2017 AEGON Championships Preview

AEGON17

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 Mutua Madrid Open R2 Preview: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs David Ferrer

JWTDFMMOPEN

This match-up isn’t what it used to be with both players no longer in their primes, but it’s a big spot for both as they look to gain momentum with the French Open in sight. Ferrer has had the better of Tsonga in their careers with three wins in four meetings, This second round clash is their first encounter since the 2013 French Open.

(10) Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs David Ferrer

As expected, Tsonga had his hands full in the opening round against qualifier Andrey Kuznetsov. The Russian forced him to a third set where Tsonga fought off a half dozen break points early, before clinching the match with a break in the 12th game of the final set. Tsonga was fairly stout on serve, taking 78 percent of his first serve points and a rock solid 62 percent off his second serve. He was not broken on seven chances against his serve. Kuznetsov was up to snuff for the most part, it really came down to the one key game in the third set.

Ferrer looked as if he’d be heading home early when he dropped the opening set to qualifier Mikhail Kukushkin and found himself down a break in set two at 3-1. The Spaniard would show some of his trademark grit however by pulling even with a break back to 3-3. He would ultimately take set two in a tiebreak and then edge Kukushkin 6-4 in the third as he made an opening break stand up. Ferrer did enough on serve, taking 74 percent of the first serve points and 56 percent off his second. He put himself into trouble far too often though with 14 break points against him, but Kukushkin only cashed in on three.

Ferrer Finding Form

It’s been a struggle for David Ferrer in 2017. He carried a five match losing skid to Estoril last week, four matches that were first-up losses at tournaments. In Portugal however, Ferrer was finally able to get a few results that went his way. He beat qualifier Federico Ferreira Silva in straights and then demolished Ryan Harrison 6-4, 6-0 before losing to eventual champion Pablo Carreno Busta in straights.

Admittedly, wins over Ferreira Silva and Harrison aren’t anything to write home about, but they ARE wins and that is what the Spaniard needed. The bigger win was coming back against Kukushkin. You could see some of that old school Ferrer. His willingness to grind, the willingness to fight back when you look down and out. Those are good signs and the best sign has been no sign of the Achilles injury that sidelined him in March.

So the question now is whether an aging Ferrer can still find his best form? He may no longer be a key contender, but even last year, he was still pulling in some quality results. He started the year by making the quarterfinals at the Australian Open and he was still consistent on clay. Ferrer made the round of 16 in Madrid and Rome and then the semifinals in Geneva. All that led him to Roland Garros in reasonable form and he put in a professional appearance with a run to the fourth round. There, he was destroyed by Tomas Berdych. Not a great ending, but at the age of 34 – not that poor all things considering.

Now at age 35, he has a chance to prove himself again. It starts against another 30-something in Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Is 2017 his demise as it seemed to be just a few weeks ago …. or is he surging back to respectability?

Both Players Need This Result

At this point in their careers, both Tsonga and Ferrer are in dire need of this win on Wednesday. Tsonga missed several months to witness the birth of his first child and he’s played just two matches now on clay, losing the first and barely surviving Kuznetsov on Monday. For Ferrer, health always seemed the biggest issue recently. Now that he appears fairly healthy, his game gets a chance to speak its piece.

The question many have is if his game is a solid, singular piece or shattered into smaller pieces of what was? There is no denying that Ferrer has lost some foot speed. He’s 35 and that’s simple aging. For a player who relies so heavily on his athletic ability to get to balls, that’s a tough thing to come to grips with and a tougher thing to find a solution around. Ferrer was never a guy who was going to out hit you, he was going to outwork you.

Now … his moments of outworking players are fewer. This however could be a spot where he can still attempt to do that. Tsonga too isn’t quite the player he once was, but the Frenchman still has plenty of power to spare and that’s where he’ll look to win this match.

Tactically Speaking

Tsonga’s game is predicated on a big serve that can control the points. He did that well against Kuznetsov and that match still came down to a pair of tiebreak sets and a very late break in the final set to avoid three breakers. That he was able to avoid a ton of break chances off his serve is a plus, but also something that could be tested more so by Ferrer, who is still a pretty good returner. Ferrer will need to find a way onto Tsonga’s serve if he’s going to get him to engage in the rallies where he can try to wear down the 10th seed.

Tsonga will want some shorter points, so aggressiveness should be a key part of his plan. That goes out the window though if Ferrer is able to work into Tsonga’s service games. If Ferrer is forcing Tsonga to expend a lot of energy and thought on second serves or fighting off break points, it will enhance the Spaniard’s chances to pull off the win. In the baseline exchanges, Ferrer should look to Tsonga’s backhand as the wing to exploit. Forehand to forehand exchanges will almost always favor the Frenchman.

The one thing Ferrer cannot do is allow as many break point opportunities as he did against Kukushkin. Double digit break opportunities will likely spell doom for the Spaniard.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

Tsonga hasn’t made a deep run in Madrid since 2013, while Ferrer has made it routine for get to at least the round of 16. 2009 was the last time that Ferrer failed to get out of the second round at the Mutua Madrid Open. I really thought coming into this week that the Spaniard might pull off an upset or two this week with some home cooking propelling him to his best form of the year. I won’t be surprised if Tsonga’s power is too much for Ferrer in the end, but the feeling here is the ultimate grinder does his thing and grinds the Frenchman down in three sets.

Prediction: Ferrer wins in three sets

2017 Mutua Madrid Open Preview

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Madrid Kicks Clay Court Swing Into Overdrive

The Mutua Madrid Open will again play home to the majority of the top players on tour not named Roger Federer. Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka and Rafael Nadal are the top four seeds this week. All but Wawrinka are multiple-time champions at this event, which dates back to when it was still held out hard courts prior to 2009. Top seed Andy Murray won it when it was a hard court back in 2008 and also on clay in 2015. Second seed Novak Djokovic is your defending champion and also won in 2011. Nadal is a four time champion with it as no shock that three of those titles have come since the conversion to clay.

Most of the chatter this week will likely focus on two things: Novak Djokovic’s decision to go scorched earth on his team this past week by firing all three members of Team Djokovic, and Nadal’s utter dominance on clay this season. To date, Rafa is 10-0 on clay, winning titles in both Monte Carlo and Barcelona. Nadal has easily been the second most consistent performer behind Federer with a 29-5 mark in all this season. He’s lost just once in his last 16 matches. He will once again be the heavy favorite to bring home the hardware this week.

Madrid also marks the time for top tier players to get their clay court games in high gear with most playing this week and at the Rome Masters next week as their final prep for the French Open. There are two tournaments between Rome and Roland Garros, but many of the top players traditionally take that time to rest abd prepare on their own. That makes this week fairly critical,especially for three of the four top seeds. Nadal is obviously tip top here, but Murray (4-2), Djokovic (2-1) and Wawrinka (1-1) are short on success and solid form on dirt in recent weeks. They all could use a boost of confidence with a good week.

Planting the Seeds

With this being a Masters 1000 event and one of those final preps for Roland Garros, it is a strong field as you would expect. Istanbul finalist Milos Raonic is in as the fifth seed with Kei Nishikori, Istanbul champ Marin Cilic and Dominic Thiem rounding out the top eight seeds. Nishikori will be the biggest concern of those four, having missed time after aggravating a wrist injury during practice for the Barcelona Open. That caused him to miss last week. He’ll be playing on clay for the first time since February when he made the Buenos Aires Open final and went 3-2 during that stretch. This has been a good tournament for Nishikori, so if healthy he will expect to do damage.

Of the remaning seeds in the top 16, David Goffin is your 9th seed. Goffin has a paltry 1-3 record in Madrid though and comes in off an earlier than expected exit in Barcelona as a three set loser to Karen Khachanov. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych and Grigor Dimitrov round out the top 12. None is in particularly peak form entering the week. The one to watch could be 13th seed Lucas Pouille. The Frenchman has been hot on clay, making the Monte Carlo semis and winning the Hungarian Open in late April.

Jack Sock, Gael Monfils and Nick Kyrgios fill out the rest of the seeded field. All have varying questions this week. Sock with what sort of form he has right now after now playing since the U.S. Clay Court Championships in early April. Monfils as usual with his fitness and injury status after playing just one match in the past two months, an upset loss to Hyeon Chung in Munich last week. Kyrgios meanwhile missed playing the Estoril Open last week to attend his grandfather’s funeral, so his mental state might be a bit of a question coming into this tournament.

Early Bird Specials

As always, we like to probe into the history of a tournament and look at how the seeds fare early on in Madrid. This hasn’t been a haven for upsets early on, but there have been at least two seeds down and out in their openers in each of the last four years. In both 2013 and 2014, four seeds were upset in their openers. It should also be noted that the top seed has been stunned twice in that span with Roger Federer suffering defeat in 2015 to Nick Kyrgios and Grigor Dimitrov knocking off Djokovic in his first match of the tournament in 2013. So who is most prone this week? Here’s The Pig’s take.

1. Andy Murray
Even though Murray will draw a favorable match-up against one of two wild card entries, his play lately dictates that he remains an upset candidate. Murray will see Guillermo Garcia-Lopez or Marius Copil. GGL does own one shock win over the Scot back in 2012 at one of Murray’s horror houses, Indian Wells. Murray has won the other three times comfortably. Copil has a big serve, but his game is better suited to a faster surface. As such, Murray should be able to work past his opener.

2. Novak Djokovic
With the Serb parting ways with his coaching team this week, a lot of eyes will be on Djokovic to see how he responds. Some have called the move desperate, while others see it like Djokovic called it, a necessary change. Either way, Djokovic starts his campaign in Madrid against one of two Spaniards – Nicolas Almagro or Tommy Robredo. He is 11-2 combined against the two. Robredo did stun Djokovic in 2014 on hard courts in Cincinnati, but both these Spanish veterans aren’t in great form.

3. Stan Wawrinka
Wawrinka is on this list because it’s not a Grand Slam and non-Grand Slam Stan is the proverbial box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get. He will open against either good friend Benoit Paire or Estoril champ Pablo Carreno Busta. PCB is the form player, but he’s 0-3 against the Swiss. Paire is 2-7 against his chum, but he’s taken a set off him in each of their last two meetings, one a victory in Marseilles, and in both career clay court meetings. Wawrinka has lost his opener in Madrid two of the last three years, so he’ll be on alert.

6. Kei Nishikori
I’ll put Nishikori on this list simply because of his last of play recently and the fact that he could match up against Albert Ramos-Vinolas in his opener. ARV plays Diego Schwartzman in round one. Ramos-Vinolas’ lone career win in four tries against Nishikori came on clay in Barcelona in 2013. ARV hasn’t had great luck in Madrid at 3-4, but this could be a tough spot for Nishikori with some possible rust and questions about his wrist still looming.

7. Marin Cilic
Cilic won his first clay court title since 2012, when he beat Milos Raonic on Sunday for the Istanblu title. He has a tough opening draw with either Fernando Verdasco or Alexander Zverev, the reigning Munich champion. Zverev was won two of three against the Croat and Verdasco is 5-7 against Cilic in their careers. Zverev would be the obvious tougher opponent, but either way, Cilic may have a short stay in Madrid.

10. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Tsonga’s return to tour after the birth of his first child was a short one in Monte Carlo, where he lost to a qualifier, Adrian Mannarino. He’s in a familiar spot here against qualifier Andrey Kuznetsov to start. The Russian is 0-2 against Tsonga, but he has taken a set off of him in both meetings. The last was on hard courts in Doha earlier this season. The first came in 2012 at Roland Garros. Tsonga hasn’t lost his opener in Madrid since 2010 and he may not drop this one, but don’t expect him to have an easy time.

12. Grigor Dimitrov
Dimitrov’s early season hot run has given way to a rash of poor results that have quickly turned him back into the disappointing player we’ve come to loathe. He’s lost four straight matches, which includes three straight first match losses at tournaments. Dimitrov opens with Philipp Kohlschreiber. The two have never met. Dimitrov is 7-4 in his career in Madrid with a first-up loss to Pablo Carreno Busta last year. Kohlschreiber hasn’t always won in Madrid, but he’s been competitive in losses. The German made a clay final in Marrakech, but he’s been fairly mediocre since that finals loss. Dimitrov is the definition of mediocre though if you can even call his current form that – so an upset is possible.

15. Gael Monfils
This one is so obvious, it feels dirty. Monfils has missed time due to problems with both his heel and knee. He didn’t look sharp at all in his return in Munich in the loss to Chung. Now, he faces Gilles Simon to start in Madrid. Simon has won six of eight head-to-head meetings, although Monfils broke a four match skid to Simon last year in Tokyo. Given Monfils’ fragility, Simon seems a stupid easy pick for a possible upset.

Outsider’s Edge

Unseeded players have made some noise here and there in Madrid in the last four years. Last year, two unseeded players made the quarterfinals. That marked the third time in the last four years that an unseeded player has made it that far. 2012 and 2013 both saw an unseeded player sneak in the semifinals, but that’s been the high water mark. The quarter headlined by Wawrinka and Cilic looks like the one where upheaval is very possible. Carreno Busta and Sascha Zverev have some realistic hopes in this quarter if they can get out of round one first. There are also a couple of intriguing Spaniards in the Djokovic quarter who might upset the apple cart. The previously mentioned Albert Ramos-Vinolas is one and David Ferrer could be an unlikely deep runner. He finally found a few wins in Estoril last week. They were not over impressive players, but if Kuznetsov takes down Tsonga, Ferrer’s path to a quarterfinal gets much easier.

Draw Preview

Quarter #1 Seeds
Andy Murray (1)
Dominic Thiem (8)
Grigor Dimitrob (12)
Lucas Pouille (13)

Breakdown
Murray’s half of this quarter has Pouille as the other seed. Pouille opens against Pierre Hugues-Herbert and then likely could see Borna Coric in round two. Coric battles Mischa Zverev in his opener. Coric has won the lone previous meeting against Pouille and it came on hard courts. For Murray, I do think he’ll at least make it past his opener. A showdown with Pouille for a quarterfinal slot would be interesting, but Murray is 4-0 against the Frenchman. Murray beat him earlier this year in Dubai, but clay might make for a tougher encounter.

In the bottom half, it’s Thiem and Dimitrov as the seeds. Thiem seems the obvious choice to not just snag the quarterfinal spot, but possibly to get out of this quarter altogether. The Austrian has been very good on clay this season and early in his career. It suits his baseline game to a T. He will have to contend with Adrian Mannarino or Jared Donaldson to start. Dimitrov as outlined earlier may be an early exit, which could open up the door for Thiem. Ivo Karlovic takes on Roberto Bautista Agut in an interesting round one clash with the winner to get Dimitrov or Kohlschreiber.

I won’t discount Murray here. He did lose to Thiem in Barcelona, but he had some chances in spite of his mediocre play. Pouille might need some help to get through here, but he’s got the confidence right now and the best form on arrival.

Quarter #2 Seeds
Stan Wawrinka (3)
Marin Cilic (7)
Tomas Berdych (11)
Jack Sock (14)

Breakdown
This is the quarter where I do see upset potential. Both Wawrinka and Cilic have difficult openers. I expect one or both could see the door early. A very good dirt rat first rounder in Wawrinka’s half is Thomaz Bellucci against Pablo Cuevas. The winner there could take some advantage if Wawrinka is less than his best. Sock and Berdych have favorable openers, even if both have not done much lately. Carreno Busta and Zverev are the unseeded players to watch here, with both capable of parlaying title runs last week into big weeks in Madrid.

Wawrinka could definitely run through this quarter if he finds some consistency early, but again non-Slam Stan is a tough guy to get a handle on. Don’t be stunned either if you see someone like Cuevas sneak into the quarterfinals if one of the higher seeds gets taken down early. In any case, I’m looking for unseeded glory out of this quarter.

Quarter #3 Seeds
Rafal Nadal (4)
Milos Raonic (5)
David Goffin (9)
Nick Kyrgios (16)

Breakdown
Nadal opens against Fabio Fognini, who beat Joao Sousa in early opening round action on Sunday. Since the Italian’s famous five set win over Nadal at the U.S. Open, Nadal has wiped the court with him in three straight. Fognini hasn’t taken a set in those three losses. Expect Nadal to get through with one tough set possibly. That earns him a spot in the round of 16 where Kyrgios is seeded to be there. Kyrgios opens with Marcos Baghdatis and then might face fellow Aussie Bernard Tomic in round two. Tomic faces Ryan Harrison in the opening round with both iffy on this surface, it’s a total toss-up. If Kyrgios gets rolling, he’s got that lightning game that could trouble Nadal some – even on clay. That would be a marvelous match-up for Madrid.

In the other half, Raonic has to regroup after losing in Istanbul on Sunday, but gets the benefit of a first round bye. He will face Tommy Haas or Gilles Muller to start. Those are winnable match-ups for the Canadian whose serve was blistering in Turkey last week. Goffin is the other seed in this half. He is waiting for Marcel Granollers or Florian Mayer. The Belgian should get through and that sets a possible Goffin-Raonic match-up. Raonic leads 2-1 in the head-to-head and their 2016 Wimbledon match-up was a highly competitive five setter. Clay will help give Goffin a chance.

I still won’t go against Nadal on clay, but there are some landmines here with the big hitting/serving duo of Kyrgios and Raonic possibly in the way. Rafa will earn whatever he gets.

Quarter #4 Seeds
Novak Djokovic (2)
Kei Nishikori (6)
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (10)
Gael Monfils (15)

Breakdown
They might as well put a huge question mark over this quarter of the draw. Each seed here has plenty to prove this week. Djokovic has to put behind the sacking of his coaching team, while Nishikori and Monfils are looking to prove their health. Tsonga may simply need to get some matches to shake off missing a lot of time recently. I do fancy Djokovic to at least get to the quarters in his half. Simon may again give him a tough time and that will be the one to watch if Simon can get past Monfils in round one. A fun first rounder here is American Ernesto Escobedo against Feliciano Lopez.

In the other half, Nishikori is the one to watch. if his wrist is not hindering him, the conditions here have played well to his talents. Nishikori is 14-5 in his career in Madrid with a finals trip in 2014. He’s made the quarterfinals or better in four straight seasons, including advancing to the semis in 2015 and 2016. If he’s not healthy then Tsonga or Ferrer could pounce on that other quarterfinal spot.

This is a week for Djokovic to prove a lot. He’s on his own, but perhaps that will help him clear his mind and figure some things out on his own. The Serb has to find a better serve though to be a major threat again. That will be the telling sign for him this week.

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

Nadal, Nadal or Nadal? That’s your choice here, but this is one of those weeks that he needs to be careful. His draw has those power players who can punish him with their serve, but Rafa has been so solid on this surface recently. If there is a slight “outsider” to watch for the finals mix, it could be Thiem. The Austrian may have to beat Andy Murray again to be in that mix, but he dominated Murray for parts of their last match-up. End of the week though, it’s Nadal, unless Novak Djokovic’s newfound coachless-ness leads him to some great epiphany that helps him get his game back on track.

2017 Monte Carlo Rolex Masters Preview

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Federer Skipping Monte Carlo, Nadal Back For More

The clay court season goes into full swing with the first Masters 1000 on the surface for 2017. The tournament will be missing arguably the best player on tour this season in Roger Federer. Fed is likely to skip all clay events until the French Open, something that was not entirely unexpected as he tries to protect his body from the lengthy season. Also MIA this week will be Kei Nishikori and Nick Kyrgios. Nishikori has only played Monte Carlo once in his career, so his exclusion is hardly surprising. Kyrgios decided to stay away this week to rest after a heavy schedule lately that included leading Australia into the Davis Cup semifinals.

While those names are missing, the big boys are back together this week with Andy Murray leading the field as the top seed. The Scot is a three-time semifinalist in Monte Carlo, including last year. He has never won this tournament. Second seed Novak Djokovic is a two time winner, one of two players to break up Rafael Nadal’s dynasty in Monte Carlo. Djokovic won in 2013 and 2015. Rafa has won this tournament an astounding nine times in the past 12 years, including the 2016 title. He’s in as the fourth seed. The other outsider who snuck in a championship was Stan Wawrinka in 2014. The Swiss is in the field this week as the third seed.

Rafa’s Playground

The Spaniard holds a marvelous 58-4 record in Monte Carlo all-time. He has the nine titles to his credit and he’s made ten finals in the last 12 years. Last year marked a return to the throne in Monte Carlo after missing out on a title win since 2012. Outside of Federer, Nadal has been producing the most consistent results of anyone on tour. He’s 19-5 this season with three of those losses to the Swiss Maestro. Rafa has made the final in three of the five tournaments he has played this season, but he’s yet to hoist a trophy above his head. That could change this week.

The list of contenders is short in most Masters events. Of the past 63, 56 have been won by Murray, Djokovic, Federer or Nadal. Only Wawrinka and this week’s 9th seed, Tomas Berdych, have even played the final in Monte Carlo. The rest of the seeds have yet to make significant dents at this tournament outside of a pair of semifinal runs by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in 2013 and 2016. Tsonga has had a solid year at 17-4, but has not played since Indian Wells due to the birth of his first child.

Early Bird Specials

The good news for the seeds is that in recent times, Monte Carlo has yielded few early upsets. Last year saw just two seeds lose their openers, but it was the massive shocker that stole the headlines with top seed Novak Djokovic stunned by Jiri Vesely. In the three years prior to 2016, a total of seven seeds have lost their first match. To put that under the microscope, that means that just eight players out of 64 in the last four years have been sent packing in their openers.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at what might be a short list of early upsets.

2, Novak Djokovic
Despite a 10-1 mark against his first opponent, Gilles Simon, Djokovic must be on this list. He skipped Miami due to elbow problems and the lingering concerns that his health, both physically and mentally, is less than 100 percent has to be factored into play. Anyone can see that something is not right with the Serb at this point in the season. Playing into the mental health angle here is last year’s loss to Vesely. It still ranks as a top ten all-time upset. Djokovic did win in Davis Cup play since sitting on Miami, but was reportedly still feeling some discomfort in his elbow. Having to grind out a win against someone like Simon isn’t normally a difficult ask for Djokovic, but these days, nothing appears easy for the Serb.

5. Marin Cilic
An easy inclusion on this list as the Croat continues to struggle this season at just 5-7 overall. He has lost his opener in four of seven tournaments he has played this season. Cilic will get the survivor of Borna Coric vs Jeremy Chardy. Chardy would be the tougher task with Cilic holding a 4-0 advantage over Coric, but standing at 2-2 against Chardy. This is Cilic’s first trip back to Monte Carlo since a 2015 quarterfinal run.

9. Tomas Berdych
Berdych did make the final in 2015 in Monte Carlo, but he followed that up by a first-up loss to Damir Dzumhur last year. In three of the last four years, Berdych has failed to win back-to-back matches at this tournament. He has played reasonably well this season at 13-6. He will face qualifier Andrey Kuznetsov. The Russian took him to a final set tiebreak in St.Petersburg in their lone meeting last year with Berdych edging out the win.

13. Pablo Carreno Busta
The lack of luck of the draw pits PCB against Fabio Fognini in round one. That’s rough. The plus for the Spaniard is that he’s 4-0 against the Italian with two clay court wins, including earlier this year in Sao Paulo. Fognini arrives this week after making the semifinals in Miami Monte Carlo has been hugely hit or miss for Fognini with a semifinal run in 2013, but a poor loss to Paolo Lorenzi in the opening round last year. You never know what you’ll get from Fognini and that’s what always makes him dangerous, even against someone who has beaten him four out of four times.

Draw Preview

Quarter #1 Seeds
Andy Murray (1)
Marin Cilic (5)
Tomas Berdych (9)
Albert Ramos Vinolas (15)

Breakdown
Murray will hope he’s had enough time to recover from a hugely disappointing loss to Vasek Pospisil in Indian Wells. I won’t expect a hangover as Indian Wells has been a Murray death trap lately. Monte Carlo has been better to him recently with his increased prowess on dirt. He made the semifinals last year for the third time in his career. This is definitely a winnable quarter for the world number one. He opens with Gilles Muller or Tommy Robredo. Robredo might be the bigger trouble on this surface with the Spaniard always at his best on this surface.

Ramos and Kohlschreiber look the likeliest to get in Murray’s way to a quarterfinal. Kohlschreiber might suffer from the old championship hangover though after a difficult loss to Borna Coric in the Grand Prix Hassan final in Marrakech on Sunday. Carlos Berlocq could pick the German off in round one. The bottom of the quarter looks open with struggler Marin Cilic as the lead seed along with Berdych. Berdych has a tough road if he survives Kuznetsov in round one, he would face Tommy Haas or Benoit Paire. Paire made a Challenger final on clay and then followed with a semifinal run in Marrakech. He’s 0-2 vs Berdych, but always capable of springing an upset if switched on.

Berdych and Haas had some legendary clashes back in the day on grass and clay (five setters at Wimbledon & Davis Cup). Haas finally got his first win of 2017 last week in Houston and showed decently against Jack Sock in a three set loss. Both could pose a risk to Berdych. Cilic gets Marrakech champ Coric or Jeremy Chardy and looks ripe for the upset. The bottom of his quarter definitely looks as if it could open up some. There’s usually a non-seed that sneaks into the quarterfinals in this tournament and it would not be shocking to see this part of the draw produce that opposite of Murray.

Quarter #2 Seeds
Stan Wawrinka (3)
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (7)
Lucas Pouille (11)
Pablo Cuevas (16)

Breakdown
Wawrinka is 19-8 in Monte Carlo and he has been a steady performer here since 2009. He won the title in 2014 and has made the quarters or better four more times in the span. His half of the quarter has only Cuevas as a seed to contend against. Wawrinka will open with either Mischa Zverev or Jiri Vesely. Vesely just beat Zverev in Marrakech in straights and did well to make the semifinals, where he lost to Coric. Wawrinka owns a win over Vesely in straight sets at the 2014 U.S. Open. but this could be tougher with Vesely playing well.

Cuevas opens against Viktor Troicki, who is 3-0 against the 16th seed in their careers. All three meetings have come on hard surfaces however. On clay, Cuevas is the better talent and has a title to his credit on the surface earlier this year in Brazil. Last year was Cuevas’ first main draw participating in Monte Carlo, where he went 1-1, losing a three setter to Milos Raonic in the second round. Troicki isn’t totally lost on clay as he did make the semifinals here back in 2011, but you’d expect Cuevas to find a way.

The bottom half features the two Frenchmen as the seeds with Tsonga and Pouille. Tsonga as mentioned will be returning to tour for the first time in more than a month. He will need to play well to beat either Adrian Mannarino or Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in his opener, but will be the obvious favorite to advance. Pouille got a needed win in Davis Cup play after being dumped out of both Indian Wells and Miami by Donald Young. Pouille’s best finish was making the round of 16 here last year. He opens with Ryan Harrison and then could have a tough time against Paolo Lorenzi or Marcel Granollers. Pouille has met Lorenzi once, a tough three set win in Bucharest last year. Both Lorenzi and Granollers can spring an upset on clay.

Tsonga has the pedigree at this tournament and the form earlier this year to be in the quarterfinal mix, if he can get off to a good start. Wawrinka might be a bit shaky early, but if he gets out of the first few rounds – he’ll have a legit shot to not just get through this quarter, but perhaps through this half of the draw and into the final.

Quarter #3 Seeds
Rafael Nadal (4)
Grigor Dimitrov (8)
Roberto Bautista Agut (12)
Alexander Zverev (14)

Breakdown
All eyes will be on Nadal this week. The defending champion has been playing well this season and will have his focus on dominating his surface. With Murray and Djokovic still showing vulnerabilities and Federer skipping out, Nadal is the main man. His domination here should give him the confidence necessary to come in with some swagger. He’ll play one of two Brits first, either Daniel Evans or Kyle Edmund. That should afford him to get off to a comfortable start. Zverev is the other seed in Rafa’s half and the obvious danger. Zverev starts with Andreas Seppi, so he’ll need to be steady to win. Survival there would see Zverev play either Feliciano Lopez or Daniil Medvedev for a likely shot at Nadal.

The other half of the quarter is led by Dimitrov and Bautista Agut as the seeds. Dimitrov has cooled a bit since a red hot start to the season, but should have a chance to do some damage with this draw. He’ll face qualifier Jan-Lennard Struff or wildcard Casper Ruud to start. That won’t be easy, but it’s a match he needs to win. RBA has made back-to-back round of 16 showings in Monte Carlo and could match that. He starts with Nikoloz Basilashvili. A win could set him up against Diego Schwartzman. The Argentine plays “Lost Boy” Bernard Tomic. Tomic is 2-6 this season and has a pretty harsh clay allergy at 17-31 during his ATP career. Schwartzman should win. Don’t be shocked if the Argentine pushes RBA to be his best or go home early.

Dimitrov has made the quarterfinals in Monte Carlo in 2013 and 2015. The odd-year could see him match that. The match of the quarter should be Nadal vs Zverev, if it comes to fruition. Their two meetings have been terribly entertaining with Rafa winning in five sets in Melbourne this year and somehow fighting off Zverev in Indian Wells last year when Sascha had the match on his racquet. Overall, you have to like Nadal in this quarter.

Quarter #4 Seeds
Novak Djokovic (2)
Dominic Thiem (6)
David Goffin (10)
Pablo Carreno Busta (13)

Breakdown
Djokovic’s potential injury woes make this quarter vert interesting. There is some great talent among the seeds with #10 David Goffin already through to round two after an easy win over Steve Darcis on Sunday. Djokovic is 28-8 in Monte Carlo, but the Vesely loss last year and his questionable health right now make him an iffy proposition to get through here. Certainly if he’s feeling more fit, then this gets more interesting. Either way, Djokovic has a difficult path to get out of this quarter. He has Simon to open and then likely Carreno Busta or Fognini to get to a quarterfinal. There, he could see Thiem or Goffin. Nothing easy on tap for the Serb.

As for the half with Thiem and Goffin, Thiem has a bit easier path due to the bye. He’ll get Federico Delbonis or Robin Haase to start. Thiem made the round of 16 last year in MC after a couple of first round flameouts. Clay suits him. Goffin will have the tougher time with either Martin Klizan or Nicolas Almagro next round. Almagro owns three wins over Goffin, although all were in 2012-2013. Their last clash was at Roland Garros in 2016 where the Belgian survived in five. Klizan and Almagro have split two meetings on clay and neither is in great form. Klizan did get through qualifying though, while Almagro will be searching for his first win since January when he takes the court. Edge Klizan.

If we get Thiem vs Goffin in the round of 16, it will be the 9th career meeting with Goffin ahead 5-3. Three career meetings on clay though have seen Thiem edge Goffin, 2-1. The winner there could well be the favorite to get through to the semis if Djokovic is still sputtering. Keep an eye on Carreno Busta here too. He’s kind of the forgotten guy of the seeds with all the big names, but he’s very good on this surface. I’d look to Thiem or Djokovic here though most likely with too many question marks around Djokovic to feel comfortable saying he should get it done.

Outsider’s Edge

Non-seeds traditionally are not big players in the business end in Monte Carlo. Fognini was the last unseeded player to make it as far as the semifinals here and that came in 2013. Since then, just unseeded players have made it as far as the quarterfinals. There are some players who could fit the bill of unseeded quarterfinalist this week. As highlighted above, look to Quarter #1 where Berdych and Cilic look vulnerable. Coric, Chardy and Paire could find their way with Coric as the in-form best shot to do so. It it happens elsewhere, it could be Fognini again. He’ll have to beat Carreno Busta just to get to round two and still might have Djokovic in his way to a quarterfinal. It’s Fabio though, so who knows. He could go home on the first day or make a run.

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

This is a statement week. Yes, there is still plenty of time before the French Open, but this is someone’s chance to stake claim to momentum as we hit the next six weeks to Roland Garros. Nadal looks the part of the favorite this week, especially without his 2017 road block, Roger Federer, to contend with in Monte Carlo. Certainly we shouldn’t discount Andy Murray or Novak Djokovic, but the latter has a lot of questions to answer before he can be considered a top tier contender this week.

Murray could set up nicely in his half to at least pop his cherry on making a final here, but could have Wawrinka as the major speed bump on his path. If there is a lower seed that could make noise this week, think new Daddy Tsonga or Dominic Thiem. In the end, I’ll be mainstream this week in thinking that Nadal can get on the board with his first title of 2017 and 10th in Monte Carlo.

2017 BNP Paribas Open Preview

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The Mini-Major

The first of this year’s nine Masters 1000 events kicks off this week in Indian Wells, California with the BNP Paribas Open. Indian Wells is often referred to as the “mini Major” due to its 96 played field, the largest of the season outside of the Grand Slam tournaments. It’s also traditionally the point in the season where the men start separating themselves from the boys. Right now, Andy Murray is still the main man at #1 and he comes in with the Dubai title in tow after last week’s exploits. It was a near perfect week as far as the Scot was concerned as he won the tournament for the first time and also saw his nearest foe, Novak Djokovic, get beat earlier-than-expected in Acapulco.

As such, Murray has a hefty cushion atop the ATP rankings with Djokovic set to defend champion’s points both at Indian Wells and Miami in March. It could be a chance for Murray to put a huge stranglehold on the top spot if Djokovic cannot rediscover his killer instinct. Murray’s closest competition after Djokovic is third ranked Stan Wawrinka who is over 6,000 points behind Murray for the top spot. A win this week for Murray coupled with any sort of loss for Djokovic should keep Murray primed to stay in the #1 seat for quite a while barring injury.

Djokovic Seeks History This Week

Novak Djokovic is back this year as the defending champ and he’s out for a slice of history. The Serb has won this event three years in a row and a fourth consecutive title would place him as the only player in the history of this 40 year tournament to accomplish that feat. Roger Federer was the last player to win Indian Wells three times in a row from 2004-2006. Last year, Djokovic defeated Milos Raonic for the title. Only Roger Federer has been equal to Djokovic’s accomplishment of three straight Indian Wells’ crowns. Djokovic already owns the all-time record for most titles at this event with five and is tied for most finals’ appearances with Federer at six.

Large Draw Means Top Tier Players

With the larger field of players, most of the big boys will be involved this week in California. One notable exception will be Milos Raonic, who announced his withdrawal from the tournament late on Monday due to a hamstring injury. Andy Murray tops the field and should arrive with confidence after taking the Dubai title. Murray hasn’t fared that well at Indian Wells though with just one trip to the final in 2009. He was a third round casualty last year against Federico Delbonis and has failed to get past the quarterfinals four of the last five years. He’ll certainly be out to change that in 2017.

Djokovic will be seeded second and hope that one of his best tournaments can be the catalyst for change. The Serb lost in the quarterfinals last week in Acapulco to Nick Kyrgios and has still been seemingly just a bit off his game. Indian Wells has been a pleasure ground for Djokovic through with a career mark of 47-6 here. He has won the title five times and you have to go back to 2010 to find him getting beaten before the semifinals. In fact, only in 2006 and 2010 has he failed to make it as far as the quarterfinals in his eleven trips here.

This week’s third seed, Stan Wawrinka, has had a devil of a time making a big run at this tournament. He is 17-9 all-time at the BNP Paribas Open with two quarterfinal trips as his best finishes. He has lost in the fourth round or earlier each of the last five years. The Stanimal was a disappointing early exit in Dubai. As usual, beware of “Non-Slam” Stan in this situation. Indian Wells may be a big-time tournament, but that hasn’t meant big time performances from Wawrinka who seems to save those still more exclusively for Grand Slams.

Kei Nishikori will look to steady an up and down beginning to his 2017 campaign in Indian Wells as the fourth seed. Nishikori has made two finals this year, but lost in the opening round in Acapulco his last time out. That was a bit predictable as he was making a quick turnaround from clay to hard courts in the span of just a couple of days. Nishikori is only 7-8 in his career at Indian Wells, but this year’s fifth seed did make his first quarterfinal at Indian Wells last year in his 8th trip out west.

Nadal Trends Big

Rafael Nadal’s surge back towards the top five gained more steam in Acapulco last week, but ended with a hugely disappointing finals loss to Sam Querrey. Rafa will still feel good about his progress this season, having made the final in two of three tournaments played. Indian Wells has always suited Nadal pretty well with a 48-9 mark overall. This week’s fifth seed has won here three times and made it to the quarterfinals at-minimum in ten of his 12 appearances. The slow conditions usually found at Indian Wells definitely play to Rafa’s strengths, so he’ll expect to make that 11 of 13 with another deep run this year.

Marin Cilic comes to Indian Wells as the 6th seed with a bit of momentum after making the Acapulco semifinals. That was the second straight tournament where he made the quarterfinals or better after going 1-3 in his first three tournaments of the season. The conditions here had not played well to Cilic’s game, but he did make the quarterfinals for the first time in 2016. That boosted his overall record at the tournament to 9-9. The Croat should still have a big red flag attached though as he has lost in the third round or earlier seven of nine times he has played at Indian Wells.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga brings a solid 17-3 record for the year to Indian Wells as the 7th seed, where he has had some modest success. The Frenchman has made the quarterfinals in two of his last three trips. He has lost his opener twice though in 2011 and 2014. Do the math there and you might not be that excited for JWT this week. Still, he’s healthy and playing well with two indoor titles in 2017. He’s also made the quarterfinals of each of the five tournaments he has played in so far this season.

Dominic Thiem (8) slides into Indian Wells with a good record at 14-6 this season. He won a title on clay in Rio and is 6-3 outdoors on hard courts this season. At 23, this will only be Thiem’s fourth excursion to Indian Wells. Last year’s fourth round showing was his best. He did lose his opener to James Duckworth in 2015. You would figure the slower conditions here to play well for Thiem, so it could just be a matter of experience and a good draw before the Austrian busts out with a big run.

Roger Federer returns to Indian Wells after a one year absence. Like Djokovic, Fed has enjoyed a mountain of success at this tournament with a 52-11 record and four titles. His worst recent finish was back in 2010, when he was dumped out in round three by Marcos Baghdatis. Since then, Federer has made the quarters or better each year since 2011 with three trips to the final. His last title however came in 2012.

Gael Monfils arrived at Indian Wells with some moderate success this season, but just nine matches under his belt. He’s 6-3, but was a disappointing to loser to eventual Dubai finalist Fernando Verdasco last week in the quarterfinals. Monfils had not had much success at the BNP Paribas Open until last year when he made the quarters. Prior to that, Monfils was just 3-7 during his career at Indian Wells. He’s been a first-up loser four times here and despite the productivity last year will be on the list of players who will need to be alert to upset possibilities in their openers.

Draw Preview

Quarter #1 Seeds
Andy Murray (1)
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (7)
David Goffin (11)
Roberto Bautista Agut (16)
Pablo Carreno Busta (21)
Albert Ramos-Vinolas (22)
Pablo Cuevas (27)
Feliciano Lopez (30)

Breakdown: Top Half
Murray could not have crafted a much nicer draw than this one in my opinion. His early draw should be largely uneventful with Yen-Hsun Lu, Frances Tiafoe and Feliciano Lopez as the main bumps to getting to the fourth round. Lopez has had a poor start to the season in singles and has been just average (12-14) at Indian Wells. He did make the quarterfinals in 2015, but was beaten routinely by Murray 6-3, 6-4. Bautista Agut and Carreno Busta would be the seeds in his way to a quarterfinal and would pose the more significant threats. Murray is 3-0 vs RBA however without dropping a set in those meetings. RBA has been a third round out the last two tries at this tournament, so he may not even get another shot.

Carreno Busta has continued well this season at 12-6 and the conditions in California could aid him a bit. This will be just his fourth trip to the BNP Paribas Open though with last year being the first time for him to win a main draw match at this tournament. His path looks nice with a qualifier or serve machine Reilly Opelka due up first. A tasty third round clash with RBA could be on deck with the two splitting a pair of meetings at this level. PCB won the last at Winston-Salem in 2016, while RBA outlasted him in five sets at the U.S. Open in 2015. RBA has either Juan Monaco or Adrian Mannarino standing in the way of that all-Spanish clash.

X-Factor: Frances Tiafoe
The young American will be the one to watch in this half. He debuted last year at Indian Wells and nearly took down David Goffin in round two, losing in a third set tiebreak. That’s been a bug-a-boo for the 19-year-old; finding a way to close out matches with wins. He’s often found himself in positions to win as he did last week against Juan Martin Del Potro in Acapulco, but he again fell in a third set breaker. Cast into Murray’s portion of the draw, the third round looks like his best finish here if everything falls correct. That would still be a fantastic result for him. Tiafoe needs to start finding the Ws instead of just being that guy that puts a scare into higher ranked players, but falters in the end.

Breakdown: Bottom Half
Tsonga and Goffin are the highest seeds in this part of the quarter with a lot in their paths to a potential quarterfinal showdown. Tsonga has been playing extremely solid tennis, looking healthy for the first time in a few years. He may not have an easy first match though with Fabio Fognini a probable opponent. The Italian opens against Konstantin Kravchuk. Fognini is hit or miss as usual, but he’s played Tsonga tough despite going 0-4 against him. I’d expect a Tsonga win, but it could be tight. Goffin also could be in for a tricky start with either Tommy Robredo or Karen Khachanov as his opener. Khachanov has been reminiscent of Tiafoe in that he usually plays higher ranked opponents tough, but has failed to convert wins with just a 2-8 mark this season.

Goffin also has some tough customers in his part of the quarter with Damir Dzumhur, Ryan Harrison and Ramos-Vinolas (22). The 26-year old Belgian will earn every win he gets, but Indian Wells was good to him last year with a semifinal run. He beat both Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic on that path. Tsonga has Cuevas as the only other seed near him en route to the quarters. Cuevas has only made it past round two once in four trips to Indian Wells, so likely won’t be a factor in blocking Tsonga. The other floaters in this section are Martin Klizan and Thiago Monteiro, who face off in round one.

Bottom Line
There seems to be little here to give cause to an unseeded uprising. Murray, Tsonga and Goffin are the class of this quarter and likely will show that in the end. If there is a bit of a mild shock in this quarter, my eyes still spy Carreno Busta as the guy who might be able to pull something off. The biggest question though figures tot be who plays opposite of Murray in the quarterfinals; Tsonga or Goffin? Tsonga got Goffin in Rotterdam to take a 4-2 head-to-head lead, but they’ve never faced off outdoors on a hard surface. It shouldn’t matter much with Murray a combined 19-2 against Goffin and Tsonga.

Quarter #2 Seeds
Stan Wawrinka (3)
Dominic Thiem (8)
Gael Monfils (10)
Tomas Berdych (13)
Ivo Karlovic (19)
John Isner (20)
Philipp Kohlschreiber (28)
Mischa Zverev (29)

Breakdown: Top Half
Alert! Alert! Alert! Non-Slam Stan is in the building. Karma could place Wawrinka into an immediate deja-vu setting as he faces either Robin Haase or Paolo Lorenzi to start his campaign. Haase comes off a solid week in Dubai, where he made the semifinals. Haase is 1-6 against Wawrinka, but the one win? You guessed it – it came at Indian Wells in 2015. There are plenty of other land mines in Wawrinka’s half if he survives that one. Berdych, Karlovic and Kohlschreiber are the seeds in that half and you also have two more dangermen in Alexandr Dolgopolov and Viktor Troicki floating around. The good thing for Wawrinka is Dolgopolov and Troicki square off in round one. Troicki is 2-0 in that match-up, but has lost his last four openers at Indian Wells. Dog is 10-6 at this tournament and made the semifinals in 2014. As always, he could lose early or make a big run – you just don’t ever know.

Berdych has done fairly well here with a 20-12 mark and a semifinal trip in 2013. He’s made the fourth round or better six of the last seven times he has played Indian Wells. Karlovic’s serve has rarely translated to wins here with a 10-11 career record that includes no trips past round two in his last four tries. Kohlschreiber is 13-10 carer-wise at the BNP Paribas Open with the fourth round as his best finish twice in 2009 and 2011. He hasn’t won successive matches here though since 2011 and has a couple first-up losses in the last five years. Facing Dolgopolov or Troicki might add to that tally.

Breakdown: Bottom Half
Thiem’s section in this half could be innocent enough. He may see Jeremy Chardy to open or a qualifier. Mischa Zverev would be the seed standing his way to a fourth round berth. Zverev has been bolstered by his Australian Open quarterfinal run, but he’s on a three match losing skid in ATP play since, four if you count a Davis Cup loss. His 2-5 record at Indian Wells won’t breed much confidence either. He opens against Joao Sousa or Diego Schwartzman. Both Sousa and Schwartzman only have one win each in their careers at this tournament. It’s a toss-up whether Mischa survives his opener in my eyes. Thiem should have little excuse not to have himself in position to play for a quarterfinal spot.

The other half sees Monfils as the lead seed with a rougher potential out in John Isner (20). Those two have split eight career meetings, but none have come since 2014. Isner has made the fourth round or better in four of his last five times visiting the desert. He hasn’t progressed past the fourth round however since a 2014 semifinal run. Monfils as previously laid out, made the quarters last year, but that was his lone good experience here. He failed to take advantage of some big losses last week in Dubai, but again has the look of a potential threat this week based on his draw. He gets a qualifier to start and then perhaps Isner in the third. Isner faces either Jordan Thompson or Dmitry Tursunov in his opener. Isner’s results in 2017 have been poor at 4-4, but he should at least get the shot at Monfils.

Bottom Line
This quarter also looks made for a seed to advance, but it could well be one with double digits next to his name. I’d favor Thiem of the top tier seeds to advance, but he’s no shoe-in to get there. Berdych could sneak through this quarter if someone does the business of taking out Wawrinka for him. The Stanimal has won six straight against the Berdman. If not, perhaps this is Thiem vs Monfils for a quarterfinal spot. Thiem is 2-0 against La Monf.

Quarter #3 Seeds
Kei Nishikori (4)
Marin Cilic (6)
Grigor Dimitrov (12)
Lucas Pouille (14)
Jack Sock (17)
Sam Querrey (23)
Gilles Muller (25)
Marcel Granollers (32)

Breakdown: Top Half
A tough task here for Cilic in this half with Dimitrov, Sock and Granollers as the other seeds. Cilic does arrive in better form and has the quarterfinal finish to build off from last year, but he’s still normally had some issues at Indian Wells (9-9). An opener against the survivor or Benoit Paire and Taylor Fritz won’t be easy. Cilic beat Paire earlier this season in Rotterdam to move to 3-1 against the Frenchman, but he’s been taken the distance each time they have played. Paire has only played IW three times, losing twice in his opener. Fritz seeks his first main draw win here. He lost a three setter to Tiafoe last year. The California native could be keyed up to get his season boosted with a win. If Cilic can avoid defeat early, then he could roll to the fourth round with only Granollers as a seed in his way. Nicolas Mahut or Malek Jaziri would face the Spaniard first.

The other section sees more difficulty to the seeds with Dimitrov and Sock having some real talent to contend with in order to advance. This has been a rough tournament for Dimitrov traditionally with the third round being his exit point as his best finish in five tries. He’ll have one of two Russians to open against, either Mikhail Youzhny or Daniil Medvedev. Medvedev is an uber-talented 21-year-old who already has made his first ATP final this season along with two quarterfinals. Expect him to be in position to push Dimitrov out the door if the Bulgarian can’t find his game here. Sock looks likely to play Borna Coric in his opener with the Croat getting a qualifier to open. Sock’s best finish at IW was the fourth round in 2015. Last year, he lost to Thiem in round three. He’s 1-1 vs Coric with that stinging defeat coming in Davis Cup play on home soil for the American.

X-Factors: Daniil Medvedev and Borna Coric
Pick your poison between these two. I think both will have their chances to score a scalp this week and advance to at least the third round. If both pull off that job, they could face each other there with a fourth round trip on the line. Medvedev has been the more consistent player, but he’s also got perhaps the tougher potential foe in Dimitrov. Still, the Russian has got game and is getting more and more experience against Top 20 players. A win isn’t that far off for him.

Breakdown: Bottom Half
Nishikori and Pouille are the lead seeds with the heavy serves of Querrey and Muller as the other two seeds in this section. Querrey of course is coming off a shocking, yet phenomenal title run in Acapulco. Querrey is 13-11 at IW, but has not made it as far as the fourth round since 2013. Muller has lost his first match here two of the last three times he’s visited. He could have a tough start with Jiri Vesely likely to face him. The Czech must beat Renzo Olivo to earn that spot. As for Nishikori, difficulty lies in round two with either Daniel Evans or Dustin Brown. Evans and Brown play for the second straight week after Evans dusted Brown in Dubai in straights. Evans and Nishikori have split two meetings with Nishikori winning in Davis Cup play in straight sets last year, while Evans stunned Nishikori at the U.S. Open in 2013. A good battle could be seen if that is indeed the match-up.

If Nishikori avoids an early loss, he should have a good chance to get in position for a quarterfinal berth. Muller is the only seed who could block him from the fourth round and Nishikori is 3-0 against the lumbering lefty. Pouille and Querrey are in the other section as the seeds with Pouille to open against a qualifier or Jan-Lennard Struff. Pouille has turned his season around with a final in Marseille and a semifinal last time out in Dubai. He’s short on experience with one match, a loss last year, as his only time at Indian Wells. Querrey will contend with Donald Young or Stefan Kozlov to start. Young has made the third round twice, but also has been a first-up casualty three times in five main draw appearances. Don’t sleep on Kozlov, although he’s just 3-8 in limited ATP appearances.

Bottom Line
There’s some room for upheaval in this quarter. Maybe not to the point of an unseeded player getting through, but there are a couple who could contend for a quarterfinal spot if all things fall well for them. Medvedev, Coric and perhaps even Paire if he can summon the off switch in his #FrenchBrain. Cilic could slide through here by verge of a more favorable draw. Nishikori-Pouille could be a very intriguing fourth round possibility. Nishikori has had adequate to regroup from the difficult loss in Buenos Aires to Dolgopolov in the final and subsequent lightning quick turnaround and loss in Rio’s opener to Thomaz Bellucci. I think if he wins early, he rolls late and gets through.

Quarter #4 Seeds
Novak Djokovic (2)
Rafael Nadal (5)
Roger Federer (9)
Nick Kyrgios (15)
Alexander Zverev (18)
Steve Johnson (24)
Fernando Verdasco (26)
Juan Martin Del Potro (31)

Breakdown: Top Half
Group of Death anyone? Holy Cow. Djokovic. Nadal. Federer. Respect the randomness of the draw because organizers certainly would rather see all three of those guys playing late in the tournament than fighting each other for one spot in the semifinals. On top of that, there’s also Kyrgios, Sascha Zverev, Dubai finalist Fernando Verdasco and Del Potro! This almost seems like a Trump-made draw, doesn’t it? We’re doing big things with this quarter, it’s going to be heavy on big names, names so big that they are going to bigly blow your mind. They have and this quarter rightfully should be labelled the “Group of Death.”

After getting our first #Fedal clash in about 14 months earlier this season in the Australian Open Final, could we get a second this week? It’s possible. Nadal and Federer are seeded here to meet in the fourth round. Rafa will have had time to shake off the Acapulco disappointment and an opener against Guillermo Garcia-Lopez or Guido Pella will do nicely. GGL and Pella have had trouble picking up wins, but both have had some success at Indian Wells. Pella made round three last year. They’ve split two career meetings, both coming on clay. Nadal is 3-1 vs GLL, but has never played Pella. Verdasco is the other seed in this section. He’s got Pierre-Hugues Herbert or Thomaz Bellucci first-up. ‘Nando has been good at Indian Wells with a 15-13 mark and has only lost his opener twice in 13 visits. Nadal-Verdasco is a distinct possibility with Rafa beating him their last meeting in 2016 at Indian Wells. Verdasco still owns all three of his career victories vs Rafa over the last five meetings. He is 3-15 against him overall.

Federer tries to put the Donskoy disappointment from Dubai in the rear-view this week as he opens against either Stephane Robert or Dudi Sela. That should be a relative cake walk for the Swiss. Round three would be a shade tougher with Steve Johnson, Kevin Anderson or a qualifier waiting. Fed has won comfortable against Johnson and Anderson in the past however. I think Federer will do his part to make #Fedal meeting #2 of 2017 possible. It’s up to Rafa as to whether or not he gets there. Verdasco being the biggest road block.

Breakdown: Bottom Half
Let’s start with poor Novak Djokovic, who just cannot escape the shadow of Del Potro. Yep. There he is again, looming as a third round hurdle for Djokovic with this draw. A win by the Serb over DelPo in Acapulcio won’t really ease his anxiety of that potential blockbuster as DelPo was in that match for the duration with chances to win. Djokovic more so will need to have recovered mentally from the laser show put on by Kyrgios who beat him in the next round in Acapulco. The 2nd seed should be afforded a good start with either Kyle Edmund or Gastao Elias in round two. A win there sets the stage for the Del Potro rematch if DelPo gets past either Federico Delbonis or Andrey Kuznetsov. Indian Wells has been great for DelPo over the years with a 17-6 record with two quarterfinal finishes, one semifinal and a final in 2013. Last year he had a tough draw with Berdych in the second round, where he lost in straight sets. He should best that by at least a round.

In the other section, young studs Nick Kyrgios and Alexander Zverev look to be on a collision course for a third round clash. Kyrgios played one of his best matches in years in beating Djokovic in Acapulco, only to falter against Querrey in the semifinals. He’ll need to reverse bad luck here early as he’s gone just 1-2 in three career matches at Indian Wells. His losses came to Dimitrov and Ramos-Vinolas. He will start against either Horacio Zeballos or a qualifier. You’d think that should net him a win. Zverev also looks like a good candidate for a winning start with Facundo Bagnis or a qualifier as his first foe. Sascha played well in his main draw debut here last year and really should have beaten Nadal in the fourth round. The Aussie won against Zverev at the Hopman Cup in 2016 in their lone meeting at this level.

Bottom Line
The only thing I think I know about this quarter is that the emerging semifinalist should be one helluva player. Given Djokovic’s still iffy form from match to match, it’s hard to see him surviving all the pitfalls here. Beat Del Potro, maybe you have Kyrgios or Zverev waiting. Beat them, you could have Rafa or Roger waiting. He’ll earn it if he can make it through. I just dont’ have the confidence in his game or mental state right now to pick him here. To me, the more logical choices would be Nadal or Del Potro. With all due respect to Federer, Nadal’s desire has been very apparent this season and all that is missing is a marquee win.

Rafa is 8-5 against Del Potro if that happens to land as the quarterfinal, but it was DelPo who won that grueling Olympic match last year. I don’t think Del Potro will quite be up for the task of beating several big name players this week, especially given the physicality that Djokovic would demand and then having to likely beat Kyrgios or Zverev and then Rafa or Roger. I’d trust Rafa more to make it through the obstacle course of Verdasco, Federer and then Del Potro or Djokovic. That’s my pick here, but really there are five or six guys who could definitely take this semifinal slot and not be considered a massive surprise.

Early Bird Specials

Indian Wells has been a slaughterhouse for seeds in their first matches the last few years. Dating back five years to 2012, at least nine seeds have been upset in their Indian Wells’ openers each year. Three of the last five years, the number of seeds going home early has been in double digits with a high of eleven in 2013. High seeds have not been immune to this trend either with a top ten seed falling in four of the last five years. Last year strayed from that path with 19th seeded Benoit Paire as the highest seed to go down in their opener. You can of course attribute plenty of this trend to the fact that all 32 seeds in the field see first round byes. That gives their second round opponents at least one round of on-court conditions in their favor. With the tricky winds that often prevail in this tournament, that can be a big boost for their unseeded foes.

Here are the players I see as being the most prone to upsets in their openers.

3. Stan Wawrinka
This is all predicated on Robin Haase beating Paolo Lorenzi in round one. Should the Italian get the job done, I think Stan will rest easier and probably have a smoother shot at winning his opener. If it’s Haase, it should be a tough match and potential big scalp for the Dutchman.

6. Marin Cilic
I put Cilic here really only if Paire advances to round two. I think Cilic could take care of the more one dimensional Taylor Fritz, but Paire has been a tough out for him.

12. Grigor Dimitrov
Medvedev will be the more likely guy to score the upset in round two. If Youzhny is there instead, I think that should play better in Dimitrov’s chances of avoiding an early loss.

17. Jack Sock
If it’s Borna Coric in round two, keep Sock on this list. If not, look for the American to be immune to an upset.

22. Albert Ramos-Vinolas
ARV has actually been pretty consistent on this slower court with two straight third round finishes. Still, Dzumhur or Harrison can give him a run. Both of those guys are playing confident tennis right now.

24. Steve Johnson
Stevie J got some needed momentum in Delray Beach and Acapulco with consecutive quarterfinal showings. A right foot injury in Acapulco could be troublesome though and bears watching. Johnson could face Kevin Anderson first-up which would be a bigger issue. Anderson has a 4-3 edge over Johnson, although the American has won the last two meetings. All have been exremely competitive.

27. Pablo Cuevas
Despite the slower conditions that you might think would aid Cuevas, this has not been his tournament. I think if Klizan get through round one, he’s got an opportunity to knock off the seeded player in that match-up.

28. Philipp Kohlschreiber
Getting the Dolgopolov-Troicki survivor as his opening opponent is going to be tough for the German. Kohlschreiber does have winning records against both however, so he may be able to avoid the upset bug.

29. Mischa Zverev
The feel-good story of the Australian Open is over. Zverev now must prove himself again every tournament and he has not done that since Melbourne. Sousa or Schwartzman have real upset potential in that second rounder.

30. Feliciano Lopez
Watch out if Tiafoe can put it together in round one and get through to meet Lopez. His free swinging style could bring the Spaniard down.

32. Marcel Granollers
At 2-5 on the season and just 2-6 for his career at Indian Wells, Granollers has to be looked at as a potential upset victim. He gets Mahut or Jaziri. He’s never lost to either in multiple career meetings, but both played him pretty close and can win on this surface.

Outsiders Edge

With the larger field, this definitely plays more like a “mini Major” and that isn’t good news for the unseeded players. Since 2012, just three unseeded players have made it as far as the quarterfinals. You have to go back to Juan Martin Del Potro in 2011 to see an unseeded player in the semifinals. That can be taken with a grain of salt as DelPo was a top tier player with a lower ranking due to one of his many injury layoffs.

If you climb into the way-back machine, you’d find the last unseeded player to reach the final in 2008. That was Mardy Fish. Honestly, It’s not a stretch to say it would be monumental to see an unseeded player in the semis or final this year. Only three have made it to the semifinals since 2006; Del Potro in 2011, Fish in 2008 and get out your Google search, Paradorn Srichaphan in 2006.

The more appropriate “Outsiders” to look over here might be the qualifiers to see how they fare. In 2016, qualifiers went 4-8 in round one action. None advanced to round three. They went 6-6 in R1 in 2015, but did see Michael Berrer advance to round three. In 2014, qualifiers went 3-9, but did see a young Dominic Thiem also push through to round three. 2013 was the most successful run for qualis in recent memory as they went 8-4 in round one with Ernests Gulbis advancing all the way through to round four before losing. 2012 was another poor year at 3-9 in round one matches for the qualifiers, but it did see Matthew Ebden make a surprising run to round four.

So are there any surprises lying in this year’s draw? Here are a few to monitor.

Damir Dzumhur
The Bosnian has a good track record against Top 10 players at 3-5 and heads to Indian Wells with his latest scalp from Dubai, where he beat Stan Wawrinka in the opening round. The 24-year-old also took a set off of Del Potro in Delray Beach. He is 5-5 in his career at Masters 1000 events, so the spotlight isn’t too bright for him. He has Ryan Harrison to open and then would go against Ramos-Vinolas. Goffin might be his end point in round three, but Dzumhur figures to be a tough out along the way.

Alexandr Dolgopolov
A hip injury might preclude him from doing much in California, but he’s played since then. He lost to Cilic in Acapulco, losing in three sets. He’ll have Viktor Troicki to open and then Kohlschreiber. If he gets past those two, he could see Stan Wawrinka in round three or he could have been done a favor by someone else. Berdych would be in the mix to prevent him from going to the quarterfinals, but Dog beat him last time they played in Cincinnati in 2015. He’ll need help, but you never know when the hot streaks come with the Dog.

Daniil Medvedev
The Russian has shown good promise this year with a couple quarterfinal finishes and an ATP final. He has to get past compatriot Mikhail Youzhny in round one to get to Dimitrov in round two. Although Dimitrov has only lost twice this season, Indian Wells hasn’t been his best site to play. That could open the door for Medvedev to make a bigger name for himself this week.

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

The draw looks more beneficial for Andy Murray than anyone. Depending on results, there is definitely an above-average chance to me that the world number one might not face a Top Ten player before the final. That’s a huge advantage if Murray is economical with his wins. Whoever gets through the bottom half of this draw is really going to have gone the extra mile barring some massive upsets. That’s not really where you want to be heading into a final against the fittest player on tour.