2018 ASB Classic Preview

ASB18PREVIEW

Sock It to Me

Defending champion Jack Sock is this year’s top seed as the American brings a record of 10-2 all-time at the ASB Classic. Sock has made the final in two straight seasons and never finished worse than the quarterfinals. He comes to Auckland off of Hopman Cup play, where he had a brief scare when he injured his hip in his second match against Yuichi Sugita. Sock would come back to finish play in the next round, losing a tight 7-6 (5), 7-5 match against Roger Federer – so all appears good on the health front. Sock’s lone win came in the opening round against Karen Khachanov, whom he beat in three sets.

Sock will find this year’s field a bigger test than last year, where his championship run included zero wins over players inside the Top 30. This year’s field is packed with potential and looks much stronger from top to bottom than 2017’s field. Behind Sock in the seeded pool are Juan Martin Del Potro, Sam Querrey, John Isner, Roberto Bautista Agut, Pablo Cuevas, David Ferrer and Andrey Rublev. Rublev is the lone seed without any experience at this tournament, but he comes in off a big run in Doha, where he made the final before losing to Gael Monfils.

Del Potro, Isner and Ferrer all bring championship pedigrees to the event, although each will be making their debut for 2018 this week and could be somewhat rusty. Del Potro has not played in Auckland since winning the title in 2009. Isner has a good track record here with titles in 2010 and 2014 and a 14-4 record overall. His last two trips to the ASB Classic have ended early though with losses in the quarters the last two years. Ferrer once ruled this tournament with three straight titles from 2011-2013 to go along with another in 2007. Since his last title run, the Spaniard has made the semifinals twice, but lost his opener last year to Robin Haase. Fifth seed Roberto Bautista Agut has also won the title in Auckland, his run came in 2016.

Dangerous Floaters

The depth of the unseeded players in this tournament is what should make this week fun and interesting for the fans. Brisbane finalist Ryan Harrison is in the field and battles fellow American Steve Johnson in round one. Other solid first round matches involving unseeded players includes Hyeon Chung and Kyle Edmund – if the Brit’s ankle is recovered from a nasty fall in Brisbane. Karen Khachanov and Yuichi Sugita will go head-to-head in the opening round in what could be a very competitive match. Then you have other floaters like Donald Young, Denis Shapovalov, Guido Pella and Robin Haase who all could cause some trouble.

Unseeded players have a strong recent history in Auckland with an unseeded player making the final each of the last four years. In 2015, Jiri Vesely won the title as a qualifier. He is back in this year’s field as well. Vesely made the quarterfinals last year after being ousted in his opener in 2016. He matches against qualifier Radu Albot to open. A win would give Vesely a shot at (3) Sam Querrey in round two. Donald Young would probably relish another shot at David Ferrer, something he could get with a win in round one over Joao Sousa. Ferrer would also need to beat 18-year-old Chinese wild card Yibing Wu, but a Ferrer-Young match-up looks like a definite possibility. Young took Ferrer to the edge at the French Open last year, losing a heart breaker 13-11 in the fifth set. The lefty also took Ferrer to three sets in losing in Auckland in 2014.

ELIMINATI

There have been multiple seeded losers in their first matches in Auckland over the last four years. The two seed has seen more trouble in that span, losing twice in 2014 and 2015. Last year, it was the third seed (Ferrer) who got bit early last year. So who might in peril early this week? Let’s take a look at the Eliminati who could produce those magical moments and douse the hopes of a seeded player.

Stefano Tsitsipas
The Greek wildcard gets a chance to impose the championship hangover on (8) Andrey Rublev, who lost in the Qatar Open final on Saturday to Gael Monfils in straight sets. Tsitsipas played pretty well in his own right in Doha, beating Richard Gasquet as he made it out of qualifying and through to the quarterfinals. He will have had the better travel turnaround and time to adapt and that should make it tough on the Russian. I think a very real shot that Rublev could go down in a solid match between two young studs.

Guido Pella
The lefty from Argentina gets another shot at (6) Pablo Cuevas. Cuevas has only played in Auckland once and lost his lone match here. The match will mark their third at the ATP level with Pella winning on hard court at Indian Wells in 2016 and Cuevas winning on clay in Rio that same year. Pella already got off to a solid start with a quarterfinal run in Doha, losing in a third set tie break to Andrey Rublev. The only slight drawback is that Pella has never played Auckland, but with match play already in his pocket and Cuevas starting cold – Pella has a great chance to score the win,

Jiri Vesely/Radu Albot
The winner of this first round match gets a shot at (3) Sam Querrey. Querrey will be making his 2018 debut this week in Auckland. That’s a good chance for a player like Vesely or a qualifier with match play and wins under their belt to stun a rusty player. Querrey did make the final in Auckland in 2009 with a 7-5 all-time record in this tournament. The American has struggled the last three years however in pre-Australian Open tournaments, going 1-4. The one win was via retirement in 2016 in Auckland against Aljaz Bedene. There’s definite upset potential in this one, although Vesely rates as the much better shot for me.

Denis Shapovalov/Rogerio Dutra Sliva
Another situation where a tough opponent will get a player making their 2018 debut. Here it will be (2) Juan Martin Del Potro. DelPo did win this tournament in his lone entry here back in 2009, but he’s playing this part of the season for the first time since 2015 due to injury. In 2015, he made the quarterfinals in Sydney before losing to Mikhail Kukushkin. It’s a bit surprising that he’s not in Sydney this week, but the field in Auckland provides him with a better test run for Melbourne.

Shapovalov is the danger here as he showed last year at the Rogers Cup, when he beat Del Potro 6-3, 7-6 (4). El Shapo started his season in Brisbane last week, losing his opener in a tough three setter to Kyle Edmund 6-7 (5), 7-6 (4), 6-4. The extra prep and confidence of beating DelPo before gives him a boost and a chance to do it again. I’d rate Dutra Sliva a much more muted threat, but if he beats Shapovalov, who knows?!

Draw Preview

*Career record in Auckland in parenthesis*

Quarter #1 Seeds
(1) Jack Sock: 10-2 (2017 – W)
(8) Andrey Rublev: 0-0

Breakdown
Sock can’t be mad at this draw with a potentially tired Rublev as the biggest threat. After a first round bye, Sock will face the winner from qualifier Tim Smyczek and Peter Gojowczyk. That should be an interesting round one match with the American qualifier having match play in conditions under his belt, while Gojo got off to a good start with a quarterfinal run in Doha. Although Smyczek has some wins over Sock, they all came three or more years ago when Sock was still developing.

As for Rublev, his biggest competitor this week could be his body. He’s got the quick turnaround from losing the final in Doha on Saturday to contend with first. Then, he’s got a talented wild card in Tsitsipas as his second issue. Rublev does own a win over the Greek last year on the Challenger circuit indoors. It ended in a tie break, so there wasn’t a ton to separate the two. Both have similar big ground strokes when in rhythm with Rublev better off both wings. The serve will be the key as both can dominate, but lack consistency at times.

The survivor between Rublev-Tsitsipas will have a tough match in the round of 16 against either Robin Haase or qualifier Casper Ruud. The bottom of the draw looks like it has plenty of room for some upsets, while I do fancy Sock to be in position in the quarterfinals to have a shot at advancing again. I think his comfort level here makes a difference. Keep an eye on Haase though, he’s played Sock tough in three career matches despite not scoring a win. He could be a dark horse.

Quarter #2 Seeds
(3) Sam Querrey: 7-5
(5) Roberto Bautista Agut: 8-2 (2016 – W)

Breakdown
Bautista Agut looks the smart choice in this quarter. He opens with wild card Michael Venus, who plays singles very sparingly these days. Venus has become a big player in doubles over the last few seasons, but will have the crowd support in his home country. He has a big serve, but you would expect the overall consistent play of RBA to win out. Bautista Agut would then face the winner of the all-American match between Johnson and Harrison. He’s 6-1 against them combined with the only loss coming via retirement against Harrison.

The other half looks open for upsets potentially with Querrey starting cold in Auckland this week. That could leave him prone to an upset in his opener against either Vesely or Albot. As I outlined in The Eliminati segment, Querrey has had issues getting going in these early season tournaments. That leaves the door open for someone like Vesely who has past success to at least get his way through to the quarters.

If it comes down to Bautista Agut and Vesely, that’s another favorable match-up for the Spaiard (3-0) as he looks like the pick to click.

Quarter #3 Seeds
(4) John Isner: 14-4 (2010, 2014 – W)
(7) David Ferrer: 28-6 (2007, 2011, 2012, 2013 – W)

Breakdown
Plenty of championship experience with the seeds in this quarter, but also the quarter perhaps most loaded with unseeded talent. Isner has a bye and then gets the winner between Chung and Edmund. Chung has been unable to solve the American’s big serve in two career meetings, so I’d look for Edmund to be the bigger threat. The big question with Edmund is how healthy his ankle will be. The Brit said after spraining the ankle against Grigor Dimitrov in Brisbane that it would be normal within a week. The question is whether he wants to push it or not against Chung, a match that will be taking place just four days after the original injury. Edmund is 1-1 against Isner, but with the question surrounding his ankle – Isner gets the edge in his half of the quarter.

Ferrer will turn 36 in April and is looking to defy time for another season. He’s fallen to 37 in the rankings and comes off a mediocre 24-21 season in 2017. The Spaniard has admitted he’s slowed a step and had to adjust his game to playing a bit more aggressively, rather than relying more on his defense and fitness. He opens against Wu in round one and you would think he has too much veteran savvy for the 18-year-old or he’ll age a bit more with a shock loss. A win sets Ferrer up against either Donald Young or Joao Sousa. Both will be tough outs. Young is the one I think you need to monitor here as far as unseeded possibilities.

If Isner’s serve is humming and Edmund isn’t in the mix, the big man looks like the better bet of the seeds to me. If Young can spring an upset, he’ll have a shot to go further. He beat Isner in their last meeting which came indoors in Memphis last season.

Quarter #4 Seeds
(2) Juan Martin Del Potro: 4-1 (2009 -W)
(6) Pablo Cuevas: 0-1

Breakdown
This might be the quarter where everything gets thrown upside down. Del Potro certainly is the talent here, but coming in without a match, he’s going to have to find a rhythm just like anyone else. Having a bye and then possibly Shapovalov makes things tougher. If he can survive that match, then you have to like his chances of making a deep run. The big plus for Del Potro is he is entering a season healthy for the first time in years. That should be a big boost mentally to help him start the season, but he’ll need wins to back that up.

The other half features Cuevas and I would be stunned if he was around for long. Cuevas has long struggled outdoors on hard courts, going 3-7 last year on the surface. All three wins came in one tournament at Indian Wells. He as just 7-10 on hard courts outdoors in 2016. If he survives Pella in round one, I think Sugita or Khachanov will get him in round two. Both come in off prep at the Hopman Cup, where Khachanov beat Sugita 6-4, 6-2. That avenged a loss in Cincinnati last summer, where Sugita won in three. It is always tough to play the same person two straight weeks, so it will be interesting to see if Sugita can reverse last week’s result in Perth.

Pella could be the sneaky runner in this quarter if he gets off with a win over Cuevas. Don’t discount the Sugita-Khachanov winner either. Del Potro has comfortable numbers against most players in this draw, so if he does get off on the good foot – do expect to see him in the semifinal mix.

The Pig-nosticator

Here’s the weekly look at the players I like to run hot and cold. As always, if anything strikes you as useful in this preview, I’d appreciate anything you see fit in The Tip Jar.

Sizzle
Roberto Bautista Agut
Guido Pella

Fizzle
Sam Querrey
Pablo Cuevas

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

It’s an interesting clash with Sock having so much success here, but the number one seed not making the final in Auckland since Ferrer won the title in 2013. If things fall right, we could see Sock and Bautista Agut go head-to-head in the semifinals. That would be the third time they’ve met in Auckland with RBA beating Sock the previous times. That is the match-up I like in the top half of the draw, but the bottom half should yield some surprises. If the non-seeds continue their assault on the final in Auckland, I feel like someone from the group of Young, Sugita, Khachanov or perhaps Pella.

Bottom line – I still think this tournament goes to a seed at the end of the week and Bautista Agut is the guy I am looking at just ahead of Sock. I do think Del Potro could be in the mix, but I feel like the land mines in that quarter will make it tougher on the Argentine.

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2017 Rolex Paris Masters Preview

PARIS17

Federer Withdrawal Effectively Ends Chase For #1

Shortly after winning the Swiss Indoors Basel for the 8th time on Sunday, Roger Federer announced that he would be skipping the Rolex Paris Masters to recover for the year-end ATP World Tour Finals. It was a long shot for Federer to overtake Rafael Nadal for the top spot in the rankings, but now it’s just about a dona deal. Nadal will need just one win in Paris this week to clinch the year-end number one ranking. What should be bigger for Nadal however is a chance to win this event for the first time ever. That’s right – Nadal has never won this event in his career. His best finish was making the final in 2007, where he lost to David Nalbandian. Since then, he’s made just four trips to Paris with two quarterfinal and two semifinal finishes. He enters this week as the top seed with something prove perhaps in a season where he’s done that over and over.

With Federer out, the next seed in the field is Marin Cilic who takes the #3 slot. Cilic made the semifinals here last year, his best finish in Paris. He’s just 9-8 overall in his career at this event. Coming in at number four is Alexander Zverev, who will make his Rolex Paris Masters debut. The rest of the top eight seeds includes Dominic Thiem (5), Grigor Dimitrov, David Goffin and Pablo Carreno Busta. None of those players has been past the round of 16 in Paris in the past. Of the rest if the seeded field, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (11) has the best history here as the title winner in 2008. Juan Martin Del Potro is the 13th seed with the next best record at 7-5. He’s made the quarterfinals twice in 2009 and 2013.

Lucas Pouille slides into the ghost seed spot at #17 due to the Federer withdrawal and takes over Federer’s spot in the draw. That should be good news for the Vienna Open champion, who will get the benefit of a better draw. Pouille won the all-French final in Vienna on Sunday, pounding Tsonga 6-1, 6-4 to claim his third title of the season. He’ll have some expectation on him with that outing and getting slotted into Federer’s spot. Defending champion Andy Murray will of course not be defending the title due to ending his season early this year due to injury. It will be on Nadal to continue the dominance of the Big Four by himself this year. Murray and Djokovic are responsible for the last four titles in Paris with Djokovic taking three of those from 2013-20-15. David Ferrer was the last non-Big Four member to win the Paris title back in 2012.

Early Bird Specials

Upsets have been regular among the seeds taking part in their opening matches in Paris. Over the last five years, at least three seeds have been dropped in their openers in four of five years. Last year saw four seeds lose early and while it’s been the lower seeds normally who are most prone, Paris has seen some exceptions to that pattern. Most famously, Novak Djokovic was stunned as the second seed in 2012 by Sam Querrey. Last year saw qualifier Jan-Lennard Struff craft another big upset when he took down third seed Stan Wawrinka.

So who could follow suit this year? Let’s have a look.

3. Marin Cilic
The scheduling Gods may pit Cilic and Borna Coric against each other again. Coric takes on fellow qualifier Jan-Lennard Struff. Struff already has that scalp of Wawrinka under his belt, so he should not be taken lightly. Coric has taken a set off of Cilic in each of the three losses he has suffered at the hands of Cilic this season. He’s getting closer and perhaps playing him two weeks in a row could help him have his best chance.

4. Alexander Zverev
Sascha is that high seed who could find trouble this week. Zverev waits for the winner between Steve Johnson and Robin Haase. Johnson beat Zverev in their lone career meeting last year at Indian Wells. Zverev is 2-0 against Haase, but the Dutchman took him five sets at this year’s Australian Open. With Sascha having no experience at this tournament, it could be an opportunity for Haase or Johnson to stun the German.

6. Grigor Dimitrov
Dimitrov gets one of two Frenchmen to open, either Richard Gasquet or Benoit Paire. Gasquet had been tough on Dimitrov until recent times with the Bulgarian winning the last two in their series. Gasquet still leads the h2h 5-2 overall. Paire owns two wins in three tries against Dimitrov and has taken a set off of him each time they’ve met. They have not played since Paire beat Dimitrov in Tokyo in 2015. Either way, I expect Dimitrov to have a tough time in his opener and this has never been a great tournament for him.

7. David Goffin
This is another match-up based alert with Goffin in good form after running to the Basel semifinals this past week. His first match in Paris with be against “Mr.Paris” David Ferrer or Adrian Mannarino. Ferrer has surprisingly found himself with great results at this tournament. The Spaniard is 21-11 all-time in Paris with one title. He did lose his opener last year to Isner, but otherwise has finished in the quarters or better in five of his last six trips. He also holds a 2-0 edge over Goffin in their careers. The Belgian would much prefer Mannarino who he is 3-0 against all-time.

8. Pablo Carreno Busta
The 2017 U.S. Open semifinalist has found things have not gone his way since that career best achievement. PCB is just 1-4 since the U.S. Open final. He’ll battle either Vasek Pospisil or Nicolas Mahut in his opener. Pospisil and Mahut have not been in good form, but both are capable or springing the upset. PCB beat Mahut in straights at the U.S. Open, but Mahut is better in these controlled indoor conditions. Exepct a tussle for PCB, but I’d put him on the lower side of the upset scale due to the poor form of his prospective opponents.

9. John Isner
Isner faces Diego Schwartzman or Viktor Troicki. He’d probably rather avoid Troicki who is 5-3 against the American, including a win against him recently in Shanghai. Isner did surprisingly make the final here in Paris last year, but as usual his style makes him prone to losing tight matches. We saw that against Philipp Kohlschreiber last week in Vienna.

11. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Tsonga is on this list because he’s in the dreaded Championship Match hangover mode after losing to Pouille in Vienna on Sunday. Often, runners-up have trouble recovering in their next tournaments with plenty of losses in their first or second matches. Tsonga opens against either Denis Shapovalov or Julien Benneteau. El Shapo has not been able to follow up his summer success late in the season with just one win in his last four matches since the U.S. Open. Benneteau might be the tougher up. He’s 4-6 against Tsonga, but lost in straights to him in Antwerp. Tsonga should probably get through his first match, but he’s worth monitoring.

12. Kevin Anderson
Anderson is just 3-4 since losing the U.S. Open final, so he’s definitely going on this list. He starts with the winner between Fernando Verdasco and Andrey Rublev. Both came definitely rattle the big man’s cage and cause an upset. Verdasco pulled out from Basel last week, but I have not found anything that says he isn’t 100 percent ready to go this week. He’s 4-3 against Anderson, including 2-1 this season with one of those wins coming indoors in Stockholm recently. Rublev lost a four setter to Anderson back in 2015 at the U.S. Open in their lone meeting. The Russian does own one career win against Verdasco on clay, but comes in with losses in four of his last five matches. I’d rate Verdasco the bigger threat.

13. Juan Martin Del Potro
Although his match-up will favor the Argentine, two long weeks of tennis will not. DelPo surprisingly to me was able to work his way to a second straight final in successive weeks in Basel. He put together a decent showing in losing in three sets to Federer. At this point though, he’s got a shot to make the field in London and that keeps him grinding again in Paris. He opens against qualifier Joao Sousa or Paolo Lorenzi. Sousa is the intriguing one as he took on Del Potro last week in Basel. DelPo controlled most of the match, but did drop a set in the 6-1, 4-6, 6-1 victory. Lorenzi is on a seven match losing skid and is 1-3 against Sousa, but that lone win came in five sets over Sousa at this year’s U.S. Open. Given DelPo’s likely fatigue, he’s certainly set up for trouble early in Paris.

15. Albert Ramos-Vinolas
He could be in for rough opener regardless of who wins between Pablo Cuevas and Karen Khachanov. Of course, Cuevas has dropped ten straight matches and Khachanov has just one win in his last seven. However, a win could help turn their fortunes around quckly and put them into a good match-up against ARV. Cuevas owns a 4-1 head-to-head record against ARV with one of those wins coming indoors in Valencia, Spain back in 2010. Khachanov’s power could be tougher for ARV to cope with and the Russian is 1-0 against Cuevas. Khachanov was a tough out in Vienna last week. He lost in three sets to Tsonga.

17. Lucas Pouille
Even though Pouille gets the advantage of slotting in for Federer, his first match is going to be difficult. Pouille takes on the survivor between Feliciano Lopez and Pierre-Hugues Herbert. Both players own wins in their careers against Pouille with PHH at 1-1 and Lopez at 1-2. All matches they have played against Pouille went the distance in best of three settings. If Pouille is going to make a run, it should get easier after round two – if he survives.

Outsider’s Edge

Twice in the last five years, an unseeded player has crashed the final in Paris. Last year it was John Isner who ultimately lost to Andy Murray. Back in 2012, it was Jerzy Janowicz as a qualifier who did the trick. 2016 broke a string of three straight years where no unseeded player advanced as far as the quarterfinals. The feeling this year is that with all the injuries and weekly turmoil, an unseeded player or two could definitely make some big noise in Paris. Here’s a look at a few guys to watch.

Steve Johnson
Johnson hasn’t been a big performer down the stretch during a trying season, but his draw could give him an opening to make a run. He has to get past Haase to open, but then would match up against Alexander Zverev in round two. I still think that is a winnable match at this stage of the season for the American. Johnson also has Del Potro in his part of the quarter, who I sitll think is a burnout candidate for the week. He will have to earn everything he gets, but there is some potential if he can get out of the gates quickly.

Richard Gasquet/Benoit Paire
Also in the same part of the draw as Johnson, the winner of this all-French first rounder has the potential to grow into a darkhorse threat. The winner gets Grigor Dimitrov to start. Dimitrov has been strong down the stretch, but he’s got a spot in London wrapped up, so his motivation for the week is all within his brain. If he’s uncaring about this week, then the draw opens for one of these Frenchmen with Isner as the only seed in the way after Dimitrov to play for a quarterfinal spot.

David Ferrer
“Mr.Paris” may be fading into the sunset some in his career, but the Spaniard is 2-2 indoors in the past two tournaments and simply has found something special most years in Paris. He will have to beat Goffin in round two if he gets there and might have to go through Tsonga for a chance to get at a quarterfinal spot. Ferrer has three wins in four tries against Tsonga, but they have not met since 2013.

Kyle Edmund
Edmund comes in of a semifinal run in Vienna, so he’s got some confidence on this surface. His quarter features Pouille and Sock as the seeds in his way to a quarterfinal. That’s not a bad draw for him. He starts with Evgeny Donskoy and then would see Sock in round two if he wins. Edmund crushed Sock in Atlanta this summer in straights. If he sees Pouille, it would be a rematch of their semi in Vienna that Pouille won in three.

Hugues-Herbert/Lopez
The winner of their first round battle takes on Pouille and I mentioned previously how both have played him tough in the past. An upset there and either one of these guys could be an unlikely runner towards a quarterfinal spot.

Draw Preview

Quarter #1 Seeds
Rafael Nadal (1)
Pablo Carreno Busta (8)
Sam Querrey (10)
Albert Ramos-Vinolas (15)

Breakdown
Nadal will feel good this week that there is little pressure on him to perform with Federer out of the draw. What I mean there is that the focus won’t be on the possibility of a Fedal match, but more on Nadal clinching the #1 spot with a single win in Paris. Toss in this draw with no real scary seeds and Rafa should feel like he’s got it in him to make a deep run. He opens with eirher Mischa Zverev or Hyeon Chung, either of which is a nice match-up for the top seed. Ramos-Vinolas is the only seed in his way before the round of 16 and ARV may not make it that far.

The bottom of the quarter features Carreno Busta and Querrey. Both seeds really have no excuse if they don’t wind up squaring off in the round of 16. They are easily the talents in this part of the draw, but have to shake off recently slumps. Yuichi Sugita is an interesting floater in this part of the quarter as he opens with Filip Krajinovic. A win would match him against Querrey. It’s not a great match-up, but Querrey has lost his first match in two of his last three tournaments. I think Sam has too much power for Sugita, but watch the man from Japan any way – he could be an X-Factor.

Without Federer in the mix, all eyes fall squarely on Nadal. I think he’s got plenty of motivation this week and shouldn’t feel much pressure. This draw is as good as any for him to break his run of not winning the title in Paris.

Quarter #2
Alexander Zverev (4)
Grigor Dimitrov (6)
John Isner (9)
Juan Martin Del Potro (13)

Breakdown
Dimitrov arrives with the best form. He wisely pulled out of Vienna last week to rest and that should benefit him. He is 8-3 since the U.S. Open with two losses to Nadal and one to Del Potro. That’s nothing to be ashamed of this year. I think he’s in that spot where if he makes it past a tough opener, but then he gets an easier route after that. Isner is the only seed in his way to the round of 16 and he beat the big man in Cincinnati this year, one of the quickest courts on tour. I think there is a chance that he won’t have to contend with him if Troicki beats Schwartzman in round one.

In Zverev’s half, Sascha too could get rolling if he avoids early trouble. Steve Johnson is a possible second round opponent and then only Del Potro is seeded in front of him to keep him from making the quarterfinals. Given Del Potro’s heavy schedule, Sascha has a chance to do well in Paris his first time through as long as he gets off to a good start.

This quarter for me falls to Zverev or Dimitrov if they avoid that early trouble, but could go off the rails if either one of them loses early. Then I would look to Gasquet, Paire and Johnson as spoilers. I’ll give a slight edge to Dimitrov because of his form post-U.S. Open.

Quarter #3 Seeds
Marin Cilic (3)
David Goffin (7)
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (11)
Roberto Bautista Agut (14)

Breakdown
Cilic and Goffin both bring the form to Paris this week that makes them obvious favorites in this quarter. Goffin has not been great here with just a 3-3 record. Before last year’s semifinal showing, Cilic hadn’t been burning up Paris either – so there is some hope for the rest of the quarter. Cilic should have the edge to get further, even if he has to battle Coric again for the fourth time this year. Coric still has not proven he can beat Cilic. If he gets past the early hurdle, Cilic has the edge to get to the quarters as he holds a 3-1 edge of Bautista Agut for their careers.

Goffin’s half gets easier if he avoids Ferrer or at least that is my feeling. Ferrer has the guts and game to push Goffin, so that potential second round match is a big potential landmine for the Belgian. Tsonga has an advantageous draw with Shapovalov or Benneteau first up. If he can shake off a poor final in Vienna, perhaps he can wow the home crowd. Tsonga holds a 4-2 edge over Goffin, including a win indoors in Rotterdam early this season. If Tsonga gets his head on straight this week, he could make some noise.

The feeling for me is Cilic or Goffin won’t be involved in deciding who gets to the semifinals. Goffin seems more likely to fall earlier with some tougher match-ups. I think this comes down to Cilic or Tsonga, although I won’t count out Ferrer in Paris.

Quarter #4 Seeds
Dominic Thiem (5)
Kevin Anderson (12)
Jack Sock (16)
Lucas Pouille (17)

Breakdown
The seeds here all look prone to me and this quarter smells like the one that could have an unseeded player run through it. There are candidates with Verdasco a possibility as he could have good match-ups against Anderson in round two and he’s beaten Thiem in their only career meeting. Thiem has lost four of his last five and at the end of a long season, is always prone to losing earlier than expected. I can see the Verdasco-Rublev winner making a push here.

In the other half, Sock and Pouille are the seeds. Again, there are plenty of dangerous floaters waiting for them. Sock likely faced Edmund in his opener and Pouille gets Herbert or Lopez, both of whom can be tough on him. Pouille for me is one who can grow into a contender if he avoids the early upset. Sock I still get the feeling that he’ll find some way to muck it up as he goes. I look to Pouille or Edmund to be involved in the business end of this quarter.

Pouille has the form that could carry over into a deep run and he’s certainly the best form of any of the seeds in this section. If Pouille flops, then I would look to one of the unseeded players to make a move – Verdasco, Rublev or Edmund as my favorites among that group.

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

It’s not often that you seed Nadal entering a tournament that has been around for a good bit without every having won it. This is one of those rare weeks and a week without Federer than opens up for him to change that. Cilic, Dimitrov and Tsonga are among the other seeds that I would look to if Rafa happens to falter. I’m not sure he will, but they are the ones for me who look likeliest to pick up the pieces if he does.

2017 Shanghai Rolex Masters Preview

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Nadal, Federer Lead Field

The ATP World Tour makes one of its final two Masters stops for the season in Shanghai this week for the Shanghai Rolex Masters. Defending champion Andy Murray is not here to defend the title as he sits out the remainder of the season to recover from a string of injury problems. Rafael Nadal leads this year’s field as the top seed and is fresh off winning the title at the China Open on Sunday over Nick Kyrgios. Roger Federer hits the courts for his first tour stop since the U.S. Open. Fed did participate in the Laver Cup a few weeks ago, so he shouldn’t be entirely rusty.

Surprisingly, this has been one of the least successful stops for both players throughout their careers. Nadal has never won the title in seven trips to Shanghai. His best finish was making the final in his first year in Shanghai back in 2009. Federer won the title in 2014, but has only made one other final at this event (2010) in five visits. Both Nadal and Federer were first-up losers the last time they visited Shanghai with Nadal losing to Viktor Troicki last year and Federer dropping his opener to Albert Ramos-Vinolas in 2015.

Following Nadal and Federer in the seeded field are Alexander Zverev, Marin Cilic, Dominic Thiem, Grigor Dimitrov, Pablo Carreno Busta and David Goffin to round out the top eight. Among those players, Cilic and Goffin have the best finishes with each making one quarterfinal in Shanghai in their careers. Zverev makes his second appearance at this tournament, making the round of 16 last year. Cilic is just 5-7 in Shanghai with first-up losses in two of the last three years. Both Thiem and Dimitrov have never been past the second round and PCB is 0-1 with a loss last year in his lone trip.

Lower Seeds Yield More Experience

The remainder of the seeded field has more experience and success at this event. That is highlighted by 9th seed Roberto Bautista Agut who made the final in 2016. That was his best showing after going just 3-2 the two prior years. Sam Querrey is the 10th seed and he arrives with a 3-5 record in Shanghai and a loss in his only match since the U.S. Open. Kevin Anderson and John Isner are both 7-7 all-time at this tournament, seeded 11th and 12th respectively. Anderson’s best run was a quarterfinal finish in 2015, while Isner has never been past the round of 16. Rounding out the final seeds are Nick Kyrgios at 13, Jack Sock, Lucas Pouille and Juan Martin Del Potro.

Kyrgios comes in off a good run in Beijing that ended with a flop against Nadal in the final on Sunday where he lost 6-2, 6-1. Kyrgios made the quick trip to Shanghai to play doubles on Monday with Pouille, so I would watch out for the potential for burnout for the Aussie this week. Sock made the quarterfinals in 2016 and sports a 6-3 record in Shanghai. Pouille’s best finish was making the round of 16 last year, while Del Potro is a one-time finalist in 2013. The Argentine won his opening match against Nikoloz Basilashvili on Monday. That marked DelPo’s first win in Shanghai since that 2013 title run.

Early Bird Specials

Upsets are hit and miss in Shanghai as far as the seeds in their first matches. Last year, six seeds dropped out in their openers. 2015 however saw just two seeds lose early, but 2014 saw seven seeds go one and done. If you travel back to 2013, you also saw just two seeds lose early on. So if it is an odd-even year type of split, there could be fewer upsets among the seeds this year. Regardless, a top four seed has been taken down three straight years, so that is a trend to watch.

Here’s a look at the seeds who could be in trouble early this year with 9th seed Roberto Bautista Agut already falling victim to the upset bug.

4. Marin Cilic
This is a tricky opener for Cilic. The Croat made a deep run in Tokyo last week, but got bageled in his final set loss to Adrian Mannarino in the semifinals. He will face Kyle Edmund who already has a match under his belt in Shanghai. The Brit beat Jiri Vesely in straights to start on Sunday. Given that Cilic has lost two of his last three openers in Shanghai, this does carry legit upset possibilities.

5. Dominic Thiem
It’s late in the season and that makes Thiem an easy inclusion most weeks for getting knocked out early. He still hasn’t cut down on his scheduling enough to keep himself from getting burned out late. Thiem has dropped both of his matches since the U.S. Open and he’ll face a tough match-up against either Troicki or Denis Shapovalov. Troicki has two wins over Thiem in two meetings with the last coming indoors last Fall. The Serb has not looked great in two losses on the Far East swing though, so Shapovalov could be there instead. The Canadian will be playing his first tour match since the U.S. Open, but he did have a match against Alexander Zverev at the Laver Cup. Either way, I think Thiem is going to have to play well to avoid the upset.

7. Pablo Carreno Busta
PCB battles Alberto Ramos-Vinolas to start his Shanghai campaign. Ramos-Vinolas took down Joao Sousa to open play in Shanghai, so he’s got the match play edge. PCB is 2-0 against ARV however, but both wins have come on clay and gone the distance. The last came earlier this year in Buenos Aires. The win for ARV to start Shanghai could be the confidence builder he needed after ending a three match losing skid. These two are pretty evenly matched, so I think this is a 50-50 type of call.

8. David Goffin
Goffin has won titles in successive weeks and finally looks back to his best after taking a bit to get going following that nasty ankle injury at the French Open. The big problem for him could be fatigue with two straight weeks of play. His opener is Gilles Simon who will force Goffin to work in rallies, which again could hit on that fatigue angle. Simon is not in the best form, but has played a match already in Shanghai conditions and his backboard style of defense could keep him in this one with a chance to win.

10. Sam Querrey
Querrey takes on Yuichi Sugita in round one. On paper, Querrey’s power would figure to be too much for Sugita, but late in the season, there is no telling. Sugita is 5-2 since the U.S. Open, but three of those matches have come via retirement. Querrey has played just once, losing to Richard Gasquet last week in straights in Tokyo. I would keep this in the lower tier of upset possibilities, but 2017 has shown us to expect the unexpected.

13. Nick Kyrgios
Kyrgios draws Steve Johnson to start and I touched on it earlier about Kyrgios’ quick turnaround to play doubles on Monday after losing the Beijing final on Sunday. Johnson scored a couple of wins last week in Tokyo before losing to Diego Schwartzman in the quarterfinals. He’s no sure thing to step up here to score the upset, but given Kyrgios’ heavier workload and lack of much prep time – Johnson does have a good shot here to take Kyrgios down.

14. Jack Sock
Sock opens with qualifier Alexandr Dolgopolov. The American arrives on a four match losing skid. Dog has been his roller coaster self on this Far East swing. He made a run to the Shenzhen final and then lost his second match in Tokyo to Steve Johnson. He’s looked solid in two wins in qualifying and that could give him a leg up on Sock. Sock does own one win over Dolgopolov, but that came three years ago in Tokyo.

Outsider’s Edge

Unseeded players have made some noise in Shanghai over the last four years. Last year, one of the semifinal spots went to an unseeded player. In 2014, two unseeded players made the semis and it was Gilles Simon who made the final against Federer. There do appear to be a couple of the quarters that are weaker than the others and that’s where you might find an unseeded player with a chance to advance.

Kyle Edmund
He has the second round match against Cilic and that’s the obvious win or go home match. A win for the Brit and then he’s got a real shot to do damage. In a quarter with Carreno Busta, Anderson and Kyrgios as seeds – an early upset could really change the dynamic of the draw. Whether Edmund can find the consistency to do that is the big question. He hasn’t really shown it much lately, but it’s a new week.

Steve Johnson
Johnson gets the chance to take advantage of a travel weary Nick Kyrgios early and that could help propel him deep in his quarter. He might need Edmund or someone else to do him a favor though with Marin Cilic in his path to the quarters. Cilic is 3-0 against Johnson.

Albert Ramos-Vinolas
ARV is in the same quarter as Johnson. He faces fellow Spaniard Carreno Busta to start. A win there and Kevin Anderson is the only seed in his way to the quarters. ARV might not seem like a great choice, but he did make the round of 16 here a couple years ago and he’s had some success on hard courts.

Troicki/Shapovalov
The winner gets Thiem in round two and I talked about the upset possibilities there. If the survivor between these two gets past Thiem, it’s just John Isner standing in the way of at least a quarterfinal berth. Shapovalov seems the smarter try if you’re guessing, but there’s no telling how the 18-year-old will fare in his first trip to Shanghai.

Draw Preview

Quarter #1 Seeds
Rafael Nadal (1)
Grigor Dimitrov (6)
Sam Querrey (10)
Lucas Pouille (15)

Breakdown
All eyes will be on Nadal as the world #1 heads to Shanghai on a roll and looking to add another trophy to a brilliant 2017 season. Nadal will open against Jared Donaldson who survived a tough three set opener against Pablo Cuevas. Donaldson is 0-5 in his career against the Top 10 and this doesn’t look like the spot for that first win. A win for Nadal pits him against either Pouille or Fognini in the round of 16. Both those players have given Nadal some tough matches in the past and that is the speed bump spot for Rafa. If he makes it past round three, then he should be in good shape to see it through to the semifinals.

The bottom of this quarter features Dimitrov and Querrey as the seeds. Dimitrov takes on the winner between Ze Zhang and Ryan Harrison. That should give Dimitrov an opportunity to build on a good week in Beijing, where he made the semifinals in losing to Nadal. Querrey has Sugita to start with the survivor taking on Frances Tiafoe. Tiafoe got a rare win at this level in round one, beating Benoit Paire 6-4, 6-4. Tiafoe’s run through qualis has given him some confidence this week and he won’t be an easy out for Querrey or Sugita. The issue for Tiafoe will be that he’s only won back-to-back main draw wins once this season (Cincinnati).

Nadal is not a shoe-in to get through this quarter. That third round against Fognini or Pouille will be tough. I’d be a fool to go against him though with what he has shown and you know he has the motivation still, having not won here in his career. If Rafa did falter early, the beneficiary might win up being Dimitrov

Quarter #2 Seeds
Marin Cilic (4)
Pablo Carreno Busta (7)
Kevin Anderson (11)
Nick Kyrgios (13)

Breakdown
This is a quarter that looks like it could be wide open. Cilic’s end in Tokyo was a bit bothersome, although he’ll be looked to as a front runner here. His track record in Shanghai suggests he may not be involved in the mix late. Kyrgios as mentioned will be dealing with possible fatigue from the long week in Beijing and short travel to turn around and play doubles to start this tournament. For Cilic, a win over Edmund might set him up to get back into a good grove. I do think Edmund will challenge him and could potentially pull off an upset. The winner between Johnson-Kyrgios will battle Di Wu, who beat Jeremy Chardy in round one. If Cilic doesn’t go out early, then I do like him to make some noise later here. He’s 3-0 against Johnson and 1-1 vs Kyrgios.

Either Carreno Busta or Ramos-Vinolas will be in round three. There, they could see Anderson. Anderson has a match-up in round one against Adrian Mannarino. Anderson is 2-1 against him, although none have come since 2014. Mannarino will have to fight off the dreaded championship match loss syndrome. Anderson wasn’t great in Tokyo however, so there might be a small possibility of an upset if the Frenchman turns up with his head screwed on straight. The winner there gets the survivor between Mischa Zverev and Jan-Lennard Struff. Zverev beat Struff in three last week in Beijing, so it’s a 50-50 call. If Anderson doesn’t find his best, I like the survivor of the all-Spaniard clash between PCB and ARV to move into the quarters.

I do think this quarter has unseeded possibilities. Of course, Cilic could negate that with a hot start. If Cilic gets past his opener, that’s my choice here – otherwise, the weirdness could fall to someone like Johnson or Ramos-Vinolas.

Quarter #3 Seeds
Alexander Zverev (3)
Dominic Thiem (5)
John Isner (12)
Juan Martin Del Potro (16)

Breakdown
Zverev comes in off a solid week in Beijing that ended flat with another loss to Kyrgios. Sascha’s serve is still a bit loose and that shows when he’s up against players who can rock and roll in rhythm on serve consistently. He should be afforded a good start with either Paolo Lorenzi or Aljaz Bedene to face him in his opener. A win for Sascha there and he would be in line to take on the winner of the Del Potro-Andrey Rublev match. Both came through in three sets in the opening round. Rublev scored a couple nice wins in Beijing last week against Jack Sock and Tomas Berdych. Del Potro will be a tough task, but it’s baseline vs baseline. As always with the Russian, if he can lock in on his first serve – he will have a shot to pull off the upset. Del Potro will be the tougher out for Zverev if the third round with Sascha having blown Rublev off the court twice now.

In the other half, Thiem will be up against it early as he faces either Shapovalov or Troicki. I do think much like Cilic that if he can get out of his opener, then he could get on a roll. The third round could likely see Isner. Isner has to get past qualifier Dusan Lajovic in round one, but then he would have Stefanos Tsitsipas in round two. Both are winnable for Isner and he looked good at the China Open last week, even in losing to Nadal in the quarters. If this comes down to Thiem and Isner, they have split two career meetings with Isner winning on hard courts and Thiem on clay. I think this surface would favor Isner just slightly.

I do think a seed takes this quarter, but I am looking to the double digits here with either isner or Del Potro. I give Isner the slight nod with an easier draw.

Quarter #4 Seeds
Roger Federer (2)
David Goffin (8)
Roberto Bautista Agut (9)
Jack Sock (14)

Breakdown
Bautista Agut is out already, losing his opener to Hyeon Chung. That opens one half of the draw up, where Goffin is the in-form player and lead seed. The Belgian is on a major roll with back-to-back titles in Shenzhen and Tokyo. Of course with that comes a lot of match play and the potential for fatigue to hit him this week. He faces Simon to start and that won’t be easy. They have split two career meetings with the Frenchman taking him to three sets both times. Simon got just his second win in his last seven matches to begin his week in Shanghai. Even though RBA is out and Goffin is the form player, this part of the draw could go to an unseeded player. Watch Richard Gasquet here as the Frenchman battles Chung next. Gasquet was decent in Tokyo and just saw Goffin in a loss there, so revenge could be on tap.

In the other half, all eyes will be on Federer who returns to tour for the first time since his surprising loss to Del Potro in the U.S. Open quarters. Fed should be keen to get back on track and step up to the level that Nadal has set. The Swiss starts against either Jordan Thompson or Diego Schwartzman. Both of those potential match-ups should be fairly comfortable for Federer. Sock is the seed opposite Federer in this half, but he could be one and done with Dolgopolov to open. The survivor of that one goes against Felciano Lopez. Lopez edged Ivo Karlovic in two tiebreaks in round one.

This sets up as a good quarter for Federer as the best seed is someone he’s beaten five times in five meetings (Goffin). I’m not sure Goffin will get to the quarterfinals to test that record or not, but I do think Federer is the guy who can get through this part of the draw.

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

Let’s not start hyping a Fedal final in this one. Far too often that has been a match-up that we’ve waited or again this year, but they have found a way not to happen as the season has worn on. I would say this week looks like that is a possibility, but I see pitfalls for both players before the final that could keep it from happening. Double digit seeds have made a habit of popping into the final with Bautista Agut doing it as the 15th seed last year and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga doing it as the #16 in 2015.

If Shanghai falls that way, I think it would be at the expense of Federer’s spot in the final with Isner and Del Potro as the double digit seeds I think have a shot. In Nadal’s half of the draw, the double digit seeds look like longer shots to meke it. In the end, it’s difficult to go against an in-form Nadal. Federer’s gaps in between tournaments can be both and help and hindrance. In this case, I think it might be more of the hindrance.

2017 China Open QF Previews

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The top three seeds remain alive as quarterfinal play takes place on Friday in Beijing. Top seed Rafael Nadal leads the charge against John Isner.

(1) Rafael Nadal vs (6) John Isner

Nadal and Isner are meeting for the second time in the last few weeks after Isner defeated Nadal in Laver Cup play. That is the only time that Isner has managed to beat Rafa with Nadal holding a 6-0 edge in official ATP World Tour events. After a tough opener versus Lucas Pouille, Nadal had an easier time in round two against Karen Khachanov. Rafa kept constant pressure on the young Russian’s serve as he broken him three times on ten chances. Nadal would not allow a break off of six chances against his own serve. He had solid win rates at 70 and 68 percent off his serve, albeit the first serve was down from 81 percent against Pouille. The top seed has been broken just once on ten chances through two rounds.

Isner blasted another opponent off the court in the second round, taking care of Leonardo Mayer easily 6-0, 6-3. That came after he whipped Malek Jaziri 6-2, 6-3 in round one. Isner pounded out eight aces against Mayer and let him see just one break point, that the American was able to save. Isner won 84 percent of his first serve points and 57 percent of his second serve points. Both were down slightly from against Jaziiri, when he won 93 and 62 percent respectively. There were no break chances against Isner in that match.

The meeting at the Laver Cup was the first between Nadal and Isner since 2015, when Rafa won twice against Isner on clay. At the Laver Cup, Isner edged Nadal 7-5, 7-6 (1). In the match, Nadal lost serve twice with Isner dropping serve once. Isner was especially dominant on serve in the second set, where he lost just two points on serve. That is obviously a huge key heading into this one and Isner should have some confidence from that win. It will be interesting to see how Nadal adjusts to seeing a big serve again, although you’d expect his court positioning to remain fairly consistent. Rafa almost always plays deep behind the baseline to set himself up for a better shot on return and in rallies.

For Isner, he knows he has to serve at an elite level to win. One break can easily decide a set in this matchup, so the American will want to put the pressure on Nadal’s serve with some easy holds of his own. I wouldn’t expect much more than the usual power display from Isner and attempts to finish points quickly when Rafa does get a racquet on those serves. Isner shouldn’t be afraid to move in on the second ball to accomplish that feat. Nadal must continue to serve solidly and try to get Isner into rallies where he can wear the big man down a bit in an attempt to take the American’s legs. That in turn could take a little bite off the serve and make a big difference in critical points late in the match.

I said in the tournament preview that this matchup might be the toughest of the tournament for Nadal and I do expect it to be just that. I also expect Rafa will take the Laver Cup experience and have himself in better position for success. This should be tight and Isner can easily pull off an upset, but I’ll side with Rafa just barely.

Prediction: Nadal wins in three sets

(2) Alexander Zverev vs Andrey Rublev

These two young stars will contest their second clash of 2017. Zverev crushed Rublev in Monte Carlo on clay 6-3, 6-1 early in the Spring. Certainly a lot has changed for the 19-year-old Rublev since then with his first Grand Slam quarterfinal coming at the U.S. Open. After a horrid transition back to the tour after the USO, Rublev has scored two big wins this week over Jack Sock and Tomas Berdych. Impressively, he has rallied from down a set both times to pull away to victory. The latest against Berdych saw Rublev roll late 1-6, 6-4, 6-1 to get to the quarters in his first trip to Beijing. He will need improvement to get past Zverev though with 18 double faults in the first two rounds combined. His serve has been a bit faulty, broken five times on 15 chances.

For Zverev, he rebounded from an early flame out in Shenzhen last week to win both his matches at the China Open in straight sets this week. The latest came on Thursday with a 6-4, 6-2 thumping of Fabio Fognini. After Fognini broke Sascha for the only time in the match to even the first set at 4-4, the second seed proceeded to win eight of the next ten games to secure a relatively simple win in the end. The win rates on serve were solid for Zverev at 75 and 56 percent with both numbers down a bit from his first round win over Kyle Edmund. Zverev has been broken twice on four chances so far this tournament.

Their Monte Carlo meeting featured a serve clinic from Sascha as he won 88 percent of the points on first serve and 65 percent off his second. He we rarely threatened, only forced to save two break points. Rublev looked completely overwhelmed with a faulty serve that was broken four times on six chances. He would win just 46 percent of the points off his first serve in that match. The serve has been the sticking point for Rublev in his development. It’s big enough to dominant, but he has had some issues landing his first serve consistently. His second serve until recently has been more of a liability. That will be something Zverev will look to pounce on Friday.

For Sascha, I think the recipe is the same as usual. Find rhythm on serve early and the rest of his game seems to flow well off of that. This will be a baseline basher for sure with both preferring to do damage from the back of the court. Zverev would do well to focus on Rublev’s backhand, which is the weaker side. Zverev is more solid off both wings, which will make it harder for Rublev to break him down in rallies. I see Rublev’s best chance to contend if he can serve consistently big with his first serve and find the range on his power forehand early and often. If not, Zverev could find a similar scoreline to Monte Carlo.

Prediction: Zverev wins in straight sets

(3) Grigor Dimitrov vs (5) Roberto Bautista Agut

This could wind up being the most competitive of the quarterfinals in Beijing. Dimitrov and RBA will be meeting for the third time, splitting the wo previous meetings. This will be their first match against each other since the 2014 Australian Open where Dimitrov won in four sets. Dimitrov has been fairly solid this week in beating Damir Dzumhur and Juan Martin Del Potro. He edged DelPo 7-6 (6), 7-5 last round. His win rates on serve have been steady at around 745 percent on first serve through the two rounds of play and 58 percent off his second. He has had to fend off 16 break chances so far, saving 13. He has converted six of 12 break chances against his opponents.

Bautista Agut has barely broken a sweat in beating Ze Zhang 6-1, 6-3 and then leading Aljaz Bedene 6-0, 4-0 when the Brit retired with a knee injury. RBA Has only been forced to save three break chances against his serve, all of which he has done successfully. He’s won a lofty 82 percent of his first serve points through the first two rounds. It’s difficult to gauge exactly where his form is this week heading into the match after he played an outmatched and then injured opponent. This will be a truer test against Dimitrov.

Both their previous matches took place on hard courts with Dimitrov winning the Australian Open battle and RBA beating him here in Beijing in straights back in 2013. Serve was a big determining factor in the wins for both with the opponent serving much less effectively in losing. Both won’t really overpower on serve, but really more on placement to get easy points or set themselves up well for the next ball. In the ground rallies, both are good at crafting points overall. Dimitrov has more variety I think to his ground game, but that has also been a detriment with Dimitrov unsure of what shot to use as a finisher. RBA is more simplistic off both wings, hitting the ball flat but with effectiveness.

Consistency would be a good key word for both of these guys and it’s RBA that I find normally has better overall consistent in these even or plus matchups. The Spaniard may not beat the elite players on tour, but guys in his weight class like Dimitrov are guys I think he feels comfortable going against. This is RBA’s furthest progression in Beijing in three visits, while Dimitrov has now made the quarters or better in each of his last three trips. With Dimitrov showing some confidence this week, I tilt the scales back from slightly favoring RBA to making this about dead even. Waffle time.

Prediction: Bautista Agut wins in three sets

(8) Nick Kyrgios vs (q) Steve Darcis

A very unexpected matchup here with Kyrgios looking fairly engaged so far this week. He overcame a slow start against Mischa Zverev last round to rally for a 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 win. Kyrgios has been electric on serve this week with 23 aces and only one break of serve against him. He has won a rock solid 85 percent off his first serve through two rounds with his second serve stout at a 73 percent win rate. The Aussie has been ruthless in converting breaks against his opponents, taking eight breaks on ten chances this week.

With back-to-back wins this week, Darcis broke a five month drought of not winning more than one match at an ATP-level event. He dispatched of both fourth seeded Pablo Careeno Busta and qualifier Dusan Lajovic in straight sets. The Belgian’s serve has also only been broken once on eight chances against. He’s kept steady win rates on both first and second serve around 77 and 60 percent respectively. Darcis is crediting his new coach this season, Yannis Demeroutis, with keeping him in better physical condition as the season progressed. The Belgian says he believes that is why he might be playing some of his best tennis late in the season, including his usual Davis Cup heroics for Belgium.

This will be the first all-time meeting between Kyrgios and Darcis. Job one for Darcis will obviously be trying to figure out a way to interrupt NK’s serve. The Aussie has been in rhythm all week with simple holds the norm for him. Darcis will have to be prepared to see plenty of balls go as not returnable and hope that he can bide his time to find a few openings to punish. Any time you go up against an elite serve, it’s obviously imperative to take care of your own as well. Darcis has the ability to get a roll and get easy holds too and he’s shown a good ability to fight off break points this week. He’ll need to be about perfect in that category to have a chance in the quarterfinals.

The method of operation off the ground will be similar with both wanting to hit big from the forehand side and finish points quickly. Kyrgios is deadliest when his serve is in rhythm and he is able to keep his opponent off balance for simple 1-2 punches on his serve for quick points. Darcis will need to find a way to push Kyrgios into longer rallies than that, perhaps looking to chip the ball back to give Kyrgios some offspeed looks for the next ball. Darcis should obviously look to go to Kyrgios’ backhand whenever possible to stay away from the power off his forehand.

This may seem like a mismatch to most, but I pointed out in the tournament preview than an unseeded player has made it to the semifinals three years in a row at this event. Rublev is the other player with a shot to extend that streak, but Darcis for me seems a better option. This one I think either falls into an upset or Kyrgios blows the Belgian off the court. I’ll go with insanity please.

Prediction: Darcis wins in three sets

2017 China Open Preview

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Nadal Leads Beijing Field

The ATP World Tour continues its tour of the Far East with more of the big names returning to play this week. That includes the top seed in Beijing in 2017 U.S. Open Champion Rafael Nadal. Nadal sports a 20-5 all-time record in Beijing, but has only won the title once back in 2005. He should benefit from a weaker draw with more Top 20 players opting to play Tokyo this week. Behind Nadal in the draw are second seed Alexander Zverev who will be playing the China Open for just the second time. Sascha was a quarterfinalist last year. Rounding out the top four seeds are Grigor Dimitrov and Pablo Carreno Busta. Dimitrov made the final last year, losing to Andy Murray. PCB made a quarterfinal run in 2016 in his Beijing debut.

The rest of the seeded field features Roberto Bautista Agut, John Isner, Tomas Berdych and Nick Kyrgios. Berdych has the most experience of those remaining seeds with an 11-4 record and one title (2011). Kyrgios is the lone seeded player who has not played at this tournament in the past. The Aussie will be looking to get back on the winning track after losing his first round U.S. Open match to John Millman. Kyrgios did look solid in Laver Cup play with a win over Berdych and a tough match tiebreak loss to Roger Federer. He could be primed for a strong finish to the season with his health seemingly not a looming question mark every week at this point.

Top Seed Traditionally Decides Title

The top seed has won in Beijing five straight seasons and six of the last six trips to Beijing overall. That’s been Novak Djokovic five of those times with Andy Murray joining him last year. That could mean good things for Rafa this week if he can overcome his own lack of success at this tournament. He has made the final three times in his six trips, but has only been able to close out the title match once against Guillermo Coria in 2005 when the tournament wasn’t a 500-level tournament. Rafa also has a bit of a problematic draw that I’ll get to below.

Seeds in general have fared well in Beijing with only three of the past 12 semifinalists being unseeded players. They have also done a pretty solid job at avoiding early upsets with only four seeds losing their openers in the last four years. 2017 of course has been a different type of season with injuries and inconsistency, so perhaps more seeds could be in peril this year. With that in mind, let’s take a look at this week’s seeds who could be prone to an early upset.

Early Bird Specials

1. Rafael Nadal
Nadal could not have asked for a much tougher round one matchup. He opens with Lucas Pouille who scored the stunning upset of Nadal at the 2016 U.S. Open in five sets. The good news for Rafa is that version of Pouille has not been seen consistently in 2017. Pouille has lost his first match at three of his last four tournaments overall. The Frenchman went 1-1 in his first main draw appearance here last year. I would keep this on the lower side of the upset scale, but Pouille has the game to trouble Nadal if he can find it.

2. Alexander Zverev
Sascha goes on this list after a very mediocre showing last week in Chengdu, where he barely beat Steve Darcis in his opener and then lost to red hot Damir Dzumhur in the next round. Perhaps it was the turnaround from the Laver Cup that had him not quite at his best, but he’ll bear watching this week with a tough opener against Kyle Edmund. The Brit wasn’t great in Chengdu either, losing to Donaldson in his second match – but he did contest a solid match against Zverev in their lone meeting on clay last season. Edmund was forced to retire due to injury after splitting the first two sets. I also think this might be on the lower tier of upset possibilities, but late in the season you never know who is motivated.

3. Grigor Dimitrov
Dimitrov faces off against Damir Dzumhur in round one .Dzumhur is red hot after winning his first ATP title in St.Petersburg, he followed that with a semifinal push in Shenzhen last week. That included a win over Sascha Zverev. With Dimitrov not having played since the U.S. Open, there is definitely a chance he could come out flat this week.

4. Pablo Carreno Busta
PCB plays for the first time since making his first Slam semifinal at the U.S. Open. He could be rusty early and that gives qualifier Steve Darcis a shot in round one. Darcis showed improvement in Shenzhen last week, winning a rare main draw match and pushing Alexander Zverev to a third set tiebreak before losing in the next round. Maybe it’s his Davis Cup heroics propelling him to a late season surge, but the Belgian definitely isn’t without a chance here if his body holds up. That would be my lone concern on him being competitive.

7. Tomas Berdych
A tough early match for Berdych against Jared Donaldson. Donaldson had a decent week in Chengu as he made the quarterfinals. Berdych got some match play in at the Laver Cup, so he’ll be ready to go this week in a tournament that has been good to him for the most part. The Czech has lost twice in his first match though and one of those came in his last trip here in 2015. This will be a tricky one and I won’t be stunned if the American gets the W.

8. Nick Kyrgios
I put the Aussie on this list simply because of who he is and what he has said about it being difficult to get up for tournaments sometimes based on matchups. He opens with Nikoloz Basilashvili, which is going to be one of those “meh” matchups in Kyrgios’ mind. Basilashvili is one of those guys who does have a good enough game to contend with top tier guys. If NK find a rhythm, he can get rolling and make this an easy match. He could also show up a bit disinterested and turn this into a tight one.

Outsider’s Edge

While seeds traditionally have settled who raises the trophy in Beijing, unseeded players have managed to weasel their way into the semifinals consistently in recent times. Grigor Dimitrov parlayed that into a finals visit last year. Only Marin Cilic has made it to the final as an unseeded player other than Dimitrov since 2011. It could be slim pickings to find a player who could make the final, but there are several unseeded players who could make noise this week.

Juan Martin Del Potro
DelPo is back for the first time since the U.S. Open and he’s got some possibilities to ruffle the pecking order. The Argentine opens against Pablo Cuevas and then would see the winner of Dimitrov-Dzumhur in round two. Bautista Agut is the only other seed in his path to the semifinals and DelPo has beaten RBA twice this season, including a straight sets crush job at the U.S. Open. If he gets on a run, we could get Rafa vs Del Potro in the semis.

Dusan Lajovic
The Serb qualified to get into the main draw this week and comes in after a quarterfinal run in Chengdu. He scored the seeded scalp of Albert Ramos-Vinolas last week and will face Spaniards again this week. Lajovic starts with Fernando Verdasco who has lost his openers in five of his last nine tournaments. The Serb has beaten Nando twice in three meetings. A win could net him an encounter with Carreno Busta in round two. Those two have split two career meetings with PCB winning the most recent at Indian Wells this year. With some heightened expectations for the Spaniard now, it’s possible he could cave in early with this being his first matches since his U.S. Open semifinals run.

Jared Donaldson, Jack Sock, Andrey Rublev, Robin Haase, Fabio Fognini
The stacked unseeded quarter belongs to Alexander Zverev and Tomas Berdych. All of the players listed above could reasonably cause some shockwaves this week. Sock and Rublev face off in round one as do Haase and Fognini. The two survivors will reasonably be tough outs for Zverev and Berdych if they advance to round two. Both Sascha and the Berd have first round matches that they will need to be up for or it will be an early exit in Beijing. I would not be surprised if one of these unseeded players cut up this quarter and made a deep run.

Draw Preview

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

Breakdown
Nadal has some youngsters he’ll need to take care of, but the feeling is that the veteran is still better suited to the grind at the end of the season. He starts with Pouille and a win there could get him a visit from Karen Khachanov. The young Russian has been disappointing of late, but is someone who can turn it on at any time. He starts with Chinese wild card Di Wu. Wu used to be a competent Challenger-type on this surface, but has fallen off. A loss for Khachanov would be poor.

Isner could be a dark horse here, especially after beating Nadal at the Laver Cup in straight sets. The American has had mostly mediocre season save for a good stretch right after WImbledon where he won back-to-back titles in Newport and Atlanta. He is 9-4 lifetime in Beijing with one finals trip way back in 2010. Isner opens against Malek Jaziri. The winner gets either Leonardo Mayer or Paolo Lorenzi. This is a winnable stretch for Isner to get another shot at Rafa. Rafa is 6-0 against Isner at official ATP World Tour events.

Bottom line for me in this quarter is I think it falls to a seed, be it Nadal or Isner. I’ll give Nadal the small edge.

Quarter #2 Seeds
Grigor Dimitrov (3)
Roberto Bautista Agut (5)

Breakdown
Dimitrov has the tougher draw, possibly going back to back against Dzumhur and then Del Potro. DelPo is of course the big X-factor in this section. He should have a chance to get off to a good start against Pabloc Cuevas who has lost six straight coming into the China Open. If we get Dimitrov vs Del Potro, it will be the third time we’ve seen it this season. Dimitrov won the last time in Cincinnati in a disappointing match for the Argentine, whereas DelPo won the first meeting this year in Rome on clay. Overall, Del Potro is 6-1 against Dimitrov.

The bottom half looks ripe for Bautista Agut to get a couple of relatively smooth wins with an opener against wild card Ze Zhang. A win would see RBA go up against either Marcel Granollers or Aljaz Bedene. Bedene has played RBA tough in four meetings, taking a pair from the Spaniard. He would be the tougher out for sure, but I think Bautista Agut’s overall consistency is a better bet to push through to the quarterfinals.

This looks like it could come down to Dimitrov, Del Potro or Bautista Agut as your likely semifinalist. RBA might get the benefit of the draw if Dimitrov and DelPo take enough out of each other in a potential quarterfinal. Slight nod to RBA to inch through in this section.

Quarter #3 Seeds
Pablo Carreno Busta (4)
Nick Kyrgios (8)

Breakdown
This quarter looks like it could have some upheaval to it. Kyrgios is still always going to be a question mark on motivation. He could get on a roll and be in the semis or he could go out round one to Basilashvili. I’m not keen on Kyrgios’ route as he could see Mischa Zverev in round two. Zverev starts with Jan-Lennard Struff. I wouldn’t be stunned if Mischa turned up in the quarterfinals as I could see his serve and volley giving NK some problems again. He won their lone career meeting in Shanghai last year.

The other half features Carreno Busta who opens with qualifier Steve Darcis. Darcis has been short on wins on tour, but looked better in Shenzhen last week. His game can trouble a rusty Carreno Busta, but I think PCB’s overall game likely gets him through if he can find some rhythm. The survivor there gets either Verdasco or Lajovic. This part of the draw looks like it could go any which way. The biggest surprise to me in this quarter might be seeing a seed in the semifinals.

Watch out for Zverev and Darcis here as outsiders and Lajovic might have a hand in an upset or two as well.

Quarter #4 Seeds
Alexander Zverev (2)
Tomas Berdych (7)

Breakdown
The thought here will be that one of the seeds seizes control of this quarter. That isn’t necessarily a good bet though with plenty of unseeded talent in this quarter. Zverev starts with Edmund in round one and a win would see him battle Fognini or Haase. Sascha is 3-0 against those two combined, but recall that Haase took him to five sets at the Australian Open this year. Berdych has the tough opener against Jared Donaldson and then would meet the survivor of Jack Sock and Andrey Rublev.

Rublev was predictably out of sorts in Chengdu where he was punished in round one 6-2, 6-1 by Yen-Hsun Lu. This could be a golden opportunity for Sock who has been short on big wins in the last three to four months. Berdych has been fairly disappointing since making the Wimbledon semifinals, so an earlier than expected exit might not be too shocking all things considered. This is a tough quarter to predict and part of me thinks one of the Americans might slip through. If they don’t, I think I trust Sascha just a shade more than Berdych to punch into the semis.

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

You might think it easy for Nadal to let off the pedal a bit here in the latter part of the season, but let’s be honest – that isn’t in his DNA. I think he has the goods here to continue the top seed’s run of success in Beijing. If he falters, don’t be shocked if John Isner isn’t part of the championship mix. I think this is a big spot for Sascha Zverev to prove or disprove his spot in the rankings. He wasn’t overly impressive in his first tournament back last week following his U.S. Open disappointment, so he has plenty or prove. In the end though, this smells like Rafa’s tournament to lose.