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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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