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Francesca Schiavone - 2011 French Open - Day Eight

Pavlyuchenkova vs. Schiavone:  Surviving a taut three-setter against Jankovic, Schiavone must recover swiftly in order to reinvigorate the adroit movement and reflexes essential for her suffocating court coverage.  If the Italian enters the match flat-footed or emotionally dulled by her previous rollercoaster, she could fall prey to Pavlyuchenkova’s blistering backhands.  But fatigue seems unlikely to afflict a player who recovered from the longest women’s match in Grand Slam history to threaten the world #1 a round later in Melbourne.  Remarkably mature for her nineteen years, the Russian defeated Schiavone in Miami last year before collecting just three games from her at the US Open, part of an arid second half for the teenager.  Trailing Zvonareva in both of the sets that she ultimately won, Pavlyuchenkova showcased not only her familiar ball-striking brilliance (seemingly something that her compatriots take from the womb) but an unfamiliar tenacity that she formerly had lacked.  Nevertheless, the Russian now will face a foe much steelier than the still-fragile Vera, and she must beware of the complacency that could stem from appearing in her first Slam quarterfinal after scoring one of her most significant victories to date.   Discounted on the eve of the tournament by many observers, including ourselves, Schiavone stands three winnable matches from an improbable title defense that would free her from the label of “one-Slam wonder.”  A victim in the quarterfinals of the last two majors, she can deploy her experience and veteran cunning to defuse an opponent eleven years her junior.

Monfils vs. Federer:  For the third time in four years, the 16-time major champion meets the leading home hope on the Parisian terre battue.  During their 2008 semifinal, Monfils infused his countrymen with fleeting hope as he captured a set from the Swiss grandmaster; in 2009, by contrast, he succumbed relatively meekly after an intriguing first set.  Always separating Federer from the Frenchman are his superior focus and superior desire, the first of which has ebbed in recent years but the second of which remains largely undimmed.  At his best, Monfils scampers along the baseline while uncorking thunderous serves and forehands with an exuberant nonchalance simultaneously endearing and frustrating.  At his worst, he lapses into a leisurely lope and soporific exchanges with all of the rhythm and imagination of a metronome.  The best of Monfils surfaced during his scintillating upset over Federer at the Paris Indoors last fall, when he swatted away five match points from a disinterested world #2.  Struggling to sustain that level in a best-of-five format, the Frenchman danced near disaster by squandering double match point as he served for the match against Ferrer in their two-day encounter.  Perhaps relieved  to escape the scrutiny enveloping Nadal and Djokovic, Federer has arrived in the quarterfinals without dropping a set and will bring greater reserves of energy to their encounter.  While a few Gallic flourishes should enliven the afternoon, the 2009 champion has shown sufficient composure here to weather the spectacle across the net by maintaining the steadiness of a Rolex.

Kuznetsova vs. Bartoli:  Defying the conventional wisdom, playing a tournament the week before a major has benefited three of the women’s quarterfinalists.  Bereft of momentum until Brussels and Strasbourg, Bartoli, Schiavone, and Petkovic finally dug into the terre battue at those minor events and entrenched themselves further during the first week of Roland Garros.  Scoring a startling victory over Stuttgart champion Goerges, the top-ranked Frenchwoman should climb even higher as the lawns of Wimbledon beckon.  Both women owe boxes of chocolates to fourth-round opponents Hantuchova and Dulko, who greatly eased their routes by ambushing Wozniacki and Stosur, respectively.  Wildly inconsistent in their results, they have not played a suspenseful match in their three meetings, instead trading bagels and 6-2 sets.  A far superior mover and somewhat more versatile stylist, Kuznetsova clearly has the surface advantage over a player who depends upon her serve and return to seize immediate control of points.  Able to win few rallies with defense, Bartoli will aim to attack the Russian’s indifferent second serve while exposing her backhand.  Like Stosur and Ivanovic, Kuznetsova runs around her two-hander to unleash forehands in the belief that the firepower of her preferred groundstroke justifies the court territory that she surrenders.  Yet Sveta has struck impressive backhands throughout this tournament, so the Frenchwoman should refrain from adhering to that strategy too blindly.  Countering Kuznetsova’s psychological comfort at a tournament that she won two years ago is Bartoli’s superior poise at potential turning points.  No matter the outcome, though, Roland Garros will have produced at least one semifinalist whose hopes seemed as remote as Andorra a few weeks ago.

Na Li - 2011 French Open - Day Seven

Li vs. Kvitova:  Enjoying the best clay season of her career, the Chinese superstar has erased the memories of her February-April swoon by reaching consecutive semifinals in Madrid and Rome before reaching the second week here.  Not without wobbles in her first two matches, she delivered her most comprehensive performance of the tournament in the previous round against Cirstea but must elevate her game several notches in order to survive the Madrid champion.  Already the proud owner of three 2011 titles, Kvitova crushed Li in the Spanish capital with her superior first-strike weapons.  On that occasion, the Czech’s powerful serve and return trumped the more fluid movement and more complete game of the sixth seed.  Both players can oscillate between the audacity of extreme optimism and the passivity of extreme pessimism, so this fascinating encounter might prove more one-sided than their rankings would suggest.  Pitting strength against strength are the exchanges between Kvitova’s cross-court lefty forehand and Li’s versatile backhand, strokes not only penetrating but consistent.  While the Czech still lacks the experience of the Chinese veteran, she also has fewer ghosts to haunt her mind when adversity strikes—and an example of lefty success in Paris on which to reflect.

Nadal vs. Ljubicic:  More fallible than his normal first-week self, Nadal finally earned a resounding win in the third round after a pair of protracted ordeals.  Having defeated Ljubicic en route to the Monte Carlo title, he perhaps can settle his palpable nerves against an opponent who will not startle him with anything unexpected.  Before the tournament began, few observers would have listed the Croat among the players who would reach the second week without dropping  a set, but the Croat has dethroned two seeds with impressive resolve.  Ljubicic can seize a flicker of inspiration from three-set victory over the Spaniard at Indian Wells last year, where his serve and flamboyant one-handed backhand discomfited a tentative Nadal.  Nevertheless, he never has won a set from Rafa on clay and has no department of his game other than the serve in which he can dominate him consistently.  Positioning himself too far behind the baseline in his first two matches, Nadal should plant himself more assertively inside the court, as he did against the previous Croat.  With Soderling soon to descend, the top seed needs an authoritative victory to restore his battered self-belief.

Simon vs. Soderling:  Thoroughly dominated by the Swede in Paris last fall, Simon pursues revenge on a court where his understated all-court game dazzled in dispatching Fish.  A triumph for a fox over a hedgehog, that match illustrated the Frenchman’s capacity to defuse a mighty serve and expose an opponent’s indifferent movement.  The two-time finalist presents a similar type of challenge, relying upon power to cloak his one-dimensionality, but Soderling’s arsenal can hammer opponents off even the slowest surface more swiftly than could Fish.  After an unimpressive opener, the Swede has won eight consecutive sets at the tournament where he first claimed fame.  If his illness and injury woes of the spring have receded, he will present a towering challenge to an opponent whom he never has faced on clay.  Confronted with the resilience of Simon, though, will Soderling maintain his focus and willpower?  The Frenchman cannot survive by trading blow for blow across five bruising sets, so his only hope rests in an optimistic start that flusters and discourages the Swede.  Although aggression does not come naturally to Simon, he must look for opportunities to attack Soderling whenever possible rather than letting him relax into a leisurely afternoon of target practice without pressure.

Maria Sharapova - 2011 French Open - Day Seven

Sharapova vs. Radwanska:  Like the match that precedes it, this collision opposes one of the sport’s most percussive shot-makers against a clever counterpuncher with a crisp backhand and acute court sense.  Falling in this round at each of the last three Slams, Sharapova has not reached a major quarterfinal since Roland Garros two years ago and lost her only Slam meeting with Radwanska at the 2007 US Open.  Since that setback, Maria has swept her five encounters with the Pole to recapture the mental advantage. Brimming with confidence after a Rome title, the Russian probably will not donate the avalanche of hapless errors from which the Pole profited in New York.   Nevertheless, Radwanska has either won a set or forced a tiebreak in three of those five losses, troubling Sharapova with placement rather than power on strokes like her deep returns and artfully angled passing shots.  Like Simon, she must continue to assert her presence affirmatively whenever she can instead of mechanically retrieving Maria’s missiles.  Perched close to the baseline in the sets and matches when she has most challenged Sharapova, the world #12 can transition expertly from defense to offense.  If the three-time major champion continues to connect with a high percentage of first serves, though, she should earn frequent opportunities to plant herself inside the baseline while pinning her opponent behind it.  Equally vital is Radwanska’s first-serve percentage, for Sharapova should subject her benign second balls to unrelenting pressure.  Can the Aga Khan engineer a whirlwind of breaks, or will the Siberian siren maintain order in the court?

Makarova vs. Azarenka:  Intersecting for the fourth time in twelve months, the Russian and the Belarussian crafted a pair of memorable encounters in the last round of Eastbourne and the first round of Sydney.  Often baffled by lefties, Azarenka fell to Makarova in straight sets on grass while struggling to convert break points against a serve that veers sharply away from the returner in the ad court.  In a three-hour battle this January, Vika continued to struggle in that category but earned just enough success to eke out a Pyrrhic victory that drained her energy for the following match.  More encouraging for her prospects on Monday and thereafter was a routine victory over Makarova at Indian Wells.  The highest-ranked player remaining in Paris, the fourth seed has become the slight tournament favorite despite never having attained a Slam semifinal.  Visibly elated to conquer the unassuming Vinci in the third round, she must hold her emotions in check as a potentially career-changing breakthrough draws within range.  When opportunity has knocked before, though, Azarenka often has struggled to capitalize but instead has suffered meltdown or injury.  While Makarova possesses far less raw talent or competitive will, she represents the type of player who could expose Vika’s inner demons and test her (somewhat) improved maturity.

Murray vs. Troicki:  Hardly a contender when this clay season began, the Scot thrust himself into the conversation like his fellow Melbourne runner-up Li Na, scoring semifinals at two of the three Masters 1000 events.  In a depleted quarter, Murray can glimpse a first Roland Garros semifinal—if he can survive the ankle injury that he endured a round ago.  Illustrating his overlooked courage was his ability to win that match, far from its conclusion when he launched his ill-fated lunge towards the net.  The Scot forced himself to strike his groundstrokes more aggressively, revealing an offensive capacity that this innate counterpuncher seldom displays.  Especially notable was his forehand, often criticized as a weapon inferior to the parallel strokes of the top three.  As he had during his thrilling near-victory over Djokovic in Rome, Murray struck his weaker groundstroke with authority and precision.  The Scot must preserve those winning habits to escape this match, far from a certainty considering Troicki’s composed performance against Dolgopolov.  Perhaps relieved to dwell in the shadow of Djokovic’s success, the second Serb shares Murray’s preference for his backhand and tendency towards self-deprecation.  The survivor of this match will have little to bemoan, however, having earned a quarterfinal meeting with the distinctly undistinguished Falla or Chela.

Vera Zvonareva - 2011 French Open - Day Four

Zvonareva vs. Pavlyuchenkova:  Two of the six Russians who advanced to the second week, they met last month on the indoor clay of Stuttgart.  Rallying from a one-set deficit on that occasion, Zvonareva likewise erased a one-set deficit before saving a match point in her second-round encounter with Lisicki here.  Since Vera and Nastia have combined to play 27 three-setters this year already, one might expect a fiercely contested encounter littered with twists and turns.  Seeking her first Slam quarterfinal, Pavlyuchenkova displayed creditable composure by outlasting clay specialist Llagostera Vives a round ago.  Both Russians have compiled a balanced groundstroke game and will hope to cling as close to the baseline as possible, looking for opportunities to move forward and take time away from the opponent.  A superior server and much superior mover, Zvonareva has few clear weaknesses that the teenager can exploit, although her indifferent clay results will have infused her with little confidence.  Striking a flatter ball with less margin for error, Pavlyuchenkova might aim to redirect her groundstrokes in order to hit behind her compatriot, who reverses direction more awkwardly than she covers the open court.  Intra-Russian affairs rarely produce the most aesthetically pleasing tennis, but they frequently produce comical, emotional, or otherwise entertaining moments to remember.

Gasquet vs. Djokovic:  Swaggering onto the court for the third consecutive day, the world #2 concluded a dangerous battle with Del Potro on an uplifting note by breaking the Argentine four times in the last two sets of their completion.  Rarely has Djokovic struggled to break the serve of the former French prodigy, feeding him four breadsticks during his four previous victories and dominating him at Indian Wells this spring.  As contenders like Murray has discovered at majors past, Gasquet can blaze through sets at a time with effortless precision equal to Federer.  As Murray also discovered, however, the Frenchman disintegrates swiftly when his timing falters by even a fraction, hampering him in the best-of-five format.  Djokovic thus should stay calm if Gasquet slips into one of the torried streaks that has propelled him through the finest performance of his career at his home major.  Falling behind early in both sets in their Indian Wells clash, the Serb comfortably regrouped behind his scorching return and constantly threatened the Frenchman on serve.  Before this week, Richard had won just four total matches in seven appearances at Roland Garros, finding the surface ill-suited to his mercurial flamboyance.  Despite his heartwarming resurgence in 2011, highlighted by a victory over Federer in Rome, he lacks the mental fortitude to grind past a champion of Djokovic’s pedigree at a major unless fatigue significantly undermines the Serb

Jankovic vs. Schiavone:  Somewhat to our surprise, the defending champion reached the second week with minimal ado against a trio of thoroughly overmatched opponents.  Her path now grows steeper as she confronts a three-time Roland Garros semifinalist who has won their last three meetings, crushing her in Marbella two years ago.  A semifinalist or better at no fewer than six majors but never a champion, Jankovic must consider this vulnerable draw an exceptional opportunity to address that lacuna in her resume.  On the other hand, the former #1 appeared to lose much of her competitive desire over the last year, while excessive court mileage from an overstuffed schedule has dulled her once-explosive movement.  Inspiring hope in the Serb, though, was a comfortable victory over Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who previously had enjoyed a compelling clay season.  Can Schiavone’s bubbling joy in the sport and appetite for the battle overcome an opponent with superior weapons?  If the Italian can slip into the forecourt, she could disrupt Jankovic’s baseline rhythm and sow confusion in her mind.  Conversely, the Serb will hope to pin Schiavone behind the baseline, miring her in conventional rallies where the defending champion’s inferior ball-striking capacity will doom her.  Outstanding movers and indifferent servers, these two combatants should win few easy points but instead engage in a series of elongated exchanges that exploit the geometry of the court.

Gael Monfils - 2011 French Open - Day Four

Ferrer vs. Monfils:  For the Spaniard, tennis resembles less a sport than a war.  For the Frenchman, tennis resembles less a sport than a performance.  As one of the ATP’s greatest overachievers collides with one of the ATP’s greatest underachievers, observers might reflect upon the divergent routes that brought them to essentially the same destination:  a status lofty although clearly outside the elite circle of contenders.  Whereas Ferrer lacks the weapons to regularly compete with the best, Monfils lacks the motivation and willpower.  Three years ago at Roland Garros, the latter conquered the former in an uneventful quarterfinal a round before extending Federer to four sets.  In order to repeat that accomplishment, Monfils must maximize his vital advantage at the service notch.  Also a far superior athlete and shot-maker, the Frenchman should not flinch before unleashing his firepower.  Too often, his superlative defensive skills cause him to forget his mighty offensive weapons, most notably a jumping forehand more like an overhead than a groundstroke.  Among the finest returners and baseline retrievers in the ATP, Ferrer would relish a defensively oriented encounter that could showcase his fitness and focus, his two principal advantages over Monfils.  The seventh and ninth seeds should conduct their collision from well behind the baseline, allowing observers to witness a classic display of clay-court tennis.

Hantuchova vs. Kuznetsova:  After the dual upsets of Wozniacki and Stosur, Kuznetsova leapt from the status of an intriguing dark horse to the favorite from her quarter and perhaps her half.  The 2009 champion has not thrived in such a position before, often tripping on the threshold when a door opens for her.  Sharing that trait is her opponent on Sunday, although Hantuchova demonstrated an uncharacteristic degree of composure in surviving a desperate second-set rally by Wozniacki and dispatching a reigning #1 for the first time.  Perhaps still soaring from that stunning accomplishment, the stylish Slovak may have sufficient momentum to overcome her negative history against Kuznetsova, who won both of their previous clay meetings in straight sets.  Pitted against the Russian’s superior athleticism are Hantuchova’s exquisite ball placement and unpredictable angles.  While Sveta appreciates the extra time to set up her forehand on clay, Daniela welcomes the extra time with which the surfaces masks her tepid movement.  Although none of the 11 meetings has occurred at a major, Hantuchova won the most important match of their rivalry in the 2007 Indian Wells final.  In an encounter between two competitors with the flakiness of a millefeuille, however, whoever thinks less will laugh last.



Victoria Azarenka - 2011 French Open - Day Three

Vinci vs. Azarenka:  Crisp and commanding in her first two matches, the world #4 has established herself as a leading contender in a draw devoid of the top two seeds.  Able to slide smoothly from defense to offense, Azarenka wields a combination of movement and power designed to succeed on the clay where she has reached two finals this year.  Nevertheless, retirements and tantrums have caused many to question her future promise, for she may not withstand their burdens created by a fortnight of intensifying pressure.  Testing Azarenka psychologically more than physically is her third-round opponent, a crafty Italian veteran who has unraveled powerful ball-strikers such as Kuznetsova and Ivanovic.  A champion in Barcelona, Vinci compensates for her lack of an offensive weapon with a variety of spins and slices that disrupt an opponent’s rhythm while allowing her to restart rallies.  Azarenka generally displays the intelligent shot selection essential to outlasting the Italian, but she also must show more patience than she often does.  Long armed with the game of a champion, does she have the mind of a champion as well?

Fish vs. Simon:  Hooked by Fish when they met on hard courts last summer, Simon may find the momentum swinging towards him on a surface vastly different from Cincinnati.  Preferring the faster surfaces as well, the top half’s only surviving Frenchman has acquitted himself creditably during the clay season but has not won more than two matches at any of his last five tournaments.  In order to halt that trend, Gilles will hope to extend the American into court-stretching rallies that enable him to outmaneuver Fish along the baseline.  Although both players can generate ample offense from their forehands, their brisk two-handers stay more technically reliable.  The last surviving American in either draw, Fish will rely upon his improved fitness to construct points carefully against an opponent who punishes the impetuous.  He remains the more natural aggressor of this pair, on the other hand, and must not allow Simon to lull him into a war of attrition from the baseline.

Maria Sharapova - 2011 French Open - Day Five

Sharapova vs. Chan:  From an early stroll along the precipice can emerge one of two divergent trajectories for a player’s future in the tournament.  Like Nadal, Sharapova hopes that her flirtation with danger against Garcia does not foretell an early exit against an unheralded upstart but rather propels her forward with the momentum of a warrior offered a second life.  The WTA Valkyrie next crosses swords with Yung-Jan Chan, who fell to her routinely in Miami and Wimbledon four years ago.  In contrast to Garcia’s fearless assault, the Chinese doubles star focuses on executing the fundamentals as meticulously as possible.  During a qualifying match in Indian Wells this spring, for (an extreme) example, she struck 54 consecutive first serves.  Her stingy tactics force opponents to earn their victories over her by hitting their targets consistently, but Sharapova always has relished the opportunity to grasp her fate in her own hands.  If the wind whirls around Chatrier again, her ball toss  could falter and her confidence wane.  But Maria’s escape from adverse conditions and an inspired foe on Thursday should have hardened her determination for the challenges ahead.

Wickmayer vs. Radwanska:  Just a few months older than her opponent, Radwanska has crossed the threshold from promising upstart to established competitor, whereas Wickmayer remains in the former category.  Despite occasionally experimenting with amplified offense, the Pole has settled into a counterpunching mold that proves adequate against most WTA journeywomen while stalling her progress around the fringe of the top 10.  Even if she never joins the circle of Slam contenders, though, Radwanska should penetrate into many second weeks.  In the fraught Fed Cup epic that they contested last year, Wickmayer ground down her defenses by the narrowest of margins, buttressed by a significantly superior serve.  The heiress to the kingdom of Henin and Clijsters plays less like either of them than like Stosur or Kuznetsova, showcasing less grace than rugged athleticism and shielding her average movement with potent serve-forehand gambits.  While Radwanska illustrates the mental dimension of this Janus-faced sport, therefore, Wickmayer evokes its equally central physicality.

Dolgopolov vs. Troicki:  During one span earlier this year, the second Serb had lost only to the eventual champion in six of seven tournaments.  Perhaps disheartened by his unkind draws, Troicki has fallen to unremarkable opponents like Starace, Granollers, and Florian Mayer more recently.  Much more at home on hard courts than clay, he can seize control of rallies with either groundstroke but succumbs too swiftly to pessimism.  Clay can unlock those emotions more easily, but Dolgopolov can frustrate opponents on any surface with his lithe court coverage, uncanny timing, and knack for executing implausible shots under pressure.  In stark contrast are their distinctive service motions—the Serb’s a jerky sequence of starts and stops, the Ukrainian’s a smooth, loose-limbed curl.  A quarterfinalist at the Australian Open, Dolgopolov has cultivated an insouciant swagger that belies his sub-20 ranking.  Keenly aware of his surroundings on most occasions, Troicki conversely has allowed tension to undermine him in proportion to the magnitude of the moment.  When they met in New Haven last summer, they collaborated on a pair of energetic tiebreak sets before the Ukrainian faded in the third.  Although a chronic illness never lurks far away, Dolgopolov has improved his stamina this season and demonstrated his ability to win five-setters in Australia.

Petkovic vs. Gajdosova:  In the first round of Roland Garros 2007, the heavy-hitting German overcame the heavy-hitting Slovak when both lay well outside the top 50.  As Petkovic nears the top 10 and Gajdosova the top 25, their encounter has shifted to the middle weekend.  In each of the two previous French Opens, a player who mingled thunderous offense with meager defense reached the second week (first Cirstea and then Shvedova).  Perhaps taking confidence from those examples, Gajdosova represents the counterintuitive type of player who can shine on the clay, the ball-bruiser who can penetrate the slow court with her groundstrokes while enjoying the additional time to set her feet.  Soderling turned this formula into consecutive finals here in 2009-10, although none should confuse the Swede with the Aussie.  Also a player who prefers to deliver rather than receive blows, Petkovic can modulate into a serviceable defense more comfortably but will win few points when pressed behind the baseline.  In a WTA without conventional clay specialists, this secondary style of clay tennis may portend a trend for future French Opens.

Julia Goerges - Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open - Day Seven

Bartoli vs. Goerges:  Not a factor on clay before this year, the former Wimbledon runner-up married her fast-court skills to her least friendly surface by reaching the Strasbourg final last week.  A player renowned for return winners and similarly potent first strikes, Bartoli will face an opponent who has built her suddenly augmented credentials upon two upsets over Wozniacki.  Goerges should count herself fortunate to have survived her three-setter with Safarova a round ago, however, for the Czech nearly buried her under a barrage of lefty forehands into her more vulnerable backhand.  Potentially vital in this match is the German’s far superior serve, which rarely undergoes the wobble experienced by Bartoli’s ungainly delivery at some stage in most matches.  While the French crowd that boosted Garcia will stand firmly behind Marion, Goerges appears a steady competitor unlikely to implode upon request.  But one wonders how she will adjust to Bartoli’s unorthodox, double-barreled style, having struggled to adapt to the distinctive weapons of Safarova.

Wawrinka vs. Tsonga:  The only Swiss star to feature on Chatrier today, Wawrinka knows that another encounter with his nation’s #1 lies just beyond a potential victory here.  Will that deflating realization infect the play of Federer’s doubles partner?  Behind his quarterfinal runs at each of the previous two majors loomed not only bellicose coach Peter Lundgren but an enhanced offense highlighted by the mightiest one-handed backhand in tennis.   Wawrinka could deploy that stroke to pin Tsonga into his relatively weak backhand corner, tempting the French hope to run around that shot to hit forehands and thus surrender a gaping swathe of court position.  Belied by the Swiss #2’s compact, unprepossessing frame, his serve often enables him to take command of points more frequently than he once could.  En route to his unexpected quarterfinals in New York and Melbourne, Wawrinka toppled Murray at the former and Roddick at the latter, so Tsonga represents a target well within his range.  The ebullient Frenchman proved against Andreev that baseline grinding alone will not erode him, though, requiring the Swiss to seize the initiative if he hopes to seize the day.

Del Potro vs. Djokovic:  Probably more anticipated than any first-round encounter, this collision will occur as the suitably dramatic late-afternoon shadows creep across Chatrier.  Yet the sun will not set on Djokovic’s 41-match winning streak unless Del Potro unleashes his most imposing performance since the 2009 US Open—and sustains it across the course of five sets against the most relentless mover in the sport.  The Argentine looked increasingly convincing after losing the first set of the tournament to Karlovic, measuring his balanced groundstrokes to the baselines and heightening his focus at potential turning points.  Nevertheless, Djokovic has thundered through his first two matches with bulletproof determination, perhaps emboldened by the prospect of the #1 ranking four wins ahead.  A personality gentler than his fearsome forehand would suggest, Del Potro may find the task posed by the second seed too formidable to even contemplate the possibility of victory so soon after his return from a leg injury.  Unless he finds an early ray of optimism, he may meekly bare his neck to the Serbian battleaxe.

Peng vs. Schiavone:  For some players, returning to the scene of their greatest achievements intimidates them into timid, uncertain performances.  Not so for Schiavone, who so far has frolicked on the clay where she sprawled in ecstasy a year ago.  The competition spikes upward with the resolute Peng, who has split her two meetings with Schiavone and menaced her throughout an airtight two-setter in Madrid this month.  Moreover, the rising Chinese star won three consecutive sets against top-three opposition in Brussels last week before succumbing to Wozniacki in the final.  Since Peng clearly believes that she belongs in the conversation with the elite, Schiavone cannot expect the assistance that her previous opponents generously provided in their own demise.  Always eager to engage in battle, the feisty Italian gladiator must sharpen her sword before dispatching an opponent worthy of her steel.

Tipsarevic vs. Federer:  Few can forget their magical meeting at the 2008 Australian Open, when the GOAT locked horns with a bespectacled Serb who had the audacity to extend him into an 18-game final set.  Surely remembering that blight upon his escutcheon with especial clarity, Federer has not earned an opportunity for revenge until now.  Although the clay can expose the Swiss legend’s sporadic bouts of inconsistency, Tipsarevic should find the dirt poorly suited to his low-percentage shot selection.

Wozniacki vs. Hantuchova:  Whenever the graceful Slovak takes the court, two Hantuchovas alternate in confronting her opponents.  In the first set of her Miami meeting with Wozniacki this year, the feckless Hantuchova struggled to time or locate even the most routine swing volleys into the open court.  In the second set, the free-flowing Hantuchova executed improbable drop shots and exquisitely placed forehands with apparent effortlessness.  Probably anticipating an uneventful victory after the first set, Wozniacki needed her most dogged defense (and a bit of luck) to dodge a third.  Almost as lucky to avoid a final set against Wozniak, the Dane looked uneasy in a desultory performance that featured an unusually high quantity of unforced errors.  Whatever frailty she experiences, however, seems slight when juxtaposed with an emblem of physical and emotional fragility.

Gasquet vs. Bellucci:  Plats du jour at the two main appetizers of the clay season, these incorrigible underachievers enjoyed their weeks in the spotlight at the expense of Murray (Bellucci) and Federer (Gasquet).  A power merchant who spares little effort for finesse, the heir to Gustavo Kuerten bludgeons his backhand at a velocity almost equal to his sweeping forehand and with seeming indifference to the lines.  Likewise inclined to flirt with the perimeters of the court is his French foe, although the latter relies upon elegant forecourt touch as much as his crackling backhand and underrated serve.  Clay grants these players more time to arrange their elongated groundstroke swings, but it also tests their dubious fortitude under pressure.

Maria Sharapova - 2011 French Open - Day Three

Sharapova vs. Garcia:  Dispatching one Caroline en route to the Rome title, Sharapova eyes a less intimidating Caroline in Paris.  This apparent mismatch pits a storied champion who has won three Slam titles against a 17-year-old who has won two total matches at majors, but perhaps one should not feed this Christian to the lioness too eagerly.  Flitting across one’s mind are the shadows of Kudryavtseva and Oudin, who defeated Sharapova at Wimbledon and the US Open when ranked #154 and #70, respectively.  Thrust onto a court far larger than any where she has tread, Garcia can expect the vociferous support of her compatriots and showed a glimpse of courage by winning the first Slam match of her career in January.  Demonstrating a nascent aptitude for the surface, the world #177 claimed her second ITF clay title in Florida this April.  Of course, Sharapova would capture the Premier Five crown in Rome two weeks later.

Chardy vs. Simon:  Sharing a passport but little else, this internecine clash of les bleus pits an aggressive, forehand-centered Frenchman against a compatriot who relies on steadiness and a crisp two-hander.  Whereas Chardy can drift emotionally within tournaments and even matches, a healthy Simon consistently competes with the sturdiness that has enabled him to maximize his potential.  The clay will shelter the former’s asymmetrical groundstroke game while showcasing the latter’s defense.  In the pressure of playing in their nation’s most prestigious event and largest stadium, the experience of Simon may shine through, but the brashness of Chardy may allow him to capture the moment.

Zheng vs. Kvitova:  Although she has failed to recapture her momentum following wrist surgery, Zheng has accumulated a history of upsetting or nearly upsetting contenders from Sharapova to Serena.  Her low center of gravity and compact stroke production aid her in adjusting to the clay’s unpredictable bounces, while her court coverage should prove even more seamless on the dirt.  Nevertheless, the unusually fast bounce and light balls at Roland Garros this year, coupled with warm, sunny weather, will encourage shot-maker like Kvitova to fancy their chances against defensive-minded foes.  Displaying traces of her scintillating form in Madrid, the Czech crushed 2011 surprise Arn in the first round and should gain further hope from her friendly first-week draw.

Malisse vs. Verdasco:  Most dangerous when least anticipated, the Spaniard surprisingly overcame a history of futility against Monaco in his opener despite a generally disappointing season.  One would imagine that this comprehensive four-set victory would raise the spirits of a player whose form fluctuates with his confidence.  But Verdasco’s fortunes have not always followed a logical trajectory, nor have those of his opponent.  From a nation more renowned in the WTA than ATP, Malisse has underachieved even more than the Spaniard has, in part as a result of chronic injuries.  Taking a set from Murray in Rome, he could unsettle the unsubtle Verdasco with his penetrating backhand and versatile all-court repertoire.

Mirza vs. Radwanska / Medina Garrigues vs. Gajdosova:  Only a sporadic player at this stage, Mirza still can unleash forehands that occasionally fluster competitors as noteworthy as Henin (in Melbourne this year).  Targeting the lines too often for sustained success on clay, her relentless ball-striking presents Radwanska with an assignment at which the Pole excels.  Smothered by the WTA’s premier offenses, she specializes in chipping away at less consistent or balanced attackers with canny shot placement that exploits the geometry of the court.  The balance of overall talent between puncher and counterpuncher shifts in the opposite direction when Gajdosova faces Medina Garrigues, whose superior clay skills that carried her to the Barcelona title.  Unruffled by a recent divorce or the circumstances of her opener against Razzano, however, the Aussie proved herself a focused and motivated competitor.

Querrey vs. Ljubicic:  Formerly feckless at Roland Garros, the youthful tower of power delivered a victory over Kohslchreiber almost as impressive and unexpected as Verdasco’s win over Monaco.  Standing poised to intercept him is a seasoned tower of power, who will rely upon the experience that Querrey never quite seems to acquire or turn to his advantage.  Neither player has displayed much spark over the past several months, trudging from tournament to tournament with their explosive serves but not much else.  In a match less meaningful for the veteran than for the American, Querrey has an opportunity to accumulate a bit of momentum before defending his Queens Club title and perhaps launching a longer campaign at Wimbledon.  Far from a contender here or there, he personifies the recent trend among American men of underperforming at majors—by their nation’s lofty standards, in any case.  Perhaps we should learn to accept him for what he remains, a decent talent with weapons and weaknesses in equal measure, rather than expecting him to develop into something special.

Cirstea vs. Dulgheru:  Banished to a court as peripheral as their country on Europe’s map, these two Romanians have scored their finest achievements on clay.  Scorching into the second week at Roland Garros 2009, Cirstea delivered an epic upset over Jankovic that suggested much more promise than she since has fulfilled.  Barely inside the top 100, she has floated among challengers and qualifying draws while winning only three main-draw matches this year.  Less eye-catching in both looks and playing style, Dulgheru won the last two editions of the Warsaw clay tournament with tireless court coverage and timely backhands down the line.  The two Romanians have struggled for most of 2011, although Alexandra did reach the Miami quarterfinals.  Having eaten more bagels and breadsticks lately than her tennis health should permit, she must remember that those who give gain more blessings than those who receive.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga - 2011 French Open - Day One

Andreev vs. Tsonga:  Atypical among Russians, the world #92 has excelled on clay perhaps more than on any other surface, even registering a win over a youthful Nadal.  Conversely, Tsonga vastly prefers the faster surfaces that showcase his thunderbolts and acrobatic flourishes to the sluggish dirt of his home nation’s major.  On the especially slow hard court of Indian Wells, in fact, he surrendered to Andreev in straight sets two years ago.  But the Frenchman strutted through an imposing opener that illustrated his delicate touch in the forecourt and a clay movement more competent than observers might have expected.  Since both players generate much greater offense from their forehands, they will exploit the extra time provided by the surface to run around as many backhands as possible.  Whereas one never knows quite what to expect from Tsonga, one always knows what to expect from Andreev:  resilient ball-striking and relentless court coverage.  Somewhat like Verdasco against Monaco on Tuesday, the 17th seed must prepare to expend both mental and physical effort before reaping a reward.

Ferrer vs. Benneteau / Gasquet vs. Granollers:  Adding additional spice to the trans-Pyrenean rivalry is the recent achievements of Spain at the French Slam.  Likely to write another page in that chapter is the world #6, who regrouped in sparkling fashion from illness to demolish the potentially dangerous Nieminen a round ago.  Fitter and fresher than many of his peers, Ferrer should not relax against the mercurial Benneteau, known more for his exploits in doubles than singles but the architect of an occasional ambush.  Buoyed by his compatriots, the Frenchman scored a stunning upset over Federer in the 2009 Paris Indoors and delivered a stirring performance against the then-formidable Gulbis at this tournament last year.  His compact two-hander offers an intriguing contrast to the florid one-hander of Gasquet, who recently overcame Federer in a clay third-set tiebreak for the second time.  In his meeting with Granollers, the 13th seed meets an opponent with similarly elongated strokes although much less imagination.  A victor over Soderling a few Australian Opens ago, Granollers has greater grit than his unprepossessing game would suggest.

Zvonareva vs. Lisicki:  Early in the 2010 US Open, the Russian defused the German’s thunderous serve en route to her second major final.  Zvonareva will hope to script a parallel narrative as she seeks to reach the semifinal or better at all four Slams consecutively, but Roland Garros has remained a thorn in her side during her relatively few appearances here.  A natural counterpuncher who aims to exploit the pace of her opponents, the third seed sometimes struggles to generate adequate offense to finish points on this surface.  The Russian has lost at least one set in seven of her eight clay matches this season to opponents including Schnyder and Galina Voskoboeva, while her straight-sets loss to Peng in Brussels likewise boded ill.  As her odd history of futility against Stosur suggests, moreover, Zvonareva can become flustered by the heaviest deliveries in the game, so Lisicki should offer an intriguing mental test.

Safarova vs. Goerges:  Having split their two previous meetings, these two audacious ball-strikers should extend the competitive beginnings of their rivalry.  Although both can impose themselves on rallies from either groundstroke, the match could turn upon who can earn more opportunities to unleash the forehands that they prefer.  Safarova’s left-handedness will enable her to uncover the backhand of Goerges with her heavy cross-court forehand, a shot that garnered substantial success for the Czech on clay last year.  Aligned for clay are their elongated strokes, which require a timing less precise than on faster surfaces.  More skilled than many of their peers at the service notch, they should deliver an encounter with relatively few breaks.  In Stuttgart, Goerges became the only player this year to play an entire match against Wozniacki without dropping her serve.  Can she progress from ambush artist to reliable threat and summon her best when not facing the best?  Safarova will inquire.

Martinez Sanchez vs. Marino:  Vaulting past Wozniak as the brightest star in the firmament of Canadian tennis, the muscular Marino announced herself with a strong effort against Venus at the US Open last year.  After their clash, the seven-time major champion complimented her victim by comparing her to herself.  While Marino must make considerable strides before validating that praise, she illustrated her promise a Slam later by dragging Schiavone deep into a third set at the Australian Open.  Lacking in clay expertise, she does not lack the willpower to trouble dirt devil Martinez Sanchez in another match of sturdy serves.  The 2010 Rome champion rode her multifaceted style to a mini-upset over Peer in her opener, stirring to life after a generally moribund 2011.  If she can exploit the opening in the draw that she has created, the momentum of this streaky competitor could snowball in the Paris sun.  As the power of Marino represents the WTA’s future, the grace and delicacy of Martinez Sanchez gestures towards the sport’s past.

Ana Ivanovic - The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2011 - Day Two

Ivanovic vs. Larsson:  A first-round victim at two of the last three majors, the 2008 champion has succumbed in her opening match at three of seven tournaments this season.  While the first statistic illustrates her recent psychological frailty on grand stages, the latter statistic springs more from the injuries that have limited her to just 17 matches in 2011.  When healthy and confident, however, Ivanovic can carve her way deep into prestigious draws (cf. Indian Wells this year) and challenge the most elite opponents (cf. Clijsters in Miami).  Despite a wrist inflammation last week, she gained encouragement from her pre-tournament practices and can remind herself that she dominated Larsson in their previous meeting last fall.  The Swede has enjoyed a surprisingly fine clay season, highlighted by an Estoril semifinal, and she showed sufficient steel to topple Li Na in Miami.  If Ivanovic can subdue the inevitable first-round nerves, her much superior weight of shot should prevail.  But she will not want to invigorate her opponent with the sort of mid-match wobble that has dogged her all year, leading to squandered leads in Melbourne, Dubai, Madrid, and Rome.

Sharapova vs. Lucic:  For the second straight season, the three-time major champion arrives with a winning streak at the only Slam that has eluded her.  Far more impressive than the 2010 Strasbourg title, though, was a Rome surge that catapulted Maria from the outer to the inner circle of contenders with a  single blow.  A single blow remains the Russian’s preferred manner of terminating rallies with what Francis Ford Coppola might consider “extreme prejudice.”  In order to ultimately win this title, she must balance on the edge between aggression and recklessness, although her first opponent may not require such precision.  More than a decade ago, Lucic reached the Wimbledon semifinals with a win over Seles before soon fading from the picture like so many former prodigies.  While her comeback has not reached the celebrity of Date-Krumm’s revival, she won a set from Jankovic at the US Open and has the ball-striking capacity to survive the initial wave of assault from Sharapova.  Whether she can stay competitive throughout an entire match lies open to question.

Nadal vs. Isner: Never at his most comfortable against the skyscrapers of the ATP, the five-time champion must feel that Ivanovic played a naughty prank by assigning him the sport’s second-tallest man.  But the first-round loss of the sport’s tallest man, Karlovic, demonstrated the danger of relying upon a single shot to win three sets on these dusty battlefields.   After a desultory season thus far, Isner probably will enter the match with no real self-belief that he could threaten a player against whom he once won a set on a hard court.  If Nadal can score an early break of serve, the intrigue here could evaporate quickly.  Before it does, the match should provide a scintillating exercise in Rafa’s returning skills that will serve him well against later foes like Soderling.  Few elements of Nadal’s game impress more than his ability to gradually maneuver himself into control of a rally after absorbing a massive serve, and no surface showcases that talent more clearly than clay.

Harrison vs. Soderling:  Entering the main draw as a lucky loser, the future of American men’s tennis faces the two-time finalist.  After a pedestrian spring, Soderling brings little momentum into a clash with a player whom he defeated en route to the Brisbane title.  Nor did he bring momentum into his 2010 fortnight here, however, so Harrison should expect to meet the giant-killer who toppled Nadal and Federer in his last two appearances.  As unlikely to mount a legitimate threat as Isner against Nadal, the American has the opportunity to test his fledgling game against one of the ATP’s central pillars.  Mentally, he has the makings of a champion, but does he have the raw weapons?

Li vs. Zahlavova Strycova:  At her finest when coolest in the head, the Australian Open runner-up faces a perpetually sizzling firecracker.  An indifferent talent at best, Zahlavova Strycova attempts to strike sparks from her opponents with her pugnacious gamesmanship and tasteless theatrics.  One wonder whether she can crack the veneer of the Chinese star, so solid in Melbourne but so brittle over the following months.  If Lie aims to become a genuine contender on a consistent basis, the Czech exemplifies the type of journeywoman whom she must regularly defeat in uneventful fashion.

Monaco vs. Verdasco:  Hindered by several unkind draws this season, Verdasco has won consecutive matches at only three of eleven tournaments this year.  Now unseeded at Masters 1000 events, the Spaniard at least enters the tournament fresher than he did last year after an exhausting spring schedule.  Verdasco will need all of the energy that his legs can summon in order to outlast the tireless Monaco, the Argentine answer to Ferrer.  Technically sound albeit offensively underpowered, he can punish the Spaniard for the chronic lulls in the latter’s game by forcing him to hit multiple quasi-winners to finish points.  The world #20 has escaped unscathed from only two of their eights wars of attrition, so he will gain impetus from grinding down the defenses of this recurrent nemesis.

Petkovic vs. Jovanovski:  Can Jovanovski become “the third Serb” and follow in the footstep of compatriots Ivanovic and Jankovic?  Can Petkovic restore Germany to the tennis map a generation after the exploits of Steffi Graf?  The politician-musician-filmmaker-dancer-athlete has made substantial strides in that direction by reaching the Australian Open quarterfinal and Miami semifinal, but her momentum slowed between that performance and her Strasbourg title last week.  While both players prefer hard courts to clay, Petkovic has accumulated greater experience on the dirt and came within a point of halting Kuznetsova’s title defense last year.  In somewhat the opposite of Harrison’s position, Jovanovski has shown that she has ample firepower to compete with the elite, most notably in a Melbourne three-setter against Zvonareva.  What she has not shown is the mental stamina and willpower equally essential to becoming a champion.  To that end, she could learn from her opponent on Tuesday, a few steps higher on that evolutionary ladder although still a work in progress.

Querrey vs. Kohlschreiber:  One of the ATP’s most familiar scènes à faire, this match pits a steady, serve-oriented American against a fiery, versatile European.  Their respective backhands encapsulate the contrast between their styles, Querrey’s a studied, conservative two-hander and Kohlschreiber’s an effortless, audacious one-handed flick.  On clay, steady normally overcomes streaky, but the German has enjoyed much the stronger season overall and finds his footing here more naturally, having scored terre battue triumphs over Djokovic and Murray before.  A day that looks dismal for Americans from Isner to Russell to Harrison may turn no brighter when Querrey takes the court.

Roger Federer - The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2011 - Day Five

Oudin vs. Schiavone:  Returning to defend a notable title, surprise champions often falter at the first obstacle as the task of repeating their feat looms large in their minds.  On Sunday, Stosur overcame a similar test with aplomb, delivering one of her finer performances this season.  Tepid over the last several months, Schiavone must rise to the occasion against a feisty foe who defeated her in Fed Cup last fall.  Oudin has not fulfilled her promise from the 2009 US Open and may find her height an insurmountable handicap.  While the clay allows her to run around her backhand to hit her much more imposing forehand, the higher bounce often carries balls above her comfortable strike zone.  Also troubling the American is Schiavone’s artful net play, which frustrates straightforward baseliners when executed with the energy recently lacking in the Italian’s game.

Lopez vs. Federer:  Just weeks ago in Madrid, the third-ranked Spanish lefty held a match point against the 2009 Roland Garros champion in a three-tiebreak thriller.  But the significantly slower surface of Paris should allow Federer to return his opponent’s formidable serve and expose his inconsistency in longer rallies, while the Chatrier crowd will not buttress Lopez as did the denizens of Manolo Santana Arena.  Perhaps more significantly, the best-of-five format will assist the Swiss master in outlasting any surge from the streaky lefty.  Federer did wobble to the brink of defeat three majors ago at Wimbledon against the much less heralded Falla, and he remains more susceptible to upsets on clay than on any other surface.  At no major since 2003, though, has he lost to a player who failed to at least reach the final at that major, and few would expect Lopez to register a similar accomplishment.

Gasquet vs. Stepanek / Phau vs. Monfils:  The principal standard-bearers for their nation, these two Frenchmen face a pair of aging, idiosyncratic opponents who could spell trouble for their own unpredictable styles.  Losing only one of eleven first-round clashes this year, Gasquet accumulated momentum with runs to the Rome semifinal and Indian Wells quarterfinal that included victories over Federer, Melzer, and Roddick.  The former prodigy once labeled “baby Federer” has habitually disappointed the hopes of his compatriots at his home major, however, rampaging to within a few games of Murray in his 2010 opener before slumping to yet another demoralizing defeat.  More successful at Roland Garros than some have acknowledged, Monfils accompanied Gasquet to a first-round exit last year after similarly winning the first two sets from Fabio Fognini.  Can les bleus win a fleeting bit of redemption in the harsh eyes of their countrymen, or will the tradition of French futility in Paris continue?

Del Potro vs. Karlovic:  When he learned his opening assignment, the Argentine must have wondered whether he erred in finding valor the better part of discretion and returning so swiftly from his leg injury.  On one hand, Karlovic’s affinity for short points will not test Del Potro’s movement and expose any lingering twinges.  On the other hand, the Croat represents a singularly challenging opponent for a player who seeks to establish a rhythm after an absence from competition and has contested relatively few matches this year.  Del Potro won the Estoril title with straight-set triumphs over Soderling and Verdasco, though, while his exceptional wingspan should enable him to retriever more of Karlovic’s serves than the typical returner.  If he can record comfortable holds on his own serve, he should steadily outmaneuver the Croat in points that last longer than three or four strokes.

Wozniacki vs. Date-Krumm:  Weary after playing five hours in two days to win her first red-clay title last week, the world #1 now faces a woman twice her age who toppled former #1 Safina here a year ago.  Early in her comeback, Date-Krumm also won a set from Wozniacki at the Australian Open, and her imaginative angle creation could fluster an opponent who depends upon maintaining a reliable rhythm.  After a momentous 2010, the Japanese legend has sagged to a pedestrian level in 2011, showing few signs of threatening a player as confident and talented as the Dane.  Her increasingly error-prone groundstrokes should play into Wozniacki’s steady hands, albeit not before some scrambling exchanges.

Arn vs. Kvitova:  Firmly entrenching herself in the top 10, the Czech lefty already has won three titles in 2011 but has alternated the torrid with the frigid.  After she started the season 16-1, Kvitova lost four of her next five matches, then won twelve straight before unexpectedly dropping the final of the Prague challenger to the 72nd-ranked Rybarikova.  One wonders whether that defeat will trigger another brief skid or whether she can extend the impetus from a Madrid surge during which she conquered three top-10 opponents.  Unlikely to prove willing cannon fodder, Arn not only won Auckland in January with wins over Sharapova and Wickmayer but defeated Kuznetsova in Rome after saving three match points.  While the 32-year-old Hungarian cannot survive a convincing offensive assault from Kvitova, therefore, she could exploit one of the head-scratching afternoons that the Czech still donates occasionally.

Samantha Stosur - 2010 French Open - Day Fourteen

Benesova vs. Stosur:  Reinvigorated with a stirring week in Rome, last year’s finalist must recover swiftly from the illness that troubled her there.  Stosur recently defeated Benesova on clay, but the Czech lefty reached the second week at the Australian Open by upsetting a pair of seeded opponents.  Opening the fortnight’s action on Philippe Chatrier, the Aussie may feel some flickers of the pressure that hampered her play at the season’s first major.  While Beneosva almost certainly cannot outplay her for an entire match on this surface, we might gain a window into Stosur’s current confidence as she enters the scene of her most glorious victories and most painful defeat.

Ferrer vs. Nieminen:  Like Stosur, the second-ranked Spaniard suffered from illness in Rome that may have filtered into an unimpressive performance in Nice.  After reaching a Masters 1000 final on clay and another semifinal last season, Ferrer fell meekly to Melzer in the third round at the major where he should prosper the most.  If he has not fully recovered his energy, the aging lefty Nieminen could trouble him as he did a few months ago in Rotterdam.  Nevertheless, Ferrer’s far superior fitness should bolster him in the best-of-five format against his occasional doubles partner, whom he overcame in a Melbourne four-setter.

Hewitt vs. Montanes:  Receding into the mists of tennis history, Hewitt has battled gallantly through multiple surgeries as he attempts to resist the evolution of the game.  The valiant Aussie’s counterpunching tactics no longer can frustrate the ATP elite, and repeated injuries have slowed his once formidable movement.  Against the offensively challenged Montanes, however, he might find one more opportunity to thrill his devoted Aussie fans in a match certain to feature grueling rally after grueling rally.  Armed with the competitive willpower of a champion, Hewitt may ambush a player who relies just as much upon high-percentage point construction and stingy defense.  But the surface edge swings the advantage clearly towards Montanes, who has defeated even Federer on clay.

Jankovic vs. A. Bondarenko:  Fourteen meetings normally suggest a hard-fought rivalry between two players near the peak of the game.  In this case, by contrast, the frequency of this non-rivalry tells nothing about the relative strengths of its components.  Jankovic has won twelve of their thirteen meetings, with eleven of the wins coming in straight sets.  After recording three bagels and four breadsticks against the unfortunate Ukrainian, perhaps she can expand the menu to croissants.

Rybarikova vs. Kuznetsova:  When Kvitova abandoned the Rome tournament to play her local challenger in Prague, she surely expected to cruise to an uneventful title.  Such proved not the case, for Rybarikova squashed the Czech’s dreams of hometown heroics.  A Birmingham champion two years ago, the Slovak possesses the flat strokes and limited movement more suited to grass or the indoor hard-court in Memphis where she won another title this year.  Her Prague ambush might have meant nothing at all in the larger picture, but she now faces a highly vulnerable opponent who has lost four opening-round matches in 2011 and four to players outside the top 50.  On the other hand, Kuznetsova also has defeated three top-10 players this year, in addition to Henin, as she continues to translate unpredictability into Russian.

Peer vs. Martinez Sanchez:  Hailed as a genuine threat when she won Rome in 2010, Martinez Sanchez has proven those proclamations unfounded as she has sunk below the top 75.  Not as dazzling as she was during that championship run, she remains a more compelling adversary than her ranking suggests.  Against a baseliner like Peer who moves better laterally than forwards and prefers longer rallies, the Spaniard’s drop shots and serve-volley tactics could pose complicated questions.  On the brink of the top 10 earlier this year, the Israeli has slumped to the edge of the top 20 as she has struggled to integrate timely aggression into her naturally counterpunching style.  Like Jankovic, she may prefer to return to what she does best and accept her limitations rather than attempting to have her pain au chocolat and eat it too.

Shvedova vs. Pavlyuchenkova:  Both reaching the second week of Roland Garros last year, they stood as monuments to either the current dearth of WTA clay specialists (viewed pessimistically) or the ability of two heavy hitters to project their power onto a hostile surface (viewed optimistically).  Both the Russian and the pseudo-Kazakh have suffered from a concerning quantity of injuries that have hampered their attempts to establish momentum.  Absent from the Australian Open, Shvedova may require a few months to regain her shot-making precision, which often placed her atop the WTA power rankings in a measure of sheer velocity.  The highest-ranked teenager in the sport, Pavlyuchenkova must develop a sturdier serve to complement her penetrating groundstrokes before taking the next step forward.  The narrow confines of the outer court where they collide should illuminate their first-strike power by creating more opportunities to strike terminal blows early in the rally.

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