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Confronted with a lethal-looking draw at the outset of this week, Nadal now finds himself within two comfortable wins of tying Agassi’s record for career Masters titles (17).  Although he had been projected to play Soderling, Federer, and Djokovic consecutively, ambushes by Wawrinka, Gulbis, and Verdasco erased all three threats from his path.  The Latvian should connect with some booming serves and fearsome forehands, but we doubt that he’ll string enough of those dazzling winners together to discomfit Rafa on his favorite surface.  Meanwhile, the all-Spanish semifinal in the bottom half should offer a scintillating counterpoint of Verdasco’s offensive brilliance against Ferrer’s defensive prowess.  When they met in the Barcelona semifinal exactly a week ago, the retriever nearly prevailed before the shotmaker finally rose to the occasion late in the second set.  Looming over both of them, however, is the towering shadow of Nadal, which drains a little energy from this match because it appears virtually certain that his two compatriots are playing for the runner-up trophy.  Will Verdasco dog the defending champion’s footsteps as relentlessly as did the Serb pictured above?  Judging from his oft-expressed reverence for Rafa, we doubt it.  On the other hand, Ferrer has the belief to tackle Nadal but lacks the weapons. 

Across the Alps, another upset-riddled tournament has allowed Stosur and Henin to slide into cruise control against a pair of overmatched opponents.  Yet another prodigious ball-striker from Russia, Lapushchenkova won’t be able to hold serve with sufficient ease and consistency to create pressure on Stosur’s serve, nearly impenetrable so far this week.  If Henin can recover from an exhausting win over Jankovic in time for her afternoon semifinal, she shouldn’t find Peer excessively demanding.  Notable for her outstanding competitive resilience, the Israeli will be forced onto defense for most of their encounter, not where one wants to be on this surprisingly fast clay.  Unlike the Rome tournament, however, the Stuttgart final could prove fascinating indeed with Henin attempting to claim the first title of her comeback (having lost two finals) and Stosur striving to consolidate her momentum from Charleston.  Regardless of the outcome, a major statement will be made concerning the more significant events in Rome and Madrid as well as Roland Garros.  We’ll thoroughly preview that match for you in the very likely event that it develops. 

Much more thought-provoking than these rather limp semifinals is the WTA Rome draw, which compiles all of the top 10 and features such intriguing first-round clashes as Stosur-Cibulkova, Vinci-Kleybanova, and Schiavone-Hantuchova.  Since the event begins on Sunday, we’ve already whipped out the crystal ball for a wide-angle look at the road ahead, one quarter at a time:

First quarter:  Mystery reigns regarding the state of Serena‘s knee, which until recently threatened to prevent her from appearing at the Foro Italico this year.  She’ll have time to rediscover her clay-court game in an unimposing opener, yet she might struggle in a third-round meeting with Zvonareva, who has troubled her on this surface before.  Still, one would have to favor the 12-time Slam champion to overcome that obstacle if (and it’s a massive “if”) she is both healthy and motivated.  On the other side of this section lies Kuznetsova, Serena’s nemesis at last year’s French Open but far from confident after a string of dismal results in 2010.  We suspect that Serena would need to conquer Stosur in order to reach the semis; she dominated the Australian in Melbourne while falling to her in a listless quarterfinal at the Stanford event last year.  Swiftly embedding herself among the central contenders in Paris, Stosur might demand a more determined performance than Serena will be inclined to muster at a non-Slam.

Semifinalist:  Stosur

Second quarter:  Another Williams, another questionable knee.  Unlike little sister, Venus will need to start on the right foot if she opens against Dulko; the Argentine excels at exposing an opponent’s erratic play or fitness flaws.  Littered with qualifiers, this neighborhood could prove friendly to a dark horse like Rezai or Wickmayer and might produce at least one surprise quarterfinalist.  Jankovic won’t look forward to an opening-match duel with Oudin, who stunned her at Wimbledon last year before her breakthrough run at the US Open.  Far more comfortable on clay than the American, though, the Serb should carve a characteristically melodramatic route to the quarters.  Highly entertaining and tightly contested, her meetings with Venus have followed a simple pattern:  JJ wins on clay (with one exception), Venus wins on hard court (with one exception).  They’re playing on clay, so…

Semifinalist:  Jankovic

Third quarter: 

This section is a trifle less cozy than the setting in which Ivanovic is pictured above, for it includes not only Azarenka (a possible second-round opponent for Ana) but two former French Open finalists, Dementieva and Safina.  Just returning from a severe back injury, Dinara almost certainly won’t defend her title and likely won’t survive compatriot Petrova in the third round.  A former semifinalist at Roland Garros, Nadia started 2010 spectacularly in Australia but hasn’t distinguished herself since then.  The key to this quarter should be the Azarenka-Dementieva round of 16, where we would give Elena a slight edge for her maturity as well as her head-to-head lead.  Also, she’s one of the few elite players who has been fully healthy this season; although she hasn’t shone at the top events, she has quietly secured two titles already.

Semifinalist:  Dementieva

Fourth quarter:  Returning to the city of their recent Fed Cup victory, Pennetta and Schiavone lurk in the middle of this relatively soft section.  If she can quell the resurgent Hantuchova, Schiavone probably will collide with the second seed Wozniacki in a third-round match during which the Dane’s movement and fitness will be severely tested.  Anchoring the other side, Radwanska seeks to atone for an unexpected tumble in Stuttgart at the hands of Peer, although she probably would need to navigate Pennetta and Vinci, another clay-loving Italian who reached the final in Barcelona (where she lost to Schiavone).  One would expect both Radwanska and Wozniacki to excel on this surface, considering their high-percentage, low-risk playing styles, yet neither has generally played her best tennis on clay. 

Semifinalist:  Pennetta

***

We enjoyed an excellent week with our long-distance forecasts for the ATP Rome event, so let’s hope that the winning streak stays in the venue for the ladies.  🙂  Arrivederci and Auf Wiedersehn!

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Rarely does Djokovic whisper as he does here to his charming compatriot and Hopman Cup doubles partner, Jelena Jankovic.  Generally, the ATP’s most engaging superstar proclaims his sentiments to the world in unambiguous fashion.  Typical of this trait was the bravado with which he addressed his Friday confrontation againt Verdasco, who inflicted Djokovic’s worst defeat as a top-10 player two weeks ago in Monte Carlo.  “I’ve played a lot of matches against him on different surfaces and I’ve won most of them,” trumpeted the Serb, who then announced that the aforemented match “wasn’t a real picture of my game.”  Having talked the talk, can he walk the walk?  His comments both will motivate him and place more pressure upon himself, thus increasing the intrigue in this first quarterfinal. 

Considering the rather lopsided lineups created by the upsets in Rome and Stuttgart, we’ve decided to create our own quarterfinal lineup comprised of two matches from each tournament.  From Rome, we’re taking Tsonga-Ferrer and Verdasco-Djokovic, jettisoning the bizarre Gulbis-Lopez nightcap and the foregone conclusion of Nadal-Wawrinka.   (As we mentioned on Twitter earlier, we might see an all-Spanish semifinal lineup at the Foro Italico on Saturday.)  From Stuttgart, we’re previewing Li-Stosur and Henin-Jankovic, omitting Safarova-Lapushchenkova and Peer-Safina.  Since all four of our selected matches should be highly competitive, we’ll construct the argument for why one player should win and then devise a counterargument for why the other player might win.  Therefore, you’ll be able to draw your own conclusions from the information provided!

Tsonga (7) vs. Ferrer (13):

Why Ferrer should win:  Clay is the surface that most favors substance over style.  Continuing his inspired play from Miami, Ferrer reached the semifinals in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, where he lost to the eventual champions on both occasions; strikingly, he leads all ATP players in clay-court wins this season, including the February events in South America.  Although Murray’s struggles have been well-documented, Ferrer still impressed us on Thursday with his routine victory over the fourth seed.  By contrast, Tsonga made little impact in either of the last two tournaments, falling to Ferrero and (mystifyingly) to De Bakker.  In addition to his distinct advantage on the surface, Ferrer possesses a style ideally equipped to exploit the Frenchman’s sporadic inconsistencies.  Numberless are the ATP shotmakers whom he has slowly stymied with his death-by-paper-cut tactics of bulletproof defense and crafty counterpunching.  Even when Tsonga thinks that he’s hit an outright winner, he’ll need to hit one more…and one more…

Why Tsonga might win:  This match is their first meeting, and Ferrer may need to adjust to Tsonga’s distinctive aggression before settling into the match.  If the acrobatic Frenchman can convert some early opportunities, Ferrer occasionally has faded when he falls behind by a significant margin.  A reliable barometer for his overall confidence, his tw0-handed backhand has been firing this week, and his often unreliable return game has been relatively solid.  Also, the surface may not be quite so firmly allied with the Spaniard as one would suppose.  Among others who prioritize power over consistency, Gulbis, Ljubicic, and Lopez have fared surprisingly well this week, suggesting that the clay may be playing a little faster than usual (but not so fast as the Porsche-speed grit in Stuttgart).

Verdasco (6) vs. Djokovic (2):

Why Djokovic should win:  The Serb stated his own case rather well in the comments quoted above, but we’ll amplify them.  Prior to the Monte Carlo catastrophe, he had defeated the Spaniard on five consecutive occasions, including two meetings on clay.  Absent from Barcelona, he entered Rome far fresher than Verdasco, who won the title in that Mediterranean city and looked somewhat weary against Bolelli earlier this week.  Spared the burden of facing Isner, Djokovic crushed Chardy before delivering a sturdy, focused performance against the potentially tricky Bellucci.  Either way, the second seed largely controls the outcome of the match.  If the confident, patient Novak of the 2009 clay season shows up tomorrow, he’ll win; if the nervous, nauseous-looking Novak of the Monte Carlo semifinal shows up, he’ll almost certainly lose.  We think that the loss to Verdasco a fortnight ago stung a little more than he was willing to admit, judging from his pugnacious statements.  He sounds motivated to avenge that embarrassment and has showcased the best tennis of his career when he has been most motivated.

Why Verdasco might win:  Although he may have lost those five straight clashes with Djokovic, the Spanish #2 threatened him in four of them and will know that openings will emerge.  Outside Nadal, he’s been distinctly the best player of the clay season so far, scoring wins over Berdych, Gulbis, Ferrer, and Soderling as well as Djokovic.  Only an elite player at the height of his powers could overcome the diverse playing styles of those opponents in such a short period.   Supporting claims of a strengthened mentality, Verdasco has performed with aplomb at crucial moments over the past few weeks.  Shot for shot, he can equal Djokovic’s power and currently possesses more confidence in his game than does the Serb, who has long been tampering with his service motion.  If he can seize the momentum early, Novak might lose self-belief and wander out of focus…and out of the tournament.

Li vs. Stosur (7):

Why Stosur should win:  Simply put, she’s been doing a lot of winning lately, whether on the green clay of Charleston or for the Australian national team in Fed Cup.  One might imagine that her serve-oriented game would not translate well to clay, but in fact she ignited her breakthrough last year by reaching the French Open semifinal; some analysts believe that her high-kicking second serve suits this surface better than the others.  Far from a conventional clay court, the Stuttgart surface has been playing much like the indoor hard court formerly chosen by the tournament.  (Did they just paint it red and call it clay?)  Consequently, Stosur should be able to hold serve more comfortably than Li, which in turn should allow her to take chances and be aggressive in her return games–the pattern that has succeeded so regularly for her during this recent winning streak. 

Why Li might win:  Rather like Verdasco, Stosur may be rather fatigued after winning her most recent tournament and a trip to Ukraine for the Fed Cup playoff.  Hinting at a slight decline in her form, she struggled early against the respectably but not eye-poppingly talented Alexandra Dulgheru.  More importantly, Li showcases a far better backhand than does the Australian and will win most of the backhand-to-backhand exchanges.  Unless Stosur can take control of the points early and run around her backhand to hit swarms of forehands, she’ll be in trouble against the symmetrical groundstroke game of the Chinese star.  When Li is at her best, moreover, she can topple anyone on any surface; her straight-sets win over defending champion Kuznetsova recalled the form with which she reached the semifinals in Melbourne.

Henin (W) vs. Jankovic (4)

Why Henin should win:  Thoroughly dominant on the clay during her “first career,” the four-time French Open champion holds a 9-0 career record against Jankovic.  Mentally more tenacious than Jelena, Justine has rallied from a one-set deficit against her three times, so she’ll remain confident if any early adversity should arise.  They played an astounding seven times in the single season of 2007 , including three times on clay, and Henin has won the last ten sets.  (Dept. of Odd Statistics:  she was responsible for over a quarter of Jankovic’s total losses that year.)  In her comeback so far, she has suffered only one loss to a non-Slam champion (Dulko at Indian Wells) while reaching at least the semis in three of four tournaments.  Although Jankovic has lost just eight games during her first four sets this week, she is struggling with a left wrist injury that undermines her principal weapon; just as the Belgian  owns the most beautiful one-hander in the WTA, the Serb owns one of the loveliest two-handers. 

Why Jankovic might win:  The smiling Serb may be coping with a wrist injury, but Henin will need to overcome a broken finger, albeit on her left and much less significant hand.  As one would expect from an offensive-oriented player early in a comeback, she has struggled with extended stretches of erratic play when her shot-making radar temporarily loses its range.  Jankovic’s consistency will not let the Belgian easily escape from donated points and games.  While Henin has struggled with her modified service motion thus far, the Serb’s delivery has improved since the seven reverses of 2007.  She’ll never have a better chance to break the Curse of Carlos, before Henin fully hones the ultra-aggressive style with which she has entered her “second career.”

After losing to Henin for the ninth time, Jankovic quipped that no player ever vanquishes her ten times in a row.  When the petite Belgian retired in May 2008, the Serb looked safe from the threat of proving her words.  Will she prove them now? 

***

Having started and ended our text with the Serbs, we’ll start and end the article with images of them as well.  Djokovic finds himself in a rather enviable position here…

…and in an even more enviable position here…

…and in a less comfortable but still enviable position here:

Enjoy the quarterfinals!

Sporting a suitably Visigothic coiffure, Ernests Gulbis swept down from the north and sacked the Rome draw by conquering Federer on Tuesday.  As the rest of the second round unfolded, fellow Visigoths such as Giraldo, Wawrinka, and Lopez plundered the palaces of patricians like Ferrero, Berdych, and Cilic; in fact, only half of the tournament’s sixteen seeds survived into Thursday.  We’ll preview the unpredictable matchups that have developed here, starting with the Latvian who spearheaded the assault of the underdogs.

Gulbis vs. Volandri (W):  Confronting the most recent Federer-killer is a Federer-killer from the past, who dethroned him here in 2007.  Since that career highlight, however, Volandri has accomplished little of significance, while Gulbis finally looks determined to unlock at least some of his immense potential.  Only two factors could hinder Ernests:  the post-Federer hangover and the Italian crowd.  In the past, he has struggled to capitalize upon triumphs over top players and lost immediately after defeating Djokovic in Brisbane last year.  However, the crowd will not be a factor unless the match stays tight, an unlikely scenario because the Italian has few weapons with which to counter the massive blows from Gulbis, named after Ernest Hemingway.  The bell tolls for Volandri.  Pick:  Gulbis.

Ljubicic (11) vs. Lopez:  Credit the Croat for refusing to rest on his laurels after winning the Indian Wells title.  His victory over dirt devil Nicolas Almagro bodes well for his chances over the upcoming weeks, but he shouldn’t underestimate the challenge posed by yet another left-handed Spaniard.  a 4-2 record against Ljubicic, Lopez consistently has troubled Ivan and won their only clay meeting.  Rebounding after losing a lopsided first set to Cilic, the Spaniard rose to the occasion late in the match and closed it out impressively.  Neither player enjoys the consistency necessary to grind from the baseline, so whoever serves more effectively and takes command early in the rallies will prevail.  Recently, few players have served better than Ljubicic.  Pick:  Ljubicic.

Nadal (3) vs. Hanescu:  The feat of clay vs. the feet of clay.  The Romanian startlingly won a set from Federer at Indian Wells, but it’s hard to imagine him making an impact against a player who will ruthlessly expose his abysmal movement.  Pick:  Nadal.

Wawrinka vs. Soderling (5):  You’ll want to leave the stadium to witness this potentially spectacular battle over on Pietrangeli.  Ever demanding on dirt, Wawrinka ambushed the resurgent Berdych in an epic secound-round encounter.  His resilience will test the Swede’s shotmaking prowess, which has been on scintillating display since Rotterdam on February.  While the relatively slow surface will aid the best Swiss player still in the singles, Djokovic found ways to hit through him rather comfortably in Monte Carlo.  Also, Soderling constructs points more carefully now than in the past and rarely succumbs to the impatient recklessness that once undermined him against ball-retrievers like Wawrinka.  Pick:  Soderling.

Tsonga (7) vs. Giraldo (Q) This match resembles a duel between a battleship and a tugboat.  Although Tsonga did suffer a DeBakkle in Barcelona, he smothered Troicki rather efficiently and should enjoy another routine victory unless his groundstrokes desert him entirely. Check out the Colombian’s crisp two-handed backhand if you find the opportunity, however; you might see more of it in the future.  Pick:  Tsonga.

Ferrer (13) vs. Murray (4):  This match is the only contest of the day between two seeded players, and it should vie with the Wawrinka-Soderling duel for the most compelling entertainment.  Halting an brutal three-match losing streak with an opening win over Seppi, the fourth seed is seeking to regain confidence before the annual crusade at the All England Club.  Never at ease on this surface, he lost to the clay specialist Juan Monaco here last year and must serve impressively in order to overcome Ferrer.  On a hot streak since Miami, the indefatigable Spaniard relishes the dirt as much as anyone.  If Ferrer can work his way into rallies and wage a war of attrition, he’ll have a strong chance to pull off the upset.  Pick:  Ferrer.

Verdasco (6) vs. Garcia-Lopez:  Reaching the Monte Carlo final and snatching the Barcelona title from Soderling, Verdasco hasn’t lost on clay this year to anyone not named Nadal.  Despite a solid win over Hewitt in the previous round, Garcia-Lopez lacks the ability to pull off a convincing Rafa impersonation.  Pick:  Verdasco.

Bellucci vs. Djokovic (2):  The 2008 champion and 2009 runner-up may be rather relieved to have been spared the ordeal of taming Isner’s serve.  Steadily progressing during the last several months, the Brazilian lefty might create some engaging rallies and showcased an intelligent all-court game during his first two rounds.  Nevertheless, he lacks both the consistency and the experience to discomfit Djokovic if the Serb’s serve proves even modestly effective.  Pick:  Djokovic.

***

Most of the Stuttgart matches tomorrow seem rather predictable, but the all-Belgian clash between Henin and Wickmayer stands as an exception.  Although Henin won their three-set meeting in Melbourne this year, Wickmayer demonstrated not only her sturdy technique and judicious shot selection but a degree of self-belief impressive for her age.  After winning Auckland and playing the Australian Open qualifying, she faded physically late in that match; now, the younger Belgian has the physical advantage as a result of Henin’s injured finger.  One has to favor the four-time French Open champion to ultimately prevail, yet we expect to see a fiercely competitive encounter contested at a consistently high level. 

We’ll be back with a joint preview of the quarterfinals in both Rome and Stuttgart.  Enjoy the round of 16!

Before discussing the volatile vixen above and her imposing task tomorrow, we wanted to share our thoughts from the scintillating clash between Radwanska and the second half of our pseudonym.  Contested at a far higher level than their Miami meeting, this match demonstrated the progress that both players have accomplished over the last few months. 

No longer constantly catching her ball toss, Ana established the most reliable service rhythm that she has enjoyed since last year’s Wimbledon and rarely struggled with the shot on crucial points.  Moreover, she consistently showcased a forehand that, while less formidable than two years ago, is steadily climbing back towards its former self.  We also noticed that she was constructing points with amplified purpose and conviction for much of the match until her confidence sagged near the end.  Probably resulting from her collaboration with coach Heinz Gunthardt, these technical improvements were essential preludes to the challenge of rebuilding her self-belief.  In addition to recovering this strength, she must conquer her habit of alternating inspired periods with erratic lapses.  Ana and Heinz can address both of these issues by increasing her match play now that injuries no longer seem such a serious concern.

Across the net from Ivanovic, Radwanska likewise demonstrated significant improvements since the last occasion on which we saw her.  Much maligned by commentators including ourselves, her serve no longer looked a liability; she placed the shot with impressive precision and variety that more than compensated for its modest speed.  (We’ve mentioned before that accuracy usually trumps sheer pace on a serve, except in extreme cases such as the Williams sisters, and Radwanska eloquently testified on her behalf today.)  Just as importantly, the Pole didn’t hesitate when she had the opportunity to seize control of a point, producing a masterful display of controlled aggression.  If she can develop these offensive skills while retaining her defensive brilliance (not as easy as it sounds), she might surpass the expectations that we outlined in our profile on her several weeks ago. 

Meanwhile, we were initially planning to split this post between Rome and Stuttgart, but a glance at the Porsche event’s order of play convinced us to focus our attention there for now and return to the Foro Italico for a Federer-less (gasp) final 16.  On Wednesday there, Soderling, Nadal, Verdasco, Ferrer, and Tsonga should progress with minimal tension, while Isner, Ljubicic, Berdych, and Cilic might be in trouble.  But the main drama should occur north of the Alps, where four matches could produce outcomes unfavorable to their seeded participants.  We’ll preview those four confrontations, outlining reasons why upsets might or might not happen in each instance:

Jankovic (4) vs. Dulko:

Why an upset might happen:  Dulko has established a reputation for flustering the most formidable names in the WTA, ranging from Henin to Sharapova, and defeated Jankovic on the North American hard courts last year.  Although JJ is one of the best women on this surface, she won’t enjoy an enormous advantage in that department over a player who grew up on the grit in Argentina.  Also in the equation is a swollen wrist that hampered Jankovic in Charleston and Fed Cup, especially concerning her backhand; if she loses that weapon, she’s vulnerable to anyone.

Why it might not: The courts in Stuttgart are playing relatively fast for clay, which will allow Jankovic to exploit her more powerful game.  Relying mostly on consistency and movement, Dulko has few weapons with which to intimidate opponents.  And this part of the season historically has been kind to the Serb, a two-time titlist in the Rome event that will be held next week.

Azarenka (6) vs. Pennetta:

Why an upset might happen:  Scoring two Fed Cup singles wins (including the clincher) over the weekend, Pennetta brings momentum into this first-round encounter.  Moreover, the Italian seized the Andalusia title with a tenacious performance against Suarez Navarro in the final.  After a strong start in Sydney, Melbourne, and Dubai, Azarenka faded markedly in Indian Wells and Miami, where her seething emotions once again bubbled forth at the wrong moments.  Consecutive retirements in Andalusia and Charleston sprang from a hamstring injury that reportedly has healed, but you never know until a player steps onto the court.

Why it might not:  Although Pennetta brings momentum from Fed Cup, she might not bring mental freshness; her wins there were a little more arduous than one might expect.  Before the clay season began, she had struggled in most of the important events this year, including early exits in Indian Wells and Miami.  Surprisingly sharp on clay, Azarenka was drubbing overmatched opponents in Andalucia before her tournament ended prematurely with the injury.  There are few eccentricities in Pennetta’s baseline-rooted game that could disrupt her rhythm as did the quirky Martinez Sanchez in Indian Wells.

Kuznetsova (3) vs. Li:

Why an upset might happen:  They collided here last year in the identical round, when Kuznetsova rallied from a one-set deficit to barely edge the Chinese star 7-5 in the third.  Li has defeated the Russian on two of the grandest stages in the sport, Wimbledon and the Olympics, so she’ll enter the match with the self-belief necessary to pull off a win.  Despite her high-risk style, she nearly reached the quarterfinals at Roland Garros last year.  Ignominiously falling to foes such as Regina Kulikova and Suarez Navarro, Kuznetsova failed to reach the quarters in her first five tournaments of 2010.

Why it might not:  Beyond the two losses at Wimbledon and the Olympics, Kuznetsova has defeated Li on six other occasions and will have the advantage on surface.  After a sensational Australian Open breakthrough, the Chinese firebrand has fizzled even more dramatically than Kuznetsova since then, snapping a four-match losing streak against a weary Errani in the first round here.  She may be perfectly solid on clay, but her opponent is the best WTA player on the dirt outside Henin.

Wickmayer (8) vs. Schiavone:

Why an upset might happen:  Like Pennetta, Schiavone brings a heaping helping of momentum into the week following her third career title in Barcelona and a Fed Cup blitz of Safarova.  Rapidly maturing into an all-court player, Wickmayer currently lacks the Italian veteran’s magnificent skills on this surface, where her crafty style has often outshone more powerful opponents.  She waffled a little (haha) in scoring two Fed Cup wins this week over a pair of Estonians well below her level.

Why it might not:  Schiavone relishes youthful opponents who lack the maturity to cope with her cunning style, but she may find this up-and-comer a bit more difficult to unnerve.  Seasoned in overcoming adversity throughout her life (ask me for details if you’re interested), the Belgian possesses an ideal mixture of competitiveness and composure to succeed at the highest level of this sport.  Mentally, she’s far more advanced than several of her peers upon whom more ink has been spilled. 

***

After reading those last remarks, a blazing-eyed Vika is started to march towards us, brandishing a racket with malicious intent.  We’d better escape while we can.  😉  Enjoy the Stuttgart matches, and see you back in Rome for Thursday!

The cliche says that a girl’s best friends are diamonds, but the entry list for the Porsche event in Stuttgart suggests that WTA stars must be very good friends with splashy sports cars as well.  Even after the withdrawals of Venus and Clijsters, the 30-player field is saturated with talent to the extent normally associated with the Sydney tournament just before the Australian Open.  There are a few possibly significant x-factors involved, ranging from Wozniacki’s ankle and Azarenka’s hamstring to Kuznetsova’s shoulder and Henin’s finger.  For the purposes of this preview, we’re going to assume that all of these scratches and dents haven’t led to major engine damage.  If you start hearing ominous sputtering sounds, though, run for cover before the draw explodes in your face.  😉

Top half:  After a pleasant sojourn in Paris, Azarenka will have to put the pedal to the metal immediately in order to survive Pennetta, who hopes to capitalize on a modestmomentum boost after a sturdy performance in the Fed Cup semifinals.  The winner of this match should enjoy a brief respite in the second round before colliding with Wozniacki.  While the Dane won 16 of her last 18 matches before her unsightly tumble in Charleston, the Minx from Minsk and the Coquette from Calabria recently have occupied a spectrum extending from the pedestrian to the dismal.  That said, Azarenka thumped her friend and rival in Rome last year and has adapted her power-based game to the surface with surprising ease.  She’s compiled a stronger resume on red clay than has the world #2, despite Wozniacki’s superior mental tenacity and defensive abilities.

Crashing the party with a wildcard, Stosur must be a rather unwelcome guest considering her sensational form since Indian Wells and Miami, where she lost to both eventual champions (Jankovic and Clijsters).  Although the ever-dangerous Li lurks in the neighborhood and has defeated third-seeded Kuznetsova in the past, the Chinese star has accomplished almost nothing since her Australian Open breakthrough.  A semifinalist in Miami, Bartoli doesn’t relish the surface of her country’s Slam, which provides a poor showcase for her quick-strike style.  If we do see the Russian and the Aussie in the quarters, expect a highly suspenseful contest in which Sveta’s superb athleticism on clay will edge her past Stosur’s serving barrage.

Semifinal:  Kuznetsova d. Azarenka.  The defending French Open champion found her groove at precisely this moment last year and plays with more conviction on the red dirt than anywhere else.  She leads the head-to-head 4-1, including two straight-set clay wins; Azarenka’s only victory occurred during the best fortnight of her career so far, last year in Miami.

Bottom half:  “One Belgian woman has her name printed in bold / But the other Belgian is worth her weight in gold.”  (We’re so funny.)  Wickmayer and Henin could meet in the second round, although we suspect that the surging Schiavone will intercept Yanina and even might test Justine, whom she has defeated in the past.  At the base of the third quarter lies the almost invariably injured or ill Jankovic, whose consecutive losses to Hantuchova in Charleston and Fed Cup support her claims that a swollen wrist has significantly hampered her play.  If she escapes Dulko in her opener, not a certainty, she won’t escape a diminutive dynamo who owns a 9-0 head-to-head record against her.

When Ivanovic dares to open her eyes and look over her shoulder, she’ll find both good news and bad news:  the 2008 Roland Garros champion has landed in the weakest quarter of the draw but adjacent to the most dangerous player in that section, Radwanska.  Despite falling to the Pole in her previous match at Miami, she nearly defeated her on clay in Madrid last year and will have a chance to score what could be a momentum-turning victory.  It’s a win-win situation for her because a loss wouldn’t be embarrassing, so she should be able to relax and swing freely.  Since the second-seeded Safina will be eager but rusty, we expect the winner of this first-round clash to reach the semis; a finalist here last year, Dinara might even fall to Ana’s doubles partner Petkovic in her first match. 

Semifinal:  Henin d. Radwanska.  We’re surprised that Radwanska hasn’t enjoyed more success on clay, which theoretically should suit her high-consistency, low-risk style.  As explored in our player profile on her, she struggles with self-belief against the WTA superstars, and must address that flaw before she can regularly threaten competitors of Henin’s willpower and experience.

Final:  Kuznetsova d. Henin.  Although Henin will be favored to recapture her Roland Garros laurels, she may require a tournament or two to fit the patience required by clay into the matrix of her augmented aggression.  More than any of her peers, Kuznetsova possesses both the offensive and defensive tools to overcome the four-time French Open champion on her favorite surface when she’s a shade below her best.  Such occasions are few indeed, of course, but the Russian has defeated the Belgian on clay before and knows that it can be done.

***

Who will collect a new mode of conveyance for the journey through the Alps and Apennines down to Rome next weekend?  Enjoy the first foray of the WTA onto European clay this decade!

After enjoying one of the smoothest imaginable draws in Monte Carlo, Nadal now must tackle one of the most difficult paths imaginable in order to capture his fifth Rome title, which would tie him with Agassi for the Masters 1000 record.  Just to reach the final, he likely will be forced to overcome Soderling and Federer, the two players who defeated him on his favorite surface last year.  Should he secure this tournament, however, the victory would resonate throughout the tennis world even more powerfully than did  the Monte Carlo triumph, which carried a slight asterisk considering the number of marquee absences.  There will be no asterisk this week.  Can the Mallorcan bull trample the most skilled matadors in the ATP?  Quarter-by-quarter preview straight ahead!

First quarter:  We’d almost forgotten about Federer, who has played just five total matches since the Australian Open while recovering from a lung infection.  He’ll need to set his clay-court wheels in motion immediately against either Gulbis or his recent conquerer Baghdatis, but his ease on the grit should see him through to the quarters rather comfortably.  On the other side, we wouldn’t be surprised to see the flamboyant Almagro inflict some damage on two Croats who would prefer to play on any other surface, perhaps even the moon.  A third-round clash between Cilic and Ljubicic would intriguingly sketch the past and the present of Croatian tennis.  (Or is it the present and the future, judging from their recent results?)  We wouldn’t be surprised to see Almagro spoil their rendezvous, though; his clay expertise could carry him all the way to the quarters…but no further.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Second quarter:  How odd is it to see Nadal’s name embedded unobtrusively in the center of a draw rather than looming over the top or anchoring the bottom?  Rafa will want to conserve energy in his first two rounds, perhaps against Kohlschreiber and Andreev, before the thunderbolts start descending from a familiar Swedish mountaintop.  It’s not a certainty that Soderling will reach the quarters, since either Berdych or Wawrinka will strive to intercept him.  Yet the Swede has a distinct edge in the ball-bruising contest that would unfold against either the Czech or the Swiss, and last week in Barcelona he showed no lingering complications from a knee injury.  Over the past year, Soderling’s game has become increasingly bullet-proof, but will it be bull-proof again?   Look for the extra-slow surface to aid Nadal more than his memories hamper him. 

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Third quarter:  We’re quite confident that the champion won’t emerge from this nondescript neighborhood.  Neither Tsonga nor Murray can be expected to reach their projected collision on Friday, considering their shared discomfort on clay.  If Murray doesn’t suffer a fourth consecutive loss in his opener, Ferrer probably will halt his winning streak at one in the third round.  Meanwhile, the age-defying Ferrero should repeat his upset of Tsonga from Monte Carlo, considering that the surface generally plays even more slowly here.  That fact will aid Ferrer’s counterpunching game in an all-Spanish quarterfinal that should offer a clay-court clinic par excellence.  Only one of the eight Ferrer-Ferrero duels has concluded in straight sets, so expect a gritty, grueling war of attrition built upon marathon rallies and superb court coverage.  And expect the diminutive David to ultimately grunt and grit his way past a stylish but not overwhelmingly powerful opponent.

Semifinalist:  Ferrer

Fourth quarter:  Riding the momentum of his Barcelona title, Verdasco has little to fear from his first two opponents, since he’s far more comfortable on this surface than potential foes such as Hewitt or Youzhny.  On the other side, Djokovic should comfortably dispatch the still-unreliable Chardy en route to a scintillating third-round encounter with Isner, who threatened him much more than one would have expected during the Davis Cup tie in Belgrade.  If the Serb’s serve wobbles as precariously as it has in recent weeks, this match could produce some nervous moments for his fans, but the American doesn’t seem quite ready to topple a top seed.  Consequently, we expect the two bookends of this quarter to reprise their semifinal meeting in Monte Carlo, captured resoundingly by the Spaniard.  He’ll have won 12 of his last 13 matches at that stage (with the one loss against Nadal), so he’ll have the confidence edge in this battle of fragile psyches.

Semifinalist:  Verdasco

Semifinals:  Nadal d. Federer, Verdasco d. Ferrer.  Rafa has much more to prove at this stage than does Roger, who has vanquished him on dirt only at Hamburg and Madrid–the least sluggish of all clay courts.  Although Ferrer can trouble Verdasco in his less consistent patches, the stronger Spaniard has been connecting with his best shots at timely moments lately.

Final:  Nadal d. Verdasco.  When there’s an 10-0 head-to-head between two players, you have to stick with the winner until the loser proves you wrong.

***

We’ll be back tomorrow with a preview of the WTA Stuttgart draw, which features stunning first rounds such as Azarenka-Pennetta, Bartoli-Stosur, Wickmayer-Schiavone, and Radwanska-Ivanovic.

One might have thought that Henin’s broken finger would have given Team Estonia some hope, for they’ll be confronting a Belgian team without the seven-time Grand Slam champion as its #2 singles player.  But 13th-ranked Yanina Wickmayer (pictured above) represents the insurance policy of anyone’s dreams; the Belgian cup runneth over indeed.  Although that tie is virtually a foregone conclusion, some of the others are not; we’ll preview the World Group semifinal and World Group playoff ties straight ahead:

USA-Russia:  One might imagine that Russia would prevail comfortably in the absence of both Williams sisters, but the crafty  Shamil Tarpischev enters the weekend with a sadly depleted squad of Dementieva, Makarova, and Kudryavtseva.  Since Dementieva is the only top-30 player on either team, one can expect her to win both of her matches.  (Despite Oudin’s win over her at the US Open last year, Dementieva reversed that upset at the Paris Indoors this February and boasts an outstanding 20-5 record in Fed Cup, including wins over Clijsters and Mauresmo.)  Therefore, Team USA’s task will be to win the remaining three matches, which is a less imposing task than it sounds on paper.  Oudin should be able to defeat Kudryavtseva on Saturday, and the Americans have a distinct advantage in the doubles with world #1 Liezel Huber, so the decisive moment in this tie becomes the fourth singles rubber.  This match is scheduled to pit Mattek against Kudryavtseva, offering both of these relatively anonymous players a rare opportunity to play the heroine.  It’s almost impossible to discern how such a match would develop, and one might favor the veteran with the home-court advantage over the emotionally volatile Fed Cup novice.  On the other hand, Tarpischev has an uncanny knack for extracting excellence from unexpected sources at crucial moments.  Pick:  Russia, 60-40.

Italy-Czech Republic:  Like the Americans, the Italians possess the comfort blanket of a nearly guaranteed doubles win in the fifth rubber should they need it; the team of Errani and Vinci has lost a total of zero Fed Cup matches.  But it’s unlikely that the defending champions will need it, for they possess almost every imaginable advantage over the visitors, from the surface to mental strength to experience to recent form.  Regrouping from a dismal North American campaign, Pennetta won the Marbella title two weeks ago, while Schiavone emphatically seized her third career title in Barcelona last weekend.  Dangerous but streaky shotmakers, neither Safarova nor Hradecka can maintain the consistency necessary to outlast the tenacious Italians on clay in front of a raucous Roman audience.  If all players perform to their potential, the Italian team should win the first three rubbers rather routinely and book their tickets to either the U.S. or Russia for the November final.  Pick:  Italy, 80-20.

Belgium-Estonia In order to reach Belgium, the Estonian team took a ferry to Stockholm before driving the remaining distance (nearly 1,000 miles) through Sweden, Denmark, and Germany.  Unless Henin’s broken finger proves contagious, Kanepi & Co. will retrace their steps empty-handed.  Pick:  Belgium, 90-10.

Ukraine-Australia:  Fresh off her the biggest title of her career in Charleston, Stosur aims to collect all three wins that Australia will need to reclaim a position in the World Group.  Expect her to partner Stubbs in the doubles if necessary, but the comeback artist Alicia Molik can render that match irrelevant with a win over Koryttseva in the reverse singles.  With K-Bond absent and A-Bond slumping, the Ukrainians have few weapons that can threaten the Aussies.  Pick:  Australia, 75-25.

Germany-France:  This matchup might be the least predictable and most compelling (in a wacky way) among all of the weekend’s ties.  A Lisicki-less Germany seeks leadership from Petkovic–who should rise to the occasion–yet also needs support from Tatiana Malek and Julia Goerges–who might not.  We’re still trying to deduce why the Germans chose clay for the surface, which will blunt Petkovic’s blows without severely hindering the opposition.  Across the net stands Fed Cup enigma France, which generally displays the level of sturdiness associated with a ripe Camembert.  Behind a slumping, eccentric firecracker making her Fed Cup debut (Rezai), captain Nicolas Escude has mustered a player who has lost all eight of her Fed Cup matches (Cornet) and a player who has fallen in the qualifying rounds of five tournaments already this year (Pauline Parmentier).  Julie Coin actually might be the emotional anchor of this bateau.  A recipe for intrigue?  Definitely.  A recipe for victory?  Perhaps…or perhaps not.  Pick:  [Insert your country of choice here]. (In other words, we simply don’t know.)

Serbia-Slovakia:  Which absentee will be more sorely missed, Slovakia’s Cibulkova (groin injury) or Serbia’s Ivanovic, who wisely chose not to revisit the scene of February’s humiliation against Russia?  Although Cibulkova has been the better player of the two, the visitors enjoy substantially more depth and call upon the still-raw but certainly capable Magdalena Rybarikova., whereas the home team must lean almost entirely upon Jankovic to secure three wins.  Hampered by a sore wrist, the Indian Wells champion recently lost in Charleston to Hantuchova, whom she’ll encounter again in Belgrade.  Against Russia, she won both of her singles matches but proved unable to compensate for a lackluster partner (sorry, Ana!) in the doubles.  Even if the wrist pain allows her to participate, it’s reasonable to suspect that the same scenario might unfold here.  Pick: Slovakia, 65-35.

***

We’ll close this preview with a pair of relatively modest suggestions that might improve this sagging team competition for both spectators and participants.  First, reschedule the doubles match to the third rubber, as in Davis Cup; its current position as the final rubber renders it either utterly irrelevant (when the four singles are not split) or excessively important (all the eggs are in its basket).  By contrast, the third position would assure it neither too little nor too much significance as a potential swing match in the center of the weekend but not at its climax.  The second suggestion also stands for Davis Cup, which shares with Fed Cup a draw system that positions the two #1s in the first reverse singles and the two #2s in the second reverse singles.  Does it seem logical that the closest ties should be decided by the second-in-commands on both teams?  (This structure may in part be responsible for the bizarre sequences of events that so often define both competitions.)  If you’re an unbiased spectator looking for drama, would you want to see a 2-2 deadlock climax with Jovanovski-Rybarikova…or with Jankovic-Hantuchova?  If you’re a team captain or a national tennis federation representative, would you want Alla Kudryavtseva holding your flag with everything on the line…or Elena Dementieva? 

Or, better yet, of course…

Does anyone remember whom Maria defeated in her Fed Cup debut?  Hint:  she’s retired now.

We’ll be back shortly with an ATP Rome preview, unless everyone of consequence follows the example of Del Potro, Davydenko, Roddick, and Gonzalez.  The city has a splashy new stadium, but will anyone come play in it?  At any rate, we’ll keep your cup filled with tennis over the next few days!  🙂

First of all, thanks to my readers for your intriguing comments on my blog; it’s a pleasure to know what you’re thinking as you read these articles!  Feel free to chime in with your thoughts on the subject of our third player profile, the mercurial Russian Mikhail Youzhny.  A sporadic threat to the game’s elite, “Misha” hasn’t quite established himself as a perennial contender but has developed a stylish, engaging game as well as a charmingly quirky victory salute (see above).  As with our previous profiles, we’ll begin by recalling five key achievements and five key disappointments in his career before outlining three strengths and three areas for improvement.  At the close, the profile will briefly discuss what to expect from Youzhny during the latter stages of what has been a rollercoaster career.

Best of Five:  Achievements:

5)  2008 Australian Open:  Capitalizing on his title in China, Youzhny surged into the quarterfinals of the year’s first major on a medium-speed hard court that probably suits his game better than the surface at any other major.  Especially impressive was his dominant victory over Davydenko, since he never had defeated his higher-ranked compatriot and had long labored in the shadow of Safin as well as Kolya.  His loss to Tsonga in the quarters looked more than respectable in retrospect after the flamboyant Frenchman annihilated Nadal one round later.

4)  2009 Valencia:  After a season of erratic results and underachievement (see below), Youzhny enjoyed a stellar fall season that culminated in a finals appearance at this Mediterranean city.  En route to the Sunday title tilt with Murray, he demonstrated his stylistic versatility by ousting both Tsonga and Simon, two players with identical passports but almost antithetical games; few tools are lacking in an arsenal that can defuse the relentless aggression of one and the near-impenetrable defense of the other.  This torrid sequence of three finals in four tournaments vaulted him back into the top 20 and positioned him for a strong run early in 2010, momentum upon which he capitalized in Rotterdam and Dubai.

3)  2009 Kremlin Cup:  Just a few weeks before Valencia, Misha scored an emotional triumph at his home tournament with a comeback three-set win over Janko Tipsarevic.  Although this title awakened little attention outside the tennis world, one was impressed by his ability to rise to the occasion and deliver a stirring performance under the gaze of his compatriots, who always expect spectacular feats from their athletes. The injection of confidence here probably spurred Youzhny towards his success at the more prominent event  in Valencia, rekindling his competitive spark at a stage when his career seemed endangered after a series of injuries and early losses.  Casting a glance back at the moment, one can see how much it meant to him:

2)  2002 Davis Cup Final:  Two years before Sharapova, Myskina, Kuznetsova, and Dementieva burst onto the WTA stage with the fabled Russian Revolution, Youzhny led Tarpischev’s squad to the first Davis Cup title in Russian history, a portent of his nation’s future ascendancy throughout the decade.  In a competition typically rife with suspense and plot twists, he remains the only player to have rallied from a two-set deficit in the deciding rubber of the Davis Cup final.  Then just 20 years old, Misha demonstrated exceptional maturity and poise in completing this comeback against the admittedly fragile Paul-Henri Mathieu.  Since that moment, however, his poise has been a shade less than impeccable, as we explore below.

1)  2006 US Open:  His best performance at any major, this semifinal run included a straight-sets demolition of Robredo and a four-set quarterfinal triumph over Nadal, who has frequently struggled against the Russian.  After splitting the first two sets with Rafa, Youzhny edged the third set in a tiebreak before racing to the finish line in a lopsided fourth set.  Meanwhile, he defeated the then-top-ranked Bryan brothers in the doubles draw, so one can conclude that this US Open witnessed some of the most sparkling tennis of his career thus far.

Worst of Five:  Disappointments:

5)  2010 Dubai:  Against a tentative, slovenly Djokovic, Youzhny had an exceptional opportunity to win a title more significant than any of his former triumphs.  Despite the Serb’s 12 double faults and swarms of unforced errors, however, the Russian failed to produce his best tennis at the most important moments late in the third set, including a pair of squandered break points.  This loss looked even more disappointing considering his win over Djokovic in the Rotterdam tournament just before, where he had once again proven his ability to disconcert the ATP elite.

4)  2009 Davis Cup:  Falling to Israel in the first round, the Russian team of Andreev and Youzhny did little to justify its formidable reputation. accumulated in part from the 2002 championship that Misha had helped secure.  His stunning loss to Dudi Sela in the first day of singles prompted the disconsolate remark that his “luck fell away” after a strong first set.  Throughout the first half of last year, his luck indeed seemed to be in short supply as what was once a crisp, tightly organized game unraveled and stagnated.

3)  2009 Australian Open:  Youzhny won just seven games from Austrian journeyman Stefan Koubek during an ignnominious first-round loss in a tournament where he had burst into the quarterfinals during the previous year.  The high-bouncing, slightly slower courts in Melbourne should have allowed him to produce a far more imposing performance, but an upset at the hands of the world #183 signaled the inconsistency that has increased rather than decreased as his career has progressed. 

2)  2007 Wimbledon: After seizing a two-set lead over Nadal on the greatest stage of all, Youzhny proved unable to close out the match as a result of an indifferent third set and later back spasms, which allowed the Spaniard to regain control.  Since he had just defeated Nadal at the previous US Open, this loss suggested that he might struggle to maintain his form against the top players.  Had he found a way to win one more set, the draw would have opened up and possibly allowed him to reach the semis or even the final.  Instead, he stumbled rather awkwardly on the grass:

1)  2008 Miami:  Probably the most (in)famous Youtube clip in tennis that season, Youzhny’s self-destructive racket smash over his own head earned him the wrong sort of publicity.  Lost in that masochistic moment, however, was the fact that he had allowed a lopsided match not only to become competitive but to (almost) slip out of his grasp.  Although he eventually won in a third-set tiebreak over an understandably disconcerted Almagro, this event telegraphed the crucial flaw of mental frailty under pressure, which had not surfaced earlier in his career.

Best of Three:  Strengths

1)  Backhand:  Rare among the forehand-centric ATP, Youzhny produces stronger, more confident tennis from his backhand, a shot that comes in as many flavors as Nadal’s forehand or Henin’s backhand.  There’s the flat down-the-line bomb, the crosscourt topspin looper, the low, biting slice, the chipped return-of-serve, and even the occasional drop shot, almost all of which are executed to perfection.  Whereas the forehand side remains vulnerable to unforced errors under pressure, the backhand stays steady throughout the match and offers him infinite ways to open up the court, keeping opponents off balance.  If coaching a player before a match against Youzhny, we would advise him to target the Russian’s forehand.  Such a major tactical adjustment from the conventional hit-to-backhand logic, however, complicates an opponent’s mindset and thus further aids Misha’s cause.  Here’s a look at the follow-through after the high-octane version of this unorthodox but lovely shot:

2) Net play:  An experienced doubles player, Youzhny expertly sallies forward when an opportunity opens for him and can dispatch even the most challenging volleys with ease.  Unlike many of this era’s baseline sluggers, he doesn’t need to hit a near-winner on an approach shot in order to finish a point at the net.  His deft hands, swift reflexes, and excellent footwork thwart all but the best-placed passing shots and force opponents out of the “two-pass” model often witnessed today.  The main idea of this tactic, performed most artfully by Murray, is to hit a dipping but relatively safe pass on the first opportunity, induce a clumsy volley that pops up and sits in the middle of the court, and then put away a routine winner past the frozen net player.  If you don’t pass Youzhny immediately, though, he likely will execute a volley difficult to retrieve that will set up a weak second pass and an easier second volley.  Opponents thus should use the one-pass model against him, yet it increases the risk of unforced errors.  In this glimpse of his textbook technique on the backhand volley, note his balanced body weight, well-planted feet, forward momentum, natural arm motion, and crisp focus:

3)  Point construction / shot selection:  Except when he’s under extreme pressure, Youzhny displays a superb tennis IQ and instinctively knows how best to discomfit his opponent at any given moment.  As demonstrated by his multifaceted backhand, the versatility and consistency of his game allows him to construct points in which he gradually probes his foe’s weaknesses, pushes them back, and opens up angles, rather than going immediately for a seismic blow.  Watching him develop a rally like a chess grandmaster, one sometimes feels that nothing is really happening because neither player seems to have clearly seized the upper hand.  Then, he’ll abruptly wrong-foot the opponent and clean a line with a pinpoint backhand, or creep slowly forward towards the net and catch his opponent unprepared to hit a pass.  This subtlety and nuance may wear him down physically more than stronger players (in fact, he has endured more than the average number of injuries), but it gives him more options when he’s not at his best.  Moreover, it’s easier to play oneself into a rhythm in this fluid style of play than in the “bang-bang, bye-bye” style of the most savage sluggers, so he should be more able to work his way out of rough patches during the course of a match.

Worst of Three:  Flaws

1)  Response to pressure:  Youzhny’s mental fragility emerged during the 2007 Davis Cup final against the American team, during which he played Blake in the second rubber.  After losing the first two sets, he rebounded to take the third set, force the fourth set to a tiebreak, and capture a mini-break lead there.  At that  stage, this viewer recalled his miraculous comeback from a two-set deficit in the 2002 Davis Cup final and sensed that history might repeat itself.  But the Russian then donated a rare unforced error on his backhand to surrender the mini-break, dumped a passive drop shot in the net, and meekly handed back the initiative to Blake, who closed out the tiebreak rather handily.   In the 2010 Dubai final against Djokovic, Youzhny crumbled at a critical point in the opposite fashion.  Rallying after losing the first set to force a decider, he held the upper hand for most of the third set until he earned two break points on Djokovic’s serve in the seventh game.  Instead of patiently constructing the rallies in his usual manner, he stepped out of his comfort zone by unleashing two reckless, errant forehands; the Serb capitalized on the reprieve to hold serve and soon closed out the final.  Juxtaposing these two performances, one realizes that Youzhny hasn’t discovered a balanced response to the pressure that he encounters in important matches.  Either the Russian’s overly conservative play allows his opponent to catch his breath and seize the initiative, or his premature aggression rushes himself out of the opportunity.  And then there are the Safin-esque histrionics, which only underscore his pscyhological insecurity:

2)  Holding serve:  Unlike most top players, Youzhny rarely yawns through comfortable service games, partly as a result of his relatively unimposing serve and partly because he lacks an overpowering weapon with which to instantly end a point as soon as he gains control of it.  Consequently, he’s among the easiest players to break in the top 20 and often must rely upon his sturdy return game to compensate.  Sometimes, however, it’s not quite enough, as was demonstrated by a straight-sets loss to Soderling in Miami this year that featured no fewer than nine breaks of serve in seventeen total games; impressively breaking the Swede three times in two sets, Youzhny should have been able to force a third set or at least a tiebreak.  On other occasions, his adventurous service games don’t cost him a match but do cost him significant physical and emotional energy.  During the final set of his first-round match against Gasquet at this year’s Australian Open, he repeatedly failed to consolidate a break advantage and traded breaks with the Frenchman all the way to a nerve-jangling conclusion.  If Gasquet hadn’t served second, it’s hard to know what might have happened; one of the ATP’s elite, by contrast, probably would have grabbed the momentum after the first break and closed out the match with minimal ado.  The method to Youzhny’s madness is more entertaining but also more exhausting.

3)  Winning matches that he should win:  How many players have scored multiple wins over Rafael Nadal and suffered multiple losses to Teimuraz Gabashvili?  Not many, we suspect.  The principal reason why we chose the title “Russian Roulette” for this article was because one never knows quite what to expect from Youzhny on any given day.  Over the last few years, he has not only defeated Nadal, Djokovic, Davydenko, and Soderling but has lost to Chiudinelli, Hernych, Zverev, Lapentti, Llodra, Benneteau, and Stakhovsky–not really a murderer’s row.  In order to establish himself as a consistent threat in the last few years of his career, he needs to avoid bizarre losses such as these in the early rounds of major events, which impede his efforts to consolidate momentum and build confidence.  One of the key differences between a good player and a great player is the ability to persevere and find a way to win over an unremarkable opponent even when they’re playing below their normal level and that opponent is playing above their normal level.  If he can address the first two points on this list, though, this issue might resolve itself naturally.

Recap and projection:

Already 27, Youzhny probably has most of his best tennis behind him, since his all-court game doesn’t age especially well in comparison with more serve-oriented (and more boring) styles.  He’ll probably reach the second week at Slams on a few more occasions, but another semifinal or a final probably are beyond his reach at this stage; we think that he’s better suited for a best-of-3 than a best-of-5 format.  At Masters events, we could see him reaching some quarters and semis if the draw proves accomodating, but he’ll probably never see a shield next to his name.  On the other hand, he’ll definitely be a contender at many of the slightly less intense 500-level events for the foreseeable future.  Moreover, Youzhny will pose a nuanced challenge to his higher-ranked peers on any occasion when his game reaches its scintillating best.  Even when he’s not playing a marquee name, however, it’s worth visiting the side courts to see one of the most explosive backhands and personalities in the ATP. 

***

Hope that you enjoyed this player profile!  🙂  We’ve already planned a highly entertaining topic for the fourth article in this series, which focuses on players who hover in the shadowy area between contender and pretender. 

It’s always a pleasure to contemplate Henin’s exquisite all-court game, especially on the surface where she has won four of her seven majors.  Although the petite Belgian hasn’t played on clay since Berlin 2008 and claims to be have recentered her game around grass, she’ll be one of the main focal points during the next several weeks.  Can she and Nadal reclaim their long-lived mastery of Roland Garros?  This question and four (actually, five!) others are addressed straight ahead.

1)  Will the king and queen be crowned again?  Despite Monte Carlo’s depleted field, we were highly impressed with the composed, merciless Rafa who systematically dismantled the draw.  To the dismay of his rivals, he appears to have recaptured the inner confidence that flickered throughout the past year.  Never was this fact more visible than in the final, a match that he couldn’t afford to lose (odd as it may sound); revealing no signs of pressure at all, he played with conviction and a determination not to allow Verdasco a ray of hope.  The post-injury Rafa hasn’t yet proven that he can defeat the likes of Federer, Del Potro, or Soderling, but the early omens are excellent.  

Unlike Nadal, Henin voluntarily abdicated her throne without a legitimate successor.  Watching Justine’s retooled style on the hard courts, we wondered whether her enhanced aggression would diminish her chances on a surface designed for longer points.  Against a battered WTA lacking in clay-court specialists, though, it’s hard to imagine more than a handful of players who could trouble her on it.  Safina will be rusty after a long absence, Kuznetsova is nursing a shoulder injury and has underwhelmed this year, Clijsters looked hapless in Marbella, Venus rarely makes an impact at Roland Garros, Jankovic hasn’t defeated Henin in nine attempts (think Verdasco-Nadal), Dementieva already has lost twice to her this year, and the Wozniacki-Azarenka generation still seems intimidated by the veterans.   Her greatest potential challenges might come from Serena and Sharapova, two players who have both the weapons and the self-belief to trouble her on any surface; however, neither of them can be expected to perform at their best until (at least) Wimbledon.  Who else is there?  We think that Henin is even more likely than Nadal to dazzle on the final weekend in Paris.

2)  Will injuries play more or less of a role on this surface?  The extended, grinding points played on clay test fitness more than do the staccato shootouts that so often develop on hard courts.  On the other hand, the softer surface will be gentler on sore joints and perhaps allow players such as Soderling or Del Potro to regain their rhythm with minimal aggravation.  We’ll be curious to observe the trends in withdrawals and retirements during the events in Rome and Madrid, where many of the recent absentees will be tentatively testing their repaired wheels.

3)  Will another Soderling find unexpected glory?  After winning one lone game against Nadal in Rome, the Swede abruptly scored The Greatest Upset Ever and has been soaring ever since.  (By the way, it’s curious how Nadal both won the Greatest Match Ever and was the victim in the Greatest Upset Ever.)  Less loudly, Stosur achieved a significant breakthrough with her semifinal run in Paris and likewise has capitalized on it to establish herself as a permanent threat.  We’ll keep our eyes on anyone who strings together a few surprises, aware that they might be a genuine contender in 2011.  At the moment, the WTA looks more open than the ATP to the rise of a dark horse; perhaps a name like Pennetta, Wickmayer, or Szavay will forge a path deep into the Paris draw. 

4)  How much will the clay specialists trouble the top seeds?  Quite a bit, if Monte Carlo is any judge.  It’s doubtful that Cilic loses to Montanes, Tsonga loses to Ferrero, or Berdych loses to Verdasco on a surface other than clay, while Ferrer won’t reach many Masters 1000 semifinals on a hard court.  Cilic did defeat clay-court warrior Andreev, and Tsonga outlasted dirt devil Almagro, but the draws ahead will be about more than just the boldfaced names; unexpected pitfalls and ambushes will spring from players who struggle to win consecutive matches for much of the season.  Since few of them are seeded, early rounds often will be more dramatic than the usual straight-set yawners. (This issue applies almost exclusively to the ATP, for clay-court specialists are rapidly plunging towards extinction in the WTA.  Standard hard-court tennis won the Charleston title for Stosur without the loss of a set.)

5)  How much will momentum from Indian Wells and Miami matter?  Maybe not so much in the case of ATP Miami champion Roddick, whose next major target will be Wimbledon.  Not so much either in the case of Indian Wells champion Ljubicic, whose title represented an overdue career highlight rather than a foundation for the future.  But it might matter for Jankovic, who was struggling mightily until her triumph in the desert and always has felt comfortable on the clay.  Another beneficiary could be Venus, who found a way to reach the Miami final despite playing far from her best; similar tenacity and determination would benefit her in Europe.  Following his run in Key Biscayne, Berdych played confident tennis and consistently displayed positive body language in Monte Carlo.  Could we be watching a permanently transformed Czech?  Of course, Soderling’s consecutive semifinals augur well for him, but he has demonstrated that he can beat, um, just about anyone at Roland Garros. 

There’s also the possible impact of negative psychological detritus, especially relevant in the cases of Federer, Djokovic, and Murray.  It’s unlikely that Federer will suffer from memories of Baghdatis and Berdych, since he rebounded brilliantly from early losses at these events in 2007.  In Monte Carlo, the Scot reminded us why he’s rarely a serious contender on clay, but he has many more issues at the moment than what’s under his feet, and most of his problems date from Australia.  After impressive wins over Wawrinka and Nalbandian, Djokovic regressed in a dismal loss against Verdasco.  He’s not anywhere near the level where he was at this stage last year, yet the clay suits his increasingly florid strokes and will be an ideal setting to rediscover his serving rhythm.

5+1)  Will matches be more competitive or more lopsided?  On clay, it’s significantly easier to break an opponent’s serve, since fewer points are won on that shot alone.  This distinctive feature could lead to one of two opposite outcomes.  On one hand, players will have more opportunities to rally from a deficit than on hard courts, where a set-and-break lead for a decent server usually makes us hit the snooze button until the next match.   On the other hand, a player who struggles with consistency or who is enduring a mediocre day won’t be able to rest secure in the knowledge that he can collect sufficient cheap points and easy holds to save himself from a humiliating scoreline.   It’ll be curious to see whether epics or routs more frequently develop in matches not involving the top seeds.

***

Mixing together all of these intriguing plotlines, we’re hoping for a clay season as delicious as Maria’s chocolate chip cookies!  🙂

Banishing an oddly listless Djokovic from the playground of princes, Verdasco reached his first career Masters 1000 final in impressive fashion.  He’ll need to produce a career highlight in order to overcome the intent Nadal, who increasingly resembles the four-time French Open champion long invincible on this surface.  Yet Rafa hasn’t won a title since Rome nearly a year ago, so this championship match represents a moment of truth for him in a sense.  The only player to whom he could respectably lose here was Djokovic; if he wavers against Verdasco, we’ll know that his much-coveted “calm” hasn’t yet returned and that he’s still a bit edgy in the crucial moments.  If he delivers another confident, suffocating performance, however, he could put himself in position for another blazing clay season.  We’ll take a look at the Monte Carlo final and a briefer look at the Charleston final:

Head-to-head:    The statistics are staggering.  Nadal not only leads the overall series 9-0 but has lost just 3 of 23 total sets and has won all nine sets that they’ve played on clay.  Only one occasion did the second-best Spanish lefty challenge Rafa:  their 2009 Australian Open semifinal, during which Verdasco came within six points of victory before falling just short.  Probably more relevant to this match, however, are their two clay quarterfinals last year in Rome and Madrid, both won in straight sets by Nadal. 

Recent form:  A little shaky at the start of 2010, Nadal steadily raised his level on the North American hard courts and has raced through the draw here without dropping a set.  (However, to be frank, his draw wouldn’t have been much friendlier had Uncle Toni personally designed it.)  Thumped by Berdych in Indian Wells, Verdasco scored an impressive win over Cilic in Miami before his breakthrough run here.  It’s worth noting that he has toppled more imposing opponents (including Berdych and Djokovic) than has Nadal, so his arrival here is no accident.

Two pieces of advice for Verdasco: 

1)  Relax.  All of the pressure in this match rests squarely on Nadal’s shoulders, for whom anything less than a win would be inexcusable.  Few would have expected Verdasco to reach this point, so he has nothing at all to prove on Sunday and can swing freely, knowing that he has overachieved here regardless of what happens.

2)  Sit on the power button.  As Soderling, Del Potro and to a lesser extent Djokovic have shown, the way to tackle Nadal is to bury him under a barrage of flat, deep baseline bombs.  Verdasco’s forehand-centric style differs from the symmetrical groundstroke game of those players, but he’ll want to take massive swings whenever possible.  Cleverness and subtlety play straight into Rafa’s hands.

Two pieces of advice for Nadal:

1)  Stay focused.  Mental lapses cost Rafa dearly at both of the first two Masters 1000 events this year; neither Ljubicic nor Roddick seemed to have a chance until the Spaniard handed one to them.  Although he might well recover from a donation or two against Verdasco (generally rather charitable himself), this habit needs to die a swift death before he settles into such a routine regularly.  This match offers an excellent opportunity for him to prove–not to us, but to himself and to his opponents–that he can maintain his intensity through an entire match against a top player.

2)  Pin Verdasco behind the baseline.  If this match turns into a war of attrition and stamina, Nadal will have a distinct edge, since he’s far more consistent and arguably more fit than his compatriot.  He doesn’t need to do anything extraordinary to win, just to make sure that Verdasco doesn’t do anything extraordinary.  The best means to pre-empt a flashy string of winners is to keep Fernando at a distance from which he can’t hit winners with margin and will become reckless in frustrated impatience.

Shot-by-shot breakdown:

Serve:  Verdasco

Return:  Nadal, slightly (although Verdasco is more aggressive, Nadal makes fewer errors on it, which better suits clay)

Forehand:  Nadal, slightly (Nadal’s greater versatility trumps Verdasco’s greater power on clay)

Backhand:  Nadal

Volleys:  Both

Movement:  Nadal

Mental:  Nadal

Pic(k):

***

Shifting back to Charleston across the volcanic plume, here’s a briefer preview of the final there between Zvonareva and Stosur:

Head-to-head:  Stosur has won their last four meetings, while Zvonareva hasn’t defeated her since 2004, but they’ve never played on clay.  Probably the only meaningful meeting occurred last month in Indian Wells, when the Australian halted Vera’s title defense in straight sets.  Injuries and illness have played significant roles in both of their careers, and it’s hard to recall which one was ailing at any given moment in their earlier matches.  Even when Stosur was the lower-ranked player, though, she enjoyed success against Zvonareva.

Recent form:  Dropping just 14 games in the entire tournament, Zvonareva should feel quite fresh following Wozniacki’s semifinal retirement.  In only one of her seven sets this week did the Russian lose more than two games, suggesting that she may be back on track after recent hard-court disappointments.  The event’s informal atmosphere suits her relaxed personality, enabling her to play without the pressure that so often cripples her at major tournaments.  Meanwhile, Stosur saved two set points and rallied impressively from a 2-5 deficit in the second set of her semifinal against Hantuchova, but she hasn’t lost a set this week either.  All three of her losses in Melbourne, Indian Wells, and Miami came against the eventual champions in those events, so a superb performance is required to navigate past her.  It’s clear that (bar injury) she’ll remain near the top of the women’s game for the foreseeable future.

Two pieces of advice for Stosur:

1)  Vary rhythm and pace.  A sturdy, consistent baseliner, Zvonareva would settle into a comfortable rhythm if she can trade flat, crisp groundstrokes from a respectable distance.  Stosur needs to find ways to disrupt the Russian’s timing and footwork, both among her greatest strengths; backhand slices, chipped returns, and heavy topspin forehands are a few of the weapons that she could deploy.

2)  Finish points at the net.   Another way in which Stosur can ruffle the fragile Zvonareva is by cutting points short and charging the net whenever she has an opening to exploit her excellent volleying skills.  This arhythmic style flustered Hantuchova at crucial moments in the semifinal by rushing her out of her comfort zone.  Less leisurely than the Slovak, Zvonareva nevertheless prefers a more flowing style of rally.

Two pieces of advice for Zvonareva: 

1)  Extend the rallies.  Far more consistent than the Australian, the Russian has a significant advantage in the longer points.  She won’t want to go for too much too soon and definitely will want to target Stosur’s unimposing backhand; crosscourt backhand-to-backhand exchanges will reap rewards for her.  As long as the points are played in a conventional manner from the baseline, Zvonareva should be able to wear down Stosur and expose her asymmetrical groundstroke game as well as her questionable movement.  Here, the green clay will serve Vera’s purpose much better than did the hard courts on which she previously has played Stosur.

2)  Stay positive.  Notorious for tearful tantrums, Zvonareva rarely has responded well to adversity and repeatedly has allowed minor setbacks to permanently derail her concentration (cf. her US Open loss to Pennetta last year).  When she’s achieved her best results (cf. her Indian Wells title run last year), her calm demeanor mirrors her crisp, precisely measured groundstrokes.  The Australian’s fast-paced game encourages momentum to mushroom in either direction, so Vera will need to stay as composed and self-assured as she has for most of the week.   There will be stretches when Stosur’s serve is clicking relentlessly, but there also will be stretches when her game unravels wildly.  Zvonareva should accept the inevitability of the former situations, steel herself to survive them, remind herself that opportunities inevitably will arise, and concentrate on exploiting them when they do.

Shot-by-shot breakdown: 

Serve:  Stosur

Return:  Zvonareva (less powerful but more reliable = better on clay)

Forehand:  Stosur

Backhand:  Zvonareva

Volleys:  Stosur

Movement:  Zvonareva

Mental:  Neither (Stosur historically is a dismal performer in finals, but Zvonareva has the reputation sketched above)

As you can tell from this dissection, the matchup is quite difficult to call.  It’s our job, though, so…

Pic(k):

We’re nominating Vera for the most beautiful eyes in women’s tennis.  Here’s a glimpse of her greatest triumph, by the way:

We’re so sorry that someone else happens to be in the picture.  😉 

As they say in Monte Carlo, a bientot…