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Simultaneously savage and stylish, Sharapova prepares to debut her night outfit for a second-round collision with Czech lefty Iveta Benesova.  In her last two US Open appearances, the Russian delivered a pair of sensational performances under the lights only to fade in the day session a round later.  Already divergent from those inauspicious precedents, this trip to New York began ominously for Maria with a one-set deficit against Jarmila Groth.  Despite an indifferent first-serve percentage, however, Sharapova relied upon an imposing second serve to suffocate her dangerous Australian adversary.  She overcame Benesova en route to the Tokyo title last fall and possesses a substantial mental edge over the fragile lefty.  Nevertheless, the Czech shone under the Montreal lights when she upset top-seeded Jankovic at the Rogers Cup, where her forehands created audacious and unexpected angles.  A round after that breakthrough, of course, Benesova mustered just a solitary game against Bartoli in a result that illustrated her persistent inconsistency.  Although Maria might require a few games to adjust to the lefty serve-forehand combinations, her return and backhand comprise far more potent weapons than those of her opponent.  On an especially fast surface such as Arthur Ashe Stadium, the Russian’s balanced groundstrokes should reap rewards, while Benesova may struggle to find enough time to set up her loopy forehand.  Perhaps the most compelling statistic, however, is Sharapova’s immaculate night session record at majors.  Can Benesova accomplish what nobody has before her?  In the world’s largest tennis arena, she’s more likely to retreat from than rise to the occasion.

As always, we continue to preview more of Day 4’s most scintillating action…

Lisicki vs. Zvonareva:

Thoroughly thrashing home hope Coco Vandeweghe in her opener, Lisicki literally served notice of her much-awaited return to the WTA following a nagging ankle injury.  Across the net stands a woman familiar with such experiences, the Wimbledon finalist and veteran of ankle surgery last fall.  Generally more comfortable as a counterpuncher, Zvonareva proved that her game could prosper on a fast surface with her stunning fortnight at the All England Club, yet Lisicki’s serve will exert steady pressure upon the Russian’s return.  Moreover, the burden of consistently holding serve to keep pace with the German will challenge Zvonareva’s newfound, somewhat untested poise.  In San Diego, she eventually crumbled against Vandeweghe ‘s superior weight of shot, and the surface here will amplify the ball-bludgeoning might of such aggressors more than the medium-speed court at the earlier event.  If Lisicki can connect with a substantial percentage of her first serves, she might threaten to produce the most notable upset on the women’s side so far.  On the other hand, Zvonareva will seek to stretch the German laterally and expose her indifferent footwork and movement.  She might also attempt to elongate the rallies in order to extract unforced errors from Lisicki, who strikes the ball with a flat swing and thus will bury groundstrokes in the net more often than the Russian.

Jankovic vs. Lucic:

Perhaps a bit fortunate to escape the burgeoning Simona Halep in the first round, Jankovic attempts to thwart the comeback saga of Mirjana Lucic.  Extending a lengthy succession of recent un-retirements, the Croat dominated fellow comeback artist Molik in her opener and should relish the swift courts in New York.  A former Wimbledon semifinalist, Lucic possesses the shotmaking skill to fluster the Serb, who has been easily rattled in recent weeks and seems to have lost her customary feel for the ball.  In her US Open Series appearances, the world #4 looked sluggish, uncertain, and weary, perhaps the consequence of yet another WTA ankle injury.  Nevertheless, Jankovic’s court coverage should force the Croat to hit a few more shots than she can produce at this stage in her return.  Although Lucic once won a set from Graf, she hasn’t defeated an adversary approaching the Serb’s caliber during her “second career” and should consider this match an experience from which she can learn for the months ahead.

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Davydenko vs. Gasquet:

One of the flashiest one-handed backhands in the ATP duels with one of the crispest two-handers, inviting spectators to compare the relative merits of these competing shots.  Erratic since his return from a sprained wrist, Davydenko has barely won consecutive matches since April and has suffered several losses to players outside the top 50.  Considering the exceptional timing upon which his game relies, the cascades of unforced errors from his racket surprised few observers during the US Open Series.  Also reliant upon precise timing, Gasquet shares the Russian’s knack for alternating between head-turning winners and head-scratching gaffes.  Since his controversy-shrouded hiatus, the Frenchman has sparkled for occasional sets and reached a pair of finals in 2010.  Outside his victory over Verdasco in the second of those finals, however, he has fallen well short of testing the ATP elite—as has Davydenko, outside a brief spell from late 2009 to early 2010.  Neither the Russian nor the Frenchman enjoys a stellar serve, so some captivating rallies should unfold.  More comfortable at the net than Davydenko, Gasquet should attempt to finish points in the forecourt rather than allowing his opponent’s superior foot speed, footwork, and fitness to mire him in a war of attrition.

Soderling vs. Dent:

A few months ago at Roland Garros, Soderling won the shortest men’s match of the tournament over the clay-averse Taylor Dent.  Can the American exact revenge at his home major?  The task may not prove so unrealistic as one might imagine, for the Swede squandered a two-set lead against an Austrian qualifier in his first match, while Dent overcame Federer’s near-nemesis Alejandro Falla in a routine serving clinic.  Reunited with coach Magnus Norman, Soderling hopes to shed the negative body language and lackluster play that characterized most of his post-Wimbledon tournaments, beginning with a disappointing loss to Almagro at the final of his home event.  Entering the match with nothing to lose, the American will enjoy substantial support from the Louis Armstrong Stadium crowd.  Soderling often loses composure when audiences emphatically exhort his foe, such as a loss to Baghdatis in an Australian Open that he had controlled at the outset.  If Dent can hold serve and stay close early, a window into the ever-inflammable Swede’s psyche might open.

***

While Ana rests her ankle, we eagerly anticipate the return of Maria Mania tomorrow night!

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