It says something when the returning champion of the 2017 Citi Open is neither at the very top or the very bottom of the draw.
If Gael Monfils was expecting to have it easy retaining his title, that #6 next to his name should disabuse him of that notion. The quality of the field boasts no less than 4 returning champions, including Juan Martin del Potro, Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic, and of course, the Gael Force. That's the most crowded field of former champions since 2013, when James Blake, Lleyton Hewitt, Juan Martin del Potro and Alexander Dolgopolov strapped on their headbands for another bite at the apple. Throw in former finalists John Isner, Vasek Pospisil, Marcos Baghdatis, Gilles Muller and if experience is of significant value to progressing in DC this summer, the rest of the field should scarcely stand a chance.
But the #1 seed this year is none other than Dominic Thiem, a player whose rise to the top 10 of the game has been striking, culminating in his best performance at a major, making the semi-final at Roland Garros this year, losing to some fellow whose won it here and there. It's not the first time he's been seeded #1 at an ATP event, but certainly this one, and could be the first Austrian to win here in the history of the tournament, one that neither Thomas Muster, nor Jurgen Melzer could claim.
Thiem awaits the winner of 2014 Finalist Vasek Pospisil, fresh of his stunning performance as the best man at his brother's wedding, and Switzerland's Henrik Laaksonen who gained direct entry with an ATP ranking of #95. Pospisil, for his part, will look to justify his superior rank of #72, and for redemption following some valiant, but no less dodgy performances in the Davis Cup earlier this year, before his countryman Shapalov became a major party-pooper and obliterated the umpire's eye socket with an errant ball hit in anger. My guess is Pospisil will make it through to challenge the #1 seed for a place in the 3rd round.
Malek Jaziri will enjoy stirring support from the large community of North Africans and francophones in the D.C. area, as he takes on Alessandro Bega, an Italian journeyman who didn't drop a set in qualifying for the main draw. Bega's stiff legged stroke production on his two-handed backhand, will make him susceptible to the variety and court awareness that the vastly more talented Jaziri demonstrated last year to beat Reilly Opelka and take Sacha Zverev to 3 sets. His experience frustrating taller ball-busting opponents will put him in a good position to meet the challenge of a resurgent Kevin Anderson who lost a hear-breaker to Sam Querrey this year at SW19. Anderson is a consummate professional, whose serve is huge, as is his forehand, but struggles with movement and balls out of his strike zone, which is curiously, but expectedly, small for a man of 6'8"- the kind of tree Jaziri is accustomed to chopping down.
Mischa Zverev is seeded at the Citi Open for the first time in his career, following a resurgent 2017 where he outperformed his baby-brother in Australia, beating World #1 Andy Murray along the way, and later put up committed but ultimately insufficient resistence to 2017 Wimbledon champion Roger Federer. Fortunately he is on the opposite end of the draw from "der Kleine", and will not have to deal with facing him unless they both make the final: not an indistinct possibility given their level of play this year. To get there, he'll have to start of with a win over the winner of Indian 22-year old Ramkumar Ramanthan, who made the Challenger final in Tallahassee this year, on the way to a 6-2 tour level record, and Guido Pella, the Uraguayan journeyman who give Grigor Dimitrov fits in the juniors and nearly sent him packing in the second round here in 2015. Pella is the more experienced player, but something tells me that Ramanthan, also likely to have support from the enormous Indian community in the D.C. area will continue the form that saw him qualify as the top seed, with an easy win over Marinko "Mount" Matosevic.
19-year old Stefan Kozlov, an American by way of Macedonia, seeks to right the ship of a disastrous 2017 at the ATP tour level, winning only 2 of his 9 matches, by getting the job done over Yuki Bhambri, the 25 year old Bolletieri Academy offspring who has done little to justify all the Indian hopes and dreams heaped on his spindly frame over the last 7 years. Surprisingly, it is Bhambri who had to come through the qualifying, which he did by dispatching of Liam Broady (Naomi's brother) in straight sets over the weekend. Fitness questions have dogged the young pretender with Bollywood good looks, so the quick work will facilitate what could be one of his last chances to breath through to the big stage. My guess is that Kozlov is hungrier and in a sprint, the more likely to face the defending champion in the next round. Regardless, don't expect either to make it to the 3rd round.
Milos Raonic returns after an absence of two years to threaten the craniums of center linesmen throughout Rock Creek Park with his howitzer serve, as the #3 seed. There aren't many in the draw that can deal with the power of not only his serve, but his forehand, and if there's one player who will have no qualms about facing anyone in the draw, it's Raonic. Following a subdued performance against the Maestro of all Maestros at Wimbledon, I'm guessing he'll make it through his quarter of the draw, to kick off his summer 2017 season. To do so, he'll need to get past the winner of Nicolas Ma"who?"hut, and the little Italian veteran Thomas Fabbiano "not Fognini", who moves and hits like the mercurial shotmaker extraordinaire, with only a sliver of the talent. I see Mahut giving Raonic a run for his money in the next round.
Ryan Harrison has earned himself a bye into the second round as the 16th seed, and where he will face the winner of Edan Lesham and 2006 Australian Open finalist (yes, 11 years ago) Marcos Baghdatis. Baghdatis is a former finalist here, and while he's played this even many times over the years, has not had a great deal of success since he lost to David Nalbandian in 2010. His best years are behind him, but I don't see him succumbing to the 20-year old Israeli playing his first tour level match of 2017. This is a throwback to an era of players who rely more on their hand-eye coordination and court sense, as both are endowed with a superior level of both qualities. In a battle of wits, the Cypriot looks like the best bet to face the resurgent American seed in round 2. The respite from round 1 will serve Harrison well after a tough two tie-break set loss in the final of Atlanta.
Speaking of Atlanta, John Isner, straight off of his 4th title in Atlanta, comes to DC looking to make his 4th final, after losing his first to Andy Roddick, his second del Potro, and his third to Nishikori. Roddick is long since retired, but Isner will have a shot at revenge for one of those two losses as long as his gets through to the final. In his way is his Wimbledon nemesis, "He said" Dudi Sela and Jared Donaldson, an American who performed well here last year, but is yet to see his career really take off like his contemporary, the boy Emperor Alexander. Sela is crafty and will enjoy large support, while Donaldson will seek to justify his direct entry into the main draw, and I'm picking Sela to get what's coming to him from Isner in round 2.
The top half of the draw is filled out by Sekou Bangoura, Jr., coached by his eponymous father, a 25-year old American who uses a very light stick, and as such generates enormous racquet-head speed and spin, but not much penetrating power. He also struggles to win 2nd serve points, which will make it very difficult to overcome the old pro from Arad, Romania, Marius Copil. One of the few players in the draw with a single handed backhand, Copil's main quality is his athleticism and guile, which he should use to overwhelm the slightly built Bangoura. Particularly since the bigger, stronger, faster version of Bangoura awaits him in the 2nd round if he wins, Jack "the Rock" Sock. At 6300 RPMs, Sack puts more energy into his forehand than any other forehand in the history of tennis...that's right, the history of the game. I don't know why that hasn't translated into more at this level - perhaps one or two fewer trips to Chipotle with Pospisil would help - but my guess is Sock is a lock to beat Copil in the next round.
Sasha Zverev will have a lot of work to do to get through a very difficult bottom half of the draw, but I don't see much in the way of impediments in the next round, as he faces the winner of Australian Jordan Thompson and the Belgian Ruben Bemelmans. Assuming "Flock of Seagulls" does what he ought to do in round 2, he'll face the winner of Nick Kyrgios and the winner of Go "Go-Dane?" Soeda and...I shit you not...Tennys "Anyone" Sandgren, from Gallatin Tennesee. I mean this fellow had to be destined to be a professional with a name and hometown like that, but the chances of him getting past Soeda, the mercurial pugilist from Tokyo, are slim to none. Whoever faces Kyrgios, based on what we've seen from him since Miami, we could be looking at a walkover or a double bagel. But this will be the first time that Nick "not a Prick" Kyrgios will take the courts at the William H. Fitzgerald tennis center. I'm hoping he brings to bear the full weight of one of the best serves, and innately powerful forehands, in all of tennis...I'm hoping.
Steve Johnson comes to DC for the first time since the passing of his father, and one would hope he would have some respite from what's been a very emotional 2017. This has been the tournament where he consistently performs the best, with impressive wins over Dimitrov and Tomic the "Tank Engine" 2 and 1 years ago respectively. I can see Johnson making a run, but I wonder if it wouldn't actually do him some good to lose early and regroup in Canada or maybe Cincinnati. In any case, Johnson will face the winner of Reilly Opelka and Daniil Medvedev. All 7'0 of Opelka will be brought to bear to irritate the hell out of the highly irritable Medvedev, who has accused umpires of everything from racism to being bought. Here in DC, with the current popularity of Russians, he'll have entirely different set of things to hang a loss on if Opelka figures out how to use that serve to his advantage. My guess is that Medvedev and Johnson will renew the Cold War in round 2. Hopefully, nobody from the Trump administration will be caught asking Medvedev for an autograph.
4th seed Grigor "Gimmemore" Dimitrov will face the winner of Kyle Edmund and Heong Chung. Edmund, who started playing tennis about 7 years later than all of his rivals, will have the unenviable task of standing up Hyeon Chung, the tallest and strongest Korean player since...well, ever. Chung actually put in a very tough performance against Dimitrov a couple of years ago in Australia this year, but I don't see him getting past Edmund. And my guess is that Dimitrov, who's never had a particularly good summer throughout his 8 years on tour, will continue to struggle in DC, as he has since he first came here in 2011, and lose for the second year in a row to a journeyman Brit...this one not on cocaine.
At the bottom of the draw, but right at the top of my favorites to take the title here, are the fastest hands in tennis, belonging to the little maestro from the land of the rising sun, Kei Nishikori. Two years ago, if your eyes were able to perceive motion that fast, you would have seen him use those hands to fend of three of the most gargantuan serves in the history of tennis. First, he stood up to the fastest recorded serve in tennis history, that of Sam "the Mesomorph" Groth, then in a rematch of his US Open final loss in 2014, he served up a nice hot cup of sweet revenge on "Cheech" Marin Cilic, before besting the behemoth John "the Booming Baptist" Isner for his first title here, and his second ATP 500 of 2015.
He'll need warp speed reactions to get through his half of the draw, which is stuffed like a sausage link with flame throwing seeds, Alexander "the Great" Zverev, "Gimme More" Grigor Dimitrov, "Naughty" Nick Kyrgios, "My name is" Lucas Pouille, "Chill" Gilles Muller and "Not" Juan "and Done" Martin del Potro. If he can get past the American civil war between Donald Young "and Restless" and "Gentleman" Tim Smycek, he'll have the winner of delPo's second round match up with the winner of Alexios Halebian and "Loopy" Lukas Lacko.
Lacko, a talented Slovakian, appears to eschew neither hamburgers nor wildcards, although he's deservedly received direct entry here. By contrast, Halebian beat two seeded players to force his way into the show, and will have the opportunity, if not the rest, to prove that his 2012 Kalamazoo final was no fluke. A bounding, athletic lefty, Halebian relies on a serve that is the spitting image (if not effect) of Goran Ivanesevic's monstrous ball-in-hand delivery, which he'll need against Lacko's outstanding return. I'm betting on Halebian lacking against Lacko, and his long hard road into the main draw coming to an abrupt end.
For his part, Donald Young, a Kalamazoo winner in 2006 (over his more illustrious opponent that year, Sam Querrey) returns to DC not as a fan favorite, but perhaps as a sentimental one. 10 years have passed since he first played here in the summer of 2008, and while he's bulked up his body, his game appears to be more or less the same relative to his contemporaries. Experiencing something of a resurgence in his career over the last two years, it would be nice to see Young win a few matches here, but the depth of field makes it unlikely that this tournament would constitute his maiden title on the ATP tour.
Tim Smyzcek, who needlessly handed Rafael Nadal a first serve in Australia (ostensibly because a fan called out during the Spaniard's delivery), and was applauded for his sportsmanship by all but this writer and probably his coach, nearly unimaginably beat the Lieutenant G.O.A.T. in 2015. A quick and tenacious defender, his lack of power is precisely the kind of opponent upon whom Young could impose himself. Unfortunately for Young, and fortunately for this match up, Smyzcek possess all the competitiveness that Young lacks, and I see this being a 3 set slog that the 29 year old Wisconsiner comes through in a squeaker.
Dmitry Tursunov hasn't been heard from in D.C. for quite some time, but a protected ranking gives him direct entry into the field. He made news, tangentially, when Colin Cowherd incorrectly identified him as the 700th ranked player that Serena Williams couldn't beat - in fact his ranking today is #820 - and nobody is expecting the obvious to be proven today, although it is likely he will struggle to get past the 6'2" Texan Mitchell Krueger "Industries". For the 34 year old Davis Cup hero of 2006, there are definitely more yesterdays than tomorrow, and unlike his contemporary, Roger Federer, the years have not been kind. My guess is that Krueger, who somehow dropped about 50 places in the rankings since May (to #223), will have a good day at the office...lunch pail, and all, and move on to the man who has stolen the mojo of everyone from Andy Roddick to Rafa Nadal in Gilles Muller.
Muller is a former junior #1, with the the most mind and body bending lefty serve in modern tennis. Not the most aesthetic player in the world, he is very effective on fast surfaces that allow him to follow that dastardly serve, casually into the net, which is precisely what the stadium court does. Unfortunately for him, he'll probably relegated to the outer courts until the quarterfinal diminishing his chances...but he'll get past Krueger.
Tune in tonight for a recap of day 1...