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Few fans of Serbian tennis will have forgotten the 2008 Roland Garros semifinal between their nation’s twin WTA pillars, which carried the additional significance of determining the #1 ranking.  Seizing that three-set rollercoaster with a forehand return-of-serve winner, Ivanovic not only presented us with a lovely birthday gift (thanks, Ana! xo) but rode the impetus from the emotional victory into the final, where she captured her first Slam title.  Shortly after a one-sided verbal squabble over Fed Cup participation, the two ajde artists collide for the ninth time but only the second time since that memorable afternoon in Paris.  Although Jankovic won their latest meeting, Ivanovic captured six of the previous seven clashes and both of their matches on the clay where the two Serbs prosper.  This substantial head-to-head edge should infuse Ana with confidence but probably won’t disturb Jelena, well aware of her rival’s prolonged tumble from the top.

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Ranging from stagnant to spectacularly awful in 2009, both Serbs have begun to regain their footing in the last few months.  Jankovic signaled a revival by capturing the Indian Wells title, while Ivanovic waited until last week to announce her return with a semifinal run in Rome during which she bounced two top-10 players and the ever-dangerous Petrova.  Yet Jelena looked even sharper in the Italian capital by scoring the coveted Williams-sister sweep before tumbling to the crafty Martinez Sanchez a day after her compatriot.  Portents suggest a high-quality match far more intriguing than an ordinary second-round encounter, considering the dual momentum surge that the pair generated last week:

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But whose sorcery will prevail in the Magic Box?  Following the offense-counterpunching model, Ivanovic will aim to penetrate the court with her devastating forehand, while Jankovic will seek to move her less agile adversary around the court in order to expose her backhand.  If Jelena can regularly construct backhand-to-backhand rallies, she’ll drag Ana out of her comfort zone into a situation where the elder Serb’s superior consistency will prevail.  We don’t normally advocate running around backhands to hit forehands, but it will be necessary for Ivanovic to do so on this occasion, even if she exposes a large area of the court.  Since she can’t cover that hole, she needs to connect with deep, aggressive shots that keep Jankovic off balance and don’t allow her to redirect the ball; overcooking a few of those forehands is perfectly acceptable, whereas tentative ball-striking is not.  Unexpectedly solid in Rome, Ana’s net play could be vital as a means of preventing Jankovic from digging a trench deep behind the baseline and devoting herself to ball retrieval. 

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Serving will prove crucial for both Serbs in different ways.  In Ivanovic’s case, she’ll want to vary the location of her serve to draw mid-court returns that she can pummel to win quick points before her opponent can settle into the rally.  In Jankovic’s case, she’ll want to serve at a high percentage because Ana loves to run around a shallow second serve and crush a forehand return, the shot that sealed the elder Serb’s fate at the French Open two years ago.  As with the rest of their respective games, the younger Serb will embrace risks while the elder Serb will seek steadiness.

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In order to discern on whose terms the match is being played, note the length of the points.  While short points and high winner / high unforced error totals favor Ana, extended rallies and low winner / low unforced error totals favor Jelena.  An x-factor here is fatigue, which hopefully won’t exert a meaningful impact but could play a role considering their deep runs last week.  If Jankovic’s movement falls below its usual crispness, she could pay for it; weariness in Ivanovic’s game tends to emerge in a lowered first-serve percentage, which would undermine her to an equal extent.  Assuming that both Serbs reach the level of which they’re capable, though, the tournament couldn’t have asked for a more dramatic way with which to start its order of play on Wednesday, although the match will begin not long after drowsy Madrilenos are sipping their morning coffee.  Care for a cup, Snezana?  We thought not.  😉

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Shifting from ajde to Andy, we’ll start our preview of the other intriguing Wednesday matches with the top-ranked American man and end it with the top-ranked American woman.

Lopez-Roddick:  Far from Roddick’s favorite time of year, the clay season normally offers a brief glimpse of his serve-oriented game before he springs into the foreground at Wimbledon.  Nevertheless, Madrid’s more sprightly surface and high elevation buttressed his quarterfinal run here last year, cut short by (surprise!) Federer in a reasonably competitive three-setter.  In much stronger form than he was a year ago, Andy will seek to preserve the sparkle from an outstanding North American hard-court season, when he fell just one match short of the demanding Indian Wells-Key Biscayne sweep.  Drawn to face Federer in the quarters again, he can’t look too far ahead with a match against the tricky Feliciano Lopez, who enjoys the honor of being the third-best Spanish lefty in the ATP.  Having won sets from Roddick in their earlier meetings, including a match in Melbourne this year, Lopez scored an impressive win over Cilic in Rome two weeks ago before succumbing to Gulbis in the quarterfinals.  Somewhat like Roddick, his serve-volley and serve-forehand combinations don’t translate especially well to the surface but will prove more effective in Madrid than at Roland Garros, for example.  Expect plenty of short points and very few service breaks.  Lopez has won two of his last three tiebreaks against Roddick, no small achievement, but the American’s superior consistency on both physical and mental levels has lifted him to victory in all six of their previous meetings.  On the other hand, we’ve seen very little of Roddick since Miami other than a few beach pictures with his wife in Hawaii, not a renowned tennis destination.  If Andy arrives with the absence of motivation that he displayed in the Asian events last fall, Lopez possesses the weapons to send him off to another lovely vacation spot:  Paris.  With a resilient, determined competitor like Roddick, though, one must assume commitment until proven otherwise.

Ferrer-Baghdatis:  Recently joining the swelling ranks of Federer’s nemeses, Baghdatis returned to the conversation by winning the Sydney title at the outset of 2010 and by rallying from a two-set deficit at the Australian Open against none other than…David Ferrer.  That match marked the first time in Ferrer’s career that the Spaniard had relinquished such a substantial lead, a testament to the competitive zeal of both players.  Always a concern for the Cypriot is his fitness, which forced him to retire in his next Melbourne match against Hewitt; his training regimens reportedly are a shade less than the taxing routines regularly undergone by the ATP elite.  This weakness could be exposed on clay by the supremely fit Ferrer, who looks likely to plow deep into the second week at Roland Garros after playing his best tennis since 2008.  Watch the battles of two-handed backhands that should unfold here, which will exhibit two of the crispest, cleanest, and most economical strokes imaginable.  Unless Baghdatis serves imposingly at crucial moments, though, Ferrer should grind down the Cypriot through the endless baseline exchanges in which he specializes.  The Spaniard’s lack of an explosive offensive weapon prevents him from breaking through consistently against top-ranked players, but his unflinching focus and relentless consistency typically propel him past streaky, second-tier competitors like Baghdatis, especially on Ferrer’s beloved clay.  Moreover, he visibly drew energy from a fervent crowd in Madrid against Roddick two years ago and can anticipate equally enthusiastic support as the marquee ATP match in the night session.

Soderling-Almagro:  In the wake of the non-existent “match of the day” on Tuesday between Berdych and Nalbandian, we’re reluctant to apply that phrase to any of Wednesday’s contests.  Still, the shotmaking standard here should be intense with both players ripping (or at least attempting to rip) outright groundstroke winners on both wings from behind the baseline.  Unimpressive thus far on clay, Soderling has one last chance to assert himself as one of Nadal’s principal challengers in Paris.  Easily adaptable to all surfaces except grass, Almagro is the type of opponent who could bother him on an off-key day with his streaky shot-making prowess, but he’ll need to catch fire at the right time.  After capturing a lopsided first set from the talented Troicki and establishing a break advantage in the second set, the Spaniard unnecessarily muddied the waters by allowing the Serb to slip into a tiebreak.  He can’t expect Soderling to politely demur as did Troicki should he offer the Swede an opportunity to erase any lead that he might accumulate.  On the other hand, hostile crowds have rattled the Swede on past occasions such as his loss to Baghdatis at the 2009 Australian Open, a match that he controlled early before flinging it away in a burst of impatience and pique.  Any momentum shift could snowball quickly for him, so retaining his composure during any patch of adversity will be crucial.  On a technical level, spectators can compare Soderling’s steady but graceless two-handed backhand to Almagro’s graceful but erratic one-hander; the Swede is brutally efficient with the shot, while the Spaniard is elegantly artistic.  Observing the contrast, one can understand why the two-handed backhand has replaced the one-hander as the stroke of choice for developing players.

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Serena-Petrova:  How much does Serena have to offer after the longest match of her career in the second round?  Not her sister, not Henin, not Sharapova, not Jankovic, but none other than the largely anonymous doubles specialist Vera Dushevina kept the world #1 at bay for nearly three and a half hours.  (Dushevina has endured a bizarre recent history of near-misses, coming within three points of upsetting Venus in the first round of last year’s US Open, within two points of upsetting Sharapova in the second round of this year’s Indian Wells, and now within one point of upsetting Serena in the second round of Rome.  She’s getting closer to that elusive triumph, anyway.)  Disappointed to drop a third-set tiebreak to Jankovic after holding a match point and a significant lead in the tiebreak, Serena must have especially enjoyed the precisely opposite experience on Monday.  She can’t afford to play with fire against a much more volatile Russian, who won their last meeting (in yet another third-set tiebreak, no less!) and has defeated her on clay.  By far the most memorable match in their history, however, was Serena’s three-set victory at the 2007 Australian Open, a key turning point in her dramatic charge to the most unexpected (least expected?) title of her career.  Thoroughly overwhelmed by the Russian veteran for a set and a half, the younger Williams found a way to reverse the momentum at the last possible moment and outlast Petrova in the latter stages of their encounter.  If Serena’s physical condition allows, her competitive spark surprisingly and delightfully appears to have been struck during the clay season.  Perhaps the extended absence reinvigorated her appetite for the game; she looked quite hungry indeed on Monday!

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In the other Wednesday clashes, we’re optimistic regarding the chances of Safarova, Peng, Murray, Gulbis, Venus, Wawrinka, and Hanescu; Tsonga, Cilic, Bellucci, and especially Isner might have some work to do against players who are not only respectably talented but more comfortable on the surface than they are.  Oh, and Nadal seems to have a decent chance of pulling out a win.  😉

***

It’s time to get the Ajde Express refueled and back in motion again!  This time, though, remember to mail them to the right Serbian address.  Here’s a helpful reminder:

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