Monday, July 18, 2016

2016 CITI OPEN: DRAWING US IN

The draw for the Citi Open of 2016 is out, and the match ups that will initiate the gentleman's hand to hand combat in this "jeu de paume" are an inspiring mixture of intrigue, sporting curiosity and personal drama.  Having moved the date of the tournament up on the calendar to accommodate the many players who will go to the Rio Olympics, the tournament has already suffered the consequences of a glut of competitions that have had to be adjusted for the quadrennial event.  Juan Martin del Potro and the Bryan Brothers have already withdrawn, and the effects on the American duo of John Isner and Jack Sock, who suffered a shock defeat at the hands of the Croatians, remains to be seen.

Top seed John Isner (mercifully) benefits from a definite 1st round bye, and likely preferable scheduling, before taking on the winner of a match up of scrappers who will vie for the opportunity to dethrone the presumptive king.  James Duckworth, the Australian grinder who unceremoniously dismissed a fatigued Ryan Harrison last year, will have another American to deal with, the altogether (overly) generous Tim Smycek, who famously offered to replay a critical point in Australia against Rafael Nadal, for no (good) reason.  Smycek has excellent hands, moves like a lynx, and is (typically for an American) uber-competitive.  If he can find his way past Duckworth, he will have Kei Nishikori's model of victory in last year's final to emulate, if he is to do the unthinkable and advance to the 3rd round.

Everybody's favorite Cypriot, 15th seed Marcos Baghdatis, will also have a first round bye, with a chance to face John Millman or (the current version of Paul Goldstein - a really local favorite), Denis Kudla, who hails from across the river in Arlington, and as a junior made the daily Holden Caufield subway trek to the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Maryland, on his way to place at the table of professional tennis.  Although not as fantastical as that of Leon Vessels, Kudla's journey to the Citi Open is no less inspiring.  He immigrated from the Ukraine as a baby and was featured in a 2010 Documentary Who's Next.  In it, it was revealed the extent of his obsession with tennis.  As an 11-year old, with arguable assistance from his from his architect father, designed his very own tennis center.  Kudla's parents spoke no English when they escaped the the dissolution of the USSR on Denis' first birthday in 1993 - quite an enduring gift.

If Ryan Harrison can conjure up the same grit and firepower that saw him through the qualifiers into the main draw last year, he will have his hands full with Stephan Robert, a Frenchman known more for his prowess in doubles than singles.  Harrison doesn't suffer fools when it comes to competitiveness, and whereas in the past he has succumbed to both the light and dark sides of that trait, but he is still (relatively) young, still has a missile launcher for a right arm, and has quite a good head to head record against many of the players in the draw.  The past is not necessarily prologue, and Harrison will both take solace and caution in that truism, for if he is to become the player so many have hoped and expected him to be, there is no time better than the present.  My guess is Robert will have his hands full.  Either one of them will have a grinder of the first order awaiting them in the second round, in Victor Troicki.  If he has recovered his vocal cords following his unseemly (albeit "technically" justified) diatribe against Damiano Torella (for which he was duly fined $10,000 for unsporting conduct), he will want to save his breath for Harrison who is unlikely to go quietly himself, into the night.

In one of the most fascinating first round encounters, one of this author's favorite players on tour, (the Emperor H)Adrian Mannarino will take his well educated hands, and nimble footwork, into battle against one of the most powerful young guns in world, Francis Tiafoe.  Another DC native who also plied his trade at the JTCC, Tiafoe's opportunity came from his own immigrant father who worked there as a maintenance man. He debuted here in 2014, where he lost to Evgeny Donskoy, but anyone watching that match would have been left in no doubt as to the potential of this human power unit, who burned 100mph+ forehands so frequently that the feat began to lose its luster by the end of the match.  

Assuming he has addressed his serve, some dubious shot selection and his footwork, there is hope in the nation's capital that this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship with the game.  The winner of this match, mercilessly faces Steve Johnson, an American gaining such a reputation as a bare-knuckle brawling competitor, that he is seeded 5th, and my darkhorse to make his first ATP final in his homeland.  He is coming off his first ATP title, an unexpected, but not inexplicable victory on the plushy grass courts of the English midlands (Birmingham) over Pablo Cuevas, a 2nd round loser here last year.

With any luck, the Real Bernard Tomic will appear to make good on his opportunity lost here last year, as he smiled and joked his way to a 3rd round loss to the aforementioned (Trojan) dark horse.  You never know what you're going to get in the way of competitiveness and drive from Tomic, such is the burden placed on a (still very) young man from a country with a (still very) deep tradition of tennis nobility.  But I would recommend setting a reminder on your calendar to witness for yourself some of the best hands in tennis, his second round match up against the winner of the yankee doodle duel between Donald Young and 20-year old Ernesto Escobedo.  Rumor has it, Escobedo's two-handed backhand is every bit as deadly as the left-handed swing of his (no relation...probably because that Ernesto Escobedo was a figment of Tom Clancy's imagination) namesake in "Clear and Present Danger".  Having come through the crucible of expectations for American teenagers in the dog-eat-anything world of professional tennis, I'm sure Donald will have some wise words of advice for his opponent...after the match, that is.

(Dr.) Ivo Karlovic, the esteemed professor in the art of "making it rain", fresh off his draining victory of Gilles Mueller in Newport, will get a first round bye, no doubt sharpening the blade of his sword as he awaits the winner of the Mesomorph, Sam Groth, and the drumbeat of (Mr.) Brian Baker.  Groth's mammoth recorded 163mph delivery, will serve him well, even if he winds up on the recently repainted Court 1 where last year, he hit a serve that hit the tape...and was still record at 156mph.  The fencing is kind of old, so I would not recommend standing behind Baker as he attempts to return that howitzer of a serve.  Having said that, Baker's return of serve is one of the strength's of his game, and gives him a fighting chance to blunt the path of one behemoth to another.  Baker's most enduring and endearing quality to a tennis amateur (in the classical sense of the word) is his resourcefulness, his tennis IQ and his hands.  The combination of the three make him just the kind of player others would prefer to avoid, but I'm not going to miss that encounter.

Grigor Dimitrov is seeded and will receive a bye into the second round, although he's been hard at work here on his game, including a one-hour practice session Friday against a possible second round opponent in Daniel Evans.  That would be a treat for those who just can't get enough of the 1-handed backhand, and spontaneous injections of pace into otherwise cagey rallies.  Of course, Evans would have to make it past Benjamin Becker, the last man to defeat Andre Agassi on the ATP tour, himself a cagey veteran who made his way through the qualifiers, and replaces Tommy Haas who, for years, was typically the oldest German(/American) in the draw.  If Dimitrov can navigate his way through to the 3rd round, he may encounter a dejected Jack Sock, who will have to summon reserves of competitiveness to atone for his Davis Cup debacle against Borna Coric.  Fresh and fit, Sock would have been a co-dark horse with Johnson, but as it is now, I would credit him with a herculean effort if he were to simply justify his seed.

 


Alexander (the Great) Zverev, who sports a hellenic flock of sea gulls under (and over) what comes across as a wreath (but is actually just a head band) is a good bet to go deep in this tournament.  I'm always suspicious of last minute entrants, but he too has been here since at least Friday, practicing on that day on the stadium court with Monfils, and seems motivated to do well.  Zverev would face the winner of a 1st round tete-a-tete between Dudi Sela and Taylor Fritz.  While I enjoy the (altogether necessary for his survival) ingenuity and improvisation of Sela's game, I would relish a chance to see these young starlets compete for a place in the 3rd round.  Fritz could overpower Sela, but would find it difficult to do the same in the next round.  My money would be on Zverev who seems to have Fritz's number dating back to their junior careers.

Another potential match up, that might qualify for the circus or an NBA game, is between Kevin Anderson, the man who nearly did last year at Wimbledon, what Sam Querrey managed to do this year, and the winner of the match between Reilly Opelka and Malik Jaiziri.  Assuming Opelka is able to bludgeon his way through the wily Tunisian (who had never trained with weights until this year - a testament to his immense talent, which has hopefully not been wasted in its entirety) the 2nd round encounter might be the tallest in the history of the Citi Open.  Opelka, who is listed at 7'0" (which is frankly just ridiculous) won the Wimbledon Junior title last year (which was very nearly a part of an American grand slam), would actually tower over Anderson, who at 6'8" would make the total height on display 164 inches.  That's a hell of a lot of leverage.

Luxembourg hero Gilles Mueller, smarting from his loss to Karlovic in the Newport Final, is rewarded for his renewal with a seeding and a bye to the 2nd round, where he will face the winner of Nishioka Yoshihito and Ivan Dodig, the doe-eyed doubles specialist who initiated the stunning reversal of fortune in the Davis Cup tie against the US in Portland, by partnering Cilic in the defeat of the Bryan Brothers.  Mueller, a purveyor of one of the best lefty slice serves, which curiously appears to be most effective when placed up the "T", was the guy who stole Roddick's mojo in 2005.  That same year, he also defeated Rafa Nadal in the 2nd round at Wimbledon.  This should have come as no surprise to Citi Open historians, who would note that he defeated Agassi in the semi final in 2004, before ruining the marquee match up with Lleyton Hewitt in the final (who prevailed in straight sets for his one and only Citi Open title).





Benoit Paire awaits the winner of Jared Donaldson and his compatriot Vincent Millot, who may very well have the most extreme forehand grip in the world, one that would make Alberto Berasategui proud.  It's so far over on the grip, one wonders if he'd be better off rotating the racquet in the same direction for both the forehand and the backhand...it'd be a shorter trip.  Donaldson, yet another American teenager in the draw, has not received the kind of attention that Fritz has, but in the long run, I like his fundamentals more.  His footwork is reminiscent of Steffi Graf, his backhand is compact and effective, if not aesthetically appealing, and while I would recommend a smaller take back on the forehand, and a diminished reliance on the reverse forehand from the center of the court, the way he throws his body into that stroke reminds me of Jimmy Connors at his ball-busting best.  He appears to be on the verge of throwing his racquet across the net with every desperate lunge into that stroke.  Having impressed many with his entertaining (for all the right reasons) encounter against Monfils at the US Open in 2014, Donaldson is yet another reason that the light at the end of the American tennis tunnel, could indeed be an approaching train of supplicants to the throne.

The aforementioned Djokovic slayer, Sam Querrey, calmly awaits another American, the result of the curious (if not unfortunate) pairing of Alex Kuznetsov and Bjorn Fratangelo.  Although he is not related to Mike Fratangelo (the form coach of the Atlanta Hawks), Bjorn is only slight taller, which has made it difficult for him to make good on the potential he showed by beating Dominic Thiem for the Junior title at Roland Garros in 2011.  Fortunately for him, his opponent, Kuznetsov, equally vertically challenged, may very well be even more spindly.  I may pop over to see that second round match with Querrey, if nothing else, to see if Querrey could drop 10 aces in a row all over again.


  

(The other) Alexander (the Great) Dolgopolov awaits the winner of Victor Estrella Bourgos and Jordan Thompson.  The latter is an Australian who bravely stood in the canon's mouth for 4 & 1/2 hours attempting to return the serve of Ivo Karlovic at Roland Garros this year - making the most of a wildcard earned mostly on the back of his best year to date that included his first tour level ATP match win and a Challenger title in China.  He lost to Karlovic 12-10 in the fifth, but the effort was both brave and impressive - the only inches he gave to his gargantuan opponent that day were the 10 inches in height.  His opponent, is a crafty Dominican who typically brings a large contingent of supporters with him, and has one of the bigger forehands on tour.  However, like Ken Rosewall before him, Burgos has never seen a backhand that he didn't want to slice, and may need to figure out a way to come over one or two if he is to improve on his second round loss to the towering inferno of John Isner's flame throwing serve.

Dolgopolov, the 2012 champion (the last Olympic year) took full advantage of that depleted field, and won the biggest title of his career over a resurgent Tommy Haas (who is sadly no longer with us...at this tournament that is, he's still alive!).  I've always enjoyed the sheer maniacal physicality of Dolgopolov's game, and since I don't think the long-term prospects of being able to do what he does are good (if you've seen his serve and forehand, you'll know what I mean) it's good to see him bounding about the grounds here like a Roe-Deer in the Ukraine.

Borna Coric will impress me very much if he can recover from an emotional weekend in Oregon, and justify his seeding by overcoming the winner of Sugita Yuichi and Vasek Pospisil.  Pospisil was the 2014 finalist here, this despite being less known for his singles exploits than his illustrious doubles partner.  2016 has not been kind to this kind Canadian who glides about the baseline as easily as a man his size can, and this would be a nice way to start a recovery of the remainder of his season.  But he'll have to get through an exceptionally competitive Yuichi, who's coming off a grass court victory over Taylor Fritz, to do it, and the popular teen ager from Croatia who will have no American fans (old enough to drink) on his side, given what he heroically did in Oregon to one Mr. Sock.

The final places in the draw go to Gael Monfils, the flamboyant Frenchman left off the Davis Cup team that went to the Czech Republic and kept the dream alive of another night in Lyon, seeded 2nd and shorn of his infamous ungainly mane of locks.  With any luck, he will also be shorn of any desire to entertain at the expense of competing, and hopefully he will also do his on court interviews in English.  He awaits the winner of Randy Liu, who won a Challenger title on grass in England before Wimbledon this year, is probably the 3rd most famous player in the draw to beat Andy Roddick at a major (Wimbledon in 2010), and is in all likelihood the most famous athlete outside of Chinese Taipei from Chinese Taipei, and yet another American, Austin Krajicek.  It may surprise you that he plays for the Stars and Stripes, given that he is a distant cousin of 1996 Wimbledon Champion Richard Krajicek and an even more distant cousin of Michaella Krajicek (Richard's half-sister).  My money's on Lu in the first round, and Monfils in the second...an inspired pick, I know.

Well, that's probably everything you'd want to know (and then some) about the Men's Draw at the Citi Open this year!

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