2018 Mutua Madrid Open R3 Preview: Milos Raonic vs Denis Shapovalov

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Milos Raonic vs Denis Shapovalov

Canada’s Brightest Face Off

Canada must be at a fever pitch to see two of their favorite sons facing off in Madrid on Thursday. Milos Raonic has looked pretty solid after withdrawing from Monte Carlo with a knee injury. It has not slowed him down this week as Raonic beat third seed Grigor Dimitrov 7-5, 3-6, 6-3 in the last round. For Raonic, that was his first win over Dimitrov they first met back in 2011. Dimitrov had turned the tables with three straight wins, including one last year in Brisbane. This time around, Raonic won the tight contest with his serve proving a big reason why. The Canadian won 74 percent of his service points, broken just once on two chances. Dimitrov was equal in his own right on serve, taking 69 percent of the points. The Bulgarian was looser though with nine break chances, even though Raonic only converted two times.

In addition to the freebies on serve (12 aces), Raonic found his forehand often against Dimitrov and it was on target with power and precision. Dimitrov found Raonic’s backhand, but not really enough to put him into poor situations. Raonic did a good job of controlling the action with his forehand and his movement looked very good. He was not afraid to come to net and challenge Dimitrov to beat him with a volley or tough passing shot. Raonic seemed to have a good read on when to come in and also did a decent job defensively of making Dimitrov pay at the net with some superb passing shots.

Shapovalov will be happy with his week already, having won his first ever ATP main draw match on clay to start off Madrid against Tennys Sandgren. He followed that with a tougher 7-6 (6), 4-6, 6-4 win over Benoit Paire in round two. El Shapo’s win rates on first and second serve were at 75 and 62 percent respectively. Both were down from his blistering rates of 88 and 81 against Sadgren, but nevertheless come as solid numbers on clay. He was broken three times on nine chances. Paire was solid as well winning 80 percent of his first serve points. The Frenchman was also broken three times.

A key element for the 19-year-old Shapovalov was not giving the break back in set three. Once he secured the break at 3-2, he surrendered just three points on serve over the next three service games in closing out the match. Despite his lack of clay court experience, Shapovalov has shown that his electric ground strokes translate to success on this surface. He’s done a good job of utilizing his baseline game to craft good court position for himself. This has allowed the talented teen to punish his opponents with cross court shots off both wings. His speed and agility in defense are an obvious plus on dirt.

The Formula

This will be the first meeting between the two Canadians. There is an obvious experience gap at play with Raonic at 64-35 all-time on clay and Shapovalov having just a handful of clay court matches. I think a plus for Shapovalov is despite being countrymen, he doesn’t really see Raonic as an idol of any sort. That’s Nadal for El Shapo with the lefty game being a big reason for the idolotry there. Raonic obviously will have somewhat of an edge in serve, but Shapovalov’s lefty delivery has the ability to control court positioning well. This will be a key for El Shapo if he is going to craft the upset.

Shapovalov needs to produce good depth with his serve to force Raonic into scramble mode off of the serve. If El Shapo is able to push Raonic back or wide consistently, the electric ground strokes look even better. The court opens up and he’s able to drill that forehand wherever he wants for quicker winners, even on clay. If Shapovalov doesn’t challenge Raonic’s movement in return, then the elder statesman in this match-up can force the action himself. The area where Milos should really excel over Shapovalov in this one is at the net.

Shapovalov moves well, but his volley skills are still developing. Raonic incorporated the volley game into his strategy a few years ago and he’s used it effectively when healthy. It compliments his massive serve and huge forehand well, when he’s bullying his opponents backward on the court. He’s used the volley effectively this week and I think it is going to be a big part of his plan against Shapovalov. For the youngster, he has to be ready to play at the net and will be challenged to hit elite passing shots to beat Raoninc.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

The two weaknesses for Shapovalov are his return game and volleying consistently at the net. That makes this a challenging match-up if Raonic shows the level of play that we have seen in Madrid so far this week. Raonic’s serve will put a lot of pressure on Shapovalov to match with his own serve, but I think he can do that if he’s forcing Raonic to work deep and wide in return. I do expect he will have some moments where he does this and can ask some questions of Raonic’s movement.

For Raonic, if he serves well, then he’s going to have this match on his racquet. The thing Shapovalov could have on his side is a bit of the element of surprise since this is the first meeting. His ground strokes, especially as a lefty, can cause some hassles for Raonic. In the end though, this surface and the conditions in Madrid have played well to Milos in the past and present. He’s now 11-7 here and seeking a third quarterfinal bid. It might have its rougher moments, but I think Milos makes it through in this spot and Shapovalov gets more of a learning experience in this one on clay.

Prediction: Raonic wins in straight sets

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2018 Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters Preview

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Nadal Looking to Ignite Another Run on Clay

Rafael Nadal returns to ATP World Tour play this week in Monte Carlo as the two-time defending champion at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters. Nadal returned to action last weekend during Davis Cup play with a pair of destructive wins over Philipp Kohlschreiber and Alexander Zverev in straight sets. It was the Spaniard’s first action since retiring in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open due to a hip injury. The wins should serve as a loud signal that Rafa is healthy again and the 31-year-old looks primed to run roughshod during his favorite part of the tour calendar.

Rafa says it feels like his season is starting again since he has only played one tournament so far and that could mean we’ll see a fresher Nadal heading towards the French Open. The “King of Clay” sports a 63-4 record in Monte Carlo during his career, having won the title ten times. He has only missed making the final three times in 14 trips. The world #1 heads to Monte Carlo having lost just one of his last 25 matches on dirt. He was 24-1 in 2017 with the lone loss to Dominic Thiem in Rome. Despite that, it’s not going to be easy for Rafa with Thiem, Djokovic and a rejuvenated Borna Coric all in his quarter. The plus is that those three are all stuck in the bottom half, so he will only face one of them and not until quarterfinals.

Is Djokovic Relevant?

The other player most will monitor this week is Novak Djokovic. The Serb is fresh off a clean break with his former coaching staff as he parted ways with both Andre Agassi and Radek Stepanek. In recent days, it has been reported that Djokovic has begun working with former longtime coach Marian Vajda again. Vajda was with the Serb for over a decade before Djokovic shook things up by parting with Vajda last May. That came after Djokovic lost in the quarters in Monte Carlo to David Goffin.

2018 has been an absolute nightmare for the Serb, who is just 3-3 overall. He is on a three match losing skid heading into the clay court season with opening match exits in both Indian Wells and Miami to haunt him in preparations for Monte Carlo. Perhaps that is why he decided to go with something familiar in reuniting with Vajda at least to prepare for clay court play. It’s very difficult to say that Djokovic is relevant right now with no form, definite mental stress and still a big question mark over how healthy his right elbow is at this point.

To be quite honest, any win that Djokovic gets this tournament will be a good one for him. He is in desperate search for that winning touch again and Monte Carlo might be a tough place for him to find it. Remember that this is the site of one of the bigger upsets in Djokovic’s career, when he lost to Jiri Vesely in his opener in 2016. The Serb is just 2-2 in the last two years at this tournament. So to answer my own header – at this point, Djokovic doesn’t seem like a relevant player until proven otherwise. He is beatable by anyone on any day.

The Challengers

So with Nadal the prohibitive favorite in Monte Carlo and Djokovic an unsteady choice, who are the realistic challengers to be in the finals mix outside of Rafa? That is a damn good question. None of the young guns have stepped up here in limited action with Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem both never going past the round of 16 in six combined tries. Thiem is also coming in off a “small” ankle fracture suffered at Indian Wells. That would not seem to bode well for a reversal of fortune this year.

Interestingly outside of Nadal and Djokovic, the only other repeat semifinalist in the last four years is Gael Monfils. The Frenchman has done that in successive trips in 2015 and 2016 as the 14th and 13th seed respectively. He won’t be in the mix this year however, having already announced he was skipping Monte Carlo due to – you guessed it – injury.

Of the higher seeds you might look to with Marin Cilic and Grigor Dimitrov filling the #2 and #3 slots this week – Cilic has had some modest success here at 12-9 overall. The Croat has made the quarterfinals his last two trips in 2015 and 2017. Dimitrov? He’s made the quarters twice, but has been a flop the last two years. Dimitrov lost his opener to Jan-Lennard Struff in 2017 and was done in round two in 2016 via straight sets to Gilles Simon. Couple that with his his putrid 1-3 mark over his last three tournaments, that includes two opening losses and he’s hard to see as a contender.

How about Lucas Pouille? The Frenchman comes in off two nice wins on clay in Davis Cup play in leading France to victory. He outlasted Andreas Seppi in five sets and Fabio Fognini in four. Pouille has increased his results in each of his three trips to Monte Carlo, culminating in a semifinal showing last year. Or perhaps the surprise finalist last year, Albert Ramos-Vinolas, who ousted Pouille. Ramos-Vinolas comes in with similar mediocre form after losing to qualifier Alexei Vatutin in Marrakech this week. All the Spaniard did during last year’s run was beat Andy Murray, Marin Cilic and Lucas Pouille to claim three Top 20 wins, including two of his career five wins over players in the Top 10.

I think the point being that there is a lot of guesswork behind Nadal this week in finding a player you really like to make a deep run. To that point, The Eliminati could have a field day on some higher seeds this week. Despite a small number of opening upsets for seeds in recent times, just eight seeds have fallen in their openers since 2014 in Monte Carlo, four top ten seeds have been dumped out in each of the last two years. With that in mind, let’s take a look at who the unseeded danger men are this week.

ELIMINATI

Dusan Lajovic
The Serb gets first pop at Novak Djokovic this week. Lajovic hasn’t had a ton of success at the ATP level this season at just 3-7, but comes in off winning a title at the Challenger level on hard courts. He’s only faced Djokovic once and it was in Doha back in 2015. Djokovic crushed him in straights, but this of course is not the same Djokovic. Everything is a question these days for Nole, so don’t be surprised if Lajovic plays him tough and has his fellow Serb on edge for a while.

Denis Shapovalov/Stefanos Tsitsipas
Whomever gets a shot at David Goffin in the round of 32 is going to fancy their chances of scoring an upset. Goffin has played just one match since injuring his eye in Rotterdam in February. That was a 6-0, 6-1 loss to Joao Sousa in Miami last month. The Belgian has admitted his confidence is low and his timing is off because of the injury and layoff. You get the feeling that he just needs a win to boost his confidence, but switching to clay without much match play in two months is a tough ask. Shapovalov can probably match Goffin’s speed better, but Tsitsipas has the power to trouble him too.

Guido Pella
Pella draws fellow Argentine and 10th seed Diego Schwartzman in round one. Pella has owned Schwartzman in their ATP careers with one main draw win over him at the French Open in 2016 along with three other wins on the Challenger and Futures circuits. Schwartzman has certainly come into his own since their last meeting, but history suggests this will be a tough match-up.

Alexandr Dolgopolov
The Dog has to get by Kyle Edmund in round one, no easy feat, but he does own a couple wins over the Brit albeit on grass. If he does win, he’ll take on 8th seed Pablo Carreno Busta in round two. PCB went 1-1 against Dolgopolov last year on clay with his win coming via retirement in the third set in Rio. Dog usually puts on a show even in losses as he plays in his adopted home town, so expect him to put up a big fight whether he wins or loses.

Kei Nishikori
A poor match-up for (12) Tomas Berdych in round one. Berdych is 1-4 against Nishikori, although the one win was on clay in Monte Carlo in 2012. This will be their first meeting in more than two years and perhaps Berdych has a chance to avoid the upset with Nishikori still searching for his best since returning from injury. Nishikori is just 4-3 on the season and has only played in Monte Carlo the one time when he lost to Berdych in the third round.

Fernando Verdasco/Pablo Cuevas
Either one of these two vets could give #2 seed Marin Cilic a real run for his money in the opener for the Croat. Verdasco and Cuevas are even in four meetings on clay in their careers. Verdasco has only been out of the opening round once in his last three visits, while Cuevas made a quarterfinal run here last year. Cilic has never met Cuevas, while owning a 7-5 advantage over Verdasco in their careers. They’ve split two career meetings on clay and haven’t met since Tokyo in 2016. The good news for Cilic is that he’s won five of the last six match-ups. Cuevas could be the tougher out as a result.

Draw Preview

Quarter #1 Seeds
(1) Rafael Nadal: 63-4 (10x Winner, 2017)
(5) Dominic Thiem: 3-4
(9) Novak Djokovic: 30-9 (W – 2013, 2015)
(16) Adrian Mannarino: 2-3

Breakdown
This quarter will draw all the attention with Nadal, Thiem and Djokovic amongst the players. It’s a tougher go for Thiem and Djokovic who are stuck in the bottom half of this quarter together. Thiem has never had much success in Monte Carlo and we’ve beaten Djokovic’s story with a sledgehammer at this point. Thiem won’t have the easiest of openers against either Robin Haase or Andrey Rublev. Rublev hasn’t won a match since Rotterdam, string of three straight one and dones. Haase would be the much tougher out with Rublev unlikely to force Thiem out of his baseline comfort zone. Haase is 3-2 against the 5th seed, but it was Thiem winning in straights here against the Dutchman last year.

Djokovic opens against fellow Serb Dusan Lajovic, who made it through qualifying. Djokovic won their lone prior clash, but that was back in 2015. Lajovic is a gritty type who could push Djokovic. The winner gets the survivor between Borna Coric and Julien Benneteau. Coric was a revelation during the Sunshine Double in Indian Wells and Miami with a semifinal and quarterfinal showing. The 21-year-old migh be a bit gassed from the heavy schedule though as he lost to Mikhail Kukushkin in Davis Cup play on clay. Coric has also lost all three matches that he has played in Monte Carlo, so perhaps Benneteau continues his woes.

The top half of the draw should belong to Nadal. The top seed opens against either Aljaz Bedene or Mirsa Basic. A win there nets Nadal a meeting with the winner between Karen Khachanov and either Gilles Simon or Adrian Mannarino. Mannarino is 2-0 in his career against Simon and Simon is coming in on short rest from the rain delated tournament in Marrakesh. Khachanov opened with a straight sets win over Thanasi Kokkinakis earlier on Sunday. The Russian has been decent on clay in his early career, so he could knock off Mannarino or Simon. None of those guys looks the part of stopping Rafa from getting to the quarters.

The Pig-nosticator

In the end, I still see this as Nadal’s quarter to lose. Thiem is probably the guy who could give him the toughest match at this stage, but he has to prove health after his ankle injury in Miami.

Sizzle
Rafael Nadal

Fizzle
Borna Coric

Quarter #2 Seeds
(4) Grigor Dimitrov: 9-5
(6) David Goffin: 7-5
(11) Roberto Bautista Agut: 7-5
(15) Albert Ramos-Vinolas: 8-6

Breakdown
What an open quarter this appears to be. Dimitrov comes in with nothing much in form. Goffin has just the one match since injuring his eye and he looked woeful. Bautista Agut has been poor at just 1-2 since winning the title in Dubai and Ramos-Vinolas has looked pretty mediocre at best in recent weeks. In Dimitrov’s half, he gets the winner between qualifier Pierre Hugues-Herbert and Paolo Lorenzi. PHH has been playing fairly well of late, so he could get the jump in that match. Dimitrov in spite of his bad run in the last month, should get through to round three.

Ramos-Vinolas is seeded to see him there, but has to get through Jared Donaldson to open. Then, either Tennys Sandgren or Philipp Kohlschreiber awaits. Sandgren is playing in his first ATP final in Houston on Sunday, so he will probably have a very difficult time, whether he wins or loses, of recovering and adjusting with the travel. Give Kohlschreiber the edge there and don’t be surprised if the German is a very tough out. He’s 16-10 all-time in Monte Carlo, although he hasn’t been able to get past round two since 2013. A lot of that has been due to tough draws, but he’s always been a tough out in that round.

In the other half, Goffin will need to find his game early as he will face either Denis Shapovalov or Stefanos Tsitsipas in his opener. It’s difficult to think Goffin is going to “click” with just one live match since February, so an upset is highly possible. In the other part of this half, Bautista Agut opens with Peter Gojowczyk. RBA should be the better player on this surface, but he’s in a slump. The survivor takes on Benoit Paire or Feliciano Lopez. Those two have split two career meetings with Paire taking the last in 2017 indoors. RBA would love to see Paire, who he is 6-0 against in their careers.

The Pig-nosticator

This quarter could go any which way. This is probably Dimitrov’s best shot at a deep run due to all the question marks, but he’s one of the top question marks here in the first place. Unseeded players don’t normally make it to the semifinals in Monte Carlo with Fabio Fognini’s run in 2013 being the last. Still, if someone is to break that trend – this might be the quarter with none of the seeds inspiring in play or history here. Goffin is the seed to watch for me. If and it’s a big if, IF he finds his timing and gets confidence in his eye, then he’s got a legit shot to get hot. Otherwise, my eyes fall to the Shapovalov-Tsitsipas winner and Kohlschreiber as dark horses.

Sizzle
Grigor Dimitrov

Fizzle
Albert Ramos-Vinolas

Quarter #3 Seeds
(3) Alexander Zverev: 3-2
(7) Lucas Pouille: 7-3
(10) Diego Schwartzman: 3-2
(13) Fabio Fognini: 11-9

Breakdown
For me, this quarter should be fun to watch. Zverev showed his prowess on clay in 2017, tallying 16 of his 38 career wins on dirt, including his unexpected title in Rome. Sascha found some form in Miami, but disappointed in losing the final to John Isner. He split clay clashes in Davis Cup play with David Ferrer and Rafael Nadal. I think those tests should help him in Monte Carlo. Zverev starts against Florian Mayer or Gilles Muller. A win puts him in position to possibly see Fognini for a spot in the quarterfinals.

Fognini takes on Ilya Ivashka in round one. Ivashka was solid in qualies, but has just one main draw win on clay at this level. Fognini is always tough to gauge. He lost his opener twice in the last three trips to Monte Carlo, but should have a good shot to avoid the hat trick. A win puts him against either Yuichi Sugita or Jan-Lennard Struff. Both of those should be advantageous match-ups on clay, but Sugita might be interesting. The man from Japan took the Italian to five sets in a Davis Cup clash earlier this season, but that was indoors on a hard surface. I will be disappointed if we don’t see a Sascha-Fab Mode showdown for a spot in the quarterfinals.

Pouille is the guy I outlined as a possible sleeper for the final in a year where it is hard to figure out who has a shot other than Nadal. Pouille opens against Mischa Zverev, who survived a three setter on Sunday against Felix Auger-Aliassime 6-2, 6-7 (4), 6-1. Pouille will have to adjust to Mischa’s serve and volley tactics, but I think he has the net game to survive. His third round opponent is seeded to be Diego Schwartzman, but he’s going to have a hard time getting there. He opens against Guido Pella and then would face either Richard Gasquet or Jeremy Chardy. Gasquet played well in Marrakesh before losing to Kyle Edmund in the semis. He looks like a potential sleeper. Pouille is 4-1 vs Gasquet.

The Pig-nosticator

The semifinal slot should come down to one of three players I think; Sascha Zverev, Pouille or Fognini. With questions continuing to scatter across the ATP landscape, this is another chance for Sascha to seize some of the limelight and show he is the next in line. I think Pouille is the danger for him and this would be their first meeting all-time. I will say this too – I don’t fancy Schwartzman this week, but if he escapes against Pella in round one, do watch out for him.

Sizzle
Lucas Pouille

Fizzle
Diego Schwartzman

Quarter #4 Seeds
(2) Marin Cilic: 12-9
(8) Pablo Carreno Busta: 5-4
(12) Tomas Berdych: 20-13
(14) Milos Raonic: 10-6

Breakdown
One of these things (Carreno Busta) is not like the other. It’s a bunch of bigger hitting seeds and then Carreno Busta in this quarter. PCB might have the more advantageus half over Cilic. The Spaniard could have to face Marrakesh finalist Kyle Edmund in his opener, but the Brit is sure to be feeling some fatigue after a long week and a quick turnaround. Edmund opens with Andreas Seppi, who might take advantage of that situation first. Carreno Busta is very much hit and miss on clay. The biggest hit coming in making the French Open quarterfinals last year, but four misses in his last six tournaments on clay, where he lost his opening match.

Opposite of Carreno Busta in this half is Berdych who has perhaps the worst first round match-up on paper against Kei Nishikori. Nishikori is 4-1 against Berdych, but of course is still trying to find his way back to scoring consistent results. Berdych looks boom or bust here, with an early win over a nemesis perhaps fueling a run. The survivor from the Berdych-Nishikori clash goes against Daniil Medvedev. The Russian held off Marton Fucsovics in first round play. That was the 22-year-old’s second win on clay in his career.

In the other half, Cilic will have the tough task of beating either Fernando Verdasco or Pablo Cuevas in his opener. That one should definitely be labelled as a possible upset. Should Cilic survive, Milos Raonic is seeded to see him in the round of 16. Raonic may have found his confidence in Miami with a quarterfinal run that ended with a tough three set loss to Juan Martin Del Potro. Raonic opens with wild card Lucas Catarina and then may see Damir Dzumhur in round two. Dzumhur starts against Marco Cecchinato. Dzumhur is just a .500 player on dirt though and hasn’t won a Masters main draw match since Miami last year. Watch out for Raonic.

The Pig-nosticator

One quarterfinal spot could come down to Cilic vs Raonic with the Croat owning a 2-1 lead, including a win on clay in their last meeting in Istanbul in 2017. Carreno Busta could be the “sleeper” here even as the #8. I’m still waiting for Nishikori to find those consistent results. This could be a sneaky week for him if he gets by Berdych, but nothing has been easy for him to this point. In the end, I think I’d favor Cilic or Raonic as the best bet to get through this quarter.

Sizzle
Milos Raonic

Fizzle
Tomas Berdych

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

Novak Djokovic will be watched closely this week for signs of life after reuniting with his former coach, but it’s Rafael Nadal who should be doing most of the heavy lifting. The ten time Monte Carlo champion looked fit and ready to roar on clay again with his Davis Cup wins a week ago. He will be bitterly disappointed I think not to start off the clay campaign with a title run. It’s difficult to see someone in the top half stopping him on the way to the final. Thiem is the likeliest candidate in a quarterfinal, but he’s got to get there first.

The bottom half provides more intrigue and I think the better shot for someone perhaps to have a chance to beat Nadal in the final … or at least play him tough. I’m eager to see if Raonic can transition his Miami success to something good on clay. He is a three-time quarterfinalist in Monte Carlo, so it’s not too big of an ask. I still rank Pouille as the one to watch in this half, but it’s likely Sascha Zverev who might provide the best test for Nadal in a final. I always think it’s put up or shut up time for Sascha and this week is no different.

I’m not going against the grain this week though – I expect Nadal to grind his way to title #11 in Monte Carlo and again serve notice that the road to a Roland Garros title is going through him again.

2018 Miami Open QF Preview: Juan Martin Del Potro vs Milos Raonic

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(5) Juan Martin Del Potro vs (20) Milos Raonic

Red Hot DelPo Rides 14 Match Win Streak

Juan Martin Del Potro is certainly the gold standard for the ATP World Tour right now. The “Tower of Tandil” has won 14 straight matches dating back to Acapulco with Filip Krajinovic as his latest victim. DelPo crushed the Serb 6-4, 6-2 in fourth round action on Tuesday. Del Potro smacked seven aces, while winning 78 percent of his first serve points and a solid 58 percent off his second. He was broken once on four chances. DelPo’s numbers on first serve have been especially consistent with win rates ranging right at 78 percent through three rounds.

It wasn’t perfect by any means with Del Potro down 4-1 in the opening set, but he flipped the script quickly and reeled off nine straight games to seize control of the match. The Argentine as with many others said that the windy conditions made it very difficult to play yesterday. DelPo said it was very hard to get a feel for the ball and it was harder to unload shots in his most comfortable position from the baseline. There will be wind to contend with again this evening, but it should be a bit lesser than players will see during the daytime.

Raonic had little trouble in winning his third straight sets match in Miami yesterday as he ousted Jeremy Chardy 6-3, 6-4. The Canadian rocketed 12 aces to bring him to 38 for the tournament. He dominated with a power first serve winning 85 percent of the points. Milos has been at a 78 percent or higher win rate in that respect in all three matches this week, with the last two rounds seeing him well over 80 percent.

The best news for the serve-centered Canadian is that he has not been broken this week and has only given his opponents five total break chances. It is a stark contrast to Indian Wells, where he was broken multiple times in three of the four matches played. That included being broken four times on five chances by Del Potro in their semifinal clash, where the Argentine rolled 6-2, 6-3. It was just their second meeting in the last two years with Raonic winning the other in Delray Beach in 2017 when DelPo was playing his first tournament of the season due to a late start from injury rehab.

The Formula

Captain Obvious here – serve, serve, serve. Both players’ games are predicated in landing their first serve and dominating the action with that serve. Raonic generally is the guy who generates more “freebies” even though both bring the heat with that first serve. This goes back to the same talk of angles that I spoke about in yesterday’s Zverev-Kyrgios preview. When you see these big servers dominating with power, generally it is the guys who generate those angles who have the more consistent power. That is Raonic when healthy and he gets those angles by hitting the ball at its highest point on the toss.

Del Potro has some off and on struggles on serve at times. He has a very high ball toss, so the wind is always going to be a challenge for him in that regard. I think part of his struggles seem to come from a lack of consistency in repeating the same motion for his serve. When he’s not as effective, he’s hitting the ball more when it’s coming down from its highest point on the ball toss. That can cut down some of the options to create better angles and easier points. When he’s hitting it at the high point like Raonic, then his serve is a beast.

The conditions in Indian Wells last week were pretty windy as well, so these two have played each other with that sort of challenge. In looking back at the tape, Raonic just made quite a few unforced errors that really could have swayed the match and made it more competitive. Tactically, I think Raonic played a smart match continuing with the serve and volley attack – but he netted A LOT of volleys in that match. He’s got to be better there today to craft the upset.

I expect he’ll employ similar tactics there again, but hope to be much more sound on the volleys. Del Potro did do a nice job when Raonic moved in slightly, but didn’t commit straight to the net of finding the passing shots to beat him. He will have to be ready to make those again and if Raonic wants to win, he’ll need to get after that Del Potro backhand better in that regard. DelPo is much less adept at making those passing shots off the backhand, but can hit the forehand with precision.

When it goes baseline to baseline, it’s going to be about attacking the backhand for both. Both have solid double handers, but obviously would prefer their more consistent forehands. Del Potro utilized the slice off the backhand effective in their last meeting to get to more forehands. Raonic used the slice less in those extended rallies, choosing to use it more as a tool when he chose to charge to net. It wasn’t particularly effective and I think he needs to be more aggressive in those chip and charge tactics, rather than slicing it where Del Potro showed the ability to get to the low ball and power it back for winners.

The Pig-nosticator

I think a lot of who wins this one is going to be about who adapts to the wind better with their serve. Both played in those pesky conditions yesterday and were able to find ways to get it done. Raonic has looked much more locked in on serve, albeit against players who he probably did not feel threatened by on their own serve. That meant a bit of wiggle room if he faltered on serve, but he doesn’t get that luxury against Del Potro. DelPo has been off to the races when he gets breaks on his opponents.

He’s converted 12 of 26 break chances in Miami, but figures to see fewer against Raonic. His charge is matching the Canadian if he’s showing the rhythm we’ve seen him in this week. Del Potro can’t afford any stumbles on serve if Raonic is pounding his in for easy points. I’m far less worried at this stage about the fatigue factor with Del Potro as he’s continuing to grind and get wins without expending a ton of energy. He’s not likely to go into too many extended double digit shot rallies with Raonic.

Del Potro’s keys are the first serve and I think mixing it up a little when Raonic commits forward. Don’t always look for the passing shot, use some lobs and make Raonic run or get beat for coming in too far. For Raonic, find the serve rhythm early and find success early with the volleys at the net. If he can do that, his confidence grows and he’s got a good shot here to end the Del Potro win streak.

The problem for Raonic however has been beating top ten players. He’s 0-1 this year with the loss to Del Potro and just 1-5 since the beginning of 2017. That win came against Rafael Nadal in Brisbane in the first tournament of the season. He’s yet to prove himself in a big match against a big time player. This is chance number two and while I do think he’ll improve on last week’s showing, I think he falls just short in the end.

Prediction: Del Potro wins in straight sets

2018 Miami Open Preview

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Can Anyone Stop Federer and Del Potro ?

The ATP World Tour makes its last hard court stop of the Spring in Florida for the Miami Open. Roger Federer finally proved mortal last week in Indian Wells, losing a tense title match to Juan Martin Del Potro in a third set tie break. For Del Potro, Indian Wells continues a hot run that began in Acapulco. The Argentine has now won titles in consecutive tournaments and has pushed up to number six in the rankings. Combined, Federer and Del Potro are 34-4 in 2019 with two titles each. Clearly, they are the current gold standard.

So the questions beckons whether there is anyone in the field in Miami this week that can break up the current dynamic duo? Federer heads in as the defending champ and has won the Miami title three times. The 36-year-old was pressed hard by Borna Coric in the semis and then by Del Potro in the final last week, so it will be interesting to see if there is any lingering fatigue. Slotted second behind Fed is Marin Cilic. Cilic was a disappointing, albeit not unexpected early exit in Indian Wells. He’s only made it as far as the quarterfinals once in Miami and that was back in 2013. Cilic has dropped his opener at this Masters event in two of his last three trips.

Rounding out the top four seeds are Grigor Dimitrov and Alexander Zverev. Both were dumped out of Indian Wells in their openers last week. Dimitrov is just 8-7 all-time in Miami with the fourth round as his best finish. He lost his opener in Miami last year. Zverev is making just his fourth trip to Florida with last year’s quarterfinal finish as his best run. Del Potro is seeded fifth this week, making the Miami trip with poor recent history. DelPo has not made it past round two in Miami since 2012. Kevin Anderson is seeded sixth and has not made it past round three in five of the last six years.

Rounding out the top eight are David Goffin and Jack Sock. Goffin returns to the court for the first time since injuring his eye in a freak accident in Rotterdam. The Belgian made the semis here in 2016, but has had trouble getting deep into the tournament most years. Sock is a 2017 quarterfinaiist, but has just two wins in seven matches this season.

Djokovic Leads Other SeedsĀ 

Six-time Miami Open champion Novak Djokovic will be looking to prove fit this week as he slots in at #9. The Serb lost in Indian Wells last week in his opener, falling to Taro Daniel in three sets. The good news is that Djokovic is reportedly pain free in his elbow, but he’s certainly looking rusty and nervy – to be expected with just a handful of matches played in the last nine months. Tomas Berdych is seeded 10th and carries in an impressive streak to Miami. The Czech has made the quarters or better here every year since 2013.

Other seeds to watch this week include Nick Kyrgios. The 17th seed was forced to withdraw from Indian Wells last week with his right elbow still bothering him. It remains to be seen how healthy the Aussie is heading into this tournament. When healthy, he’s been a factor here with two straight semifinal runs in 2016 and 2017. Hyeon Chung is in at #19 in Miami. The South Korean is only 1-3 in his career here, but certainly is playing his best tennis again. He’ll be one to watch. Milos Raonic is seeded 20th and off his best result in eight months. Where his game is really at though is another question with Del Potro dismantling him easily in the semis last week.

The 26th seed is Kei Nishikori, who was a late withdrawal last week in California due to illness. e made the final in Miami in 2016 and will certainly be looking to elevate his level this week. Surprise Indian Wells semifinalist Borna Coric is in at #29. The Croat has a chance to build some major and unexpected momentum this week. Coric is 7-3 in his last ten matches. The ever-dangerous vet Fernando Verdasco slips in as the 30th seed this week. He’s a two-time quarterfinalist in Miami and he’s knocked off two top ten players this year. The Spaniard very likely could scare someone again this week.

ELIMINATI

Every week, we take a look at the seeds who could be in peril of losing their openers. The players capable of beating them, I call the Eliminati. Miami has been a blood bath for seeds in their openers in recent years. Last year, 14 seeds fell in their first matches – including a pair of top ten seeds. At least one top ten seed has fallen in Miami in each of the last three seasons. Overall from 2014-2017, at least eight seeds have been taken down in their openers each year.

Here is a look at the guys who could put more players in that club in 2018.

Yuki Bhambri
Because .. Jack Sock. Bhambri made it through qualifying in Indian Wells last week and scored a couple of wins in the main draw, including a stunner over Lucas Pouille. Sock certainly hasn’t shown a ton at 2-5 this season to inspire a ton of confidence. Bhambri must get past Mirza Basic first.

Cameron Norrie/Nicolas Jarry
I don’t think it matters which one of these guys wins – they both will have a chance against Diego Schwartzman. The Argentine has not been able to get untracked on hard courts after a great South American clay court swing. In fact, other than his fourth round run at the Aussie Open – Schwartzman only has one other win on hard courts in 2018. Jarry’s power didn’t both Schwartzman on clay, but perhaps it could on this surface.

Steve Johnson
The American has a round one meeting with Victor Estrella Burgos. A win would get him a shot at 18th seed Adrian Mannarino. Johnson has won the last two meetings, since losing in five sets to Mannarino at the 2014 Australian Open. Mannarino made round four last year and has not lost his opener in Miami since his debut in 2011 – but this match-up would be tough in spite of Johnson’s 1-4 record in Miami.

Frances Tiafoe
Big Foe was an early casualty in Indian Wells last week, unable to follow up on his Delray Beach title run. This week perhaps he’s back in the weeds with a bit less press and that could make him dangerous. He will need to beat Nicolas Kicker in round one, but really has to put it together to do so if we’re going to take him seriously. A win would get him a showdown against 21st seed Kyle Edmund. Edmund lost his first match at Indian Wells, his first since being injured at the Australian Open. Edmund is just 1-4 in Miami for his career and short on match play in recent months. Tiafoe would have a legit shot if he can get through and Kicker might too if things work out that way instead.

Marius Copil/Mikhail Kukushkin
I think the winner of this first rounder has a good chance to take down #32 Karen Khachanov. The Russian has yet to score a win in Miami in two trips. Khachanov has gone 1-2 since winning his 2nd career title earlier this season in Marseille. Copil and Kukushkin are two vets who are full capable of matching Khachanov and springing an upset if the Russian can’t get it together.

Evgeny Donskoy/Aljaz Bedene
The winner here will face (25) David Ferrer. Donskoy has quietly made quarterfinal runs in two of his last three tournaments. The Russian also knocked out Khachanov at Indian Wells last week. Bedene ran well on clay, but has not been a big factor on hard courts lately. Donskoy does own a win in his last match against Ferrer, a three sets win at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Ferrer has avoided first match defeats in his last two tournaments, but does have three opening match losses in 2018.

Dusan Lajovic/Horacio Zeballos
Lajovic and Zeballos are on the list simply becase we’re uncertain how healthy Nick Kyrgios is this week. If the Aussie’s elbow is good-to-go, then I don’t see an upset in this spot. I’d be surprised if Kyrgios risked it if he’s not healthy, but he waited until match day at Indian Wells to withdraw. It could be a repeat this week if he’s not fit.

Denis Shapovalov/Viktor Troicki
The survivor gets (24) Damir Dzumhur and will provide some definite upset potential. Dzumhur has made it out of his first match the last two trips to Miami, but has a tough opponent waiting either way. Troicki has lost four of his last five matches, but does own a win over El Shapo in Shanghai last season. The Canadian wonderboy is still looking to really ignite his season. Shapovalov has been decent, but unable to make a real mark on the season. Could this be his chance?

Benoit Paire
Paire plays Mischa Zverev in round one, so it’s not a given despite the German’s 0-3 mark In Miami. It is Paire after all. The winner gets a shot at Novak Djokovic and you have to keep him on upset alert until he finds his rhythm and proves health. The Serb seemed nervy after the long layoff last week, so I would expect improvement this week. Keep this on the lowest tier of the upset alert, but you just don’t know with Djokovic right now.

Jeremy Chardy/Rogerio Dutra Silva
Chardy has been unable to beat Richard Gasquet in three tries, so normally this would be something I would not consider. Gasquet though has been out since since losing in Dubai to Borna Coric. A knee injury limited him in that one and so it’s up-in-the-air if Gasquet is fully healthy heading into Miami. That gives the winner of this first round match some potential to get a seeded scalp.

Jared Donaldson/Marcos Baghdatis
Either Donaldson or Baghdatis should have a shot against 25th seed Feliciano Lopez. Lopez did make a nice fourth round run in Indian Wells, but he lost to Donaldson in straights in Acapulco. Baghdatis is also 4-1 against the Spaniard, giving whomever survives a pretty good shot to take down Lopez.

Guido Pella
If Pella can get past Mikhail Youzhny in round one, he would get a shot at Gilles Muller. Muller is just 2-9 in Miami and has lost his opening match in three tournaments this year. Pella stunned Dimitrov in Miami last year en route to the third round and could be a tough out for Muller.

Ivo Karlovic/Vasek Pospisil
Andrey Rublev awaits the winner with the 27th seeded Russian on a three match losing streak, including losing his opener in two straight tournaments. I think Karlovic would be the tougher out for Rublev, simply because of the serve and Rublev’s own serve often wobbling in and out of rhythm.

Draw Preview

Quarter #1 Seeds
(1) Roger Federer: 50-13 (W – 2005, 2006, 2017)
(6) Kevin Anderson: 13-8
(10) Tomas Berdych: 33-12
(16) Pablo Carreno Busta: 0-4
(21) Kyle Edmund: 1-4
(31) Fernando Verdasco: 17-15
(32) Karen Khachanov: 0-2

Breakdown
Federer’s path to the quarterfinals seems solid enough. He has Carreno Busta, Mannarino and Verdasco as the potential seeds standing in his way to that point. He opens against a qualifier with Calvin Hemery and Thanasi Kokkinakis going head-to-head in round one. Fed could then see Verdasco in round three. The Spaniard would need to get past the winner of Guillermo Garcia-Lopez and Tennys Sandgren. GGL hasn’t played on hard courts since Doha, while Sandgren has match play from last week in Indian Wells. Verdasco has made round three in four of his last six trips. If it comes down to Federer and Verdasco, the Swiss is 6-0 against the lefty.

Carreno Busta has never won in Miami in four tries, but might have a shot to break that streak. He faces Denis Istomin or 18-year-old Serbian wild card Miomir Kecmanovic. Istomin would obviously be a tougher out in spite of his overall poor form. The winner in that section would see Mannarino, Steve Johnson or Victor Estrella Burgos for a shot at the fourth round. Without a ton of success in the past in Miami, this is a wide open portion of the draw. If Mannarino can get past a tricky opener, he could step up and push into round four opposite of Federer.

In the bottom half, Kevin Anderson will look to get himself back on track after a loss to Coric last week. Anderson has struggled in Miami with a quarterfinal run in 2011 as his best result. He should be afforded a good start against either Thomas Fabbiano or Nikoloz Basilashvili. The potential third round opponents for Anderson consist of Khachanov, Copil and Kukushkin. You have to like Andersn to at least find his way to the fourth round with that sort of draw.

Opposite of Anderson is the segment with Berdych and Edmund. Edmund has the tougher early draw with either Tiafoe or Kicker to open. Berdych starts with either Yoshi Nishioka or qualifier Alex de Minaur. de Minaur couldn’t keep up with the Czech in Melbourne, so it’s difficult to see much changing if he is the round one victor. Berdych’s history in Miami is good, but a healthy Edmund would definitely be a challenge. I do think Edmund should improve after getting a match under his belt last week. It looks like this quarter comes down to the seeds.

The Pig-nosticator

Only two of the last four years in Miami have seen an unseeded quarter finalist and this part of the draw doesn’t look conducive to adding to that list. The obvious question is whether anyone can stop Federer shy of the semifinals in this quarter? Most of the seeded match-ups he could see lean heavily in his favor, but if a player or two can push him to play three sets early – perhaps fatigue can help someone pull a stunner. It’s still difficult to see though.

Sizzle
Kevin Anderson

Fizzle
Karen Khachanov

Quarter #2 Seeds
(4) Alexander Zverev: 5-3
(8) Jack Sock: 7-5
(11) Sam Querrey: 9-12
(15) Fabio Fognini: 8-6
(17) Nick Kyrgios: 8-2
(24) Damir Dzumhur: 4-3
(28) David Ferrer: 31-15
(29) Borna Coric: 3-3

Breakdown
Zverev will face a big hitter in his opener with either Stefanos Tsitsipas or Daniil Medvedev waiting. He’s already beaten Medvedev easily in their only career meeting, but he has yet to face the Greek Tsitsipas. The unfamiliarity of Tsitsipas could make that match interesting if he gets to round two, but I think Sascha’s overall game wins out. Ferrer is seeded to make the third round opposite of Zverev, but could be one and done against either Donskoy or Bedene. I’d favor that to be Donskoy. Sascha would probably be fine with that seeing that Ferrer does own a couple of wins against him. Zverev did win their most recent match in Rotterdam though to secure his first win in three tries against the Spaniard.

The segment opposite of this one is intriguing with Fognini and Kyrgios as the seeds. The lack of news on Kyrgios will keep everyone guessing until his first match. If he is healthy, he’s obviously a threat to do well here. Fognini is certainly one to monitor as well, after making the semis last year. Fognini has the easier time in his opener against Spain’s Nicola Kuhn or qualifier Darian King. With Kyrgios lacking match toughness and fitness, I could see Fognini working through here and into the fourth round opposite of Zverev most likely.

In the bottom half, Americans Jack Sock and Sam Querrey are the highest seeds – but it’s Borna Coric that everyone will likely have eyes on this week. Coric put together a solid run in Indian Wells to his first Masters semifinal. A bit steadier play and he probably would have made the final and beaten Federer. Can he follow it up this week? He’s got Leonardo Mayer or Donald Young to open. He has owned Young and destroyed him again last week at Indian Wells. The match-up. Mayer is tougher, having beaten Coric twice on clay in 2014 and 2015. Coric would love to see Young instead. The winner could see Jack Sock who faces the winner between Yuki Bhambri and lucky loser Mirza Basic. Bhambri stunned Lucas Pouille at Inidan Wells, so beating Sock may not be that far fetched if he advances.

Querrey and Dzumhur are the seeds in the other segment. Querrey has not made it past round three in Miami since 2013. Querrey could see Radu Albot in his opener. Albot plays qualifier Ricardas Berankis in round one. Dzumhur, I talked about in The Eliminati with a tough opener against either Shapovalov or Troicki. This might actually wind up being a good spot for Querrey to make a push. The quarterfinal spot could come down to Sock, Querrey and Coric.

The Pig-nosticator

I think it’s time for Sascha to step up and make some noise after a quiet few months to start 2018. The two roadblocks for Zverev in this segment are a healthy Kyrgios and Coric. Coric is 2-0 against Sascha with his defense really helping work over the German.

Sizzle
Alexander Zverev
Fabio Fognini

Fizzle
Dami Dzumhur

Quarter #3 Seeds
(3) Grigor Dimitrov: 8-7
(5) Juan Del Potro: 15-9
(9) Novak Djokovic: 42-5 ( W – 2007, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016)
(13) Diego Schwartzman: 2-3
(20) Milos Raonic: 11-4
(22) Filip Krajinovic: 1-2
(26) Kei Nishikori: 20-7
(30) Richard Gasquet: 12-10

Breakdown
Tons of big names here, but only one is playing top notch tennis and that is Del Potro. Still, this is a vast difference in paths than what Federer is seeing in his quarter. Del Potro opens against either Yuichi Sugita or Robin Haase. DelPo is a combined 6-0 against the two, so expect him to move to round three. That is where he is seeded to see Kei Nishikori. Nishikori missed Indian Wells with an illness, which puts him back a step after he seemed on the cusp of making a move. Nishikori goes against Peter Gojowczyk or qualifier John Millman. It would be harsh not to get the DelPo-Nishikori match-up, but the 26th seed has to prove his game again.

Opposite of this segment, there is plenty of intrigue with Djokovic as the lead seed along with Krajinovic. Djokovic admitted after Indian Wells that he felt nervous and felt that led to many abnormal unforced errors. He will hope to calm himself this week as he looks to get some traction on the season. Nole faces either Paire or Mischa Zverev to begin. For me, Paire is the bigger challenge with his bigger ground strokes. I think Mischa’s weak serve will get eaten up by Djokovic. Krajinovic will await the winner of an all-quali first rounder between Bjorn Fratangelo and Liam Broady. There are obviously some winnable matches for Djokovic, but we will see what his form looks like this week.

In the bottom half, you’ve got Grigor Dimitrov as the 3rd seed. Dimitrov was a loser to Verdasco in his opener last week at Indian Wells. Miami has been marginally better to him historically and his early draw should be a bit better. I would say Marton Fucsovics or Maximillian Marterer could push him a little in his opener, but he should win. A win would set him up well for a likely fourth round run. Gasquet is the other seed in this section and his iffy knee wouldn’t seem to lend him to a deep run.

The other section here sees Schwartzman and Raonic as the seeds. Raonic got some needed wins last week, but his overall form still isn’t top notch. He awaits Mikael Ymer or Jan-Lennard Struff to start in Miami. Struff’s serve could help him go toe-to-toe with Raonic, but the Canadian would seem to be the better bet to come through. Schwartzman gets the winner between Cameron Norrie and Nicolas Jarry. Jarry was a revelation on clay and his big serve and forehand could translate well to hard courts. The Chilean hasn’t been on the surface since Melbourne, so we will see how he does. Norrie has been competitive of late.

The Pig-nosticator

Schwartzman hasn’t been good outdoors outside of the Australian Open. He made the fourth round there, but is just 1-4 in four other outdoor hard court tourneys this season. He could be an early casualty and that means the quarterfinals in this quarter could come down to Dimitrov and Del Potro. Nishikori is an X-factor here for me as I think DelPo could find some fatigue this week and Dimitrov simply hasn’t shown consistency from week to week to trust.

Sizzle
Kei Nishikori

Fizzle
Juan Martin Del Potro

Quarter #4 Seeds
(2) Marin Cilic: 9-9
(7) David Goffin: 11-6
(12) Roberto Bautista Agut: 7-6
(14) John Isner: 13-10
(19) Hyeon Chung: 1-3
(23) Gilles Muller: 2-9
(25) Feliciano Lopez: 11-15
(27) Andrey Rublev: 2-3

Breakdown
Cilic is just 2-2 since making the Australian Open final. His opener in Miami will be Taylor Fritz or Pierre-Hugues Herbert. I think that is a good match-up for him, although Fritz did play fairly well out west last week. It is a winnable segment though with Rublev as the other seed. The Russian has flat lined some lately and could face big serving Ivo Karlovic to open. Karlovic plays Vasek Pospisil in round one. Karlovic could actually be the toughest out for Cilic here with the Croat taking three of the last four meetings.

In the other segment in this half, Muller and Isner are the seeds in a very iffy section. Isner has a decent opening match-up against either Jiri Vesely or Lukas Lacko. In spite of his trouble getting Ws early this season, there is no excuse to lose to either of those guys if he’s going to pull out of the hole he’s dug himself. Muller has it tougher potentially with Guido Pella or Mikhail Youzhny as his first foe. Pella as I stated earlier could be a potential Eliminati member this week. I think Youzhny would be by far the easier match for Muller with the Russian struggling to match big servers. Isner could have a real shot to scoot into round four.

In the other half, it is the return of David Goffin. Goffin has been out since February when a bounced ball deflected off his racquet and into his eye. His vision has been blurry since then, but the Belgian is ready to give it a go this week. If Goffin’s vision has cleared, he could be a dark horse in this part of the draw. Goffin has made the fourth round or better in three straight trips to Miami. He will get either Ryan Harrison or Joao Sousa in round two. The survivor is seeded to see Feliciano Lopez in round three, but the Spaniard might be one and done to either Jared Donaldson or Marcos Baghdatis. If there is an unseeded player who might get a shot at a quarterfinal, it could be the Donaldson-Baghdatis winner.

It’s Roberto Bautista Agut and Hyeon Chung leading the other section. RBA has made two straight fourth round runs in Miami. Bautista Agut gets an opener against Christopher Eubanks or qualifier Michael Mmoh. That should be advantage RBA. Chung will get the survivor of a first rounder between Matthew Ebden and Gilles Simon. Chung has been a beacon of consistency in making five quarterfinals in six tournaments played this season. I like him in this section to get past Bautista Agut. That could mean a great match-up with Goffin in round four for another shot at a quarterfinal.

The Pig-nosticator

This looks like a chance for Cilic to get back on track following some subpar tournaments. It’s difficult to know if Goffin can find his game quickly enough to be a factor here, so it could be Chung who pushes for a spot in the semifinals. Double digit seeds have made a habit of making the semis in Miami with five of the last 16 Miami semifinalists fitting that mold.

Sizzle
Hyeon Chung

Fizzle
Feliciano Lopez
Andrey Rublev

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

Del Potro is the form player right now and he has a massive chance this week to cement himself as a challenger to the throne of Roger Federer in 2018. Last week’s win over Fed in Indian Wells sounded the bell for that fight and this week, DelPo goes for the knockout punch. It will be interesting to see how Federer bounces back from his first loss of the season. The top seed has made the final three of the last four years and the fourth was Federer making it in 2017 as the #4 seed.

2010 was the last time a seed outside of the top six made the final with Tomas Berdych losing to six seed Andy Roddick that year. There are some outliers who could change that like a healthy Kyrgios, Nishikori or Chung. My brain is stuck on Sascha Zverev this week as a potential winner, although Borna Coric could derail that before it comes to fruition. For me, Federer, Cilic, and Zverev should be in the mix. I still think Del Potro is going to run out of gas this week.

If you’re looking for seeded long shots, I do feel like Goffin and Nishikori can make some noise if they find a rhythm early and Chung seems like he’s becoming a weekly threat to be in the last eight.

2018 Brisbane International Preview

BRISBANE18

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Big Four Facing Uncertain Starts to 2018

The 2018 ATP World Tour begins with a stop in Brisbane, Australia ahead of three other tournaments kicking off on New Year’s Day in Sydney, Doha and Pune. The start of the season has already been marred by health questions surrounding both Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Nadal announces his withdrawal from the Brisbane International, saying that he was still not fit to compete after ending last season prematurely due to a knee injury. Nadal is hopeful that he can continue to train and be ready for the Australian Open, but that is certainly a big question mark for the ATP’s top ranked player.

Djokovic reported feeling some pain in his surgically repaired right elbow this week, which caused him to skip the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi. The Serb seems likely to miss the Qatar Open in Doha, which starts on Monday. Djokovic has not played since Wimbledon last year. He will be replaced in Abu Dhabi by Andy Murray, who is crafting his own return from a hip injury that ended his 2017 campaign early. As of now, Roger Federer looks to be the lone member of the “Big Four” who will enter the 2018 season healthy. Fed is starting his season at the Hopman Cup in Perth this weekend.

Opportunity Beckons for Next Generation & Twenty-Somethings

With the lingering questions about the health of Nadal, Djokovic and Murray, it’s obvious that there is no better time than the present for other players to step into the spotlight and grab some glory. One of those twenty-somethings of whom something will be expected of this season is this week’s top seed, Grigor Dimitrov. Dimitrov capped off his 2017 by winning the Nitto ATP Finals. That pushed Dimitrov to a career-best 3rd in the rankings. He finished the season 49-19, but was not a factor in three of the four Grand Slams.

Dimitrov will need to strive for better consistency over the course of the season and not get into those stretches where he can’t win matches like he did in March & April. In that span, Dimitrov flopped in Indian Wells and Miami, losing his opener at the Miami Open. He followed that with successive first round losses in Marrakech and Monte Carlo. It’s been too familiar for Dimitrov who found the same thing with five straight first-up losses in May & June of 2016.

Brisbane will also feature one of the game’s most mercurial players in Nick Kyrgios. The Aussie is the third seed behind Dimitrov and Andy Murray. Kyrgios comes off another up and down season, finishing 2017 at 31-17 with no titles won. Health and effort were once again front row and center for Kyrgios last season with shoulder and hip ailments limiting him. NK was another young player who made no impression at Slams, losing in the first round at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and in the second round both at the Australian and French Opens.

2018 might signal a new version of Kyrgios. The 22-year-old has shown his philanthropic side since late last Fall when he announced the start of his own foundation to benefit underprivileged children. It has shown a side that the mainstream media has not focused on in the past and perhaps has given Kyrgios a bit more focus. Kyrgios said he heads into the new season healthier than last year and he’s been training with the Australian Davis Cup team in the past month. Could this be the year where things come together for the uber talented Aussie?

ELIMINATI

Spruced up for 2018, it’s a look at the seeds in the draw and those who might spring those upsets on the seeds – aka The Eliminati. Recently, Brisbane has been an anti-upset location for seeds with only six dropping their openers in the last four years. In 2015 and 2016, just one seed was taken down early. And since 2014, just one top four seed has been eliminated in their first match. Perhaps that could change in 2018 with some different names in the seeded field and a couple players – Murray and Raonic – coming on off lengthy layoffs.

Here is a look at who could play the part of the Eliminati in Brisbane in the early going.

John Millman
The home standing Aussie will take on a qualifier in round one with the prize being a date against top seed Grigor Dimitrov. Dimitrov is the defending champion of this event and has made the semifinals or finals in three of his five trips, but he’s got a big target on his back this time as the #3 player in the world. Millman has a history of being a tough out at this tournament, losing in three sets to Murray in 2012 and Federer in 2015 in his last two trips to Brisbane. Keep an eye on Millman if he passes his first round test.

Ryan Harrison/Leonardo Mayer
The winner of this first round match gets a shot at (2) Murray. The Scot has been rehabbing an injured hip since losing in five sets to Sam Querrey at Wimbledon last summer. He made his return to the court in exhibition play against Roberto Bautista Agut this week, losing 6-2 in Abu Dhabi. The 30-year old was a late sub for Novak Djokovic, so perhaps he was off the mark after not expecting to play. Still, he showed rust and both Harrison and Mayer have taken sets off of him in the past. Given his lack of competitive match play, this would be an opportune time for one of these two to jump on the second seed and get a win.

Steve Johnson
The American could cause a shock if he gets to round two, where he would face fourth seed Milos Raonic. Raonic ended his 2017 campaign early in Tokyo due to a calf injury. It was the last in a string of injuries that derailed the Canadian last season with wrist and leg injuries leading Raonic to a 29-12 mark with no titles won. Raonic’s last title came at this tournament in 2016, so he will be hoping that a return to this tournament will jump start his season. Johnson could be dangerous in this spot, if he gets past talented Aussie Alex de Minaur in round one. The American will have to overcome a poor history at this event to do so (1-3) though.

Qualifier
Mischa Zverev was one of the surprises of the early going in 2017 with his shocking defeat of Murray at last year’s Australian Open that pushed him into the first Slam quarter of his career. That looks like more of an anomaly for the German vet who often struggles on outdoor hard courts. This will be his third main draw in Brisbane with just a 1-2 record previously. Given that he’ll go against someone with play in match conditions, he could be ripe for an upset if the qualifier can handle his serve and volley tactics.

Alexandr Dolgopolov
The Dog heads into another season with the same M.O. that has followed him during his career; a player who can beat almost anyone when he gets on a roll, but a player who can lose to anyone, any week. Dolgopolov takes on sixth seed Diego Schwartzman in round one. Schwartzman won their lone meeting back in 2016 in three sets on clay in Buenos Aires. Schwartzman comes off his most successful ATP season, where he made his first-ever Grand Slam quarterfinal at the U.S. Open. This is his second straight trip to Brisbane. Last year, he went 1-1 in beating Querrey and losing to Raonic. Dolgopolov has some modest success in Brisbane at 8-6 for his career.

Draw Preview

*Career record at Brisbane in (parenthesis)*

Quarter #1 Seeds
(1) Grigor Dimitrov: 14-4 (2017-W)
(5) Gilles Muller: 1-2

Breakdown
Dimitrov has shown a great affinity for Brisbane in his career with two finals appearances and quarterfinal or better finishes in four of five trips to this tournament. There are plenty of pitfalls in this quarter however that could preclude Dimitrov from getting that sort of result again. Fifth seed Gilles Muller owns three wins in his last four meetings with Dimitrov, including two wins last season. Muller will need to be careful in round one against Hyeon Chung, but could be a serious contender to the crown if he gets rolling.

The floaters here worth watching will meet in round one with Denis Shapovalov going head-to-head against Kyle Edmund. These two met three times, all in 2017, with El Shapo taking two of three. Interestingly, two of the matches were settled via retirement. That includes their last at the U.S. Open, where Shapovalov won when Edmund retired down two sets to one and 0-1 in the fourth.

This figures to be an intriguing season for the 18-year-old Shapovalov who struggled outside of his two big finishes at the Rogers Cup (SF) and U.S. Open (R16). El Shapo went just 2-6 after his U.S. Open heroics. There will be some lofty expectations due to those marquee results, but perhaps they should be tempered some with this season being the Canadian’s first “full” season at this level. Still, the winner between Shapovalov and Edmund will be a tough out for Muller or Chung, which makes this quarter much more of a toss up than you might think.

Quarter #2 Seeds
(3) Nick Kyrgios: 0-0
(6) Diego Schwartzman: 1-1

Breakdown
Kyrgios will make his Brisbane debut and should be expected to be on a show this week. The Aussie has a workable draw that should give him a shot at making the semifinals. He will either American Frances Tiafoe or Aussie Matthew Ebden in his opener. Both have talent and could pull off an upset, but I think Kyrgios’ serve is too electric for either player to keep up with.

Schwartzman’s side of the quarter could go any which way. The Argentine showed that he can win on this surface as he scored 22 of his career 35 wins on outdoor hard courts during his breakout campaign last year. That turned around an 8-16 mark prior to 2017. He faces the tricky game of Dolgopolov to open and then would get Horacio Zeballos or a qualifier. With what else inhabits this quarter, Kyrgios really should get through here as long as his serve is rolling to start the season.

Quarter #3 Seeds
(4) Milos Raonic: 9-3 (2016 – W)
(8) Mischa Zverev: 1-2

Breakdown
Raonic has played well down under in previous seasons and should be out to prove himself healthy to start the new year. The 27-year-old has been one of the more outspoked players this offseason when it comes to the ATP calendar. Raonic believes the season should end with the U.S. Open in order to give players proper rest and it’s not really that bad of an idea. In any case, Raonic’s serve and power should play well in this quarter – but he will be tested. Steve Johnson still looks like the biggest potential landmine for the fourth seed.

Zverev will try to keep his opponents off balance per usual with his serve and volley tactics. The 8th seed actually might have a better set up on his side of the quarter with a couple of qualifiers and Federico Delbonis in the mix. The qualifying field isn’t exceptionally strong with top seed Alexander Bublik already beaten by Aussie John Patrick Smith. I don’t generally trust the German outdoors, but he might be lined up to win a few in this quarter.

Quarter #4 Seeds
(2) Andy Murray: 9-0 (2012, 2013 – W)
(7) Damir Dzumhur: 0-0

Breakdown
Murray will look to keep his perfect record intact in Brisbane as he looks to get some match play under his belt before Melborne. Murray looked sluggish in his debut in the Abu Dhabi exhibition, but said that was too be expected after the long layoff. The Scot is hopeful that his body will respond better this week in Brisbane, but sounds like he’s not necessarily expecting to make a deep run. I’m not going to be stunned if Murray loses his opener to Ryan Harrison or Leonardo Mayer.

Dzumhur debuts in Brisbane with his opener against Denis Istomin. Istomin is closing in on the one year mark since his stunning defeat of Novak Djokovic at last year’s Australian Open. Istomin returned to his normal inconsistency after Melbourne, going 17-18 with a title in Chengdu late in the season. Between the Aussie Open and Chengdu, Istomin tallied about half his wins for the season.

The 25-year-old Dzumhur scored his maiden ATP title in 2017 in St.Petersburg and followed it up with his second in Moscow. The Serb has shown good skill on hard courts, but has just two wins in January over the last three years. He’ll have to prove himself all over again to start the year off. Given Murray’s sketchy physical condition, Dzumhur could take advantage of this quarter and get through to the semifinals. He will have a tough time in round two against either Jared Donaldson or Jordan Thompson. The winner of that match has definite darkhorse possibilities.

The Pig-nosticator

Each tournament previewed, the Pig-nosticator will list out @tennispig‘s picks to sizzle and fizzle for the week. Don’t forget that if something you peruse through in the preview provides you with something helpful – a visit to the Tip Jar would be kindly appreciated.

Sizzle
Nick Kyrgios
Milos Raonic
Jared Donaldson

Fizzle
Andy Murray
Hyeon Chung

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

The top seed has been involved in the business end in Brisbane, but has won just once in the last four years (Federer – 2015). Among the top three seeds are three former champions at this stop on the tour in Dimitrov, Raonic and Murray. I’d erase Murray off the list of contenders until he can prove he’s fit enough to handle several matches in a row. Raonic is a shorter question mark and can blister opponents with his serve. The positives for Dimitrov are that he is 3-1 against Raonic if it came down to that for the title. The negative is that Dimitrov has a tougher route prior to that possibly showdown with Gilles Muller and Nick Kyrgios in his path to the final.

Dimitrov is 2-0 against Kyrgios, but 2-3 against Muller. A win this week would make him the first repeat champion since Murray did the trick in 2012 and 2013. Damir Dzumhur is the sleeper for me amongst the seeds. The #7 seed is in Murray’s quarter and could benefit from the Scot not being up to snuff yet, but there are dangerous floaters like Jared Donaldson, Jordan Thompson, Leonardo Mayer and Ryan Harrison who could spring some surprises as non-seeded players. Non-seeds haven’t done much the last few years at the Brisbane International though with Lleyton Hewitt as the last non-seed to make the final (2014) and Dimitrov as the last non-seed to win the title (2013).

Bottom line – Kyrgios is the gut pick with Dzumhur as the longer shot. Dimitrov may prove me wrong by rolling this week, but I just have a feeling that he’s going to get got before the final.