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Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal (L) of Spain holds the Davis Cup trophy as he celebrates with his teammate David Ferrer during the third and last day of the final Davis Cup match between Spain and Argentina on December 4, 2011 in Seville, Spain.

Barely two months ago, Spain celebrated the latest title captured by its Davis Cup dynasty.  But now the greatest power of the past decade must start to defend its crown once more.  While their path does not look steep, other contending nations eye more imposing challenges to their hopes.

Spain vs. Kazakhstan:  In its first year of World Group experience, the Kazakhs burst onto this grand stage by ambushing the Berdych-led Czech squad in a victory of David over Goliath.  When David traveled to Argentine clay, though, their discomfort on the surface led to an emphatic shutout.  Once again mired in clay, they face the nation most renowned for its success on the terre battue.  But most of that success came from two players absent from Spain’s B-level squad in Oviedo, Nadal and Ferrer.  As Spain enters an era of Davis Cup without its leading stars, the defending champions rely on the fading Ferrero and the enigmatic Almagro, together with the unremarkable Granollers and the second-tier doubles specialist Marc Lopez.  Considering the quality of their competition and home-court advantage, Spain should advance routinely even with this relatively modest quartet.  This easy draw provides a chance for the team’s comprehensive remodeling to coalesce before meeting stiffer resistance.  ESP in 3

Austria vs. Russia:  Not especially intriguing at first glance, this tie features no player in the top 30.  Several curious subtexts lurk beneath its apparent mediocrity, however, including the narrative of Alex Bogomolov’s debut in Russian colors after controversially spurning the United States.  The most reliable member of either squad in Cup action, Youzhny arrives with his spirits soaring from a Zagreb title and owns a 4-2 advantage over Austrian #1 Melzer.  Likely to appear if needed in Sunday’s reverse singles is the Austrian resident Davydenko, whose aggressive ball-striking suits the indoor hard courts better than Bogomolov’s counterpunching style.  Bereft of imposing singles #2s, the hosts will lean heavily on Melzer to participate in winning three rubbers, for they have little hope of survival if the tie hinges upon the 127th-ranked Haider-Maurer.  While the streaky Austrian #1 could ride his lefty net-rushing to a heroic feat, he has won consecutive main-draw matches only once since last July.  His best tennis almost certainly lies behind this 30-year-old Wimbledon doubles champion.  RUS in 5

Canada vs. France:  Like the Austrians, the Canadians pin their ambitions upon a single potential hero in Milos Raonic.  Although Vasek Pospisil and Frank Dancevic have excelled on home soil before, one would not fancy their chances to win two singles rubbers from Tsonga and Monfils, even with the latter perhaps not fully fit.  In the doubles, Canada might combine Dancevic’s net skills with the vast doubles expertise of Daniel Nestor, only a little less effective with age.  Nevertheless, Franch also will bring a talented doubles pairing in Benneteau and Llodra, who have won titles together before and might out-serve the Canadians on these fast courts.  Stirring internal Canadian controversy before the tie was fiercely patriotic advertising by Tennis Canada that irritated the country’s French-speaking citizens.  The weekend’s action will unfold far from Quebec in the British Canadian city of Vancouver, though, notorious for fanaticism in other sports.  Famously fallible throughout their history, the French Davis Cup team must ignore the distractions to showcase their more versatile talent.  Outside the serve, Tsonga and Monfils have far more weapons than Raonic, who might upset one of them but seems unlikely to topple both without their assistance.  Three best-of-five victories on three straight days represents a towering task for the towering Canadian.  FRA in 4

Switzerland vs. USA:  Whereas the previous two ties look more interesting upon further inspection than at first glance, this tie looks more interesting at first glance than upon further inspection.  On the indoor clay in Fribourg, Federer and Wawrinka should tie knots around the one-dimensional American servers.  Unimpressive at the Australian Open, neither Fish nor Isner will bring the level of self-belief necessary to overcome the Swiss master, although Isner did win two sets from Nadal at Roland Garros.  A stronger competitor than formerly (except against Federer), Wawrinka still struggles with maintaining a positive attitude under pressure sometimes.  One wonders a little how he will respond to the challenge of blunting the American serves under the gaze of his expectant compatriots.   So far superior are the Swiss singles players on clay, however, that they could afford to burn understudies Chiudinelli and Lammer on the doubles while relying on winning three of four singles rubbers.  (Thus far, however, they have slotted Federer and Wawrinka into that rubber as well.)  Paired with Ryan Harrison rather than former partner Isner, Mike Bryan should spare the visitors from a shutout before they drift down to the playoff round once more.  In a minor footnote, Harrison should benefit from the experience of playing a visiting Davis Cup tie as his maturation process continues.  SUI in 4

Czech Republic vs. Italy:  Surely seething to avenge their first-round loss last year, the former Davis Cup finalists probably can expect only one or two more seasons from their reliable duo of Berdych and Stepanek.  A two-man team with remarkable success in doubles together, they will host a clay-loving quartet of Italians on fast indoor courts where their superior serves and aggressive tactics should make spaghetti out of Starace et al.  After extending Nadal to four tight sets in an Australian Open quarterfinal, Berdych won the Montpellier title last week and has played more consistently impressive tennis over the last few months thane he generally does.   Not to be outdone by his countryman, Stepanek won the Australian Open doubles crown with Leander Paes in a commendable late-career highlight.  Boosted by their individual momentum, they should prove once again that divergent playing styles and divergent personalities can fuse in explosively effective fashion.  Like the Swiss, the Czechs probably can afford to concede the doubles and rest their stars for the singles.  CZE in 4

Serbia vs. Sweden:  Neither of their nation’s #1s, Djokovic and Soderling, will play a role in this starless Belgrade weekend.  So sanguine was Serbian captain Bogdan Obradovic about his team’s chances that he encouraged the five-time major champion to focus upon preparing for the majors and Olympics.  All the same, two top-25 singles threats in Tipsarevic and Troicki add to doubles veteran Zimonjic in comprising a balanced squad that always shines most under Serbian skies (or roofs, in this case).  Across the net stands no Swede in the top 250 of the ATP singles rankings, although Robin Lindstedt should duel intriguingly with Zimonjic in the doubles rubber.  But otherwise we expect minimal suspense from the greatest mismatch of the weekend.  SRB in 3

Japan vs. Croatia:  A mismatch in height alone, this tie offers a second straight weekend of tennis in the Bourbon Beans Dome.  Partnering Kimiko Date-Krumm in mixed doubles at the Australian Open, Nishikori will aim to emulate that legend’s success in Fed Cup against another Balkans team.  Unexpectedly reaching the singles quarterfinals in Melbourne, the Japanese #1 should relish the rare opportunity to play before his home fans—at least more than the opportunity to blunt Karlovic’s serving power.  The doubles looks even more uncertain than the singles rubbers, although perhaps the Croat’s towering serve will prove decisive by earning ample free points.  In the first meeting between these nations, the straightforward power and forward movement of the visitors will contrast with the steady baseline resilience of the home squad.  While the indoor hard court would seem to tilt towards Croatia, Nishikori and his compatriots will not surrender without a fierce struggle.  CRO in 5

Germany vs. Argentina:  Rebounding from a valiant but doomed effort against a Nadal-led Spain in last year’s final, the perennial bridesmaids of Davis Cup begin yet another Sisyphean quest towards its elusive summit.  Curiously without their flagship Del Potro, a key factor in their semifinal victory over Serbia in 2011, Argentina will rely one more time upon Cup stalwart Nalbandian against a German team lacking its most dangerous player in Kohlschreiber.  Considering the characteristics of Mayer, Petzschner, and Haas, one must query the host country’s decision to put Monaco and Chela on their favored red clay.  Fast-court players who prefer short points, the Germans would seem at a disadvantage against the Argentine clay specialists.  Also notable is the age of the participants, of whom the youngest (Monaco) will turn 28 next month.  Under the rigors of the best-of-five format on a slow court, fatigue and injury may play a role for some of these veterans.  As with Japan vs. Croatia, either team could win any of the rubbers.  But only one of these players, Nalbandian has compiled a history of Davis Cup heroics, and he should lift his nation again in a tie that looks less formidable than it did when the draw first appeared.   ARG in 5

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In this sequel to our WTA review, we continue to wrap our minds around perhaps the most thrilling tournament that we ever have had the privilege to witness.

Novak Djokovic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 14

Djokovic:  For the undisputed world #1, the surprising has become commonplace, the shocking mildly interesting, and the superhuman almost predictable.  Reeling from fatigue midway through the fifth set, Djokovic looked doomed when he meekly surrendered his serve to trail 4-2, yet nobody (including Nadal) seemed surprised to see the Serb erase the deficit with another improbable burst of energy.  Throughout each of his last three matches in Melbourne, he played with increasing conviction and audacity with every hour that passed, surviving the brutal endurance test posed by the trio of Ferrer, Murray, and Nadal.  Whenever an opponent verged on seriously threatening him, Djokovic responded with his most courageous tennis, scarring lines with 100-mph forehands or locating lobs in corners.  Forcing opponents onto the defensive during their service games, his return has become the most valuable weapon in men’s tennis today and perhaps one of the most brilliant shots in the history of the sport,  Dragged into deuce after deuce on their own serve, Djokovic’s victims exhaust so much energy in the effort to hold that little remains to challenge his own serve.

En route to his third Australian Open title, he defeated three top-five opponents and withstood a signature performance by his leading rival—all while lacking his best form for significant stretches.  By starting the Slam season as brightly in 2012 as he finished it in 2011, the Serb silenced any suspicion of a post-breakthrough regression and marched further towards a Novak Djokovic Era.  While much can happen in the next four months, a wraparound Slam looms as a distinct possibility when the Tour reaches Paris.  After all, it’s only a superhuman accomplishment.  Valedictorian

Nadal:  Like Djokovic, Nadal started this year in a similar fashion to the way that he ended last year:  clearly the world’s second-best player in both senses of the term.  The runner-up to the same rival for a record-breaking third straight major final, Rafa also stood head and shoulders above his other great rival in the semifinals.  That convincing four-set victory reasserted his complete command over Federer at majors on all surfaces while showcasing tennis as confident as he ever has shown on a hard court.  Also impressive were the last three sets of his quarterfinal victory over Berdych, the type of muscular ball-striker who can trouble Nadal with flat, penetrating strokes.  But perceptions of the Spaniard’s tournament inevitably will hinge upon his performance in the final, where he fell excruciatingly short of ending his losing streak to the world #1 after missing an open passing shot, the type of stroke that he never would miss against anyone else.

Before that final momentum shift, though, Nadal engineered an almost equally improbable comeback of his own.  After Djokovic dominated the second and third sets, he buried Rafa in triple break point at 4-3 in the fourth.  With the conclusion seemingly foregone, Nadal refused to accept defeat.  On the one hand, he played the best hard-court match of his career and still could not solve the Serb.  On the other hand, his gallant resistance turned this final into a classic encounter remembered less for the last point than for all that came before.  A+

Murray:  Overshadowed by the immortal sequel, the semifinal that the Scot contested with Djokovic demonstrated how far he had advanced since the embarrassment in last year’s final.  While Murray should not have let the fourth set slip away so easily, especially allowing Djokovic to serve first in the fifth, he showed uncharacteristic resolve in rallying from a daunting deficit near the end.  Much more promising than his losses at majors last year, the five-hour affair revealed a Murray confident in his ability to duel toe to toe with his more successful peers.  Throughout the tournament, in fact, his positivity on the court and after his matches reflected a competitor secure in his self-belief.  Perhaps fueling that trend, his partnership with Ivan Lendl already has reaped rewards and should continue to blossom further unless he suffers a post-Melbourne slump for the third straight year.  The two most vulnerable areas of his game, the serve and forehand, rarely have stayed as steady through a fortnight as they did in Melbourne.  A

Federer:  Now a serial semifinalist at hard-court majors, the four-time champion in Melbourne fared exactly as expected by advancing without difficulty through the first five rounds before bowing to Nadal for the eighteenth time.  Untested by his first four opponents, one of whom never entered the court, Federer dazzled in a comprehensive quarterfinal victory over Del Potro that displayed his vintage artistry.  Just when he raised the hopes of his fans, though, reality returned a round later with a semifinal loss to his archrival that showed flashes of inspiration but little sustained effort.  After he won the first set in a tense tiebreak, Federer tossed away the momentum with a tepid second set.  After he earned a break to lead 4-3 in the crucial third set, he returned the advantage immediately and played an error-strewn tiebreak soon afterwards.  At this stage in his career, Federer will not win another major unless he can find more sustained intensity against the top two, or unless someone ambushes one of his rivals earlier in the draw.  Either of those events could happen, especially the latter, but little comfort comes from relying on the performance of others.  A-

Nishikori:  One of three first-time quarterfinalists in this year’s tournament, Nishikori quietly outlasted Tomic, Raonic, and others around whom much more anticipation centered.  His unprepossessing game equips him ideally to outlast flamboyant shot-makers who can veer from torrid to frigid without warning.  Fortunate to draw two Frenchmen, he not only hung onto a five-set rollercoaster more tightly than Tsonga but snatched a crucial third set from Benneteau after the latter had served for it three times.  Displaying the poise of a veteran, he capitalized upon whatever momentum shifts turned his way to record a performance that must rank as an overachievement.  A-/B+

Lleyton Hewitt - 2012 Australian Open - Day 8

Aussies:  A worthy coda to a valiant career, Hewitt’s victory over the younger, more explosive, and much higher-ranked Milos Raonic allowed the Aussies one more chance to appreciate a champion of whom they paradoxically have grown fonder as his results have waned.  In his sixteenth Australian Open, the two-time major champion did not submit without resistance even to the world #1, winning a set against all of the odds.  At the opposite end of the age spectrum was perhaps the Tour’s most talented rising star, Bernard Tomic.  The teenager played both the most compelling match of the first round (a five-set upset over Verdasco) and the most compelling match of the first week (a five-set upset over the equally mercurial Dolgopolov).  Seemingly able to hit every shot in the tennis manual, Tomic sometimes made perplexing decisions and complicated the narrative of his matches more than necessary.  But one remembers Murray tracing the same route towards maturity, and two second-week appearances in the last three majors demonstrated an auspicious taste for success on the grand stage.  B+

Ferrer:  In some ways, he traced a parallel route to Radwanska during the tournament.  Extricating himself from first-week peril against Ryan Sweeting (cf. Radwanska vs. Mattek-Sands), Ferrer played himself into better form with each match, culminating with a comprehensively dominant demolition of Gasquet.  When he reached the quarterfinals, he threatened to win each of the first two sets from the eventual champion before fading towards the end, much as Radwanska did against Azarenka.  While he lacks the weapons to challenge a top-four opponent on most occasions, Ferrer continues to quietly preserve his position just below them by losing few matches that he should win.  The world #5 represents a study in contrasts with Tsonga, the player ranked just below him.  B+/B

Del Potro:  Following an indifferent second half, a quarterfinal appearance that equaled his previous best result in Melbourne seemed like a significant step forward.  With each round that he played, the 2009 US Open champion assembled the massive but often wayward elements of his game more effectively, ultimately sweeping aside the dangerous Kohlschreiber.  Through a set against Federer, Del Potro hovered on the verge of seriously testing the man whom he once had dominated.  But he faded too fast in the last two sets to rank him a worthy rival to the top four.  Neither the tentative introvert of his earlier years or the free-swinging gunslinger of his prime, Del Potro returned to the top 10 but continues to occupy a mezzanine level poised between contenders and pretenders.  B

Berdych:  A sparkling 7-1 in tiebreaks during the fortnight, he reached the quarterfinals for the second straight year in a performance that built upon his semifinal at the year-end championships.  Notorious for jagged oscillations in form, Berdych would benefit from improving his consistency.  Within a point of a two-set lead against Nadal, though, he blinked at the brink by missing a difficult but not impossible backhand volley in a recurrence of his characteristic inability to carpe the diem against an elite opponent.  All the same, his resolute effort suggested a competitive bravado unexpected in a player who had lost nine straight matches to the Spaniard.  Berdych’s most stirring performance against Almagro, when he won three consecutive tiebreaks from a player ranked only a few notches below him.  Somewhat tarnishing this sturdy effort was the non-handshake after the match, a dubious decision by one of the Tour’s more prickly players.  That odd denouement cost him considerable crowd support and a small increment in our grades.  B

Frenchmen:  Spearheading their charge was the explosive Tsonga, who had inflated the hopes of his compatriots by winning the Doha title to start the season after he had reached the Wimbledon semifinal and the final at the year-end championships.  But his opponent in that match was none other than the perennially underachieving Monfils, who played a perplexing match even by his standards in a five-set loss to Mikhail Kukushkin.  Thoroughly unfocused in the first two sets, Gael summoned some last-minute discipline to force a fifth, at which point he looked certain to overcome his overmatched opponent.  But instead, after flirting with opportunities to take a lead, he lost the match with two wild double faults in the last three points.  A round later, Tsonga suffered a similar fate against the steady Nishikori.  After he won the first set comfortably, the world #6 seemingly lost interest  until he trailed by two sets to one, when he reversed the momentum with a solid fourth set.  Rather than closing out the match with confidence, though, the top-ranked Frenchman lost the plot for the final time.  Far in the draw from Djokovic and Nadal, Tsonga and Monfils squandered golden opportunities through sheer carelessness, a word that starts with an appropriate letter.  C

Americans: An almost unmitigated disaster in the singles draw, none reached the fourth round at the Australian Open for the first time since the 1970s, before it changed to a seven-round format.  While one can blame daunting draws (Harrison vs. Murray in the first round) and injuries (Roddick ret. vs. Hewitt) for some of their misfortune, other Americans can lay claim to no such excuse.  Foremost among them was the eighth-seeded Fish, who failed to win so much as a set from Colombian clay specialist Falla in an irritable and generally mindless second-round debacle.  Meanwhile, the three-time defending champions Bob and Mike Bryan fell in the final to the same team whom they had defeated in Sydney two weeks before.  F

Leander Paes:  As he nears his fifth decade, the ageless doubles specialist finally completed the career Grand Slam in doubles, partnering Stepanek to a significant upset over the Bryan Brothers in the final.  Paes also reached the mixed doubles final but fell a match tiebreak short of becoming the only player to win two titles at the Australian Open.  Honorary Degree

Sharapovanovic:  Filled with uncertainty, the first major of a new season presents a particular challenge for predictions.  Nevertheless, we correctly foresaw three of the four finalists, while the fourth lost a three-set semifinal.  Less remarkable for its foresight was our preview of the men’s final, which offered the following concluding statement about the thirtieth meeting of Djokovic and Nadal:

Djokovic and Nadal never have played a fifth set against each other, and this match should not break from that trend.  Expect one of these two battle-hardened combatants to claim the early momentum and weather a series of dangerous surges by the opponent before mastering Melbourne in four compelling but not quite classic sets.

Not even Hawkeye could overrule that unforced error.  Your Grade Here

***

We return in a few days with a preview of the Fed Cup World Group and World Group II ties.

Ana Ivanovic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 4

Asked to guess which leading lady would reach the third round of the Australian Open without facing a break point on her serve, few would have guessed that Ivanovic would accomplish such a feat.   Formerly a key weapon, the serve had become a symptom of her struggles and perhaps now may portend her revival.  When she faces unseeded American Vania King, the Serb seeks to extend this encouraging fortnight into the second week, which she has not reached here since 2008.  Although she has won all three of their meetings, the earliest and most resounding two occurred before her tumble from the top.  Extended to three sets by the American in 2009, Ivanovic has faltered chronically against doubles specialists like Zheng, Dulko, and Makarova.  Such players demonstrate not only impressive net skills but a more subtle vision of the court’s geometry, sometimes frustrating to a programmatic singles player like the former #1.  Returning boldly during her three-set victory over Pavlyuchenkova, King drew double faults and tentative serves from the Russian 15th seed.  Such tactics could reap rewards against Ivanovic on a poor serving day, eroding her overall confidence as well.  Since yielding to Cijsters in Brisbane, though, the smiling Serb has held 24 of 26 service games by raising her first-serve percentage, varying her placement more often, and curbing (although not curing) her ball toss woes.  The products of considerable effort, those improvements have freed her to play more assertively on return games, where she could threaten King’s modest delivery.  A chaotic contest of breaks and momentum shifts could unravel Ivanovic’s ever fragile confidence, while a more linear match of holds and straightforward baseline exchanges would allow her to showcase her superior firepower.

We now preview the other intriguing matches on Day 6.

Kirilenko vs. Kvitova:  To the astonishment of most witnesses, the second seed and title favorite struck a surprising obstacle in the diminutive figure of Suarez Navarro.  Losing a lopsided second set, Kvitova later trailed by a break in the third set as sports bettors worldwide watched in horror.  But the Wimbledon champion visibly exhorted herself point by point to claw herself back into the match and withstand the Spaniard’s impressively sustained effort.  At the core of her comeback lay her first serve, which could serve her well again when she faces Kirilenko.  Overpowered by Kvitova in the Fed Cup final last fall, the Russian feasted upon an erratic Gajdosova in the second round and must hope for similar donations as she continues in her counterpunching role.  Comfortable with every shot but brilliant with none, Kirilenko cannot hit through the world #2 from the baseline, so she cannot take her fate into her own hands.   Nevertheless, the resilience of her retrieving may force Kvitova to construct points more thoroughly than before, raising her consistency in preparation for the second week.

Sharapova vs. Kerber:  Yielding just two games in her first two matches, the 2008 champion soars into the third round on a wave of confidence.  Emblematic of her effort this week was the first game of her meeting with Jamie Hampton.  Although she trailed 40-15, Sharapova refused to let her prey slip away but instead fought through deuce after deuce before finally breaking serve and establishing immediate control.  Against even a clearly overmatched opponent, she combined this steely focus with crisp, purposeful footwork and as keen a sense of point construction as one ever will see from such a single-minded aggressor.  All the same, onlookers might recall that Sharapova also lost just two games in her first two matches at the 2007 US Open—and then departed from the tournament in the next round.  Especially at this stage of her career, her fortunes can change overnight when the competition stiffens, as it may with US Open semifinalist Kerber.  The German lefty experienced wrist pain last week in Hobart, but her first serve will resist the pressure of Sharapova’s return more effectively than those of Dulko and Hampton.  With the exception of one service game in each match, the Russian has controlled her own serve with surprising consistency considering her lack of preparation.  If that pattern extends for another round, few chinks in her armor will emerge.  If it does not, anything can become possible.

Djokovic vs. Mahut:  Looking every inch the best player in the world, Djokovic has dropped only eight games in his first six sets at the major where he has won two titles.  After he defeated clay specialists Lorenzi and Giraldo, the defending champion confronts a dramatically different test in the person of a net-rushing Frenchman who should give him little rhythm in rallies.  Although he will remain most famous for a match that he lost, Mahut exploited his serve-volley strategy to the fullest in easily upsetting top-30 opponent Stepanek and rallying to defeat a Japanese wildcard.  With virtually no hope of victory, he still should provide an entertaining foil for Djokovic’s sizzling returns and passing shots, two of his most formidable strengths.  Rather than engaging in extended rallies where he could wait for his opponent to waver, the world #1 will need to win points more decisively with more aggressive shot-making, a style scintillating to watch even in a match without suspense.

Raonic vs. Hewitt:  While one sympathizes with Roddick for the premature end to his fortnight, one also sympathizes with Hewitt, denied a grand moment under the lights of Rod Laver in perhaps his final appearance at his home major.  The two-time Slam champion and former Melbourne finalist now meets an opponent strikingly similar to Roddick, who relies upon an overwhelming serve and a penetrating forehand that masks an unremarkable backhand.  Since Hewitt owns a two-hander still crisp and polished despite his stage, he will seek to expose that advantage in any rallies when he maneuvers Raonic into a neutral position.  But the disparity between their serves may weigh heavily upon the home favorite, especially in close sets, for he must expend much more effort in his service games than will the Canadian.  Considered one of the finest returners and counterpunchers of his generation, Hewitt must hope that those talents have waned too sharply, for Raonic can finish points more effectively than can Roddick and repeatedly has displayed a precocious poise under pressure.  Don’t expect this neophyte to crumble on a grand stage, even with the crowd squarely against him.

Lisicki vs. Kuznetsova:  In their only previous meeting, the German leaned upon her mighty serve to overpower the Russian at the All England Club en route to her first of two quarterfinals there.  Far less serve-friendly than grass, this sticky surface tilts towards Kuznetsova’s advantage by allowing her more time to survive Lisicki’s first strike.  Not lacking in shot-making skill herself, Sveta will hammer forehands into her opponent’s forehand to create a clash of strength with strength.  Her vulnerable second serve will offer an inviting target for the younger woman’s vicious returns, so the two-time major champion will want to connect with as many first serves as possible.  Notorious for drifting in and out of focus, Kuznetsova cannot afford such lapses in a rare WTA match when a service break actually means something.  Across the net, Lisicki must manage an equally significant internal concern involving her fragile physical condition.  Sidelined much too often for a player of her age, she has retired or withdrawn from several tournaments since the start of 2011.

Zvonareva vs. Makarova:  In apparent danger of defeat during the first round, the fifth seed danced with disaster again when she fell behind Hradecka in the second set of her next match.  Unnoticed by most observers, Zvonareva has edged within one victory of a marquee fourth-round meeting with Serena.  Although she defeated the American in Eastbourne last year, few would fancy her chances in a rematch unless she delivers a significantly more imposing account of herself against Makarova.  A dangerous server with a useful knack for saving break points, the fiery lefty has proven herself a thorn in the side of opponents as talented as Sharapova and Azarenka on medium-speed courts.  She has caught fire for an extended stretch only once in her career, when she won the Eastbourne title as a qualifier, but Makarova upset Brisbane champion Kanepi in the second round.  Until then, the Estonian had seemed the most plausible dark horse in the women’s draw.  We suspect that Makarova wouldn’t mind seizing that role herself.

Janko Tipsarevic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 4

Tipsarevic vs. Gasquet:  Living in the shadow of two far more notable players, these men have traced opposite trajectories in their career.  Whereas Gasquet has shouldered the unwieldy burden created by those who deemed him a “little Federer,” Tipsarevic has found his accomplishments dwarfed by the towering feats of Djokovic.  Yet the Serb and the Frenchman have handled that position in contrasting ways.  A perennial underachiever, Gasquet allowed the mountainous expectations upon him to sink his spirits at key moments in his development, although he has emitted an occasional flash of brilliance.  On the other hand, Tipsarevic has drawn inspiration from the current world #1, remarkably finding self-belief rather than discouragement from the ascendancy of a younger man who has thoroughly eclipsed him.  A few years ago, then Gasquet would have entered this match as the favorite with a second-week berth at a major on the line.  Now, Tipsarevic must adapt to that unaccustomed position with all of the conviction that he can muster.  Beyond these intriguing subplots, this match offers two of the finest down-the-line backhands from outside the ATP top five, wielded by two players unafraid to unleash these weapons with reckless abandon.

Zheng vs. Bartoli:  In the same round at the same tournament two years ago, the doubles star toppled the double-fister after rallying from a one-set deficit.  A quarterfinalist at Melbourne in 2009, Bartoli generally has recorded mixed results at the season’s first major, where the surface perhaps slows down her rapier-like groundstrokes too much.  As she stormed to an unexpected Auckland title, Zheng lasered her low strokes towards the center of the opponent’s baseline, preventing her opponent from carving out an angle.  With this steady diet of depth, albeit not much pace, she hopes to eventually draw a weaker response with which to step inside the court.  Like Kuznetsova, Zheng must recognize that she will win few points on a second serve that Bartoli’s superb return should devour.  Unlike Kuznetsova, she will find ample opportunities to showcase her own returning prowess.  While Bartoli can earn free points on her serve when that shot clicks, rare is the match when it does not desert her for at least one ghastly stretch.  Expect a parade of breaks and tightly contested service games.  As Zheng attempts to consolidate a budding revival, Bartoli aims to build upon a strong 2011 Slam campaign and entrench herself further inside the top 10.

Benneteau vs. Nishikori:  Quietly scoring one of the first week’s more notable upsets, the Sydney finalist continued his momentum by outlasting compatriot Simon in five sets.  One did not expect such stamina from the 30-year-old Frenchman on either mental or physical levels, for Benneteau normally plays a fast-paced style of short points that demands relatively little from the body.  Quite the opposite is his third-round opponent, who once ground down the towering Marin Cilic on a sultry day at the US Open through sheer endurance and tenacity.  Once defeating the ATP’s grinder par excellence, Ferrer, Nishikori exercised his quiet determination when he rallied from a two-set deficit in the previous round against an Australian who coupled the audacity of an underdog with the feistiness of a home favorite.  With youth and fitness on his side, the Japanese #1 should recover more swiftly from his exertions than Benneteau, but relentlessly aggressive opponents still can fluster him.  If he can disrupt Nishikori’s rhythm with imaginative shot selection, the canny veteran could earn himself an opportunity to reach the second week in one of the draw’s more open sections.

 

Maria Sharapova - 2012 Australian Open - Day 2

If Sharapova’s legions of fans felt trepidation before her opener against Dulko, they should have left that match reassured not just about her ankle but about the state of her game overall.  Far more impressive than in her last two Melbourne appearances, the Russian moved more and more crisply as the match progressed while suffering only one brief serving lapse and returning serve with her familiar ferocity.  Knowing the quality of her opponent, and remembering her loss to her at Wimbledon 2009, Sharapova may have benefited from a match that forced her to focus immediately.  A draw that initially seemed unkind now grows more benign with a clash against an American qualifier.  Or does it?  The Siberian siren has recorded mixed results against American youngsters before, falling to Oudin in a US Open epic and double-bageling Beatrice Capra a year later.  As she admitted, Sharapova knows virtually nothing about Jamie Hampton’s style and may need a few games to adjust to it.  At the same time, though, Hampton almost certainly never has played an opponent who can generate power approaching the Russian’s baseline bombardment.

More in doubt are several other matches on Day 4, to which we now turn our attention.

Hewitt vs. Roddick:  Although the head-to-head between these two grizzled veterans stands at 7-6 in Roddick’s favor, the American has won their last six meetings in a span stretching back to 2005.  But Hewitt continues to threaten his far more powerful rival with his agile movement, clever point construction, and unrelenting patience.  Three of their last four meetings reached final sets, including a Wimbledon thriller, while the fourth featured two tiebreaks.  Relying upon the support of the Rod Laver crowd, Hewitt may fancy his chances of swinging those few crucial points in his direction this time.  The stark disparity between their serves should play a less significant role than on the grass and fast hard courts where Roddick won all six matches in his current streak.  All the same, the American advanced impressively past a talented opponent in Robin Haase, showing more purpose and poise than usual, whereas Hewitt struggled to deliver the coup de grace against an anonymous obstacle.  Through most of the tennis world, Roddick will go into history as the more accomplished player, but one should note that Hewitt almost certainly will retire with more major titles, including the Wimbledon crown that the American so desperately covets.

Zvonareva vs. Hradecka:  Extended for more than three hours by Alexandra Dulgheru, Zvonareva may arrive in the second round physically and mentally jaded by a match that hung in the balance for an excruciating length.  The Russian typically has struggled with heavy servers (see S for Stosur), so Hradecka’s penetrating delivery may cause her anxiety if supplemented by the groundstroke missiles that she showcased in Auckland during a victory over Peng.  Can she finish what Dulgheru started?   The speed of these courts tilts towards Zvonareva’s advantage, however, showcasing her balanced game more effectively than the raw firepower of her still-evolving opponent.

Bellucci vs. Monfils:  One might understate the situation to say that Monfils has produced drastically different results from one major to the next.  After his comeback five-set victory over dirt devil at Roland Garros, many fans exulted that Monfils finally had found the purpose that he long had lacked.  Then came an unexpected Wimbledon loss to Lukasz Kubot and a thoroughly disappointing US Open setback against Ferrero.  After those setbacks, a strong Australian Open would seem likely for a player whose career has constituted a sequence of peaks and valleys.  Further suggesting that possibility was a strong week in Doha, highlighted by a semifinal victory over Nadal.  Full of talent and ambition, meanwhile, Bellucci has struggled to harness his lefty power at crucial moments in matches.  Before he ended last season with seven straight losses at ATP tournaments, the top-ranked Brazilian defeated Murray and Berdych consecutively at the prestigious event in Madrid. This enigma could trouble Monfils by curving his lefty forehand into the Frenchman’s modest backhand and by winning the battle of court positioning.  But Bellucci has developed little of the tactical sense necessary to topple an opponent superior in athleticism, fitness, experience, and nearly all other meaningful areas.

Raonic vs. Petzschner:  Not known for their returning talents, both of these huge servers broke their opponents repeatedly during emphatic first-round victories.  In fact, Petzschner fell just two games short of the first triple-bagel at the Australian Open since the 1970s and first at any major since 1993.  While his opponent’s ineptitude likely played a role in that development, the German has ridden waves of confidence to impressive accomplishments before.  Contesting a five-setter with Nadal two Wimbledons ago, he shares Raonic’s preference for faster surfaces.  The high bounce of this court should aid the Canadian’s monstrous kick serve, one of the reasons why he reached the second week here last year.  With his hip injury now behind him, Raonic must win matches like these to deliver a statement to his peers about his renewed progress.

Golubev vs. Gasquet:  Slugging his path past the more talented Youzhny in the first round, Golubev confronts a very similar task in the artful Gasquet.  Like the Russian, the Frenchman unleashes stylish one-handed backhands but lacks the muscular force projected by the Kazakh, who has rebounded impressively from an 18-match losing streak in 2011.  When a match turns for or against either of these players, it generally swings dramatically.  In the best-of-five format, neither probably can sustain their high-risk tactics for long enough to win without a lull, which will give the opponent a chance to reassert himself.  One senses that a match of momentum shifts might evolve as Golubev’s unvarnished ball-bruising pounds away at Gasquet’s psyche in addition to his defenses.  If he can stay positive, though, the Frenchman should withstand many of those first strikes and outlast the assault.

Stephens vs. Kuznetsova:  Succumbing twice to Christina McHale in 2011, the two-time major champion now faces another opportunistic American teenager.  Stephens enjoyed her emergence during last summer, when she reached a San Diego quarterfinal and the third round at the US Open with an upset over Peer.  Seeking to duplicate that feat in Australia, she meets a player who already has alternated the encouraging (Auckland semifinal performance, Sydney victory over Zvonareva) with the discouraging (a first career loss to Zheng and a retirement against Safarova).  Illustrating the rollercoaster that Kuznetsova regularly rides was her three-set victory over Scheepers, which started with a comfortable set, continued with a desultory second set, and ended abruptly with a third-set bagel.  Although she can deliver slightly more offense than her fellow rising Americans, Stephens remains a counterpuncher against whom the Russian will need to hit her targets consistently.  Anyone who has watched Kuznetsova could tell you that she finds this task less easy than she should.

Simon vs. Benneteau:  When these two compatriots collide, their promising performances at preparatory tournaments should provide them with plenty of momentum.  A semifinalist at Brisbane, Simon will duel with the Sydney runner-up in a match between a player who clings to the baseline and another who ventures into the forecourt more boldly than many.  As Benneteau tries to shorten points, his countryman will try to extend them with the same tenacity that carried him to a quarterfinal in Melbourne two years ago.  While he has faded since his breakthrough in 2008-09, Simon remains within range of the top 10 and certainly has maximized his potential.  In the Melbourne heat, this counterpuncher’s grinding style should prove especially lethal.

Llodra vs. Bogomolov, Jr.:  Unheralded until last year, the Russian-turned-American-turned-Russian seems to have weathered the controversy over his nationality with little concern.  A win here would move into the third round, justifying his seed and accomplishing the difficult task of maintaining momentum during the offseason.  By the standards of this journeyman, that accomplishment would deserve credit, especially following the early demise of more celebrated compatriots.  Overcoming perhaps the ATP’s most maddening player in Gulbis, Llodra may find greater resistance from someone who generally competes more vigorously (except at the Paris Indoors).  Aware that the Frenchman will attack the forecourt consistently, Bogomolov needs to refine his passing shots and aim to keep his opponent behind the baseline in rallies that expose his erratic groundstrokes.

Makarova vs. Kanepi:  The flavor of the fortnight at the 2010 Australian Open, this lesser Russian built upon an upset of Ivanovic to reach the second week and challenge eventual champion Clijsters for a set when she arrived there.  This year, she delivered two bagels in her opener as memories of Melbourne likely flooded back into her mind.  An unseeded champion in Brisbane, Kanepi entered this tournament as perhaps its most compelling dark horse.  With straight-sets victories over Pavlyuchenkova, Petkovic, and Schiavone during the first week of 2012, she showcased a more formidable serve than ever and rarely faced a break point throughout the tournament.  Even more notable was Kanepi’s improved shot selection and consistency, areas that had retarded her progress until now.  But the question lingers as to whether she enjoyed a career week in Brisbane or whether her accomplishment laid the foundation for something greater.  After all, everyone knows what the Brisbane champion did last year.

And, of course, we could not complete a preview of Day 4 without…

Ivanovic vs. Krajicek:  Never forced to face a break point throughout her opening victory, the former #1 dominated beyond her serve against an overmatched opponent and thus could afford to attack her returns aggressively.  To be sure, the knowledge of Dominguez Lino’s weak serve may have enabled Ivanovic to relax and swing more freely during her own service games, but that shot has shown steady signs of improvement throughout her partnership with Nigel Sears.  When she faces an opponent with a more imposing serve in Krajicek, Ana will face greater pressure to maintain her own delivery.  This match likely will consist of short points punctuated by staccato winners or unforced errors.  A former prodigy derailed by injuries, Krajicek impressed us with her ball-striking and her poise when we watched compete creditably against an aging Hingis in San Diego five years ago.  Although injuries have derailed her since then, she remains a player more dangerous than her ranking would suggest.  Handle not with complacency but with confidence and calm.

Ana Ivanovic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 2

Novak Djokovic - Swiss Indoors Basel - Day Six

First quarter:  Clouding this diverse section is the uncertainty enveloping the world #1, who seems all but certain to withdraw but has not as of Sunday evening.  Should Djokovic find discretion the better part of valor, the two highest-ranked men in the tournament would reside in the same half of the draw.  Conversely, opportunity would knock for 2008 champion Tsonga, who has relished the stage-like setting of this indoor arena as well as its slick surface.  Amidst the second-best season of his career, the Frenchman won the Vienna tournament two weeks ago and has won three of his seven titles on home soil.   Yet this crowd favorite should not overlook the almost equally flamboyant Almagro in the third round.   Although he has won all five of their meetings, the Spanish shot-maker came within a point of ousting Nadal two years ago on this court.  Sandwiched between them is Davydenko, who may no longer deserve a special mention in these previews but historically has feasted on the depleted draws and battered opponents of fall.  Elsewhere, Nishikori may struggle to regroup both physically and mentally from a Shanghai semifinal followed by a Basel final.  Surely hoping for a Djokovic-less draw is his compatriot Troicki, a finalist in Moscow despite an otherwise unremarkable second half.  Only the third-best player in his own country, he has won three of four meetings from Tsonga.

Semifinalist:  Tsonga (whether or not Djokovic plays)

Second quarter:  Likely to compete with his characteristic vigor, the fourth-seeded Ferrer probably will not survive long on a surface antithetical to his strengths.  On the other hand, none of the opponents in the immediate vicinity may muster the determination to dispatch him.  Known for scintillating one-handed backhands, Youzhny and Kohlschreiber will battle for the opportunity to meet Dolgopolov, who has faded from awareness since testing Djokovic at the US Open.  The theatrical atmosphere in Bercy might inspire the charismatic Ukrainian to unleash his fluid, all-court style, while the laboratory-like environment should allow him to perfect his timing.  Weakened by the withdrawal of Del Potro, this quarter still contains two-time finalist Monfils, denied by Djokovic in 2009 and Soderling in 2010.  As enigmatic and engaging as ever, the French #2 recorded one of the most impressive wins of his career on this court when he saved multiple match points to stun Federer in a semifinal, and he collected the Stockholm crown as Tsonga seized Vienna.  Possibly awaiting “La Monf” in the second round is his compatriot and fellow 2010 semifinalist Llodra, who will engage with Lopez in a battle of serve-and-volleying lefties.  Mirroring each other, their vintage styles will contrast with the baseline-bound Monfils or Wawrinka.  Will the more modern game prevail on the surface least designed for it of all Masters 1000 tournaments, or will the fast courts in Paris set the stage for a miniature upset?

Semifinalist:  Monfils

Third quarter:  Having waited ten months from his previous title, Federer earned some desperately needed momentum by capturing his hometown tournament for the fifth time.  A champion only in Doha and Basel this year, he has reached just one total final this year at majors and Masters events as Djokovic’s ascendancy uprooted the ATP hierarchy.  And Federer never has reached the final here, a distinction that Paris shares with no other tournament of its level.  Thwarted by players like Nalbandian and Benneteau in previous appearances, he often has looked drained of motivation and already focused on the year-end championships.  Rome nemesis Gasquet could collide with Federer in the third round, but the former prodigy has specialized in squashing the hopes of his countrymen until reaching the second week of Roland Garros this spring.  Yet another bold-faced French name has ambushed Federer twice on hard courts, including once on an indoor hard court in the fall, and his comeback from a two-set deficit against Roger at the Australian Open clearly discomfited the GOAT.  Not until the quarterfinal would Gilles Simon earn the chance to accomplish a third “accident,” as he self-deprecatingly has termed his upsets over the Swiss.  Still, few opponents in his section impress at first glance, whether the recently injured Fish or the fading Stepanek.  The nemesis of Nadal in Shanghai, Florian Mayer might edge past the American with his underrated serve and penetrating backhand, but few would consider him a threat to Federer.  After a second-half campaign that has revitalized his stagnant career, Donald Young burst through a qualifying draw once more and eyes a winnable encounter with weary Valencia runner-up Monaco.  All of these names, except perhaps Simon, look like subplots if Federer’s form continues to climb as it did from one match to the next in Basel.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Fourth quarter:  Seeking his fourth consecutive title since the US Open, Murray propelled himself to the #3 ranking by demolishing all adversaries throughout the Asian season before a sore backside negated his Basel wildcard.  Unlikely to resist the Scot too fiercely is Valencia champion Granollers, who probably soared into Paris on a wave of elation from that most notable performance of his career. Nor do flammable, fickle second-tier Frenchmen Benneteau and Chardy appear legitimate upset bids.  Since reaching a US Open quarterfinal, Roddick’s form has ranged across the spectrum from the dangerous (third-set tiebreak loss to Ferrer in a Shanghai quarterfinal) to the dismal (opening-round loss to Kevin Anderson in Beijing).  Climaxing with one of the season’s most dazzling winners, his epic triumph over Raonic in the Memphis final might find an encore in his opener here, where their towering serves should produce at least one tiebreak.  Thoroughly stifled by Murray at Queens Club this year, Roddick would have to maintain a superb first-serve percentage to compensate for his inferiority to the Scot in almost all other departments.  A similar task awaits the fifth-seeded Berdych, who has won two of his last three meetings with Murray and should find the surface more suited to his offensive orientation.  But his recurrent bête noire Tipsarevic might lurk in the third round.  The Serb even has enjoyed sporadic success against Murray, while his first career title in Moscow built upon summer breakthroughs in Canada and New York.  In the absence of Djokovic, can one of his compatriots proudly plant his nation’s flag on French soil?

Semifinalist:  Murray

Semifinals:  Tsonga d. Monfils, Federer d. Murray

Final:  Tsonga d. Federer

Rafael Nadal - 2011 US Open - Day 5

Nalbandian vs. Nadal:  Splitting his four previous meetings with the Argentine, Nadal has lost at least one set to him in each of their encounters.  After Nalbandian overwhelmed him at two indoor events in 2007, Rafa rallied from one-set deficits against him at the North American Masters tournaments more recently.  Even in his decline, therefore, the former Wimbledon finalist continues to threaten the far superior Spaniard with a two-handed backhand pounded into the forehand corner towards which Nadal moves less naturally.  Already ill at ease since losing the Wimbledon final, the world #2 lost his serve six times in his opener and escaped a four- or five-setter largely through the profligacy of an erratic opponent.  Similar generosity may flow from the racket of Nalbandian, who has struggled with injuries and overall fitness throughout a career beset by questions concerning his commitment.  By reaching the third round with a four-set triumph over Ljubicic, however, he has demonstrated his most compelling form of the season so far.  Inclined to waxing as the season wanes, the Argentine has feasted before on opponents weary from first-half successes.  Since he wins relatively few free points on his serve, one struggles to imagine him winning this match, and the early start time may find him sluggish.  But a test of Nadal’s confidence will loom if Nalbandian can assert himself immediately as he has without fail in each of their earlier collisions.

Roddick vs. Benneteau:  Amidst a formidable year for French tennis, this doubles specialist with a brisk down-the-line backhand and superb net skills has lain relatively dormant.  Shouldering a losing record in 2011 before the US Open began, Benneteau won renown by defeating Federer at the Paris Indoors two years ago and then holding a match point against Nadal less than a year later.  At first glance, Roddick’s much steadier game would seem to offer him few loopholes, yet the Frenchman’s doubles prowess should allow him to unleash some cleverly angled reflex returns.  In order to silence the American crowd, meanwhile, Benneteau should focus on projecting positive energy and pulling the trigger early in rallies.  Roddick’s strange mixture of explosive serves and passive groundstrokes will allow him to outlast the impulsive French shot-maker in most neutral points.  Unimpressive in his first match, the 2003 champion rose in intensity during a potentially dangerous second-round encounter with the intriguing Jack Sock.  Having played night sessions in each of his previous two rounds, how will Roddick adjust to daytime conditions?  Since both players venture to the net more frequently than their average ATP peers, entertaining cat-and-mouse exchanges might unfold in addition to some vintage serve-volley and chip-charge tactics.

Lopez vs. Murray:  Conquering the third-ranked Spanish lefty with ease at Wimbledon, Murray has won 11 of the 12 sets that they have played.  Lopez’s net-rushing style plays into the hands of the fourth seed’s key strengths, return and passing shots, while his wayward backhand offers an obvious target for the intelligent Scotsman to strike.  Content to rally from the baseline until the Spaniard concedes an error, Murray should not need to leave his comfort zone unless his opponent delivers well-placed first serves at key moments.  Nevertheless, Lopez has played some of his more impressive tennis this year, ranging from that Wimbledon quarterfinal to a heroic victory over Fish in Davis Cup on a fast hard court.  Unlike most Spaniards, this lefty has scored greater exploits on grass and hard courts than on clay.  Thrust into a two-set deficit against Haase in the third round, Murray regrouped on that occasion to outmaneuver in an opponent with more potent weapons but a far less complete game.  The heavy ball-striking of Cilic and Wawrinka ended his last two US Opens at this stage, while Lopez should shine under the lights of Arthur Ashe as he did during a scintillating four-setter against Federer four Opens ago.  If Murray stays alert and showcases his characteristically crisp timing on his groundstrokes, though, he should suffer less suspense than in his previous round.  A trend throughout this tournament, the mundane men’s matches on Arthur Ashe may continue into the second week.

Sabine Lisicki - 2011 US Open - Day 2

Lisicki vs. Zvonareva:  For the third time this year and for the second straight US Open, the top-ranked Russian faces the WTA’s heaviest serve outside Serena.  Overwhelming when she finds corners and lines with her first serve, Lisicki becomes vulnerable when forced to resort to her unremarkable second delivery.  In edgy three-set victories at Roland Garros and San Diego, Zvonareva capitalized opportunistically whenever the German’s first-serve percentage sagged, while her consistency allowed her to capture the majority of the extended rallies.  In the effort to exert ever more first-strike power, Lisicki donated too many double faults and return errors late in those losses, so she should seek to lean slightly further towards the side of restraint on this occasion.  Illustrated by her struggles against Stosur, Zvonareva often has faltered both physically and mentally against players who can hold serve more easily than she can.  A tepid 2011 campaign has witnessed an occasional highlight but few sequences of sustained brilliance, whereas Lisicki has suffered only one serious stutter (Cincinnati) since exploding into relevance in the grass season.  Tilted in the Russian’s favor, though, is the late-night atmosphere in which they will battle.  Zvonareva has played many more night matches in her career and should profit from the experience of playing in their distinctive atmosphere.  Favored to reach the final is the winner of this match, ready to exploit a decimated half of the draw without any Slam champions or former #1s.

Peng vs. Pennetta:  In a quarter that will produce a first-time Slam semifinalist, Peng seems the most plausible candidate.  Pressing towards the threshold of the top 10, this understated double-fister displayed her compact strokes and competitive resilience in a tight two-set victory over the far more powerful Goerges.  Similarly streamlined in playing style if not in emotions, Pennetta capitalized upon a fallible Russian here for the second time in three years by upsetting trendy finalist choice Sharapova.  The tempestuous Italian rarely thrills with her shot-making talents or hustles opponents off the court, but she rarely succumbs without a creditable effort.  Adding interest to this encounter is the fact that one could say the same about Peng.  When steady meets steady, who will stay steadier?  Probably fatigued by her elating but draining victory over Sharapova, Pennetta may descend from that emotional height into a flat, unfocused performance.  One wonders whether the inviting prospect of a quarterfinal against Niculescu or Kerber will infuse the competitors with additional motivation or weigh upon them as an additional burden.

Del Potro vs. Simon:  At Wimbledon this year and the US Open three years ago, they engaged in nine total sets of grinding baseline rallies.  Equally assured with both groundstrokes, the Argentine and the Frenchman shine on a surface that rewards their symmetrical games.  Although Del Potro can flatten his forehand into instantly terminal strikes, Simon’s agile movement has dragged the Tower of Tandil into longer exchanges.  In contrast, Gilles lacks the power to end points without first constructing them, but he can generate surprising depth of shot from his abbreviated swings.  A prominent weapon in Del Potro’s arsenal, the serve has played an underestimated role in Simon’s successes, but both men have experienced chronic lapses into double faults.  Whereas the Argentine has advanced comfortably to this stage, the Frenchman dropped three sets in his first two matches to unremarkable opponents.  Can Simon halt the nine-match US Open winning streak of the 2009 champion?  In order to sustain the necessary level, he must focus on redirecting the ball to keep the gawky Del Potro off balance, not an easy task against a player who moves more crisply than most of the ATP giants.  Covering the baseline with a few vast strides, the Argentine does not move forward as effectively.  But luring opponents towards the net does not conform to Simon’s strengths either, so this contest will rest in Del Potro’s hands as a test of whether he can consistently execute his offensive combinations.

Roger Federer Roger Federer of Switzerland holds the trophy after defeating Mardy Fish during the finals on Day 7 of the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters at the Lindner Family Tennis Center on August 22, 2010 in Cincinnati, Ohio.

A week after audacious saboteurs tore down the towers of the sport, will Cincinnati more closely resemble the usual blueprints?  The last significant event before the US Open, it will play an especially crucial role this year as contenders who lost early in Toronto strive to accumulate valuable pre-major preparation.  Meanwhile, though, the Serenovak juggernaut rolls on to another city with accelerating speed, causing one to wonder whether anyone can blunt its momentum before New York.  (On the other hand, does the Djoker really fancy that hideous trophy above?)

First quarter:  A semifinalist in consecutive weeks at Atlanta and Los Angeles, Ryan Harrison will bring that momentum into Cincinnati—and a probable second-round encounter with an opponent who has lost only one match this year.  Also in this area lurk Washington champion Stepanek and Atlanta runner-up Isner, who has come within a point of defeating two different top-10 opponents this summer.   Situated near Wimbledon conqueror Feliciano Lopez, Roddick begins his recovery from his most recent injury against Kohlschreiber, often remembered for his five-set victory over the American at the 2008 Australian Open.  From a champion in Los Angeles to a qualifier in Cincinnati, Gulbis displayed uncharacteristic perseverance in emerging from the pre-event to arrange a main-draw meeting with Dodig.  Anchoring the section is Washington runner-up Monfils, a disappointment in his Rogers Cup quarterfinal against Djokovic when he appeared to tank after losing the first set.   But none of these hopefuls, veterans, or dangerous floaters appears likely to ambush the top seed should he arrive at the year’s seventh Masters 1000 tournament in peak condition.  Often bothered by the heat before, Djokovic succumbed to Roddick in a listless quarterfinal here last year.  His improvements in diet, fitness, and mental staying power encourage greater optimism this time, as do the distinctly fallible, one-dimensional opponents around him.  Nevertheless, Cincinnati has halted the momentum of many an ambitious Rogers Cup champion before.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Second quarter:  After the two-time defending champion in Canada dropped his opener, the two-time defending champion in Cincinnati could fare likewise against Del Potro.  Eyeing this formidable opening task, Federer must regroup from his consecutive losses to Tsonga, who overpowered the Swiss legend much as Del Potro did in their 2009 meetings at the US Open and the year-end championships.  A baseliner rather than a net-rusher like Tsonga, though, the Argentine did not impress in straight-sets losses to Gulbis and Cilic in Los Angeles and Montreal, respectively.  Formerly at his best during the summer hard-courts, he appears to have regressed from a spring in which he won two titles, and he has not defeated a notable opponent other than Soderling during his comeback.  Federer should ease through the third round much more comfortably this week against either the decaying Blake or the spineless Troicki, but an intriguing test could await in the quarterfinals.  Battling Berdych in three memorable meetings last year, the third seed suffered stinging defeats in Miami and Wimbledon before claiming a measure of revenge in a Rogers Cup thriller.  Before reaching Federer, the Czech must maneuver past the inflammable Almagro or perhaps Karlovic.  While Berdych theoretically should win those matches, he routinely lost an equally winnable quarterfinal to Tipsarevic in Canada.  Also complicating Federer’s path to a record-extending fifth Cincinnati title is his summer preparation.  Rather than train in scorching Dubai, he chose to stay in temperate Switzerland, a decision that benefited his children but may remove the fitness advantage that he long had held over his rivals in the torrid Ohio summer.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Third quarter:  Like all of the Big Four outside Djokovic, Murray faces the task of rebounding from a severely disappointing week.  A crossroads for the fatalistic Scot, Cincinnati either could mire him deeper in  what could become a post-Wimbledon hangover—or it could lift him out of his doldrums in time to inspire a deep run in New York.  Still seeking his first victory at a Masters 1000 hard-court tournament this season, Murray aims to snap that winless streak against Nishikori or Nalbandian, both more dangerous than some of his  previous 2011 Masters nemeses.  His rocky path will steepen further against the winner of a fascinating encounter between Tsonga and Cilic, assuming that a Montreal injury does not hamper the Frenchman.  Although he possesses 5-1 records against each of those heavy servers, Murray has struggled to defuse them on stages such as Wimbledon or the US Open.  Absent from the Rogers Cup, the ever-grinding, ever-unassuming Ferrer should flourish in the Cincinnati heat, as should his equally indefatigable third-round opponent Gilles Simon.  Entrenched in the top 10 when the season began, Melzer has drifted back into his familiar position of ambush artist and now hopes to unsettle the Frenchman in the first round.  Should Murray maneuver into the quarterfinals, he should gain confidence from his hard-court mastery over Ferrer.  Whether he will arrive there seems open to doubt, though.

Semifinalist:  Tsonga

Fourth quarter:  A player who relies upon match practice to prepare for a major, Nadal got little of it in Canada and thus must hope to compensate for that lack here.  Curiously, he might open against Garcia-Lopez or Benneteau, the former of whom defeated the reigning US Open champion on a hard court in 2010 and the latter of whom came within a point of doing so.  Wedged into his compatriot’s section once again, Verdasco will open Monday’s action by contesting an all-lefty battle with Bellucci, whose victory over him on clay this spring underscored the Spaniard’s woefulness this year.  Seeking to repeat his epic Rogers Cup victory over Youzhny, Llodra adds another lefty to this section but not a Rafa-upset threat.  Instead, the most probable challenge to the Spaniard’s semifinal route will come from three-time US Open Series finalist Fish, who bravely battled Djokovic in Canada before falling short yet again.  That disappointment appeared to weigh heavily upon the top-ranked American and may have drained him emotionally before a tournament where he twice has charged within a set of the title.  Lurking in his vicinity are Murray-killer Kevin Anderson and Federer-killer Gasquet.  Neither of them has both the weapons and versatility of the world #7, yet either could exploit a day when his serve dips or his feet grow sluggish.  Solving Fish in all six of their meetings, albeit only once in the last three years, Nadal probably will not stumble against him here.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Final:  Djokovic vs. Tsonga

At the Rogers Cup trophy presentation, Fish playfully teased Djokovic that the rest of the tour has “gotten tired” of the Serb’s supremacy.  Just as playfully, Djokovic retorted “I’m not getting tired of this.”  Until the top seed and undisputed king of the ATP hill does,…

Champion:  Djokovic

Maria Sharapova Kim Clijsters (R) of Belgium and Maria Sharapova of Russia poses with their individual trophies during the singles final match on day seven of the Western & Southern Financial Group Women's Open on August 15, 2010 at the Lindner Family Tennis Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.

First quarter:  After a modest first half in 2010, Wozniacki caught fire at the stage of this season and lost only two matches thereafter.  Having suffered a demoralizing loss to Vinci in her Rogers Cup opener, the great Dane should experience few difficulties with the inexperienced McHale or the underpowered Pironkova, virtually just a Wimbledon threat.  Forestalled in Toronto, a potential third-round meeting with Ivanovic could occur in Cincinnati, but poised to repeat her upsets one or both of the glamor girls is Vinci once again.  Wimbledon champion Kvitova may pursue revenge against Canada conqueror Petkovic, who built upon her San Diego semifinal with a quarterfinal last week.   Intelligently deconstructing the erratic Czech, the WTA’s lead dancer may find her swagger tested by the imposing serve of Gajdosova, who won a set from her earlier this year.  Of minor note in a section of three Slam champions and perhaps a future champion in Petkovic, Rebecca Marino possesses a thunderous serve that might trouble even Kvitova if her percentage stays high.  Kvitova pummeled Wozniacki at Wimbledon this year but has proved as inconsistent as the Dane has stayed steady (at least until recently).  Should they collide, one might favor the more businesslike Wozniacki in the unremarkable environment of Cincinnati, yet the fast courts should tilt in Kvitova’s favor.  A similar dynamic would define a potential meeting between the top seed and Petkovic, who conquered her in Miami.

Semifinalist:  Petkovic

Second quarter:  Bookended by a pair of flamboyant competitors, this section could several clashes of personalities.  Projected to reprise their Roland Garros duel are the counterpunching, movement-centered styles of Jankovic and Schiavone, both of whom have looked as flat as the American Midwest since the clay season.  On the other hand, Julia Goerges will fancy her chances of repeating last week’s thrashing of the former #1, her only win so far in the US Open Series.  More impressive this summer than her countrywoman, Lisicki followed her outstanding grass-court campaign with a Stanford semifinal before threatening Zvonareva in San Diego.  Absent from Toronto, she arrives more rested than her peers and certainly more confident than Peer, her first-round opponent.  A battle of blondes could occur in the second round between Lisicki and Azarenka, who restored order following her opening-round Stanford loss.  While falling to Serena in a routine semifinal, Vika nevertheless showcased sparkling groundstrokes and an improved sense of point construction that would have served her better against an opponent with a less overpowering serve.   If she can tame Lisicki’s similarly mighty delivery, she should advance more comfortably into a winnable quarterfinal.  More powerful than Schiavone, more motivated than Jankovic, and more consistent than Goerges, Azarenka may find that her path grows more accommodating rather than less as the week unfolds.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Third quarter:  How many more matches does Serena need before New York?  The answer appears to be zero, judging from her 11-match winning streak since her Wimbledon loss, and one wonders whether her focus will start to drift in her third preparatory event.  On the other hand, her champion-stuffed quarter might inspire Serena’s energies even if her brain counsels caution.  As early as the second round, the American might collide again with Sunday victim Stosur, while Roland Garros champion Li Na could await a match later.  Like Kvitova, Li may continue to struggle with adjusting to her sharply elevated status, especially outside China.  Desultory in her Rogers Cup loss, she has faltered often against both Serena and Stosur, who should prefer the faster Cincinnati courts.  Meanwhile, Sharapova will anticipate the daunting prospect of a second quarterfinal against the American in three tournaments.  Fallible this summer, the Wimbledon runner-up needs a momentum boost to catapult her into stronger contention at the US Open.  Fellow Russian Slam champion Kuznetsova could await in her second match, having won four of their nine previous meetings and a set from Maria here last year.  Whereas this season has witnessed a Sharapova resurgence, Sveta’s promising start has given way to deepening doldrums.  Just when one discounts her, though, she tends to deliver something remarkable.

Semifinalist:  S. Williams

Fourth quarter:  Among the most surprising upsets early in Toronto was the demise of Bartoli, who, like Sharapova, had surged through impressive fortnights at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.  The Stanford runner-up  coped with the heat better than one might have expected last year, defeating Wozniacki before falling to recurrent nemesis Sharapova.  Also impressive during the European spring, Hantuchova should encounter last year’s semifinalist Pavlyuchenkova in the second round in a battle of inspired shot-makers and indifferent movers.  Following her horrific week of 53 double faults in Baku, the Russian aims to recapture the promise that she displayed against Zvonareva and Schiavone at Roland Garros.  Dormant since reaching an Indian Wells semifinal, the 17th-seeded Wickmayer has struggled to curb her emotions under pressure but still owns an authoritative serve-forehand combinations reminiscent of Stosur and a natural athleticism reminiscent of Kuznetsova.  Resting rather meekly at the base of this draw, Zvonareva burst from a spring skid to reach the San Diego final before fading with consecutive losses to Radwanska.  In her last tournament before defending her 2010 US Open final appearance, the Russian needs all of the confidence that she can accumulate in order to steel herself for the scrutiny and pressure of New York.  Opening against one of two lefties, Martinez Sanchez or Makarova, Vera must impose her baseline rhythm upon their arrhythmic style.  Zvonareva may have caught a bit of luck in avoiding Jankovic, replaced by Wickmayer after Radwanska’s withdrawal, and she has enjoyed repeated success against Bartoli, including a Miami victory this year.

Semifinalist:  Zvonareva

Final:  Azarenka vs. S. Williams

In 2008, Serena swept consecutive tournaments in Bangalore, Miami, Charleston, a stretch during which she defeated five different top-five opponents.  A triple crown here would represent a feat no more impressive, especially since executed on the same surface (her favorite) and the same continent (where she lives).  The voice of reason says “Serena can’t win so many consecutive matches so early in her comeback.”  The voice of instinct says “When she plays at this level, who can beat her?”

Champion:  S. Williams (or Azarenka over Zvonareva in the final if she withdraws)

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?

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.

Rafael Nadal - Spain v Czech Republic - Davis Cup World Group Final - Day Two

Embarrassment of riches (BEL vs. ESP): Spearheaded by a reinvigorated Rafa, the Spanish team has marshaled no fewer than three top-10 players against a Belgian team with only one member (Malisse) in the top 100.  So potent is Spain’s firepower, in fact, that world #9 Verdasco initially planned to participate only in doubles before Ferrer’s neck cramp forced captain Alberto Costa to redesign his lineup.  While Nadal will profit from a virtual practice match against Bemelmans, the other Spanish lefty can rediscover his hard-court rhythm after consecutive losses to Raonic when he confronts Malisse in the opening rubber.  That match should prove the most competitive of a brutally one-sided tie, certain to deploy the Davis Cup’s new prohibition against dead fifth rubbers.

Weekend without superstars (SRB vs. IND):  Sensibly sparing his energies with the two mini-majors on the horizon, former Indian Wells and Miami champion Djokovic joined Indian Express Bhupathi and Paes on the sidelines as Serbia opens its title defense.  Stripped of its most notable participants, this tie nevertheless will feature a glimpse of rising Indian star Somdeev Devvarman, a Hewitt-esque player gradually inching further into main draws.  But the home squad should thoroughly control proceedings under the aegis of 2010 Davis Cup Final hero Troicki, Delray Beach finalist Tipsarevic, and aging doubles legend Zimonjic.  Just three months after winning their first title in this competition, Serbia should sweep comfortably and schedule a fascinating second-round meeting with Soderling’s Sweden or Tarpischev’s Russia.  On that occasion, they will need their superstar again.

Clinic on clay (ARG vs. ROM): Across from the Grouchy Gaucho stands the Romanian Spit-Fire in a clash of notably ill-tempered personalities.  An enigma in individual competition, Nalbandian has delivered  several memorable performances while compiling a 20-5 record in Davis Cup singles rubbers (16-2 on clay), but Hanescu could thrive on a surface where he has an 11-3 Davis Cup record.  Beyond the two #1s, the 31st-ranked Chela, the 33rd-ranked Monaco, and even Eduardo Schwank trump any member of the visiting squad in clay-court talent, so the surface and the thunderous Buenos Aires crowd should play a decisive role in this tie.   The plot could thicken if the tie reaches Saturday at 1-1, allowing Romanian doubles specialist Horia Tecau to showcase his craft in a potentially pivotal rubber against an Argentine team comprised entirely of singles stars.  In order for the visitors to prevail, though, Hanescu almost surely must win three rubbers, a task probably too tall for the weak-willed, heavy-legged #59 in surroundings as hostile as the Parque Roca.

Serves against the surface (CHI vs. USA):  We might have favored Chile to spring this upset had its marquee player Fernando Gonzalez played a role.  Instead, that inveterate ball-bruiser will join the legions of passionate Chilean fans in an attempt to propel four players outside the top 100 past Roddick, Isner, and the world’s top doubles team.  On any surface other than clay, this matchup would look no less intimidating than Belgium vs. Spain.  Even on clay, the serves of Roddick and Isner will garner many more free points than the the crumbling, 31-year-old Massu and the punchless Capdeville, famously feckless in Davis Cup.  Gallantly battling Djokovic on clay in Davis Cup last year, Isner projects surprising power from his inside-out forehand on this surface, while Roddick always brings an extra jolt of adrenaline and focus to national team competition.  First-time captain Jim Courier should enjoy a debut that will set up a far more imposing home encounter with Spain a week after Wimbledon.

Spotlight on the supporting actors (CRO vs. GER):  With Karlovic drifting towards retirement, Croatia hopes that Zagreb champion Ivan Dodig can slip smoothly into the role of #2 behind Cilic, edging back towards relevance after a final in Marseille.  But Germany bolsters the mercurial Kohlschreiber by bringing an even more promising #2 to this weekend’s collision, which looks destined to enter Sunday undecided.  A two-time semifinalist already this season, Florian Mayer has defeated Del Potro and Davydenko this year while quelling rising Lithuanian Berankis.  Perhaps more importantly, he ended Cilic’s Zagreb defense in February with a startlingly routine victory.  In addition to the Zagreb title, Dodig distinguished himself by winning the only set that Djokovic lost at the Australian Open, and the long-time journeyman has won at least one match at every tournament that he has played this year.  If he duels with Mayer in a decisive fifth rubber, scintillating Davis Cup drama could ensue.

Tomas Berdych - 2011 Australian Open - Day 5

Veterans and novices (CZE vs. KAZ):  While Davis Cup stalwart Stepanek may have Czeched out on this weekend’s action, but Berdych still towers over not only his teammates but their Kazakh opponents.  Squandering a 2-1 lead against Serbia in last year’s semifinals, the Czech Republic contested the Davis Cup final in 2009 and will benefit from a vast advantage in experience over a nation elevated to the World Group for the first time.  In the doubles, Berdych may partner doubles specialist Dlouhy in a Saturday rubber where the home squad should trump the singles-only visitors.  But captain Jaroslav Navratil may decide to reserve his ace for a fourth rubber against Golubev, who nearly defeated Tomas in Washington last summer.  The Kazakh #1 has started 2011 in miserable form, however, dropping four straight matches to start the season and earning his only victory in five tournaments courtesy of a Baghdatis retirement.  Unless he can reverse that momentum  immediately, Kazakhstan won’t play again until September.

One against many (SWE vs. RUS, AUS vs. FRA):  Eyeing his overmatched prey with relish, Soderling should feast upon a Russian team bereft of Davydenko, Youzhny, or any player in the top 75.  The Swede charges into the weekend with three titles in his last four tournaments and 17 victories in his 18 matches this season.  Although legendary strategist Shamil Tarpischev lacks a superstar to counterbalance the world #4, he has marshaled four veterans who have ample expertise in both singles and doubles, thus providing him with a variety of options to manipulate in his characteristically unpredictable style.  Almost certainly doomed in Soderling’s two singles rubbers, Russia conceivably could win the other three.  Behind Soderling stand only the doubles specialists  Aspelin and Lindstedt as well as the quasi-retired Joachim Johansson, summoned for probably perfunctory singles duty.  Johansson has won only one Davis Cup match in his career and none since 2005, while he has played only three total matches since the start of 2010.  At the core of the weekend thus lies the doubles rubber.  A combined 3-9 in Davis Cup doubles, the scheduled duo of Kunitsyn and Tursunov did win their only Cup collaboration against the formidable Argentine pairing of Canas and Nalbandian on Buenos Aires clay.  Curiously, their opponents also have underperformed in the Cup despite winning a silver medal at the 2008 Olympics.

A less striking version of the same storyline could unfold inside an Austrian aircraft hangar, where world #10 Jurgen Melzer seeks to soar above a French team crippled by injuries to its leading stars.  Among the questions surrounding the 2010 Davis Cup finalists is the tension between captain Guy Forget and singles #1 Gilles Simon, a dynamic absent in the avuncular Tarpischev’s squad.  Also, how will Llodra recover from the disappointment of losing the decisive rubber in last year’s final, and how will Jeremy Chardy respond to the pressure of his first meaningful match in Davis Cup, contested before a hostile crowd?  On the other hand, Melzer has looked vulnerable while accumulating a 5-3 record this year, and his supporting cast features no player more imposing than the 34-year-old, 206th-ranked Stefan Koubek.  (One might debate whether Koubek or Johansson will pose a more credible challenge.)  If the visitors can solve their internal differences, they can rely upon a sturdier doubles pairing in Benneteau and Llodra.  Outside that flamboyant duo, though, almost nothing looks certain in a tie that plausibly could come down to a bizarre final rubber between Koubek and Chardy or just as plausibly end in a resounding sweep—by either side.

***

We return in a few days to open our coverage of Indian Wells!

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