You are currently browsing the monthly archive for September 2010.

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Despite the demands posed by his least favorite surface, Nadal may never have a better opportunity to escape the only major that has eluded him.  Not required to navigate past mighty juggernauts Soderling, Del Potro, and Berdych, the world #1 likewise has evaded his projected semifinal with Murray, who defeated him at two hard-court majors.  While Federer certainly has accumulated a superior hard-court resume, Nadal won their only clash at a hard-court Slam last year in Australia.  Before that potential final crystallizes, however, Rafa must defuse his 2006 US Open nemesis and an opponent who has won four of their seven meetings on this surface.  Inflicting one of the most lopsided defeats of Nadal’s career in Chennai, Youzhny hasn’t scored a victory over the Spaniard at a significant tournament in several years, but his penetrating backhand remains a formidable weapon.  Always uncomfortable against foes with fierce two-handers, the top seed generally prospers against one-handed strokes by looping his high-bouncing groundstrokes near their shoulder level.  On the fast, relatively low-bouncing courts in New York, though, Nadal’s topspin forehands often remain within the strike zone of his opponents; this year, he has edged further towards a typical hard-court style by connecting with flatter strokes on both forehand and backhand.  Yet the most notable improvement in his game has been his serve, which faltered occasionally during his quarterfinal with Verdasco but still has been broken only once in the tournament.  Youzhny’s own serve has delivered impressively at key moments in his unexpected charge through the second quarter, frustrating Isner in tiebreaks and remaining steady deep in the fifth set against Wawrinka.  Although the Russian outlasted the Swiss #2 during that quarterfinal, fatigue may settle into his limbs prior to Saturday’s clash with Nadal, leaving him a crucial step or two slower and dulling his instincts.  On the other hand, the immense opportunity offered by a Slam semifinal may galvanize this underdog into a memorable performance.  In order to trouble the top seed, Youzhny should seek to keep him off balance by redirecting his groundstrokes, one of his trademark strengths, and by shortening the points with alert net approaches.  Especially expert in the forecourt, the twelfth seed would force Rafa to deliver precise passing shots.  The early stages will be crucial for the Russian’s confidence, so Nadal surely will be eager to assert his authority by establishing a swift lead with aggressive returning and emphatic serving.  If the Spaniard rolls through a swift opening set, he might cruise through the remainder of the match with minimal resistance.  If Youzhny musters determined opposition with crisp attacking play and crafty point construction, however, he could awaken a twinge of uncertainty in the top seed’s mind.   Engaging in cautious, elongated rallies with Wawrinka, the Russian found his superior consistency and patience rewarded by the Swiss.  In the semifinals, such a strategy would play directly into the hands of Nadal, who will outduel virtually any opponent in a war of attrition.  Lacking the explosive first-strike power to overwhelm the Spaniard from the baseline, though, Youzhny won’t win three sets from this physically punishing foe unless he enjoys an outstanding service day or Rafa struggles with the timing on his groundstrokes.

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Theoretically a more intriguing clash than the previous semifinal, the fourth US Open iteration of Federer-Djokovic might prove relatively formulaic.  Winning just one of the previous ten sets that they have played in New York, the Serb has competed sturdily for a set or two before gradually acknowledging the GOAT’s supremacy.  Five of the nine sets that Federer has won, in fact, were 7-5 or 7-6, suggesting that a few timely points played a disproportionate role in the outcomes of these matches.  Reflecting upon this recent history, the Swiss legend nearly crossed the border from confidence to complacency as he discussed the futility with which Djokovic continues to pound against the barrier constituted by himself.  Masterful in his quarterfinal victory over Soderling, Federer earned revenge for his Roland Garros debacle by returning to his familiar habits of deftly feathered volleys, unreturnable serves on break points, and expertly angled forehands from the center of the court.  Like Nadal, the second seed hasn’t dropped a set throughout his first five matches and, unlike Nadal, has been forced into only one tiebreak, although his pre-Soderling draw was rather toothless.   Solid on paper, Djokovic’s section also became rather toothless with indifferent efforts by potentially dangerous foes Fish and Monfils.  Three games from defeat in the opening round, the Serb has won fourteen consecutive sets while protecting his serve more effectively than he has for most of 2010.  Nevertheless, Djokovic occasionally dug early holes in his service games before his less focused, more erratic opponents considerately extricated him from these sometimes self-inflicted predicaments.  Determined to conclude a rollercoaster Slam campaign with an emphatic statement, the GOAT will not prove so charitable when offered opportunities.  But Federer also must guard against the lulls that have cost him entire games at crucial moments this year, including his encounter with the world #3 at the Rogers Cup.  Through the first set and a half, the five-time US Open champion thoroughly thrashed the Serb with a near-flawless display of all-court wizardry.  Settled comfortably into a set-and-break lead, Federer then relaxed his grip and suddenly found himself embroiled in an epic thriller as Djokovic swiftly capitalized upon the mental lapse.  In addition to seizing any such assistance with both hands, the Serb should attempt to stretch the GOAT wide to his forehand corner in order to expose his backhand, the department in which the third seed most clearly trumps the second seed.  Stunningly fleet of foot in his quarterfinal, Federer somehow managed to run around his weaker groundstroke regularly against Soderling, despite the Swede’s immense ball-striking power and the fast surface.  Essential to the Serb’s fate will be his success in punishing the Swiss legend’s second serve, a key to his momentous victory in the 2008 Australian Open semifinal.  If he can capture a significant percentage of Federer’s second-serve points, the five-time champion might respond by reducing the pace and precision on his first serve, thus diluting that pivotal weapon.  When the GOAT whirs through service games in one or two minutes, though, matching him hold for painstaking hold can become a mentally draining challenge indeed.  Unless Djokovic finds an unexpected reservoir of emotional fortitude, Federer’s seventh consecutive US Open final looms on Sunday.

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Will the second time be the charm for charming Wimbledon finalist Zvonareva?  Forestalling a rematch of last year’s final in New York, she displayed an impressively clear-headed performance in upsetting top-seeded Wozniacki amidst frustratingly windy conditions.  Unruffled by the largest stadium in tennis, this introverted Russian exuded similar composure in previous rounds against error-prone sluggers Petkovic and Kanepi.  Perhaps the most compelling lesson to draw from the Russian’s sudden breakthrough, therefore, is the centrality of the sport’s mental dimension; Zvonareva has arrived at consecutive major finals with precisely the same game that led to a series of ignominious defeats at previous Slams.  Although a significant underdog when she confronts the defending champion, she should benefit from the recent experience of playing for the Wimbledon title against Serena.  Even in that match, Vera performed better than have many other first-time Slam finalists (including some of her compatriots) and competed more impressively than the scoreline suggested.  Moreover, the blue-eyed Russian twice defeated Clijsters this summer after dropping their five previous meetings, so the momentum rests squarely with the seventh seed in their renewed rivalry.  Admittedly faced with a more intimidating draw, the Belgian has looked less impressive than Zvonareva throughout the fortnight, succumbing to passivity for extended periods against both Stosur and Venus.  When those matches threatened to lurch out of her grasp, however, Clijsters found her concentration and confidence just in time to unleash her finest tennis.  Clearly at her most sparkling on American hard courts, she possesses slightly more sting on her groundstrokes than Zvonareva and moves with greater explosiveness.  On the other hand, her sturdy but not overpowering serve will allow the Russian to sink her teeth into plenty of rallies and establish the rhythm that she relishes.  As dangerous on the return as on the serve, Vera and Kim might begin the majority of their exchanges in a relatively neutral mode while relying upon their groundstrokes to inflict the greatest damage.  Transitioning expertly from defense to offense, both competitors should remain as close to the baseline as possible rather than ceding territory with which their opponent could open up angles.  Consequently, the match probably will hinge not upon their relative strategic choices, which should be largely similar, but upon the relative levels of execution with which they pursue their strategies.  Rallying from a one-set deficit in each of her two meetings with Clijsters this summer, Zvonareva will not sink into demoralized lethargy if early adversity strikes.  In a more plausible scenario, early diffidence from the defending champion might boost the Wimbledon finalist into an early lead that she then would be forced to protect.  An excellent frontrunner against top-seeded Wozniacki, Vera might find her newfound poise tested more severely under such circumstances than if she were compelled to launch a comeback.  In any event, one wouldn’t be surprised to witness the first three-set women’s final at the US Open since 1995, for this duo is fully capable of composing a worthy coda to the narrative of this especially labyrinthine and unpredictable Slam season in the WTA.

***

As the final weekend of the year’s final major approaches, will Saturday be Super or Soporific?  Before it begins, be sure to settle into a comfortable chair…

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During a period when the US Open Series has endured widespread ridicule, these events can garb themselves in a few shreds of continued relevance.  Reprising the rain-bedeviled Rogers Cup final is one of the US Open semifinals, which features the two leading stories of this summer.  Despite the disparity in their ages, Wozniacki and Zvonareva have evolved into stylistically similar players with modest but generally reliable serves, outstanding backhands, fluid movement, an aversion to the forecourt, and a proclivity for high-percentage tennis.  Until recently, however, the world #2 distinctly trumped the Wimbledon finalist in the department of fortitude, exhibited most dramatically during a three-set victory at the year-end championships in Doha.  Battling excruciating leg cramps, Wozniacki somehow gritted her way past the flustered Zvonareva in a victory of the game’s mental dimension over its physical component.  While the Russian has transformed herself into a more formidable competitor, vestiges of former frailty resurfaced during a slovenly loss to the Pole-Dane in the Montreal final.  Slightly superior in ball-striking and slightly inferior in movement, Zvonareva might consider targeting the top seed’s forehand, which remains a less aggressive shot than her supporters would wish.  By contrast, the Russian can strike that stroke with greater authority and might be able to thrust her opponent behind the baseline by channeling cross-court rallies in that direction.  Across the net, Wozniacki should hope to hit deep groundstrokes down the center of the court and lull her opponent into a series of neutral rallies, which eventually could frustrate Zvonareva.  Mustering an improbable victory over Clijsters at Wimbledon, the Russian long has possessed the potential to reach a hard-court Slam final; she seized the second most important non-Slam on hard courts last year at Indian Wells.  If the wind plays a role, neither player should be overly disturbed by it.  Not reliant upon their serves or of statuesque physique, the first and seventh seeds have adapted with minimal discomfort to windy conditions before.  In her Wimbledon semifinal against Pironkova, Zvonareva evinced early traces of nerves despite confronting an overmatched opponent.  Able to rally after losing the first set that time, she can’t afford to allow Wozniacki a significant early lead, for the world #2’s stingy style renders comebacks exceptionally difficult.  Will it be consecutive US Open finals for the Pole-Dane, or consecutive Slam finals for the Russian?   It’s hard to argue with the 13-match winning streak of a player two victories away from the #1 ranking, but Zvonareva has carried herself like a legitimate contender throughout the fortnight and can be expected to muster sterner resistance than she did in Canada.

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A year ago in New York, Clijsters enjoyed the vociferous support of the crowd as her comeback climaxed implausibly with her second major title.  This year, the sentimental favorite may be her opponent, a 30-year-old legend seeking to summon the energy for one last statement before her game continues its irreversible decline.  After struggling with the elder Williams early in her career, the Belgian has convincingly reversed the momentum in their rivalry and won both of their meetings following her comeback.  While one should discount the Miami final in which Venus competed on not one but two wobbly knees, their three-set encounter in last year’s US Open does offer a potential preview of what might unfold late on Friday afternoon.  A streaky server in her twilight years, the American stumbled through an erratic match against Peer and squandered leads in both sets of her quarterfinal with Schiavone before profiting from the Italian’s untimely profligacy.  At the peak of her dominance, Venus could play entire matches against elite opponents without losing her serve, a trait that no longer characterizes her.  On the other hand, Clijsters has endured chronic serving woes even during her most emphatic wins here; in her quarterfinal with Stosur, moreover, she was broken in five consecutive service games.  Unlike Venus, though, her service interruptions have stemmed less from physical sources than mental causes, suggesting a lack of focus or a cautious diffidence odd to observe in a defending champion.  These two-time US Open titlists have demonstrated opposite trends in their matches, for the American has looked strong early in sets and fragile late, while the Belgian has looked fragile early and strong late.  If their patterns continue, Venus will find herself in the lead and then struggle to maintain it.  Yet spectators might well be subjected to a bizarre, arrhythmic series of events parallel to their clash in the fourth round a year ago, when these dignified ladies unceremoniously threw bagels at each other before settling down to a moderately competitive third set.  Comprising an unpredictable mixture of massive first-strike potential and ghastly miscues, the elder Williams presents a complex conundrum for Clijsters, who must decide whether to aggressively seize control of the rallies or cautiously lure her opponent into errors.  On a surface as swift as the courts in New York, we would recommend the former tactic.

***

While Federer and Nadal brace themselves for one last pair of obstacles before a Sunday collision, the 2009 women’s finalists hope to schedule another rendezvous with each other on Saturday night.  Will we witness an encore performance, or will their hopes vanish into the afternoon shadows?

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Scoring a triumph for intelligence and versatility over raw ball-striking, these European stylists ousted the towering American duo of Querrey and Isner en route to their quarterfinal collision. Although the two-handed backhand may comprise a sturdier, more reliable weapon in the modern game, it’s a pleasure to watch a pair of one-handers showcase their graceful strokes.  An imaginative all-court artisan, Youzhny reached the US Open semifinals in 2006 after defeating a youthful Nadal.  Despite his lack of a dominant serve, the Russian can create depth and pace on both groundstroke wings, which has benefited him this fortnight as much as his crisp footwork.  More comfortable at the net than Wawrinka, he should exploit this advantage by gliding forwards when an especially penetrating groundstroke thrusts his opponent off balance.  On the other hand, the Swiss #2 possesses greater first-strike power, a more intimidating serve, and superior fitness, factors that might play a role if the match extends deep into the New York afternoon.  During their victories over the American mastodons, both European players displayed a few tremors of nerves just as the match lay on the verge of sliding irrevocably into their grasp.  Leading by a set and 5-1 against Isner, Youzhny somehow found a way to lose five straight games and ultimately the second set, allowing his foe to regroup and temporarily claw his way into the match.  Much the same scenario unfolded for Wawrinka a round later, when he squandered set point after set point while serving for a two-set lead that would have permanently deflated Querrey.  Denied those opportunities, he unraveled perceptibly albeit briefly and thus extended his exertions that day much longer than necessary.  Buoying the Swiss, however, is his electrifying, comprehensive win over title contender Murray in a match that revealed far greater poise under pressure than he demonstrated Querrey .  Both players have lived most of their careers far from the limelight, reaching just a single Slam semifinal between them (Youzhny’s aforementioned achievement).  Will the momentum from Wawrinka’s improbable run take him to hitherto unexplored heights, or will Youzhny channel the magic that brought him within two wins of a major title four years ago?  Although neither the Swiss nor the Russian enters serious ambitions of capturing the 2010 US Open, their exploits in New York have restored them to relevance and constructed a foundation upon which they can build in 2011.

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Just seven Slams ago, Spain’s two foremost lefties engaged in one of the most thrilling five-set matches outside the context of the Federer-Nadal rivalry.  Ending anticlimactically in a double fault, that Melbourne marathon coupled the tenacity from Nadal that we have come to expect with an unexpectedly gritty effort from Verdasco, who rallied from a two-sets-to-one deficit to charge within six points of the Australian Open final.  Since then, however, Rafa has reasserted the balance of power in the non-rivalry with his compatriot by smothering him in three clay meetings.  Seizing only one set from the world #1 outside that memorable collision in Melbourne, Verdasco typically has slammed his way out of their matches with reckless, mindless abandon that sometimes suggested an undercurrent of fatalistic despair.  Shot for shot, no area of his game except the serve ever was superior to its counterpart in Nadal’s game, including the formidable forehand that misfired at key moments in their previous ten clashes.  Note the was in the previous sentence, for now even Rafa’s serve has ascended to a level unequalled by Fernando at his best; on the same night that the world #1 extended his streak of consecutive holds to 61, the second-best Spanish lefty mingled 11 double faults with his 90 unforced errors during a victory as unsightly as it was suspenseful.  Yet Soderling’s 0-12 record against Federer dissolved in stunning fashion at Roland Garros this year, so Verdasco’s 0-10 against Nadal could conclude just as magnificently.  Central to the difference between those situations, however, is the divergence between the personalities of the Swede and the Spaniard.  Slipping gleefully into the spoiler’s role, Soderling appeared to derive intense satisfaction specifically from dashing the title hopes of those above him in the tennis hierarchy.  By contrast, the gentle Verdasco seems content with his status midway down the pyramid and generally displays deference to his superiors.  A second straight quarterfinal in New York should satisfy his modest ambitions unless Nadal evinces any uncharacteristic early frailty.  With a coveted career Slam (and career Golden Slam) just three wins away, the five-time Roland Garros champion should bring his keenest focus to the challenge before him.

***

The top three women’s seeds all have marched into the semifinals; will the top three men’s seeds join them there?

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The 2010 version of Melanie Oudin, Cibulkova remains the only unseeded player in either US Open draw after an astonishing upset over 2004 champion Kuznetsova.  Despite her diminutive stature, the charming Slovak displayed impressive ball-striking authority in that match and often outhit the more powerful Kuznetsova from the baseline.  Relying upon her low center of gravity to absorb an opponent’s pace, Cibulkova now confronts the most promising member of her generation.  Yet perhaps Wozniacki already has graduated from “next” to “now” by scoring her first win over a former #1 in the previous round; three more victories will not only secure the Pole-Dane a maiden major but assure her the #1 ranking.  Even while suffering back issues two weeks ago in New Haven, Wozniacki eased past Cibulkova to extend a streak in which she has won seven consecutive sets from the Slovak.  The tournament’s surprise story has defeated the top seed only once and has won two or fewer games in four of the last six sets that they have played.  An indifferent server and modest returner, Cibulkova lacks sufficient shot-making audacity to challenge an opponent whose consistency can match hers.  Unless Wozniacki experiences a post-Sharapova hangover or experiences an untimely injury, one can’t imagine that anything other than a routine straight-sets win will unfold.  Whereas she played her more comfortable role of counterpuncher against Maria, though, she will need to assume the less familiar role of aggressor in order to progress efficiently here.  Since the world #2 shouldn’t be seriously threatened, we hope to see her take a few more risks in preparation for sterner challenges ahead.

Kanepi vs. Zvonareva:

When this season began, only the most brilliant fortunetellers could have predicted that these two players together would reach more Slam quarterfinals than Clijsters, Henin, and Sharapova combined.  After Wickmayer crammed a bagel down the Estonian’s throat in the fourth round, she displayed unexpected tenacity by edging through a tight second set before cruising through the decider.  Having squandered six match points against Kvitova in her Wimbledon quarterfinal, she will be eager to erase that disappointment in the final eight at the Open.  Across the net stands the All England Club finalist, who delivered a powerful statement of intent in a crushing rout of up-and-comer Andrea Petkovic on the same court that she departed in a tearful fury last year.  Blossoming just when her countrywomen are wilting, Zvonareva recently has found the balance between patience and aggression on these fast courts, which suit her balanced groundstrokes.  The Russian has coped expertly with the added expectations fostered by her Wimbledon exploits after desultory weeks in San Diego and Cincinnati.  While Kanepi possesses a much more potent serve and first-strike power, Zvonareva has honed crisper technique; moreover, she showcased an intelligent sense of court positioning and point construction during her earlier matches.  Formerly known for her negativity, she demonstrated confidence by pumping her fist to celebrate especially sparkling winners.  Perhaps the only significant cause for concern was her struggle to close out Petkovic despite a massive lead, which led her to drift into passivity during the last two games.  If the match stays close late in sets, we’ll be intrigued to observe whether she stays aggressive or retreats both physically and mentally.

Monfils vs. Djokovic:

Seeking a fourth consecutive US Open semifinal, the third seed historically has played his best Slam tennis in the city that most suits his ebullient personality.  During convincing victories over Blake and Fish, his game elevated several notches above his pedestrian performances in the first two rounds.  Yet the alignment between personality and venue also could describe the flamboyant Monfils, who has carved a career out of mind-boggling athleticism and mind-numbing gaffes.  More fabulous than feckless in New York so far, the Frenchman revealed a bit more sensibility and poise in a well-crafted win over his equally fabulous and feckless compatriot Gasquet.  Recognizing his foe’s mental frailties, Monfils played the scoreline adroitly and raised his focus for the most critical points, not a trait typically associated with this enigmatic competitor.  The slick surface notwithstanding, both players cover the court with exceptional ease, likely leading to more elongated rallies than one normally sees at the US Open.  Monfils and Djokovic also share a taste for unleashing massive forehands at opportune and maybe less opportune moments, so their crisp movement will be mingled with startling shot-making off their stronger sides.  Although the Serb doesn’t attempt outright winners as frequently off his backhand, his two-hander comprises more of a weapon than the Frenchman’s; he might consider forcing his opponent into his forehand corner in order to open up the backhand side.  Steadily enhancing his net skills, Djokovic should attempt to curtail the rallies with forays into the forecourt, but he must venture there only behind a compelling approach, for Monfils can uncork some improbable passing shots.  If the match becomes a battle of attrition with marathon baseline exchanges, the third seed’s ever-suspect fitness might waver under the afternoon sun.  Nevertheless, Djokovic should rely upon his greater experience in the latter rounds of majors to prevail over his less motivated challenger.

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Soderling vs. Federer:

Reprising his memorable quarterfinal with Federer from a year ago, Soderling hopes to recapitulate his Roland Garros upset of the GOAT, which snapped the latter’s record-breaking Slam semifinal streak.  On the other hand, the Swiss legend fancies the beginning of a new streak here with a bit of revenge served as a garnish. Once feasting on ball-bludgeoning baseliners with limited versatility, Federer has found himself the hunter rather than the hunted in recent meetings with Del Potro, Berdych, and Soderling.  With the addition of coach Paul Annacone, however, he has begun to answer their aggression with aggression of his own, attacking his backhand more vigorously and exploiting opportunities to approach the net more frequently.  Through his first four rounds, he hasn’t dropped a set and has been dragged into only one tiebreak.  Somewhat more tested during the first week, Soderling watched a two-set lead evaporate in his opener and required four sets to pulverize Spanish jackrabbit Montanes; on the other hand, his annihilations of Dent and De Bakker equaled anything that Federer has produced so far.  In last year’s quarterfinal, the Swede dug himself an immense early hole with unfocused, diffident play through the first set and a half.  By the time that his artillery found its range, the five-time champion had settled too far into his comfort zone to be greatly disturbed by his opponent’s late charge, although Soderling did battle his way within a point of a fifth set.  Should he deliver the same brand of tennis that he showcased in the third and fourth sets of the 2009 quarterfinal, the 2010 quarterfinal will become a classic to remember.  Facing the sport’s greatest player under the intense lights of Arthur Ashe, though, will he control his nerves and his inflammable temper to measure his groundstrokes with the necessary precision and control?  For that matter, will Federer experience any uncertainty as he faces a recent Slam nemesis?  The mental dimension should be as intriguing as the physical dimension in this collision, which says quite a bit considering the savage thunderbolts and stylish ripostes with which the sledgehammer Swede and the stylish Swiss dazzle their audiences.

***

After Day 10, just ten players will remain in the 2010 US Open..  Who will survive to live another day, and who will ponder wistfully what might have been?

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Invisible during the first week of this blog, the world #1 and top seed finally makes his “Bright Lights, Big City” debut on the eve of a night encounter with the only player who defeated him between April and July.  Vanquishing Rafa at Queens Club, Lopez narrowly evaded an early demise at the hands of a French qualifier in the second round but has shone under the lights here in the past.  Three years ago, the third-best Spanish lefty shocked the New York crowd by audaciously outplaying Federer for a set and a half before the GOAT finally punished him for his impudence.  Often relying upon retro serve-volley tactics, Lopez will seek to jolt Rafa out of his baseline rhythm and capitalize upon any shallow returns.  Mortal in the first two rounds against a pair of Russian juggernauts, Nadal appeared more comfortable on his least favorite surface in his victory over Simon.  He has played just one complete match against Lopez on this surface, prevailing in straight sets at their home Masters 1000 event in Madrid.  Addressing the primary flaw in his intimidating arsenal, the world #1 cracked some of the most percussive serves of his career and has reached the second week without being broken.  Moreover, the flat backhands that deserted him in his hard-court losses this summer has been finding its range more consistently.  A far steadier opponent than Lopez, Nadal will enjoy a significant advantage in any rallies longer than four or five shots, so he simply needs to survive the first few blows in their exchanges.  If Feliciano enjoys an exceptional serving day, he might eke out a set and pound his way into a tiebreak or two, but it’s hard to imagine him winning three sets from Rafa under ordinary conditions at a tournament of consequence.

Ferrer vs. Verdasco

Are we in New York or Paris?  Meeting for the third time in 2010, these two clay-loving Spaniards have faced each other ten times but only once away from their favored dirt.  Yet one should note that both Ferrer and Verdasco have reached quarterfinals at the US Open, David three years ago and Fernando last year.  Translating effectively to all surfaces, Ferrer’s splendid movement, fitness, and willpower even carried him past an ailing Nadal in New York en route to the 2007 semifinals.  On the other hand, he skirted baseline behemoth Gulbis during the first week in addition to hard-court nemesis Chardy.  Much more perilous was Verdasco’s route to this Tuesday appointment, which featured a tense opening collision with Fognini and a sturdy four-set victory over Nalbandian.  A few months removed from his hectic clay season, has Fernando finally rediscovered his energy and motivation?  Although he hasn’t fulfilled the promise that he displayed during the 2009 Australian Open, he can produce blinding winners from anywhere on the court and possesses much more first-strike potential than his compatriot.  Ferrer’s advantage rests in his superior consistency, court coverage, and mental tenacity, an arena in which Verdasco has struggled notoriously throughout his career.  On a fast court, his indifferent serve and lack of offensive weaponry may prove insurmountable shortcomings against a player who possesses both of them.  While Ferrer relishes his inside-out forehand, he may prefer to stroke that shot crosscourt in order to expose Verdasco’s backhand rather than targeting his compatriot’s might lefty forehand.  Since Fernando can’t target any particular weaknesses in David’s baseline game, he won’t want to engage in a war of attrition.  Instead, Verdasco should attempt to take command of the rallies as soon as possible and stretch Ferrer laterally with acutely angled groundstrokes.

Schiavone vs. Venus

Reprising a Melbourne clash with Venus, Schiavone hopes to fluster the elder Williams by varying the slices and spins on her artistic gambits.  In both Australia and Madrid, the Roland Garros champion won a set from the two-time US Open champion with intelligent placement and electrifying movement, only to fizzle in the next two sets as the vast gulf in their relative ball-striking power yawned.  In order to score her first career win over the American, Schiavone must remind herself to avoid slipping into the baseline slugging match as she unwisely did in Australia; perhaps reveling in her lead a little too much, she forgot what had established the lead in the first place.  Despite a tranquil first-week draw, Venus faltered on serve and committed more forehand errors than she can afford to donate against the stingy Italian.  Although her level rose a bit a round ago against Peer, erratic patches allowed the Israeli to stay within range longer than she typically does in her numerous meetings with the American.  Aware that Venus typically thrives on high-speed baseline exchanges, Schiavone must ensure that the third seed creates all of her own pace.  Dragging earlier opponents out of their comfort zones by exploiting the forecourt, she should think twice before luring the net-savvy American forwards.  A more profitable tactic might be to hit deep, looping balls down the center of the court, forcing Venus to construct low-percentage angles and testing her ever-suspect timing.  Unless Schiavone serves at a high percentage and hits consistently penetrating groundstrokes, Serena’s sister should forestall the evolution of extended rallies with ferocious serves and returns, not permitting her opponent the time to craft her clever combinations.

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Stosur vs. Clijsters

The clear co-favorite with Wozniacki, Clijsters has plowed through her first eight sets with the loss of just fourteen games.  Clearly, the pressure of defending the first major title of her comeback has not distracted the Belgian, who rides a 15-match winning streak in the US and an 18-match winning streak at the US Open (including 2003 and 2005 titles).  On the other hand, Stosur never had won consecutive matches in New York before this year, struggling to adapt her asymmetrical groundstrokes to the slick surface.  But the resurgent Aussie dazzled under the lights in her fourth-round victory over Dementieva, admittedly recovering from injury yet still one of her generation’s premier hard-court threats.  Saving multiple match points against the Russian, Stosur displayed greater confidence with her backhand and fearless aggression with her underrated forehand.  The best server in the WTA outside Serena, she will feel free to take risks on her returns in the knowledge that she can hold with ease on most occasions.  Or will she?  During a mid-match lull against Dementieva, Stosur dropped several service games in a row, and the rest of her game descended with her best shot.  Moreover, she hasn’t won a set in three previous meetings with Clijsters and has reached 5-5 in only one set.  Gifted with superb weapons on both groundstroke wings, the defending champion transitions swiftly from defense to offense.  Clijsters will hope to rely upon her counterpunching skills to withstand the Australian’s powerful forehand before breaking down her opponent’s backhand and movement.  Since both players are susceptible to absurdly flat patches of play even at their best, one wouldn’t be surprised to see a few peaks and valleys as the match progresses.

***

As the quarterfinals begin, keep your eyes on the ball to catch all of the intensifying action…

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Having lost just seven games in her last six sets at the US Open, Sharapova seeks the second Slam quarterfinal of her comeback.  A round after a double-bagel demolition of an American wildcard, however, Maria confronts an adversary who recorded a double bagel in the previous round and has dropped just three games in the entire tournament.  Riding a twelve-match winning streak, Wozniacki entered the Open after capturing consecutive titles in Montreal and New Haven, which placed her in position to acquire the top ranking here if she wins a maiden major.  Hitherto winless against former #1s, the Pole-Dane has feasted upon the rank and file of the WTA without quite cracking the Slam stranglehold of the veterans.  Committing herself to steady improvement, Wozniacki has endeavored to add offensive weapons to her counterpunching repertoire, including a flatter forehand.  This match presents the opportunity for her to demonstrate her ability to exchange blows with the mightiest sluggers in her sport, the final step in her evolution.  For the moment, though, the match lies in Sharapova’s hands; Maria knows that she won’t be outserved or outhit from the baseline.  Succinctly summing up the task before her, the 2006 champion remarked that she must be “aggressively patient” rather than pulling the trigger too early in rallies.  The balance between fearless ball-striking and careful point construction comprises a challenge as mental as it is physical, requiring Sharapova to rely upon her steely concentration.  In order to oust the top seed, Maria must connect with a high percentage of first serves as she did in her previous match while exploiting Wozniacki’s still-tepid second serve.  While the fast surface will enhance Sharapova’s massive first-strike potential, it also sometimes exposes her shortcomings in movement and footwork.  As these two vastly divergent styles collide, the match may be seized by who departs from her comfort zone more adroitly.  Will Caroline muster the courage to take additional risks, or will Maria muster the consistency to prevail in elongated rallies on key points?   Contrary to the sports cliché, defense rarely wins championships in women’s tennis, but last year’s finalist hopes to change that trend.  Sharapova, on the other hand, intends to preserve it.

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Fish vs. Djokovic

The toast of Cincinnati a few weeks ago, Fish nearly became ordinary toast when he fell behind the underwhelming Hajek two sets to one in his opener.  More suited to a best-of-three than a best-of-five format, the American nevertheless has relied upon his immensely improved fitness to win a pair of fifth sets in New York, despite falling short of the brilliance that he displayed during the preparatory events.  Mardy must raise his level immediately in order to conquer an opponent whom he has consistently threatened but never overcome, a three-time US Open semifinalist.  Dominant for most of his third-round victory over Blake, Djokovic showed no mental frailty when confronted with a largely hostile crowd and will be prepared for a similar atmosphere on Monday afternoon.  While Fish has acquired a reputation for serve-and-volley exploits, his late-career surge has been built upon enhanced lateral movement, which will enable him to survive elongated rallies better than in previous years.  Meeting the Serb twice at Indian Wells in the last three years, the American extended his higher-ranked foe to a third set on both occasions, only to fade in the decider.  In order to evade a similar fate, the home hope must start more impressively than did Blake against Djokovic, concentrating his energies upon protecting his serve.  Both players have endured pronounced peaks and valleys throughout their first few matches, perhaps an indicator of the Serb’s indifferent focus and the high-risk style to which the American still adheres.  In addition to multiple mini-momentum shifts, we anticipate some scintillating backhand-to-backhand battles; although Fish and Djokovic project just as much power from their forehands, their two-handers remain the more consistent weapons.

(Congratulate us on writing an entire lengthy paragraph about Fish without a single aquatic witticism.)

Petkovic vs. Zvonareva

In this spongy section of the draw, opportunity knocks for an ambitious German who edged Petrova in a third-set tiebreak and saved three match points a round later.  Likely to reach the top 20 in the future, Petkovic summoned her most compelling tennis at the most crucial moments, a pattern that should delight her fans.  Beyond her fierce serve and groundstroke combinations, she is gaining greater comfort in the forecourt and a sturdier composure under pressure.  Opposite this developing star stands the Wimbledon finalist, who can prove herself more than just another flavor of the month with a semifinal appearance here.  Not equipped to outslug the heaviest artillery in the WTA, Zvonareva’s crisp, balanced groundstrokes complement her elegant movement and leave opponents with few flaws to target.  Yet her infamous propensity for meltdowns has hampered the Russian on the grandest stages, including an excruciating, tear-soaked loss to Pennetta in her most recent evening appearance on Arthur Ashe.  If the match stays competitive, we’ll be intrigued to note whether she has banished her inner demons, as she claims, or whether they merely lie dormant.  Will the night session’s electric atmosphere influence either player, neither of whom is accustomed to regularly showcasing their talents in such an imposing venue?  While Petkovic should treat this match and this tournament as a valuable learning experience, her veteran foe will labor under the pressure of expectations.  Vera generally flourishes on the more informal atmosphere of the outer courts, but now it’s time for her to stand and deliver.

Gasquet vs. Monfils

Amidst the mighty servers who always prosper at the Open, two flamboyant shotmakers will drench New York with Gallic flair.  Soaring through three rounds without dropping a set, Gasquet vanquished the highly divergent playing styles of Davydenko and Kevin Anderson with expert returning, even breaking the towering South African four times.  The former prodigy still times his groundstrokes with uncanny precision and breathtaking imagination, while his opponent slides, dives, and leaps around the courts with balletic grace.  Usually a stronger server than Gasquet, Monfils will expect to win more free points but usually will play much further behind the baseline once the rally begins.  Content to remain on defense, Gael typically will allow Richard to unleash his groundstrokes and rely upon spectacular stabs and retrievals to frustrate his compatriot.  Don’t be surprised to see Monfils attempt Federer’s between-the-legs shot at a key moment, for he famously prefers the journey to the destination.  On the other hand, he found sufficient mental reserves to erode Tipsarevic a round after the Serb had toppled Roddick.  While neither of these Frenchmen represents a serious title contender, the jumping forehand of Monfils and the down-the-line backhand of Gasquet constitute two of the most reality-defying groundstrokes in the sport.  In their only Slam meeting at the 2007 Australian Open, Richard prevailed in four erratic but entertaining sets.  If he can take time away from his countryman by charging into the forecourt, he could repeat the accomplishment here.  But the swaggering insouciance of Monfils generally reaps more impressive results than the fragile hopefulness manifested by Gasquet.

***

As blondes battle, Serbs hook fish, and Gael winds blow, we wonder what Day 8 will serve…

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Seeking her first career quarterfinal at the US Open, Ivanovic confronts the US Open’s defending champion and one of the two or three favorites to seize this year’s title.  Despite a hip injury incurred at the Rogers Cup, Clijsters largely has returned during her first three rounds to the form that carried her to the Cincinnati title.  Nevertheless, Ana has inspired her legions of ardent fans with confidence after an impressive first week that included two bagels, thirteen total games lost, and satisfying revenge against 2008 nemesis Zheng.  At the core of her revival has been her reinvigorated serve, which delivered for her at crucial moments in a tight first set with third-round opponent Razzano.  Still a less potent weapon than her forehand, Ivanovic’s two-handed backhand also has crackled through the court with more force than usual during the past week.  Entering this encounter as a significant underdog, the Serb may prefer the quiet morning atmosphere of the match’s morning slot to the intense environment of a night session.  In order to conquer the two-time US Open champion, she must maintain a high first-serve percentage and brace herself for hitting a ball or two more than she normally would expect.  While we might have advised her to throw discretion to the winds earlier this summer, her fitness clearly has improved in recent months and will allow her to stay in longer exchanges, awaiting an ideal opportunity.  That said, Ivanovic’s superior first-strike potential represents her principal advantage, and she should take risks on both her serve and her second-serve return; throughout this comeback, Clijsters has faltered on her serve more often than in her “first career.”  Like her compatriot Henin, Kim can be easily disheartened when her delivery deserts her, or when opponents fearlessly punish it.  Despite the Belgian’s generally authoritative display in the first week, she has fallen prey to early lapses in her last two victories, so Ana must be alert to exploit early opportunities.  On the fast courts of New York, though, Clijsters’ symmetrical groundstroke game and seamless lateral movement will be favored to overcome the Serb’s less balanced style.  Unless Ana can serve with precision and variety, venture frequently into the forecourt, and unleash her forehand without surrendering too much court positioning, she will find the task before her imposing indeed.

Youzhny vs. Isner

A year ago on Arthur Ashe Stadium, Isner scored a stirring five-set victory over Roddick in the third round, which catapulted him into the awareness of champion-starved American fans.  During 2010, he has vied with occasional doubles partner Querrey for the title of this nation’s next hope, but strained ankle ligaments may forestall a deep run here.  ­­Extended to four sets against Federer’s compatriot Marco Chiudinelli, Isner struggled somewhat with his movement despite continuing to deliver his now-legendary serves.  Awaiting him under the lights is a versatile, stylish opponent who frustrated him during the Rogers Cup last year.  Fluid and crafty from anywhere on the court, Youzhny will seek to stretch Isner along the baseline with artfully angled groundstrokes.  Yet the immense disparity between their serves may create too much pressure for the easily pressurized Russian, once infamous for cracking his cranium with his own racket.  Isner likely will unleash some massive swings on his return, so Youzhny will want to maximize his first-serve percentage rather than exposing his second delivery.  Among other effective ploys would be his biting backhand slice, always useful against the ATP’s giants, and hitting behind the American to test his ligaments by forcing him to reverse direction.  If Isner can serve his way into tiebreaks, though, the vociferous New York crowd and his superior competitive mentality should (literally) serve him well.

Stosur vs. Dementieva

Veterans who have recently struggled with significant injuries, the Australian and the Russian suffered similarly bitter disappointments at Roland Garros this summer.  While Dementieva missed Wimbledon with a sore leg, Stosur battled a mysterious shoulder injury during the US Open Series; both of these injuries afflicted each woman’s respective strengths, movement and serve.  Historically more successful at the US Open, the Russian appears further along the road to recovery than the Australian after a semifinal appearance in New Haven and three sturdy victories here.  A tiebreak from defeat in her opener, Stosur has reached the second week here for the first time and successfully negotiated the sporadically formidable Errani.  Offering a dramatic contrast in styles, the Russian relies upon consistency, fitness, and movement to wear down opponents with a war of attrition, whereas the Australian relies heavily upon her serve and forehand to curtail rallies.  (Her brisk, businesslike personality likewise diverges from Elena’s fatalistic melancholy.)  In their four hard-court meetings, Dementieva has dropped just a single set, but two of those wins occurred well before Stosur’s unexpected renaissance.  Similar to their three-set Rogers Cup duel last year, a competitive encounter should develop with intelligently constructed rallies and crisply struck forehands.   Stosur should find her way to the forecourt as often as possible, and Dementieva should expose her opponent’s backhand with her much more penetrating two-hander.

Schiavone vs. Pavyluchenkova

After capturing the 2010 Roland Garros title, Schiavone effectively took a well-earned summer sabbatical that many observers (ourselves included) suspected might continue for the rest of her career.  Instead, the charismatic Italian sprang into the second week of the Open for the second straight year, dazzling New Yorkers with an expertly executed rendition of Federer’s between-the-legs stab.  Lean and lithe, Schiavone competes better than most of her younger colleagues but will find herself sternly tested by the former junior #1’s groundstroke arsenal.  A semifinalist in Cincinnati, Pavlyuchenkova has won sets from Sharapova and Kuznetsova over the past few weeks and thoroughly mauled the dangerous Dulko in the third round.  Despite her recent accomplishments, however, double faults chronically surface in her game at inopportune moments, a flaw that the Russian must address before fulfilling her potential.  No stranger to double faults herself, Schiavone succumbed to Pavlyuchenkova in Miami this year on a slower hard court and theoretically would be at an even greater disadvantage on the fast courts of the Open.  (Venus surely will be cheering silently for the Italian, against whom she is 7-0, rather than the Russian, who defeated her twice last fall.)

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Querrey vs. Almagro

The other American tower of power, Querrey has won more titles this year than anyone in the ATP except Nadal but continues to await a breakthrough at the Slams, where he has yet to reach a quarterfinal.  After a second-week run at Wimbledon, he seeks to consolidate that momentum with a noteworthy result in his home major.  Arguably more dangerous on hard courts than other surfaces, Almagro possesses one of the most electric one-handed backhands in the sport, albeit not one of the most consistent.  Sometimes more oriented around style than substance, the Spaniard can showcase sensational shot-making in equal measure with perplexing errors; this erratic tendency thus far has prevented him from capitalizing upon his impressive talents.  Far from flamboyant, the understated Querrey often attracts criticism for his lackadaisical attitude, yet his straightforward style has allowed him to outlast many flashier players.  In the fox-hedgehog analogy, Almagro is the fox who does many small things well, while Querrey is the hedgehog who does one or two big things well.  Fortunately for viewers, the fickle gods of tennis oscillate in their favors between both varieties of players.

Nalbandian vs. Verdasco

After missing all three of the year’s previous majors, the Grouchy Gaucho nearly exited New York in his opener, when he trailed the anonymous Rik de Voest by a break in the fifth set.  Having escaped that predicament, Nalbandian stifled Serra in the second round with a groundstroke barrage that recalled his enlivening performances during the US Open Series.  Against the Washington champion stands another survivor of a five-set opener, a Spaniard as dangerous on hard courts as on clay and armed with one of the ATP’s fiercest forehands.  Although commentators long have criticized Nalbandian for his lack of fitness in the best-of-five format, Verdasco may not possess a significant edge in this area after his draining first-half schedule.  Whereas Nadal’s compatriot enjoys the superior serve, the Argentine possesses a far superior backhand and more symmetrical groundstrokes that should exploit the slick surface.  Curiously, Verdasco’s left-handedness sets up cross-court rallies between his forehand and Nalbandian’s two-hander, creating a strength-to-strength, weakness-to-weakness scenario.  In contrast to the sixth seed’s vertically oriented groundstrokes, the 31st seed favors audacious angle construction that lure opponents far from their comfort zone.  If Nalbandian can blunt Verdasco’s serve and elongate the rallies, he might well record a minor upset here.

***

As the year’s final major enters its second week with accelerating drama, we hope to witness a surprise happy ending in the next episode of Ana’s Adventures.  Ajde!

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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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In 56 sparkling minutes on Wednesday morning, Ivanovic not only avenged her previous losses to Zheng but demonstrated heightened confidence in all areas of her game.  Most notable was her belief in her backhand, a shot that had betrayed her during much of her slump and that had diminished into a benign slice when nerves overtook her.  Rather than striking tentative midcourt balls on her weaker wing, the Serb stepped into several two-handers with conviction and targeted the corners of the court.  While her fans will have been grateful for Bartoli’s premature demise, the other Frenchwoman whom Ana confronts in the third round has flustered her more than one might imagine.  Just two weeks before Ivanovic reached the 2008 Australian Open final, in fact, Razzano extended her into a third set at the Sydney tournament.  Granted a wildcard after a controversial injury hiatus, the Serb’s opponent shares Bartoli’s quirky service motion and arrhythmic groundstroke style; when we last saw her two years ago, her unimposing frame generated deceptive power, enhanced by above-average racket control.  While Ana certainly should feel heartened and enthusiastic about her progress, therefore, she can’t afford to relax against an experienced player who has defeated her in the past and conquered elite competitors such as Venus Williams.  A win for Ana would match the best performance of her career in New York and represent her first appearance in the second-week of a major since Wimbledon 2009, an uplifting conclusion to her Slam season and a foundation upon which to build her 2011 campaign.

Kvitova vs. Clijsters

Before Wimbledon this year, the flamboyant Czech lefty had accumulated a reputation as yet another outstanding shotmaker with vacant real estate above her neck.  Combining wins over Zheng, Azarenka, and Wozniacki with a surprisingly competitive semifinal against Serena, her fortnight at the All England Club hinted that Kvitova might capitalize upon her athletic potential after all.  Likewise encouraging was her victory over then-#1 and top seed in New York last year, which culminated in a nerve-jangling third-set tiebreak.  Although Kvitova has vanished from the radar since that stirring Wimbledon breakthrough, she might relish the opportunity of playing in the world’s largest tennis arena.  Quietly dismissing a pair of third-rate foes, meanwhile, Clijsters has displayed few traces of the hip injury that contributed to her premature exit from the Rogers Cup.  The turbulence projected to arrive in New York tomorrow should aid the defending champion against an adversary with less margin on her shots and less emotional tolerance for matters outside her control, such as the vagaries of weather.  Early in Clijsters’ second-round victory, however, she struggled with the timing on her serve and groundstrokes, so the Czech may glimpse some early opportunities.  If Kvitova can capitalize upon them, this match could become quite intriguing; if the Belgian finds the time to settle into her groove, her challenger could crumble.

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Hantuchova vs. Dementieva

Despite a heavily taped thigh, the Slovak relied on her improved fitness to outlast Vania King in the second round after an impressively routine victory over Safina in her opener.  The stylish Hantuchova relies more on placement and point construction than raw power, creating a slight variation from the WTA’s standard currency.  Steadily accumulating confidence and momentum after leg injuries interrupted her season, Dementieva has assembled a virtually bulletproof baseline game that has more than compensated for her limp serve…except at majors.  While one doesn’t expect the Russian to snap that career-long drought here, a second-week charge could provide consolation for her Roland Garros disappointment and propel her back into the conversation.  Having lost to Oudin in the second round here last year, Elena also could climb back towards the top 10 with an extended run in New York.  Much superior to Daniela in lateral movement, she can falter when brought out of her groundstroke comfort zone into the forecourt.  In addition to ambitious angles, therefore, Hantuchova should attempt to break the Russian’s metronomic regularity by integrating the variety and texture that she has accumulated from her doubles experience.

Peer vs. Pennetta

Early in 2010, both the tenacious Israeli and the inflammable Italian had receded to the periphery of the sport’s contenders, causing commentators to question whether they could return to their former level.  After a storybook semifinal run in Dubai, Peer consolidated that momentum with victories over Kuznetsova, Radwanska, Li Na, Bartoli, and Pennetta herself over the next few months.  Recently, however, her surge has stalled a bit as injuries have hobbled her.  Overshadowed (like everyone else) by her compatriot Schiavone during the clay season, Pennetta regrouped with aplomb on the summer hard courts, where she recorded triumphs over Zvonareva and Stosur while becoming the only player to win a set from Wozniacki at Montreal.  A quarterfinalist at last year’s US Open, the Italian enjoys a more potent serve than the Israeli but a less gritty mentality.  Largely committed to remaining at the baseline except in extremely advantageous circumstances, the Israeli and the Italian possess balanced groundstrokes and fluid movement without the overwhelming power of the WTA’s elite.  Despite the slick courts at the US Open, some scintillating rallies should unfold in which both players gradually maneuver around each other like boxers waiting for the ideal moment to strike.

Simon vs. Kohlschreiber

As you might have suspected from our preview of Davydenko-Gasquet, we especially enjoy watching excellent backhands of both the one-handed and two-handed varieties.  Another contrast of this sort awaits in this trans-Rhine contest between a mercurial shotmaker and a sturdy counterpuncher that plays against both national stereotypes.  Although both players unleash their most dazzling shots from what analysts often consider “the weaker wing,” Simon relies upon the crisp, compact two-hander favored by Davydenko, while Kohlschreiber parallels Gasquet with his traditional one-handed flick.  After the French one-hander trumped the Russian two-hander on Day 4, will the trend continue on Day 5? Unprepossessing in physique, neither the Frenchman nor the German buttress their games upon overwhelming serves, which offers  a refreshing change from the bomb-a-thons that so often develop at the year’s final major.  Less reliable than their backhands are their forehands, flatter shots that can penetrate the court but that can desert both players for extended stretches.  This match lies largely in Kohlschreiber’s hands, for Simon will be content to travel laterally behind the baseline and force his opponent to hit as many shots as possible in the hope that his high-risk style will suffer an untimely lull.  Outside an injury that forced him to withdraw from Cincinnati, however, the German has been the superior player over the past several weeks and will be eager to set up another meeting with Nadal.

***

Also of note on Friday is Stosur’s collision with Errani, who held multiple match points against the Aussie in New Haven.  While American fans will look forward to discovering whether Ryan Harrison can continue his unexpected success this week against New Haven champion Stakhovsky, Nadal may need to shed his first-round rust in order to dispatch New Haven finalist Istomin without excessive ado.  Let’s hope that Episode III of Ana’s Adventures proves equally uneventful!

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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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