A slew of US women at Roland Garros: Real chances, but never easy to win on clay

stephens, sloane 13 aussieThe US women entered Roland Garros with 17 players, two of whom has lost on Sunday at the bottom half when the teenager Louisa Chirico lost to No. 9 Ekaterina Makarova and Lauren Davis fell to Mirjana Baroni-Lucic. There are only two players left in the bottom half, Nicola Gibbs and Madison Brengle.

In the top half, No. 1 Serena Williams is favored, but most of the rest of the players have a chance to make it into the second week. However, four of the US players will go up each other and both will be extremely close.

TOP HALF

1-Serena Williams vs. Andrea Hlavackova: Williams is the favored wherever she goes but this could be a tricky contest, as the Czech has been round for quite a while now and she once made it to the fourth round at 2012 US Open. They know each other though, so Williams won’t be nervous and will batter her by reaching the second set.

Alexa Glatch vs. Anna-Lena Friedsam: Glatch qualified here, which was very good but not a stunner given that in six years ago in the Czech at Fed Cup she knocked out Iveta Benesova and then surprise, surpise, she shocked the young Petra Kvtiova. Glatch has more experience now but Friedsam from Germany is an up and comer.

15-Venus Williams vs. Sloane Stephens: This is a big contests between the two Americans, with the 34-year-old Venus who has been around for a very long time and the 22-year-old Stephens — who has reached into the second week twice at Roland Garros – is growing up. Stephens has played a bit better last week by reaching the semis in Strasbourg, while Williams started slowly on clay, easily losing to Victoria Azarenka and Simona Halep in Madrid and Italy.

Venus Willaims and Stephens have yet to face off, but Venus has watched Sloane and Serena go at each other hard and who have been extremely dramatic.

Venus will try to back Sloane near to the wall. Sloane will attempt to yank Venus way wide. If they both play very well it can end up being the most exciting contest in the first round.

Shelby Roger vs. 10-Andrea Petkovic: The German Petkovic is clearly favored, but the German has been hurt over the past months so she is vulnerable. It’s up to Roger to hang in there and when she gets chances she must go for it.

Christina McHale vs. Loudes Lino Dominguez: McHale qualified at both Madrid and Rome so clearly she is finally healthy once again. She is very steady on the clay and should be able to out run Dominguez.

Alison Riske vs. 17-Sara Errani: Over the past two years Riske has improved quite a bit. While she is substantially better on grass and hard courts, Riske can give the Italian trouble if she is super patient because Errani is very tricky.

Irina Falconi vs. Manon Arcangioli: Falconi hasn’t played singles on clay, but overall she has hung in there this year and should be able to out last the young Frenchwomen, who is a wild card.

CoCo Vandeweghe vs. Julia Goerges: Over the past year, Vandeweghe has been much more consistent and she is much better reading her play. However Goerges has been very good on clay and can dictate her heavy forehand, so in order to win, the American has to make sure she cracks her first serve and jump on her returns.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands vs. 30- Irina-Camellia Begu: Mattek-Sands was out due to an injury that last six months in 2014 and while she has been on fire in doubles, she has struggled in singles. However, if she can contain herself and make sure that the Romanian is unsure which way she is going she will have a real chance.

Taylor Townsend vs. Tereza Smitkova: Townsend is still very young and she has a lot to learn, but when she is feeling it she can overpower from both her opponents. However, the young Czech Smitkova has potential too so the result will be extremely difficult.

16-Madison Keys vs. Varvara Lepchenko: Keys has been very good when she has been on this year, but she’s been so-so when her body was aching. Lepchenko had cracked the top 30 once again but the fellow American Lepchenko has been hurt since the end of January. However, she feels much better and she can be an excellent clay lover. This is a true pick-em, huge serves by Keys and heavy left-handed by Lepchenko’s.

BOTTOM HALF

Nicola Gibbs vs. Alexandra Dulgheru: The former Stanford standout has gradually improved the past year and if she can keep the balls deep then she might be able to frustrate the experienced Romanian.

Madison Brengle vs. Samantha Stosur: Brengle has a had a terrific year for the most part, but she hasn’t figured out the clay yet. Stosur has reached the RG final before so unless she if off, Brengle will have to pull off her biggest clay court win ever.

 

 

 

7 US Men on clay: All have tough matches in first round at Roland Garros, Day 1

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In 2006, the last great U.S. player Andre Agassi retired and there were no competitors left who still loved the clay. Agassi won Roland Garros in 1999, and the other fantastic males had grown up together on the hard courts and very quickly, they learned how to play on the clay. Michael Chang won Roland Garros when he was just 17 years old, shocking the world in 1989. Jim Courier pounded his forehand into the corner and he won two straight titles in 1991 and 1992. His best players, the 14 Grand Slam champion Pete Sampras never reached the final on clay in Paris but at least he reached the semifinal in 1996.

But when the American’s Big 4 retired, only Andy Roddick had won a major, winning the 2003 US Open, so it looked like he would change it up and go deep in Roland Garros. But he could not manage to reach a quarterfinal. Two of the top 10, James Blake and Mardy Fish, couldn’t do it either.

This current US males group would love to reach the second week in Paris, but they have to play extremely well from the    outset because everyone they are facing are either ranked in the top 32, nearly ranked or coming soon.

Here at the 7 US men:

No. 16 John Isner vs. Andreas Seppi: Isner is favored but Seppi stunned Roger Federer at the Aussie Open. Dangerous.

Jack Sock vs. No. 10 Grigor Dimitrov: The Bulgarian Dimitrov hasn’t played well at all this year but of he is on, Sock is going to have to be very patient to win it.

 Sam Querrey vs. Borna Coric: Querrey is super aggressive, but so can the 18 year old Croation also be able to bomb away.

Donald Young vs. Santiago Giraldo: The Columbian cracked the top 30 last year and while he has slipped this year, Young will hang in there for hours to best Giraldo.

Steve Johnson vs. No. 27 Guillermo Garcia Lopez: Johnson has improved over the past two years on clay, but if he can upend the Spaniard he will have to play very aggressive.

Tim Smyczek vs. No. 15 Kevin Andersons: The tall South African doesn’t love the clay but he is consistent on every surface, which means that Smyczek has to run him as much as possible.

Frances Tiafoe vs. Martin Klizan: Another teen, Tiafoe, has potential and he looked pretty good on the hard courts, but in order to best the No. 35 Klizan he must return very well to take him down.

Roland Garros Draw, the men: Big 4 of Djokovic, Nadal, Federer & Murray favored, but who gets knocked out before the semis?

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FIRST QUARTER

Of course Novak Djokovic will easily reach the semifinals right? I mean he has always been right at the top, having reaching at the semis or better during 18 of the last 19 Grand Slams. Unfortunately he could draw the nine-time Grand Slam Roland Garros champ Rafa Nadal in the quarters. As Roger Federer said, it doesn’t really matter as one way or another you have to confront the best, whether early in the second week or late at the end. While that is true, both No. 1 Djokovic and No. 6 Nadal could be super nervous early on and your head was spinning around until he falls down.

Regardless, the two should reach the quarters, but there are some potholes. Djokovic could face Bernard Tomic in the third round and while the Aussie doesn’t love clay, he has a lot of tricks in his bag and push him to five sets. However, Djokovic knows how to wear him down. He should face Richard Gasquet, who has been hurt this year (again!) and while the Frenchmen has played extremely well at times on RG, he has also slips away and Djokovic will grab it in four sets.

Then he will face Nadal and of course it will be very close. Nadal was better every time at RG as he punished him with high-hopping forehands that nearly knocked him down. However, Nadal has to get there and while he has dominated at RG since 2005, he was struggled this season. But at some point in 2005, Nadal will rise again and it will occur right here.

He will face Nicolas Almagro in the second round and will out think him – again. He could face the Frenchman Adrian Mannarino in the third round who is flashy, but he is not that consistent. Now comes a tricky part: Nadal might face Jack Sock in the fourth round who hasn’t been able to upset Nadal on clay, but the American is ready to shine and he will upset Grigor Dimitrov in the first round, as the Bulgarian has been all of the place this season. The US men have a tough draw;Sam Querrey has to play against the teenager Borna Coric in the first round. The Croat Coric will out-steady Querrey, but he will lose to the veteran Tommy Robredo, who will face Sock in the third round, but then the Spaniard Robredo will fall to Sock in a marathon. Complicated enough?

Then Sock will have to go up against Nadal and will look good in the first set, but his legs will be rubber and Nadal will dash away.

Nadal and Djokovic will face off for the sixth time in Paris. Last year in the final at 2014 RG, Rafa won 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4. Without question, Djokovic has played better this year by a long shot. But until Nadal actually loses, he remains the favorite until he finally faded away. He hasn’t yet and Nadal will reach the semifinals again.

WHO CAN UPSET RAFA NADAL & REACH THE SEMIS?: NOVAK DJOKOVIC

SECOND QUARTER

Andy Murray has a tough draw, assuming the kids get through. The Brit might have to go up against the super powerful Nick Kyrgios in the third round, but believe it or not, another Brit, the qualifier Kyle Edmund may play the Aussie in the second round. One would think that Kyrgios will overpower Edmund, but the Aussie gets hurt frequently and Edmund might have to go up against the wise and older Murray. Quality wise, Kyrgios will reach the third round and he and Murray will swing away at each other. Kyrgios – who upset Federer in Madrid – is coming up fast and he has a lot of weapons, but Murray will out think him.

John Isner will play Andreas Seppi in the first round, who shocked Federer at the Australian Open, so that’s definitely going to go into the fifth set, but the American will grab an early break and win it. If he doesn’t snare a break early, then they could continue until 60-60 when someone collapses and they have to drag him off the field.

Murray knows exactly how to play against Isner so he should be able to win in four sets. In the quarters, it will be be David Ferrer, who is very steady. It would be nice to see the US Open champ Marin Cilic begin to play well again, but he is still trembling and Ferrer will grind him. Yes, Ferrer could out-last Murray, but the Scot is much more aggressive on clay these days and he will pound the heck out of him.

WHO CAN UPSET ANDY MURRAY & REACH THE SEMIS?: Nick Kyrgios

THIRD QUARTER

Kei Nishikori has been good but not great this year. Fortunately, he should be able to reach the quarters, but there will be some clay lovers, namely against Fernando Verdasco in the third round and Roberto Bautista Agut in the fourth round.   Nishikori won’t be afraid of going after Verdasco’s huge forehand, and won’t dive into a marathon rallies against Bautista Agut.

Then he will have to confront against Tomas Berdych, who believe it or not, he is now ranked No. 4. The reason is because this year he has been smarter and steadier. He will trash Fabio Fognini and Jo Tsonga (who has also been hurt all the time) who won’t know where to hide. The 25-year-old Nishikori has said that he is ready to win a Slam now. Well, first he has to beat the Big 4 consistently, which he has not. However, at least he is confident and willing to make risks. Berdych will push him into five sets, but in the end, Nishikori will steal the show and reach the semis.

WHO CAN UPSET KEI NISHIKORI & REACH THE SEMIS?: Tomas Berdych

FOURTH QUARTER

Roger Federer has been around forever, in fact, he had great years, so while the other Big 4 have tougher draws, that does not mean that the Swiss could go down somewhere because everyone wants a piece of him. The 33 year old could lose a couple sets against Alejandro Falla (remember Wimbledon) and Marcel Granollers (a big servers) but in three out of five sets on clay, it’s not going to happen. Even if Ivo Karlovic reaches the third round, even after he is nailing ace after ace, he cannot chop his backhand that gives Federer trouble. But in the fourth round, that can be tricky because he could face Gael Monfils, who crushed him at the Davis Cup. But what is Monfils doing this year? Not much. Yes, the Frenchman has played a couple of great matches in RG, reaching to the semis twice, but he lost to Federer and he wasn’t really there. At least this time he should be fresh as it will only be the fourth round and he won’t be exhausted. Monfils should have to face Pablo Cuevas, which will be very difficult as he can run and run for hours. Monfils loves Paris and he can edge over Cuevas, but while Federer has been up and down this year, he did just reach the Rome final and he is playing better. That is why Federer will stop Monfils in five terrific sets. After that, Federer will play his good buddy Stan Wawrinka in the quarters, which he just wasted in Rome. Once again, Federer will get into his head and will win easily, reaching the semis.

WHO CAN UPSET ROGER FEDERER & REACH THE SEMIS?: Gael Monfils

Roland Garros Draw, the Women: Will all the top 4, Serena, Sharapova, Halep & Kvitova get through?

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FIRST QUARTER

Top seed Serena Williams may be the favorite, but she has one of the most dramatic draws in memory. She could face the former No. 1 Vika Azarenka in the third round, when the Belarussian has matches against the American in Madrid and she began to shake and lost. Obviously, Serena was more aggressive and she didn’t panic, while Azarenka did. However, Azarenka believes she can come very close against Williams and this time, if they meet each other again she has to hit the lines immediately. Azarenka will be right there again but Serena will nail a few big aces and win it.

Assuming Serena Williams reaches to the fourth round, she could face her sister, Venus, who goes up against Sloane Stephens in the first round. That is a pick-em right there as neither have been played great in the last two months. The younger Stephens did play OK this week in Strasbourg until she got blown out in semis against Sam Stosur, losing 6-0 in the third set. Whether it’s Venus or Stephens, Serena will win but it could be stressful.

Serena might have to play her great friend Caro Wozniacki in the quarters, but the Dane has a long way to go on clay. It could be Andrea Petkovic, Sara Errani or Jelena Jankovic, assuming they are healthy, which is a big if. As Serena says, she struggled last year in Paris and she knows that if she is going to go deep again that she has to be healthly. It won’t be easy, but Serena will make it to the semifnals.

WHO CAN UPSET SERENA WILLIAMS & REACH THE SEMIS?: Caro Wozniacki

SECOND QUARTER

No. 4 Petra Kvitova is the favorite to reach the semis, not because she has been fantastic on red clay, but she played extremely well in Madrid, winning the tournament and running around as fast as she could and keeping the balls inside the box. This won’t be easy though. She might have to face Irina Begu in the third round, who can clock her strokes. She might have to play Madison Keys or Timea Bacsinszky in the fourth round, both of whom who went very deep this year and who won’t be afraid. Keys or Timea Bacsinszky can take out Kvitova, but you have to start very early because once she gets rolling, she is very hard to stop.

If the Czech reached the quarterfinal, it is between anybody’s game. Gene Bouchard is ranked No. 6, but she hasn’t played well all year, with the exception of the Australian Open, when she made it until the quarters. But now, everyone has been able to watch her break down. Yes the Canadian can be very close against Kristina Mladenovic in the first round, but the Frenchwoman can torch her, going strong and deep. The two others, Karolina Pliskova and Svetlana Kuznetsov, are ripped to reach the quarters. While Pliskova has looked very good this year for the most part, but not on clay. Kuznetsova looked spectacular in Madrid and she did win RG back in the day in 2009, so when she is feeling right she can power into the quarters. And then again, Kvtiova was hitting her spots into the corners in Madrid and she will doing it again reaching the semifinals.

WHO CAN UPSET KVITOVA & REACH THE SEMIS?: Svetlana Kuznetsova

THIRD QUARTER

It would be great if No. 7 Ana Ivanovic reaches the semifinals and then the 2008 champion just might recall that she never grew nervous that year. But she was a baby then and now she is thinking that she is deep into her head, especially this year where after she reached Brisbane in the final at the start of the year she became extremely nervous. Here at RG, perhaps the Serbian will make it by the third round but then the Frenchwoman Caroline Garcia will take her out. The No. 31 is not perfect by any means this year but on clay on Paris, she will shine, reaching into the quarters.

But who will face her there? No. 3 Simona Halep, that’s who. Yes, the Romanian was so-so at Madrid and Rome, but she wants to return again into the RG final. Last year not many knew her and she nearly won the tournaments against Maria Sharapova. This time, everyone knows her. She will have to work hard against Alize Cornet in the third round and the same thing against No. 19 Elina Svitolina in the fourth round who will upset No. 14 Aga Radwanska, but she will outlast her to reach the quarterfinals. However, even though Halep can be afraid at the Slams (look at how she stopped at the 2014 US Open and 2015 Australian Open) she will be able to dig deep and run past Garcia to reach the semis.

WHO CAN UPSET HALEP & REACH THE SEMIS?: Caroline Garcia

FOURTH QUARTER

Can anyone else knock out the top 4 and reach the semis? Nope, although everyone is vulnerable. The defending champion Maria Sharapova will face a tough draw. She has to open against the huge server Kaia Kanepi, but she isn’t fast enough. Yes, Sam Stosur has been very tough at Roland Garros, once reaching the French final, but she will have to play lights out to stun the Russian/American. Sharapova knows how she will hurt Lucia Safarova on her backhand in the fourth. In the quarterfinal, Sharapova knows she will have to mix up her shots in order to win. In all probability, she will face Carla Suarez-Navarro in the quarters, but who really knows as the Spaniard might have to play against Flavia Pennetta in the third round and possibly go up against her fellow countrymen Garbine Muguruza or the German Angie Kerber (who beat Sharapova at Stuttgart). All of those four love clay and thrive on it. If Sharapova has a bad day, she can fall against the Spaniards, the German or the Italian, but Sharapova has reached Roland Garros in the final in 2012 (d. Errani), 2013 (l. Serena) and 2014 (d. Halep) and she knows exactly what is coming. She will reach the semifinal again and handily.

WHO CAN UPSET SHARAPOVA & REACH THE SEMIS:: Carla Suarez-Navarro

 

 

 

Notes on a a Draw Sheet: Djokokic, Sharapova win Rome, but are they now ready for Roland Garros?

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MAY 17- Novak Djokovic won another huge tournament, beating Roger Federer 6-4, 6-3 to win Rome. It was close in the first set, but the Serbian was almost perfect again, virtually not making errors, moving his service all around the box, out-hitting his backhand crosscourt and cracking his forehand.

The 33-year-old Federer looked pretty good too, but even though he mixed it up, he could tell that Djokovic was not going to make any serious errors and he would have to be near-perfect. He could not and in the second set, you could tell that Federer was not confident enough and he couldn’t not raise his level and sore way up high into the sky and out last him. The Swiss knows that Djokovic is better than anyone now and the rest of the field have to wait until he falls down.

Will that occur next week when Roland Garros begins? No one really knows, but that we do know is that Djokovic has never won Paris and at some point he will become nervous. Can he take a deep breath and feel good about himself and play outstanding? Perhaps, but if he plays Federer again when ‘Rog’ beat Novak in 2011 in the semis, we all knew that it’s 3 out of 5 sets, not 2 out of 3 sets, and everyone can be shaky, just like Djokovic did.

Last year, the same thing happened when Djokovic faced Rafa Nadal in the final and the Spaniard had much more depth and variety. Djokovic has looked substantially better up until right now, but in Paris, it’s a new tournament, new stories and new questions. Will he be asked whether he won’t be nervous when the heat is on? We will hear Djokovic’s answer very soon.

Maria Sharapova took a deep breath after she won the tournament in Italy, besting Carla Suarez-Navarro 4-6, 7-5, 6-1 in the final. She was up and down during the first two sets, and Suarez was quite confident with her heavy topspin, but at 5-5, Sharapova gritted her teeth, swung super hard and won eight straight points to win the second set. Then she was on-fire and won the third set quickly. Remember when Sharapova played Simona Halep at 4-4 in the third set at 2014 Roland Garros? She smoked eight points and won the title. Same thing. Deep inside she was ready to raise up and she did.

Now Sharapova is confident again, which means that outside of Serena Williams, who has owned her for many years, she is the favorite. Sharapova is now ranked No. 2, so she and Serena cannot meet until the final. The Russian/American will be pleased that she and Serena won’t be playing on the same days and stare at each other when they are walking past the locker room.

Sharapova is happy after winning Rome, after she was unable to grab another title since the beginning of the start of the year in Brisbane. Then, Maria thought she could have a great season. Perhaps after winning Italy, she will punch out everyone again, if she did last week, when she was moving inside the court and blasting winners time and time again. However, the 5-time Grand Slam champion has never won a major back to back. Maybe she can pull it off at Roland Garros, but she will have to start quickly so she doesn’t doubt her confidence.

The other women

Suarez had another fine tournament and now she is ranked No. 8. By all rights, she should reach the quarterfinals and hopefully she won’t have to play Williams and Sharapova, but she will be very happy taking on No. 3 Halep or No. 4 Petra Kvitova, whom she beat both in Rome.

Outside of the top 4 as well as Suarez, it’s so hard to figure out who has been playing very well on clay. Almost no one. You have to think that a few of the kids can go deep in Paris such as Madison Keys, Elina Svitolina, Garbine Muguruza and Caroline Garcia. Perhaps Karolina Pliskova, Timea Bacsinszky and Zarina Diyas, but who else? …Amongst the veterans, there are a few who have looked well over the past couple months, even if they were sporadic like Andrea Petkovic, Angie Kerber, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Victoria Azarenka, who has looked tremendous at times, but she did not look confident when she lost to Sharapova…Three US women were close to be seeded in the top 32, but they couldn’t get there. CoCo Vandeweghe is ranked No. 33, Varvara Lepchenko is No. 34 and Madison Brengle is No. 36. Hopefully they will have decent seeds on the first round.

The other men 

There will be volumes of Nadal next week, trying as to why the 14-time Grand Slam champion has been struggling all year. Obviously, he is not stroking the ball correctly, which is why for the first time ever, he is making errors from both his forehand and backhand. Perhaps he will shake it off soon, or his coach and uncle Toni will figure why he is flying long or he is too short. As Rafa Nadal said, he isn’t sure when he will be 100% during the next couple of months, but that may not happen in Paris. If he cannot, then all he can do is to grind against the lesser players, but when he goes up against the major competitors then he will have to take risks because one thing is for sure, the rest of the players know he is vulnerable and they are licking their chops.

A couple months ago, who would have thought that No. 3 Andy Murray would win a major tournament on clay for the first time (he won Madrid) and Tomas Berdych is ranked No. 4 for the first time? Murray has an outside chance to win Roland Garros, but while Berdych has been solid against the men outside of the top 10, he hasn’t been able to knock out the Big 4, except upsetting Nadal.  Outside of the Big 4 (Nadal, Djokovic, Federer and Murray) are the favorites once again, but who else has a real chance to reach the final? Ok, fine, Berdych can, but not if he faces Djokovic or Federer. Kei Nishikori, but this year he has been a little short against the top players. David Ferrer never gets tired and he is very steady, but he is not powerful enough. Here are some other men, veterans or youngsters, who could reach in the semis, as long as they start hit early: Stan Wawrinka, Gael Monfils, John Isner, David Goffin, Fabio Fognini and Nick Kyrgios…Two US guys were close to reaching the top 32: Jack Sock who is No. 36, and Sam Querrey, who is ranked No. 38.

 

Pick ’em, May 17, Rome: Djokovic vs. Federer. Both want it bad, will be very close

 

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1-Novak Djokovic vs. 2-Roger Federer

Here we go, their 39th meeting. Long enough people? It’s an intense rivalry, and extremely complicated between both sides. In the last 10 meetings, they have split 5-5, with Federer winning the Dubai final in February and Djokovic grabbing Indian Wells in the final. The 33-year-old Federer is 20-18 head to head over the 27-year-old Djokovic and clearly, it has been super close. It’s all about quality, not just pushing the ball around and merely hoping.

Interesting, they have only played each other seven matches on clay, the last time coming in 2014 Monte Carlo, won by the Swiss. The biggest clash was in 2011, when Djokovic hadn’t lost during the season and had reached the semifinal of Roland Garros, on a 41-win streak. The Serbian believed that he could out-hit Federer there and perhaps he would go onto the final against Rafa Nadal, but he could not, when Roger put on a tremendous variety and won 7-6(5), 6-3, 3-6, 7-6(5).

Djokovic was able to get revenge the next year in Paris, beating Federer 6-4, 7-5, 6-3, a very clean victory. However, Djokovic was unable to win at Roland Garros again, falling to Nadal — again.

Federer has been able to snare a French Open title in 2009, but somewhat amazingly, he has never won Italy before. Djokovic has won Rome three times, including last year.

He and Federer did play once in Italy in 2012, with Djokovic coming through 6-2, 7-6(4). They have played so many times it seems like they are clashing every day.

But this is 2015 and once again, Djokovic is on red-hot fire. Even when he is struggling, he is still winning, because his strokes are so deep and he kisses the lines time and time again. Yes, he can lose points, he can be broken, he could miss too many returns and floated his forehands way long. But still, he digs in, he is changing his direction and purpose. He figured it out.

However, beating Federer is an entirely different matter. Yes, the Swiss has been up and down this year, very good and very so-so. He fell early against Nick Kyrgios in Madrid in a difficult contest but he has played extremely well this week, dominating his first serve, slicing his backhand wickedly and changing his forehand all the time. He essentially crushed Stan Wawrinka in the semis on Saturday, dancing around near the net, blasting his returns and daring him to out-hit his forehand.

Djokovic is rock solid. There is no way to hide. On hard courts and grass, it’s possible to go into the net frequently but that is very difficult on a slow clay surface. Therefore, Federer has to be very patient and wait for the right shots and when the balls are short, it’s time to attack.

The Serbian will try to beat up Federer’s one-handed backhand, hoping to raise the balls way up high where the Swiss cannot crush it when it’s up above his head. Djokovic was very efficient in beating David Ferrer, as he cleaned up any mistakes. Federer and Djokovic will be very close once again, but someone has to win: Djokovic will grab an early break in the third set it and win the title, his fourth time in Rome.

 

The Pick, Rome, May 16: Djokovic vs. Ferrer, Federer vs Wawrinka, Halep vs. Suarez, Sharapova vs. Gavrilova

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1-Novak Djokovic vs. 7-David Ferrer

The so-called youngsters are gone again, and the veterans have reached the semifinals. Novak Djokovic overcame Kei Nishikori 6-3 3-6 6-1, and David Ferrer beat David Goffin 6-2 4-6 6-3. Now the 33-year-old Ferrer will try and figure out how the Serbian will attack him. Djokovic has won their last eight matches. But, at the very least, Ferrer is 3-2 head to head on clay, so he can recall when he frustrated him and has a decent chance.

Djokovic has had to fight in three sets, three times this week, when he was a little off at times. However, by the third set, he was more consistent, locked in both on his forehand and backhand and threw in some gorgeous drop shots.

If Ferrer is going to allow Djokovic to charge early and often then the Spaniard will become frustrated and become erratic. Ferrer prefers to engage in long points, parking in the left corner and whacking on his gigantic forehand. He will go to the right, left and down to the middle way deep. He is very muscular and he is pretty fast even though he has aged.

The problem is that Ferrer is more predictable, he can’t handle with Djokovic’s super-sharp backhand cross court and he can’t back him off with his serves, which are good, but not great. Ferrer has been playing pretty well during the past two weeks and he realizes that he will have to be aggressive. But Djokovic has a darn good idea exactly what he has to do and he will win in straight sets.

2-Roger Federer vs. 8-Stan Wawrinka

These two are good buddies but when they come on court against each other they are extremely intense. The Swiss’ don’t get mad at each other, but they can get upset if they aren’t playing perfectly.

Federer has won just about everything, except he has never won Italy. The 17-time Grand Slam has reached the final three times, but he was stopped. The 33-year-old  just wants to play as well as he can. On Friday Federer looked very good, easily taking down Tomas Berdych 6-3 6-3.

On paper, Federer should be able to best Wawrinka, whom he is 15-2 head to head. Obviously, he has been better than he has since they started in 2005. He has beat him in clay, hard courts and grass. Federer has tremendous variety, his forehand is the best of all time and these days he likes to come into the net more.

Wawrinka has improved a lot over the past two years. By working hard he’s improved his fitness, forehand and serve. Last year, the 2014 Australian Open champion nearly upsetFederer 4-6, 7-5, 7-6(6) at the Barclay’s ATP World Final, one of the most exciting matches of the year. Stan nearly won it and had some real chances, but Federer stood tall and came through.

Here on clay, this contest will be very close again. Wawrinka didn’t show any nerves of upsetting Rafa Nadal 7-6(7) 6-2 on Friday. He was cracking his phenomenal one-handed backhand, he jumped on his returns and he was able to control his heavy forehand. Can he do it again? Sure he can, if he doesn’t become confused and take too many risks. He must be patient. Just like in 2014 Monte Carlo, Wawrinka upset Federer. This time, he will do it on clay again, winning in three sets.

2-Simona Halep vs. 10-Carla Suarez Navarro

This should be a terrific contest, as they have played nine times, with the 23-year-old Halep having grabbed five wins, and the 26-year-old has snared four wins – three times on clay. The Spaniard grew up on the dirt and loves it and while Halep has risen up quickly over the past two years, Suarez believes she can snare it. Halep knows that her foe will grind it all day long, mixing it up and running for hours.

However, Halep can do the same and she can out hit her with her lightning backhand.Interestingly, the last time they faced off on clay was at 2013 Roland Garros in the first round, won by Suarez. Neither was in the top 10 back then. In fact, Halep was ranked No. 64, and she wasn’t ready against the big girls yet.

A few weeks later, she was ready to roll and she rose quickly. Halep crushed Alexandra Dulgheru in the quarters, but Suarez took out Petra Kvitova 6-3 6-2. Obviously, Halep looked good, but that was a substantial victory by Suarez over the No. 4 Kvitova who had won Madrid. It wouldn’t be surprising if Halep won, because she out-hit her at Indian Wells in three sets in March, But on clay, Suarez will feel her touch and upend the Romanian in three sets.

3-Maria Sharapova vs. Daria Gavrilova

In Miami, Gavrilova stunned Sharapova in the first round. Clearly, Sharapova was hurt and she was extremely erratic, but nonetheless the 21-year-old was gutsy and aggressive when the most important points came. Being able to reach the semifinal here shows she can really play. She might be short, but she is super fast and can crack the ball.

However, Sharapova loves the clay now and she was lethal and beating Victoria Azarenka 6-3 6-2 in the quarters. When the Russian is playing that well against the former No. 1, you know that she is very confident. Credit to Gavrilova for being here and upsetting Sharapova the last time, but the five-time champion wants revenge and she will crush the youngster in straight sets.

The Pick, May 14: Nadal faces Isner in Rome, where both feel confident

 

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Rafa Nadal vs. John Isner, Round of 16, Rome, May 14

Remember way back when in 2011 when Isner was still rising and in the first round against Nadal, they faced off at Roland Garros and nearly stunned him, but the Spaniard overcame the American 6-4, 6-7(2), 6-7(2), 6-2, 6-4. Nadal made a deep breath and went on to win the tournament.

Isner lost, but he was pleased overall because he showed the world that on clay, he had potential. Since then, the now 30-year-old Isner has had some good wins on clay, most notable against Roger Federer at Davis Cup, wiping the Swiss. Last year in Paris he upset Tommy Robredo in the third round in four sets before losing to Tomas Berdych.

He hasn’t gone deep at the biggest clay tournaments and he has had a couple brutal losses. In 2012 in the first round at Roland Garros, he fell to Paul-Henri Mathieu 18-16 in the fifth set. He was so exhausted that he could barely walk. The next year in 2013 he was right there against Tommy Robredo, but he couldn’t grasp it and lost 10-8 in the fifth. He was disgusted.

But even though he can get down on himself, he will keep trying. This year, he started slow but after kicking himself after losing against Great Britain at the Davis Cup, by March he was moving faster and he was more composed. He looked pretty good at Indian Wells and Miami and with the exception of Houston, he was been fairly consistent on the clay, beating Steve Johnson and Victor Troicki in Monte Carlo before going down to Nadal. In Madrid, he won three matches, including beating the rising Nick Kyrgios before losing to Tomas Berdych.

Here in Italy, he has already won two matches, besting Leonardo Mayer 7-6 (6) 6-4 on Wednesday. While Nadal is 5-0 against him, Isner has hung around, such as in Monte Carlo last month, which was fairly close.

But can Isner actually beat him? Yes he has a real shot but he must play as well as he can and somehow, someway, when he is returning, he has to attack the second servers extremely deep or on the lines. He knows that Nadal can dig out everything and if he is on and he is feeling good he will dare his foes, running as fast as he can and retrieve massive shots in the corners. He can be super-steady and chase down anything, That is very difficult for Isner but he can boom aces and easily hold him.

Coming into this week, Isner’s service games won are at 96%, which is fantastic, but on the other side at the return games won, it’s 9%. Ouch.

As long as the points go on and on and Nadal will be quiet pleased. Nadal can torch Isner’s backhands and pulls him way out wide. The American has a gigantic forehand and is confident enough to dance to his left wide and dictate with his forehand. However, if he isn’t nailing it and Nadal is in control, he will change up his shots and frustrate him.

Nadal did not look great at all in losing in the final of Madrid against Andy Murray. However, he says that last week, overall he played better and he has been more mentally confident at anytime this season. If that’s the case, then he is ready to charge at the final at Rome again. Isner will bring Nadal deep into the third set, but in the end, the Spaniard will come through and grab it in the final tiebreak.

Who is dominating the WTA? Serena Williams, Sharapova, anyone?

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Plus Wozniacki vs. Azarenka in Italy

After January ended, it looked like the WTA’s two top women, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, would go on and on, winning titles and still believing they could cruise on hard courts, clay and grass. But not anymore.

Serena won the Australian Open while Sharapova won Brisbane, as well as reaching the final at the Aussie, which was close. The 28-year-old won both of matches for Russia defeating Poland at the Fed Cup.

But after that, things changed, right up until now in Rome.

Ms. Williams won a match in Fed Cup in Argentina before she got sick. She went to Indian Wells, returning for the first time since 2001, playing pretty darn well but then she was injured and pulled out before the semifinal against Simona Halep. A couple weeks later, she played Miami and overcame Halep in the semis (in a terrific match) and then blitzed Carla Suarez-Navarro. Serena was all good again.

She signed up to play Fed Cup once again and she played her heart out against the Italians and won both of her singles, but in the doubles she and Alison Riske lost quickly. She did not play Stuttgart and last week, Williams fought very hard, somehow besting over Vika Azarenka 7-6 (5) 3-6 7-6 (1). A few days later she finally lost, falling to Petra Kvitova 6-2 6-3 in the semis.

But does that matter and is Serena vulnerable? Perhaps not, and these days she is the favorite here in Rome and in a week and half at Roland Garros. But she is not unbeatable. Why?

Two things: one because last year against Garbine Muguruza in Paris, she was smoked 6-2, 6-2 and the second she walks on court, she will be thinking about it, which could maker her nervous; secondly, while Serena had not lost when she has played an entire match since August in Cincinnati until last week in Madrid, she has retired against Wuhan and withdrew from Beijing and Indian Wells. That matters. When Williams is feeling fine physically, she can wipe out her opponents when she is on. But when she is hurt, well, that is where she could be in trouble. She is 33 years old, you know…

Sharapova has sputtering now, too. She withdrew at Acapulco before the semis because she was sick, she lost in early at Indian Wells against Flavia Pennetta, she shouldn’t have played in Miami because her leg was bruised and she lost to Daria Gavrilova. She pulled out of Fed Cup, tried at Stuttgart but lost to Angie Kerber in three long sets. On Madrid, she played much better overcoming Caroline Garcia and Caro Wozniacki, but then she lost to Sveta Kuznetsova in the semis and while the other Russia was impressive, Maria was sporadic.

No. 3 Sharapova is the Roland Garros champion and she badly wants to win it again, but first things first: she has to beat everyone in Rome (except against Serena, who owns her) to hone her strokes perfectly, fine and true. If she doesn’t, it will be difficult to win a Slam back to back, which the five-time champion have yet to do.

Here is the cool thing on the WTA: no one knows where the wind blows. No. 2 Halep had looked excellent on hard courts beginning in February, winning Dubai and Indian Wells, but she has faltered on clay, losing early at Stuttgart and Madrid. No. 4 Kvitova looked ready to win another major after snagging Sydney, but then she fell fast and didn’t begin to strike the ball inside the lines until last week and she won Madrid.

Everyone wants to rise and most of the top 20 have had at least a week or better, such as Wozniacki, Bouchard (yes, she’s been quiet for a while but she did reach the quarters at the Aussie Open), Ivanovic, Makarova, Petkovic, Kerber and Pliskova, etc. This week in Rome, someone will play fantastic and come very close to winning it, or grabbing it. Some of the others will lose early and dash to Paris.

On the first day Sunday May 24 at Roland Garros, everyone will dream a sweet dream and envision of raising the trophy. But right now, who is a gigantic favorite? Nobody knows.

Caroline Wozniacki vs. Victoria Azarenka, May 13, Wednesday, Rome

This is pretty simple, even though it is an extremely important match: if the Dane has a real chance, she was to move forward quickly or for the third time this year, she will go down quickly. Azarenka dictated her shots from the beginning to the end, out-hitting her forehand, putting away balls at the net and dare her to kiss the lines with her backhand. Wozniacki has beaten Azarenka before on hard courts and knows how to frustrate her, but this is clay and she has admitted that she isn’t confident there. This year, she has to do things differently. Wozniacki has to be patient but when her opponent drops the ball short, she has to rush ahead and attack immediately. Caro’s backhand is by far her best shot so she has to crush it down the lines, crosscourt and very deep down the middle.

Let’s assume that Wozniacki plays the first set brilliantly, but then Azarenka will pound it with her better forehand, win the second set, and in the third set, one would stay true and the other will panic. Azarenka was off on Tuesday, and she won’t play well again. Wozniacki will win in three sets.

Notes on a Draw Sheet: Murray smokes Nadal to win Madrid; Kvitova won, on to Rome. Djokovic favored, but is Serena?

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MAY 10 – Props to Andy Murray, who won his first gigantic tournament on clay by beating Rafael Nadal 6-3, 6-2 at Madrid. For the first time against the Spaniard on dirt, he never panicked, he wasn’t afraid, he was very impressive and he actually believed that he could out hit with his phenomenal backhand. Years ago, he stayed way back behind the baseline and frequently push the ball with his forehand, but not anymore. Now he believes that he can crack his forehand when moving forward and he would dictate as fast as he can.

Roger Federer was not going to participate in Rome, but then he lost early against Nick Kyrgios at Madrid and he changed his mind. He played fairly well in winning Istanbul, but he played against the lower-ranked guys. If he is going to go very deep at Roland Garros, he has to beat the better competitors and if he manages to face the other Big 4 (Djokovic, Nadal and Murray) he must be very close. If he does he will become more confident. Kyrgios could play against his fellow Aussie, Bernard Tomic. They are super close and respectful of each other but Tomic doesn’t want the younger kids beating him yet – or ever. However, Nick has to play Feliciano Lopez in the opening round … first things first.

The No. 1 Novak Djokovic decided not to play in Madrid because he was exhausted. So now he will be super fresh. Obviously he is the favorite on clay because Nadal is panicking. Could the Serbian lose? I doubt it, but he will face the former No. 10 Nicolas Almagro, who is very fast and can run around for a long time. Maybe he will go up against Kei Nishikori in the quarters which could be a terrific match if the Japanese keeps forward, and should he face Murray in the semis, well, we know that the Brit is on fire now. He hasn’t beat him in a long time, though.

John Isner has improved since March and now he has a solid draw, playing Joao Sousa in the first round. If he wins there he would face Leonardo Mayer. Rome is slower than Madrid. Isner will have to work very hard, but assuming he scores both wins then it is very likely that he will face Nadal. He has been close of beating him before and given that Rafa is shaky mentally, Isner would have a legitimate. Currently ranked No. 33, the young American Jack Sock could be seeded at Roland Garros. He will have a very tough task against Gilles Simon who, when he is happy and feeling right, can be excellent. You never know when Simon shows up. Oh my, Alexandr Dolgopolov has fallen to No. 73, but good for him for qualifying. We would assume that the former No. 13 is now back on track.

THE WOMEN

Petra Kvitova crushed Svetlana Kuznetsova to win Madrid. She looks faster; she was under control and torching both wings. If she plays as well she did in smoking Serena Williams and Kuznetsova, then she will be a huge threat to win Roland Garros for the first time. But as good as she can be, she rarely has been able to be excellent over a month or so. She can get tired and she can get upset with herself. At Rome, even if she loses, she has to move on. She beat Serena for the first time ever, which was huge because now she finally believes she can beat the best players. If she is feeling good mentally and she is healthy, perhaps the two-time Wimbledon champion can show the world that she has learned how exactly to play the right way at the French Open.

I wouldn’t be concerned about Serena finally losing. It’s impossible to win every time out and on clay over the years. Now the 33-year-old has taken some great wins and some bad losses. She is the favorite at Italy and at Roland Garros, but it won’t be easy. At Rome, she might have to face the former US Open champ Sam Stosur in the second round, which could be a marathon. Check out the potential fourth round: Ana Ivanovic, Belinda Bencic, Daria Gavrilova, Kateryna Pliskova or (gulp) Sloane Stephens. Brutal and extremely tough, who ever it is.

Maria Sharapova played pretty well in Madrid until playing Svetlana Kuznetsova and then she stopped. Now she needs to step it up in Rome. She could play Caroline Garcia in the third round (a match that was very close in Madrid) or against Madison Keys, who is dangerous but who didn’t play well in Spain…Here is the biggest match in the second round: Caroline Wozniacki could face Victoria Azarenka, who has beaten the Dane twice this year. The Belarussian is the favorite so it is up to Wozniacki to figure it out and go for her. She can’t back off all the time if she is going to have a real chance…Here is a shocker: Wozniacki hooks up with the former No. 1 Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario as her coach a few weeks ago, the Spaniard looked pretty good at Madrid and all of sudden Sanchez=Vicario bails out as she says that she cannot be able to travel toRome and Paris. Where did that come from? Why would the three-time RG champion have agreed to help Caro and then wave good buy already? There is something very fishy. Such is Sanchez-Vicario’s strange life.