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On the lyrically entitled Lotus Court and Moon Court, eight opportunistic competitors have advanced to the quarterfinals at the WTA’s last significant event outside the year-end championships.  Not all stars glow with equal luminosity, though.  We organize them below from supernovas to Sevastovas.

Wozniacki:  Having swiped the #1 ranking from the world’s most famous manicurist, the Great Dane now has won 21 of her last 22 matches and 16 consecutive matches at non-majors.  Few players who can blunt her momentum remain in the draw, which includes none of the storied Slam champions against whom she typically struggles.  During her first two rounds, Wozniacki rebounded from a stomach complaint to dispatch the often tricky Errani and exact satisfying revenge from her Wimbledon conqueror, Kvitova.  Although the Dane fell to Ivanovic on the medium-speed hard courts of Melbourne two years ago, the Wozniacki of 2010 has evolved far beyond the Wozniacki of 2008 and will bring a much sturdier degree of self-belief to their encounter.  Having won her last five finals, the top seed displays none of the nerves that cripple so many of her rivals in championship matches.  Nevertheless, Wozniacki’s vaunted consistency has wobbled occasionally during her last two tournaments; in Tokyo, she escaped these lapses, but she couldn’t escape them in New York.  And how sharply will her motivation dwindle after capturing the top spot?  To her credit, Wozniacki seems more focused upon winning matches than wooing the computer, and the inevitable controversy over her rise to #1 won’t escalate to a maelstrom until after the event.

Zvonareva:  Probably a bit dazed from her US Open heroics, the most successful Russian of 2010 trudged to an uninspired exit in Tokyo last week.  Sturdier at this tournament, Zvonareva posted two tight wins over talented compatriots en route to a quarterfinal with Schiavone.  Although Safina remains far beneath her former heights, she had defeated Vera at prestigious events and thus posed the sort of psychological test that often has flustered the world #4.  After routing Petkovic for the second time in three tournaments, Zvonareva weathered the tenacious Kirilenko and displayed her best tennis in the match’s culminating stages, always an encouraging omen.  Her head-to-head record against the reigning Roland Garros champion looms at an intimidating 9-0, including five consecutive hard-court victories since early 2008.  (Oddly, they meet in the Chinese capital for the fourth time in just over two years; Schiavone has not won a set in the three previous Beijing meetings.)  In the semifinals, Zvonareva probably will clash with another of her victims during that bronze-medal run in the 2008 Olympics, Li Na.  Likely to prevail in that meeting, the second seed would seek to improve upon her dismal 2010 record in finals.  During four straight defeats in title tilts this year, Zvonareva has won five or fewer games on all of those occasions.

Li:  Vociferously exhorted by her compatriots, the flamboyant Chinese hope has shown few signs of the illness that forced her to withdraw from Tokyo.  Emphatic against the inflammable Kleybanova, Li has trampled upon her first three foes with the smooth relentlessness that characterizes her game at its best, a level that she reached during the Olympics two years ago here.  Implacable when focused, she should dismiss Sevastova’ pedestrian game as briskly as she dispatched the unheralded Kerber.  Considering the Chinese star’s shot-making talent and crisp ball-striking, one suspects that she could have won many more titles had injuries not derailed her at inopportune moments.  On the other hand, Li ultimately crumbled under the pressure of China’s expectations when she faced Zvonareva for the Olympic bronze medal.  If she faces the Russian again in parallel circumstances, those memories might return.  A Slam semifinalist this year, Li has yet to acquire a title as prestigious as her home tournament, but no player remains in the draw against whom she would find herself clearly overmatched.  Demoralizing at the time, her underwhelming summer may have positioned her for an explosive fall, since she enters these events fresher than her more renowned rivals.

Schiavone:  Following her spine-tingling Roland Garros fortnight, most commentators sensed that the Italian would spend the rest of her season in contented contemplation of her unexpected prize.  The feisty Schiavone confounded expectations again, however, by reaching three consecutive quarterfinals at the prestigious events in New York, Tokyo, and Beijing.  Overcoming talented Slovenian youngster Polona Hercog with ease, she rallied from a one-set deficit against fellow veteran and doubles expert Dushevina.  Despite her history of futility against Zvonareva, Schiavone probably enters their quarterfinal with greater motivation, incited by the goal of finishing a season in the top 10 for the first time.  Away from clay, the Roland Garros champion must rely upon an especially advantageous draw in order to win an elite tournament.  That said, the draw here has settled into a relatively benign condition after a fusillade of early upsets; last fall, Schiavone claimed the Kremlin Cup in a similarly opportunistic manner.  If the Italian can circumvent Zvonareva, she might ultimately find herself in another final, a situation where she has flourished as much as the Russian has floundered.

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Ivanovic:  Avenging two 2010 losses to Bartoli in the first round, the sensuous Serb has advanced to the quarterfinals without dropping a set.  Although her serving percentage has lagged below optimal levels, Ivanovic has dominated behind her first serve and unleashed forehands reminiscent of her 2008 glory.  Most importantly, Ana rediscovered her inner resolve when she captured two tiebreaks from Tokyo finalist Dementieva, a round after she erased a substantial second-set deficit against Govortsova.  Reversing a trend that characterized her slump, the former Roland Garros champion delivered her most impressive tennis at the most critical moments, including two aces in the match-ending tiebreak and a bold backhand winner on match point.  With no rankings points to defend this fall, Ivanovic has capitalized upon the opportunity to inch up the rankings in preparation for a 2011 return to relevance.  While she has won both of her previous meetings with Wozniacki, those matches occurred at the zenith of the Serb’s ascendancy in early 2008.  She should enter their quarterfinal free from pressure or expectations, allowing those factors to settle squarely upon the shoulders of the newly crowned #1.  At the US Open, however, Ivanovic proved emotionally unable to summon that insouciant attitude against the defending champion.  Having not captured a tournament since 2008, Ana remains far from reaffirming her status as an elite title contender.

Peer:  Experiencing a modest revival in 2010, the steely Israeli has delivered perhaps the most commanding performance of the tournament, during which she has surrendered more than two games in just one of the six sets that she has played.  Upon closer analysis, though, these lopsided scorelines may speak as much to the quality of her opposition as to her own brilliance.  Dispatching a Chinese wildcard in the first round and Serbian qualifier Jovanovski in the third round, Peer confronted only one foe with any experience on this stage, the seemingly ageless Schiavone.  Nevertheless, the road doesn’t become much more arduous in the quarterfinals, where another Swiss player lies ahead.  If Peer advances to a potential semifinal with Wozniacki, she should gain confidence from her victory over the Dane in Dubai, the tournament that triggered her renaissance.  But the newly minted #1 presents a much more imposing challenge now than she did in February.  Even in the area of her greatest strength, consistency, Peer can’t equal Wozniacki unless the latter’s breathless schedule exerts a toll upon her physical and mental reserves.

Bacsinszky:  Even dedicated fans know little about the wide-eyed Swiss upstart, who profited from a recurrence of Azarenka’s leg injury after barely edging Tokyo sensation Julia Goerges in a third-set tiebreak.  Presented by Vika with a second life, Bacsinszky capitalized with aplomb by ousting Sharapova-killer Vesnina in a much more comfortable affair.  Against Peer, she won’t find herself regularly overpowered or outmaneuvered, yet her inexperience and impetuosity probably will play into the Israeli’s hands.  While the WTA has unveiled numerous surprises throughout the year, the Beijing Premier Mandatory title seems even more remote from a player of Bacsinszky’s status than did the Madrid Premier Mandatory title from Rezai.

Sevastova:  A game away from defeat in her opener against Stosur, the Latvian somehow broke the Australian’s formidable serve on two straight occasions to record her third notable upset of the season.  On the similarly medium-speed hard courts in Indian Wells and Monterey, Sevastova downed first Ivanovic and then Jankovic in losses that seemed to illustrate the struggles of the Serbs more than her own talents.  Sharing a passport with Gulbis, she has crafted a vastly divergent game from Ernests that relies upon paceless, soporific groundstrokes to lull opponents into febrile errors.  Following a surprising three-set win over Cibulkova, Sevastova received a walkover from Petrova, who probably would have ended her run.  We expect Li Na to prove less accommodating than the Russian.

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Look for further astronomical observations from the Chinese capital in the days ahead!

 

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No stranger to tense openers at Roland Garros, Maria has rallied from a one-set deficit against Anastasia Yakimova in 2009, gritted through an 8-6 final set in 2008, and saved match points against Mashona Washington in 2006.  When the statuesque Siberian fell behind talented youngster Ksenia Pervak early in the first set, therefore, one might have expected another nerve-jangling epic to unfold.  Instead, Maria seized five straight games and cruised through the second set with a positive winners/errors differential, always an excellent omen for a shotmaker on this shotmaker-hostile surface.  As relatively inconsequential as it was, Strasbourg appears to have elevated her confidence substantially.  After digesting Pervak, of course, she reminded everyone that she’s actually a sweet person at heart (not that we would have dared to differ):

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A few hours earlier on the same court, Safina once again committed tennis seppuku by regurgitating a comfortable third-set lead and handing Kimiko Date-Krumm her first Roland Garros victory of this millennium.  It’s impossible not to sympathize with the beleaguered Dinara at this stage of her travails, even if one isn’t in her fan club.  Those who are should take comfort that a lower ranking will reduce the public pressure on Safina and allow her to slowly rediscover her comfort zone on the court, a much easier task without constant scrutiny…or so we think.  After tracing the contrasting tales of two Russians on Tuesday, we follow the stories of three more on Wednesday while investigating the French Connection at Roland Garros.

Fognini vs. Monfils (13) (Chatrier, 3rd match):  Although the Frenchman can produce electrifying tennis at times, he’s a disturbingly careless player who wastes energy with unnecessary gyrations, tosses away games and sets with apparent mental lapses, and seems content to trade numerous routine misses for the occasional implausible winner.  Monfils senselessly squandered a set against a lucky loser in the first round, much as he has squandered his immense talents thus far in his career.  Discernibly less talented than “La Monf,” Fognini has developed a smooth all-court game while cultivating a similar propensity for careless, disengaged tennis and erratic focus.  Expect gorgeous winners and ghastly misses in equal measure from both sides of the court; the best way to enjoy this match is not to analyze the larger picture but simply to admire one brushstroke at a time.

Dementieva (5) vs. Medina Garrigues (Chatrier, 4th match):  Almost the diametrical opposite of Monfils and Fognini, Dementieva gradually ensnares her opponent with methodical, cautious point construction.  Often, little seems to be happening during the protracted rallies that often evolve in her matches, until the Russian suddenly strikes one of her sturdy groundstrokes into an opening that one hadn’t even noticed.  This strategy should prove rather effective on clay if Dementieva remains sufficiently calm to execute it, as she was in an impressive opener.  Stifling Melanie Oudin in her own opener and reaching the Strasbourg semis last week, Medina Garrigues has showcased some of the scintillating clay-court tennis with which she surged to the forefront of Spanish female players.  Just days into the tournament, the exits of Martinez Sanchez and Suarez Navarro have cast MG in the leading role again.  We wonder whether the Spaniard’s versatile style will trouble the baseline-rooted Dementieva, but the Russian possesses a substantial power edge. Don’t be surprised if service breaks outnumber holds. 

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Dent vs. Soderling (5) (Lenglen, 1st match):  On the surface (haha), this collision shouldn’t be overly competitive.  We were surprised to see Dent win his opener and only slightly less surprised to see him break the tournament’s serve-speed record.  On the other hand, Soderling remains mentally fallible despite perceptible improvements in that arena and could be rattled by the American’s arrhythmic style.  Therefore, the match might measure the emotional condition of last year’s finalist as he confronts the pressure of repeating his stunning performance form 2009.  While it’s hard to imagine the aging serve-and-volleyer actually winning a clay match against a player of the Swede’s caliber, he might force him into a tiebreak or even take a set if he serves impressively.  Service breaks should be very few and probably terminal when they do occur.

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Ouanna vs. Tsonga (8) (Lenglen, 2nd match):  Unsurprisingly shaky in his Roland Garros debut, Tsonga will be vulnerable on clay to players whom he would crush on faster surfaces.  During the preliminary events, he lost to Ferrero and unheralded Dutchman Thiemo de Bakker before an embarrassingly lopsided defeat to Ferrer in Rome.  Built to win short , staccato points behind serve-forehand combinations, the top-ranked Frenchman lacks both the mental and physical endurance to penetrate deep into this draw, although his quarter does look benign.  The mercurial Ouanna thrilled his compatriots a year ago by defeating Safin 10-8 in the final set with an avalanche of fearlessly attacking tennis, so this matchup should feature plenty of fast-paced, high-risk action.  Weary of watching endless baseline battles between two players who seemingly refuse to miss a shot, or in the mood for some irony?  Come to Lenglen for this clash between two playing styles antithetical to clay…on clay.

Kuznetsova (6) vs. Petkovic (Court 1, 2nd match):  For the second straight round, the German finds herself in one of the day’s most intriguing encounters.  Edging past Vesnina in a three-setter, she now targets a player whom she defeated last fall in Tokyo, just a week before Kuznetsova won the Premier Mandatory title in Beijing.  We wouldn’t put significant weight upon Sveta’s three-set win over the then 143rd-ranked Petkovic in Stuttgart last year, since the latter has refined her game immensely while climbing 100 ranking places since that match.  After dropping the first three games to Cirstea, the defending champion looked more convincing than she has anywhere else in 2010, perhaps suggesting that positive memories from last year are outweighing the situational pressure (in stark contrast to 2009 finalist Safina).  Nevertheless, one solid win remains only one win until the player extends the momentum over several matches.  Kuznetsova has the surface edge over Petkovic, but the German may have the mental edge because of their history and is unlikely to slump into resignation after adversity as did Cirstea.  Expect a crisply played match competitive from start to finish.

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Szavay vs. Petrova (19) (Court 3, 1st match):  Rising and falling faster than a soufflé, Szavay’s meteoric career once inspired us to include her among the future stars of her generation.  (That list also included Cornet, Paszek, and Pironkova, though…hmmm.)  Armed with an imposing serve and a sparkling backhand, she broke into the headlines by charging to the US Open quarterfinals in 2007—and has accomplished barely anything of significance since then.  When she upset Venus in the third round here last year, observers attributed the result less to her brilliance than to the American’s ineptitude, a judgment that the Hungarian promptly vindicated by mustering little resistance against Cibulkova a round later.  Also renowned for a mighty serve and superb two-hander, the aging Petrova stunned international audiences when she humiliated Clijsters and subdued Kuznetsova in Melbourne this year.  Although she’s produced characteristically inconsistent results since then, clay has been friendly to the Russian.  In the second round here a year ago, the former Roland Garros fell to Sharapova 8-6 in the third despite a delicious shotmaking display; that match proved one of the highlights of the WTA tournament.  Expect her to set up a fascinating third-round collision with Rezai.

Briefly notedFulfilling our expectations from Day 3’s preview, Querrey left doubles partner Isner alone to face the dirt that Americans detest.  The towering server began his tournament impressively in the first round by losing just 10 service points, but we’re curious whether his friend’s disgruntled departure wields any influence on his performance against Chiudinelli.  A match between two Fed Cup teammates, the Pennetta-Vinci encounter would have earned our extended attention had their last four meetings not been so oddly lopsided.  They’ve alternated wins in their seven career clashes, and a quick look at the WTA site tells us that it’s Flavia’s turn tomorrow.  Not renowned for his clay achievements, Baghdatis severely tested Ferrer on the admittedly faster surface in Madrid; the charismatic Cypriot will find his patience examined by clay specialist Granollers, who also scored an eye-opening win over Soderling in Melbourne.  Finally, we’re following the fortunes of (two-time!) Warsaw champion Alexandra Dulgheru, steadily rising in the rankings and perhaps a name to remember as spring turns to summer.  She’ll be dueling with Timea Bacsinszky, who recently has won a match from Li Na and a set from Serena. 

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Let us know if you have any special requests for Day 5, when the top half of the women’s draw and the bottom half of the men’s draw play their first rounds.  You can be assured that we will preview Jankovic-Kanepi, Kleybanova-Ivanovic, Shvedova-Radwanska, Nishikori-Djokovic,  and Seppi-Kohlschreiber, but otherwise we’re open to suggestions!