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 French Open Preview: Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka Quarters

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This is the first of two parts previewing the men’s fraw for this year’s French Open. I take a look at the top half of the draw here where questions abound surrounding world number one Andy Murray. 2015 French Open Champion Stan Wawrinka leads the second quarter and comes in on a hot streak after again winning he Geneva Open.

Quarter #1 Seeds
Andy Murray (1)
Kei Nishikori (8)
Alexander Zverev (9)
Tomas Berdych (13)
John Isner (21)
Pablo Cuevas (22)
Sam Querrey (27)
Juan Martin Del Potro (29)

Seed Report

A laundry list of questions surrounds most of the seeds in this quarter. Top seed Andy Murray has been thoroughly off his game for the last two months. Since the clay swing began, Murray is just 5-4 with three of those wins coming in Barcelona. He comes to Paris with a two match losing skid, dropping straight sets matches to Borna Coric in Madrid and to Fabio Fognini in Rome. The Scot has made the quarterfinals or better six of the last seven trips to Roland Garros, but seems in real jeopardy of not being around long in the second week – if he makes it that far.

Nishikori at least made it through the tournament in Lyon healthy, but lost to Mischa Zverev in the quarterfinals in a small shock. Health as always is the key with the #8 seed who has already missed time in 2017 with a recurring hip issue. Zverev is the seed with the fewest questions coming to Paris. He’s won two titles this Spring on clay, including a marvelous straight sets win in the title match over Novak Djokovic in Rome for his first Masters title. The only real question is whether or not this is his time to shine.

Berdych might be playing his best tennis this year after making the Lyon final and losing a tight match to Tsonga. He hasn’t been particularly poo this season at 22-9, just nothing very noteworthy as far as big results. A quarterfinal finish in Miami might have been his best before this week, but most of me still remembers how Roger Federer destroyed him in round three of the Australian Open. Isner and Cuevas both flashed enough this Spring that they will be threats in the right spots. Isner matched his best finish last year in Paris by making round four, while Cuevas is off back-to-back third round showings at the French Open.

Querrey also showed that his serve is still dangerous with tough three set losses to Stan Wawrinka (Geneva) and Dominic Thiem (Rome) in this clay court swing. He hasn’t been a factor recently in Paris though with two straight first round losses and only one trip as far as round three in ten trips to Roland Garros. Del Potro returns to the French Open for the first time since 2012. He has made the quarters once and semis once here, so the surface does mesh with his game. Rome showed both the good and bad from DelPo with wins over Grigor Dimitrov and Nishikori, but then a woeful performance against Djokovic in the semifinals. On top of that, he lost to Gastao Elias in Lyon, either lacking motivation or showing that he still needs to find another gear to be a legit threat.

Breakdown

The top half of this quarter looks tricky for Murray. He has Berdych, Del Potro and Isner as seeds to contend with if he’s going to make a deep run. He is 2-0 against his opening round opponent Andrey Kuznetsov. The Russian is dangerous on this surface though as evidenced by his Spring where he scored solid wins over Fognini and Albert Ramos-Vinolas. He also showed well in losses to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Stan Wawrinka. He can push Murray and potentially stun the top seed if Murray continues to struggle with his serve and confidence.

The survivor of Murray-Kuznetsov faces Martin Klizan or wild card Laurent Lokoli. Del Potro opens against fellow Argentine Guido Pella who can be a tough customer on any given day. The winner there sees either Nicolas Almagro or Marcos Baghdatis. Almagro could be dangerous if he recovered from a knee injury suffered in Rome. It’s only been a bit over a week, so the jury is out there. That should leave Del Potro as the major danger to Murray if he’s going to get as far as round four.

As for the other portion of the top half, Berdych and Isner are the seeds. There are some dangerous unseeded players in this part of the draw though, starting with Berdych’s opening round opponent. German Jan-Lennard Struff is that man. Sruff showed some chops on clay, but his best performance was on home soil in a three set loss to Sascha Zverev. Given Berdych’s surge this week, I think he can survive that one. The other danger man in this part of the draw is Russian Karen Khachanov.

The 21-year-old Russian struggles with consistency, but when he’s locked in, his big ground strokes can batter anyone. He scored wins over Davd Goffin and Cuevas in Barcelona to prove his mettle. He’s short on experience in Paris with this being his first trip into the main draw. He could make life tough for Berdych in round two. Isner starts with Jordan Thompson, which should afford the American a shot in round two against Paolo Lorenzi or Ricardas Berankis. If it comes down to Berdych-Isner to get to the fourth round, the Czech sports a 7-2 record against Isner.

The other half of this quarter features Nishikori and Alexander Zverev as the two lead seeds. Cuevas and Querrey are the other two seeds. Nishikori has only made it past round four once in Paris. That was a 2015 quarterfinal trip. His draw could give him a good opportunity to get into position for a quarterfinal run if his body holds up. He opens with Thanasi Kokkinakis, who is just getting back after a length injury layoff.

His toughest early test could be Jeremy Chardy in round two. Nishikori is 5-2 against the Frenchman though who may do well to beat Radu Albot in round one. Querrey could repeat his first round flops in this part of the draw with youngster Hyeon Chung as a real threat to the American in round one. The winner there plays either Ernest Escobedo or Denis Istomin and would fancy their chances to be in round three.

In Zverev’s part of this half, the German phenom was done no favors by getting Fernando Verdasco in the first round. They have split two meetings with Zverev taking a straight sets win in Madrid earlier this year, so that is a good omen for the 20-year-old. The winner gets Pierre-Hugues Herbert or Jared Donaldson. Cuevas is also in this part of the draw and he could be a sneaky pick even if Zverev is in his way. The 22nd seeded Uruguayan beat Zverev in Madrid in three sets. Zverev is going to be the sheik pick here with Nishikori and his injury history. If Cuevas is going to make some noise past round three, this might be his best shot.

Early Bird Specials (Upset Alert)

Kuznetsov over Murray
Chung over Querrey

The Pig’s Bottom Line

There’s plenty of reason to believe Murray could be in the quarterfinals and have a chance to escape this quarter, but there is also plenty of what we’ve seen lately that says he might not be there. That leaves this quarter up-in-the-air for me. I don’t think Del Potro has the match play and fitness quite at optimum level to be the surprise here. He could, but I think he’d need some help to get that far. This could also well be the moment that Sascha Zverev becomes a true breakout star by making his first Slam semifinal. He’s on a roll and even if he does have to go through Nishikori, I doubt many would expect him to lose right now. I’m going rogue here with some stupidity though and saying Berdych or Cuevas finnagles an unforseen spot in the semis.

Quarter #2 Seeds
Stan Wawrinka (3)
Marin Cilic (7)
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (12)
Gael Monfils (15)
Nick Kyrgios (18)
Richard Gasquet (24)
Fabio Fognini (28)
David Ferrer (30)

Seed Report

As was the case last year, Stan Wawrinka will arrive in Paris with a more positive frame of mind than he probably has had for the past two months. After floundering through the Spring swing in Europe on clay at 2-3, the Stanimal pushed his way into the Geneva Open final for a second straight year. He faces Mischa Zverev and will expect to defend his title successfully. As usual, when it’s a Grand Slam – you should expect the focus for the Swiss to be at its peak. Don’t be fooled by his floundering spring as he’s shown that he is a big match player who can turn it on and off at the snap of a finger.

Cilic has been in good form with a title on clay in Istanbul, but has an awkward first round match against Ernests Gulbis who has been out due to injury and has been borderline awful this year. Still, Gulbis is Gulbis – so you never know. Tsonga will arrive in Paris off a decent week in Lyon that saw him make the semifinals, where he lost to Berdych. He needed the matches this week more so than the results after missing months due to the birth of his first child. Tsonga should be eager to atone for last year’s third round exit via injury.

Speaking of injuries, Gael Monfils is this year’s 15th seed. We last saw him in Madrid losing a weird three set match to Gilles Simon that saw both players winning a bagel set. He starts with Dustin Brown, so at least there wil be a lot of flare in that match. Nick Kyrgios’ uneven loss to Nicolas Kicker in Lyon should throw up a red flag, especially with the Aussie going against veteran Philipp Kohlschreiber in his opener. NK has made round three at Roland Garros two straight years. Gasquet will be a crowd favorite, but the Frenchman arrives short on form with a 1-2 mark in the clay court build-up to Paris. The Gasman though is normally a fourth round fixture here, making that round in five of the last six trips.

Your two outsiders here among the seeds are Fognini and Ferrer. Fognini has shown again this Spring that he gets up for big name players with a tough three set loss to Nadal in Madrid and a straight sets dismantling of Murray in Rome. Around that? Losses to Carreno Busta, Kuznetsov, Zverev and Pella. The Italian was a first round loser in Paris last year and as always looks bust or boom. Ferrer showed some positive tennis recently by at least registering wins after suffering through a five match losing skid that stretched from January to April. He is a one-time finalist (2013) with a 43-14 mark at Roland Garros. The Spaniard has made the fourth round or further in six straight trips to the French Open, but may be hard pressed to make that seven based on form this season.

Breakdown

The top half of the quarter looks like it could set up well for Wawrinka. The other seeds here are Monfils, Fognini and Gasquet. All are capable of making runs, but all are also capable of being gone early. Wawrinka’s draw looks good for a relatively pain free run to the fourth round. His toughest match could be in round two against the winner of the Alexandr Dolgopolov-Carlos Berlocq encounter. Fognini is seeded to see Wawrinka in round three, but that first rounder against American Frances Tiafoe is tricky.

Tiafoe won two clay Challengers this Spring and could push the Italian hard in a baseline bash-fest. Gasquet and Monfils would be a far-too-obvious seeded clash in round three. La Monf is 7-6 against Gasquet and won their lone clay court clash in Barcelona in 2011. Gasquet though has won the last two meetings. Even though the Stanimal sometimes struggles with his focus, on the big stage you have to like him to be in position to get to the quarterfinals.

The bottom half of this quarter features familiar names among the seeds with Cilic, Tsonga, Kyrgios and Ferrer. Cilic should get through two rounds, though Gulbis in round one and potentially Federico Delbonis in round two won’t be easy. David Ferrer takes on Donald Young to start. Normally on clay, that’s bingo bango bongo, Ferrer easy. These days, it might take Ferrer a bit more work, but still expect the Spaniard to win.

Then, he could face fellow-Spaniard Feliciano Lopez in round two. The Flodonis is up against Bjorn Fratangelo who isn’t a pushover. Don’t be surprised if that is one of the more competitive first round matches. Lopez beat Fratangelo in Houston this Spring 7-5, 6-4. This looks like a good draw for Cilic to at least get to the fourth round.

Tsonga should be confident after finding some form in Lyon and taking home that title, but round two poses a test with either Kyle Edmund or Gastao Elias. That is the same Elias who stunned Del Potro in Lyon this past week and Edmund has the power to match Tsonga, although likely not the consistency. Kohlschreiber may not beat Kyrgios in round one, but he’s going to make the Aussie earn it. Kohlschreiber rarely goes down easy in Slams.

The winner of that match could see Kevin Anderson in round two. Anderson faces Malek Jaziri in his opener. All eyes will be on a potential Tsonga-Kyrgios clash in round three. It’s not a gimmer, but could be one of the matches of the tournament if both play at a high level. JWT beat Kyrgios in their lone meeting in Marseille earlier this year.

Early Bird Specials (Upset Alert)

Kohlschreiber over Kyrgios
Tiafoe over Fognini

The Pig’s Bottom Line

Wawrinka still looks the guy to beat here, especially with some added confidence in Geneva this past week. A healthy Monfils would be a major roadblock for the Swiss, but La Monf hasn’t proven fully fit this season. Be weary of him though if he shows something special early on. The two form players heading into the French Open will be Wawrinka and Tsonga who have titles in their back pockets from this past week. Tsonga does have a tougher draw with Kyrgios and Cilic potentially in his way. I think that should pave the way for Wawrinka to take advantage of whomever is left from the other portion of this quarter.

Follow me @tennispig on Twitter for match previews and more during the French Open. A preview of the other half of the men’s draw will be coming later today.

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

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The Dirt Road to Roland Garros Begins

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

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

Early Exodus For Top Seeds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unseeded Usurpers

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

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

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

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

Draw Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2017 Davis Cup QF Preview: Australia vs USA

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Australia vs USA
Surface: Outdoor Hard

Aussies Meet Americans Yet Again

Australia hosts the United States in quarterfinal action of the Davis Cup. This is the 47th time the two countries have met in Davis Cup play, the most times that any two countries have played against each other in the competition. Team USA holds a 26-20 edge all-time and beat the Aussies on the road last year in the World Group First Round. Australia is attempting to get back to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2015.

The Aussies advanced out of round one by defeating the Czech Republic 4-1. The Czechs played without Tomas Berdych which enabled Australia to roll through the first three rubbers to wrap up the tie. Jordan Thompson and Nick Kyrgios led the way in singles with Sam Groth and John Peers teaming up for the doubles win. The Aussies will roll out that same lineup for this weekend’s match-up.

Team USA ran past Switzerland 5-0 in first round action. The Americans also beat a weaker side with the Swiss lacking either of their power players with Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka not featuring. Jack Sock and John Isner led the way in singles with wins over Marco Chiudinelli and Henri Laaksonen. Sock teamed up with Steve Johnson for the doubles win that allowed Team USA to wrap up the tie on Saturday. Sock, Isner and Johnson will make the trip to Brisbane along with Sam Querrey.

Host Country Seeks to Avoid USA Losing Skid

Last year, the Aussies made the choice to go with grass as the surface when they hosted the Americans. The thought process was that it would give them an edge with Bernard Tomic having to lead the charge with Kyrgios not playing. The Aussies were left with Tomic and Groth in singles and had to put in recent retiree and new captain, Lleyton Hewitt, for doubles. Isner set the tone with a straight sets win in the opening rubber with Tomic taking down Sock in four sets in the second rubber. The Bryan Brothers delivered the key win in the doubles rubber as they outlasted a game effort from Hewitt and Peers in five sets. That allowed Sock to wrap up the tie with a four set win over Tomic that sent the United States into the quarterfinals.

This time around, Australia will have the services of Nick Kyrgios and they have chosen to go with an outdoor hard court as the surface. Kyrgios alone makes this Australia side much more dangerous than last year’s squad. The Aussies have won six of the last seven ties they have hosted dating back to 2012. The lone loss was last year’s USA win.

Singles Match-ups

Australia will send out Jordan Thompson and Nick Kyrgios in singles play, while the Americans will counter with Jack Sock and John Isner. Kyrgios arrives this weekend with the best form. NK is 14-4 on the season with a quarterfinal showing at Indian Wells, backed up with a semifinal run last week in Miami. Kyrgios is still a bit green in this competition with just a 5-3 mark in singles rubbers in Davis Cup play. He won his lone match this year against the Czechs. Thompson made his DC debut against the Czechs, winning one live rubber over Jiri Vesely and then following that up with another straight sets win in a dead rubber. This will be a much more stern test against the likes of Jack Sock and John Isner.

Sock seems to have taken well to being the new main man for Team USA, usurping Isner as the top singles player. He is now 4-2 in Davis Cup singles competition and arrives in Australia in solid form with a semifinal showing at Indian Wells and then a quarterfinal finish in Miami. Sock still has consistency problems against the top tier players, with losses to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in those last two tournaments. He does have a win over Kei Nishikori, but that lacks some shine with Nishikori also not consistently producing his best early this season. Isner looks the biggest question mark at just 6-4 this season. He is 4-1 in Davis Cup singles play from 2016-2017, but is just 12-10 overall in his career.

There is a wildcard in the mix for Team USA if Jim Courier chooses to use it; Sam Querrey. Why use Querrey over Isner? Querrey beat Kyrgios in Acapulco en route to a surprising title win over Rafael Nadal. He has cooled off since that run, but it remains an option for the Americans. Querrey has not played a live singles rubber in Davis Cup play however since helping lead the Americans to a win over Slovakia in the 2014 World Group Playoffs. I wouldn’t expect Querrey to start on Day One, but watch out for Courier to make the switch on Sunday depending on the reverse match-ups.

For now, it’s Sock and Isner for Team USA to start. Kyrgios and Sock will play for the first time in their careers in this tie, while Isner holds the narrow 2-1 edge over Kyrgios in their ATP meetings. Kyrgios did win the last time they played, last summer in Atlanta. Thompson, the 22-year-old Aussie, has never played Sock or Isner. That makes things tricky for the less experienced Aussie. Since his Davis Cup wins in January, Thompson is just 1-5 combined on the ATP and Challenger tours. There is little doubt that a Thompson win would be fairly stunning in this tie and a huge boost to the Aussies chances of advancing.

In the end, you have to tell it like it is. Kyrgios is the backbone of this Australian team right now and it’s likely that he will need to win two singles rubbers for the Australians to move on. The Americans will be okay with a split, but really should go for the juggular and a clean sweep on Friday. If they can put all the pressure on the Aussies to have to win elimination rubbers for the remainder of the weekend, they will like their chances to advance.

Doubles Could Swing Momentum

Doubles doesn’t often get the spotlight like singles, but in Davis Cup play, it is largely important to the chances of a country getting through to the next round. The Aussies are sure to go with Groth and Peers as their tandem. The duo have teamed up twice in the past two years for their country and have won both matches. It is unclear if the Americans will switch things up from the Sock-Johnson combo from the first round or not, but they will feel strong with that or perhaps subbing Querrey in to team with Johnson. Querrey was left on the bench against the Swiss earlier this year

Querrey teamed up with Johnson in 2015 to help the USA beat Uzbekistan in the World Group Playoffs, but that is his only doubles rubber to date in Davis Cup play. Querrey and Johnson are not playing regularly as doubles partners on tour this year as they were in 2016, so I would tend to think that Sock will be the man to partner with Johnson in doubles. Sock seems capable right now of playing all three days if needed in this tie, so Courier likely will not shy away from that strategy if he thinks it leads his squad to victory.

It’s a difficult choice of who will win between Groth-Peers and Sock-Johnson, if that is indeed the match-up. All four have played plenty of doubles and had plenty of success. The X-factor to me is Groth. Although he possesses one of the biggest serves on tour, its consistency runs hot and cold. When Groth finds a rhythm on serve, he gets locked in with all aspects of his game. When he’s struggling though, it often carries over into his volley and ground games. That can be a major issue in doubles where Peers has great net skills, but isn’t an elite server. If Groth struggles, then the Aussies likely will have a tough time holding serve consistently.

Sock and Johnson have “plus” serves, but also do have their moments of struggle. They are fewer than Groth and Peers and that could make a big difference in this match-up.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

The concern for Australia will be whether Thompson can be competitive enough in singles to grab a win. Australia can win this tie without him winning, but that puts the pressure on Groth and Peers to come through in doubles to give them the best chance. For Team USA, there seems to be more wiggle room/scenarios for them to secure a win. The only thing that could really hurt them is getting beat twice on Friday. That would leave them having to win doubles and get a win over Kyrgios to come back from 0-2.

As long as the Americans don’t drop a singles rubber to Thompson, they should be in position to get out of Australia with another win – even if Kyrgios wins two rubbers.

Prediction: USA wins 3-2

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.