2017 AEGON Championships Preview

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Queen’s Club is Dandy for Andy

Queen’s Club in London is one of the big stops this week as players sneak in more grass court preparation ahead of Wimbledon. The AEGON Championships have belonged to Andy Murray. This year’s top seed is a five-time champion at this event, including winning each of the last two seasons. He is 30-5 during his career at this tournament and has followed up two of his last three title wins at Queens’ Club with the title at Wimbledon.

Stan Wawrinka, Milos Raonic and Marin Cilic round out this week’s top four seeds. Cilic is the best among that group, winning the title in 2012 and racking up a 20-8 career mark at Queen’s Club. Raonic did however make the final here last year, losing to Murray. The rest of the seeded field includes Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Grigor Dimitrov, Tomas Berdych and Nick Kyrgios. Tsonga made the final in 2011, while Dimitrov won his lone title on grass here in 2014. Both Tsonga and Kyrgios will be making their debuts on grass this season. Both will be looking to get positive results this week after early exits at Roland Garros in their last action.

Early Bird Specials

For purposes of this week’s tournament, I’ll only focus on the last two years at Queen’s Club. That is when the field of competitors was reduced from 56 to 32. With just 32 players in the field, there are no byes for the seeds in the opening round. Last year, three seeds were one and done at the AEGON Championships. In 2015, just one seed lost in round one during Queen’s Club’s first year with just 32 players.

With the quick transition from clay to grass, there is definitely room for seeded upsets every year. Let’s focus on the ones who should be on upset alert early on this week in London.

2. Stan Wawrinka
No favors done for the Swiss as he lands Spaniard Feliciano Lopez in round one. Lopez has a superb record on grass at 67-37. He will come in off a tough three set loss in the Mercedes Cup final on Sunday. Lopez is 15-11 all-time at Queen’s Club and is a one-time finalist in 2014. Even his losses are usually very tough on his opponents. Wawrinka has found the going tough at this tournament outside of a semifinal in 2014. In 2015, he lost in round two to Kevin Anderson.

Last year, he was upset by Fernando Verdasco in the opening round. The second seed is 4-2 against Lopez lifetime and he did win on grass against him at Wimbledon in 2014. That was their last meeting and it was settled 7-6, 7-6, 6-3 with only one break of serve. That could be a similar set-up to this time around. Lopez played four straight three set matches in Stuttgart, so there is a chance of fatigue helping Wawrinka out.

4. Marin Cilic
Cilic has a tough draw with John Isner as his opening opponent. Isner ended a six match losing streak to Cilic last year with a win at the Paris Masters. He followed that up with a three set win in Rome this Spring on clay. Cilic does have the match play advantage after making the Ricoh Open semifinals this past week. He lost to Ivo Karlovic in three, with Karlovic taking his two sets in tiebreaks. Could that be a similar scenario with Isner?

It’s possible. An overwhelming number of Isner’s sets on grass have been decided in tiebreaks. Of his seven matches on grass in 2016, 13 of 23 sets went to breakers and another of those sets was a 19-17 loss at Wimbledon to Tsonga. The lone grass court clash between Cilic and Isner went five sets at Wimbledon in 2015. Three of those sets went to tiebreaks and the deciding set ended 12-10 in favor of Cilic. Isner won two of the three tiebreak sets.

5. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Tsongs opens against fellow Frenchie, Adrian Mannarino. Mannarino got in a few grass court matches last week at the Ricoh Open and that makes him a bit dangerous here. Tsonga comes in off a very disappointing first round loss at the French Open. Grass traditionally has been good for Tsonga, but he’s coming back to Queen’s Club for the first time since 2014. Mannarino has been serviceable on this surface and does own a win on clay against Tsonga this year at Monte Carlo. The surface should suit Tsonga better, but there’s definitely a chance for him to get caught cold in this spot.

Outsider’s Edge

Even before the reduction in the number of players who head to Queen’s Club each year, outsiders did not have much success has far as bringing home the title. They have however played a role late in the tournament fairly routinely. Last year, you had three unseeded players in the quarterfinals and one (Bernard Tomic) in the semifinals. In 2015, five unseeded players made the quarters with two advancing to the semis. Kevin Anderson would be the first unseeded player to get into the final in 2015 since Mardy Fish did the trick in 2010.

With that to chew on, who has a shot to make some late noise in London this week? Here’s a look at a few players with the draws to be around at the end of the week.

Nicolas Mahut
It’s a tall task for the grass assassin who had traditionally has done much better at the Ricoh Open, where he was a three time champion. Still, he’s a good serve and volley sort suited to this surface. He is stuck in Milos Raonic’s quarter though with a tough young Russian Daniil Medvedev to open. Raonic was tremendous on grass last year with back-to-back finals at Queen’s Club and Wimbledon. Still, he’s not been consistent this year, so perhaps Mahut could have a shot to upset the apple cart.

Feliciano Lopez
A big fat duh here based on his career numbers and how well he played in Stuttgart. The Spaniard is obviously boom or bust with second seed Stan Wawrinka in his way to start. A win though and Lopez might only have Berdych (7) standing in his way to the semifinals. The same Berdych he just beat in Stuttgart.

John Isner
Isner easily could go out in round one to Cilic, but he’s in a quarter with a lot of similar players who like to serve big and rely on that to move them along on grass. Cilic and Kyrgios are the seeds in his way to a semifinal surprise. An upset over Cilic in round one and he’s likely to see Steve Johnson who has beaten him three straight times, including twice in 2017. Speaking of Stevie J ….

Steve Johnson
He’s got an interesting opener against 19-year-old American qualifier Stefan Kozlov. Kozlov is one of the young talents in the US has quite a bit of grass court experience and isn’t overwhelmed by the surface. He beat Johnson at the Ricoh Open in 2016 on grass. Johnson ripped him apart at Delray Beach earlier this year in straights to repay that favor. Johnson lost a tough match to Philipp Kohlschreiber in Stuttgart last week that he might still be thinking about after blowing a late lead. If he’s able to focus this week, he’s got that big serve and forehand combo that works on grass.

Draw Preview

Quarter #1 Seeds
Andy Murray (1)
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (5)

Breakdown
This is a tricky quarter with some big servers here opposite of Murray. Starting with Murray’s half of the quarter, he opens against Aljaz Bedene who has played decently on grass. Murray did win their only career meeting last year at this tournament 6-3, 6-4. With increased confidence from a solid run at Roland Garros, I don’t think Murray will start slow here although Bedene should play him tough. A win for Murray and it’s either Sam Querrey or British wildcard Cameron Norrie. Querrey is going to be a tough out regardless of when and whom he might lose; remember he made his first Slam quarterfinal on grass at Wimbledon last year with the now famous win over Novak Djokovic in round three. Murray has handled Querrey seven out of eight career meetings, including twice on grass.

Newly minted Ricoh Open champion Gilles Muller is one to watch in the opposite half. He opens against Nikoloz Basilashvili. Muller’s big serve propelled him through the Dutch grass court tournament, where he was only broken twice in four matches. If he wins to open, he could see Tsonga in round two. Tsonga is 3-1 against the big lefty, but their Wimbledon meeting in 2015 went five. This part of the quarter could be the one with some upsets with Tsonga still up and down in form this year. If Tsonga falters, Muller would be the guy who might take advantage.

Quarter #2 Seeds
Marin Cilic (4)
Nick Kyrgios (9)

Breakdown
There is a whole lot of electric serving to be had in this quarter with Cilic, Kyrgios, Isner and Steve Johnson. In Cilic’s half, he’s up against it to start against Isner. The survivor gets either Johnson or Kozlov. Legitimately, I think Cilic, Isner or Johnson could make it to the quarters out of that part of the draw. In the bottom half, Kyrgios has Donald Young to open and that’s a good match-up for the Aussie. Kyrgios beat Young earlier this year on hard courts at Acapulco and grass won’t negate the power advantage he has over Young. The big question with Kyrgios is health. He’s been battling shoulder and hip issues off and on for months, but is reporting to be pain free heading into the week.

The under-the-radar first round match opposite of Kyrgios-Young is Janko Tipsarevic against Viktor Troicki. They have split four career meetings with Troicki winning on grass last time they met in 2013 at Wimbledon. Troicki was a quick exit in Stuttgart last week to Benoit Paire, while Tipsarevic lost in three sets in his second match at the Ricoh Open to Marin Cilic. The winner could pose a significant threat to Kyrgios or Young if he manages an upset.

Something in my gut tells me that this is a quarter where an unseeded player will get through. Isner or Johnson would be the favorite to do that, but don’t discount that Troicki-Tipsarevic winner. The wildcard would be a healthy Kyrgios, but I’m not putting my money on board that boat just yet.

Quarter #3 Seeds
Milos Raonic (3)
Grigor Dimitrov (6)

Breakdown
A lot will be expected of Raonic after his run on grass last season. His increased success with volleying paid off large during this stretch in 2016. In his half of the quarter, he goes against Thanasi Kokkinakis to start. The 21-year-old Aussie is still getting his legs back under him after missing the first five months of the season due to injury. He does have some grass play under his belt from the Ricoh Open last week, beating Mikhail Youzhny and then losing to Medvedev. If he wasn’t still working his way back, I might fancy him to push Raonic some. In this spot, I think he’ll have a tough time matching Raonic’s serve. A win gets Raonic Mahut or Medvedev. That will be the tougher test for the third seed.

In the other half, Dimitrov will look to shake off his early exit from Stuttgart last week. The Bulgarian gets Ryan Harrison to open. On this surface, that’s advantage Dimitrov. A win gets him a date against Julien Benneteau or James Ward. Much like Raonic, that will be the tougher test likely for Dimitrov. Benneteau made it through qualis and took out Mahut in ‘s-Hertogenbosch last week. He’s got a good grass court game and has split four meetings with Dimitrov. None of those have come since 2014 however. Dimitrov still doesn’t inspire confidence, so I would not be totally shocked if he was out in round two.

This should be Raonic’s quarter to take as long as he gets into a rhythm early.

Quarter #4 Seeds
Stan Wawrinka (2)
Tomas Berdych (7)

Breakdown
This is the toughest quarter to me. Wawrinka has Feliciano Lopez to get his grass campaign started. That’s tough. A win gets him either Pierre Hugues-Herbert or Jeremy Chardy. That’s likely much easier for the Swiss, especially Chardy who he is 5-0 against in their careers. In the other half, Berdych starts with Steve Darcis. The Shark does own two wins against Berdych, including one on grass in the 2012 London Olympics. Darcis has exactly one win on grass in a main draw since then.

Berdych should get through which means either Kyle Edmund or Denis Shapovalov in round two. Edmund gets on grass for the first time this season. He was a quarterfinalist at the AEGON Championships a year ago, taking a set off of Murray in a loss. Edmund is still very green on the green. Shapovalov made it through qualifying and has the big game to contend against Edmund in round one.

This could wind up going to the seeds if Lopez is fatigued from Stuttgart. If it comes down to Wawrinka vs Berdych, the Swiss owns the head-to-head 11-5. Wawrinka has won six straight over the Czech.

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

Some might be a bit reserved to look to the top seed after Roger Federer flamed out in Stuttgart last week. This is a different set-up though. Murray hasn’t been off for multiple months and really looked like the best version of Andy Murray we’ve seen in a while in Paris. This tournament is comfortable for him and his top half fo the draw looks conducive to at least a 6th trip to the Queen’s Club final.

The othe half seems more of a crap shoot with Raonic probably the expected finalist. I’m not so sure that I am sold on that. Wawrinka needs to get past Lopez first, but I think if he’s able to do so, watch out for the Swiss. Grass isn’t his best surface, but he can slug it out over most of this field if he’s on his game.

For me, I think the title resides with one of the top three seeds this week. Murray the obvious favorite, but Wawrinka perhaps the surprise – if you can say that about a second seed and I think you can about Stan on grass – if things open up for him early. I’ll still go with Andy in the end, but in a season of surprises, it would not be totally shocking if he fails to repeat.

2017 French Open R1 Preview: Nick Kyrgios vs Philipp Kohlschreiber

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It could be a dangerous first round match for 18th seed Nick Kyrgios as he takes on German veteran Philipp Kohlschreiber. Kyrgios heads to Paris battling both hip and shoulder injuries that could prevent him from making a deep run at Roland Garros.

(18) Nick Kyrgios vs Philipp Kohlschreiber

The seeded Aussie arrives in Paris this week with his body failing him. Kyrgios was forced out of the Rome draw due to a hip injury and did not look right in a three set loss to Nicolas Kicker last week in Lyon. News of a shoulder injury won’t quell the talks of a first round upset at this year’s French Open with a tough competitor in Kohlschreiber on the other side of the net. Kyrgios says he has done all he can to prepare himself to play, undergoing rehab every day to strengthen his body.

As for Kohlschreiber, his form has been mediocre at 14-11 in 2017. During the recent Euro clay court swing, the German went just 4-4. Three of those wins came in Marrakech during a run to the final, where he lost to Borna Coric in three sets. Kohlschreiber has not played since Madrid however and comes to Paris having lost three of his last four matches on the surface. At 33-years-old, the German will be playing at Roland Garros for the 13th time in his career.

Mixed History For Both at Roland Garros

While Kohlschreiber has been playing at the French for over a decade, 2017 will be the fifth trip to the main draw for Kyrgios. He’s proven to be okay on clay, but he’s been dumped out in straight sets the last two years in round three. Last year, it was Richard Gasquet who whipped him 6-2, 7-6, 6-2. Coincidentally, Kyrgios was dealing with a shoulder injury in that match as well – perhaps a bad omen for Tuesday’s match.

Kohlschreiber has only been as far as round four in his 13 trips to Paris with the last coming in 2013. He had a tough draw last year with Nicolas Almagro in round one, dropping a four set match to the Spaniard. His two previous losses at the French Open both came in five sets. In 2015, Pablo Andujar beat him in round two and it was Andy Murray who outlasted him in 2014. Murray edged the rain-stalled match that lasted two days, 12-10 in the 5th set.

What to Expect

A healthy Kyrgios has been a legit threat on tour early in 2017. After his early exit from the Australian Open in round two to Andreas Seppi, Kyrgios ripped off a solid run of results. He made three semifinals in four tournaments, including the Miami Open. He also added on a quarterfinal run at Indian Wells. The flip to clay has been poor for Kyrgios however. He did make the round of 16 in Madrid, but was crushed by Rafael Nadal in straights. He was forced to miss the Estoril Open due to the death of his grandfather and then suffered the troubling loss to Kicker in Lyon.

Clay obviously negates some of the power advantage you expect Kyrgios to have in most instances. The hip and shoulder issues could further sour that potential advantage, all of which could give Kohlschreiber legitimate hope of the upset. Early on, I think you’ll have a pretty good idea of how the injuries are playing with the Aussie. The shoulder issue is with his right shoulder, so his serve would be greatly effected if it’s bothering him. The chronic hip condition would impede his movement and make him a sitting duck in baseline rallies.

From past issues with both body parts, you know that if his body is hindered – Kyrgios lets that effect him mentally and you’ll see plenty of him talking to himself and whomever else might listen. What Kohlschreiber must do is avoid letting any of that “show” effect his own mentality. He will need to approach this match as if Kyrgios will be fit and ready to go. Certainly if Kyrgios shows any ill effects, you’d expect the veteran to pounce.

Match Tactics

Kyrgios always wants to play quick and aggressive tennis. With possible physical limitations, that will be even more imperative. He’ll look of course to pound the forehand whenever possible. If his serve is effected by the shoulder, Kyrgios will need to figure out a way to manage himself and find a way to effectively put Kohlschreiber off-balance, even if he doesn’t have the pop on his serve for cheap points. If Kohlschreiber is getting on the end of a lot of Kyrgios’ serves, then the German can craft the baseline exchanges to his liking. You’d expect him to move Kyrgios around and target the backhand.

An important element for Kohlschreiber will be his own serve. It’s not overly impressive, but it can do damage when the German finds a rhythm. Kyrgios is not renowned for his return skills, so Kohlschreiber can at-minimum put the Aussie into poor court positions with good placement and variation. I would expect Kohlschreiber won’t shy away from playing longer baseline rallies with Kyrgios if he can get them or at-worst, force Kyrgios to bail out of the exchanges and try to paint lines with winners.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

The injuries for Kyrgios are obviously a huge question mark going into this match. A healthy Kyrgios has too much power for Kohlschreiber, even on clay. A limited Kyrgios is an entirely different story. If his power isn’t as effective, then it comes down to whether the 18th seed can be consistent in other aspects of his game – defense and ground strokes. The word consistency obviously is not always associated with Kyrgios, so it will be a real fight for him if he’s limited.

For me, Kyrgios seem to already have it in his head a little bit from the interviews I have seen that he’s going to be feeling some pain in this match. He has yet to prove that he can cope with being less than 100 percent in a match and problem solve his way to wins. Kyrgios is more apt to getting frustrated in those situations and letting his game slip on all levels. Depending on how bad his condition is, this match may not go the distance in any case. With all the questions surrounding NK, I side with Kohlschreiber to advance by hook or crook.

Prediction: Kohlschreiber wins in four sets

2017 French Open Preview: Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka Quarters

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This is the first of two parts previewing the men’s fraw for this year’s French Open. I take a look at the top half of the draw here where questions abound surrounding world number one Andy Murray. 2015 French Open Champion Stan Wawrinka leads the second quarter and comes in on a hot streak after again winning he Geneva Open.

Quarter #1 Seeds
Andy Murray (1)
Kei Nishikori (8)
Alexander Zverev (9)
Tomas Berdych (13)
John Isner (21)
Pablo Cuevas (22)
Sam Querrey (27)
Juan Martin Del Potro (29)

Seed Report

A laundry list of questions surrounds most of the seeds in this quarter. Top seed Andy Murray has been thoroughly off his game for the last two months. Since the clay swing began, Murray is just 5-4 with three of those wins coming in Barcelona. He comes to Paris with a two match losing skid, dropping straight sets matches to Borna Coric in Madrid and to Fabio Fognini in Rome. The Scot has made the quarterfinals or better six of the last seven trips to Roland Garros, but seems in real jeopardy of not being around long in the second week – if he makes it that far.

Nishikori at least made it through the tournament in Lyon healthy, but lost to Mischa Zverev in the quarterfinals in a small shock. Health as always is the key with the #8 seed who has already missed time in 2017 with a recurring hip issue. Zverev is the seed with the fewest questions coming to Paris. He’s won two titles this Spring on clay, including a marvelous straight sets win in the title match over Novak Djokovic in Rome for his first Masters title. The only real question is whether or not this is his time to shine.

Berdych might be playing his best tennis this year after making the Lyon final and losing a tight match to Tsonga. He hasn’t been particularly poo this season at 22-9, just nothing very noteworthy as far as big results. A quarterfinal finish in Miami might have been his best before this week, but most of me still remembers how Roger Federer destroyed him in round three of the Australian Open. Isner and Cuevas both flashed enough this Spring that they will be threats in the right spots. Isner matched his best finish last year in Paris by making round four, while Cuevas is off back-to-back third round showings at the French Open.

Querrey also showed that his serve is still dangerous with tough three set losses to Stan Wawrinka (Geneva) and Dominic Thiem (Rome) in this clay court swing. He hasn’t been a factor recently in Paris though with two straight first round losses and only one trip as far as round three in ten trips to Roland Garros. Del Potro returns to the French Open for the first time since 2012. He has made the quarters once and semis once here, so the surface does mesh with his game. Rome showed both the good and bad from DelPo with wins over Grigor Dimitrov and Nishikori, but then a woeful performance against Djokovic in the semifinals. On top of that, he lost to Gastao Elias in Lyon, either lacking motivation or showing that he still needs to find another gear to be a legit threat.

Breakdown

The top half of this quarter looks tricky for Murray. He has Berdych, Del Potro and Isner as seeds to contend with if he’s going to make a deep run. He is 2-0 against his opening round opponent Andrey Kuznetsov. The Russian is dangerous on this surface though as evidenced by his Spring where he scored solid wins over Fognini and Albert Ramos-Vinolas. He also showed well in losses to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Stan Wawrinka. He can push Murray and potentially stun the top seed if Murray continues to struggle with his serve and confidence.

The survivor of Murray-Kuznetsov faces Martin Klizan or wild card Laurent Lokoli. Del Potro opens against fellow Argentine Guido Pella who can be a tough customer on any given day. The winner there sees either Nicolas Almagro or Marcos Baghdatis. Almagro could be dangerous if he recovered from a knee injury suffered in Rome. It’s only been a bit over a week, so the jury is out there. That should leave Del Potro as the major danger to Murray if he’s going to get as far as round four.

As for the other portion of the top half, Berdych and Isner are the seeds. There are some dangerous unseeded players in this part of the draw though, starting with Berdych’s opening round opponent. German Jan-Lennard Struff is that man. Sruff showed some chops on clay, but his best performance was on home soil in a three set loss to Sascha Zverev. Given Berdych’s surge this week, I think he can survive that one. The other danger man in this part of the draw is Russian Karen Khachanov.

The 21-year-old Russian struggles with consistency, but when he’s locked in, his big ground strokes can batter anyone. He scored wins over Davd Goffin and Cuevas in Barcelona to prove his mettle. He’s short on experience in Paris with this being his first trip into the main draw. He could make life tough for Berdych in round two. Isner starts with Jordan Thompson, which should afford the American a shot in round two against Paolo Lorenzi or Ricardas Berankis. If it comes down to Berdych-Isner to get to the fourth round, the Czech sports a 7-2 record against Isner.

The other half of this quarter features Nishikori and Alexander Zverev as the two lead seeds. Cuevas and Querrey are the other two seeds. Nishikori has only made it past round four once in Paris. That was a 2015 quarterfinal trip. His draw could give him a good opportunity to get into position for a quarterfinal run if his body holds up. He opens with Thanasi Kokkinakis, who is just getting back after a length injury layoff.

His toughest early test could be Jeremy Chardy in round two. Nishikori is 5-2 against the Frenchman though who may do well to beat Radu Albot in round one. Querrey could repeat his first round flops in this part of the draw with youngster Hyeon Chung as a real threat to the American in round one. The winner there plays either Ernest Escobedo or Denis Istomin and would fancy their chances to be in round three.

In Zverev’s part of this half, the German phenom was done no favors by getting Fernando Verdasco in the first round. They have split two meetings with Zverev taking a straight sets win in Madrid earlier this year, so that is a good omen for the 20-year-old. The winner gets Pierre-Hugues Herbert or Jared Donaldson. Cuevas is also in this part of the draw and he could be a sneaky pick even if Zverev is in his way. The 22nd seeded Uruguayan beat Zverev in Madrid in three sets. Zverev is going to be the sheik pick here with Nishikori and his injury history. If Cuevas is going to make some noise past round three, this might be his best shot.

Early Bird Specials (Upset Alert)

Kuznetsov over Murray
Chung over Querrey

The Pig’s Bottom Line

There’s plenty of reason to believe Murray could be in the quarterfinals and have a chance to escape this quarter, but there is also plenty of what we’ve seen lately that says he might not be there. That leaves this quarter up-in-the-air for me. I don’t think Del Potro has the match play and fitness quite at optimum level to be the surprise here. He could, but I think he’d need some help to get that far. This could also well be the moment that Sascha Zverev becomes a true breakout star by making his first Slam semifinal. He’s on a roll and even if he does have to go through Nishikori, I doubt many would expect him to lose right now. I’m going rogue here with some stupidity though and saying Berdych or Cuevas finnagles an unforseen spot in the semis.

Quarter #2 Seeds
Stan Wawrinka (3)
Marin Cilic (7)
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (12)
Gael Monfils (15)
Nick Kyrgios (18)
Richard Gasquet (24)
Fabio Fognini (28)
David Ferrer (30)

Seed Report

As was the case last year, Stan Wawrinka will arrive in Paris with a more positive frame of mind than he probably has had for the past two months. After floundering through the Spring swing in Europe on clay at 2-3, the Stanimal pushed his way into the Geneva Open final for a second straight year. He faces Mischa Zverev and will expect to defend his title successfully. As usual, when it’s a Grand Slam – you should expect the focus for the Swiss to be at its peak. Don’t be fooled by his floundering spring as he’s shown that he is a big match player who can turn it on and off at the snap of a finger.

Cilic has been in good form with a title on clay in Istanbul, but has an awkward first round match against Ernests Gulbis who has been out due to injury and has been borderline awful this year. Still, Gulbis is Gulbis – so you never know. Tsonga will arrive in Paris off a decent week in Lyon that saw him make the semifinals, where he lost to Berdych. He needed the matches this week more so than the results after missing months due to the birth of his first child. Tsonga should be eager to atone for last year’s third round exit via injury.

Speaking of injuries, Gael Monfils is this year’s 15th seed. We last saw him in Madrid losing a weird three set match to Gilles Simon that saw both players winning a bagel set. He starts with Dustin Brown, so at least there wil be a lot of flare in that match. Nick Kyrgios’ uneven loss to Nicolas Kicker in Lyon should throw up a red flag, especially with the Aussie going against veteran Philipp Kohlschreiber in his opener. NK has made round three at Roland Garros two straight years. Gasquet will be a crowd favorite, but the Frenchman arrives short on form with a 1-2 mark in the clay court build-up to Paris. The Gasman though is normally a fourth round fixture here, making that round in five of the last six trips.

Your two outsiders here among the seeds are Fognini and Ferrer. Fognini has shown again this Spring that he gets up for big name players with a tough three set loss to Nadal in Madrid and a straight sets dismantling of Murray in Rome. Around that? Losses to Carreno Busta, Kuznetsov, Zverev and Pella. The Italian was a first round loser in Paris last year and as always looks bust or boom. Ferrer showed some positive tennis recently by at least registering wins after suffering through a five match losing skid that stretched from January to April. He is a one-time finalist (2013) with a 43-14 mark at Roland Garros. The Spaniard has made the fourth round or further in six straight trips to the French Open, but may be hard pressed to make that seven based on form this season.

Breakdown

The top half of the quarter looks like it could set up well for Wawrinka. The other seeds here are Monfils, Fognini and Gasquet. All are capable of making runs, but all are also capable of being gone early. Wawrinka’s draw looks good for a relatively pain free run to the fourth round. His toughest match could be in round two against the winner of the Alexandr Dolgopolov-Carlos Berlocq encounter. Fognini is seeded to see Wawrinka in round three, but that first rounder against American Frances Tiafoe is tricky.

Tiafoe won two clay Challengers this Spring and could push the Italian hard in a baseline bash-fest. Gasquet and Monfils would be a far-too-obvious seeded clash in round three. La Monf is 7-6 against Gasquet and won their lone clay court clash in Barcelona in 2011. Gasquet though has won the last two meetings. Even though the Stanimal sometimes struggles with his focus, on the big stage you have to like him to be in position to get to the quarterfinals.

The bottom half of this quarter features familiar names among the seeds with Cilic, Tsonga, Kyrgios and Ferrer. Cilic should get through two rounds, though Gulbis in round one and potentially Federico Delbonis in round two won’t be easy. David Ferrer takes on Donald Young to start. Normally on clay, that’s bingo bango bongo, Ferrer easy. These days, it might take Ferrer a bit more work, but still expect the Spaniard to win.

Then, he could face fellow-Spaniard Feliciano Lopez in round two. The Flodonis is up against Bjorn Fratangelo who isn’t a pushover. Don’t be surprised if that is one of the more competitive first round matches. Lopez beat Fratangelo in Houston this Spring 7-5, 6-4. This looks like a good draw for Cilic to at least get to the fourth round.

Tsonga should be confident after finding some form in Lyon and taking home that title, but round two poses a test with either Kyle Edmund or Gastao Elias. That is the same Elias who stunned Del Potro in Lyon this past week and Edmund has the power to match Tsonga, although likely not the consistency. Kohlschreiber may not beat Kyrgios in round one, but he’s going to make the Aussie earn it. Kohlschreiber rarely goes down easy in Slams.

The winner of that match could see Kevin Anderson in round two. Anderson faces Malek Jaziri in his opener. All eyes will be on a potential Tsonga-Kyrgios clash in round three. It’s not a gimmer, but could be one of the matches of the tournament if both play at a high level. JWT beat Kyrgios in their lone meeting in Marseille earlier this year.

Early Bird Specials (Upset Alert)

Kohlschreiber over Kyrgios
Tiafoe over Fognini

The Pig’s Bottom Line

Wawrinka still looks the guy to beat here, especially with some added confidence in Geneva this past week. A healthy Monfils would be a major roadblock for the Swiss, but La Monf hasn’t proven fully fit this season. Be weary of him though if he shows something special early on. The two form players heading into the French Open will be Wawrinka and Tsonga who have titles in their back pockets from this past week. Tsonga does have a tougher draw with Kyrgios and Cilic potentially in his way. I think that should pave the way for Wawrinka to take advantage of whomever is left from the other portion of this quarter.

Follow me @tennispig on Twitter for match previews and more during the French Open. A preview of the other half of the men’s draw will be coming later today.

2017 Mutua Madrid Open R16 Preview: Rafael Nadal vs Nick Kyrgios

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It could be another dangerous match for Rafael Nadal on Thursday. A day after being pushed to the limit in his opener against Fabio Fognini, the fourth seeded Spaniard faces Nick Kyrgios. Kyrgios owns a win and a loss against Nadal with the loss coming on clay in three sets last year in Rome.

(4) Rafael Nadal vs (16) Nick Kyrgios

Nothing came easy for Nadal in his opening match in Madrid against Fabio Fognini. Rafa’s serve was a bit shaky as he dished out 16 break chances in the 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-4 win. Nadal would manage to save a dozen of those chances, but he was in trouble far too often. His serve also let him down in a key moment at 5-3 in the third set, when the fourth seeded lefty failed to serve out the match. Fortunately for Rafa, he used his return and defense to secure the decisive break in the next game to close out the match.

Nadal said after the match that he didn’t play bad, he played really, really bad against the Italian. Rafa said he thought it was important though that he stayed positive and was able to trouble shoot his way through a day where he obviously was not playing his best.

As for Kyrgios, he dumped Ryan Harrison in straight sets 6-3, 6-3 on Wednesday. That followed up on a straight sets win over Marcos Baghdatis to start the tournament, where he smacked 14 aces. Against Harrison, the ace total was lower, but the 16th seeded Aussie still won 37 of 44 points on serve. He saved his lone break chance faced in the match. Kyrgios was able to eat into Harrison’s service games enough to craft three breaks on six chances.

Serve Shocker: Rafa Tough For Kyrgios to Break Down

There’s certainly no doubt that Nadal would rather contend this match on dirt rather than hard courts or grass. Kyrgios’ power and serve would pose a considerably higher threat on those surfaces. That was evident when Kyrgios beat Nadal in their first-ever meeting at Wimbledon in 2014. Kyrgios dominated with 37 aces in the 7-6 (5), 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-3 win. Even with the slower conditions in Madrid, the Aussie should still give Rafa a real test on Thursday. In their last meeting at last year’s Rome Masters, Kyrgios took the opening set in a tiebreak before Nadal rallied for a 6-7 (3), 6-2, 6-4 win. The Aussie had to face 15 break chances with Nadal cashing in four times. Oppositely, Nadal faced just four break chances and saved three. That was the exact same stat line from their first meeting at Wimbledon, where Nadal also dropped serve just once.

Stratego

You can’t start a Nick Kyrgios analysis without talking about the serve, but as I just mentioned, Nadal’s has been potent against the Aussie. I think you can contribute some of that to Kyrgios not being the greatest of return men, but it also shows that the lefty throws some confusion Kyrgios’ way. Kyrgios has been a rock on serve through two rounds this week, but obviously gets a step up in return with Rafa across the net. Nadal must show patience with Kyrgios certain to serve up plenty of nearly unreturnable or unreturnable balls when he’s in rhythm. The key for Nadal is getting his racquet on enough balls to force Kyrgios to play his game and engage in a baseline slugfest.

When Nadal gets Kyrgios into those rallies, that is going to benefit him just about every time. Kyrgios normally doesn’t have the patient approach to his ground game, so he’ll hit bigger and go for point ending shots earlier. It can work for him when his forehand is blistering precisely around the court, but it can backfire quickly when it’s not. Rafa will test that accuracy and he’s sure to go after NK’s backhand at-will. In the Rome meeting, Kyrgios stayed aggressive most of the match, but he was not able to sustain consistent accuracy in trying to fire in those winners.

That is why I think Kyrgios does need to make sure he’s willing to battle in some of those longer rallies or he’s again going to have a microscopic margin of error. He shouldn’t be afraid to lose a longer point. Kyrgios could just as well get himself into position where his power takes Nadal out of position in a longer exchange. He’ll need to provide some balance to the match with those exchanges along with the quicker, more aggressive style that suit him best. The buck will always start and stop with the Aussie’s serve. If he isn’t having to worry about Nadal eating into his service games because he’s in rhythm and winning cheap points, he’s free to let it fly off the ground with that rocket forehand leading the charge.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

Nadal is obviously facing something completely different in this match versus what he just saw against Fognini. That could put some big pressure on Nadal’s serve that has been so much better for the majority of the year than it has in the past year or so. Nadal has shown a knack for coming up with key serves at key moments and likely will need that it what could be a very tight contest if Kyrgios’ serve is up to snuff on Thursday. Kyrgios has shown the ability to simply out serve an opponent of high quality regardless of surface and it would not stun me to see him win here. Still, Nadal has re-established himself as the guy to beat on clay and the best guy not named Federer on tour right now. Are we not entertained? I hope the answer is that we were.

Prediction: Nadal wins in three sets

2017 Mutua Madrid Open Preview

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Madrid Kicks Clay Court Swing Into Overdrive

The Mutua Madrid Open will again play home to the majority of the top players on tour not named Roger Federer. Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka and Rafael Nadal are the top four seeds this week. All but Wawrinka are multiple-time champions at this event, which dates back to when it was still held out hard courts prior to 2009. Top seed Andy Murray won it when it was a hard court back in 2008 and also on clay in 2015. Second seed Novak Djokovic is your defending champion and also won in 2011. Nadal is a four time champion with it as no shock that three of those titles have come since the conversion to clay.

Most of the chatter this week will likely focus on two things: Novak Djokovic’s decision to go scorched earth on his team this past week by firing all three members of Team Djokovic, and Nadal’s utter dominance on clay this season. To date, Rafa is 10-0 on clay, winning titles in both Monte Carlo and Barcelona. Nadal has easily been the second most consistent performer behind Federer with a 29-5 mark in all this season. He’s lost just once in his last 16 matches. He will once again be the heavy favorite to bring home the hardware this week.

Madrid also marks the time for top tier players to get their clay court games in high gear with most playing this week and at the Rome Masters next week as their final prep for the French Open. There are two tournaments between Rome and Roland Garros, but many of the top players traditionally take that time to rest abd prepare on their own. That makes this week fairly critical,especially for three of the four top seeds. Nadal is obviously tip top here, but Murray (4-2), Djokovic (2-1) and Wawrinka (1-1) are short on success and solid form on dirt in recent weeks. They all could use a boost of confidence with a good week.

Planting the Seeds

With this being a Masters 1000 event and one of those final preps for Roland Garros, it is a strong field as you would expect. Istanbul finalist Milos Raonic is in as the fifth seed with Kei Nishikori, Istanbul champ Marin Cilic and Dominic Thiem rounding out the top eight seeds. Nishikori will be the biggest concern of those four, having missed time after aggravating a wrist injury during practice for the Barcelona Open. That caused him to miss last week. He’ll be playing on clay for the first time since February when he made the Buenos Aires Open final and went 3-2 during that stretch. This has been a good tournament for Nishikori, so if healthy he will expect to do damage.

Of the remaning seeds in the top 16, David Goffin is your 9th seed. Goffin has a paltry 1-3 record in Madrid though and comes in off an earlier than expected exit in Barcelona as a three set loser to Karen Khachanov. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych and Grigor Dimitrov round out the top 12. None is in particularly peak form entering the week. The one to watch could be 13th seed Lucas Pouille. The Frenchman has been hot on clay, making the Monte Carlo semis and winning the Hungarian Open in late April.

Jack Sock, Gael Monfils and Nick Kyrgios fill out the rest of the seeded field. All have varying questions this week. Sock with what sort of form he has right now after now playing since the U.S. Clay Court Championships in early April. Monfils as usual with his fitness and injury status after playing just one match in the past two months, an upset loss to Hyeon Chung in Munich last week. Kyrgios meanwhile missed playing the Estoril Open last week to attend his grandfather’s funeral, so his mental state might be a bit of a question coming into this tournament.

Early Bird Specials

As always, we like to probe into the history of a tournament and look at how the seeds fare early on in Madrid. This hasn’t been a haven for upsets early on, but there have been at least two seeds down and out in their openers in each of the last four years. In both 2013 and 2014, four seeds were upset in their openers. It should also be noted that the top seed has been stunned twice in that span with Roger Federer suffering defeat in 2015 to Nick Kyrgios and Grigor Dimitrov knocking off Djokovic in his first match of the tournament in 2013. So who is most prone this week? Here’s The Pig’s take.

1. Andy Murray
Even though Murray will draw a favorable match-up against one of two wild card entries, his play lately dictates that he remains an upset candidate. Murray will see Guillermo Garcia-Lopez or Marius Copil. GGL does own one shock win over the Scot back in 2012 at one of Murray’s horror houses, Indian Wells. Murray has won the other three times comfortably. Copil has a big serve, but his game is better suited to a faster surface. As such, Murray should be able to work past his opener.

2. Novak Djokovic
With the Serb parting ways with his coaching team this week, a lot of eyes will be on Djokovic to see how he responds. Some have called the move desperate, while others see it like Djokovic called it, a necessary change. Either way, Djokovic starts his campaign in Madrid against one of two Spaniards – Nicolas Almagro or Tommy Robredo. He is 11-2 combined against the two. Robredo did stun Djokovic in 2014 on hard courts in Cincinnati, but both these Spanish veterans aren’t in great form.

3. Stan Wawrinka
Wawrinka is on this list because it’s not a Grand Slam and non-Grand Slam Stan is the proverbial box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get. He will open against either good friend Benoit Paire or Estoril champ Pablo Carreno Busta. PCB is the form player, but he’s 0-3 against the Swiss. Paire is 2-7 against his chum, but he’s taken a set off him in each of their last two meetings, one a victory in Marseilles, and in both career clay court meetings. Wawrinka has lost his opener in Madrid two of the last three years, so he’ll be on alert.

6. Kei Nishikori
I’ll put Nishikori on this list simply because of his last of play recently and the fact that he could match up against Albert Ramos-Vinolas in his opener. ARV plays Diego Schwartzman in round one. Ramos-Vinolas’ lone career win in four tries against Nishikori came on clay in Barcelona in 2013. ARV hasn’t had great luck in Madrid at 3-4, but this could be a tough spot for Nishikori with some possible rust and questions about his wrist still looming.

7. Marin Cilic
Cilic won his first clay court title since 2012, when he beat Milos Raonic on Sunday for the Istanblu title. He has a tough opening draw with either Fernando Verdasco or Alexander Zverev, the reigning Munich champion. Zverev was won two of three against the Croat and Verdasco is 5-7 against Cilic in their careers. Zverev would be the obvious tougher opponent, but either way, Cilic may have a short stay in Madrid.

10. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Tsonga’s return to tour after the birth of his first child was a short one in Monte Carlo, where he lost to a qualifier, Adrian Mannarino. He’s in a familiar spot here against qualifier Andrey Kuznetsov to start. The Russian is 0-2 against Tsonga, but he has taken a set off of him in both meetings. The last was on hard courts in Doha earlier this season. The first came in 2012 at Roland Garros. Tsonga hasn’t lost his opener in Madrid since 2010 and he may not drop this one, but don’t expect him to have an easy time.

12. Grigor Dimitrov
Dimitrov’s early season hot run has given way to a rash of poor results that have quickly turned him back into the disappointing player we’ve come to loathe. He’s lost four straight matches, which includes three straight first match losses at tournaments. Dimitrov opens with Philipp Kohlschreiber. The two have never met. Dimitrov is 7-4 in his career in Madrid with a first-up loss to Pablo Carreno Busta last year. Kohlschreiber hasn’t always won in Madrid, but he’s been competitive in losses. The German made a clay final in Marrakech, but he’s been fairly mediocre since that finals loss. Dimitrov is the definition of mediocre though if you can even call his current form that – so an upset is possible.

15. Gael Monfils
This one is so obvious, it feels dirty. Monfils has missed time due to problems with both his heel and knee. He didn’t look sharp at all in his return in Munich in the loss to Chung. Now, he faces Gilles Simon to start in Madrid. Simon has won six of eight head-to-head meetings, although Monfils broke a four match skid to Simon last year in Tokyo. Given Monfils’ fragility, Simon seems a stupid easy pick for a possible upset.

Outsider’s Edge

Unseeded players have made some noise here and there in Madrid in the last four years. Last year, two unseeded players made the quarterfinals. That marked the third time in the last four years that an unseeded player has made it that far. 2012 and 2013 both saw an unseeded player sneak in the semifinals, but that’s been the high water mark. The quarter headlined by Wawrinka and Cilic looks like the one where upheaval is very possible. Carreno Busta and Sascha Zverev have some realistic hopes in this quarter if they can get out of round one first. There are also a couple of intriguing Spaniards in the Djokovic quarter who might upset the apple cart. The previously mentioned Albert Ramos-Vinolas is one and David Ferrer could be an unlikely deep runner. He finally found a few wins in Estoril last week. They were not over impressive players, but if Kuznetsov takes down Tsonga, Ferrer’s path to a quarterfinal gets much easier.

Draw Preview

Quarter #1 Seeds
Andy Murray (1)
Dominic Thiem (8)
Grigor Dimitrob (12)
Lucas Pouille (13)

Breakdown
Murray’s half of this quarter has Pouille as the other seed. Pouille opens against Pierre Hugues-Herbert and then likely could see Borna Coric in round two. Coric battles Mischa Zverev in his opener. Coric has won the lone previous meeting against Pouille and it came on hard courts. For Murray, I do think he’ll at least make it past his opener. A showdown with Pouille for a quarterfinal slot would be interesting, but Murray is 4-0 against the Frenchman. Murray beat him earlier this year in Dubai, but clay might make for a tougher encounter.

In the bottom half, it’s Thiem and Dimitrov as the seeds. Thiem seems the obvious choice to not just snag the quarterfinal spot, but possibly to get out of this quarter altogether. The Austrian has been very good on clay this season and early in his career. It suits his baseline game to a T. He will have to contend with Adrian Mannarino or Jared Donaldson to start. Dimitrov as outlined earlier may be an early exit, which could open up the door for Thiem. Ivo Karlovic takes on Roberto Bautista Agut in an interesting round one clash with the winner to get Dimitrov or Kohlschreiber.

I won’t discount Murray here. He did lose to Thiem in Barcelona, but he had some chances in spite of his mediocre play. Pouille might need some help to get through here, but he’s got the confidence right now and the best form on arrival.

Quarter #2 Seeds
Stan Wawrinka (3)
Marin Cilic (7)
Tomas Berdych (11)
Jack Sock (14)

Breakdown
This is the quarter where I do see upset potential. Both Wawrinka and Cilic have difficult openers. I expect one or both could see the door early. A very good dirt rat first rounder in Wawrinka’s half is Thomaz Bellucci against Pablo Cuevas. The winner there could take some advantage if Wawrinka is less than his best. Sock and Berdych have favorable openers, even if both have not done much lately. Carreno Busta and Zverev are the unseeded players to watch here, with both capable of parlaying title runs last week into big weeks in Madrid.

Wawrinka could definitely run through this quarter if he finds some consistency early, but again non-Slam Stan is a tough guy to get a handle on. Don’t be stunned either if you see someone like Cuevas sneak into the quarterfinals if one of the higher seeds gets taken down early. In any case, I’m looking for unseeded glory out of this quarter.

Quarter #3 Seeds
Rafal Nadal (4)
Milos Raonic (5)
David Goffin (9)
Nick Kyrgios (16)

Breakdown
Nadal opens against Fabio Fognini, who beat Joao Sousa in early opening round action on Sunday. Since the Italian’s famous five set win over Nadal at the U.S. Open, Nadal has wiped the court with him in three straight. Fognini hasn’t taken a set in those three losses. Expect Nadal to get through with one tough set possibly. That earns him a spot in the round of 16 where Kyrgios is seeded to be there. Kyrgios opens with Marcos Baghdatis and then might face fellow Aussie Bernard Tomic in round two. Tomic faces Ryan Harrison in the opening round with both iffy on this surface, it’s a total toss-up. If Kyrgios gets rolling, he’s got that lightning game that could trouble Nadal some – even on clay. That would be a marvelous match-up for Madrid.

In the other half, Raonic has to regroup after losing in Istanbul on Sunday, but gets the benefit of a first round bye. He will face Tommy Haas or Gilles Muller to start. Those are winnable match-ups for the Canadian whose serve was blistering in Turkey last week. Goffin is the other seed in this half. He is waiting for Marcel Granollers or Florian Mayer. The Belgian should get through and that sets a possible Goffin-Raonic match-up. Raonic leads 2-1 in the head-to-head and their 2016 Wimbledon match-up was a highly competitive five setter. Clay will help give Goffin a chance.

I still won’t go against Nadal on clay, but there are some landmines here with the big hitting/serving duo of Kyrgios and Raonic possibly in the way. Rafa will earn whatever he gets.

Quarter #4 Seeds
Novak Djokovic (2)
Kei Nishikori (6)
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (10)
Gael Monfils (15)

Breakdown
They might as well put a huge question mark over this quarter of the draw. Each seed here has plenty to prove this week. Djokovic has to put behind the sacking of his coaching team, while Nishikori and Monfils are looking to prove their health. Tsonga may simply need to get some matches to shake off missing a lot of time recently. I do fancy Djokovic to at least get to the quarters in his half. Simon may again give him a tough time and that will be the one to watch if Simon can get past Monfils in round one. A fun first rounder here is American Ernesto Escobedo against Feliciano Lopez.

In the other half, Nishikori is the one to watch. if his wrist is not hindering him, the conditions here have played well to his talents. Nishikori is 14-5 in his career in Madrid with a finals trip in 2014. He’s made the quarterfinals or better in four straight seasons, including advancing to the semis in 2015 and 2016. If he’s not healthy then Tsonga or Ferrer could pounce on that other quarterfinal spot.

This is a week for Djokovic to prove a lot. He’s on his own, but perhaps that will help him clear his mind and figure some things out on his own. The Serb has to find a better serve though to be a major threat again. That will be the telling sign for him this week.

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

Nadal, Nadal or Nadal? That’s your choice here, but this is one of those weeks that he needs to be careful. His draw has those power players who can punish him with their serve, but Rafa has been so solid on this surface recently. If there is a slight “outsider” to watch for the finals mix, it could be Thiem. The Austrian may have to beat Andy Murray again to be in that mix, but he dominated Murray for parts of their last match-up. End of the week though, it’s Nadal, unless Novak Djokovic’s newfound coachless-ness leads him to some great epiphany that helps him get his game back on track.