No sooner has the dust settled in Roland Garros than the relentless tennis tour marches on to grass.
Along with Queen’s, Halle is the most prestigious Wimbledon warm-up event for the men. This year marks its final stint as an ATP 250 event; from 2015, it will award 500 ranking points to the winner. Of course, the Gerry Weber Open is synonymous with Roger Federer, but the six-time champion will share top billing this week with arch-rival Rafael Nadal.
Check out the draw: ATP Halle 2014 Draw
Rafa barely has time to clean the clay from his trainers before switching his focus to the turf. Fresh from winning a mind-boggling ninth French Open on Sunday, he’ll travel to Halle for just the third time in his career. Historically, the Spaniard has under-performed in the Gerry Weber Stadion: his sole match win there came in 2012. Might he be ready to add a rare missing trophy to his glittering cabinet?
The top four seeds receive a first round bye, so Nadal will open against flamboyant home favourite Dustin Brown, a man he hasn’t played before. Unless Nadal finds the transition from clay to grass particularly tricky this season, we’d expect him to have few problems making his way to the last eight.
At that stage, Nadal was seeded to face last year’s surprise Wimbledon semi-finalist, Jerzy Janowicz, but the struggling Pole has already lost to qualifier Pierre Hughes-Herbert. Much more likely now is a quarter-final showdown with the man who dispatched the King of Clay in straight sets two years ago, Philipp Kohlschreiber. The German has been in excellent form of late, winning the title in Dusseldorf and pushing Andy Murray to a memorable 12-10 fifth set in Paris. Blessed with a powerful serve and potent groundstrokes that fly through quick grass courts, Kohlschreiber will fancy his chances against a rusty Nadal.
The next section of the Halle draw is headed by Milos Raonic and Richard Gasquet. It’s been said for years that the bullet-serving Raonic should be a major force on grass – is this his time to shine? The Canadian has been handed a favourable second round date with local wild card Peter Gojowczyk, and should be confident of reaching the semi-finals. Gasquet has been hampered by a back injury in recent months, and with only three matches under his belt since Miami, it wouldn’t be a shocker if he fell to 52nd-ranked Robin Hasse in round one.
Perennial favourite Tommy Haas always plays well on home soil, and after a forgettable start to the 2014 season he’ll aim to build momentum in Halle. The 36-year-old, who scored a famous victory over Federer in the 2012 final, has a navigable route to the quarter-finals, with no top 60 players in his vicinity.
A last eight clash between Haas and fourth seed Kei Nishikori would be a must-watch, but if the injury-prone Japanese star is still suffering from a hip ailment, the door could open for Gael Monfils. Back in the top 20 following a quarter-final appearance in Paris, Monfils would have to negotiate Benjamin Becker in round one before getting a crack at Nishikori. There is no doubt that the Frenchman has the tools and the talent to do serious damage on grass; less is known about his appetite for winning rather than merely entertaining.
This is Roger Federer’s favourite time of year, and the Swiss can’t complain about his draw for the first two rounds in Halle. He’ll open against either clay court specialist Joao Sousa or wild card Jan-Lennard-Struff, and in the last eight he’s most likely to run into either sixth seed Mikhail Youzhny or Ivo Karlovic.
Youzhny’s level has dropped in 2014, but the former Wimbledon quarter-finalist enjoys playing on grass and was a Halle finalist last year. Karlovic arrives in Germany following a brilliant upset of Grigor Dimitrov at Roland Garros, and the 6’10” Croatian’s serve will be practically unreturnable on the green stuff. However, the bad news for these men is that they both have dire records against Federer. Karlovic has edged him only once in 11 meetings, while Youzhny hasn’t won in 15 tries.
Fans the world over would dearly love to see a Nadal-Federer showpiece. It would be their first battle on grass since that legendary 2008 Wimbledon final and, interestingly, their first ever best-of-three grass court match. Nadal has the tougher route to the final. Assuming he gets past Kohlschreiber, he would have to be at his best to beat an in-form Raonic in the last four. Haas, Monfils and Nishikori have all upset Federer in recent years, but the 17-time Grand Slam champion should have the edge this week.
In Halle – a tournament so dominated by Federer that he has a nearby street named for him – the 34th instalment of tennis’ greatest rivalry would be incredibly difficult to call. Fatigue could be a factor for Nadal, and his supporters will wait with bated breath to see how his knees respond to the swift change of surface. Federer will be well-rested, but there’s no ignoring his 10-23 losing record against the world number one. Whatever the result, we couldn’t hope for a more intriguing Wimbledon teaser.
Predicted semi-finals: Nadal def. Raonic; Federer def. Haas
Final: Federer def. Nadal
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