Novak Djokovic - Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open - Day Five

Lifting the lid to the magic box, we catch sight of several familiar faces on Friday but not quite the cast that one initially expected to assemble at this stage.  We examine the quarterfinals in the semi-predictable ATP draw and its wildly unpredictable WTA counterpart.

Nadal vs. Llodra:  From the outset, one expected the defending champion to reach a quarterfinal in which he would face a lefty with an affinity for charging the net and a brazen, occasionally dubious shot selection.  But one did not expect the aging Llodra to record the finest clay performance of his career, supplanting the eighth-seeded Melzer in an anarchic corner of the draw.  Llodra’s achievement speaks not only to his talent but to the atypical surface and conditions in Madrid, the slickest clay court that one will ever encounter.  Spared from undue exertion by Del Potro’s untimely injury, Nadal has played only one match this week.  Although Llodra upset a weary Djokovic last fall at the Paris Indoors, he surely cannot hope to win more than a handful of games from the world #1.  Swifter than the surface of Court Philippe Chatrier, the Manolo Santana Stadium nevertheless remains a clay court and thus as lethal for most of Rafa’s challengers as the Colosseum for the Christians of ancient Rome.

Federer vs. Soderling:  A match away from meeting his archrival in a Monte Carlo semifinal, Federer slumped abruptly to a straight-sets defeat against Melzer.  The listless nature of that performance caused many to wonder whether the third seed lacked the desire to embark upon yet another quixotic attempt to conquer Nadal on clay.  If a similarly uncertain Federer spars with Soderling on Friday, the Swede might well score just his second victory in their seventeen meetings.  Chronically injured and regularly inconsistent since March, the two-time Roland Garros finalist may have seized some momentum from a tense victory over Tsonga that remained in doubt almost from the first ball to the last.  On the other hand, Federer may relax in relief from the reprieve that he earned when Feliciano Lopez failed to deliver the coup de grace, leading 5-2 in the third-set tiebreak.  While Soderling has won three titles this year to his opponent’s one, the Swiss star has progressed further at all of the key events in Melbourne, Indian Wells, and Miami (Soderling did not play Monte Carlo).  Moreover, the slippery surface and altitude in Madrid should favor a player with greater margin for error and ability to adjust to changing circumstances throughout a match.  Despite the Swede’s capacity to remorselessly punish a tennis ball, he has not excelled in his previous appearances here—one of which ended in a straight-sets loss to Federer.

Berdych vs. Bellucci:  Watching the top-ranked Brazilian upset the top-ranked Brit on Thursday, we noticed fleeting resemblances between the games of Bellucci and 2010 WTA champion Rezai.  Both players whack their groundstrokes with unbridled vigor but lack a sense of how to construct a point or transition from a neutral or defensive position into offensive.  Many were the 150-kph winners that Bellucci whacked past a stumbling Murray, but many were the needlessly sprayed errors that targeted an opening where none existed.  To the Brazilian’s credit, he found the former strokes at the few critical junctures of the match, snuffing out the fourth seed’s last serious threat with a pulverized inside-in forehands.  Two years ago at Roland Garros, he delivered a similarly compelling performance in a competitive loss to Nadal.  And the only somewhat more reliable shot-making of Almagro carried that Spaniard to the semifinals here last year, so Bellucci’s run might extend further.  Against Berdych, however, he will face an opponent who can match him blow for blow from the baseline and ace for ace from the service notch.  In that situation, the less experienced Brazilian will want to pin the Czech into his backhand corner before he finds himself pinned there instead.  Whoever cracks the first mighty blow in the rally will rarely relinquish the initiative thenceforth.

Ferrer vs. Djokovic:  Arguably the most scintillating quarterfinal, this contest pits a 31-match winning streak against a foe who has not lost a clay match to anyone other than Nadal in three tournaments.   Adding to the intrigue is the second-ranked Spaniard’s success against the Serb on this surface, which spans a quite irrelevant 2004 battle in Bucharest, a somewhat relevant 2007 meeting in Monte Carlo, and a highly relevant 2009 duel in Davis Cup.  Generally at his most intense and motivated when playing for his nation, Djokovic could not pry even a set away from the Spaniard on the last of those occasions.  Desultory in the clay season a year ago, he rose to the challenges posed by clay in 2009 with a thunderous charge to the most memorable match ever played in the Spanish capital, a four-hour semifinal against Nadal during which he held multiple match points.  The highly anticipated rematch lies two rounds ahead, but the world #2 can deliver an imposing statement by thrusting aside the player who finished runner-up to Rafa in Monte Carlo and Barcelona.  Dispatching Garcia-Lopez in 54 clinical minutes, Djokovic has looked sharper early this week than in Belgrade last week.  Crucial to his 2011 feats has been his serve, vastly improved from his previous clay losses to Ferrer.  Even more improved is the Serb’s conditioning, which now might enable him to win a war of attrition against the player who personifies that style.  If he can, he will take even greater confidence into a potential Sunday encounter with Nadal.

Julia Goerges Julia Goerges of Germany plays  Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark during the Madrid  Open Tennis Championship in Spain. Georges beat the World No. 1 Wozniacki.

Goerges vs. Pavlyuchenkova:  Last week, one could shrug off the German’s victory over Wozniacki as an emotion-stoked triumph fueled by the Stuttgart crowd.  This week’s result will prove harder to rationalize for the Dane, who could not avenge her loss to Goerges as she did her Miami loss to Petkovic.  Showing perhaps greater grit than the surface in Manolo Santana, the top seed’s challenger refused to wilt after a lopsided second set and in the face of mounting fatigue.  Like her dancing compatriot, Goerges also seems to possess a tactical sensibility greater than many in her generation.  That tool could play a pivotal role against the heavy-hitting, largely straightforward assault of Pavlyuchenkova, who hopes to spearhead the next Russian surge.  After two draining three-setters against #1s, however, how much energy will Goerges bring to a match scheduled first on Friday?  Toppling Stosur with aplomb, Pavlyuchenkova has at least temporarily quelled the injuries and double-fault woes that threatened to derail this precocious teenager.  In a field without a single Slam champion, #1, or former Roland Garros finalist, the much-anticipated breakthrough of this former junior #1 might lie just around the corner.

Azarenka vs. Safarova:  Sometimes fallible against lefties, the fourth seed has been anything but fallible against Safarova in winning all ten of the sets that they have contested.  Showing no lingering discomfort after a shoulder injury in Stuttgart, Azarenka has conceded just five games in six sets en route to the quarterfinals.  Consecutive titles in Miami and Marbella positioned her ideally for a convincing clay campaign, although she bookended those championships with retirements and remains susceptible to sudden injury at any moment.  For the first time in her career, she finds herself the favorite to win a title of consequence, so one wonders how she will respond to that sort of pressure.  Outstanding during last year’s clay season, Safarova reached the Rome quarterfinals and Madrid semifinals with victories over Sharapova, Petrova, Pennetta, and Radwanska, among others.  Thus, her upset over the sixth-seeded Jankovic here should have surprised less than it did at first glance.  Despite her dismal record against Azarenka, she has not faced her on clay since 2007 and perhaps can bring a fresh mentality to this sixth meeting.

Li vs. Mattek-Sands:  A year after Venus reached the Madrid final, one of her compatriots attempts to emulate that feat.  Bageled by Ivanovic in her first set of the tournament, Mattek-Sands has won six consecutive sets since then while ousting not only the 2008 but the 2010 Roland Garros champions.  Less accomplished on clay than on other surface, Li Na finally has won consecutive matches for the first time since the Australian Open.  A severe test confronted her in an opener against clay specialist Martinez Sanchez, who dazzled recently in Fed Cup and might have unsettled the rhythmic Li with her idiosyncratic, inspired arsenal.  Winning two tight sets from the Spaniard, the Chinese star displayed renewed fortitude and focus.  In a French Open field stripped nearly bare of superstars, she may have an opportunity to do what she could not quite do in Melbourne.  While that opportunity still lies far ahead, a Madrid semifinal appearance would lift her spirits at a crucial moment, whereas a loss to an unheralded American could cast her into gloom once more.

Cibulkova vs. Kvitova:  In a quarter initially dominated by three Russians, a Slovak and a Czech have carved their way past Sharapova, Kuznetsova, and Zvonareva.  Since winning two titles in the first two months of 2011, the second Czech lefty in the Madrid quarterfinals struggled to leave an impact upon the spring tournaments.  A flat ball-striker with little spin or margin, she may reap greater rewards on this particular clay court than on most others.  After three straight wins over Slam champions, Cibulkova stands alone among the quarterfinalists as a former Roland Garros semifinalist (2009).  Often overlooked (literally) amidst her towering rivals, she can club a forehand with an authority that belies her stature.  Cibulkova demonstrated herself a resilient competitor during her win over Sharapova, during which she let two leads escape her but regrouped in time to win the vital last two games of both sets.  Rarely does the Slovak become the architect of her own undoing, forcing opponents to earn their victories.  Wozniacki failed to solve her riddle in Sydney this season, Zvonareva in Indian Wells, while Azarenka found Cibulkova her most compelling test en route to the Miami title.  But Kvitova twice has cracked the code already in 2011, allowing her to swagger into their match with the psychological edge.

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