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Qualies Corner: 2016 Australian Open (Part I, Men)

New year, same TTI. For 2016, we’ve brought back one of our favorite segments from last year: Qualies Corner, where we take an in-depth look at those who are fighting for their proverbial Grand Slam lives and the right to play in the main draw of the tournament. TTI’s own René Denfeld and Victoria Chiesa bring you the first all-inclusive preview of the year: the 2016 Australian Open men’s qualifying draw.

Q1: The Bad Boy

René Denfeld: There are plenty of interesting characters and personalties in this little list to kick off the top section. Great Britain’s Daniel Evans had a solid fall on the ITF circuit and I’m inclined to pick him to upset top seeded Italian Luca Vanni in the first round, but I don’t trust the controversial Brit on a day-to-day basis.

Victoria Chiesa: What could possibly make you feel that way?

RD: Yeah, that. With Evans’ uncanny ability to blow up the section — and then blow up himself on court — looming in the top part of the draw, I have a feeling that Aussie Luke Saville — who featured prominently in the last (read: only) edition of Qualies Corner to date — to come through this section, taking out Lee Duck-hee in the third round.

VC: Lee came close to qualifying for his first ATP Tour main draw this week in Auckland, losing to Robin Haase in the final round, and the teenager is one of the more intriguing names in the year’s first slam-before-a-slam. Born deaf, Lee is coming off a banner season in which he won five titles on the Futures circuit.

On the other side of the coin: don’t forget that Canadian veteran Frank Dancevic, who is also in this section, was going viral Down Under before it was cool.

René’s Pick: Luke Saville (AUS)

The Aussie’s had an inauspicious start to 2016 — losing his first two matches of the year — and is forced to toil away in qualifying after seeing his Australian Wildcard Playoff campaign come to an end at the hands of the (sort of?) resurgent Marinko Matosevic. If there’s ever a time for the former junior World No. 1 to prove himself, why not now?

Vika’s Pick: (17) Bjorn Fratangelo (USA)

The 2011 junior Roland Garros champion had a strong season in 2015, getting within touching distance of the Top 100 in August. The 22-year-old should look to move towards mainstream success in 2016, and qualifying here would be a good start.

Q2: The Southpaws

VC: The second section of the draw doesn’t really have an overwhelming favorite, but does have one overwhelming theme: relative youth. Outside of No. 2 seed Ruben Bemelmans, the other seven players in this section were all born in the year 1990 or later — including former Ohio State University Buckeye (and fellow left-hander), No. 27 seed Blaz Rola.

RD: As I see them the favorites in their first round matches against Aussie teen Harry Bourchier and German Nils Langer, the main question for me is who will prevail out of unseeded Belarusian Egor Gerasimov and Bemelmans. The winner of that encounter should prevail in the third round and make the main draw.

VC: My prevailing memory of Bemelmans on Australian soil dates back to 2011, after Justine Henin decided to come out of retirement and bring him along for the ride during her quest to win the Hopman Cup.

It ended less than ideally for him, particularly in the deciding mixed doubles match against the United States.

His Australian Open career hasn’t been all that great either, as he’s 0-2 in main draw matches. On the bright side, he’s 8-1 in his last nine qualifying matches in Melbourne. #counts

René’s Pick: (2) Ruben Bemelmans (BEL)

Bemelmans knows what it’s like to win in Australian Open (qualifying), so even though he had a really iffy loss in the first round of qualifying in Doha (Arslan Karatsev, anyone?) to open his season, he’s the pick here.

Vika’s Pick: (27) Blaz Rola (SLO)

OH! IO! Why not?

Q3: The One Who Went Viral

RD: All things considered, this is a decent draw the real hero of American Sportsmanship (no tea, no shade): American Pharaoh.

Just kidding, Tim Smyczek. The let heard ’round the world was one of the brighter moments of 2015:

The only problem is that Smyczek’s past couple of events didn’t go as well as planned, including a loss to Australian teenager Oliver Anderson in qualifying in Brisbane. I do see the 28-year-old talking out Brazilian Jose Pereira but Karatsev as well as Frenchman Kenny De Schepper or Estonian Jurgen Zopp could provide trouble on any given day. 

VC: Smyczek’s display against Nadal was the water-cooler moment of last year’s Australian Open tournament, when he also came through the qualifying. In this section, however, my eyes jumped toward the QR1 between Somdev Devvarman and Jurgen Zopp, which could’ve easily been a main draw first round a few years ago. Neither of them have had much success at ATP level of late, but the fact that neither of these players are 22 years old anymore is incredibly troubling to me. #old

René’s Pick: (3) Tim Smyczek (USA)

The No. 3 seed is the favorite in this section.

Vika’s Pick: Jurgen Zopp (EST)

Kaia Kanepi is notably absent from the women’s draw, and Anett Kontaveit can’t hold down the fort on her own. 

Q4: The Hot Hand

RD:  If you had asked me a week ago, I’d have said this spot in the main draw is Alejandro Falla’s to lose. However, Thomas Fabbiano has made a strong run in Chennai to open the year — winning his first ATP main draw matches ever at the ripe old age of 26. The Italian took out Gilles Muller in straight sets and pushed Benoit Paire in a tight two-setter. 

VC: Fabbiano’s opening round opponent, Uladzimir Ignatik, is an interesting character. The Belarusian was a fairly successful junior World No. 1 in 2007, winning the boys’ title at Roland Garros and finishing runner-up at the US Open, but hasn’t even come close to the Top 100 in the eight seasons since.

Also here is Wu Di, the man who gave both Marin Cilic and Rafael Nadal pretty tough matches on home soil last year. With China still struggling to find much of anything on the men’s side, Wu has been their only presence in Grand Slam main draws over the past few years — having twice won the Asia-Pacific Wildcard Playoff — but was upset in the opening round of that tournament this year.

The Grand Slam of Asia-Pacific has its own little party going on in this section with Wu, Chen Ti and Tsung-Hua Yang (both from Chinese Taipei) and Vietnamese-American Daniel Nguyen, who played college tennis at the University of Southern California.

René’s Pick: Thomas Fabbiano (FRA)

As a result of recency bias, I’ll pick the man from Apulia — born just 10 km from Taranto, Roberta Vinci’s hometown — to make the main draw.

Vika’s Pick: (4) Alejandro Falla (COL)

Veteran experience often goes a long way in qualifying, and Falla certainly has no short of it.

Q5: The Returners

VC: The qualifying tournaments of Grand Slams often feature a motley crew of players, from veterans looking to return to the game’s elite to youngsters looking for their first shot. It’s not often, however, that you find many of the former all in one place. That’s exactly what’s happened in this section, as once-Top 50 players Radek Stepanek, Marinko Matosevic and Jan-Lennard Struff have all found a home in the fifth qualifier spot.

RD: I had so hoped my compatriot Struff might find himself in a soft section of the draw — and what happens? He ends up in one of the toughest ones. The German managed to get through 2015 on a conciliatory note with a couple of ATP Challenger titles in the fall but will struggle to live up to his seeding with Stepanek possibly waiting in the second round.

VC: After six fruitless trips to Melbourne, Matosevic finally won a main draw match here last year — and reacted as you might expect.

I could easily see a final round matchup between Stepanek and Matosevic, where all bets are off — in more ways than one.

RD: This is such a fun, tough section, seriously.

René’s Pick: Radek Stepanek (CZE)

Vika’s Pick: Radek Stepanek (CZE)

Something tells us that we haven’t seen the last of the mercurial ladies’ man, and we’re weirdly okay with that now. 

Q6: The Big Boppers

RD: The top seed in this section is Lukas Lacko, who is as talented as he is maddeningly inconsistent. He should be a heavy favorite here, but his possible second round opponent, Ramkumar Ramanathan — who has the most, erm, acquired style of tennis I’ve seen in a while — is coming off of a career week in Chennai.

The local product reached his first ATP-level quarterfinal and was a set away from making the semifinals, but I’m not sure the same spark will be there in Melbourne.

VC: The home crowd certainly buoyed Ramanathan during his Cinderella run, and that kind of atmosphere won’t be present for him in Melbourne. Speaking of maddeningly inconsistent big-hitters, Romanian Marius Copil is defending a lot here, having made it through qualifying a year ago and playing a quality match against Stan Wawrinka in the second round — and he also hit the fastest-ever serve recorded at a Grand Slam (150.4 MPH). #copilfacts

René’s Pick: (22) Mirza Basic (BIH)

Basic could possibly being the most consistent player of the eight in question — which really isn’t saying a lot.

Vika’s Pick: Marius Copil (ROU)

When you see what we’ve seen, there’s no going back.

Q7: The One Who Was

VC:  Admittedly, this section gives off a little bit of a weird vibe to me — perhaps because a handful of players here were in the headlines last season for….things other than tennis? Is that what you’d call it?

RD: Ah, Denys Molchanov. So that means Bradley Mousley’s into the second round one way or another, I’d reckon.

VC: And then there’s No. 7 seed Marsel Ilhan, who played the supporting role in Wawrinka’s row with the official tournament press at Roland Garros, and Ryan Harrison, who nearly came to blows with Thanasi Kokkinakis in Cincinnati last year. It’s a lot.

RD: Qualifying so rarely goes according to seeding, but compared to every other section we’ve journeyed through thus far, I’m pretty sure this one will go according to plan.

So, I’ll pick Ryan Harrison to make the main draw….and draw Novak Djokovic in the first round, because #baddraws — for old time’s sake.

René’s Pick: (19) Ryan Harrison (USA)

2016 could prove to be a big year for the American — one way or the other.

Vika’s Pick: (7) Marsel Ilhan (TUR)

Q8: The ‘merican Boys

RD: This section really is the tale of two halves, as I’m fairly confident in the consistent Go Soeda to make the final round of qualifying but the bottom half is where it’s tricky. Frances Tiafoe vs. Jared Donaldson? That’s as rough as it gets for American tennis fans.

VC: The match between the two promising teenagers certainly stands out — and the fact that they’ll face off just one section beneath Harrison is an irony (or something) not lost on me. While Donaldson has shown more consistency between the two thus far in their young careers, two Germans might have other ideas in mind as this section moves along.

Maximilian Marterer just had a nice little week in Sydney, as the 20-year-old qualified for the main draw, while the big-serving Peter Gojowczyk has shown us what he’s capable of in the early season in the not-so-distant past. 

RD: Gojowczyk and his unshakeable man-bun, you mean. 

VC: Yes, exactly. Use the force.

René’s Pick: Frances Tiafoe (USA)

In the style vs. substance battle, style goes all the way.

Vika’s Pick: (21) Jared Donaldson (USA)

In the style vs. substance battle, substance goes all the way.

Q9: The (Retirement) Party Crasher

RD: This is another tough section featuring a talented American teenager. Taylor Fritz has been on an incredible roll over the the past few months but I’m unsure whether that’ll be enough to get by No. 9 seed Michael Berrer — who’s rather certainly playing his last year on the tour in 2016 — should both reach the second round.

VC: Frtiz’s run has been impressive over the past several months, and he certainly comes into the qualifying tournament on a high, having dropped just one set in winning the ATP Challenger in Happy Valley last week. He’s certainly gotten comfortable playing against those players that he’s likely to find in Grand Slam qualifying in a hurry, but remains rather untested against the next level.

RD: Another German lefty — Mischa Zverev — is sitting in the bottom half of this section and I wouldn’t be shocked to see an all-German affair in the final round.

René’s Pick: (9) Michael Berrer (GER)

Should Berrer decide to hang it up after this season, what better way to go out than with one last appearance in the main draw Down Under?

Vika’s Pick: Taylor Fritz (USA)

Fritz comes into the Australian Open riding a wave of confidence, and the teenager will take advantage of his early-season form to make his Grand Slam debut.

Q10: The Flag-Bearer

RD: This is a very kind draw for comeback-ing German Daniel Brands, who—

VC: I feel like you’re just picking Germans in every section.

RD: *ahem*– After fighting off  mono, the 28-year-old has been climbing back up the rankings from outside the Top 400 at this time last year to his current position of No. 151. I don’t see why Brands shouldn’t be able to get through what’s a very manageable section.

VC: The other seed in this section is Moldovan Radu Albot, who’s checked off a lot of firsts for his country since he began competing regularly on tour. Last season, he became the first Moldovan to win an ATP title when he won the doubles tournament in Istanbul with Dusan Lajovic, and also cracked the Top 100 and competed in the ATP Challenger Tour Finals.

He’s not that far off from the Top 100 now, and has a few more boxes he has yet to check in the “firsts” department.

René’s Pick: (30) Daniel Brands (GER)

The big-serving Brands could catch fire and blast his way through to the main draw.

Vika’s Pick: (10) Radu Albot (MDA)

While Albot’s done a lot for his country, he has yet to compete in the main draw Down Under. Expect that to change in 2016.

Q11: The Stalwarts

RD: This is interesting group of players, mainly because you have some recognizable names in the mix that aren’t seeded — Marco Chiudinelli and US Open doubles champion Pierre-Hugues Herbert — lurking here in the shadows.

VC: The high seed here is No. 11 Edouard Roger-Vasselin, who’s won at least one match in the main draw Down Under in each of the past four years.

RD: It’s that pedigree compared to the rest of the field in this section that I’m banking on, and I’d expect Roger-Vasselin to play according to seeding and qualify for the main draw.

René’s Pick: (11) Edouard Roger-Vasselin (FRA)

Vika’s Pick: Pierre-Hugues Herbert (FRA)

The flashy Frenchman is frequently all-or-nothing, and after cracking the Top 100 in singles and Top 20 in double last year, it’s time for his doubles prowess to help him on the singles court.

Q12: The Question Marks

RD: This section is really wide open.

VC: Probably the most of all of them.

RD: Ante Pavic had a very good week in Chennai, while James Ward outside of a “being British” context (Davis Cup, Wimbledon) is always a question mark. Seriously, though, there’s a whole lot of journeyman-ing going on here. I might just go with Dennis Novikov cause he had an okay 2015 season.

VC: I truly wouldn’t be surprised by anyone coming out of this section…..therefore, one must go with the least logical conclusion.

I think I’m going to pick James Ward?

René’s Pick: Dennis Novikov (USA)

Vika’s Pick: James Ward (GBR)

I just picked James Ward.

Q13: Tatsuma, Tennys and Tennis

VC: The final quarter of the men’s qualifying draw kicks off with this section, which features a host of players who are quite familiar with the grind of the ATP Challenger Tour, and less so with the big-time — plus an Aussie teenager thrown in for good measure.

RD: 17-year-old Oliver Anderson made some small waves in Brisbane during the first week of the season, qualifying for the main draw there but I don’t see it happening in Melbourne. I’ll be straightforward and pick Tatsuma Ito to make it through.

VC: Anderson opens against fellow Aussie Gavin Van Peperzeel, who I need to know more about, because he has an incredible name. Speaking of incredible names, tennis’ patronymic son is also in this section: American Tennys Sandgren.

René’s Pick: (13) Tatsuma Ito (JPN)

Vika’s Pick: (13) Tatsuma Ito (JPN)

Sometimes, hipster picks are too hipster — even for us.

Q14: The Polar Opposites

RD: A couple of people were picking Belgian Kimmer Coppejans to have a breakthrough 2015, but somehow it hasn’t quite happened yet for the 2012 junior Roland Garros champion.

VC: He did get a very large cardboard cutout of his face, though — so who’s the real winner here?

RD: On the complete opposite side of the career spectrum, you’ve got Grega Zemlja — who certainly has the ability to get through to the main draw — but injuries have wreaked havoc on the Slovene’s career ever since he made it into the Top 50 in the spring of last year.

VC: I’ve always wanted him to happen, and I have yet to lose hope that he’s the ATP’s “fetch.” 

RD: Although Igor Sijsling had a largely forgettable year in 2015, he picked up another ATP Challenger title to close the year and he’s got the experience to maneuver his way into the main draw.

René’s Pick: (28) Igor Sijsling (NED)

Vika’s Pick: Grega Zemlja (SLO)

Q15: The Showman

VC: Hypothetically, there would be no reason to pick anyone but Dustin Brown to come out of this section. Technically, there would be every reason to pick everyone but Dustin Brown to come out of this section.

RD: The only really predictable thing about the German is his unpredictability, sadly.

VC: Indeed, and every time you think he’s found his way out of slogging through qualifying, he’s dragged back in.

RD: Konstantin Kravchuck played decent tennis in 2015 and is on the verge of reaching a new career-high ranking at the age of 30 but unless Andrey Golubev found some of the form  that got him to World No. 33 on the way to Melbourne, I struggle to pick anyone other than the one they call “Dreddy.”

René’s Pick: (15) Dustin Brown (GER)

Vika’s Pick: (15) Dustin Brown (GER)

So. flashy.

Q16: The Wunderkind

VC: In looking at this section, I can only ask the following: 1) how is Elias Ymer still playing qualifying at Grand Slams, and 2) how is he seeded No. 25? Then, of course, I remember that the elder of the two Ymer brothers is still only 19 years old, and is currently a few ticks off of a career-high ranking. The Swedish phenom made his way through the qualifying stage at all four majors last year, seemingly saving his best for those particular stages.

RD: Predicting Ymer to keep his weird Slam qualifying streak alive doesn’t seem like much of a stretch, and yet it does when you remember his first match of 2016 was a limp loss to Ante Pavic in Chennai — ranked 300 spots below his.

VC: His time will come, but such is life.

René’s Pick: (25) Elias Ymer (SWE)

He made it into the main draw at all four Grand Slams last year and he’ll start 2016 by doing so again.

Vika’s Pick: (25) Elias Ymer (SWE)

What he said.

Who are your picks? Sound off in the comments, and look for Part II — featuring the ladies — tomorrow!

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