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Recognize this man?  Roger Federer does, having ignominiously fallen to him a few days in an Estoril semifinal.  After improbably defending his title at that Portuguese tournament, Montanes opens his Madrid campaign against fellow Federer nemesis Gulbis, also riding a tsunami-like momentum wave from a semifinal run in Rome.  Their match offers an almost diametrical contrast in styles, for the Latvian relies on explosive serves and forehands whereas the unheralded Spaniard churns through extended rallies in the mode of a classic clay-courter.  Since Gulbis nearly hit through Nadal at the Foro Italico, one would imagine that he’ll comfortably hit through Nadal’s less resilient compatriot.  Nevertheless, emerging players often stagger a little after key breakthroughs while they peer through the settling dust at their unfamiliar surroundings.  Blinded for most of 2009 by the dust of 2007-08, Gulbis could be seeded at the French Open with a sturdy performance here.  His draw is solid but not overly daunting, so a valuable opportunity awaits. 

The Latvian firecracker isn’t the only player who will be seeking to capitalize upon a rousing Rome breakhrough, for Martinez Sanchez begins tomorrow against Stosur, who remarkably must be considered among the leading contenders at Roland Garros.  A preview of that match and four other Tuesday clashes is straight ahead:

Stosur-Martinez Sanchez:  It’s a pity that the Stuttgart finalist and the Rome champion must meet so early in Madrid, from where only one of them can receive a final injection of confidence before the French Open.  Since their playing styles are so similar, the match likely will be decided by who serves more effectively and creates more opportunities to attack the net, where both of them rank among the best in the WTA.  The Australian’s outstanding second serve could prove a crucial factor, allowing her to escape with a lower first-serve percentage than can the Spaniard with her relatively straightforward second delivery.  Is MJMS here to stay, or was Rome a breathtaking career highlight like Bartoli’s 2007 Wimbledon run?  More experienced than Gulbis, she’ll be less susceptible to a post-breakthrough hangover.  We should witness an crisply played match high on short points and low on service breaks, a rarity in the WTA”s world of resounding returns and sagging serves.  Unable to ruffle the imperturbable Stosur, the Spanish crowd might lift MJMS to the upset but also might burden her with the weight of their collective expectation.  Over the last several weeks, she has conclusively seized the standard of women’s tennis in her nation from the fading Medina Garrigues and the injured Suarez Navarro.

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Verdasco-Karlovic:  Nobody wants to see the monolithic Croat adjacent to them in a draw, least of all a player on a scalding streak like Verdasco.  Even if he overcomes Karlovic, the spasmodic style in which the match will be played could disrupt his rhythm for future matches against more conventional players.  The Croat’s serve-and-volley tactics shouldn’t convert well at all to clay, but his serve can be cashed in virtually any currency.  Focusing simply on putting that shot back in play, Verdasco will need to play a little more conservatively than he prefers; there is very little margin for error against Karlovic, especially on one’s own service games, so he should focus on fundamentals instead of flashiness.  Winning four of the six tiebreaks that they have contested, the ace king has toppled Verdasco in their last three meetings, so it’ll be intriguing to observe whether the Spaniard brings any mental baggage to the court with him.  He needs to remember that none of those matches were played on clay and to keep his composure when Karlovic unleashes his bombardment of blurs.  Recently a much more sturdy competitor than in the past, the Monte Carlo finalist can rely upon his compatriots in the crowd to help him fend off frustration.  Here is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate his new mental maturity.

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Nalbandian-Berdych:  Somewhat surprisingly, the Czech hasn’t ignited after his spectacular fortnight in Miami and suffered one of his trademark head-scratching losses last week in Munich to Petzschner.  Berdych would do well to look across the net for a reminder of what can happen to those who don’t possess the dedication and urgency necessary to fulfill their potential, for Nalbandian surely will enter history as the most talented player of his generation never to win a Slam.  On the other hand, Tomas perhaps should concentrate on the task at hand, since he’s lost four of their previous five meetings and (eerily) twice in this city, although both of those matches lasted three sets.  Seeking to rebound from what seemed a  career-threatening hip injury, the Argentine nearly jolted Nadal in Miami before hurtling into the quarterfinals of Monte Carlo with victories over Youzhny and Robredo.  His early ball-striking and ingenious angle-creating should translate even better here than they did to the slower surface in that Mediterranean pleasure garden.  Meanwhile, Berdych’s serve-forehand combinations should find the mark more effectively at this altitude.  If both men play at the level of which they’re capable, this clash will be the match of the day.  But it’s a huge “if.”

Petkovic-Pennetta:  We hadn’t really noticed this early-morning catfight until our Spanish friend Alvaro Rama called our attention to it.  (If you have a specific match that you would like us to profile on any of these days, by the way, just Twitter at us or write a comment here, and we’ll do our best to comply.)  One of the more colorful characters in a WTA full of colorful characters, the multitalented Petkovic has explored music and politics in her adopted country.  She plays some decent tennis on the side, as Pennetta learned the hard way in her Miami opener, and is more dangerous than her ranking just outside the top 50 suggests.  First watching the Bosnian-turned-German last fall in Tokyo, we were struck both by her businesslike attitude on the court and by the fearlessness with which she attacked Kuznetsova, uncommon among players unused to tackling the WTA elite.  A few weeks ago, her two wins for Germany in a tense Fed Cup tie against France further illustrated her poise under pressure, a trait not shared by Pennetta.  Trading breadsticks with Cirstea in a bizarre first round, the Italian has developed a balanced, technically crisp style and is comfortable from almost any position on the court, but she struggles to unleash the point-ending shots owned by Petkovic.  The match thus represents a contest between versatility and shot-making, of which the clay should favor the former.  Nevertheless, the intelligent German is learning how to modulate her aggression and could flap the highly flappable Italian if she starts confidently and establishes her authority early in the match.

Li-Cibulkova:  Mercilessly bludgeoning their first-round foes, these steely competitors will remain rintooted to the baseline as consistently as Stosur and Martinez Sanchez will hasten to the net.  A 2009 French Open semifinalist, the diminutive Slovak hasn’t impressed on most occasions since then and has struggled with injuries, but she’ll severely test Li’s Achilles heel, her consistency.  Surprisingly, the Chinese star nearly reached the quarterfinals at Roland Garros last year and has enjoyed recurrent success on what one would consider her least comfortable surface.  Among clay venues, the swift Madrid courts should suit her game more effectively than most, seemingly setting her up for an extended  run through the weakest section of the draw.  She often rises or sinks to the level of the competition, however, and has chronically struggled to win matches that she should win.  The 13th seed must take intelligent rather than reckless risks and mentally prepare herself to hit one extra ball, while the Slovak must keep her opponent pinned behind the baseline in order to keep the rallies in neutral mode.  If this match is decided by winners, Li will win; if it’s decided by errors, the Slovak will advance.

Of somewhat less interest but still worthy of note are a pair of WTA matches on the same court as Li.  Peer-Kleybanova will afford the same stark style contrast as Gulbis-Montanes, with the burly Russian seeking to muscle groundstrokes past the the tenacious Israeli.  Shortly afterwards, Pavlyuchenkova-Petrova juxtaposes yet another budding baseliner bearing the “Made in Russia” label with an aging but still dangerous and always entertaining compatriot.  Will the future or the past be the present on Tuesday?

***
The match for which all of us have been waiting (all right, the match for which we have been waiting) won’t happen until Wednesday, but you can be sure that we’ll feature it prominently in the next edition of our blog!

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Ana couldn’t believe her eyes when she captured the #1 ranking for the first time by winning that three-set semifinal at Roland Garros.  🙂

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