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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