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