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The Rome tournament soared to a slightly premature climax on Friday afternoon with the epic Jankovic-Serena semifinal, one of the most dramatic and tightly contested WTA matches of the year so far.  Having observed several weeks ago that Nadal tends to feature in some of the most suspenseful ATP matches of this era, win or lose, one could make a similar remark about the Serb.  After a series of demoralizing losses in 2009, we crossed her off our list of future Slam contenders, but now she’s establishing herself once again among the dominant threats at the top tournaments.  If not for a certain Belgian, in fact, Jankovic might well be the favorite at Roland Garros.  Tomorrow, she’ll pursue her third Rome title in the last four years against the many-syllabled Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, quite the upset artist over the last few months.  The Spaniard’s late-career surge began simultaneously with Jankovic’s revival in Indian Wells and shows just as little sign of abating; her serve-and-volley style could wreak serious havoc at Wimbledon.

Can MJMS complete the Serbian double play and seize this Premier Five title?  After a draining marathon in the semifinals, Jelena may be a little fatigued (as was Ivanovic on Friday) and start sluggishly before settling into the match.  Also, she might suffer a mental hangover from the rare feat of back-to-back wins over Serena and Venus.  She’s solved the most difficult problem, but does she have enough energy to finish the exam?  Even more of a rhythm-oriented player than Ivanovic, Jelena won’t enjoy the staccato style in which she’ll be forced to play if MJMS continues to serve effectively.  On the other hand, Jankovic possesses greater improvisational skills than her more powerful compatriot, which should enable her to adapt more successfully to the Spaniard’s eccentricities.  A little less tall and significantly faster, she’ll be able to reach more low balls and chase down more drop shots than did Ivanovic.  More useful in this situation than Ana’s superior shotmaking prowess, the elder Serb’s reliable return game will force MJMS into more difficult volleying positions.  This feisty underdog certainly could rise to the occasion, but one favors JJ to ultimately unravel one last conundrum, perhaps in three sets.

***

As if to atone for denying us the all-ajde final, the tennis gods (or Ion Tiriac) have ordained an all-ajde second round in Madrid.  The ostensible gift of a first-round bye thus turned into no gift at all for Ana and Jelena, one of whom will arrive rather early in Paris.  So loaded is the draw, however, that several second-round matches of almost equal interest loom during the start of next week.  As always, we take a quarter-by-quarter look at the winding red-brick road ahead, prefaced by a flashback to when Maria was last here:

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First quarter:    Following a undemanding opener against Miss Bye and a routine second round, Serena will meet her first test of the tournament in Petrova, who defeated her in a third-set tiebreak last fall.  Highly accomplished on this surface, the Russian could pull off the upset if the American doesn’t bring her trademark intensity to the match, yet we suspect that events in Rome will have sufficiently irked Serena to motivate her in Madrid.  On the other side of the quarter lurk two more Russians, the returning Sharapova and the omnipresent Dementieva, mediocre in Rome but a former French Open finalist and a major threat on clay in the past.  If Maria shakes off her rust in time to defuse Safarova, she’ll face a severe test of consistency against her elder compatriot.  Unless Dementieva plays as she did this week, we suspect that she’ll set up a quarterfinal rendezvous with Serena…and a trip to Paris shortly thereafter.

Semifinalist:  Serena

Second quarter:  One has to pity defending champion Safina, who crashed out to Dulgheru in the second round of Rome and almost certainly won’t survive the second round here.  Having ended her first career by losing to the Russian in Berlin two years ago, Henin won’t hesitate to settle this particular score and should rumble to the quarterfinals without much ado.  Once there, she should face the winner of Ajde Alley, who might need to overcome Bartoli in the third round.  Should the Serb in question be Jankovic, as is probable, a contentious match could ensue in this ever ill-tempered mini-rivalry, which has produced some of the most acerbic witticisms of the last two years in tennis.  Henin will have the last laugh, though.

Semifinalist:  Henin

Third quarter:  Another Trojan horse of a gift awaits Rome finalist Martinez Sanchez, ushered by a bye  into the second round for a clash with the even more momentum-fueled Stosur.  Expelling the Spaniard from Indian Wells, the Australian should repeat the result here; she’ll always represent an extreme challenge for MJMS, who plays essentially the same game but a little less consistently.  It’s hard to know what (if anything) to expect from Venus after hideous performances against Clijsters in Miami and Jankovic in Rome, but her immediate vicinity looks relatively benign by the standard of this brutal draw.  Although Zvonareva normally would threaten her on this surface, Vera has struggled for most of the season so far and endured a first-round loss to the unimposing Kvitova in Rome. 

Semifinalist:  Stosur

Fourth quarter:  Mirror, mirror, on the wall:  which Kuznetsova answers the call?  The one who performs great deeds with the ball?  Or the one who can’t find the court at all?  Sveta has little room for error when she faces the recently dangerous Peer in her opener.  Elsewhere in this neighborhood are best friends Azarenka and Wozniacki, both struggling with nagging injuries and far from impressive on clay this season.  The door lies open for a determined opportunist to slash a route to the semis, and Li Na seems an excellent candidate for the role.  She defeated Azarenka in Tokyo last fall, Wozniacki in Australia this January, and Kuznetsova just two weeks ago in Stuttgart.  A player of hot streaks and cold streaks, Li awakened from one of the latter in Stuttgart with the aforementioned Kuznetsova upset and looks ready to head in the other direction, provided that she can solve last year’s French Open semifinalist Cibulkova in the second round.

Semifinalist:  Li

Semifinals:  Henin def. Serena, Stosur def. Li

Final:  Henin def. Stosur

***

We’ll return tomorrow with the ATP Madrid preview.  It was a marvelous fortnight in Rome for Nadal, Gulbis, Ferrer, Verdasco, Ivanovic, Jankovic, Serena, and MJMS, but now it’s time to wave goodbye to the Eternal City…

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