Munich first-round previews and picks: Nieminen vs. Gulbis, Youzhny vs. Stepanek

Two tough first-round matchups are on the Tuesday schedule in Munich. Jarkko Nieminen is going up against Ernests Gulbis and Mikhail Youzhny is facing Radek Stepanek.

Ernests Gulbis vs. Jarkko Nieminen

Gulbis and Nieminen will be going head-to-head for the fourth time in their careers when the clash in round one of the BMW Open on Tuesday. All three of their previous meetings have gone Gulbis’ way and he has never even lost a set to Nieminen. The Latvian prevailed 7-6(7), 6-2 at the 2008 Cincinnati Masters, 6-4, 6-4 in the 2010 Delray Beach semis, and 6-3, 6-2 earlier this season on the indoor hard courts of Marseille.

Both men are in stellar form heading into Munich. Nieminen is 18-10 for the year, which includes a semifinal in Montpellier and a recent quarterfinal showing on the clay courts of Monte-Carlo. Gulbis isn’t quite as hot on the slow stuff as he was in Delray Beach (won the title as a qualifier) and Indian Wells (qualified and reached the fourth round), but he continues to play solid tennis. The world No. 47 advanced one round in Monte-Carlo and qualified for the Barcelona main draw before winning two more matches. He boasts a 16-5 ATP-level record for his 2013 campaign.

Gulbis may not be as confident as he was last month, and confidence is obviously a crucial part of his game. Still, as their past history suggests, this is not a good matchup for Nieminen. The 31-year-old’s serve is the weak point of his game and Gulbis should once again be able to abuse his deliveries–especially those of the second variety. But with Nieminen striking the ball incredibly well from the baseline at the moment, this has three-setter written all over it.

Pick: Gulbis in 3

Radek Stepanek vs. (7) Mikhail Youzhny

Stepanek and Youzhny will be squaring off for the seventh time in their careers when they collide on Tuesday afternoon. Youzhny leads the head-to-head series 4-2, including 1-0 on clay (a 3-6, 7-6(8), 6-7(6), 6-2, 6-3 Davis Cup thriller). They most recently faced each other last season on the grass courts of Halle, where Youzhny scored a 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 victory in what was their first meeting since Wimbledon in 2008 (also a five-setter won by the Russian).

Unlike the Nieminen-Gulbis matchup, this one features two men desperately searching for momentum. Stepanek did not play from the Australian Open until Monte-Carlo due to a neck injury, so he has not won a match since January. The 34-year-old Czech lost his openers in Monte-Carlo (to Albert Ramos) and Barcelona (to Gulbis) in straight sets, although he at least extended Gulbis to one tiebeaker.  Youzhny advanced one round in Monte-Carlo and pushed eventual champion Novak Djokovic to three sets, but he suffered a terrible straight-set loss to Victor Hanescu in his Bucharest opener last week. The world No. 31 is just 7-9 for the year.

Both players are at their best on faster surfaces despite being relatively capable on clay, so surface should not be much of a factor. Stepanek is likely gaining confidence with every match he gets under his belt, but Youzhny is more tournament tough at the moment even though he has not been racking up a ton of wins. Unless Stepanek serves incredibly well, Youzhny should be able to turn this into a baseline battle and hold off his underdog opponent.

Pick: Youzhny in 3

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