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.

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