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We’re going to break down the whys and wherefores of the women’s semifinals just as we have the previous matches, but first there’s a background narrative to tell.

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Celebrating the 2008 Australian “glam Slam” final almost as enthusiastically as we did, the marketing moguls at the WTA (What’s Tennis, Anyway?) wondered complacently whether this season would become the Year of Maria or the Year of Ana.  Much to their chagrin, 2008 and 2009 would instead become the Year(s) of Anarchy, featuring six different #1s, seven different titlists at the Slams and the Olympics, multiple losses by #1s to players outside the top 100, and so many bizarre bits of “history” that nothing seemed historic anymore.  One #1 retired with a massive lead atop the rankings, another #1 disappeared for 10 months with a career-threatening shoulder injury, a third #1 squawked “Why am I such a chicken?” during a Slam final, and a fourth #1 explained away an embarrassing Wimbledon defeat with “woman problems.”  In this endless comedy of errors, the annual year-end championships seemed less a competition to decide who was the best player of the year than a manicure-endangering fistfight over who was the best player of this week, this day, this hour, right now at this nanosecond.  After a rebuilding period in the latter stages of 2009, the WTA breathed a sigh of relief as order looked about to be restored in 2010 following the comebacks of two Belgians and a Siberian.  The Williams sisters would no longer be required to stand guard over the sanctuary alone.

In fact, everything did unfold more or less according to plan early this year, despite the dismal departures of Clijsters and Sharapova during the first week in Melbourne.  Serena and Henin reinvigorated their fierce rivalry in a memorable, tightly contested women’s final that trumped its men’s counterpart for the first time in recent memory.  A few weeks earlier in Brisbane, the two Belgians had reignited their own equally fierce rivalry with a scintillating final that remains one of the best women’s matches of the year so far.  Although alarm bells jingled faintly when Clijsters and Henin crashed out of Indian Wells prematurely, everyone knows that odd things happen in the California desert, where bald old men defeat Nadal and Roddick to win titles.  Reinforcing the identification of Indian Wells as an anomaly were the stirring runs of Venus, Clijsters, and Henin in Miami; despite the horrific final, the organizers got the matchup for which they had hoped, so the new Roadmap seemed vindicated.  When the surface shifted to European clay, observers expected irregularities to abound, for the elite women (other than Henin) feel least secure on this surface and devote the least effort to it.  Consequently, it was more charming than disturbing to witness the startling achievements of Martinez Sanchez and Rezai.  When we reached Roland Garros, though, there was a sense that the magnitude of a Slam would separate the contenders from the pretenders again.  It did indeed; the contenders went home to lick their largely self-inflicted wounds, while the pretenders frolicked around the court in delirious glee.  (Nothing against the achievement of Schiavone, who fully deserved her title, but the marquee players had a job to do and didn’t do it.)  After the conclusion of the clay season, however, the WTA could be forgiven for anticipating Wimbledon with relish, for conventional form generally prevails in these most traditional surroundings.  As everyone now knows, those expectations proved hopelessly unfounded, in part as a consequence of a lopsided draw (ahem, Wimbledon seedings committee) but in no less part as a consequence of appallingly lackluster performances by those who ought to know better (ahem, Clijsters and Venus).  Considered four-fifths of the WTA elite, the quartet of Venus, Clijsters, Henin, and Sharapova have recorded just one total semifinal among them at the first three majors of the year.  The remaining fifth now carries the responsibility of preserving credibility for the established order in women’s tennis by winning two more matches on the lawns of the All England Club.  Since Serena bears that burden alone, it’s no surprise that her shoulder was taped on Wednesday.  

With that context in mind, we turn to the women’s semifinals at Wimbledon…

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Zvonareva (21) vs. Pironkova:  Amidst widespread reports of Russia’s demise as the dominant WTA power, Zvonareva has bravely upheld her nation’s honor by reaching the semifinals in both singles and doubles.  This unexpected heroine demonstrated uncharacteristic mental tenacity by rebounding from adversity more than once in her quarterfinal victory over Clijsters.  Hampered by untimely net cords as she failed to serve out the second set, Zvonareva contained her disappointment and broke the Belgian a game later.  In the third set, however, the eighth seed conveniently dropped her own serve rather than compelling the Russian to serve out the match, so one remains unaware of how she would have responded to that ultimate challenge.  Unfailingly positive and poised throughout her absurdly one-sided win over Venus, Pironkova looked like a much more mature, experienced player than the trembling cannon fodder who offered no resistance whatever against Sharapova at last year’s US Open.  Remarkably, she looked as though she expected to win and showed barely a flicker of nerves even as the finish line approached.  Earning break points in all but two of the second seed’s games, the world #82 returned overhead after overhead, swing volley after swing volley with improbable retrievals; Zvonareva must prepare to win the point two or even three times instead of assuming that one penetrating groundstroke will suffice.  Pironkova’s knack for placing balls in awkward locations thus proved startlingly effective on a surface where defense traditionally has reaped few rewards. 

Like the Russian, the Bulgarian strikes her backhand more crisply than her forehand, which has a loopier swing relatively low in power.  Therefore, it’ll be intriguing to observe whether each player attempts to target their opponent’s weakness in forehand-to-forehand rallies or play to their own strengths in backhand-to-backhand exchanges.  Vera has looked sharper on cross-court shots than on down-the-line forays, whereas the opposite preference characterizes Tsvetana.  Generally more of a counterpuncher than a puncher, Zvonareva must leave her comfort zone to create her own pace, for Pironkova rarely hits anything that would incur a speeding ticket on a motorway.  While the Russian covers the open court with the alacrity of a Clijsters or a Jankovic, her weak ankles hinder her ability to reverse directions, so the Bulgarian would do well to hit behind her and keep her off balance.  Average behind their first serves, both players struggle with second serves and should seek a high first-serve percentage rather than overly risky deliveries.  All the same, we should see fewer short points and more breaks than one might expect on greass, for Vera and Tsvetana often project more power behind their returns than their serves.  Just as a previous victory over Venus infused the Bulgarian with confidence, her commanding win over Zvonareva in last fall’s Moscow tournament will inspire her to believe that her miraculous run can continue.  Businesslike and purposeful as the underdog against Clijsters, how will the Russian react to the role of the favorite in what is only the second Slam semifinal of her career?  While the magnitude of the occasion may prevent both players from delivering their best tennis, Zvonareva possesses the physical edge, while the Bulgarian enjoys the mental edge.  Pironkova doesn’t need to step as far outside her normal game as does the Russian, although the world #82 has reached just two semifinals in her career and is seeking her first final at any level.  Wimbledon would be a decent place to start. 

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Serena (1) vs. Kvitova:  For the second straight day, a volatile Czech shotmaker takes aim at the top seed and defending champion.  Crushing Kvitova during the first week of the Australian Open, Serena rarely struggles against lefties.  At the US Open last year, she emphatically defused Hungarian southpaw Melina Czink in the second round.  Unless Kvitova connects consistently on sweeping wide serves into the ad court, there’s little that she can do to prevent the top seed from seizing immediate control of the rallies.  Meanwhile, Serena’s own serve has reached record-breaking heights here for the second consecutive year, allowing her to be broken just twice in the tournament.  Can Kvitova match her hold for hold over the course of even one set?  She would have to deliver an even more resounding performance than during her dominant wins over Azarenka and Wozniacki, both of which featured bagels.  Not known for mental tenacity, the Czech should wilt beneath the pressure of Serena’s resounding serve, unless the top seed’s arm bandage portends something very serious indeed.  Asked whether she had a chance to record the upset of a lifetime, Kvitova bluntly said “No.”  That response should tell you all that you need to know about the second semifinal, which should be short and sweet for Serena.  Do keep an eye on that shoulder, though.

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Far from the most shocking upset of the fortnight, Federer’s loss to Berdych registered only mild surprise around here, certainly less than the demises of Venus and Roddick.  Rarely in vintage form throughout his favorite tournament, the defending champion sounded uncharacteristically graceless and grumpy during his press conference, unwilling to grant Berdych more than a few scraps of credit for the victory.  Perhaps his most concerning statement, however, was the defensive assertion that consecutive quarterfinals at Roland Garros and Wimbledon constituted quite a decent performance.  Federer’s fans should hope that he doesn’t internalize those rationalizing sentiments, for such complacency would severely hamper him against a host of hungrier opponents.  As was the case after the epic Wimbledon loss to Nadal in 2008, the new world #3 will be one of the most intriguing storylines at the US Open, which will indicate where (if anywhere) his career goes from here.  Can Federer reinvigorate himself again as he did two years ago?  Or has the evolution of tennis into an ever more physical, baseline-rooted sport left his elegant, all-court game behind?  There will be no answers until September, which permits us plenty of time to ponder.

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Whereas the men’s tournament builds toward a magnificent climax, the women’s tournament skidded downhill towards a highly predictable conclusion after only one Williams sister survived the quarterfinals.  Joined by three players with a solitary Slam semifinal among them (Zvonareva—2009 Australian Open), Serena will swagger into the latter rounds with an immense edge in every physical and mental department.  Probably the greatest surprise of the tournament so far, meanwhile, was the premature demise of its five-time women’s champion.  No longer can commentators claim that Venus becomes a different player when she steps onto the grass; today, we saw every flaw in this legendary but aging game exposed as cruelly as on any other surface.  While her career wanes, the elder Williams sister has grappled not only with focus lapses but with wildly imprecise timing on her groundstrokes, a costly flaw in a game with such little margin for error.  This unreliability from the baseline places too much pressure upon her first serve and return to terminate points before rallies develop; a mediocre performance in one or both of those areas leaves her vulnerable to consistent, opportunistic opponents.  Moreover, a talent that long separated the world #2 from her rivals was her well-honed net prowess, yet she won just half of her net points in the loss today while displaying the indifferent forecourt footwork that has characterized her reverses this year.  Among the most telling elements of the upset, though, was its lopsided scoreline.  In three of her six defeats this year, Venus has won five or fewer games.  These embarrassments in Miami, Rome, and Wimbledon reveal her inability to alter a strategy that isn’t working, for she never has possessed a Plan B and has shown no inclination to craft one as her high-risk style grows progressively less dependable.  At this stage in her storied career, nobody can fault her for clinging to what has preserved her position at the summit of the sport for over a decade.  Nevertheless, the bizarre, seemingly inexplicable days when she suddenly can’t find the court will recur with increasing frequency, hindering her from adding to the seven majors in her collection.  Although Venus can win week-long WTA tournaments with sporadic brilliance, she can’t survive a fortnight’s supply of fiercely motivated adversaries without the mental fortitude and sturdy technique that have recently deserted her.  To be sure, Federer regrouped after losing his citadel on grass to recapture it a year later, so there’s a precedent for the elder Williams sister to again hold the dish that bears her name.  Perhaps the shock of this loss will thrust her from her complacent torpor into the competitive intensity that played a vital role in her five Wimbledon crowns.  But time is not on her side.

After a wayward (although far from dull) day courtesy of the women, will the top four men restore order in the court and advance to the semis?  Confronted with four highly formidable foes, they might not find the task as easy as they would hope.

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Federer (1) vs. Berdych (12):  Far from flawless in his first two rounds, Federer rediscovered his range during the next two matches and has dropped just 16 games in his last 6 sets.  Having fallen to a mighty slugger in his last Slam quarterfinal, Federer will find himself forced to solve the similar, slightly less formidable conundrum posed by his recent Miami nemesis.  Surging to his first career Slam semifinal at Roland Garros, Berdych enjoys a reasonable chance to match that accomplishment if Federer reverts to his early-tournament malaise rather than rising to the occasion as he typically does in the second week.  The Czech has progressed to this stage only slightly more compellingly than the top seed, for he dropped three sets in his past two matches against the anonymous Denis Istomin and Daniel Brands.  Whereas the defending champion’s form has steadily accelerated, therefore, his challenger’s form has dropped a bit.  Also in Federer’s favor is the best-of-five format, which allows him the time to rebound from an indifferent start while also providing his opponents greater opportunity to ponder the magnitude of a potential upset.  Almost as relevant to this clash as the Miami meeting this year, their 2009 Australian Open encounter witnessed the Swiss star’s stirring comeback from a two-set deficit; after dominating Federer in those first two sets, Berdych sharply declined thereafter as a result of mental insecurities and his inferior fitness.  Although the fitness remains an issue, the mental insecurities may no longer hamper Berdych, since his remarkable results in Miami and Paris appear to have silenced his inner demons.  (Or are they only temporarily silenced?  We might find out.)  The early stages of this match will be crucial for the Czech in order for him to implant doubts in the defending champion’s mind, a bit more frail in 2010 than in preceding years.  Much more adept at the net than his challenger, Federer should attempt to drag Berdych forward in uncomfortable circumstances while fearlessly venturing into the forecourt himself whenever an opportunity arises.  If Berdych can protect his serve and force Federer into tiebreaks, the top seed might well blink.  But he must slam the door as soon as possible before the Swiss can catch his balance.  Otherwise, the next Slam semifinal streak starts here.  Federer, 60-40.

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Tsonga (10) vs. Murray (4):  The Scot has won two of their three meetings, but it’s the Frenchman who won their most significant clash at the 2008 Australian Open.  In that first-round encounter, Murray remained locked in a passive counter-punching mentality while Tsonga took all the risks and reaped most of the rewards.  Over the last two years, the home hope has enhanced his aggressive skills to a perceptible extent but not sufficiently to outgun Roddick in a 2009 semifinal here.  Uncertain of his participation until shortly before the fortnight began, Tsonga has weathered a few unconventional, motivated foes such as Ukraine’s Dolgopolov and his compatriot Julien Benneteau.  The only player to reach the quarters without dropping a set, Murray has enjoyed a placid draw with the exception of the rising Sam Querrey, whose formidable serve rarely ruffled the fourth seed.  That fact bodes ill for the Frenchman, who relies upon a massive first delivery to set up his forehand and acrobatic net-rushing style.  Much less athletic than Tsonga, the Scot has achieved his accomplishments through intelligence, versatility, crisp footwork, and exceptional movement, an underrated advantage on grass.  While short points will favor the Frenchman, longer exchanges will shift towards the much more consistent Murray, armed with an exceptional passing shot that should blunt his opponent’s charges into the forecourt.  Moreover, the ingenious Scot will seek to construct backhand-to-backhand rallies in which he would enjoy a clear edge.  If Tsonga attempts to run around his weaker wing to hit a forehand, he would sacrifice too much court area to protect on this fast surface.  We wouldn’t be surprised to see an early wobble or two from the Scot, though, who did start tentatively against Querrey.  Nevertheless, Tsonga generally ebbs and flows during the best-of-five format, winning only one straight-setter thus far despite winning the first two sets in every round.  Whereas he can escape that streakiness (albeit narrowly) against most ATP journeymen, Murray should exploit the lulls that punctuate the Frenchman’s high-wire performance.  Like Berdych, Tsonga either will win this match in a hurry or not at all.  Murray, 70-30.

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Djokovic (3) vs. Lu:  The only unseeded player to reach the quarterfinals, Lu should not be discounted as he was by almost everyone before his five-set upset of Roddick in the previous round.  During that match, the Taiwanese star showcased lithe movement and flat, almost net-skimming groundstrokes that darted through the grass with greater pace than one might expect from his slim physique.  Equally impressive was the sturdy mentality with which he refused to wilt after wasting a chance to close out the match in the fourth-set tiebreak.  Nearly all observers would have handed Roddick the advantage in a no-tiebreak deciding set, but it was the world #82 who found his sharpest serves, zippiest passing shots, and deftest volleys when it mattered most.  Will he be mentally and physically weary following the most dazzling win of his career, however?  It’s not easy to score two massive upsets in a row, although Djokovic did fall prey to a career run from Melzer in the same round at Roland Garros.  Often struggling to raise his level against an exceptionally inspired opponent, the Serb might be vulnerable to Lu if his physical condition remains shaky as it was late in his gritty win over Hewitt.  On the other hand, that previous triumph will have prepared Djokovic for the playing style that he will face in the quarterfinals, since the Taiwanese challenger possesses most of the same strengths (tenacity, tennis IQ, court coverage, groundstroke depth) and weaknesses (serve, first-strike ability) as the Australian.  Underdogs like Lu are dangerous because they have nothing to lose, but Djokovic must approach this match with the same mentality; almost nobody has mentioned him as a genuine contender for the title here, yet he’ll be within a win of the final Sunday should he survive this match.  At the semifinal stage, anything can happen.  For the moment, though, the Serb needs to play with the same crisp, purposeful demeanor that characterized his previous victory and that must replace his energy-draining penchant for drama if he is to reaffirm himself as a Slam contender.  Business first, pleasure later.  Djokovic, 75-25.

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Soderling (6) vs. Nadal (2):  Arguably the juiciest of these four delicious confrontations, this clash reprises the French Open final just as did the Federer-Soderling fourth-rounder here last year.  Although the Swiss star reprised his straight-sets win over the Swedish behemoth that time, one senses that Nadal might not cruise so conclusively now.  Inciting the anxiety of his fans, Rafa request multiple medical timeouts during a mediocre first week that included consecutive five-setters.  He did look considerably more convincing in his last round against the mentally frail Mathieu, but the knees remain an ongoing issue about which he admitted his concern.  Ever eager to pounce upon a weakened adversary, Soderling reaped historic rewards a year ago when he battered a knee-troubled Rafa into submission, so he might well repeat the feat on Wednesday.  Of concern for the Swede’s supporters, though, was his erratic play and overt emotional turmoil during his five-set win over Ferrer, which disturbingly recalled the pre-2009 Robin.  In order to conquer the Spaniard in a best-of-five format, Soderling must prevent his temper from bubbling to the surface and concentrate upon bombing serve after serve after serve.  Unlike all other men’s contenders, his serve survived intact into the second set of his fourth match.  Predictably less invulnerable upon his own delivery, Nadal will rely upon his superb movement, reflexes, and instincts to transition from defense to offense after retrieving the Swede’s thunderbolts.  Not as many of those shots will return on grass, however, as they did on clay a month ago, so the world #1 needs to impose himself upon rallies with more first-strike tennis than he generally prefers.  Like Federer, Nadal should bring his net-averse foe forward in uncomfortable positions whenever convenient, for his passing shots have crackled through the court with authority lately.  The low bounce on grass hampers the lofty Soderling, who prefers a high strike zone for his groundstrokes, but it also lessens the topspin on Nadal’s heavy groundstrokes.  Neither the Spaniard’s beloved clay nor the Swede’s favored hard courts, this surface represents a relatively neutral battleground.  If the sixth seed serves brilliantly and the second seed moves brilliantly, this match is very even indeed.  Whoever wins should approach the rest of his tournament brimming with confidence after overcoming a redoubtable adversary.  Nadal, 51-49. 

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Although we gave the Big Four the edge in each of these compelling matchups, somehow we suspect that at least one challenger will thwart the odds and embed themselves in Friday’s semifinals.  But who?  Answers to come…

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After dropping serve in the fourth game against an imperious Serena Williams, a familiar storyline seemed likely to unfold for Sharapova, who had endured a pair of ignominiously one-sided defeats at the hands of the world #1 in their last two fast-court meetings.  Instead, the 2004 Wimbledon champion swiftly regrouped to break Serena before matching her fistpump for fistpump and serve for blazing serve deep into a first-set tiebreak, where a momentary dip in the Russian’s intensity cost her the chance to establish a lead.  Barely deterred by that disappointment, however, she kept the top seed grimly locked in combat through most of the second set as well.  Rather than the slumping, listless Maria who dropped the Australian final to Serena three years ago, the Centre Court  witnessed a steely competitor whose fabled ferocity glowed once more against the three-time (probably soon to be four-time) titlist at the All England Club.  This startlingly taut encounter joined the gallant three-setter against Henin in Paris among Sharapova’s finest performances in her comeback, for both of these honorable losses impressed more than most of her triumphs over unheralded foes.  (Could someone summon Justine whenever Maria requires an infusion of confidence?  Their epic final at the 2007 year-end championships likewise ignited the Russian after a dismal series of results.)  To be sure, she must polish her second-serve returns and refine her shot selection at crucial moments; she adhered to her aggression-at-all-costs game plan a little too rigorously on a few occasions.  Where Maria is concerned, though, over-aggressive is far preferable to passive; if she can maintain her distance from the doctor, one imagines that her ranking and confidence will continue to climb, lifting the Russian back into the contender’s circle for 2011.  It’s hard to imagine her losing on a fast surface to anyone not named Williams with the standard of play that she showcased on Monday. 

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Meanwhile, Henin finds herself at a slight crossroads in her comeback after a deflating loss to Clijsters during which she produced erratic and often unintelligent tennis.  Following an explosive start to 2010 in Australia, the season hasn’t unfolded as impressively as she surely would have hoped, and three three-set losses to Clijsters will be festering in her mind during the post-Wimbledon hiatus.  If Henin hopes to add the Venus Rosewater Dish to her trophy collection, she must find a way to defeat her compatriot before she can attempt to solve the Williams sisters.  Always an emotional dynamo, the petite Belgian needs an impressive performance or two over the coming months in order to restore her confidence in this second career and vindicate the modifications that thus far have disrupted more than enhanced her game.  On the bright side, her rising ranking will allow her to settle into tournaments more comfortably by easing her draws, brutal at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon. 

Monday was Manic indeed.  Will Tuesday be Terrific or Tepid?  We break down the women’s quarterfinals straight ahead…

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Clijsters (8) vs. Zvonareva (21):  Who would have guessed that Zvonareva would be the last Russian standing at Wimbledon?  While Kim has won all five of their previous meetings, including a 2006 first-round clash here, Vera has extended their last two clashes to three sets and has showcased unexpectedly compelling tennis this fortnight.  Despite the pressure inherent to her exalted surroundings, Zvonareva hasn’t dropped a set in four matches here while restraining her infamous temper.  Unaccustomed to playing on Centre Court, however, she might enter the match a little tentative, which could allow Clijsters to establish an early lead.  Rallying from a one-set deficit against her archrival on Monday, the Belgian either will charge forward with the momentum acquired from overcoming Henin or will suffer an emotional hangover from the relief of reversing Justine’s dominance over her on major stages.  At Miami, an emotionally fraught semifinal triumph against her compatriot preceded a highly capable performance in the final.  “Highly capable” should suffice to vanquish Zvonareva, who can equal Clijsters from both the service notch and the baseline but not above the neckline.  Since neither player wins quantities of free points on their serve, engaging rallies should develop that showcase the balanced groundstroke arsenals and crisp footwork of these competitors.  If one feels rather jaded by the abbreviated points and spasmodic rhythm of conventional grass-court tennis, therefore, this match should offer a refreshing antidote.  We expect a reasonably competitive encounter, perhaps even a three-setter, that Clijsters should capture through her superior consistency unless her game abruptly deserts her as it has a few times this year.  Clijsters, 70/30.

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Serena (1) vs. Li (9):  Virtually bullet-proof through her first four matches, Serena has conceded her serve just once in the tournament while striking an astonishing 62 aces, 38 in her last two matches.  One senses that she’ll need to rely on that massive delivery against an adversary who has won four sets (and one match) from her and who habitually rises to the occasion when confronting formidable opponents.  Forced to perform at a lofty level in order to overcome Sharapova, Serena often benefits from challenging early rounds that elevate her focus for the tournament’s latter stages.  Riding a nine-match winning streak, Li dragged the top seed into two tiebreaks in the Australian Open semifinals; overall, they have contested no fewer than five tiebreaks, of which the American has won four behind her superior serve.  As Serena mentioned in her Monday press conference, the Chinese star never concedes a match and can be at her most dangerous when behind.  In their last two meetings, Li twice broke the world #1 when she served for a set, sharpening her game at crucial moments.  Unintimidated by the Williams sisters, whom she has defeated three times since 2008, the ninth seed surely won’t be intimidated by the aura of Centre Court, a less pressure-laden environment than the Beijing Olympics where she excelled two years ago.  Very few players are more capable of exploiting an off-key day from a marquee opponent, which Venus discovered to her chagrin at the Australian Open.  Yet Serena has looked nothing short of imperious during this fortnight, burdening her opponents with the task of winning virtually every service games simply to stay level with her.  Don’t be surprised to see another tiebreak or two, but only a supreme effort from Li will secure a set for the Chinese star; shot for shot, there’s nothing that she does better than Serena when the American is at her best.   Serena, 80/20.

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Pironkova vs. Venus (2):  Recalling the 2006 Australian Open, fans of the elder Williams sister may anticipate this encounter a little anxiously, since Pironkova scored one of the last decade’s most shocking Slam upsets in the opening round that year.  in an unexpectedly tight, largely overlooked fourth-round triumph over Jarmila Groth, Venus looked less sharp than she had in the first week and was fortunate to escape a third set when the Slovak-turned-Australian crumbled in the second-set tiebreak.  Nevertheless, she faces a vastly different opponent in the Bulgarian, who once seemed a promising future contender before spiraling downwards in the last year or two.  Caressing rather than bludgeoning the ball, Pironkova exploited an extremely weak section of the draw before mystifyingly overcoming the much more grass-friendly game of Bartoli on Monday.  Bartoli’s serve often comprises more of a liability than an asset, however, whereas Venus should hold regularly while constantly threatening the Bulgarian’s benign delivery.  If they clashed on clay, Pironkova might prolong points until the second seed donated costly errors, but on grass this match would seem to be a grotesque mismatch.  On the other hand, Tsvetana is faithfully reproducing Schiavone’s post-victory mannerisms, so who knows?  We think that we do.  Venus, 90/10.

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Kvitova vs. Kanepi (Q):  Two women’s players will have won seven matches at this year’s Wimbledon:  the eventual champion and Kaia Kanepi, who scored three wins in the qualifying draw before reaching the quarters with four more victories.  Critiqued in this blog for her one-dimensionality, the Estonian has proved that might still does make right sometimes, following her Stosur upset with three more quality straight-sets wins.  Although her conditioning must be excellent for her to reach this stage, one imagines that Kanepi will be a little weary as she readies for the lefty missiles from the racket of white-hot Petra Kvitova.  The Estonian has won two of their three meetings, yet the Czech captured a vertiginously seesaw encounter in Memphis this Feburary after Kanepi had served for the match.  Bageling both Azarenka and Wozniacki, Kvitova sometimes looks as though she couldn’t miss if she tried, no matter how outrageously audacious her shots.  With impeccable timing, she’s scheduled the most convincing tennis of her career for arguably the most important tournament of all.  Kvitova possesses superior movement and Kanepi the sturdier serve, but both players probably will greet this immense opportunity apprehensively,  producing less than exquisite tennis.  Will Kanepi’s unflinching power trump Kvitova’s imaginative shotmaking, or will the lefty’s high-wire act continue?  Your guess is as good as ours.  A name beginning with K, 100/0.

We return with a preview of the distinctly more intriguing men’s quarterfinal matchups, three of which we forecasted before the first ball was struck.  Kudos to Yen-Hsun Lu for confounding our expectations, but it’ll be a long flight home for last year’s finalist, who has lost in excruciating fashion at his last four non-clay majors.

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Nobody has endured a heavier diet of disappointment than Roddick, so one hopes that the worm will eventually turn before the last sands trickle out of his hourglass.

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Effective but unspectacular in her third-round victory, Sharapova reached the second week of a Slam for just the second time in her comeback from shoulder surgery and extended an encouraging passage of play that began with her Strasbourg title in May.  Compiling a 14-3 record since her return from elbow injury, Maria now confronts a monumental challenge in world #1, top seed, defending champion, and twelve-time Slam champion Serena Williams.  Six years ago, they clashed on these fabled lawns in the ladies’ final, which unexpectedly proved the spark that launched Sharapova’s sensational career as the world’s highest-earning and arguably most recognizable female athlete.  Since that fateful Saturday in July, however, the American has regained the advantage with a nerve-jangling victory at an Australian Open semifinal and two lopsided 2007 wins during a period when the Russian’s shoulder injury severely undermined her game.  Consequently, what once had seemed likely to become a leading rivalry in women’s tennis evolved into no rivalry at all, as Sharapova wryly reminded the media during her postmatch press conference on Saturday.  We explain below why this narrative has unfolded.

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Like most of the WTA elite, Maria plays effectively the same style as the world #1, with explosive first-strike groundstrokes as well as mighty serving and returning.  Yet nobody executes this bone-crushing tennis more capably than the Williams sisters, who can outslug anyone on a fast surface while moving better than most of their rivals.  Their two principal flaws remain versatility and consistency, the former of which renders them susceptible to the artful Henin and the latter of which leaves them vulnerable to the dogged Clijsters.  Buttressed exclusively upon power, power, and more power, Sharapova virtually plays into Serena’s hands; the American covers the court more than the Russian and blasts her groundstrokes with a bit more margin for error.  The 2004 champion requires time and balance to unleash her savage strokes, while the three-time champion can crack dazzling winners at full stretch from sheer athletic talent.  If an opponent can keep Sharapova moving, by contrast, they can draw underwhelming mid-court replies that expose her indifferent defensive skills or force her to attempt a low-percentage reply.  Whereas Maria pounds almost entirely flat missiles, the top seed tempers her shots with topspin for better net clearance.  In the serving department, no player can trump Serena, whose simple, rhythmic delivery can hit all four corners of the service boxes while producing the most imposing second serve in the WTA.  It’s almost impossible for anyone, even the Belgians, to trade hold for hold with the defending champion on so fast a surface.  Although Maria’s serve has improved dramatically since her return to the elongated, pre-injury motion, she won’t win as many free points from the delivery as will Serena.  And the additional time that she needs to warm up her shoulder will diminish her serve’s pace in the first game or two, aiding her opponent’s efforts to gain an early lead.

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Most important, however, is the confidence factor, one of the most pivotal weapons in the American’s arsenal throughout her prolonged tenure at the summit of the sport.  Despite the obvious role of injuries in Maria’s 2007 losses, those routs (in addition to a lopsided Wimbledon loss against Venus that year) seem to have resigned the Russian to the superiority of the sisters.  Typically combative and authoritative against almost any other opponents, Sharapova loses this swaggering edge when she confronts Serena and Venus.  At her 2008 Charleston meeting with the younger sister, the Russian failed to convert multiple opportunities to assert herself early in the match before fading late.  If she hopes to score a stirring upset, Maria needs to relentlessly take risks on both first and second serves, pull the trigger in rallies at the earliest opportunity, and abbreviate points by moving into the forecourt.  In order to execute this uber-aggressive game plan convincingly, though, she must rediscover the self-belief against Serena that has escaped her since those precocious triumphs in 2004. 

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We break down the rest of Manic Monday below:

Querrey (18) vs. Murray (4) (Centre Court, 3rd match):  The only three-time titlist this year outside Nadal, Querrey has captured a tournament on every surface and now has reached the second week of a Slam for the second time in his career.  Shrugging away wasted opportunities to close out Malisse, the American showcased his newfound resolve and focus by finally finishing off the Belgian deep in a final set.  He has won eight consecutive matches on grass since his disheartening exit from Roland Garros, although none of those wins have come against top-20 players.  Over the last few months, Querrey has improved his movement and footwork as well as his shot selection.  When he runs around his backhand now, he generally prevents his opponent from exploiting his exposed court positioning by delivering a deep, assertive forehand rather than an aimless rally ball as he often did in the past.  Sometimes a little too relaxed for his own good, his attitude will serve him well as he prepares to play on Centre Court for the first time (and against the home hope).  On the other hand, Murray has looked almost flawless in his early rounds, taking the initiative in rallies and displaying positive body language.  The Scot’s outstanding return game has defused the imposing deliveries of Gulbis and Karlovic, so he likely will be able to threaten Querrey’s service games with regularity.  Earlier this year in Australia, he dispatched the towering Isner with relative ease by concentrating on simply blocking returns into play and working himself into rallies from there.  More balanced and versatile than Querrey, Murray should be able to slowly drag the American out of his narrow comfort zone in three or four sets.

Clijsters (8) vs. Henin (17) (Court 1, 1st match):  Both of their previous meetings in 2010 featured decisive third-set tiebreaks after Henin had dug herself a hole with reckless shotmaking and Clijsters courteously extracted her from it with tentative ball-striking.  While their overall head-to-head stands very even, Henin has repeatedly tormented her compatriot at majors, where her fierce competitive zeal has provided the cornerstone for her manifold achievements.  Following those two losses to her compatriot in non-Slams, one sense that Justine will enter the contest filled with motivation to reverse those reverses, and her offense-centered game suits the grass more than the consistency-based style of her compatriot.  Nevertheless, Henin enters this tournament with the self-inflicted pressure from having announced a Wimbledon title as the principal goal of her comeback, whereas Clijsters has burdened herself with no such lofty objectives.  Despite Henin’s propensity to take command of her matches for better or for worse, Clijsters must play with the authority that she demonstrated early in their matches at Brisbane and Miami.  It’s highly unlikely that one Belgian will romp through in a pair of routine sets, considering the nervous tension that they invariably awaken in each other.  Much like the Serena-Venus encounters, their matches are often not high-quality tennis from start to finish, but they’re invariably high-quality drama.  Expect a greater unforced error total from both Justine and Kim, who respect each other’s defensive prowess so deeply that they often try for too much on offense.  Expect Henin to relentlessly attack the net at the earliest opportunity, showcasing her unrivalled volleying abilities against Clijsters’ outstanding passing shots.  And expect the match to become progressively more scintillating as the action unfolds, a trajectory that described both of their previous meetings.  Will it be Henin’s turn to seize the early lead, and Clijsters’ turn to mount the comeback?  Only one fact is guaranteed:  it won’t end in a third-set tiebreak.

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Djokovic (3) vs. Hewitt (15) (Court 1, 2nd match):  The most fascinating Day 7 men’s match on the men’s side, this encounter will illuminate the significance or insignificance of grass expertise.  Distinctly the superior player overall, Djokovic would enjoy a substantial edge were they playing on any other surface, but Hewitt fits the label of “grass-court specialist” more than most ATP players.  While the Serb fell to Xavier Malisse in his second match at Queens Club, for example, the Australian charged to the Halle title with a stunning victory over Federer.  Beyond the surface advantage, however, Hewitt also has proven himself to be a far sterner competitor than the retirement-prone Djokovic, whose fitness has been questioned as much as his commitment and desire; none of those qualities can be questioned in the Aussie’s case.  That said, Djokovic possesses greater first-strike potential with penetrating groundstrokes and a serve that has somewhat improved after a wobbly spring.  Armed with a formidable two-handed backhand, he won’t need to run around his forehand and find himself dangerously out of position on this speedy surface.  Crisper and more compact than his forehand swing, in fact, the backhand might prove a more effective weapon on grass than his other groundstroke.  Both players are much more comfortable at the baseline than the net, although the Australian might be a little more dexterous in the forecourt than the Serb.  Can Hewitt parlay his mental advantage and superior grass-court movement into an upset over a player with a more powerful game but less steady game?  If he can stay close deep in sets, we think that he can.  Expect plenty of extended baseline rallies, fistpumps, and drama; we’d be surprised to see this match end in straight sets.

Zvonareva (21) vs. Jankovic (4) (Court 12, 1st match):  Not quite as storied as the all-Belgian rivalry, this blistering-backhand rivalry has provided highly volatile clashes over the past few years, mostly on hard courts.  Although Jankovic typically has held a slight edge over Zvonareva, most of their matches have been decided by a handful of points in which the Serb’s superior mentality prevailed over the Russian’s emotional frailties.  A superior server and naturally more aggressive player, Zvonareva probably will enjoy more opportunities to launch the first strike and should surpass the fourth seed in winners as well as errors.  Steadier on their backhands than their forehands, these two players strike crisp but not overwhelming groundstrokes, eschewing outright point-ending shots in favor of intelligently constructed rallies that probe the court’s contours.  Despite skipping the grass-court preparatory events, both players have looked sharp in their first three rounds; the Serb dominated Melbourne nemesis Alona Bondarenko and weathered a fervent British crowd to dismiss Laura Robson, while the Russian shredded rising star Yanina Wickmayer on Friday.  In contrast to conventional grass-court tennis, this battle will be waged almost entirely from the baseline with players venturing forward only for swinging volleys and other point-ending shots.  The fourth round has proved disastrous for Zvonareva at two of her last three Slams, featuring meltdowns against Pennetta and Azarenka, but she should take comfort from the knowledge that grass is Jankovic’s weakest surface.  Having endured an indifferent 2010 thus far, the Russian could gain crucial confidence for the second half with a quarterfinal appearance at the All England Club, which also would boost her ranking and grant her more propitious draws throughout the summer and fall.

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Benneteau (32) vs. Tsonga (10) (Court 12, 2nd match):  Comfortably defeating his lower-ranked compatriot here three years ago, Tsonga has split his six meetings with Benneteau and has been tested by the latter’s net-rushing prowess.  Not a formidable returner, the tenth seed struggles to counter serve-and-volley tactics because his reply often floats high over the net for a comfortable volley by his opponent.  Littered with short points, this match should feature very few breaks of serve and should be oriented vertically (baseline to net) rather than horizontally (side-to-side along the baseline).  Both Frenchmen rely upon flamboyant shotmaking rather than consistency, so the winner and unforced error totals should soar on both sides.  Whoever takes more risks probably will reap the rewards on this surface that, like fortune, favors the brave.  Don’t be surprised to see some tiebreaks and a more competitive match than their respective rankings might suggest as Tsonga and Benneteau veer from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again in an unpredictable, momentum-less encounter.

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Li (9) vs. Radwanska (7) (Court 18, 1st match):  These two former Wimbledon quarterfinalists excel on grass despite their contrasting styles; Li captured the Birmingham title two weeks ago, while Radwanska won the 2008 Eastbourne crown.  Whereas the ninth seed relishes the alacrity with which her flat, pinpoint groundstrokes scoot through the grass, the Pole manipulates the surface’s softness with superb finesse and touch shots.  Moreover, the lawns of the All England Club slightly enhance the latter player’s unimposing serve, which oddly wasn’t broken during the entire first week.  Can Li’s relentless offense hit through Radwanska’s seamless movement, or will the Pole’s textured style disrupt her opponent’s rhythm and timing?  Both players adeptly handle the low balls common on grass, so we should witness fewer netted groundstrokes than in matches with taller players.  On the other hand, expect multiple service breaks and tightly contested service games, for Li and Radwanska often have demonstrated their competitive tenacity.   The restricted confines of Court 18 should aid the Chinese star’s aggressive style, for her angled shots will streak off the court with less time for the Pole to track them down than if they were playing in more expansive surroundings.  We know that Serena is rooting for Radwanska, who evinces much less confidence against the Williams sister than does the fearless Li.

Elsewhere (ATP):  Undefeated against Paul-Henri Mathieu, Nadal has struggled with the French underachiever in many of their fast-surface meetings, and Rafa looked a little frail during the first week.  Nevertheless, he  should be able to advance into a quarterfinal with Soderling, the best men’s performer of the early rounds; the Swede’s monumental serve-groundstroke combinations should bludgeon David Ferrer into submission, although the Spaniard already has accomplished more than one might have expected by reaching the second week.  Is Federer slowly playing his way into the tournament with progressively more comfortable scoreline, or is he ripe for an upset by Roland Garros semifinalist Jurgen Melzer?  The early stages of this clash should be crucial for the Austrian, who could severely test the top seed if his confidence is soaring and his groundstrokes clicking as they have in the last several weeks.  One Slam does not a contender make, however, so it’s hard to imagine the veteran winning three sets from Federer, although he might well extend him past the minimum.  In the quarterfinals probably awaits the more imposing challenge of Berdych, who should end the sensational Wimbledon debut of lanky German Daniel Brands after a couple of close sets, maybe including a tiebreak or two.  (Brands has played 7 tiebreaks in 10 sets at the All England Club, so that prognostication seems a sensible guess.)  Defeating the nemeses of Ljubicic and Cilic, Yen-Hsun Lu has most implausibly found himself in a final-16 clash with Roddick despite his punchless game.  Don’t expect him to muster much resistance against last year’s finalist, who looks imperfect but determined so far.  

 Elsewhere (WTA):  On the women’s side, one must applaud Jarmila Groth for a second consecutive final-16 appearance at a major, but she has only a negligible chance to upset Venus if the five-time champion’s stellar form here continues.  A rematch of the 2007 final probably looms in the quarters for the elder Williams sister, since Bartoli has resurfaced at her favorite time of the year and should control her match against the punchless (Lu-like) Pironkova.  (Searching for evidence that the surface is slower than in days of yore?  Look no further than the presence of this Bulgarian in the second week.)  A slightly surprising victor over the recently erratic Azarenka, Kvitova pursues revenge for a clay-season loss to Wozniacki; the quirky Czech shotmaker could trouble the Dane on this faster surface if she continues to paint the lines as effectively as in the previous match…but she’s just as likely to lose her temper after an early break and toss away the match in a fit of pique.  Either Klara Zakopalova  or Kaia Kanepi will be a Wimbledon quarterfinalist.  Although the Estonian enters the contest a little fatigued after traveling through the qualifying rounds, but this former top-20 star has a game much better suited to the surface than the tireless counterpuncher.  Whatever the outcome, though, one has to fancy Woznaicki’s chances to set up a semi with Serena.  Or, just perhaps, Li Na.

***

We’ll return to preview all of the women’s quarterfinals on Tuesday.  Thus far, 14 of the 16 players whom we projected to reach the final eight are one win away from reaching the destinations that we prophesied (only Azarenka and Stosur disappointing us).  How many slots will be filled as we initially foretold?   Manic Monday will tell… 

There’s one particular case in which we would be delighted to be wrong, however:

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Enjoy the most action-soaked day in the tennis calendar!

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Among the most compelling reasons to watch Novak Djokovic is the Serb’s unpredictability, which echoes the pleasantly surprising narratives that emerge from this unpredictable sport.  Expecting an engaging Day 5 after perusing the order of play, however, we were unpleasantly surprised by the dreary day that developed from what had seemed fascinating encounters.  On the women’s side, not only were there no three-setters, but only one of the sixteen sets even reached 5-5.  On the men’s side, most of the matches that weren’t routine ended anticlimactically, including a fifth-set retirement and a Roddick-Kohlschreiber collision that grew less rather than more dramatic as it progressed.  Settling into the monochrome mood, even Federer returned to routine efficiency after the tension-soaked rollercoasters that had characterized his first two rounds.  Relatively unpromising compared to its predecessor, the Day 6 order of play perhaps will startle us in the opposite sense by unfolding a thriller or two.  Here are the most likely candidates for that role:

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Soderling (6) vs. Bellucci (25) (Court 1, 1st match):  Opting for rest rather than a grass preparatory event, Soderling has vindicated that decision by smothering his first two opponents with withering serves.  Across the net stands one of the ATP’s most upwardly mobile newcomers, a Brazilian lefty who shines most notably on clay but possesses sufficient power to challenge on all surfaces.  Steadily rising through the rankings, Bellucci has relied upon similar serve-groundstroke combinations to the Swede, so their matchup should be littered with unreturned serves, short points, and ultra-aggressive, sometimes impatient shotmaking.  Soderling should consider using his cross-court forehand to expose his opponent’s weaker backhand side, while the Brazilian should test the sixth seed with wide serves into both the deuce and the ad courts; the Swede proves least comfortable when extended laterally early in rallies.  As formidable as anyone in the first two rounds, Soderling should march onwards towards another meeting with Nadal; shot for shot, there’s no arena in which his adversary holds the edge.  Yet one expects Bellucci’s sliced serve to dart elusively across the grass and allow him to hold with adequate regularity to stay within range for at least one or two sets.

Malisse vs. Querrey (18) (Court 1, 3rd match):  The future of American’s tennis attempts to translate his Queens Club success to Wimbledon by exploiting a relatively open draw.  More than once on the brink of a fifth set against the unheralded Ivan Dodig in the second round, Querrey still struggles occasionally to efficiently close out matches without allowing his opponent renewed hope.  Nevertheless, his victory in the marathon fourth-set tiebreak (well, not “marathon” in the Isner-Mahut sense) testified to his recently enhanced focus, suggesting that some long-awaited maturity may have finally arrived for this lanky Californian.  Among his Queens Club victims was the enigmatic Malisse, plagued by injuries and inconsistency but dangerous when fit.  The Belgian demonstrated his fitness in a five-set opening victory over last year’s quarterfinalist Ferrero, which extended his momentum from an upset over Djokovic in the preparatory event.  If Querrey enters the contest a trifle complacent or unwary, as he might considering his recent victory at Queen Club, the veteran will have a real opportunity to accomplish a minor upset.  On grass, Malisse won’t need to hit as many shots in order to finish a point; the surface rewards his style of low-percentage shotmaking more often than punishing it.  On the other hand, he’ll find that breaking Querrey on this surface is a tall order indeed.

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Errani (32) vs. Radwanska (7) (Court 2, 1st match):  Although one typically associates grass with the mighty ball-striking of a Williams or a Sharapova, Radwanska has demonstrated the effectiveness of the opposite style.  Rather than greeting each ball with full-blooded swings (and shrieks), the Pole exploits the vagaries of the soft surface with feathery drop shots and dipping slices.  Her exceptional finesse has carried her into consecutive quarterfinals at the All England Club, at which stage she was ruthlessly outgunned by the sisters.  Also much more gifted at subtlety than power, Errani excels at opening up the court with unexpected angles and befuddling opponents with clever play at the net.  Don’t be surprised to see numerous service breaks and more extended exchanges than one has grown accustomed to expect on this surface.  During an era of Bolletieri-inspired baseline bombing, it can be diverting to watch these ingenious artisans display their craft before mightier warriors seize center stage (and Centre Court) later in the tournament.

Wozniacki (3) vs. Pavlyuchenkova (29) (Court 2, 2nd match):  According to recent history, this matchup should be less scintillating than one would suppose, since the third seed cleaned the Russian’s clock twice already this year.  Once the world’s foremost junior, Pavlyuchenkova has stalled a bit since last year and has been hampered with untimely injuries; like most Russians, she has become increasingly susceptible to clusters of double faults.  Injuries are far from unknown to her opponent, however, for Wozniacki (unwisely, we think) continues to play through a hamstring injury incurred at Charleston in April.  During the first two rounds, an average performance sufficed to dispatch a pair of unprepossessing foes, and something between decent and solid should prove adequate again.  Moderately powerful yet not overwhelming from the baseline, Pavlyuchenkova probably will donate quantities of unforced errors as the Pole-Dane’s counterpunching challenges her consistency.  On the other hand, Wozniacki has endured several post-injury losses to foes less formidable than the Russian, so one never quite knows how much support her ankle will give her on any given day.

Chardy vs. Ferrer (9) (Court 12, 1st match):  For the fourth time since the start of 2009, these two forehand-oriented games collide as the promising but mercurial Frenchman confronts one of the steadiest competitors in the ATP.  Splitting their two non-clay meetings in airtight three-setters, they’ve traded blows from the baseline while rarely venturing into the forecourt.  Having cultivated a much more imposing first serve, Chardy will be better able to seize control of points from the outset and showcase his potentially explosive brand of first-strike tennis.  Almost antithetical to classic grass-court tennis, Ferrer’s style relies upon relentless retrieving and meticulous point construction much more than upon line-clipping missiles.  At Slams, however, the mental component often plays a significant role, so the Spaniard will trust his superior experience to outlast his temperamental foe, still a little unripe at this stage in his development.

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Kvitova vs. Azarenka (14) (Court 18, 1st match):  Consider packing a suit of armor for this match, filled with more attitude and more explosive tempers than can reasonably be crammed into this cramped outer court, forever famous as the scene of Isner-Mahut.  Discomfited by quirky lefty servers in the past (see M for Martinez Sanchez), Azarenka has looked not only sharp but relatively self-possessed during her first two rounds.  The Minx from Minsk should find her penetrating, symmetrical baseline game amply rewarded on the grass, where she reached the quarterfinals a year ago.  As she battles the volatile Czech, however, her patience may be tested a bit more vigorously than against her previous overmatched opponents.  Springing an upset upon then-#1 Safina in a third-set tiebreak at last year’s US Open, Kvitova has both the weaponry and the self-belief to trouble the top players, but her idiosyncratic game generally breaks down under pressure.   Moreover, her loopy groundstrokes expose her to the vagaries of the surface more than would compact swings, although Azarenka also might want to shorten her forehand swing (and enhance her second serve) in order to maximize her future chances here. If the Belarussian can control her temper early in the match, she should exploit the Czech player’s inferior movement while punishing Kvitova for her often injudicious shot selection.

Briefly noted:  Without the Queen to daintily applaud his exertions, Murray continues his Wimbledon campaign against the recently injury-addled Simon, an outstanding competitor but manifestly ill-equipped for success on grass.  While the Scot should extend his fortnight without drama, the charismatic duo of Fognini and Benneteau  target an unexpected niche in the second week; deceptively careless in demeanor, the Italian possesses excellent fitness and movement as well as occasional forehand power, while the Frenchman serves more effectively and approaches the net more adroitly.  Therefore, a baseline-oriented contest with extended rallies favors Fognini, whereas a more traditional grass-court, net-rushing clash with short points would swing toward Benneteau.  Likewise gifted with a delicious opportunity for a second-week appearance are Dulgheru and Kanepi, two players who revitalized their games on the clay before capitalizing on that momentum here.  We expect a more competitive match than some of those involving more familiar names, one of whom contests her first third-round match at Wimbledon since a win over Ai Sugiyama in 2007.

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Maria seeks her first second-week appearance at a Slam since the 2009 French Open.

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Emphatic for most of her second-round match against Ioana Raluca Olaru, Sharapova improved distinctly in two statistical areas that play an essential role on grass.  Maria connected with 71% of her first serves and converted 20 of 23 net points, thus dominating both the beginning and the end of most points on her serve.  Unfortunately for Sharapova, her potential fourth-round opponent Serena Williams was even more overpowering in a 48-minute rout of former top-10 denizen Anna Chakvetadze.  In eight total sets at the All England Club, the Russian and the American have conceded just eleven games, hurling three bagels and two breadsticks at their hapless victims.  Although tennis often defies prediction, one sense that Cibulkova and Zahlavova Strycova will find themselves taxed to the limit of their powers if they intend to forestall a marquee Monday meeting between these legendary champions.  The best ticket of the entire tennis calendar, Monday also might feature yet another edition of the melodramatic intra-Belgian rivalry that already has produced two final-set tiebreaks in 2010.  Write this potential collision in pencil for the moment, however, because a powerful Russian veteran has a legitimate chance to derail it.

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Henin (17) vs. Petrova (12) (Centre Court, 1st match):  Two Slams ago, Petrova scored a stunning third-round upset over a  member of Belgium’s dazzling duo, and she has an opportunity to repeat the feat on the grandest stage of all.  Typically tormented by Henin’s graceful, versatile style, the programmatic Russian dropped two tight matches to the seven-time major champion early this year in Australia, during which she revealed the mental frailties that have undermined her formidable game.  Nevertheless, Nadia has shone at Slams this year with consecutive quarterfinal appearances that will have boosted her confidence for a clash against Henin, whose comeback has slowed after an explosive start at Brisbane and Melbourne.  Effective but not overwhelming in her first two matches, Justine continues to struggle with her modified service motion; in this match, she can’t afford the chronic wobbles on serve that she suffered in her second-round clash with Barrois.  A quarterfinalist at last year’s Wimbledon, the Russian centers an outstanding grass-court style around a reliable serve and dexterous net play.  Just as Stosur relied on her massive delivery to defuse Henin’s shotmaking brilliance at Roland Garros, Petrova’s unglamorous but functional game might well end the Belgian’s Wimbledon campaign, as long as the Russian doesn’t ponder the situation too deeply.

Monfils (21) vs. Hewitt (15) (Centre Court, 2nd match):  Outstanding movers who reside almost entirely at the baseline, the Frenchman and the Australian showcase dramatically divergent styles beneath those superficial similarities.  The methodical Hewitt plays intelligent, careful tennis based on excellent technique and canny court sense, whereas the flamboyant Monfils favors jumping forehands, eye-popping slides, and spontaneous shot selection.  While the Frenchman will win more free points from his distinctly more potent serve, the Australian showcases more natural grass-court movement and far greater focus.  The veteran’s understated style belies his gritty determination to win at all costs, a trait absent from the function-follows-form Monfils.  Although this born entertainer will thrill the Centre Court crowd with improbable winners and retrievals, we expect the steadier, more experienced, and more tenacious Hewitt to take risks at more judicious moments.  His exceptional mental fortitude should allow him to weather his opponent’s barrage after various momentum shifts and navigate into a second-week duel with Djokovic.

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Kleybanova (26) vs. Venus (2) (Court 1, 2nd match):  In 2007, the ball-bruising Russian played a respectably competitive match against Venus at the All England Club that testified to her precocious maturity.  A more relentless competitor than most of her peers, Kleybanova scored a tense three-set win over the elder Williams on the relatively fast clay of Madrid last year.  Venus moves more fluidly than any of her rivals, yet Kleybanova covers the court extremely well and can match her from the baseline blow for blow.  Since both players will seek to play first-strike tennis, first serves and second-serve returns will be crucial factors.  Neither the Russian nor the American will want to start the point from behind, as they probably would if they miss their first deliver, and neither will want to donate points with reckless returning.  Accomplished in doubles, Kleybanova is exceptionally comfortable at the net and won’t shrink from the forecourt like many younger players.  Despite her impressive wins so far, Venus has become increasingly prone to the and few first-week opponents would be more ready to profit than the alert, opportunistic Russian. 

Kohlschreiber (29) vs. Roddick (5) (Court 1, 3rd match):  Not unlike Henin, the compact German compensates for his relatively unprepossessing height by unleashing his entire body into the ball.  Applying a boxing metaphor, he punches well above his weight and possesses an exquisite one-handed backhand that penetrates the court much more effectively than does the American’s matching groundstroke.  Consequently, Roddick should strive to orient cross-court rallies from forehand to forehand rather than backhand to backhand.  Armed with relatively short strokes, the fifth seed will find his less graceful but more efficient swings better suited to grass than the looping swings of his opponent, who needs more time to prepare his racket.  Similar to most bold shotmakers, the German sometimes struggles to control his aggression, oscillating between the sublime and the ridiculous with startling swiftness.  His opponents face the mental challenge of persevering through his scorching stretches while awaiting his lapses.  At the 2008 Australian Open, Kohlschreiber ignited his most fiery tennis at just the right moment against Roddick in perhaps the best match of his career, but it’s unlikely that lightning will strike twice. 

Lopez (22) vs. Melzer (16) (Court 2, 3rd match):  The winner of this clash earns a tilt with the titlist, a less unappetizing prospect than usual considering Federer’s indifferent form in his first two rounds.  Featuring two lefties with similar styles, the match should witness plenty of slicing wide serves and forays into the forecourt, since both of these aging veterans serve and volley expertly.  While Melzer hopes to extend the momentum from his unexpected Roland Garros semifinal run, Lopez seeks to validate his upset over Nadal at Queens Club.  Although the Spaniard and the Austrian favor their forehands, the latter possesses a sturdier backhand and will be forced to run around fewer balls; on grass, groundstroke symmetry (or relative symmetry) can be a vital advantage.  Since neither competitor will earn many break points, their relative success in converting the openings that do present themselves will prove vital.  Known for emotional volatility, Melzer retained his poise to rally from a two-set deficit in the preceding round, yet he may enter the match a step slow after his exertions.  Meanwhile, Lopez retired from Eastbourne last week with a shoulder injury that may drain a little velocity from his serve.  Remember those two potentially costly x-factors as the match unfolds.

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Wickmayer (15) vs. Zvonareva (21) (Court 12, 2nd match):  Highly impressive was the Belgian’s win over her surging compatriot Kristen Flipkens, which featured a marathon first-set tiebreak and a second set that stayed on serve until the final game.  Once again, we observed the psychological sturdiness for which Wickmayer has earned renown but that has faltered a little in past weeks.  On the other hand, psychological sturdiness is not a characteristic commonly associated with the often overwrought Zvonareva, whose volcanic temper can erupt at the most untimely moments.  At this phase in their respective careers, the Russian holds the shot-for-shot edge over the Belgian and is not notably inferior on grass, which hints that a mini-upset could occur.  The grander the stage, however, the greater the probability that Zvonareva will implode at the first sign of adversity.  In New York last year and Melbourne this year, Vera held Pennetta and Azarenka firmly within her grasp through a set and a half, then suddenly unraveled late in the second set and endured a third-set bagel.  Wickmayer must remember that the match is not over until the last point, no matter how bleak the situation may seem, and the Belgian’s natural tenacity will serve her well in these circumstances.

Briefly noted:  For the third consecutive Slam, Jankovic faces Alona Bondarenko  in the third round.  Once a perfect 9-0 against the Ukrainian, the Serb suffered a stunning upset in Melbourne before winning a tight two-setter in Paris.  Grass is probably the least comfortable surface for both players, so the quality of play should be rather indifferent, although the match itself might well be competitive.  Reaching the second week of both Slams thus far in 2010, Kirilenko attempts to score a notable upset for the third consecutive major when she confronts Clijsters, having defeated Sharapova at the Australian Open and Kuznetsova at Roland Garros.  Although the Russian’s punchless serve doesn’t aid her grass, her adroit volleying game and clever drop shots might cause the Belgian a headache or two.  Only the most ardent tennis fans will remember the 2002 Davis Cup final when Youzhny overcame Mathieu in a five-set fifth rubber, but the Russian and the Frenchman will attempt to reprise that scintillating pas de deux on Friday.  Having booked a place in history, what can Isner summon against another mighty server in Thiemo de Bakker?  Perhaps a better question would be:  will it end this week or next?

***

Witnessing the first clashes between seeded players, Day 5 should provide the most compelling entertainment of the fortnight thus far.  As always, happy watching!

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Trudging to the locker room after a 16-14 fifth set against Santiago Giraldo, Thiemo De Bakker must have feared that this protracted encounter would leave him at a physical disadvantage against his next opponent, either Isner or Mahut.  As all tennis fans know well, such thoughts proved unfounded as the Frenchman and the American shattered virtually every record in every single-match category.  In fact, their seven-hour, 118-game final set-in-progress stretched so far beyond the boundaries of credulity that one expects its statistical superlatives to endure forever.  Ten hours and 193 aces later, though, what difference does it really make?  This first-round battle between two non-contenders stalled the first-week schedule and virtually eliminated both of its participants from sheer exhaustion.  Once an advocate of the no-tiebreak format in Slam deciding sets, we feel compelled to reverse our opinion and call for a merciful ending to these inhumane endurance tests well before 50-50, as Kuznetsova whimsically suggested.  Surely this fast-paced sport doesn’t deserve such a mind-numbing, kidney-challenging stalemate, which provided a gluttonous serving (haha) of generally monotonous tennis.  In order to compensate for the difference between the best-of-five and best-of-three formats, perhaps the doubles super tiebreak (first to 10, win by two) could be implemented instead of the conventional first-to-7 structure.  At least, Slams could employ such a deadlock-denying tactic in the first week before the marquee stars intersect.  A marathon final set between Federer and Roddick in the championship match is a classic, but a marathon final set between Isner and Mahut in the first round is a human rain delay.  Here are a handful of Day 4 matches to note while Wimbledon’s Believe It Or Not winds into its eleventh hour of futility.

Soderling (6) vs. Granollers (Court 1, 2nd match):  At the start of 2010, the unremarkable Spaniard rallied from a two-set deficit to stun the Swede in his Australian Open first round.  Soderling had swept their three previous meetings, including a four-setter on these same British lawns in the same round a year ago.  Yet all of the sets were close on that occasion, indicating that this matchup bothers the two-time French Open finalist more than one might imagine considering Granollers’ pedestrian ranking.  Far more powerful than his adversary, Soderling will need to banish memories of their collisions in an intriguing test of his mental willpower.  During an opening win over Ginepri, he looked as formidable as any men’s contender and more formidable than most, but the Swede does remain vulnerable to the unexpected letdown.  If the Spaniard can stay close early, a little drama might develop before the sixth seed moves on to more tranquil waters in the third round.

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Dolgopolov vs. Tsonga (10) (Court 2, 1st match):  Unfocused and uncharacteristically irritable in his four-set opening win over the tricky Kendrick, the tenth seed alternated electrifying forehands and deft volleys with senseless misses and despairing moans.  One of the highest-ranked unseeded players in the draw, the much-misspelled Dolgopolov (add a Jr. if you want) has steadily climbed up the rankings this season with victories over Tomic, Fish, Seppi, Clement, and Gonzalez; last week, he reached the Eastbourne semifinals and mustered a creditable performance against eventual champion Llodra.  Boding well for his continued rise was his resolute demeanor when he encountered Nadal on clay, much sturdier than most developing stars facing an elite player for the first time.  His game remains raw and a little undisciplined, rendering an upset in a best-of-five format unlikely.  Nevertheless, Dolgopolov clearly has achieved an impressive comfort level on grass and brings much more surface experience to the contest than does Tsonga.  If his self-belief doesn’t falter on a Wimbledon show court, this match could be highly competitive although probably not exquisite tennis.

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Serena (1) vs. Chakvetadze (Court 2, 3rd match) :  Watching the once-formidable Chakvetadze in her opener against Petkovic, we noticed that she is striking her groundstrokes with greater depth and conviction than she has during most of her extended swoon since early 2008.  Not only creating clever angles with both forehand and backhand, she sensibly eschewed low-percentage shotmaking from behind the baseline and displayed further intelligence by occasionally wrong-footing the German.  A fountain of double faults over the past two years, her serve remained steady even under pressure deep in the final set.  Against Serena, of course, she’ll need to play at the very summit of her abilities just to stay competitive, and she’ll probably require some assistance from Serena.  After a thunderous first set in her opener, the top seed dropped her game a few notches in the second set, allowing her overmatched opponent to stay within range.  In this case, however, an overpowering first set probably would prove sufficient to crush the Russian’s ever-fragile confidence.  Long a mental midget, Chakvetadze needs to seize the early momentum and hope for a sluggish start from the American.  If this former prodigy starts promisingly, the match could be quite entertaining; if Serena establishes control immediately, it could get gruesome quickly.

Jovanovski vs. Azarenka (14) (Court 12, 2nd match):  After the initial wave of Djokovic, Ivanovic, and Jankovic, the Serbs just keep climbing up the tennis hierarchy in numbers vastly disproportionate to their nation’s size.  The latest Belgrade bombshell, the 18-year-old Jovanovski defeated Rybarikova, Molik, and Chakvetadze earlier in 2010 as she attempts to crack the top 100; in the first round, she ruthlessly eviscerated talented Australian lefty Casey Dellacqua.  Despite suffering from a leg injury in the Eastbourne final, Azarenka has relished the shift from clay to grass as much as anyone and should be eager to exploit an extremely inviting quarter of the draw.  While the Minx from Minsk endured a few puzzling losses during her last several events, she should decode the Serb’s game in plenty of time to advance.  It’s always fascinating to watch an evolving player adjust to confronting top contenders at top tournaments, however, and the first week of a Slam is a great opportunity to assess what potential future stars might offer.

Vinci vs. Pavlyuchenkova (29) (Court 14, 2nd match):  Like Soderling and Granollers, they met in the same place and the same round a year ago.  On that occasion, the cunning Italian veteran prevailed over an inexperienced player nearly a decade younger than herself.  A former junior #1 and junior Slam champion, the many-syllabled Russian avenged that defeat on the Brisbane hard courts this year, but injuries and erratic serving have led to several lopsided losses in recent months.  Not endowed with an overwhelming delivery either, Vinci will seek to disrupt the rhythm of her baseline-bound foe with tantalizing slices that invite her to move forward out of her comfort zone.  Can finesse and intelligent point construction prevail, or will Pavlyuchenkova’s groundstroke power deny the Italian time to create her artful combinations?  At any rate, expect more breaks of serve and longer rallies than are typical on grass; this match should prove a refreshing antidote to the serve-a-licious marathon a few courts away.

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Zheng (23) vs. Kvitova (Court 17, 1st match):  A surprise semifinalist here in 2008, Zheng produced a third-round upset over top seed Ivanovic that not only signaled the Serb’s vertiginous collapse but also showcased the ability of compact, balanced counterpunches to overcome towering, slow-footed sluggers.  The fearless Chinese star reprised that startling run with a second Slam semifinal appearance in Australia this year, after which she defeated Sharapova and threatened eventual finalist Wozniacki at Indian Wells.  Among the curious paradoxes of grass is its capacity to reward both the very tall and the very small, the former of whom can crack unreturnable serves and the latter of whom can manipulate the surface’s low bounces.  Against a mercurial Czech lefty, Zheng enjoys a substantial mental edge, but her high-risk style also can slip off the rails without warning.  She must elevate her first-serve percentage in order shield her puny second delivery from Kvitova’s bold return; also, she should target her adversary’s loopy forehand, a long swing that easily can be mistimed on so fast a surface.  If she takes chances at judicious moments, a delicious third-round collision with Azarenka beckons.

Briefly noted:  On such a relatively uneventful day, we had to upgrade the matches that normally would populate this section to a more privileged status.  Expect our usual coda to return for Day 5.

Meanwhile, the only women’s champion in the draw not named Williams returns on Day 4 with an outfit as immaculate as the lawns of the All England Club.  Let’s hope that clay specialist Ioana Raluca Olaru doesn’t muddy Maria’s dress as did Gisela Dulko in the second round last year.

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The British monarch won’t be the only queen to appear at Wimbledon on Thursday.

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Eagerly exploiting the faster surface, Sharapova followed her Birmingham finals appearance with a suffocating salvo to ignite her Wimbledon campaign.  The transition from clay to grass proved a bit less hospitable, however, to two terrors of the terre battue.  Unceremoniously ushered out of their All England Club debuts, Verdasco and Stosur failed to translate their six combined clay finals into the language of grass.  But their defeats speak less about their shortcomings than about the prodigious achievements of Nadal and Federer in winning “Channel Slams” during the past two years.  A relatively obscure feat in the tennis statistical pantheon, the Roland Garros-Wimbledon sweep ranks with the elusive Indian Wells-Miami double.  One Andy came within a single victory of that rare accomplishment last year, while another Andy duplicated that near-miss this year.  He opens Centre Court and our Day 3 preview.

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Llodra vs. Roddick (5) (Centre Court, 1st match):  Facing a rather indifferent field at an ATP Eastbourne event not to be confused with its high-quality WTA counterpart, the left-handed Frenchman served and volleyed his won to a rare singles title.  A week earlier, Roddick fell to unheralded Israeli Dudi Sela at the Queens Club event two hours to the north.  Do these divergent grass-court results portend a potential upset?  The American swiftly dispatched one of his compatriots in his All England Club debut, while the perhaps weary Llodra eked out a four-set win over an unimposing American qualifier.  In their Davis Cup meeting on a fast indoor surface two years ago, Roddick prevailed in one of the tightest straight-set matches that one could imagine, which featured just a single break of serve.  Since both players don’t hesitate to move forward on grass, we should see shoals of volleys and passing shot attempts with few points lasting more than four or five strokes.  Possessing an elegant backhand volley, the Frenchman displays more grace at the net than Roddick but often proves a little too clever and artsy for his own good.  The fifth seed’s more functional, less exuberant style should carry him through unless his timing falters as badly as it did against Tipsarevic in 2008.  In order to counter the charging Llodra, he needs to be more aggressive than usual on returns and intelligent with his passing-shot placement.

Makarova vs. Venus (2) (Centre Court, 2nd match):  The other Eastbourne champion, Makarova faces an equally imposing challenge as her male counterpart yet enters this encounter on an eight-match winning streak that included straight-set triumphs over Pennetta, Petrova, Kuznetsova, Stosur, and Azarenka.  Against the aging, over-matched Rossana de los Rios, Venus looked as potent as ever on her favorite surface; she started the match with a 119-mph delivery and was largely untouchable in her service games.   Remaining firmly entrenched inside the baseline, she cracked crisp groundstrokes from both sides without slipping into recklessness (most of the time).  Nevertheless, the elder Williams seems a different player every time that she enters the court this year, looking impressive in the early rounds of both previous Slams before donating a sudden clunker.  As a result of Makarova’s solid serve, this match should feature more holds than we’re accustomed to seeing from the breaktastic WTA.  The Russian is an expert at saving break points (10 of 11 in the Eastbourne final), a talent towards which lefties are naturally predisposed; ask if you want to know why.  Although Makarova probably can’t secure the massive upset, don’t be surprised to see one tight set before Venus takes control.

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Djokovic (3) vs. Dent (Q) (Centre Court, 3rd match):  Stubbornly adhering to retro serve-and-volley tactics, Dent is far from a legitimate contender at any significant tournament but still possesses the weapons to occasionally ambush someone who is.  Susceptible to an opportunistic underdog, Djokovic coughed up a two-set lead to Melzer at Roland Garros before nearly falling to Rochus in his Wimbledon opener.  Contrasting with the Serb’s recently wayward delivery, Dent’s elephantine serve comprises a formidable weapon on grass, allowing him to hold with sufficient regularity to put pressure on opponents’ service games and bomb his way into some tiebreaks.  Unless the American collapses as he did against Soderling in Paris, he should test Djokovic’s ever-shaky nerves by remaining within range for most of the match.  Considering the gulf between Dent’s superlative serve and erratic return, any breaks probably will be terminal.  The match should provide Djokovic with an opportunity to hone his timing and his concentration for a possible collision with Hewitt two rounds ahead.

Korolev vs. Hewitt (15) (Court 1, 2nd match):  Seeking to extend the momentum from his unexpected Halle title, the Aussie hopes to avoid the untimely demises of compatriots Stosur and Dellacqua.  A relentlessly ferocious ball-striker, Korolev should prosper on the grass, although his mediocre footwork sometimes leaves him off balance for his mighty groundstrokes on surfaces with little reaction time.  Whereas Hewitt will seek to stretch the Russian laterally along the baseline, his adversary will attempt to shorten points with constant risk-taking and unflinching aggression.  Almost everything must go right for him, however, in order to overcome the Aussie’s consistency, superior technique, and far superior tenacity.  In a best-of-five format, it’s easier to weather a temporary storm and wait for the deluge of errors that inevitably will succeed the deluge of winners.  Here, Hewitt’s patience could prove a more valuable attribute than anything related to a racket.

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Wickmayer (15) vs. Flipkens (Court 12, 3rd match):  Welcome to the next generation’s edition of Henin-Clijsters.  While this second intra-Belgian rivalry certainly lacks the intensity of its ancestor, this clash provides an intriguing means of measuring the progress of these ascending stars.  Still recovering from an elbow injury, Wickmayer avenged a Birmingham loss to Alison Riske in an opening three-setter, while Flipkens has sizzled during a semifinal run at the UNICEF Open.  Ranked lower than her compatriot, her high-risk, first-strike style may prove more effective on grass and allow her to post the mini-upset.  Built more for durability and consistency, Wickmayer often struggles to identify the appropriate moments to unleash her aggression and either flinches before pulling the trigger or pulls it indiscriminately until it jams.  Fortune favors the brave, and so do the lawns of the All England Club, so it’ll be intriguing to see which youngster will seize the day more authoritatively.

Troicki vs. Melzer (16) (Court 14, 1st match):  Often the forgotten Serb behind the trio of Djokovic, Jankovic, and Ivanovic, Troicki showcases an exquisite two-handed backhand that should produce engaging cross-court rallies with Melzer’s whipping lefty forehand.  An intriguing counterpoint to the net-rushing Austrian, the Serb has honed a full arsenal of passing shots that should produce a classic grass-court duel of cat-and-mouse.  In this match, raw power will be trumped by placement, guile, reflexes, and dexterity, always a compelling entertainment in the first week.  After Roland Garros, we wrote that the aging Melzer probably couldn’t reproduce his achievement at another Slam, but he has a comfortable draw that might allow him to reach the second week for the second consecutive major. 

Groth vs. Oudin (33) (Court 14, 3rd match):  Largely failing to capitalize upon her US Open quarterfinal run, Oudin expertly defused the powerful game of Groenefeld in the first round and now tackles a similar assignment.  Agile and low to the ground, the pugnacious American compensates for her lack of a powerful serve with seamless movement and a forehand much more formidable than her size would suggest.  Surprisingly charging to the second week of Roland Garros, the Slovakian-Australian exploited an open draw similar to the soft section in which she currently finds herself.  The match will be decided mostly on Groth’s terms, for she possesses the capacity either to hit Oudin off the court or to hit herself off the court.  In New York last year, Oudin feasted upon erratic, temperamental baseline sluggers, which indicates that she’ll approach this contest with confidence and an intelligent plan. 

Briefly noted:  A couple of you wrote for insight on Wozniak-Jankovic, which perplexes us a bit because the Serb has won all three of their previous meetings in straight sets and appears to have emerged this spring from her protracted slump.  Meanwhile, the Canadian enters the match with a meager 14-14 record in 2010 with losses to opponents such as Cornet, Pironkova, and Heather Watson.   Consequently, it’s difficult to see an upset here unless Jankovic enters as flat as she was at the Roland Garros semifinal.  Although grass is her weakest surface, she couldn’t have asked for a more benign draw…until a Belgian arrives in the quarters.  The new pride of Lithuanian tennis, Ricardas Berankis has won four consecutive matches at the All England Club and will have a legitimate chance to threaten Queens Club semifinalist Lopez, who may still be nursing a shoulder injury incurred at Eastbourne.  Famous for a slightly tarnished upset over Venus on these very lawns, Karolina Sprem pursues more marquee prey in a second-round collision with Clijsters, superb at one Slam in her comeback and a disaster at the other.  A great serving day for the Croat could spell a spot of bother for the eighth seed, who can look tentative against players who are constantly taking chances and making things happen.  The Belgian’s nemesis at Indian Wells, Kleybanova faces a power-saturated duel with compatriot Alla Kudryavtseva, the architect of Sharapova’s demise in 2008 and nearly the architect of Venus’ demise in 2007.  Elsewhere, Teimuraz Gabashvili attempts to extend his momentum from clay to grass as he battles flamboyant German Kohlschreiber for the right to share a show court with Roddick, who fell to the Russian a month ago and to the German two years ago.  If you fancy a bit of doubles, meanwhile, check out Marray/Murray against Nestor/Zimonjic on one of the small outer courts, where a raucous home crowd doubtless will congregate to support their favorite Scot.  

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Keep sharing your comments and suggesting intriguing matches for the days ahead!

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If Wimbledon used the best-of-three format for the first week of its men’s matches, three of the top eight seeds would have fallen in their openers to Alejandro Falla, Olivier Rochus, and Kevin Anderson.  While the travails of neither Djokovic nor Davydenko surprised us, the near-disaster suffered by the six-time champion was completely unexpected, since Federer had comfortably dismissed Falla twice in the last month.  Forced to extricate himself from a two-set deficit, the feckless top seed nearly embarrassed the organizers who placed him atop the draw instead of Nadal.  Two potential outcomes could emerge from this excruciating brush with catastrophe, one positive and one negative for Federer.  Relieved to have escaped the Colombian, he might well relax in his future matches and remind himself that he managed to win despite playing several notches below his immortal best.  Don’t forget what happened after he hovered within five points of a straight-sets loss to Haas at the 2009 French Open, but also don’t forget what happened after he hovered within four points of a third-round loss to Tipsarevic at the 2008 Australian Open.  On the latter occasion, Federer’s frailty spurred the rest of the draw to assault him with renewed confidence, which resulted in his only straight-sets loss at a non-clay Slam since 2003 (semifinal vs. Djokovic).  Berdych, Roddick, Hewitt, and others should take note of how the defending champion’s tournament began as they devise their plans for how it will end.  Meanwhile, Federer’s fellow top seed attempts to make a more authoritative impact tomorrow morning.

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Serena (1) vs. Larcher de Brito (Centre Court, 1st match):  A prodigy most noted for sonic scandals, the petite Portuguese star has yet to deliver upon the promise that she demonstrated in juniors and at the Bolletieri Academy.  Combined with her savage ball-striking, however, is a competitive ferocity rivaled by few of her peers.  Nevertheless, those assets recently have been overshadowed by her serving struggles, which will fatally undermine her cause against the most formidable serve in the WTA.  Although Serena does wobble sometimes in the first week of a Slam, she never has lost an opener and should be able to take command of most points with a massive first strike on either serve or return.  It’ll be intriguing to watch how Larcher de Brito handles the moment, though, for she remains unaccustomed to playing on venues like Wimbledon’s Centre Court.  In any case, we know that the Portuguese phenom won’t buckle meekly and will make every effort to dig her teeth into the rallies, creating sporadically entertaining exchanges before her eventual extent.  (By the way, our Portuguese Twitter correspondent Jose Morgado reports that the infamous shriek has diminished a little lately.)

Kendrick (Q) vs. Tsonga (10) (Court 1, 1st match):  Despite the rankings disparity here, Kendrick won a set from Murray last year behind impressive serving and relentless aggression.  Moreover, he’s accustomed himself to the atmosphere here by already having played three matches in the qualifying draw; having retired at Roland Garros a few weeks ago, by contrast, Tsonga has played no competitive matches on grass this season and might start a little slowly.  When the Frenchman lacks full confidence in his physical condition, his electrifyingly acrobatic style dips perceptibly as his shots rattle through the court with a shade less conviction.  Kendrick might have a greater chance to win in a best-of-three format before Tsonga can settle into a rhythm.  On the other hand, the tenth seed isn’t built for endurance and rarely plays five-setters, although he did win two of them in Melbourne.  Since both competitors will be swinging for the lines as soon as possible, few points should last more than four or five shots.  Extending a pattern of early-tournament inconsistency, Tsonga nearly dropped his opener in Paris to the unheralded Daniel Brands, yet that surface suits his game much less effectively than the speedy grass.  Therefore, an upset remains unlikely but not inconceivable.

Kiefer (W) vs. Ferrer (9) (Court 2, 2nd match):  The aging German still possesses a penetrating serve that distinctly trumps the Spaniard’s pedestrian delivery, whereas Ferrer enjoys far greater consistency from the baseline.  If the veteran can serve at a high percentage, finish points quickly, and keep the speedy retriever guessing with intelligent placement, he might well overcome the clay specialist.  After an outstanding season on the European dirt, Ferrer demonstrated his susceptibility to powerful servers during his startling straight-sets loss to Melzer in Paris, although he defeated Karlovic at Indian Wells.  Like Tsonga, the ninth seed chose not to play a grass prep, perhaps an indication that he has conceded this part of the season.  His fellow clay specialist Wawrinka made the same decision and paid a predictable price against Denis Istomin on Monday.  Much more adept on grass, Kiefer will take the initiative constantly and hold the match in his hands, so the outcome should come down to his execution level and confidence at key moments.  After a lengthy period of irrelevance, does he still believe in himself on the grandest stages?

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Chakvetadze vs. Petkovic (Court 14, 1st match):  Two years ago, the mercurial Russian reached the second week of the All England Club.  Three years ago, she built upon a sensational hard-court campaign to edge within one set of the US Open final.  While Chakvetadze has generated few headlines since those accomplishments, her two-hander remains a sensational weapon, and she compensates for her relative lack of pace by striking the bally early and creating unexpected angles; one might liken her style to a diluted version of her compatriot Davydenko.  Opposite the Russian stands one of the WTA’s hottest new commodities, a Bosnian-German who charged to the UNICEF Open and severely threatened Henin at that stage.  Unintimidated by most occasions or opponents, Petkovic did falter against Kuznetsova at Roland Garros, but the alacrity with which she rebounded testifies to her granite mentality, a stark contrast with Chakvetadze.  Yet one should remember that the Russian defeated the Bosnian-German in Birmingham two weeks ago, exploiting a sub-par performance from Petkovic that perhaps stemmed from her Paris disappointment.  Nevertheless, one of these stars has been rising as swiftly as the other has been descending, and Slams tend to confirm rather than reverse such trends.

Kanepi (Q) vs. Stosur (6) (Court 18, 2nd match):  Decent but unremarkable in her Eastbourne prep, Stosur surrendered sets to Hantuchova and Baltacha before becoming one of the victims in Makarova’s bizarre march to the title.  The Estonian has never seen a ball that she doesn’t attempt to obliterate, adhering to a straightforward power baseline style that has proven less effective this year than it has in the past.  Charting Kanepi’s decline, one can note the inexorable transformation in the WTA, where what Mats Wilander called “mindless bashing” once represented a reliable formula for winning matches but now must be combined with intelligent point construction, a little more versatility, and a bit more consistency than was previously necessary.  (Slumping sluggers Kuznetsova, Safina, and Ivanovic, among others, might wish to take note as they wallow in existential woe.)  Beyond her outstanding serve, Stosur has cultivated more variety than the average women’s star and thus should be able to outlast the erratic, slow-footed Estonian.  All the same, the Australian was outslugged by Baltacha during the early stages of their Eastbourne match, and the Brit’s game markedly resembles that of the Estonian.  Don’t be surprised to see Stosur dragged into a decider before she pulls through, just as Kanepi dragged Jankovic into a decider at Roland Garros.

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Mahut (Q) vs. Isner (23) (Court 18, 4th match):  The flamboyant Frenchman produced a characteristically odd bit of trivia in the qualifying by winning a 46-game final set from local hope Alex Bogdanovic.  Comprising 23 consecutive service holds, that Roddick-esque performance will need to be repeated in order for Mahut to upset the towering Isner.  Yet he should take heart by noting that giants did not stand tall on Day 1, which included losses by Anderson (6’7”), Cilic (6’6”), and Ljubicic (6’5”); even Del Potro (6’6”) exited in the second round last year.  A Queens Club finalist in 2007, Mahut came within a point of ambushing Roddick for the title and relishes grass more than any other surface.  Break points should be at a premium in this collision, which might witness multiple tiebreaks and probably will pivot on a tiny handful of timely winners or cluster of unforced errors.  Whereas the American will stand atop the baseline and attempt to dictate play with his forehand, the Frenchman will hurtle towards the net at the earliest opportunity.  Isner thus will test Mahut’s movement and consistency, while Mahut will test Isner’s reflexes and instincts.   If they head into a fifth set, these two adversaries might test the daylight by holding serve again and again…and again.

Briefly noted:  Shortly after his return from a protracted injury hiatus, Nishikori receives the monumental assignment of tackling Nadal on Centre Court, too demanding a task at this stage in his development although an opportunity to display some of his promise where people will notice.  Another Roland Garros champion, Ferrero might be challenged by Xavier Malisse as he attempts to repeat his 2009 quarterfinal appearance; the enigmatic Belgian recently upset Djokovic in Queens Club, while the Spaniard has been erratic since Rome.  Bolstered by the Croatian architect of Safina’s success, Cibulkova will seek to exploit the low bounces of the surface least natural to her against Safarova, who dazzled on clay before wilting at Eastbourne.  Her fellow clay-season arriviste Rezai rarely can be accused of wilting in any circumstances, but she did under-perform a bit at Roland Garros after swaggering to the Madrid title.  Having reached the Birmingham semis and vanquished Wozniacki in Eastbourne, the Frenchwoman faces a stern test of her all-court prowess when she confronts 2009 Birmingham titlist Rybarikova.  Early in a partnership with Antonio van Grichen (of Azarenka-related renown), Cirstea has accomplished little of significance for most of 2010 but showed signs of awakening by defeating Schiavone and nearly Kuznetsova in Eastbourne.  Will she extend her momentum against another Czech lefty, Kvitova, whose emotional implosions often dwarf her talents? 

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Meanwhile, Maria prepares to showcase her latest foray into fashion on Court 2.  Can she recapture the lofty heights attained by her 2008 design?

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Feel free to use the comments or write to us on Twitter if you have a Day 3 match about which you would like to read here! 🙂

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Welcome to the debut of our daily preview series on all of the Wimbledon action, which will briefly discuss an intriguing topic from the previous day’s action before examining several key matches in detail.  They will conclude with a “briefly noted” section on matches of lesser interest that might be worth more casual attention when the central action ebbs.  Since there’s little to discuss from today’s action beyond the arrangement of Federer’s trophy room (read his interview if you haven’t already), we ignite this series by previewing a former champion who will grace Centre Court on Monday.  No, not you, Roger.

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Robson (W) vs. Jankovic (4) (Centre Court, 2nd match):  Eagerly embracing drama and intrigue, the fourth seed should relish her opening Centre Court clash with Great Britain’s leading female hope, a junior champion in 2008.  A lefty with a modest serve but aggressive groundstrokes, Robson is more likely to rise to the occasion than crumble under the pressure of her surroundings.  Surprisingly declining to enter a grass prep, Jankovic may need time to adjust to her weakest surface and settle into the match, which could provide an early opportunity upon which the teenager must capitalize.  Although Serb suffered a startling loss to Oudin here last year, she remains too steady to succumb to a largely untested opponent unless one of her chronic, innumerable health issues intervenes.  But Robson might well win a set and temporarily ignite the fervor of British fans.

Djokovic (3) vs. Rochus (Centre Court, 3rd match):  After upsetting Murray in his Miami opener, Fish sprang a second ambush on the Scot during the grass season.  Can the diminutive Rochus, who likewise upset Djokovic in his Miami opener, also repeat the accomplishment on grass.  The Belgian oddly has won three of their four previous meetings, none of which have been played in the best-of-five format; nevertheless, the Serb won their only collision on grass.  Despite his unimpressive stature, Rochus maximizes the pace upon his groundstrokes with compact, well-timed swings and crisp footwork.  Falling to the enigmatic Xavier Malisse at Queens Club, Djokovic did hone his grass skills later that week by winning the doubles title with Jonathan Ehrlich.  Crucial to his success at Wimbledon will be his recently remodeled serve, which faltered in the Miami match with Rochus.  When the Serb’s serve wobbles, so does his confidence, and an alert counterpuncher like the Belgian can take advantage.  This match is Djokovic’s to win or lose; he’ll probably win it, but not without some ado.   

Anderson vs. Davydenko (7) (Court 1, 1st match): Never at his most formidable on grass, Davydenko returned from a two-month injury absence in Halle, where he won a match before losing to former Wimbledon nemesis Benjamin Becker.  Generally considered one of the ATP’s premier returners, his talents in that arena will be severely tested by a South African giant (6’7”) whose delivery should scoot through this fast surface.  Since the seventh seed will struggle to break, he’ll feel additional pressure on his own service games.  On the other hand, Murray thumped Anderson at the Australian Open and broke his serve almost at will, while the South African has yet to score a win over a marquee player at a marquee event.  Beyond the serve, he’ll be overwhelmingly outgunned by Davydenko from the baseline, and his net prowess remains indifferent at best.  If Anderson doesn’t maintain an extremely high first-serve percentage, a challenging task in a best-of-five format, he lacks the consistency to trouble the Russian.

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Fish vs. Tomic (Q) (Court 2, 2nd match):  Reaching the Queens Club final with impressive wins over Murray and Lopez, the American veteran illustrated his continuing relevance in singles despite a mediocre 2010.  His first-strike, serve-and-volley aggression should suit the grass, but he confronts a future top-20 or possibly top-10 star who already has performed impressively at this level.  In Melbourne, Tomic extended Cilic to five compelling sets with fluid movement, balanced groundstrokes, and more versatility than one would expect from such a relatively raw player.  Will youth or experience triumph?  Fish needs to relentlessly move forward behind his imposing first serve and perhaps behind second serves as well.  Once Tomic lures him into a neutral baseline rally, the teenager’s superior consistency and durability would prevail, allowing him to set up a potential rematch with Cilic.  Therefore, the American must attempt to engage in a vertical battle of forward movement, while the Australian will seek to engage in a horizontal battle of lateral movement.  Fish should hit many more winners and many more errors, but the key to the match will be the length of point; the longer, the better for Tomic.

Hercog vs. Shvedova (30) (Court 8, 2nd match):  A lanky Slovenian teenager, Hercog achieved her first impact in the WTA by surging to the Acapulco final with victories over Szavay and Suarez Navarro; once there, she demonstrated impressive maturity by winning a set from Venus.  Since that breakthrough, she crushed Safarova at the French Open while winning sets from Wozniacki, Bartoli, and Peer.  Across the net stands unexpected Roland Garros quarterfinalist Shvedova, who underlined her own maturation by conquering the mental challenge of Radwanska and the physical challenge of Kleybanova.  Consecutive wins over those almost diametrically opposed playing styles testified to the Kazakh’s development into an all-court player with sufficient consistency to complement her long-impressive power.  While both players will require more time to evolve, they comprise part of the answer to the omnipresent question “who’s next?” in the WTA.  More important than who wins or loses here is how they respond to various match situations and the pressure inherent at this prestigious event.

Wickmayer (15) vs. Riske (W) (Court 14, 3rd match):  The All England Club took a bit of a Riske by awarding the American a wildcard following a Birmingham semifinal run that saw her depose Wozniak and Wickmayer.  Distinctly underwhelming since a Miami quarterfinal appearance, the third highest-ranked Belgian recently endured arthroscopic surgery on her elbow, flopped miserably against Clijsters at Eastbourne, and failed to break Riske’s serve at all during their three-set confrontation.  If the American wildcard enters the court with a positive attitude, she’ll already possess an advantage over the waffling Belgian.  The draw would open up a little for her after an upset, so she must discipline herself to control her emotions and play steady, intelligent tennis, which might well be good enough. 

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Peer (13) vs. Ivanovic (Court TBA, not before 17:00 local time):  Having surprisingly reached the second week at last year’s Wimbledon, Ivanovic faces a moderately significant rankings drop should she fail to score the mini-upset here.  Not at her best on grass, Peer fell to Zheng in her Eastbourne opener after an excellent clay season.  As usual, the Serb’s serve will play a pivotal role in what could be a Centre Court clash; following a disastrous Roland Garros, that shot rebounded to deliver 23 aces in her two matches at the UNICEF Open, where her three-set loss to Petkovic looked more respectable when the German came within two games of the title.  Much more consistent and balanced, the Israeli will try to extend Ivanovic along the baseline, set up crosscourt backhand exchanges, and pin the Serb into awkward positions when she unleashes her high-risk groundstrokes.  Peer always represents a challenging mental test as well, brimming with competitive vigor and intense focus.  Yet grass generally favors bold aggressors more than sturdy counterpunchers (ahem, Murray), pleasant news for the Serb.  The match should play out a bit like Fish-Tomic, with Ivanovic moving forward, shortening points, and littering the statistics sheet with far more winners and far more errors than her adversary.  If she brings a positive, confident mind to the match, she’ll give herself the opportunity to move forward into an invitingly weak area of the draw.

Briefly noted:  Fresh from an improbable title run in Eastbourne, today’s sensation Makarova intersects with the rapidly fading but still sporadically dangerous Szavay.  Not so fresh from an even more improbable title run in Paris, Schiavone prepares to battle Vera Dushevina in a clash of two all-court games; Dushevina nearly upset Venus, Serena, and Sharapova within the past year, so don’t be surprised to witness an upset here.  Nadal’s nemesis from Queens Club, Feliciano Lopez, will test a recently injured shoulder against fellow lefty Jesse Levine, while the still huge-serving Karolina Sprem quietly continues her comeback against Fed Cup heroine Bethanie Mattek-Sands.  As spring turns to summer, the expectations will mount on Melanie Oudin to recapitulate her outstanding performances from Wimbledon and the US Open a year ago.  The Georgian has achieved little of note so far in 2010 and faces a much more powerful although much more erratic opponent in Anna-Lena Groenefeld; a win here might open the door for another second-week appearance.  Taking aim at the streaky Wawrinka is Nadal’s near-nemesis from Queens Club, Denis Istomin, whose powerful offense might unsettle an adversary who opted to enter a clay challenger in his native Switzerland rather than a grass prep. 

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We return tomorrow with previews of opening rounds for the bottom half of the men’s draw and the top half of the women’s draw.  If any particular matches seem especially worthy to you, you’re welcome to mention any preferences in the comments or write to us on Twitter about them.  We’ve fulfilled all requests so far!