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.

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