Maria Sharapova - Sony Ericsson Open

Sharapova vs. Stosur:  More accustomed to late nights than early mornings, the three-time major champion opens proceedings against a player whom she has dominated but has faced just once since shoulder surgery and the Aussie’s renaissance.  On that occasion, Stosur secured just one game against Sharapova in a Tokyo tournament that the Russian eventually won.  Among the most notable weapons in the Australian’s game is her kicking second serve, one of the finest in the WTA.  Against the statuesque Sharapova, however, that shot does not jolt as high above her comfortable strike zone or as far outside her vast wingspan.  Less auspicious for Maria is her reliance on breaking serve throughout this month, which has generally compensated for chronic wobbles in her own service games.  Winning 58% of her return games since the start of Indian Wells, Sharapova cannot expect to break as regularly against a server as imposing as Stosur.  If the world #5 can compile some comfortable holds, the Russian might shoulder elevated pressure as she attempts to circumvent the inevitable her double faults.  Outside her serve, Stosur has few clear advantages over the three-time major champion.  Sharapova will seek to expose her puny backhand and prevent the Aussie from frequently showcasing her net skills with a withering barrage of groundstrokes that thrust her behind the baseline.  Since neither player excels when rushed, both should hasten to attack on the first mid-court ball that they see in order to take time away from the opponent.

While she enters this match in scintillating form, the Russian also dazzled in a few of her Indian Wells matches before crumbling against Wozniacki in the semifinals.  A test of Stosur’s confidence and Sharapova’s consistency, this clash represents an immense opportunity for the winner, who will face either Peng or Dulgheru in a quarterfinal.  Who can carpe the diem?  Sharapova in three

Wozniacki vs. Petkovic:  In the same round at Indian Wells, the Dane stumbled for a set against the heavy-hitting Kleybanova before outlasting her less durable opponent.  A parallel narrative could unfold against Petkovic, physically fit but mentally a bit suspect.  Squandering a cavalcade of match points against Kuznetsova at Roland Garros last year, the German almost let Sharapova escape from a massive deficit in Melbourne and nearly let another commanding lead slip away against Benesova in the previous round.  If she maneuvers herself into position to halt the world #1’s winning streak at these top-tier events, one wonders whether Petkovic will find the nerve to deliver the coup de grace.  Vulnerable in the second set of her victories over Mattek-Sands and Hantuchova, Wozniacki nearly let the Slovak drag her into a third set but ultimately found a way to win the points that she needed to win.  Nevertheless, her strategy in that match boded well for her future more broadly.  Attempting to infuse her game with greater aggression, the world #1 courageously approached the forecourt for swing volleys and struck a series of crackling backhand winners down the line.  Although these unaccustomed tactics did not always reap rewards, the Dane will further her bid for the Indian Wells-Miami double if she can expend less exertion in finishing each point.  Wozniacki in three

Medina Garrigues vs. Jankovic:  Perhaps girding herself for the clay season where she thrives most often, the many-syllabled Spaniard has dispatched three creditable opponents of Dulko, world #11 Peer, and Vesnina without dropping a set.  Yet her implausible run surely will conclude at the hands of the sixth seed, who has rebounded from a stinging Indian Wells defeat with a pair of solid victories.  Like Sharapova, Jankovic has won all six of her meetings with her fourth-round opponent while dropping just two total sets.  Unlike Stosur, Medina Garrigues has done nothing to suggest that her fortunes against a recurrent nemesis could change.  Although the Serb has faded since losing the #1 ranking, opponents without baseline weapons still struggle to overcome her.  Unless Jankovic suffers one of the inexplicable collapses that haunted her in the second half of last year, this match should feature little suspense.  Jankovic in two

Schiavone vs. Radwanska:  As mighty baseliners trade missiles elsewhere on Monday, these subtle shot-makers will dance around each other with artful grace.  Comfortable anywhere on the court, the Italian and the Pole compensate for their lack of first-strike power with brilliant shot selection and generally unerring instincts.  While Schiavone has won all three of their previous meetings, Radwanska has looked equally impressive in recent weeks; both came within a third-set tiebreak of reaching the Indian Wells quarterfinals after sturdy Melbourne performances.  More inclined to generate offense from their backhands than their forehands, they offer a compelling contrast between the Italian’s flowing one-handed stroke and the Pole’s compact two-handed jab.  But neither player relies exclusively upon finishing points from the baseline, instead creeping towards the net for a deft volley or drop shot.  Unimposing on serve, they will punish each other’s second deliveries with precisely placed albeit not overwhelming returns.  One expects a draining test of endurance with prolonged rallies, precarious service games, and plenty of mini-tennis near the net.  Whereas the action in most matches slides along the baseline, points here may unfold vertically as well as horizontally.  Radwanska in three

Victoria Azarenka Victoria Azarenka of Russia reacts after she won the second set against Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia during the Sony Ericsson Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on March 27, 2011 in Key Biscayne, Florida.

Azarenka vs. Pavlyuchenkova:  Two years ago, the Belarussian collided with the former junior #1 en route to the most significant title of her career.  Still struggling to assert herself among the WTA elite, Azarenka has regressed since that breakthrough moment while retaining the core of crisp movement, balanced power, and steady technique that earned her the 2009 Miami crown.  The likely future of Russian tennis, Pavlyuchenkova ominously has endured several injuries already but showed her competitive maturity by rallying from a one-set deficit against Jankovic to defend her Monterrey title this year.  Also on display at this tournament is the Russian’s resilience, which allowed her to survive the disappointment of twice failing to serve out a match against Kvitova in the second set.  Whereas many WTA journeywomen would have crumbled at that stage, “Nastia” proved a nasty foe for the dangerous 12th seed as she fired back with a third-set bagel.  The momentum from that victory could propel Pavlyuchenkova to an only slightly more remarkable victory over the 2009 champion.  During a gripping third-round three-setter of her own, however, Azarenka demonstrated an uncharacteristic degree of durability and focus.  Struggling to hold serve during the first half of the match, the eighth seed did not despair as Cibulkova raced across the court to retrieve every dart that she could throw at her.  One expected that Azarenka might shrug and pout her way to a routine loss when she trailed by a set and a break, but instead she remained confident in her weapons and steadily chipped away at the Slovak.  More comfortable against a player who shares her unreliable serve and penetrating groundstrokes but not her agility, Vika would take a significant step forward if she could reach consecutive quarterfinals at these Premier Mandatory tournaments.  Azarenka in two

Peng vs. Dulgheru:  Almost as deeply rooted in clay as Medina Garrigues, Dulgheru won just one of seven 2011 matches before this week and won consecutive matches just once between the US Open and Miami.  Although she has lost just eight games en route to the final 16, the Romanian will meet a player more than her match in the feisty Peng Shuai, fresh from a second upset over Kuznetsova.  A prosperous month for double-fisters looks likely to continue as this Chinese star has filled the void left by Li in her quarter.  Only four places lower in the rankings than Dulgheru, Peng soon will find herself with seeds, byes, and the other trappings of a legitimate contender if her ascent continues.  Peng in two

Bartoli vs. Zvonareva:  Before the Frenchwoman’s three-set victory in Beijing 2009, the world #3 had collected eight of their nine previous meetings in devastating fashion.  In ten of the fourteen completed sets that Zvonareva won before that loss to Bartoli, she dropped two or fewer games.  The events of March might suggest a change in script, however, for the Frenchwoman built upon a Doha semifinal to reach the final at Indian Wells.  By contrast, the Russian did not capitalize upon her momentum from a Doha title but instead slumped to an epic yet early exit from the desert.  Extended to three sets in their openers, both players advanced less eventfully on Sunday.  A semifinalist at this tournament last year, Bartoli must seize the initiative early in rallies by lashing her double-fisted lasers behind Zvonareva and forcing her to reverse direction.  In order to execute that strategy, though, she must step inside the baseline as often as possible and stay close to the center of the court, a goal that the Russian will aim to thwart by stretching her from side to side with deep groundstrokes.  Pounding ten aces against Groth in the third round, Zvonareva can nullify the Frenchwoman’s formidable return if she maintains a high first-serve percentage. The world #3 has not enjoyed her previous sojourns in Miami, attaining the quarterfinals or better in just one of ten appearances, but unkind draws (like Henin in the fourth round last year) have played a role in her underachievement.  Zvonareva in two

Ana Ivanovic Ana Ivanovic of Serbia reacts against Kimiko Date-Krumm of Japan during the Sony Ericsson Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on March 25, 2011 in Key Biscayne, Florida.

Ivanovic vs. Clijsters:  Seeking her third straight Premier Mandatory quarterfinal, the Serb confronts the defending champion in the fourth round for the second straight tournament.  A quarterfinalist in her first appearance here, Ivanovic typically has suffered a lull in Miami between strong results at Indian Wells and during the clay season.  Traces of this pattern have emerged in her first two matches, during which she confronted 23 break points on her serve.  Tiptoeing around 18 of those threats, Ana cannot depend upon preserving this ratio against another former #1 who has quelled her comfortably in their two previous completed meetings.  On the other hand, Clijsters did not dazzle during her three-set triumph over Martinez Sanchez, during which she uncorked 10 double faults and 39 unforced errors amidst numerous edgy service games.

While Ivanovic should gain confidence from that frailty, she does not possess the quirkiness and versatility of Martinez Sanchez that can fluster a rhythm-oriented player like the Belgian with unpredictable shot selection and placement.  Unless the Serb leaves her comfort zone to attempt high-bouncing, heavy-spinning loopers, drop shots, and slices, the counterpunching Clijsters should thrive on a steady diet of smoothly struck groundstrokes that she can absorb and redirect.  Since the defending champion struggled on her serve against Martinez Sanchez, Ivanovic should swing aggressively on her returns in order to instill a few flickers of doubt in her opponent’s mind.  Just as she did against Jankovic, the Serb will seek to pound the first forehand that she sees, while Clijsters will hope to feed her a steady diet of backhands.  On court for three total hours on Sunday, Ivanovic has struggled to recover from such exertions after streamlining her figure during the offseason.  Clijsters in two

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