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Men's Look Forward: Hamburg


It isn't often that a Masters Series seems an afterthought. But then, there aren't all that many instances of back-to-back Masters (we'll have a feature on this later in the week), and even fewer where the first of them has the prestige of Rome. It means that players who go all-out at Rome often don't have much energy left at Hamburg (that may well affect defending champion Roger Federer).

And a certain number of players don't play as a result. Andre Agassi evidently feels that one loss on European clay is enough French Open preparation; he's out. (With the ironic effect that he and Lleyton Hewitt will only once play at the same clay tournament: At Roland Garros. Of course, those two wouldn't be settling the #1 ranking on clay anyway.) Pete Sampras of course isn't playing, and Tommy Haas is still hurt. Marat Safin is hurting, too. Sjeng Schalken isn't here either, though we're not sure why. And Yevgeny Kafelnikov pulled out after his big Rome result.

Worse, some of the clay experts are unable to play: Juan Carlos Ferrero is out as a result of his shoulder problems at Rome (which means that Ferrero is out of the race for #1 at Roland Garros). And Guillermo Canas isn't back, either. Of last week's Top 20, only fifteen are here; the #16 seed is James Blake, #22 on last week's rankings (and down to #25 this week). It almost looks like we're due for another Albert Portas.

But it's still a Masters Series. Somebody will earn major points here. And if we're a big lacking in major hardcourt names, and even the #1 clay player, there is no shortage of clay specialists. Hamburg may, once again, be among the easy Masters Series. That's a long way from being easy.

And there will be plenty of good matches. Let's go down the draw to show what we mean.

First Round

A. Martin vs. Mantilla. Mantilla would have been seeded if this week's rankings were used. But he's had an absolutely exhausting week at Rome. How much longer can he keep it up?

(9) Schuettler vs. Ferrer. Schuettler is now the #1 German, and hence a crowd favorite. And he'd love to make the Top Ten here. But clay isn't his best surface, and he's been struggling with a fever. Ferrer is a solid young clay-courter; he's the guy who beat Agassi last week. This could be pretty tough.

(4) Roddick vs. Ljubicic. Talk about a serving contest! And Roddick doesn't like matches like that (as he showed last week against Verkerk). And Ljubicic probably understands clay better anyway.

(11) Kuerten vs. Chela. Talk about a first-round stunner. Kuerten has been up and down this year -- but he's about due to do something big on clay.

F. Lopez vs. (7) Srichaphan. This actually isn't likely to be all that good; it has upset written all over it.

(6) Novak vs. Youzhny. Solid veteran vs. solid youngster. Novak has struggled a bit this year, but Youzhny has been inconsistent also.

Nieminen vs. Koubek. He who runs last, runs longest.

(13) Corretja vs. Malisse. Corretja has been in pretty poor form (though he finally won a match at Rome). But Malisse is no fan of clay.

Mirnyi vs. Federer. Part-time doubles partners, and with good results together. Federer is tired, but he's the defending champion. Clay is not Mirnyi's surface. They faced each other on this court last year -- in the semifinal! (Perhaps the most amazingly improbable result of Mirnyi's life.) This time, Mirnyi will be more rested and Federer more tired. This could be a blowout, or it could be very close.

(5) Costa vs. Kiefer. Can a German crowd pick Kiefer up?

Gambill vs. Henman. Someone has to win this. Hard to guess who. Ordinarily we'd pick Henman, even on clay, but of course he's still looking for his game.

Volandri (Q) vs. Grosjean. Volandri is as hot as he's ever been, but that's not saying much. Grosjean is a better player, but has been out for weeks and had only one match at Rome. Is he ready for the challenge?

(16) Blake vs. Gaudio. Another match with strong upset potential.

Mathieu vs. Nadal (Q). It's not often that Paul-Henri Mathieu finds himself the more experienced player in a match, but he will be this time. He will also be the one who has been struggling lately. It's a good test for both players.

Second Round

Mantilla vs. (15) Gonzalez. All right, we admitted above that Mantilla may be out of gas. But he's much hotter than the out-of-form Gonzalez. And he can get to a lot of those Gonzalez lasers, too.

Santoro vs. (8) Nalbandian. Santoro is in crummy form. But Nalbandian has been up and down, and he may not be ready for all the Frenchman's crazy shots.

(4) Roddick or Ljubicic vs. Calleri. Calleri has been as good on clay as anyone (well, anyone except Ferrero and Mantilla) this year. Can he catch up with enough of Roddick's or Ljubicic's serves?

Zabaleta vs. (14) Robredo. Two excellent clay-courters. Edge to Robredo, who is ranked higher and has been doing better in the last few weeks -- but it's close. And Robredo will face extra pressure: As a surprise semifinalist last year, he has a lot to defend.

(11) Kuerten vs. Davydenko. A great clay veteran vs. a solid young player. And Davydenko has had another week to recover from his wrist problems.

Nieminen or Koubek vs. (12) Coria. This is likely to be a very long match.

(5) Costa vs. El Aynaoui. Both like clay. Both are experiencing the best periods of their careers. Both would like to be seeded high at Roland Garros....

The Rankings. This is an especially significant week, since this week's rankings will be used to seed Roland Garros.

Surprisingly, there isn't all that much to settle. With only two of the top four playing, we already know the top four French Open seeds: Lleyton Hewitt will be #1, Andre Agassi #2, Juan Carlos Ferrero #3, and Carlos Moya #4. Below that, it starts to get interesting. Roger Federer will probably be #5, but Andy Roddick can pass him if Roddick wins Hamburg and Federer loses in the quarterfinal or earlier. Albert Costa can't pass Federer, but he could pass Roddick.

Still, Federer, Roddick, and Costa are going to be seeded for the quarterfinal at Roland Garros. The other player seeded for the quarterfinal is uncertain. It won't be Marat Safin; his failure to defend his finalist points at Hamburg means that he'll fall to at least #9, and Rainer Schuettler and Jiri Novak each need only one win to pass him. Our guess is that he'll fall to #11. That leaves Paradorn Srichaphan as the potential #8 seed -- which is a waste of a good seeding tier, given Srichaphan's clay results. But it may not matter, since three players (Schuettler, Novak, and David Nalbandian) are within 150 points of him. So they are all candidates for the #8 seed. Sebastien Grosjean, Guillermo Coria, and Gustavo Kuerten also have outside shots, though Grosjean would have to reach the final and the other two would have to win Rome.

Seeds #9-#12 are truly wide open; while Safin is almost certain to end up with one of them, fully ten players have a shot at being in this tier: Srichaphan, Safin, Schuettler, Schalken, Novak, Nalbandian, Grosjean, Coria, Kuerten, and Corretja (though Corretja would have to win Hamburg). Our best guess, given that this is clay, is that Schuettler or Novak will get the #8 ranking, and that the other one of those two, plus Safin and Srichaphan, will get three of the four seeds. The other will go either to Schalken or Nalbandian.

Just about everyone currently in the Top 30 could theoretically nab the #16 seed. But the favorites are Nalbandian or Schalken, Grosjean, Coria, and Kuerten. Yevgeny Kafelnikov isn't playing, so he's out, and Corretja is 120 points behind Kuerten in safe points. Mantilla is 235 points back. At most, we'll see one surprise player in the Top Sixteen.

As for the last few seeds, that of course is completely wide open. Our rough cut shows the low seeds currently as #25 Malisse, #26 Gaudio, #27 Ferreira, #28 Henman, #29 Spadea, #30 Calleri, #31 Youzhny, and #32 Robredo, but that is a very rough cut; we could be a bit off. In any case, the gaps here are small; #25 Malisse in only about 100 points ahead of potentially-unseeded Jarkko Nieminen. Everyone down to Henman will probably be seeded (though probably not in that order). The rest is anyone's guess.
 

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Really to bad Max and Roger play in first round...

...and I have my doubt's Roger will come through...

... but hopefully he'll prove me wrong.
 

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I have a worrying feeling about this given the lack of success defending champions have had in Hamburg - since Medvedev defended in 1995, they haven't gone far. As defending champion from 97, he lost in the first round in 98 to Costa who went on to win the event, who lost in the first round in 99 to Zabaleta, who went on to make the final. Rios bucked the trend by reaching the 2000 semis as 99 defending champ, but Kuerten lost in the first round to Mirnyi in 2001 and Portas lost last year in the first round to Phau. Please Roger, stop that sequence!
 
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