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Aravane Rezai Aravane Rezai of France holds aloft the winners torphy after her straight sets victory against Venus Williams of the USA in the womens final match during the Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open tennis tournament at the Caja Magica on May 16, 2010 in Madrid, Spain.

First quarter:  Her momentum somewhat drained by Goerges in Stuttgart, Wozniacki still enters this Premier Mandatory event with her glass half full of European earth.  With a green-clay title and red-clay final behind her, the 2009 Madrid runner-up could reprise that championship match with Safina in the third round—or perhaps her championship match from last week.  Avenging her Miami loss to Petkovic in Stuttgart, Wozniacki might well avenge her Stuttgart loss to Goerges in Madrid.  Handed a complex opener against Acapulco champion Dulko, Stosur will demonstrate whether an uplifting week at the Porsche event has raised her spirits and rekindled her memories of clay excellence past.  This intriguing corner of the draw also includes Pavlyuchenkova, a perpetually promising prodigy who chronically threatens to burst into contention but never quite does.  Chugging into the dusty battlefield are fast-court juggernauts Kanepi and Bartoli, whose inferior mobility should undermine their hopes on the surface least suited to their styles.  Although Stosur possesses the strongest clay skills of anyone in the quarter, Wozniacki has lost before the semifinals at only one of her last seven tournaments.

Second quarter:  Vaulting back into contention with a strong February-March campaign, Jankovic demonstrated her clay prowess in Fed Cup before predictably falling early in Stuttgart a few days later. The seventh seed should face no opponent capable of consistently outhitting her during the first few rounds, for potential foes like Medina Garrigues and Radwanska have found little success against the Serb by relying upon their characteristic steadiness.  Also of note in this vicinity, however, is Gajdosova, a player whose massive ball-striking and straightforward aggression sometimes recall last year’s champion Rezai.  Lurking on the opposite side of the quarter is Rezai herself, but the Frenchwoman’s title defense probably will crumble under the pressure of Azarenka.  A former quarterfinalist at Roland Garros, the Belarussian can consolidate her position in the top 5 with an imposing May performance.  If her Fed Cup shoulder injury does not hamper her, Azarenka would face a tantalizing third-round encounter with Petkovic or perhaps Pennetta.  Absent from competition since Miami, the Italian defeated Azarenka in Dubai but surprisingly lost their only clay meeting a year ago.  More likely to pose a serious challenge to the world #5 is Petkovic, whose expectations have grown increasingly ambitious as her means of justifying them have expanded.  Might she intersect with Jankovic for a third consecutive tournament?

Ana Ivanovic Of Serbia Celebrates

Third quarter:  Stacked with clay experts, this section features two former Roland Garros champions who could collide in the third round.  If Ivanovic and her questionable abdomen can withstand the idiosyncratic assault of Bethanie Mattek-Sands, she might tangle with one-time French Open semifinalist Petrova.  During a formidable first-half of 2010, the Russian defeated both Williams sisters on clay while falling to Ana in Rome (albeit on a slower court).  Eyeing a dangerous opener against Peng, Schiavone has struggled with fatigue since her epic victory over Kuznetsova in Melbourne, and a return to her favored clay failed to rejuvenate her in Stuttgart.  Curiously, she has lost all three of her meetings with Ivanovic, including a 2009 clay encounter well after the Serb had tumbled from her pinnacle.  In even deeper peril than Schiavone is the floundering Li Na, who has won exactly one match after reaching the Australian Open final in a spiral precipitous even by her standards.  Not at her best on clay, she could succumb immediately to Martinez Sanchez, lethal in Fed Cup against France and well-designed to disrupt Li’s smooth baseline rhythm.  A talent adaptable to every surface, Peer has found herself in an auspicious position near the dormant Kleybanova and a weary Vinci.  Should she advance through the first two rounds without expending great energy, the Israeli could craft an unexpectedly deep run considering her successes against both Ivanovic and Schiavone.

Fourth quarter:  Generally bereft of clay specialists, this section lies at the mercy of the hard-court player who can most successfully conform her style and attitude to the surface.  Following the departure of her coach Sergei Demekhine, Zvonareva enters this event with no clay preparation and scant clay experience over the past few years.  Although Sharapova has reached the quarterfinals at Roland Garros more recently than at any other major, she likewise delivers her least convincing tennis during this phase.  Nevertheless, the similarly erratic first-strike firepower of Venus carried her to the final here a year ago, offering an example for the Russian to emulate.  More accomplished on clay than her compatriots, Kuznetsova has spent over a year reeling from desultory loss to desultory loss despite emanating occasional flashes of hope such as her victory over Henin at the Australian Open.  The 2009 Roland Garros champion may not escape her opener against Cibulkova and gain the opportunity to challenge Sharapova in the third round.  Equaling the latter’s charge to the Indian Wells semifinal, Wickmayer aims to recapitulate a Charleston surge that almost toppled eventual champion Wozniacki.  Among the more compelling narratives of 2011 that this quarter may trace, moreover, is the evolution of Kvitova from an unreliable shot-maker into a steady contender.  While the champion probably will not emerge from this section, it might feature some of the most scintillating early-week encounters.

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Novak Djokovic - Sony Ericsson Open

As two marquee events hover just beyond the horizon, we unfold some of the potential narratives to consider at this week’s small tournaments, overtures to the clay symphonies in Rome and Madrid.

The march to 28-0 (Belgrade):  Notably absent from Nadal’s triumphal parade through Monte Carlo and Barcelona was his North American bête noir.  Seeking a well-deserved respite during the past two weeks, Djokovic now will ease into his clay campaign at home against a draw otherwise headlined by Troicki, Garcia-Lopez, and Montanes .  The world #2’s unblemished 2011 record should survive this week unscathed, placing him in position to win his first 30 matches of the season should he reach the Madrid quarterfinals.  A staggering accomplishment by any measure, this current winning streak has come at the expense of redoubtable foes who demanded a high degree of focus.  Will Djokovic let that focus slip when he faces less heralded opponents?  Although he will bask in the adulation of his compatriots, he finds himself in a position where anything less than a dominant charge to the title will register as a disappointment.  Rafa handled a similar situation masterfully in Barcelona, and now we will find whether Novak can match his poise.  On the other hand, nobody in the draw probably possesses the necessary nerve—and perhaps nastiness—to ruin the Serb’s homecoming.

Digging out of doldrums (Estoril):  Anchoring the Portuguese draw, Soderling and Verdasco would benefit enormously from a jolt of momentum before the lucrative events ahead.   No elite contender has endured an odder start to the season than the Swede, who won three of his first four tournaments and 19 of his first 20 matches but lost before the quarterfinals in Melbourne, Indian Wells, and Miami.  Hampered in recent weeks by both illness and injury, Soderling did not quite excel during the road to Roland Garros last season but reversed his fortunes with frightening speed.  In fact, he dropped his Nice opener just a week before launching his second straight finals run in Paris.  Perhaps in greater need of psychological succor, therefore, is the Spaniard who stalked away from Barcelona in pique when the tournament denied him a wildcard.  Verdasco’s injured pride may finally catalyze his revival from a period of irritable listlessness that has precipitated his tumble from the top 10.  Situated among the less dangerous half of the draw, he should encounter less sturdy resistance than Soderling.  Succumbing to Del Potro in Miami, the Swede may well confront the 2009 Roland Garros semifinalist again in the quarterfinals, when this gentle seaside town could witness some fantastically ungentle ball-striking.

Backhands do battle (Munich):  While Soderling and Verdasco aim to shift into a higher gear, several of the players at the BMW tournament hope to change the direction of their vehicles entirely.  Chief among them is world #39 Nikolay Davydenko, who in about fifteen months has fallen from a top-8 seed in Melbourne to a top-8 seed in Munich.  The former World Tour Finals champion has unleashed some of his finest tennis on clay, even troubling Nadal four years ago in Rome.  Despite fleeting signs of revival, though, his scintillating groundstrokes have not regained their sting from late 2009 since a wrist injury.  More perplexing is the decline of former prodigy Marin Cilic, who has quietly receded without suffering substantial injury.  Their two-handers could collide in a quarterfinal, while another quarterfinal could feature the elegant one-handers of Kohlschreiber and Wawrinka.  Without Federer looming above him, the Swiss #2 will have the opportunity to exhibit the clay skills that carried him to the Rome final three years ago.  Atop the draw looms yet another fine one-hander in Youzhny, rarely a threat on clay and a possible second-round victim for Barcelona semifinalist Ivan Dodig.  Otherwise, the Russian might confront the dangerous, flat two-hander of Baghdatis.  While improving his fitness, the Cypriot has continued his frustratingly erratic results this year, and he faces an intriguing early test against the much-discussed teenager Grigor Dimitrov.

A Groth by any other name (Estoril): Uncoupled this month from her Aussie husband, the former Slovak hopes that her tennis does not revert to a pre-Groth state together with her name.  A generally solid start to 2011 for Gajdosova augurs well for her ability to wreak limited havoc on clay.   Although few would envy her movement on the surface, she possess sufficient power to hit through even the slowest surface and, like her compatriot Stosur, will enjoy the additional time to measure her groundstrokes.  Thus, one hopes that her divorce and Fed Cup disappointment do not weigh heavily upon her shoulders.  While few bold-faced names here have earned their living during the European spring, the paceless groundstrokes of Sevastova and Zakopalova could trouble the unwary on such a slow surface.  Still unseeded after a strong Miami performance, Medina Garrigues might navigate deeper into this draw than one might expect.  Likewise of note are two youngsters, Radwanska’s sister Urszula and Fez runner-up Simona Halep, a Romanian more natural on clay than many of her peers.

The crucible of clay (Barcelona):  In 2010, the WTA champion at this tiny event brought home the ultimate clay prize from Paris.  Few are the suspects who could repeat the feat this year, although Schiavone would remind us that “nothing is impossible.”  Is the impossible nothing for Alexandra Dulgheru, a clay specialist who reached the quarterfinals in Miami?  Or for Tsvetana Pironkova, a Wimbledon semifinalist last year who has almost entirely evaporated since?  Lightning rarely strikes twice, but beware of taking anyone too lightly in the WTA’s current whirlwind of flux.

Rafael Nadal - ATP Masters Series Monte Carlo - Day Eight

For the third time in four years, Barcelona audiences thrill to the spectacle of an all-Spanish final at a tournament that has not crowned a foreign champion since 2002.  Aligned to challenge five-time champion Nadal for the second time in two weeks, Ferrer confronted his fabled compatriot in the 2008 and 2009 finals here as well as a 2007 semifinal.  The diminutive, pugnacious world #6 once called himself  the “worst player in the top 100” but has voiced an almost defiant confidence in the face of the mountainous task before him.  Offering Ferrer a ray of hope is his gallant performance in the 2008 Barcelona final, the only occasion on which he won a set from the five on clay since the latter’s first Roland Garros title.  As he observed, though, only an indifferent performance from Nadal can offer him an opportunity to threaten the world #1, while he must display outstanding tennis in order to capitalize upon such an opportunity.  In the Monte Carlo final, a distinctly mortal Rafa still stifled his compatriot in straight sets amidst an afternoon riddled with more unforced errors than either player normally concedes.  An opponent with a thunderous offense, like a Djokovic or a Soderling, might well have punished Nadal for the diffident mid-court balls that betrayed his nerves.  Lacking the requisite first-strike power, Ferrer cannot wreak similar devastation but instead must attempt to win a war of attrition, thus playing neatly into the hands of the indefatigable world #1.

With that first title of the season fresh in his memory, Nadal’s nerves will have receded at the tournament closest to his Mallorcan lair.  Not just defeating but dominating their opponents, both players have advanced to the final with minimal ado.  Unconquered by a compatriot in Spain since 2003, Nadal should reassert his supremacy over his nation.  But Ferrer has infused intrigue into this clay season, crafting a potential alternate script to the Nadal-Djokovic duel at the top that seemed certain to develop.

While Barcelona spectators may wonder which Spaniard to support, Stuttgart audiences will have little difficulty identifying the bearer of their hopes.  Spared by Azarenka’s shoulder injury, Julia Goerges surged through this bristling draw into the most significant final of her career.  Stirring German pride, she ambushed Stosur in an epic semifinal by out-serving the Australian on crucial points and retaining her poise when the match hung in the balance.  Goerges may relish the opportunity to shine in the absence of her charismatic countrywoman Petkovic, who had monopolized most headlines related to German tennis.  With a win over Wozniacki, who defeated Petkovic two rounds ago, she could claim a substantial share of the spotlight while vaulting well inside the top 30.  And she can reflect upon a clash with the world #1 at Copenhagen last year, which soared unexpectedly into a third-set tiebreak.  Now that the battleground shifts to her home country, will she feel the pressure that Wozniacki felt in Denmark?

While Goerges seeks her first Premier title, the world #1 pursues an almost equally momentous milestone:  her first red clay title.  Twice a finalist on this surface in 2009, Wozniacki inhabits a generation with few clay specialists who could block her route in Paris.  Fallible during her charge to the Charleston title, she has grown looked progressively more in command of her surroundings this week.  In an arena that once hosted a fall hard-court tournament, the indoor clay of Stuttgart imperfectly resembles the slower, grittier dirt of Roland Garros.  Nevertheless, Wozniacki would boost her self-belief on the surface by claiming the trophy (and instrument of transportation) captured by Henin a year ago.  Before her 21st birthday, she already threatens to evolve into an all-surface contender, a splendid achievement for her and a disquieting prospect for her rivals.

Caroline Wozniacki - ATP Masters Series Monte Carlo - Day Two

After a Good Friday ceasefire, the four surviving contestants for a Porsche reconvene.  A tournament that once featured seven of the WTA top eight has witnessed several unexpected plot twists over the past few days, including four quarterfinalists from the home nation.   Does another bend in the Stuttgart racetrack lie ahead?

Wozniacki vs. Radwanska:  Pitting two of the new generation’s most notable stars against each other, this duel could recur in a Slam quarterfinal or semifinal two or three years from now.  While both Wozniacki and Radwanska cut their teeth on hard courts, they share key strengths upon which they could build notable clay achievements.  Not instinctive movers on Europe’s crushed brick, both the Pole and the daughter of Poles enjoy exceptional consistency and defensive skills that shine on a surface where extended rallies dominate.  Separating the world #1 from the Polish #1, her precocious resilience resurfaced in a quarterfinal against Petkovic that looked grim when the German stood within a point of 5-1.  Refusing to concede even a set to her Miami nemesis, Wozniacki dug into the dirt and accumulated pressure upon her opponent until the wheels fell off that racecar.  Sometimes a sturdy competitor herself, Radwanska has not developed quite the same armor despite her greater experience on the tour.  On the other hand, her subtle artfulness should find eloquent expression on a surface that rewards finesse and versatility, not among the baseline-bound Wozniacki’s salient virtues.  Yet the conundrum of clay is that those who leave the deepest imprints upon it also must summon the power to hit through the sluggish courts.  Neither semifinalist possesses that ability at the moment, but Wozniacki appears more likely than Radwanska to enhance her offense.  In their first intersection on clay, they will write a new chapter in the history of a still nascent rivalry.

Goerges vs. Stosur:  A finalist in Stuttgart last year, Stosur’s stagnant 2011 inspired few observers to hope that she might repeat that feat this week.  Now, she has edged within a victory of accomplishing exactly that objective after extending her curious voodoo spell over Zvonareva.  Surely revitalizing the Australian’s confidence, that quarterfinal tested her recently fragile nerves with a third set that featured no breaks of serve at all.  Rather than the Australian Open and Miami semifinalist, though, it was Stosur who seized command early in the decisive tiebreak and built upon a three-set victory over a formidable opponent in the previous round.  Like Wozniacki and Radwanska, the world #7 did not participate in Fed Cup last weekend, so she entered this week in fresher physical condition than Zvonareva and other notable names who departed before they could have barred her progress.  In their stead looms a foe who conquered Stosur on the fast hard courts of Tokyo last fall.  When Azarenka retired after winning the first set, Goerges fully capitalized upon her opportunity by snuffing out the hopes of compatriot Lisicki in the quarterfinal.  Often overlooked in the shadow of Petkovic, she contributed to Germany’s Fed Cup playoff victory in the same arena and extended eventual champion Henin to a tiebreak here last year.  Whereas Stosur relies upon serve-forehand combinations, Goerges showcases a superb backhand that punished the Aussie’s indifferent two-hander in Tokyo.  On a slower surface, the task of exposing that wing becomes more challenging, as opponents from Henin to Serena and Dementieva have learned in the past two years.

***

Far to the southwest in sunny Barcelona, Nadal looks certain to slide through a suspenseless semifinal victory.  Offering more intrigue is the all-Spanish meeting between Ferrer and Almagro, which repeats their three-set final on the Acapulco dirt.  That collision escalated into a pair of tiebreaks as fortune fluttered coquettishly between the two combatants.  Had he secured a few crucial points, Almagro could have recorded a straight-sets victory.  Before he ultimately faded in the third set, the first two sets illustrated his bolstered physical fitness and mental resolve, with which he could threaten the Monte Carlo finalist.  But even the Acapulco Almagro might fall well short on this occasion, for Ferrer has overwhelmed most of his April challengers with intimidating, nearly Nadal-esque ease.  No matter who prevails on Saturday, one does not envy the survivor.

David Ferrer - ATP Masters Series Monte Carlo - Day Eight

Awaiting the proud citizens of Barcelona is a Friday filled with compatriots on the court.  No fewer than five Spaniards have reached the quarterfinals of this ATP 500 tournament, which could feature all-Spanish semifinals and probably will feature an all-Spanish final.  Two top-10 opponents and an opportunistic Croat aim to disrupt that narrative, however.

Nadal vs. Monfils:  The top-ranked players from their respective nations, the Spaniard and the Frenchman personify two fundamentally opposing approaches to the sport.  While Nadal channels his energies towards the single goal of winning, Monfils generally gains more satisfaction from the journey than the destination.  Equal to the world #1 in power and athleticism, the world #9 habitually attempts low-percentage shots that showcase his spectacular abilities on the occasions when they find their targets.  But Monfils lacks the strategic clarity and talent for point construction that has fueled Nadal’s success on clay as much as his defensive abilities.  A natural mover on this surface and an excellent defender himself, the Frenchman often doesn’t choose the wisest option when he has the opportunity to finish a point.  By contrast, Nadal’s transition game functions more smoothly than those of any rival except perhaps Djokovic.  He has lost five or fewer games in all three of his clay meetings with the Frenchman, who understandably has struggled to find his idiosyncratic style since returning from injury.  For every acrobatic jumping forehand and ostentatiously pulverized smash, an equal number of routine errors will emerge to fuel Nadal’s progress into the semifinals.

Dodig vs. Lopez:  Perhaps the ATP’s best-kept secret in 2011, Dodig defeated Soderling earlier this week, won his home title in Croatia, and became the only player to capture a set from Djokovic in Melbourne.   Unlike most of his compatriots, this Croat stands at just six feet and thus need not construct his game around his serve.  This greater versatility probably explains his success on a surface where Cilic, Ljubicic, Ancic, and similar towers of power have scored relatively few accomplishments.  Against the third-ranked Spanish lefty, Dodig will confront an opponent not dissimilar to his previous victim, the budding Milos Raonic.  Unflustered by the Canadian’s thunderous delivery, the Croat handed him a rare tiebreak bagel before ultimately outlasting him in three sets.  Just as uncommon among Spaniards as Dodig is among Croats, Lopez has cultivated a net-rushing, serve-centric style better adapted to grass than clay.  That said, his national surface offers him more time to run around his unreliable backhand to dictate rallies with his forehand.  Overwhelmed by Ferrer in Monte Carlo, Lopez recorded a pair of creditable victories here over Garcia-Lopez and Nishikori.

Melzer vs. Ferrer:  Clashing just last week in a Monte Carlo semifinal, the Austrian and the Spaniard progressed to this round in contrasting manners.  As he did in the Mediterranean principality, Ferrer has comprehensively dominated all opponents not named Nadal.  After reaching the Rome final last year, he sustained that success by extending Federer to a third set in a Madrid semifinal, so he should not rest content with last week’s accomplishments.  Physically and mentally fit to unfold a sequence of deep runs, Ferrer faces an opponent who shrugged off a back injury in Monte Carlo and overcame the challenging Montanes in a Thursday three-setter.  The 30-year-old Melzer deserves acclaim for defying his age to deliver the best tennis of his career over the past year, but he does not rank among the few players who match Ferrer’s fitness level.  Somewhat deceptive was the routine scoreline of their Monte Carlo semifinal, however, which featured several close games and break points on which the Austrian did not capitalize.  But his audacious shot-making requires an ample degree of confidence, which he may lack against a player who stifled him just six days ago.

Ferrero vs. Almagro:  Eyeing a top-10 berth, Almagro has rekindled memories of his thunderous South American clay-court campaign with straight-sets victories over the recently dangerous Andujar and the increasingly less dangerous Davydenko.  In Madrid last year, the Spaniard also become one of only two players to win a set from Nadal on clay last year.  Somewhat in the vein of Monfils, Almagro has chronically lacked intensity; in Monte Carlo, he faced four match points against the unimposing Maximo Gonzalez and then mustered little resistance against Melzer.  Far south of the Spaniard in the rankings lies the former #1 Ferrero, who did not play an ATP main-draw match in 2011 until this week.  In the twilight of his career, this genteel competitor has delighted his compatriots by exploiting an accommodating draw.  Much more substance than style, the understated Ferrero should pose an intriguing personality comparison with the flamboyant Almagro.  One wonders whether crowd sympathies will tilt towards the fading flagship of the former “Spanish Armada” or the more electrifying style of his challenger.  Counter-intuitively, Ferrero has won their last two meetings, including an Acapulco three-setter last year.   Unless Almagro self-destructs, as he still can, his raw firepower should prove too intense for a veteran whose weapons cannot compete with those of the current elite.

***

We return tomorrow to discuss the final four in a fascinating Stuttgart tournament.

Rafael Nadal - Rafael Nadal Wins the Monte Carlo Masters Title

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Spain:  For the second straight year, Nadal snapped a three-final losing streak in the principality on the Mediterranean promontory by conquering a compatriot in the title match.  Not at his classic best throughout the week, Rafa battled through a three-hour exercise in trench warfare against Murray in the semifinals and then charted a far from routine path to victory against Ferrer a day later.  Ironically, though, his ability to win without his finest clay form should infuse him with confidence while reminding his rivals how far below his pinnacle they normally fall.  Without Djokovic in the draw, Monte Carlo proved the ideal venue for the world #1 to reassert his supremacy on the surface from which he sprang like Minerva from Jupiter’s head.  Should his recent nemesis collide with him again in Madrid or Rome, Rafa will approach that meeting with the memories from North America muted if not expunged.

Told that a Spaniard would reach the Monte Carlo final without dropping a set, almost nobody would have identified Ferrer as the lucky fellow.  Rekindling his clay momentum from an Acapulco title, the world #6 lost six or fewer games in each of his four matches before succumbing to Nadal on Sunday.  At his best when the serve matters least, Ferrer eroded the willpower of his opponents by rarely allowing them to glide through a comfortable service game.  Moreover, he tested his compatriot deep into both sets during a second Masters 1000 final appearance.  Although he probably cannot dethrone the king of clay, Ferrer should consolidate his elevated ranking over the next several weeks and perhaps score a key upset or two over a member of the top five.

The principal architect of Spain’s Fed Cup victory over France, Martinez Sanchez reminded us why she is both so inconsistent and so dangerous.  Violating the basic rules taught to any novice, she serves and volleys on clay, attempts drop shots from well behind the baseline, and runs around her forehand to hit backhands.  Yet this iconoclastic style repeatedly reaped rewards for her against flummoxed Frenchwomen Razzano and Rezai, who never could anticipate what gambit would next flutter into the Spaniard’s inspired mind.  Alternately jaw-dropping and head-scratching, Martinez Sanchez relies on tactics extremely hard to execute consistently but nearly unanswerable on this surface when she does.

Monte Carlo semifinalists:  Winless since January, Murray halted his slide much earlier than the similar malaise that descended upon him last year.  Few are the players who can extend Nadal to three hours on clay, and one would not have included the Scot in their number considering his past struggles on the surface.  The longer points favored by the European dirt may have assisted him in regaining his rhythm, while an accommodating draw allowed him to recapture the sensation of winning without suffering undue pressure.  Joining him in the penultimate round was new world #8 Melzer, who earned his career-best ranking with a first victory over Federer.  Having scored 2010 wins over Djokovic and Nadal, the aging lefty summoned just enough self-belief to strike down a player who had defeated him resoundingly three times last year.  Both Murray and Melzer struggled with injuries during their breakthrough weeks, though, so question marks hover above the rest of their clay campaigns.

Jankovic:  Allegedly ill at the start of the weekend, she left Slovakia feeling ill by the end of it.  The Serbian workhorse spent six hours on court during Sunday’s epic battles, which culminated with a 197-minute doubles rubber during which Jankovic and her partner saved two match points.  Once leading by a set and 5-1 in that match, the Slovak duo served for the match three times but could not wrest it away from a Serb who surely relished every moment of the escalating drama.  Although Jankovic clearly improved her results over the previous two months, she entered this weekend lacking a bit of her trademark spark.  That spark may have returned just in time for her most profitable time of year.

Ukraine:  Bringing nobody in the top 100 to Melbourne, the Ukrainian team looked certain cannon fodder against Slovak-turned-Aussie Groth and Russian-turned-Aussie Rodionova.  While Tsurenko and Savchuk detained the former for only 48 minutes apiece, they recorded mini-upsets over the latter that included a two-tiebreak fourth rubber in which Rodionova served for both sets.  The momentum then swung violently against them with a first-set bagel in the decisive doubles, but, like Serbia, Ukraine gallantly saved match points in the second set en route to assuring an implausible berth in the 2012 World Group.  Let the vodka flow in Kiev.

Deuce:

Ana Ivanovic - Sony Ericsson Open

Ivanovic:  On Saturday, Serbia’s merry maiden glowed with happiness as a convincing win over Hantuchova ignited a promising clay campaign.  Casting a pall over that success was the recurrence of a stomach injury that forced her to retire against Cibulkova a day later.  Nevertheless, Ivanovic showed this weekend that she had overcome the scars of her loss against Clijsters more successfully than the scars in her abdominal muscle.  When she returns to practice later this week, she will have a more positive memory on which to reflect as a busy month of May approaches.

American women’s tennis:  Banished from the World Group for the first time in the competition’s history, the US Fed Cup squad faces a potential future relegated to the periphery of the sport.  Without any clear savior on the horizon, the team might well fall into zonal play within a year or two.  In an event completely unrelated to Fed Cup, though, Serena finally returned to the practice courts after a nine-month absence.  Can she race to recovery and create an opportunity to defend her Wimbledon title?  As she has demonstrated before, a lack of match preparation means nothing for her ability to contend.

Hantuchova:  After seven and a half hours of tennis this weekend, the leggy Slovak came away with nothing except three losses and the deflating sensation of having almost single-handedly lost the tie for her country.  Such reflections would not do Hantuchova justice, though, for the former Fed Cup heroine competed valiantly through consecutive three-setters on Sunday even as the anticipation of impending disaster must have gradually crept over her.  Often disparaged for her frailty under pressure, she at least did not capitulate meekly this time.

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Roger Federer - ATP Masters Series Monte Carlo - Day Six

Federer:  Possibly disinclined to serve as Nadal’s Monte Carlo foil for a fourth time, the second seed showed little appetite for the battle during a quarterfinal loss to Melzer.  Recalling his struggles on break points against a more famous lefty, he failed to convert all seven of his opportunities against a foe whom he recently had dominated.  On more than one of those break points, tame second-serve returns settled into the net or drifted lazily over the baseline.  Federer may not have settled into the lethargy of tennis old age, but the glow of his World Tour Finals in London last fall has faded.

Verdasco:  Confident that his fortunes would change once he returned to clay, the third-ranked Spaniard discovered otherwise with an opening-round loss to Robredo.  Now outside the top 10, Verdasco has not made an impact at any important tournament since last year’s clay season and has lost his first match in five of eight tournaments this season, eight of thirteen since the US Open.  Perhaps the home crowd in Madrid will provide the necessary tonic to lift his spirits.

Rybarikova:  Facing match point at 7-8 in the final set of the decisive doubles rubber, she struck a well-placed serve that drew an aimlessly floating return.  At this point, the Slovak journeywoman had a choice:  A) spike the ball somewhere (virtually anywhere) and watch the Serbs scramble desperately, B) watch the ball fly past and assume that it will land inside the baseline.  Like a host of more familiar colleagues from Federer to Tsonga, Rybarikova chose the latter option on a crucial point and discovered the danger of false assumptions.

Andy Murray - ATP Masters Series Monte Carlo - Day Five

After a week only slightly less tranquil than the Mediterranean’s azure calm, three players nurse flickering hopes of thwarting Nadal’s march to a seventh consecutive Monte Carlo title.  Can any of them quell the terror of the terre battue?  Or perhaps the more realistic question:  who can muster the  most gallant resistance before the raging bull impales them on his horns?

Murray:  Of their thirteen previous meetings, only two have occurred on the surface least friendly to the Scot and most friendly to the Spaniard.  In a Monte Carlo semifinal two years ago, Murray rebounded from a lackluster first set to drag Rafa into a second-set tiebreak decided only after a series of epic, implausibly court-stretching rallies.  Their most recent collision ranked among the most thrilling best-of-three ATP matches of 2010, culminating in a final-set tiebreak that required all of Nadal’s trademark tenacity.  Often discomfited by opponents with penetrating backhands, the world #1 has expressed uneasiness when facing Murray on the hard courts where he has suffered all four of his losses to the Scot.  When the battlefields shift from blue and purple to red and green, Nadal has comprehensively dominated his rival.  While the third seed displayed surprisingly keen clay instincts this week, he never will possess the almost preternatural abilities of the Spaniard to conform his game with the surface.

But Murray has awakened more swiftly from his post-Australian malaise than in 2010, and his three victories this week have lifted his confidence to a position where winning has become familiar again.  As the considerable underdog in their semifinal, he should feel liberated from the pressure that has prevented him from showcasing his finest form in the most important moments of his career.  Since his week already has surpassed any realistic goals, however, he may resign himself to Nadal’s superiority should the match turn against him early.  The Scot can match the Spaniard in patience and in fitness but not yet in fortitude, a crucial test posed by the clay.

Melzer:  Hoping to score a third consecutive victory over Ferrer since the start of 2010, the Austrian lefty crushed the Spaniard en route to a Roland Garros semifinal last year.  Hampered by a back injury, his stirring quarterfinal victory over Federer may have left his energy depleted for what promises to become a fiercely contested semifinal.  Should he survive that encounter, Melzer has both the weapons and the attitude to topple the Monte Carlo champion, whom he conquered on a slow hard court in Shanghai.  The inflammable Austrian attacked Federer with a fearlessness perhaps amplified by awareness of his injury and the limitations that it imposed upon his durability.  When at his best, Melzer interweaves crackling forehands with delicate drop shots and superb reflex volleys.  At his worst, he senselessly sprays low-percentage shots with little purpose and less accuracy.  The challenge for his opponents, therefore, consists of weathering the crests while waiting to exploit the dips, either of which can arrive at any moment.

Uniting the few players who have troubled Nadal on his favorite surface (Davydenko, Soderling, Gulbis) are traits similar to Melzer’s flat, vicious ball-striking and determination to seize the initiative at all costs.  On the other hand, the Austrian never has reached a Masters 1000 final, much less collected one of these prestigious shields.    Moreover, he probably should consider himself fortunate to have escaped all seven of the break points that he faced against Federer, including more than one donated by errant second-serve returns.  Confronted with the six-time defending champion, Melzer would experience far sterner pressure and a return game that will force him into rallies on neutral terms or worse whenever he resorts to a second serve.

Ferrer:  Like Murray, the Spanish #2 has conquered his compatriot on four previous occasions and at both hard-court majors.  Handed an unexpectedly safe passage into the 2011 Australian Open semifinals was a Ferrer who expressed less exultation over his accomplishment than sympathy for Nadal.  The indefatigable grinder has won just one of his last eighteen sets against Rafa on clay, however, although he has come within a few points of snatching sets from him on multiple occasions.  Among these instances, last year’s Rome final featured a tense opening set from which Nadal narrowly extricated himself before tightening the vise around his diminutive countryman thereafter.  Plagued by few clear flaws but armed with few key strengths, Ferrer faces a nearly insoluble conundrum when he confronts a healthy Rafa.  Unable to outhit him from the baseline and uncomfortable at the net, he plays into the strategy of the world #1 by engaging in the wars of attrition that the latter rarely loses.  In contrast to fellow #2s Wawrinka and Troicki, though, Nadal’s relentless supremacy has not gnawed away at the Spanish #2’s self-belief in their encounters.  Even in a battle that he cannot win, Ferrer rarely fails to mount a valiant effort.  A 2011 all-Spanish final likely would offer considerably greater entertainment than the previous edition.

Svetlana Kuznetsova Svetlana Kuznetsova (R) of Russia celebrates with Russian team captain Shamil Tarpischev (L) and other teammates after her win over Carla Suarez Navarro of Spain on day one of the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group Final between Spain and Russia at the Club de Campo on September 13, 2008 in Madrid, Spain. Kuznetsova won the match in two sets, 6-3 and 6-1, giving Russia a 2-0 lead over Spain.

Italy at Russia:  Bereft of its leading ladies Schiavone and Pennetta, the decimated Italian squad ventures to Moscow with perhaps more hope than conviction.  Crushing Italy on home soil in the 2007 final, Russia looks fully equipped to pummel the visitors into submission once again.  But such a prospect loomed before its quarterfinal against France, when the plucky, vastly outgunned guests showed little courtesy to their hosts.  A heroine of Russia’s historic comeback from a 0-2 deficit, Kuznetsova enters this tie in unimposing form after premature exits in Indian Wells, Miami, and Marbella last week.  Moreover, Saturday opponent Vinci squelched her Beijing title defense last fall.  The two-time major champion often musters her most impassioned, motivated efforts in Fed Cup, however, and she may benefit from sliding into the #2 position behind third-ranked Zvonareva.  Not a participant in February’s miracle, the top Russian has displayed generally solid albeit not overwhelming tennis this year and has thoroughly dominated Vinci, scoring four straight wins during which she lost six or fewer games.  Playing on neither green clay nor red clay in the last two weeks, Zvonareva will arrive in Moscow neither fatigued from recent exertions nor maladjusted to the surface.

Lethal against Italians throughout her career, the world #3 should collect her two singles rubbers, requiring the visitors to defeat Kuznetsova twice in two days.  And Tarpischev also can respond to any stumble from Sveta by substituting Monterrey champion Pavlyuchenkova, just outside the top 20 and a valiant Fed Cup competitor despite her youth.  With this host of options, home-court advantage, and a starless Italy, the somnolent Shamil should enjoy his weekend very much indeed.

Czech Republic at Belgium:  They may not end the first day even in wins, but these two teams enter it even in withdrawals.  Potentially a much more competitive semifinal, the advantage here tilted sharply from the home squad to the visitors when Clijsters announced her withdrawal.  Somewhat softening the blow was the ensuing withdrawal of Safarova, replaced by the less reliable, less powerful Benesova.  Belgium counters the Czech Republic’s left-handed duo with Indian Wells semifinalist Wickmayer, who should relish the opportunity to snatch some of the spotlight from her renowned compatriots.  Resenting her status as the third-best player in her small country, the forehand-thumping firecracker will find her maturity tested as the flagship for her nation’s otherwise puny fleet.  How will Wickmayer respond to the pressure of winning two rubbers (and perhaps three) for the home team?

Her opposing flagship Kvitova has cooled considerably after a torrid, two-title start to 2011, winning just one total match on the North American hard courts.  En route to one of those titles, she outlasted Wickmayer in a third-set tiebreak; three of their five previous meetings, in fact, have reached 5-5 in the third set.  Drama thus may develop in a potentially tie-turning third rubber, but ambushes could occur in any of the weekend’s matches.  While Belgian #2 Flipkens defeated Kvitova a year ago, Benesova has troubled Wickmayer in both of their previous meetings.  Like Tarpischev, though, Czech captain Petr Pala has more ammunition in his arsenal than his opponent.  The pugnacious Zahlavova Strycova not only could thrive in the hostile atmosphere of Charleroi but should forge a doubles partnership with Benesova sturdier than any potential Belgian duo.  After consecutive semifinal losses in 2009 and 2010, the Czech Republic must feel especially determined to break through that barrier this year.

USA at Germany:  The architect of two unexpected finals runs, American captain Mary Joe Fernandez voiced justifiable optimism about a tie less beyond the reach of her squad than their clash with Russia in the same round last year.  Absent from this weekend, however, is the competitive spark of Bethanie Mattek-Sands that proved so critical in fueling that upset.  The United States instead rests its hopes upon two teenagers ranked outside the top 75, although Christina McHale has risen swiftly in recent weeks after victories over Kuznetsova, Kleybanova, and Hantuchova.  Once labeled the future of American tennis, world #81 Oudin has fallen well short of achieving that promise and struggles to cope with the high bounce on clay.  Yet surely the uniformly heavy-hitting German quartet of Petkovic, Goerges, Lisicki, and Groenefeld also would have preferred a hard court over the surface that dulls their power.  Fortunately for all concerned, the Porsche Arena generally has played much faster than a conventional clay court.  The Americans will possess a considerable advantage if they can preserve the tie until the final rubber, when Huber and King would face a German squad without a notable doubles specialist.  Bolstering their chances is Oudin’s Miami success against Goerges, which suggests that the tie could rest upon the shoulders of Fed Cup novice McHale in the fourth rubber.  Don’t discount these overachieving underdogs too easily.

France at Spain:  Frustrated by the historic Russian comeback discussed above, French captain Nicolas Escude publicly blamed then-singles #2 Alize Cornet for the team’s debacle.  One tie later, one wonders how the sensitive Cornet will respond to his criticism as well as her own disappointment.  Unlikely to provide much assistance is the controversy-drenched Rezai, who has wandered through a disastrous start to 2011 after what had appeared a breakthrough in Madrid last year.  Cast into these uncertain waters, Escude wisely selected the sporadically injured Razzano for singles duty despite her lower ranking.  On the other hand, controversy also has encircled the home team, which staged a short-lived Fed Cup boycott in order to extract greater support for women’s tennis from the national federation.  Unlike the French, though, the Spaniards stood united in their bold gambit, displaying a mutual loyalty that could make their seasoned group greater than the sum of its parts.  Designed to disrupt fragile minds, the quirky point construction and dazzling drop shots of Martinez Sanchez should disrupt the rhythm of the visitors.  This trans-Pyrenean encounter therefore might reverse the outcome of the Davis Cup quarterfinal that their nations contested last year.  But first we expect an avalanche of service breaks throughout a weekend populated by shaky servers, ruthless returners, and durable defenders.

Ana Ivanovic - Sony Ericsson Open

Serbia at Slovakia:  Distinctly the most glamorous tie of the weekend, this collision also could prove the most suspenseful.  Fractured by an acerbic fracas last year, the Serbian team has regained at least a semblance of unity as Ivanovic joins Jankovic in a partnership perhaps arranged merely to ensure their Olympic eligibility.  Or could a Davis Cup title last December have inspired Serbia’s feuding stars to bury their grudges and pursue a Fed Cup crown in 2012?  Whether their divisions persist below the surface remains a question crucial to this challenging weekend.  Unglued by the pressure of playing before her compatriots last year, Ivanovic seems more likely to shine in a stadium where expectations lie upon her opponents. Although she has carved out a winning record against Hantuchova, Ana has struggled against both Slovaks before and may require more time to recover from her loss to Clijsters in one of Miami’s most memorable matches.  Meanwhile, Jankovic has split her four clay meetings with Hantuchova and lost to her in Fed Cup last year (during the weekend that provoked the intra-Serbian scuffle).  Pitting soaring prodigy Jovanovski against Cibulkova is the opening rubber, which should tilt towards the diminutive but more clay-savvy Slovak.  If the tie arrives at a decisive doubles rubber, as seems plausible, the home squad should rely upon its superior chemistry to repeat its 2010 victory over Serbia.

Ukraine at Australia:  Without the Bondarenko sisters to shelter them, Ukraine heads to distant climes without a single player in the top 100.  Providing scant solace is the absence of Australian #1 Stosur, who entrusts leadership of the home squad to the eminently capable Groth.  The former Slovak leads the WTA in aces this season while marching into the top 30 for the first time, a status that neither of her Ukrainian opponents ever has approached.  Thriving in the Fed Cup atmosphere, Groth scored a stunning victory over Schiavone in the World Group quarterfinals a round ago and should comfortably capture both of her rubbers.  Beckoning for Cup neophytes Sophie Ferguson and Sally Peers, then, is a chance to stir national pride without incurring significant pressure.

***

We return shortly with thoughts on the Mediterranean playground of Rafael Nadal.

Victoria Azarenka - Sony Ericsson Open

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Wozarenka:  When the surface changed, the champions stayed the same.  While she didn’t quite tower over the Charleston draw, Wozniacki elevated her performance as the week progressed and satisfyingly erased the memory of her ankle sprain here last year.  Challenged more than expected by Zahlavova Strycova and Wickmayer, the world #1 should draw confidence from her ability to capture crucial points even when she couldn’t find her best form.  Wozniacki’s comfortable victory over Jankovic, one of her generation’s finest clay players, augurs well for the Dane’s chances at Roland Garros.  Armed with sufficient consistency, concentration, and fitness to prevail on clay, she could finally legitimize her top ranking in a draw without clear favorites.  On the other hand, Caro’s best friend might ruin that storyline.  Spanning the hard courts of Miami and the red clay of Marbella, the longest winning streak of Azarenka’s career has vaulted her into the top 5 for the first time.  In the relatively toothless Andalusian draw, Vika did not succumb to complacency but instead marched through the week without surrendering a set.  A somewhat more natural mover on the crushed brick, Azarenka shares Wozniacki’s hope that injuries will not cripple her clay campaign as happened last year.  If they remain healthy, this budding rivalry could blossom during the European spring.  Stay tuned for Stuttgart, where they compete for a Porsche.

First-time champions: While Begu and Vesnina fell a round short of their maiden titles, Pablo Andujar and Ryan Sweeting completed most improbable weeks by defeating distinctly favored opponents in the final.  Prognosticators should not extrapolate too boldly from these peripheral tournaments, far removed in geography and significance from the battlefields of Madrid, Rome, and Paris.  Nevertheless, Andujar deserves credit for capitalizing upon his victory over Verdasco in Miami, which itself extended promising portents such as a win over Robredo and a competitive three-set loss to Wawrinka.  And Sweeting will have claimed the attention of hopeful American fans with aggressive ball-striking and a confident demeanor that belied his inexperience in finals.  That confidence assisted him in a victory over the recently resurgent Karlovic, who has flustered many a more notable foe.  Under pressure from Nishikori late in the second set, Sweeting found the courage to take his fate into his own hands during the championship-clinching tiebreak—not an easy feat for a first-time finalist.

Nishikori:  Unfortunate to draw Nadal in his Miami opener, he acquitted himself impressively throughout a match more complex than the scoreline suggested and built upon that encouraging performance in Houston.  Still early in his partnership with Brad Gilbert, Nishikori has climbed to a position within range of his ambition to become the highest-ranked Japanese player in ATP history.  He should aim to bolster his second serve and refine his down-the-line forehand, but this week provided a desperately needed flicker of positive news for his beleaguered compatriots.  (Nishikori also has started an auction and a Facebook fund-raising drive for tsunami relief in which anyone interested should participate.)

Peng:  Despite Li Na’s post-Australian collapse, Chinese tennis continues to enjoy an outstanding 2011.  A paragon of consistency amidst the tumultuous WTA, China’s #2 surrounded an Indian Wells quarterfinal with fourth-round surges in Melbourne and Miami during which she defeated Jankovic and Kuznetsova, respectively.  The double-fister once known largely for her doubles skills plowed into the Charleston semifinals despite a style seemingly unsuited for the clay.  Firmly embedded in the top 30, Peng soon can look forward to seeded status at Grand Slams and perhaps even byes at some of the smaller tournaments.

Lisicki:  Sweeping to the Charleston title in 2009, the German with the infectious smile looked on the verge of a breakthrough that could catapult her to the top of the WTA.  Injuries (probably permanently) thwarted those aspirations, but Lisicki proved with a resounding victory over Bartoli that she still can threaten top-20 opponents.  To be sure, the Frenchwoman has suffered her share of head-scratching losses.  Still, this triumph must have delighted a player who spent months on crutches learning how to walk again one step at a time.

Deuce:

Jankovic:  Inching back towards her former reliability, she has reached the quarterfinals or better in six of seven tournaments since a second-round Melbourne loss to the aforementioned Peng.  This stretch represents a significant step forward from a disastrous second half of 2010, and Jankovic’s most productive time of year lies just over the horizon.  But one expected more from the Serb than a routine straight-sets loss when she faced a fallible Wozniacki.  Like Sharapova, Jankovic has begun to struggle against the stars of the next generation (Pavyluchenkova, Petkovic, Wozniacki), never an auspicious sign.

Safina:  Whether or not one supports Marat’s controversial sister, only the hardest hearts could lack at least a tremor of compassion for her frustrating, chronically aborted return from a back injury.  Two creditable victories in Marbella set up an intriguing clash with Azarenka, at which stage her body failed her again.  Few players deserve a shift in karma more than Safina.

Green clay:  On the one hand, the slow-but-not-too-slow courts in Charleston offered a pleasant transition in color and texture between the blue/purple of the North American hard courts and the red of the European clay.  On the other hand, how relevant is a surface when only one tournament in either the ATP or WTA calendar uses it?  Even more ominously, Charleston’s move to the week immediately after the Indian Wells-Miami marathon does not bode well for its future viability. While Wimbledon could survive as the season’s only grass tournament, if necessary, Charleston might struggle to lift the banner of green clay on its own.

Samantha Stosur - Sony Ericsson Open

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Stosur:  For last year’s Roland Garros finalist, her past accomplishments weigh upon her as a burden rather than buttressing her as a source of confidence.  Considering her 2011 form, though, one could not have expected her to defend her title, and her defeat to Vesnina looked less embarrassing after the Russian reached the final.  Can a return to the red clay reverse her spiral before it imperils her top-10 status?

Kuznetsova:  Fortunate to escape a qualifier ranked outside the top 100 in her opener, the 2009 Roland Garros champion wasn’t so lucky when the same situation recurred in her semifinal.  While conquering Henin and three top-10 opponents this year, Sveta has suffered four of her nine defeats against players ranked outside the top 60.

Rezai:  Another hideous loss for the pugnacious Frenchwoman as time ticks towards April 30, the day when her Madrid title defense begins.  It may end then as well, judging from recent evidence.

 

Rafael Nadal (Spain) beats fellow countryman Fernando Verdasco (Spain) in straight sets, 6/0, 6/1in the final. It's Nadal's 6th straight victory in Monte-Carlo, a record.  Prince Albert de Monaco gave the trophies to the finalists. Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters 2010, an ATP Tour Masters 1000 tennis tournament, held on the clay courts of the Monte-Carlo Country Club.

Perched above the Mediterranean, Monte Carlo has spent the last six years as the undisputed stronghold of Rafael Nadal.  Terminating an 11-month title drought there last season, the Spaniard swept to the title in especially emphatic style by losing no more than six games in any of his matches.  Much of the anticipation surrounding the first clay Masters 1000 event evaporated when Djokovic decided to bask in the glory of his hard-earned Indian Wells-Miami double.  Other than Federer, who has lost three Monte Carlo finals to Nadal, no player in the draw ever has defeated the Spaniard on the clay from which he sprang.  Who dares to storm Rafa’s redoubt this year?

First quarter:  Among the most notable victories of Gasquet’s career occurred on these shores in 2005, when he saved three match points before conquering Federer in a third-set tiebreak.  Often an underachiever on home soil since then, the Frenchman did capture the clay title in nearby Nice last season.  Gasquet twice has won sets from Nadal on the terre battue but has not faced him there since the Spaniard’s first Roland Garros title.  Despite a February-March resurgence, one expects him to muster only meager resistance against the greatest clay-court player in tennis history.  A late wildcard entrant to Monte Carlo, Berdych surely laments the misfortune that situated him in the Spaniard’s section, although he snapped a 20-set losing streak when they met in Miami.  Surging within a set of the Roland Garros final last year, the fifth seed could find his surface skills tested by the canny veteran Juan Ignacio Chela.  Entertaining but unfocused in North American losses to Malisse and Dolgopolov,  Tsonga opens his Monaco campaign against…Monaco, whose grinding style has blunted foes as formidable as Murray on this surface before.

Second quarter:  The highest-ranked player in this section, Murray almost certainly will not fulfill his seeding by progressing to the semifinals.  Reeling from ignominious losses to Donald Young and Alex Bogomolov, Jr., the Scot might start against Rotterdam nemesis Baghdatis.  The Cypriot fancies the clay as little as does the third seed, though, so Murray may have an opportunity to repeat his victory in their meeting at Roland Garros last year.  Similarly encircled by questions, the eighth-seeded Monfils returns from an injury that forced him to miss both Indian Wells and Miami.  While his sliding movement and defensive instincts suit the clay, the Frenchman often lacks the concentration necessary to prevail in a surface that favors longer rallies and greater patience.  His shot-making skills should find an intriguing test in Santiago Giraldo, who enjoyed an eye-opening clay campaign in 2010 before receding.  In a quarter filled with slumping seeds, Giraldo and fellow clay specialist Montanes could penetrate further than expected.  Also a potential dark horse, left-handed Brazilian talent Thomaz Bellucci possesses the weapons to threaten Murray should they meet in the fourth round.  Since no clear favorite looms above this section, more intriguing plotlines could unfold here than in the other quarters.

Third quarter:  Bookending an assortment of streaky, unreliable competitors are the two Spaniards who dogged Nadal’s footsteps during the last clay season.  A runner-up here a year ago, Verdasco desperately needs to regain his footing after a tepid end to 2010 slid into a woeful start to 2011, after which he eyed the return to clay with particular relish.  Yet he may not relish the prospect of an opening meeting with Robredo, who still can punish inconsistent opponents with his bland but stingy consistency.  A runner-up to Nadal in Rome last year, Ferrer has attained far more imposing heights during the last few months, winning two titles and reaching the Australian Open semifinals.  Swift to rebound from an opening-round loss in the California desert, the Spanish #2 gained momentum with a Miami quarterfinal and  should outlast anyone who could meet him before his compatriot.  Sometimes uneasy when forced to generate offense, Ferrer excels when he slips into a counterpunching role of redirecting an opponent’s pace, a task that will confront him constantly as he journeys through this section.  Flamboyant shot-makers Dolgopolov and Gulbis should leave craters in the clay with their percussive groundstrokes, while Llodra and Raonic should offer the rare spectacle of serve-and-volley tennis on the sport’s slowest surface.

Fourth quarter:  Outclassed by Nadal in Miami, a listless Federer arrives in Europe searching for a spark after a series of defeats against the two players ranked above him.  While his decreasing consistency will undermine him on clay more than anywhere else, the second seed will profit from the additional time that the surface provides him to exploit his forehand more frequently and construct points more carefully.  Having upset Murray and Djokovic on clay before, potential second-round opponent Kohlschreiber will force the 2009 Roland Garros champion to find his footing immediately, but the path grows smoother thereafter.  Strictly a hard-court player, Cilic has not learned how to arrange his lanky limbs on the clay, and his self-belief has sagged during the past year.  Unexpectedly reaching the semifinals at the Paris Outdoors last season, Melzer has rarely justified his top-10 ranking in 2011.  Repeatedly dismantled by Federer last year, the Austrian might succumb to Davydenko’s sharply angled groundstrokes in the second round.  Although his best tennis lies behind him, the Russian has recorded more impressive achievements on clay than anyone in this section except the Swiss.  Nor should one overlook Nicolas Almagro, who slashed through South American clay like a knife through butter.  Nevertheless, Federer has lost to just one player outside the top 5 since Wimbledon while compiling a 13-semifinal streak.

Semifinals:  Nadal vs. Monfils, Ferrer vs. Federer

Final:  Nadal vs. Federer

Champion:  Rafael Nadal