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Upsets and dark horses
I don’t normally review smaller events, but the China Open 500 is being played for the first time since 2019 in Beijing with a pretty stacked field turning up. There are a lot of interesting matchups occurring in the first round as the post-US Open swing continues in Asia. Completed matches so far:
Tomas Martin Etcheverry def. Lloyd Harris 6/7 7/6 6/3
Alejandro Davidovich Fokina def. Yi Zhou 6/2 6/2
Matteo Arnaldi def. JJ Wolf 6/2 6/2
Ugo Humbert def. Lorenzo Sonego 7/5 3/6 6/0
Alex de Minaur def. Andy Murray 6/3 5/7 7/6 (saved 3 match points)
“I like the conditions, it’s quicker and it fits me very well.”
— Alexander Zverev, 2019
“The courts are pretty fast, although slower at night when it gets quite cold.”
— Grigor Dimitrov, 2017.
Alcaraz opens his campaign against the German qualifier Hanfmann. The Spaniard still wears some strapping on his upper leg that was evident from the US Open, however, I imagine that is precautionary given the break he’s had since that event. He played a practice set with Davidovich Fokina yesterday, and I’d expect him to come through the opener here.
Recent Zhuhai champion Karen Khachanov got his great year back on track after missing the Wimbledon and early US hardcourt swing due to injury. It was the Russian’s first title since 2018 and I think he should like the conditions here. I’m picking him to take out Musetti who is 9-9 on hardcourts in 2023.
Jan-Lennard Struff is also on his way back from injury after a blistering start to the year where he went 41-16 through Halle. The German should enjoy these conditions and I think he will have his chances against Casper Ruud, who hasn’t captured his best form in 2023 outside the late clay swing.
Perhaps the most interesting first round. Rune and Auger Aliassime both had standout indoor seasons to finish 2022. The young Canadian has struggled for form and fitness this year, and although Rune had strong results in the first six months this year, his own body has been giving him troubles (wrist, back) recently. However, Rune says he is feeling 100% coming into Beijing. Auger Aliassime picked up some valuable court time at the Laver Cup in Vancouver and enjoys faster conditions. This is an intriguing match mostly because form is such a question mark for both, but I’m leaning FAA given he’s logged valuable match time (and a win over Monfils) in recent days.
Grigor Dimitrov is having one of his most consistent years in 2023, and although he hasn’t broken through for a title, he’s been impressively solid across the year. He reached the final here in 2016 (lost to Murray) and although McDonald is a dangerous fast-court merchant, I think Dimitrov’s athleticism and forecourt abilities will get him through this test.
Juncheng Shang is only 18 but has been making steady ranking progress since turning pro in late 2021. The local lefty is the sole national left in the draw and will like his chances against fellow lefty Yoshihito Nishioka. It remains to be seen if playing at home is a pressure-filled distraction or an uplifting tailwind. I’ll pick the young local to deliver the goods.
Rounding out the top half is Jannik Sinner against Dan Evans. Evans has had success in recent months—he won a 500 title in Washington, reached the third round in New York, and secured a Davis Cup final eight birth for Great Britain. His trademark backhand slice is a great defensive bind against most right-handed backhands, but I think Sinner’s powerful and heavy two-handed swing won’t be fazed as much. This should be great viewing: Evans’ control and finesse contrasted with Sinner’s brutal baseline power. Sinner to come through.
Recent Chengdu champion Alexander Zverev gets his campaign underway against Diego Schwartzman who is having a forgettable year. Zverev’s form has been building all year after returning from a brutal ankle injury that he sustained in the semifinals of Roland Garros last year. The serve and confidence of Zverev should get him through this one untroubled.
Nicholas Jarry started the year ranked 152 and now finds himself on the cusp of the top 20. The tall and powerful Chilean has taken some bodies this year—Ruud, Paul, and Tsitsipas himself have all been scalps—and he should enjoy these conditions. Tsitsipas hasn’t shown his best tennis since reaching the Australian Open final in January. He’s still a bonafide top-tenner on any day, but his current form and mentality leaves him open to early upsets. A tie-breaker or two might decide this one.
Andrey Rublev is having a consistent year although he is still hunting for his first Grand Slam semifinal (now 0-9 in quarterfinals). He opens against Norrie, who defeated the Russian at Indian Wells earlier this year. The H2H is tied at 2-2, but on this kind of court and with Norrie dropping off a touch from his career-best form I’m backing Rublev to come through this test.
Tommy Paul and Daniil Medvedev have both had very strong hardcourt seasons in 2023: Paul reached the semifinals in Australia, the quarterfinals at the US Open, and nabbed a win over Alcaraz in Toronto on his way to the semifinals; Medvedev is 38-6 on hard courts in 2023, including a recent runner-up run in New York (lost to Djokovic). Their only prior meeting was on clay, which (perhaps) surprisingly, Medvedev won in four sets. But that was back in 2021. I think Paul’s movement and Medvedev’s lack of power should keep Paul close in this encounter, but I’ll back the Russian to come through a tough battle.
Predictions Beyond — Upsets, Deep Runs
If Alcaraz and Khachanov win their opening rounds it will be interesting to see this matchup for the first time on a hardcourt. Alcaraz leads 3-0 and 7-0 in sets (all on clay), but I have a feeling the Russian would fair much better on the quicker hardcourt where execution of the drop shot is a little tricker for Alcaraz. Khachanov is my dark horse pick for the title from the top half. I think it’s better to face Alcaraz earlier in a tournament when form and fitness is still a question mark, and the Russian’s form in 2023 has been his best in a long time.
I think Sinner has the best draw of the seeds in the top half: he should match up well against Evans (who tends to struggle against players with a heavy Ad-side game) and both his possible second round opponents lack fire power. Losing either match would probably be due to a poor performance.
Zverev’s form seems to get stronger with every week, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him back it up this week after his title in Chengdu. Should he handle his opener he has a tricky test against Fokina—a player who has the game to trouble anyone, but has shown glimpses of mental lapses several times this year—and the Spaniard actually toweled Zverev back in Toronto 6/2 6/1. Zverev leads their H2H 3-1, but that will be a great exhibition of two-handed backhands should it occur.
Ugo Humbert is my dark horse pick from the bottom. He got to 25 in the world in 2021, then dropped outside the world’s top 150 following some issues with Covid and injury, and has quietly worked his way back up inside the top 40. He has three career titles—Halle, Auckland, and Antwerp—from quick courts, and he owns wins over every player in the bottom quarter except for Paul.
Keep an eye on Matteo Arnaldi. The young Italian has qualifed here and then trounced JJ Wolf. He’s been racking up a lot of wins since April, going 38-11.
Round 1 highlights from Day 1: