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.