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 Mercedes Cup QF Preview: Tomas Berdych vs Feliciano Lopez

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

(3) Tomas Berdych vs Feliciano Lopez

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

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

First Meeting Since 2014

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

Match Tactics

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

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

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

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

The Pig’s Bottom Line

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

Prediction: Lopez wins in three sets

2017 Mercedes Cup Preview

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Shifting Surfaces

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

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

Seed Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early Bird Specials

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outsider’s Edge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Draw Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2017 French Open 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 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.