Queen’s 2016: Andy Murray draws tricky Mahut in same half as champs Dimitrov and Cilic
Andy Murray will start his bid for a record fifth Queen's Club title with a clash against former finalist Nicolas Mahut
If Andy Murray was a superstitious kind of man, he may enter the defence of his title at the Aegon Championships at Queen’s Club in London with some doubts about his chances.
Four times the world No2 has won the prestigious grass-court title that preludes Wimbledon. The first of them was in 2009 before he advanced to the first of five straight semi-finals at the All England Club. And he won his third Queen’s title in 2013, the year he finally won the golden trophy itself at Wimbledon.
But all four victories on what many regard as even finer grass courts than the holy turf of Wimbledon have come in alternate years.
Putting aside any such superstitions, however, Murray may also see his chances of winning a record fifth title as a big ask, for the draw, made the Queen’s Club today, is a lop-sided affair.
For his opener, Murray faces a fine unseeded grass-court player, Nicolas Mahut, who is newly at the top of the doubles rankings in large part due to his net skills. Mahut has won three tournaments and made two further finals, all of them on grass. He was even a finalist at Queen’s back in 2007: The veteran single-hander is now 34 and playing as well as ever.
Murray may also have hoped to avoid some of his compatriots. There are four more Britons in the draw, and three of them are in his quarter, with the best, No56-ranked Aljaz Bedene, who lately made his first third-round appearance at a Major at Roland Garros, lined up in the second —if Bedene beats the unpredictable Benoit Paire.
The quarters could bring Gilles Simon, who put up such a tough battle on this very Centre Court in the Davis Cup tie between GB and France last summer, though Simon is not renowned for his grass credentials.
And when it comes to the semi-finals, in a quarter that will strike fear into the hearts of each of the eight men involved, it is anyone’s guess.
Here is Grigor Dimitrov, who won the title in 2014, and while the Bulgarian has not won a title since, he has made two finals this year in a hot-and-cold season that started well enough on the hard courts but drained away with three consecutive first-round losses in the three biggest clay tournaments: Madrid, Rome and Roland Garros.
But there is no getting away from the fact that Dimitrov’s game fits grass like a glove, and he has the added incentive of trying to win enough points to get back into a seeding position before Wimbledon. He has not been outside the key 32 since Roland Garros three years ago.
No5 seed Marin Cilic won the title here in 2012 and was runner-up to Murray in 2013. He too arrives in London after a first-round loss at Roland Garros, but then in 14 titles, only one has come on clay. He has, though, reached the quarters at Wimbledon for the last two years.
He, in turn, faces yet another Queen’s—and grass—favourite, the 22-ranked Feliciano Lopez, who very nearly grabbed the title against Dimitrov in 2014, losing in three tie-breakers. He has also made the quarters at Wimbledon three times, and won the doubles titles at Roland Garros there with friend Marc Lopez.
And then there is the top seed in this quarter, No4 Richard Gasquet, who played such a compelling four-set battle against Murray in the quarter-finals of the French Open. The all-court flair of the Frenchman took him to a second Wimbledon semi-final last year, and he is perhaps the favourite to make it to another Murray face-off in the semis.
Also in this eight-man segment are the 31-ranked Alexandr Dolgopolov and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez.
But what of the bottom half led by No2 seed Stan Wawrinka?
The Swiss man, who failed to defend his French Open title when he lost to Murray in the semi-finals, announced ahead of Queen’s that he had taken on former Wimbledon champion Richard Krajicek as a consultant for the month of the grass swing.
It is a telling move, for Wawrinka has won big on hard courts and clay, a Grand Slam in Paris and Melbourne, plus two semis at each Major—except Wimbledon.
A late maturer—the Swiss man is now 31 and his biggest successes have been packed into the last three years—he has risen to the challenge of grass in recent seasons. He made his first two quarter-finals at Wimbledon in the last two years, and was a semi-finalist at Queen’s in 2014.
But of his announcement of his extended coaching set-up, he said “I’m always looking to improve on court,” and few who have seen his evolution under the guidance of long-standing coach Magnus Norman would disagree.
Like Murray, though, he has a tough opener against Fernando Verdasco, against whom he has a 2-2 head to head. The Spaniard can be blistering, but has rarely shone on grass, unlike Wawrinka’s potential second opponent Bernard Tomic, a quarter-finalist at Wimbledon while still a teenager and just edged by Mahut in ‘s Hertogenbosch this week.
The quarters bring either John Isner or Juan Martin del Potro, who is playing the semis in Stuttgart this week as he works his way back from wrist surgery with a protected ranking. It could be one of the stand-out matches of the first round, and the winner may face British Wild Card James Ward in the second round.
Another exciting opener in the other quarter of this half pitches No3 seed Milos Raonic against Nick Kyrgios. The former, also working his way back to form from injury, has, like Wawrinka, taken on some grass-court expertise in the shape of another Wimbledon champion, John McEnroe.
Tomic’s compatriot Kyrgios, an explosive talent, also made the quarters of Wimbledon as a teenager on his debut appearance in 2014. He is already 23-8 this year, with a title in Marseille and the semis in Dubai and at the Miami Masters.
Against Raonic, too, he has scored wins in their last three matches, one on each surface, including Wimbledon last year. It promises to be an explosive encounter, and the winner could make the semis in the section packed with qualifiers.
One of those qualifiers could, in fairness, be last year’s losing finalist, Kevin Anderson, who is making his way back from ankle surgery and a shoulder problem at the start of the year, and opted to enter qualifying rather than the main draw, though he it still ranked No20.
All in all, then, this is a quality draw that, even with the withdrawals of Rafael Nadal and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, boasts eight seeds in the top 20, four of them in top 10—and all but one a former top-10 players.
However, Murray loves it here, and was out practising with fellow Brit Dan Evans early Saturday as the crowds gathered at Queen’s. And as the ATP’s Performance Zone shows, Roger Federer may head the Open era win-loss index on grass, but Murray is not far behind. His six grass titles translate to a 90-17, better than any other active player aside from the Swiss.
While Murray is not scheduled to play doubles next week, his brother Jamie joins up with Australian Open winning partner Bruno Soares: They will play Wawrinka and Paire in the first round.
Other British doubles pairings include Bedene with Edmund, Colin Fleming with Israel’s Jonathan Erlich, and Dominic Inglot with Canadian Daniel Nester—in a tough opener against Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert, who together won Rotterdam, Indian Wells, Miami and Monte-Carlo.