Well worth the wait caused by an odd bit of court maintenance, the third-round collision between Sharapova and Julia Goerges featured breathlessly paced rallies punctuated by chillingly bold shot-making.  After the German matched her winner for winner through the first two sets, the Russian’s experience shone through early in the final set as a fatal lull doomed the challenger’s chances.  Curbing one last charge by Goerges, Sharapova unleashed a match-ending ace to conclude her most impressive and complete performance in Melbourne so far.  When she faces a second straight German on Sunday, however, she should aim to elevate her first-serve percentage and find greater depth on her groundstrokes in the early stages.  Whereas Goerges wreaked more damage with her backhand, Petkovic relies upon her forehand to control rallies in addition to a serve as imposing as her compatriot’s delivery.  The calm evening conditions on Rod Laver Arena should benefit Sharapova’s precision-centered game while allowing her to control her towering ball toss more effectively.  Since neither player has developed excellent footwork, the slightly slower court at night will provide each of them with greater time to prepare their baseline lasers—and also offer the opponent more time to retrieve them.  Affectionately nicknamed “Petkorazzi,” the charismatic German should relish the dramatic atmosphere of the evening session.  Yet Sharapova has dazzled under the lights in Melbourne and elsewhere, surely infusing her with confidence as she seeks her first Slam quarterfinal since Roland Garros 2009.

Li vs. Azarenka:  Perhaps the highest-quality encounter of the day, this duel opposes two of the WTA’s finest backhands and grittiest competitors.  Undefeated this season, Li conquered the emerging Kuznetsova in Sydney before rallying from a vast deficit against Clijsters in the final.  The Chinese superstar now can envision a second straight semifinal at the Australian Open after extending her scintillating form through a routine first week.  But the competition now rises sharply with a ball-bruising Belarussian who has taken at least one set from Li in all three of their meetings.  Armed with a slightly more imposing serve than Azarenka, the Sydney champion should find more chances to seize control of rallies from the outset while attacking her opponent’s benign second ball.   An often smarter albeit less imaginative shotmaker, the eighth seed can rely upon her explosive movement to transition from defense to offense with penetrating groundstrokes on both wings.  Both more comfortable at the baseline than in the forecourt, Li and Azarenka excel at redirecting the ball with early contact.  We expect repeated service breaks, multiple momentum shifts, and a match won by the player who displays greater composure late in sets.  May the better backhand prevail.

Roddick vs. Wawrinka:  Unfortunate to find himself in the same quarter with Federer, the American perhaps can extract hope from Kuznetsova’s improbable victory over Henin if he should collide with his tormentor for the 23rd time.  Before he reaches that stage, however, Roddick must overcome the Swiss legend’s understudy and one of the four ATP players to remain undefeated this season.  Ousting Monfils with minimal ado, Wawrinka crushed Berdych in Chennai two weeks ago amid a surge in self-belief that began at the US Open.  One can discard all of the Swiss #2’s previous meetings with Roddick, two of which ended with the latter’s retirement and the third of which came on a slick indoor surface in Davis Cup.  Uneasy early in his third-round encounter with the loose-limbed Robin Haase, the 2003 US Open champion wandered within a tiebreak of a two-set deficit and owed his escape in large part to the Dutchman’s profligacy.  Unlikely to receive such assistance from this fit, focused foe, Roddick must seek to open the match more emphatically if he wishes to avoid a grinding war of attrition.  Unless the American struggles with his first-serve percentage, however, his consistency should enable him to outlast an opponent who lacks the electric forehand to regularly hit through him from the baseline.

Kuznetsova vs. Schiavone:  Sharing the last two Roland Garros titles, the Russian and the Italian have met more times than the latter would prefer.  Although she won two of their last three meetings, Schiavone has dropped all six of their hard courts while winning just a solitary set.  Meanwhile, Kuznetsova raised many eyebrows including her own with an excruciatingly tense victory over Henin.  Far from masterful when victory drew near, the two-time Slam champion might gain even more confidence from this dual victory over the Belgian and her nerves than if she had dominated her familiar nemesis from the first ball to the last.  Flakier than a Dover sole, though, Kuznetsova could suffer a hangover from her breakthrough rather than exploiting the impetus to comfortably dispatch an opponent who struggled in the first week.  Floundering past a trio of unheralded opponents, Schiavone required three labyrinthine sets to win both of her first two matches and should consider herself fortunate to have escaped a final set in the third round.  From recent form alone, the 2009 Roland Garros champion thus holds a significant edge over the 2010 Roland Garros champion, but one should remember that Kuznetsova’s mental frailty can resurface at the most inopportune moments.  And the artful Italian has more than sufficient cunning to unlock it if she can survive the Russian’s first few strikes and craft an elongated rally.

Berdych vs. Verdasco:  Despite the starkly divergent personalities in this top-10 encounter, the Czech and the Spaniard showcase convergent styles that mirror their burly physiques.  Seeking to play as little defense as possible, they entrust their fortunes to suffocating serve-forehand combinations that hinge less upon precision than raw power.  Beyond that broad parallel lurk a few differences, such as Berdych’s steadier backhand and Verdasco’s more convincing forecourt skills, yet those nuances probably will exert scant influence upon the outcome.  Renowned for his amorous accomplishments, the 2009 semifinalist assiduously courted disaster throughout his second-round meeting with Tipsarevic but fully capitalized upon his escape by dominating Nishikori.  One never knows exactly what to anticipate from Verdasco on any given day (or set or point), however, while Berdych has displayed superior consistency during the first week.  Whereas the former possesses greater shot-making talent and the audacity necessary to deploy it, the latter develops points more meticulously and profited from his patience during a three-set comeback when they met in Miami last year.  Firmly entrenched in the ATP elite but not quite leading contenders, both the Czech and the Spaniard likely will earn the right to battle 2008 champion Djokovic in the quarterfinals.  Who covets this opportunity more desperately?

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Having arrived in the second week, we will preview most of the matches henceforth, but feel free to contact us if you fancy a specific encounter.

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