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Novak Djokovic - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Nine

Tsonga vs. Djokovic:  Buoyed by his victory over Nadal at Queens Club, the Frenchman has accelerated through this fortnight with an effort more sustained than any of his performances since the 2008 Australian Open.  Triggering memories of Tsonga’s brilliance on that occasion was his unprecedented comeback from a two-set deficit against Federer, whom he limited to only one break point throughout their quarterfinal.  As he served for the match at 5-4 in the final set, many would have expected the underachieving, acrobatic twelfth seed to falter under the magnitude of the moment.  But Tsonga did not flinch, thundering through a love service game to arrange a clash with a top-three opponent whom he has dominated.  Since losing to Djokovic in the Australian Open final three years ago, the Frenchman has reversed the trajectory of their rivalry by winning five of their following six meetings, most notably a five-setter in Melbourne last year.  In that jaggedly uneven encounter, the Serb’s notorious physical fallibility proved decisive.  Although Djokovic has solved those issues with a superior fitness program, the disparity in their serving effectiveness at this Wimbledon could prove a crucial factor.  Whereas Tsonga constructed an almost impenetrable fortress behind a startlingly high first-serve percentage, the Serb often endured tenuous service games at untimely moments in his quarterfinal against Tomic.  As he did last year against Berdych, Djokovic slipped into counterproductive passivity too often and should count himself fortunate to have avoided a fifth set.

In theory, the world #2 should acquire additional motivation from the opportunity to wrest the #1 ranking from Nadal with a victory over an opponent outside the top 10.  But will the pressure of potentially earning the top ranking weigh upon him, which it seemingly did during his sporadically listless defeat to Federer at Roland Garros?  During his one-loss first half of 2011, he has not faltered when defusing some of the ATP’s most imposing serves with his sparkling return.  In contrast to Tsonga’s reliance on his forehand, Djokovic can project equal offense from both groundstrokes, a vital advantage on grass that has contributed to his three Wimbledon semifinal appearances.  This groundstroke symmetry may counterbalance Tsonga’s more traditional grass-court style, centered around relentless assaults upon the forecourt.  Most comfortable when he controls the outcome of rallies, the Frenchman can grow tentative when forced onto the defensive, so Djokovic should not spurn openings to assert his baseline offense.  Displaying far greater nerve than expected against Federer, Tsonga likely will not fade should he encounter early setbacks but instead compel the Serb to deliver his most complete performance of the tournament so far.  If Djokovic does ascend to the pinnacle of the ATP on Monday, he will not have seized his laurel crown undeservedly.

Rafael Nadal - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Nine

Nadal vs. Murray:  Thwarted by the Scot at both hard-court majors, the world #1 has won all nine sets that they have contested at Slams on clay and grass.  Injecting elevated aggression into his game when he meets Nadal, Murray has troubled the Spaniard on faster surfaces by driving his cross-court backhand into the lefty’s forehand corner and creating an opening for a backhand down the line.  The stroke that has bedeviled Federer, Rafa’s skidding wide serve in the ad court slides into the strike zone of the fourth seed’s penetrating backhand return.  These issues of point construction did not prevent Nadal from recapturing the momentum in their rivalry with a spine-tingling epic at the World Tour Finals last fall, however.  Still a much superior player on the points that matter most, the top seed maintained his calm in the pivotal second-set tiebreak of their Wimbledon semifinal last year.  After Murray failed to convert the set point that he held on his serve, the two-time champion never offered him a second hope.  The least impressive component of the Scot’s otherwise complete arsenal, his second serve poses such a vulnerable target that he often faces a painful dilemma between striking his first serve with maximum velocity and concealing his Achilles heel by maximizing his percentage.  Once rallies begin, though, Murray can engage in longer, more grueling baseline exchanges with Nadal than any other opponent except Djokovic.  Deceptively fit and keenly focused, he dragged through a series of exhausting service games this year in sets that often stretched over an hour.

Largely untested by Lopez, the home hope should have arrived in this third straight Slam semifinal with his confidence soaring in proportion to his ten-match winning streak.  Murray has proven too fragile in that department against elite opposition, though, as demonstrated in his losses to Djokovic and Nadal at the season’s two previous majors.  While the crowd will exert themselves to the utmost in raising his spirits, the fourth seed must shed the memories of last year’s defeat to the Spaniard and curb his tendency towards morose self-loathing.  Yet Murray knows that he has succeeded against Nadal when the latter has lacked peak physical condition, and a concerning foot injury two rounds ago causes one to question whether Rafa can summon the explosive movement that has won two Wimbledon titles.  Beset by nagging injuries for much of his career, the world #1 has demonstrated an occasionally disconcerting imperviousness to discomfort.  Instead, Nadal seemingly thrives upon adversity and embraces challenges with a determination proportional to their rigor, an attitude shared by few of his rivals and that has contributed to his recent dominance.  Still searching for that elusive first Slam, Murray certainly can equal the Spaniard in talent measured tangibly through serves, groundstrokes, and volleys.  In overcoming an ankle injury to reach the Roland Garros semifinals, he revealed traces of Nadalian fortitude as well.  From those traces spring hope that Centre Court will host a classic collision on Thursday, during which Murray dogs the favorite’s footsteps deep into the London twilight.

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Petra Kvitova - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Eight

Azarenka vs. Kvitova:  Filled with percussive groundstrokes and fiercely aggressive shot selection, their Madrid clash developed into one of the most scintillating women’s finals on clay in recent years.  In her second straight Wimbledon semifinal, Kvitova can recall the most significant title of her career so far and the manner in which she achieved it, thumping nearly 50 winners in two sets.  Just as vital to the outcome of that tightly contested encounter, the Czech lefty’s serve lifted her on crucial points to deny Azarenka most of her opportunities to break.  In the contrast between their second serves lies the Czech’s most substantial advantage, for Azarenka offers returners a vulnerable target with that shot.  Therefore, first-serve percentage will play a critical role in the Belarussian’s fate, whereas Kvitova must guard against the mental lapses that still can descend upon her.  Outside such a lull in her victory over Pironkova, Kvitova has dominated her opponents on both serve and return throughout this fortnight, but she has not encountered an opponent who can match her baseline power.  Her signature curling cross-court forehand plays into the teeth of Vika’s most notable weapon, the backhand, leading to rallies that pit strength against strength or weakness against weakness.  In this context, each player will force her opponent to identify the most opportune moment for redirecting the ball down the line.

Although the fourth seed had not reached a Slam semifinal before Tuesday’s victory over Paszek, she probably has accumulated greater experience against elite opponents at significant tournaments.  But she cannot permit Kvitova to dictate the rallies as comprehensively as she did in Madrid, though, and thus must deliver her first strike (whether serve or return) with particularly stinging vigor.  The semifinalist who unleashes her groundstrokes with the greatest margin, Vika also has proven herself the most averse to risk among this notably risk-embracing quartet and the most fragile under pressure.  Since fortune generally favors the braver woman on grass, Kvitova should fancy her chances of repeating her victory over Azarenka in Wimbledon 2010 and advancing to a maiden Slam final.  Most vulnerable in the early rounds of tournaments this season, she has won all three of her semifinals this year as her confidence mounts from one victory to the next.  Still only 20, she may yet surpass Wozniacki and Azarenka as the most complete competitor, physically and mentally, of her generation.

Maria Sharapova - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Eight

Sharapova vs. Lisicki:  Seven years ago, a towering blonde surged from the Birmingham title to claim the Venus Rosewater Dish without having reached a Slam semifinal before.  In 2011, that narrative verges on repeating itself after Lisicki’s Roland Garros agony modulated into ecstasy on the Wimbledon lawns, where she already has defeated two top-10 opponents with one of the most overpowering serves in the women’s game.  The protagonist in the earlier narrative, Sharapova has reached semifinals at consecutive majors for the first time since 2007 as her partnership with Thomas Hogstedt has injected her with fresh insights and momentum.  In order to halt Lisicki’s eleven-match winning streak, Maria must continue the timely serving that propelled her through victories over Peng and Cibulkova while surrendering only one break.  Aware of the power that her opponent projects on this surface with every stroke, the 2004 champion must fasten herself to the baseline while constantly searching for opportunities to step inside it.  Even if this tactic results in conceding additional aces, Sharapova should willingly trade them in exchange for more penetrating replies when she does make contact.   Just as assertive court positioning will prove essential for the Russian, the German must balance velocity  with consistency in her first serves.  When Sharapova routed her in Miami this spring, a flagging first-serve percentage exposed her relatively modest second delivery to one of the WTA’s most savage returners.  No sharper in movement or instincts than her opponent, Lisicki similarly must dictate from the outset rather than scrambling to recover.

Absent from the penultimate round of majors for three years, Sharapova’s Roland Garros semifinal exposed uncharacteristic nerves in a situation that had become unfamiliar.  The lessons from that recent defeat may assist her to prepare more effectively for this second opportunity, although she faces a distinctly different type of opponent.  As the oldest and by far the most accomplished semifinalist, Sharapova brings not only the memories of triumphs past but the expectations that spring from them, complicating her quest for triumphs to come.  Contesting her first major semifinal, by contrast, Lisicki can repeat clichés about “nothing to lose” with full honesty.  Moreover, she already forged an inspiring Centre Court memory of her own this fortnight by saving match points against Li Na on the sport’s most fabled arena.  Threatened by severe, career-threatening injuries in recent years, both semifinalists have captured respect from audiences for their fortitude in adversity.  After their labyrinthine journeys from convalescence to contention, they now gain greater satisfaction than ever from their accomplishments, knowing that the endless months of tenuous patience and tireless efforts have reaped rewards.

Roger Federer - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Seven

Tsonga vs. Federer:  Unexpectedly mortal at times in his four-set victory over Youzhny, Federer nevertheless arrived in his 29th consecutive Slam quarterfinal and must eagerly await the opportunity to erase the memory of last year’s defeat to Berdych.  This year, a similarly potent server awaits the six-time Wimbledon champion, but Tsonga failed to threaten the GOAT in their only previous Slam meeting while winning only one of their five previous collisions.  In that bizarre Canadian encounter, Federer squandered a double-break lead in the final set as his focus visibly ebbed.  Since such a lapse surely will not occur at his favorite tournament on the calendar, the Frenchman must replicate his outstanding form of the past two rounds in order to avoid another barely competitive loss to the Swiss.  Parrying Tsonga’s serve with the same reflexes that he has displayed against Roddick, Federer generally has neutralized his greatest weapon and trapped this volatile shot-maker behind the baseline.  The former Australian Open finalist overwhelmed Ferrer in all dimensions of the game, however, showcasing a more balanced offense than usual.  For nearly two full sets of his quarterfinal against Murray last year, he dominated an opponent with a more versatile, complete arsenal through the straightforward power that prospers on grass.  Then, just when a two-set lead edged within range, Tsonga suffered an untimely brain cramp that reversed the match’s trajectory.  While he escaped similar lulls against Dimitrov this year, he cannot expect to survive them against a top-five foe.  Clearly gifted with the weapons and athletic ability to upset the third seed, perhaps his greatest challenge lies in maintaining his concentration throughout what might become a very long engagement.  Unless Tsonga wins swiftly, his odds of victory will diminish sharply.

Murray vs. Lopez:  Far from a tranquil progress past overpowered opposition, the home hope’s route has proved riddled with obstacles from the first round onwards.  Losing his first set of the tournament and nearly extended to five sets against Ljubicic, Murray now faces the player whom his mother has nicknamed “Deliciano.”  “Delicioso” certainly described the gaudy statistics that Lopez registered in his startlingly routine straight-sets victory over Roddick, who never found a solution to the conundrum of his lefty serve.  More encouraging for the breathless British fans was the Spaniard’s desperate struggle for survival against Kubot in the following round, during which he recovered from a two-set deficit in a grueling epic that may have eroded his fitness.  Arguably the finest returner in the ATP, or perhaps tied with Djokovic for that honor, Murray rarely has met a serve that he cannot crack.  Thus, Lopez cannot rely entirely on that cornerstone of his game, nor can he depend upon approaching the net behind anything less than an outstanding approach, considering the Scot’s exceptional passing shots.  Since his strengths play into the hands of his opponent’s greatest weapons, the Spaniard probably must hope to open the match in such convincing style that Murray grows discouraged and apathetic.  But a scintillating victory over Gasquet will have bolstered the fourth seed’s ever-fragile confidence, while the Wimbledon crowd support appears to raise his spirits rather than weighing upon them.  Although their previous meetings have featured several reasonably competitive spans, Lopez has won only one of nine sets from Murray and has lost both of their tiebreaks.  Twice a semifinalist at Wimbledon already, the Scot has not fallen to anyone other than a former finalist there since 2006.

Tomic vs. Djokovic:  Still just a teenager despite his global notoriety, the precocious Aussie defies the stereotypes associated with ATP giants.  Rather than an overwhelming serve, a preference for short points, and mediocre movement, Tomic displays a balanced, flowing game sometimes compared to the model of Murray.  With that versatility can come indecision over which weapon to choose at a certain moment, and Tomic sometimes falls prey to that dilemma.  Similarly, he triggers memories of a much more talented Fabio Fognini for his tendency to meander through rallies of moderately paced shots before suddenly unleashing a scorching groundstroke past a befuddled opponent.  Although he defeated only one genuine contender (Soderling) during his quarterfinal surge, Tomic surrendered a set in only one of his four victories while illustrating his ease in all areas of the court.  In contrast, the second seed has struggled with his movement here after deciding to omit his normal grass-court tournament.  Dropping only a single set through four matches, though, Djokovic has served more convincingly than at past Wimbledons and has evinced a more aggressive mentality, unruffled by the end of his winning streak.  Since Tomic views his opponent so respectfully, one wonders whether he will enter their quarterfinal with the same steely poise that fueled his earlier victories.  And one also wonders whether the Serb will view this meeting with a hint of complacency, unconvinced that his 18-year-old admirer can summon the nerve to threaten him.  Even if Djokovic does, however, the prospect of the relatively raw Tomic winning three sets from a two-time major champion looks remote indeed.

Nadal vs. Fish:  Surviving not only Del Potro but a foot injury on Monday, the defending champion aims to repeat his victory over the American in the first round here four years ago.  Despite substantial improvements in his fitness and consistency since that encounter, Fish remains a relatively one-dimensional player who cannot threaten the Spaniard unless he serves to perfection.  In the fourth round, he did serve nearly to perfection against 2010 finalist Berdych in a victory notable for its lack of noteworthiness.  Destined to reach the top 8 after Wimbledon, Fish consistently threatened the Czech’s imposing serve while displaying no trace of insecurity that might have arisen from his recently elevated ranking.  The American did win a set from Nadal when they last played at the US Open, varying the direction and spin on his serve in addition to approaching the net at the earliest opportunity.  Since those strategies succeeded in rushing Rafa out of his comfort zone, albeit temporarily, Fish should remind himself that his chances improve in direct proportion to the number of strokes that he strikes from inside the baseline.  His improved fitness notwithstanding, he does not rank among the players who can outmaneuver Nadal from the baseline but instead must attempt to disrupt his rhythm.  Surely relieved and invigorated by his victory over Del Potro, the world #1 will thrive on the increasingly scarred turf that surfaces in Wimbledon’s second week.  As clumps of dirt mix with patches of grass around the baselines, the ball skids through the court slightly less swiftly.  That factor should facilitate Nadal’s attempts to defuse Fish’s principal weapon, although he probably needs no such assistance.

Lisicki vs. Bartoli:  Rarely has a beneficiary of a Slam wildcard seized the opportunity with both hands as has Lisicki, who has arrived at her second Wimbledon quarterfinal in three years.  Frequently hammering serves above 120 mph, the former Bolletieri pupil saved two match points in the second round against Li with her signature shot before riding it to two ensuing victories.  Lisicki crunches her groundstrokes with only somewhat less velocity, sparing little time for slices or drop shots.  While her lack of variety may limit her upward progress, it has proved no obstacle on the surface where first-strike tennis still offers the greatest reward.  Yet Lisicki did not become the only quarterfinalist who saved match point in the second round, for Bartoli dodged multiple bullets against Dominguez Lino at that stage.  Following unsteady efforts at that stage and in her ensuring round, the double-fister submitted a thoroughly poised, complete effort against Serena that showcased every element of her game at its most lethal.  When the Birmingham champion confronts the Eastbourne champion,  an intriguing battle should emerge between Lisicki’s serve and Bartoli’s return.  Will the Frenchwoman attack the German’s weapon as boldly as she did Serena’s serve?  After a ten-match winning streak or a nine-match winning streak, respectively, both players have quelled their fatigue thus far, but one wonders whether fitness will become a factor considering the prolonged matches that both have played here.  Since neither woman counts movement as a strength, most rallies should not last longer than a few shots in the staccato style familiar from classic grass-court tennis.

Maria Sharapova - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Seven

Sharapova vs. Cibulkova:  If the 2004 champion had glanced ahead at her draw on Monday morning, she would have observed that a formidable trio of Wozniacki, Serena, and Venus loomed ahead.  By late Monday afternoon, the topography of the women’s draw had shifted starkly as all three of those threats tumbled from their pedestals.  The sole Slam champion remaining in the draw, Sharapova now must master the pressure of expectations that have crystallized around her.  Walking through an open door can prove more challenging than opening the door oneself, as no less a champion than Federer discovered during his near-loss to Haas after Soderling defeated Nadal at Roland Garros 2009.  Sharapova thus must steel herself to remain focused on the immediate future, a rendezvous with the only player to halt her before the semifinals in any tournament since March.  Victorious in that Madrid collision, Cibulkova never has faced the former #1 on a surface other than clay but will gain confidence from having won their only Slam meeting.  The feisty Slovak demonstrated her survival skills by winning three three-setters here, erasing a set-and-break deficit against Lucic before rallying from an unsightly first set against Wozniacki.  Ideally suited to cope with the low bounces of grass, Cibulkova has enhanced her serve and forehand under the guidance of Zelkjo Krajan.  Rather than engaging in a shot-making duel with Maria, though, she might attempt to feed low balls deep down the center that force the Russian to create her own angles.  Meanwhile, Sharapova should vary the placement of her groundstrokes in order to keep this scrambling roadrunner off balance.  Despite not yielding a set this fortnight, Maria maintains that she has not attained her optimal level, a thought perhaps more ominous for opponents than for herself.

Kvitova vs. Pironkova:  Both semifinalists at Wimbledon last year, only one can defend all of her points this year.  Before the tournament, in fact, few would have projected Pironkova to reach the second week after a generally futile 2011 campaign.  Once she arrived on her favored lawns, the memories of recent glory must have awakened to inspire her through victories over Zvonareva and Venus during which she conceded ten total games.  Not a player who seems likely at first glance to record such dismissive results, the Bulgarian counterbalances the exclusively offensive games of most shot-makers who have left their imprint on the grass.  Clearly in that latter category stands Kvitova, who surrendered just two games to the talented Wickmayer a round ago.  The Czech enjoys the natural advantages of a lefty on this surface, curling and kicking serves at uncomfortable angles that open the court.  Not always the sturdiest competitor in adversity, however, Kvitova can look overwhelming until an opponent dares to blast groundstrokes with her from the baseline throughout an entire match, at which point the intimidator sometimes becomes the intimidated.  More comfortable in a counterpunching mode than when taking the initiative, Pironkova may allow the brash eighth seed  to measure her targets rather than forcing her into a situation that tests her resolve.

Paszek vs. Azarenka:  Still searching for her first major semifinal after four failed attempts, the minx from Minsk can find little excuse if she fails to break through this time.  Although Paszek deserves credit for upsetting Schiavone in a 20-game third set, this former prodigy vies with Pironkova’s 2010 effort for the honor of most surprising Wimbledon women’s quarterfinalist in recent years.  Despite sporadic frailty against Hantuchova, Azarenka showed scant mercy to the aging Petrova on Monday.  Her strikingly fierce victory celebration, disproportionate to the scoreline and opponent, demonstrated the degree to which she craves a maiden major.  Before she can capture that honor, she may need to manage her emotions more maturely.  Unless an unexpected injury descends upon her, as it often has in the past eighteen months, Vika should move a step closer to her goal and accumulate the experience essential to becoming a genuine contender.  Like Murray, she probably must improve her second serve before winning Wimbledon, but a semifinal certainly would position her auspiciously for the summer hard courts where she can wreak greater havoc.

Andy Murray - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Five

Murray vs. Gasquet:  If history offers a reliable guide, this opening clash of Centre Court’s second week should tie Judy Murray’s stomach into knots.  At two previous majors, Gasquet led the British home hope by two sets to none before the latter turned the tide at the eleventh hour.  One of the signature moments in Murray’s early career, his five-set victory over the Frenchman at Wimbledon 2008 revealed a fiery competitor behind his sometimes dour façade.  Gasquet has arrived at the second week of consecutive majors for the first time in three years and has not reached a Slam quarterfinal since this tournament four years ago.  Noted for breathtaking grace, timing, and spontaneity, his effortlessly fluid brand of tennis contrasts with Murray’s more mechanized, functional style.  Despite his lack of overwhelming first-strike power, Gasquet has delivered many of his finest performances on grass, but the Scot also habitually rises to the occasion on the shoulders of his enraptured compatriots.  Through the first week, the Frenchman has sparkled more brightly than Murray, who nearly entered a fifth set against the aging Ljubicic.  If the fourth seed can weather Gasquet’s sporadic barrages of inspired shot-making, though, the best-of-five format should assist him in outlasting an opponent with inferior stamina on both physical and emotional levels.  Still struggling to convince himself that he can challenge the elite, the Frenchman defeated an erratic Federer in Rome but mustered scant resistance to Djokovic at Indian Wells or Roland Garros.

V. Williams vs. Pironkova:  Expected to meet Jankovic in the third round, the elder Williams faced Martinez Sanchez.  Projected to intersect with Zvonareva on the second Monday, she instead eyes the player who expelled her from Wimbledon last year.  After a narrow escape from Date-Krumm, Venus returned in the third round to the confident ball-striking of her opener.  Yet Pironkova has troubled her on more than one prior occasion, forcing her deep into the third set at an Australian Open. The reserved Bulgarian seems an improbable nemesis for Venus, considering her average serve and generally unremarkable groundstroke offense.  On grass, furthermore, the court coverage that assists her on slower surfaces should prove a less notable asset.  Startlingly emphatic was Pironkova’s victory over Venus on these lawns last year, however, and she upset the second-seeded Zvonareva a round ago in equally routine fashion.  Certain players do establish special, rationally inexplicable zones of comfort at specific tournament, as Venus herself could attest.  Even if she struggled at other tournaments throughout the calendar, the five-time champion always could expect to produce a memorable fortnight at Wimbledon.  After Pironkova denied those expectations last year, Venus surely will bring an additional level of focus to the sequel.

Nadal vs. Del Potro:  Until the former US Open champion completes his inexorable rise towards the top 10, contenders will face a towering challenge earlier than they would have preferred.  After the duty of defusing Del Potro fell to Djokovic at Roland Garros, Nadal earned the least enviable pre-quarterfinal assignment at Wimbledon.  Although he defeated the Argentine at Indian Wells this year, that semifinal offered more compelling tennis than the scoreline suggested.  Still relatively early in his return, Del Potro already has defeated worthy opponents including Soderling and Verdasco as he regains the confidence to swing freely on his nearly unanswerable forehand.  Specializing in finding answers for the unanswerable, Nadal eked out two tiebreaks against Muller’s veering lefty serve to reach the second week at Wimbledon without losing a set for the first time.  While that match will have prepared the Spaniard for blunting the Argentine’s imposing delivery, Rafa may find his opponent’s baseline arsenal a sterner test.  Court positioning early in points should prove vital for both players and especially Del Potro, as Nadal attempts to restrain him from stepping inside the court to launch his forehands at penetrating angles.  After an indifferent serving performance at Roland Garros, the top seed elevated his serve during the first week to a weapon that won him several key points outright.  Perhaps drained by extended encounters in the first week, Del Potro must assert himself in the initial stages to open a crack in Nadal’s confidence.  Always uncomfortable against the ATP’s towers of power, the Spaniard has scored recent successes in that category that may help maintain his calm under pressure.

Bartoli vs. S. Williams:  Still scorching as spring turns to summer, the top-ranked Frenchwoman charged from a Roland Garros semifinal to the Eastbourne title and now aims for a quarterfinal at the major where she broke through four years ago.  On that occasion, Bartoli defeated reigning #1 Justine Henin in one of Wimbledon’s more spectacular upsets before falling uneventfully to Venus in the final.  Although she since avenged that loss, the idiosyncratic double-fister always confronts a severe obstacle when facing the Williams sisters:  the discrepancy between their serves.  Bartoli has improved that most unorthodox component of her unorthodox repertoire, but it remains a shot that can donate strings of double faults at awkward moments.  By contrast, Serena has relied heavily on her serve to survive tense situations, although it lately has not approached the heights of her past two Wimbledons.  Having met the Frenchwoman only once in the last seven years, the younger Williams will need to reacquaint herself with the distinctive combinations created by Bartoli.  Since both players punish second serves with ferocious returns, first-serve percentage may hold the key to victory for either woman.  After a pair of edgy victories in the first two rounds, Serena eased into the second week with a dominant performance.  Meanwhile, Bartoli’s momentum appeared to have slowed when she saved match points in the second round and then endured a marathon against the floundering Pennetta.

Maria Sharapova - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Six

Sharapova vs. Peng:  Perched in the top 20 and still climbing, the second-ranked Chinese star has unfolded a season more consistent albeit less spectacular than the exploits of her countrywoman.  After she toppled Sharapova in Beijing two years ago, Peng extended her to three sets at Indian Wells this year.  At the root of that unsightly rollercoaster lay the Russian’s erratic serving, exacerbated by the wind and an apparent lack of focus.  From Sharapova’s spring successes have flowed renewed focus that has translated to her serve, still subject to occasional wobbles but vastly improved from its waywardness throughout much of her comeback.  A resilient counterpuncher with a talent for redirecting the ball, Peng does not shrink from powerful opponents and can trade flat, deep lasers with anyone from behind the baseline.  Less impressive than her groundstrokes is her serve, into which Sharapova can sink her teeth at will.  Not especially sharp in the third round, Maria will seek to improve her timing and shot selection as she enters the second week, recognizing opportunities to finish points without rushing to end them prematurely.   In that balance lies the key to unlocking her first Wimbledon quarterfinal berth since 2006.

Fish vs. Berdych:  Justifying his elevated seeding, the top-ranked American man edged through his first three matches with little fanfare against unheralded opposition.  Almost as unnoticed amidst the scrutiny surrounding the top four is last year’s finalist, who has accomplished little of note since that time.  After imploding in his Roland Garros opener, Berdych has delivered a series of considerably more composed performances despite the pressure of defending his 2010 result.  In a match that opposes two thunderous serves, one expects few extended rallies or closely contested service games.  Neither player should gain frequent opportunities to break, so a tiebreak or two looks probable.  If Berdych can orient the rallies from forehand to forehand, he should break down Fish’s less technically reliable wing.  If the American can target the Czech’s vulnerable backhand with his own brisk two-hander, conversely, he could score the mini-upset.  His rise in the rankings notwithstanding, Fish has not yet scored a resounding statement win this year outside his Miami victory over Del Potro.  On the other hand, neither has Berdych.

Petrova vs. Azarenka:  Vertigo and other physical woes behind her, the 29-year-old Muscovite mounted an encouraging charge to the second week that included a victory over compatriot Pavlyuchenkova, a decade younger than her.  Opposing another youthful ball-bruiser in Azarenka, Petrova will hope to rely on her  superior forecourt play and much superior serving to overcome an adversary with a greater array of weapons at her disposal.  Both players will recognize the significance of this situation, for a highly winnable quarterfinal against Paszek or Pervak awaits the survivor.  Ruffled by Hantuchova for much of two sets, Azarenka appeared to refocus during the rain delay.  No less important for Petrova is the psychological dimension, since she bears the scars of multiple disappointments at majors and probably has underachieved considering her talents.  At this stage, though, greater pressure probably weighs upon the Belarussian, whose narrative remains unwritten and her potential untapped.  Which of these volatile Russian-speaking women can restrain their inflammable temper more successfully?

Ferrer vs. Tsonga:  Like his compatriot Gasquet, this Frenchman revels in flamboyant bursts of inspiration and can hit any shot from anywhere on the court to anywhere else the court.  His talents shone at their most brilliant during a comprehensive victory over Gonzalez but often can flicker from one round to the next.  Reaching the second week on his least comfortable surface, Ferrer fell to the similarly flamboyant Monfils at Roland Garros.  In a five-setter that stretched across two days, he required all of his veteran wiles to outlast burgeoning American Ryan Harrison.  While the grass exposes his serve and meager first-strike capacity, the Spaniard’s compact strokes and crisp footwork represent less obvious advantages.  Pitted against Soderling in the same round last year, Ferrer caused the mighty Swede far more exertion than one might have envisioned considering the fast court.  When the Frenchman approaches the net, the Spaniard’s expertly placed passing shots should challenge his volleying skills.  If Tsonga retains the rhythm on his first serve that he found against Gonzalez, however, even the seventh seed’s scintillating return should inflict few dents upon his service games, leaving him free to concentrate upon breaking his opponent’s more pedestrian delivery.

Wozniacki vs. Gajdosova: Romping through her first two matches with the loss of only seven games, the world #1 has outlasted fellow top-four seeds Li and Zvonareva.  Although a pair of preceding victories over the Slovak-turned-Aussie should leave the Dane confident about her chances, Gajdosova has improved dramatically since their last clash.  Few nuances or hidden strengths lurk in her game, predicated upon the type of massive serving and shot-making precision tailored for grass.  Plowing into the second week here before, Gajdosova has troubled Venus on these lawns and has the raw velocity to overpower anyone before they can collect themselves.  Steamrolled by Kvitova at Wimbledon 2010, Wozniacki has learned how swiftly and inexorably matches can slip away on this surface.  Unable to solve a similarly inflammable dark horse in Hantuchova at Roland Garros, she will confront even more scrutiny unless she continues her convincing fortnight here.

Roger Federer - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Four

Nalbandian vs. Federer:  Deep into the early years of this millennium extend the 18 meetings with the Swiss and the Argentine, who have met at every major except Wimbledon—until now.  Scoring eight victories against Federer, Nalbandian held the upper hand in their rivalry’s initial stages and later scored a memorable comeback in the final of the 2005 year-end championships, the only occasion on which the GOAT has lost after holding a two-set lead.  As recently as 2007, in fact, the “grouchy gaucho” continued to vex the impeccably coiffed superstar with consecutive victories during the fall indoor hard season.  On somewhat similarly slick courts, Nalbandian’s flat, unpredictably angled two-handed backhand could prove a key asset that allows him to expose Federer’s backhand and open the Swiss star’s forehand corner.  Nevertheless, the Argentine’s fitness has dwindled steadily in the waning years of his career, while injuries have forestalled him from developing the consistency necessary to reestablish himself as a threat.  Even if Federer drops a set, as he has in 14 of their 18 confrontations, he probably can outlast the 2002 finalist in the best-of-five format.

Baghdatis vs. Djokovic:  A charismatic entertainer with questionable motivation and often questionable fitness, the Cypriot targets an opponent who once matched the same description.  Vowing to improve his durability, Baghdatis devoted substantial effort to fitness during the offseason but with unremarkable results.  In 2011, he has conquered no opponent more notable than the rejuvenated Del Potro at the Australian Open.  Seemingly unruffled by the end of his 43-match winning streak, meanwhile, Djokovic carved up two creditable opponents in Chardy and Kevin Anderson with minimal ado.  Despite his aspiration to win Wimbledon one day and the chance to gain the #1 ranking this fortnight, the Serb may have relaxed with the media focused on the Nadal-Federer rivalry once again and his 2011 perfection behind him.  Baghdatis has frustrated him for sporadic spans before, winning four sets in their last three meetings, but Djokovic has matured as much as the Cypriot has waned since their five-set quarterfinal here four years ago.

Sharapova vs. Zakopalova:  Eight long years ago, a 15-year-old prodigy from the Bolletieri Academy lost the first main-draw match of her Slam career to Klara Zakopalova.  Does the superstar who bloomed from that raw teenager harbor a thirst for revenge against the petite Czech?   Despite threatening multiple former #1s and defeating Li earlier this year, Zakopalova has compiled a losing record at majors in her career.  Nevertheless, she reached the second week at a Slam for the first time here last year, an unexpected accomplishment considering her lack of offensive firepower.  The most notable weapon in her meager arsenal, her two-handed backhand down the line could ambush Sharapova if she enters their contest unfamiliar with the Czech’s style.  Acknowledging that she did not display her finest tennis against an inspired Robson, the 2004 champion still hammered percussive cross-court blows from not only her fearsome backhand but her less reliable forehand.  Focused upon testing Sharapova’s consistency, Zakopalova may force Maria to hit an additional shot or two to finish points but rarely can seize the initiative from her.

Gonzalez vs. Tsonga:  Reckless ball-bruisers with a taste for showmanship, they share Australian Open finals appearances and massive forehand power, mitigated by dubious shot selection.  Narrowly escaping a fifth set against Bulgarian prodigy Grigor Dimitrov, Tsonga displayed the characteristic, charming, yet costly profligacy that ended his Roland Garros campaign.  Like many Frenchmen past and present, he occasionally prefers the spectacular to the sensible at crucial junctures late in sets.  Although he lacks the desire to win a major, Tsonga certainly possesses the technical attributes to penetrate far into the second week.  By contrast, Gonzalez must consider himself fortunate to have reached the third round so early in his comeback from surgery.  Despite winning the Liverpool challenger on grass this year, Chile’s Olympic medalist prefers waging his battles from the baseline rather than the forecourt.  That lack of comfort represents a significant different between Gonzalez and Tsonga, who hurtles towards the net behind less than overwhelming pretexts.  Able to finish points with almost any of his shots, the Frenchman should neutralize his opponent’s single weapon, the forehand, after a series of blistering yet occasionally head-scratching exchanges.

Cibulkova vs. Goerges:  Lurking in the shadow of Petkovic is her less flamboyant, perhaps equally skilled compatriot, who rose to renown with two victories over Wozniacki during the clay season.  A powerful server on any surface, Goerges has earned surprisingly scant success on grass and suffered a routine loss to Ivanovic at Eastbourne.  During that match and in her previous wins here, this fiery competitor struggled to channel her emotions in productive directions.  Goerges can unleash formidable weapons from both groundstrokes, creating a symmetry that should boost her cause by obviating the need to run around a weaker wing.  Less promising are her relatively long swings, better designed for surfaces with clay that offer more time to adjust for unexpected bounces.  Still a unfolding talent, the German confronts a deceptively unprepossessing Slovak who rallied from a deep deficit against Lucic.  Without the groundstroke symmetry of Goerges, Cibulkova has honed the streamlined movement and footwork upon which counterpunchers like Hewitt built grass-court success.  But the disparity in their serves should prove fatal to her hopes unless the German suffers one of the abrupt dips in form that has characterized her unpredictable season.

Ana Ivanovic - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Four

Ivanovic vs. Cetkovska:  Whatever happens in this Court 18 encounter, the less famous Czech Petra will know that it cannot go worse than her previous meeting with Ivanovic, a double bagel at Roland Garros in 2008.  Encouraged by modest successes in Birmingham and Eastbourne, the Serb has soared through her first two victories while surrendering just four total games as she attempts to exploit a seedless section.  Battling from within two points of defeat in her previous round, the world #81 scored an impressive victory over two-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist Radwanska.  Likely invigorated by that conquest, Cetkovska should compete tenaciously in the belief that she can turn the tide if adversity strikes.  So overwhelming have Ivanovic’s weapons proved thus far, though, that her similarly unheralded previous victims have found little opportunity to restart rallies and blunt her momentum.  In four of her six grass victories this year, Ana has skipped merrily to the net after less than an hour.

Almagro vs. Youzhny:  Far from his best on grass, the Spaniard deserves considerable credit for winning two tiebreaks of Isner while never surrendering his serve throughout four sets.  Not known for his physical or mental stamina, Almagro has improved both of those dimensions during a breakthrough season that has witnessed his ascent to the top 10.  Besieged by injuries and advancing age, former top-10 denizen Youzhny has faded sharply after reaching the US Open semifinal last year.  So low did his confidence dip after the clay season, in fact, that the notoriously inflammable Russian entered a challenger before Wimbledon, from which he retired.  Armed with underestimated adeptness at the net, Youzhny nevertheless possesses superior skills on grass to an opponent with an equally sublime one-handed backhand.  Beyond admiring the juxtaposition of those elegant, vanishing strokes, spectators await an answer to whether overall form this year or surface aptitude will prevail in a clash between evenly matched adversaries.  One imagines that the sequel to their infamous Miami meeting will prove memorable for reasons related more to tennis than to tempers.

Andy Roddick - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Three

Lopez vs. Roddick:  As a hail of aces rained off the Spaniard’s racket at Queens Club, the three-time Wimbledon finalist held his ground with a composure born of experience and waited for a chink in his opponent’s armor to emerge.  When it did, Roddick pounced and escaped a two-tiebreak, three-set serve-a-thon that hung in the balance until the final game.  Often outplayed by Lopez for sporadic stretches of their meetings, the American has relied on executing fundamentals with the consistency of a metronome.  In his two straight-sets wins here, he has conceded only a handful of unforced errors while suffocating opponents through impenetrable serving.  This third-round encounter may pivot upon tiebreaks, an area where Roddick declined sharply last year after a career of brilliance.  Improving in that category recently, he seemed encouraged by his Queens Club semifinal appearance rather than deflated by the lopsided loss with which it ended.  Still, his one-dimensional style leaves him vulnerable to lower-ranked, highly talented opponents like Lopez when they seize a sudden burst of inspiration.

Hantuchova vs. Azarenka:  An encounter certain to please male audience members, this typically glamorous Centre Court collision might feature engaging tennis as well.  Seemingly fading into a terminal spiral, Hantuchova reignited her career with a second-week appearance at Roland Garros that she followed with a Birmingham final and Eastbourne semifinal.  Not for years had this mentally fallible competitor compiled such a steady sequence of results, despite the relative insignificance of the grass tournaments.  Those three events included victories over Wozniacki, Ivanovic, Li, and Venus, a group encompassing three Slam champions and three #1s.  With those momentous victories behind her, Hantuchova should consider herself capable of expelling the fourth seed from the tournament a day after the third seed.  Azarenka has displayed formidable grass-court skills, though, ranging from a 2009 Wimbledon quarterfinal to a 2010 Eastbourne final and victory over Clijsters.  As suspect physically as Hantuchova mentally, she benefits from the extra jolt that the surface provides her powerful but not quite turbocharged weapons, especially her serve.  A lithe mover who can track down the Slovak’s angles, Azarenka might grow frustrated if dragged towards the net on disadvantageous terms.

Martinez Sanchez vs. V. Williams:  Like Roddick, his female compatriot faces a serve-and-volleying Spanish lefty with a dangerous propensity for catching fire at timely moments.  At this stage, Venus would have expected to face familiar Jankovic, but Martinez Sanchez halted the former #1’s path in an entertaining display of classic grass-court tennis.  Subjected to a similarly classic display in the second round, the elder Williams can count herself lucky to have survived the exhausting test mounted by Kimiko Date-Krumm.  Venus must recover swiftly in order to repeat a resounding Wimbledon victory over the Spaniard during which she struck the fastest women’s serve in tournament history.  Early in a comeback from injury, though, players often struggle with their reflexes and timing.  Against an opponent who favors rushing through points and towards the net, the American will need to hone the precision on her passing shots.  Gifted with an outstanding reach, Venus surrenders few aces but sometimes struggles to strike her returns with consistent accuracy.  Those two shots, in addition to her ability to recover from Wednesday’s marathon, will prove vital to her fate on Friday.

Nadal vs. Muller:  Spared the psychic ordeal of a clash with Raonic, Rafa must count himself fortunate to set his targets against an aging, rarely notable lefty from Luxembourg.  Or should he?  In his last pre-final loss at Wimbledon, Nadal fell to Muller at the 2005 tournament less than a month after winning his first major title at Roland Garros.  Nine majors and two Wimbledon crowns later, the world #1 has learned how to blunt the power of the towering servers who threaten the elite on grass, while the surface has slowed with every year and the balls become heavier.  All of those factors indicate a more routine result on this occasion, especially considering Nadal’s sparkling form in two straight-sets victories this year.  In 2010, he edged laboriously through the first week with a pair of five-setters, whereas no adjustment period appears necessary in 2011.

Tsvetana Pironkova Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria in action during the Ladies Semi Final match against Vera Zvonareva of Russia on Day Ten of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 1, 2010 in London, England.

Pironkova vs. Zvonareva:  A surprise semifinalist last year, the willowy Bulgarian built her memorable Wimbledon run upon a stunning upset over Venus.  Virtually irrelevant since that breakthrough, Pironkova faces a dramatic rankings plunge should she fail to topple the player who halted the finest fortnight of her career.  Curiously, Zvonareva endured three sets and several tense moments on that occasion before overcoming a player with a far less formidable game, and she also has not capitalized upon her stirring 2010 to record a solid 2011.  Despite semifinals in Melbourne and Miami, the Russian has regressed in general towards a level not commensurate with her elevated ranking.  Extended to three sets by Riske and nearly by Vesnina, she looks ripe for an upset despite having recorded what should have proved a confidence-boosting victory over Serena in Eastbourne.  Nevertheless, Vera probably will survive for exactly one more round before Venus avenges the slight to her sister.

Monfils vs. Kubot:  Accustomed to loping along the baseline at his leisure, the Frenchman often finds the grass a little too swift for his counterpunching comfort zone.  If the surface forces Monfils into a more aggressive mentality, though, he could adapt his effortless power on serve and forehand to terminate points as abruptly as Tsonga.  A doubles specialist with a brisk return, Kubot followed earlier victories over titanic servers Roddick and Querrey with a routine win over the most formidable ace machine of all, Karlovic. From both his five-set victory over Querrey in Australia and his victory over the Croat here shone the Pole’s focus at pivotal moments and his early contact point on groundstrokes.  Although he often prefers time to assess a situation, Monfils must play a more instinctive brand of tennis against Kubot, an adjustment that could benefit him as he moves into the second week.

Wickmayer vs. Kuznetsova:  Similar in playing style albeit not in credentials, the Belgian and the Russian enjoy excellent athleticism and forehands much more potent than their backhands.  While Wickmayer owns the superior serve, Kuznetsova probably has cultivated greater prowess in the forecourt.  Both players can drift in and out of focus with alarming facility, resulting in matches with unpredictable mood and momentum swings.  Since each has disappointed hopes for most of 2011, a second-week appearance for either would mark a noteworthy achievement on arguably their weakest surface.  Thus, this match represents one of the rare Slam encounters with little to lose and much to gain for both contenders, a combination that should spawn crisp, compelling tennis.

 

Robin Soderling - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Two

Soderling vs. Hewitt:  Thrust to the brink of a fifth set by Petzschner in his opener, the world #5 battled not only an inflammable opponent but bursts of erratic play from himself.  That procession of squandered leads and prolonged service games inspired little faith in Soderling’s ability to contend for the title and even cast doubt upon his ability to reach the second week.  Against an equally dangerous foe in Nishikori, the 2002 champion flirted with disaster by wasting a match point in the third set but finished more impressively than did the Swede.  Fortunate to escape their profligacy without further consequences, Soderling and Hewitt complement each other’s strengths with a massive server (the former) confronting a steady returner (the latter).  Despite the serve-friendly surface, both players struggled to hold in their opening encounters.  The Aussie might earn a reasonable chance to score the upset if this trend continues, just as he did against the similarly powerful but mobility-challenged Del Potro in 2009.

Li vs. Lisicki:  Since she exited Roland Garros on a stretcher, the Florida-based German has reeled off seven straight victories on grass.  Elated to win her first title in more than two years at Birmingham, Lisicki also can draw inspiration from the memory of a 2009 quarterfinal charge during which she overcame Kuznetsova and Wozniacki.  Outside the Williams sisters, few women can deliver serves with both power and accuracy equal to the vivacious blonde, who curbed her erratic tendencies to concede only six unforced errors in her opener.  Not tested by massive servers at the season’s first two majors, Li Na withstood the temptation to bask in the aura of her Roland Garros title and maintained her focus to smoothly dispatch Kudryavtseva. Lisicki’s all-or-nothing style often reduces matches to a few key points late in sets, so the Chinese star must stay alert to recognize her opportunities when they arise.

Dimitrov vs. Tsonga:  Often described as the future Federer, the Bulgarian prodigy has worn that label awkwardly at times while attempting to master his volatile temper.  Whether or not the Swiss master’s elegant brand of tennis can produce a champion in an era of enhanced physicality remains an open question that Dimitrov may answer, but he must travel a considerable distance before one can pose it.  Across the net stands a manifestation of that enhanced physicality, a Frenchman with superb athleticism and sporadic focus.  Even on an erratic day, Tsonga should survive this second-round encounter, for he reached the Queens Club final this year and the Wimbledon quarterfinals last year, troubling Murray on both occasions.  This match thus represents a rare opportunity for Dimitrov to test himself against a mature member of the elite and learn from the results, as well as an opportunity for spectators to measure his evolution in comparison to Harrison, Raonic, Berankis, and other rising stars.

Maria Sharapova - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Two

Sharapova vs. Robson:  For the second round of the second straight major, Sharapova levels her glacial gaze at the most promising rising star from the host nation.  Narrowly surviving the lashing forehands of Caroline Garcia in Paris, she will hope to overcome the similarly spunky Laura Robson in less suspenseful fashion.  Within a game of defeat in the first round, the former junior Wimbledon champion rallied impressively to turn the tide but nearly let a double-break lead slip away in the third set before collecting herself.  Unflustered by former top-10 denizen Chakvetadze in her opener, Sharapova moved with surprising fluidity on a surface where she had not played any preparatory matches.  Her crisp footwork and clean ball-striking defined an intimidatingly effortless performance, but she has looked equally emphatic in first rounds of majors past before faltering soon afterwards.  A second-round victim in two of her last three Wimbledon appearances, the 2004 champion may require a few games to adjust to the patterns of an unfamiliar challenger.  Meawhile, Robson also must adjust to the pace of an opponent who strikes the ball more savagely than anyone whom she has played before.

Ferrer vs. Harrison:  Perhaps a future rival of Dimitrov, the most promising young American announced himself at the US Open last year and continued his success as an Indian Wells wildcard this spring.  Less successful outside his home nation, Harrison exploited his lucky-loser status to the fullest by defeating Croat Ivan Dodig, who had won a title this year and challenged more than one notable opponent.  Since Ferrer finds his grinding style least suited to this surface, the fiery phenom may fancy his chances to score an upset over a player who will not out-serve him like most of the top 10.  Relying on his experience to overcome Harrison’s superior power, the seventh seed has reached the second week at Wimbledon before and likely has accumulated superior fitness for what promises to become an extended battle.  The American harbors a voracious appetite for competition himself, however, so he should not relent easily.

Ivanovic vs. Daniilidou:  The only Serb to reach the second round in the women’s draw, Ivanovic dazzled in a 48-minute victory over Oudin filled with pulverized returns and audaciously angled forehands.  Oscillating in form from one day to the next throughout the season, the former #1 either has annihilated opponents or slumped to demoralizing defeats without much explanation for one outcome or the other outside the status of a few nagging injuries.  Not threatening an adversary of Ana’s credentials for many months, her sub-100 opponent had won exactly one main-draw match at 2011 WTA tournaments before defusing Coco Vandeweghe’s serve in the first round.  Daniilidou did defeat Henin here six years ago, suggesting that her unusual one-handed backhand and concomitant weapons translate smoothly to grass.  But Ivanovic’s fate rests firmly in her own hands, for she projects superior power behind nearly every shot.

Almagro vs. Isner:  Escaping a tepid encore of the Mahut marathon without undue exertion, Isner will aim to progress much further into the draw than he could after last year’s historic collision.  This year’s Wimbledon has not proved kind to tall players, for Karlovic fell in straight sets to an unremarkable opponent, while the diminutive Rochus captured the first set from Del Potro.  Nevertheless, the grass usually proves even less kind to clay specialists, who struggle to streamline their elongated swings and eschew their baseline-tethered positioning to step inside the court.  Especially reluctant to break free from that mold is a dirt devil as dedicated as Almagro, who swept through the picayune South American tournaments with an almost comical determination.  Unlikely to appease the gods of grass by regularly charging the net, the Spaniard will juxtapose his horizontal baseline coverage with Isner’s vertical forecourt gambits.  An often reckless shot-maker, Almagro must stay stingy in order to quell an opponent against whom any misstep, as Nadal muttered, causes “big trouble.”

Venus Williams Venus Williams of the United States in action during her first round match Akgul Amanmuradova of Uzbekistan on Day One of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 20, 2011 in London, England.

Date-Krumm vs. V. Williams:  Commonly considered one of the WTA’s most seasoned veterans, Venus resembles a mere novice compared to her second-round opponents.  Still thirsty for competition into her fifth decade, Date-Krumm unleashed a stirring sequence of successes last year highlighted by victories over former #1s Safina and Sharapova.  In 2011, her miraculous rejuvenation waned as foes grew more familiar with her distinctive style and perhaps a bit less respectful of her age.  The Japanese star certainly cannot match Venus hold for hold, so her prospects for mustering a credible threat look slim indeed.  If she can embed herself in rallies, though, her short, flat, sharply angled strokes could test the five-time champion’s instincts and movement.  Kudos to the All England Club for featuring this classy pair of competitors on Centre Court.

Benneteau vs. Berdych:  Most dangerous on the fastest surfaces, the mercurial Frenchman defeated Federer at the Paris Indoors two years ago behind opportunistic forecourt attacks coupled with stinging down-the-line backhands.  Last summer, Benneteau held a match point against Nadal at the Rogers Cup, reminding spectators that this doubles specialist still can threaten the ATP elite in their mortal moments.  Surprisingly convincing in his opening win, Berdych eyes a reasonably comfortable draw en route to a quarterfinal with Nadal yet has struggled to capitalize on such situations before.  The 2010 finalist has not recaptured the form that earned consecutive victories over Federer and Djokovic here last year, although Wimbledon’s calm atmosphere may help settle his nerves.   Dour and somewhat laborious, the Czech must forestall the Frenchman from rushing him out of his comfort zone on a wave of positive energy as another Frenchman did against Berdych at Roland Garros.

Del Potro vs. Rochus:  Dwarfed by the lanky Argentine, the Belgian struck fear into an adversary as lofty as Djokovic in the opening round of Wimbledon 2010.  Leading by two sets to one on that occasion, Rochus ultimately could not overcome the Serb’s superiority on serve and sheer pace of shot.  While a similar task confronts him against Del Potro, the 2009 US Open champion rarely has imprinted his presence onto a significant grass draw.  In fact, Hewitt’s compact, far from overpowering style comfortably overcame the Argentine in straight sets during his last appearance here.  Normally an above-average mover among the ATP giants, Del Potro arranges his lanky limbs less naturally on grass, as a Queens Club loss to Mannarino illustrated.  With no points to defend through the rest of 2011, though, he can focus on accumulating points and momentum for the summer hard courts where his weapons have proved most lethal.

Dulgheru vs. Kuznetsova:  Far from top-10 quality for most of this season, Sveta could return to the top 10 with a second-week run here following her quarterfinal appearance at Roland Garros.  Always fonder of clay than grass, she still reached the quarterfinal here in 2007 and plausibly could repeat that feat in a section with no rival more imposing than Kvitova.  Kuznetsova has entertained audiences with a rollercoaster career built upon momentum surges and sputters, so one wonders whether that Paris accomplishment will remain an anomaly or ignite another upward climb.  Suggesting the former was an unnecessarily complicated opener, and the Russian has faltered against non-threatening but persistent opponents like Dulgheru for much of 2011.

Muller vs. Raonic:  If at first you don’t succeed, serve, serve, and serve again.  Such a motto has defined the careers of Muller and Raonic, two monumental ace machines with compromised movement but reasonable skills at the net.  When the Luxembourg lefty meets Canada’s Ancic-like prodigy, few points should extend past three or four shots in a contest that resembles less a tennis match than a dart-throwing competition.  Nevertheless, Wimbledon still offers the best possible venue in which to observe this curious manner of playing the sport, which led to Isner-Mahut here last year.  Viewed as a future Wimbledon champion by bolder prognosticators, Raonic thus far resembles Isner more than Sampras.  Whether or not such glory lies in his future, he can only profit from the experience of playing an opponent with a game so parallel to his own.

Pavlyuchenkova vs. Petrova:  As one Russian wanes, another emerges to supplant her.  A former Wimbledon quarterfinalist, Petrova possesses the heavy serve and aggressive mentality designed for success on grass.  Well past the apex of her abilities, however, she enters this match as an underdog against the highest-ranked teenager in the WTA.  Pavlyuchenkova reached her first Slam quarterfinal at Roland Garros, where she thoroughly dominated Schiavone for a set and a half.  A baseliner with little affinity for the net except regarding swing volleys, her laterally oriented style may not adapt as impressively to grass as to clay, while her serve remains a work in progress.  From a breakthrough as significant as her Paris performance, though, she may have gained the confidence to believe in herself as a genuine contender and a threat to emerge from the weakest quarter of the draw.

Marino vs. Vinci:  Not unlike Raonic, his female compatriot can release a thunderous serve that Venus once compared to her own.  Also not unlike Raonic, Marino has a rough-hewn, raw game that requires considerable refinement before she can vault much higher in the rankings.  The WTA rewards the exercise of unbridled power more handsomely than does the ATP, however, especially on faster surfaces.  By winning the Dutch Open title last week against the heavy-hitting Dokic, Vinci demonstrated a different way to win on grass:  with sharply carved slices, artistic volleys, and swift reflexes.  But will any of those skills matter against Marino’s one overpowering weapon?

Serena Williams Serena Williams of USA in action against Vera Zvonareva of Russia during day five of the AEGON International at Devonshire Park on June 15, 2011 in Eastbourne, England.

Rezai vs. S. Williams:  Had she maintained her form of a year ago, the flamboyant Frenchwoman would have posed a thorny test for a momentarily vulnerable Serena.  In two matches at Eastbourne, the 13-time major champion looked sporadically frail in many departments but most notably her serve, the key to her four Wimbledon titles.  Fortunately for Serena, though, Rezai has battled a maelstrom of emotional and psychological turmoil off the court that has undermined her season. On the other hand, she might recapture her swagger with the opportunity to showcase her skills on Centre Court.  Having traded baseline missiles with Serena throughout an entertaining three-setter in Sydney, Rezai demonstrated the requisite firepower to conquer the American at her own game.  But one doubts that she sustain it across three sets, as she rarely has throughout her career.

Soderling vs. Petzschner:  Seemingly to his own surprise, Petzschner produced a finals run in his home tournament of Halle that culminated with a three-set victory over Berdych.  Exhausted by those exertions, he retired in the final but surely will arrive in Wimbledon in a dangerously confident mood.  A quarterfinalist here last year, Soderling has lost to the eventual champion in each of the last two years as he did at Roland Garros.  The world #5 has honed a groundstroke arsenal not only steadier but more formidable than Petzschner’s strokes, while his serve will garner just as many free points from the fast court.  Never a natural mover, though, Soderling may struggle to find his footing on the slippery surface after missing the grass preparatory events.  Despite his mid-career breakthrough, he remains vulnerable to unpredictable upsets at majors and has lacked consistency throughout an injury-plagued spring.

Li vs. Kudryavtseva:  Notorious for a temper as flaming as her hair, the Russian came within two points of upsetting Venus early in the American’s historic 2007 title run.  A year later, Kudryavtseva won those two points against Sharapova shortly before her compatriot departed for shoulder surgery.  Just weeks removed from her Roland Garros crown, Li thus should not enter her Wimbledon opener with a complacency otherwise justifiable under the circumstances.  After arriving in maiden Slam finals at the French Open last year, both Schiavone and Stosur slumped to early exits at the All England Club.  More disturbingly, Li herself has followed torrid bursts with arid stretches as her motivation seemingly evaporates.  While Channel Slams have become routine on the men’s side, no woman in recent years has equaled the feats of Nadal and Federer.

Isner vs. Mahut:  Scheduled on a court that didn’t exist during their epic encounter a year ago, the two record-setters probably will enjoy the sequel more than the original.  Expect a semi-serious, semi-exhibition atmosphere as the adversaries-turned-friends make the most of a deliciously bizarre coincidence.  And expect points as short as this preview.

Dolgopolov vs. Gonzalez:  Surging to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, Dolgopolov demonstrated lithe movement and smooth stroke production in addition to an uncanny feel for the ball.  But the Ukrainian has produced inconsistent results since that achievement, revealing an indifferent sense of point construction and shot selection.  The grass should showcase his delicate touch around the net, although his movement will prove a less valuable tool.  Returning from a potentially career-ending surgery, Gonzalez has alternately soared and staggered even more sharply.  Not at his most comfortable on this surface, the Australian Open finalist and Olympic silver medalist possesses a fiercer weapon in his forehand than anything that Dolgopolov can deploy.  If the Ukrainian can find his backhand with his own crisp two-hander, though, he can neutralize the Chilean’s power.  Built upon brief, almost casual motions, both serves can oscillate as much as the rest of their games.  Thrusting Tsonga deep into a fifth set here last Wimbledon, Dolgopolov may deliver another dramatic rollercoaster this year.

Nishikori vs. Hewitt:  Surely soon to vanish into the mists of tennis history is the last man to win Wimbledon before Federer planted his standard on Centre Court.  Nine years and several surgeries later, Hewitt no longer ranks among the contenders but can reflect upon memories as recent as his upset of Del Potro here in 2009.  Unfortunate to draw eventual champion Nadal in his 2010 opener, Nishikori has developed a style similar to Hewitt in his prime with sturdy technique, compact strokes, and mental durability.  With serves little better than point-starting shots, these players might engage in longer rallies than those often seen on grass.  In addition to their backwards caps and counterpunching tenacity, Hewitt and Nishikori share brisk cross-court backhands that exploit the geometry of the court.

Ana Ivanovic - AEGON Classic - Day Six

Ivanovic vs. Oudin:  A first-round victim in three of the last four majors, the former #1 has not reached a Slam quarterfinal since her title at Roland Garros 2008.  Nevertheless, she has recorded solid results at non-majors with sufficient frequency to stabilize her ranking inside or slightly outside the top 20.  After her 2009 US Open quarterfinal, meanwhile, Oudin has plunged off the tennis radar as swiftly as she burst upon it.  Two years ago, both players reached the second week here, and both gain contrasting benefits from the grass. Striking sixteen aces in a Birmingham semifinal, Ivanovic benefits from the surface’s short points and will hope to crack plentiful return winners off Oudin’s unimposing serve.  Like many tall players, though, the Serb sometimes struggles to adjust to the low bounce on grass, which rewards her opponent’s compact stature.  Both Ana and the American vastly prefer their forehands to their backhands, so each should target the other’s weaker wing with inside-out strikes of their weapons.

Sharapova vs. Chakvetadze:  The only former champion in the draw not named Williams, Sharapova ascended to the status of a leading contender after her Roland Garros semifinal.  Seeking her first Wimbledon quarterfinal since 2006, the 2004 champion confronts an opponent whom she has dispatched in all seven of their previous meetings.  After a giddy ascent to the top 5 four years ago, Chakvetadze tumbled to a sub-100 ranking in the wake of a house robbery and a disintegrating serve.  Impressive on the clay when few expected anything notable from her, Sharapova must continue her progress with those expectations now renewed.  Choosing to rest rather than enter Birmingham as usual, she has practiced at Wimbledon for over a week but still lacks any match practice on grass.  Chakvetadze may have an opportunity to exploit that lingering rust early in the match before Sharapova, a habitually slow starter, finds her range and starts to spray chalk around Centre Court.

Cibulkova vs. Lucic:  Yet another retiree who fancied a comeback, a woman who once defeated Seles at Wimbledon aims to recapture that magic of more than a decade ago.  After an encouraging clay campaign, Lucic garnered a pair of wins in Birmingham as her serve struck its targets with increasing precision.  That crucial shot still disintegrates occasionally, though, producing strings of double faults without warning.  A steadier competitor who lacks the Croat’s first-strike power, Cibulkova may find her short wingspan threatened on returns but should outlast Lucic if she can survive the first few shots of the rally.  Despite defeating Kuznetsova en route to the Dutch Open semifinals, the Slovak has found grass her least productive surface and has won only four matches in four Wimbledon appearances—fewer than her opponent won during her signature run in 1999.