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

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2017 Mercedes Cup SF Preview: Feliciano Lopez vs Mischa Zverev

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It’s an all unseeded semifinal as Feliciano Lopez and Mischa Zverev go at it for a spot in the Mercedes Cup final. Lopez has yet to make a final in 2017, while Zverev could make his second of the season with a win.

Feliciano Lopez vs (6) Mischa Zverev

The Spanish lawnmower shot his way into the semifinals after rallying from a set down to take out third seeded Tomas Berdych 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-4. The match featured lots of big serving with Lopez laying down 19 aces and the Czech hitting 21. The Spaniard played the break points better, saving all nine against his serve. He has only been broken three times through three rounds. Lopez converted two key breaks in the last two sets against the third seed to secure the win. In the end, it was as tight as you can get with Lopez winning 100 points to 97 for Berdych.

Zverev won an all-German affair, taking down Tommy Haas 6-4, 6-4. It was a bit predictable that Haas was unable to match the level from the previous round when he ousted top seed Roger Federer. Haas fought all the way through, but his serve was lacking and he barely made any inroads against Mischa’s serve. Zverev won a whopping 35 of 38 points off his first serve. He was landing 72 percent of his first serves, which served him well as Haas won eight of the 15 points played off Zverev’s second serve. The match continued a strong of serving for Zverev who has been broken just once on 14 chances, eleven of which came last round against Yannick Hanfmann.

Zverev Looks to Reverse The Trend

The 29-year-old German will have to do something he has failed to do so far in his career to reach the final in Stuttgart: win a set off of Feliciano Lopez. Lopez is 3-0 all-time against the German with straight sets wins each time. The last meeting was in 2016 in the second round of the Western & Southern Open. Lopez dominated 6-3, 6-1. He also tallied wins indoors in Kuala Lumpur in 2015 and outdoors on a hard surface at the Sunrise Challenger in 2009.

The difference maker in those matches has been a blistering first serve from Lopez. The Spaniard has won 80 percent or more of the points off his first serve in all three matches. Mischa has managed just one break of serve in the six sets played, while the Spaniard has routinely been able to get to his German counterpart’s serve. Lopez converted ten of 20 break opportunities against Zverev.

Serve & Volley Party

This match-up features two guys who love to employ the serve and volley. It’s really going to be an interesting test of like tactics. It’s all going to start with the serve and both men have been on point serving this week. The difference would seem to be that Zverev has had few to no answers for Lopez’s serve in the past and this surface plays even better to it. That means break chances will likely be few for the German.

It will be a little bit different for Lopez to see the serve and volley against him. I don’t think Zverev used it consistently in their previous meetings, but it’s become more of his game plan in the last year. Playing on grass, it’s a must and a plus. It really becomes a matter of which player can get more done on return. I like that Lopez has seen a big serve with Berdych on Friday and that could make a difference. He may find more success against Zverev’s serve, which can keep Mischa’s volleying from being as effective.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

Zverev certainly has a chance in this one despite Lopez’s more marquee career on grass. Zverev has found some of his best grass results in Germany and is sure to get the home crowd on his side. All that may not be enough though if Lopez continues his hot serving and precise, aggressive work off the ground. Unless the Spaniard has an off serving day or Zverev can steal a set, maybe two in tiebreaks – I think Lopez works into Sunday’s final.

Prediction: Lopez wins in straight sets

2017 Mercedes Cup QF Preview: Tomas Berdych vs Feliciano Lopez

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Tomas Berdych is the highest seed left in Stuttgart after a rash of early upsets. The Czech battles Feliciano Lopez for the 13th time with the winner breaking a six-all tie in the head-to-head.

(3) Tomas Berdych vs Feliciano Lopez

Berdych’s 2017 debut at the Mercedes Cup came Thursday against Bernard Tomic. Berdych looked in control throughout, although he did yack up a break lead in the opening set. He recovered with plenty of room to spare for the 7-6 (4), 6-2 win. The match featured some typical Berdych numbers when his game is on as the third seed won 84 percent of his first serve points. He walloped 14 aces and was broken just the one time on three chances.

Lopez battled Jeremy Chardy in round two with the Spaniard prevailing 6-3, 3-6, 6-2. Lopez also served big with 13 aces, taking 83 percent of his first serve points. The Flodonis fought off three of the four break chances against his serve. Through two matches in Stuttgart, Lopez has been broken three times with Gilles Simon doing the deed twice in their opening round affair. The Spaniard has been a little iffy with double faults in both rounds, racking up four in each match.

First Meeting Since 2014

Although the two grizzled tour vets have met a dozen times, this will mark their first match in two and a half years. Berdych has won the last two in the series, beating the Spaniard in straight sets in 2014 in Beijing and Paris. Lopez had beaten the Czech in their two previous meetings earlier that season with one coming on grass at Queen’s Club. That stands as their only grass court meeting. In that clash, Lopez’s serve was scintillating as he won 90 percent of the points off his first serve, blasting 13 aces. Berdych was solid, winning 78 percent of his first serve points. It came down to one break of serve and a tiebreak. That could again be how close this match-up is between these two on grass.

Match Tactics

As touched on with their last meeting, serve on this quick German grass will again be a large factor in determining the winner. Berdych seemed to have a great feel for the grass in his opener against Tomic, serving with power and precision. He also got in 67 percent of his first serves, a fantastic number for anyone. It’s especially impressive for the Czech whose season average in that category is 57 percent. Lopez has won 80 percent or better of his first serve points in both matches. The lone leaky aspect really has been the double faults.

The Spaniard’s lefty serve is very fluid and when he’s in rhythm, he’s tough to break. Berdych is fluid, but in a different manner with is serve. His high ball toss seems to be a big part of the issue when he’s not in rhythm. What is impressive though is when Berdych’s timing is proper and you can literally see the power coming off his serve.

Lopez has the advantage on grass when he plays to what he does best in his game. He serves big and then is very comfortable coming to the net. On grass, that is a superior combination when executed well. It’s part of the season that Lopez has racked up a superb 65-36 record on grass during his career. That includes three trips to the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. When he doesn’t come to net, Lopez will play a lot of backhand slice in baseline exchanges in an effort to get back around to his strong forehand.

I’d expect him to utilize that in an effort to get the ball back to Berdych’s backhand. The Czech uses a two hander and it’s solid, but not his most consistent shot. Berdych will also prefer to smash his forehand off the ground as many times as possible. The third seed’s best combos likely will come from serving big and then finishing shorter points with a quick 1-2 punch against the Spaniard. Berdych isn’t going to serve and volley like Lopez, but the Czech is very skilled on grass at utilizing the court position that his serve causes. Against Tomic, he showed this often as his serve put Tomic off balance and Berdych went big on the next shot for a winner of either wing.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

This should be competitive. Both have looked comfortable in the transition to grass. This really should come down to who can dictate their tactics more in this match-up. This could certainly feature a tiebreak or two. Berdych is now 11-4 in tiebreaks this year, while Lopez is 4-5. Berdych has won three of the four career tiebreaks the two have played, but it was Lopez’s lone win in a breaker that came on grass. What does that mean? Flip a coin here, it may be that close.

Prediction: Lopez wins in three sets

2017 Mercedes Cup R2 Preview: Grigor Dimitrov vs Jerzy Janowicz

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Grigor Dimitrov finally gets started at Stuttgart as he goes up against The Polish Burger-meister, Jerzy Janowicz. The Pole started his campaign this week with a three set victory over Andrey Kuznetsov.

(2) Grigor Dimitrov vs Jerzy Janowicz

Dimitrov makes a rare trip outside of England to start off his grass court season. Last year’s trip to Stuttgart was the Bulgarian’s first time playing somewhere other than Queen’s Club to start the grass court season since 2010. That was back when Dimitrov was still splitting time between Challengers at the ATP Tour. Last year, Dimitrov was dumped out in his opener by Juan Martin Del Potro 6-4, 6-2. He had a poor grass campaign overall, losing to Janko Tipsarevic in his Queen’s Club opener, before seeing the exit door in round three at Wimbledon.

Janowicz has been relatively healthy in 2017 and won a Challenger event earlier this season. His ranking is up to 155 and he’s ready for second round play. His win over Kuznetsov was his first main draw ATP win since February in Sofia, Bulgaria. Against Kuznetsov, the Pole was pretty solid. He staved off six of seven break chances, winning 77 percent of his first serve points and 55 percent off his second. He tallied five aces and five double faults. In the end, he would win just two more points overall than the Russian (91-89).

Jerzy Being Jerzy, Still Rebuilding Ranking

The match against Kuznetsov probably gained more attention for a point violation against Janowicz than the result. The Pole was cited for obscenity, but claimed that he was reading an advertising sign about hamburgers, telling the chair ump that he said “I like burgers.” That wasn’t Janowicz’s first fun with a chair umpire this season. In March, while playing Dennis Shapovalov at a Challenger, Janowicz received three code violations in five minutes. That resulted in a game penalty at the Guadalajara-based event. The Pole would ultimately lose in a third set tiebreak.

Janowicz, a one-time Wimbledon semifinalist in 2013, has played more Challengers than ATP events again in 2017 in order to work his way back from injury and elevate his ranking. The Pole has been besieged by injuries since that magical run. Later in 2013, it was a back injury that caused him some issues. In 2014, he played with a broken bone in his foot in a season where he went just 24-26. Then, it was a knee injury in late 2015 that stalked him into 2016 and had him sidelined for about six months.

He would finally get healthy around the time of the Rio Olympics. Janowicz returned there, losing to Gilles Muller. He would then hit the Challenger circuit to finish the year in an effort to rebuild his ranking and confidence. The one-time Top 20 player was ranked at 280 to end last season. He’s currently at #155.

Second Meeting This Season

The two players met earlier in Bulgaria in one of Janowicz’s rare forays back into ATP main draws. Dimitrov edged him in three sets 4-6, 6-3, 7-5. That marked Dimitrov’s second win in three tries over the Pole. Dimitrov beat him previously on clay in Rome in 2015 with Janowicz winning their first career clash on hard courts in Cincinnati in 2014. Their most recent meeting in Sofia saw plenty of big serving from both. Dimitrov tallied 15 aces in the match with Jerzy adding 17.

The difference in the match wound up being better second serves from Dimitrov, who won 70 percent of his second serve points. Jerzy won just 52 percent by comparison. Dimitrov would fight off six of seven break points, while converting two of six against Janowicz. It was a very small margin of victory with Dimitrov tallying just six more points overal (99-93).

At the time, Dimitrov was on a roll early in the season. He went on to win the title in Sofia, his second in just three tournaments played. The other came in Brisbane and he had also made the semifinals at the Australian Open. He was 14-1 after the title in Sofia. Now? He is 21-9, going jusy 7-8 since Sofia. That includes four first match losses at tournaments.

Strategy Session

There shouldn’t be much surprise to Janowicz’s play on Thursday. The 6’8″ Pole wants to use his power to serve big and he’s still got the agility to rush the net. That’s a dangerous combination on grass, if he’s hitting his mark on serve. The interesting thing is that Jerzy stayed glued to the baseline almost exclusively in their meeting indoors earlier this season. Changing that up some with some serving and volleying would not be unwise.

For Dimitrov, it’s going to be about finding a rhythm. He’ll have had plenty of practice on grass, but a big load of Haas that did for Roger Federer on Wednesday. Practice helps you get a feel for the surface, but it’s match play that Dimitrov needs. His sluggish starts on grass in recent years don’t suggest that it’s going to be all that smooth.

Going up against a guy who can serve big is also not high on the wish list of things you’d ask for in your first match of the season on grass. In their Sofia meeting, Janowicz went after Dimitrov’s backhand side a lot with his serve to solid results. I would not expect him to stray from trying that again in this one. Jerzy’s power left Dimitrov locked up several times and not able to consistently get solid strikes on his return from that wing. That led to some easy 1-2 punches for Janowicz off the serve to Dimitrov’s backhand.

Dimitrov did a better job of mixing his serves to both Janowicz’s forehand and backhand, which left him guessing. That led to some quicker and more aggressive points for Dimitrov. It also allowed Dimitrov more opportunity to come to net and that is something he needs to do on grass. Janowicz doesn’t have the best return, so as long as the second seed gets his rhythm rocking early – he should be able to get some easier holds as the match grows.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

Upsets have already hit the seeds in Stuttgart with Federer, Johnson and Troicki all going out in their openers. Dimitrov certainly is not immune to early upsets as that became a pattern on clay. I do think Jerzy has the tools and the extra match play to challenge him in this one. The Pole was able to contend well against him earlier in the season. but he’s still been lacking in results when he’s played top tier players. An upset wouldn’t surprise given Dimitrov’s mediocre form, but I’ll give the Bulgarian this one as I believe he’ll be able to ramp up his game as the match moves on.

Prediction: Dimitrov wins in three sets

2017 Mercedes Cup R2 Preview: Steve Johnson vs Philipp Kohlschreiber

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One of the marquee matches of the early rounds at the Mercedes Cup in Stuttgart pits American Steve Johnson against German grass master Philipp Kohlschreiber. Kohlschreiber made the final last year and has now tallied 36 of his 53 career wins on grass at the German-based tournaments in Halle and Stuttgart.

(5) Steve Johnson vs Philipp Kohlschreiber

Johnson was challenged in his opener by Maximillian Marter. The homestanding German pushed Johnson to three sets, but the 5th seed prevailed 3-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4. Johnson started slow as he was broken twice in the opening set. After that though, the American settled in and his serve powered him through. After winning just 13 of 23 service points in the opening set, Johnson won 49 of 59 over the final two sets. He did not face another break point.

Kohlschreiber won an abbreviated match to start his Stuttgart campaign. The 33-year-old rolled over Marcos Baghdatis 6-1 in the first set. Baghdatis promptly retired after the set, citing a pinched nerve in his back. Kohlschreiber took advantage of his compromised opponent, stealing 14 points out of the 25 played off Baghdatis’ serve. He would break the Cypriot three times on five chances. Kohlschreiber won ten of eleven points off his first serve, but did struggle some with his second serve. He would win just three of eight points played, but never faced a break point.

First Time Meeting, Grass Plays Well for Both

Johnson and Kohlschreiber will be meeting for the first time when they take the court for second round play at the Mercedes Cup. Kohlschreiber came to Stuttgart having lost four of his last matches since making the final in Casablance on clay. Johnson earned a lot of new fans for his gutsy showing at the French Open as he continues to deal with the sudden loss of his father. The American was visibly overcome with emotion during his matches as he made it to the third round before being eliminated by Dominic Thiem.

Johnson comes into the 2017 grass court swing off his best showing on the surface last season. He went 11-4 and won his first ATP title at Nottingham. He was solid the week prior to that win, making the quarters at Queen’s Club. He beat Richard Gasquet and took Marin Cilic to three sets in a loss. Johnson would cap off the grass season with his best Wimbledon result, a fourth round exit at the hands of Roger Federer. Johnson dumped Grigor Dimitrov out of the tournament in the third round as his highlight for the week.

Kohlschreiber normally comes alive with the switch from clay to grass, mostly for the first tournaments in his home country. Last year, he started in Stuttgart with a finals run that ended with a three set loss to Dominic Thiem. The rest of his grass court season would flame out however as he injured his hip in Halle the week after, forcing him to retire in the quarterfinals. It robbed him of a chance for revenge against Thiem. Kohlschreiber would go down in round one at Wimbledon, which has been a poor tournament for him in recent years despite the success he finds on grass in Germany. Kohlschreiber has lost in round one at Wimbledon three of the last four years since making the quarters in 2012.

Match Tactics

For Johnson, it’s all about the power serve and forehand combination. When he serves well, especially on a slick and fast surface like grass, he’s very difficult to deal with. That’s exactly what we saw after the first set against Marterer. Grass should always play into Johnson’s more aggressive ground game, although players with the proper game plan will still find a way to get the ball back to Johnson’s backhand.

The backhand slice from Johnson can continue to be effective on grass if he hits it into proper positions, but I think Kohlschreiber is comfortable hitting his delicious one-handed backhand off of that shot. That could be a big difference maker for the German. Johnson has shown improved patience on grass from the past in being willing to trade in some of those baseline exchanges with his backhand, until he finds the proper time to unleash his forehand.

For Kohlschreiber, grass is well suited to his game. He has a nifty kick serve that is hard to beat when it’s in rhythm. He’ll need his serve to be on point since Johnson seems to have found his measure after round one. The German though has rarely says he feels outclassed on this surface and he’s competed well and won against players with big serves like the 5th seeded American. Kohlschreiber’s return game has improved over the years and he’s got that underrated one-handed backhand that is a solid weapon for this surface.

I would look for Kohlschreiber to try and attack the backhand side of Johnson when possible with his one hander down-the-line perhaps being a killer shot if he finds the measure. The German also adapts his game to grass well by using the old “chip and charge” tactic at-times. That is something Johnson will need to be prepared for with the American still preferring to play the majority of the points from the baseline, even on grass where that can hurt you against the wrong opponent.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

This is a fascinating match-up with Kohlschreiber bringing a strong grass court pedigree and Johnson having proven he can indeed win on this surface, playing his style. I do expect Kohlschreiber to use that chip and charge tactic to test Johnson in this one. Johnson has the wheels to defend that, but is more comfortable away from the net for the most part. This could well come down to a tiebreak or two with Johnson now at 9-6 in breakers this season. It was a big part of what Johnson did right on grass last year, going 9-1 on grass in tiebreaks. Kohlschreiber is 6-11 in tiebreaks this season, dropping each of his last four.

Kohlschreiber is actually the favorite in this match and I think that’s mostly based on his past success on German grass. Based on match-up, this seems much more like a toss-up. Kohlschreiber might have the more complete game for grass, but the serve for Steve Johnson could be the great equalizer in this match. Guys who get into rhythm with big serves have given the German some problems this year and last.

It won’t surprise for Kohlschreiber to continue his glorious grass court record in Germany, but I think if Johnson shows the power and precision on serve that he displayed in the final two sets of round one – he can squeeze this out.

Prediction: Johnson wins in three sets