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On a Saturday afternoon a year ago, Sharapova succumbed to the steely challenge of a precocious American upstart.  In the 2010 US Open, she faces another home hope even more anonymous than was Oudin, for Beatrice Capra never has appeared in a major before this fortnight.  Stunning Aravane Rezai in a tightly contested three-setter, she earned her position in the third round with a mental resilience modeled upon…Sharapova.  Yet the confident, poised Maria of 2010 barely resembles the tentative, self-doubting Maria of 2009, who became the principal architect of her own demise with a record-breaking cascade of double faults.  With her serve and fortitude restored, the 2006 champion will seek to impose her presence and her willpower upon this match from the outset, overwhelming the teenager with a weight and depth of shot that she has not yet experienced.  Hampering Maria’s efforts, however, will be the high winds expected in the afternoon, a sharp contrast from the controlled conditions in which she typically thrives.  In the second round against Benesova, Sharapova never quite settled into a service rhythm as gusts swirled around Arthur Ashe Stadium, imperiling her towering ball toss and causing her first-serve percentage to sag.  Yet the glamorous Russian adjusted effectively to the circumstances as the match evolved, despite her trademark stubbornness.  Unfamiliar with her opponent’s game, Maria may need several games to acquaint herself with Capra’s strengths and flaws.  During the early stages, therefore, the American might thrill her local supporters with echoes of her startling performance against Rezai.  Once Sharapova finds the timing on her serve and the rhythm on her groundstrokes, though, her challenger will struggle to survive the Russian’s murderous barrage of high-precision missiles.

Jankovic vs. Kanepi

Having won consecutive matches for the first time since Wimbledon, the Serb hopes to gradually discover her form as she plays herself into the tournament.  In previous majors such as the 2008 Australian Open, Jankovic similarly shook off her rust and steadily improved her consistency and movement as the fortnight progressed; unlike most elite players, she struggles from playing too little more than from playing too much.  Within a point of the Wimbledon semifinals this summer, Kanepi captured her maiden title soon afterwards and has resurrected her career from a slump that forced her to qualify for Roland Garros.  Even then, however, she rigorously tested Jankovic in a three-set rollercoaster that awakened memories of her triumph over the Serb last year.  Not a factor in the US Open Series, the Estonian should find her mighty first-strike potential heightened by the fast courts here.  On the other hand, that advantage might be balanced by the sprawling dimensions of Arthur Ashe Stadium, which will allow the fourth seed to track down a few more balls than she could in more confined surroundings.  Suffering mid-match lapses against both Halep and Lucic, Jankovic must maintain her concentration against an opponent both physically and mentally capable of upsetting her.

Blake vs. Djokovic

As addicted to drama as Jankovic, Djokovic relishes the atmosphere of the night session arguably more than any of his rivals.  But Blake’s ardent fans also will relish the night session and will enter determined to secure victory for the home hope with whatever means available.  Contemplating retirement earlier this season, the American appears to have found new life at his home major, where he generally displays his finest tennis.  How will the Serb respond to the adversarial environment?  Two years ago here against Roddick in another night session, he delivered one of the most brilliant performances of his Slam career, suffocating the American with pinpoint groundstrokes on both wings.  Nevertheless, he has faltered perceptibly on several occasions since then when the crowd clearly favored his opponent.  While Blake still possesses a scintillating backhand and return, Djokovic possesses far more weapons and infinitely greater consistency at this stage in his career, so this match theoretically should be routine if not one-sided.  When the Serb had opportunities to convincingly slam the door on the overmatched Petzschner, however, he meandered purposelessly into a tiebreak and nearly an extra set.  If Blake can unleash a few blazing forehands early in his return games, he might rush Djokovic out of his rhythm and implant seeds of doubt in the Serb’s mind.

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Kuznetsova vs. Kirilenko

Reinvigorated over the summer with a San Diego title and a Rogers Cup semifinal appearance, Kuznetsova lost only to Sharapova and Wozniacki during the US Open Series.  In order to prove her return to the elite circles where she belongs, however, the 2004 champion in New York must conquer a compatriot who toppled her twice this year.  Although both of those wins occurred on a clay vastly divergent from Arthur Ashe Stadium, their recent history might imbue Kirilenko with confidence and Kuznetsova with uncertainty.  Better known for her doubles exploits, “the other Maria” can’t match Sveta from the baseline but can maneuver her expertly around the court with an array of spins and touch shots rarely witnessed in singles.  Similar to her doubles partner Radwanska, Kirilenko won’t bludgeon a higher-ranked opponent off the court with blistering shot-making; instead, she will give erratic shotmakers every opportunity to fall on their own swords.  Repeatedly flirting with disaster even during her San Diego title run, Kuznetsova will need to exercise her self-discipline and patience, carefully constructing points rather than indulging in reckless gambits.

Soderling vs. de Bakker

Mirror, mirror on the wall, which Soderling answers the call?  Will it be the slovenly Swede who nearly let his first-round match slip away against a qualifier, or the impeccably serving Swede who throttled Taylor Dent for the second time in three majors?  On the fast courts of Flushing, his massive first-strike potential should shine as it did during the latter stages of his quarterfinal against Federer there last year.  Not designed for consistency, Soderling won’t need to hit as many balls in order to terminate rallies with his customary brutality.  Like other sluggers, though, he would prefer a bit more time to set his sluggish feet before pummeling his groundstrokes, on which he can err wildly when off balance.  Fortunately for the Swede, he faces a relatively inexperienced adversary with no more stylistic versatility than himself, for de Bakker centers his game around a thunderous serve, a percussive forehand, and short points.  While the Dutch star seems destined to reach the top 20 or better, he has yet to overcome an opponent of Soderling’s magnitude.  Consider this match an intriguing glimpse of the ATP’s future, a paradigm set in part by Soderling himself:  tall, baseline-bound, and with point-ending power on both wings.

Gasquet vs. Anderson / Monfils vs. Tipsarevic

Achieving a mildly unexpected upset in the second round, Gasquet reminded New York audiences of how devastating his shotmaking flair can be.  Such reminders have been few and far between lately, which made his stunning display of all-court tennis all the more impressive; the Frenchman’s victory over Davydenko constituted perhaps the most impressive win of his post-Pamela career.  Happily situated in a comfortable district of the draw, Gasquet can reap substantial rankings rewards if he can capitalize upon this opportunity to capture a winnable match from South African giant Kevin Anderson.  Notorious for mental frailty, the Frenchman must summon self-belief and willpower in order to weather the avalanche of aces and unreturnable serves while protecting his own delivery and heightening his focus at key moments.  Possibly awaiting him on Monday is Roddick’s nemesis Tipsarevic, who achieved his own upset less from feats of uncanny athleticism than from fearless tenacity.  Unruffled by either his opponent’s massive serve or his self-absorbed tantrum, the Serb could profit from the peaks and valleys that invariably creep into Monfils’ vastly entertaining game.  While these two matches don’t feature any legitimate title contenders, their participants should feel galvanized by the chance to exploit this friendly section and might compete with more urgency than the marquee stars at this stage in the tournament.

***

On the middle weekend of the Open, intrigue often swirls as strongly as the breezes.  As much as we enjoy drama and suspense, though, we hope that the first half of our pseudonym earns safe passage into the second week for the second consecutive major.

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