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After three days of sporadically entertaining but largely straightforward tennis, most of the favorites in both Cincinnati and Montreal remain in the hunt for the last two significant titles before the US Open.  The round of 16 comprises the first substantial hurdle for several leading contenders, so we break down each of these clashes to discuss who is most likely to survive…and who is most likely to enjoy a few extra sessions on the practice court before heading to New York.  😉

Nadal (1) vs. Benneteau:  Probably best known for his upset of Federer at last year’s Paris Indoors tournament, the Frenchman tested Djokovic in hot, humid conditions a week ago in Toronto.  Yet he lacks the mighty serve, groundstroke depth, and mental resilience to overcome Nadal, who looked average for much of the Rogers Cup but rarely loses to ATP journeymen.  Expect the Spaniard’s consistency to wear down Benneteau fairly routinely. Pick:  Nadal, 80-20.

Baghdatis vs. Berdych (7):  Often dismissed for lack of motivation and fitness, Baghdatis has enjoyed a mini-revival this year and recently reached the Washington final.  His flat, crisply angled two-handed backhand trumps the Wimbledon finalist’s two-hander, while his serve has developed into a more substantial weapon.  Armed with a much more formidable forehand than the Cypriot, however, the Czech possesses much greater first-strike potential and should relish the fast conditions in Cincinnati.  Unless Baghdatis can drag Berdych into repeated backhand-to-backhand exchanges, there are few ways for him to threaten his more powerful adversary.  Pick:  Berdych, 65-35.

Federer (3) vs. Kohlschreiber:  Courtesy of Denis Istomin’s retirement, Federer has advanced to the final 16 having played just seven games, an advantage that may profit him as the tournament progresses.  Across the net stands one of the few players to have taken a set from Roger at Wimbledon in recent years.  Kohlschreiber’s one-handed backhand complements his versatile forehand to provide him with striking power well above what one would expect from his compact, unimposing physique; last week, he impressed by reaching the Rogers Cup quarterfinals and threatening Nadal in a tense three-setter.  Surely brimming with confidence after winning two tight matches last week over Berdych and Djokovic, Federer previously has demonstrated his prowess in Cincinnati’s muggy weather by winning the title in two of the last three years.  As long as he can avoid an untimely mental lapse, he should outlast the German.  Pick:  Federer, 75-25.

Ferrer (10) vs. Davydenko (6):  The high-octane offense of the Russian and the indefatigable defense of the Spaniard should bring out the best in each other.  Balancing Davydenko’s superior hard-court credentials is the wrist injury from which his game still is recovering.  Against Ginepri, the sixth seed occasionally struggled with his footwork and shot selection, vital elements of his game; on the other hand, Ferrer overcame the dangerous Querrey rather comfortably in front of his home crowd.  Can he capitalize upon the Russian’s inconsistency, or will he be forced too far behind the baseline to cut off Davydenko’s angles?  Pick:  Davydenko, 60-40.

Fish (W) vs. Gasquet:  Seizing headlines from Roddick during the US Open Series, the long-overlooked Fish relied upon improved fitness to win consecutive titles in Newport and Atlanta.  Never a consistent performer, he then crashed out early in Washington and Toronto before rising again here with consecutive victories over Simon and Verdasco.  Avenging an Australian Open loss to Youzhny in the first round, Gasquet hasn’t yet regained the momentum lost by his extended absence last year, despite occasional flickers of brilliance.  Pick:  Fish, 60-40.

Gulbis vs. Murray (4):  Fresh (or not) from his first title of 2010, the Scot comprehensively drubbed Gulbis at two Slams last year in matches that illustrated his adeptness at stifling a more powerful opponent with ingenious point construction.  Far more formidable than he was a year ago, however, the Latvian has honed his concentration and patience during key rallies under the tutelage of Safin-maker Hernan Gumy.  Perhaps a little weary from his Canadian exertions, Murray dropped a set to rising Frenchman, Chardy, while Gulbis squeaked through a third-set tiebreak against crafty lefty veteran Melzer.  We expect the fourth seed to cope more successfully with the mid-day Ohio heat than than will the Latvian, whose form has faltered a bit after a promising clay season.  If Gulbis can maintain a high first-serve percentage, though, he might relish the light balls and fast court, which favor the staccato playing style that he prefers.  Pick:  Murray, 70-30.

Soderling (5) vs. Roddick (9):  Barely weathering a stern challenge from the evergreen Hewitt, the Swede looked several notches below his midseason form and often struggled to find the court after a rally extended further than five or six shots.  Recovering from mono, Roddick also has looked rusty at times in his first two matches, and he continued his recent tiebreak struggles by losing one to Stakhovsky in his opener.  The American’s main task will be to survive the first few blows from the Swede, who can overpower anyone on a hard court with his savage groundstrokes that skim so close to the net.  In longer rallies, Roddick’s superior consistency will give him the edge.  Whereas Soderling often lets his emotions overheat when confronted with a hostile crowd, the American will relish the support his compatriots, many of whom have witnessed his two title runs here.  Pick:  Roddick, 55-45.

Nalbandian (PR) vs. Djokovic (2):  Nightmares for prognosticators, both the Argentine and the Serb have proved enigmatic, unpredictable competitors.  While an epic three-set battle with Federer in the Toronto semifinals should have inspired Djokovic to raise his level, narrow losses to his top 5 peers often have discouraged him into apathy.  The second seed did defeat Nalbandian with little ado in Monte Carlo, but the former Wimbledon finalist didn’t revitalize his year until another stirring Davis Cup performance in July.  Most dangerous when he has nothing to lose, David might well rattle the Serb if he starts the match impressively.  Nevertheless, his sharply angled two-handed backhand will meet its match in Djokovic’s smoothly timed two-hander, and there is no single area of Nalbandian’s game in which he surpasses his opponent.   The Serb’s greatest enemy may be the torpor-inducing midafternoon heat to which scheduling caprice will subject him. Pick:  Djokovic, 60-40.

Moving northeast to Montreal…

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Benesova (Q) vs. Bartoli (17):  The eccentric Czech lefty’s upset of Montreal’s top seed resulted much more from Jankovic’s ineptitude than from her own brilliance, for the Serb never inflicted the sort of pressure on Benesova that normally causes her to crumble.  We anticipate no such profligacy from Bartoli, who is gathering momentum on the summer hard courts and reached the semifinals on the last occasion that the women played in Montreal.  Unlike Jankovic, she won’t allow Benesova time to set up for her loopy forehand and calmly line up angles.  Pick:  Bartoli, 75-25.

Azarenka (10) vs. Li (9):  The most intriguing WTA encounter of the day, this clash pits two brilliant backhands and two (in)famously streaky competitors.  A champion in Stanford and a first-round loser in Cincinnati (courtesy of Ivanovic), the Belarussian has lost both of her meetings with the Chinese star in three extremely tight sets, including a 2009 Tokyo loss during which she squandered multiple leads.  It’s nearly impossible to pick a winner among these two, especially considering their resounding early wins in Montreal; neither players possesses an overwhelming serve or an impressive net game, relying almost exclusively on scorching groundstrokes.  Since Azarenka strikes the ball slightly harder and moves slightly better, she has the physical edge.  Yet Li has the mental edge, as she does over so many of her weak-willed colleagues, so a long match with multiple momentum shifts would tilt in her direction once again.  It’ll be up to Azarenka to ensure that the momentum doesn’t shift.  Pick:  Azarenka, 55-45.

Clijsters (5) vs. Kanepi:  A point away from reaching the Wimbledon semifinals, the burly Estonian has resurrected what seemed to be a career en route to the dustbin of tennis history (to paraphrase Trotsky).  Barely escaping a shocking first-round demise at the hands of Bethanie Mattek-Sands, the Cincinnati champion may gain some momentum from her second lease on life, as have Querrey and Hantuchova in recent weeks.  While we don’t expect her to win the title in Montreal, we do expect her to survive the mighty but still erratic Kanepi.  Pick:  Clijsters, 75-25.

Szavay vs. Zvonareva (8):  Already winning two titles this summer, Szavay hopes to follow Kanepi’s example by surging back into relevance at significant events.  An impressive step in that direction was her three-set comeback win over Wickmayer, who has sped past her in the ranks of the WTA’s Generation Next.  Although we haven’t watched Szavay for over a year, we recall the potency of her serve and backhand, which fueled a US Open quarterfinal run in 2007.  Indifferent in San Diego and Cincinnati, the surprise Wimbledon finalist has seemed no more confident than after her equally surprising run to the 2009 Indian Wells title.  She might struggle against a cocky upstart with nothing to lose, for she faltered against Coco Vandeweghe two weeks ago.  On the other hand, her crisp, fluid style devoured the ball-bruising Shvedova in her opener.  Pick:  Zvonareva, 70-30.

Radwanska (7) vs. Kuznetsova (11):  A rematch of the San Diego final, this collision of an artful counterpuncher and a volatile shotmaker provides a rare contrast of styles in the increasingly homogenous WTA.  Under the extreme pressure of a final, Sveta let Radwanska off the hook late in the second set of a match that she had controlled before ultimately outlasting the Pole.  It’s unlikely that the Russian would let such a lead slip in the much less nerve-jangling circumstances of a third-round encounter, although her penchant for drama found expression in the six three-setters that she has played among her last eight matches.  Halting Pavlyuchenkova’s momentum in the first round, Kuznetsova has regained some of her poise when attempting to close out matches, the arena that most troubled her during her perplexing slide.  (Interesting fact:  the players are tied high in the US Open Series standings, so this result could have implications for bonus prize money in New York.)  Pick:  Kuznetsova, 60-40.

Zheng vs. Dementieva (4):  Growing streakier with age, the Russian defending champion delivered one of her worst performance this year in Cincinnati—by her own admission—but bounced back to dismiss the sporadically challenging Zakopalova.  A perennial threat to upset top seeds with her low, penetrating groundstrokes, the Chinese doubles specialist barely edged past French firecracker Rezai, who had served for the match at 6-5 in the second set.  Without a crackling serve to earn her easy holds, Zheng will need all of her trademark steeliness as she battles through each game and point.  Despite a recent leg injury that forced her to miss Wimbledon, Dementieva’s fitness and return game looked solid at Stanford, although her serve and competitive drive remain as questionable as ever.  Pick:  Dementieva, 60-40.

Schiavone (6) vs. Safina:  Recording her first pair of consecutive victories since the Australian Open, Safina extended her Montreal winning streak to seven matches following her 2008 title here.  The most noteworthy win since her back injury, her three-set triumph over Petrova represented just Dinaraa’s second win in seven meetings over her compatriot; reversing the pattern of her losses, she rallied from a late deficit to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.  In the wake of her memorable French Open triumph, Schiavone has earned the right to be complacent until the Fed Cup final in November.  Although her crafty combinations might disrupt the Russian’s rhythm, Safina wants (and needs) a strong performance far more desperately, probably inspiring her to play with greater urgency.  Pick:  Safina, 65-35.

Pennetta (15) vs. Wozniacki (2):  As reliable as anyone in the WTA until an ankle injury in Charleston, Wozniacki has failed to recapture her consistency on clay, on grass, and so far on hard courts, where her Copenhagen title was outweighed by a lackluster Cincinnati loss to Bartoli.   A few months ago, the Pole-Dane seemed far closer to fame than her friend Azarenka, but now it’s the Belarussian who has recaptured the edge in their race to the top.  Clashes with opponents such as the experienced but not overwhelming Pennetta are matches that Wozniacki must win in order to regain her momentum.  Against someone with few weapons to pound her off the court outright, her movement-based style and competitive fortitude should prevail on a medium-speed hard court.  Even on her worst surface and Pennetta’s best, she overcame the Italian at Roland Garros this year.  Pick:  Wozniacki, 70-30.

***

We return tomorrow for quarterfinal previews in both cities while beginning to organize our thoughts for a three-part US Open preview early next week!

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