2017 Mercedes Open Final Preview: Lucas Pouille vs Feliciano Lopez

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Lucas Pouille vies for his first grass court title, while Feliciano Lopez is hoping to bring home this third. They meet in the final of the Mercedes Cup in Stuttgart.

(4) Lucas Pouille vs Feliciano Lopez

Pouille played perhaps his best match of the tournament in the quarterfinals. He edged Benoit Paire 7-6 (5), 7-5. Pouille was not broken on serve for the first time, allowing just two break points. He was crisp with his first serve, winning 86 percent of the points and also a rock solid 65 percent off his second. The fourth seed also crushed 13 aces. He came up big in the tiebreak and then converted his lone break chance of the match late in set two in order to set himself up with a chance to close the match on serve. Pouille did just that at-love to secure a spot in his third ATP final this season.

Lopez battled in similar fashion against Mischa Zverev. Despite not allowing a break chance against his serve, the Spaniard found himself down after dropping the opening set in a tiebreak. Lopez would edge the second set in a breaker and then find his lone break of Zverev’s serve in the third to complete a 6-7 (2), 7-6 (4), 7-5 win. Lopez slammed 15 aces in the match and won 78 percent of the points off his first serve and 76 percent off is second.

Third Chapter in Competitive Rivalry

This will be the third time that Pouille and Lopez have met since the start of last season. They split a pair of matches indoors last season. Lopez won the first in Vienna 6-4, 2-6, 7-5. Pouille returned the favor in Paris taking the Spaniard down 6-7 (1), 6-3, 6-3. Pouille was dominant on serve, punishing Lopez with 21 aces. The Frenchman would win 89 percent of his first serve points in that Paris meeting. In Vienna, neither player was that sharp on serve. Lopez was forced to save six of eight break chances, while Pouille saved seven of nine. Pouille actually won more points that Lopez for the match (105-103). That shows just how close these two have played in their previous meetings.

This time on grass, you would expect that to slightly favor the more experienced Lopez. The Spaniard has won two previous titles, both in Eastbourne, on this surface and is now 67-36 on grass during his career. Pouille is contesting his first-ever final on grass with a 7-5 mark now on the green stuff. One advantage Pouille could have is that he’s already played in two finals this season, winning a title on clay in Budapest and losing indoors in Marseille. Lopez is making his first finals appearance in 2017 and first since winning a title in Gstaad on clay last season.

Match Tactics

Serve will of course be a big key on grass. Both men have been pounding the ball on serve this week with Lopez the more consistent of the two. The Spaniard has only been broken three times all tournament with two straight matches without being broken. Pouille was broken twice in each of his first two matches and allowed 18 break points in the first two rounds. Lopez has allowed just 17 through all four matches. Pouille will be hoping that his performance against Paire can carry over as he’ll need a sharp serve to contend with Lopez toe-for-toe on grass.

Pouille is still far more comfortable from the baseline, but he’s shown smart timing this week on when to come to net. Against Paire, there were a lot of baseline exchanges, but Pouille also did a superb job of coming to net when he put Paire off-balance with big serves or ground strokes. He did a nice job finishing those points at the net, but will need to be sharper against a great net player in Lopez.

The plus for Pouille if he watches the tape from the Lopez-Zverev semifinal is that Zverev’s consistent use of the serve and volley really put the pressure on Lopez to make great passing shots consistently. That’s not exactly Pouille’s wheelhouse to employ the serve and volley constantly like Mischa did, but it’s a smart tactic as Lopez knows fully. I think it may actually be more comfortable for Lopez against Pouille knowing that he’s not going to see the serve and volley almost every time like he did against Zverev.

Obviously, Lopez will challenge Pouille to come to the net and prove that he can make volleys over and over as that is a good, but not great part of Pouille’s game. I think the lefty will bank on Pouille not being able to repeat that feat with consistency. The Spaniard will look to exploit Pouille’s consistency there and of course look to use his powerful serve to push Pouile back on the court. When he does that, it’s Lopez’s time to come in and finish some quick 1-2 punches for short points.

When the two do go strictly baseline-to-baseline, Lopez will use his backhand slice to try to keep points going in order to run around to his forehand. Pouille is pretty adept off both wings with the forehand still being a better power shot consistently. His backhand shouldn’t be underestimated though with the two hander packing a nice wallop from the back of the court. Pouille can hit it down the line or cross court effectively. Lopez’s job will be to keep Pouille off balance by moving him and not letting Pouille set up to grip and rip those ground strokes.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

This is an intriguing final with Pouille searching for that first grass court title. This has already been a very good week for him and I think he is showing that Wimbledon was no fluke last year. Lopez, at age 35, never knows how many more shots he’ll get to win titles. He didn’t have a great grass season in 2016, so this is a good sign for him and he’s beaten some really good players in a variety of ways.

I think in a best of seven on this surface, you might see a seven match series. They’re both that good and that close to even in my mind. I like Lopez just slightly in this one. I just think he’s slightly more versatile and consistent on the surface and he’s found a way to win against tough players this week even when they’ve been just as good. Pouille won’t be a shock winner if he pulls this off. This looks like it could go the distance again between these two.

Prediction: Lopez wins in three sets

2017 Mercedes Cup SF Preview: Feliciano Lopez vs Mischa Zverev

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It’s an all unseeded semifinal as Feliciano Lopez and Mischa Zverev go at it for a spot in the Mercedes Cup final. Lopez has yet to make a final in 2017, while Zverev could make his second of the season with a win.

Feliciano Lopez vs (6) Mischa Zverev

The Spanish lawnmower shot his way into the semifinals after rallying from a set down to take out third seeded Tomas Berdych 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-4. The match featured lots of big serving with Lopez laying down 19 aces and the Czech hitting 21. The Spaniard played the break points better, saving all nine against his serve. He has only been broken three times through three rounds. Lopez converted two key breaks in the last two sets against the third seed to secure the win. In the end, it was as tight as you can get with Lopez winning 100 points to 97 for Berdych.

Zverev won an all-German affair, taking down Tommy Haas 6-4, 6-4. It was a bit predictable that Haas was unable to match the level from the previous round when he ousted top seed Roger Federer. Haas fought all the way through, but his serve was lacking and he barely made any inroads against Mischa’s serve. Zverev won a whopping 35 of 38 points off his first serve. He was landing 72 percent of his first serves, which served him well as Haas won eight of the 15 points played off Zverev’s second serve. The match continued a strong of serving for Zverev who has been broken just once on 14 chances, eleven of which came last round against Yannick Hanfmann.

Zverev Looks to Reverse The Trend

The 29-year-old German will have to do something he has failed to do so far in his career to reach the final in Stuttgart: win a set off of Feliciano Lopez. Lopez is 3-0 all-time against the German with straight sets wins each time. The last meeting was in 2016 in the second round of the Western & Southern Open. Lopez dominated 6-3, 6-1. He also tallied wins indoors in Kuala Lumpur in 2015 and outdoors on a hard surface at the Sunrise Challenger in 2009.

The difference maker in those matches has been a blistering first serve from Lopez. The Spaniard has won 80 percent or more of the points off his first serve in all three matches. Mischa has managed just one break of serve in the six sets played, while the Spaniard has routinely been able to get to his German counterpart’s serve. Lopez converted ten of 20 break opportunities against Zverev.

Serve & Volley Party

This match-up features two guys who love to employ the serve and volley. It’s really going to be an interesting test of like tactics. It’s all going to start with the serve and both men have been on point serving this week. The difference would seem to be that Zverev has had few to no answers for Lopez’s serve in the past and this surface plays even better to it. That means break chances will likely be few for the German.

It will be a little bit different for Lopez to see the serve and volley against him. I don’t think Zverev used it consistently in their previous meetings, but it’s become more of his game plan in the last year. Playing on grass, it’s a must and a plus. It really becomes a matter of which player can get more done on return. I like that Lopez has seen a big serve with Berdych on Friday and that could make a difference. He may find more success against Zverev’s serve, which can keep Mischa’s volleying from being as effective.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

Zverev certainly has a chance in this one despite Lopez’s more marquee career on grass. Zverev has found some of his best grass results in Germany and is sure to get the home crowd on his side. All that may not be enough though if Lopez continues his hot serving and precise, aggressive work off the ground. Unless the Spaniard has an off serving day or Zverev can steal a set, maybe two in tiebreaks – I think Lopez works into Sunday’s final.

Prediction: Lopez wins in straight sets

2017 Mercedes Cup QF Preview: Tomas Berdych vs Feliciano Lopez

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Tomas Berdych is the highest seed left in Stuttgart after a rash of early upsets. The Czech battles Feliciano Lopez for the 13th time with the winner breaking a six-all tie in the head-to-head.

(3) Tomas Berdych vs Feliciano Lopez

Berdych’s 2017 debut at the Mercedes Cup came Thursday against Bernard Tomic. Berdych looked in control throughout, although he did yack up a break lead in the opening set. He recovered with plenty of room to spare for the 7-6 (4), 6-2 win. The match featured some typical Berdych numbers when his game is on as the third seed won 84 percent of his first serve points. He walloped 14 aces and was broken just the one time on three chances.

Lopez battled Jeremy Chardy in round two with the Spaniard prevailing 6-3, 3-6, 6-2. Lopez also served big with 13 aces, taking 83 percent of his first serve points. The Flodonis fought off three of the four break chances against his serve. Through two matches in Stuttgart, Lopez has been broken three times with Gilles Simon doing the deed twice in their opening round affair. The Spaniard has been a little iffy with double faults in both rounds, racking up four in each match.

First Meeting Since 2014

Although the two grizzled tour vets have met a dozen times, this will mark their first match in two and a half years. Berdych has won the last two in the series, beating the Spaniard in straight sets in 2014 in Beijing and Paris. Lopez had beaten the Czech in their two previous meetings earlier that season with one coming on grass at Queen’s Club. That stands as their only grass court meeting. In that clash, Lopez’s serve was scintillating as he won 90 percent of the points off his first serve, blasting 13 aces. Berdych was solid, winning 78 percent of his first serve points. It came down to one break of serve and a tiebreak. That could again be how close this match-up is between these two on grass.

Match Tactics

As touched on with their last meeting, serve on this quick German grass will again be a large factor in determining the winner. Berdych seemed to have a great feel for the grass in his opener against Tomic, serving with power and precision. He also got in 67 percent of his first serves, a fantastic number for anyone. It’s especially impressive for the Czech whose season average in that category is 57 percent. Lopez has won 80 percent or better of his first serve points in both matches. The lone leaky aspect really has been the double faults.

The Spaniard’s lefty serve is very fluid and when he’s in rhythm, he’s tough to break. Berdych is fluid, but in a different manner with is serve. His high ball toss seems to be a big part of the issue when he’s not in rhythm. What is impressive though is when Berdych’s timing is proper and you can literally see the power coming off his serve.

Lopez has the advantage on grass when he plays to what he does best in his game. He serves big and then is very comfortable coming to the net. On grass, that is a superior combination when executed well. It’s part of the season that Lopez has racked up a superb 65-36 record on grass during his career. That includes three trips to the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. When he doesn’t come to net, Lopez will play a lot of backhand slice in baseline exchanges in an effort to get back around to his strong forehand.

I’d expect him to utilize that in an effort to get the ball back to Berdych’s backhand. The Czech uses a two hander and it’s solid, but not his most consistent shot. Berdych will also prefer to smash his forehand off the ground as many times as possible. The third seed’s best combos likely will come from serving big and then finishing shorter points with a quick 1-2 punch against the Spaniard. Berdych isn’t going to serve and volley like Lopez, but the Czech is very skilled on grass at utilizing the court position that his serve causes. Against Tomic, he showed this often as his serve put Tomic off balance and Berdych went big on the next shot for a winner of either wing.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

This should be competitive. Both have looked comfortable in the transition to grass. This really should come down to who can dictate their tactics more in this match-up. This could certainly feature a tiebreak or two. Berdych is now 11-4 in tiebreaks this year, while Lopez is 4-5. Berdych has won three of the four career tiebreaks the two have played, but it was Lopez’s lone win in a breaker that came on grass. What does that mean? Flip a coin here, it may be that close.

Prediction: Lopez wins in three sets

2017 Mercedes Cup Preview

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Shifting Surfaces

The quick turn from clay to grass begins in earnest this week with Stuttgart as one of the two ATP World Tour stops. It also marks the return of Roger Federer, who has not played since winning the Miami Open in March. It was a calculated move by the Swiss to skip the entire clay court season to focus on spots where he had better chances to add to his record 18 Grand Slam titles. Wimbledon has always been eyed as the best shot for Federer to add to his trophy case because of how well the Swiss has performed on grass. He’s 152-23 on the surface for his career with 15 of his 91 career titles on grass.

Stuttgart is a relatively new stop on tour for grass court tennis. Up until 2015, Stuttgart was a clay court tournament. In the two years on grass, Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem have won here. Last year, Thiem scored one of his best non-clay wins by beating Federer in three sets in the semifinals at the Mercedes Open. Thiem will not be participating this year nor will Rafael Nadal. This year, it’s Federer leading the field as the top seed. Grigor Dimitrov is slated in as #2 with Tomas Berdych and Lucas Pouille rounding out the top four seeds. Eighth seed Viktor Troicki was a finalist in 2015 at this event, which is the best showing among the seeds since Stuttgart went green.

Seed Report

1. Roger Federer
Federer debuted in Stuttgart last season and made the semifinals before losing out to Thiem. I would not expect much in the way of rust for Federer here as he has been solely prepping for grass for weeks now. That should give him a leg up on most who are transitioning over from clay.

2. Grigor Dimitrov
Dimitrov’s lone visit to the grass courts in Stuttgart ended with a one and done last year. The 26-year-old gained one of his better results in months by making round three at Roland Garros. That is the sad state of affairs that his season has become after making the Australian Open semifinals. On grass, he’ll hope for rebirth. He is 28-19 on the green stuff in his career.

3. Tomas Berdych
Speaking of disappointments, enter Berdych. The Czech was knocked out in Paris in round two by Karen Khachanov. That’s not a terrible result given the young Russian’s nice showing at the French Open. Berdych at 31 has had a reasonably good season at 23-11. He’s been good on grass at 58-25 overall. This will be his first trip to Stuttgart since they flipped to grass.

4. Lucas Pouille
The Frenchman has been up and down this season; mediocre in Paris with a five set loss to Albert Ramos-Vinolas, where he really fell apart after going up 2-1. It’s not often that young players come out of the gates and have big success on grass, but Pouille’s power game translated well at Wimbledon last summer. He made his first Slam quarterfinal on this surface in 2016, but is still just 4-5 all-time on grass. He lost to John Millman here last year in his opener, which at the time made him 0-4 on grass. This year figures to tell us whether Pouille knows grass or he was a one hit wonder on it at Wimbledon.

5. Steve Johnson
Johnson will be making his debut at Stuttgart this season. It’s been an emotional few weeks for the American since the passing of his father. He showed very well at the French Open by making round three. He’s 18-13 on grass in his career with really good results last summer, winning the title in Nottingham and then making the 4th round at Wimbledon. He may have to battle his emotions again, but his big hitting, aggressive game suits this surface. He could be a dark horse this week, but he also may have to continue battling through a wave of emotions.

6. Mischa Zverev
Zverev made the quarterfinals here in the first year that Stuttgart went green in 2015. He beat Thiem and Andreas Seppi, before losing in a third set tiebreak to Marin Cilic. His serve and volley tactics obviously can be successful on this surface, but he hasn’t had the opportunity to show that in recent years. Due to his run of the past months, he will get to play the main draw at Wimbledon for the first time since 2011. That should be an exciting proposition for him and playing on home soil could ignite him to good things this week.

7. Gilles Simon
Simon went 1-1 last year in Stuttgart in his first trip back since they went to grass. He lost in the quarters in three sets to Juan Martin Del Potro, bageled in the final set. Simon has a respectable 38-28 mark on grass in his career and 2015 was excellent for him on grass to remind you of his prospects. That year, he made the semis at Queen’s Club and then the quarters at Nottingham and Wimbledon. Of course last year, he was just 2-3 on the surface and 2017 has been mediocre at-best as he comes in off a round one exit at the French Open.

8. Viktor Troicki
Troickiy followed up his 2016 finals appearance here by flaming out in his opener last year against Florian Meyer in straight sets. The Serb is 28-23 on grass. Like Simon, he stunk on the surface last year at 1-3 but went 10-4 on grass in 2015. In addition to the Stuttgart final, he also made the semis at Queen’s Club and the 4th round at Wimbledon. As usual, Troicki will be a big time hit or miss proposition this week.

Early Bird Specials

In the brief history of Stuttgart on grass, there have been multiple upsets of seeds in their first matches both years. In 2015, two seeds lost their openers with Feliciano Lopez (3) as the highest seed to go down. Last year, four seeds were one and done, including second seed Marin Cilic. It’s not a coincidence that seeds flame out early with this being the first tournament on grass and many players lack the proper preparation. With that in mind, let’s look at which seeds could be sent packing early.

Grigor Dimitrov
Dimitrov will see either Jerzy Janowicz or Andrey Kuznetsov to start. Janowicz hasn’t had much to crow about at this level in a few years, but we know he’s dangerous on grass (12-8) if he’s healthy. He’s reasonably healthy for this swing for the first time since 2015. He went 1-1 in Stuttgart that year with a loss to Philipp Kohlschreiber. Kuznetsov is 7-11 on grass with a third round showing at Wimbledon last year. Dimitrov has never played the Russian, but he is 2-1 versus Janowicz. That includes a three set win indoors in Sofia earlier this season. On grass, Janowicz could get the extra oomph to make Dimitrov play his best to win.

Tomas Berdych
Potentially a bad match-up for Berdych in his opener with Bernard Tomic possibly up against him. Tomic opens with Stephane Robert. This is a surface that Tomic has shown some excellence on, but also shown his usual Barnyard antics as well in losses. Tomic made the quarters here in 2015. Last year, he made the semis at Queen’s club and the 4th round at Wimbledon. Berdych is 4-0 against Tomic with two tight four set wins on grass at Wimbledon in 2013 and 2014 over the Aussie. Not much in Tomic’s 2017 might suggest an upset, but it will still be a fairly difficult draw for the Czech to start.

Lucas Pouille
I put Pouille on this list simply because we don’t really know yet whether the Frenchman is going to be the guy pre-Wimbledon 2016 who could not win on grass or the guy who showed up at Wimbledon and surprised his way to the quarterfinals. Given an uneven run in 2017 as well, I think he’ll need to be alert in his opener against either qualifier Lukas Lacko or Jan-Lennard Struff. Lacko can be tough on this surface and has the match play advantage. Lacko has a win over Pouille in Challenger play way back in 2013 and he did play him tough in a two tiebreak loss in Rotterdam last year. Struff has the power to match Pouille on serve, but is just 3-11 on grass.

Gilles Simon
A big dat duh on this one with Simon pitted against Feliciano Lopez. Lopez is a three-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist. The Spaniard’s serve and volley tactics have made him a danger on grass for years at 63-36 overall. He is 0-2 at this event though and the green stuff hasn’t been as kind the past few years. He’s 3-2 against Simon though and two wins came on grass in 2013. He beat the Frenchman earlier this season on clay in a third set tiebreak in Madrid. Given Simon’s murky form, this is a definite upset possibility and surely will be a popular one among Pig-nosticators.

Viktor Troicki
The Serb is about as reliable for consistency as his opponent, Benoit Paire. That makes their R1 clash an absolute 50-50 for me, Paire could lose 6-1, 6-0 or spring the upset. We just don’t ever know with him, so that’s why I think Troicki has to be on upset alert. The two have not met in their careers.

Outsider’s Edge

Seeds have been a mainstay at the business end of things in Stuttgart in its first two years. Only Del Potro crashed the semifinals as a wild card last year to break the seeds’ stronghold on the semis. There have however been five quarterfinalists of the 16 in Stuttgart’s history that have been unseeded. Even more interesting, three of them have been qualifiers. Mischa Zverev did it in 2015 and both Radek Stepanek and Florian Mayer did it last year.

He could join them as surprises in the quarters? Let’s look.

(q) Lukas Lacko
I ID’ed Lacko earlier as one to watch against Pouille potentially in round one. He’s 2-1 against his opponent Jan-Lennard Struff, even though they have not met since 2015. Still with Struff’s struggles on grass, Lacko could have a chance. A win over Pouille and voila, unseeded quarterfinalist.

Marcos Baghdatis/Philipp Kohlschreiber
This could be the best first round match in Stuttgart between these two veterans who both play well on grass. Baggy owns a 5-2 head-to-head advantage with two wins on grass, but those were a decade ago in Halle and s’-Hertogenbosch. Neither player arrives in great form with Baghdatis winless in six straight. He did get some grass play in at the Surbiton Challenger though, losing to Dudi Sela. If he scores the upset over Kohlschreiber, he may see Steve Johnson whom he lost to in their lone career meeting in 2014 in Auckland.

Kohlschreiber has lost four of five since making the Casablanca final on clay. Kohlschreiber has always played well on grass, especially in Germany. Stuttgart may not be quite a good to him as Halle, but he made the final last year and the quarters in 2015. A win over Baghdatis would likely set him up against Johnson. The two have never met. A win though and it’s quarterfinal city for the third straight year for Kohlschreiber here and he will be someone who people expect to have that chance.

Benoit Paire
As laid out above, Paire is the ATP’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’ll get – I mean outside of a brain meltdown as some point. But even with those meltdowns, his game is good enough to win on this surface. Troicki is a tough opener, but that’s winnable. All of a sudden, a win gives Paire a quick shot at the quarters with a match against either qualifier Peter Gojowczyk or Nikoloz Basilashvili. In their own right, Gojo or Basilashvili might have just as good a shot at the quarters if Paire is their opponent.

The Berdych Quarter
This quarter has several “specialists” who could do damage. Tomic. Lopez. Mayer. ll three have had past success on grass and despite mediocre or poor play coming in, they could easily cause some upsets. Berdych could well get through, but this is a very competitive quarter that I think will spring some upsets.

Draw Preview

Quarter #1 Seeds
Roger Federer (1)
Mischa Zverev (8)

Breakdown
Federer could have an interesting opener with either Tommy Haas or Pierre-Hugues Herbert. The crowd surely would love to see the German veteran Haas against Federer. Fed likely would probably like seeing Haas as the Swiss is 13-3 against him. Their grass court encounters have usually been fun and competitive although that might be asking a lot of Haas at this stage. Zverev opens with Malek Jaziri in a winnable match and then gets one of two qualifiers Yannick Hanfmann or Martin Fucsovics. I’d be surprised if this didn’t wind up an all-seeded quarterfinal between Federer and Zverev. Fed is 3-0 versus Mischa, including this year’s straight sets win at the Australian Open and a double bagel on grass in Halle in 2013. Even with the extended layoff, It would be a massive shock to see Federer not in the semis with this draw.

Quarter #2 Seeds
Tomas Berdych (3)
Gilles Simon (7)

Breakdown
If a seed is going to fail to get to the semifinals, this quarter looks like it could produce that result. Berdych has the potential tough opener against Bernard Tomic if he makes it past Robert. Simon’s first-up is Feliciano Lopez, an equally tough task on this surface. The winner of that clash then sees either Florian Mayer or Jeremy Chardy. Mayer in particular has been good on grass for years and will have the crowd on his side. For me, this bottom half of the quarter seems more likely to see the seed (Simon) eliminated before the quarterfinals. Berdych may not be spectacular, but he’s steady and that’s not something you can say about Tomic. I still won’t be surprised though if the Aussie puts it together to score the upset. For me, this quarter comes down to Berdych, Mayer or Lopez.

Quarter #3 Seeds
Lucas Pouille (4)
Steve Johnson (5)

Breakdown
This quarter may also be a favorite for a potential unseeded semifinalist – mostly due to Kohlschreiber’s inclusion. The Baghdatis-Kohlschreiber survivor in round one will definitely have a shot to knock off Johnson. Pouille SHOULD be the guy to beat here, but he has to prove it. The opener against Lacko or Struff will be a test. If he passes, he could well see Kohlschreiber who beat him earlier this season on an indoor hard surface. If it’s Johnson, that would be a real power forehand vs power forehand match. Kohlschreiber will be the sheik upset pick in this quarter, but don’t be shocked if Pouille proves his mettle and make it out.

Quarter #4 Seeds
Grigor Dimitrov (2)
Viktor Troicki (8)

Breakdown
Dimitrov is the clear favorite in this draw, but nothing has been too clear for Dimitrov the last few months. This is a quarter where you’d like to see the two seeds get through. Dimitrov and Troicki have had some great battles in their five career matches. Dimitrov edged ahead in the head-to-head with a 6-3, 6-3 win in Sofia earlier this year. They have not met on grass, but three of their five matches have gone the distance. The unseeded players here like Paire, Janowicz and Kuznetsov are still threats, but most have more questions than answers coming into the week. It’s really hard to trust most of the players in this quarter, but I’ll give a slight nod to Troicki who has had some past success here. He should be back as he was in 2015, playing with no pressure with more of that on Dimitrov.

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

No one in their right mind will pick against Federer, especially on grass. About the only thing going against Federer is that the top seed has not won on grass here since the switch in 2015. He’s obviously the guy to change that trend. If he’s even 75 percent of the play we saw January-March, that’s likely better than anyone here. The one guy who intrigues me to play Federer in a final is Pouille, much like seeing Thiem do it last year. I am not predicting by any means that a similar upset would be in the cards, but I think Pouille’s style can perhaps contend with Federer if the Frenchman gets in the groove. Of course, he’s just as likely to lose his opener and leave Federer without any top tier competition in the end.

2017 U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship Preview

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The Dirt Road to Roland Garros Begins

The transition to clay begins this week on the ATP World Tour with two stops. One is in Morocco, with the other being the traditional state-side stop in Houston, Texas at the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships. The tournament remains the only US-based clay court tournament on the ATP tour. With the surface transition, there have been plenty of upsets in Houston over the years and that means this tournament has been a wasteland for the top seed. The top seed has made just two finals since 2008 and has not won this tournament since 2005. That year, Andy Roddick won in Houston for the third and final time in his career.

The 2017 version of this tournament will be a return home for the defeated USA Davis Cup squad as all four members of the team are in this week’s field in Houston. Jack Sock leads the seeds at #1, followed by John Isner, Sam Querrey and Steve Johnson as the top four seeds. Sock and Isner have both won in Houston once each and Querrey is a two-time finalist with his last finals trip in 2015. Johnson is the least accomplished of the quartet with a 2-4 mark all-time at the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship.

Early Exodus For Top Seeds

As a transitional tournament to a new surface, seeds are often prey for early upsets. Over the last four years, at least two seeds have dropped their openers in Houston. The number two seed has been especially prone, losing match number one for four straight years. That’s tough news for John Isner, who isn’t in the best form any how. As previously mentioned, the top seed has also had a rough time at this tournament. The top seed has only lost once in the last four years in their first match, but has also only made it to the semifinals twice in that span.

Nearly every seed looks to be a bit iffy this week. Here is a closer look.

1. Jack Sock
I put Sock on this list mainly because of where is head might be at right now. He looked lost against Jordan Thompson in Davis Cup play on Friday. So lost that Captain Jim Courier subbed him out on Sunday in favor of Querrey. Sock has played well at this tournament though, with an 11-3 career mark. He has made the final each of the last two years and never lost in his opener in four tries. He’ll face Reilly Opelka or Tommy Haas. Neither should possess the consistency need to take down Sock, but if Sock’s head is still caught up in another Davis Cup flop – watch out.

2. John Isner
The Big “Is” is a meager 7-7 this season and comes back to the states after losing to Nick Kyrgios over the weekend and then beating Sam Groth in a dead rubber. Isner is 13-8 in Houston in his career with the one title in 2013, but he has lost his first match two of the last three years. He’ll face either Leonardo Mayer or Adam Pavlasek in his opener. Isner owns one win over Mayer in Rome in 2015 in straights and has not faced Pavlasek. Mayer should pose the bigger threat after making a Challenger final on clay last week, he’s run through qualifying this week to make the main draw. With Isner’s usualy margin for error being very small, Mayer defintely could spring the upset and after all, Isner is that pesky second seed that has struggled here recently.

4. Steve Johnson
Johnson’s poor record in Houston has seen him lose twice in his opening match in four trips to the Bayou City. Johnson will face Juan Monaco or Dustin Brown in his first match. Monaco owns one win over the American, beating him on clay in Rome last year. Brown lost his lone match to Johnson in a third set tiebreak in Memphis two years ago. Brown has never been at his best on clay and Monaco has just two matches on tour this year due to his return from continuing wrist problems. Oh BTW, Monaco is your returning champion at this event and sports a 14-4 record in his career here. He’s the obvious danger.

6. Feliciano Lopez
His match-up against wild card Bjorn Fratangelo might not sound an alarm, but the Flodonis is only 2-6 in 2017. That includes a five match losing skid. Lopez did make the semis here last year, but seems a far cry from his best right now. Fratangelo hasn’t done much at the ATP level on this surface, but he has been a fairly decent player on clay at the Challenger level. The 23-year-old’s last title was on clay in Savannah last year.

7. Donald Young
Even though the one true Donald is on pretty decent form heading to Houston, having made the fourth round in both Indian Wells and Miami, he should be on alert in his opener. He’ll face Brazilian Thiago Monteiro who comes in off a pair of Davis Cup wins on clay. Young is 4-6 in Houston with a quarterfinal run in 2014 as his best finish. Monteiro has tallied all 12 of his career ATP wins on clay and he made back-to-back quarterfinal runs in Buenos Aires and Rio on dirt earlier this season. He’ll post a threat to Young.

8. Thomaz Bellucci
It’s Frances Tiafoe up first for the Brazilian. Bellucci usually saves his best for clay and won a pair of matches in Davis Cup action this weekend. Still, it’s a quick weekend against a player in Tiafoe who is comfortable on this surface. Tiafoe’s trouble of course is winning consistently at this level with just two wins this season and just a 4-17 mark all-time on the ATP World Tour. Probably an unlikely win for Tiafoe, but it’s a set up that gives him a chance to push Bellucci to the edge.

Unseeded Usurpers

The last two seasons in Houston have features unseeded title winners with Juan Monaco in 2016 and Jack Sock in 2015. At least one unseeded player has made the semifinals each of the last four years and multiple unseeded players have been involved in the quarterfinals in that same stretch. So who are the possible usurpers this year? Let’s focus on a few.

Juan Monaco
An obvious choice as the defending champ, although I think he might be a longer shot this year. He’s just making his way back on tour from continuing wrist issues, so he’s played just a couple of matches this year. He’s got the clay court prowess to win, but he might have to go through Johnson, Verdasco and Sock just to get to another final here. Count him out at your peril, but I’m just not sure he’s ready for that just yet this year.

Thiago Monteiro
The Brazilian has shown well on clay this year with a 6-4 mark on clay and couple of quarterfinals in South America during that swing earlier this year. He has to prove he can win in different conditions and despite the seeds (Isner/Young) in his quarter, he’s not without a shot to do some damage. If he can get past Young in his opener, his confidence will be boosted and then keep watching how far he might go.

Leonardo Mayer
Mayer seems the logicial click to pick as a non-seed. He’s a veteran player with the savvy and game on this surface to trouble anyone. After a delayed start to 2017, he seems to be in rhythm now. The Argentina made a Challenger final on clay last month in Buenos Aires and got through qualifying in Houston this week. That could set him up for success, but he’ll need to beat John Isner to get him into legit position to make a run. That’s not as large an ask as it’s been in the past.

Draw Preview

Quarter #1 Seeds
Jack Sock (1)
Feliciano Lopez (6)

Breakdown
Sock is the clear favorite in this quarter if he’s mentally there. That is the biggest question. Lopez has not won in nearly two months and faces a tough task just to get to the quarters. Watch out for the winner of the Hyeon Chung-Victor Estrella Burgos match to be a spoiler here. Chung beat VEB in round one last year in Houston and made a quarterfinal run. He could be that spoiler despite a pretty mediocre start to 2017 for the 20-year-old. Honestly, it’s hard to look past Sock despite his Davis Cup failure. He was in rock solid form prior to that, so perhaps the DC loss was just a blip on the radar in a tough spot.

Quarter #2 Seeds
Steve Johnson (4)
Fernando Verdasco (5)

Breakdown
This quarter is difficult to predict. Johnson hasn’t been able to match his form from early in 2016 to this year. The quick surface switch and travel from Australia won’t aid his case for a turnaround in form either. The plus is that even if he gets Monaco in his opener, it won’t be a version of Juan Monaco that is close to the form that won this title in 2016. Still, that is a very tricky match and Johnson could easily be one and done. Verdasco too has a rough first match agaisnt Kevin Anderson. The pair have split four career meetings with the Spaniard taking both of the clay court clashes, though the last one was in 2012. Anderson has never done a ton on clay, but Houston has jived better with his game than other stops on tour. He made the semifinals in his last trip to this event in 2015. If a seed advances out of his quarter, I like Verdasco. However, this one does look ripe for an upset or two. Monaco and Anderson will be the ones to watch there.

Quarter #3 Seeds
Sam Querrey (3)
Thomaz Bellucci (8)

Breakdown
The two seeds here look boom or bust. Querrey does have a decent pedigree at this tournament and the bye has its advantages as he works back from Australia. His opener comes against Horacio Zeballos or Rogerio Dutra Silva. Zeballos is the tougher of the two there with a serve that can match Querrey. Bellucci will be tested by Frances Tiafoe in his opener, but as mentioned, Tiafoe has a tough time finishing off opponents for actual wins at this level. He’s managed a few wins this year, so he might be getting closer to figuring it out. You get the feeling that when he does, the wins could come in bursts.

The winner will get either Jared Donaldson or qualifier Maximo Gonzalez. Donaldson is without a win on this surface at the ATP level, so it’s a tough ask for him against a veteran like Gonzalez. Gonzalez isn’t a great player, but he knows this surface and will make Donaldson work if he’s going to win. The plus for Donaldson is that the conditions in Houston seem to suit big hitters. I do like one of the seeds to get through here with Bellucci being a slightly better shot for me.

Quarter #4 Seeds
John Isner (2)
Donald Young (7)

Breakdown
Isner is plagued with that pesky #2 seed. Remember, the two seed has not advanced past their opening match each of the last four years. Isner will try to change that against either Leonardo Mayer or Adam Pavlasek. Mayer looks more likely with Pavlasek struggling to get wins right now. A Mayer-Isner clash brings definite upset potential. Young will have his own struggles perhaps with Thiago Monteiro in round one. The Brazilian is good on clay, albeit he’s shown his best results in South America. Still, I think Young is on high alert for an upset here. The survivor of that match gets one of two Americans, wild card Ernesto Escobedo or qualifier Tennys Sandgren. Escobedo beat Sandgren twice at the Challenger level on hard courts, but they’ve never met on clay. Neither is too accomplished on clay, but Sandgren might have a small advantage due to playing in qualies.

I would not be surprised to see an unseeded semifinalist out of this quarter. Mayer seems obvious as a possibility, but Monteiro also looks a good fit if this quarter falls that way. I’d think Young more so than isner if a seed gets through.

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

Something has to give this week. The top seeds have not fared well in Houston recently, but this year’s top seed has been a stud at this tournament. Sock has a title in his pocket and back-to-back finals appearances in Houston that make him the heavy favorite. Given his ATP form prior to the quick Davis Cup flip this past weekend, you’d be hard pressed to argue against Sock at least making the final yet again.

While being the two seed (Isner) has been poison, the three seed (Querrey) has actually been a steady performer among the top four seeds since 2013. The #3 has made the semis four straight years and been involved in one final in 2014. That could bode well for Sam Querrey who could reasonably make the run through the bottom half of the draw.

Sock and Querrey are the seeds I think that have the best shot at taking this title home. If it does fall to an unseeded player, I favor Mayer first and Monteiro second.