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It once was a highly exclusive club, populated largely by Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray.  Nalbandian occasionally passed through for hors-d’oeuvres but eventually forgot to pay his fees and surrendered his membership to a towering young compatriot last summer.  For the last several years, Roddick has been out in the rain helplessly banging on the door.  To be sure, impostors like Canas and Volandri tunneled in through the cellar or climbed over the garden wall, but the doorman soon recognized them and expelled them from the elite company.  Recently, though, memberships have been handed out like lottery tickets to plebeians such as Baghdatis, Berdych, Gulbis, and Montanes, who have sauntered through the front door with impunity.  Suffering claustrophobia-related breathing problems, Djokovic is deciding whether to expand the facilities or relinquish his membership altogether, while Nadal is wondering whether to purchase extra fitness equipment.  (“Don’t bother,” says Marcos.  “Can Lucie come?” asks Tomas.  “Bring Shakira!” demands Gulbis.  Montanes is still moving into his attic.)

By now, you’ve probably realized that we’re describing the FNC (Federer Nemesis Club), swelling weekly these days as the GOAT staggers to defeat against a motley assemblage of opponents, some of whom he once dominated.  As disquieting as the defeats themselves have been the manner of the defeats, for Federer has squandered significant opportunities to either win or take control of the match on every occasion.  Somewhat complacent when the slide began, he’s started to sound a trifle irritable lately as the French Open looms ever larger.  In his immediate future, however, is a compatriot who vanquished him on this surface a year ago in Monte Carlo. 

Rusty and erratic for much of the year after a paternity leave, the second-best Swiss accomplished little until rising to the occasion in Rome, where he capped a quarterfinal run with a commanding win over Soderling.  For most of the first set, moreover, he held the upper hand against Nadal with an adroit medley of bludgenoned backhands and delicate drop shots.  Somewhat less stylistically suited to Madrid, he has looked unspectacular through two rounds…but then so did Baghdatis in his Indian Wells opener.  If he executes his high-percentage style effectively, Wawrinka could severely test Federer’s consistency, shaky at best since his triumph over Murray in the Australian Open final.  Just as an unexpected title here last year catapulted Roger towards the cross-Channel Slam sweep, a strong performance here would immensely bolster him as he prepares to defend those achievements.  Has the ATP #1 decided to follow the example of the WTA #1 by concentrating his energies exclusively on the majors?  That strategy led to Serena’s premature departure against Petrova and likely would lead to Federer’s exit at the hands of his fellow Swiss and fellow father.  Or have the losses rankled Roger sufficiently to motivate him for a match that he should win?  In short, is he still complacent, or is he fed up?

Also on Thursday is a tasty trio of ATP clashes that we preview below…

Ferrer-Cilic:  Dazzling in Rome until he encountered Nadal, Ferrer has been a few shades below brilliant in his home tournament, where he allowed Chardy to overstay his welcome and struggled mightily to banish Baghdatis despite possessing a vast edge in clay-court expertise over both opponents.  The Spaniard’s own legendary fitness will need to assist him on Thursday, for he confronts the imposing serve of Marin Cilic less than 24 hours after concluding his epic three-setter against Baghdatis, during which he seemingly traveled more distance than did most of the audience to arrive there.  Almost as surprisingly, the gawky Croat enjoyed a mostly tranquil passage against enigmatic Argentine Eduardo Schwank.  Following a torrid start to 2010, Cilic largely vanished from the conversation after losing early in Indian Wells and Miami, while his clay-court season has proved predictably mediocre. With an altitude that almost matches Madrid, he presents a calm demeanor on the surface but can be flustered by relentless competitors such as the Spaniard.  Nevertheless, Ferrer must hold serve more regularly and comfortably than he did in the Baghdatis match in order to stay within striking distance and keep Cilic under pressure.  As his compatriot Verdasco discovered, the Croatian towers of power will be grudging with their own service games in the Madrid conditions.  Filled with contrasts in height, tactics, and personality, this match could provide the most intriguing entertainment of the day.

Monaco-Almagro:  Persevering through an ill-tempered encounter with Soderling, Almagro showcased an electric baseline game complemented by an uncharacteristic, encouraging readiness to approach the net.  Historically unable to capitalize upon strong wins like these, he did exploit the opportunity created by Djokovic’s untimely upset in Miami to reach the quarterfinals there, where he fell to eventual champion Roddick.  In Paris last fall, moreover, he dueled with Nadal on equal terms before succumbing to cramping late in the third set.  Rather like an Argentine Ferrer, Monaco follows the classic clay-court formula of sturdy fitness, patient point construction, and aversion to risk.   Therefore, the challenge for Almagro will be twofold.  Can his shots penetrate the court sufficiently to hit through Monaco without clearing the baseline?  And can his own, much less reliable patience endure the extended rallies in which the Argentine will seek to engage him?  As he did against Soderling, he’ll enjoy the vociferous support of his compatriots, which perceptibly raised his spirits during dangerous moments in his first two rounds.

Isner-Nadal:  Accustomed to comically lopsided routs in his clay openers, Nadal surrendered half as many game to the unheralded Oleksandr Dolgopolov Jr. as he did during the entire Monte Carlo tournament.  Furthermore, he looked sporadically fallible against Gulbis’ relentless assault in Rome.  Although Isner isn’t ready to score an upset of this magnitude, his serve should keep the match close and perhaps force Rafa into a tiebreak.  Refreshing after a period of American contempt for clay, his positive attitude towards the surface bore fruit in Belgrade with an impressive win over Wawrinka, theoretically much better suited to the surface.  When Isner and Nadal met in Indian Wells, the gentle giant dragged the Spaniard into a deciding set and visibly frustrated him with his arhythmic style before Nadal’s superior fitness prevailed.  On the other hand, the American not only reached the Belgrade final last week but wobbled through a pair of three-set victories here against Christophe Rochus and the suddenly rising Santiago Giraldo.  In Miami, fatigue from a three-set win distinctly hampered Isner during a winnable match against Ferrero.  He’ll need to maintain an Alpine first-serve percentage and unleash fearless forehands whenever an opening emerges.  Although Nadal fans might not relish the thought, it would be satisfying for the general audience to watch him conquer a few noteworthy obstacles en route to surpassing Agassi’s record. 

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The rather nondescript women’s matches tomorrow didn’t quite intrigue, but the WTA quarterfinalists will return to our scrutiny tomorrow.  We’ll close this ATP-exclusive edition with a question for you to ponder.  If you were Federer, whom would you prefer to play from the Gulbis-Lopez match in the quarterfinals, assuming that you got past Wawrinka?  Would it be Lopez, the easier task?  Or would the prospect of revenge for Rome be more enticing?

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Hasta manana!  🙂