Yup.  It’s officially that time of year again.  More specifically, it’s time to start breaking down those qualifying draws and seeing which Challenger Tour players can bust into the main draws this week.  Just to make it clear from the outset: as this is a Challenger Tour site, we’ll be covering top-tier ATP events only to the extent that they involve players ranked outside the Top 90.  Note: this number, while a darn good number, is also just a bit arbitrary and is subject to change at the whims of any of the writers here.  But it’s a good general rule of thumb for ATP tourneys, in any case.

ON TO THE DRAW!  You can click and get an official .pdf with lines and whizbangs and suchlike here or you can just look at a typed out version after this here colon:

[1] MANNARINO, Adrian FRA vs BALL, Carsten AUS
SERGEYEV, Ivan UKR vs ITO, Tatsuma JPN
CABAL, Juan Sebastian COL vs [5] KOUBEK, Stefan AUT
[2] BERANKIS, Richard LTU
vs LISNARD, Jean-Rene MON
PEYA, Alexander AUT vs [6] LUCZAK, Peter AUS
[3] RUSSELL, Michael USA
FARAH, Robert COL vs BACHINGER, Matthias GER
REYNOLDS, Bobby USA vs [7] KOROLEV, Evgeny KAZ
[4] GREUL, Simon GER
vs [WC] JONES, Greg AUS
KNITTEL, Bastian GER vs LOJDA, Dusan CZE
EBDEN, Matthew AUS vs CRIVOI, Victor ROU
[WC] GROTH, Samuel AUS vs [8] ZEMLJA, Grega SLO

Mmmmmm.  Tennis draws.  My true and delicious love.  Let me savour this one for a moment, eh? *drools Homer Simpson-style while looking it over*
Well, the first thing I notice is that the Aussies got shafted, for the most part.  Now, I realize that any time you have eight Australians in a 32-person draw, perfect distribution is just not a possibility.  However, to have a draw in which there’s an entire Oz-free quarter (i.e. the Russell-Korolev 3rd quarter) and another two quarters that have three Down Under dudes, well… this is less than ideal. 
From left: Matty Ebden, Greg Jones, Carsten Ball, Fitness Dude, Marinko Matosevic, Peter Luczak
Especially egregious is the 4th quarter, which crams legitimate Australian hopes Greg Jones, Matt Ebden and the newly-mohawked Sam Groth into the same pack.  Grrrrrr.
The infamous, the rarely-photographed Grothawk
The next thing I look for is: where are Dmitry Tursunov and Ryan Harrison placed, who are clearly the most dangerous floaters in this draw.  As you can see (do follow along with me, won’t you?), it is Harrison who probably got the more fortuitous placement (for him) – away from top seeds Adrian Mannarino and Ricardas Berankis, who – in my opinion – are the only players who can beat him more often than not.  Thus, I can see the 18 year-old American coming good in this section.  Tursunov, however, has a much rougher road.  After a reasonably solid but should-be manageable opponent in the scrappy WC James Duckworth, Tursunov faces the prospect of a rejuvenated Peter Luczak – who gave Marinko Matosevic all he could handle in the final of the recent AO Wildcard playoff – followed by the lights-out Lithuanean Berankis.  And, as we all know, Rycka has rocketed into the Top 100 and won a whole host of Newcomer and Breakthrough awards at the end of last season.  A tough ask for Tursunov to get through, but not entirely beyond the former Top 20 player by any means.
OK, so that’s the overall view. Now let’s take out the fine-toothed draw comb and do a more in-depth, line-by-line audit, breaking down the first round matchups. 
1st Quarter: At the top, we’ve got a tantalizing lefty vs. lefty match-up between the guy who won the Mons and Istanbul Challengers last year, went 44-20 and raised his ranking almost 100 spots to #83, Adrian Mannarino, vs. the guy who lost to Adam Feeney in the first round of the AO Wildcard Playoff two weeks ago, Carsten Ball.  Carsty can beat almost anyone on his day, but it’s so rarely been his day recently.  The two have never met before so you gotta judge this one on form.   Advantage: Mannarino.  Peter Polansky vs. Benny Mitchell is a really interesting one, to my eye.  The 22 year-old Canadian had a pretty poor 28-30 2010 in which he fell almost 20 rungs down the rankings ladder, and the 18 year-old wildcard Mitchell has been coming up fast, making the finals of the 15K Bendigo event (where he lost to Groth) and winning a round at the WC Playoff before losing a tight two-tiebreak contest to Matt Ebden.  Slight edge to Polansky on experience here, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Mitchell came good here.  This will be their first meeting.
Next we have Ivan Sergeyev vs. Tatsuma Ito.  Two 22 year-olds, both ranked in high 100’s, both with winning records on hard courts, and both have never met.  The password is: toss-up.  Rounding out the top quarter, we’ve got “The Strangler” Stefan Koubek vs. nine-years-his-junior Colombian Juan Sebastian Cabal.  The 33 year-old Austrian, of course, finished the 2010 season on a high with a surprise run to the Bratislava Challenger final (beating Berankis along the way) and then giving none other than Adrian Mannarino a 7-5-in-the-third battle in Helsinki.  The Austrian is a force of nature, and I wouldn’t bet against him here.  First meetings for everyone in this quarter. 
2nd Quarter: If Richie Rich has any trouble with The Lisnard King, I’ll eat Andy Roddick’s shorts.  And that dude sweats a lot. Moving on.  Ye Olde Racial Vilifier Brydan Klein vs. Marco Crugnola, eh?  Who cares – moving on (besides – winner of this match loses to Berankis in the next qualifying round. It’s that simple).  Ducky vs. Tursy, already covered that one – Dima in two tightish sets, we’ll say.  Peter Luczak vs. Alexander Peya.  Looch leads their head-to-head 6-0.  Yes, five of those matches were over six years ago and their most recent meeting this year was close.  Still saying Looch has this one.
3rd Quarter: before you ink Ryno’s name into QR2, you’d best know that Michael Russell won their only previous encounter last year 3-6 6-4 7-5 in the ’09 Yuba City Challenger.  But while I never want to discount nor underestimate Russell, I gotta think Harrison beats the scrappy veteran this time around.  Matthias Bachinger vs. Robert Farah: two 23 year-olds, separated by two spots in the rankings (Farah is #189, Bachinger #187).  That said, it’s Bachi who finished 2010 at a 13/5 pace, winning the Loughborough Challenger and beating guys like Mannarino, Ebden and James Ward.  Farah was 34/11 on the year but finished 5/6.  Edge to the German.  Evgeny Korolev vs. Bobby Reynolds: this is the 22 year-old “Kazakh”‘s first match since losing to Kei Nishikori in the US Open qualies.  I have no idea what to expect from him.  Reynolds made the semifinals of the Champaign Challenger in November.  I wouldn’t want to be a betting man on this one.  Luckily, I’m not.
4th Quarter: yet another match to add to the First Meeting Club, in Simon Greul vs. Greg Jones.  Though the Aussie wildcard is ranked 130ish spots beneath Greul in the rankings, the German hasn’t played since September, and I believe Jones will have some form.  Don’t ask me why.  Jonesy in an upset (poor Greg – I just doomed him, didn’t I?).  Bastian Knittel vs. Dusan Lojda: Two blondes ranked in the 200’s.  But Lojda comes in with a 5 match losing streak and Knittel was a qualifying quarterfinalist in Eckental.  Make of this what you will.  Matt Ebden vs. Victor Crivoi: seen a lot of Matty play lately, and it’s hard to pick against him.  So I won’t.  Plus, Crivoi’s results can be a little, how to say, suspect.  Moving on… Samuel Groth vs. Grega Zemlja.  I like this draw for the radically coiffed thunder from down under.  Mr. Groth carries a 2-0 head-to-head advantage over the 8th seeded Slovenian coming into this contest.  PLUS HE HAS A GROTHAWK.  More like no contest, I say.  Let’s have all three Aussies advance in this brutal fourth quarter, yeah?  The best revenge against the draw gods is doing well, I always say.  (Actually, I just said it for the first time there, but it fits).
Stay tuned for next time, when I premise to tell you who’s gonna make it through each quarter and into the draw.  What?  Gotta have something to look forward to, peeps – I can’t do it all here!  Run along now…