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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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