Initially staggered by her opponent’s scintillating start, Sharapova came within a point of a 4-0 deficit in her second-round clash with Razzano.  Swiping aside three straight break points, however, the Siberian refused to surrender the set but instead showcased her trademark determination late in the opening set, as well as an startlingly delicate lob that secured a key service break.  Less encouraging was Sharapova’s failure to serve out the first set on two different occasions; despite a sensational first-serve percentage, she enjoyed an uncharacteristically low success rate on her first-serve points and faced 16 break points during the match.  Facing the swiftly rising Julia Goerges, the Russian will seek to open the match more convincingly than in her first two rounds, although her shoulder always requires a few games to reach its full range of movement.  Dispatched by the three-time Slam champion in Strasbourg last year, her German opponent has honed an excellent first serve and imposing backhand that could allow to seize control of rallies.  Since neither player prospers on defense, both will seek to deliver a mighty first strike that thrusts her foe onto her heels for the remainder of the point.  In order to reach the second week, therefore, Sharapova must aim to decide points on her own terms for better or for worse, eschewing complacency for a relentless intensity. 

Elsewhere on Day 5:

Wozniacki vs. Cibulkova:  Facing the Slovak for the second straight tournament and the second straight major, the world #1 comfortably triumphed on a windy night in New York before falling to her in the first round of Sydney.  Despite disappointing weeks there and in Hong Kong, Wozniacki has advanced through the first two rounds as smoothly as any of the women’s contenders, justifying her belief that the season-opening events did not presage an early exit at the season’s first major.  Limited by her diminutive stature, Cibulkova has few weapons with which to threaten the Dane from the baseline but cannot rely upon consistency to outlast her.   The matchup thus tilts in Wozniacki’s favor unless she sinks into the inexplicably passive mentality that characterized her loss at the Australian Open last year and her Sydney loss to the 63-inch Slovak, whom she previously had dominated.  Nvertheless, one should note that Cibulkova reached the US Open quarterfinal with a surprising victory over Kuznetsova, and the guidance of Safina’s former coach Zeljk Krajan appears to have revived her once-flagging career.

Henin vs. Kuznetsova:  The WTA corollary to Federer-Roddick, this rivalry (or non-rivalry) began at Wimbledon eight years ago and has spanned clashes at every major, including two major finals.  Collecting 16 of their 18 encounters, Henin has won all of their Slam contests as well as their last eight hard-court meetings in a streak that extends back to 2004.  Kuznetsova frequently has positioned herself to win but faltered in tiebreaks or third sets.  When she visited the Sydney zoo three years ago, Sveta half-jested that she should bring a reptile onto court in order to fluster the steely Belgian.  Yet she may not need such assistance against an Henin who appeared especially fragile in a three-set opener against the hard-hitting Mirza, similar to Kuznetsova in her fondness for mighty forehands.  Testing Henin’s tentative movement, the two-time Slam champion perhaps can hit through her from the baseline more easily than she once could.  Dwindling in confidence herself since a brutal 2010 campaign, though, Sveta may crumble under the psychological burden of conquering a familiar nemesis who has defeated her more often than any active player.

Malisse vs. Federer:   Overshadowed by Henin and Clijsters, the Belgian waffle has battled injuries throughout his career that have undermined his evident talents.  Despite his lowly ranking, he troubled Federer during their last meeting at the 2006 Rogers Cup, when Malisse came within a tiebreak of stunning a player who came within a single victory of a calendar Slam this year.  While he lacks the consistency and the fitness to challenge the Swiss legend in a best-of-five format, an entertaining set or two might ensue if the world #2 enters in mortal guise as he did against Simon.  The X-man’s crisp, flat groundstrokes set up his fluid transition game, taking away time from his adversaries when he strikes his approaches with precision and crisp technique.  If the deified form of Federer swaggers onto the court, though, he should stride briskly into the second week.    

Wawrinka vs. Monfils:  Gamboling and gambling himself into deep trouble two rounds ago, Monfils tottered only slightly further from defeat than did Verdasco against Tipsarevic.  Likewise invigorated by the reprieve, the top-ranked Frenchman cruised through his meeting with the recently resurgent Swiss #2 in Valencia last fall on one of the ATP’s slowest hard courts.  Bolstered (and loudly exhorted) by eccentric coach Peter Lundgren, Wawrinka aims to counter Gael’s artistic flourishes with sturdy, methodical consistency.  Among the pleasures of watching Monfils is his unpredictability, which will contrast with the workmanlike air exuded by his opponent.  We expect a series of compelling rallies in which each competitor leisurely probes the other’s defenses, circling cautiously before delivering a conclusive blow.

Venus vs. Petkovic:  During one of the second round’s oddest encounters, the elder Williams appeared to derive additional focus and intensity after an excruciating injury in the first-set tiebreak.  Yet the question of her recovery looms over this appetizing encounter with a German upstart determined to crack the stranglehold of the WTA elite.  An ambitious shotmaker still searching for consistency, Petkovic reached the Brisbane final but struggled early in a second-round victory over a qualifier that should not have proved so complicated.  Unlike Zahlavova, she can assert control over rallies rather than depending upon errors from Venus, who therefore cannot rest secure in the knowledge that her opponent will not return fire.  Just as compelling as the question of the American’s injury is the uncertainty surrounding the German’s response should she seize the upper hand, which looks plausible if perhaps not probable.  Unable to deliver the coup de grace to Kuznetsova at Roland Garros last year, Petkovic could not rise to the occasion when victory hovered just a point away.  Has she learned from that experience?

Troicki vs. Djokovic:  Sparring no fewer than four times in 2010, the Serbs collide in a tournament where their compatriots have not fared well thus far.  Although Djokovic has emerged victorious from their six previous meetings, the often overlooked Troicki came within three service holds of stunning the world #3 in the first round of the US Open.  At an event that Nole eventually won in Dubai, moreover, he found himself outmaneuvered by the Sydney finalist for the first set and a half before his superior talents finally shone through.  Probably more confident than at any other time in his career, Troicki nearly upset Nadal in Tokyo last fall and claimed his first career title in Moscow.  While Djokovic clearly possesses superior talents in virtually every department of the game, his countryman always has possessed the offensive firepower to punish him for a lapse, such as his second-set stumble a round ago.  Despite an oddly arrhythmic technique, his serve frustrated Nadal throughout three tight sets in Tokyo.  Like Wawrinka, however, he may not summon the courage to topple the greatest athlete in his nation’s history on one of his sport’s greatest stages.

Nishikori vs. Verdasco:  Two players who have accumulated outstanding fitness will bring their strikingly divergent styles to the battlefield.  Less immediately apparent than Verdasco’s mighty offensive arsenal, Nishikori’s tools include his lithe movement, crisp technique, intelligent point construction, and mental resilience.  On the other hand, Verdasco displayed a surprising degree of physical and mental endurance as he ground down an obdurate Tipsarevic in one grueling rally after another.  Thrust to the brink of the precipice not once but three times, the 2009 semifinalist kept defeatism at bay by punctuating each crackling forehand with an emphatic fistpump.  Rewarded by the Serb’s unexpected collapse, he may play more freely in future rounds after that reprieve, but he must beware of relaxing too sharply  against the unprepossessing Nishikori.

Berdych vs. Gasquet:  When the Czech collides with the Frenchman, an underachiever of the past confronts an underachiever of the past, present, and likely future.  Inspiring confidence in the former was Berdych’s determined response to a one-set deficit against the dangerous Kohlschreiber, and he could profit from that experience if Gasquet unleashes one of his patented torrid streaks.  Likened by more than one commentator to a microwave, the Frenchman sometimes sizzles through passages in which he seemingly cannot miss even the most audacious shots.  Just as often, though, he can labor through arid stretches when he struggles to time even the most routine groundstrokes.  Central to Berdych’s mid-career breakthrough is his heightened, more durable focus, a trait that will aid him in exploiting Gasquet’s lulls.  The Czech’s monochromatic style generally proves more efficient albeit less scintillating than the Frenchman’s sophisticated elegance, as textured and as fragile as a tapestry.  As the sport increasingly revolves around unvarnished baseline power, the Soderlings, Del Potros, and Berdyches will profit at the expense of the graceful Gasquets.

***

Responding to two requests for the Day 5 preview, we welcome any other suggestions that you might have, either in the comments or on Twitter.

Advertisements