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Perhaps with an eye to the looming Olympics, many of the top women have “made themselves available” for Fed Cup duty as required for participation in the Summer Games.   Rather than looking so far ahead, though, we discuss the eight ties in this weekend’s “Winter Games.”

Maria Sharapova Russia's Maria Sharapova celebrates winning a game against Shahar Peer of Israel during their 2008 World Group 1st Round Federation Cup tennis match February 3, 2008 in Ramat Hasharon, in central Israel. Sharapova, the newly crowned Australian Open champion, won in two sets 6-1, 6-1.

Russia vs. Spain:  A year ago, Sharapova followed a disappointing performance at the Australian Open with a Fed Cup defeat in Moscow.  After reaching the Melbourne final this year, she will hope to carry that momentum into another home tie and an opening rubber against the 77th-ranked Soler Espinosa.  While Sharapova generally has fizzled on Russian soil, the Spaniard has won just four WTA main-draw matches since the start of 2011.  More problematic for the home squad is the second rubber between Kuznetsova and Suarez Navarro, who has defeated the Russian on hard courts and impressed in a three-set loss to Kvitova at the Australian Open.  If the visitors can reach Sunday with a 1-1 tie, the pressure might accumulate on their heavily favored opponents.  But Russia rallied from a 0-2 deficit in the same round last year, suggesting that they will respond courageously to adversity.  Likely to win at least three of four singles rubbers, their far superior firepower should render the doubles rubber irrelevant. 

Belgium vs. Serbia:  The only top-20 player on either squad, Jankovic likely holds the keys to Serbia’s success but may find her fitness tested by the prospect of playing three rubbers.  The former #1 has recorded notable exploits in team competition while compiling a 24-7 record in singles matches, and teammate Bojana Jovanovski has produced tennis much better than her current sub-100 ranking. Without Clijsters, Belgium rests its hopes on Yanina Wickmayer, who began 2010 and 2011 in impressive fashion before fading later in those seasons.  Defeated by a qualifier in the Hobart final, she continues to struggle with consistency and may struggle with the unfamiliar role of spearheading this team.  Like Jankovic, she probably will play three rubbers if necessary on a team with no other member in the top 150.  Never have the two #1s met on an indoor hard court, a surface that should benefit the more aggressive Wickmayer.  If the tie reaches the doubles, Jankovic’s superior grittiness should prevail.

Italy vs. Ukraine:  Probably the least intriguing tie of the weekend is this pairing in which one team’s lowest-ranked player stands more than 50 notches higher than the other team’s highest-ranked player.  A quarterfinalist at the Australian Open, Errani replaces the higher-ranked Pennetta, hampered by injury during January.  Notable mostly for accomplishments on hard courts, Ukraine should count itself lucky to win any of the rubbers, for a daunting challenge awaits in the doubles against Australian Open doubles finalists Errani and Vinci.  Although Schiavone fell early in her last two tournaments, a return to Italian soil should reinvigorate the 30-year-old veteran, especially when facing two women who have combined to win one main-draw match this year.

Germany vs. Czech Republic:  In probably the most intriguing tie of the weekend, the 2011 champions open their title defense against the potent serving of Lisicki and Goerges.  Solid but not spectacular in Melbourne, world #2 Kvitova delivered crucial victories for the Czech Republic in both the semifinal and final.  Despite the victories that each German recorded against her in 2009 and 2010, the home team’s strongest hope may lie in preying upon her teammate Benesova and extending the tie to the doubles.  Like Belgium, Germany enters the weekend without its leading singles player in Petkovic, so Lisicki and Goerges must curb their characteristic unpredictability and discipline themselves against playing to the level of the competition.  Since both Germans and Benesova reached the second week of the Australian Open, one should expect an extremely high level of tennis in every singles rubber.   Even if the tie reaches the doubles, though, the pairing of Hradecka and Zahlavova Strycova would summon greater experience and doubles expertise than any duo that the hosts could assemble.  With a surface tailored to the strengths of both squads and a clash between two neighboring countries, this tie should produce not only explosive serves but the type of volatile atmosphere on which Fed Cup thrives.

World Group II:

USA vs. Belarus:  No fewer than three #1s have traveled to the prosaic environs of Worcester, Massachusetts for the mere opportunity to contest the World Group next year.  Those who wished to see Serena face one of the younger generation’s rising stars in Melbourne will find some consolation for January disappointment when she meets the newly top-ranked Azarenka on Sunday.  Since the hosts possess the only doubles specialist on either team in Liezel Huber, the visitors would prefer to clinch the tie before that rubber.  That objective would require Azarenka to defeat Serena and Belarussian #2 Govortsova to defeat promising American Christina McHale.  Winless in three Fed Cup matches, McHale nevertheless has acquitted herself impressively on home soil with victories over Wozniacki, Bartoli, and Kuznetsova among others.  Moreover, Azarenka may lack the willpower to overcome Serena if she suffers a predictable hangover from winning her first major title.

Japan vs. Slovenia:  The only top-50 player on either team, Polona Hercog aims to lift Slovenia back into relevance during the post-Srebotnik era.  Having just turned 21, she already has played sixteen Fed Cup rubbers and can wield significantly more offense than anyone on the Japanese squad.  Two decades older than Hercog, Kimiko Date-Krumm has accomplished little of note over the past year, but she may draw confidence from her memories of a career-defining victory over Graf in this competition.  Japanese #1 Ayumi Morita exited in the first round of the Australian Open and has lost her first match at eight of her last ten WTA tournaments.  But the only two events in that span where she survived her opener happened on home soil.  Update:  Date-Krumm rallied from a one-set deficit to win the first rubber from Hercog, suggesting that one shouldn’t underestimate those memories–or home-court advantage.

Slovak Republic vs. France:  During this weekend last year, an underpowered French squad thrust the Russian juggernaut to the brink of defeat in Moscow, so underestimate les bleues at your peril.  That said, their collapse thereafter confirmed stereotypes of Nicolas Escude’s squad as mentally fragile, especially when situated in a winning position.  Outgunned by the Slovakian duo of Hantuchova and Cibulkova, the visitors still face a challenge less daunting than Sharapova/Kuznetsova in 2011.  Central to their initial success that weekend was a sturdy performance by Razzano, who has compiled a 7-3 singles record under her nation’s colors, and the location of the tie outside France, again a factor in their favor here.  Nevertheless, the two leading Slovakians have edged through several tense ties together among their 71 combined Fed Cup rubbers, experience that infuses them with the sense of shared purpose and team spirit absent from their opponents.

Switzerland vs. Australia:  On paper, this matchup looks as ludicrously lopsided as Italy vs. Ukraine.  The lowest-ranked Australian, Casey Dellacqua, stands higher than Swiss #1 Stefanie Voegele.  (How soon can Federer’s daughters start wielding a racket?)  But Stosur has looked wretched while losing three of her first four 2012 matches, and Aussie #2 Gajdosova also exited Melbourne in the first round amidst a ghastly avalanche of errors.  Both struggle under the weight of expectations thrust upon them by this proud tennis nation, especially the Slovakian-born Gajdosova.  Adding depth to this potentially dysfunctional squad is Jelena Dokic, rarely free from controversy.  If the Aussies simply focus on fundamentals and keep their wits about them, their overwhelming advantage in talent should propel them forward.  Like the French, they may benefit from playing outside their nation, but somehow one senses that this weekend might unfold in a manner more interesting than expected.

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Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark plays a forehand during her quarterfinal match against Francesca Schiavone of Italy during day nine of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 25, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

First quarter:  Temporarily deposed in Paris last week, Wozniacki aims to reclaim her throne atop the WTA rankings in the season’s first Premier Five event.  In the quarterfinal, the beguiling Dane could confront the memories of her riveting Australian Open semifinal against Li Na, who snatched victory from the jaws of defeat just a point from elimination.  Before that stage, however, the top seed probably must navigate past Pattaya City champion Hantuchova and the rampaging Paris Indoors titlist.  Thoroughly thrashed by Kvitova at Wimbledon last year, Wozniacki still should draw confidence from her routine victory over the Czech lefty on a similarly medium-speed hard court in Beijing.  Tasked with a slightly less imposing challenge, Li may open her campaign by reprising her Sydney victory over rising Serb Bojana Jovanovski, whose opening duel with Wickmayer comprises one of the most intriguing first-round collisions.  Charging implausibly to the semifinals here last year, Peer hopes to rekindle the magic of that week while atoning for a disappointing exit in the Australian Open, where she failed to serve out a match against Pennetta.  The top-ranked Israeli won both of her 2010 meetings with Li Na, who retired against her in Dubai a year ago yet seems as healthy as one can reasonably expect for a veteran nearing her 29th birthday.  Having halted Wozniacki’s quest for a maiden major, can Li halt her quest for a third consecutive Premier Five crown?

Semifinalist:  Li

Second quarter:  Saturated with talented players searching for confidence, this section lies open for an unexpected semifinalist who can catch fire at timely moments.  Headlining it are a player who has generated few headlines thus far in 2011 (Stosur) and a player who has generated no headlines at all since last year’s Wimbledon (Jankovic).  Just a week removed from a pair of painful Fed Cup losses, the Australian’s self-belief must simmer especially low as she braces herself for a clash with Pattaya City finalist Errani.  If she can quell an opponent who held match points against her in New Haven last summer, Stosur likely may battle Ivanovic in a battle that would showcase two of the WTA’s mightiest forehands.  While Zheng could await in the second round, the Serb convincingly dispatched her former tormentor at the US Open, and the petite Chinese star returned from wrist surgery only last week.  Unless Ivanovic can hold serve more consistently than in Thailand, though, she will struggle to upset Stosur even if the fourth seed fails to unleash her best tennis.  Positioned near familiar nemesis Kanepi, Jankovic urgently needs a momentum surge before embarking upon her Indian Wells title defense next month.  The world #8 has lost all three of her hard-court meetings with the Estonian in straight sets, including an embarrassingly slovenly defeat here last year.  Eager to take another step forward after an a first Slam quarterfinal appearance, Petkovic lurks ominously in Jankovic’s vicinity and owns sufficient first-strike power to upset the Serb.

Semifinalist:  Stosur

Svetlana Kuznetsova - 2011 Australian Open - Day 7

Third quarter:  Leaping out from these otherwise unassuming surroundings is the prospect of a third-round encore between Kuznetsova and Schiavone, who can rest content in the anticipation of a third-set tiebreak.  Both of these proud Fed Cup heroines delivered crucial victories for their nations last weekend that buttressed promising Australian Open performances, and their natural athleticism should find fluent expression on a surface that will allow them to construct extended rallies.  Yet Kuznetsova should not glance too far ahead, since potential second-round opponent and Eastbourne conqueror Makarova will bring elevated confidence from epic Melbourne triumphs over Ivanovic and Petrova.  Destined for a first-round duel with Date-Krumm, the staccato style of Bartoli has left little impact on the WTA lately; the Frenchwoman also could find herself threatened by the mercurial Czech Benesova if she defuses the Japanese star.  Hovering amidst the flamboyant personalities in this quarter, the relatively understated Radwanska eyes an intriguing encounter with Sevastova, whose pace-less style should test the eighth seed’s uncertain ability to generate offense and finish points.  Although the odds tilt against it, we would relish a quarterfinal between the Pole and the Italian, feisty competitors with more guile and finesse than anyone else in the draw.  Despite the compelling matches that could develop here, one cannot imagine the eventual champion emerging from the third quarter.  In the predictably unpredictable state of the WTA, however, that situation likely means that one of its inhabitants in fact will raise the trophy next Sunday.

Semifinalist:  Kuznetsova

Fourth quarter:  A runner-up to Venus here a year ago, Azarenka has harnessed her weapons only sporadically over the past several months.  Assigned to face the sizzling Peng or Mattek-Sands in her opener, the Belarussian will need to strike her competitive spark without delay.  Should she survive that test, an accommodating draw might pit her against Pennetta or perhaps Dokic in the third round.  The former Wimbledon semifinalist asserted her continued relevance last week by upsetting Safarova and Petrova, but she will find the less powerful, more consistent Italian a sterner challenge.  Relieved to have left Pattaya City, Zvonareva will shoulder scant pressure on the Persian Gulf.  Nevertheless, a capricious twist of fate has situated her near 2009 nemesis Kleybanova and one of the most overqualified qualifiers in the tournament’s history, the 14th-ranked Pavlyuchenkova.  Impressive early in 2011, Hobart champion Groth aims to burst through the Russian enclave in this section.  Relying upon effortless first-strike power, she possesses the sort of game that can fluster Zvonareva but first must overcome the gritty Cibulkova, whose court coverage may extract untimely errors from her former compatriot.  Since the surface should reward the balanced styles of the section’s two highest-ranked stars, one imagines that Zvonareva and Azarenka might resume their curious rivalry in the quarterfinals.  Initially suppressing the Belarussian with ease, the Russian tumbled to ignominious defeats against her at the Australian Open and Dubai last year.  Did she regain the initiative over Vika with a tightly contested victory at the year-end championships?

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

***

In a day or two, we return to tie together the threads of last week as we dash across five tournaments in four different continents.

Ana Ivanovic - 2011 Australian Open - Day 2



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Regularly rewarding the Russians who have set foot in its arena, Beijing crowned three Olympic medalists from that nation in 2008 and Kuznetsova in 2009.  Already expelled from this year’s tournament, however, Sveta will surrender her crown to a colleague hungry to conclude the season on an emphatic note (and with an avalanche of rankings points).  Opportunists should beware, however, for the 2009 champion struggled mightily throughout 2010.  Which emboldened competitor believes that she can reverse that trend?

First quarter: Poised within two victories of the #1 ranking, Wozniacki may face a third-round encounter with Wimbledon nemesis Kvitova before sealing her grasp upon the top spot.  Before then, though, the Czech lefty will reprise her Wimbledon quarterfinal with Kanepi, during which she saved multiple match points before prevailing 8-6 in the third.  An almost identical scenario unfolded when they met in Memphis, where Kvitova saved a match point and then seized a third-set tiebreak, so this second-round clash ranks among the most intriguing in the draw.  Although a quarterfinal rematch of the Tokyo final might loom in the quarterfinals, Dementieva will need to navigate past the evergreen Date Krumm, who led her by a set and a break in her Stanford opener.  Almost as likely to meet Wozniacki in the quarterfinals is her Cincinnati conqueror Bartoli, who retired from Tokyo last week but tends to be most dangerous when least discussed.  Nearly undefeated since Wimbledon, the top seed might suffer a letdown if and when she clinches the #1 ranking.  Yet she remains the steadiest competitor in this section, and her conscientious work ethic should shield her from such a lapse.

Semifinalist:  Wozniacki

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Second quarter: Despite exiting before the quarterfinals of her last seven tournaments, Jankovic somehow has claimed the third seed in this prestigious draw.  The fading Serb trailed 4-2 in both sets of her opening win over Zakopalova but should enjoy more comfortable passage in an all-Serbian clash with the promising Bojana Jovanovski.  In fact, tournament probably will witness Jankovic’s first final-eight appearance since Roland Garros, for her immediate vicinity features none of the overpowering shotmakers who typically trouble her.  On the other side of the section lies much more compelling drama, including a potential rematch of the epic duel between Sharapova and Azarenka in last year’s tournament.  During most of her opener, Russian scalded her groundstrokes with much greater authority than Tokyo and approached the forecourt more aggressively; nevertheless, her serve can lurch from sublime to hideous and back within the course of a few points, while her confidence visibly wavered late in both sets.  If she can dispatch Tashkent finalist Vesnina, Maria will need her trademark intensity to overcome Azarenka, who similarly struggled with her serve and her confidence in Tokyo.  Vika has regularly alternated excellent results with premature exits throughout the summer and fall, so her Tokyo semifinal appearance might suggest early disappointment in Beijing.    But Azarenka’s competitive desire seems to burn more brightly than Sharapova’s at the moment.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Third quarter: After leading 5-2 in the third set, fourth-seeded Stosur ultimately fell to a qualifier and thus further opened this already wide-open section.  An opportunist at the majors this year, Petrova performed impressively in last year’s event but remains an enigma from one day to the next.  In a productive partnership with Safina’s former coach, Cibulkova continued her resurgence with an emphatic win over the wallowing Wickmayer; her baseline consistency and explosive moment could trouble Nadia if her serve falls short of its best.  Last year’s finalist Radwanska doesn’t exactly tower atop the section, although the deities of the draw have handed her a pair of exceptionally friendly opening rounds.  But the name that leaps out of this odd cast of characters is ninth seed Li Na, who launched an unforgettable semifinal run in this stadium during the 2008 Olympics.  Forced to withdraw from Tokyo with a gastrointestinal illness, the Chinese warrior thumped Tashkent champion Kudryavtseva in her opener.  If she can outslug the ever-dangerous Kleybanova in the second round, she should repeat her comprehensive Wimbledon triumph over Radwanska.  Expect the home crowd to lift Li to a memorable performance again.

Semifinalist:  Li

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Fourth quarter: Featuring the most intriguing first-round match in the draw, this section already has witnessed the departure of the defending champion, another Premier Mandatory champion (Rezai), and Hantuchova.  Ever eager to seize the spoils of war, Schiavone probably will profit from the debacles of others to prance into the quarterfinals with minimal ado.  But the question of whom she will face at that stage remains murky.  Fellow upset artists Dulko and Kirilenko engage in a stylish second-round meeting, while the winner of the Safina-Zvonareva clash confronts future top-20 player and top-10 personality Petkovic.  Although all-Russian matches generally defy predictions, they often offer riveting melodrama through vertiginous momentum shifts and entertainingly overt expressions of angst.  Still searching for her first marquee win since back surgery, Safina will hope to reproduce the 2009 Australian Open semifinal but probably lacks both the consistency and the self-belief to outlast Zvonareva.  Nevertheless, Vera displayed vulnerability during two wins and a straight-sets loss in Tokyo, during which she resembled her former, star-crossed self more than a two-time Slam finalist.  Both players comfortably overcame Petkovic on the American hard courts, so the winner probably will advance to the quarterfinals.  Once there, they possess more than enough weaponry to conquer Schiavone, although the Italian’s artistry could frustrate these fragile Russians.  On the other hand, Safina and Zvonareva will derive confidence from the 2008 exploits on this court, where they claimed the silver and bronze medals for their nation.

Semifinalist:  Safina-Zvonareva winner

***

A counterpoint to the marquee WTA tournament, the concurrent 500-level ATP event has compiled a draw much more imposing than its significance would suggest.

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Top half: Seemingly fond of Djokovic-Berdych collisions, the deities of the draw have arranged another quarterfinal clash between two players who met in the Wimbledon semifinals and the Davis Cup semifinals just after the US Open.  En route to that rendezvous, the revitalized Serb eyes a tranquil path past a Chinese wildcard and the winner of Fish-Tipsarevic, both of whom have often won sets from him but neither of whom has defeated him.  Not unlike Wawrinka, Tipsarevic generally cedes the spotlight to a colleague whom he enthusiastically labeled the greatest athlete in Serbian history, while Fish has yet to prove that he can export his success from his bastion on American hard courts.  Underwhelming since Wimbledon, Berdych might fall in the second round to 2009 US Open nemesis Querrey or Metz champion Simon, who has won their last two meetings.  Even if the Czech does reach the quarterfinals, the medium-speed Beijing hard courts favor Djokovic’s hybrid of offense and defense, which carried him to the title here a year ago.

Opportunity knocks for the players in the second quarter, bookended by the staggering Davydenko and the unreliable Verdasco, who both lost early last week to players outside the top 50.  Waging five-set slugfests against Kohlschreiber in their previous two meetings, the Spaniard might succumb in his opener against the German.  Desperately hoping for a positive end to a dismal 2010 campaign, 2009 finalist Cilic begins against the talented yet mentally brittle Bellucci; then, he probably would confront Davydenko in a contest between two players whose confidence has dwindled low in recent months.  Has Isner recovered from his Wimbledon marathon?  While the courts might not play as swiftly as he would prefer, the American constitutes a threat to implode any draw that he enters.  From the comedy of errors that probably will develop in the section, though, will surface a semifinal opponent much to Djokovic’s taste.

Finalist:  Djokovic

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Bottom half: Another Wimbledon rematch might impend between Ferrer and Soderling, who should have intersected in Kuala Lumpur last week but instead fell to Golubev.  Although few potential Golubevs lurk in their vicinity, Almagro will seek to reprise his victories over the Swede in Madrid and Gstaad this year.  More heavily favored against the Spaniard on the Beijing hard courts than on the clay of those events, Soderling nevertheless might struggle with those negative memories and his personal dislike for Almagro; like most players, the world #5 doesn’t deliver his best tennis when inflamed with emotion.  Meanwhile, Ferrer opens against New Haven finalist Istomin, an upwardly mobile baseliner with a crisp two-handed backhand.  If Soderling does reach the quarterfinals, he will find his consistency arduously tested by an opponent who extended him to five sets on grass this year.

Crowned the Kuala Lumpur champion today, Youzhny may enter Beijing weary from playing three consecutive three-setters in the Malaysian capital.  A slightly disquieting obstacle awaits in the first round with Ljubicic, although the Croat has receded rather quietly since acquiring the Indian Wells title.  Among the ATP’s more mercurial and charismatic inhabitants, Baghdatis will clash with the almost equally mercurial Dolgopolov before meeting Youzhny, whom he nearly defeated in Kuala Lumpur.  Anchoring the base of this half, Murray seeks to erase the memories of another early departure from the US Open.  Will the Scot rebound from that disappointment more swiftly than he did from his loss in Australia?  He has few fond memories of Beijing, having fallen to Yen-Hsun Lu in the first round of the 2008 Olympics.  In the aftermath of Melbourne, moreover, Soderling thoroughly dominated Murray at Indian Wells, a surface that should have suited the Scot.

Finalist:  Soderling

***

We return in a few days to discuss the quarterfinals!

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Trudging to the locker room after a 16-14 fifth set against Santiago Giraldo, Thiemo De Bakker must have feared that this protracted encounter would leave him at a physical disadvantage against his next opponent, either Isner or Mahut.  As all tennis fans know well, such thoughts proved unfounded as the Frenchman and the American shattered virtually every record in every single-match category.  In fact, their seven-hour, 118-game final set-in-progress stretched so far beyond the boundaries of credulity that one expects its statistical superlatives to endure forever.  Ten hours and 193 aces later, though, what difference does it really make?  This first-round battle between two non-contenders stalled the first-week schedule and virtually eliminated both of its participants from sheer exhaustion.  Once an advocate of the no-tiebreak format in Slam deciding sets, we feel compelled to reverse our opinion and call for a merciful ending to these inhumane endurance tests well before 50-50, as Kuznetsova whimsically suggested.  Surely this fast-paced sport doesn’t deserve such a mind-numbing, kidney-challenging stalemate, which provided a gluttonous serving (haha) of generally monotonous tennis.  In order to compensate for the difference between the best-of-five and best-of-three formats, perhaps the doubles super tiebreak (first to 10, win by two) could be implemented instead of the conventional first-to-7 structure.  At least, Slams could employ such a deadlock-denying tactic in the first week before the marquee stars intersect.  A marathon final set between Federer and Roddick in the championship match is a classic, but a marathon final set between Isner and Mahut in the first round is a human rain delay.  Here are a handful of Day 4 matches to note while Wimbledon’s Believe It Or Not winds into its eleventh hour of futility.

Soderling (6) vs. Granollers (Court 1, 2nd match):  At the start of 2010, the unremarkable Spaniard rallied from a two-set deficit to stun the Swede in his Australian Open first round.  Soderling had swept their three previous meetings, including a four-setter on these same British lawns in the same round a year ago.  Yet all of the sets were close on that occasion, indicating that this matchup bothers the two-time French Open finalist more than one might imagine considering Granollers’ pedestrian ranking.  Far more powerful than his adversary, Soderling will need to banish memories of their collisions in an intriguing test of his mental willpower.  During an opening win over Ginepri, he looked as formidable as any men’s contender and more formidable than most, but the Swede does remain vulnerable to the unexpected letdown.  If the Spaniard can stay close early, a little drama might develop before the sixth seed moves on to more tranquil waters in the third round.

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Dolgopolov vs. Tsonga (10) (Court 2, 1st match):  Unfocused and uncharacteristically irritable in his four-set opening win over the tricky Kendrick, the tenth seed alternated electrifying forehands and deft volleys with senseless misses and despairing moans.  One of the highest-ranked unseeded players in the draw, the much-misspelled Dolgopolov (add a Jr. if you want) has steadily climbed up the rankings this season with victories over Tomic, Fish, Seppi, Clement, and Gonzalez; last week, he reached the Eastbourne semifinals and mustered a creditable performance against eventual champion Llodra.  Boding well for his continued rise was his resolute demeanor when he encountered Nadal on clay, much sturdier than most developing stars facing an elite player for the first time.  His game remains raw and a little undisciplined, rendering an upset in a best-of-five format unlikely.  Nevertheless, Dolgopolov clearly has achieved an impressive comfort level on grass and brings much more surface experience to the contest than does Tsonga.  If his self-belief doesn’t falter on a Wimbledon show court, this match could be highly competitive although probably not exquisite tennis.

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Serena (1) vs. Chakvetadze (Court 2, 3rd match) :  Watching the once-formidable Chakvetadze in her opener against Petkovic, we noticed that she is striking her groundstrokes with greater depth and conviction than she has during most of her extended swoon since early 2008.  Not only creating clever angles with both forehand and backhand, she sensibly eschewed low-percentage shotmaking from behind the baseline and displayed further intelligence by occasionally wrong-footing the German.  A fountain of double faults over the past two years, her serve remained steady even under pressure deep in the final set.  Against Serena, of course, she’ll need to play at the very summit of her abilities just to stay competitive, and she’ll probably require some assistance from Serena.  After a thunderous first set in her opener, the top seed dropped her game a few notches in the second set, allowing her overmatched opponent to stay within range.  In this case, however, an overpowering first set probably would prove sufficient to crush the Russian’s ever-fragile confidence.  Long a mental midget, Chakvetadze needs to seize the early momentum and hope for a sluggish start from the American.  If this former prodigy starts promisingly, the match could be quite entertaining; if Serena establishes control immediately, it could get gruesome quickly.

Jovanovski vs. Azarenka (14) (Court 12, 2nd match):  After the initial wave of Djokovic, Ivanovic, and Jankovic, the Serbs just keep climbing up the tennis hierarchy in numbers vastly disproportionate to their nation’s size.  The latest Belgrade bombshell, the 18-year-old Jovanovski defeated Rybarikova, Molik, and Chakvetadze earlier in 2010 as she attempts to crack the top 100; in the first round, she ruthlessly eviscerated talented Australian lefty Casey Dellacqua.  Despite suffering from a leg injury in the Eastbourne final, Azarenka has relished the shift from clay to grass as much as anyone and should be eager to exploit an extremely inviting quarter of the draw.  While the Minx from Minsk endured a few puzzling losses during her last several events, she should decode the Serb’s game in plenty of time to advance.  It’s always fascinating to watch an evolving player adjust to confronting top contenders at top tournaments, however, and the first week of a Slam is a great opportunity to assess what potential future stars might offer.

Vinci vs. Pavlyuchenkova (29) (Court 14, 2nd match):  Like Soderling and Granollers, they met in the same place and the same round a year ago.  On that occasion, the cunning Italian veteran prevailed over an inexperienced player nearly a decade younger than herself.  A former junior #1 and junior Slam champion, the many-syllabled Russian avenged that defeat on the Brisbane hard courts this year, but injuries and erratic serving have led to several lopsided losses in recent months.  Not endowed with an overwhelming delivery either, Vinci will seek to disrupt the rhythm of her baseline-bound foe with tantalizing slices that invite her to move forward out of her comfort zone.  Can finesse and intelligent point construction prevail, or will Pavlyuchenkova’s groundstroke power deny the Italian time to create her artful combinations?  At any rate, expect more breaks of serve and longer rallies than are typical on grass; this match should prove a refreshing antidote to the serve-a-licious marathon a few courts away.

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=zheng+ivanovic&iid=910174″ src=”http://view.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/910174/the-championships/the-championships.jpg?size=500&imageId=910174″ width=”500″ height=”338″ /]

Zheng (23) vs. Kvitova (Court 17, 1st match):  A surprise semifinalist here in 2008, Zheng produced a third-round upset over top seed Ivanovic that not only signaled the Serb’s vertiginous collapse but also showcased the ability of compact, balanced counterpunches to overcome towering, slow-footed sluggers.  The fearless Chinese star reprised that startling run with a second Slam semifinal appearance in Australia this year, after which she defeated Sharapova and threatened eventual finalist Wozniacki at Indian Wells.  Among the curious paradoxes of grass is its capacity to reward both the very tall and the very small, the former of whom can crack unreturnable serves and the latter of whom can manipulate the surface’s low bounces.  Against a mercurial Czech lefty, Zheng enjoys a substantial mental edge, but her high-risk style also can slip off the rails without warning.  She must elevate her first-serve percentage in order shield her puny second delivery from Kvitova’s bold return; also, she should target her adversary’s loopy forehand, a long swing that easily can be mistimed on so fast a surface.  If she takes chances at judicious moments, a delicious third-round collision with Azarenka beckons.

Briefly noted:  On such a relatively uneventful day, we had to upgrade the matches that normally would populate this section to a more privileged status.  Expect our usual coda to return for Day 5.

Meanwhile, the only women’s champion in the draw not named Williams returns on Day 4 with an outfit as immaculate as the lawns of the All England Club.  Let’s hope that clay specialist Ioana Raluca Olaru doesn’t muddy Maria’s dress as did Gisela Dulko in the second round last year.

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=sharapova+wimbledon&iid=9182706″ src=”http://view3.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/9182706/the-championships/the-championships.jpg?size=500&imageId=9182706″ width=”396″ height=”594″ /]

The British monarch won’t be the only queen to appear at Wimbledon on Thursday.

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