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Few Sharapova fans have forgotten her epic victory over Venus Williams in the 2007 Miami tournament, during which she courageously overcame not only the three-time champion but her aching shoulder deep in the third set.  This afternoon, Henin displayed a different type of fortitude when she confronted a perilous position in the seventh game of the third set.  Having received medical treatment in the previous change-over and squandered three break points in the game that followed, she found herself trailing 30-40 on her serve at 6-7, 3-3.  Rather than retreat from her relentless aggression, however, Henin scorched a trademark down-the-line backhand winner over the high part of the net, a shot that she had repeatedly missed during the first set and a half.  Although she would need to save another break point before escaping the game, she had decisively reversed the momentum in this scintillating quarterfinal; the Belgian would break the Dane in the next game, serve out the set, and drop just two points on serve thereafter.  What a joy to see this elegant game in action again, and what a pity that external circumstances prevented Henin and Sharapova from igniting a compelling rivalry.  You can catch a glimpse of what might have been by clicking on the link to the 2006 US Open final in the margin to this blog.

Today, the women set the stage for the championship match, while four men seek to walk through the door opened by the Federer-less and Murray-less top half of the draw.

ATP:

Berdych (16) vs. Verdasco (10):  After a thrilling upset such as the Czech’s fourth-round win over Federer, one always should beware of a letdown.  How does one follow up a career-defining (and possibly career-changing) performance?  On the other hand, Berdych annihilated Verdasco at Indian Wells, extending past success against the Spaniard; in fact, the Czech has enjoyed an excellent month, looking uncharacteristically motivated and confident on both coasts.  Despite defeating Cilic, Fernando’s form has been less than overwhelming here in general.  One suspects that he’ll head in the same direction as the Chilean Fernando.  Pick:  Berdych.  Yes, we really mean it this time.

Youzhny (13) vs. Soderling (5):  Dispatching that other Fernando in his previous round, Soderling must be salivating over the possibility of his first Masters Series final, which he could reach without defeating a higher-ranked player.  Don’t underestimate the determined Mikhail Youzhny, however, who has unsettled many a marquee name (see N for Nadal and D for Djokovic) with his balanced, versatile style.  Exploiting an all-court game, the Russian will seek to construct ingenious rallies that place the often flat-footed Swede in awkward positions.  Meanwhile, Soderling will load, fire, and reload his mighty weapons, deploying first-strike tennis in an effort to prevent Youzhny from settling into the rallies.  Probably the highlight of the fifth seed’s performance against Gonzalez, moreover, was his mental tenacity after losing the second-set tiebreak; rather than crumbling in disappointment as would have the pre-2009 Soderling, he intensified his focus and reaffirmed control.  Can he take advantage of the opportunity created by the depleted draw?  When someone has opened a door for Soderling in the past, he typically kicks it down.  Pick:  Soderling.

WTA:

Bartoli (13) vs. Venus (3):  You wouldn’t be surprised that one of these players has reached the final four without dropping a set, but you might be surprised to learn that the player is Bartoli.  Will her streak in Miami continue?  We’ll outline the head-to-head, recent form, and shot-by-shot breakdown, as we will for the all-Belgian nightcap.

Head-to-head:  It’s even at 1-1; Venus’ fourth Wimbledon came at the Frenchwoman’s expense, while Bartoli retaliated by swiping the Stanford title from the elder Williams last summer.  Wimbledon results tell us little about matchups involving Venus, who plays her best tennis by far at the All England Club.  Although it occurred at a much less consequential event than Miami, the three-set Stanford final could prove relevant should the American repeat the error-strewn performance that she delivered there.  It’s difficult to discern whether we’ll see the clean, crisp Venus who crushed Radwanska or the slovenly, sluggish Venus who barely edged past Hantuchova.  If it’s the latter, Bartoli will be more than ready to profit; if it’s the former, she’ll have little or no chance.

Recent form:  Venus has lost just a single match this year, a three-set quarterfinal against the famously tenacious Li Na in Melbourne. After convincingly outplaying Azarenka in the Dubai final, she found ways to win in Acapulco when less than her best.  Bartoli hasn’t distinguished herself in 2010, falling before the quarterfinals in every event until now, but neither has she fallen on her face as have others of equal or greater talents this year.

Shot-by-shot breakdown:

Serve:  Venus

Return:  Bartoli

Forehand:  Venus

Backhand:  Venus

Volleys:  Venus

Movement:  Venus

Mental:  Bartoli

Recap:  As you might have discerned from the shot-by-shot analysis above, the match lies almost entirely in Venus’ hands.  The factor atop that list could define the match; when Venus finds a rhythm, there’s no comparison between her serve and Bartoli’s unsightly delivery, which is always an adventure whenever she tosses up a ball.  We’ve seen before that Bartoli can hold her nerve against Venus.  But can she hold her serve? 

PICK:  VENUS

Clijsters (14) vs. Henin (W):  Previewing the all-Belgian matchup is not unlike previewing an all-Williams matchup; you never know exactly what you’re going to get.  Littered with spectacular rallies and spectacular momentum shifts, their pas de deux in the Brisbane final illustrated this unpredictability.  Clijsters clearly had the match in hand, then Henin clearly had snatched it away from her, then nothing was clear anymore except the brilliance of both Belgians.  But whereas Serena and Venus play essentially the same style as each other, Kim and Justine play dramatically different games; their contests oppose punching against counterpunching, flair against functionality, volatility against consistency. 

Head-to-head:  Henin has won 12 of their 23 meetings; the last 14 have occurred either in a semifinal or a final.  She has trumped Clijsters on the biggest stages, winning three of her seven Slams at her compatriot’s expense.  Nevertheless, Kim impressively overcame her personal demons in the Brisbane championship tilt by saving two match points before prevailing in a nail-biting tiebreak.  They have never met in Miami and have not played each other in North America since 2003 (an eternity in tennis time); Henin has won two of their three clashes in this continent, while Clijsters has won 7 of their 11 hard-court meetings overall.

Recent form:  After a fairytale beginning to her comeback last year, Clijsters underwhelmed in Australia with a career-worst loss to Petrova and in Indian Wells with a loss to the swiftly climbing Kleybanova.  In Miami, she appears to have regained the timing on her shots as well as her momentum, hurtling through the first two rounds before overthrowing defending champion Azarenka and navigating the surging Stosur.  Perhaps motivated by the loss in Brisbane, Henin far outshone her compatriot in Melbourne and fell just one set short of repeating what Clijsters accomplished in New York.  After a magnificent Australian performance, however, she self-destructed in a comedy of errors against Gisela Dulko in Indian Wells.  Like her compatriot, she has demonstrated that the desert was an anomaly rather than an omen, demolishing Dementieva for the second time this year and hitting through the dogged defenses of world #2 Wozniacki.

Shot-by-shot breakdown:

Serve:  Clijsters

Return:  Both

Forehand:  Clijsters

Backhand:  Henin

Volleys:  Henin

Movement:  Clijsters

Mental:  Henin

Recap:  If their fortnights thus far serve as any guide, Kim-Justine XXIV should attain the extraordinarily high level of Kim-Justine XXIII.  Can Henin negate Clijsters’ sterling defense with a blizzard of fearless shot-making?  Although she executed a similar feat against Wozniacki, her compatriot can transition from counterpunching to punching much more swiftly and smoothly than the Dane; Justine won’t be able to spend almost the entire match on offense.  Fatigue also may play a factor; Henin’s petite frame withstood nearly three hours of bruising rallies in the quarterfinals, while Clijsters has progressed through the draw with minimal ado. 

PICK:  CLIJSTERS

Enjoy watching the action accelerate towards the weekend climax!  🙂

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It was supposed to be a straightforward match capsule in praise of the GOAT with the inevitable “Pick:  Federer” looming at the conclusion.  Instead, our fingers somehow typed the heretical words “Pick:  Berdych” at the end of the sentence, a unforced error that went unnoticed by ourselves until after the match had started–too late to change it.  Two and half hours later, our expression looked approximately like Maria in the picture above, after the Czech monolith had turned our unforced error into an ace by recording the most impressive win of his career (more impressive than his 2004 Athens win over Federer because of all that has happened in both of their lives since then).  Kudos to Berdych for laughing off his excruciating near-miss at 5-5 in the tiebreak and remaining positive after all hope seemed to have evaporated.  When a match looks close in the future, by the way, we’ll bring back this tactic of telling you how a certain player will definitely win before picking his opponent.  You’ll know then that the match will come down to a third-set tiebreak.  😉

Back to the business of our crystal ball with the four quarterfinal matches tomorrow:

ATP:

Tsonga (8) vs. Nadal (4):  While Tsonga has efficiently bulldozed his first three opponents, Nadal has followed a more tortuous path through the draw, rallying from a one-set deficit against Nalbandian before surrending early leads in both sets against Ferrer.  Searching for more “calm,” he continues to struggle with recurrent lapses in focus.  The Frenchman possesses plenty of weapons to smother Rafa, from his booming serve to his nuclear forehand and feathery volleys, all of which he showcased in a semifinal rout at the 2008 Australian Open.  At the same time, it’s worth noting that Tsonga is the only player ranked in the top 10 whom Nadal has defeated since his French Open loss last year; moreover, he has defused the big-serving games of Karlovic and Isner earlier this year.  The Spaniard will need effective passing shots to neutralize Tsonga when he hurtles toward the net like a TGV.  He also can’t afford to meekly donate service games as he did against Ferrer.  Will Rafa rise to the occasion after having played his way into the tournament, or will Tsonga escort him to the door with a beaming grin and a bear hug?  If he starts on fire, it could be over quickly, but I think that the Spaniard will be able to catch his breath and settle into the match.  It probably will be decided by a few crucial points, and there aren’t any better clutch players than Nadal.  Pick:  Nadal, tentatively.

Roddick (6) vs. Almagro (33):  Credit Almagro for exploiting the void created by Djokovic’s untimely demise and vaulting himself into a hard-court Masters Series quarterfinal.  Credit Roddick for building upon his Indian Wells success and rebounding from his disappointment on the final Sunday there.  Who will earn extra credit?  With the crowd behind him, Roddick should survive the sporadic showers of winners off the Spaniard’s picturesque groundstrokes and earn enough comfortable holds to prevail in two well-contested sets.  Pick:  Roddick, confidently.

WTA:

Stosur (9) vs. Clijsters (14):  Perhaps determined to right the wrongs of Melbourne and Indian Wells, Clijsters has dropped just seven games in six total sets here.  Meanwhile, Stosur labored through her first two matches before snapping Jankovic’s winning streak in an impressive straight-set victory that reversed their clash in the desert.  The Belgian can’t afford to wobble on serve as she occasionally has this year, since the Australian will be difficult to break.  When the rallies begin, however, Clijsters has many more options than the rapidly ascending Stosur.  Unless the latter enjoys a sensational serving day, her programmatic style will fall short against the US Open champion’s fluid athleticism and crisp technique.  Pick:  Waffles.

Henin (W) vs. Wozniacki (2):  Not often is an unseeded wildcard favored against the world #2, but a delicious all-Belgian semifinal (remeber Brisbane) seems likely.  Although Wozniacki has dominated her own generation as well as the rank-and-file among the veterans, she has yet to score a major win against a champion of Henin’s pedigree.  Occasionally, she still seems a little intimidated by the situation when she finds herself confronting big names on big stages, like the Indian Wells final.  Her sturdy but punchless game will provide an ideal measuring stick to assess the progress of Henin’s enhanced aggression.  Can the Dane keep retrieving balls and prolonging rallies until her more famous foe blinks?  It’s not inconceivable, but Henin’s form here has been scintillating, as Dementieva and Zvonareva can attest.  Pick:  Allez!

Enjoy the quarterfinals!  Let’s cross our fingers that we extend our splendid 34-7 record.  🙂

A tournament generally turns a corner when it reaches the round of 16, at which time the atmosphere intensifies as players eye the final weekend with the intensity displayed by Ivanovic above.  While the women rounded that bend yesterday, the men reach the intersection today.  Who has their eyes on the prize?  Tuesday preview straight ahead:

ATP:

Federer (1) vs. Berdych (16):  Since his stunning upset six years ago in Athens, Berdych hasn’t duplicated his initial success against the world #1.  He took a two-set lead in Australia last year, only to donate crucial points as Federer mounted a comeback.  Although he easily could find himself in a winning position again, considering Federer’s mediocre form here, it’s likely that one of the ATP’s greatest underachievers still will find a way to lose.  Pick:  Berdych.

Verdasco (10) vs. Cilic (7):  Before the tournament began, I picked Verdasco to pull off the mini-upset here.  After watching him wallow through a hideous match against Melzer (in which he committed a dozen double faults), however, I was struck by the contrast with the crisp, efficient manner of Cillic when he defused the dangerous Baghdatis.  His calm consistency should allow him to weather the ebbs and flows in the Spaniard’s volatile game.  Pick:  Cilic.

Fish vs. Youzhny (13):  This match might be the most difficult to call.  There’s no question that Youzhny is the better all-round player and more consistent performer.  Yet Fish has been serving brilliantly here and gaining confidence.  Moreover, a long, frustrating three-setter against Wawrinka yesterday may have physically and emotionally drained the Russian.  One senses that the American might have one last win in him here.  Also, I’ve stored quite a bit of money in the bank over the previous two days, so I can afford a high-risk, high-reward proposition here.  😉 Pick:  Fish.

Gonzalez (9) vs. Soderling (5):  Probably the most exciting ATP fourth-round, this encounter should feature inspired shotmaking and ball-bruising groundstrokes.  Whereas Gonzalez looked rusty at times during his three-set victory over Monaco yesterday, Soderling extended his momentum from Indian Wells with a suffocating performance against Petzschner.  Both of his groundstrokes can deliver mighty blows, while the Chilean relies almost exclusively on his forehand to control points; the Swede should seek to expose this asymmetry during rallies.  Pick:  Soderling.

Tsonga (8) vs. Ferrero (12):  A stark contrast in personalities, this clash opposes exuberant athleticism and unbridled aggression against crisp technique and meticulous point construction.  Ferrero managed to blunt Isner’s serve, but the Frenchman has a far more imposing ground game than the American upon which to buttress his bombs.  Pick:  Tsonga.

Ferrer (15) vs. Nadal (4):  In late 2007, Ferrer proved that he can profit from his compatriot’s struggles; that year, he defeated Nadal at both the US Open and the year-end championships.  He remains one of the few players who can match Nadal’s ball-retrieving skills, and his style will force Rafa to take the initiative, not always a comfortable position for him.  If the fourth seed plays as he did in the first set against Nalbandian, he’ll probably lose.  But he’s enjoyed considerable success against fellow Spaniards, and I suspect that he’ll rise to the occasion.  Pick:  Nadal.

Roddick (6) vs. Becker:  I laughed the German off against Robredo and paid for it.  This time, though, I’ll have the last laugh.  Pick:  Roddick.

Almagro (33) vs. Bellucci (27):  Opportunity knocks for both of these players, neither of whom has needed to defeat a higher-ranked player en route to this stage.  When Bellucci’s lefty serve is clicking, he can be hard to break, but Almagro’s serve also is imposing at its best.  The Spaniard’s greater experience at this level and more balanced groundstroke game (cf. Gonzalez-Soderling) should see him through.  Pick:  Almagro.

WTA:

Bartoli (13) vs. Wickmayer (12):  Opportunity also knocks in this quarterfinal, which both players reach without having dropped a set.  Can Bartoli’s quirky game rattle Wickmayer as it did Kuznetsova?  The Frenchwoman kept her focus yesterday while her opponent lost hers-a formula that often has succeeded for Bartoli-but she’ll have to work much harder for a victory tonight.  Far more mentally sturdy than the top-seeded Russian, this new Belgian star of the future is ready to consolidate her US Open run with another marquee semifinal.  Long overshadowed by Azarenka and Wozniacki, she may eventually rival both of them.  Pick:  Wickmayer.

Venus (3) vs. Radwanska (6):  They played here last year in the fourth round, when an error-riddled Venus barely eked out a three-set win against the crafty Pole.  Over the next few months, she thrashed Radwanska twice by identical scores of 6-1, 6-2.  The conclusion is clear; Agnieszka will be helplessly overpowered if Venus is firing all of her weapons, but she has a reasonable chance to pull off an upset if the American fails to perform at a high level.  Judging by her match against Hantuchova yesterday, the latter option is more likely. Moreover, the Pole won’t open a door for her to escape, as did the Slovakian.  Still, Venus has persevered through inconsistent patches to win all except one of her matches this year, compiling the best record of any WTA player.  One suspects that she’ll rein in her rebellious forehand and unleash her most explosive serves when it matters most.  Pick:  Venus.

***

After a perfect predicting Sunday in the WTA, we enjoyed a perfect predicting Monday in the ATP.  Overall, we accumulated a 14-2 record yesterday (not far from Venus’ record in 2010).  During these last two days, in fact, we’ve been 27-5:  13-3 in the ATP, 14-2 in the WTA.  Let’s hope that we continue to maximize the aces and minimize the unforced errors!  🙂

Thunderstorms are forecast for Miami tomorrow, which could force the players to adopt the clever maneuver that Maria is deploying above.  Who do you think would enjoy the most success if they were required to play with an umbrella in one hand?  In case the inclement weather holds off, here are the previews and predictions for a busy Monday, which includes all of the women’s fourth-round matches.

ATP:

Federer (1) vs. Serra:  The GOAT looked moderately motivated (at best) against Lapentti, but a perfunctory performance was good enough.  There’s no reason to think that it won’t be good enough against Serra, too.  Pick:  Federer.

Zeballos vs. Berdych (16):  Although he’s a notoriously streaky player, Berdych has been hitting the ball impressively over the last month.  Zeballos looked solid during a resounding win over Simon and could cause the Czech trouble with his eccentric style.  Still, it’s hard to imagine him actually beating the much more powerful Berdych unless Berdych beats himself.  Pick:  Berdych.

Verdasco (10) vs. Melzer (23):  Two more lefties battle in this round, which could be cloer than you might think; Melzer has posted some impressive results this year, including the Dubai semifinal.  Meanwhile, Verdasco came wildly unglued during a loss to Berdych at Indian Wells.  Both men can be mentally suspect and prone to implosions if their games aren’t clicking.  If Verdasco plays at his usual level, he should win the crucial points and slip away with a tight victory.  Pick:  Verdasco.

Baghdatis (25) vs. Cilic (7):  Long dormant, Baghdatis has awakened from a lengthy, injury-related slump this year.  Cilic won more matches than anyone at the beginning of 2010 but suffered a dismal second-round loss at Indian Wells while Baghdatis soared past Federer.  Can the Cypriot’s charisma carry him past the Croat’s consistency?  Pick:  Um, uh, Cilic?

Fish vs. Lopez (29):  After upsetting Djokovic, Rochus succumbed to the much less redoubtable Bellucci (as I predicted below).  Will Fish suffer the same letdown?  His game is very similar to Lopez, so the match will come down to who is striking their first serve more impressively and creating opportunities to move forward.  The Miami crowd should help Fish as it did against Murray, although not as much as it would if he weren’t in the breakfast slot on the schedule.  Pick:  Fish.

Wawrinka (19) vs. Youzhny (13):  Check out the sensational one-handed backhands in this evenly balanced match, probably the most exciting of tomorrow’s ATP schedule.  While Wawrinka has played little this year (see F for fatherhood) and probably will be rusty, Youzhny has displayed scintillating form by reaching the Dubai final and leading Russia to victory in Davis Cup.  He shouldn’t need to crack a racket over his cranium as he did two years ago.  Pick:  Youzhny.

Gonzalez (9) vs. Monaco (22):  Most renowned for his clay court expertise, the Argentine came within a set of the semifinals at Indian Wells, a superb result despite the early upsets in his section.  Like Wawrinka, Gonzalez may be a little rusty; he’s played no hard-court tennis since the Australian Open.  However, the Chilean’s powerful ground game should hit through Monaco’s defenses as it has in all five of their previous encounters.  Pick:  Gonzalez.

Petzschner vs. Soderling (6):  After Murray’s untimely demise, this quarter has the Swede’s name written all over it.  But can he capitalize on the opportunity?  He’ll want to dispose of Petzschner as efficiently as possible in order to conserve energy for later rounds.  Pick:  Soderling.

WTA:

Kuznetsova (1) vs. Bartoli (13):  Far the superior athlete overall, Kuznetsova should be able to outlast the streaky Frenchwoman despite her eccentric, arhythmic style.  Bartoli’s questionable serve will provide repeated opportunities for Kuznetsova to attack on the return.  Pick:  Kuznetsova.

Wickmayer (12) vs. Bacsinszky:  The unseeded Swiss player has scoared a pair of strong wins over 8th-seeded Li Na and rising Slovenian star Polona Hercog, who recently reached the final in Acapulco.  On the other side, Wickmayer has cruised through her first two matches, dropping just ten games in four sets.  Despite a disappointing result in Indian Wells, she has been highly consistent this year and should soon find herself in the top 10  Pick:  Wickmayer.

Venus (3) vs. Hantuchova (19):  If Venus serves well, there’s little that the elegant but far less powerful Slovak can do to contain her.  Hantuchova does have the ability to exploit an erratic performance by the American, but she’s undefeated since a disappointing exit in Melbourne.  Pick:  Venus.

Shvedova vs. Radwanska (6):  The Russian-turned-Kazakh erased the still-injured Lisicki in a retirement-abbreviated encounter before edging past the increasingly formidable Petkovic.  She certainly has a chance to hit the Pole off the court, for she frequentlyhas headed the WTA’s Power Index.  Nevertheless, one imagines that Radwanska will disrupt her one-dimensional style with intelligent modulations of pace and spin.  Pick:  Radwanska.

Jankovic (7) vs. Stosur (9):  Despite their similar rankings, Jankovic dispatched Stosur comfortably in their Indian Wells semifinal.  If her return game can counterbalance the Australian’s imposing serve, she’ll be able to control most extended rallies, target Stosur’s feeble backhand, and keep her pinned to the baseline rather than allowing her to showcase an excellent set of net skills.  Pick:  Jankovic.

Clijsters (14) vs. Azarenka (4):  Probably the WTA match of the day, this round of 16 meeting opposes two of this event’s former champions.  Both players have cruised through their first two matches in the tournament.  In their only meeting last year, Clijsters started strong, wobbled in the middle stages, and finished impressively after Azarenka lost control of her emotions.  She’s been more erratic in 2010 than 2009 but remains mentally stronger than the Minx from Minsk.  Pick:  Heart says Azarenka, but head says Clijsters.

Henin (W) vs. Zvonareva (11):  Like her compatriot, Henin confronts a dangerous yet mentally suspect opponent.  Zvonareva’s balanced, textured game could allow her to exploit Henin’s occasional spells of erratic play.  Nevertheless, her emotional fragility will hinder her against a sturdy competitor like Henin; although it’s conceivable that the Russian could prevail, she’ll have to maintain a high level of focus and intensity throughout the match.  Pick:  Henin.

Pavlyuchenkova (22) vs. Wozniacki (2):  The Indian Wells runner-up has looked more than a little shaky in her first two matches, during the second of which she struggled with the humid conditions before unexpectedly regrouping.  She’ll play later in the afternoon tomorrow, which will help her, but how much energy does she have left after a deep run in the desert and two epics here?  Pavlyuchenkova accumulated substantial court time herself, though, in a 3-hour, 12-minute second-round win over Paszek.  Wozniacki has produced mixed results against WTA veterans while flourishing against almost all of her peers.  All the same, if you’re in the mood for a calculated risk, you might want to take a shot on Pavs.  Pick:  Wozniacki.

(You might notice that all eight of my projected women’s quarterfinalists from the pre-tournament preview reached the round of 16.  Thus, each of my picks for tomorrow corresponds with the original octet.)

***

We posted a 13-3 record in yesterday’s predictions, including an 8-0 sweep of the WTA matches!  Let’s hope that our luck continues tomorrow, especially with the ladies.  😉

Half of the women’s third-round encounters were played today, and regrettably one of them witnessed the demise of the smiling Serb pictured above.  Nevertheless, Ivanovic pushed Radwanska deep into both sets during a match from which she can extract some encouragement.  After a dismal start on serve (broken in 5 of her first 6 games), she settled down in the second set and served at 64% while improving her winning percentage on her second serve, donating just two double faults, and dropping serve only twice.  She returned aggressively throughout the match as well, especially punishing the Pole’s puny second serve.  The final result wasn’t surprising and shouldn’t be disappointing to her, since Radwanska has been showcasing her best tennis recently; she reached the Indian Wells semifinals without dropping a set.  Let’s hope that Ivanovic’s shoulder recovers soon so that she can expand her schedule during the clay season.  The slower surface would offer an ideal setting to work on regaining her consistency and developing a rhythm during rallies, which in turn would help her to relax and rebuild her confidence. 

We were busy profiling the aforementioned Pole yesterday, so we couldn’t find time to preview the Saturday matches for you.  However, the Sunday preview for both ATP (bottom half) and WTA (top half) is straight ahead!

ATP:

Tsonga (8) vs. Kohlschreiber (28):  The trans-Rhine encounter will feature plenty of entertaining, audacious shotmaking on both sides.  Tsonga’s much superior serve and overall athleticism should carry him through.  Pick:  Tsonga.

Isner (17 ) vs. Ferrero (12):  Both players enter this match carrying momentum from their recent successes.  Isner excelled in Memphis and delivered an unexpectedly strong performance in Davis Cup before challenging Nadal in Indian Wells.  Meanwhile, Ferrero stormed through the South American clay-court season, expertly outmaneuvering rather than overpowering his opponents.  But we’re on hard courts now, and the difference in their overall power should tell.  Pick:  Isner.

Ferrer (15) vs. Karlovic (24):  Another Spaniard and another tower of power.  The height contrast is one of the greatest that you’ll see in the ATP, as is the contrast of styles.  Can Ferrer scurry well enough to retrieve the Croat’s bombs?  If he can work his way into a rally, he’ll have the distinct advantage.  It’s much easier said than done.  Pick:  Karlovic.

Nalbandian (W) vs. Nadal (4):  Rafa has struggled mightily with the Argentine in the past, dropping consecutive meetings with him during the 2008 indoor hard season before saving match points against him in 2009 Indian Wells.  On paper, there’s a serious chance for a blue-chip upset.  Nadal won’t suffer the fate of Djokovic and Murray this time, though, because Nalbandian has recently returned from hip surgery and will prove too rusty to consistenly out-rally Rafa from the baseline.  Pick:  Nadal.

Roddick (6) vs. Stakhovsky:  After a strong run at Indian Wells, the top-ranked American extended his momentum with a comfortable win over the often-dangerous Andreev.  The Ukrainian shouldn’t pose any problems for him.  Pick:  Roddick.

Robredo (18) vs. Becker:  Down a set and a break to Ljubicic, Becker unexpectedly found himself the beneficiary of a free pass to the next round.  He’s living on borrowed time, and don’t expect the uber-consistent Robredo to lend him any more.  Pick:  Robredo.

Almagro (33) vs. Chardy:  The “33rd seed” profited immensely from Monfils’ withdrawal, which shifted him into this much softer section of the draw.  Chardy just recorded an impressive win over Querrey and has definite top-20 potential, so this match could be one of Sunday’s highlights.  Nevertheless, one imagines that Almagro’s more balanced groundstroke game, powerful on both sides, will prevail over the Frenchman’s forehand-centric style.  Pick:  Almagro.

Bellucci (27) vs. Rochus:  Recording stunning wins over Gasquet and Djokovic, the small Belgian punches well above his size.  Theoretically, Bellucci should be a piece of cake compared to his previous victims.  Beware of a letdown.  Pick:  Bellucci.

WTA:

Jankovic (7) vs. Vesnina (28):  Having won 7 consecutive matches, the double J aims for the Indian Wells-Miami double.  It won’t happen, but someone stronger than the rusty, mentally suspect Vesnina (just returned from injury) will deliver the knockout blow.  Pick:  Jankovic.

Razzano vs. Stosur (9):  The Frenchwoman surprisingly derailed Zheng in her previous round and has won her first two matches convincingly.  By contrast, the newest denizen of the WTA top 10 barely eked out a win against Suarez Navarro after coming within a few points of defeat.  Upset in the making, right?  Maybe; I’m sticking with the Aussie to hold serve more consistently and win the crucial points.  Pick:  Stosur.

Clijsters (14) vs. Peer (17):  The top-ranked mother in the WTA resoundingly dispatched Kvitova in the second round, but she demolished another Czech in the second round of Indian Wells before falling to Kleybanova.  One doesn’t know what to expect from Clijsters on any given day lately; on the other hand, we can expect a gritty performance from the recently resurgent Peer.  It won’t be enough to compensate for her less potent groundstrokes, however.  Her greatest advantage over opponents is her consistency, and she won’t have that advantage against the Belgian.  Pick:  Clijsters.

Safarova vs. Azarenka (4):  Last year’s champion, Azarenka will be relieved not to face Indian Wells nemesis Martinez Sanchez, whom Safarova ousted in a second-round three-setter.  The streaky Czech lefty can threaten any player when her eccentric, high-risk game is clicking.  If she starts strong, the temperamental Belarussian might struggle to control her emotions.  But Safarova probably will produce some erratic moments upon which the opportunistic Azarenka can seize.  Pick:  Azarenka.

Henin (W) vs. Cibulkova (26):  One might imagine that Cibulkova’s explosive movement and ball-recovery skills would test Henin’s consistency, a bit shaky recently.  After thoroughly thrashing Dementieva, though, Justine appears to be regaining her Melbourne form.  The difficult early round may have benefited her by forcing her to play with high intensity from the outset of the tournament.  Pick:  Henin.

Errani vs. Zvonareva (11):  The clever Italian somehow found a way to defuse Kleybanova’s bone-crushing groundstrokes during a match played on two different courts because of a rain delay.  Despite recently having parted with coach Antonio van Grichen, Zvonareva delivered an emphatic win over Oudin in the second round.  She probably could afford to lose focus a few times, as is her habit, and still prevail rather routinely.  A fourth-round encounter with Henin could be delicious if both women continue their strong form.  Pick:  Zvonareva

Schiavone (15) vs. Pavlyuchenkova (22):  Francesca enjoyed a bit of an Italian Renaissance last fall, following a solid result at the US Open by winning the Kremlin Cup and lifting Italy to another Fed Cup title.  Meanwhile, the longest name in the top 30 pulled off a Russian Revolution in Monterrey last month, where she won her debut WTA title.  This intriguing matchup pits veteran guile (and some eccentricity) against youthful power.  It’s very difficult to call, but slugging usually trumps smarts in the WTA these days.  Pick:  Pavlyuchenkova.

Kirilenko (32) vs. Wozniacki (2):  Both of these lovely women produced second-round performances that were much less than lovely, Kirilenko needing a third-set tiebreak to overcome Melinda Czink and Wozniacki forced to rally from a 0-3 third-set deficit against the stagnating Tsvetana Pironkova.  The Dane’s B-game beats the Russian’s B-game easily, as was demonstrated during their lopsided encounter in the same round at Indian Wells.  Pick:  Wozniacki.

16 matches, 16 predictions.  Let’s hope that we fare a bit better than Ana and Novak did; perhaps some of Jelena’s good fortune will rub off on us!  🙂

Meanwhile, we’re contemplating our next player profile, to be written after the Miami tournament is over.  How does this topic sound?

 

I caught my first glimpse of Radwanska on a sunny Saturday in September, and my impressions were not favorable:  an insufferable runt, not unlike her pet rats Flippy and Floppy, had inexplicably expelled my favorite player from the Slam where she had been the defending champion.  Since then, however, I’ve gradually warmed to the Pole and grown to appreciate her and her game for what they are:  a dedicated, hardworking player who maximizes her potential more than most of her peers, and a refreshing counterpoint to the power baseliners rife in the WTA.  This first player profile responds to a specific request from one of my readers.  It will recap five highlights and five lowlights of Radwanska’s career (with their implications), discuss three strengths and three weaknesses in her game, and conclude with a brief depiction of what her future might hold.

Highlights:

5)  2006 Luxembourg:  Although Agnieszka had demonstrated early promise by winning the junior titles at Wimbledon and the French Open, her WTA breakthrough came at this indoor hard event.  She defeated then-#1 Venus Williams in the second round before later upsetting Elena Dementieva.  Her success against these more powerful players on a relatively fast surface revealed her already well-honed counterpunching skills.

4)  2007 US Open:  Defeating defending champion Sharapova in a three-set rollercoaster, Radwanska proved that she could bring her best tennis to the biggest stages.  Against the Russian megastar, she showcased her mental tenacity when she weathered the predictable Sharapova mid-match blitz and escaped an early deficit in the final set.  Despite Maria’s serious shoulder injury, which dramatically hampered her serve, Radwanska deserved applause for retaining her composure as she approached the finish line and comfortably closing out the match.   (One caveat:  her habit of dancing in and out while Sharapova prepared to serve was unworthy of a top player, and such antics have vanished as she has matured.)

3)  2010 Indian Wells:  We haven’t yet gained the distance to fully appreciate this highlight, but it’s worth noting that Radwanska reached the final four at this year’s BNP Paribas Open without dropping a set.  Her victims included familiar names such as Bartoli and Dementieva, in addition to Henin’s conqueror, Dulko.  Although the relatively slow hard courts at Indian Wells typically suit a counterpuncher’s game, the ease of her wins over imposing opposition reminded audiences that she can outplay anyone on any given day. 

2)  2009 Beijing:  Agnieszka charged to the final of this Premier Mandatory event, one of the top four non-Slam tournaments on the calendar.  As in the desert, she defeated Bartoli and Dementieva before falling to Kuznetsova in the championship match.  After a lackluster year in which she had lost 9 consecutive quarterfinals, her semifinal in Tokyo (when she extended Sharapova to three sets) and her breakthrough in Beijing trumpeted her return to form. 

1)  2008 Eastbourne:  Confronting the imposing serve of Nadia Petrova, Radwanska rallied from a one-set deficit before saving multiple match points in an epic second-set tiebreak.  Then, she outlasted the Russian in the third set while producing some inspired shot-making of her own.  This grass Wimbledon warm-up is the most significant title of Agnieszka’s career to date; it set the stage for consecutive Wimbledon quarterfinal runs in 2008 and 2009, which perhaps together deserve a place on this list.  One of her most impressive attributes is her ability to counterbalance the powerful serves that normally dominate on grass with her deft touch and nimble footwork (in fact, she has won a title on every surface).  Casting a backward glance, I’m also impressed that she could lift the opulent trophy:

Lowlights:

5)  2007 US Open:  This event curiously falls into both categories!  After upsetting second-seeded Sharapova (see above), Radwanska failed to capitalize on her momentum and on a very soft draw, falling to Shahar Peer in a winnable match one round later.  Her squandered opportunity allowed the now-vanished Anna Chakvetadze to reach the semifinals, where she played Kuznetsova in a woeful avalanche of errors.  Surely Agnieszka could have offered a higher level of entertainment had she reached the final four.

4)  2009 Dubai:  Although troubled by illness, Agnieszka had little excuse for falling to her still-raw younger sister, Urszula.  The loss extended her slump from a poor Australian Open result and suggested that, just as she can defeat anyone, she can also lose to anyone on any given day.  It’s never easy playing a sibling (witness Venus-Serena), but she needs to handle this situation more confidently as she matures.

3)  2008 Olympics:  As the best tennis player in Poland’s history, Radwanska carried the expectations of a nation on her shoulders when she traveled to Beijing.  The pressure seemed to weigh heavily on her during a loss to the equally crafty Schiavone.  As she would demonstrate a year later, the medium-speed hard court in the Olympic Stadium (revived as the venue for the Beijing ATP/WTA event) should have proved an excellent match for her counterpunching style.  Here’s hoping that she gets a second and possibly third chance to represent her nation in 2012 and 2016.

2)  2009 US Open:  Recovering from a hand injury, an oddly diffident Radwanska lost her opening match to the talented but certainly less formidable Maria Kirilenko.  Although she climbed out of a one-set hole to force a deciding set, she proved unable to seize the momentum and seemed to tentatively wait for “the other Maria” to choke.  The Russian didn’t oblige, raising concerns about Radwanska’s game that were only silenced with her emphatic Asian run last fall.

1)  2009 Wimbledon:  A quarterfinal loss to Venus wasn’t surprising, considering the American’s stellar record in SW17, nor was the lopsided scoreline especially shocking.  But her comment after the match that it was “impossible” for her to beat the Williams sister (she was soundly thrashed by Serena in the previous year’s quarterfinal) mirrored her defeatist body language on court.  Even when she broke Venus and briefly threatened in the second set, she never looked convinced in her ability to win.  One of a counterpuncher’s greatest weapons is their firm self-belief that they can wear down a stronger opponent through sheer resilience and strength of character; if they lose that quality, they’re roadkill waiting to happen.

Strengths:

1)  Tennis IQ:  Gifted with remarkable instincts, Radwanska anticipates her opponent’s tactics extremely well during points.  Like Murray, she has a knack for forcing her opponents to play in the style least comfortable for them, whether forcing short players to hit moonballs or tall players to handle low slices.  A match against the Pole provides many players with a checklist of features that they should address during their upcoming practice sessions.  While not typically a hallmark of the game’s greatest stars, the tactic of playing to the opponent’s flaws works especially well in the current WTA, where coaches train players to maximize their strengths rather than minimizing their weaknesses or developing a reliable Plan B.  (In most cases, this strategy proves sound; Radwanska is the exception that proves the rule.)

2)  Versatility:  The imaginative Pole can hit every shot in the tennis lexicon and improvise at will throughout points.  When the momentum of a rally appears to be heading inexorably away from her, she has numerous tactics for bringing it back to a neutral position.  Her stylistic flexibility contrasts with her highly “programmatic” peers, whose games are constructed in order to allow them to hit their favorite shot as often as possible.  Radwanska doesn’t have a favorite shot or shots, but neither does she have a single empty shelf in her arsenal.  If Plan A doesn’t produce the desired results, she can go to Plan B, then Plan C, Plan D, etc…

3)  Consistency:  Very few of her rivals can keep the ball in the court for rally after rally in game after game.  Refusing to donate easy points, the Pole makes her opponents work extremely hard both physically and mentally.  The effort of gradually punching holes in her defenses requires intense concentration, especially since she has a superb talent for absorbing pace.  Whereas more temperamental WTA stars occasionally rush into reckless unforced errors as they near victory, Radwanska tightly controls her nerves and refuses to let her opponent of the hook.

Weaknesses:

1)  Serve:  Probably the worst delivery in the top 20, Radwanska’s first serve reaches a maximum velocity in the upper 90s and more often spins in at around 85-90 mph.  This benign speed allows aggressive returners to seize control of points immediately, often hitting outright winners.  Her struggle to hold serve places additional pressure on her return games, since Agnieszka knows that she can’t rely on her ability to serve out a set or match.  Recently, she has improved the variety on her serve placement rather than hitting a safe T-serve over the low part of the net whenever she desperately needs a point.  (Hampered with similar stature, Henin gets away with this same tactic more often than she ought.)  Still, she’ll never be able to gain quick, cheap points from her serve as will most top-10 or even top-20 players.

2)  Transition from defense to offense:  Radwanska possesses an impressive ability to redirect the ball, but she doesn’t unleash it as frequently as she could.  In a crosscourt, forehand-to-forehand rally against Sharapova during their Tokyo semifinal last fall, she suddenly changed direction with a sparkling down-the-line forehand winner.  Sharapova was stunned, and so was I.  But when the same rally pattern developed at a critical stage in the third set, Radwanska had the opportunity again:  a deep but not overwhelming ball on her forehand, an open line, and time (perhaps the most valuable of tennis commodities).  On this occasion, she played a safe shot towards the middle of the court and eventually lost the point.  Her chances against powerful but not overly mobile opponents would rise if she developed sufficient confidence in her ball-redirecting skills to display them when it really matters.

3)  Playing to the level of the opponent:  Although Radwanska often rises to the occasion when she faces one of the WTA”s marquee stars, her level occasionally drops when she plays an unheralded player.  Her US Open loss to Kirilenko exemplified this flaw, as did a match that I watched her play against Hantuchova last summer.  Seemingly in control after a comfortable first set, she allowed the talented but less formidable Slovakian to stay around late in the second set and drag her into a tiebreak.  After dropping a tense tiebreak, fatigue understandably overtook her during the final set, which she lost 6-1.  She’ll never overpower opponents like a Williams, Sharapova, or Henin, but relentless consistency can be as suffocating as an explosive serve and should allow her to record a substantial number of easy wins.  Considering the amount of effort that she expends on almost every point, she would be more likely to progress deep into large draws if she could conserve energy in early rounds by efficiently dispatching sub-par opposition.

Final thoughts:

What does her future hold?  Rankings-wise, the outlook is very bright.  It seems clear that she’ll stay embedded in the lower top 10 for a long time to come, perhaps with a few trips into the top 15 or so.   Moreover, most of the players ranked higher than her are also older than her, so her current ranking of #8 could even improve a little once they retire.  Among her own generation, very few players have recorded consistent success against her.  Titles-wise, however, I’m not optimistic about her chances of claiming a Slam.  In a 7-match tournament, she likely would need to defeat at least three or four players who are significantly stronger than she is.  Despite her ability to score major upsets, she hasn’t yet strung them together at the same tournament.  I imagine that she’ll collect plenty of WTA-level hardware throughout her career while often reaching the second week at Slams, but the big prize will remain just slightly beyond her grasp.

***

Let me know if you would like me to profile another player, either by commenting here or contacting me on Twitter, and I’ll fit him or her into the cavalcade of posts.  The next entry will be a fairly straightforward preview of Sunday’s most intriguing third-round matches (ATP/WTA), including predictions for those that we feature.

By the way, this post is quite timely, for Agnieszka is playing someone special on Saturday!  🙂

Keep the “ajdes” and the prayers coming; you never know what we can accomplish through sheer collective willpower!  🙂

Novak Djokovic enjoys pondering the countless curiosities in life, whether it be the delicate art of balancing his racket, the stylish brunette nibbling strawberries in the front row, or the aforementioned strawberries themselves.  Consequently, he serves as the poster boy for our discussion of the five potential narratives that could emerge from the men’s tournament.  (And there’s a “+1” at the end this time too, you can be assured!)

1)  Does Federer care at all about the non-majors?  The greatest man ever to lift a racket looked chronically contemptuous and disengaged during his brief appearance at Indian Wells, where he seemed to feel that the occasion was unworthy of his presence.  Since he had just recovered from a respiratory infection, it was difficult to determine where the line lay between physical rust and mental detachment.  We should be able to define it more precisely in Miami; his benign draw puts any early loss squarely on his own shoulders.  At this stage in his career, one can understand why he plays his best tennis only 8 weeks a year, but it would be better for the sport if its #1 showed some interest in a few of the other 44.

2)  Can the Djoker and Murray get their Heads back on track?  Last year’s runner-up, the Serb’s 2010 campaign has been lethargic at best (Dubai, Davis Cup) and listless at worst (Australian Open, Indian Wells).  His apparently depleted commitment level surfaced when he chose not to play an Australian Open warmup, previously a regular part of his schedule.  The needless adjustment to a new service motion has further hindered his efforts, turning many of his matches into unpredictable and emotionally draining rollercoasters.  Meanwhile, his nemesis in the 2009 Miami final has reverted to his immature, passive self after a dismal performance against Federer at the Australian Open.  While his game has regressed, Murray has engaged in distracting wars of words over his overt contempt for minor tournaments–a deplorable example to set his peers–and the British Davis Cup team’s uncertain future.  Until the Serb and the Scot start simplifying their lives on court and off court, they’ll be merely supporting actors to Federer and Nadal.

3)  Can Nadal build momentum for the clay season?  Following another knee-induced hiatus, his Indian Wells semifinal run should have encouraged his fans.  We caught frequent glimpses of the lithe, fluid Rafa to which we had grown accustomed before last year’s French Open.  Yet that vintage Nadal never would have choked a third-set tiebreak against a player like Ljubicic; it appears as though his body has progressed further towards recovery than his mind.  If he can finally find “calm” at crucial moments and produce a stirring performance in Miami, there’s no reason to think that he can’t recapture his past brilliance on clay.  If he wilts against another unheralded foe, on the other hand, an noxious cloud of doubt will hover over the Spaniard just when he most needs his confidence.

4)  What is Andy Roddick thinking?  There are two potential, diametrically opposed ways in which he could react to his fortnight in the desert.  A:  “Wow, it felt great to be back in a groove after the scary injury in Australia and beat some tough opponents; I can’t wait to get myself out on (a hard) court again and keep building on everything that I did well here.”   B:  “I don’t drop my serve during the entire final, and STILL I lose to an elderly dude with more kids than hair?  Will I ever win one of these big matches, or am I cursed forever?”  (Well, I probably sanitized Andy’s inner voice for you there.)  Knowing Roddick’s past history, Option A is more likely, but he looked clearly demoralized after falling to Ljubicic.

5)  Does anyone outside the top 8 matter when it counts?  No, I haven’t forgotten the events of last weekend any more than Roddick has.  Still, Indian Wells has a storied history of producing the unexpected and often the shocking, so Ljubicic’s title there was highly appropriate.  Beyond that event, the juiciest plums on the calendar have long been plucked by the top six or eight men; occasionally, a Verdasco or a Tsonga or a Monfils gets a sniff, but in the end the challenger regularly falls to the established star.  Will the pattern continue in Key Biscayne, or has Ljubicic lighted a torch for others to bear?  Remember what happened when Pandora opened her box.

5+1)  What will be this year’s Youtube moment?  Last year, a frustrated Federer obliterated his racket (see photographic evidence below) in a flash of piqued perfectionism.  Two years ago, an equally frustrated Youzhny turned his racket against himself in a burst of masochistic mania.  Who will provide the indelible image (or highlight clip) of this year’s tournament?

I’ll be back shortly with a post that may surprise you.  It was inspired by a special request from one of my Twitter followers, and I hope that you find it a scintillating read.  No guesses!  😉

Maria has a brief respite from the eternal conundrum of “to challenge or not to challenge,” but our wheels are turning rapidly as we contemplate the WTA draw.  We’ll mention five potential narratives, any or all of which could define the women’s tournament, before inserting a sixth “narrative” for your amusement.

1)  How much will we miss Serena?  Her unfailimg presence here cloaked this event in the majestic aura of a “fifth Slam.”  In fact, Miami was Serena’s private tournament during the last decade, when she won it five times and finished runner-up to Azarenka in 2009.  Jurassic Park certainly won’t be the same without the Tyrannosaurus Rex (Regina?), but will her absence significantly overshadow the event?  This question could be substantially answered by…

2)  Can the Belgians bounce back?  Both Clijsters and Henin will be eager to erase the memories of their fleeting sojourns in Indian Wells, but the draw didn’t do them any favors.  Henin will have to rediscover her Australian form in order to survive Dementieva in the second round (first-round report on Justine not overly encouraging), while Clijsters finds herself sharing a quarter with the suddenly awakening Jankovic.  Even before she reaches that stage, however, she’ll probably have to depose the defending champion…

3)  Azarenka can attack, but can she defend?  This tournament should tell us a substantial amount about Azarenka’s mental state, never her strength but recently improving.  For the first time in her career, she returns to a major event as the defending champion.  I don’t expect her to win it again or even reach the final, but I’d like to see Vika maintain her composure and deliver a gritty performance in her intimidating section.  Only when she can handle that sort of pressure in this type of situation will she be psychologically ready to challenge the veterans’ stranglehold on the Slams.  Prominent among those aforementioned veterans is the woman who defeated her in Dubai…

4)  Is Venus still rising?  In 2009, she won the Dubai and Acapulco tournaments consecutively but then didn’t win a tournament for the rest of the season.  (Little sister didn’t help a great deal, defeating her in the Miami semifinals, the Wimbledon final, and twice in one week at the year-end championships.)  In 2010, she repeated the Dubai-Acapulco double; this time, can she capitalize on the momentum while Serena hones her nail-polishing skills?  A gambler’s nightmare, she could record a series of inspiring wins, keep the title in the family, and turn this event into a springboard for one more assault on the All England Club.  Or she could fall in the second round to talented Romanian Sorana Cirstea, which would help answer the question of…

5)  Will the upset bug continue?  Indian Wells witnessed an even longer list of stunners than usual (see “Surprise, California?” entry below), in part because of an imbalanced draw that juxtaposed marquee players with dangerous dark horses while leaving other sections open to all comers.  The Miami draw has a similar appearance at first glance, so we could be headed towards another wild fortnight.  Typically, however, this tournament restores order after the California chaos and provides a more reliable litmus test than its predecessor for the current form of most participants.

5+1)  How much magic is in Maria’s outfit?  After apparently spending the first four games adjusting to her unaccustomed glamor, Julia Goerges dismissed Ayumi Morita in straight sets while wearing the outfit designed for Sharapova.  She faces Elena Vesnina next and could play Jankovic in the third round.  If she scores that upset, we really will start believing that you are what you wear.

***

We’ll be back tomorrow with an ATP “5+1”; in the meantime, enjoy the start of the second round!  If you’re going to the tournament, shout some “ajdes” for Ana on my behalf–or say some prayers if the situation demands it.  😉

It seems like a long time ago now, but you might remember the ill-fated weapon that Federer destroyed during his frustrating semifinal loss to Djokovic here last year.  The ATP draw looks smashing in a different way, for notable Indian Wells absentees such as Gonzalez, Youzhny, and Wawrinka return to competition here.  After the bizarre plot twists in the year’s first Masters 1000 event, will the year’s second Masters 1000 event restore order in the court?  Quarter-by-quarter preview straight ahead!

First quarter:  Federer overshadowed the tournament in an unexpected way last year, so he’ll be hoping for a more routine fortnight as he continues to recover from a respiratory infection.  He should find plenty of oxygen during his first few rounds against the likes of Montanes and Berdych, whom he has dominated since the Athens Olympics upset six years ago.  On the other side are two players who struggled mightily at Indian Wells, Verdasco and Cilic, as well as the resurgent Baghdatis; could we see a rematch in the quarters?

Quarterfinal:  Federer def. Verdasco.  I think that the Spaniard will respond better than the introverted Cilic to the exuberant Miami atmosphere, and he can consistently outhit Baghdatis from the baseline.  He always struggles to finish what he starts, though, and habitually falls barely short in important matches.  Federer should be able to endure Verdasco’s blazing bursts while waiting for untimely miscues.

Potential second-round match to watch:  Verdasco-Korolev.  The rallies won’t be elegant, but the swings will be huge and the groundstrokes bone-crushing. 

Second quarter:   Murray has moped and slumped since the first few games of the Australian Open final, a match that appears to have disproportionately demoralized him (after all, Federer is 15-3 in non-clay Slam finals, 13-1 against players other than Nadal).  It won’t improve his mood to learn that desert nemesis Soderling again lurks on the other side.  There are plenty of sporadically dangerous names between them, including Wawrinka, Gonzalez, and Tipsarevic.  Gonzo is the most likely of those to catch fire in Miami, but he may still have his mind in Chile.  Although the Swiss #2 occasionally troubles Murray (cf. 2009 Wimbledon fourth round), he’s been far from his best this year. 

Quarterfinal:  Murray def. Soderling.  The Swede completely outclassed the Scot at Indian Wells; Murray was fortunate to avoid a truly embarrassing scoreline by saving multiple break points in the second set.  One senses that the defending champion might have revenge in mind, which has lent him additional intensity in the past.  Also, the carnivorous Swede tends to alternate outstanding performances with unremarkable results.  He followed up his first career win over Federer (Abu Dhabi) with losses to Ginepri (Chennai) and Granollers (Melbourne), while his Rotterdam title preceded a limp defeat in Marseille.

Potential second-round match to watch:  Wawrinka-Almagro.  Their five-set Davis Cup match a few weeks ago witnessed some stunning one-handed backhands and some reckless shot-making. 

Third quarter:   One can picture Nadal’s furrowed eyebrows as he examined his quarter, stacked with players who have challenged him in the past.  He might need to conquer the two tallest players in the ATP, Karlovic and Isner, or perhaps tireless court-coverers Ferrer and Tsonga.  Former nemesis Nalbandian has just returned from injury, so he should pose less of a threat.  Still, the world #4 (yes, I mean Rafa) will have fully earned his place in the final four.

Quarterfinal:  Nadal def. Tsonga.  The Frenchman has been a little off-key since the Australian Open, struggling with weight-loss after a stomach ailment.  His pulsating energy and superior net skills should carry him past Isner–probably–but Nadal will be able to wear him down after some suspenseful moments.

Potential second-round match to watch:  Troicki-Nalbandian.  There won’t be many more chances to see one of the best active players never to win a Slam; when he finds a rhythm, he times his groundstrokes exquisitely and creates Davydenko-like angles.

Fourth quarter:  Like Murray, Djokovic has recently struggled to produce his highest quality at crucial moments, but he’ll have to reverse this slide in order to emerge from his section.  There won’t be a single easy opponent, from Gasquet to Blake to Querrey or Monfils.  The other side might well feature a rematch of the Indian Wells final between Roddick and Ljubicic in the fourth round.  Can the 31-year-old Croat capitalize on his desert sensation and thrust deep into the Miami draw?  He proved me wrong just a few days ago…still, I’ll believe it when I see it. 

Quarterfinal:  Roddick def. Djokovic.  Since the Serb’s controversial retirement in their 2009 Melbourne quarterfinal, Roddick has seized the edge in this mini-rivalry, winning comfortably in both Indian Wells and Montreal.  Remodeling his serve, Djokovic won’t be able to count on holding as regularly and comfortably as would be necessary in order to overcome the almost impenetrable serve across the net.  At the moment, he’s less confident, less consistent, less fit, and seemingly less motivated than the American.

Potential second-round match to watch:  Djokovic-Gasquet.  Born just weeks apart, their careers have drifted in opposite directions.  The Frenchman won’t win, but his still-stylish, versatile game might well inspire Djokovic to look heavenwards, glare at his racket, kiss the net, roll his eyes at his box, mutter Serbian imprecations to himself…in short, all of the antics that make him so entertaining to watch even when his tennis doesn’t impress.   (EDIT:  It didn’t happen:  Gasquet lost to Olivier Rochus in his first match at the scene of Pamela’s crime.  As a substitute, check out Roddick-Andreev.) 

***

Just as with the women, we’ll be back to preview the eventual semifinals in much closer detail, and the final will receive the same meticulous scrutiny as the Indian Wells championship tilt.  In the near future, though, we’ll be back with a Thursday post on five plotlines to follow for the women and a Friday post on five plotlines to follow for the men.

Until then, enjoy watching the matches…on the electronic scoreboard!  😉

Maria made a dual statement here in 2006 by showcasing a sleek, Bond girl-inspired outfit and by slashing her way to the final with the icy composure of 007.  She fell to her compatriot Kuznetsova (never thought of Sveta as Dr. No), now the top seed in a Serena-less draw.  Who is ready to capitalize on the absence of the five-time champion and make a statement of their own?  Quarter-by-quarter preview straight ahead!

First quarter:  It’s bookended by Kuznetsova and Li Na, both of whom lost their opening matches in Indian Wells.  This sparsely populated region either will give its slumping stars a chance to catch their breath or will allow a talented opportunist to break through.  The two outcomes seem equally possible, so I’m thinking that we’ll see a bit of both.

Quarterfinal:  Kuznetsova def. Wickmayer.  Yanina has more than enough game to trouble the top seed, but Kuznetsova has repeatedly enjoyed considerable success here over the years.

Potential second-round match to watch:  Molik-Szavay.  Both players are experiencing a mini-resurrection lately after one retired and the other completely vanished.

Second quarter:  Venus should have its denizens firmly under her thumb, unless a streaky power merchant like Sabine Lisicki (who’s beaten her before) catches fire unexpectedly.  Otherwise, players like Pennetta, Petrova, Ivanovic, and the sixth-seeded Radwanska could claim a set but not the match from the elder Williams.

Quarterfinal:  Venus def. Radwanska.  Even on a bad day, Venus simply has too much power for the crafty Pole to handle over the course of three sets. 

Definite second-round match to watch:  Ivanovic-anyone.  No explanation needed.  😉

Potential second-round match to watch:  Petrova-Chakvetadze.  Shocking winners.  Shocking misses.  Curses.  Rolling eyes.  Pouts.  Tears.  Enjoy the soap opera, and wear a helmet.

Potential second-round match to hear:  Venus-Larcher de Brito.  Tape a rally and play it instead of music during changeovers. (EDIT:  Larcher de Brito lost her first-round match to Cirstea today.  Stop the tape.)

Third quarterWith one notable exception discussed below, most of the early action happens here in the most brutal quarter.  Defending champion Azarenka will have to solve the riddle of Martinez Sanchez just to earn the right to play Clijsters in what should be a crackling fourth round; it’s not guaranteed that the Belgian will arrive there either, though, with a revitalized Peer in her own third round.  Jankovic probably awaits the winner in the quarters, but she’ll likely need to tackle Stosur for the second straight tournament beforehand.

Quarterfinal:  Jankovic def. Clijsters.  I’m backing Kim’s mature poise over the high-strung Azarenka, especially with the extra pressure of a defending champion on the Belarussian’s shoulders.  However, the Serb’s recent momentum should barely propel her past the Belgian in another tense thriller, parallel to their Rogers Cup meeting last year (also after Clijsters had defeated Azarenka).

Second-round match to watch:  Stosur-Suarez Navarro.  It’s a curious contrast of styles between a gritty baseliner and a serve-volley technician, both of whom recently dazzled in the desert.

Fourth quarter:  The agile assassin lurks here.  Just as in Australia, Dementieva has received the unenviable assignment of deflecting Henin’s daggers before settling into the tournament, and the petite Belgian rarely falls prey to consecutive clunkers.  The winner should navigate a tricky fourth-round against Kleybanova or Zvonareva before reaching the Indian Wells runner-up.  Should we be impressed that Wozniacki reached the final in the desert, or disappointed that she delivered such an uninspired performance once she arrived there?

Quarterfinal:  Henin def. Wozniacki.  The world #2 has proven that she can beat all of her contemporaries and most of her elders.  But is she ready to beat the WTA”s aristocracy–the Williamses, the Sharapovas, the Clijsterses, the Henins?  Her lackluster loss to Jankovic, more of a lady-in-waiting than an aristocrat, suggested that she isn’t.

Quasi-definite “second-round match” to watch:  Henin-Dementieva.  If Melbourne is any guide, it should be the WTA highlight of the first week by a substantial margin.  Craybas’ chances of derailing their convergence stand at 0.00000001%.

Potential second-round match to watch:  Zvonareva-Oudin.  The American could test the Russian should she play as she did in the Paris Indoors; expect engaging, extended baseline rallies and ingenious point construction.

***

Once the semifinal lineup is set, we’ll provide a more extensive preview of those specific matches (for both WTA and ATP).  And we’ll place the finals under the same microscope that we used for the Indian Wells championship matches, so you’ll have plenty of reading material late next week!

In the more immediate future, we’ll return tomorrow with the ATP draw preview (same format as above), and by the end of the week we’ll post a few key storylines to follow as both draws unfold.