Despite the occasional fiery forehand, Ana’s second-round performance largely justified the desolate expression above. At the root of her downfall once again lay her serve, which always has been a reliable barometer for the state of her game and confidence. Players who rely less heavily on the shot can surmount poor serving days, but Ivanovic can’t afford to start the majority of points in neutral or defensive mode, the situation in which she found herself for most of the match against an inspired Kleybanova. One of Ana’s finest moments of the day, however, came during her post-match press conference, when she was asked about the controversy that arose when Jankovic bitingly imitated her signature fistpump following their match in Madrid. Stating in a crisp and well-articulated tone that “sports don’t build character; they show [character],” Ivanovic responded to her compatriot’s tasteless gesture with a resolute display of backbone—important in individual competition—without descending into petty vindictiveness. She kept her words as impersonal as possible, not once mentioning Jankovic’s name. We thought that the entire fistpump fracas would dwindle away rather quickly, but instead it has meandered on and on…and on, much like Fognini-Monfils. Here’s a brief capsule of our thoughts on it, after which we will lay the issue to rest.
Although Jankovic mishandled the situation by bringing it so crudely into the open, it’s true that Ivanovic often pumps her fist at inappropriate moments. We differ from the commonly expressed perspective according to which only winners should elicit fistpumps; often, a player’s ball-retrieving skills force an opponent into hitting several extra shots…which they miss. In those cases, a player’s brilliant defense wins them the point just as if they had struck a winner, so they deserve to relish the moment. The boundary is somewhat subjective between what results from superb defense (fistpump appropriate) and what results from an opponent’s outright ineptitude (fistpump inappropriate), but Ana has crossed that line consistently. During the 2007 Luxembourg final against Hantuchova, we first observed Ivanovic’s tendency to react in this way when the Slovak committed unforced errors from neutral positions early in rallies; this habit thus stems from long before Ana’s meteoric fall and cannot be explained by anxiety over returning to the top. As much as we support Ivanovic and hope that she rises again, her excessive fist-pumping constitutes unsportsmanlike behavior and reflects poorly upon her, despite the fact that it’s probably unintentional. We doubt that she’ll abandon such a deeply ingrained habit at this stage in her career, of course, and we should note that she’s far from the only offender (nor is Jankovic her only victim). The prevalence of an unfortunate practice doesn’t inherently exonerate each individual who indulges in it, however. As for Jankovic, this self-initiated distraction merely illustrates her continued immaturity, which has hampered her efforts to realize her vast potential. Surely an opponent’s gestures don’t influence JJ’s ability to win a match, and a truly committed competitor shouldn’t care what happens across the net. If Jelena fails to win a Slam, there’s nobody (including Henin) whom she should blame more than herself. Now that the Serbs have exchanged salvos, though, here’s hoping that they can take a deep breath and progress from this sorry squabble, as we do now with the preview of a thrilling Day 6 menu.
Cibulkova (26) vs. Venus (2) (Chatrier, 2nd match; 3rd including Henin completion): Although a ten-inch height difference separates these competitors, their third-round meeting might be a little less routine than it appears. Many fans might not remember that the diminutive Slovak comfortably defeated the lanky American in their only previous collision (Doha 2008). A surprise semifinalist here last year, Cibulkova profited from a section that had been vacated by the untimely demise of none other than…Venus. Renowned for explosive movement and superb court coverage, she punches well above her size and could lure the second seed into unforced errors if her groundstrokes penetrate the court with adequate depth. The contrast in their serves, however, should wield a significant impact even on this least serve-friendly surface. Venus needs to move forward whenever possible in order to take time away from Cibulkova; if she can, she’ll be able to shorten the rallies and control the tempo of the match.
Rezai (15) vs. Petrova (19) (Chatrier, 4th match; 5th including completion): The most intriguing WTA contest of the day represents the first serious test for Rezai in the bid to justify her new position among the game’s elite. Defeating a pair of unheralded foes in her first two rounds, the Iranian-turned-Frenchwoman takes aim at Petrova, who ousted her rather comfortably at Roland Garros two years ago. While the Russian didn’t claim a title during the preliminary events, she reached the quarterfinals in Rome before ambushing Serena en route to another quarterfinal in Madrid. Whereas Rezai prefers to trade missiles from the baseline, Nadia has developed an all-court game in which her groundstrokes complement occasional forays to the net. A former French Open semifinalist, Petrova adapts better to clay than most of her compatriots despite her infamously suspect mentality. That flaw may be exposed by what surely will be a rabid French crowd on Chatrier tomorrow evening…or will the vociferous support unveil hitherto hidden cracks in Rezai’s veneer? She’ll feel the expectations of a nation on her shoulders more firmly than ever before.
Murray (4) vs. Baghdatis (25) (Lenglen, 3rd match; 4th including Bartoli completion): Facing Gasquet on his least favorite surface before a partisan crowd, Murray shook his head in disgust, barked at his box, missed first serve after first serve, but somehow stayed around just long enough to watch the Frenchman fold. A four-set win over Chela in the next round doesn’t greatly impress because he thoroughly throttled the Argentine just two weeks ago in Madrid. Nevertheless, the Scot now confronts someone who relishes the clay as little as he does in the person of former Australian Open finalist and recent Federer nemesis Marcos Baghdatis. Like Murray, the Cypriot fell to Ferrer in Madrid, yet (unlike Murray) he acquitted himself convincingly before finally succumbing deep in the third set. The fourth seed’s motivation may not be running high at the moment with Wimbledon looming on the horizon; on the other hand, it’s almost impossible to ascertain the level of motivation and commitment that Baghdatis will bring to any given match. Watch the battle of two-handed backhands as the match unfolds. While Murray generally sacrifices some pace in exchange for more topspin (and thus more margin), the Cypriot connects with low-flying bullets that somehow repeatedly clear the net by centimeters when he’s at his best.
Dulgheru (31) vs. Wozniacki (3) (Court 1, 3rd match): After contemplating withdrawal from Roland Garros, Wozniacki charged through her first two rounds with a Soderling-like efficiency that saw her drop just seven games in four sets. Too hampered by an ankle injury to join the principal title contenders here, she still could reach the quarters or even a semi as a consequence of a relatively benign draw. Two-time Warsaw champion Alexandra Dulgheru could pose an engaging challenge to that quest, however, for the Romanian preceded her unexpected title defense with wins over Safina in Rome and Dementieva in Madrid. Although neither of Russian is exactly scalding at the moment, those triumphs demonstrated Dulgheru’s mental ability to defeat marquee players when they’re not at their highest level. It’s hard to imagine that Wozniacki will reach her highest level, so an opportunity might arise for the Romanian. On the other hand, she won’t be fresh after her Polish exertions last week and might lack the energy to cope with the prolonged rallies into which she’ll be dragged.
Kuznetsova (6) vs. Kirilenko (30) (Court 1, 4th match): Dodging not one but four bullets against the nerve-ridden Petkovic, Kuznetsova survived only to confront the compatriot who banished her from Rome just weeks ago. Typically well-suited to clay, Kirilenko’s solid defense game and versatile shot repertoire will force Kuznetsova to harness her aggression, waiting patiently for opportunities but striking immediately when they arise. As in Rome, the match lies in the hands of the defending champion, but she has proven reluctant to seize the initiative in such situations this year. We’re curious to observe whether she elevates her game in the wake of her previous eleventh-hour escape, which could have lifted some pressure from Sveta’s mind. After her remarkable comeback, has her confidence returned and expelled the fear of losing from her overactive mind? When focused and composed, Kuznetsova is as dangerous as anyone on clay.
Montanes (29) vs. Soderling (5) (Court 2, 3rd match; 4th including Sharapova completion): A thunderous beginning to the Swede’s Roland Garros campaign has obscured his mediocre results during the rest of the clay season. Shelling a French wildcard and the clay-averse Taylor Dent, Soderling now faces the much more formidable assignment of Albert Montanes, a clay specialist who defended his Estoril title after defeating Federer there. The Spaniard’s talent at tirelessly soaking up pace from deep behind the baseline tests any player’s patience and consistency, two virtues that last year’s finalist doesn’t possess in especially strong supply. Far more imposing on serve than Montanes, however, Soderling needs to attack relentlessly and stay positive despite the occasional misfire. If he allows himself to be lured into neutral rallies, he could find himself in the role of Monfils opposite Montanes’ impersonation of Fognini.
Isner (17) vs. Berdych (15) (Court 6, 3rd match): Attending this match? You might want to wear a helmet. Hammering 38 aces during a four-set, three-tiebreak victory over Chiudinelli, Isner intersects with the almost equally imposing serve of Tomas Berdych. The toast of Miami with wins over Federer, Verdasco, and Soderling, the Czech has found his momentum slowed by nagging injuries over the last several weeks, during which he lost tense three-setters to clay artists Verdasco and Wawrinka. A valuable opportunity awaits the winner of this match, who could profit from a toothless quarter to create some headlines and elevate their rankings. Expect swift service holds, very few backhands, very little clay-court tennis, and more tiebreaks. While Berdych can execute a greater range of shots than Isner, the American is mentally stronger and perhaps a little hungrier at this juncture.
Briefly noted: A victim of rising Dutchman Thiemo de Bakker in the 500-level Barcelona tournament, Tsonga seeks revenge in front of a compatriot crowd that now must consider the leading male contender after Monfils’ premature exit. If anyone can absorb the pressure, though, it’s the carefree Tsonga. To be honest, we didn’t expect that either Youzhny or Troicki would reach the third round on their least favorite surface, but they’ve done so with aplomb and should showcase some crisp backhand-to-backhand rallies when they collide. Scoring an impressively commanding upset over Safarova, Slovenian teenager Polona Hercog eyes a clash with Pennetta, who predictably overwhelmed Vinci but has struggled this year with the younger generation. Lastly, the two gritty veterans Schiavone and Li duel in a contest between the crafty versatility of the Italian and the fearless shotmaking of the Chinese., who came within two games of the quarterfinals here last year.
You may want to refer back to the Day 5 preview for some of the matches that never took the court on Thursday, including Nishikori-Djokovic or Seppi-Kohlschreiber. Let’s hope that the rain irrigates the grasses of Wimbledon while the clay stays as dry as the Sahara!