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Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal of Spain looks on during his match against Novak Djokovic of Serbia on day two of the Davis Cup World Group first round tie between Spain and Serbia at the Parque Tematico Terra Mitica on March 8, 2009 in Benidorm, Spain. Nadal defeated Djokovic in three straight sets 6-4, 6-4 and 6-1 sending Spain into the Davis Cup quarter-finals with a 3-1 win over Serbia.  (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Rafael Nadal

If their respective nations advance through the Davis Cup semifinals, the top two men in the world could meet in Belgrade on the final day of the 2011 season.  Less than a week after the US Open’s captivating conclusion, Spain and Serbia aim to conquer France and Argentina in home ties where they should enjoy a distinct advantage.

Losing consecutive Slam finals for the first time in his career, Nadal should find his recovery from a sixth straight loss to Djokovic boosted by a return to his nation and his favorite surface.  On the other hand, the transition from hard courts to clay late in an arduous season will test the Roland Garros champion’s battered physical condition.  During a similarly timed tie against the United States in Madrid, the greatest clay-court player of all time lost a set to the clay-averse Querrey before collecting himself.  Nadal has accumulated a sensational Davis Cup singles record, however, and he had won five of six meetings from probable Friday opponent Tsonga until the Frenchman reversed that trend at Queens Club this year.  Never have they met on clay, where the acrobatic shot-maker who has reached an Australian Open final and a Wimbledon semifinal rarely excels.  Lacking the patience for extended rallies, Tsonga will find that his net-rushing style plays into the hands of Rafa’s passing shots more on this surface than any other.  In the last five years, only Federer, Djokovic, and Soderling have toppled Nadal on the terre battue, so one struggles to imagine any of the famously fickle French winning three sets from him before a Spanish crowd likely to rattle their fragile nerves.

With two near-certain  rubbers from Nadal, assuming his full participation, Spain need collect only one further from the strong supporting cast of Ferrer and the doubles pairing of Verdasco/Lopez.  Although the world #5 has not played much tennis since Wimbledon, he showcased his continued clay excellence with a title and three finals on this surface, including the Masters 1000 tournament in Monte Carlo.  Battling Djokovic through a three-set semifinal in the Madrid Masters tournament, Ferrer has feasted upon the support of his compatriots in previous Davis Cup epics such as five-set victories over Roddick and Stepanek, the latter in a Cup final.  Yet curiously this tenacious competitor has lost all three of his meetings with Friday opponent Monfils, most notably a five-set rollercoaster that ended the Spaniard’s sojourn at Roland Garros this year.  Just two places below Ferrer in the rankings, the exuberant shot-maker also quelled him as part of a Davis Cup shutout when these teams met in France last year.  On both of those occasions, though, the boisterous French fans inspired their hero to a more sustained effort than he might produce before a crowd unappreciative of his showmanship.  Somewhat more successful over the past few months than the Spaniard, Monfils must continue his dominance in their rivalry for France to survive until Sunday, for the experienced doubles squad of Verdasco/Lopez should overcome whatever pairing Guy Forget assembles to face them.

Choosing to load his rifle with four top-15 singles players rather than bring doubles specialist Llodra, the French captain perhaps expected a post-Open withdrawal from Nadal, or else an excellent serving day from Tsonga or Monfils in doubles duty.  Although Lopez probably prefers faster surfaces, he has elevated his form this year to record a near-upset over Federer, a quarterfinal appearance at Wimbledon, and a scintillating five-set Cup victory over the much higher-ranked Fish in a dangerous Austin tie.  Far less impressive are the results produced by Verdasco, but his explosive lefty serve and raw forehand power should prove greater assets in doubles than in singles.  Unless the French secure the doubles, this tie will not extend to a fifth rubber.  Despite all of the talent that they have mustered, the visitors should consider themselves fortunate to avoid a reverse shutout.  Spain

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates at match point after defeating Gael Monfils of France during day three of the Davis Cup Tennis Final at the Begrade Arena on December 5, 2010 in Belgrade, Serbia.

The image of a tightly knit team during their Cup title run last year, Serbia has contrasted with the often dysfunctional squads assembled by Argentina.  An apparent feud (or at least disdain) between Del Potro and Nalbandian undermined their efforts in a 2008 home final against Spain that they entered heavily favored.  In the hostile, raucous confines of Belgrade Arena, any internal division would magnify into a crippling liability.  Like Spain, Serbia will hope to rely for two virtually automatic singles rubbers upon one of the greatest players of this generation.  Weary from his third Slam title during a historic season, however, Djokovic may find discretion the better part of valor in this instance and prefer to recover from recent injuries incurred during his grueling consecutive victories over Federer and Nadal.  Nevertheless, he has not participated in Davis Cup since last year’s final and may sense an especially pressing need to demonstrate his national pride.  The only top-5 player who never has lost to Del Potro, he has relished trading flat baseline missiles with the giant while using his superior footwork and movement to outmaneuver him.  Whether the home nation actually needs Djokovic to win this tie lies open to interpretation, though.  Receding as sharply as the economy over the summer, Del Potro could not propel his US Open winning streak past the counterpunching wiles of Simon, while he fell meekly in straight sets to Gulbis and Cilic on the summer hard courts.  When he played the 2008 final that became known as the Massacre in Mar del Plata, the nerve-jangling pressure led to the sort of tentative performance that Lopez exploited then and that Tipsarevic could exploit now.

Retiring from the US Open with an injury, the eccentric Serbian #2 still seems a better option for starting singles duty than Serbian #3 Troicki, an early victim in New York.  As he demonstrated with a crucial victory over Berdych in last year’s Cup, Tipsarevic does not shrink from the Tour’s heavy hitters as does his less assertive compatriot.  His astonishing career-high ranking of #13 stems from an outstanding summer that included not only his first major quarterfinal, where he acquitted himself impressively against Djokovic, but also his first Masters 1000 semifinal in Montreal.  On the other hand, captain Bogdan Obradovic might contrast his disappointing effort against Monfils in last year’s final with Troicki’s commanding victory over Llodra in the decisive fifth rubber, although those contrasting results seemed to spring somewhat from the opponents and their relative aptitudes on a slow hard court.  Should Djokovic participate, Obradovic still could substitute world #16 Troicki for Sunday’s reverse singles in the event that the home squad requires further heroics.

A perfect 6-0 against Tipsarevic and Troicki  but 0-4 against Djokovic, Del Potro probably must deliver both of his rubbers for the visitors rather than relying upon his meager understudies to deliver two wins of their own.  In fact, the Serbs should consider themselves favored to defeat anyone on this squad outside the recently tottering Tower of Tandil.  Although they combined for five victories at the US Open, Monaco and Chela remain natural dirt devils far from their best in indoor conditions that reward shot-making more than stamina.  A Davis Cup hero for his nation before, Nalbandian has scored improbable victories under Argentine colors but has won only 12 matches since reaching the Auckland final in January, none against top-30 opponents.  The doubles format should showcase his talents for constructing clever angles, however, while its lesser exertions will ease the strain upon his aging, often-injured limbs.  Like France, Argentina brings four singles players rather than any doubles specialists, whereas Serbia can complement its three top-20 residents with top-10 doubles star Nenad Zimonjic.  The defending Cup champions have not fared well lately in doubles, however, losing the valuable middle rubber in both the semifinal and the final last year.  But Zimonjic’s disappointing performances did not return to haunt them, for both times Djokovic galvanized his squad to comebacks from 1-2 deficits by winning the fourth rubber.  Maybe Serbia does need him after all.   Serbia

 We also investigate the World Group playoff ties:

Romania vs. Czech Republic:  This utter mismatch features two top-30 players, the experienced Davis Cup duo of Berdych and Stepanek, against a Romanian squad without anyone in the top 100.  Playing in their capital of Bucharest, the home team will hope to discomfit the 2009 Cup finalists by playing this tie on red clay.  In similar David-Goliath encounters, like recent American trips to Chile and Colombia, the surface could not compensate for the vast gap in talent.  Czech Republic

Russia vs. Brazil:  Far from the sun-soaked beaches of Rio is the central Russian city of Kazan, famously conquered by Ivan the Terrible during the rise of Muscovy into an intimidating empire.  Much less intimidating is the team fielded by ageless Davis Cup savant Shamil Tarpischev, spearheaded by a player with just a 20-19 record this year.  Only three rankings spots higher than Brazilian #1 Bellucci, Youzhny seems an unlikely spearhead for a team filled with unreliable competitors.  The solid doubles pairing of Melo and Soares should secure the third rubber and perhaps vault the visitors to a small upset, but Bellucci likely will have to win both of his singles rubbers.  A clay specialist with short patience and a long history of underachievement, he probably won’t rise to the challenge in a sterile indoor arena that lacks the atmosphere to inspire him.  Russia

Israel vs. Canada:  The only top-50 player to participate in this tie, Milos Raonic has not played since suffering a leg injury at Wimbledon.  If his serve crackles through the court as it did in the first half of 2011, he could win this tie almost single-handedly for the visitors by dominating Israel’s underpowered singles players and combining with doubles specialist Daniel Nestor for a formidable doubles team.  Best known for producing the doubles duo of Ehrlich and Ram, the home nation also has relied upon its exceptional cohesion to slay favored foes like Russia before.  The raucous crowds in Ramat Hasharon have rattled visiting players, but neither Raonic nor Nestor seems easily flustered.  Will rising talent Vasek Pospisil, who impressed Federer this summer and won a match at the Open, play a meaningful role in Sunday’s reverse singles?  Aligned potentially against Israeli #2 Amir Weintraub, he could clinch the tie in a decisive fifth rubber.  Canada

South Africa vs. Croatia:  Unlike Canada, this second English-speaking tennis nation enters this playoff as a clear underdog to a resurgent Cilic, who won a set from Federer at the Open, and the suddenly relevant Dodig, who defeated Nadal and won a set from Djokovic this year.  In a weekend of huge serves, Anderson will hope to channel the energy that led him to the title in the final edition of the Johannesburg tournament.  But Croatia’s much deeper team should win both of the singles rubber that he doesn’t play and find a way to eke out one of the other three matches.  Croatia

Chile vs. Italy:  Electing to exploit their opponent’s weakness rather than their own strength, Chile chose to play this tie on a hard court inimical to clay specialists Starace and Bolelli.  A nation that shares Russia’s tilt towards the WTA, Italy still should feel confident against a team with no player ranked higher than #101 Capdeville, who has subjected his compatriots to a catalogue of Davis Cup disappointments.  Always at his most fiery before an enthusiastic crowd, Olympic medalist Fernando Gonzalez has played only seven ATP matches (winning three) in an injury-marred season.  Retirement looms just over the horizon for most of this Chilean team, especially 2004 gold medalist Nicolas Massu, so they should bring an elevated sense of urgency to gain one more opportunity to play in World Group I next year.  Against a group as unpredictable as the Italians, intangibles determination and home-court advantage might translate into something valuable.  Chile

Japan vs. India:  The visiting team certainly will win the doubles team with the veteran duo of Bhupathi and Paes, so Japan must earn a singles win from someone other than world #55 Nishikori.  And the prospect of two wins in the best-of-five format looks far from assured, considering that Kei just retired from the US Open.  In a year filled with optimism for Asian sports, from Li Na to Japan’s own World Cup-winning women’s soccer team, this beleaguered nation would delight in the chance to reach the Cup’s highest division.  Knowing nothing about the games of Tatsuma Ito or Go Soeda, we somehow doubt that the experienced Indian squad will let this winnable tie slip away.  India

Belgium vs. Austria:  After his startling rush to the top 10 last year, Austrian #1 Melzer has faded from contention in 2011 amidst injuries and a series of unfocused performances.  An accomplished talent in both singles and doubles, he will hope to bring the momentum from winning the US Open men’s doubles crown to a successful partnership with Olivier Marach.  Whether Melzer alone can propel the Austrians past an underrated group of Belgian ball-strikers depends in part on the efforts of the equally enigmatic Belgian #1, Xavier Malisse.  In the twilight of his career, the 31-year-old “X-man” arrives on a six-match losing streak but has wins over Tsonga and Tipsarevic this year as well as Melzer, whom he toppled comfortably in the third round of Wimbledon.  Belgium’s supporting cast of Darcis and Rochus should capitalize upon the support of their compatriots to overcome the rest of Austria’s indifferent singles stars, although the flagship of the visiting squad could make their efforts irrelevant if he catches fire at a key moment.  Belgium

Roger Federer - 2011 US Open - Day 13

Australia vs. Switzerland:  Into the Royal Sydney Golf Club strides the dethroned king of the ATP, freshly committed to Davis Cup this season.  Perhaps hoping to snag a title for Switzerland before he retires, Federer demonstrated his dedication to this team competition by flying from New York to Sydney immediately after absorbing a heartbreaking loss in the US Open semifinal.  As proved the case after his Wimbledon disappointment, the Davis Cup experience might lift Federer’s spirits by offering him the opportunity to devour an overmatched collection of foes.  The home team’s emotional anchor, Lleyton Hewitt, has won only nine matches in a season comprised largely of majors and small events that offered him wildcards for nostalgic reasons.  For the first time in a meaningful tie, therefore, Australia leans upon precocious teenager Bernard Tomic to lead them past the heavily favored visitors.  While Tomic might well deliver a heroic effort against Swiss #2 Wawrinka, Federer should win both of his singles matches while reprising his gold medal-winning partnership with Wawrinka in the doubles, a pairing to which the Aussies can offer little answer.  Switzerland

Serena Williams - Rogers Masters presented by National Bank - Day 7

Jovanovski vs. Serena:  When she returned to Wimbledon, an emotional Serena endured a three-set rollercoaster against a shotmaker flamboyant and unpredictable even by WTA standards in Aravane Rezai.  Less extreme a personality than the Frenchwoman, the third-ranked Serb Bojana Jovanovski still might pose a creditable threat.  Winning a set from Zvonareva at the Australian Open, Jovanovski threatened Sharapova in Toronto and has not looked intimidated by either an elite opponent or a grand stage.  A night session in Arthur Ashe Stadium should not rattle her nerves, therefore, especially since much of the crowd may depart following the opening men’s match.  But Serena never has lost a first-round match at a major, while her return should regularly menace Jovanovski’s serve as did Sharapova’s replies.  Only if the Serb can survive the American’s first strike on serve and return can she display her talents from the baseline, which should shine sporadically during the lulls in Serena’s play without becoming the dominant narrative.

Ferrer vs. Andreev:  Clay-courters by nature, both of these grizzled veterans have achieved some of their most memorable moments on a surface seemingly at odds with their styles.  Four years ago, Ferrer battled past Nadal in a night-session four-setter en route to the semifinals, a surge that attests less to his shot-making ability than his mental and physical durability.  In the following US Open, Andreev extended Federer to five sets in what proved the eventual champion’s most compelling test of the tournament.  Reliant on meticulous effort more than spontaneous inspiration, this duo should engage in a series of elongated rallies punctuated by their common strength, inside-out forehands.  Amidst Andreev’s decline, Ferrer has won their last three meetings after losing four of their previous five.  Nevertheless, the Spaniard played only two matches during the US Open Series and lacks the match rhythm that has formed the cornerstone of his success.  Although Andreev probably can’t win, the match should stay closer than their respective rankings would suggest.

Jankovic vs. Riske:  A bright day for the future of American women’s tennis, Monday witnessed victories by rising star Christina McHale and perhaps soon-rising star Madison Keys.  Tasked with a far more difficult challenge, Riske hopes to hand Jankovic her second straight opening-round loss at a major.  Since reaching the 2008 US Open final, the Serb has suffered first-week exits in her last two appearances during her descent from the top ranking.  Meanwhile, her odd summer has featured three first-match losses (Wimbledon, Toronto, New Haven) surrounding a finals appearance in Cincinnati, where she came within four points of the title.  With wins over Schiavone and Petkovic there, together with a resilient effort against Sharapova, Jankovic proved that she can unleash bursts of her former competitive vigor and her trademark smile.  Not available in New York, on-court coaching appeared to aid her significantly at key moments in Cincinnati.  If Riske poses a challenge, can Jankovic solve it without assistance?

Youzhny vs. Gulbis:  From countries chained together during much of the last century, these two competitors could not diverge more strikingly in playing style.  Roaming around the court like a Cossack on the steppe, Youzhny exploits its geometry with a graceful albeit not powerful game.  The 2010 US Open semifinalist will shoulder the burden of defending those massive quantities of points, however, and much less pressure has unhinged him before.  Reinvigorated for now by new coach Guillermo Canas, Gulbis enjoyed an encouraging US Open Series highlighted by a title in Los Angeles, where he defeated Del Potro and Fish.  Revolving entirely around raw power, his muscular shot-making aims to pound opponents out of a point before they settle into it.  The Latvian should deny the Russian time to construct his clever combinations, but the best-of-five format will test his questionable consistency.  Always susceptible to emotional peaks and valleys, Gulbis can score this minor upset only by sustaining his focus more effectively than in majors past.

Davydenko vs. Dodig:  While one star wanes, another star rises.  Like his countryman Youzhny, Davydenko has reached the final weekend at the year’s final major before but has plummeted with stunning speed to ATP purgatory.  Surrounded in the rankings by unfamiliar journeymen, this formerly fascinating ball-striker rarely recaptures the form that catapulted him into the top 5 almost as swiftly.  By contrast, Dodig had gained little notoriety until he became the only player to win a set from Djokovic at this year’s Australian Open, then won his home tournament in Zagreb, and most notably conquered Nadal in a third-set tiebreak.  Such exploits have paved the route to his first seeding at a Slam, although ironically not a kinder draw.  An emotional player in the past, Dodig has maintained his composure more effectively this year while serving more impressively than one would expect from a player of his modest height.  The vintage Davydenko would have experienced little trouble in defusing his serve and net-rushing tactics with a sparkling array of returns and passing shots, but the depleted Davydenko no longer possesses that pinpoint timing.

Marino vs. Dulko:  Overshadowed this year by her compatriot Raonic, Marino has stalled in recent months after she nearly toppled Schiavone in Melbourne and reached the Memphis final.  On a four-match losing streak, the Canadian nevertheless fell just a few spots below a seeded position at the tournament where she impressed in a loss to Venus last year.  Marino’s explosive serve should reap rewards on this slick surface, although one would have thought the same on the fast courts of Stanford and Cincinnati.  Aligned against her is an opponent playing her first Slam as a married woman, an understated counterpuncher with an uncanny knack for upsets.  As players as renowned as Henin and Sharapova have discovered, Dulko can capitalize upon fallible performances by opponents who typically would brush her aside.  Her Roland Garros victory over Stosur this year reminded viewers of the Argentine’s ability to overcome a substantial disadvantage on serve.

Ivanovic vs. Pervak:   At the only major where she has not reached a quarterfinal, the former #1 seeks not to contend for the title but to build momentum as she settles into her alliance with Nigel Sears.  Riding a wave of momentum herself, Pervak soared to the second week of Wimbledon after victories over Peer and Petkovic.  The Russian lefty then reached her first career final in Baku and competed more sturdily there than one might have expected in the circumstances.  Sometimes troubled by left-handers before, Ivanovic might benefit from the intimate confines of the Grandstand more than the cavernous vault of Arthur Ashe.  Two three-set losses in the opening rounds of majors this year probably will undermine her confidence should the match stay close, but the Serb also has served bagels in eight of her last fifteen opening-round matches.  Only when she holds the most commanding lead, it appears, can Ivanovic—and her fans—feel secure.

Ana Ivanovic - Western & Southern Open - Day 1

 

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga - 2011 French Open - Day One

Andreev vs. Tsonga:  Atypical among Russians, the world #92 has excelled on clay perhaps more than on any other surface, even registering a win over a youthful Nadal.  Conversely, Tsonga vastly prefers the faster surfaces that showcase his thunderbolts and acrobatic flourishes to the sluggish dirt of his home nation’s major.  On the especially slow hard court of Indian Wells, in fact, he surrendered to Andreev in straight sets two years ago.  But the Frenchman strutted through an imposing opener that illustrated his delicate touch in the forecourt and a clay movement more competent than observers might have expected.  Since both players generate much greater offense from their forehands, they will exploit the extra time provided by the surface to run around as many backhands as possible.  Whereas one never knows quite what to expect from Tsonga, one always knows what to expect from Andreev:  resilient ball-striking and relentless court coverage.  Somewhat like Verdasco against Monaco on Tuesday, the 17th seed must prepare to expend both mental and physical effort before reaping a reward.

Ferrer vs. Benneteau / Gasquet vs. Granollers:  Adding additional spice to the trans-Pyrenean rivalry is the recent achievements of Spain at the French Slam.  Likely to write another page in that chapter is the world #6, who regrouped in sparkling fashion from illness to demolish the potentially dangerous Nieminen a round ago.  Fitter and fresher than many of his peers, Ferrer should not relax against the mercurial Benneteau, known more for his exploits in doubles than singles but the architect of an occasional ambush.  Buoyed by his compatriots, the Frenchman scored a stunning upset over Federer in the 2009 Paris Indoors and delivered a stirring performance against the then-formidable Gulbis at this tournament last year.  His compact two-hander offers an intriguing contrast to the florid one-hander of Gasquet, who recently overcame Federer in a clay third-set tiebreak for the second time.  In his meeting with Granollers, the 13th seed meets an opponent with similarly elongated strokes although much less imagination.  A victor over Soderling a few Australian Opens ago, Granollers has greater grit than his unprepossessing game would suggest.

Zvonareva vs. Lisicki:  Early in the 2010 US Open, the Russian defused the German’s thunderous serve en route to her second major final.  Zvonareva will hope to script a parallel narrative as she seeks to reach the semifinal or better at all four Slams consecutively, but Roland Garros has remained a thorn in her side during her relatively few appearances here.  A natural counterpuncher who aims to exploit the pace of her opponents, the third seed sometimes struggles to generate adequate offense to finish points on this surface.  The Russian has lost at least one set in seven of her eight clay matches this season to opponents including Schnyder and Galina Voskoboeva, while her straight-sets loss to Peng in Brussels likewise boded ill.  As her odd history of futility against Stosur suggests, moreover, Zvonareva can become flustered by the heaviest deliveries in the game, so Lisicki should offer an intriguing mental test.

Safarova vs. Goerges:  Having split their two previous meetings, these two audacious ball-strikers should extend the competitive beginnings of their rivalry.  Although both can impose themselves on rallies from either groundstroke, the match could turn upon who can earn more opportunities to unleash the forehands that they prefer.  Safarova’s left-handedness will enable her to uncover the backhand of Goerges with her heavy cross-court forehand, a shot that garnered substantial success for the Czech on clay last year.  Aligned for clay are their elongated strokes, which require a timing less precise than on faster surfaces.  More skilled than many of their peers at the service notch, they should deliver an encounter with relatively few breaks.  In Stuttgart, Goerges became the only player this year to play an entire match against Wozniacki without dropping her serve.  Can she progress from ambush artist to reliable threat and summon her best when not facing the best?  Safarova will inquire.

Martinez Sanchez vs. Marino:  Vaulting past Wozniak as the brightest star in the firmament of Canadian tennis, the muscular Marino announced herself with a strong effort against Venus at the US Open last year.  After their clash, the seven-time major champion complimented her victim by comparing her to herself.  While Marino must make considerable strides before validating that praise, she illustrated her promise a Slam later by dragging Schiavone deep into a third set at the Australian Open.  Lacking in clay expertise, she does not lack the willpower to trouble dirt devil Martinez Sanchez in another match of sturdy serves.  The 2010 Rome champion rode her multifaceted style to a mini-upset over Peer in her opener, stirring to life after a generally moribund 2011.  If she can exploit the opening in the draw that she has created, the momentum of this streaky competitor could snowball in the Paris sun.  As the power of Marino represents the WTA’s future, the grace and delicacy of Martinez Sanchez gestures towards the sport’s past.

Novak Djokovic - Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open - Day Nine

Propping up dilapidated regimes late in the Roman Empire were lavish festivals and athletic competitions with which rulers placated their subjects even as the world around them crumbled, a tactic known as panes et circenses.  Although contemporary Italy lies in a less dire predicament, recent political turmoil might encourage Romans to retreat to the bucolic oasis of the Foro Italico.  There, the ATP triumvirate converges for the fourth time this year at a Masters 1000 event, having reached the semifinals on each of the three previous occasions.

First quarter:  Hobbled by injury, exhaustion, or other extenuating circumstances in many of his previous clay losses, Nadal must respond to the realization that his most recent opponent simply outplayed him on his favorite surface.  Although three successive runner-up finishes to the same player may have struck a blow to his confidence in their rivalry, the Spaniard should assault his quarter with vigor renewed.  As one would expect, Nadal has refused to distract himself with the duel over #1 that lies ahead, and he will need his focus immediately against Madrid semifinalist Bellucci.  The player who came closest to overcoming Djokovic in Madrid, the Brazilian can threaten Rafa but probably cannot defeat him., much like Gulbis on clay last year.  The top seed then could face lefty compatriot Lopez, who held a match point against Madrid and defeated Nadal last year on the vastly different lawns of Queens Club.  On the other side of this strong section stands Ferrer, surely eager to avenge an Indian Wells loss to Karlovic in the second round.  Almost certain to collide in the quarterfinals, the finalists in Monte Carlo and Barcelona will reprise this event’s 2010 final.  Ferrer came within range of troubling Nadal then, as he did in Monte Carlo this year, but he has lost his last ten clay meetings with Nadal while winning just one set during that span.

Second quarter:  Since 2007, Federer has fallen in Rome to the unheralded trio of Volandri, Stepanek, and Gulbis.  Slowest of all Masters 1000 tournaments, the surface here has punished the Swiss star’s faltering consistency as he ages.  Escaping from an inspired Lopez in his Madrid opener, Federer could find the mercurial Tsonga a compelling test in his Rome opener.  The Frenchman only once has troubled the world #3, however, and the latter’s confidence should have mounted after he forced Nadal into a third set last week.  While Andreev oddly has flustered the Swiss at majors, the Russian’s ranking has sunken so far that he needed to qualify for this tournament, so a meeting with Federer would represent his fifth match here.  Intriguing for its contrast of styles is the Tuesday encounter between Monaco and Berdych, which pits one of the ATP’s long-time clay specialists against a brutal ball-striker with limited versatility.  Elsewhere in this quarter lies the artistry of Gasquet, probably at his least effective on clay but somewhat resurgent after the Australian Open.  Should Federer and Berdych reach the quarterfinals, as seems plausible, the Czech will have one last opportunity to inject himself with self-belief before defending his prodigious accomplishments at Roland Garros and Wimbledon last year.

Third quarter:  In an ATP where the top three have distanced themselves so far from their challengers, one quarter in a Masters 1000 draw always lies open to the opportunists.  Exploited most recently by Bellucci, this loophole might expand to admit Troicki, who recorded an impressive straight-sets victory over Davydenko in the first round.  Yet the potential dark horses here seem few in number, including no clay specialists outside the ageless Chela and Starace.  Therefore, the fourth-seeded Murray might progress at least to the quarterfinals despite his usual fecklessness on this surface.  Seemingly revived from a post-Melbourne swoon that embarrassed his entire nation, the Scot caused Nadal’s brow to furrow in a three-set, three-hour Monte Carlo semifinal. Murray has enjoyed repeated success against his most notable potential obstacle en route to the semifinals, Melzer, although the Austrian defeated Federer in Monte Carlo before stumbling to a perplexing early exit in Rome against the anonymous Gimeno-Traver.  Often veering wildly in form from one tournament to the next, the eighth seed may not thrive on a sluggish surface that will require him to hit a longer series of audacious angles in order to finish points.  Although Murray and the accelerating Simon own superior consistency, they may struggle to penetrate the court with their less impressive firepower.  As in Madrid, the player who emerges from this section will face a monumental challenge thenceforth, so one must curtail one’s sense of perspective to fully appreciate the events that unfold here

Fourth quarter:  Occupying this lair is the terror of the ATP, who has lunged within range of reaching the #1 ranking after Roland Garros or perhaps Wimbledon.  Barely blunted by the transition from hard courts to clay, Djokovic continues to rend his victims limb from limb with an offense worthy of Del Potro, movement worthy of Nadal, and poise under pressure worthy of Federer.  The runner-up to Djokovic in the 2008 Rome tournament, Wawrinka has accomplished less on clay than expected after a scintillating start to the season that included an Australian Open quarterfinal.  The Swiss #2 has won sets from the Serb on clay but has not yet encountered him in his current breathtaking incarnation and probably lacks the willpower to snap the streak.  Notorious for his success in the role of spoiler, Soderling certainly possesses the necessary willpower to tarnish Djokovic’s perfect 2011.  Before taking aim at that prestigious target, though, the world #5 must defuse the assault of Verdasco.  Unimpressive during a loss to Lu in Madrid, the Spaniard regrouped with a sturdy victory over Raonic, who overcame him twice in February.  Former nemesis Almagro also might intersect with the fifth seed in a third-round encounter of unsubtly pummeled groundstrokes.  While nobody can feast upon a fallible foe more voraciously than Soderling, the Swede lately has lacked the confidence and competitive resilience required to topple the Djokovic who so expertly smothered Nadal in Madrid.

Whereas the women’s draw at Indian Wells yawns open for a host of players to exploit, the men’s draw rests within the vise-like grasp of a tiny elite.  Or so we thought last year until Ljubicic reminded us that anything can happen in a land where vistas reveal themselves as mirages.   Will the desert sands shift again in 2011?  We think not.

The best tennis player in the world, Rafael Nadal, wins the ATP tournament of Indian Wells. Rafa defeated Andy Murray in the final match.

First quarter:  Like fellow top seed Wozniacki, Nadal should settle into a section littered with compatriots from Almagro and Montanes to Australian Open nemesis Ferrer.  Sharpening his hard-court weapons against clay specialist Juan Monaco, the two-time Indian Wells champion might confront a player who served for the match against him here three years ago.  Renowned for a stunning 2008 triumph over Rafa in an Australian Open semifinal, Tsonga has lost all five of their other meetings.  In fact, the acrobatic Frenchman might fall victim before that round to the fitter, leaner version of Marcos Baghdatis, although the volatile Cypriot has alternated wins over Del Potro and Murray with retirements in Melbourne and Dubai.  Veering wildly between peaks and valleys, Baghdatis ambushed Federer in this tournament last year and fell to Robredo a round later.  Unless he can reprise his three-set upset over Nadal in Cincinnati, the world #1 should have an opportunity to avenge his recent Melbourne defeat.  In a comic juxtaposition between two foes 13 inches apart in height, Ferrer must tame Karlovic’s staccato, record-breaking serve.  The diminutive Spanard then must adjust to the grinding court coverage of Simon and the flamboyant groundstrokes of Almagro, a two-time titlist this season who fell to Ferrer in the Acapulco final two weeks ago.  Tested by that trio of contrasting styles, the world #6 should profit from the slow hard courts of Indian Wells.  But he will find the healthy Rafa a far more imposing challenge than the hobbled warrior who mustered little resistance against him at the Australian Open.

Semifinalist:  the 2007 and 2009 champion

Second quarter:  Just as in Melbourne, Soderling’s possession of the fourth seed proved immaterial in a draw that could pit him against the fifth-seeded Murray.  Aligned against Kohlschreiber in the third round, the bone-crushing Swede will hope to relive the memory of a Rotterdam encounter during which he saved a match point en route to defeating the German for the first time in five meetings.  Soon to suffer a precipitous rankings tumble, defending champion Ljubicic might not survive the revitalized Del Potro in the second round.  And everyone in this section will struggle to solve the conundrum of Alexander Dolgopolov, the only player to defeat Soderling so far in 2011.  Capitalizing upon the momentum from the Melbourne quarterfinals, the Ukrainian scintillated Latin American audiences last month with his loose-limbed grace.  In this section’s lower half lurks Murray, who suffered from post-Melbourne doldrums here last year during a listless loss to Soderling.  Few potential opponents can hand him a credible excuse for an early exit this time, for even a tepid version of the Scot remains far superior on hard courts to the aging Starace, the powerless Robredo, and the stagnant Verdasco.  Wallowing through three consecutive losses before arriving in the desert, the Spaniard has won consecutive matches in only two of his last eleven tournaments.

Semifinalist:  the 2009 runner-up

Novak Djokovic of Serbia kisses the Pacific Life Open trophy after winning the men's final match by defeating Mardy Fish at the Pacific Life Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden March 23, 2008 in Indian Wells, California. Djokovic won the match 6-2, 5-7, 6-3.

Third quarter:  Undefeated this season after the longest winning streak of his career, Djokovic will attempt to duplicate his 2008 achievement of coupling the year’s first major with the year’s first Masters 1000 event.  Within striking range of the #2 ranking, the Serb will risk his pristine record against Hopman Cup victim Golubev, who will arrive in Indian Wells buoyed by recent Davis Cup heroics.  While the enigmatic Gulbis could loom a round later, Djokovic should glide to the quarterfinals rather than enduring an encore of last year’s early exit.  Among the other intriguing matches in his vicinity is a projected third-round duel between Troicki and Llodra, who decided the 2010 Davis Cup title.  Elsewhere in this section, the stars and stripes wave above Roddick, Blake, and Isner, only one of whom can reach the fourth round.  Defending 1,600 points this month, last year’s finalist seeks to avert another loss to the player who defeated him in a fifth-set tiebreak at the 2009 US Open.  Unlike the slick surface of Arthur Ashe Stadium, the sluggish courts of Indian Wells should tilt towards Roddick’s favor in a collision between Davis Cup teammates.  Tormented by Gasquet four Wimbledons ago, the American should navigate past either the Frenchman or Melzer to arrange a second Indian Wells quarterfinal against Djokovic.  Although Roddick prevailed on that occasion and in four of their last five encounters, the Serb has reclaimed the swagger that propelled him to victory when they met at the 2008 US Open.

Semifinalist:  the 2008 champion

Fourth quarter:  The only player ever to win three consecutive titles in the California desert, Federer hopes to erase the memories of his last several visits to Indian Wells.  After an opening-match loss to Canas to 2007, the Swiss legend mustered just five games against Mardy Fish in the 2008 semifinals, ate a third-set breadstick against Murray in the 2009 semifinals, and spurned double match point en route to defeat against Baghdatis in the third round last year.  Troubled at two previous hard-court majors by potential second-round opponent Andreev, Federer likely will find himself faced with either the aforementioned Fish or overnight sensation Milos Raonic in the fourth round.  Enjoying a meteoric rise through the rankings, the Canadian prodigy must eagerly anticipate the opportunity test his Ancic-like style against the ATP’s most prestigious names.  Federer will hope to meet Wawrinka in the quarterfinals, since his compatriot typically melts at the sight of the GOAT like snow in the desert sun.  Slightly more likely to derail a third 2011 duel with Djokovic is the seventh-seeded Berdych, however, who saved match point against the Swiss in Miami before snapping his streak of seven consecutive Wimbledon finals.  Surely still nursing a thirst for revenge, Federer overcame the Czech at the Rogers Cup last summer by the slimmest of margins.  How much longer can his agility and competitive resilience continue to weather the next generation’s savage baseline blows?

Semifinalist:  the 2004, 2005, and 2006 champion

 

 

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia plays a forehand during her first round match against Tamarine Tanasugarn of Thailand during day one of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 17, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Not without nerves in her opening victory, Sharapova steadied herself late in both sets and unleashed a pitiless barrage of groundstrokes far removed from the torrent of errors that she delivered in Melbourne last year.  As she marches deeper into the draw, however, the 2008 Australian Open champion must rediscover the rhythm on her serve, which abandoned her for prolonged periods against Tanasugarn.  In the second round, Sharapova must acquaint herself with the style of an opponent whom she never has encountered.  Perhaps best known for defeating Venus in the 2007 Tokyo final, Razzano has steadily climbed through the rankings after a controversial injury thrust her out of the top 100 last year.  Puny at first glance, she counterpunches capably and finds surprising depth on her groundstrokes.  But her second serve offers a tasty target for the Siberian, who lashed a series of scalding returns against Tanasugarn.  Even if Sharapova continues to struggle with her serve, therefore, she should break Razzano with sufficient frequency to defuse the pressure when she approaches the service notch.

Having focused on the women in Day 2, we focus largely on the men in Day 3:

Simon vs. Federer:  Rarely does a Federer second-round match intrigue beyond the potential of witnessing a between-the-legs missile.  But here the Swiss legend confronts one of the few unseeded players in the draw who has scored notable victories over him.  Twice rallying from one-set deficits against Federer, Simon stunned him at both the Rogers Cup and the year-end championships in 2008.  Crucial in those encounters, the Frenchman’s superb two-handed backhand exploited Roger’s vulnerable one-hander, a shot that has improved under the guidance of Paul Annacone.  Since Simon surely will seek to target that side again, this match should measure the progress of Federer’s backhand, perhaps not essential to this match but certainly to the tournament.  Despite a title in Sydney last week, the Frenchman has not quite returned to his 2008 heights and will struggle to match the defending champion’s serve.  In the best-of-five format, moreover, Federer can avoid more comfortably the concentration lapses that have cost him so dearly against Simon.

Tipsarevic vs. Verdasco:  Shining almost as brightly as his shirt during his opening-round victory, the 2009 semifinalist showed few signs of the malaise that plagued him through the second half of 2010.  As he seeks to rekindle the memories of two years ago, he confronts a Serb who habitually rises to the level of his competition.  Tipsarevic has ambushed Roddick twice at majors, including at the US Open last fall, and nearly toppled Federer in a memorable meeting at the 2008 Australian Open.  Not always the most sensible shotmakers, both players can raise eyebrows in more ways than one.  Don’t be surprised to see Verdasco hit (or attempt to hit) flagrant winners from several feet behind the baseline, or Tipsarevic aim for extravagantly angled second serves.  Leaving discretion to the top seeds, these two showmen know how to enliven the first week.

Berdych vs. Kohlschreiber:  The dissonance between their personalities emerges through the contrast between their backhands.  Armed with one of the flashiest one-handed backhands in the game, the German continues to defy national stereotypes with his flamboyant personality and playing style.   Restrained to a conservative two-hander, the somewhat reserved Berdych needs to start 2011 promisingly after a disappointing second half raised questions surrounding the legitimacy of his mid-season breakthrough.  If the Czech seeks to permanently establish himself among the ATP elite, the volatile Kohlschreiber personifies the brand of dangerous dark horse whom he must regularly overcome.

Marino vs. Schiavone:  Trumpeted as the future of Canadian tennis, this big-serving teenager won the admiration of Venus when she extended her to a first-set tiebreak at the US Open last fall.  Highly fallible in her opener against the unheralded Parra Santonja, Schiavone will need her stinging slices and artful forecourt ploys to dull the power from across the net, especially on Marino’s serve.  Can the Italian veteran continue to uphold the banner of subtle finesse against raw, ball-bruising force?

Wawrinka vs. Dimitrov:  After the example set by Gasquet, one should beware of labeling any teenager a “little Federer,” but the label has hovered around Dimitrov like a halo.  While he has defeated Simon and other noteworthy names, he has not yet achieved the Slam breakthrough that would catapult him into the attention of sports fans worldwide.  His resounding victory over Golubev augured well for his season, and a triumph over the Swiss #2 would deliver an imposing statement.  A champion in Chennai, Wawrinka surged within a set of the semifinals in New York; beneath his graceful one-handed backhand stands a foundation of exceptional fitness.  Yet his lack of overwhelming weapons will prevent him from hitting Dimitrov off the court before the Bulgarian has an opportunity to exhibit his nascent talents.

Almagro vs. Andreev:  Troubling Federer in his Melbourne opener last year, Kirilenko’s boyfriend came within a point of a two-sets-to-one lead on multiple occasions before faltering.  Andreev has honed a grinding style oddly more suited to clay than the style of the Spaniard whom he faces, for Almagro relies much less upon consistency than upon shot-making.  Although the Russian has wandered below the realm of relevance for most of the last few years, he looked crisper than the Spaniard in the first round and holds a slight mental edge.

Wickmayer vs. Sevastova:  Although not quite at her best in the first round, the third-ranked Belgian deserves substantial credit for dispatching the dangerous Groth on Rod Laver Arena.  Renowned not only for athletic ability but for gritty competitiveness, Wickmayer should regularly reach the second week of majors once her game matures.  Defeating both Jankovic and Ivanovic last spring, Sevastova has manufactured a deceptively unimposing style that can frustrate opponents by forcing them to generate additional pace on their groundstrokes.  Can the Latvian lull the Belgian to sleep, or will Wickipedia find the answers?

Nicolas Mahut Nicolas Mahut of France celebrates winning a point during his singles match against Potito Starace of Italy on day seven of the Hopman Cup on January 7, 2011 in Perth, Australia.

Troicki vs. Mahut:  Forced rather unjustly to qualify for this event, the co-hero of 70-68 has won four straight matches as he takes aim at the Sydney finalist.  The hero of the Davis Cup final, Troicki has conquered the uncertainties that beset him throughout most of his career.  Firmly tethered to the baseline, he will hope to unsettle the net-rushing Frenchman with his sparkling array of passing shots, much as he did in Belgrade against Mahut’s compatriot Llodra.  Since their strengths mirror each other, expect a sprightly match high in winners and low in rallies.

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Fancy any particular Day 4 duels?  Feel free to comment or to contact us on Twitter before we release the next preview.

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Under the guidance of the eccentric, brilliant Romanian visionary Ion Tiriac (the non-Swiss legend above), the Madrid event has evolved into the top ticket in European tennis outside Wimbledon and Roland Garros.  From its glamorous website to its sparkling arena, La Caja Magica (Magic Box), Tiriac’s territory exploits every opportunity to engage and inspire the spectator while assembling a superb cast of ATP and WTA stars.  In 2009, magic indeed filled the arena when Nadal and Djokovic dueled for four hours in the year’s most spectacular non-Slam match.  Special intrigue awaits this year as a reinvigorated Rafa strives to eclipse Agassi’s record of Masters titles before the eager eyes of his compatriots.  Will he overcome the thin air and relatively fast clay to extend his dominance on the surface, or will one of his rivals spoil the coronation?  Our familiar quarter-by-quarter preview lies straight ahead…

First quarter:  Since capturing his fourth Australian Open title, Federer has mustered a mortal-looking 5-4 record that includes three losses to players outside the top 20.  The defending champion in La Caja Magica, he relished the speedier surface last year when he conquered Nadal in the final as a prelude to a record-breaking summer.  Aligned to meet him in the third round is his compatriot Wawrinka, who ambushed him in Monte Carlo last year and shone in Rome, although he’ll be arriving (not) fresh from Belgrade.  On the other side of the quarter is Miami champion Roddick, never at his most effective on clay but a quarterfinalist here last year.  If the American escapes a tricky potential opener against Lopez, he’ll need to weather the scorching groundstrokes of Gulbis in the third round, an assignment that he nearly flunked two years ago at the US Open.  Nevertheless, the Latvian has yet to prove that he can sustain an elevated level for an extended period, so one can’t rely on him to produce an extended run here.  Another clash with Roddick might be just what the doctor ordered to put Federer back on track, for the American always seems to bring out the best in the Swiss.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Second quarter:  While Roddick should reach the quarters in the upper section, Querrey might well duplicate the accomplishment in this rather tranquil neighborhood, headlined by the clay-averse Murray.  A challenging second round against the resilient grinder Andreev should confront the American, but he should take the momentum from his promising run in Belgrade into a third-round clash with the Scot, who has looked almost farcically ghastly since losing the Australian Open final.  More positive about clay than Murray, Querrey should have a chance to reach a quarterfinal with the indefatigable Ferrer.  Kudos to the recently dormant Cilic for reaching the Munich final this week on his least comfortable surface, but the eighth seed hasn’t vaulted a hurdle like the Spanish counterpuncher.  Having adroitly dispatched Murray in Rome, Ferrer should either repeat that feat or exploit his experience to outwit the still-raw Querrey.

Semifinalist:  Ferrer

Third quarter:  Clearly the most scintillating first-round match, Berdych-Nalbandian promises a thrilling shot-making display from two competitors whose styles should adapt well to the altitude.  Speaking of altitude, Karlovic might pose an immediate threat to the surging Verdasco, who must vigilantly preserve his focus to seize the few opportunities that arise against the towering Croat.  Also in early danger is the quarter’s other anchor; Soderling likely will face dirt devils Almagro and Monaco prior to a quarterfinal with Verdasco.  After a well-merited week of rest, the Spaniard should arrive in his native city ready to recapture the form that he displayed in Monte Carlo and Rome, where he acquired the mantle of Nadal’s principal challenger at Roland Garros.  (Had a marathon quarterfinal against Djokovic not drained his energies, he probably would have defeated Ferrer to set up a second consecutive final with Rafa.)  Despite achieving his breakthrough last year on clay, Soderling wobbled in Rome against the much less imposing Wawrinka and fell to Verdasco in the Barcelona final.

Semifinalist:  Verdasco

Fourth quarter:  We’re excited to see the mercurial Monfils back in action after yet another of his extended absences.  A third-round meeting with compatriot Tsonga might define the principal home hope at Roland Garros while beguiling the audience with one of the most electrifying displays of athleticism that the sport will ever afford.  Unfortunately for “les bleus,” though, the winner of that pas de deux probably won’t survive another round.  Looming at the base of the quarter is Nadal, who finds himself in his familiar #2 niche after Djokovic’s timely withdrawal.  Rafa should comfortably dispatch Seppi before confronting Isner, possibly cause for a furrowed eyebrow or two on a surface more friendly to the serve than any other clay tournament.  Although the American snatched a set from Nadal in Indian Wells, we doubt that he is ready to follow Soderling’s example, nor are the fun-loving but slightly flaky Frenchmen.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Semifinals:  Ferrer def. Federer, Nadal def. Verdasco

Final:  Nadal def. Ferrer

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We look forward to blanketing Madrid with our coverage over the next eight days!  🙂  Stay tuned for sorcery…

Doubtless energized by a return to the clay, Nadal pursues a record-breaking sixth consecutive Monte Carlo title and his first title in nearly a year.  The draw includes only five of the ATP top ten and lacks not only Federer but past Rafa-killers Del Potro, Davydenko, and Soderling.  In the depleted field, can anyone derail Nadal’s return to the winner’s circle?  Quarter-by-quarter preview straight ahead…

First quarter:  Probably the strongest section of the draw, it features not only top-seeded Djokovic but more than one dangerous dark horse who enjoys this time of year.  Novak’s second match probably pits him against newly minted Casablanca champion Wawrinka, who extended the Serb to three sets here last year after downing Federer.  The winner of that delicious encounter will be favored to progress past either Robredo or Youzhny, but the Spaniard plays better than his ranking on clay while the Russian has soared to uncharacteristic heights so far in 2010.  Don’t completely forget about Houston semifinalist Horacio Zeballos or perennial sleeper David Nalbandian, either.  From the outset, the matches in this quarter should provide tense, compelling drama, an arena in which Djokovic typically excels.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Second quarter:  As a results of the absences catalogued above, Cilic finds himself in possession of his own quarter…but probably not for long.  He looked weary and erratic in the two previous Masters 1000 events, and his movement has looked awkward at best on the clay; we won’t be surprised if a sturdy performance from Andreev topples the Croat in the second round.  In fact, the Russian might plow all the way to the quarters in this relatively soft section, where Verdasco likely would await.  We’ll never discount Berdych again after his (potential) breakthrough in Miami, but we suspect that a third-round encounter with the Spaniard would reverse their quarterfinal clash two weeks ago.  A long time ago, Gasquet burst into the spotlight here by ambushing Federer.  Is he ready to surprise some major names?  Although Richard has (allegedly) committed additional effort to preparing for the clay, we’re not ready to believe in him again.

Semifinalist:  Verdasco

Third quarter:  Welcome to the land of opportunity!  The two names that bookend this section, Ljubicic and Murray, play much lower than the rankings on the red stuff.  Although the Scot did reach the semis here last year, a dogged performance by an underdog probably would extend his slide (and drop him to #5 in the rankings).  On second thought, however, very few players in this section could perform that role; Fognini, Melzer, or Mathieu, anyone?  We didn’t think so.  Scoring a major upset of Djokovic at last year’s French Open, Kohlschreiber could prove a intriguing test in Murray’s opening match.  But few players are as dogged–and as lethal on clay–as the Spaniard who pounded Wawrinka into crushed brick at Davis Cup a month ago.

Semifinalist:  Ferrer

Fourth quarter:  The bull paws the ground here, but will the earth tremble as it has done since 2005?  Playing without high expectations during Indian Wells and Miami, Nadal will feel the “privilege” of pressure squarely on his shoulders this week.  A loss before the final (arguably, a loss to any player other than Djokovic) would telegraph continued fallibility to his rivals and almost-rivals.  Fortunately for him, few truly formidable potholes lurk in his quarter, so he’ll have a chance to settle any nerves against the likes of Argentines Schwank and Monaco.  The second-highest seed in the section, Tsonga probably won’t survive until the quarterfinals, since his acrobatic game lacks the patience and consistency required to succeed on clay.  Unless the Frenchman delivers an outstanding serving performance, Rafa probably will be charging after Almagro or Ferrero in the quarterfinals.  If he’s fully healthy, a loss to either of them on this surface would be virtually inconceivable.

 Semifinalist:  Nadal

Semifinals:  Verdasco hasn’t defeated Djokovic in five meetings since 2006 Hamburg (before Novak was Novak), including a three-set quarterfinal here last year, so we have to stick with the Serb.  Best known for his ball-retrieving talents, Ferrer lacks the ferocious ball-striking and relentless aggression (see D for Davydenko and S for Soderling) of the players who typically trouble Nadal.

Djokovic d. Verdasco, Nadal d. Ferrer

Final:  Djokovic and Nadal played a thrilling championship match here a year ago, the first of three meetings between them during the clay season.  After two strenuous sets, Novak faded in the final set, and his stamina hasn’t improved since then, while his form has distinctly declined.  Moreover, it’s likely that he would be more weary than Rafa at that stage because his path is perceptibly more demanding.

Nadal d. Djokovic

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Of course, we’ll preview the actual semifinal and final matchups in much more extensive detail when they take form, but hopefully we did some of our work in advance.  In the meantime, we’ll be back shortly with a similar preview of the WTA Charleston event.  Enjoy the Mediterranean tennis!  🙂

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