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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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