Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal of Spain looks on in his final match against Novak Djokovic of Serbia during day eight of the Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open Tennis on May 8, 2011 in Madrid, Spain. Nadal lost his match in straight sets.

Asked to explain his straight-sets loss in the Madrid final, a dejected Nadal mused that he must unravel the reasons why Djokovic has conquered him three times this year.  Just a week later, the Spaniard has earned another opportunity to crack the Serb’s code, which may require prioritizing groundstroke depth over spin and finding his way into the forecourt more often.  Never has the Rome tournament meant more to Nadal, who habitually has collected it during his progress through the European spring.  The world #1 soon will face the most fearsome array of challengers for his Roland Garros crown that he ever has encountered, and an unprecedented pair of losses in the preliminary events would deliver a bruising blow to his confidence.  As he attempts to defuse Djokovic for the first time in four 2011 Masters 1000 finals, Rafa can take comfort from the fatigue with which his challenger will enter the final.  Extended two minutes past three hours by an unexpectedly inspired Murray, the Serb expended vast reserves of physical and emotional energy.

Beginning to weigh on the world #2’s shoulders is the burden of his spectacular winning streak, which has surpassed Nadal’s longest surge and edged close to Federer’s best sequence.  The Australian Open champion struggled to check his frustration late in the third set against Murray, who outmaneuvered a slowing Serb with surprising frequency.  Still, Djokovic’s shot-making precision and velocity remained undimmed despite his sagging body language.  And one can expect him to deliver a valiant effort notwithstanding his fatigue, just as he did in the US Open final against Nadal after a draining five-set victory over Federer.  Buoyed by the elation of his epic semifinal, Djokovic may thunder to an early advantage as he did in Madrid.  There, Rafa failed to stem the tide before it became a tsunami; although he erased the deficit on the scoreboard, the momentum never shifted away from his vulpine foe.

Across the net, the Spaniard has enjoyed a more comfortable passage through the draw than the Serb, facing no opponent more formidable than Gasquet.  Perhaps a product of the demoralizing loss to Djokovic in his home nation, Nadal battled a virus early this week but has rallied admirably with performances worthy of his familiar self in the last two rounds.  On a surface much slower than Manolo Santana Arena, the world #1 can engage in classic clay-court rallies that gradually chip away at his opponent’s agility.  But Nadal also must not shrink from flattening his groundstrokes more often to end rallies when he has the opportunity.  In a supremely physical rivalry, Djokovic recently has set the tone with punishing offense that has drawn uncertain albeit dogged resistance from Rafa.  Central to regaining the initiative from his primary challenger is seizing control of the rallies and forcing the Serb onto the defensive.  When two players of such comparable (and comparably towering) skill levels collide, the more alert, assertive competitor generally prevails no matter the surface.

Maria Sharapova - The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2011 - Day Seven

After one of her most impressive victories since shoulder surgery, Sharapova aims to crack the code of clay as she hovers within a single victory of her most significant title to date on the surface.  Upsetting a reigning #1 for the first time since the 2008 Australian Open, she now confronts a player whom she has relentlessly dominated in their seven meetings while conceding just two sets.  Nevertheless, the three-time champion never has clashed with Stosur on the surface friendliest to the Australian and least accommodating to herself.  While Sharapova has not won a title in nearly a year, the 2010 Roland Garros runner-up has waited even longer to clasp her first trophy since Charleston last year.  Notoriously feckless in finals, Stosur opposes a player generally outstanding in championship matches but recently fallible on those stages as well, having lost her last four.  Whereas the Russian has relied upon breaking her opponents consistently this week, the Australian has lost her serve only twice in four matches against resistance as notable as Schiavone and Li.  Whose style will dictate the rhythm in a contest between one of the WTA’s most imposing servers and one of its most savage returners?

In addition to a battle between the Australian’s serve and the Russian’s return, this match also pits the heavy topspin of the former against the flat lasers of the latter.  Central to Stosur’s past struggles against Sharapova is her strategy of thumping high-bouncing groundstrokes and kick serves that jump above the preferred contact points of her victims, leaving them vulnerable for the next stroke in the rally.  These strokes often land inside the exceptionally high strike zone of the statuesque Russian, although they will jump ever higher on clay and threaten her more than on the fast courts where all of their previous meetings have occurred.   Much more balanced from the baseline than Stosur, Sharapova can unleash a barrage of blazing winners from either wing to any corner of the court, even on this slow surface.  In a match likely to feature few extended rallies, she will aim to deliver the first strike as efficiently as she did in the semifinal against Wozniacki.  Remarkably, she averaged nearly two clean winners per game in that semifinal triumph over the WTA’s counterpuncher par excellence.  If the clay offers Sharapova extra time to plant and fire, though, it also allows Stosur greater opportunities to run around her backhand to hit the inside-in and inside-out forehands that propelled her to the Roland Garros final last year.

From the city to which all roads once led, a twisting road of red dirt now curves towards Paris.  Accelerating into scintillating form at an ideal moment, both players will enter the year’s second Slam among the inner circle of contenders.  While a career Slam beckons for Sharapova, a maiden major beckons for Stosur.  Like the men’s final that follows it, the women’s final might presage a more momentous encounter on Court Philippe Chatrier.