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.

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