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.
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.
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.
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!