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!

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