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.

Advertisements