mayer. He starts with Vasek Posposil who he has beaten three of four times. Pop also hasn’t played since injuring himself at the U.S. Open. That should give Baghdatis a chance to get off to a winning start. He would have the Mayer-Gojowczyk winner next and then maybe Rublev. That’s a workable path if he can get going early.

Jared Donaldson
I’m not as high on his chances as others with the American doing most of his hard court damage on home soil. Sill, his game matches up with most in his quarter. He has Greek qualifier Stefano Tsitsipas to open and then either Kyle Edmund or Bernard Tomic. Khachanov is the highest seed in his way to the semifinals. Again, their playing styles are very similar just as you can say with Donaldson and Edmund. There are worst cases to be made for floaters who could make an unexpected run than Donaldson.

Draw Preview

Quarter #1 Seeds
Dominic Thiem (1)
Viktor Troicki (7)

Breakdown
Thiem obviously has the most talent of anyone in this quarter and the draw overall, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to win. Motivation for a smaller tournament is iffy for me for Thiem with bigger things on the horizon, including the Tour Finals in early November. I think he’s prone to losing every round with this draw. Coric or Pella as his first opponent is a chance and so would be Troicki if the Serb doesn’t trip up in round one himself. Troicki’s match against Basilashvili should be competitive. Qualifier Taylor Fritz might be an outsider to consider here as he faces wild card Di Wu to open. Fritz has made the quarters of his last two hard court 250s, so he bears watching. Troicki has been very up and down, more down for most of the season and that could mean a motivated player like Fritz gets deeper than expected.

In case I wasn’t clear, I’m not keeo on Thiem this week. For me, this quarter likely comes down to Troicki, Coric or perhaps Fritz. I’ll call-in stupid here and say Fritz.

Quarter #2 Seeds
Andrey Rublev (4)
Leonardo Mayer (8)

Breakdown
I’d really like to see Rublev take a hold of this quarter and make it his own. He’s got the big ground strokes to do it, but at the tail-end of a long season off his best success – I’m not banking on it. If he is able to navigate around Lu or Ymer, that confidence of getting the first win could boost his chances. Mayer could be one of those guys who you don’t realize is a seed that actually makes a run. He’s in the tougher half of the quarter with Gojowczyk to start and then either Baghdatis or Pospisil. For me, this quarter is wide, wide open. With the slightly easier time of it up top, I’m going to say Rublev could come through and make a run to the semis. Baghdatis is the backup choice.

Quarter #3 Seeds
Karen Khachanov (3)
Kyle Edmund (6)

Breakdown
This quarter looks to be highly competitive. Khachanov will be in for a difficult time with Istomin or Struff to start. If he can get past one of them, then perhaps things can click. The top part of this quarter is a pick ’em in all matches. Edmund against Tomic and Donaldson against Tsitsipas in round one. Edmund and Donaldson look the likelier winners, but Tomic can pull a rabbit out of his butt if he chooses. Tsitsipas has a power game that could match Donaldson and the American hasn’t proven his worth outside of the states too much in his young career. That makes it more difficult to say who is going to make it out of that half.

For me, I don’t trust Khachanov to be able to back up his title run from 2016. He’s young and has plenty to learn still about consistency. Look for an unseeded player to turn potentially turn this quarter upside down – like Donaldson. If healthy, I do think Edmund can make some noise, but we will have to wait and see how his neck looks.

Quarter #4 Seeds
Albert Ramos-Vinolas (2)
Yuichi Sugita (5)

Breakdown
This is the quarter that might fall in line with the seeding. I think most of that is on Sugita. If he can get past Pavic in round one, his second round encounter with either Yibing Wu or Thiago Monteiro makes things easier, Monteiro would ne a replay of their recent Davis Cup clash that Sugita won in easy straight sets. Ramos-Vinolas gets the bye and then Lajovic or Menendez-Maceiras. Both are winnable matchups, although as I said, Lajovic is one I think could cause the Spaniard a little trouble. Altogether though, I do think this could fall to Ramos-Vinolas and Sugita playing for a spot in the semifinals.

I like Ramos-Vinolas here with Sugita as a more improbable choice for me, but perhaps that might be why he’s a better bet!

AND THAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE BECAUSE THE PIG SAID SO ….

It will be an interesting watch this week with several young up and comers in the draw, including the two Russians – Khachanov and Rublev who should be among the favorites. The big question is whether the young guns can find that consistent needed to produce a title run late in the season, especially under the pressure of seeded expectation. If this goes to a seed, Ramos-Vinolas is the guy I like in this spot. His draw is good and his experience here helps. If things go unseeded in the end, for some reason, I’m keying on the two Americans – Fritz and Donaldson, although there is not much trust in either other than being “dartboard” shots this week. Dartboard shots however do sometimes come in with these 250s.