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Almost exactly a year ago today, Robin Soderling trained his bone-crushing artillery on the four-time defending champion of Roland Garros and accomplished the greatest upset in tennis history.  The Swede now attempts to depose another defending champion at the citadel of clay, while Federer can claim a new, moderately significant record by progressing into the semis:  passing Sampras’ total number of weeks at #1.  Considering that their lopsided head-to-head stands at 12-0 for the Swiss, one would think that a 24th consecutive semifinals lies well within his grasp.  Yet Soderling has inched increasingly closer to snapping that streak of futility, forcing Federer four tiebreaks in the last six sets that they have played (all at Slams) and dragging him within one point of a fifth set at last year’s US Open.  The two adversaries have lost just one of twenty-five total sets in the first four round here, so expect an extremely high-quality encounter including very few service breaks.  Allowing Del Potro to lure him into a baseline shootout midway through the US Open final, Federer will be in trouble if he adopts the same tactics here; Soderling is one of the few players who possesses the raw power to hit through him even on clay.  Instead, the Swiss must attempt to showcase his expert net skills and biting backhand slice.  A liability against Nadal, the backhand oddly might prove valuable than his legendary forehand in disrupting the Swede’s timing.  Soderling must preserve his patience in extended rallies rather than pulling the trigger too early, for he has enhanced his consistency over the past year and now doesn’t need to end points as quickly.  Donating meek opening sets to Federer in two of their three Slam meetings last year (6-1 at the French and 6-0 at the US Open), he’ll want to bring his full intensity to the very first point.  We anticipate plenty of aces and service winners, more short points than normal in a clay match, high-risk tennis from Soderling, high-consistency tennis from Federer, and a fiercely contested victory for the top seed—perhaps in four sets.

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Lacking a clear contender, the second quarter of the draw seemed likely to produce an unexpected hero, but ultimately no great surprises emerged from that section.  In search of his first career Slam semifinal, Berdych exceeded our expectations not so much by defeating Isner and Murray as by the composed, routine manner with which he dismissed both threats.  Did Miami really witness the birth of a mature, poised Tomas who can showcase his best tennis on the biggest stages?  By no means a finesse artist, he’ll rely on his massive serve-forehand combinations to outhit Youzhny.  Meanwhile, the Russian will profit from the extremely slow surface on Lenglen to perhaps prolong more points than he could on Chatrier and gain time to ingeniously construct points in his distinctive style.  (Dept. of Shameless Self-Promotion:  you can find a lengthy profile on Misha among the older entries on this blog.)  Reaching the US Open semifinals a few years ago after defeating Nadal, Youzhny has more experience with these circumstances than one might imagine.  Generally not a factor on clay, he has enjoyed a significant resurgence this year by reaching finals in Rotterdam and Dubai while posting wins over Monfils, Djokovic, and Wawrinka.  The head-to-head is extremely even at 6-4 in Youzhny’s favor; they’ve split their two clay meetings and their last four meetings overall.  We anticipate plenty of momentum shifts, blinding forehands by the Czech, exquisite one-handed backhands by the Russian, some ghastly errors from both players, and a debut semifinal appearance for Berdych.

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Having required three hours to work her way through a heaping plate of penne(tta), Wozniacki encounters Flavia’s Fed Cup teammate Schiavone.  Less powerful but more crafty than her compatriot, the 17th seed showcases a flamboyant one-handed backhand that reveals her natural talent just as Wozniacki’s steady two-hander reveals her dedicated work ethic.  On paper, the Pole-Dane should prevail rather comfortably, but remember that not only her ankle but her thigh may be questionable.  Effective against Kirilenko in the previous round, Schiavone’s slice might test those aching limbs if she can employ it consistently.  Another potential advantage over the Dane is her excellent net play, honed after years of experience in doubles.  Almost exactly a decade older than Wozniacki, Schiavone doesn’t seem to have many other options with which to counter the third seed’s bulletproof defenses, although she did win their only meeting in late 2008.  The Italian’s gritty (haha) tenacity often benefits her against youthful, inexperienced opponents, yet Caroline has amply demonstrated her own resolve on repeated occasions, so don’t expect her to crumble as did her friend Azarenka when facing Schiavone at last year’s US Open.  We anticipate multiple breaks of serve, some very, very long rallies, many more errors than winners, and a two-set win for Wozniacki (if her ankle / thigh / [insert body part here] permit).

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Petrova characterized all-Russian duels as well as anyone during her post-Venus press conference by describing them as “battles to the death.”  Sometimes they seem more like exercises in mutual suicide, however, with both players paralyzed by nerves and donating hideous errors to each other’s cause.  Clashing in last year’s Wimbledon quarterfinal, Dementieva and Petrova did contribute a respectable three-setter, so perhaps they’re less troubled by the atmosphere of intra-national competition than some of their compatriots.  Their head-to-head stands squarely even at seven wins apiece, two wins apiece on clay; while Elena has won the last four meetings, the last three all have reached a final set.  Although we were highly impressed with Petrova’s clutch serving against Venus, Lenglen will take a little of the edge off her serve as it did off Roddick’s delivery.  If Dementieva can work her way into the rallies, she has the more consistent game and superior movement to outlast her compatriot.  Don’t forget that she also is hampered by leg injuries, however, which troubled her against Wozniak in the third round and could undermine her ability to win an epic such as this match threatens to become.  And can she hold serve often enough to put pressure on Petrova?  Even on one of the slowest courts in the sport, she can’t break Nadia constantly.  It’ll be intriguing to observe whether Petrova can create opportunities to approach the net, where she enjoys a high comfort level, or whether Dementieva can keep the match mired in her own comfort zone behind the baseline.  We anticipate plenty of mental fragility, plenty of Russian imprecations, great offense by Nadia, great defense by Elena, and a three-set win for a Russian.  (Ha!)

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Hope that you found these previews thought-provoking.  Don’t hesitate to let us know if you have something to say…or shriek.

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Extended over three sets and two days, Henin and Sharapova contributed another worthy entry in a rivalry no less classy than it is classic.  Despite the almost unparalleled intensity of both competitors, the Belgian and the Russian demonstrated their mutual respect with the gracious, sincere handshake above as well as courteous comments aplenty in prematch and postmatch interviews.  It’s satisfying to observe this characteristic in such a major rivalry, which probably would have become a central theme atop the women’s game had not injuries and emotional stress taken a severe toll on both players.  Nevertheless, we still hope to see several more editions of this enthralling contrast in styles on various surfaces throughout the coming months and years.   One of the most stirring single-match performances in both comebacks so far, the match this weekend reminded us of how Henin and Sharapova bring out the best in each other’s games, turning their encounters into much more than the sum of their admittedly spectacular parts.

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While Sharapova crosses the Channel for what promises to be an impressive grass campaign, Henin crosses the puddles to Lenglen for a challenging confrontation with Stosur.  Outside a first-set lapse against Rossana de los Rios, the Australian has looked fairly solid in the first week although perhaps a shade less magnificent than during her semifinal run last year.  Henin’s narrow escape from Sharapova’s jaws could produce one of two opposite outcomes; either her intoxication with the victory will leave her with the dreaded hangover syndrome, or she’ll translate the emotional momentum into a confident, composed performance.  As was the case in the Stuttgart final, the match largely lies in Justine’s hands despite Stosur’s crushing serve.  Gifted with too much variety and texture for the Aussie when she’s focused, the Belgian could struggle against Stosur’s aryhthmic style if she suffers a poor serving day or loses the radar on her forehand.  The indoor surface in the German tournament also seemed surprisingly swift by clay standards, so the ultra-slow Court Suzanne Lenglen should provide Henin with a more compliant canvas for her artistry.  Don’t expect many service breaks, and look for both players to approach the net at the earliest opportunity.  Henin will want to set up backhand-to-backhand rallies, but she’ll be comfortable with forehand-to-forehand battles as well, which suggests that Stosur will need an outstanding serving performance in order to overcome the Belgian’s baseline advantage.

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Ginepri vs. Djokovic (3):  Although the Serb thrashed the American embarrassingly here several years ago, there’s reason to think that this meeting might not be so lopsided.  Ginepri’s sturdy five-set win over Ferrero in the third round illustrated his ability to grind through matches on clay much more successfully than most of his compatriots.  Seemingly in control of his fragile health so far, Djokovic has dropped two sets to his first three opponents but hasn’t found himself in serious trouble.  The Serb has yet to face a tireless mover and consistent retriever like Ginepri, though, whose style adapts itself better to testing fitness than those of Korolev or Hanescu.  On the other hand, the American might be tired and a step slow after his Ferrero victory, like the equally movement-oriented Nishikori when he played Djokovic after a five-set win over Giraldo.  One could imagine Ginepri taking a set, especially if Djokovic loses the rhythm on his serve or a bit of concentration, but it’s hard to imagine that he’ll take three.

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Serena (1) vs. Peer (18):  The Israeli faces the grim prospect of a fourth meeting with a Williams sister since February, although the previous three occurred against Venus.  (Nothing like a bit of variety.)  Three years ago, the rising Peer came within a single game of ousting Serena from the Australian Open, a tournament that the younger Williams famously won despite an extended absence from the game.  Among all of the surprise sensations in Rome and Madrid (MJMS, Rezai, Safarova, Ivanovic), only Peer remains in the Roland Garros draw, where her tenacity emerged most notably during a tense first-set tiebreak against Bartoli.  Serena needed some tenacity herself to overcome an ailing stomach in her previous match, so we’ll see whether the illness lingers.  (She did look fine in her doubles with Venus.)  Even on the slowest surface, the top seed’s serve proved highly effective during this week, while she has moved on the clay with impressive ease.  If her health has returned, expect her to set up the marquee quarterfinal that we’ve all been awaiting after a couple of reasonably competitive sets.

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Bellucci (24) vs. Nadal (2):  Often considered the descendant of Gustavo Kuerten in Brazilian tennis, this aggressive lefty baseliner has much more developing to do before he can step into that French Open champion’s shoes.  In recent weeks, he’s certainly taken important strides by defeating opponents like Isner and Ljubicic; at the same time, he’s wobbled against the likes of qualifier Pablo Andujar, who dragged him into a fifth set two rounds ago.  That stinging forehand should crack some winners, but anything other than a straight-sets win for Rafa would be astonishing in the highest degree.  Despite enduring a few more suspenseful service games than he should, the four-time champion’s knees look healthy, and (just as importantly) so does his confidence. 

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Jankovic (4) vs. Hantuchova (23):  Once again, the Roland Garros organizers schedule the match of the day for the final position on Chatrier.  Can the Serb and the Slovak continue where Henin and Sharapova left off on Saturday night?  Hantuchova  looked ready to become a full-time doubles specialist not long ago, but she must be thinking otherwise after an excellent first week of straight-setters capped by a small upset over Wickmayer.  Adding intrigue to this encounter are Hantuchova’s two recent wins over Jankovic, of which one happened on green clay (Charleston) and the other on hard court in Fed Cup.  To be sure, JJ claimed to be injured on both of those occasions, but isn’t she always ill, injured, exhausted, or all three?  Presented with a golden opportunity to end her Slam drought, she made life more interesting than necessary against Kanepi and Alona Bondarenko.  Jelena loves (melo)drama, though, so don’t read too much into those early difficulties.  The Serb’s superior comfort level on red clay and positive experience at Roland Garros should enable her to join Djokovic in the quarterfinals, perhaps in three sets, which would be her first appearance at that stage of a major since the 2008 US Open.

Gabashvili (Q) vs. Melzer:  Unleashing 58 winners against a becalmed Roddick, Gabashvili looked infinitely more formidable than the average qualifier.  His emotions have betrayed him at crucial moments before, but Melzer likewise has struggled to control his temper against marquee opponents.  What matters more at Roland Garros, beating Roddick or beating Ferrer?  One would imagine the latter, considering the relative prowess on clay of those upset victims.  At any rate, it should be a somewhat intriguing contrast between Melzer’s lefty net-charging style and Gabashvili’s baseline bludgeoning.  While the Russian’s returns and passing shots will be vital, so will the Austrian’s first-serve percentage.  Neither player hits groundstrokes with much margin for error, which renders their second-week appearances all the more unexpected.  We’re not going to hazard a guess here; the ball’s in your court.

Verdasco (7) vs. Almagro (19):  Probably the match of the day on the men’s side, the all-Spanish collision opposes two of the hottest players in the ATP over the last several weeks.  (Female fans might argue that Verdasco has deserved that appellation for much longer than the last several weeks.)  Reaching three finals in his last five tournaments (winning one), Mr. Sauce may be a little weary from over-playing in the preparatory events.  During a five-set, four-hour victory over Kohlschreiber, he requested medical attention on multiple occasions and lacked the usual sting on many of his forehands.   One of only two players to win a set from Nadal during this clay season, Almagro nearly bit the dust (literally) in his opener but has collected himself since then.  Plenty of extended cross-court rallies should ensue, but it’ll be intriguing to note who redirects the ball earlier and takes a risk by connecting on a down-the-line attempt.  Long known for reckless shotmaking, both Spaniards have modulated their aggression more effectively in recent months.  If Verdasco enters the match weary, which is probable, he may seek to take command early in the rally, which means that he might go for too much too soon and look for an angle that isn’t there.  Don’t be surprised to see a mini-upset by the surging Madrid semifinalist.

Groth (W) vs. Shvedova:  Opportunity doesn’t knock here but positively hammers.  Perhaps more familiar to some of you in her Slovakian incarnation as Gajdosova, the ambidextrous Aussie doesn’t hold back on any of her shots.  Neither does the Kazakh, who outslugged Radwanska and Kleybanova in impressive fashion to create an opening for her first Slam quarterfinal.  It’s ironic that the breakthrough could happen on the slowest surface for the hard-hitting, high-risk Kazakh, yet the clay does provide her additional time to set up for her shots and compensate for her indifferent foot speed.  Which player will adjust more smoothly to the ultra-slow court on Lenglen, which stymied Roddick once again this year?  Since Shvedova has overcome much sterner competition than Groth so far, we’re inclined to lean in her direction.

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Let’s hope for sunnier skies and gentler winds as the second week begins!

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Under the forbidding skies of a damp Paris evening, most players would have accepted the four-time champion’s mastery as inevitable and turned their minds towards the greener pastures of Wimbledon.  After a dismal beginning against Henin, however, Sharapova’s fabled ferocity erupted deep in the second set, where she refused to concede even a grain of grit when facing break points in the vital seventh game.  Erasing that opportunity with panache, Maria then capitalized upon the momentum shift to reel off 11 of the last 12 points before darkness descended.  A testament to her unflinching tenacity, the second set of this third-round match augurs extremely well for Sharapova in the coming tournaments, whether or not she wins the third set on Sunday.  (The warmer conditions at mid-day should help her, but she can’t afford to start half as miserably as she did in the first four games on Saturday.)  Streaky players like the Russian rely on accumulated confidence to propel them through the peaks and valleys that they experience within matches and tournaments.  Swelling Maria’s confidence bank is the notable achievement of becoming the first player to take a set from Henin at Roland Garros since Napoleon returned from Moscow (well, almost).  When Sharapova returns to the North American hard courts, it’ll be time for these investments to return profits.

Elsewhere on Saturday, Melzer fed Ferrer a bagel as a farewell souvenir of Paris, Ginepri booted King Juan Carlos from his throne, Serena lost a set to her stomach, and feuding Frenchwomen Bartoli and Rezai found something in common when they shared the experience of third-round losses.  Sunday is far from a day of rest in Paris, with eight round-of-16 matches on the menu as well as the Sharapova-Henin finale.  We preview each encounter straight ahead, arranging them according to the Roland Garros order of play (first four matches on Chatrier, last four matches on Lenglen):

Dementieva (5) vs. Scheepers (Q):  The least intriguing match of the day by a long margin, this meeting opposes an injured, weary Russian against a South African outside the top 100.  Barely edging the pedestrian Wozniak in a three-hour third-rounder, Dementieva struggled with sore legs yet found a way to win.  Her experience should allow her to prevail even if she isn’t in peak physical condition, however, for the Russian’s consistency typically creates nightmares for the journeywomen of the WTA.  Winning six matches at Roland Garros, Scheepers reached the final 16 without defeating a seed after the ignominious exits of Azarenka and Martinez Sanchez, so one should keep her startling achievement in a bit of perspective.

Petrova (19) vs. Venus (2):  While most spectators have been gawking at her outfit, Venus has quietly progressed into the second week with minimal ado.  The elder Williams looks much more comfortable moving on the clay than she normally does, but she faces an imposing test from a Russian who can match her serve for serve and recently defeated her sister with an 11-ace barrage in Rome.  Unsurprisingly unable to finish off home hope Rezai at the first opportunity, Petrova surprisingly and impressively closed out that cliffhanger shortly after the resumption, leaving her with plenty of energy for Sunday.  Although Venus has won all four of their meetings with the loss of just one set, the Russian veteran holds a distinct surface advantage; they never have played on clay, and two of the matches occurred at the All England Club, aka the All Venus Club last decade.  This season, the American has compiled an outstanding record without showcasing outstanding tennis.  She’s learned how to prevail when she’s several degrees below her blazing best, though, which will benefit her against Petrova.  While Nadia might win the physical battler, Venus should win the mental battle—the battle that counts.  But expect a struggle.

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Federer (1) vs. Wawrinka (20):  “Struggle” hasn’t been in Federer’s vocabulary here as he has cruised within two wins of his 24th consecutive Slam semifinal, not dropping a set in three rounds.  To be sure,  the trio of Peter Luczak, Alejandro Falla, and Julian Reister are only marginally more formidable than the Three Tenors where the world #1 is concerned.  Meekly folding to his compatriot in Madrid, Wawrinka did defeat Federer last year in Monte Carlo, yet he lacks the belief to topple him in a best-of-five format.  Enduring a slight slide this year, the Swiss #2 doesn’t possess the weapons to hit through the GOAT from the baseline and must hope for an error-strewn encounter, which the top seed rarely donates at Slams.  Nevertheless, the match should offer intriguing baseline exchanges during which one can observe Roger’s point-construction skills and recently outstanding movement / footwork. 

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Youzhny (11) vs. Tsonga (8):  The sole survivor on a swiftly sinking French ship, Tsonga doesn’t quite sting like a bee on the clay and nearly exited in his opener.  Meanwhile, Youzhny has dropped just two sets in his first three rounds despite also operating on the surface that least suits the Russian’s style.  When they collided in the 2008 Australian Open, the Frenchman triumphed rather comfortably, but then he was in the midst of what regrettably has become a career highlight more than a portent of the future.  Since both players enjoy remarkable agility, we should anticipate lively all-court points and clever shot-making.  Can Youzhny embed himself in rallies before Tsonga unloads his massive forehand and rumbles to the net?  Ever eager to rally behind les bleus, the French crowd surely will fill Chatrier with resounding roars at the slightest opportunity; Youzhny displayed his mental fragility rather graphically in Miami two years ago, although he’s improved a bit since then.  On the other hand, neither Monfils nor Rezai soared to victory on the wings of their vociferous compatriots.  If Tsonga is going to float like a butterfly, he’ll have to use his own wings.  This match could be the most engaging of the day, and don’t be surprised if it heads into Monday.

Kirilenko (30) vs. Schiavone (17):  Not long ago, the stylish, relatively petite Russian blonde seemed likely to become a doubles specialist.  Opening 2010 with a run to the Australian Open quarterfinals, however, Kirilenko has reinvigorated a moribund singles career and now looks likely to regain a foothold in the top 30 or perhaps even top 25.  It’s rather remarkable that her largely powerless game can succeed with sufficient consistency against much mightier foes, but kudos to her for proving the continued value of versatility.  Also to her credit, she has capitalized on all of the upsets that she has scored this year by progressing further into those significant draws.  Far from a powerful baseliner herself, Schiavone likewise relies on mental tenacity and artful point construction rather than booming serves or returns.  The Italian’s delicate sliced backhand can be as delicious as ravioli, while those who have watched Fed Cup have noted her competitive vigor.  Expect plenty of service breaks and prolonged rallies as each player attempts to gradually outmaneuver her opponent rather than hammering her off the court.  In such an even match, Kirilenko’s momentum from her tense triumph over Kuznetsova could be crucial.

Pennetta (14) vs. Wozniacki (3):  We’re impressed that Wozniacki has navigated her first three matches with uneventful straight-sets wins, but the road grows considerably steeper against the clay-loving Italian.  Winning the Andalusia title this spring, Pennetta faltered in Rome and Madrid; nevertheless, she has rampaged through the first week by dropping just nine games in six sets against some respectable opponents.  Although the Pole-Dane did reach the Madrid final last year, she has not quite developed a comfort level on clay, so a minor upset here seems plausible.   Glancing over the bottom half of the draw, we were struck by Pennetta’s friendly path in the upcoming rounds; she would face either Kirilenko or Schiavone in the quarters, then perhaps Venus in the semis.  The Italian possesses a winning record against the American and defeated her here two years ago.  Flavia Pennetta, Roland Garros finalist?  Although one never should look too far ahead, keep the thought in the back of your mind.

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Cilic (10) vs. Soderling (5):  Impressively handling Montanes in four relatively routine sets, Soderling has considerably elevated his level from the clay Masters Series events.  Cilic also has proved much sturdier in Paris than over the last several weeks, although a five-set win over Leonardo Mayer betrayed the dissonance between his game and the surface.  Expect plenty of booming serves, short points, and high winner-error totals, for both players will prioritize offensive shotmaking over clay consistency.  Unusual in the ATP is the groundstroke balance shared by the Croat and the Swede, who possess two-handed backhands that are more reliable and just as imposing as their forehands.  Unless Cilic manages to unnerve Soderling in an unexpected way, last year’s finalist should schedule a 13th duel with Federer.

Murray (4) vs. Berdych (15):  Lenglen’s sluggish soil should favor the counterpunching Scot, yet he’s been forced to play thirteen sets in his first three matches and may be a trifle jaded.  If he’s a step or two slow, the ball-bruising Czech could take advantage; Berdych has yet to lose a set here and stunningly pulverized Isner in the third round.  Will one of the sport’s greatest underachievers capitalize upon his Miami breakthrough to charge deep into a Slam?  Murray should feel relatively secure against an foe who enjoys the clay as little as he does.  Expect him to slowly expose the chinks in Berdych’s armor as the match progresses, assuming that the Czech allows him to settle into the match.

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Enjoy the round of 16 as well as the finale of the pas de deux between two of the most formidable backhands in the WTA!

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It gets late early in Paris this weekend.  We refer not to the avalanche of complaints from players who resent peering through twilight at the ball, but to the third-round collision between two WTA superstars with ten Slam titles between them.  This match marks the first time in ten meetings that Sharapova and Henin have intersected before the quarterfinal.   (Shouldn’t the French Open adjust its seedings to reflect clay expertise as Wimbledon does for grass prowess?)  Winning six of their nine previous clashes and both of their clay matches, the Belgian clearly has the surface edge as well as the overall edge in the rivalry, which suggests that the encounter might not live up to the media’s expectations.  On the other hand, Maria has showcased her highest level of tennis on the past three occasions when she has confronted Justine:  the 2006 US Open final, the 2007 year-end championships final, and the 2008 Australian Open quarterfinal.  Although all of those matches were contested on hard courts, the two clay meetings don’t hold much significance because they occurred five years ago before Sharapova’s game had evolved into its mature form.  Yet Justine has evolved markedly as well since that time, now more willing to finish points quickly with an imposing forehand or by approaching the net.  Meanwhile, Maria has improved her patience and fitness, an arena in which the Belgian long had held an advantage over her.  On this occasion, the fitness edge should be effectively neutralized, however, because Henin has been physically fragile during her comeback while Sharapova has devoted much effort to that feature of her game.  

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Brushing aside a quartet of helpless opponents, both players looked equally dominant in their first two rounds; Justine responded to the pressure of her Roland Garros return with trademark poise, and Maria advanced through the early stages with much more efficiency than usual.  Despite a few new wrinkles like Sharapova’s occasional drop shot and Henin’s sporadic serve-and-volley, there are no secrets in this rivalry.  Contemptuously rejecting a reporter’s suggestion that she modify her style for the clay, the Russian will hammer away at the Belgian’s defense from the baseline, while the four-time champion will seek to improvise ways to disrupt her opponent’s programmatic point construction.  Essential for both players, impressive serving would allow Maria to instantly assert control of rallies, pinning her opponent behind the baseline, and allow Justine to approach the net, where she regularly excels.  The cooler evening temperatures and more spacious Chatrier court would favor Henin more than if the match were played in mid-afternoon on Lenglen, but those factors shouldn’t be crucial.  Instead, what will be crucial will be the relative confidence of both players and their ability to seize opportunities while controlling their aggression.  Capturing the minor Strasbourg title last week, Sharapova enters the contest with a seven-match winning streak on her least favorite surface but has yet to defeat an elite player this season.  Entering the contest with a 23-match winning streak at Roland Garros, Henin has countless positive memories on which to reflect but has yet to defeat a former Slam champion or a player of Sharapova’s competitive resilience during her comeback.  If the Belgian finds her rhythm, she should be able to defuse the Russian’s power; if she’s a little off-key, she might be in trouble.

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Beyond the soiree of champions, here are additional matches of note on a somewhat nondescript Day 7.

Serena (1) vs. Pavlyuchenkova (29) (Chatrier, 1st match):  Predictably unsteady in her opener, Serena looked considerably sharper during a 55-minute demolition of Julia Goerges.  The top seed probably plans to use the first week to find her range before a challenging quarterfinal.  Formerly the #1 junior in the world, Pavlyuchenkova has cultivated a style most effective on hard courts but adaptable to all surfaces.  She appears to have recovered from a nagging foot injury that has hampered her for much of 2010.  Still too inexperienced to topple a competitor of Serena’s steel, the much-anticipated Russian phenom could create some engaging baseline rallies.  We’re curious to see what attitude Pavlyuchenkova brings to the match; Goerges capitulated rather spinelessly, but we suspect that Serena’s next opponent might not be willing to concede immediately. 

Peer (18) vs. Bartoli (13) (Lenglen, 2nd match):  Like Gasquet, Bartoli prefers the grasses of Wimbledon to the grit of her own country.  The top-ranked Frenchwoman left little imprint upon the rest of the clay season and was fortunate to draw a pair of underwhelming adversaries in the first two rounds.  By contrast, Peer has excelled throughout the road to Roland Garros despite preferring hard courts to the slower surface.  Although the star performers of Stuttgart, Rome, and Madrid have enjoyed mixed results so far in Paris, don’t be surprised if the tenacious Israeli outlasts the eccentric, controversial leader of les bleues.

Verdasco (7) vs. Kohlschreiber (30) (Lenglen, 3rd match):  An engaging contest between two baseliners who love to take huge swings in both opportune and inopportune situations, this match should showcase exceptional shotmaking.  The German punches well above his size and unleashes explosive backhands, while Verdasco’s forehand remains among the most powerful in the ATP.  Perhaps a little tired from Nice, the Spaniard recording outstanding results at all of the preliminary clay events except Madrid.  Expect a few momentum shifts, but expect Verdasco’s more potent serve, improved fitness, and somewhat improved patience to carry him into the final 16.

Hantuchova (23) vs. Wickmayer (16) (Court 2, 2nd match):  The stylish Slovak navigated her first two matches rather routinely, showing further signs of the resurgence that began in March.  Extended deep into a deciding set by Bammer, meanwhile, Wickmayer may be running low on energy as she was a few months ago in Australia. Somewhat like Kuznetsova except stronger mentally, this future top-10 WTA star possesses outstanding athletic talents that should serve her well on every surface.  One should remember that she is returning from an elbow injury that required surgery, however, and may not be able to display her highest-quality tennis.  If Hantuchova can control her nerves and stretch Wickmayer laterally with her trademark down-the-line groundstrokes, she’ll have a definite chance to pull off the mini-upset.

Ljubicic (14) vs. Bellucci (24) (Court 2, 3rd match):  Just weeks removed from his Indian Wells renaissance, the 31-year-old Croat stands a win away from setting up a rematch with Nadal.  This meeting presents an intriguing clash between a seasoned veteran and a raw but highly talented upstart.  Will Ljubicic’s greater versatility and all-court expertise prevail over Bellucci’s flamboyant lefty shot-making from the baseline?  Complicating the situation a little is the Croat’s marathon win over Fish on Friday, which might have drained his energy and taken a few vital miles per hour off his massive serve.  Nevertheless, expect few breaks and many short points, unlike a conventional clay-court encounter.

Briefly noted:  More impressive than anticipated against Nishikori, Djokovic shouldn’t experience excessive difficulty with Hanescu, who secured just three games in Madrid against Murray—nobody’s idea of a clay-court expert.  Even if the Serb’s much-scrutinized fitness sags a bit, the slow-footed Romanian won’t be able to extend the rallies sufficiently to test it.  Jankovic strives to improve upon a lackluster second-round performance by exacting revenge upon Alona Bondarenko for a loss in the same round of Melbourne.  On the other hand, the Ukrainian had lost all nine of their previous meetings before that Australian encounter, so perhaps Jelena should show her some mercy.  In the weakest section of the draw, Ivanovic nemesis Kleybanova intersects with Radwanska nemesis Shvedova for a ball-bruising pas de deux.  One of these two hard-court aficionados will be favored to reach their first Slam quarterfinal over the winner of Groth-Rodionova; it’ll be intriguing to note who capitalizes upon the opportunity.  Moreover, both Kleybanova and Shvedova have scored success against Jankovic in the recent past, suggesting that the Serb might look forward to a livelier quarterfinal than we initially had imagined when examining her vicinity.

Enjoy the accelerating action tomorrow as Roland Garros marches into the middle weekend!  🙂

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Despite the occasional fiery forehand, Ana’s second-round performance largely justified the desolate expression above.  At the root of her downfall once again lay her serve, which always has been a reliable barometer for the state of her game and confidence.  Players who rely less heavily on the shot can surmount poor serving days, but Ivanovic can’t afford to start the majority of points in neutral or defensive mode, the situation in which she found herself for most of the match against an inspired Kleybanova.  One of Ana’s finest moments of the day, however, came during her post-match press conference, when she was asked about the controversy that arose when Jankovic bitingly imitated her signature fistpump following their match in Madrid.  Stating in a crisp and well-articulated tone that “sports don’t build character; they show [character],” Ivanovic responded to her compatriot’s tasteless gesture with a resolute display of backbone—important in individual competition—without descending into petty vindictiveness.  She kept her words as impersonal as possible, not once mentioning Jankovic’s name.  We thought that the entire fistpump fracas would dwindle away rather quickly, but instead it has meandered on and on…and on, much like Fognini-Monfils.  Here’s a brief capsule of our thoughts on it, after which we will lay the issue to rest.

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Although Jankovic mishandled the situation by bringing it so crudely into the open, it’s true that Ivanovic often pumps her fist at inappropriate moments.  We differ from the commonly expressed perspective according to which only winners should elicit fistpumps; often, a player’s ball-retrieving skills force an opponent into hitting several extra shots…which they miss.  In those cases, a player’s brilliant defense wins them the point just as if they had struck a winner, so they deserve to relish the moment.  The boundary is somewhat subjective between what results from superb defense (fistpump appropriate) and what results from an opponent’s outright ineptitude (fistpump inappropriate), but Ana has crossed that line consistently.  During the 2007 Luxembourg final against Hantuchova, we first observed Ivanovic’s tendency to react in this way when the Slovak committed unforced errors from neutral positions early in rallies; this habit thus stems from long before Ana’s meteoric fall and cannot be explained by anxiety over returning to the top.  As much as we support Ivanovic and hope that she rises again, her excessive fist-pumping constitutes unsportsmanlike behavior and reflects poorly upon her, despite the fact that it’s probably unintentional.  We doubt that she’ll abandon such a deeply ingrained habit at this stage in her career, of course, and we should note that she’s far from the only offender (nor is Jankovic her only victim).  The prevalence of an unfortunate practice doesn’t inherently exonerate each individual who indulges in it, however.  As for Jankovic, this self-initiated distraction merely illustrates her continued immaturity, which has hampered her efforts to realize her vast potential.  Surely an opponent’s gestures don’t influence JJ’s ability to win a match, and a truly committed competitor shouldn’t care what happens across the net.  If Jelena fails to win a Slam, there’s nobody (including Henin) whom she should blame more than herself.  Now that the Serbs have exchanged salvos, though, here’s hoping that they can take a deep breath and progress from this sorry squabble, as we do now with the preview of a thrilling Day 6 menu.

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Cibulkova (26) vs. Venus (2) (Chatrier, 2nd match; 3rd including Henin completion):  Although a ten-inch height difference separates these competitors, their third-round meeting might be a little less routine than it appears. Many fans might not remember that the diminutive Slovak comfortably defeated the lanky American in their only previous collision (Doha 2008).  A surprise semifinalist here last year, Cibulkova profited from a section that had been vacated by the untimely demise of none other than…Venus.  Renowned for explosive movement and superb court coverage, she punches well above her size and could lure the second seed into unforced errors if her groundstrokes penetrate the court with adequate depth.  The contrast in their serves, however, should wield a significant impact even on this least serve-friendly surface.  Venus needs to move forward whenever possible in order to take time away from Cibulkova; if she can, she’ll be able to shorten the rallies and control the tempo of the match.

Rezai (15) vs. Petrova (19) (Chatrier, 4th match; 5th including completion):  The most intriguing WTA contest of the day represents the first serious test for Rezai in the bid to justify her new position among the game’s elite.  Defeating a pair of unheralded foes in her first two rounds, the Iranian-turned-Frenchwoman takes aim at Petrova, who ousted her rather comfortably at Roland Garros two years ago.  While the Russian didn’t claim a title during the preliminary events, she reached the quarterfinals in Rome before ambushing Serena en route to another quarterfinal in Madrid.  Whereas Rezai prefers to trade missiles from the baseline, Nadia has developed an all-court game in which her groundstrokes complement occasional forays to the net.  A former French Open semifinalist, Petrova adapts better to clay than most of her compatriots despite her infamously suspect mentality.  That flaw may be exposed by what surely will be a rabid French crowd on Chatrier tomorrow evening…or will the vociferous support unveil hitherto hidden cracks in Rezai’s veneer?  She’ll feel the expectations of a nation on her shoulders more firmly than ever before.

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Murray (4) vs. Baghdatis (25) (Lenglen, 3rd match; 4th including Bartoli completion):  Facing Gasquet on his least favorite surface before a partisan crowd, Murray shook his head in disgust, barked at his box, missed first serve after first serve, but somehow stayed around just long enough to watch the Frenchman fold.  A four-set win over Chela in the next round doesn’t greatly impress because he thoroughly throttled the Argentine just two weeks ago in Madrid.  Nevertheless, the Scot now confronts someone who relishes the clay as little as he does in the person of former Australian Open finalist and recent Federer nemesis Marcos Baghdatis.  Like Murray, the Cypriot fell to Ferrer in Madrid, yet (unlike Murray) he acquitted himself convincingly before finally succumbing deep in the third set.  The fourth seed’s motivation may not be running high at the moment with Wimbledon looming on the horizon; on the other hand, it’s almost impossible to ascertain the level of motivation and commitment that Baghdatis will bring to any given match.  Watch the battle of two-handed backhands as the match unfolds.  While Murray generally sacrifices some pace in exchange for more topspin (and thus more margin), the Cypriot connects with low-flying bullets that somehow repeatedly clear the net by centimeters when he’s at his best.

Dulgheru (31) vs. Wozniacki (3) (Court 1, 3rd match):  After contemplating withdrawal from Roland Garros, Wozniacki charged through her first two rounds with a Soderling-like efficiency that saw her drop just seven games in four sets.  Too hampered by an ankle injury to join the principal title contenders here, she still could reach the quarters or even a semi as a consequence of a relatively benign draw.  Two-time Warsaw champion Alexandra Dulgheru could pose an engaging challenge to that quest, however, for the Romanian preceded her unexpected title defense with wins over Safina in Rome and Dementieva in Madrid.  Although neither of Russian is exactly scalding at the moment, those triumphs demonstrated Dulgheru’s mental ability to defeat marquee players when they’re not at their highest level.  It’s hard to imagine that Wozniacki will reach her highest level, so an opportunity might arise for the Romanian.  On the other hand, she won’t be fresh after her Polish exertions last week and might lack the energy to cope with the prolonged rallies into which she’ll be dragged.

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Kuznetsova (6) vs. Kirilenko (30) (Court 1, 4th match):  Dodging not one but four bullets against the nerve-ridden Petkovic, Kuznetsova survived only to confront the compatriot who banished her from Rome just weeks ago.  Typically well-suited to clay, Kirilenko’s solid defense game and versatile shot repertoire will force Kuznetsova to harness her aggression, waiting patiently for opportunities but striking immediately when they arise.  As in Rome, the match lies in the hands of the defending champion, but she has proven reluctant to seize the initiative in such situations this year.  We’re curious to observe whether she elevates her game in the wake of her previous eleventh-hour escape, which could have lifted some pressure from Sveta’s mind.  After her remarkable comeback, has her confidence returned and expelled the fear of losing from her overactive mind?  When focused and composed, Kuznetsova is as dangerous as anyone on clay.

Montanes (29) vs. Soderling (5) (Court 2, 3rd match; 4th including Sharapova completion):  A thunderous beginning to the Swede’s Roland Garros campaign has obscured his mediocre results during the rest of the clay season.  Shelling a French wildcard and the clay-averse Taylor Dent, Soderling now faces the much more formidable assignment of Albert Montanes, a clay specialist who defended his Estoril title after defeating Federer there.  The Spaniard’s talent at tirelessly soaking up pace from deep behind the baseline tests any player’s patience and consistency, two virtues that last year’s finalist doesn’t possess in especially strong supply.  Far more imposing on serve than Montanes, however, Soderling needs to attack relentlessly and stay positive despite the occasional misfire.  If he allows himself to be lured into neutral rallies, he could find himself in the role of Monfils opposite Montanes’ impersonation of Fognini.

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Isner (17) vs. Berdych (15) (Court 6, 3rd match):  Attending this match?  You might want to wear a helmet.  Hammering 38 aces during a four-set, three-tiebreak victory over Chiudinelli, Isner intersects with the almost equally imposing serve of Tomas Berdych.  The toast of Miami with wins over Federer, Verdasco, and Soderling, the Czech has found his momentum slowed by nagging injuries over the last several weeks, during which he lost tense three-setters to clay artists Verdasco and Wawrinka.  A valuable opportunity awaits the winner of this match, who could profit from a toothless quarter to create some headlines and elevate their rankings.  Expect swift service holds, very few backhands, very little clay-court tennis, and more tiebreaks.  While Berdych can execute a greater range of shots than Isner, the American is mentally stronger and perhaps a little hungrier at this juncture.

Briefly noted:  A victim of rising Dutchman Thiemo de Bakker in the 500-level Barcelona tournament, Tsonga seeks revenge in front of a compatriot crowd that now must consider the leading male contender after Monfils’ premature exit.  If anyone can absorb the pressure, though, it’s the carefree Tsonga.  To be honest, we didn’t expect that either Youzhny or Troicki would reach the third round on their least favorite surface, but they’ve done so with aplomb and should showcase some crisp backhand-to-backhand rallies when they collide.  Scoring an impressively commanding upset over Safarova, Slovenian teenager Polona Hercog eyes a clash with Pennetta, who predictably overwhelmed Vinci but has struggled this year with the younger generation.  Lastly, the two gritty veterans Schiavone and Li duel in a contest between the crafty versatility of the Italian and the fearless shotmaking of the Chinese., who came within two games of the quarterfinals here last year.

***

You may want to refer back to the Day 5 preview for some of the matches that never took the court on Thursday, including Nishikori-Djokovic or Seppi-Kohlschreiber.  Let’s hope that the rain irrigates the grasses of Wimbledon while the clay stays as dry as the Sahara! 🙂

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The contrast between efficient and inefficient tennis couldn’t have been much starker than in consecutive ATP matches on Court Philippe Chatrier.  While Federer never opened a window of opportunity for Alejandro Falla, Gael Monfils opened windows and doors aplenty for Fabio Fognini, nearly jumping out of a window himself before the setting sun conspired with the Frenchman to deny the Italian three match points.  We checked out on this match when Monfils led by two sets and a break, then checked out again when he led by a double break in the fourth set; unfortunately for him, though, Gael checked out on both of those occasions as well.  Over on Lenglen, meanwhile, Soderling made even Federer look positively profligate with a 71-minute evisceration of Taylor Dent, who deserves credit for swallowing the humiliation in a sportsmanlike manner (ahem, Querrey?).  Kuznetsova looked Doomed with a capital D against an inspired Petkovic until the German uncharacteristically succumbed to nerves and threw Sveta not one but four lifelines.  In other WTA news, Safarova joined fellow clay season sensations Martinez Sanchez and Gulbis on the ferry to London; even Rezai wallowed through a three-setter on Wednesday, suggesting that those much-hyped Rome and Madrid results may hold as much water as a shot glass.  We’re eagerly awaiting Rezai-Petrova on Friday, but first there’s a bit of business involving three Serbs on a Thursday.

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Jankovic (4) vs. Kanepi (Q) (Chatrier, 1st match):  The architect of Jankovic’s demise a year ago in Dubai, Kanepi has struggled during recent months and surprisingly was forced to qualify here.  Not renowned for her clay prowess, the Estonian defeated none other than Henin in Fed Cup a few weeks ago; the four-time French Open champion admittedly was fatigued from Stuttgart and coping with a broken finger, but still…it’s Henin.  On the other hand, the savage but erratic baseline-bashing of Kanepi (not unlike Djokovic’s first-round opponent, Korolev) should provide an excellent foil for Jankovic in her quest to claim a first Slam, seemingly within the Serb’s grasp here.  In fact, we’d even say that circumstances from her recent resurgence to her tranquil draw and Henin’s contrastingly mountainous path have aligned almost ideally in her favor, which probably means that Jelena will find a way to botch the opportunity eventually.  It won’t happen here, however, for JJ’s superb ball-retrieving will enable her to wear down Kanepi after the type of inspiring defensive display that clay regularly rewards.

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Nishikori vs. Djokovic (3) (Lenglen, 3rd match):  Watching the Bolletieri Academy’s Japanese star outlast Ferrer (a rare event indeed) at the 2008 US Open, we were struck by the resemblance between his game and the Spaniard’s.  If Nishikori successfully impersonates Ferrer’s gritty tenacity, Djokovic might find his fitness severely tested in an endless sequence of baseline exchanges.   As mentioned above, his first-round opponent possesses precisely the opposite style, designed to win short points on fast surfaces; consequently, the Serb’s questionable physical condition wasn’t fully examined.  But one should remember that Nishikori’s own fitness may be a few notches below its best in the aftermath of a thrilling comeback from a two-set deficit against an emerging Santiago Giraldo.  Moreover, Djokovic should be able to break (or at least create opportunities to break) with sufficient frequency to take mental pressure off his own serve.  Although the recent rainy weather favors Nishikori’s counterpunching game, Novak should profit from his vastly superior experience to escape this tricky encounter.  If he wavers early, though, stay alert.

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Kleybanova (28) vs. Ivanovic (Court 1, 1st match):  They’ve clashed three times since the beginning of 2009, of which the Russian has claimed two (Australian Open 2009, Fed Cup 2010).  Having scored upsets over Clijsters and Jankovic as well as Ivanovic, Kleybanova regularly has thrilled us with her competitive fire and fascinating angles; no player came closer to defeating Henin in Melbourne before the final.  (Without being unkind, we also should note that the Russian’s movement is surprisingly effective for a player of her physique.)  In Canada last year, we attended her 3½-hour marathon against Jankovic, during which her poise and desire glowed ever more brightly as the match grew tighter.  Nevertheless, Ana possesses a distinct edge on the surface, which is her favorite and Kleybanova’s least favorite.  Although the Serb struggled immensely with her serve during her opener, she looked consistently comfortable with the shot during her Rome run, where the confidence that she gained from it infused the rest of her game.  While Kleybanova does have the psychological advantage from the head-to-head, Ana did defeat her in Dubai last year even in the midst of her slump and thus should enter the match knowing that she can win against the Russian.  It’s an opportunity for her to make a modest but important statement. 

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Hantuchova (23) vs. Govortsova (Court 3, 3rd match—4th including Baghdatis completion):  A late addition to our preview, this match opposes two competitors who effectively were off the radar several months ago but have since awakened…at least for now.  We were delighted to watch the elegant Slovak resurface with a finals appearance in Monterey, a near-quarterfinal appearance in Miami, and a semifinal appearance in Charleston.  One would think that Hantuchova’s high-risk shotmaking and limited movement wouldn’t suit the clay, yet she trains regularly in Monte Carlo and previously has prospered in tournaments such as Rome.  To be sure, Slams are not a comfort zone for the easily unnerved Hantuchova, who has endured excruciating meltdowns on the sport’s grandest stages.  Once considered a potential top-20 or top-30 prospect before a moribund stretch, Govortsova stirred into life at the end of 2009 by reaching the Moscow final; this year, she plowed into the Amelia Island final before seriously threatening Safarova in Rome and Madrid.  (Ordinarily, “threatening Safarova” doesn’t exactly impress, but the streaky Czech compiled one of the best clay seasons of anyone before ignominiously exiting Roland Garros on Wednesday.)  The Slovak and the Belarussian have split their last two meetings, the last of which was won by Hantuchova in a third-set tiebreak after Govortsova had held match points.  Both players are notoriously uncomfortable with any sort of lead, no matter how vast, so don’t tune out on this one even if it looks lopsided early.

Shvedova vs. Radwanska (8) (Court 4, 1st match):  High on velocity and low on nuance, Shvedova always will enjoy more significant success on hard court than clay, yet she smoothly dismantled Italian clay-court specialist Errani in her opener.  Low on velocity and high on nuance, Radwanska theoretically should thrive at Roland Garros but in fact much prefers the grass of Wimbledon, where she is a two-time quarterfinalist.  The Pole’s comfortable win over Shvedova just weeks ago in Miami suggests that she should defuse the Kazakh just as she has defused so many more notable sluggers.  All the same, this match should provide an engaging puncher-counterpuncher contrast rather akin to Jankovic-Kanepi.  Although one always should favor the counterpuncher on clay, one need look no further than Soderling to remember the increasing success of offensive players at Roland Garros, where the grit is not quite as sluggish as it once was.

Seppi vs. Kohlschreiber (30) (Court 17, 3rd match):  This Transalpine confrontation opposes a mercurial German to a steady Italian, just the reverse of what one would associate with both nationalities.  While that stereotype-shattering fact alone might warrant a brief trip to Court 17, don’t forget that Kohlschreiber has achieved remarkable results both at Slams and on clay, defeating Roddick in a thrilling five-setter at the 2008 Australian Open, Djokovic at the 2009 French Open, and Murray at this year’s Monte Carlo. In the latter tournament, he produced a highly competitive pas de deux with Ferrer, perhaps the greatest dirt devil of all outside Nadal.  Like Dulko, Kohlschreiber unfortunately doesn’t follow his huge wins with deep runs on most occasions.  Nevertheless, his ability to hit winners off his sturdy forehand and his gorgeous one-handed backhand should trump the Italian’s forehand-reliant game.  On this occasion, we favor the counterpuncher over the puncher.

Briefly noted:  The sight of aging serve-and-volley artist Mardy Fish in the second round of Roland Garros was arguably as unexpected as the sight of Taylor Dent there.  On Thursday, Mardy faces a player with a similarly serve-based style and the same odd affinity for Indian Wells, Ivan Ljubicic; while the American came within a set of netting the 2008 title after upsetting Federer in the semis, the Croat stunned Nadal and Roddick to capture this year’s title.  Ever a perfectionist, Serena reported dissatisfaction over a first-round win that lacked the customary authority with which she customarily dispatches overmatched opponents like Stefanie Voegele.  We’ll be interested to note whether her disgruntled demeanor persists in a second round against the less overmatched Julia Goerges, or whether the world #1 will have settled into the tournament.  On the other hand, little sister’s tournament started much more impressively than the 2009 edition, when Klara Zakopalova dragged her into a three-set torture chamber.  This year, the Czech ball-retriever seeks to turn the screws on Henin, whose sporadic inconsistency in her comeback might prolong matters but probably won’t derail her progress.  Unless Flipkens renders her fellow Belgian some unexpected assistance, though, the competition will elevate dramatically (haha) in the next round.

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No stranger to tense openers at Roland Garros, Maria has rallied from a one-set deficit against Anastasia Yakimova in 2009, gritted through an 8-6 final set in 2008, and saved match points against Mashona Washington in 2006.  When the statuesque Siberian fell behind talented youngster Ksenia Pervak early in the first set, therefore, one might have expected another nerve-jangling epic to unfold.  Instead, Maria seized five straight games and cruised through the second set with a positive winners/errors differential, always an excellent omen for a shotmaker on this shotmaker-hostile surface.  As relatively inconsequential as it was, Strasbourg appears to have elevated her confidence substantially.  After digesting Pervak, of course, she reminded everyone that she’s actually a sweet person at heart (not that we would have dared to differ):

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A few hours earlier on the same court, Safina once again committed tennis seppuku by regurgitating a comfortable third-set lead and handing Kimiko Date-Krumm her first Roland Garros victory of this millennium.  It’s impossible not to sympathize with the beleaguered Dinara at this stage of her travails, even if one isn’t in her fan club.  Those who are should take comfort that a lower ranking will reduce the public pressure on Safina and allow her to slowly rediscover her comfort zone on the court, a much easier task without constant scrutiny…or so we think.  After tracing the contrasting tales of two Russians on Tuesday, we follow the stories of three more on Wednesday while investigating the French Connection at Roland Garros.

Fognini vs. Monfils (13) (Chatrier, 3rd match):  Although the Frenchman can produce electrifying tennis at times, he’s a disturbingly careless player who wastes energy with unnecessary gyrations, tosses away games and sets with apparent mental lapses, and seems content to trade numerous routine misses for the occasional implausible winner.  Monfils senselessly squandered a set against a lucky loser in the first round, much as he has squandered his immense talents thus far in his career.  Discernibly less talented than “La Monf,” Fognini has developed a smooth all-court game while cultivating a similar propensity for careless, disengaged tennis and erratic focus.  Expect gorgeous winners and ghastly misses in equal measure from both sides of the court; the best way to enjoy this match is not to analyze the larger picture but simply to admire one brushstroke at a time.

Dementieva (5) vs. Medina Garrigues (Chatrier, 4th match):  Almost the diametrical opposite of Monfils and Fognini, Dementieva gradually ensnares her opponent with methodical, cautious point construction.  Often, little seems to be happening during the protracted rallies that often evolve in her matches, until the Russian suddenly strikes one of her sturdy groundstrokes into an opening that one hadn’t even noticed.  This strategy should prove rather effective on clay if Dementieva remains sufficiently calm to execute it, as she was in an impressive opener.  Stifling Melanie Oudin in her own opener and reaching the Strasbourg semis last week, Medina Garrigues has showcased some of the scintillating clay-court tennis with which she surged to the forefront of Spanish female players.  Just days into the tournament, the exits of Martinez Sanchez and Suarez Navarro have cast MG in the leading role again.  We wonder whether the Spaniard’s versatile style will trouble the baseline-rooted Dementieva, but the Russian possesses a substantial power edge. Don’t be surprised if service breaks outnumber holds. 

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Dent vs. Soderling (5) (Lenglen, 1st match):  On the surface (haha), this collision shouldn’t be overly competitive.  We were surprised to see Dent win his opener and only slightly less surprised to see him break the tournament’s serve-speed record.  On the other hand, Soderling remains mentally fallible despite perceptible improvements in that arena and could be rattled by the American’s arrhythmic style.  Therefore, the match might measure the emotional condition of last year’s finalist as he confronts the pressure of repeating his stunning performance form 2009.  While it’s hard to imagine the aging serve-and-volleyer actually winning a clay match against a player of the Swede’s caliber, he might force him into a tiebreak or even take a set if he serves impressively.  Service breaks should be very few and probably terminal when they do occur.

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Ouanna vs. Tsonga (8) (Lenglen, 2nd match):  Unsurprisingly shaky in his Roland Garros debut, Tsonga will be vulnerable on clay to players whom he would crush on faster surfaces.  During the preliminary events, he lost to Ferrero and unheralded Dutchman Thiemo de Bakker before an embarrassingly lopsided defeat to Ferrer in Rome.  Built to win short , staccato points behind serve-forehand combinations, the top-ranked Frenchman lacks both the mental and physical endurance to penetrate deep into this draw, although his quarter does look benign.  The mercurial Ouanna thrilled his compatriots a year ago by defeating Safin 10-8 in the final set with an avalanche of fearlessly attacking tennis, so this matchup should feature plenty of fast-paced, high-risk action.  Weary of watching endless baseline battles between two players who seemingly refuse to miss a shot, or in the mood for some irony?  Come to Lenglen for this clash between two playing styles antithetical to clay…on clay.

Kuznetsova (6) vs. Petkovic (Court 1, 2nd match):  For the second straight round, the German finds herself in one of the day’s most intriguing encounters.  Edging past Vesnina in a three-setter, she now targets a player whom she defeated last fall in Tokyo, just a week before Kuznetsova won the Premier Mandatory title in Beijing.  We wouldn’t put significant weight upon Sveta’s three-set win over the then 143rd-ranked Petkovic in Stuttgart last year, since the latter has refined her game immensely while climbing 100 ranking places since that match.  After dropping the first three games to Cirstea, the defending champion looked more convincing than she has anywhere else in 2010, perhaps suggesting that positive memories from last year are outweighing the situational pressure (in stark contrast to 2009 finalist Safina).  Nevertheless, one solid win remains only one win until the player extends the momentum over several matches.  Kuznetsova has the surface edge over Petkovic, but the German may have the mental edge because of their history and is unlikely to slump into resignation after adversity as did Cirstea.  Expect a crisply played match competitive from start to finish.

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Szavay vs. Petrova (19) (Court 3, 1st match):  Rising and falling faster than a soufflé, Szavay’s meteoric career once inspired us to include her among the future stars of her generation.  (That list also included Cornet, Paszek, and Pironkova, though…hmmm.)  Armed with an imposing serve and a sparkling backhand, she broke into the headlines by charging to the US Open quarterfinals in 2007—and has accomplished barely anything of significance since then.  When she upset Venus in the third round here last year, observers attributed the result less to her brilliance than to the American’s ineptitude, a judgment that the Hungarian promptly vindicated by mustering little resistance against Cibulkova a round later.  Also renowned for a mighty serve and superb two-hander, the aging Petrova stunned international audiences when she humiliated Clijsters and subdued Kuznetsova in Melbourne this year.  Although she’s produced characteristically inconsistent results since then, clay has been friendly to the Russian.  In the second round here a year ago, the former Roland Garros fell to Sharapova 8-6 in the third despite a delicious shotmaking display; that match proved one of the highlights of the WTA tournament.  Expect her to set up a fascinating third-round collision with Rezai.

Briefly notedFulfilling our expectations from Day 3’s preview, Querrey left doubles partner Isner alone to face the dirt that Americans detest.  The towering server began his tournament impressively in the first round by losing just 10 service points, but we’re curious whether his friend’s disgruntled departure wields any influence on his performance against Chiudinelli.  A match between two Fed Cup teammates, the Pennetta-Vinci encounter would have earned our extended attention had their last four meetings not been so oddly lopsided.  They’ve alternated wins in their seven career clashes, and a quick look at the WTA site tells us that it’s Flavia’s turn tomorrow.  Not renowned for his clay achievements, Baghdatis severely tested Ferrer on the admittedly faster surface in Madrid; the charismatic Cypriot will find his patience examined by clay specialist Granollers, who also scored an eye-opening win over Soderling in Melbourne.  Finally, we’re following the fortunes of (two-time!) Warsaw champion Alexandra Dulgheru, steadily rising in the rankings and perhaps a name to remember as spring turns to summer.  She’ll be dueling with Timea Bacsinszky, who recently has won a match from Li Na and a set from Serena. 

***

Let us know if you have any special requests for Day 5, when the top half of the women’s draw and the bottom half of the men’s draw play their first rounds.  You can be assured that we will preview Jankovic-Kanepi, Kleybanova-Ivanovic, Shvedova-Radwanska, Nishikori-Djokovic,  and Seppi-Kohlschreiber, but otherwise we’re open to suggestions!

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A rather painful episode of déjà vu occurred today for the star-crossed Richard Gasquet, who watched a two-set-and-break lead evaporate against Murray for the second time.  Probably better suited for the compressed best-of-three format, the Frenchman’s electrifying shotmaking fails to compensate for his lack of physical (and mental) fitness at majors.  With relatively little at stake, Murray deserves credit for staying focused until Gasquet faded once again; this instinctive will to compete comprises an essential trait of a champion.  Elsewhere, Taylor Dent cracked the fastest serve in Roland Garros history…and actually won the match.  (We know that Andy will be eyeing the radar tomorrow in an effort to eclipse that 149-mph bomb, but wet conditions won’t aid his cause.)  In previous French Opens, serving records generally have not produced positive outcomes; Venus broke the WTA Slam speed record in a 2007 loss to Jankovic, while Karlovic broke the single-match Slam ace record in a defeat to Hewitt last year.  Finally, Ivanovic delivered a characteristically candid post-match interview that was much more intriguing than her opening victory.  Documenting the Serb’s mental oscillations between confidence and uncertainty, it’s worth a read for Ana fans (go to the Roland Garros site, click on News and Photos, then Interviews).  As she tries to “move on and get better” from match to match, we move on to Day 3.

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Pironkova vs. Henin (22) (Chatrier, 1st match):  Perhaps a shade more familiar than the typical 22nd seed, Henin will be sure to reawaken blissful memories in the multitudes of quasi-compatriots eager to celebrate her return to Roland Garros.  The four-time defending champion ignites what will be an extremely demanding fortnight (judging from her draw) against a player whom she once considered a future contender.  Her tennis tomorrow will need to be more impressive than her prognosticating skills then, for Pironkova hasn’t accomplished anything remarkable at significant events; nevertheless, she did defeat a sub-par Dementieva in Warsaw last week.  A quintessential pusher, the Bulgarian projects almost no power at all behind her serves and groundstrokes, relying on movement and consistency to prolong points until her opponent commits errors.  Although Henin’s heightened aggression has produced recurrent flurries of miscues, she should find her range sooner or later.  Pironkova’s pacelessness should allow the Belgian to measure her groundstrokes on the clay, providing her with a useful reference point for tenser encounters in the imminent future.

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Hewitt (28) vs. Chardy (Chatrier, 4th match):  While neither player especially enjoys this surface, the match offers an intriguing contrast between a wily, tenacious veteran and a flamboyant, temperamental star of the future.  Or at least the French hope that Chardy delivers upon his promise, since recent evidence has not been impressive.  Can Hewitt’s grittier mentality enable him to outlast the younger player just as another Anglophone competitor survived a Frenchman on Day 2?  Or will Chardy’s more forceful serve-forehand combinations penetrate the court too effectively, miring the Australian deep behind the baseline?  Note the duration of the rallies, which will favor Chardy if relatively short and Hewitt if they extend longer.  Also observe the impact of the Paris crowd on yet another of les bleues, some of whom (Gasquet, Mauresmo) have appeared burdened by expectations and others of whom (Tsonga, Monfils) have relished the adulation.  On the other hand, something more than fanatical Frenchies is required to rattle Hewitt.

Safina (9) vs. Date Krumm (Lenglen, 2nd match):  The Russian seeks her third consecutive finals appearance at Roland Garros after finishing runner-up to Ivanovic and Safina, but it’s unrealistic to expect the realization of that goal in the aftermath of her back surgery.  Winning just one total match at Stuttgart, Rome, and Madrid, Safina could fall well outside the top 10 and possibly outside the top 20 if she falters here.  Opposite her stands the artful, seemingly ageless Date, whose enduring affection for the game inspired her improbable return.  Unsurprisingly, she hasn’t toppled many high-profile foes in the comeback, yet she did win the Seoul title and has taken sets from elite players such as Wozniacki.  The match rests in Safina’s control, which is not necessarily good news for her; in a similar situation against the pedestrian Zakopalova in Madrid, she coughed up leads in both sets before crumbling under pressure in two tiebreaks.  Should she establish an early lead, she might cruise.  If she doesn’t, we could witness a lively rollercoaster that would compensate for mediocre tennis with high-quality drama.

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Cornet vs. Pavlyuchenkova (29) (Court 1, 1st match):  Long considered future superstars by their respective nations, these expectation-laden phenoms have not quite delivered on their promise—the French much more notably than the Russian.  One can trace Cornet’s implosion to the two match points that she squandered against Safina in the fourth round of last year’s Australian Open.  Had she converted one of those opportunities, she would have reached a first Slam quarterfinal and possibly sparked a breakthrough season; instead, her understandable deflation combined with a  shoulder injury to completely reverse her momentum.  Although Pavlyuchenkova hasn’t endured a similarly spectacular collapse, the Russian has wavered after what seemed a career-changing surge into last year’s Indian Wells semifinals.  She has struggled notably on the largest stages over the past year and has been hobbled by a foot injury in recent weeks.  It’ll be intriguing to observe whether Pavlyuchenkova can recapture the form that brought her to the second week here in 2009, or whether Cornet can muster momentum from encouraging performances in Fez and Estoril.  The French crowd will be firmly on her side, but she might be better off if they weren’t.

Ferrero (16) vs. Cuevas (Court 1, 3rd match):  Our last sight of the polished, gracefully aging Ferrero was his ignominious opening defeat in Rome at the unexpected hands of Santiago Giraldo.  (The Colombian displayed a crisp game that day, but a former French Open champion needs to win more than three games from an unseeded challenger.)  Shortly afterwards, a knee injury compelled Juan Carlos to withdraw from his home even in Madrid, a pity considering his near-total dominance of the South American clay courts in February.  It’ll be intriguing to observe what attitude the former French Open champion brings to his clash with the Uruguayan clay-court doubles specialist Pablo Cuevas.  Gifted with an elegant backhand, Cuevas has overcome adversaries as accomplished as Almagro on this surface, so he could penalize an unconvincing Ferrero.  Above all, though, this duo should deliver a classic exhibit of clay-court tennis rather than awkwardly adapting hard-court styles to the dirt as is so often the case in the contemporary game.  Watching players like these, one learns to relish the variety among tennis surfaces and regret the current trend towards uniform surface speed.

Ginepri vs. Querrey (18) (Court 2, 2nd match):  We’ll admit immediately that these two Americans are no clay experts and in fact are occasionally embarrassed by the vagaries of the surface.  This clash caught our attention not from the brilliant technique that they’ll display but from its psychological component.  Losing their previous meeting in the Indianapolis final despite a far more imposing serve, Querrey brings that mental baggage to the court as well as the baggage of never having won a match at Roland Garros.  It’s not surprising that his strategically limited game hasn’t succeeded here in the past, yet the sometimes complacent American has typically underwhelmed at Slams in general, not a positive sign for his future.  He can’t keep writing off early, disappointing losses as learning experiences forever, nor can he continue losing lackadaisically on important occasions to respectable but unintimidating players like Ginepri.  There’s a fine line between relaxed and lackadaisical that the loose-limbed Californian needs to find soon.

Peer (18) vs. Llagostera Vives (Q) (Court 6, 1st match):  Generally not renowned for her clay-court skills, the Israeli smoothly navigated a pair of formidable draws to reach the semifinals in Stuttgart and Madrid.  In that infamous top quarter of the WTA draw, Peer’s days are certainly numbered, for she could face Serena in the round of 16.  Nevertheless, this tournament represents an opportunity to extend the momentum from the Premier events into Wimbledon and the summer hard courts, where she has prospered more often.  Toting a name as long as she is short, Llagostera Vives has achieved resounding success in doubles with Martinez Sanchez but can be crafty in singles as well.  Peer will be cast in the role of the aggressor, an unaccustomed and perhaps uncomfortable position for her.  We should see a match defined by intelligent point construction and mental tenacity much more than baseline bullets.  Neither of these players can survive with the top-tier sluggers, but they’re an engaging diversion from the power-soaked games of the WTA elite.

Briefly notedAfter Ginepri vs. Querrey on Court 2, Serena and Venus continue their pursuit of a doubles calendar Slam.  Absent for most of the clay season in which she thrives, Marbella finalist Suarez Navarro targets Ponte Vedra Beach finalist Govortsova, a Belarussian who has enjoyed surprising success on this surface over the past several weeks.  One match to not watch is the clash between Gabashvili and Daniel Koellerer.  The senselessly pugnacious Austrian has earned the contempt of fellow players, commentators, and spectators alike for his repulsive, relentless displays of gamesmanship inappropriate to this dignified sport.  Far more elegant is the meeting between Hantuchova and Tamarine Tanasugarn, both of whom must be looking forward to the grass season; nevertheless, we’re curious to see who more successfully adapts their fast-court style to the clay.  While the willowy Slovak attempts to solve that riddle, Russian qualifier Ksenia Pervak ventures into the den of a familiar lioness:

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How do you solve a problem like Maria?  We hope that Pervak has no answer. 😉

 

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Little of consequence transpired on Day 1 beyond the injury-related exits of Martinez Sanchez and Gulbis.  (Nice work with the voodoo doll, Mirka!)  Azarenka fans may be disappointed by her early demise, but the silver lining to this cloud is that the Belarussian will be forced into resting the hamstring injury that she unintelligently refuses to respect.  Perhaps the most surprising news of the day was Kuznetsova’s sturdy performance against the dangerous Cirstea after a predictably uneasy start.  The defending champion will have plenty of work to do against Petkovic on Wednesday, however, and we have plenty of work to do right now.  Day 2 preview straight ahead…

Murray (3) vs. Gasquet (Lenglen, 3rd match):  Few spectators will have forgotten their five-set Wimbledon collision two years ago, when the Scot thrilled his compatriots by rallying from a two-set deficit against the mentally fragile Frenchman.  Gasquet has won their other two meetings, however, and brings a 10-match winning streak from titles in Bordeaux (a challenger) and Nice, where he recorded his most impressive win since the cocaine investigation by defeating Verdasco in the final.  Neither the Scot nor the Frenchman enjoys playing on clay as much as other surfaces, and Murray has looked anywhere from uninspired to horrific during his 3-3 campaign at Monte Carlo, Rome, and Madrid.  If the match extends deep into a fourth or fifth set, however, he’ll have the fitness edge over a weary Gasquet.  The French crowd should aid their player in the initial stages, but don’t be surprised if they turn against him should he open poorly.  Located in the weakest quarter, the winner will be favored to reach the quarters or even the semis.  The fourth seed certainly could use any momentum that he can accumulate here to psychologically buttress him against the Murray Mania that looms in a few weeks.

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Llodra vs. Bellucci (24) (Court 1, 4th match):  Although far from a star-studded matchup, this all-lefty clash opposes the artful, net-charging Frenchman and the baseline-rooted Brazilian in an engaging contrast of styles.  Both players have demonstrated a propensity for mixing flashy winners with ghastly errors, so expect some entertaining momentum shifts.  Court positioning will prove crucial in this match; can Llodra find his way to the net or will Bellucci keep him pinned behind the baseline?  Still vulnerable to outbursts of rash aggression, the Brazilian has noticeably improved over the last few weeks and displayed sufficient patience to oust Isner in Rome.

Dementieva (5) vs. Martic (Court 2, 2nd match):  Struggling to win matches of any sort recently, the world #5 succumbed last week to Pironkova in her Warsaw opener after premature exits in Rome and Madrid.  It’s a bit surprising to note that Dementieva has won multiple titles this year, for her form at the important events has been indifferent at best.  Opposing her is a lanky Croatian teenager who has matured rather slowly following success in the juniors but who scored eye-opening wins over Wickmayer in the Paris Indoors and Rezai in Miami while posting a competitive effort against Jankovic in Indian Wells.  The match rests in Dementieva’s ever-shaky hands, which means that another wobbly outing would give the 19-year-old upstart a chance.

Dokic vs. Safarova (24) (Court 6, 1st match):  Since the 2009 Australian Open, Dokic hasn’t recaptured the luster of that electrifying quarterfinal run; illnesses and recurrent personal issues have hampered her comeback.  Last year, though, she nearly defeated Dementieva here before retiring with an injury, so her high-risk style can reap rewards even on a slower surface.  Confronted with this challenging assignment, Safarova will need the positive momentum accumulated from victories over Wozniacki, Pennetta, Radwanska, and Sharapova during her three clay-court tournaments.  Will the thigh injury that forced her to retire from Madrid recur?  Expect a scintillating, offensive-oriented contest in which both competitors play much more aggressively than would the standard clay-court player.  If the relatively fast conditions observed on Sunday persist, this match could produce very high-quality tennis indeed.

Nishikori vs. Giraldo (Court 6, 3rd match):  Yet another product of the renowned Bolletieri Academy, Nishikori burst upon the stage in 2008 by defeating Ferrer in a five-setter at the US Open.  Although chronic injuries have undermined his attempts to consolidate that breakthrough, his expert movement and low-risk style have achieved their best results on hard courts but also could prosper on the consistency-demanding clay.  Unfortunately for the Japanese prodigy, a more recent breakthrough artist confronts him in the first round.  Giraldo followed his upset of Ferrero in Rome with a sturdy effort in Madrid, where he nearly toppled the towering Isner.  Far more experienced on the surface, he should overcome NIshikori in the end, but first we should see some extended, well-constructed rallies.

Oudin vs. Medina Garrigues (Court 8, 1st match):  Last year’s US Open quarterfinalist has amply demonstrated the mental tenacity required to thrive on the grit.  On the other hand, the diminutive American has struggled with the high-bouncing surface (which makes us wonder how the petite Henin has handled it so well) and with the heavy spins employed by clay specialists.  A semifinalist in Strasbourg, where she won a set from Sharapova, Medina Garrigues long has flourished on her favorite surface with a sturdy, well-rounded game.  The aging Spaniard has perceptibly faded over the last several months, however, and may still be weary from a two-match, one-day effort last week during the aforementioned Strasbourg run.  Expect plenty of service breaks as Oudin attempts to seize one last opportunity to gain momentum before defending her impressive summer results.  Scheduled to face the winner in the second round, Dementieva must be hoping not to see the Georgian, who has beaten her once and taken her to three sets in their other two meetings.

Errani vs. Shvedova (Court 10, 3rd match):  Can an adroit counterpuncher with a high tennis IQ survive in a WTA where power is at a premium, even on the most counterpuncher-friendly surface?  The Italian will seek to disrupt the Russian-turned-Kazakh’s timing with elegant spins and delicate touch, needing to construct the points more meticulously than her opponent.  Shvedova’s strategy is quite straightforward:  see ball, hit ball, watch opponent flail helplessly at ball, repeat.  Courts have been playing relatively fast so far this year, which bodes ill for Errani; still, it’ll be intriguing to see whether she can weave a web around a ball-bruising but stylistically limited opponent from the second tier of sluggers.

Troicki vs. Robredo (21) (Court 17, 3rd match including completion):  One never knows what to expect from Troicki on any given day, for the least famous Serb oscillates between inspired shotmaking and inexplicable avalanches of routine misses.  On the other hand, one knows exactly what to expect from Robredo, who has made a living out of tormenting the inconsistent plebeians of the ATP while lacking the offensive weapons to challenge the elite.  That comment might sound like an insult, but it isn’t; in an era of Slam-obsessed superstars, fans should respect a player who competes at the same level on every occasion even as they admire the brilliance of higher-ranked players.  Will Troicki’s game ebb or flow at crucial moments?  If it flows, Robredo might be in trouble; if it ebbs, the Spaniard will take full advantage.

Briefly notedThe allergy-addled Djokovic tentatively begins his Roland Garros campaign against ball-bruising Russian Evgeny Korolev; although this match normally wouldn’t garner our attention at all, we’re curious to observe the state of the Serb’s fitness, which would be crucial in upcoming rounds.  Not at her finest on clay, Radwanska has been assigned a potentially stern test in the person of Elena Baltacha, who has quietly recorded some impressive wins this year over Li Na, Cirstea, Kateryna Bondarenko, and Chakvetadze.  (Actually, maybe cross out the last one from the “impressive” category.)  Elsewhere, Barrois and Dulgheru attempt to translate their success from Warsaw and Strasbourg to Paris against the respectable but unintimidating duo of Garbin and Hradecka, respectively.  Can Dushevina follow up her near-upset of Serena in Madrid with a sturdy performance against the unpredictable Alona Bondarenko?  In a ridiculously saturated top quarter, Stosur can’t afford many missteps.  The 2009 Roland Garros semifinalist opens her tournament opposite a Romanian star of the future, Simona Halep, who finally is making headlines for the right reasons.  But the place to be in the late afternoon on Tuesday is Court 1, where Safina nemesis Kai-chen Chang collides with someone special:

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We were a bit concerned when Ana mentioned that an illness had prevented her from preparing as effectively as she would have wished.  Nevertheless, a decent performance in Paris would help her prove that Rome wasn’t a mirage.

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Cows, put on your skates.  Maria Sharapova would be the first to admit her shortcomings on clay, once labeling herself a “cow on ice,” but she claimed the first red-clay title of her career at Strasbourg this weekend.  Although nobody would confuse it with Rome or Madrid, the tournament will have restored some vital confidence to a player whose high-stakes game revolves around it.  We were encouraged to observe how greatly she relished winning this insignificant title, moreover, proving that her renowned passion for competition remains undimmed despite demoralizing injuries.  If Maria can carry her momentum here into faster surfaces, the summer hard courts should see her well-positioned to wreak some havoc.  Better positioned than a cow on ice, anyway.

While Maria journeys to the French capital, we inaugurate our daily previews of the matches to watch at Roland Garros.  Sunday’s order of play disappointed us a bit, to be honest, so the selection is smaller than what you’ll see from us in the future.  Nevertheless, there’s a defending champion and a pair of potential future champions in action…

Kuznetsova (6) vs. Cirstea (Chatrier, 1st match):  Just 3-5 since the beginning of March, Kuznetsova has been struggling to win matches since her title in Beijing last fall.  If the defending champion doesn’t win this match, she’ll drop well outside the top 10 and perhaps outside the top 20.  Unfortunately for her, victory is far less assured than in most first rounds, for the draw has pitted her against a quarterfinalist here last year, who upset Jankovic in a marathon three-setter.  Like Kuznetsova, though, Cirstea has accomplished much less recently than her talents would suggest and has not recorded an impressive win since defeating Dementieva in Hopman Cup.  On the other hand, she recently harnessed the assistance of Azarenka’s former coach, Antonio Van Grichen, and showed promising signs by defeating Kirilenko in Andalusia as well as taking a set from Pennetta in Madrid.  Both players showcase bold shotmaking that can veer wildly from sizzling to Antarctic, which might produce an entertaining rollercoaster.  If the photogenic Romanian can stay focused and within range, she’ll have an opportunity to pull off the upset.

Dulko vs. Azarenka (10) (Lenglen, 2nd match):  One never would consider Azarenka the retiring type, but the extroverted Belorussian has retired three times since Miami with a hamstring injury.  Also a quarterfinalist here last year, her balanced game suits the clay better than many of her peers and may someday lift her to the title.  It won’t happen in 2010, however, for any sort of hampered movement will be ruthlessly exposed on this surface.  Dulko’s consistency might enable her to wear down Azarenka in long rallies; the Argentine certainly isn’t intimidated by marquee players, having defeated Sharapova, Ivanovic, and Henin at Wimbledon, the Australian Open, and Indian Wells during the past year.  Another factor here may be the unruly French crowd, since hostile audiences have rattled Azarenka in the past by mocking her Sharapova-esque shriek.  That said, she has many more ways to win points than does Dulko. 

Benneteau vs. Gulbis (23) (Lenglen, 3rd match):  On paper, this first round should be an utter mismatch, but we’re moderately curious to observe how Gulbis responds to what surely will be a partisan Paris crowd.  The Latvian defeated an Italian in Italy and a Spaniard in Spain during his last two events, seeming a trifle jaded against Volandri but completely unruffled against Lopez.  An accomplished doubles player, Benneteau doesn’t possess the consistency or defensive skills that would test Gulbis’ still-suspect consistency.  Among the key questions regarding his future Slam success would be his ability to remain focused deep into a best-of-five format, but that question probably won’t be answered for at least one or two more rounds.

Sprem vs. Kirilenko (30) (Court 2, 2nd match):  Steadily rising in the rankings, Kirilenko impressively followed up her opening upset of Sharapova by reaching the final eight in Melbourne.  The 30th seed also navigated into the Rome quarterfinals after defeating Kuznetsova in three sets.  Situated in Sveta’s section again here, she could accomplish another strong run here, although she just suffered an oddly lopsided loss in Madrid to Radwanska, no dirt devil herself.  Designed around grace and guile, her game sometimes falters against an imposing server like Croatia’s Sprem, perhaps best known for a controversial Wimbledon win over Venus.  The contrast between adroit point construction and first-strike tennis could produce some engaging rallies.

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Vesnina vs. Petkovic (Court 17, 1st match):  This match deserves much better than Court 17.  Separated by just three places in the rankings, the Russian and the German both possess well-rounded games as well as an imaginative sense of opening up the court with angled groundstrokes.  Although Petkovic prefers hard courts to clay, she has acquitted herself surprisingly well on the surface with wins over Rezai and Pennetta, in addition to taking a set from Serena in Rome.  Winless on red clay this year, Vesnina nevertheless scored her best performance of 2010 on green clay in the now-defunct Ponte Vedra Beach tournament, where she came within a few points of defeating eventual champion Wozniacki.  Mentally stronger than the Russian, Petkovic should prevail, but their encounter should be more tightly contested than most of Sunday’s clashes.

Briefly noted:  Most of the ATP matches look rather nondescript, but here are a few of minor interest.  A year after thrilling his compatriots by defeating Safin 10-8 in the fifth set, Josselin Ouanna attempts to recapture that magic against dangerous doubles specialist Lukasz Kubot.  Two years after nearly toppling Federer in another 10-8 fifth-set (at the Australian Open), the ever-eccentric, engaging Serb Janko Tipsarevic duels with Colombian clay specialist Alejandro Falla for the reward of a rematch with the world #1.  A tireless ball-retriever, Indian phenom Somdev Devvarman unsurprisingly clawed a path through qualifying to set up a winnable match against Swiss journeyman Marco Chiudinelli.  While Devvarman must refine his shot selection and develop an offensive weapon in order to break through, the clay should allow him to showcase his excellent defensive skills.  Keep his name on your radar for the long-distance future.