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.
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.
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.
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.
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?!
*Career record in Auckland in parenthesis*
Quarter #1 Seeds
(1) Jack Sock: 10-2 (2017 – W)
(8) Andrey Rublev: 0-0
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)
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)
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
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.
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.
Roberto Bautista Agut
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.