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 Final Preview: Stan Wawrinka vs Rafael Nadal

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Rafael Nadal seeks championship number ten at Roland Garros on Sunday. In his way is Stan Wawrinka. The Swiss is 3-0 all-time in Grand Slam finals. Nadal has never lost a final at the French Open in nine tries.

(3) Stan Wawrinka vs (4) Rafael Nadal

Wawrinka put his best foot forward late in a five set grinder against Andy Murray in the semifinals. After Murray had looked like he was closing in on a win, the Swiss powered through the fourth set tiebreak 7-3 and then rolled in stride to a 6-1 finishing set. That completed a 6-7 (8), 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (3), 6-1 victory. Wawrinka got in the zone as the match wore on, racking up 87 winners to offset 77 unforced errors. He would break the Scot nine times on 14 chances, while saving seven of the 12 break points against his serve. The Stanimal won 66 perent of his first serve points and a solid 61 percent off his second serve. The key stat that I will touch on later is that the match lasted four hours and 38 minutes in a very physical environment against the top seed.

Meanwhile, Nadal continued to run roughshod over all competitors. He got plenty of payback for his lone loss on clay this year as he crushed 6th seeded Dominic Thiem 6-3, 6-4, 6-0. Rafa rebounded from an opening break to break Thiem twice in a row as he ran through the opening set, cashing in on his second set point. Nadal would fight off a couple of break points early in set two before breaking Thiem again for the only break required in the second set. Thiem would completely go away in set three, losing all three service games as Rafa bageled him to advance to his tenth final at Roland Garros. For the match, Nadal was broken just once and was rock solid on serve, winning 71 percent off is first serve and 76 percent of the points off his second. Thiem sprayed 32 unforced errors and was pathetic on second serve, winning only 37 percent of the points.

First Meeting Since 2016

Nadal owns a sparkling 15-3 record against Wawrinka in their careers, but this will be their first meeting since Rafa downed him 6-1, 6-4 at Monte Carlo last year. Overall, Rafa is 2-1 in Slams against the Swiss, with the loss coming in the Australian Open final in 2014. On clay, Nadal leads 6-1. Wawrinka’s lone win on dirt against Nadal came in Rome in 2015. In their last clash in Monte Carlo, Wawrinka struggled mightily on serve. He won just 29 perent of his second serve points with the Spaniard breaking him four times on nine chances. Nadal was perfect on serve, staving off a lone break chance as he won 85 percent of his first serve points and 61 percent off his second.

What Can Brown Do For You?

With this one contested on clay, it’s an obvious edge to Nadal to start. Wawrinka has a decided power advantage over Nadal, but it’s negated some by the slower conditions. Stan showed of course that he can still hit through the court, so just because it’s on clay doesn’t mean he cannot win here against Nadal. Sunday’s final could be played in ideal conditions for Nadal with hot and dry conditions as the projected forecast.

For the most part, clay is going to allow Nadal to do the things Nadal does best. Use the topspin forehand to dictate rallies and court position, as well as using the slower speed to utilize his superior defense and return game. For Wawrinka, once again he’ll have to find a way to end points more quickly and not allow Rafa to dictate the game in rallies. If the Swiss is able to consistently get his big first serve in play, that is a great starting point for that.

Match Tactics

For Wawrinka, serve is important, but as he showed against Murray, the power ground strokes can make up for any shortcomings on serve. Still, Stan doesn’t want to give Nadal too many opportunities to get the break. He has been with the five breaks by Murray as the most he’s suffered in Paris. Nadal’s serve this tournament has been very good and he’s done a tremendous job of keeping the number of break chances down to a minimum. The Spaniard has only broken six times all tournament.

Nadal isn’t going to wow you with speed on his serve, but the spin and placement have been strong. More often than not, his serve is helping set him up perfectly to begin the lengthy baseline exchanges. Wawrinka’s issue returning Nadal is that he isn’t likely to get the best pace he needs to utilize his blocking technique in return. That means the Swiss will need to be brave and take some big rips on return. He’s used to employing that “go for broke style” and that’s legitimately his best strategy in this match-up.

When Wawrinka is unable to get shorter points, he’s likely to try and target Rafa’s backhand the best he can. The backhand to backhand exchanges from the baseline should favor the Swiss with his sublime one hander as a huge weapon. Stan won’t be afraid to get into some of these exchanges as he did with Murray, but he’ll again look for those earlier exit points with his power groundies to try for winners.

Nadal you figure would love nothing better than to test Wawrinka’s legs all match long. I’ve said it over and over, playing Andy Murray or Rafael Nadal in a five set match seems about as taxing as playing seven or eight sets. Wawrinka will obviously not be as fresh as Nadal and the Spaniard has to work that to his advantage over and over. He may play some safer shots in rallies to extend them to do this and it’s not a terrible strategy early on to see where Wawrinka’s fitness ranks.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

From a set-up standpoint, this is not a great spot for Wawrinka. Coming off a grinding match against Murray that lasted over four and a half hours, he can expect more of the same on Sunday. I think for Wawrinka to have a chance to pull off the upset, he must get off to a bright start. He can’t just contend well and lose the opening set, he needs to win it and show Nadal that he’s here to win the title. It would also add adversity into the mix for Nadal for the first time all tournament. Quite simply, that’s one of the few ways that I think Stan can win this match. Put some seeds of doubt into the Spaniard’s mind and let the pressure crank up.

In the end, if Nadal continues to execute his game plan as he has all tournament – title #10 at Roland Garros is his and that’s a big fat duh, right? It’s on Wawrinka to get Nadal off his game, something that perhaps only fatigue in Rome has done this year. I won’t underestimate Wawrinka in a Slam final. He’s proven to be a top notch “big match” player, but this feels like it’s almost Mission Impossible. Not that Nadal cannot be beaten on clay. Not that Nadal cannot be beaten at this tournament. But that the Swiss has to do it coming off the lengthy match against Murray with Nadal firing on all cylinders.

Look for Nadal to take #10 at Roland Garros and his 15th career Grand Slam title.

Prediction: Nadal wins in straight sets

2017 French Open SF Preview: Andy Murray vs Stan Wawrinka

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It’s a rematch of one of last year’s semifinals at the French Open when Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka square off for the 18th time in their careers. Murray defeated Wawrinka last year 6-4, 6-2, 4-6, 6-2 to reach his first final at Roland Garros.

(1) Andy Murray vs (3) Stan Wawrinka

Before the tournament began, many wondered if Andy Murray would make the second week, let alone be in this position based on his play from pre-Paris tournaments. Murray has squashed those thoughts with a return to the gutty and gritty play that propelled him to the top spot in the rankings in 2016. His latest victim was Kei Nishikori. Murray started slow with Nishikori taking the opening set of their quarterfinal match 6-2. The Scot would roar back to sweep Nishikori in the next three sets to finish off a 2-6, 6-1, 7-6 (0), 6-1.

Murray was broken twice in the opening set, but really steadied on serve after that with Nishikori only able to break him three times in the remaining sets. Murray meanwhile ran roughshod over Nishikori’s serve, breaking the man from Japan seven times after the opening set. Nishikori would help by spraying 45 unforced errors with just 33 winners. Murray was cleaner off the ground with 31 winners and 26 UEs. The main issue early for Andy seemed to be Nishikori’s aggressive nature which caused the top seed to have to move a lot around the court. He was able to adjust to after the opening set, but should expect nothing by aggressive groundies from Wawrinka.

The “Stanimal” himself has followed a now familiar routine at Grand Slams. The Swiss has often muddled through tournaments in between Slams, only to show up on the biggest stage and move his way into the finals mix. He’s done exactly that again this year and once more, has done so with very ltitle fanfare. Most of the talk prior to the French Open centered around the middling form of Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic. Even a title in Geneva did not really put Wawrinka’s name as a major talking point.

Little by little though as he often has done in the past few years, Wawrinka has gained steam and made his run. The Stanimal is in his second Slam semifinal of the season and 7th in the last ten Slams overall, impressive numbers for the now 32-year-old. He’s won in straight sets every round to this point, but not every match has been easy. Gael Monfils pushed him hard in two of their three sets in the fourth round and four of his first nine sets in Paris went to a tiebreak. There was none of that drama in the quarters though as he whipped Marin Cilic 6-3, 6-3, 6-1.

Cilic did little on serve, winning just 58 percent of his first serve points as Wawrinka broke him six times on nine chances. The Swiss’ first serve was not as effective as it has been, winning just 65 percent of the points. He did however take 79 percent off his second and was only broken once on three break chances. Wawrinka tallied 25 winners and 17 unforced errors. Those were his best numbers since round two against Alexandr Dolgopolov. He had under a 1:1 ratio in winners/unforced errors against Monfils and was just above that margin at 27:24 against Fabio Fognini in round three.

2016 Semifinal Rehash

Murray called last year’s semifinal win over Wawrinka one of the best matches that he has played on clay. His return game and defense were on point in that one as he forced Wawrinka in 15 break points. Murray would convert five breaks. More importantly, Murray was serving better than the Swiss who is more renown for his power on serve. The Scot won 79 percent of his first serve points compared to 68 for the Swiss. Murray also topped him on second serve, winning 61 percent to 51 percent. This year’s top seed also saved four of five break points against his serve.

Overall, Murray’s strategy off the ground really seemed to throw Wawrinka off his game. Andy was mixing in well-executed drop shots as well as switching up the extended rallies with some quicker, more aggressive shots to end points earlier. Murray also came to net some as the Swiss really did not seem to have a feel for what Murray was going to do next. Murray’s overall execution was exquisite and something that he has not shown much of in 2017 on a consistent basis. He’ll need to channel some of last year, but is sure to mix things up more to try and keep Wawrinka guessing.

Overall Match History

This will be their 18th meeting against each other and just the fourth to be contested on clay. Wawrinka was unbeaten against the Scot on dirt, until last year’s French Open semifinal. Murray followed up last year’s win at Roland Garros by also cruising past Wawrinka 6-4, 6-2 at the ATP World Tour Finals in Round Robin play. Last year’s two matches were the first between the pair since 2015 when Stan beat Murray in straights at the Tour Finals. Prior to that, it had been over two years since Wawrinka beat Murray in straights at the 2013 U.S. Open in the quarterfinals.

That win was the catalyst for Wawrinka’s rise to prominence as it marked his first trip to a Slam semifinal. In losing, he would cement himself as a big match player by taking Novak Djokovic to five sets in that semifinal where the Stanimal led two sets to one before the Serb rallied. Since that win over Murray, the Swiss has become a fixture in the quarterfinals at most Slams not named Wimbledon. He’s made the quarters now or better in 13 of the last 16 Grand Slams.

Stratego: Serve & Return

This promises to be a fascinating watch from a game plan perspective. You can start with the serve for each. Wawrinka certainly brings better pop on his first serve, but Murray has been as consistent as we’ve seen him in a long time on serve through five rounds. The Scot has won 69 percent or better off his first serve in each match, good numbers for a player who doesn’t feature the biggest serve in the game. Murray has been broken 15 times, but has saved 19 break chances against his serve. Wawrinka has only been broken eight times, but has also not faced anyone in the class of Murray as far as return game. The Swiss has saved 28 break points this tournament, showing that there will be definite chances for Murray to break.

One of the big things related to serve is the return game. Murray of course is one of the best in the game and it figures again to make a large difference. His ability to get on the end of Wawrinka’s serve will set him up for success in rallies. Wawrinka conversely uses the block approach to return, which can lead to bad positioning if the serve is doing things correctly. We saw it some from Monfils and it could be a useful strategy from Murray too in taking some speed off the serve so that Wawrinka’s blocking tactics are less effective. Of course Murray still needs good placement or Wawrinka can adjust and tee off on those less powerful serves.

For Wawrinka to have the most success against Murray, he must find his best first serve. The Swiss can do damage on his second serve, but will have a decision to make if his first serve is not humming. Having to put too many second serves into play against Murray will either mean the Swiss has to adopt a go big or go home risky style or risky putting himself in bad positions by “just getting it in play.” Stan’s serve has been steady this tournament, but not dominant and I think can spell trouble agains the Murray return.

Stratego II: Ground Game

Although quicker points will obviously help Wawrinka in rallies, he’s never shy about engaging in longer rallies. He may not be as quick and agile as Murray, but he’s powerful enough to withstand a barrage and finish points off with his punishing one hander off the backhand side or a walloping forehand. Obviously, Stan has to pick his battles off the ground. When the opportunity presents itself, he needs to go for those quicker ending rallies. When that is not an option, he needs to dictate the action and not become a moving target. If Murray is dictating play from the baseline, he’ll run Wawrinka down and that in turn can lead to fatigued legs. Ultimately, take the legs, take the serve. It’s always good strategy on Murray’s part.

Murray would do well to repeat his mix and match tactics from last year. He had Wawrinka off balance more often than not by not just sticking to baseline exchanges and extended rallies. That’s Murray’s bread and butter, but it’s also a tough proposition against someone like Wawrinka who can hit through the court off both wings. Murray must be brave enough to come to net and also will surely use a number of drop shots again to keep the Swiss guessing. The problem for Wawrinka is knowing when Murray might implement any of those variations. If the Scot is pulling things off correctly, the Swiss likely will be playing the guessing game again.

So how can Stan combat something like that this year? I think the number one thing is serving effectively. The bigger factor his serve can be, the better. If he’s serving big, then Murray isn’t getting the same depth and pace on the ball in return. He’ll be the one chipping the ball back more and that can play into Wawrinka’s hands of getting better court positioning and quicker points. If Murray is handling Stan’s serve and getting into his flow on defense, then it’s going to be a long day and likely a losing day for Wawrinka.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

You can argue that although Murray’s results in Paris have been some of his best this season, he’s still yet to play his best game. The slow start against Nishikori still shows plenty of vulnerability for Murray, but the match itself also shows that Murray has returned to the top of his game in “problem solver” mode. That’s often the difference in big matches, who solves the strategy of the other player the best. Last year, Wawrinka had no solutions in this match-up and Andy dominated play. If Wawrinka is to win this time, he’s got to unleash “Stanimal” on Murray early and not fall into “Stanisloth” mode where he lets his opponent dictate too much of the play.

For Wawrinka, it means aggressive serving and then aggressive ground strokes to follow and that can equal success if he’s not spraying unforced errors. As for Murray, we’ve seen it enough times that he can look shaky early, but if you allow him to grow into matches and find his defensive rhythm – you’re toast. If Wawrinka gets early chances to break, he doesn’t just need to convert … he needs to convert and consolidate EVERY TIME. Giving the break back is a confidence killer, especially against Murray.

I don’t think we’ve seen the A game of either player over the course of an entire match yet in this tournament. There have been moments where both have dominated, but also some shaky times too. I don’t think we’ll see a repeat of last year where Murray was in control for the majority of the match. To me, this has the feel of a match where we’ll see lots of momentum shifts. I tend to side just enough with Murray in this one as I believe he’s been through the tougher wars en route to this point and he’s figured out ways to win. Wawrinka has really only been challenged in certain sets and not for the duration of a match to show whether his level is good enough or not.

A win by the Swiss obviously isn’t going to stun anyone as he’s really the slight favorite due to the surface. Still, something for me says Murray has been the better problem solver and that is an edge heading into this match. Stan will need to prove his own problem solving skills at this stage to get the W. Let’s go five and entertain boys.

Prediction: Murray wins in five 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 Italian Open R2 Preview: Stan Wawrinka vs Benoit Paire

STANBPROME17

Besties Stan Wawrinka and Benoit Paire lock horns for the second straight week as they meet in second round play at the Internazionali BNL D’Italia. Paire scored the upset of Wawrinka last week in Madrid 7-5, 4-6, 6-2.

(3) Stan Wawrinka vs Benoit Paire

Wawrinka is just 1-2 on clay this season. He made an early exit in Monte Carlo in his second round match via Pablo Cuevas and then in his opener last week in Madrid at the hands of Paire. Truth be told, Wawrinka doesn’t ever seem to need to win tournaments prior to Grand Slams to be part of the championship conversation, but his play has been spotty still since making the Indian Wells final. Perhaps the Swiss can write off last week’s loss due to the rainy conditions that caused the match to finish indoors. Perhaps he just didn’t perform that well, broken two times in the final set. Wawrinka was nonchalant in the build-up to Madrid last week, saying it was always tricky to play there and that you don’t always play your best tennis right away. He will be needing better this week in Rome.

For Paire, his win over Wawrinka was just his 6th career win against Top 10 competition. He’s 1-3 on the season against Top 10 players. He started the week in Rome with a straight forward dissection of Nicolas Mahut 6-3, 6-4. Paire won 81 percent of his first serve points, saving two of four break chances. He would convert four of eight against Mahut. Paire was broken first in each set, but managed to break back in both instances to get back on serve. Overall, it was a fairly solid performance for the Frenchman who has now won three of his last four on this surface.

Paire Turning The Tide

Paire has now won two of the last three match-ups with his chum Wawrinka. Paire ended a four match losing skid to Wawrinka last year in Marseille, when he beat him in three sets. Wawrinka would win in Rome in this exact spot a year ago in three and then Paire of course took the Madrid match in three. I’m not sure he’s particularly doing any one thing more or less to explain those wins. It looks like an overall product of Wawrinka not necessarily playing his best and Paire being able to raise his consistency level. Paire still gives Wawrinka too many looks at second serves with his traditionally low first serve percentage, but he’s been able to avoid trouble a bit better with some good bailout serves.

Paire sounded confident ahead of beating Stan last week, talking about how they often train together and how well he knows the Swiss’ game. It also helped that he had beaten Pablo Carreno Busta to start the week just after PCB won a clay court title in Estoril. His opening win against Mahut won’t inspire as much confidence, but it was still a good way to get going. It also gives the Frenchman “real time” conditions on the surface, whereas Wawrinka plays his first live match of the week against Paire on Wednesday.

When in Rome …

Rome traditionally has been an okay stop for Wawrinka on tour, but not one that generally yields grand results. His best finish was making the final in 20008, where Novak Djokovic bested him in three. Since then, he’s only made it past the third round twice. The best run in that strecth came in 2015 when he lost to Roger Federer in the semifinals. Normally, he’s been shown the door in the third round. That has happened four of the past six years.

Paire is playing in just his third main draw at this event. His debut in 2013 was outstanding as he made the semifinals, losing to Roger Federer. He missed out through qualifying in 2015. Last year, the Frenchman lost his second round match to Wawrinka after getting a win via retirement of Bernard Tomic in round one. He’s obviously the lesser experienced player at this tournament, but will by no means feel outmatched based on recent results against his Swiss counterpart.

Inside the War Room

The game plan for these two isn’t all that different. Both need to serve well to optimize their overall chances to win. Wawrinka does get into ruts where his serve isn’t power packed. It usually starts with his first serve consistency. That’s usually the place where Paire has the most trouble of his own. He’s traditionally been poor in that category. This season, Paire is getting 51 percent of his first serves in play. That is right in line with his career average, both though are troublesome numbers for players at this level.

That means far too many second serves are routinely being put in play by Paire and like most players, the second serve isn’t as good a weapon. That in itself explains a large part of his tournament to tournament struggles. His first serve percentage in Madrid was a majestic 60 percent, while his Marseille number was 49 percent. He doesn’t necessarily have to hit above 50 percent, but it’s a massive help when he does.

Off the ground, both have beautiful backhands. Wawrinka has the glorious one hander and Paire possesses what can be a sometimes crippling two hander. Both can use the backhand as their major weapon in matches, capable of winners from all points on the court. The forehand often is the decisive factor in matches for these two. Wawrinka has improved his over the years to the point that it is a real factor in matches, when he is stroking it with consistency. Paire? Not so much. His forehand is less consistent, but still not to be underestimated.

Paire will need to be weary of letting Wawrinka find a comfort zone early with his backhand. When Stan is able to tee off on that shot, his entire game seems to fall into rhythm. To keep Wawrinka off point, he’ll need to keep from letting the Swiss set up shop along the baseline in the middle of the court. That’s prime real estate for the old grip it and rip it that has made “The Stanimal” a dangerous beast.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

It’s definitely difficult to beat the same player two times in successive weeks and even more so, when it’s a player the caliber of Wawrinka. Yes, there is the worry of “Non-Slam” Stan again showing up in Rome, where his effort level may not be the fullest. We’ve seen that time and time again when he’s not playing in Grand Slams. It’s just a lack of mental focus and it happens to a lot of players, not just Wawrinka. Still, when you’re #3 in the world – people expect you to be locked and loaded every week.

Focus should not be an issue for Wawrinka after losing to Paire in Madrid. If it is, then he’s got bigger problems ahead of the French Open. For Paire, this is a spot where you can see anything. He could be happy that he beat him last week, roll over and play dead if he gets down early … or he could step up to the plate and go toe-to-toe with him again. That’s the danger both of these guys possess. The game to beat any player on any given day and also the mental focus of a first grader at any given moment.

For Wawrinka, those first grade moments don’t happen much in Slams, but they do occur outside that big stage. For Paire? I’ve used the term #FrenchBrain quite a bit in reference to how some of this generation’s more talented French players seem to ride the roller coaster through their matches with inexplicable momentum changes from set to set. With last week’s loss still fresh for Wawrinka, I think he should pull it together and win in the end. It may not be pretty or it may be a total obliteration. That’s the guess work in calling a result against Paire.

Let’s say Paire can at least take a set again though with his game pretty well tuned up at the moment, but still iffy to drop off at any time when the #FrenchBrain gets in the way.

Prediction: Wawrinka wins in three sets