2017 AEGON Championships R16 Preview: Daniil Medvedev vs Thanasi Kokkinakis

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It’s a rematch from last week at the Ricoh Open with a spot in the quarterfinals at the AEGON Championships ripe for the taking this week. Last week, it was Medvedev who edged Kokkiankis 6-3, 7-6 (3).

Daniil Medvedev vs Thanasi Kokkiankis

Medvedev may have been the more likelier of the two players to be in this spot, but he still needed to pull off a clutch win over grass master Nicolas Mahut to start this week. The Russian rallied after dropping the opening set in a tiebreak to edge Mahut 6-7 (3), 6-4, 6-4. Medvedev was keyed by his serve, winning 79 percent off his first serve and 64 percent off his second. He was not broken on five break chances. He would tally eight aces against six double faults. The Russian did just enough against the Mahut serve to secure two key breaks on six chances. It was a nice follow-up for Medvedev who made his first grass quarterfinal at this level last week in ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

Kokkinakis scored the biggest win of his career in the opening round with a 7-6 (5), 7-6 (8) win over world number six Milos Raonic. It was the Aussie’s first career Top 10 win in his fifth try. It was also a remarkable win considering his long and winding recovery from shoulder surgery that sidelined him until mid-May. The win over the third seed Raonic was just his second win on tour in five matches since his return. Kokkinakis was resilient, saving all nine of his break points on serve and making clutch plays in the tiebreaks. Kokkinakis would win 78 percent of his first serve points and 61 percent of his second serve points. The Aussie slammed down 15 aces, but actually scored two less points than the Canadian for the match (92-90).

First Verse Yields Key Separating Factors

It’s always an intriguing matter when players square off on the same surface in consecutive tournaments. It gives you a nice insight into their psyches and also how they game plan. Last week’s Ricoh Open match showed Medvedev the better man on serve. Not by much mind you, but he secured the lone break of the match off of five break chances. He never gave Kokkinakis a single look at a break chance.

Overall, the stats say it was close to even on serve. Both players won over 80 percent on their first serve. A difference maker was the Russian’s second serve, where he won 71 percent compared to just 52 percent for the Aussie. Medvedev had eleven aces while Kokkinakis tallied eight. Overall, the Russian scored more points (70-57) indicating better work off the ground as well.

Factors, Etc.

Another factor to throw into the mix this week is how Kokkinakis responds from an emotional and career-best win. Often, it is difficult for younger players to gather themselves and carry that momentum into the next match. The 21-year-old Aussie has also admitted he is still struggling at-times with both shoulder and groin problems. All that considered, it was an amazing feat against Raonic, but now he gets the big hitting Russian again.

Medvedev put his mark on the season in week one, when he made the Chennai Final and lost in straights to Roberto Bautista Agut. He would have a couple of good results indoors with back-to-back quarterfinals in Montpellier and Marseille. A bout of mononucleosis knocked him down from there as he lost five straight opening round matches. He’s obviously feeling a bit more fit after his run through qualifying last week and into the quarterfinals at the Ricoh Open.

To the task at-hand, a repeat performance of last week’s encounter in the Netherlands. I tend to think Medvedev won’t be too shaken by the prospect of repeating his performance last week. After all, Kokkinakis did not show the ability to crack his serve and he was able to get some chances against the Aussie. For Kokkinakis, this will be about carrying the confidence over from the Raonic match. Even so, expecting him to continuously come up with big saves on break points over and over is a big ask for someone still recovering from shoulder problems.

Match Tactics

Grass has shown to be conducive to both players games, despite their lack of experience on the surface. It’s been big serving and big hitting that has keyed them to wins on grass and that is something both excel at doing. Medvedev has even proclaimed that the green stuff is already his favorite surface, so he’s showing his mentality matches his comfortability level on grass.

Medvedev definitely deserves to hang out on the baseline and his volleying is still maybe average at best. That’s something Kokkinakis should look to test again by making the Russian come to net. Kokkinakis has played doubles enough that he’s a bit more skilled at the net and comfortable coming in when needed. Of course, Medvedev’s win over Mahut should also give him confidence if Kokkinakis does change things up, that he has enough to defend the serve and volley and have success against it. Kokkinakis will have to be crafty in his spots to possibly use that tactic.

You know both want to hammer their serves and then hit as many forehands as possible. The key for Kokkinakis is going to be consistently landing his serve for easy points. When he finds his rhythm, he smokes aces and can use his big serve to set up some quick 1-2 punches against the Russian. Medvedev won’t be looking to alter his game plan much, unless things don’t work. Serve big. Hit big. Repeat. If he’s hitting his spots on serve, I don’t think he’ll have a problem controlling points much like he did last week.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

I think consistency is a key word for this match and it’s something I am still a bit worried about for Kokkinakis at this stage of his comeback. He’s getting more match play and working his way through the pains he has to deal with, but it’s tough to repeat those great performances against good players. Medvedev may not be on par with Raonic, but “The Bear” is a dangerous player on this surface with his weaponry. Kokkinakis’ best chances might come by getting to tiebreaks and hoping to steal a few key points to take a set or two. He’s obviously fully capable of doing that as the Raonic result shows.

Bottom line though, I think Medvedev is growing in confidence and comfort level on this surface and he could be in line for bigger and better things on grass very soon. I think he takes it again, but I’ll give Kokkinakis a set this time.

Prediction: Medvedev wins in three sets

2017 AEGON Championships Preview

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Queen’s Club is Dandy for Andy

Queen’s Club in London is one of the big stops this week as players sneak in more grass court preparation ahead of Wimbledon. The AEGON Championships have belonged to Andy Murray. This year’s top seed is a five-time champion at this event, including winning each of the last two seasons. He is 30-5 during his career at this tournament and has followed up two of his last three title wins at Queens’ Club with the title at Wimbledon.

Stan Wawrinka, Milos Raonic and Marin Cilic round out this week’s top four seeds. Cilic is the best among that group, winning the title in 2012 and racking up a 20-8 career mark at Queen’s Club. Raonic did however make the final here last year, losing to Murray. The rest of the seeded field includes Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Grigor Dimitrov, Tomas Berdych and Nick Kyrgios. Tsonga made the final in 2011, while Dimitrov won his lone title on grass here in 2014. Both Tsonga and Kyrgios will be making their debuts on grass this season. Both will be looking to get positive results this week after early exits at Roland Garros in their last action.

Early Bird Specials

For purposes of this week’s tournament, I’ll only focus on the last two years at Queen’s Club. That is when the field of competitors was reduced from 56 to 32. With just 32 players in the field, there are no byes for the seeds in the opening round. Last year, three seeds were one and done at the AEGON Championships. In 2015, just one seed lost in round one during Queen’s Club’s first year with just 32 players.

With the quick transition from clay to grass, there is definitely room for seeded upsets every year. Let’s focus on the ones who should be on upset alert early on this week in London.

2. Stan Wawrinka
No favors done for the Swiss as he lands Spaniard Feliciano Lopez in round one. Lopez has a superb record on grass at 67-37. He will come in off a tough three set loss in the Mercedes Cup final on Sunday. Lopez is 15-11 all-time at Queen’s Club and is a one-time finalist in 2014. Even his losses are usually very tough on his opponents. Wawrinka has found the going tough at this tournament outside of a semifinal in 2014. In 2015, he lost in round two to Kevin Anderson.

Last year, he was upset by Fernando Verdasco in the opening round. The second seed is 4-2 against Lopez lifetime and he did win on grass against him at Wimbledon in 2014. That was their last meeting and it was settled 7-6, 7-6, 6-3 with only one break of serve. That could be a similar set-up to this time around. Lopez played four straight three set matches in Stuttgart, so there is a chance of fatigue helping Wawrinka out.

4. Marin Cilic
Cilic has a tough draw with John Isner as his opening opponent. Isner ended a six match losing streak to Cilic last year with a win at the Paris Masters. He followed that up with a three set win in Rome this Spring on clay. Cilic does have the match play advantage after making the Ricoh Open semifinals this past week. He lost to Ivo Karlovic in three, with Karlovic taking his two sets in tiebreaks. Could that be a similar scenario with Isner?

It’s possible. An overwhelming number of Isner’s sets on grass have been decided in tiebreaks. Of his seven matches on grass in 2016, 13 of 23 sets went to breakers and another of those sets was a 19-17 loss at Wimbledon to Tsonga. The lone grass court clash between Cilic and Isner went five sets at Wimbledon in 2015. Three of those sets went to tiebreaks and the deciding set ended 12-10 in favor of Cilic. Isner won two of the three tiebreak sets.

5. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Tsongs opens against fellow Frenchie, Adrian Mannarino. Mannarino got in a few grass court matches last week at the Ricoh Open and that makes him a bit dangerous here. Tsonga comes in off a very disappointing first round loss at the French Open. Grass traditionally has been good for Tsonga, but he’s coming back to Queen’s Club for the first time since 2014. Mannarino has been serviceable on this surface and does own a win on clay against Tsonga this year at Monte Carlo. The surface should suit Tsonga better, but there’s definitely a chance for him to get caught cold in this spot.

Outsider’s Edge

Even before the reduction in the number of players who head to Queen’s Club each year, outsiders did not have much success has far as bringing home the title. They have however played a role late in the tournament fairly routinely. Last year, you had three unseeded players in the quarterfinals and one (Bernard Tomic) in the semifinals. In 2015, five unseeded players made the quarters with two advancing to the semis. Kevin Anderson would be the first unseeded player to get into the final in 2015 since Mardy Fish did the trick in 2010.

With that to chew on, who has a shot to make some late noise in London this week? Here’s a look at a few players with the draws to be around at the end of the week.

Nicolas Mahut
It’s a tall task for the grass assassin who had traditionally has done much better at the Ricoh Open, where he was a three time champion. Still, he’s a good serve and volley sort suited to this surface. He is stuck in Milos Raonic’s quarter though with a tough young Russian Daniil Medvedev to open. Raonic was tremendous on grass last year with back-to-back finals at Queen’s Club and Wimbledon. Still, he’s not been consistent this year, so perhaps Mahut could have a shot to upset the apple cart.

Feliciano Lopez
A big fat duh here based on his career numbers and how well he played in Stuttgart. The Spaniard is obviously boom or bust with second seed Stan Wawrinka in his way to start. A win though and Lopez might only have Berdych (7) standing in his way to the semifinals. The same Berdych he just beat in Stuttgart.

John Isner
Isner easily could go out in round one to Cilic, but he’s in a quarter with a lot of similar players who like to serve big and rely on that to move them along on grass. Cilic and Kyrgios are the seeds in his way to a semifinal surprise. An upset over Cilic in round one and he’s likely to see Steve Johnson who has beaten him three straight times, including twice in 2017. Speaking of Stevie J ….

Steve Johnson
He’s got an interesting opener against 19-year-old American qualifier Stefan Kozlov. Kozlov is one of the young talents in the US has quite a bit of grass court experience and isn’t overwhelmed by the surface. He beat Johnson at the Ricoh Open in 2016 on grass. Johnson ripped him apart at Delray Beach earlier this year in straights to repay that favor. Johnson lost a tough match to Philipp Kohlschreiber in Stuttgart last week that he might still be thinking about after blowing a late lead. If he’s able to focus this week, he’s got that big serve and forehand combo that works on grass.

Draw Preview

Quarter #1 Seeds
Andy Murray (1)
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (5)

Breakdown
This is a tricky quarter with some big servers here opposite of Murray. Starting with Murray’s half of the quarter, he opens against Aljaz Bedene who has played decently on grass. Murray did win their only career meeting last year at this tournament 6-3, 6-4. With increased confidence from a solid run at Roland Garros, I don’t think Murray will start slow here although Bedene should play him tough. A win for Murray and it’s either Sam Querrey or British wildcard Cameron Norrie. Querrey is going to be a tough out regardless of when and whom he might lose; remember he made his first Slam quarterfinal on grass at Wimbledon last year with the now famous win over Novak Djokovic in round three. Murray has handled Querrey seven out of eight career meetings, including twice on grass.

Newly minted Ricoh Open champion Gilles Muller is one to watch in the opposite half. He opens against Nikoloz Basilashvili. Muller’s big serve propelled him through the Dutch grass court tournament, where he was only broken twice in four matches. If he wins to open, he could see Tsonga in round two. Tsonga is 3-1 against the big lefty, but their Wimbledon meeting in 2015 went five. This part of the quarter could be the one with some upsets with Tsonga still up and down in form this year. If Tsonga falters, Muller would be the guy who might take advantage.

Quarter #2 Seeds
Marin Cilic (4)
Nick Kyrgios (9)

Breakdown
There is a whole lot of electric serving to be had in this quarter with Cilic, Kyrgios, Isner and Steve Johnson. In Cilic’s half, he’s up against it to start against Isner. The survivor gets either Johnson or Kozlov. Legitimately, I think Cilic, Isner or Johnson could make it to the quarters out of that part of the draw. In the bottom half, Kyrgios has Donald Young to open and that’s a good match-up for the Aussie. Kyrgios beat Young earlier this year on hard courts at Acapulco and grass won’t negate the power advantage he has over Young. The big question with Kyrgios is health. He’s been battling shoulder and hip issues off and on for months, but is reporting to be pain free heading into the week.

The under-the-radar first round match opposite of Kyrgios-Young is Janko Tipsarevic against Viktor Troicki. They have split four career meetings with Troicki winning on grass last time they met in 2013 at Wimbledon. Troicki was a quick exit in Stuttgart last week to Benoit Paire, while Tipsarevic lost in three sets in his second match at the Ricoh Open to Marin Cilic. The winner could pose a significant threat to Kyrgios or Young if he manages an upset.

Something in my gut tells me that this is a quarter where an unseeded player will get through. Isner or Johnson would be the favorite to do that, but don’t discount that Troicki-Tipsarevic winner. The wildcard would be a healthy Kyrgios, but I’m not putting my money on board that boat just yet.

Quarter #3 Seeds
Milos Raonic (3)
Grigor Dimitrov (6)

Breakdown
A lot will be expected of Raonic after his run on grass last season. His increased success with volleying paid off large during this stretch in 2016. In his half of the quarter, he goes against Thanasi Kokkinakis to start. The 21-year-old Aussie is still getting his legs back under him after missing the first five months of the season due to injury. He does have some grass play under his belt from the Ricoh Open last week, beating Mikhail Youzhny and then losing to Medvedev. If he wasn’t still working his way back, I might fancy him to push Raonic some. In this spot, I think he’ll have a tough time matching Raonic’s serve. A win gets Raonic Mahut or Medvedev. That will be the tougher test for the third seed.

In the other half, Dimitrov will look to shake off his early exit from Stuttgart last week. The Bulgarian gets Ryan Harrison to open. On this surface, that’s advantage Dimitrov. A win gets him a date against Julien Benneteau or James Ward. Much like Raonic, that will be the tougher test likely for Dimitrov. Benneteau made it through qualis and took out Mahut in ‘s-Hertogenbosch last week. He’s got a good grass court game and has split four meetings with Dimitrov. None of those have come since 2014 however. Dimitrov still doesn’t inspire confidence, so I would not be totally shocked if he was out in round two.

This should be Raonic’s quarter to take as long as he gets into a rhythm early.

Quarter #4 Seeds
Stan Wawrinka (2)
Tomas Berdych (7)

Breakdown
This is the toughest quarter to me. Wawrinka has Feliciano Lopez to get his grass campaign started. That’s tough. A win gets him either Pierre Hugues-Herbert or Jeremy Chardy. That’s likely much easier for the Swiss, especially Chardy who he is 5-0 against in their careers. In the other half, Berdych starts with Steve Darcis. The Shark does own two wins against Berdych, including one on grass in the 2012 London Olympics. Darcis has exactly one win on grass in a main draw since then.

Berdych should get through which means either Kyle Edmund or Denis Shapovalov in round two. Edmund gets on grass for the first time this season. He was a quarterfinalist at the AEGON Championships a year ago, taking a set off of Murray in a loss. Edmund is still very green on the green. Shapovalov made it through qualifying and has the big game to contend against Edmund in round one.

This could wind up going to the seeds if Lopez is fatigued from Stuttgart. If it comes down to Wawrinka vs Berdych, the Swiss owns the head-to-head 11-5. Wawrinka has won six straight over the Czech.

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

Some might be a bit reserved to look to the top seed after Roger Federer flamed out in Stuttgart last week. This is a different set-up though. Murray hasn’t been off for multiple months and really looked like the best version of Andy Murray we’ve seen in a while in Paris. This tournament is comfortable for him and his top half fo the draw looks conducive to at least a 6th trip to the Queen’s Club final.

The othe half seems more of a crap shoot with Raonic probably the expected finalist. I’m not so sure that I am sold on that. Wawrinka needs to get past Lopez first, but I think if he’s able to do so, watch out for the Swiss. Grass isn’t his best surface, but he can slug it out over most of this field if he’s on his game.

For me, I think the title resides with one of the top three seeds this week. Murray the obvious favorite, but Wawrinka perhaps the surprise – if you can say that about a second seed and I think you can about Stan on grass – if things open up for him early. I’ll still go with Andy in the end, but in a season of surprises, it would not be totally shocking if he fails to repeat.

2017 Mercedes Cup R2 Preview: Grigor Dimitrov vs Jerzy Janowicz

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Grigor Dimitrov finally gets started at Stuttgart as he goes up against The Polish Burger-meister, Jerzy Janowicz. The Pole started his campaign this week with a three set victory over Andrey Kuznetsov.

(2) Grigor Dimitrov vs Jerzy Janowicz

Dimitrov makes a rare trip outside of England to start off his grass court season. Last year’s trip to Stuttgart was the Bulgarian’s first time playing somewhere other than Queen’s Club to start the grass court season since 2010. That was back when Dimitrov was still splitting time between Challengers at the ATP Tour. Last year, Dimitrov was dumped out in his opener by Juan Martin Del Potro 6-4, 6-2. He had a poor grass campaign overall, losing to Janko Tipsarevic in his Queen’s Club opener, before seeing the exit door in round three at Wimbledon.

Janowicz has been relatively healthy in 2017 and won a Challenger event earlier this season. His ranking is up to 155 and he’s ready for second round play. His win over Kuznetsov was his first main draw ATP win since February in Sofia, Bulgaria. Against Kuznetsov, the Pole was pretty solid. He staved off six of seven break chances, winning 77 percent of his first serve points and 55 percent off his second. He tallied five aces and five double faults. In the end, he would win just two more points overall than the Russian (91-89).

Jerzy Being Jerzy, Still Rebuilding Ranking

The match against Kuznetsov probably gained more attention for a point violation against Janowicz than the result. The Pole was cited for obscenity, but claimed that he was reading an advertising sign about hamburgers, telling the chair ump that he said “I like burgers.” That wasn’t Janowicz’s first fun with a chair umpire this season. In March, while playing Dennis Shapovalov at a Challenger, Janowicz received three code violations in five minutes. That resulted in a game penalty at the Guadalajara-based event. The Pole would ultimately lose in a third set tiebreak.

Janowicz, a one-time Wimbledon semifinalist in 2013, has played more Challengers than ATP events again in 2017 in order to work his way back from injury and elevate his ranking. The Pole has been besieged by injuries since that magical run. Later in 2013, it was a back injury that caused him some issues. In 2014, he played with a broken bone in his foot in a season where he went just 24-26. Then, it was a knee injury in late 2015 that stalked him into 2016 and had him sidelined for about six months.

He would finally get healthy around the time of the Rio Olympics. Janowicz returned there, losing to Gilles Muller. He would then hit the Challenger circuit to finish the year in an effort to rebuild his ranking and confidence. The one-time Top 20 player was ranked at 280 to end last season. He’s currently at #155.

Second Meeting This Season

The two players met earlier in Bulgaria in one of Janowicz’s rare forays back into ATP main draws. Dimitrov edged him in three sets 4-6, 6-3, 7-5. That marked Dimitrov’s second win in three tries over the Pole. Dimitrov beat him previously on clay in Rome in 2015 with Janowicz winning their first career clash on hard courts in Cincinnati in 2014. Their most recent meeting in Sofia saw plenty of big serving from both. Dimitrov tallied 15 aces in the match with Jerzy adding 17.

The difference in the match wound up being better second serves from Dimitrov, who won 70 percent of his second serve points. Jerzy won just 52 percent by comparison. Dimitrov would fight off six of seven break points, while converting two of six against Janowicz. It was a very small margin of victory with Dimitrov tallying just six more points overal (99-93).

At the time, Dimitrov was on a roll early in the season. He went on to win the title in Sofia, his second in just three tournaments played. The other came in Brisbane and he had also made the semifinals at the Australian Open. He was 14-1 after the title in Sofia. Now? He is 21-9, going jusy 7-8 since Sofia. That includes four first match losses at tournaments.

Strategy Session

There shouldn’t be much surprise to Janowicz’s play on Thursday. The 6’8″ Pole wants to use his power to serve big and he’s still got the agility to rush the net. That’s a dangerous combination on grass, if he’s hitting his mark on serve. The interesting thing is that Jerzy stayed glued to the baseline almost exclusively in their meeting indoors earlier this season. Changing that up some with some serving and volleying would not be unwise.

For Dimitrov, it’s going to be about finding a rhythm. He’ll have had plenty of practice on grass, but a big load of Haas that did for Roger Federer on Wednesday. Practice helps you get a feel for the surface, but it’s match play that Dimitrov needs. His sluggish starts on grass in recent years don’t suggest that it’s going to be all that smooth.

Going up against a guy who can serve big is also not high on the wish list of things you’d ask for in your first match of the season on grass. In their Sofia meeting, Janowicz went after Dimitrov’s backhand side a lot with his serve to solid results. I would not expect him to stray from trying that again in this one. Jerzy’s power left Dimitrov locked up several times and not able to consistently get solid strikes on his return from that wing. That led to some easy 1-2 punches for Janowicz off the serve to Dimitrov’s backhand.

Dimitrov did a better job of mixing his serves to both Janowicz’s forehand and backhand, which left him guessing. That led to some quicker and more aggressive points for Dimitrov. It also allowed Dimitrov more opportunity to come to net and that is something he needs to do on grass. Janowicz doesn’t have the best return, so as long as the second seed gets his rhythm rocking early – he should be able to get some easier holds as the match grows.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

Upsets have already hit the seeds in Stuttgart with Federer, Johnson and Troicki all going out in their openers. Dimitrov certainly is not immune to early upsets as that became a pattern on clay. I do think Jerzy has the tools and the extra match play to challenge him in this one. The Pole was able to contend well against him earlier in the season. but he’s still been lacking in results when he’s played top tier players. An upset wouldn’t surprise given Dimitrov’s mediocre form, but I’ll give the Bulgarian this one as I believe he’ll be able to ramp up his game as the match moves on.

Prediction: Dimitrov wins in three sets

2017 Mercedes Cup R2 Preview: Steve Johnson vs Philipp Kohlschreiber

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One of the marquee matches of the early rounds at the Mercedes Cup in Stuttgart pits American Steve Johnson against German grass master Philipp Kohlschreiber. Kohlschreiber made the final last year and has now tallied 36 of his 53 career wins on grass at the German-based tournaments in Halle and Stuttgart.

(5) Steve Johnson vs Philipp Kohlschreiber

Johnson was challenged in his opener by Maximillian Marter. The homestanding German pushed Johnson to three sets, but the 5th seed prevailed 3-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4. Johnson started slow as he was broken twice in the opening set. After that though, the American settled in and his serve powered him through. After winning just 13 of 23 service points in the opening set, Johnson won 49 of 59 over the final two sets. He did not face another break point.

Kohlschreiber won an abbreviated match to start his Stuttgart campaign. The 33-year-old rolled over Marcos Baghdatis 6-1 in the first set. Baghdatis promptly retired after the set, citing a pinched nerve in his back. Kohlschreiber took advantage of his compromised opponent, stealing 14 points out of the 25 played off Baghdatis’ serve. He would break the Cypriot three times on five chances. Kohlschreiber won ten of eleven points off his first serve, but did struggle some with his second serve. He would win just three of eight points played, but never faced a break point.

First Time Meeting, Grass Plays Well for Both

Johnson and Kohlschreiber will be meeting for the first time when they take the court for second round play at the Mercedes Cup. Kohlschreiber came to Stuttgart having lost four of his last matches since making the final in Casablance on clay. Johnson earned a lot of new fans for his gutsy showing at the French Open as he continues to deal with the sudden loss of his father. The American was visibly overcome with emotion during his matches as he made it to the third round before being eliminated by Dominic Thiem.

Johnson comes into the 2017 grass court swing off his best showing on the surface last season. He went 11-4 and won his first ATP title at Nottingham. He was solid the week prior to that win, making the quarters at Queen’s Club. He beat Richard Gasquet and took Marin Cilic to three sets in a loss. Johnson would cap off the grass season with his best Wimbledon result, a fourth round exit at the hands of Roger Federer. Johnson dumped Grigor Dimitrov out of the tournament in the third round as his highlight for the week.

Kohlschreiber normally comes alive with the switch from clay to grass, mostly for the first tournaments in his home country. Last year, he started in Stuttgart with a finals run that ended with a three set loss to Dominic Thiem. The rest of his grass court season would flame out however as he injured his hip in Halle the week after, forcing him to retire in the quarterfinals. It robbed him of a chance for revenge against Thiem. Kohlschreiber would go down in round one at Wimbledon, which has been a poor tournament for him in recent years despite the success he finds on grass in Germany. Kohlschreiber has lost in round one at Wimbledon three of the last four years since making the quarters in 2012.

Match Tactics

For Johnson, it’s all about the power serve and forehand combination. When he serves well, especially on a slick and fast surface like grass, he’s very difficult to deal with. That’s exactly what we saw after the first set against Marterer. Grass should always play into Johnson’s more aggressive ground game, although players with the proper game plan will still find a way to get the ball back to Johnson’s backhand.

The backhand slice from Johnson can continue to be effective on grass if he hits it into proper positions, but I think Kohlschreiber is comfortable hitting his delicious one-handed backhand off of that shot. That could be a big difference maker for the German. Johnson has shown improved patience on grass from the past in being willing to trade in some of those baseline exchanges with his backhand, until he finds the proper time to unleash his forehand.

For Kohlschreiber, grass is well suited to his game. He has a nifty kick serve that is hard to beat when it’s in rhythm. He’ll need his serve to be on point since Johnson seems to have found his measure after round one. The German though has rarely says he feels outclassed on this surface and he’s competed well and won against players with big serves like the 5th seeded American. Kohlschreiber’s return game has improved over the years and he’s got that underrated one-handed backhand that is a solid weapon for this surface.

I would look for Kohlschreiber to try and attack the backhand side of Johnson when possible with his one hander down-the-line perhaps being a killer shot if he finds the measure. The German also adapts his game to grass well by using the old “chip and charge” tactic at-times. That is something Johnson will need to be prepared for with the American still preferring to play the majority of the points from the baseline, even on grass where that can hurt you against the wrong opponent.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

This is a fascinating match-up with Kohlschreiber bringing a strong grass court pedigree and Johnson having proven he can indeed win on this surface, playing his style. I do expect Kohlschreiber to use that chip and charge tactic to test Johnson in this one. Johnson has the wheels to defend that, but is more comfortable away from the net for the most part. This could well come down to a tiebreak or two with Johnson now at 9-6 in breakers this season. It was a big part of what Johnson did right on grass last year, going 9-1 on grass in tiebreaks. Kohlschreiber is 6-11 in tiebreaks this season, dropping each of his last four.

Kohlschreiber is actually the favorite in this match and I think that’s mostly based on his past success on German grass. Based on match-up, this seems much more like a toss-up. Kohlschreiber might have the more complete game for grass, but the serve for Steve Johnson could be the great equalizer in this match. Guys who get into rhythm with big serves have given the German some problems this year and last.

It won’t surprise for Kohlschreiber to continue his glorious grass court record in Germany, but I think if Johnson shows the power and precision on serve that he displayed in the final two sets of round one – he can squeeze this out.

Prediction: Johnson wins in three sets

2017 Mercedes Cup Preview

MERCEDESCUP17

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.