July 26, 2012

London 2012: Draw Analysis

I realize the Olympics aren't technically a Grand Slam, but with most of the top tennis players in the world making the quick turnaround to head back to Wimbledon and play for their countries, it sure feels like they're just as important. It might be a smaller field, but the requirements to make it there might be even be a little stricter. And for the players who finally get the honor of wearing Gold, they'll know they'll have earned it.

The MenThe Women

The Men

First Quarter

Roger Federer comes back to the All England Club fresh off a historic win here and setting another record in his career. He's clearly the favorite here, but he'll have to bring his A-game from the start -- his first opponent is Colombia's Alejandro Falla, just a shade of his highest ranking and a man who once held a two-set and a break lead over the great Federer at this very venue. The early rounds at the Olympics are best-of-three matches, so the Swiss can't afford any slow starts. And it doesn't get any easier for him -- Julien Benneteau, who got off to the same start against Federer this year at Wimbledon, looms as a potential second round opponent.

Roger's not the only one subject to rematches in this quarter. Seventh seed Janko Tipsarevic faces off against veteran David Nalbandian for the fourth time this year -- the Serb's won the past two meetings, but the underdog could easily put up a big fight. And John Isner opens against grass-court specialist Olivier Rochus, whom he met on the way to his first Newport title last year. The Belgian has fallen a bit down the rankings since his place at the Summer Games was secured, but he could put up a bigger battle than anyone expects.

There are of course a few dark horses in this section of the bracket. Former top-ten player Mikhail Youzhny is unseeded in London, and could give Benneteau a problem early. And Fernando Verdasco, who's been improving his game this year in fits and starts might catch a couple on-paper favorites off guard. But at the end of the day, you have to think the strong will survive here.

Who'll survive? Odds are on Federer to carry his momentum forward as he looks to complete the Golden Slam. But I'd love to see Isner put up a fight for that semifinal spot.

Second Quarter

Beijing Bronze medalist Novak Djokovic is the only man in the field who's ever tasted Olympic singles glory, but he's been a little quieter than he was at this point last year. Yes, he's only a handful of points behind Federer in the rankings and has fallen short of the semis just one time this year -- he lost in the Madrid quarters to eighth-ranked Janko Tipsarevic -- but it sure seems like he's lost some of his luster. He's got a tough draw to deal with too -- Atlanta and Eastbourne champ Andy Roddick is once again playing championship-quality tennis, and is slated to meet Nole in the second round. And Queen's Club and Umag champion Marin Cilic seems to be on the upswing himself recently -- he could play the Serb in the third round.

There are plenty of other threats out there too. Wimbledon semifinalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga kicks off against Gstaad champion Thomaz Bellucci. The Brazilian is less comfortable on the grass, having only played ten matches on the surface in total, but he's having a comeback year and shouldn't be counted out. Is Tsonga makes it through, he'll likely meet big-serving Milos Raonic next, and brand-new top ten player Juan Monaco is lurking a round later. There's certainly no breathing room for the favorites here.

And there's opportunity for the Cinderellas too -- veteran Lleyton Hewitt and admittedly spotty Jurgen Melzer could pose threats to their early opponents. And if the top-ranked players are put to the test, there may be a chance for either of them to make a break for it

Who'll survive? It's dangerous to count Djokovic out, even with all the trouble his opponents can get into. But it might be someone else's chance to work the draw to his advantage, and I'm going with Tsonga for this quarter.

Third Quarter

Thanks to a shocking withdrawal by 2008 Gold medalist Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray was given the third seed at the Games, but he might be able to do even better than that. After a solid showing in the Wimbledon finals, his prospects at the big events have greatly improved. He too faces danger early -- world #26 Stanislas Wawrinka, who holds a decent 4-6 record against the Scot will try to send him home off the bat -- but it might be smooth sailing after that.

The next highest seed in the quarter is Tomas Berdych, himself a finalist at the All England Club once, but one who lost his opener there this year. He's had a couple nice runs this year, beating Murray in Monte Carlo and Juan Martin Del Potro in Madrid, and shouldn't have much trouble against Belgium's Steve Darcis in his opener. But he's been surprised a few times too, so may not be as much of a favorite as his seed suggests.

This quarter might instead be one that allows new talent to shine. Young Ryan Harrison is just off a career-high rank and is playing his first Olympic Games. A semifinalist in Newport, he might have the edge over clay-court specialist Santiago Giraldo in his opener. And Carlos Berlocq, slowly climbing the rankings himself, could have a chance to shine against Alex Bogomolov Jr., who's won just one match since late May. A nice run here for the Argentine could turn him into quite a force in the South American tennis world.

Who'll survive? The stars have really aligned for Murray in this quarter. I wouldn't be surprised to see him sail after his first round.

Fourth Quarter

Spain's David Ferrer is the surprise top seed for his country in London, and with five titles already on the year -- most recently in Bastad and on the grass of Den Bosch -- he's more than established he's a force on any surface. He'll likely face a test in his second round though when he meets world #23 Phillip Kohlschreiber -- the German beat Nadal in Halle, made the quarters at Wimbledon and earlier today made the semis in Kitzbuhel. It's been a full schedule for him, and as long as he's not exhausted, he could continue to put up a fight.

Eighth-seeded Juan Martin Del Potro is the biggest on-paper threat to Ferrer in this quarter, but the six-foot-six Argentine rolled over surprisingly easily to him in the Wimbledon fourth round. He had been having a pretty good year 'til then, though, and will hopefully be able to handle an opening round against Ivan Dodig easily. If confidence is on his side he could be dangerous later in the draw.

There are also some interesting first rounds outside the top seeds in this quarter. Bernard Tomic, on a bit of a downward spiral -- he hasn't won more than two matches at an event since April -- faces off against world #18 Kei Nishikori. The quarterfinalist in Atlanta and Newport has nevertheless never performed well on grass -- it's the only surface on which he has a losing record -- and could be taken by the one-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist. And former third-ranked Nikolay Davydenko has been tumbling in recent months, but if he can get an early break on Radek Stepanek in his opener, it might bode well for his prospects.

Who'll survive? This one is really a toss-up, and though Ferrer has proven he can win on the lawns, there's plenty of opportunity for someone else too. Let's give this one to Grigor Dimitrov, a semifinalist at three of his last four events. Just for the heck of it.

The Women

First Quarter

The ladies' draw is full of opportunities for upsets, and strangely not because of how inconsistent the women have been. In fact with a whole slew of players who've been delivering week after week, success will not come at the expense of the weak but on the talent of the strong.

Top seed Victoria Azarenka may have reclaimed her #1 ranking, but she might be the most vulnerable of the big guns. After her super start to the year, she hasn't won a title since Indian Wells, but gets a bit of a break against young Irina-Camelia Begu in her opener -- the Romanian may be on the rise, but she hasn't beaten a top-tier player all year and lost both her meetings with Vika handily. More sparks may fly elsewhere in the draw.

Polona Hercog is coming off her second career title in Bastad and is actually now ranked higher than her first-round opponent, veteran Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez. And Den Bosch winner Nadia Petrova has the potential to put on a great show against world #25 and 2008 Wimbledon semifinalist Jie Zheng in her opener.

The seeds aren't necessarily safe either. French Open finalist Sara Errani will open against five time Wimbledon champ Venus Williams, and world #7 Angelique Kerber, fresh off a run to the semis at the All England Club, faces off against last year's surprise fourth-rounder Petra Cetkovska to start. There are a lot of strong ladies in this quarter, and if they don't work each other to the bone, whoever survives could be a real contender for Gold.

Who'll survive? Yes, Vika is the favorite, but Kerber might be carrying the better momentum on this surface. I wouldn't mind seeing her with a medal at the end of the week.

Second Quarter

This is the highest Aggie Radwanska has ever been ranked at an event, and after her inspiring performance in the Wimbledon final she'll want to live up to the potential we now know she has. Unfortunately for her she'll meet a solid world #24 Julia Goerges to start her Olympic run -- the Pole has won both of the pair's previous meetings, never dropping a set, but it could nevertheless be a good fight early on in the draw. And if she survives, she should face rising U.S. star Varvara Lepchenko and maybe put together a rematch with Maria Kirilenko in the third. The Russian put up a surprising battle in their Wimbledon quarter, and she might be out for revenge.

Petra Kvitova, the 2011 champ at the All England Club, may not have a much easier beginning -- in her opener she'll meet Kateryna Bondarenko, a woman who's won their last two matches, both times while ranked lower than the Czech. KBond has been dealing with injuries the last several months, so she's not playing her best, but the one-time U.S. Open quarterfinalist may have a few surprises left in her.

This could be a quarter where some underdogs get a chance to shine too. Sorana Cirstea, trying to recapture the momentum that once brought her to #23 in the world, has a good chance to get some quick blows in against Flavia Pennetta. And Tsvetana Pironkova may face Carslbad champion Dominika Cibulkova in her first round, but the Bulgarian has consistently performed well on the grass of Wimbledon and can't be counted out of pulling off an upset.

Who'll survive? In my Wimbledon draw analysis I said it'd be Aggie or Kirilenko coming out of their quarter. I stand by that call this time around.

Third Quarter

Third seeded Maria Sharapova is playing her first Olympic Games, and the pressure is on her to lead a Russian team who swept the medals in Beijing. While her opening round against an on-the-decline Shahar Peer may not pose many problems, there are more threats in her quarter. Sabine Lisicki, who avenged a semifinal loss last year at Wimbledon with a round of sixteen win this time around, could force a third-round meeting in London. Then again, so could quickly-rising Yaroslava Shvedova, she of the Golden Set. It certainly won't be an easy road for the recent #1.

Things are no better in the top half of the quarter, either. World #5 Sam Stosur is the second highest ranked player here, but this has never been her best surface. She should be able to get past Carla Suarez Navarro in her opener, but either grass court specialist Roberta Vinci or four-time Major winner Kim Clijsters will be waiting for her a round later. And Ana Ivanovic, trying to sustain her recent momentum, could pose a threat later in the draw -- she'll have to get past Christina McHale first, though, and the young American seems to be making good on all the expectations that have been thrust on her for years.

Who'll survive? This is a hard one, too, and with so many strong athletes in the quarter. Sharapova is playing strong ball these days, but Shvedova seems to have all the momentum on her side.

Fourth Quarter

Serena Williams, who won Gold in the Beijing doubles tournament, is looking to capture her first singles medal in London, and with a two-title win streak in her pocket chances are she'll be a favorite to do so. She could have a struggle early against former-#1 Jelena Jankovic, who actually won their last meeting in Rome. But that was more than two years ago, and the Serb hasn't played at that level in a long time. Serena's second round might actually be a little tougher -- either Mona Barthel or Aggie's younger sister Urszula Radwanska could put up a nice fight. They're both young and on-the-rise, and Williams is unlikely to be familiar with either of their games, and that might -- just might -- catch her a little off guard.

Caroline Wozniacki is the other top seed in this quarter, but her prospects aren't much better than they've been at other events recently. She should survive her opener against young Brit Anne Keothavong, and even a second round versus either veteran Anabel Medina Garrigues or back-on-track Yanina Wickmayer. But unseeded Tamira Paszek, who beat her in their Wimbledon first round could easily make her way back to a rematch -- the Austrian is slated to meet either Na Li or recovering Daniela Hantuchova in the second round, neither of which is as big a threat on this surface as her ranking suggests.

Who'll survive? Momentum, experience, and a whole lot of other factors are on Serena's side. I don't see this quarter going any other way.

There may be three technical winners at the Olympics, but ultimately all that matters is whether you can hang that golden medal around your neck, and even the most decorated players in the field have yet to achieve that feat. It could be a long road to that winners' podium, but the reward would be well worth it -- and the ones who make it there will have certainly proven they deserve it.

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