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Rafael Nadal - Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open - Day Eight

Far from a foregone conclusion at times on Saturday, an encore of the championship matches in Indian Wells and Miami will oppose a 33-match winning streak and a 37-match clay winning streak.  From Nadal’s perspective, of course, “encore” serves as a singularly poor word to describe the events that he hopes will unfold.  After winning the first set in each of their North American finals, the Spaniard uncharacteristically squandered leads on both occasions as the world #2 outhit and outmaneuvered the world #1 at the key turning points in those matches.  Most impressive was the apparent fitness edge that the Serb enjoyed in their Miami final, when he looked the less fatigued of the two in the climactic tiebreak.  Yet Rafa has dominated Novak on clay and grass, maintaining a perfect record highlighted by their semifinal clash in Madrid two years ago.  In that riveting four-hour duel, Djokovic delivered a performance that he considered (rightfully) among the finest of his career but still fell one point short of victory.  Can he win one more point this time to preserve his impeccable 2011 record?

With the momentum of their mini-rivalry squarely in his corner, Djokovic should approach this final as confidently as he has approached any of his collisions with Nadal.  Unlikely to become complacent, though, he recognizes the towering task that confronts him and likely will follow Federer’s example in attacking Nadal relentlessly from the baseline, striking the ball early and redirecting it often.  Outside his winning streak, Djokovic probably has less at stake in this match than the world #1 whom he aims to supplant.  Overshadowed by the Serb on the hard court, Rafa cannot cede this clay citadel without amplifying the murmurs of Djokovic’s ascendancy and elevating the pressure that accompanies him at Roland Garros.  If Djokovic can capture his sixth title of his season, he would move a significant step closer to the top ranking while establishing himself as a serious challenger to Nadal’s reign in Paris, although the Spaniard certainly would remain the favorite.  If Rafa can halt Novak’s momentum, by contrast, he would reassert his supremacy as the world #1 and launch himself into the crucial coming weeks with confidence secure.  In a rivalry that likely will define the early stages of this decade, the ATP top two may divide the world into surfaces just as the former top two once did.  With Djokovic aiming to control the hard courts and Nadal the remaining surface, any triumph on the other’s territory resonates with especial force.

Not only a sequel to their thunderous 2009 classic, the 2011 Madrid final offers a plausible preview of the Roland Garros final, albeit on a markedly different surface with markedly different conditions.  Few sequels rise to the level of the original that inspired them, and this match should prove no exception; neither Nadal nor Djokovic has unleashed their most scintillating tennis this week.  (Also, how does one trump a 20-point final-set tiebreak for suspense?)  But that epic two years ago drained both of its combatants, both of whom fell before the quarterfinals in Paris.  This year, perhaps a less magical encounter will serve as an appetizer rather than a feast of Lucullan proportions, setting the stage for what lies ahead rather than resulting in a premature climax.

Victoria Azarenka - Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open - Day Eight

Whereas Nadal and Djokovic will contest their 26th meeting, the WTA finalists will clash for just the fourth time.  Like the Serb, Azarenka mastered the task of defusing an unseeded semifinalist armed with blazing first-strike power and an impressive degree of self-belief.  From her relatively routine triumph shone the Belarussian’s own confidence, undimmed by the intimidating forehands and return winners that Goerges thumped throughout the first several games.  Weathering the early storm with a champion’s aplomb, Azarenka merely honed her focus and scored the pivotal break after trailing 40-0 on her opponent’s serve.  Once she asserted control, moreover, she imposed a linear narrative of increasing dominance upon a match that many had expected to drip with drama.  The new world #4 displayed encouraging tactical acuity when she organized rallies around backhands to pit her greatest weapon against the German’s weaker wing, but she did not hesitate to attack the forehand when she saw an opening or to approach the forecourt upon the first mid-court ball.  In clear contention for the Roland Garros crown is an Azarenka who can muster that level of composure, always the chink in her armor.

Stifled by Kvitova at Wimbledon last year during an arid, injury-blighted spring, Vika hopes to recapture her two earlier successes against the Czech.  Winning four of her five matches against the top 10 this year, including two this week, the Wimbledon semifinalist has announced herself in commanding fashion as an all-surface threat.  Against one of the WTA’s most sparkling returners, Kvitova must seek to control of points immediately with her serve.  Her own return constitutes a formidable weapon as well, subjecting Azarenka’s less imposing delivery to consistent pressure.  Both of these brash blondes contest their third finals of the season, and both won their previous two, so neither should shrink from the opportunity before them.  Aiming for a sweep of the singles and doubles titles, Azarenka has a somewhat fiercer appetite and somewhat more developed game, so she enters as the slight favorite to win a second straight Premier Mandatory title.

The preparatory events to Roland Garros proved a poisoned chalice for their 2010 WTA champions, neither of whom could sustain anything approaching their excellence there.  Nevertheless, the 21-year-old who drinks from that cup this year should not suffer the same fate but instead continue to climb upwards through the ranks of contenders, battling over their sport’s most prestigious prizes.

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Rafael Nadal Roger Federer of Switzerland (R) and Rafael Nadal of Spain share a moment during the prize giving ceremony after the mens final during the Madrid Open tennis tournament at the Caja Magica on May 17, 2009 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Rafael Nadal;Roger Federer

Roger Federer Mens finalist Rafael Nadal and  Roger Federer of Switzerland hold aloft their trophies after the mens final match during the Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open tennis tournament at the Caja Magica on May 16, 2010 in Madrid, Spain.

Nadal vs. Federer:  Among the oddest moments of the 2010 season was the final shot (or non-shot) of their meeting last year in Madrid, a whiff by the 16-time major champion on the twelfth point of the second-set tiebreak.  Rarely has a Masters 1000 tournament ended in such anticlimactic fashion, but their 2009 final in the Caja Magica likewise exuded an air of anticlimax.  Exhausted by his semifinal classic with Djokovic that year, Nadal could not consistently challenge his archrival.  Nevertheless, each Madrid final propelled its victor towards the Roland Garros title three weeks later.  An altered schedule has reduced that potential impact, while Federer does not pose as serious a threat to Rafa’s supremacy on Court Philippe Chatrier as he once did.  Yet intrigue still hovers around their third meeting in the Spanish capital, where the atypically fast surface theoretically should offer the Swiss star his best possible opportunity to unseat the world #1 on clay.  In a quarterfinal victory over Soderling, his first win over a top-5 opponent this season, the third seed never lost his serve and moved more smoothly on the slippery surface than in earlier rounds.  During two brief excursions to the Caja Magica, meanwhile, Nadal has not lost his own serve and surrendered eight total games in performances crisper than many of his previous Madrid efforts.

As Rafa’s ascendancy over Roger has inexorably mounted, their rivalry has pivoted less around the question of “can Nadal topple the GOAT?” than the question of “can Federer conquer his nemesis?”  Following a lackluster loss to Nadal in Miami, some would suggest that the question has become “can Federer keep the match competitive?”  Although that formulation seems premature, the burden clearly rests on the Spaniard to maintain his current dominance over their rivalry.  This shift should allow the 16-time major champion to play with the fluid, confident aggression so rarely evident in his recent matches against Nadal.  But is Federer ready to recognize this shift and assume the underdog’s mantle?  Central to his achievements, a streak of rigid stubbornness may prevent him from perceiving himself as anything other than the favorite and the established champion, a role that he has played so well for so long.  In this waning phase of his career, Federer may need to become less gracious and more gritty.  Now when he plays Nadal, the inevitable uncertainties of an aging champion seep into his game and demeanor.  Virtually impenetrable on his favorite surface already, Rafa requires no such assistance in conquering the suave Swiss matador once more.

Bellucci vs. Djokovic:  At each of the first three Masters 1000 tournaments of the season, excluding the optional Monte Carlo event, the top three players have advanced to the semifinals.  At each of these tournaments, the architect of an unexpected breakthrough joins them—Del Potro in Indian Wells, Fish in Miami, and Belluci (perhaps most surprising of all) in Madrid.  And one can hardly claim that the Brazilian has profited from early upsets that vacated his draw, for he defeated fourth-seeded Murray and seventh-seeded Berdych in straight sets to reach the semifinals.  In an era when surface specialists have begun to decline, Bellucci’s progress through this prestigious event may suggest the continued relevance of expertise on clay.  Personifying the trend towards all-court versatility among the ATP’s elite, however, is a semifinal opponent buoyed by his victory over dirt devil par excellence Ferrer.

Repeatedly stymied by the Spaniard in their previous clay meetings, Djokovic will have acquired confidence from reversing those setbacks in a fiercely contested three-setter.  To be sure, some of the Serb’s self-deprecating grimaces, smirks, and shrugs crept back when he failed to capitalize upon a potentially decisive momentum shift that carried him from 3-4 in the first set to 2-0 in the second.  Impeccable late in the first and third sets, his serve grew unreliable on key points during the second set.  Counterbalancing those causes for concern, however, was his victory celebration after he ended the match.  Delighted but not delirious with joy, Djokovic conducted himself as a champion who had his expectations of eventual victory confirmed after an especially arduous battle.  That heightening maturity will serve him well against a competitor as raw as Bellucci, who at a certain psychological level must feel content to have penetrated as far into the draw as he already has.

Goerges vs. Azarenka:  Facilitating the German’s charge to the Porsche title, the world #5 retired after winning the first set of their Stuttgart meeting.  The latest potential sensation to emerge from the WTA, Goerges must take care to avoid following the routes of Martinez Sanchez and Rezai, who effectively evaporated after excelling on the road to Roland Garros last year.  Petkovic’s compatriot seemingly has a game better adapted to hard courts than to clay, but she demonstrated her ball-striking might by battering through Wozniacki’s defenses in consecutive weeks, no mean feat.  After three three-setters, she comfortably dispatched Pavlyuchenkova in a battle between German and Russian rising stars.  Her eight arduous hours in singles competition, however, contrast with the nearly effortless progress of Azarenka, detained for an hour or more by only one of her four opponents here.  Although she lost a set to Safarova for the first time in six meetings, the fourth seed finished that quarterfinal on an uplifting note, revealing no sign of the physical or mental frailty that has dogged her in long matches before.  While Goerges has won ten straight matches, Azarenka has won her last eighteen encounters excluding retirements and has not faced a match point since February.  Like their fellow semifinalists, these feisty competitors diverge from the familiar model of clay counterpunchers.  Capable movers with respectable consistency, Vika and her challenger nevertheless prowl the baseline eager for the first opportunity to launch a lasered groundstroke.  Can Azarenka finish in Madrid what she started in Stuttgart?

Victoria Azarenka - Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open - Day Seven

Li vs. Kvitova:  In their first career meeting, two players who will rank in the top 10 on Monday hope to rebound from suspenseful quarterfinals.  The formerly flaky Kvitova deserves high praise for chipping away at the baseline fortress of Cibulkova, who mustered far sturdier opposition to the Czech than in their previous clashes this year.  As Li Na has shown herself, inflammable upstarts become ever more dangerous when they gather impetus, and the Chinese star needed all of her competitive tenacity to subdue the startling surge of Bethanie-Mattek-Sands.  Eight years older and considerably more weathered than Kvitova, the sixth seed may not enter their semifinal as fresh as the 21-year-old Czech.  On the other hand, she adapts her movement to the clay more adroitly and strikes the ball a little earlier, allowing her to take the initiative more frequently in exchange for assuming greater risks.  While the Czech owns the superior serve, the Chinese enjoys a more scintillating backhand with which to complement her forehand.  Among the most mercurial personalities in a mercurial WTA elite, these two players will have combined to reach five finals and lose seven first-round matches in this season alone.  One thus expects an unpredictable match filled with stunning shot-making but also some egregious errors as Kvitova and Li target more lines than one typically would find in a clay semifinal.  Perhaps more prescient than Ion Tiriac knew was his suggestion of changing the surface color from red to blue.

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates his win over Novak Djokovic of Serbia in his semi-final match during the Madrid Open tennis tournament at the Caja Magica on May 16, 2009 in Madrid, Spain. Nadal won the match in three sets, 3-6, 7-6 and 7-6.  (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Rafael Nadal

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia lies on the court after slipping on the clay against Oscar Hernandez of Spain in their second round  match during the Madrid Open tennis tournament at the Caja Magica on May 13, 2009 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Novak Djokovic

Having divided the four most important titles of the season so far, the ATP top two could meet again on the Madrid plateau where they dueled so valiantly two years ago.  But first they must negotiate a draw bristling with more dragon’s teeth than those sown by Cadmus.

First quarter:  Falling to Baghdatis in Cincinnati last year, Nadal should find the Cypriot less formidable on clay and certainly less formidable than his potential third-round opponent, Del Potro.   Assigned an opening-round clash with the clay-averse Youzhny, the 2009 Roland Garros semifinalist may arrive in Madrid weary from a fruitful week in Estoril.  Yet he still possesses the ball-striking talent to trouble the top seed in a stadium better suited to offensive tennis than the ordinary clay court.  Less ominous is the rest of this section, headlined by a 2010 Roland Garros semifinalist who defeated in Federer in Monte Carlo and Nadal in their most recent meeting.  Comfortably dispatched by the Spaniard in Madrid two years ago and at Roland Garros last year, Melzer probably would have little greater success than Baghdatis at replicating his hard-court achievement against the world #1.  Absent from Madrid last year, Roddick should prefer this atypical clay tournament to its brethren, for the thin, dry air should allow him to impose his serve more effectively upon his opponents. The altitude proved of little aid against Rafa in a Madrid Davis Cup tie, however, and the American has struggled with an untimely concatenation of injuries and illness that have reduced him to his lowest ranking in years.  Not to be overlooked is the recently resurgent Gasquet, never at his best on clay but still a threat to the erratic Melzer and the declining Roddick.

Second quarter:  Undone by Del Potro twice in two months, Soderling will rejoice to see Nadal saddled with that burden instead.  Nevertheless, the Swede should not celebrate too soon, since Australian Open nemesis Dolgopolov could await in his opener.  Struggling to regain his January-February brilliance, Soderling might falter against an opponent with underrated skills on the surface, demonstrated by a Costa do Sauipe final and a vigorous battle with Ferrer in Acapulco.  From this brutal section of the draw next might spring Almagro, who captured a set from Nadal in their nation’s capital last year.  Confronted with the shockingly unseeded Tsonga in his opener, the Spaniard aims to justify his newly acquired top-10 status before his compatriots, rarely an easy task.  Examining this bristling sub-section, one almost might neglect the 2009 Madrid and Roland Garros champion aligned to meet Nadal in a semifinal for the second time this year.  Although Raonic and Lopez theoretically might challenge Federer, their arduous weeks in Estoril and Belgrade (respectively) might have softened their resistance to a Swiss star who disappointed in Monte Carlo.  Toppled by a lefty on that occasion, Federer should face another imposing lefty in Verdasco albeit one who has won only a solitary set from him in four meetings.  Awakening from an abject slump in Estoril, the Spaniard may have seized motivation from a perceived slight by the Barcelona tournament.  He has the weapons to upset a complacent Federer—and nearly did in London once—but does he have the will?

Third quarter:   Nearly bereft of clay specialists, this section might play largely according to form unless the unseeded Davydenko can capitalize upon his Munich momentum to mount an inspired surge.  Such a surge would need to begin in the second round against Berdych, who defeated him in Dubai this year after losing nine of their ten previous encounter.   Unexpectedly scintillating in Monte Carlo, Murray anchors the base of this section as he aims to recover from an elbow injury that did not forestall him from endangering Nadal at the last Masters 1000 event.  Injured in Monte Carlo himself, Simon might reprise his Mediterranean meeting with the Scot if he can elude the evergreen Ljubicic.  Few notable obstacles bar the fourth seed’s route to the quarterfinals, where last year’s Roland Garros nemesis Berdych might await.  Thoroughly outslugged and outmaneuvered on that overcast afternoon, Murray might prefer to tangle with Davydenko or the recuperating Monfils in a battle of baseline counterpunchers.  As with the fourth quarter of the women’s draw, this section almost certainly will not produce the eventual champion.  On the other hand, an array of sparkling backhands will dazzle viewers in the Caja Magica, ranging from Murray and Davydenko to Troicki and Simon.  Look elsewhere for classic clay-court tennis but not for high-quality rallies and crisp ball-striking of the highest level.

Fourth quarter:  With a Slam title and two Masters 1000 shields tucked away in his Monegasque lair, Djokovic already has accomplished more than almost any player can reasonably expect from a season.  One wonders whether and when his motivation will start to ebb, just as one wonders whether and when the motivation of potential second-round foe Gulbis will reconstitute itself.  Having succumbed to the Latvian during his 2009 skid, Djokovic allowed him a single game at Indian Wells in March and should show scant mercy to a player who will slide swiftly down the rankings with a tepid May.  Twice extended by Wawrinka to third sets on clay, the second seed will find the Swiss #2 useful preparation for a dangerous quarterfinal with Ferrer.  Flawless on clay this year against everyone but Nadal, the Spanish #2 would relish the opportunity to avenge his Miami loss to Fish in the third round.  Intriguingly, Djokovic never has defeated Ferrer on clay and has lost the last seven sets that they have contested on the latter’s favorite surface.  Will the Madrid crowd witness a performance from their countryman as compelling as his semifinal run here in 2010?  If Djokovic aims to emerge as the leading challenger to Nadal’s clay hegemony in 2011, the road to that destination lies through the diminutive Spaniard who twice has played runner-up to Rafa this year.

Aravane Rezai Aravane Rezai of France holds aloft the winners torphy after her straight sets victory against Venus Williams of the USA in the womens final match during the Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open tennis tournament at the Caja Magica on May 16, 2010 in Madrid, Spain.

First quarter:  Her momentum somewhat drained by Goerges in Stuttgart, Wozniacki still enters this Premier Mandatory event with her glass half full of European earth.  With a green-clay title and red-clay final behind her, the 2009 Madrid runner-up could reprise that championship match with Safina in the third round—or perhaps her championship match from last week.  Avenging her Miami loss to Petkovic in Stuttgart, Wozniacki might well avenge her Stuttgart loss to Goerges in Madrid.  Handed a complex opener against Acapulco champion Dulko, Stosur will demonstrate whether an uplifting week at the Porsche event has raised her spirits and rekindled her memories of clay excellence past.  This intriguing corner of the draw also includes Pavlyuchenkova, a perpetually promising prodigy who chronically threatens to burst into contention but never quite does.  Chugging into the dusty battlefield are fast-court juggernauts Kanepi and Bartoli, whose inferior mobility should undermine their hopes on the surface least suited to their styles.  Although Stosur possesses the strongest clay skills of anyone in the quarter, Wozniacki has lost before the semifinals at only one of her last seven tournaments.

Second quarter:  Vaulting back into contention with a strong February-March campaign, Jankovic demonstrated her clay prowess in Fed Cup before predictably falling early in Stuttgart a few days later. The seventh seed should face no opponent capable of consistently outhitting her during the first few rounds, for potential foes like Medina Garrigues and Radwanska have found little success against the Serb by relying upon their characteristic steadiness.  Also of note in this vicinity, however, is Gajdosova, a player whose massive ball-striking and straightforward aggression sometimes recall last year’s champion Rezai.  Lurking on the opposite side of the quarter is Rezai herself, but the Frenchwoman’s title defense probably will crumble under the pressure of Azarenka.  A former quarterfinalist at Roland Garros, the Belarussian can consolidate her position in the top 5 with an imposing May performance.  If her Fed Cup shoulder injury does not hamper her, Azarenka would face a tantalizing third-round encounter with Petkovic or perhaps Pennetta.  Absent from competition since Miami, the Italian defeated Azarenka in Dubai but surprisingly lost their only clay meeting a year ago.  More likely to pose a serious challenge to the world #5 is Petkovic, whose expectations have grown increasingly ambitious as her means of justifying them have expanded.  Might she intersect with Jankovic for a third consecutive tournament?

Ana Ivanovic Of Serbia Celebrates

Third quarter:  Stacked with clay experts, this section features two former Roland Garros champions who could collide in the third round.  If Ivanovic and her questionable abdomen can withstand the idiosyncratic assault of Bethanie Mattek-Sands, she might tangle with one-time French Open semifinalist Petrova.  During a formidable first-half of 2010, the Russian defeated both Williams sisters on clay while falling to Ana in Rome (albeit on a slower court).  Eyeing a dangerous opener against Peng, Schiavone has struggled with fatigue since her epic victory over Kuznetsova in Melbourne, and a return to her favored clay failed to rejuvenate her in Stuttgart.  Curiously, she has lost all three of her meetings with Ivanovic, including a 2009 clay encounter well after the Serb had tumbled from her pinnacle.  In even deeper peril than Schiavone is the floundering Li Na, who has won exactly one match after reaching the Australian Open final in a spiral precipitous even by her standards.  Not at her best on clay, she could succumb immediately to Martinez Sanchez, lethal in Fed Cup against France and well-designed to disrupt Li’s smooth baseline rhythm.  A talent adaptable to every surface, Peer has found herself in an auspicious position near the dormant Kleybanova and a weary Vinci.  Should she advance through the first two rounds without expending great energy, the Israeli could craft an unexpectedly deep run considering her successes against both Ivanovic and Schiavone.

Fourth quarter:  Generally bereft of clay specialists, this section lies at the mercy of the hard-court player who can most successfully conform her style and attitude to the surface.  Following the departure of her coach Sergei Demekhine, Zvonareva enters this event with no clay preparation and scant clay experience over the past few years.  Although Sharapova has reached the quarterfinals at Roland Garros more recently than at any other major, she likewise delivers her least convincing tennis during this phase.  Nevertheless, the similarly erratic first-strike firepower of Venus carried her to the final here a year ago, offering an example for the Russian to emulate.  More accomplished on clay than her compatriots, Kuznetsova has spent over a year reeling from desultory loss to desultory loss despite emanating occasional flashes of hope such as her victory over Henin at the Australian Open.  The 2009 Roland Garros champion may not escape her opener against Cibulkova and gain the opportunity to challenge Sharapova in the third round.  Equaling the latter’s charge to the Indian Wells semifinal, Wickmayer aims to recapitulate a Charleston surge that almost toppled eventual champion Wozniacki.  Among the more compelling narratives of 2011 that this quarter may trace, moreover, is the evolution of Kvitova from an unreliable shot-maker into a steady contender.  While the champion probably will not emerge from this section, it might feature some of the most scintillating early-week encounters.

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After a week replete with stunning headlines and engaging tennis, has all of the magic escaped from the Magic Box?  One might be forgiven for such a thought when contemplating tomorrow’s semifinal lineup.  A combined 14-0 against their respective opponents, Federer and Nadal look likely to set up their 21st collision and their first in exactly a year.  On the WTA side, Venus attempts to inflict a third 2010 defeat upon the pugnacious Peer in order to set up a final against another unseeded opponent.  From all appearances, the elder Williams would have to severely botch something in the next two days for one of her semifinal peers (haha) to seize the title.  Anything can happen, but it probably won’t…or will it?  Martinez Sanchez confounded all expectations a week ago, so maybe there’s something worth discussing here after all:

Safarova-Rezai:  Born just a month apart from each other, these two upstarts share an almost identical career win-loss records (199-139 vs. 203-130).  Appropriately, the head-to-head stands level at one win apiece; while Safarova won the clay encounter in Estoril, Rezai triumphed at the more significant venue in Flushing Meadows.  The Frenchwoman has plowed a more treacherous course here past Henin and Jankovic, the top two contenders for Roland Garros, but the Czech dispatched Sharapova and a resurgent Petrova who had ousted Serena.   Among the x-factors here is the Czech’s physical condition, for she has played three three-setters in the last three days, whereas Rezai followed her three-set upset of Henin with three consecutive straight-set wins.  Both players will zoom upwards in the rankings regardless of the outcome, elevating their seeding and probably improving their draw at Roland Garros.  (We anticipate a media barrage in Paris, where the expectations on Rezai will be higher than the Eiffel Tower after her implausible run here.)  Anticipate a stylistically straightforward exercise in ball-bludgeoning from the baseline.  If Safarova exploits her lefty serve to open up the court, she might be able to keep the Frenchwoman off balance with sharply angled forehands.  Nevertheless, Rezai has looked ferociously relentless and relentlessly ferocious all week.  Refusing to let Jankovic escape from a marathon service game in the first set today, she shrugged off squandered break point after squandered break point (she was 1 for 14 at one stage) until she finally converted.  That sort of tenacity should serve her well against a mentally questionable adversary

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Venus-Peer:  Kudos to Venus for rising immediately from an ignominious fiasco in Rome to establish herself as a genuine threat at Roland Garros.  Not only did she outsteady the volatile Zvonareva and outlast the crafty Schiavone, but she surrendered just six games in the quarterfinals to a Stosur who had rampaged through Charleston and Stuttgart.  A semifinalist in Stuttgart, Peer has thoroughly earned a second final four appearance with eye-opening wins over Kuznetsova, Kleybanova, and Li Na, all of whom possess many more offensive weapons than she does.  In the past, sheer tenacity hasn’t proved sufficient to threaten Venus, who has performed at an outstanding level during their four previous meetings.  Winning all eight sets that she has played against Peer, the elder Williams thrashed the Israeli in the Dubai semifinals before recording a more competitive yet still comfortable win during the aforementioned Rome tournament.  (Her game went off the rails completely a day later, an experience that she won’t want to repeat in Madrid.)  Once again, a solid serving percentage combined with a reasonable number of penetrating forehands should see her through to Sunday.  Meanwhile, don’t forget her doubles final with Serena against the white-hot team of Dulko and Pennetta, which should provide an intriguing signpost as to whether the sisters can secure the Roland Garros doubles title that eluded them last year.

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Almagro-Nadal:  A year ago on this court, Nadal scratched and clawed his way to a record-shattering 243-minute victory over an inspired Djokovic, who seemed to have seized all of the magic from the Magic Box en route to a 20-point third-set tiebreak.  The task today looks far less imposing, for next week’s world #2 has won 12 of 13 total sets from his compatriot.  Woefully outclassed by Rafa at the 2008 French Open, Almagro briefly tested him at the 2009 US Open before severely testing him at the Paris Indoors midway through Nadal’s miserable fall campaign.  Saving several match points, Nadal ultimately dragged his friend deep into the final set, where his superior fitness proved decisive.  Following his startling second-round win over Soderling, Almagro profited from a Verdasco-vacated quarter and hasn’t scored a string of upsets a la Rezai in the WTA draw.  The matchup reminds us a bit of the Federer-Wawrinka encounter, where the Swiss #2 appeared reluctant to unseat his fellow Olympic gold medalist.  Does Almagro really want to be the guy who rains on his friend’s parade?  We doubt it.

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Federer-Ferrer:  Seeking his 10th consecutive win without a loss against the diminutive Spaniard, Federer may finally have risen from his post-Melbourne doldrums with a commanding demolition of Wawrinka and an even more impressive comeback against Gulbis, his nemesis just a fortnight ago.  When the top seed dropped a routine first set and meekly surrendered his serve to start the second set, one suspected that he would mentally move forward to Paris rather than concentrating upon erasing this formidable deficit.  During the second and third sets, however, Federer’s intense, fully focused play delivered a statement of purpose to his weekend opponents.  Raising his level as the week has progressed, Ferrer executed textbook clay-court tennis to swiftly dispense with Cilic; confronted with the sterner test of Murray in the quarterfinals, the Spaniard stymied the Scot with the suffocating court coverage that has long been his trademark.  If Federer opens with erratic groundstrokes or a mediocre first-serve percentage, Ferrer might well win a set, as he has in two of their last three meetings.  The weapons that finally subdued an unruly Gulbis, though, should hit through the counterpuncher on this relatively swift surface, which also will enable Federer to hold serve more regularly than the Spaniard.  Expect the road to Roland Garros to climax with Federer-Nadal XXI on Sunday.

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We’ll return to preview the ATP final tomorrow and perhaps share a few thoughts on the WTA final as well.  In the meantime, let’s hope that the outwardly unprepossessing semifinal lineup serves up something memorable tomorrow. 😉

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Playing a little free association with the words “Henin,” “Sharapova,” and “Madrid,” the 2007 year-end championships final springs to mind, an instant classic in which the statuesque Russian and the petite Belgian fired groundstroke missiles at each other for nearly three and a half electrifying hours.  In their very next trip to the Spanish capital, however, the two former #1s tumbled consecutively to a pair of streaky but second-tier players. 

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Returning from yet another injury and playing on her least comfortable surface, Sharapova wouldn’t have expected to pull off a deep run here and probably would have fallen to Dementieva in the third round even if she had won today.  The Russian has played just nine matches this year and scored just one win outside her title run in Memphis, so she’ll head to Strasbourg hoping to settle into a rhythm before Roland Garros (and perhaps test out what may or may not be a Head racket).  Parallel to 2009, though, Maria’s main goal will be to accumulate match play before the fast-surface summer rather than to peak at the French Open, where she won’t be and has never been among the leading contenders.  A high-risk game like hers doesn’t incorporate the margin for error necessary to win seven consecutive matches on a surface that rewards consistency more than shot-making.  Maria’s best tennis probably lies behind her, for one senses that her career peaked with her dizzyingly brilliant fortnight at the 2008 Australian Open, the most dominant single-Slam performance in recent memory according to such a perfectionist as Martina Navratilova (who ought to know).  But few players can equal the relentless competitive willpower that she brings to the court when healthy and confident.  Don’t be surprised to see Sharapova resurface on the North American hard courts, as she did last year, and progress deep into some significant draws in the season’s second half.

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On the other hand, Henin indeed will be among the leading contenders (if not the leading contender) for the clay-court crown, and her illness-influenced loss to Rezai raises serious questions about her physical durability, problematic thus far in her comeback but essential for her to dominate Paris.  Rivals such as Jankovic and Serena will be encouraged to think that they might be able to claim the French Open title without confronting the Belgian, while the WTA rank-and-file will enter early-round matches against her without the conviction that victory would be “Mission Impossible,” in Rezai’s words.  Furthermore, she squandered a golden opportunity to gain a top-16 seeding at Roland Garros, which would have afforded her one additional round to find her comfort zone before meeting a marquee opponent.  After a hideous loss to Dulko in Indian Wells, however, Henin charged to the semifinals in Miami and nearly conquered eventual champion Clijsters, so don’t underestimate this feisty competitor’s ability to rebound from discouraging losses (see our article on the Art of Amnesia below).  She’ll have plenty of time to rest, recover from this illness, and acclimate herself to the Paris conditions before most of the other contenders arrive. 

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It’ll be intriguing to see whether the wave of upsets in the opening weekend, which began with Kuznetsova’s Saturday loss, will trickle into Monday and Tuesday.  We take a look at a handful of Monday matches that each offer something to ponder:

Safina-Zakopalova:  Wobbly so far in her return from a back injury, the defending champion couldn’t have asked for a better opener than against Zakopalova…or for a worse opener.  The 28-year-old Czech lacks any real weapon but can retrieve ball after ball after ball, as Serena discovered to her dismay in a three-set marathon at last year’s French Open.  Safina won’t have to worry about being hustled off the court before she can find a rhythm; she’ll have plenty of chances to work her way through rallies and construct points, so in a sense the matchup is ideal.  On the other hand, an inconsistent evening from the Russian could be a prolonged trip to the torture chamber, since Zakopalova misses very few balls at all and loves to wage a war of attrition, for which Safina is currently unready.  Either way, it’ll be a timely opportunity for her to practice the vital skill of controlled aggression, always a test for her slim patience.

Kvitova-Wozniacki:  The world #2 lost to one lefty in Stuttgart (Sharapova-killer Safarova) and another lefty in Rome (Martinez Sanchez); here comes a third lefty in the opening round of Madrid.  Between Indian Wells and an untimely injury in Charleston, Wozniacki looked ready to take a major step forward, justify her inflated ranking, and perhaps even challenge for the Roland Garros title.  Since she still relies excessively on her movement and ball-retrieving skills, threats to mobility such as this ankle injury could undermine her capacity to outlast streaky shotmakers like Kvitova, who pummeled Zvonareva in Rome last week.   The Pole-Dane should come through because Kvitova tends to go cold at the wrong time, but expect Wozniacki’s wheels to be tested. 

Zvonareva-Venus:  We weren’t quite sure what to expect from either of these players after their dismal exits from Rome, including the worst loss of Venus’ professional career.  In the opening round, however, the American registered a sturdy serving performance, while the Russian routinely knocked off Oudin for the third time in 2010.  (Wasn’t the pugnacious Georgian supposed to be especially good against Russians?)  Venus has won their last six meetings, of which three were on clay, so on paper she appears the heavy favorite.  Nobody saw the horrific Rome loss on the horizon after a pair of capable wins there, though, and the elder Williams sister dropped her second-round match to Kleybanova here last year.  Solid with both sets of groundstrokes, Zvonareva has more than enough ability to grind down an erratic Venus from the baseline, as did Jankovic, or punish her for an off-key serving day.  Considering Venus’ struggles on clay, one imagines that Vera will see an opportunity sometime; can she hold her nerve and convert?

Cirstea-Pennetta:  Picking Pennetta to reach the Rome semis, we felt that she would be buoyed by her recent Fed Cup success, her Andalusia title, and the home crowd.  How wrong we were (although not as wrong as when we picked Henin to win here); the Italian extracted just three games from Safarova in the second round on a very bleak day for her countrywomen, who won nine total games in four matches.  2010 has been surprisingly inconsistent for Pennetta, so far largely unable to capitalize upon the momentum from her strong second half in 2009.  Across the net, Cirstea seems to be finally emerging from a protracted slump by hiring Azarenka architect Antonio van Grichen and scoring a handful of wins during the clay season.  There’s plenty of potential for van Grichen to unlock, as Jankovic could attest after dropping a 9-7 third set to the charismatic Romanian at Roland Garros last year.  Can the stagnating veteran use her experience to prevail over the burgeoning youngster?

Li-Garcia Vidagany:  We hear the contemptuous chuckles from those of you who missed the Marbella event.  Before the dust had settled from Miami, Garcia Vidagany had stunned Clijsters in that lush Mediterranean resort.  Kudos to her for building upon the momentum by qualifying for another of her home tournaments here.  It’s unrealistic to expect her to defeat Li, but we’re curious to see whether this 21-year-old can muster something that will keep her name on our radar, at least for small events.  A competitive effort in this match would do so.

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After Monday’s light canape, Tuesday should offer a delicious selection of tapas, not least the Ivanovic-Jankovic and Berdych-Nalbandian encounters.  We’ll be back to set the table for you tomorrow…

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

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

Semifinalist:  Federer

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

Semifinalist:  Ferrer

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

Semifinalist:  Verdasco

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

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Semifinals:  Ferrer def. Federer, Nadal def. Verdasco

Final:  Nadal def. Ferrer

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