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We’ve previewed the ATP and WTA cast of characters at Roland Garros rather thoroughly in the previous two posts, so there’s not much to add after the draw was released today.  Nevertheless, a few more specific pensées struck us as we perused it.  Ten of them, in fact.

1)  Nadal has time to find his rhythm:  Rafa’s initial cannon fodder, French wildcard Gianni Mina won’t enjoy what surely will be a brief visit to Court Philippe Chatrier.  The next two rounds probably feature Zeballos and Hewitt, neither of whom possesses the flat, relentlessly scorching groundstrokes required to trouble Nadal.  In the round of 16, the Spaniard could avenge a defeat to Indian Wells nemesis Ljubicic, not a formidable threat on clay; on the other hand, the flamboyant but raw and undisciplined Bellucci might await.  Likely to economically dispatch all of these adversaries, Nadal should be able to retain ample energy for the second week–bad news for his opponents.

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2)  Henin has virtually no time to find her rhythm:  As the defending ATP champion, Federer drew the WTA seeds and botched the business as badly as the last shot that he (didn’t) hit in Madrid.  Not only are four of the top five contenders are in the top half of the draw, but three of the top five are in the top quarter.  “Merci beaucoup,” says Justine, who confronts the grim prospect of defeating Sharapova, Stosur, Serena, and Jankovic back-to-back-to-back-to-back just in order to reach the final.  Barring some unexpected test, a supreme test of the petite Belgian’s durability looms.  Give her an extra round of applause if she surmounts all of these obstacles to capture her fifth French Open.

3)  The tennis gods are smiling on Venus:  It’s good to have a first-round opponent against whom one is 10-0 (Schnyder).  It’s better to have two potential quarterfinal opponents who combined to win three total matches in Rome and Madrid (Azarenka, Dementieva).  It’s best of all to be the only serious contender in one’s entire half with an open path towards one’s first non-Wimbledon Slam final since Nadal won his first French Open.  To be sure, it’s not so good to have the player who defeated you a week ago in the fourth round, but lightning probably won’t strike twice for Rezai.  In short, Venus got about as much aid as she could reasonably imagine from the deities of the draw.

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4)  The tennis gods are frowning on Verdasco:  After dazzling audiences in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Rome, the streaky Spaniard might have expected to translate that impetus into his second Slam semifinal appearance or even his first Slam final.  He must have been demoralized when Rafa was revealed as his quarterfinal opponent.  If he’s tired from Nice, moreover, he might struggle a round earlier to subdue Almagro, fresh from an exhilarating surge to the Madrid semifinals.

5)  Sharapova was wise to enter Strasbourg:  Recovering from an elbow injury, Maria will need the injection of momentum from that tournament in order to threaten Henin at all during their likely third-round encounter.  In the probable event that such an assignment proves too strenuous for the Russian, the points accumulated in Strasbourg will help to cushion her ranking against those that she would lose from an early exit, since Sharapova thundered to the quarterfinals last year with a dramatic sequence of four consecutive three-set triumphs.

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6)  Gasquet was wise to enter Nice:  The French-kissing Frenchman informed everyone who would listen that he had devoted considerable effort to preparing for the clay season…and then preceded to make no impact there whatsoever.  This week, though, he has strung together a few wins over rather pedestrian opposition in Nice.  Considering Murray’s less than convincing form on clay, Gasquet has a reasonable chance to record his third win in four meetings over the Scot.  Should he progress past that initial challenge, his draw could open up immensely; a deep run in Paris would elevate both his ranking and his confidence.

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7)  Ivanovic has a chance…:  …to reach the second week or even the quarters.  Despite her 2009 Australian Open loss to Kleybanova, one would give the Serb a substantial clay edge over the ponderous Russian, who has struggled since winning her maiden title in Kuala Lumpur this February.  A third-round clash with Radwanska beckons for Ana, who tested the Pole in Stuttgart despite playing far from her best; again, although by no means an easy assignment, it’s a winnable match if Ivanovic can maintain the level that she attained in Rome.  Beset by major physical and mental issues, Safina and Zvonareva represent the leading candidates for the fourth round, and we definitely would feel optimistic regarding her chances against either of those Russians.

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8)  Soderling doesn’t have a chance…:  …to repeat his 2009 performance.  Toting a three-match losing streak into the scene of his historic triumph last year, Soderling not only has no positive impetus upon which to build but also has drawn Federer in the quarterfinals.  He might not risk a 13th consecutive loss to the Swiss legend, however, since Gulbis should intersect his path in the fourth round.  Even the mind-numbingly steady Montanes might  be a bridge too far for the staggering Swede.

9)  There will be at least one surprise WTA semifinalist:  Bookended by defending champion Kuznetsova and the injured Wozniacki, the third quarter offers fertile terrain for a breakthrough similar to Stosur’s career-changing charge here last year.  Judging from recent results, Li Na and Safarova seem the most reasonable candidates; judging by clay expertise, the Italians Schiavone and Pennetta might have a chance, although their 2010 clay campaigns have been inconsistent at best.

10)  There will be at least one surprise ATP semifinalist:  Scanning the second quarter of the draw, we couldn’t locate a single remotely plausible contender in its ranks.  Garcia-Lopez and the aging Robredo are the only real clay experts in this district, for Murray, Tsonga, and Berdych enjoy their best results on faster surfaces.  So does Isner, but the American has acquitted himself competently thus far in the gritty grind.  No matter who does the dirty work, though, Federer (or perhaps Gulbis) will be waiting to feast in the semifinals.

***

Stay tuned for our first daily preview of the action at Roland Garros; “Feet and Feat of Clay” debuts tomorrow with highlight matches, potential upsets, and anything else that might catch our attention!

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While the king of clay has emphatically reaffirmed his dominance over the competition on this surface, the queen of clay hasn’t quite followed suit.  As a result, the WTA field at the French Open promises to be vastly more unpredictable and possibly more engaging than its ATP counterpart.  We apply the same matrix of contenders, pretenders, and dark horses that we used in the men’s preview:  contenders are tournament favorites, pretenders are potential underperformers, and dark horses are potential overachievers although not potential champions.  For the women’s draw, however, we don’t focus quite so exclusively on recent results when selecting our contenders.  (In other words, we’re not envisaging a Rezai-Martinez Sanchez final two weeks from Saturday, as much as the champion-starved French media would relish such an outcome.)

Contenders (in order of most likely to win):

1)  Henin:  Even if she hadn’t succeeded at all in the preliminary events, Henin would remain the favorite because she has won more French Opens than everyone else in the draw combined as well as 21 consecutive matches in Paris.  Beyond those staggering statistics, she secured the first title of her comeback in Stuttgart with yet another win over Jankovic and a telling three-set victory in the final against Stosur, during which she lost her game midway through the match but found it again when she needed it.   Her first-round loss to Rezai in Madrid looked somewhat better when the Frenchwoman knocked off Jankovic and considerably better when she stunned Venus to win the title.  Nevertheless, some doubts rightly persist concerning both Henin’s health and her ability to adapt her ultra-aggressive style, designed for Wimbledon, to the clay that she long has owned.  Declining to enter Rome, she lacks preparation on any surface similar to Roland Garros, for Stuttgart’s indoor clay played much like a hard court, while Madrid’s altitude exerts its own unique influence on the tennis displayed there.  The first few matches will be crucial for Henin, who will confront a higher-ranked player in the third round; if she survives the early stages and settles into a rhythm, beware.

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2)  Jankovic:  Mats Wilander famously said that analysts shouldn’t dub anyone a Slam favorite until they have won one of them.  On this occasion, however, we feel compelled to break the Golden Rule of Goteborg after the Serb’s inspiring performance at Rome, where she scored the rare double play over Venus and Serena on consecutive days.  Although she didn’t capture a single title on the surface, she lost to the eventual champion in all three of her red-clay events and came within a few points of her first career victory over Henin in 10 attempts.  Halting a protracted slump with the Indian Wells title in March, Jankovic has displayed more focus and urgency than we have seen from her since the 2008 US Open; now 25, she may be sensing the looming expiration date on her window of opportunity.  Could JJ bounce the Belgian from Roland Garros?  Probably not, but don’t be surprised if she capitalizes on an upset-littered draw.  A two-time semifinalist at the French Open, the Serb has many positive memories with which to boost her confidence.

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3)  Serena:  Distinctly the best player of her era (sorry Venus!), the younger Williams sister must be included among the favorites at any Slam that she enters, whether it be played on hard court, grass, clay, or the moon.  Like her fellow #1 Federer, she’s a completely different player at the events that matter the most, so we’re not worried about her three-set loss to Petrova in Madrid, a tournament that she openly disdains.  A week earlier, she unexpectedly charged to the Rome semifinals without having played a match since the Australian Open; there, she very nearly overcame Jankovic, much more comfortable on the surface.  Admitting that nerves hampered her during that match, Serena does seem to experience uncharacteristic anxiety when playing on clay, where she must hit one or two extra shots.  Over the last several year, she hasn’t been able to maintain her consistency over the course of the French fortnight, but she sounds more motivated and determined this year than she has during recent clay seasons.  A motivated and determined Serena = a dangerous Serena.

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4)  Stosur:  Reportedly suffering from a cold in Madrid, she has been positively scorching since Indian Wells and has unveiled a surprising affinity for clay despite her big-serving style.  After she swept to the Charleston title past a depleted field, the former doubles specialist capitalized upon that success by reaching the Stuttgart final.  Confronting the best clay player of her generation, she rallied impressively from losing the first set to force a decider before fading at that stage.  Despite the Madrid illness, Stosur defused Rome champion Martinez Sanchez as well as the Argentine Gisela Dulko, who has accumulated a reputation for scoring upsets at key events.  At the root of the Australian’s late-career surge lies her semifinal appearance at Roland Garros last year, when she ambushed Dementieva in the first week and severely tested eventual champion Kuznetsova.  Uncommon among the mercurial WTA elite, her businesslike attitude may not entertain spectators as do the antics of an Azarenka, but she’ll profit from this composure during the moments of adversity that inevitably arise on the fickle clay.

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5)  Venus:  Yes, she did defeat Stosur rather comfortably in Madrid and leads their specific head-to-head, but a few other factors led us to list the elder Williams behind the Australian.  Impressive on paper, her title in Acapulco and finals appearance in Madrid came at the expense of no significant names beyond Stosur and questionably Zvonareva, while her loss to Jankovic in Rome was Ugly with a capital U.  The aging Venus has become increasingly enigmatic, alternating brilliant spells with ghastly stretches; from one day to the next, we don’t know whether we’ll see the Venus who defused Stosur and dominated Peer, or the Venus who looked helpless against Rezai.  A French Open finalist in 2002, she has reached the quarterfinals there just twice since that year.  On the other hand, she sufficiently controlled her game to quell counterpunchers like Peer and the crafty Schiavone, and the clay doesn’t blunt her serve as much as one would expect.  In fact, Venus set the record for WTA serving speed not at Wimbledon but at Roland Garros in a 2007 third-round loss to Jankovic.  As in Henin’s case, the first few rounds will be critical for the grande dame of the women’s game, who could be formidable if granted the time to find her groove.

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Pretenders (in order of ranking):

1)  Wozniacki:  The Dane’s role model must be Jankovic, from the tenacious defense to the lack of an offensive weapon to the flashy smile to a schedule as clogged as Djokovic’s nose.  Wozniacki is certainly young enough to develop into a more accomplished player than the Serb, and she possesses a far sturdier mentality, so it’s unfortunate to see her follow the same path.  Struggling to recover from the ankle injury sustained in Charleston, she never should have entered the Warsaw event this week.  Although her highly consistent style should serve her well on the clay, she has scored only intermittent successes on the surface and will be in no physical condition to win seven matches in Paris, where her participation briefly was doubtful.  Wozniacki surely will enjoy at least one Slam triumph someday, but she won’t be able to realize her full potential until the ankle heals.

2)  Dementieva:  The window of opportunity may be closing for Jankovic, but we sense that it has closed permanently for the Russian, who will head into history as the most talented player of her generation never to win a Slam.  A second-round loser at three of the last four Slams, she endured an excruciating semifinal loss to Serena at Wimbledon last year and has failed to recapture that form since then.  Recent omens are far from encouraging either, including her first loss to Ivanovic in five career meetings and a Madrid loss to Dulgheru during which she managed to mishandle a double-break lead in the third set; the frustration continued with an epic loss to Pironkova in her Warsaw opener.  Although the 2004 French Open finalist possesses the fluid movement and baseline resilience that typically thrive on clay, this patience-draining surface mercilessly exposes her notoriously fragile psyche.

3)  Kuznetsova:  Having won exactly one match in three clay tournaments this season, the defending champion stands at an intriguing crossroads in her career.  A return from Spain to Russia together with a coaching change infused the Russian with positive momentum about a year ago, but that aura has long since evaporated.  In 2010, she’s found ways to lose to players like Dominika Cibulkova (Sydney), Regina Kulikova (Dubai), and Carla Suarez Navarro (Indian Wells).  Hampered by a shoulder injury in Miami, Kuznetsova struggled mentally rather than physically in her clay defeats, donating unforced errors with senselessly low-percentage shotmaking instead of intelligently constructing points.  Depending on her draw, Sveta might not survive the first week.

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4)  Safina:  Kuznetsova’s partner in crime during the woeful 2009 final, Safina hilariously squawked “why am I such a chicken?” late in that comedy of errors.  Dinara has demonstrated that she’s no chicken at all by bravely battling through a major back injury since the Australian Open; hats off to her for overcoming that adversity.  It would be unreasonable to expect more than two or three wins from the recuperating Russian during the fortnight, since she has justifiably struggled to rediscover her form thus far.  Look for her to rebound on the summer hard courts, where she’ll be playing under less pressure with few points to defend.  Safina isn’t the superstar that she seemed from mid-2008 to mid-2009, but neither is she the laughingstock that she has seemed since then.

5)  Azarenka:  A year ago, the brash Belorussian inspired parallels with Sharapova that she remains far from justifying.  In fact, she reminds us much less of Maria than of Djokovic, who likewise failed to consolidate a stunning breakthrough (defeating Federer at the 2008 Australian Open in his case, defeating Serena at 2009 Miami in her case).  Recently sliding outside the top 10, Azarenka’s ranking aptly reflects her regression since last summer, interrupted only by an appearance in the Dubai final.  During the last several months, Vika has acquired the two deadly habits of squandering immense leads and of falling just short in tightly contested encounters.  Far too easily exasperated, she had all but beaten Safina in last year’s French Open quarterfinals before allowing her temper to unravel her game after a few untimely miscues.  Further inhibiting her progress is a leg injury that she refuses to rest, much like her best friend and rival Wozniacki.  Azarenka has retired from three of her last five tournaments, so don’t be surprised if she limps out of Paris by the middle weekend.

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Dark horses (in no particular order):

1) Rezai:  That slurping sound in the background is the salivating French media, preparing to descend upon its nation’s latest superstar.  Can Rezai follow up the breakthrough that she achieved in Madrid, defeating three of our five Paris contenders, under the most intense pressure that she’ll ever face?  Her ferocious ball-striking would seem to align better with fast surfaces, and don’t forget that offensive-oriented players prosper more in Madrid’s altitude than at Roland Garros.  On the other hand, the Frenchwoman’s pugnacious personality might prove as suited to the impending challenge as was Soderling’s similar brashness here last year.  One of two outcomes seems probable:  1) she’ll soar deep into the second week and send her compatriots into delirium, à la Dokic in the 2009 Australian Open; 2) she’ll fall flat on her attractive face in the first or second round, amid a chorus of boos from the Chatrier sans-culottes.  Either way, there will be something dramatic to anticipate. 

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2) Martinez Sanchez:  Arguably even more surprising than Rezai’s emergence was the accomplishment of this Spanish lefty, long familiar in doubles but unremarkable in singles until a few weeks ago.  Unlike the Madrid champion, the Rome champion possesses a game novel in its nuance that will trouble many less experienced players through its sheer unpredictability.  After the Rome title, MJMS acquitted herself reasonably well during a tight two-set loss to Stosur in Madrid, suggesting that her Italian renaissance might not evaporate as some had supposed.  When both her serve and her drop shot are clicking, she not only mentally infuriates her opponents but physically exhausts them  by forcing them to cover the court both horizontally and vertically.  Consequently, it’s easy to see how she unnerved Azarenka in Indian Wells and wove a delicate web around two weary Serbs in Rome.  This Spanish lefty earned Serena’s ire a year ago with a dubious piece of gamesmanship, so we’re curious to see if the draw situates them in the same neighborhood again. 

3) Safarova:  Her career trajectory often seems to parallel the equally volatile path traced by her boyfriend, Berdych.  This pattern prevailed again when a stellar performance by Tomas on the North American hard courts immediately preceded Lucie’s triumphs on the European clay, where she plowed her way to the quarterfinals or better in Stuttgart, Rome, and Madrid by conquering styles as diverse as Wozniacki and Sharapova–both far from peak physical condition, admittedly, but still excellent competitors.  Safarova defeated elite players resoundingly (Pennetta), routinely (Wozniacki, Sharapova), and suspensefully (Radwanska, Petrova) over the last several weeks.  Often considered a mental midget, she indicated otherwise with a 5-1 three-set record during these events, although she paid a price for three consecutive three-setters in Madrid by retiring in the semis.  A well-rested Safarova could wreak some havoc at Roland Garros, where she held a match point against Venus last year.

4) Peer:  Long dormant after an impressive 2007, the Israeli star awakened early this year with a Dubai semifinal appearance that seemed to galvanize her back into her former self.  A semifinalist in Stuttgart, she toppled the promising Polona Hercog, the crafty Radwanska, and Safina before understandably falling to Henin.  Two weeks later, Peer inflicted yet more misery upon Kuznetsova by bageling last year’s French Open champion in the third set; she proceeded to navigate the ever-dangerous Kleybanova in addition to the fearless Li Na.  Falling to Venus comfortably in Rome and overwhelmingly in Madrid, the Israeli will hope to avoid powerful servers such as the Williams sisters, whose combination of physical power and mental resilience leaves her with few options.  Nevertheless, Peer will thrive against emotionally fragile or erratic opponents, rendering her a potential Paris upset artist.

5) Ivanovic:  Was her completely unexpected surge to the Rome semifinals the light at the end of the tunnel?  One of Serbia’s most valuable exports, Ivanovic never faded from the radar of international audiences even as her performance plunged spectacularly after her 2008 French Open title.  Despite brutally demoralizing experiences on court and manifold money-making opportunities off court, however, Ana courageously persevered through adversity rather than accepting a Kournikova-like fate as a vapid celebrity.  The WTA certainly greeted the first glimmers of its glamor girl’s revival with relief, for a gallery of her accomplishments swiftly surfaced on its website.  To be sure, Azarenka visibly struggled with a leg injury during their match in Rome, while Dementieva displayed a level far from her best, and Petrova contributed a trademark meltdown.  But top-10 wins remain top-10 wins regardless of the context, especially the Dementieva victory in which Ana snapped an 0-4 career record against the Russian.  Despite her painful struggles last year, she still managed to reach the second week at her favorite Slam.  The task will be more challenging this year as an unseeded player, but it’s not implausible to imagine Ivanovic repeating that result should she secure a moderately unimposing draw.

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 We do think that Ana needs to work a bit on her fistpump if she plans to intimidate more than a pain au chocolat.  Compare her version with this model (no pun intended):

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Now there’s a woman who means what she shrieks.

As most players enjoy a well-merited respite before the French Open fortnight, we cast our minds towards the first Slam that will be covered by this blog. Based largely upon the events of Monte Carlo, Stuttgart, Rome, and Madrid, our preview will identify contenders, pretenders, and dark horses at the event that starts in less than a week, as Tennis Channel’s “Countdown to Roland Garros” chronically reminds us. Under “contenders” are the tournament favorites, while “pretenders” feature high-ranked players who likely will falter well before the finish line; “dark horses” comprise the reverse phenomenon of low-ranked players who might perform above their rankings (but won’t win the title). The ATP edition follows below, and the WTA edition will be released on Thursday. All things come in threes, according to the cliché, but here they come in fives.

Contenders (in order of most likely to win):

1) Nadal: In a way, this list should read 1) Nadal, 2) Nadal, 3) Nadal, 4) Nadal, 5) Nadal. A considerable gamble after he dominated Monte Carlo and Rome, the Madrid tournament infused Rafa with invaluable momentum by proving that he can once again conquer the ATP elite after a lengthy stretch of futility against top-10 players. We know that the forehand is brutal, the touch exquisite, and the movement feline, but a key barometer of Nadal’s confidence is his two-handed backhand, which whistled through the court with increasing authority as the week progressed. Although he still donates occasional clusters of unforced errors, such as the fourth game of the final, he has rediscovered his composure at crucial moments, such as when he survived three break points to serve out the first set. Perhaps most intimidating to his future foes, however, was his ability to win this prestigious title despite playing a few notches below his jaw-dropping best. Unless unexpected injury intervenes, one must favor Rafa to win his fifth French Open over the other 127 players combined.

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2) Federer: One knows that a Slam is drawing near when Federer returns to his focused, purposeful demeanor. Among his most fascinating traits is the ability to flip an inner switch with timeliness and alacrity when required; the player who succumbed to Montanes in Estoril never would have defeated Gulbis and Ferrer in Madrid. In his loss to Nadal, Federer looked more confident than on many of their recent meetings, fearlessly attacking Rafa rather than slumping into resignation. A man with a plan, he might well have prevailed or forced a final set had a few key rallies ended in his favor, including the break points late in the first set or the bizarre forehand whiff that ended the match. One doubts that he’ll overcome Nadal in a best-of-five format on clay, but expect him to take full advantage if a new Soderling ambushes the Spaniard before the final. After all, he hasn’t lost to anyone else at the French Open since 2004.

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3) Verdasco: Clearly fatigued in Madrid, he probably should have rested instead of entering the Nice event this week. Nevertheless, the second-best Spanish lefty reminded everyone that he’s more than a flashy hairstyle with inspired performances in Monte Carlo and Rome as well as an emotional title run in Barcelona. In those three tournaments, he conquered a diverse range of playing styles from bone-crushing sluggers Soderling and Gulbis to crafty counterpunchers Montanes and Ferrer. Scoring two wins over 2009 nemesis Djokovic, one emphatic and one suspenseful, Verdasco proved that he can both overpower and outlast top opponents. He still doesn’t believe in himself against Nadal, but he’ll challenge anyone else and would have placed second on this list had Federer not reached the Madrid final.

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4) Ferrer: If Verdasco and Ferrer could be fused into one player, that hybrid might seriously threaten Nadal. While Verdasco showcases the shot-making capacity to hit through Rafa, Ferrer possesses the mental belief; one wouldn’t have surmised his 0-9 record against Federer from the typically tenacious effort that he displayed in the semifinals. It’s worth noting that all of his losses at clay Masters 1000 events this season have come against Nadal (twice) and Federer (once), while he split his two meetings with Verdasco. Lacking the weapons to defeat either of them at their best, he would enjoy a substantial chance against them if previous adversaries had worn them down beforehand, as was the case with Nadal at the 2007 US Open. In the absence of his famous compatriot, Ferrer probably would have claimed at least one French Open by now.

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5) Gulbis: Could he be the 2010 version of Soderling? Among the parallels to the Swede’s game are the explosive and flat, penetrating groundstrokes off both sides, while the Latvian’s artful drop shot trumps anything that Soderling can produce in the finesse department. Under the guidance of coach Hernan Gumy, Gulbis finally has harnessed some decent tactics and a modicum of focus to his ever-electrifying talents. At the climax of his breakthrough charge to the Rome semifinals, his three-set clash with Nadal proved the Spaniard’s most severe test so far on his favorite surface. His loss to Federer in Madrid concealed further positive portents, most notably his ability to recover from a dismal second set and compete effectively in the third set. Don’t forget that his best Slam performance to date was a French Open quarterfinal. If you’re looking for a genuinely threatening sleeper, look no further than the awakened Gulbis, who finally might be more than the sum of his parts.

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Pretenders (in order of ranking):

1) Djokovic: The Serb’s impersonation of a leading contender has been especially unpersuasive recently. Even beyond his sagging serve and crumbling confidence, the Parisian pollen season apparently represents a relevant factor in his performance. Whether or not Belgrade’s budding leaves actually hampered his performance, his retirement there unwisely telegraphed his continuing frailty to hungry future opponents. One might imagine that the slower surface would minimize the significance of his serving struggles, but the mental strain of tense service games will be amplified by the clay, always a test of emotional durability. A sturdy performance by a clay specialist or a reasonably tenacious opponent probably would suffice to send Djokovic to London earlier than he would prefer.

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2) Murray: Mustering a bare three wins during his three clay tournaments, the Scot was humiliated by Kohlschreiber in Monte Carlo and efficiently dispatched by Ferrer at the other events (insofar as Ferrer ever is efficient). Although Murray does appear to be emerging from a hideous post-Melbourne slump, his main goal now must be preparing for Wimbledon, where the recent slide will not have diminished the expectations of his compatriots. He’d be wise not to invest too much emotional or physical capital in Roland Garros, and Murray generally seems a sensible lad. Or do they say “laddie” in Scotland?

3) Soderling: Still streaky despite recent improvements, Soderling has caught fire at unexpected moments in the past, but his hot-and-cold game has been unseasonably chilly over the last few weeks. Unlike Verdasco, he made the right decision by entering Nice to garner some additional clay matches. After his finals appearance in Barcelona, the 2009 French Open finalist disappointed at both Rome and Madrid, where he exited rather meekly to Wawrinka and Almagro, respectively. Both of them are the type of player (sturdy, consistent, but unspectacular) whom Soderling must defeat in order to duplicate his triumph from last year.

4) Tsonga: Far less powerful but far more consistent, Ferrero and Ferrer made the big man look small in Monte Carlo and Rome, while he lost to De Bakker (who?) in Barcelona and ominously retired in Madrid. Even if the retirement was precautionary, as is probable, Tsonga’s brand of undiluted aggression should shine at Wimbledon while remaining antithetical to the demands of this surface. Moreover, one must remember the ignominious reputation of les bleus (and les bleues) for drastically under-performing at their home Slam.  Fortunately for Tsonga, the local pressure will rest largely on a member of les bleues this year.

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5) Cilic: The newest tower from Croatia has looked about as unsteady as his counterpart in Pisa during the clay Masters events. Mustering just a 2-3 record at those tournaments, he succumbed rather routinely to the diminutive Montanes in Monte Carlo, blew a substantial lead against Lopez in his Rome opener, and collected just five games from a stingy Ferrer in Madrid. The slump may not entirely be a product of the surface, moreover, for Cilic fell before the quarters in both Indian Wells and Miami, which should have favored his style. Don’t put too much weight upon his finals appearance in Munich, where no top stars and few clay experts participated. In fact, the clay-averse Youzhny toppled him there.

Dark horses (in order of…nothing in particular):

1) Almagro: Was he overachieving by reaching a debut Masters 1000 semifinal in Madrid? Probably, and his section was decimated by withdrawals (Berdych, Nalbandian) as well as upsets (Melzer def. Verdasco). As in Miami, though, Almagro walked through the door that was opened for him and also impressively dispatched Soderling in the second round. If his draw in Paris offers him room to operate, expect him to take advantage of the opportunity.

2) Montanes: The latest Federer-killer not only defended his title in Estoril but also reached the quarters in Monte Carlo, where he took a set from Verdasco. Unlucky to draw Gulbis in the first round of Madrid, this Spaniard covers the court like a vacuum cleaner, which often proves adequate against an erratic shotmaker on this surface.

3) Wawrinka: Preoccupied with fatherhood rather than forehands for much of the season’s early stages, the steady Swiss #2 comfortably defeated Gulbis in Monte Carlo, a win that appeared more significant in retrospect. Two weeks later, his quarterfinal run in Rome featured a gritty, thrilling triumph over the revitalized Berdych as well as a resounding victory over Soderling. Less renowned than either the Czech or the Swede, Wawrinka lost only to Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic at the three clay-court tournaments. We were a trifle puzzled by his semifinal loss in Belgrade to…

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4) Isner: Despite narrowly falling to compatriot Querrey in the Belgrade final, Isner proved that he can compete on clay both physically and mentally. Unlike most of the American men, he might well justify his seeding or even more. Beyond the eye-opening win over Wawrinka, the Georgia alumnus severely tested Djokovic in a pre-Indian Wells Davis Cup tie; during the course of five twisting sets , he admirably soaked up the pressure, held his nerve (mostly), and demonstrated better fitness than one has come to expect from the ATP’s giants. His mental fortitude resurfaced with consecutive comebacks from one-set deficits in Madrid, where a weary Isner acquitted himself as creditably as one could hope against a Nadal who would not be denied. We found that second comeback from a one-set deficit especially impressive because it came at the expense of…

5) Santiago Giraldo: You’ll want to learn the name of this Colombian and store it away for future reference, perhaps on hard courts as well as clay. Unimposing in stature, Giraldo burst from nowhere to humiliate a resurgent Ferrero in the second round of Madrid; almost as impressive was his ability to follow up the breakthrough with a comfortable third-round win. Far from a one-day wonder, he showcased his mettle just a fortnight later by rallying from a disastrous first set to erase the ever dangerous Kohlschreiber, who has defeated Djokovic and Murray on this surface. Edging within two points of victory against the towering Isner, Giraldo accomplished the rare feat of winning a 6-1 set from the (admittedly tired) elephantine server. Don’t expect him to explode into the second week, for he remains a work in progress, but do keep an eye on his match with the unlucky seed who draws him early at Roland Garros. Unless it’s Nadal, of course.

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***

Hope that you enjoyed this preview as much as Djokovic is enjoying handing out the hardware below…

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The Serb needs to forget that it is more blessed to give than to receive.  😉

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Rewinding to the 2009 Madrid final, one is immediately struck by the vastly different situations in which both gladiators find themselves now compared to where they found themselves before the match a year ago.  Then, Nadal stood at the peak of his powers and the pinnacle of the tennis hierarchy, having vanquished Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final, achieved the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics, attained the #1 ranking, and reduced his rival to tears in Australia just a few months before.  Cast adrift from his moorings and deposed from his pedestal, Federer not only had endured a mediocre beginning to 2009 but appeared to have surrendered almost all of his domain to the Spanish rebel; commentators were beginning to write the obituary of the Federer Era while wondering whether the rivalry still existed…

After he scored a startling victory in that final, the Swiss has since reclaimed every territory conceded to Nadal in addition to conquering Rafa’s clay citadel in Paris (admittedly with the aid of a Swedish saboteur).  In fact, Federer came within one set of holding every Slam title at the same time, forestalled from this goal by the Tower of Tandil.  Following the Greatest Upset Ever, meanwhile, Nadal faded from the tennis scene during Wimbledon before resurfacing in diluted form on the summer and fall hard courts, where he absorbed a series of deflating defeats that culminated in a gruesome debacle at the year-end championships.  Slowly returning to form this season despite retiring from the Australian Open, Rafa has found his footing on the clay but still has yet to threaten Federer’s renewed stranglehold over the game.  To some extent, he won’t be able to do so until he wins his next major, for success is measured in Slams, yet a win in a Masters 1000 final over his archrival would deliver a timely message just before the crucial Roland Garros-Wimbledon sequence.  On the other hand, a Federer win would confirm his unchallenged ascendancy above the competition. 

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Although Federer is the top seed, the pressure in this match rests largely on Nadal’s shoulders, since he not only is striving to break Agassi’s Masters 1000 record but is seeking revenge for last year’s loss while fulfilling the lofty expectations of his compatriots.  Consequently, the Swiss should feel relaxed and free to swing with abandon, unburdened with the internal anxiety that dogged him in many of their previous meetings.  Permanently consolidated last summer, his legacy would not be tarnished even if he failed to win another title or defeat Nadal again.  Vital to his success here last year was an outstanding serving performance and unflinching aggression, enhanced by the Madrid altitude.  In addition to repeating this excellence, he’ll need to keep his mind flexible and prepare to make adjustments to his game plan as the situation demands; one senses that both of their games have altered a bit in the past year.  Among the modulations in Nadal’s game is his movement pattern, which formerly favored his backhand side while opening up his forehand corner.  Now, the Spaniard more often leans towards his forehand while exposing his backhand corner.  During their previous confrontations, Federer often seemed stubbornly rooted in a monochrome set of tactics from which he rarely deviated, a tendency that increased as Nadal gradually but steadily gained the momentum in the rivalry.  Rather than temporarily reducing the pace on his first serve when the percentage sagged in Melbourne last year, for example, he continued to bomb, bomb, and bomb some more…until he bombed out.  This time, he should consider varying his serving patterns while refraining from rushing his shots (another characteristic sign of his nerves against Nadal); instead, he should continue to patiently construct points as meticulously as he has through the rest of this week until openings develop.  Armed with a vast range of weapons, Federer should exploit everything in his arsenal in order to keep Rafa guessing.  Tactics might include occasional serve-and-volley on second serve, forehand second-serve returns in the ad court, an occasional kick serve on the first ball, and (horror of horrors) a few of the drop shots that he once maligned as unworthy of his powerful game.  The Swiss #1 needs to stay positive when stunning passing shots fly past him or when returns sail slightly wide.  Such things will happen occasionally, but the mental battle has been vital in this rivalry, and, for the first time in recent memory, Federer could win it.

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Just as much the clay GOAT as Federer is the GOAT, Nadal doubtless will revive his familiar tactics of serving to Federer’s backhand and smothering his own forehand with spin that creates the high bounce far above the world #1’s comfortable strike zone.  In addition to these ploys, Rafa might want to integrate a number of body serves on important points, for Roger struggled to position his feet with the necessary alacrity when his previous opponents this week have attempted that strategy.  If Federer takes the above advice and chooses to run around backhands in the ad court to hit forehand returns, Nadal would be well-served (haha) to occasionally serve towards the forehand side in the ad court, which would be left open by Federer’s anticipatory shift towards the sideline; a fascinating game of cat-and-mouse could then unfold on serves and returns.  As always, we would like to see the Spaniard position himself closer to the baseline on second serves and stay near it during neutral rallies, thereby preventing the Swiss from opening up the court with approach shots.  During these rallies, he should strive to place the ball deep down the center of the court, from where Federer can construct few angles.  The world #1’s forehand on the run has looked breathtaking in this tournament, and his movement along the baseline has been as fluid as ever on this surface; by minimizing his opportunities to hit jaw-dropping winners, Nadal could frustrate Federer or dull his focus.  Regarding the issue of focus, in fact, Rafa has lacked his relentless concentration for prolonged, pivotal stretches when facing top-tier players since his French Open demise.  Unable to maintain his intensity against those upon whom he once preyed, such as Ljubicic and Roddick, the Spaniard can’t afford these concentration lapses when dueling with Federer.  Despite his brilliant championship runs in Monte Carlo and Rome, he hasn’t toppled anyone more imposing than Verdasco, permanently in awe of his talents.  On Sunday, he must not relinquish his focus between the last practice serve and the ceremony.  It’s much easier said than done, of course, but the magnificent has become routine from both players as their rivalry has evolved.   

A year ago, the rivalry seemed to be growing increasingly stale with each meeting, perhaps partly because of the inevitable comparison with the unsurpassable 2008 Wimbledon final.  After Federer’s routine win here against a Djokovic-deadened Nadal, we hoped to see the emergence of new stars, new rivalries, and new champions.  Well, the new stars didn’t produce any new rivalries and rarely produced new champions, with the notable exception of Del Potro at the US Open.  Instead of seizing the opportunity with both hands, Djokovic, Murray, and their peers mostly seized the opportunity with both hands…and respectfully passed it to Federer.  Now we’re eagerly anticipating Federer-Nadal XXI.  Let the bullfight begin!

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After a week replete with stunning headlines and engaging tennis, has all of the magic escaped from the Magic Box?  One might be forgiven for such a thought when contemplating tomorrow’s semifinal lineup.  A combined 14-0 against their respective opponents, Federer and Nadal look likely to set up their 21st collision and their first in exactly a year.  On the WTA side, Venus attempts to inflict a third 2010 defeat upon the pugnacious Peer in order to set up a final against another unseeded opponent.  From all appearances, the elder Williams would have to severely botch something in the next two days for one of her semifinal peers (haha) to seize the title.  Anything can happen, but it probably won’t…or will it?  Martinez Sanchez confounded all expectations a week ago, so maybe there’s something worth discussing here after all:

Safarova-Rezai:  Born just a month apart from each other, these two upstarts share an almost identical career win-loss records (199-139 vs. 203-130).  Appropriately, the head-to-head stands level at one win apiece; while Safarova won the clay encounter in Estoril, Rezai triumphed at the more significant venue in Flushing Meadows.  The Frenchwoman has plowed a more treacherous course here past Henin and Jankovic, the top two contenders for Roland Garros, but the Czech dispatched Sharapova and a resurgent Petrova who had ousted Serena.   Among the x-factors here is the Czech’s physical condition, for she has played three three-setters in the last three days, whereas Rezai followed her three-set upset of Henin with three consecutive straight-set wins.  Both players will zoom upwards in the rankings regardless of the outcome, elevating their seeding and probably improving their draw at Roland Garros.  (We anticipate a media barrage in Paris, where the expectations on Rezai will be higher than the Eiffel Tower after her implausible run here.)  Anticipate a stylistically straightforward exercise in ball-bludgeoning from the baseline.  If Safarova exploits her lefty serve to open up the court, she might be able to keep the Frenchwoman off balance with sharply angled forehands.  Nevertheless, Rezai has looked ferociously relentless and relentlessly ferocious all week.  Refusing to let Jankovic escape from a marathon service game in the first set today, she shrugged off squandered break point after squandered break point (she was 1 for 14 at one stage) until she finally converted.  That sort of tenacity should serve her well against a mentally questionable adversary

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Venus-Peer:  Kudos to Venus for rising immediately from an ignominious fiasco in Rome to establish herself as a genuine threat at Roland Garros.  Not only did she outsteady the volatile Zvonareva and outlast the crafty Schiavone, but she surrendered just six games in the quarterfinals to a Stosur who had rampaged through Charleston and Stuttgart.  A semifinalist in Stuttgart, Peer has thoroughly earned a second final four appearance with eye-opening wins over Kuznetsova, Kleybanova, and Li Na, all of whom possess many more offensive weapons than she does.  In the past, sheer tenacity hasn’t proved sufficient to threaten Venus, who has performed at an outstanding level during their four previous meetings.  Winning all eight sets that she has played against Peer, the elder Williams thrashed the Israeli in the Dubai semifinals before recording a more competitive yet still comfortable win during the aforementioned Rome tournament.  (Her game went off the rails completely a day later, an experience that she won’t want to repeat in Madrid.)  Once again, a solid serving percentage combined with a reasonable number of penetrating forehands should see her through to Sunday.  Meanwhile, don’t forget her doubles final with Serena against the white-hot team of Dulko and Pennetta, which should provide an intriguing signpost as to whether the sisters can secure the Roland Garros doubles title that eluded them last year.

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Almagro-Nadal:  A year ago on this court, Nadal scratched and clawed his way to a record-shattering 243-minute victory over an inspired Djokovic, who seemed to have seized all of the magic from the Magic Box en route to a 20-point third-set tiebreak.  The task today looks far less imposing, for next week’s world #2 has won 12 of 13 total sets from his compatriot.  Woefully outclassed by Rafa at the 2008 French Open, Almagro briefly tested him at the 2009 US Open before severely testing him at the Paris Indoors midway through Nadal’s miserable fall campaign.  Saving several match points, Nadal ultimately dragged his friend deep into the final set, where his superior fitness proved decisive.  Following his startling second-round win over Soderling, Almagro profited from a Verdasco-vacated quarter and hasn’t scored a string of upsets a la Rezai in the WTA draw.  The matchup reminds us a bit of the Federer-Wawrinka encounter, where the Swiss #2 appeared reluctant to unseat his fellow Olympic gold medalist.  Does Almagro really want to be the guy who rains on his friend’s parade?  We doubt it.

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Federer-Ferrer:  Seeking his 10th consecutive win without a loss against the diminutive Spaniard, Federer may finally have risen from his post-Melbourne doldrums with a commanding demolition of Wawrinka and an even more impressive comeback against Gulbis, his nemesis just a fortnight ago.  When the top seed dropped a routine first set and meekly surrendered his serve to start the second set, one suspected that he would mentally move forward to Paris rather than concentrating upon erasing this formidable deficit.  During the second and third sets, however, Federer’s intense, fully focused play delivered a statement of purpose to his weekend opponents.  Raising his level as the week has progressed, Ferrer executed textbook clay-court tennis to swiftly dispense with Cilic; confronted with the sterner test of Murray in the quarterfinals, the Spaniard stymied the Scot with the suffocating court coverage that has long been his trademark.  If Federer opens with erratic groundstrokes or a mediocre first-serve percentage, Ferrer might well win a set, as he has in two of their last three meetings.  The weapons that finally subdued an unruly Gulbis, though, should hit through the counterpuncher on this relatively swift surface, which also will enable Federer to hold serve more regularly than the Spaniard.  Expect the road to Roland Garros to climax with Federer-Nadal XXI on Sunday.

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***

We’ll return to preview the ATP final tomorrow and perhaps share a few thoughts on the WTA final as well.  In the meantime, let’s hope that the outwardly unprepossessing semifinal lineup serves up something memorable tomorrow. 😉

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Barely two weeks ago, Gulbis scored the most significant triumph of his still-nascent career by upsetting Federer in the latter’s Rome opener.  Just a few days after that match, Ferrer recorded a minor, unsurprising upset over Murray in the Foro Italico.  During the Madrid quarterfinals tomorrow, both Australian Open finalists revisit their recent nemeses as they attempt to secure semifinal slots opposite each other. Arranged in the format of who should win and who might win, previews of those two matches and the two most intriguing WTA quarterfinals lie straight ahead…

Federer-Gulbis:

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Why Federer should win:  Once was enough, wasn’t it?  On only one occasion in the last several years has Federer lost consecutive meetings with a player outside the top 30 (Canas in Indian Wells and Miami).  Pedestrian in Rome, he looked more inspired than he has in months during a third-round rout of another player who had previously defeated him, Wawrinka.  After an unconvincing opening game, he immediately regained the break and never let Wawrinka regain his footing, displaying the clutch serving, purposeful point construction, and sophisticated net play that we have grown to (rather unfairly) expect from him on a regular basis.  At this time a year ago, commentators were raising questions regarding what seemed a decline during the North American hard courts, Monte Carlo, and Rome, but the Magic Box provided Federer with all of the magic that he required in order to complete the career Slam–still a glorious achievement despite Nadal’s absence, in our opinion.  One shouldn’t underestimate the power of positive memories at a certain event.  Meanwhile, Gulbis might be a little complacent after scoring the Rome victory and start the match overconfidently, allowing Federer to establish control in the early stages.

Why Gulbis might win:  One resounding win over a quality opponent (Wawrinka) remains just a resounding win until Federer turns it into a trend.  Unlike Isner and Karlovic, Gulbis possesses manifold weapons with which to capitalize upon that percussive serve; both his forehand and his backhand have penetrated the relatively fast clay here with vigor, while his drop shot provides ingenious variation.  He enjoys a definite edge regarding the second serve as well as backhand-to-backhand rallies, for the world #1’s more elegant one-hander doesn’t wield the raw force of Gulbis’ bruising two-hander.  Extending the momentum from his debut Masters 1000 semifinal in Rome, the Latvian has dramatically improved in the arena of consolidating his successes, a mark of maturity.  Also revealing his maturation was his reaction to the two squandered match points in Lopez’ last service game of the second set.  When the Spaniard escaped that predicament and rallied his hometown fans behind his cause, Gulbis merely intensified his focus and emphatically slammed the door with a 7-0 tiebreak.  If that seismic game is finally harnessed to a modestly sound mind, he’ll be able to threaten anyone on any surface.  Don’t believe me?  Ask Nadal.

Murray-Ferrer:

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Why Ferrer should win:  Far superior to the Scot on this surface, Ferrer may be the best clay-court player in the ATP this year outside Nadal.  At any rate, he’s scored more clay wins than anyone (including Nadal) and reached the semifinals or better at Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Rome; no non-Spanish lefty has defeated him yet.  Once again illustrating his superlative fitness, he efficiently dismantled Cilic after surviving a marathon against Baghdatis on the previous night.  To some extent, Ferrer practices the same art on clay that Murray has refined on a hard court:  wearing down opponents through baseline consistency, intelligent shot selection, and a knack for exposing the opponent’s hidden flaws.  Little effort is required, however, to expose Murray’s uneasiness on clay.  Sometimes one wonders why he bothered to hire French Open champion Alex Corretja to assist him with the clay-court season, since he often appears indifferent to it.  A ghastly 2-and-1 opening loss to Kohlschreiber in Monte Carlo preceded a 3-and-4 defeat against Ferrer in Rome.  At the root of this perceived indifference perhaps lies his mounting awareness of the tension-soaked task ahead at the All England Club, and he certainly could be forgiven for hoarding his energies until that fortnight.

Why Murray might win:  Who would have thought that Murray would have conceded fewer games in his pre-quarterfinal matches than…Rafa Nadal??  To be sure, neither Chela nor Hanescu is a jaw-breaking challenge, but we were impressed by Murray’s more adroit movement and more confident body language so far this week.  He’ll never find a clay more to his liking than the grit at this tournament, and he has reached a significant clay semifinal (Rome 2009) in the past.  Among the numerous surprises at last year’s French Open was his string of four victories, terminated not without some difficulty by Gonzalez in the quarterfinals.  Virtually invisible since his deflating defeat in Melbourne, Murray is long overdue to emerge from the noxious cloud of gloom and self-doubt in which he has since immersed himself.  Despite Ferrer’s sensational clay record, he looked a little less dogged than usual against Baghdatis, donating more unforced errors than does his characteristically stingy self.  The Rome match was somewhat more competitive than the 3-and-4 scoreline suggests, for Murray earned multiple break points on the Spaniard’s serve but couldn’t capitalize; one or two timely conversions could have altered the trajectory of that encounter.

Petrova-Safarova:

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Why Petrova should win:  Serena may have been discomfited by the clay and weary from the longest match of her career, but Petrova still merits applause for her 11-ace display against an opponent who has tormented her in the past.  A former French Open semifinalist, she produced more than enough brilliant clay-court tennis to deserve victory in a second-round loss to Sharapova there last year; she easily could have reached the second week with a less disastrous draw.  Nadia leads the head-to-head with Safarova 3-0, of which two wins came on clay; the Czech secured just nine game in four sets during those two meetings.  When they collided in the Paris Indoors final, where one might expect Petrova to wobble under pressure, she rallied from a one-set deficit to outlast Safarova.  Although the Russian endured a three-set tussle with Serena, the Czech waffled through consecutive epic victories:  7-5 in the third set against the unimpressive Govortsova and 7-6 in the third set against the only marginally more threatening Dulgheru (herself a 7-5 third-set winner in the previous round).  The Dulgheru match ended at 1:48 A.M., according to our friend Alvaro Rama, so Safarova’s biorhythms may not adjust well to an 11 AM start on Friday.  A finicky, unpredictable personality, she veers from equatorially hot to antarctically cold even more abruptly than does Petrova.  

Why Safarova might win:  Last week, Jankovic suffered a bit of a post-Serena letdown against Martinez Sanchez, so Petrova’s momentum might not necessarily persist.  Although hitherto unsuccessful on clay against Petrova, Safarova held a match point against Venus at last year’s French Open, so her history has been not entirely dismal on the surface.  In fact, this week represents her third consecutive clay quarterfinal after reaching that stage in Stuttgart and Rome; upsetting a sore-ankled Wozniacki in the former event, she ambushed Pennetta and Radwanska in the latter tournament.  Particularly impressive was the Radwanska victory, when she stormed back from a dismal 1-6 first-set loss to edge through a third-set tiebreak, revealing that she can summon her best tennis when it matters most.  In the quarterfinals, moreover, she came about as close as anyone else that week to toppling MJMS.  Here, she scored a somewhat less surprising win over a rusty Sharapova:

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Stosur-Venus:

Why Stosur should win:  Not only did she win the Charleston title with an emphatic win over Zvonareva, but she reached the Stuttgart final and even took a 6-2 set from Henin there.  Wisely choosing to rest during Rome, she must not have relished the sight of Martinez Sanchez in her second round, but she consistently outplayed the Spaniard at crucial junctures in that contest.  This match features two of the three best serves in the WTA, which could indicate a tiebreak or two; the Australian has won all three of the tiebreaks that she has played in the tournament, a testament to her outstanding composure.  Venus has looked more convincing here than in Rome, but that statement is a bit like saying that Murray played better here than in his Monte Carlo loss to Kohlschreiber (in other words, the standard has been set very low indeed).  Down a break in both sets to the ever-fragile Zvonareva, the elder Williams lost a set to Schiavone despite her immensely superior serve and overall talents.  A substantial advantage over most adversaries, the American’s superb net skills provide her with little or no edge in that department over the dexterous Australian.  Never comfortable on the dirt, she was bageled by the underachieving Szavay in last year’s French Open and has suffered three consecutive first-week exits there.  By contrast, Stosur built her career-turning momentum burst upon a spectacular, completely unexpected semifinal charge at Roland Garros last year.

Why Venus might winBoth players will enjoy the altitude and the faster conditions, but the recently more erratic Venus will especially benefit from the opportunity to finish points more quickly.  Probably unrecognized by casual fans, her February streak included a clay title in Acapulco despite her infamous struggles on the sluggish surface.  Although extended to three sets on multiple occasions, she delivered performances as gritty as the dirt and revealed a willingness to “win ugly,” always useful for clay.  Furthermore, there’s the 3-0 head-to-head that eerily resembles the Petrova-Safarova statistic.  Mirroring that matchup, two meetings have come on clay, one on red clay and one on green clay; also mirroring that matchup, the losing player (Stosur) won exactly nine games in the four total sets.  It’s worth noting, however, that all of those meetings occurred before the Australian’s Roland Garros breakthrough a year ago and that the red-clay clash in Rome occurred when she was just returning from Lyme disease with a ranking of 145th. 

***

Elsewhere on Friday, it looks more than likely that Nadal and Almagro will set up yet another all-Spanish semifinal at a Masters 1000 event.  Yawn.  Showing little mercy to the last remaining Spaniard in the WTA draw, Jankovic looks primed to reach a third final in the last four Premier Five or Premier Mandatory events, despite Rezai’s eye-popping win over Henin.  Jelena might want to send the Frenchwoman flowers and chocolates for forestalling an 11th meeting–and probably 11th loss–against the Belgian.  It’s hard to tell whether Peer or Li will emerge from their quarterfinal, since both of have been in solid but not fiery form lately.  Stripping much of the suspense from this encounter is the likelihood that either player will fall to the winner of Stosur-Venus in the semis.  Could we ultimately be headed for a third Jankovic-Stosur clash in the last three months?

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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!  🙂

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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.  😉

***

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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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?

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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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Playing a little free association with the words “Henin,” “Sharapova,” and “Madrid,” the 2007 year-end championships final springs to mind, an instant classic in which the statuesque Russian and the petite Belgian fired groundstroke missiles at each other for nearly three and a half electrifying hours.  In their very next trip to the Spanish capital, however, the two former #1s tumbled consecutively to a pair of streaky but second-tier players. 

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Returning from yet another injury and playing on her least comfortable surface, Sharapova wouldn’t have expected to pull off a deep run here and probably would have fallen to Dementieva in the third round even if she had won today.  The Russian has played just nine matches this year and scored just one win outside her title run in Memphis, so she’ll head to Strasbourg hoping to settle into a rhythm before Roland Garros (and perhaps test out what may or may not be a Head racket).  Parallel to 2009, though, Maria’s main goal will be to accumulate match play before the fast-surface summer rather than to peak at the French Open, where she won’t be and has never been among the leading contenders.  A high-risk game like hers doesn’t incorporate the margin for error necessary to win seven consecutive matches on a surface that rewards consistency more than shot-making.  Maria’s best tennis probably lies behind her, for one senses that her career peaked with her dizzyingly brilliant fortnight at the 2008 Australian Open, the most dominant single-Slam performance in recent memory according to such a perfectionist as Martina Navratilova (who ought to know).  But few players can equal the relentless competitive willpower that she brings to the court when healthy and confident.  Don’t be surprised to see Sharapova resurface on the North American hard courts, as she did last year, and progress deep into some significant draws in the season’s second half.

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On the other hand, Henin indeed will be among the leading contenders (if not the leading contender) for the clay-court crown, and her illness-influenced loss to Rezai raises serious questions about her physical durability, problematic thus far in her comeback but essential for her to dominate Paris.  Rivals such as Jankovic and Serena will be encouraged to think that they might be able to claim the French Open title without confronting the Belgian, while the WTA rank-and-file will enter early-round matches against her without the conviction that victory would be “Mission Impossible,” in Rezai’s words.  Furthermore, she squandered a golden opportunity to gain a top-16 seeding at Roland Garros, which would have afforded her one additional round to find her comfort zone before meeting a marquee opponent.  After a hideous loss to Dulko in Indian Wells, however, Henin charged to the semifinals in Miami and nearly conquered eventual champion Clijsters, so don’t underestimate this feisty competitor’s ability to rebound from discouraging losses (see our article on the Art of Amnesia below).  She’ll have plenty of time to rest, recover from this illness, and acclimate herself to the Paris conditions before most of the other contenders arrive. 

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It’ll be intriguing to see whether the wave of upsets in the opening weekend, which began with Kuznetsova’s Saturday loss, will trickle into Monday and Tuesday.  We take a look at a handful of Monday matches that each offer something to ponder:

Safina-Zakopalova:  Wobbly so far in her return from a back injury, the defending champion couldn’t have asked for a better opener than against Zakopalova…or for a worse opener.  The 28-year-old Czech lacks any real weapon but can retrieve ball after ball after ball, as Serena discovered to her dismay in a three-set marathon at last year’s French Open.  Safina won’t have to worry about being hustled off the court before she can find a rhythm; she’ll have plenty of chances to work her way through rallies and construct points, so in a sense the matchup is ideal.  On the other hand, an inconsistent evening from the Russian could be a prolonged trip to the torture chamber, since Zakopalova misses very few balls at all and loves to wage a war of attrition, for which Safina is currently unready.  Either way, it’ll be a timely opportunity for her to practice the vital skill of controlled aggression, always a test for her slim patience.

Kvitova-Wozniacki:  The world #2 lost to one lefty in Stuttgart (Sharapova-killer Safarova) and another lefty in Rome (Martinez Sanchez); here comes a third lefty in the opening round of Madrid.  Between Indian Wells and an untimely injury in Charleston, Wozniacki looked ready to take a major step forward, justify her inflated ranking, and perhaps even challenge for the Roland Garros title.  Since she still relies excessively on her movement and ball-retrieving skills, threats to mobility such as this ankle injury could undermine her capacity to outlast streaky shotmakers like Kvitova, who pummeled Zvonareva in Rome last week.   The Pole-Dane should come through because Kvitova tends to go cold at the wrong time, but expect Wozniacki’s wheels to be tested. 

Zvonareva-Venus:  We weren’t quite sure what to expect from either of these players after their dismal exits from Rome, including the worst loss of Venus’ professional career.  In the opening round, however, the American registered a sturdy serving performance, while the Russian routinely knocked off Oudin for the third time in 2010.  (Wasn’t the pugnacious Georgian supposed to be especially good against Russians?)  Venus has won their last six meetings, of which three were on clay, so on paper she appears the heavy favorite.  Nobody saw the horrific Rome loss on the horizon after a pair of capable wins there, though, and the elder Williams sister dropped her second-round match to Kleybanova here last year.  Solid with both sets of groundstrokes, Zvonareva has more than enough ability to grind down an erratic Venus from the baseline, as did Jankovic, or punish her for an off-key serving day.  Considering Venus’ struggles on clay, one imagines that Vera will see an opportunity sometime; can she hold her nerve and convert?

Cirstea-Pennetta:  Picking Pennetta to reach the Rome semis, we felt that she would be buoyed by her recent Fed Cup success, her Andalusia title, and the home crowd.  How wrong we were (although not as wrong as when we picked Henin to win here); the Italian extracted just three games from Safarova in the second round on a very bleak day for her countrywomen, who won nine total games in four matches.  2010 has been surprisingly inconsistent for Pennetta, so far largely unable to capitalize upon the momentum from her strong second half in 2009.  Across the net, Cirstea seems to be finally emerging from a protracted slump by hiring Azarenka architect Antonio van Grichen and scoring a handful of wins during the clay season.  There’s plenty of potential for van Grichen to unlock, as Jankovic could attest after dropping a 9-7 third set to the charismatic Romanian at Roland Garros last year.  Can the stagnating veteran use her experience to prevail over the burgeoning youngster?

Li-Garcia Vidagany:  We hear the contemptuous chuckles from those of you who missed the Marbella event.  Before the dust had settled from Miami, Garcia Vidagany had stunned Clijsters in that lush Mediterranean resort.  Kudos to her for building upon the momentum by qualifying for another of her home tournaments here.  It’s unrealistic to expect her to defeat Li, but we’re curious to see whether this 21-year-old can muster something that will keep her name on our radar, at least for small events.  A competitive effort in this match would do so.

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After Monday’s light canape, Tuesday should offer a delicious selection of tapas, not least the Ivanovic-Jankovic and Berdych-Nalbandian encounters.  We’ll be back to set the table for you tomorrow…