2017 Mercedes Open Final Preview: Lucas Pouille vs Feliciano Lopez

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Lucas Pouille vies for his first grass court title, while Feliciano Lopez is hoping to bring home this third. They meet in the final of the Mercedes Cup in Stuttgart.

(4) Lucas Pouille vs Feliciano Lopez

Pouille played perhaps his best match of the tournament in the quarterfinals. He edged Benoit Paire 7-6 (5), 7-5. Pouille was not broken on serve for the first time, allowing just two break points. He was crisp with his first serve, winning 86 percent of the points and also a rock solid 65 percent off his second. The fourth seed also crushed 13 aces. He came up big in the tiebreak and then converted his lone break chance of the match late in set two in order to set himself up with a chance to close the match on serve. Pouille did just that at-love to secure a spot in his third ATP final this season.

Lopez battled in similar fashion against Mischa Zverev. Despite not allowing a break chance against his serve, the Spaniard found himself down after dropping the opening set in a tiebreak. Lopez would edge the second set in a breaker and then find his lone break of Zverev’s serve in the third to complete a 6-7 (2), 7-6 (4), 7-5 win. Lopez slammed 15 aces in the match and won 78 percent of the points off his first serve and 76 percent off is second.

Third Chapter in Competitive Rivalry

This will be the third time that Pouille and Lopez have met since the start of last season. They split a pair of matches indoors last season. Lopez won the first in Vienna 6-4, 2-6, 7-5. Pouille returned the favor in Paris taking the Spaniard down 6-7 (1), 6-3, 6-3. Pouille was dominant on serve, punishing Lopez with 21 aces. The Frenchman would win 89 percent of his first serve points in that Paris meeting. In Vienna, neither player was that sharp on serve. Lopez was forced to save six of eight break chances, while Pouille saved seven of nine. Pouille actually won more points that Lopez for the match (105-103). That shows just how close these two have played in their previous meetings.

This time on grass, you would expect that to slightly favor the more experienced Lopez. The Spaniard has won two previous titles, both in Eastbourne, on this surface and is now 67-36 on grass during his career. Pouille is contesting his first-ever final on grass with a 7-5 mark now on the green stuff. One advantage Pouille could have is that he’s already played in two finals this season, winning a title on clay in Budapest and losing indoors in Marseille. Lopez is making his first finals appearance in 2017 and first since winning a title in Gstaad on clay last season.

Match Tactics

Serve will of course be a big key on grass. Both men have been pounding the ball on serve this week with Lopez the more consistent of the two. The Spaniard has only been broken three times all tournament with two straight matches without being broken. Pouille was broken twice in each of his first two matches and allowed 18 break points in the first two rounds. Lopez has allowed just 17 through all four matches. Pouille will be hoping that his performance against Paire can carry over as he’ll need a sharp serve to contend with Lopez toe-for-toe on grass.

Pouille is still far more comfortable from the baseline, but he’s shown smart timing this week on when to come to net. Against Paire, there were a lot of baseline exchanges, but Pouille also did a superb job of coming to net when he put Paire off-balance with big serves or ground strokes. He did a nice job finishing those points at the net, but will need to be sharper against a great net player in Lopez.

The plus for Pouille if he watches the tape from the Lopez-Zverev semifinal is that Zverev’s consistent use of the serve and volley really put the pressure on Lopez to make great passing shots consistently. That’s not exactly Pouille’s wheelhouse to employ the serve and volley constantly like Mischa did, but it’s a smart tactic as Lopez knows fully. I think it may actually be more comfortable for Lopez against Pouille knowing that he’s not going to see the serve and volley almost every time like he did against Zverev.

Obviously, Lopez will challenge Pouille to come to the net and prove that he can make volleys over and over as that is a good, but not great part of Pouille’s game. I think the lefty will bank on Pouille not being able to repeat that feat with consistency. The Spaniard will look to exploit Pouille’s consistency there and of course look to use his powerful serve to push Pouile back on the court. When he does that, it’s Lopez’s time to come in and finish some quick 1-2 punches for short points.

When the two do go strictly baseline-to-baseline, Lopez will use his backhand slice to try to keep points going in order to run around to his forehand. Pouille is pretty adept off both wings with the forehand still being a better power shot consistently. His backhand shouldn’t be underestimated though with the two hander packing a nice wallop from the back of the court. Pouille can hit it down the line or cross court effectively. Lopez’s job will be to keep Pouille off balance by moving him and not letting Pouille set up to grip and rip those ground strokes.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

This is an intriguing final with Pouille searching for that first grass court title. This has already been a very good week for him and I think he is showing that Wimbledon was no fluke last year. Lopez, at age 35, never knows how many more shots he’ll get to win titles. He didn’t have a great grass season in 2016, so this is a good sign for him and he’s beaten some really good players in a variety of ways.

I think in a best of seven on this surface, you might see a seven match series. They’re both that good and that close to even in my mind. I like Lopez just slightly in this one. I just think he’s slightly more versatile and consistent on the surface and he’s found a way to win against tough players this week even when they’ve been just as good. Pouille won’t be a shock winner if he pulls this off. This looks like it could go the distance again between these two.

Prediction: Lopez wins in three sets

2017 Mercedes Cup Preview

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Shifting Surfaces

The quick turn from clay to grass begins in earnest this week with Stuttgart as one of the two ATP World Tour stops. It also marks the return of Roger Federer, who has not played since winning the Miami Open in March. It was a calculated move by the Swiss to skip the entire clay court season to focus on spots where he had better chances to add to his record 18 Grand Slam titles. Wimbledon has always been eyed as the best shot for Federer to add to his trophy case because of how well the Swiss has performed on grass. He’s 152-23 on the surface for his career with 15 of his 91 career titles on grass.

Stuttgart is a relatively new stop on tour for grass court tennis. Up until 2015, Stuttgart was a clay court tournament. In the two years on grass, Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem have won here. Last year, Thiem scored one of his best non-clay wins by beating Federer in three sets in the semifinals at the Mercedes Open. Thiem will not be participating this year nor will Rafael Nadal. This year, it’s Federer leading the field as the top seed. Grigor Dimitrov is slated in as #2 with Tomas Berdych and Lucas Pouille rounding out the top four seeds. Eighth seed Viktor Troicki was a finalist in 2015 at this event, which is the best showing among the seeds since Stuttgart went green.

Seed Report

1. Roger Federer
Federer debuted in Stuttgart last season and made the semifinals before losing out to Thiem. I would not expect much in the way of rust for Federer here as he has been solely prepping for grass for weeks now. That should give him a leg up on most who are transitioning over from clay.

2. Grigor Dimitrov
Dimitrov’s lone visit to the grass courts in Stuttgart ended with a one and done last year. The 26-year-old gained one of his better results in months by making round three at Roland Garros. That is the sad state of affairs that his season has become after making the Australian Open semifinals. On grass, he’ll hope for rebirth. He is 28-19 on the green stuff in his career.

3. Tomas Berdych
Speaking of disappointments, enter Berdych. The Czech was knocked out in Paris in round two by Karen Khachanov. That’s not a terrible result given the young Russian’s nice showing at the French Open. Berdych at 31 has had a reasonably good season at 23-11. He’s been good on grass at 58-25 overall. This will be his first trip to Stuttgart since they flipped to grass.

4. Lucas Pouille
The Frenchman has been up and down this season; mediocre in Paris with a five set loss to Albert Ramos-Vinolas, where he really fell apart after going up 2-1. It’s not often that young players come out of the gates and have big success on grass, but Pouille’s power game translated well at Wimbledon last summer. He made his first Slam quarterfinal on this surface in 2016, but is still just 4-5 all-time on grass. He lost to John Millman here last year in his opener, which at the time made him 0-4 on grass. This year figures to tell us whether Pouille knows grass or he was a one hit wonder on it at Wimbledon.

5. Steve Johnson
Johnson will be making his debut at Stuttgart this season. It’s been an emotional few weeks for the American since the passing of his father. He showed very well at the French Open by making round three. He’s 18-13 on grass in his career with really good results last summer, winning the title in Nottingham and then making the 4th round at Wimbledon. He may have to battle his emotions again, but his big hitting, aggressive game suits this surface. He could be a dark horse this week, but he also may have to continue battling through a wave of emotions.

6. Mischa Zverev
Zverev made the quarterfinals here in the first year that Stuttgart went green in 2015. He beat Thiem and Andreas Seppi, before losing in a third set tiebreak to Marin Cilic. His serve and volley tactics obviously can be successful on this surface, but he hasn’t had the opportunity to show that in recent years. Due to his run of the past months, he will get to play the main draw at Wimbledon for the first time since 2011. That should be an exciting proposition for him and playing on home soil could ignite him to good things this week.

7. Gilles Simon
Simon went 1-1 last year in Stuttgart in his first trip back since they went to grass. He lost in the quarters in three sets to Juan Martin Del Potro, bageled in the final set. Simon has a respectable 38-28 mark on grass in his career and 2015 was excellent for him on grass to remind you of his prospects. That year, he made the semis at Queen’s Club and then the quarters at Nottingham and Wimbledon. Of course last year, he was just 2-3 on the surface and 2017 has been mediocre at-best as he comes in off a round one exit at the French Open.

8. Viktor Troicki
Troickiy followed up his 2016 finals appearance here by flaming out in his opener last year against Florian Meyer in straight sets. The Serb is 28-23 on grass. Like Simon, he stunk on the surface last year at 1-3 but went 10-4 on grass in 2015. In addition to the Stuttgart final, he also made the semis at Queen’s Club and the 4th round at Wimbledon. As usual, Troicki will be a big time hit or miss proposition this week.

Early Bird Specials

In the brief history of Stuttgart on grass, there have been multiple upsets of seeds in their first matches both years. In 2015, two seeds lost their openers with Feliciano Lopez (3) as the highest seed to go down. Last year, four seeds were one and done, including second seed Marin Cilic. It’s not a coincidence that seeds flame out early with this being the first tournament on grass and many players lack the proper preparation. With that in mind, let’s look at which seeds could be sent packing early.

Grigor Dimitrov
Dimitrov will see either Jerzy Janowicz or Andrey Kuznetsov to start. Janowicz hasn’t had much to crow about at this level in a few years, but we know he’s dangerous on grass (12-8) if he’s healthy. He’s reasonably healthy for this swing for the first time since 2015. He went 1-1 in Stuttgart that year with a loss to Philipp Kohlschreiber. Kuznetsov is 7-11 on grass with a third round showing at Wimbledon last year. Dimitrov has never played the Russian, but he is 2-1 versus Janowicz. That includes a three set win indoors in Sofia earlier this season. On grass, Janowicz could get the extra oomph to make Dimitrov play his best to win.

Tomas Berdych
Potentially a bad match-up for Berdych in his opener with Bernard Tomic possibly up against him. Tomic opens with Stephane Robert. This is a surface that Tomic has shown some excellence on, but also shown his usual Barnyard antics as well in losses. Tomic made the quarters here in 2015. Last year, he made the semis at Queen’s club and the 4th round at Wimbledon. Berdych is 4-0 against Tomic with two tight four set wins on grass at Wimbledon in 2013 and 2014 over the Aussie. Not much in Tomic’s 2017 might suggest an upset, but it will still be a fairly difficult draw for the Czech to start.

Lucas Pouille
I put Pouille on this list simply because we don’t really know yet whether the Frenchman is going to be the guy pre-Wimbledon 2016 who could not win on grass or the guy who showed up at Wimbledon and surprised his way to the quarterfinals. Given an uneven run in 2017 as well, I think he’ll need to be alert in his opener against either qualifier Lukas Lacko or Jan-Lennard Struff. Lacko can be tough on this surface and has the match play advantage. Lacko has a win over Pouille in Challenger play way back in 2013 and he did play him tough in a two tiebreak loss in Rotterdam last year. Struff has the power to match Pouille on serve, but is just 3-11 on grass.

Gilles Simon
A big dat duh on this one with Simon pitted against Feliciano Lopez. Lopez is a three-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist. The Spaniard’s serve and volley tactics have made him a danger on grass for years at 63-36 overall. He is 0-2 at this event though and the green stuff hasn’t been as kind the past few years. He’s 3-2 against Simon though and two wins came on grass in 2013. He beat the Frenchman earlier this season on clay in a third set tiebreak in Madrid. Given Simon’s murky form, this is a definite upset possibility and surely will be a popular one among Pig-nosticators.

Viktor Troicki
The Serb is about as reliable for consistency as his opponent, Benoit Paire. That makes their R1 clash an absolute 50-50 for me, Paire could lose 6-1, 6-0 or spring the upset. We just don’t ever know with him, so that’s why I think Troicki has to be on upset alert. The two have not met in their careers.

Outsider’s Edge

Seeds have been a mainstay at the business end of things in Stuttgart in its first two years. Only Del Potro crashed the semifinals as a wild card last year to break the seeds’ stronghold on the semis. There have however been five quarterfinalists of the 16 in Stuttgart’s history that have been unseeded. Even more interesting, three of them have been qualifiers. Mischa Zverev did it in 2015 and both Radek Stepanek and Florian Mayer did it last year.

He could join them as surprises in the quarters? Let’s look.

(q) Lukas Lacko
I ID’ed Lacko earlier as one to watch against Pouille potentially in round one. He’s 2-1 against his opponent Jan-Lennard Struff, even though they have not met since 2015. Still with Struff’s struggles on grass, Lacko could have a chance. A win over Pouille and voila, unseeded quarterfinalist.

Marcos Baghdatis/Philipp Kohlschreiber
This could be the best first round match in Stuttgart between these two veterans who both play well on grass. Baggy owns a 5-2 head-to-head advantage with two wins on grass, but those were a decade ago in Halle and s’-Hertogenbosch. Neither player arrives in great form with Baghdatis winless in six straight. He did get some grass play in at the Surbiton Challenger though, losing to Dudi Sela. If he scores the upset over Kohlschreiber, he may see Steve Johnson whom he lost to in their lone career meeting in 2014 in Auckland.

Kohlschreiber has lost four of five since making the Casablanca final on clay. Kohlschreiber has always played well on grass, especially in Germany. Stuttgart may not be quite a good to him as Halle, but he made the final last year and the quarters in 2015. A win over Baghdatis would likely set him up against Johnson. The two have never met. A win though and it’s quarterfinal city for the third straight year for Kohlschreiber here and he will be someone who people expect to have that chance.

Benoit Paire
As laid out above, Paire is the ATP’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’ll get – I mean outside of a brain meltdown as some point. But even with those meltdowns, his game is good enough to win on this surface. Troicki is a tough opener, but that’s winnable. All of a sudden, a win gives Paire a quick shot at the quarters with a match against either qualifier Peter Gojowczyk or Nikoloz Basilashvili. In their own right, Gojo or Basilashvili might have just as good a shot at the quarters if Paire is their opponent.

The Berdych Quarter
This quarter has several “specialists” who could do damage. Tomic. Lopez. Mayer. ll three have had past success on grass and despite mediocre or poor play coming in, they could easily cause some upsets. Berdych could well get through, but this is a very competitive quarter that I think will spring some upsets.

Draw Preview

Quarter #1 Seeds
Roger Federer (1)
Mischa Zverev (8)

Breakdown
Federer could have an interesting opener with either Tommy Haas or Pierre-Hugues Herbert. The crowd surely would love to see the German veteran Haas against Federer. Fed likely would probably like seeing Haas as the Swiss is 13-3 against him. Their grass court encounters have usually been fun and competitive although that might be asking a lot of Haas at this stage. Zverev opens with Malek Jaziri in a winnable match and then gets one of two qualifiers Yannick Hanfmann or Martin Fucsovics. I’d be surprised if this didn’t wind up an all-seeded quarterfinal between Federer and Zverev. Fed is 3-0 versus Mischa, including this year’s straight sets win at the Australian Open and a double bagel on grass in Halle in 2013. Even with the extended layoff, It would be a massive shock to see Federer not in the semis with this draw.

Quarter #2 Seeds
Tomas Berdych (3)
Gilles Simon (7)

Breakdown
If a seed is going to fail to get to the semifinals, this quarter looks like it could produce that result. Berdych has the potential tough opener against Bernard Tomic if he makes it past Robert. Simon’s first-up is Feliciano Lopez, an equally tough task on this surface. The winner of that clash then sees either Florian Mayer or Jeremy Chardy. Mayer in particular has been good on grass for years and will have the crowd on his side. For me, this bottom half of the quarter seems more likely to see the seed (Simon) eliminated before the quarterfinals. Berdych may not be spectacular, but he’s steady and that’s not something you can say about Tomic. I still won’t be surprised though if the Aussie puts it together to score the upset. For me, this quarter comes down to Berdych, Mayer or Lopez.

Quarter #3 Seeds
Lucas Pouille (4)
Steve Johnson (5)

Breakdown
This quarter may also be a favorite for a potential unseeded semifinalist – mostly due to Kohlschreiber’s inclusion. The Baghdatis-Kohlschreiber survivor in round one will definitely have a shot to knock off Johnson. Pouille SHOULD be the guy to beat here, but he has to prove it. The opener against Lacko or Struff will be a test. If he passes, he could well see Kohlschreiber who beat him earlier this season on an indoor hard surface. If it’s Johnson, that would be a real power forehand vs power forehand match. Kohlschreiber will be the sheik upset pick in this quarter, but don’t be shocked if Pouille proves his mettle and make it out.

Quarter #4 Seeds
Grigor Dimitrov (2)
Viktor Troicki (8)

Breakdown
Dimitrov is the clear favorite in this draw, but nothing has been too clear for Dimitrov the last few months. This is a quarter where you’d like to see the two seeds get through. Dimitrov and Troicki have had some great battles in their five career matches. Dimitrov edged ahead in the head-to-head with a 6-3, 6-3 win in Sofia earlier this year. They have not met on grass, but three of their five matches have gone the distance. The unseeded players here like Paire, Janowicz and Kuznetsov are still threats, but most have more questions than answers coming into the week. It’s really hard to trust most of the players in this quarter, but I’ll give a slight nod to Troicki who has had some past success here. He should be back as he was in 2015, playing with no pressure with more of that on Dimitrov.

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

No one in their right mind will pick against Federer, especially on grass. About the only thing going against Federer is that the top seed has not won on grass here since the switch in 2015. He’s obviously the guy to change that trend. If he’s even 75 percent of the play we saw January-March, that’s likely better than anyone here. The one guy who intrigues me to play Federer in a final is Pouille, much like seeing Thiem do it last year. I am not predicting by any means that a similar upset would be in the cards, but I think Pouille’s style can perhaps contend with Federer if the Frenchman gets in the groove. Of course, he’s just as likely to lose his opener and leave Federer without any top tier competition in the end.

2017 French Open R3 Preview: Lucas Pouille vs Albert Ramos-Vinolas

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A spot in round four is the prize when two seeds face off on Friday. (16) Lucas Pouille battles (19) Albert Ramos-Vinolas for the fourth time in their careers. Ramos-Vinolas came up with the three set win in their most recent meeting in Monte Carlo earlier this season.

(16) Lucas Pouille vs (19) Albert Ramos-Vinolas

Pouille started slow in round two against Thomaz Bellucci as he found himself in an 0-3 hole in the opening set. The Frenchman was not flustered though as he roared back to take the 1st set in a tiebreak en route to a 7-6 (5), 6-1, 6-2 win. Pouille has been pretty solid through two rounds, including his five set win over Julien Benneteau. Combined, he’s won around 78 percent of his first serve points and 53 percent off his second serve. Double faults have been a bit pesky with seven in each match. He was only broken five times total however over the course of eight sets. Off the ground, his big hitting style has been on display. He had 61 winners against Benneteau and 35 against Bellucci. His unforced error count as expected is a tad high with 88 through two matches, but that is some of what you get with Pouille’s style of play.

Round two was also less taxing for Ramos-Vinolas who bounced French wildcard Benjamin Bonzi in straights; 6-2, 6-1, 6-1. He was never threatened, winning 44 of 57 service points and not facing any break points. ARV was clean with 32 winners and 14 unforced errors. He would break Bonzi seven times on 14 chances. It was a good follow-up to his four set win over Marius Copil in round one. ARV was broken twice on six chances in that match, winning 74 percent of his first serve points and 63 percent of his second. The Spaniard tallied another clean ratio with 35 winners and just 19 unforced errors.

Previous Meetings

Their last match against each other in Monte Carlo saw a steadier performance from Ramos-Vinolas overall. He was able to stave off seven of nine break chances, while Pouille was broken five times on six chances. Pouille chipped in four double faults. The Frenchman won under 60 percent of his service points, while his Spanish opponent took 73 percent of his first serve points and 52 percent off his second. The final scoreline in their semifinal battle read 6-3, 5-7, 6-1 in favor of Ramos-Vinolas. It should be noted that Pouille was struggling physically as the match wore on, receiving treatment on his back and hips in the final set. Pouille’s power game noticeably effected in the latter portions of the match.

Prior to Monte Carlo, it had been over two years since these competitors last met. That came in 2015 in Auckland, where Pouille trounced Ramos-Vinolas 6-3, 6-2 in that early season tournament. Their first-ever encounter came on the Challenger circuit in 2014 in a lopsided set-to-set battle on clay that saw Ramos-Vinolas emerge the victor at 6-0, 1-6, 7-6 (0).

The Breakdown

Serve has played an integral role in their previous meetings. Pouille possesses far more natural power than Ramos-Vinolas, but can struggle with consistency in that department. The double faults so far at Roland Garros have not burned him too much, but it’s an area that he should tighten up in what is likely to be a lively and long match. Ramos-Vinolas isn’t going to wow you with power on his serve, relying more on placement and variety. The stat numbers will tell you how both are faring without the obligatory look to the scoreline – if Ramos-Vinolas isn’t winning at least 70 percent off his first serve, he’s likely in trouble. Oppositely, Pouille’s optimal win rate on first serve would also be in the 70s and as high as the 80s if he’s dominating play.

Off the ground, this should be another baseline-fest from both players. Pouille as laid out has more power on his ground strokes and his forehand is a big weapon. His backhand has been a bit error prone at times, so expect Ramos-Vinolas from his lefty set-up to try and target that wing. As for Ramos-Vinolas’ groundies, he’s more of a craftsman than a punisher. He’ll use varying speeds and placement to try to get better positioning for himself in order to finish off rallies. If he’s executing this plan, he’ll have Pouille off-balance and trying to do too much with his own shots.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

This has the makings of one of the best matches of the day if both players continue to produce as they have through two rounds. Pouille’s backhand has been a little iffy and the double faults are another concern. For Ramos-Vinolas, I think his biggest concern is serving adequately enough to match Pouille. If he can, then he’s got a shot to beat him again. A lot will be made of Ramos-Vinolas having made the quarterfinals last year, but let’s not forget that prior to 2016, he was 1-5 in main draw matches at Roland Garros. Both he and Pouille have been inconsistent this season at-times and plenty good enough to beat most on this surface at others.

So who shows up on Friday? I think having played a lefty in his last match, Pouille gets a bit of an edge. Lefties can often throw you off early with their differing spins and angles. Obviously Ramos-Vinolas and Bellucci are different players, but Pouille should be a bit more comfortable after seeing a lefty already. That being said, lefties gave him some early problems this season with Pouille going 0-2 back-to-back against Donald Young and losing to ARV in Monte Carlo. Perhaps that issue has been corrected through with wins over Jiri Vesely, Martin Klizan and Bellucci all on clay since then.

I side with Pouille just slightly here because he seems to be better at carrying momentum over once he gains it and I see that with the Frenchman right now. Ramos-Vinolas was on a losing skid before Roland Garros and has yet to be fully tested, whereas Pouille got through that great opening round match with Benneteau and looked solid in round two. This should be fun and could go the distance if both bring their best.

Prediction: Pouille wins in five sets

2017 French Open Preview: Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic Quarters

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The second half of the men’s draw preview takes a look at the quarters featuring two of the favorites, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Nadal is seeking an unprecedented 10th French Open title and a chance to move up further in the rankings. He heads to Paris ranked 4th on the ATP World Tour.

Quarter #3 Seeds
Rafael Nadal (4)
Milos Raonic (5)
Grigor Dimitrov (11)
Jack Sock (14)
Roberto Bautista Agut (17)
Pablo Carreno Busta (20)
Gilles Muller (26)
Gilles Simon (31)

Seed Report

Before Nadal’s unexpected loss to Dominic Thiem in Rome, there was little doubt that the 14-time Grand Slam winner was the massive favorite to win in Paris. Does one loss negate that feeling? Not much. Thiem played a terrific match and it was Nadal’s first loss on clay in 18 matches on the surface this season. There is little doubt that this is Nadal’s focal point of the season, especially since he has not won at Roland Garros since 2015.

The rest of the seeds in this quarter are definitely a notch or several notches below Nadal on this surface. Raonic has at least been able to stay on the court after missing more time with injury. His recent returns on dirt have shown both good and bad with Raonic looking a step slow at the moment. His serve still obviously makes him a threat though, but the consistency of his serve has been a little shakier recently.

Dimitrov? It seems like it was a different year when everyone was talking about the “hot” start Dimitrov was off to with a semifinal showing at the Australian Open as the penultimate moment. Now? The Bulgarian heads to Paris having lost his first match in four of his last five tournaments. The French Open has also been his worst Slam with a 3-6 record. He’s lost in round one each of the last three years.

Among the rest of the seeds, Carreno Busta looms as the best to me. PCB has been somewhat of a roller coaster on clay; winning the Estoril title, but going just 1-2 since that title. He’ll be looking to get past round two, the farthest stage he has made at the French Open in his career. Sock has been consistent in Paris, making the third or fourth round in three straight trips. He has a difficult 1st round match against Jiri Vesely, whom he barely survived in a third set tiebreak in Rome.

Among the other seeds: Bautista Agut, Muller and Simon – there isn’t a ton to be enthused about as far as potential dark horse possibilities. Bautista Agut made the fourth round last year in Paris, but his clay form this season has been so-so. He’s 6-5 on dirt, beating players he should beat, but struggling when he steps up in competition level. Muller has a poor track record at the French at 2-7 and despite making the Estoril final, clay is his most troublesome surface. Simon has made the fourth round in odd numbered years since 2011 and hasn’t missed out on the third round since 2008. His lack of consistency is worrisome from set-to-set, but his vanilla/backboard style still presents plenty of challenges on clay.

Breakdown

Nadal’s half of this quarter has Sock, Bautista Agut and Simon as the other seeds. Rafa faces Benoit Paire in round one. He’s 2-0 against the Frenchman, with both wins coming on clay in 2013. Paire can be dangerous, but over the course of a best of five against Nadal – I would be stunned if Paire can consistently trouble the lefty. Simon would be the only seed Nadal could could contend with before the fourth round. Simon has work to do just to get there with Nikolaz Basilashvili as his opener and then either Viktor Troicki or Evgeny Donskoy in round two. Troicki is an intriguing match-up with Simon 6-1 against him, but the Serb crushing Simon in straights last year at Roland Garros. Simon could definitely be an early casualty.

The other portion of his half of the quarter should have more intrigue. Sock and Vesely in round one could be very good and there’s a real possibility of an upset. The winner there gets Aljaz Bedene or Ryan Harrison. Bedene had a good Spring on clay with two clay Challenger titles and also a finals appearance in Budapest at the ATP level. His confidence is definitely higher now on this surface as evidenced with good fights against Raonic and Djokovic in recent weeks. He could definitely cause some problems.

Bautista Agut is on the other side, facing John Millman to open. A win there pits him against either Mikhail Kukushkin or Tennys Sandgren. More room for upsets here for me. At the end of the day, this could wind up being Nadal against RBA for a quarterfinal spot, but I could also see an unseeded player like Bedene, Vesely or Kukushkin/Sandgren sneaking into the mix. It shouldn’t matter with Nadal’s level most of this Spring being elite and far better than anyone in this part of the draw.’

As for the other half, Raonic is the lead seed along with Dimitrov, Carreno Busta and Muller. Raonic looks to have a draw that is conducive to a good run. He opens against Steve Darcis, who could be his most dangerous early foe. “The Shark” won the Bordeaux Challenger on clay this past week, but he’s just 4-8 in main draw action at Roland Garros. If Raonic serves to his best level, he should have plenty to get by Darcis. If not, round one becomes tricky for the Canadian. A second round match against Rogerio Dutra Silva or Mikhail Youzhny should be easier and that could lead Raonic to a third round showdown with Gilles Muller. Muller opens against Guillermo Garcia-Lopez and then would get either Quentin Halys or Marco Trungeletti, who fashioned the upset of Marin Cilic at last year’s French Open. Round two could be interesting for Muller.

In the other portion of Raonic’s half, Dimitrov should at least have a shot to break his losing skid in round one as he opens against Stephane Robert. Robert is 1-9 this season. He would then face Daniel Evans or Tommy Robredo in round two. Robredo and Evans have both struggled on clay, but Robredo is 3-1 against Dimitrov – including a win in three sets on clay against him in Morocco earlier this year. Evans and Dimitrov have split two matches with Evans winning last year on hard courts in Washington, D.C. Keep Dimitrov on upset alert there.

Carreno Busta opens with Florian Mayer which should afford him the chance to get out of the gates with a win. The second round would pit PCB against either Jerzy Janowicz or Taro Daniel. Janowicz is healthy right now with some decent results on the Challenger level as he tries to rebuild his ranking. Clay is a decent surface for the Pole and he’s made the third round at the French in the past. He could provide a test for Carreno Busta … if he gets past a talented player in Daniel. Given Dimitrov’s poor run of late and poor recent history in Paris, PCB is the guy to beat in this segment of the quarter. He should have a good shot to face off against Raonic in round four.

Early Bird Specials (Upset Alert)

Vesely over Sock
Basilashvili over Simon

The Pig’s Bottom Line

This is Nadal’s quarter to lose, no doubt. If it comes down to Nadal and Raonic, Rafa is 7-2 in his career over the Canadian. That includes a 1-1 mark this season with Raonic winning in Brisbane, but Rafa repaying him in straight sets at the Australian Open. It’s hard to see Raonic changing that result on a surface that plays so much better to Nadal. If we’re being honest, this quarter is the most boring of the four this year.

Quarter #4 Seeds
Novak Djokovic (2)
Dominic Thiem (6)
David Goffin (10)
Lucas Pouille (16)
Albert Ramos-Vinolas (19)
Ivo Karlovic (23)
Steve Johnson (25)
Mischa Zverev (32)

Seed Report

This quarter will get a ton of notice due to Djokovic and his new coaching relationship with Andre Agassi. What should also be noticed here is that Thiem is playing some solid tennis on this surface and Goffin won’t be scared of a Djokovic match-up after beating the Serb earlier this year in Monte Carlo.But let’s focus on Djokovic. The Serb has had by his standards, a mediocre season. He did produce some of his best results in Rome, but was torn apart in the final by Alexander Zverev. Let’s not forget that Djokovic is the defending champion in Paris and he’s 55-11. He has also made the final at Roland Garros four of the last five years. This year though will be a challenge.He sounds rejuvenated by the coaching switch, but results are the only thing that matter here.

Thiem had some of the luster taken off a great Spring when Djokovic destroyed him in the Roma semifinals. It wasn’t unexpected to be truthful after Thiem scored a brilliant win over Nadal in the quarters after losing to the Spaniard two weeks in a row prior to that clash. Thiem is 17-4 on clay this season and probably ranks as the second most consistent performer behind Nadal in my book. Paris was the site of his first Slam semifinal last year, so expectations will be higher this year. Goffin made the quarterfinals in Paris last year and arrives with a 10-4 record on clay this season. Two of losses came to Nadal. His skill set featuring great athleticism and defense are the reason he’ll be a danger here.

Pouille and Ramos-Vinolas are in the next tier of seeds. Pouille has never been past the second round at Roland Garros. His season has been plagued by inconsistencies. He had a great run in Monte Carlo to the semifinals and won the title in Budapest. He then flopped in his openers in both Madrid and Rome. Ramos-Vinolas has also tapered off the last two tournaments with two first-up exits in Madrid and Rome. He did make the Monte Carlo final however and the quarters the week after in Barcelona, where he dropped a tough three set match against Murray. ARV was a quarterfinalist at last year’s French Open.

Rounding out the seeds are Karlovic, Johnson and Zverev. Mischa Zverev stunningly made the final in Geneva this past week. The German had dropped six of his previous seven matches on dirt prior to that run. We’ll see if that inspires him in Paris. Johnson is still coping with the passing of his father as he just returned to the court in Geneva this week after a lengthy layoff. He lost to Zverev in the quarters. Karlovic made the third round in Paris last year for the second time in the last three years after very poor results there traditionally. Karlovic is 2-2 on clay this season amidst a mediocre 7-9 season overall.

Breakdown

Djokovic opens against Marcel Granollers in what should be a comfortable win for the Serb. It could also afford him some chances to apply any specific new tactics that Agassi wants to infuse into his game. I would expect rounds one and two to provide him time to do that along with practice sessions. Round two will be perhaps a bit tougher with either Joao Sousa or Janko Tipsarevic waiting. Djokovic should advance easy enough though, maybe dropping a set. Zverev is seeded to meet him in round three.

Zverev starts against qualifier Stephano Napolitano and I’m not hesitant to wonder if the German might be in a spot of trouble there after a long week in Lyon. Should he advance, he would face either Diego Schwartzman or Andrey Rublev in the second round. I’d be fairly surprised to see Zverev around after two rounds. Djokovic should have a pretty smooth ride to round four, although his shaky serve may still provide some WTF moments.

In the other segment in this half, it’s Pouille and Ramos-Vinolas as the seeds. Pouille faces fellow Frenchie Julien Benneteau to start. They’ve met three times in their careers with Pouille winning the last two, including in qualifying at the French last year. Benny retired at the Bordeauz Challenger, so he may not be fully fit. If he is, this could be a tough match for Pouille. The winner gets Thomaz Bellucci or Dusan Lajovic. Both have chops on clay and both would present their opponent with a tough out.

Opposite Pouille, Ramos-Vinolas faces Marius Copil to open. Copil has a big serve and qualis under his belt. ARV has been fairly good this season, but arrives on a four match losing skid. Smell the upset? The survivor gets Daniil Medvedev or Behjamin Bonzi. You’ve likely never heard of Bonzi, the 20-year-old French wildcard, but he’s got some talent. He made the semis at the Bordeaux Challenger and won a Futures event on clay prior to that. Being his French Open debut, this is a big chance for him, but maybe also too big. Medvedev is on a five match losing streak though and is just coming back from a leg injury that caused him to miss time. So perhaps Bonzi does have a shot.I can’t get past thinking there will be upsets in this part of the draw.

In the other half of the quarter, it’s Thiem and Goffin as the lead seeds. Thiem opens with Bernard Tomic and then gets either Simone Bolelli or Nicolas Mahut. That should be two relatively straight forward wins. A potential third round opponent is a big question. Steve Johnson is the seed. He gets Yuichi Sugita to open. A win and it’s Borna Coric or Mathias Bourgue. Johnson missed the French Open last year, but did make the third round in his last trip in 2015. Coric has been up and down on this surface in 2017, but he’s been consistent in Paris with two trips to round three in two visits. Coric shouldn’t sleep on Bourgue who surprisingly took Andy Murray to five sets in round two last year at this event.

In Goffin’s segment, the Belgian starts with Paul-Henri Mathieu who is making his final appearance at this event. The veteran Frenchman did well to get through qualifying after being denied a spot via wild card. Even if PHM has a chip on his shoulder here, it is difficult to see him get past Goffin. If Goffin wins, it’s Sergiy Stakhovsky or Yen-Hsun Lu. The 10th seed should expect to be in round three. There, he may find his biggest challenge at that point, pun intended. Ivo Karlovic is seeded to be there, but has to get past big hitting teen Stefanos Tsitsipas in round one and then either Horacio Zeballos or Adrian Mannarino. Goffin won his lone clash against Karlovic at this year’s Australian Open, also a third round match and it came in straights.

Early Bird Specials (Upset Alert)

Copil over Ramos-Vinolas
Napolitano over Zverev

The Pig’s Bottom Line

If seeds hold, Thiem and Goffin should meet for the 9th time for the right to play Djokovic. It’s advantage Goffin so far at 6-3, but Thiem did beat him in four at the French Open in 2016. Goffin registered his second win on clay against Thiem earlier this season in Monte Carlo and also took down the Austrian in Melbourne to start off the year. That could pave the way for an electric quarterfinal featuring Djokovic and Goffin. Based on his 5-0 mark against Thiem, the Serb will be rooting for the Austrian if that match goes down.

The scariest player in this quarter is still Pouille to me because he can turn it on and be absolutely electric. Whether that comes this week or not, we shall see. If he gets going early, his style of play can cause Djokovic some issues and certainly that could open the door for himself or the Goffin-Thiem survivor as the semifinalists out of this quarter. Somewhat shaky at-times, I still think Djokovic is going to find a way through this part of the draw. Most of the match-ups still favor him and the best of five format gives him a little more wiggle room to try and work through the ups and downs he has experienced.

Keep following me @tennispig all throughout the French Open. Will be live tweeting as much as possible + match previews and more.

2017 Internazionali BNL D’Italia Preview

ROMEMASTERS17

Rafa’s Empire

Many of the top players on the ATP World Tour take part in their final preparation for the French Open when the tour stops in Rome this week for Internazionali BNL D’Italia. This Masters level event has been controlled by three players over the last decade and in reality, two players. Rafael Nadal, this week’s fourth seed, is a seven-time champion at htis event with a 49-5 record. He is not however the defending champion. That belongs to faux #1, Andy Murray. Murray scored five of his career 14 wins in Rome during his impressive run to the title last season. Novak Djokovic is seeded second and he’s won the title here four times. Those three players are responsible for each title won in Rome since 2005.

Rafael Nadal unquestionably arrives this week as the King of Clay once again. He cemented his status (if you were daft enough to question it before last week) with a title on Sunday in Madrid over Dominic Thiem. It ran Rafa’s record on dirt in 2017 to 15-0 with titles in each of the three clay court tournaments that he has played in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid. As for motivation, there’s plenty here for Nadal. He hasn’t won in Rome since 2013 and he hasn’t been to the final since 2014. I don’t really think he needs motivation at this point, but I don’t think his focus will wilt this week.

Nadal has rebuilt himself this season into not just a top five player, but arguably the best overall player in the game again. With all due respect to Roger Federer, Nadal has been the best all-surface player in 2017 since we don’t get to see the Swiss on clay until Paris. Since the seasonal surface flip to clay, he’s simply been a beast. For me, you can’t look down the list of Top 20 players right now and tell me one that you would feel confident to pick to beat Rafa right now. Clay is his empire and right now, he’s ruling with an iron fist.

Rest of the Field Chasing Form

The rest of the field, especially a lot of the seeds, could use an injection of confidence this week. Top seed Andy Murray has looked nothing like the confident player who was shocking the world on clay during this stretch last season. Novak Djokovic is coachless and still shaky enough on serve that nothing is a certainty for him at this stage. His performance against Nadal in the Madrid semifinals showed a clear chasm between the Spaniard and Serb right now. Then there is third seed Stan Wawrinka. The Swiss has been mediocre since making the Indian Wells final. He’s just 1-2 on clay and coming off an upset loss in his opener last week in Madrid to Benoit Paire. Wawrinka has done well in Rome with a 21-11 mark, but he’s only made it as fat as he final once back in 2008. Non-Slam Stan has been front and center lately.

The remainder of the top right seeds features more questions than answers. Fifth seed Milos Raonic looked worn out against David Goffin in a 6-4, 6-2 loss in his second match in Madrid. That came off the heels of a finals appearance in Istanbul. Rome hasn’t been a traditional stop for the Canadian due to injury or schedule the last few years. This is his first trip back to this event since making the semifinals in 2014. Raonic was a three-time first-up loser prior to that run, so he may be an iffy selection to do much this week.

Sixth seed Marin Cilic lost his opener in Madrid to a red hot Alexander Zverev in three sets. That’s not a bad loss, especially considering that Cilic had come off a title win on clay in Istanbul the previous week. Cilic is just 7-8 during his career in Rome. Seventh seed Kei Nishikori is once again an injury concern after withdrawing due to his troublesome wrist in Madrid. That robbed us of a chance to see Nishikori play Djokvic in the quarterfinals. It would have been a good measuring stick for both. Nishikori did make the semifinals in Rome last season, but carries considerable risk this week. It’s doubtful he’ll push himself too hard if the wrist is still hurting him with the French Open just a couple of weeks away.

Team Thiem

The 8th seed this week is arguably the second best player on clay right now. That is Dominic Thiem. The Austrian has made back-to-back finals in Barcelona and Madrid. He’s lost both finals to Rafael Nadal and looked better in losing in Madrid than he did in Barcelona. Losses can build confidence when they come against the best, so Thiem should arrive feeling good despite the finals loss.

This will be just his third trip to Rome. He improved on a round of 16 showing during his debut here in 2015 with a trip to the quarterfinals in 2016. He beat Federer last year in the round of 16, before losing to Nishikori in the quarters. If we’re being honest right now, I think Thiem is probably the closest player to Nadal on this surface. The draw in Rome could give him a third straight crack at Nadal with the pair seeded to face each other in the quarterfinals.

Early Bird Specials

The last two stops in Rome have not featured much in the way of first-up upsets for seeds. Each of the past two seasons, just one seed has fallen in their opening match. Prior to 2015 though, Rome did see a few more upsets with three seeds down in their openers in 2014 and five in 2013. This year feels like there could be multiple seeds going down as consistency has been poor among the top tier players not named Federer, Nadal and Thiem.

With that in mind, let’s check the seeds who could be most prone to an early exit this week.

1. Andy Murray
Murray gets a difficult opener with Fabio Fognini. Fognini already has a match under his belt, winning in straights in opening round play on Sunday over an Italian wildcard. Fognini gave Nadal a tough test in second round play in Madrid last week, losing 6-4 in the third. Murray is 3-2 against Fognini, but one of the Italian’s wins came on clay in Davis Cup action back in 2014. Fognini is only 6-9 at the Rome Masters. Still, Murray’s poor serving and lack of confidence right now make that second round clash a tricky one and one with upset potential.

3. Stan Wawrinka
The universe loves a good dose of deja-vu and we get it all over again if Benoit Paire beats Nicolas Mahut in round one. Paire beat his buddy last week in Madrid and with Paire’s mental state from match-to-match and Wawrinka’s non-Slam efforts. that match could go any which way. Mahut scored a rare clay win over Jack Sock last week in Madrid, so he could block a possible rematch because ya know, #FrenchBrain on Paire. Don’t necessarily rake Wawrinka off the upset list if Mahut is there instead.

5. Milos Raonic
Raonic could have some trouble depending on who he gets matcjed up with first. He’ll face either Tommy Haas or Ivo Karlovic. I don’t think Haas would hold up against his serve for an entire match, but Karlovic would be an intriguing match-up. That could come down to a handful of points to decide the match and that becomes much more of a 50-50 toss-up. Raonic and Karlovic have split two career meetings.

7. Kei NIshikori
If healthy, expect Nishikori to get past David Ferrer or Feliciano Lopez. That if is there again though and a player like Lopez who can get into a service rhythm could be the bigger trouble. Nishikori beat Ferrer fairly routinely in Madrid last week before his wrist flared up.

9. David Goffin
Goffin has been playing well of late, making the Madrid semifinals last week. He does have a tough opener though against Thomaz Bellucci, who makes the main draw as a lucky loser. It seems like lucky losers have been on a bit of a tear in recent weeks. Bellucci is 2-2 against Goffin with both wins on hard courts. Their lone clay court meeting went to the Belgian in Gstaad in 2015. Goffin should be too consistent for Bellucci, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Brazilian pushed him to three and that means anything can happen in the end.

10. Grigor Dimitrov
A horrible draw for the Bulgarian who finally got a few wins last week. He draws Juan Martin Del Potro in round one. DelPo has four wins in four tries over Dimitrov, but none have come on clay. DelPo could use some matches this week after being forced out of Estoril due to the passing of his grandfather. Dimitrov has been inconsistent most of the Spring, but he looked pretty good in Madrid. It’s too bad this is a first rounder. An upset seems possible here.

13. Jack Sock
Sock was an upset victim to Nicolas Mahut in Madrid last week. Perhaps that was just due to a lengthy layoff, but I’ll keep him on upset alert against Diego Schwartzman. The Argentine is good enough on clay to contend, but likely doesn’t have the serve to keep up with Sock. That is IF Sock brings his best. I think Sock wins, but again this could be trickier than anticipated for the seed.

15. Pablo Carreno Busta
PCB will start against Gilles Simon who has beaten him twice in three tries. One of those came on clay in Madrid last year. Carreno Busta has played Rome just once, losing his lone match in 2014. The Spaniard has been pretty consistent this year, but this isn’t the best spot for him. Simon’s backboard style of play will ask the Spaniard to play consistent tennis from start to finish. If Simon finds his serve to go with his ground game, he’s always dangerous.

16. Alexander Zverev
I put Sascha on the list this week mostly because of his busy schedule the last few weeks. He went straight from winning in Munich to Madrid last week. He was ousted by Pablo Cuevas in the quarterfinals Zverev has only played here once and he went 1-1 last season in his debut. He’s a much more consistent performer of late and Kevin Anderson normally on clay wouldn’t be a huge worry given Sascha’s recent form. Still, Anderson has qualifying matches completed and Sascha has thrown in a few early losses this season. If Anderson serves well, that one is interesting.

Draw Preview

Quarter #1 Seeds
Andy Murray (1)
Milos Raonic (5)
Tomas Berdych (12)
Alexander Zverev (16)

Breakdown
The most consistent player among the seeds is the youngest, Sascha Zverev. Murray may have to contend with Zverev this week, if he’s going to make a run. They are seeded to face off in the third round. Both have to take care of some potentially tough customers before that can happen. If it does go down, Murray has the lone win in the series – a straight sets beatdown of Sascha at the 2016 Australian Open. They are very different players right now and I’d fancy Sascha’s chances to win that one.

Raonic’s half of the draw includes Berdych. Both seeds look likely to get through to a third round encounter. Raonic as stated earlier looks to have the tougher possible opener with Ivo Karlovic again the bigger danger over Tommy Haas. Berdych faces either Robin Haase or Carlos Berlocq. Berdych beat Haase last week in Madrid. If it comes down to the seeds, Raonic is 4-2 against the Czech. Their only clay court clash ended in a win via retirement for Berdych in Monte Carlo in 2015.

While there could be a bumpy road for the top seed in this quarter, I do fancy one of the seeds to get through. Zverev on form is the guy you’d like, but Raonic could be the better shot as long as he’s back up to par this week.

Quarter #2 Seeds
Stan Wawrinka (3)
Marin Cilic (6)
David Goffin (9)
Albert Ramos-Vinolas (14)

Breakdown
Ramos-Vinolas is out already, falling to John Isner in opening round action on Sunday. The semifinals in Rome do see some non-seeded players on occasion with 2013 and 2016 featuring non-seeds in semifinal spots. There has also been at least one quarterfinal spot taken by a non-seeded player in each of the last four years. I tell you this because this quarter looks up-for-grabs. Wawrinka hasn’t been anywhere near consistent and as always is as good a shot to make the semis as he is to lose in his opener. Isner is an intriguing option in the top portion of the quarter. The American hasn’t done much in Rome (5-6) and has been very average this season, but he was on point on-serve in round one. If Wawrinka survives early tests, Isner could take him out later. The big man is 2-1 against the Stanimal.

The bottom half is interesting with Cilic and Goffin. Cilic has a decent enough opening match-up with either Ryan Harrison or Jared Donaldson. I fancy him to get through there, but he has lost his opener in Rome a few times in his career. Goffin’s reward if he beats Bellucci in his opener is Fernando Verdasco. Verdasco beat Donald Young on Sunday. Verdasco owns a 3-2 mark againt Goffin, including a win over the Belgian in Doha this season. They have split two career clay court meetings with Goffin winning in a third set tiebreak last year in Monte Carlo.

Watch Isner and Verdasco here if a non-seed is going to pull some shenanigans. I trust Goffin the most of the seeds here, although Cilic might have the best draw.

Quarter #3 Seeds
Rafael Nadal (4)’
Dominic Thiem (8)
Lucas Pouille (11)
Jack Sock (13)

Breakdown
The superlatives for Nadal’s play on clay are repetitive and well-warranted. He’s been fabulous. Lost in Nadal’s dominance has been the solid play of Thiem. Thiem will earn a trip to play Nadal again with Pablo Cuevas likely to be his second round foe. Thiem beat him 6-4, 6-4 last week. Pouille is the other seed in Thiem’s half. He was a disappointing early loser in Madrid to Pierre Hugues-Herbert. Pouille had been in good form prior to that and he made the semifinals in 2016 in Rome. Keep an eye on the Frenchman this week. He’s the one who could prevent Nadal-Thiem for the third straight tournament.

In the bottom half, Nadal doesn’t look to have much to contend with as Sock is the other seed. Nadal has Andreas Seppi or Nicolas Almagro to start. Sock has to get past Schwartzman and then Jiri Vesely is waiting. It’s difficult again to fathom Nadal not being in the mix at the end of the tournament and with another good early draw. Fatigue should not be a major worry as he’ll get a few days off before his first match in Rome.

Whether it’s Nadal-Thiem or Nadal-Pouille or something else, the honus is on the field to catch Nadal. No one has done it yet on clay. I’d be interested to see if Nadal-Thiem for the third straight week gets the Austrian a set. He improved over a poor effort in Barcelona in Sunday’s Madrid Finals loss. In the end though, no one is surprised that Nadal is again in position to play for a final.

Quarter #4 Seeds
Novak Djokovic (2)
Kei NIshikori (7)
Grigor Dimitrov (10)
Pablo Carreno Busta (15)

Breakdown
There were some positives for Djokovic last week. He made a late comeback to beat Almagro in his opener in Madrid and then played one of his better matches in beating Feliciano Lopez in two tight sets. A lot of that went out the window when Nadal dismantled him in the semifinals. The Serb looked ordinary compared to Nadal and his serve again was a huge minus. He does have a nice half of this quarter with Aljaz Bedene or wildcard Gianluca Mager as his opener. Bedene, as the qualifier, looks the bigger danger. He won a couple of Clay Challengers and then made the Budapest Final. He took Raonic to three sets in Madrid. He’ll make the Serb earn his first win if that is the match-up.

There is plenty more possible danger in Djokovic’s half with Nick Kyrgios, Carreno Busta and Gilles Simon all in the mix. Kyrgios plays Roberto Bautista Agut in the first round. The winner then plays the PCB-Simon survivor. Any of those four realistically against this version of Djokovic can push the Serb in a potential third round showdown. The top half could see the seeds in peril from the jump. Nishikori’s wrist is a concern and Dimitrov has perhaps the toughest opener against Del Potro.

Djokovic desperately needs the confidence building that a semifinal run would bring, but there simply are no guarantees with him right now. Nishikori is impossible to trust here with health being paramount over wins. Del Potro could be a sneaky non-seed to get through here if he’s able to start hot. Carreno Busta despite the tough opener with Simon is also someone who definitely could be in the mix.

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

It’s broken record time and it feels like it’s four of five years ago again. Rafael Nadal is your massive favorite again. His most difficult match could come before the semifinals against Thiem. It would be intriguing to get a Nadal-Djokovic rematch in the semis though to see just what the Serb can muster at this point. The only thing less shocking this week than Nadal winning would be seeing Murray not lose one of his first two matches.