Don't miss any stories Follow Tennis View

ATP Previews: Nadal, Isner Return As Gasquet, Tsonga Reset

Feb 17th 2014

The marquee tournament last week unfolded on the indoor hard courts of Rotterdam.  This week, the setting for the ATP’s highlight event changes continent and surface.  A new 500 tournament in Rio de Janeiro will feature the return of the world No. 1 on the clay that he dominates.

Rafael Nadal

Top half:  Recovered from a back injury Down Under, Rafael Nadal could not have asked for a more accommodating way to regroup.  The greatest clay player ever is also one of only two top-10 men to appear in Rio, and plenty of deferential compatriots surround him.  Nadal’s raw athleticism and weight of shot should carry past these Spanish clay specialists, although he did suffer a stunning loss in his first South American tournament last year.  That setback came against Argentine Horacio Zeballos, and another Argentine in Leonardo Mayer has produced strong results on clay this month. 

But Mayer is the only name of intrigue in Nadal’s immediate surroundings, and the rest of the top half is not much more formidable.  Curiously, a rematch of a first-round match in Buenos Aires will occur in a first-round match further up the Atlantic coast.  In that encounter, 2013 Roland Garros quarterfinalist Tommy Robredo will look to keep young fellow Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta at bay.  Yet another Spaniard, Pablo Andujar, recorded a surprise Masters 1000 semifinal on the clay of Madrid last spring but has achieved little of note since then.

Bottom half:  Seeking a sixth consecutive clay final, Fabio Fognini probably needs to defeat Nadal if he aims to win a second title in three weeks.  The Italian surely will feel fatigued from his efforts in Vina del Mar and Buenos Aires, as he did in a similar situation on European clay last summer.  At the first of those tournaments, Nicolas Almagro battled Fognini deep into a third-set tiebreak, saving two match points before he finally succumbed.  Almagro has returned to form quickly after a shoulder injury kept him out of the Australian Open, so he will look to turn the tables on the Italian in a quarterfinal here.  If he looks too far ahead, however, the enigmatic Alexandr Dolgopolov has the game to fluster Almagro’s fragile mind.

Near a section filled with South Americans is second seed David Ferrer.  Like Nadal, Ferrer should feel confident in his ability to outduel the clay specialists around him.  Among the more intriguing unseeded players is Federico Delbonis, an Argentine who reached the final of the most recent clay tournament at the 500 level.  (That run came in Hamburg last summer and included a victory over Roger Federer.)  A possible second-round battle pitting home hope Thomaz Bellucci against Juan Monaco could spur national pride on both sides, considering the fierce Brazil-Argentina rivalry. 

Richard Gasquet

For fans who prefer hard courts to clay, two ATP 250 events should entertain this week.  One of them unfolds on the Mediterranean coast of France, although one might not guess it from the indoor arena in Marseille.  As with the Montpellier tournament two weeks ago, home hopes claim the spotlight.

Top half:  A finalist at his last tournament on home soil, Richard Gasquet holds a top seed for the second time in three weeks.  His section features three wildcards, including two rising talents from Grand Slam nations.  Winning a main-draw match at the Australian Open, Thanasi Kokkinakis announced his presence to fans Down Under starved for another major champion.  Great Britain may be content to bask for now in the glow of Andy Murray, but Kyle Edmund has shown hope for this nation’s tennis future by impressing at the Challenger level.

The good version of Ernests Gulbis arrived in Rotterdam last week, upsetting two seeds in Grigor Dimitrov and Juan Martin del Potro.  Gulbis enjoyed the month of February last year, reeling off 13 straight victories and a small title.  Serve-volleyer Nicolas Mahut poses his most notable competition, but nobody should stand toe to toe with Gulbis at his best until at least the semifinals.  Look for baseliner Roberto Bautista Agut to engage in a lively contrast of styles against forwardly mobile Dustin Brown in the first round. 

Bottom half:  A similar contrast of styles separates fourth seed Andreas Seppi, a counterpunching clay specialists, from seventh seed Julien Benneteau, an aggressive net-rusher perhaps best known for his winless record in finals.  Many of Benneteau’s best results have come on indoor hard courts, and he also has shone on home soil before.  So has his occasional doubles partner, Michael Llodra, who plays a parallel style of tennis.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

Like Gasquet, world No. 10 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga exited early in Rotterdam.  He could face a former nemesis of his in a player who excelled there last week, Igor Sijsling.  The rest of Tsonga’s pre-semifinal draw looks relatively soft, and Sijsling may not pose the same threat away from home soil.  Still lingering in the twilight of his career, Nikolay Davydenko cannot be completely overlooked.

Two weeks before the start of Indian Wells, the first Masters 1000 tournament of the calendar, playing on outdoor hard courts in North America makes a practical choice.  The ATP event in Delray Beach offers that option by hosting a small 250 event on the same surface as Indian Wells. 

Top half:  One might have expected European veterans like top seed Tommy Haas and lefty Feliciano Lopez to spend February on their home continent.  After all, the indoor events in Rotterdam and Marseille would showcase their aggressive games at least as well as the outdoor event in Delray Beach.  Yet Haas, who has trained at Florida’s Bolletieri Academy, stands atop a draw more impressive than usual for this tournament.  Lopez faces the more difficult early route of the two Europeans, for her must blunt the power of two heavy-serving home hopes.  Looking to halt a four-match losing streak, Sam Querrey hopes to stop the Spaniard en route to a second-round meeting with wildcard Jack Sock.  A quarterfinal appearance in Memphis last week built on Sock’s solid February.

The diversity of the ATP emerges from the two seeds who bookend the second quarter, one from South Africa and one from Australia.  Kevin Anderson endured a prolonged slump during the second half of 2013 before appearing to resurface at the Australian Open.  He has not played since that second-week appearance, however, and the monstrous serve of Ivo Karlovic will test how much his confidence has revived.  Tasked with a less daunting assignment is Lleyton Hewitt, who already has won a title this year.  That triumph came in Brisbane at the expense of Roger Federer, but Hewitt has looked much more mortal since toppling the former god of tennis.  Waving the Stars and Stripes in this section are Tim Smyczek, set to open against Anderson, and Bradley Klahn, set to open against Hewitt.

Bottom half:  Two surging talents look set to collide in a quarterfinal if they can bring their momentum from indoor to outdoor hard courts.  After he defended his title in Memphis, Kei Nishikori holds the third seed in Delray Beach with a battle against Marin Cilic on the horizon.  The Croat not only claimed his home tournament in Zagreb but trampled the 500-level field in Rotterdam, where he upset Andy Murray en route to a runner-up result.  The two men have a history of close matches, including Nishikori’s three-set victory in Brisbane this year.  Don’t discount two-time 2014 semifinalist Yen-Hsun Lu, despite his Memphis retirement, for Cilic may arrive tired from his two weeks of European brilliance.

John Isner

The only two seeds from North America fell in the same quarter at the base of the draw.  Both of them have battled injuries at an ominously early stage of their 2014 campaigns.  Top American man John Isner has not played since retiring in the first round of the Australian Open, days after he won the Auckland title.  An ankle injury severely limited Isner’s mobility at the season’s first major, so that area of his game will bear monitoring in the early stages.  Still, he stands 14 inches taller than opening opponent Michael Russell, a surprise semifinalist in Memphis at the age of 35.  Chronic injury concerns have threatened to stunt the promise of fifth seed Vasek Pospisil.  Issuing a retirement and a walkover in his only tournaments of 2014, the electrifying shot-maker will hope to avenge a 2013 loss to Alejandro Falla.