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Dominant on serve during a comprehensive first-round win over Makarova, Ivanovic has earned an opportunity to consolidate her revival by exacting revenge from one of the architects of her decline.  Fresh from the 2008 Roland Garros title, the Serb entered Wimbledon as a buoyant top seed, only to be deflated by the tenacious Chinese star.  In addition to outstanding movement and consistency, Zheng has troubled Ana with low, deep groundstrokes that force her statuesque opponent below her comfortable striking point.  Among the key advantages that Ivanovic holds over the petite 21st seed, however, is her recently reinvigorated serve and sparkling second-serve return.  Those first-strike weapons should shine on the Open’s fast courts, capturing short points without allowing Zheng to settle into rallies.  While first-serve percentage will prove vital for Ana, this statistic also will be essential for the Chinese star, who can’t afford to expose her benign second delivery on crucial points.  Both Ana and Jie typically rely upon baseline might to dictate exchanges, but the Serb and the doubles specialist have ventured into the forecourt with panache during recent weeks.  As the match evolves, note the duration of the points to determine who holds the edge at any stage; short points augur well for Ivanovic, while longer rallies favor Zheng.

We proceed to preview several of the other intriguing events on Day 3:

Tipsarevic vs. Roddick:

A day after three Serbs showcased their talents on Arthur Ashe Stadium, the bespectacled Tipsarevic takes aim at the leading American hope.  Two years ago at Wimbledon, Janko stunned the three-time Wimbledon finalist by capitalizing on almost every opportunity that he gained on Roddick’s serve while profiting from his adversary’s untimely miscues.  Recovering from a summer hampered by mono, Andy briskly dispatched Stephane Robert in his opener and displayed more impressive all-court coverage than one generally associates with him.  If fitness doesn’t become an issue, the home-court crowd and slick surface should lift Roddick over Tipsarevic, but the Serb has developed a habit of rising to the occasion against elite opponents on the grandest stages.  His five-set epic with Federer at the Australian Open two years ago ranks among the most thrilling first-week Slam encounters of the last few years, and he won’t feel intimidated by the hostile crowd.  Once reliant upon his tiebreak prowess, Roddick has struggled notably in those situations since Wimbledon, so watch closely if the match arrives at that stage.  Unless Tipsarevic can set up backhand-to-backhand exchanges that test Andy’s fitness or patience, however, he won’t be able to win three sets from the American.

Dulko vs. Azarenka:

Does Vika fancy a bit of vengeance?  At this year’s Roland Garros, the delicate Argentine inflicted one of the most lopsided losses of the Belarussian’s career in majors.  Nevertheless, Dulko profited from Azarenka’s hamstring injury in addition to a succession of shanked forehands, and don’t forget that she (unlike Vika) reached the second week here last year.  Healthy and refocused, the tenth seed enjoyed a stellar US Open Series that included a Stanford title and Rogers Cup semifinal appearance.  Beyond her Paris embarrassment at the Argentine’s hands, she may be hoping to atone for her painful demise in New York last year, courtesy of the indefatigable Schiavone.  Tantrums, meltdowns, and odd injuries still play a role in Azarenka’s evolution, and she displayed familiar frailty in the second set of her opener against the crafty but underpowered Niculescu.  As she prepares for a tantalizing collision with Pavlyuchenkova, however, Vika will hope to dismiss this opponent with maximum efficiency.

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Llodra vs. Berdych:

At the core of France’s Davis Cup upset over defending champion Spain stood the quirky lefty Michael Llodra, who named Mauresmo his coach, discusses his wine collection during press conferences, and once celebrated a Wimbledon doubles title by prancing around the court in his underwear.  More importantly, the Frenchman captured the Eastbourne title this summer, sternly tested Roddick at Wimbledon, and even held a brief lead over Federer at the Rogers Cup.  Having reached a semifinal and a final at his last two majors, Berdych should be filled with confidence and relaxed in his new role as one of the ATP’s premier contenders.  On the other hand, he showed a disquieting glimpse of his former, flustered self by failing to finish Federer in Toronto, and a leg injury hobbled him during a Cincinnati loss to the now-absent Baghdatis.  One would expect the Czech’s thunderous game to flourish in Flushing just as did Del Potro’s monstrous groundstrokes a year ago, yet his mind remains the most vulnerable element of his game.  If Llodra can rattle the easily rattled Czech with relentless forays to the net and deftly angled volleys, a scintillating rollercoaster could develop.

Errani vs. Kleybanova:

Opposing an Italian with an intelligent all-court game but limited first-strike potential is a Russian with prodigious groundstroke power but underwhelming recent results.  In San Diego, Errani came within a handful of points of upsetting eventual champion Kuznetsova; a few weeks later in New Haven, she held multiple match points against the admittedly ailing Stosur.  On both of those occasions, the diminutive doubles specialist rallied from one-set deficits in displays of a Schiavone-like tenacity that nearly toppled opponents of far greater shot-making talent and athletic ability.  An imaginative shotmaker herself, Kleybanova fell twice to Errani’s compatrio­t Pennetta this summer and suffered a perplexing loss to Hantuchova in San Diego, after she had thoroughly controlled their encounter.  The Russian’s deceptively effective movement and relentless depth on both groundstroke wings should hit through the Italian on this fast surface, one would think, but the Italian frustrated her on the Miami hard court earlier this year.  Look for an intriguing contrast of styles and cleverly constructed points that probe unexpected angles on both sides of the court.

***

It’s time to revert to the ajdes as we prepare for Episode II of the Adventures of Ana!  Maybe we should close our eyes and hope for the best…

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In her last two US Opens, Sharapova has opened her campaign with two resounding wins under the lights before wilting under the afternoon sun.  By contrast, Maria begins her 2010 charge during Tuesday’s day session, which will provide her with valuable experience in the afternoon conditions for her future matches.  But is “future matches” a valid assumption?  Although Sharapova cruised past her Australian opponent in their only previous WTA meeting, Groth stunned her in World Team Tennis earlier this summer and has registered second-week appearances in both of her last two majors.  This year, in fact, she has won more Slam matches than has the 2006 US Open champion, having finally learned how to mingle a modicum of consistency with the bone-crushing power that she long has enjoyed.  In the absence of Serena, though, Sharapova arguably possesses more raw ball-striking force than any other player in the draw.  We expect an exercise in first-strike tennis, filled with short points and elevated winner-error totals on both sides of the net.  If Groth can establish an early lead, she might implant doubt in Sharapova’s mind and serve, yet the Russian has accumulated far more experience on these major stages and will be more likely to seize the early momentum.  A little tense when closing out matches in Cincinnati, Maria probably won’t experience tension in a first-round encounter.  Nevertheless, take note of any fluctuations in Sharapova’s serving effectiveness and when they occur.

We continue to preview a selection of the other intriguing matches on Day 2, some of which will be contested far from the marquee surroundings of Maria:

Jankovic vs. Halep:

A somewhat unexpected finalist here in 2008, Jankovic hopes to shed the rust acquired from injuries that forced her to retire from Wimbledon and the minor Portoroz event.  As is customary with the Serb, mental and emotional factors also may have played a role, in this case her disappointment after losing a one-sided Roland Garros semifinal to Stosur.  Whether the product of injury, fatigue, or indifference, JJ’s performance in the US Open Series has fallen well short of expectations and garnered just a solitary win.  A rhythm-based counterpuncher with a game theoretically ill-suited to these fast courts, she confronts a Romanian prodigy who hopes to attract more attention for her tennis than for her medical procedures.  Still somewhat raw and untested at majors, Halep has developed the ingredients of a solid baseline game with penetrating groundstrokes on both wings.  Her serve requires a bit more attention, however, and Jankovic should be able to exploit her inconsistent patches to advance unless she struggles to find the court as mightily as she did in Montreal against Benesova.  With JJ, anything is possible.

Fognini vs. Verdasco:

Weary from an overloaded first half, Verdasco faces his first-round Wimbledon nemesis on a surface that should tilt towards his advantage more than the grass.  Possessing a superior serve and first-strike potential, the second-best Spanish lefty will win more cheap points and seize control of the rallies sooner than Fognini.  Yet the Italian preceded his upset of Verdasco at Wimbledon with a memorable, five-set, two-day ambush of Monfils at Roland Garros, suggesting that he rises to the occasion on the sport’s grandest stages.  The effortful, grunting Verdasco comprises an engaging contrast with the casual Fognini, who often barely seems to look at the ball as he lackadaisically swipes at it.  Yet one of the curious paradoxes of tennis is its habit of sporadically rewarding the casual and lackadaisical rather than always favoring the tireless taskmasters.  All the same, the Italian achieved little of consequence during the US Open Series and will feel rushed out of his comfort zone on the fast courts, which punish his relatively late groundstroke swings and passive court positioning.

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Vandeweghe vs. Lisicki:

Look (or listen) for seismic serves and ferocious forehands in this battle between the chronically injured German and the burgeoning American.  Shocking Zvonareva in San Diego, Coco displayed a gritty competitiveness that boded well for her future.  On the other hand, Lisicki has played very few tournaments this year while regrouping from an ankle injury that undermined her 2009 campaign.  Since both players are trained to hit extremely flat groundstrokes on both sides, their games are constructed with little margin for error.  Meanwhile, the German and the American struggle with their movement, so most baseline exchanges will be abbreviated to no more than a few shots.  Whoever seizes her opportunities more swiftly and takes chances earlier in the rallies should gain command of this encounter, which will feature as many egregious errors as it will scintillating winners.  While the American crowd will boost Vandeweghe, it won’t bother the even-tempered, perpetually smiling Lisicki.

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Petkovic vs. Petrova:

Beyond sharing the first three letters of their last names, these two combatants share a reliance upon heavy serving in addition to asymmetrical groundstrokes.  Whereas Petkovic seeks to set up her forehand, however, Petrova delivers mightier blows from her backhand wing.  After retiring in heat illness in Cincinnati and exiting early at the Rogers Cup, the Russian soared back to vintage form in New Haven, where she plowed past Stosur and Kirilenko before taking a set from Wozniacki in the final.  Will she suffer fatigue from last week’s exertions, or will she recapitulate her excellent performances from the year’s first two majors?  Still in the fledgling stages of her career (see Alvaro Rama’s guest profile on her in this blog), Petkovic repeatedly has come close to upsetting elite adversaries but hasn’t quite punctured the upper echelon of the WTA’s hierarchy.  Such a breakthrough appears only a matter of time, considering the German’s immense serve-forehand combinations, but she has regressed somewhat this summer with disappointingly flimsy performances against Sharapova and Safina.

Chardy vs. Gulbis:

During the Masters 1000 events, Gulbis nearly upset both Soderling and Murray before extending a familiar trend of falling just short against his top-10 opponents.  In Rome this spring, he appeared to have reversed that pattern with an impressive victory over Federer, yet injuries slowed his momentum early this summer.  In addition to the massive ball-striking power with which he burst onto the tennis stage, the Latvian has showcased enhanced variety, improved movement, and increasingly patient point construction in 2010, all attributes that fellow up-and-comer Chardy should emulate as he attempts to refine his own game.  Largely reliant upon the conventional weapons of serve and forehand, the Frenchman possesses outstanding shot-making talents and instincts; nevertheless, he often succumbs to the temptation of pulling the trigger too early in points or attempting an over-ambitious ploy such as a drop shot from behind the baseline.  Look for Gulbis to raise his game at key moments, stay more positive during adversity, and retain his focus more consistently than Chardy, although in this case both “focus” and “consistent” are relative terms.

***

Tomorrow, we return to preview Part Two of Ana’s Adventures as well as the rest of Day 3 action, but for now we wish the Siberian siren an equally triumphant beginning to her fortnight!

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Nursing a tender ankle, Ivanovic hopes to extend her Cincinnati momentum into her New York opener against inflammable lefty Makarova.  Although the Russian posted five consecutive top-20 wins en route to the Eastbourne title in June, she has dwindled into obscurity during the US Open Series.  Her slice serve into the ad court will target Ivanovic’s backhand effectively; this weapon explains why Makarova has proved so successful at saving break points when at her best, for the vast majority of break points are played in the ad court.  Once the rallies begin, however, Ana possesses a mightier weapon in her forehand than anything in Makarova’s arsenal.  If the Serb continues with the steady serving and aggressive court positioning that she displayed in Cincinnati, she should prevail rather routinely.  Yet Ivanovic also must conquer the memories of her last two appearances in New York, both of which concluded swiftly in painful three-set losses.  Last year, she led Kateryna Bondarenko by a set and a break before crumbling, so her supporters shouldn’t relax even if she seizes an apparently decisive lead.  Struggling recently with lefties, moreover, the Serb lost to Czink and Safarova on American hard courts a year ago.  Uncertainty surrounds both her physical and mental condition, but the confidence gained on the relatively fast surface of Cincinnati eventually should propel Ana through this potentially perilous encounter, assuming that the ankle is healthy.

We continue to preview more of Day 1’s admittedly slim menu…

Hantuchova vs. Safina:

In New Haven, Safina avenged a defeat that Schiavone had inflicted upon her a week before in Montreal; can Daniela turn the tables on Dinara this week by avenging her loss to the Russian in New Haven?  Probably the most scintillating match of Day 1, this contest features two women with extremely balanced groundstrokes, questionable movement, and frailty under pressure.  The luster from Hantuchova’s San Diego semifinal run has dimmed a bit after early exits in her three tournaments since that week, when she defeated Bartoli, Zheng, and Kleybanova in succession.  Meanwhile, Safina appears to be edging tentatively towards the end of what has been quite a long tunnel, scoring wins over Petrova and Petkovic at the Rogers Cup.  Just as it did in New Haven, her superior serve comprises a key advantage that will allow her to take control of rallies earlier and more often than Hantuchova. Neither the Slovak nor the Russian can afford to play defense throughout the match, especially on these fast courts. On the other hand, the pressure attendant to a Slam (in)famously has unhinged Safina’s ever-tenuous nerves with increasing regularity since her rise to near-glory.  Although Hantuchova is the higher-ranked and seeded competitor, she has much less to prove than the former #1 and surely will swing more freely.  In all events, her free-flowing, seemingly effortless style will contrast fascinatingly with the laborious, effort-filled exertions of Safina.

Stosur vs. Vesnina:

Enduring a shoulder injury shortly after the Roland Garros final, Stosur never has progressed past the second round at the US Open.  Her indifferent foot speed and vulnerable backhand hamper her on the Open’s slick surface, while her confidence looks at a low ebb this summer.  In New Haven, she barely escaped the unimposing Sara Errani before slumping to a lopsided loss against Petrova.  A finalist in Istanbul this July, Vesnina can hold serve with sufficient regularity to stay close with the fifth seed deep into sets.  Highly proficient in doubles, both players should venture frequently into the forecourt and display their artistry at the net.  Among the key factors in this match is Stosur’s second serve, which produced numerous free points for her on the high-bouncing clay but which can be more easily attacked on this surface.  If Vesnina can connect on deep, aggressive returns when she sees a second ball, anxiety might seep into the Australian’s already embattled shoulder.

Larcher de Brito vs. Mirza:

At most majors, an all-qualifier bout would trigger barely a flicker of attention from most onlookers, but the intersection of these two flamboyant personalities could spark some unexpected drama.  Struggling with her serve for much of this season, Larcher de Brito salvaged a host of break points in her final qualifying round, whereas Mirza progressed to the main draw with less ado.  Once a dangerous ball-striker with a percussive forehand, the Indian star has reduced her schedule in recent months and no longer maintains the consistency required to remain a threat on the grand stages.  Still at the outset of her career, by contrast, the Portuguese phenom seeks to transcend her reputation as the WTA’s champion shrieker and unlock the promise that she displayed in the juniors and at the Bolletieri Academy.  Despite her petite physique, Larcher de Brito can thump groundstrokes with as much savagery as her statuesque foes and currently possesses far more competitive savagery than Mirza.  We expect a streaky match with multiple momentum shifts, few free points, and perhaps occasional emotional outbursts if it stays as competitive as we think it should.

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Monfils vs. Kendrick / Nishikori vs. Korolev:

Among the few men’s matches of note are a pair of contests between an agile counterpuncher and a purely offensive juggernaut.  Whereas Korolev unleashes his weaponry from the baseline, though, Kendrick prefers hurtling to the net for adeptly angled volleys.  Opposite these aggressors stand Monfils and Nishikori, respectively; while the Frenchman relies on outrageous slides and scrambles to discomfit his victims, the Japanese phenom relies upon crisp footwork and intelligent shot selection.    Nishikori will be grateful to avoid Nadal in the first round as he continues his comeback from a protracted injury hiatus, but the swift surface at the US Open should allow his mighty Russian adversary to control most of the rallies.  Meanwhile, Monfils’ superior offensive potential should enable him to weather Kendrick’s forward-rushing tactics more comfortably than his counterpunching Japanese counterpart can outlast Korolev.  Consider these matches early indications of how much the Open’s court speed might influence the first week’s action, for both Monfils and Nishikori are distinctly superior to their challengers overall but much less superior on the fastest surfaces.

***

We return tomorrow to preview Maria and more, but first we cross our fingers for the braid from Belgrade!

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Bright lights, big city, baseline bombs:  the US Open has arrived again.  We break down both the men’s and the women’s draws quarter by quarter, this time starting with the ladies…

First quarter: Having captured consecutive titles in Montreal and New Haven, top seed Wozniacki looms over the draw a bit more authoritatively than one might have expected.  The world #2 should cruise through her first two rounds into a potentially intriguing clash with lefty shotmaker Safarova, who often has ambushed marquee players and may profit from her opponent’s fatigue.  If healthy, though, the top seed likely will advance to a final-16 clash with Sharapova, who must overcome surging Australian Jarmila Groth in the first round and French firecracker Rezai in the third round.  On the other side lurks Li Na, unimpressive since Wimbledon but always a formidable competitor in majors with her focus and mental resilience.  Not known for either of those qualities, 2004 champion and 2007 finalist Kuznetsova might encounter the Chinese star in the fourth round if she escapes Roland Garros (and Rome) nemesis Kirilenko in the third round.  The most fearsome offense in this fearsome section, however, belongs to the 14th-seeded Sharapova, who also may benefit from Wozniacki’s weariness and Kuznetsova’s continued fragility.  Despite her premature exits at her last two US Opens, Maria has rediscovered her confidence as well as her serve in recent months, and her savage strokes should sizzle through the fast courts just as they did in Stanford and Cincinnati.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Second quarter: Probably the softest quarter in the draw, this section might open a door for a dark horse like Petrova, who has reached two Slam quarterfinals this year by knocking off Clijsters and Venus.  The enigmatic Russian opens her campaign against rising German Andrea Petkovic before colliding with the crafty Radwanska in the third round; although she sparkled for much of the US Open Series, the Pole lacks the first-strike weaponry required to progress deep into the New York draw.  Eyeing a potential rematch with San Diego nemesis Coco Vandeweghe is Wimbledon finalist Zvonareva, who rebounded from a predictable post-breakthrough lull to reach the Montreal final with a second victory over Clijsters.  Almost vanishing after Roland Garros, Jankovic played only four matches on American hard courts this summer (winning just one) and faces a thorny third-round clash with Kaia Kanepi.  Before charging within a point of the Wimbledon semifinals, the burly Estonian threatened the lithe Serb on the Paris clay.  Suffering an arid summer so far, lower seeds Martinez Sanchez and Wickmayer might struggle to reach the second week.  Whoever emerges from this section, however, likely will be cannon fodder for the semifinalist from the first quarter, whether it is Sharapova, Wozniacki, Kuznetsova, or Li.

Semifinalist:  Zvonareva

Third quarter: Above the top two seeds in this region, Venus and Schiavone, hover substantial uncertainties concerning the motivation level of the former and the fitness level of the latter.  In the third round, the willowy Bulgarian Tsvetana Pironkova aims to complete three-quarters of a Venus Slam, having vanquished the elder Williams at the Australian Open and this year’s Wimbledon.  Yet the more intriguing third-round encounter features Cincinnati semifinalist and former junior #1 Pavlyuchenkova against Stanford champion Azarenka, once again on the threshold of evolving into an elite contender.  Don’t forget last year’s quarterfinalist Flavia Pennetta, a steady all-court veteran who might well oust Venus in the fourth round, but we’ll back the winner of Pavlyuchenkova-Azarenka to reach the final four of a major for the first time in their careers.  (Situated in a relatively benign corner, meanwhile, Melanie Oudin might not fall on her face as disastrously as some Americans have feared.)

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Fourth quarter: Rivaling the first quarter for potential intrigue, this section features the defending champion, two former #1s, an Olympic gold medalist, and arguably the best server in the tournament.  Like Wozniacki, Clijsters enjoys a pair of comfortable rounds before confronting a quirky Czech lefty with an arhythmic style centered around high risk and high reward.  Since reaching the Wimbledon semifinals, however, Kvitova has struggled to cope with her elevated status and (not unlike Rezai) has returned to her feckless former self.  If Ivanovic can defuse Eastbourne champion Makarova in her opener, she will face the imposing task of overcoming Zheng and then Bartoli in order to arrive at a fourth-round meeting with the defending champion.  The other side of this quarter features several players armed with excellent pedigrees but plagued by recurrent inconsistency, ranging from Stosur and Kleybanova to Safina and Dementieva.  In her New Haven semifinal with Wozniacki, Elena outplayed the eventual champion for much of the match but characteristically squandered a late lead, while the ailing Stosur pried just three games from Petrova last week.  Therefore, opportunity knocks for 2008 semifinalist Safina to extend her encouraging summer with a second-week appearance.  But her run will end by the quarters unless the Belgian’s hip injury resurfaces.

Semifinalist:  Clijsters

Final:  Sharapova vs. Azarenka

Champion:  Sharapova

Turning to the gentlemen and not-so-gentle men…

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First quarter: Uninspired during the summer Masters 1000 tournaments, Nadal should feast upon a section filled with erratic shotmakers and dubious competitors, although projected third-round foe Kohlschreiber did challenge him in Toronto.  The only player to defeat Rafa between Miami and the Rogers Cup, Lopez could intersect with his compatriot in the round of 16 after a third-round meeting with Ljubicic; the Croat has faded swiftly (and unsurprisingly) since winning Indian Wells.  On the other side proliferate some of the ATP’s most distinctive personalities, spearheaded by Verdasco, Gulbis, and Nalbandian.  Sagging after a dazzling clay season, Verdasco likely will fall to the resurgent Argentine in the third round, while Gulbis will be favored to bludgeon slow-surface specialist Ferrer into submission.  Nadal could struggle against the winner of a Gulbis-Nalbandian confrontation, for both of them possess the ability to overpower the Spaniard from the baseline.  Nevertheless, the top seed should rely on his consistency and concentration against the Latvian or his fitness against the Argentine in order to reach a third consecutive semifinal at the only Slam that still eludes him.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter: A finalist at two of his last four hard-court majors, Murray once again lies on the threshold of a substantial breakthrough after defeating Federer and Nadal consecutively in Canada.  Occasional hitting partner Wawrinka should test but not thwart the Scot in the third round, and possible fourth-round foe Querrey still must learn how to translate his small-scale success into the majors and Masters 1000 tournaments.  At the base of the quarter rests the revelation of the year, Berdych, although a leg injury in Cincinnati may undercut his efforts to reprise a Roland Garros demolition of Murray and reach a third consecutive Slam semifinal.  Moreover, the Czech appears a bit mentally jaded after his unexpected successes in 2010 have elevated his match total relatively early in the season.  Mentally suspect or physically dubious names populate much of this section, Isner among them; hindered by strained ankle ligaments, the American is still regrouping after his surreal Wimbledon epic.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Third quarter: Although tennis doesn’t incorporate the concept of home-court advantage, both Roddick and Fish will feel relatively satisfied with their section.  Briefly outstanding during his Toronto semifinal, Djokovic lapsed into lethargy and indifference again during his week in Cincinnati, where Andy extended his dominance over the Serb.  They could collide in the quarterfinals for the second straight tournament, but it’s equally likely that Roddick will meet the winner of a third-round duel between Baghdatis and Fish.  Long known for squandering their talents, both the Cypriot and the American reaped the rewards of renewed dedication during the US Open Series.  Despite recuperating from mono, Roddick has enjoyed greater success in the best-of-five format than most of this quarter’s other inhabitants, including potential fourth-round opponents Davydenko and Bellucci.  If he hopes to progress deep into the tournament, however, Andy must win his matches more efficiently than he did in Cincinnati.

Semifinalist:  Roddick

Fourth quarter: Whether seeded at the top or the bottom of the draw, Federer generally finds himself nestled in a cozy corner.  Such is the case again here, as the Swiss legend will not have to overcome anyone more demanding than veterans Hewitt, Ferrero, and Melzer in order to reach the quarterfinals—where he faces the same player whom he defeated here in that round a year ago.  In addition to Soderling’s dismal head-to-head record against Federer, however, one should remember that he dragged the five-time US Open champion within a point of a fifth set last year before dispatching him from Roland Garros (in yet another quarterfinal) this year.  With the massive bookends of the Swede and the Swiss, one might nearly forget about the balanced groundstroke game of Marin Cilic, whose recent swoon is threatening to shift him from the “promising” to the “once-promising” category.  Surrounded by a host of qualifiers, the Croat should reach the second week and a fourth-round encounter with Soderling, but neither he nor the injury-addled Gonzalez currently possesses both the confidence and the weapons to win a best-of-five encounter with the fifth seed.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Final:  Murray vs. Federer

Champion:  Federer

***

Balanced better than the draws of several recent Slams, these quadrants should provide a steady acceleration of action from the first week through the middle weekend towards the championship matches.  We return tomorrow to preview the most scintillating opening salvos of the season’s final major!

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This third article in our US Open preview series discusses the dark horses, players who almost certainly won’t win the title in New York but who might topple some notable names during the first week or so. Rankings, not seeds, are in parentheses.  Did we forget someone?  Let us know in the comments.

Baghdatis (18):  Most dangerous when most discounted, the Cypriot ambushed Cilic and Berdych in Cincinnati before overcoming Nadal for the first time in seven meetings.  Although Rafa lacked his trademark intensity in their quarterfinal, Baghdatis completed the upset with impressive composure.  Two weeks earlier, he reached the final in Washington as well after defeating Verdasco.  Active in New Haven this week, though, he may arrive in New York a little fatigued, and the best-of-five format undermines a player who has struggled with fitness.

Fish (21): Who knew that fish could stay fresh in the heat?  Sizzling since Wimbledon, Mardy posted the best results of any American in the US Open Series and would have had a chance to win it had he not withdrawn (wisely) from New Haven.  Fish came within a tiebreak of the Cincinnati title after rallying from one-set deficits against both of the ATP’s leading Andys.  Fitter than ever, he also overcame Roddick and Isner in Atlanta despite the scorching heat.  On the other hand, he sometimes fades in best-of-five matches, as he did after winning the first set from Nadal at the 2008 US Open.

Querrey (22):  The future of American tennis together with the ailing Isner, Querrey scored one of the biggest wins of his career by defeating Murray in the LA final after saving match point on multiple occasions throughout the tournament.  The lanky Californian should enjoy the fast courts and supportive crowds in New York; he owns more titles than anyone but Nadal this year and is the only player to win a tournament on every surface in 2010.  Aligned against him are his indifferent performances at majors (cf. this year’s French Open), although a second-week showing at Wimbledon boded well for the future.

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Gulbis (26):  A tiebreak away from defeating an overheated Murray in Cincinnati, Gulbis also took a set from Soderling in Toronto despite rustiness after the leg injury that curtailed his Roland Garros and Wimbledon campaigns.  Having scored victories over Federer and Djokovic, he constitutes a threat to all of the ATP’s elite contenders; his encounter with Roddick at the 2008 US Open proved one of that tournament’s most scintillating first-week matches.  An abysmal 2009 included an uninspired first-round against Murray there last year, but outstanding performances this spring suggest that the charismatic Latvian will substantially improve upon that performance.  But he still revels in unpredictability and could produce a head-scratching loss just as easily as a sensational upset.

Kohlschreiber (31):  The flashy German with the sparkling one-handed backhand severely tested Nadal in a three-set Rogers Cup quarterfinal before withdrawing from Cincinnati with a shoulder strain.  Powerful off both wings, Kohlschreiber’s balanced groundstroke game and relentlessly attacking style should reap dividends on the fast surface in New York, where short points will expose his struggles with consistency less frequently.  Undermining his chances for a deep run are his serve, less reliable than the deliveries of most higher-ranked players, and his fragile sense of self-belief

Nalbandian (33):  Surging within a set of the final in 2003, the enigmatic Argentine may be the most dangerous name on the list.  Since Wimbledon, he defeated Davydenko and Youzhny in Davis Cup, then swept to the Washington title with victories over Simon, Cilic, and Baghdatis.  Murray and Djokovic dispatched him routinely at the two Masters 1000 events, but not before he had ousted Ferrer, Soderling, and Ljubicic.  Like many of the figures on this list, his injuries and dubious fitness hamper him in the best-of-five format, yet his often-questioned motivation is soaring; Nalbandian finally recognizes the approaching endpoint of his career and is playing with more urgency than he has shown in years.  The Argentine’s early ball-striking and flat two-hander will flourish on the New York courts against all but the best movers.

Potential victims: Wallowing in a summer-long slump, Davydenko has endured several losses to sub-50 players after returning from the wrist injury that he suffered in Miami.  Although he has enjoyed past success in New York, he also has suffered a few bizarre losses to unheralded opponents such as Gilles Muller.  Verdasco might be a threat under normal conditions, but the Spaniard exhausted himself with clay-season exertions and sagged listlessly during the US Open Series.  Moreover, no serious contender for the Open should be playing on the red dirt after Wimbledon unless it’s a home tournament, as it was for Soderling.  After a dazzling start to 2010 and a maiden Slam semifinal in Australia, Cilic has reeled from one early exit to another against foes from Garcia-Lopez to Michael Llodra and Florian Mayer.  Despite upsetting Murray in New York last year, he lacks the steely confidence to enjoy a deep run in New York.  Fellow Croat Ljubicic has faded quietly since startling rivals and audiences with his Indian Wells title run, even dropping his Wimbledon opener to a little-known Pole.

On to the ladies:

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Pennetta (21):  A quarterfinalist at last year’s US Open, this emotional Italian enjoys almost as much success on hard courts as on her beloved clay.  An impressive US Open Series included quarterfinals in both of the Premier Five events (Cincinnati and Canada), during which she threatened leading contenders Clijsters and Wozniacki.  Before Cincinnati, she reached the semifinals of San Diego with a commanding victory over Stosur.  All three players who defeated Pennetta in the summer hard-court season have progressed to win the title, so only a top-drawer performance sufficed to overcome her.  On the other hand, she looked weary and literally foot-sore in Montreal but chose to play New Haven anyway, perhaps not the most judicious decision for her New York longevity.

Pavlyuchenkova (22):  The Russians keep coming as relentlessly as the rain in Montreal last weekend, and this former junior #1 seems destined for the top 10.  During a breakthrough week in Cincinnati, she overcame Hantuchova, Dementieva, and Wickmayer before taking a set from Sharapova; also impressive was her stamina in the heat, an auspicious omen for the Open.  Less encouraging were her struggles with double faults and a hip injury that forced her to withdraw from New Haven and may have hampered her during a three-set loss to Kuznetsova in Montreal.

Zheng (23):  Better known for her accomplishments in doubles, the Chinese firecracker battled toe-to-toe with Sharapova for much of their Stanford encounter and later ambushed Dementieva in Canada en route to the quarterfinals.  She has scored multiple victories over former #1s and rises to the occasion on the grandest stages, including semifinals at Wimbledon in 2008 and the Australian Open in 2009.  Inside her petite frame lies far more competitive determination than is found inside many of her colleagues.  Sadly for her, her serve is as benign as her charming smile and offers too inviting a target for the WTA’s top returners.

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Ivanovic (41):  A surprise semifinalist in Cincinnati, the sensuous Serb gathered momentum after a thrilling three-set comeback over Stanford champion Azarenka, during which she hovered within two points of defeat on three different occasions.  Could that match be the turning point that her fans long have awaited?  Profiting from a relatively barren section of the draw, Ana romped through her next three rounds with the loss of just 13 games but injured her ankle ligaments early in the semifinal against Clijsters.  Even if she recovers, she must grapple with negative memories of New York, her least successful major; exposing her tentative backhand, the fast courts there have fueled first-week exits in all but one of her appearances.

Oudin (44):  To be sure, she enters the Open on a four-match losing streak and has been dreadful for the vast majority of the past 12 months.  Nevertheless, some players remain oddly steady at a certain tournament despite disasters everywhere else.  While Oudin will feel the pressure of justifying last year’s result, the crowd will be enthusiastically behind her on every point.  Should we still BELIEVE?  The moment of truth approaches.

Safina (59):  A semifinalist in 2008, the Russian former #1 suffered a string of ignominious exits after returning from a back injury this summer but has shown recent signs of life.  Probably her most impressive victory of the US Open Series was a tightly contested three-setter against her compatriot Petrova, a two-time Slam quarterfinalist herself this year.  This week, Safina gained revenge upon Montreal nemesis Schiavone, so she’s gathering momentum at an ideal time.  It’s probable that she’ll wilt eventually under the bright lights of New York, but her penetrating groundstrokes might generate a first-week headline or two.

Potential victims:  Perpetually injured, ill, exhausted, or all of the above, Jankovic lost consecutive matches to qualifiers in Cincinnati and Montreal.  The 2008 US Open finalist won just one match in the US Open Series (against a qualifier) and has vanished from the radar almost completely since an especially feckless implosion in the Roland Garros semifinals.  Struggling with an arm injury, Stosur is saving match points against Errani as we write and never has progressed past the second round in New York.  Not unlike Ivanovic, she struggles to conceal her tepid backhand on the fast courts.  Seemingly content with that magical Roland Garros title, Schiavone has won very few matches since then and probably won’t revive her competitive vigor until the Fed Cup final in November.  (On the other hand, she did reach the second week at the Open last year.)  Finally, Roland Garros semifinalist Dementieva has fallen from the top 10 after a combination of injuries and straight-set losses to Pavlyuchenkova and Zheng in the early rounds of the two Premier Five events.

***

We return on Friday or Saturday to break down each quarter of both draws in our usual fashion.

This second article of our US Open preview series discusses the challengers in the outer circle of contenders, players with legitimate aspirations to win the title but with less airtight cases than the favorites whom we outlined yesterday.  Selecting three members of the ATP and three members of the WTA, we explain why these less legendary players might find themselves with a bit of extra hardware to polish over the winter.

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1) Andy Roddick

Causes for confidence:  Recovering from a bout of mono that hampered much of his summer, Roddick dramatically exceeded expectations in Cincinnati.  After he vanquished fifth-ranked Soderling in a suspenseful third-set tiebreak, the top American extended his mastery over third-ranked Djokovic and nearly doused the flames of a scalding Mardy Fish.  The 2003 US Open champion always enjoys greater crowd support than any of his rivals in New York, creating an electric atmosphere that boosts his spirits in tight matches.  During his earlier hard-court campaigns this season, he scored triumphs over Soderling, Nadal, and Berdych at the Masters 1000 events in Indian Wells and Miami.  As illustrated in Cincinnati, Roddick responds better to heat and humidity than most of his future foes.

Causes for concern:  Visibly drained of energy late in his longer matches, the post-mono Roddick may not be ideally prepared for the best-of-five format at a major.  Once stellar in tight sets, Andy has dropped eight of his last eleven tiebreaks, and his prowess in closing out matches has wavered; he failed to serve out matches against Djokovic and Fish after squandering second-set match points against Soderling.  Moreover, there’s that little problem called Federer, who has defeated Roddick in four Slam finals and three Slam semifinals while compiling a 19-2 record against the American.

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2) Robin Soderling

Causes for confidence: A two-time Roland Garros finalist, Soderling came within a point of a fifth set against Federer in a US Open quarterfinal last year.  Despite his clay breakthroughs, the swift surface there should suit his percussive game better than any of the other majors.  The only player in the draw who has defeated both Federer and Nadal at majors, Soderling possesses more than sufficient swagger to assault the summit of the ATP.  His fearsome precision on both serve and groundstrokes should especially dazzle during a night session, when conditions are calmer. Traveling without coach Magnus Norman for the last several weeks, the Swede will be rejoined by his invaluable mentor before confronting the pressure of New York.

Causes for concern:  Ever an inflammable character, Soderling succumbed to his emotions too often during his summer campaign and displayed a disturbing negativity during a few of his recent losses.  Rebounding from TGUE (The Greatest Upset Ever) last spring, Nadal seems to have regained the momentum in that mini-rivalry with victories at the last two majors.  Lacking a Plan B, Soderling often struggles to maintain consistency throughout a tournament and may not be equipped to defeat a range of playing styles over the course of a fortnight; he has won surprisingly few titles considering his vast talents.

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3) Tomas Berdych

Causes for confidence: Rare is the player who takes up residence inside Federer’s cranium, but Berdych joined Nadal in that coveted piece of real estate after the Swiss admitted his anxiety when playing the Czech in Canada.  For the vast majority of that match, Tomas controlled as many baseline rallies as did Roger and kept his legendary opponent at bay with Del Potro-like groundstrokes.  After reaching the Roland Garros semifinals and the Wimbledon final, Berdych adapts well to the best-of-five format, which allows him to find his game, lose it, and find it again.  Yet fast hard courts remain his favorite surface, suggesting that he should improve upon dismal past performances at the US Open.  The Czech’s sturdier mentality will allow him to cope with his glamorous surroundings more capably than before.

Causes for concern: In response to an abysmal bit of scheduling by the Washington event, the old, churlish Berdych resurfaced to express his disgust with this minor tournament.  When he attempted to serve out his match against Federer, more importantly, the old Berdych resurfaced in a different way by donating egregious unforced errors as the pressure mounted upon him.  No such situation arose in Cincinnati, where the Czech suffered a routine loss to Baghdatis amidst discussion of a lingering injury.  Consequently, he brings little momentum to New York and will hope for a tranquil first week in which to regain it.

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1) Svetlana Kuznetsova

Causes for confidence:  Rebounding from a disastrous first half, the mercurial Russian relished her week in San Diego, where she battled to the title past Pennetta and Radwanska.  Armed with the confidence of that long-awaited victory, she tested Sharapova in Cincinnati before reaching the Montreal semifinal.  The 2004 US Open champion and 2007 finalist possesses a Clijsters-like athleticism that will be rewarded on the fast courts and a taste for showmanship that will be welcomed in New York.  Although Kuznetsova’s forehand comprises a more potent weapon than her backhand, she can hit winners from both wings and won’t easily be wrong-footed.  She also enters the tournament with a stronger health record than any of the other contenders, and durability should not be underestimated in the physically demanding context of a major.

Causes for concern:  Don’t be overly discouraged by her semifinal loss to Wozniacki in Canada, played under conditions that would have frustrated most competitors.  But that desultory defeat did remind audiences of her wayward focus, which has undermined on grand stages throughout her career.  Often more concerned with entertaining than winning, Kuznetsova sometimes derails herself with reckless, unintelligent shot-making.  And her game hasn’t returned for a substantial period, so her confidence may falter under pressure.  Furthermore, top contenders will punish her for the late-match nerves that she has displayed throughout this season.

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2) Caroline Wozniacki

Causes for confidence:  Seizing the most important title of her career so far, Wozniacki defeated a string of reasonably formidable opponents at the Rogers Cup and coped impressively with the rain-addled weekend.  The world #2 reached the final here last year by relentlessly exploiting the opportunities that arose and can be trusted to do so again.  More mature than her twenty years would suggest, she should respond calmly and coolly to the New York atmosphere.  Earlier this year, Wozniacki earned hard-court laurels at Indian Wells, where she reached her first Premier Mandatory final.  Recovered from the ankle injury that hampered her clay and grass seasons, she now covers the court as fluidly as ever and generally competes better than the WTA’s other rising stars.

Causes for concern:  Still susceptible to the occasional odd loss, the Pole-Dane folded meekly to Bartoli in Cincinnati and struggled with the high temperatures there, an ominous portent for the Open.  Like Murray, she continues to lack an offensive weapon that would be rewarded on the fast courts (although, like Murray, she proved that counterpunchers can prosper in New York).  Dominating most of her peers, Wozniacki still struggles against most of the WTA veterans and never has defeated a former #1.  As the top seed, she will carry the proverbial “target on the back” into the draw and must cope with the additional burden of this position, not an easy task for a 20-year-old.

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3) Vera Zvonareva

Causes for confidence:  A surprise finalist at Wimbledon,  Zvonareva has scored two wins over Open favorite Clijsters this summer, which itself would suffice to feature her on this list.  Again a finalist in Canada, she dispatched her early opponents with an efficiency valuable in the seven-match fortnight at a Slam.  The meltdown potential that spelled her doom in New York a year ago has receded—although not disappeared—and allowed her to play a more focused, purposeful brand of tennis at key moments.  After struggling with ankle problems throughout her career, her balance looks much less awkward than previously and allows her to reverse direction more smoothly, an important asset on a fast court.  Far less familiar to mainstream fans and media than most contenders, she might coast into the second week with less of the exhausting scrutiny than her rivals will endure.

Causes for concern:  An unassuming personality, Vera clashes with the extroverted atmosphere surrounding the Open.  Just as with Kuznetsova, moreover, her breakthrough has been recent, so it’s difficult to discern whether she can extend success at one major better than she could extend her 2009 triumph at Indian Wells.  Often following impressive results with early exits, she lost early in San Diego and Cincinnati after reaching the Wimbledon final.  Vera often underperforms in finals and has accumulated a 10-14 record in championship matches (1-3 this year); she won eight total games in the Charleston and Montreal finals, suggesting that she might not be able to finish what she starts.

***

By contrast, we are fully able to finish what we start.  Tomorrow comes Part III of the US Open previews, focusing on dark horses who (probably) won’t win the title but might spoil the fortnights of a few higher seeds.  Here’s a glimpse of the loveliest mane in the list:

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This first article in our series of US Open previews discusses the tournament favorites, the inner circle of contenders who most closely surround the title.  As with the Wimbledon previews, we outline both causes for confidence and causes for concern regarding each player, four from the ATP and four from the WTA.

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1) Roger Federer

Causes for confidence: A finalist in Toronto and a champion in Cincinnati, Federer duplicated his 2007 performance at the summer Masters 1000 events.  That year, of course, he captured the trophy in New York from the player who denied him the trophy in Canada; we wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar scenario unfold in 2010.  Avenging his Wimbledon loss to Berdych and reasserting his dominance over Djokovic, Federer’s Toronto performance demonstrated his ability to outlast his primary challengers in tense situations.  A week later in Cincinnati, he demonstrated that he could smother inspired dark horses by navigating past Nadal-killer Baghdatis and Murray-killer Fish.  The fast courts of Flushing suit Federer’s game better than the surface at any other major, sparking a streak of six consecutive finals there, and his superb fitness allows him to profit from the best-of-five format in steamy conditions more than any of his rivals except Nadal.

Causes for concern: Firmly in control of his matches against Berdych and Djokovic, Federer wavered in the second set and ultimately came within a few points of defeat on both occasions.  In order to progress efficiently through the draw and conserve energy for the later rounds, he can’t afford such lapses of concentration at the Open.  His draw at Cincinnati couldn’t have been much cozier on paper, featuring a bye, a walkover, a retirement, and just one seeded player (Davydenko); one imagines that his route in New York will be significantly more arduous.  But the most serious issue concerns his Toronto nemesis, Murray, who showed there that he finally has learned to attack Federer just as he attacks Nadal.  A rematch of their 2008 final would be the most compelling men’s championship match that one could expect this year.

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2) Rafael Nadal

Causes for confidence: Having won fourteen consecutive matches at majors, the world #1 seeks to join Federer in the career Slam club.  During his title runs in Paris and London, he overcame several of the players who most tormented him throughout his previous slump, such as Soderling and Murray.  The knees seem healthy after various surgical procedures, and his confidence generally rises in direct proportion to his health.  Almost as much as Federer, Nadal profits from the best-of-five format, which allows him to lose a tight set here or there while gradually wearing down the shotmakers who prosper on the Open’s fast courts.  A semifinalist in his last two appearances there, the Spaniard has followed a pattern of gradual but steady improvement each year that recalls his progress towards the Australian Open title in 2009.  Although Federer has established himself as the favorite, there is little evidence to suggest that he has overcome his mental fragility against Nadal.

Causes for concern: Highly fallible during the summer Masters tournaments, Nadal dropped a set to Kohlschreiber, faced a match point against Benneteau, mustered little resistance against Murray, and sprayed forehands wildly against Baghatis.  Rafa moves much less fluidly on hard court, often still lacks the depth on his groundstrokes, and sometimes displays a negativity never witnessed on clay or grass.  During the second half, fatigue typically prevents him from summoning his best tennis, while the slick surface in New York is antithetical to his movement-based style.  Unquestionably the steeliest competitor in the sport, he remains vulnerable to a swaggering shotmaker who can deny him the rallying rhythm upon which he relies.  Finally, his backhand will need to deliver much more consistently than it did in the past two weeks, for confidence in his weaker groundstroke has been essential to his previous hard-court success.

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3) Andy Murray

Causes for confidence: The almost certain US Open Series winner, Murray enjoys an excellent chance to secure his extra million if he can reproduce his Rogers Cup performance.  In Toronto, the introverted Scot became the first player since Del Potro at last year’s US Open to defeat Nadal and Federer on consecutive days.  Reminding audiences of his quarterfinal victory over Rafa in Australia, Murray suffocated the Spaniard with clutch serving and his lethal cross-court backhand.  In the final, he frustrated Federer with crisp returning and pinpoint passing shots whenever the Swiss legend ventured into the forecourt.  Clearly recovered from his post-Australian Open swoon, Britain’s #1 appears to relish his current coachless status and the independence that he has acquired from it.  Reaching both of his Slam finals on hard courts, Murray considers the US Open his favorite major and will feel much less pressure to succeed there than at the All England Club, two factors that bode well for a breakthrough.

Causes for concern: Unable to blunt Querrey’s power in the LA final and Fish’s power in the Cincinnati quarterfinal, Murray still is susceptible to being battered off the court by the ATP’s premier (and not-so-premier) powerhouses.  A year ago, Cilic dispatched him rather routinely in the round of 16; the Scot’s draw thus could be crucial in deciding his fate, for he often needs to play his way into a tournament in order to find his rhythm.  Although his serve has improved, Murray has yet to develop the type of first-strike weapon that thrives on the Open’s fast surface. As Mats Wilander dryly noted, moreover, his status as a Slam favorite remains dubious until and unless he wins one of them.

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4) Novak Djokovic

Causes for confidence: After a disheartening spring, Djokovic reinvigorated his 2010 campaign with a somewhat unexpected charge to the Wimbledon semifinals on his least favorite surface.  Later in the summer, he starred in Serbia’s Davis Cup victory over Croatia and severely tested Federer deep in the third set of their Rogers Cup semifinal.  Reaching the semifinals or better at his last three US Opens, the Serb has lost to nobody other than Federer in any of those years.  The vibrant New York atmosphere ideally fits his personality, and this ebullient impersonator recaptured the acclaim of Open audiences last year after alienating them with harsh (albeit justifiable) criticism of Roddick in 2008.  Although less impressive than during his 2008 title run in Australia, his serve has grown into a more potent weapon in the last few months than it was at the outset of 2010.

Causes for concern: Predictably bothered by the Canada and Cincinnati heat, Djokovic will find scant relief when the stage shifts to humid New York.  His fitness comprises perhaps his greatest shortcoming, although his odd lack of confidence against elite opponents registers a close second.  Even when facing the relatively untested Berdych at Wimbledon, he slumped into defeatism too soon after encountering adversity; despite his prodigious talents, his appetite for competition simmers quite low.  This mixture of complacency and self-doubt rarely wins majors or defeats dangerous rivals, so Djokovic must quell those character traits before seizing a second Slam.

And now for the ladies…

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1) Kim Clijsters

Causes for confidence: Freed temporarily from the shadow of her more glamorous compatriot, the defending champion extended her American hard-court winning streak by battling to the Premier Five title in Cincinnati.  Often considered too gentle for her own good, Clijsters defied this perception by tenaciously surviving Sharapova’s assault in the final there and by escaping multiple deficits in the quarterfinals against Pennetta.  Her balanced groundstroke game and outstanding athleticism hinders opponents from wrong-footing her as easily as some of her more powerful, less agile colleagues.  Winning both of her majors in New York, the Belgian generally showcases her best tennis in the summer season and will be especially fresh this year after a foot injury curtailed her spring campaign.  Although a hip strain fueled a quarterfinal exit in Canada, she sounded convinced that the injury would not hamper her preparations for the Open.  (In fact, she may find herself better prepared than the four semifinalists there, forced to wait in limbo until the precipitation stops.)

Causes for concern: Not a weapon like the deliveries of Sharapova or Venus, the Belgian’s serve became an outright liability on multiple occasions in Cincinnati and the Rogers Cup.  When one element of her game disintegrates, the other components often descend with it as she struggles to adapt to the circumstances.  Rallying from within five points of defeat against Mattek-Sands in her Montreal opener, Clijsters has suffered chronic premature losses in her comeback, including third-round debacles in Melbourne and Indian Wells.  Her last two defeats have occurred against the mentally suspect Zvonareva, not a player accustomed to upsetting elite contenders, so a dangerous floater could threaten in an early round before she settles into the tournament.

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2) Maria Sharapova

Causes for confidence: A finalist in three of her last four and four of her last six tournaments, Sharapova came within a point of inflicting a 2-and-3 drubbing upon Clijsters in Cincinnati before rain and then fatigue intervened.  At Stanford, she not only avenged her Indian Wells loss to Zheng but secured her first notable wins of 2010 with morale-lifting victories over Dementieva and Radwanska.  Dispatching San Diego champion Kuznetsova in her Cincinnati opener, Maria adjusted surprisingly comfortably to the sultry conditions that week.  Untroubled by a foot injury that forced her to withdraw from Montreal, she should arrive in New York healthier than she has been there since her 2006 title.  The slick surface and glamorous atmosphere of the Open mirror Sharapova’s personality; she relishes playing under the lights and never has lost a night match at a major.  Without recent Slam nemeses Henin and Serena in the draw, Maria will be poised to extend the surge of stirring performances that began with her Strasbourg title in May.

Causes for concern: While the fast courts at the Open enhance Sharapova’s first-strike ferocity, their speed also can expose her movement when opponents stretch her laterally.  Maria’s last two appearances concluded in ignominious third-round exits during which her serve unraveled in spectacular fashion, so one should observe the performance of that shot under pressure.  Even in Cincinnati, Sharapova lost the rhythm on her serve when attempting to close out matches, suggesting that her once-bulletproof confidence has not returned completely after injury travails.  During the two and a half years since her breathtaking run at the 2008 Australian Open, Maria has reached just one Slam quarterfinal (2009 Roland Garros).

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3) Venus Williams

Causes for confidence: Just as Clijsters will benefit from the absence of Henin, Venus should benefit from the absence of her sister and the scrutiny that such a situation inevitably provokes.  Her serve still sizzles through the court more fiercely than any of the other contenders, allowing her to hold serve with greater regularity.  Favoring short exchanges over extended rallies, the swift surface will shield Venus from the consequences of her increasingly erratic groundstrokes; fewer shots are required in order to win points from the baseline.  Probably more gifted in the forecourt than any of the other leading ladies, Serena’s elder sister also can exploit the fast courts to finish points at the net.  After a dismal Wimbledon, moreover, she may prove more motivated than ever to deliver a performance that reaffirms her relevance.  Startlingly, she has won only two fewer Slams (7) than the rest of the draw combined (9).

Causes for concern: Not having played since that Wimbledon loss, Venus enters with no hard-court matches this summer and without having won the Open in nine years, a period longer than many tennis careers.  (Interesting fact:  she has won no tournaments in 2009-10 except Dubai and Acapulco, both of which she won in both years.)  A factor in her loss to Clijsters there last year, her knee injury may forestall a deep run by hampering the 30-year-old’s service rhythm as well as her footwork.  Possessing virtually no B-game, she generally is ghastly when anything less than magnificent and may not be able to maintain her best tennis throughout a fortnight against seven different opponents with diverse playing styles.  Outside Wimbledon, in fact, Venus has reached just one Slam semifinal since 2003 (the 2007 US Open).

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4) Victoria Azarenka

Causes for confidence: Finally free from the hamstring injury that crippled her clay and grass seasons, the Belarussian bombshell returned to her early-season form during the US Open Series.  While capturing the Stanford title, Azarenka lost no more than five games in four of her five matches against opponents including Stosur and Sharapova.  As of this writing, she has reached the Rogers Cup semifinals with emphatic victories over Li Na and Bartoli, who often are formidable at this stage of the season.  (An unkind draw in Cincinnati witnessed her demise at the hands of a suddenly resurgent Ivanovic, no easy first-round assignment.)  Fusing power with intelligence and bold shotmaking with above-average movement, she is a more complete player than any of the WTA’s other rising stars.  Signaled by a Sharapova-esque shriek and a dog named Rolex, the Belarussian’s strutting personality should shine in a city that celebrates showmanship and swagger far more than the other Slam venues.

Causes for concern: A heavily hyped prodigy during her teenage years, Vika broke through only temporarily with the 2009 Miami title and three consecutive Slam quarterfinals.  Still her greatest flaw, this phenom’s overly volatile temper has cost her matches on important stages, such as a third-round encounter with Schiavone at last year’s US Open and a clash with Wozniacki at the year-end championships in Doha.  Under the bright lights of New York, she will feel the pressure of intense media scrutiny, not a situation to which she has responded maturely in the past.  Although she defeated both Sharapova and Clijsters this summer, she has struggled against elite contenders at key tournaments; note that she fell to Maria in Beijing and Clijsters in Miami, both Premier Mandatory events much more significant than Stanford and Eastbourne.

***

We return tomorrow with the challengers, the outer circle of contenders with legitimate title aspirations but a little further removed from the season’s final grand prize.  Happy reading!

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After a virtuoso performance in the Australian Open final, Federer has lost three consecutive championship matches on three different surfaces.  Attempting to halt this trend tomorrow, the Swiss grandmaster confronts a player who ambushed him on a North American hard court two years ago.  The stunning victor in that Indian Wells semifinal, Fish has lost only one match in four tournaments since Wimbledon as he prepares for his fourth final of the summer.  Ever eager to erase blemishes upon his glory, the 16-time major champion generally has exacted revenge upon journeymen who have frustrated him, although the task has grown more difficult late in his career.  While Federer comfortably dismissed Indian Wells nemesis Baghdatis in the semifinals, he admitted to uncertainty and anxiety when meeting Miami and Wimbledon nemesis Berdych at the Rogers Cup.  Having spent less than three and a half hours on court this week, the GOAT did not face a break point in his uneventful semifinal and more than once held serve in less than two minutes.  He will need to settle into his service rhythm at a much earlier hour tomorrow, a challenge with which he struggled last Sunday in Canada.  Down two breaks immediately to Murray there, Federer rallied to break the Scot’s less formidable delivery and temporarily rejoin the battle; however, he can’t afford to surrender an early advantage to Fish, who has lost his own serve just twice in five matches and more than ten hours.  The Swiss legend’s second Cincinnati title came against home hope Blake in 2007, a leisurely stroll through the sun during which the then-#1 never found himself forced to leave his comfort zone.  Yet this American’s arhythmic, net-rushing style will put pressure upon Federer’s returns, dismal in their Indian Wells encounter.  Central to Federer’s success on Sunday is his concentration, which has wavered with increasing frequency in 2010 and hasn’t always returned when summoned at crucial moments.  Against Baghdatis, he dazzled at the net but faltered a bit on passing shots, an area vital against the forward-moving Fish.  From the baseline, though, he enjoys a significant advantage even on these fast courts, for his groundstrokes remain more consistent than the American’s, while forehand-to-forehand exchanges almost invariably will swing in his direction.

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Favoring Fish is the noontime scheduling, for which his previous rounds have prepared him better than have Federer’s.  The third seed has played in the day session only once and has yet to experience the most extreme conditions of this summer heat, although his training in Dubai should have conditioned him for such situations.  Meanwhile, the Atlanta champion should attempt to take the ball early and shift the rallies into backhand-to-backhand exchanges, since his crisp two-hander represents the only area of his game in which he is distinctly superior to the GOAT.  If Federer struggles with timing on his groundstrokes, Fish might want to place his returns deep down the center of the court rather than allowing his fabled foe to create the running, sharply angled shots that showcase his unsurpassed reflexes.  When his first-serve percentage dips, he should continue to be aggressive with his second serve in the awareness that neutral rallies favor the Swiss, who has more weapons at his disposal and becomes most formidable when given time to deploy them.  Although errors do occasionally creep into Federer’s game, Fish must seize opportunities as soon as they arise without waiting for a higher-percentage opening.  His best chance to capture a maiden Masters 1000 title in 2010—joining fellow veteran Ljubicic—lies in dictating play at all costs.  Having overcome Verdasco, Murray, and Roddick this week, the American’s confidence must be soaring higher than it ever has in his erratic but engaging career.  In his two previous Masters 1000 finals, he dragged a more heralded opponent into a final set and even held match points against Roddick in his previous Cincinnati final; clearly, the magnitude of the occasion will not disturb him any more than did the reputations of his earlier victims here.  If Federer fails to produce convincing tennis, Fish will be ready to pounce upon any frailties that emerge.

Does Federer hook the American, or does Fish seize the GOAT by the horns?  Despite the unglamorous setting of Cincinnati, more may lie at stake in this match than one would think.  A title defense here not only secures the #2 seed at the US Open but sends Federer into New York as the perceptible favorite for a sixth US Open crown, having come within one win of a summer Masters sweep.  By contrast, a fourth consecutive finals loss might dent his confidence before the year’s final major.  Combined with the desire to reverse the outcomes of both the Toronto final and his last collision with Fish, the determination should motivate Federer to deliver the crisp, meticulous, and focused performance necessary to defuse his dangerous challenger.

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***

Following a sodden day and night at the Rogers Cup, the final there remains undecided and perhaps a mirage altogether, considering the vast quantities of rain expected to descend upon Montreal during the next two days.  If the semifinals are played tomorrow and the final on Monday, we will return tomorrow with a preview of the championship match.  Otherwise, our next article will initiate a four-part series of US Open previews:  the contenders (Monday), the challengers (Tuesday), the dark horses (Wednesday), and the draw itself (Friday or Saturday).  Happy reading!  🙂

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Since the 2009 Australian Open, a jaunty upstart almost invariably has derailed a collision between Federer and Nadal just when the tennis world was bracing itself in anticipation.  In Cincinnati, the mercurial Marcos Baghdatis thwarted hopes of a rivalry renewed by scoring his second win of 2010 over a reigning ATP #1.  Can the flavor of the week replicate his Washington finals run, and what does his performance this summer portend for the US Open?  One of those questions is answered below, while the other question will be answered next week.

Baghdatis vs. Federer (3):  For the second consecutive week, a player attempts to knock off Nadal and Federer on consecutive days.  Ever a dangerous adversary despite his issues with fitness and motivation, Baghdatis preceded his first career win over Rafa with creditable victories over Cilic and Berdych.  Just weeks removed from his Australian Open title, Federer dropped a third-set tiebreak to the charismatic Cypriot after squandering match points in the second set.  That uncharacteristic defeat triggered an arid spring for the Swiss legend, but he appears to have emerged at least partly from that malaise with morale-boosting victories over Berdych, Djokovic, and Davydenko on the American hard courts.  A three-time champion in Cincinnati, Federer doesn’t wilt under the oppressive heat as do so many of his rivals; he’ll be much better rested for this semifinal than Baghdatis, having spent barely two hours on court this week.  If sets stay close late, the ghosts of Indian Wells could creep into his mind just as the phantoms of Miami hovered over him when his lead over Berdych evaporated in Toronto.  Although he probably won’t be motivated by personal revenge, Federer expects himself to defeat opponents like Baghdatis and can rely on far more free points from his serve than could Nadal.  Unless the Cypriot can force the GOAT into backhand-to-backhand exchanges at pivotal junctures, it’s hard to imagine that lightning will strike twice.  Beyond that vicious two-hander, there’s no area of his game in which he is equal (let alone superior) to the Swiss.  Pick:  Federer, 70-30.

Fish vs. Roddick (9): Like Sharapova here a week ago, Fish seeks to reach the final in four of his last six tournaments while duplicating his eye-opening victory over Roddick in the Atlanta semifinals.  Prior to that confrontation, however, the top-ranked American had thoroughly dominated their rivalry and had regularly prevailed in the tiebreaks and 7-5 sets in which these two outstanding servers so frequently find themselves.  Almost as successful in the heat as Federer, Roddick once again dismissed the physically and mentally fragile Djokovic in the quarterfinals; since the 2009 Australian Open, he has won nine consecutive sets from the Serb.  Perhaps more impressive was the conviction that Roddick displayed in his previous win over Soderling, when he shrugged off a series of wasted opportunities and preserved his focus despite manifold distractions.  On the other hand, Murray could remind the ninth seed that Fish rarely lets his adversaries off the hook (haha) when they waste opportunities against him.  Escaping a one-set deficit and a 2-4 deficit in the climactic tiebreak of his quarterfinal, Fish delivered his best tennis when it mattered most, a refreshing reversal of his normal trends.  Since the two Americans have lost their serve three times between them in this tournament (Fish once, Roddick twice), break points will be at a premium and a tiebreak or two almost inevitable.  Whereas Fish has won four of the five tiebreaks that he has contested here, Roddick has prevailed in just two of four, extending an uncharacteristic drought in these situations that began with his Wimbledon loss and continued through a tiebreak in his Atlanta loss to Fish.  We expect a high-quality encounter with a crackling atmosphere created by the local crowd.  While Fish will pin his hopes upon audacious shotmaking, Roddick will rely upon his consistency and high-percentage point construction to overcome a compatriot with far less experience at the sport’s highest level.  Pick:  Roddick, 55-45.

In Montreal, the Stanford and San Diego champions remain in the quest for a second US Open Series title, but will they progress to Sunday’s final?

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Azarenka (10) vs. Zvonareva (8):  In this fascinating mini-rivalry between the Stanford champion and the Wimbledon finalist, don’t overestimate Zvonareva’s 4-2 lead.  After the Russian won the first nine sets that she played against the Belarussian, Vika has won the last four sets and both of their 2010 meetings.  At the Australian Open, Zvonareva led by a set and a break before a few wayward groundstrokes and double faults uncorked yet another of her signature meltdowns.  Sturdier this week than in her previous US Open Series appearances, the Wimbledon finalist will become the top-ranked Russian in next week’s rankings, while Azarenka hopes to rejoin the top 10 with a title run here.  Rallying from a one-set deficit against Clijsters for the second time this year, Vera profited from an ominous leg injury incurred by the Belgian.  Meanwhile, the Minx from Minsk has rolled past opponents such as Li and Bartoli without dropping a set, although she did save four set points during a second-set tiebreak against the Frenchwoman.  Azarenka has lost just three service games in four matches, a remarkable accomplishment for a player without an overwhelming serve.  Slightly more powerful and slightly less consistent than Zvonareva, the 21-year-old Belarussian favors her smooth two-handed backhand just as does the Russian, so expect cross-court rallies to develop in that direction more often than between their forehands.  Despite an early Cincinnati loss, Azarenka has proved herself a far sterner competitor than the Wimbledon finalist; she plays the important points more confidently and will be eager to establish herself among the leading contenders for the US Open.  Pick:  Azarenka, 70-30.

Kuznetsova (11) vs. Wozniacki (2):  Reprising their scintillating fourth-round epic from last year’s US Open, the Russian and the Pole-Dane should perform a largely straightforward offense-defense pas de deux.  Armed with a forehand more potent than any of Wozniacki’s weapons, Kuznetsova should control most of the baseline rallies and will be more comfortable finishing points off at the net, where the second seed often looks helplessly marooned.  But the task of blunting the Russian’s assault casts last year’s US Open finalist in her favorite role, soaking up pace and elongating rallies into mind-numbing wars of attrition.  Therefore, the match rests squarely in Kuznetsova’s hands to win or to lose; in the 2009 US Open, she lost it with reckless shotmaking at untimely moments.  Finally regaining the form that won her two Slam titles and brought her to two US Open finals, Sveta should approach this match with greater confidence and patience than she might have a few months ago.  A titlist in the inaugural Copenhagen event but otherwise dormant since Miami, Wozniacki showed her familiar grittiness by outlasting Pennetta in the third round before smothering an irritable Schiavone in the quarterfinals.  Still relying upon errors from her opponent to win matches, however, she may not find Kuznetsova as generous as she would wish.  Pick:  Kuznetsova, 60-40.

***

After a thought-provoking group of quarterfinals, what intrigue will the semifinals serve for us?

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After a predictable increase in dramatic tension on Thursday, all eight of our projected semifinalists in Cincinnati and Montreal advanced within a round of their appointed destination.  The early rounds sometimes provide compelling evidence for altering one’s forecasts, however.  Did we change our Saturday’s semifinal lineup?  Answers straight ahead…

Nadal (1) vs. Baghdatis:  Rallying from the brink of disaster to outlast Benneteau in a three-hour epic, Nadal dropped his serve five times under the scorching Cincinnati sun.  One win away from Federer, he confronts an mercurial foe who has upset Cilic and Berdych in straight sets, bookended around an edgy victory over Bellucci.  Similar to most of the players who have troubled the Spaniard, Baghdatis can crack explosive winners from his flat, two-handed backhand, which he strikes with little margin for error.  Last fall, in fact, he won a set from the recuperating Nadal on the Asian circuit, displaying Davydenko-like precision and timing.  If the Spaniard enters the contest jaded from his Thursday war of attrition, the Cypriot might well upset a world #1 for the second time this year; he overcame Federer at Indian Wells after a memorable comeback.  Yet Rafa remains a vastly superior competitor to Baghdatis, who chooses  style over substance too often to become a regular contender.  Pick:  Nadal, 65-35.

Federer (3) vs. Davydenko (6):  After a career of futility against the Swiss grandmaster, Davydenko finally cracked the code during the London year-end championships last fall.  Following that triumph with a routine January victory in Doha, he entered the Australian Open as a trendy pick to capture his maiden Slam.  For the first set and a half of his quarterfinal against Federer, he jerked the GOAT around the court seemingly at will; then, at 6-2, 3-1, 40-15, reality struck as the eventual champion reeled off 13 consecutive games.  Having restored the balance of power in this pseudo-rivalry, the third seed enters this quarterfinal extremely rested after receiving a bye, a first-set retirement, and a walkover in the first three rounds.  Meanwhile, Davydenko hasn’t regrouped entirely from a wrist injury this spring, suffering repeated losses to players outside the top 50 since his return.  Showing signs of life in a three-set comeback over Ferrer, he nevertheless demonstrated negative body language while committing 46 unforced errors, which revealed persistent frailty on almost all of his strokes.  It’s difficult to see him summoning the nerve to win a tight match from Federer at this stage in his return, and it’s even more difficult to see him dispatching the defending champion routinely.  Pick:  Federer, 75-25.

Fish (W) vs. Murray (4):  Two opposing storylines define this quarterfinal match, one dating from Miami and the other from Toronto.  Enduring an embarrassing second-round defeat against the American this spring, Murray surely will be spurred to exact revenge on a comparable surface.  After falling to Verdasco in last year’s Australian Open, retribution at Indian Wells was swift and brutal.  On the other hand, the easily irked Scot struggled mightily with the scorching midday temperatures in a marathon victory over Gulbis and has trudged through the draw much more laboriously than has Fish.  Murray has won consecutive tournaments only once in his career despite his sturdy fitness, and nobody has completed the Canada-Cincinnati double since 2003 (Roddick).   Winning all three of the tiebreaks that he has played this week, Fish has advanced to the quarterfinals without dropping a set; the light balls and relatively fast surface favor his all-offense playing style more than Murray’s counterpunching agility.  In the wake of his stirring Toronto performance, the Scot surely has little at stake beyond the mission of personal revenge.  It might be enough to motivate him, or it might not.  Pick:  Fish, 55-45.

Roddick (9) vs. Djokovic (2):  Battling past a stubborn Swede and his own seething temper, Roddick delivered a crucial pre-US Open statement at the last possible opportunity.  Since he sustained a four-set loss to the Serb at the 2008 US Open, the top-ranked American has seized the momentum in their somewhat acerbic (by ATP standards) rivalry by defeating Djokovic at Melbourne, Indian Wells, and Montreal last year.  Dropping just one set of the eight that they played in 2009, Roddick has exploited Novak’s occasional uncertainties on serve with consistent, stingy rallying.  Now that those issues have begun to recede, the matchup has swung closer to equilibrium.  Furthermore, the two-time Cincinnati champion will enjoy a mere 16 hours of rest after his night-session victory on Thursday, so he’ll need to summon his mono-depleted energy more swiftly than he would prefer.  But a key factor aligned with Roddick the aforementioned Ohio heat, in which these players will be immersed at their 2 PM start time.  His style of play is less taxing than the Serb’s, usually enabling him to hold serve with less effort, and soaring temperatures always exact a severe physical and psychological toll upon Djokovic.  Somehow, Roddick always exposes his latent, damaging fatalism.  Pick:  Roddick, 60-40.

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Bartoli (17) vs. Azarenka (10):  Reprising their captivating Stanford quarterfinal, these fierce competitors have advanced to this stage with commanding victories, including Azarenka’s first career win over Li Na.  While the Belarussian hasn’t evolved into a player who can dominate her peers week-in and week-out, she appears to be in the midst of a torrid stretch that might return her to the top 10 in next week’s rankings.  When the women last played in Montreal, a 19-year-old Azarenka came within a set of the final, so the surface and venue clearly complement her game.  All the same, Bartoli led Vika by a set and a break during their Stanford quarterfinal before fading, and the Frenchwoman has dropped just two games in two matches here.  (One wonders whether her demolition of Benesova was performed in the hope that the Bradenton-bound Jankovic was watching.)  We expect plenty of sizzling, flat groundstrokes, thunderous returns, and prolonged rallies in what appears to be the quarterfinal of the day in Montreal.  Pick:  Azarenka, 65-35.

Clijsters (5) vs. Zvonareva (8):  For the first time in six attempts, the Russian ambushed the Belgian at Wimbledon this year during a match in which a listless Clijsters gave Vera all of the assistance that she could have desired.  Nearly a second-round casualty in Montreal, the Cincinnati champion carries a 14-match winning streak on American hard courts into this confrontation as she prepares for her title defense in New York.  Clijsters and Zvonareva have honed somewhat similar styles, buttressed on symmetrical groundstrokes, fluid movement, and point construction more than on first-strike power from serves and returns.  In addition to these tennis-related similarities, they share the pattern of radical mood swings, which can lead them to zone in and out of matches with alarming alacrity.  If Clijsters is complacent from her title last week, Zvonareva has more than sufficient talent to take advantage.  But one should note that Kim is far more comfortable on hard courts than on grass and that her previous loss to the Russian occurred during a rusty stretch following her springtime foot injury.  Although the Belgian doesn’t seem the vengeful type, she should be especially focused against a player who recently proved that she can threaten her; focus is generally the key for Clijsters, as it is for so many of her colleagues.  Pick:  Clijsters, 60-40.

Kuznetsova (11) vs. Zheng:  Quietly overcoming Rezai and now Dementieva, the understated Chinese counterpuncher faces the flamboyant Russian.  After another win over Radwanska (and another three-setter), Kuznetsova’s confidence must be climbing as she continues to demonstrate improved concentration late in matches against quality opponents.  She may need to showcase that skill again in her quarterfinal, for Zheng battles fearlessly for every point and rarely donates significant points to opponents.  If the Russian can punish her benign serve, however, the Chinese star will struggle to take command of rallies and expose Kuznetsova’s backhand.  Wobbly at times during her San Diego title run, Sveta’s own second serve can be easily attacked by crisp returners such as Zheng, so don’t be surprised to see multiple breaks and closely contested games.  Pick:  Kuznetsova, 75-25.

Schiavone (6) vs. Wozniacki (2):  Winning consecutive matches this week for the first time since Roland Garros, the Italian defeated the Dane-Pole during that stunning fortnight.  In their quarterfinal match at the year’s second major, Schiavone unveiled Wozniacki’s discomfort at the net and with handling a variety of spins and slices.  Designed to trade penetrating missiles from a respectable distance, the second seed struggles with the Italian’s clever nuances while lacking the firepower to regularly hit through her from the baseline.  (Interesting fact:  Wozniacki had defeated Pennetta a round before playing Schiavone in Paris, just as is the case here.)  Nevertheless, last year’s US Open finalist possesses a superior serve and greater consistency, which allowed her to steadily grind down Pennetta on Thursday night.  Although the Italian’s artistry makes Wozniacki’s style seem monochromatic, one imagines that the 20-year-old will prevail after some nervy moments; their previous rounds featured a combined 22 service breaks.  Pick:  Wozniacki, 60-40.

***

We’ll return tomorrow to discuss the semifinals, probably including Federer-Nadal XXII!  And don’t forget to keep an eye on New Haven, where the draw should be released soon.  That charmless city will become uncharacteristically charming next week…

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