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Victoria Azarenka - 2012 Sydney International - Day 6

This article marks the first in a daily series that highlights the most interesting matches, in our opinion, from each order of play at the Australian Open.

Azarenka vs. Watson:  After playing the last women’s match on Ken Rosewall Arena this year, Vika will play the first match on Rod Laver Arena.  While the Sydney title should bolster her confidence, she has won consecutive titles only once in her career (Miami-Marbella last year) and often has followed an outstanding performance with a disappointment.  A product of the Bolletieri Academy, British teenager Watson scrambles effectively while striking penetrating although not explosive groundstrokes.  An upset seems highly improbable in any circumstances, but Azarenka may not escape from the midday heat as soon as she would wish if her weekend title leaves her unfocused.  As a true title contender, she should aim not just to win but to win efficiently, a goal that sometimes has eluded her in early rounds. 

Tomic vs. Verdasco:  Expect legion of chanting Australian fans for the most intriguing men’s match of Day 1.  Both players should perform at a reasonably high level, considering that each reached a semifinal at a preparatory tournament.  Reaching the second week at last year’s Australian Open, former semifinalist Verdasco enjoyed the best run of his career here in 2009.  Meanwhile, Tomic nearly gained a seed here after needing a wildcard in previous appearances, as barely a dozen rankings spots separate two careers headed in opposite directions.  While Verdasco will enjoy the high bounce and additional time to set up his superior weapons, the court speed will favor the more versatile Tomic.  And the Australian crowd may rattle the easily flustered Spaniard. 

Pervak vs. Li:  More and more dangerous as she progresses deeper into a tournament, Li lost six opening-round matches last year and may share Azarenka’s post-Sydney lull.  A rare lefty from Russia, or now “Kazakhstan,” Pervak led Schiavone early in their Brisbane meeting before retiring with a migraine.  Although she lacks significant power on her serve or return, she reached the second week of Wimbledon last year and certainly can threaten Li if the latter’s mind wanders.  On the other hand, the Chinese star experienced little trouble while dispatching a much more talented lefty last week in Safarova. 

Dellacqua vs. Jovanovski:  The often injured Dellacqua reached the second week of the Australian Open four years ago after defeating former champion and former #1 Mauresmo.  Buoyed by the support of her compatriots, she will rely upon her experience against the new face of Serbian women’s tennis in Jovanovski, who extended Zvonareva to three sets here a year ago.  Since the Serb still searches for a more potent serve, Dellacqua will want to take chances on return and use her left-handedness to frustrate the rhythm-based, relatively monochromatic opponent.  In a neutral baseline rally, though, Jovanovski’s superior depth and pace should prevail. 

Robson vs. Jankovic:  Meeting on the British teenager’s home court in Wimbledon 2010, these feisty personalities engaged in a surprisingly competitive battle considering Robson’s youth.  While Jankovic registered only three total wins in Brisbane and Sydney, she showed flashes of her former self during a fiercely contested loss to Schiavone.  Not granted a wildcard, Robson earned her berth through three convincing victories in the qualifying draw, showing that she has recovered from a stress fracture in her leg last fall.  Showcasing her underrated shot-making and serving, the pugnacious Brit should not hesitate to attack Jankovic relentlessly and create her own opportunities.  The Serb’s movement has declined in recent years, as have her results at majors, although she never has lost in the first round here through nine appearances. 

Mattek-Sands vs. Radwanska:  Sometimes daunted by imposing servers, Radwanska feasts upon players with tendencies to donate swarms of unforced errors.  In this eccentric American, she will face an opponent with a modestly imposing serve and a talent for finishing points at the net, taking valuable time away from counterpunchers like the Pole.  But she also will face an opponent who sometimes struggles to convert routine shots and falls well short of her in tactical prowess.  Which trend will define the trajectory of this match?  Among the top eight seeds, Radwanska seems probably the most susceptible to an upset.  At her last two majors, she lost in the second round to players ranked #81 and #92, and she survived a first-round reverse here last year by the narrowest of margins.  While she reached the Sydney semifinal, though, Mattek-Sands fell in Hobart to the long-irrelevant Cirstea. 

Fish vs. Muller:  Like his fellow eighth seed, the top-ranked American looks the ripest for an upset among his fellow elite contenders.  Injured for much of last fall, Fish endured a disastrous week in Hopman Cup that included an uncharacteristic altercation.  While he has accomplished nothing of note for the last few years, the lefty Muller caught fire a few US Opens to reach the quarterfinals.  This contest should center around the two impressive serves on display, perhaps featuring more tiebreaks than breaks.  If he can survive the point-starting shot, Fish holds a clear advantage with his relatively more balanced array of weapons.  But the towering lefty from Luxembourg might cause the American’s already sagging spirits to sink further by recording holds with his frustrating delivery. 

Rezai vs. Peng:  The best season of Peng’s career began last year when she upset Jankovic at the Australian Open and fought deep into a three-setter against Radwanska.  Across the net stands a player who recorded her greatest accomplishments two years ago, drawing as much attention for her volatile groundstrokes and flashy shot-making as for her volatile temper and flashy outfits.  (Well, almost as much attention.)  Beset by crises of confidence and personal setbacks since then, Rezai has lost much of her swagger.  The steady Peng, accustomed to pumping deep balls down the center of the court, might become a nightmare for the flamboyant Française.  Just as she would prefer, though, Rezai will have the opportunity to determine her own fate.  Look for her to hit far more winners and far more unforced errors. 

Hercog vs. Goerges:  While Goerges retired from Sydney with an illness, Hercog suffered a back injury in Brisbane, so both limp into this otherwise intriguing encounter.  After an impressive clay season, Goerges never quite assembled her intimidating but often wayward weapons as her countrywomen eclipsed her.  Yet she battled courageously against Sharapova here last year in one of the first week’s most compelling matches.  A six-foot Slovenian who turns 20 during the tournament, Hercog broke through in 2010 when she won a set from Venus in the Acapulco final.  Curiously for a lanky, power-hitting player, all three of her singles finals have come on clay.  We expect a match with a staccato rhythm that alternates bursts of brilliance with spells of slovenliness. 

Chardy vs. Dimitrov:  Searching for his notable run at a major, Dimitrov turned heads by severely testing eventual semifinalist Tsonga at Wimbledon.  Modeled on Federer, his game bears an eerie resemblance to the Swiss star in not only his one-handed backhand and other strokes, but his movement and footwork.  At the Hopman Cup, he thrashed Fish and delivered a competitive effort against Berdych.  Dimitrov has developed a habit of playing to the level of his competition, regrettably, and lost matches to players outside the top 200 soon after threatening Tsonga.  In the second tier of Frenchmen who populate the ATP, Chardy has underachieved when one considers his penetrating serve-forehand combinations.  Like many of his compatriots, he appears to have suffered from a lack of motivation and competitive willpower.  Both men should feel confident about their chances of winning this match, which should result in an entertaining, opportunistic brand of tennis. 

Pironkova vs. Mirza:  Dimitrov’s partner at the Hopman Cup, the willowy Pironkova enjoyed noteworthy success there herself while winning a set from Wozniacki  Her understated style contrasts starkly with the uncompromising aggression of Mirza, the top-ranked Indian woman but now a part-time player following her marriage to Pakistani cricketer Shoab Malik.  Ripping forehands with abandon from all corners of the court, she even stymied Henin for a set last year in the last tournament of the Belgian’s career.  Known mostly for her Wimbledon accomplishments, Pironkova rarely has distinguished herself at the other majors, and she has won just five matches in six Melbourne appearances.  On the other hand, she won the first match that she ever played here against a player who enjoyed a reasonably solid career:  Venus Williams.

Safarova vs. McHale:  Initially overshadowed by her peer Melanie Oudin, McHale likely will surpass her before their careers end.  The American teenager tasted significant success for the first time last summer with victories over Wozniacki, Kuznetsova, and Bartoli.  Limited by her modest height, McHale does not share Safarova’s ball-striking capacity and must substitute for that disadvantage with intelligent point construction.  One wonders whether she can protect her serve as effectively as the Czech, who holds regularly when at her best.  In a tournament where the WTA’s young stars seem ready to shine, McHale represents the principal American hope for post-Williams relevance.

 

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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

Maria Sharapova - 2011 French Open - Day Three

Sharapova vs. Garcia:  Dispatching one Caroline en route to the Rome title, Sharapova eyes a less intimidating Caroline in Paris.  This apparent mismatch pits a storied champion who has won three Slam titles against a 17-year-old who has won two total matches at majors, but perhaps one should not feed this Christian to the lioness too eagerly.  Flitting across one’s mind are the shadows of Kudryavtseva and Oudin, who defeated Sharapova at Wimbledon and the US Open when ranked #154 and #70, respectively.  Thrust onto a court far larger than any where she has tread, Garcia can expect the vociferous support of her compatriots and showed a glimpse of courage by winning the first Slam match of her career in January.  Demonstrating a nascent aptitude for the surface, the world #177 claimed her second ITF clay title in Florida this April.  Of course, Sharapova would capture the Premier Five crown in Rome two weeks later.

Chardy vs. Simon:  Sharing a passport but little else, this internecine clash of les bleus pits an aggressive, forehand-centered Frenchman against a compatriot who relies on steadiness and a crisp two-hander.  Whereas Chardy can drift emotionally within tournaments and even matches, a healthy Simon consistently competes with the sturdiness that has enabled him to maximize his potential.  The clay will shelter the former’s asymmetrical groundstroke game while showcasing the latter’s defense.  In the pressure of playing in their nation’s most prestigious event and largest stadium, the experience of Simon may shine through, but the brashness of Chardy may allow him to capture the moment.

Zheng vs. Kvitova:  Although she has failed to recapture her momentum following wrist surgery, Zheng has accumulated a history of upsetting or nearly upsetting contenders from Sharapova to Serena.  Her low center of gravity and compact stroke production aid her in adjusting to the clay’s unpredictable bounces, while her court coverage should prove even more seamless on the dirt.  Nevertheless, the unusually fast bounce and light balls at Roland Garros this year, coupled with warm, sunny weather, will encourage shot-maker like Kvitova to fancy their chances against defensive-minded foes.  Displaying traces of her scintillating form in Madrid, the Czech crushed 2011 surprise Arn in the first round and should gain further hope from her friendly first-week draw.

Malisse vs. Verdasco:  Most dangerous when least anticipated, the Spaniard surprisingly overcame a history of futility against Monaco in his opener despite a generally disappointing season.  One would imagine that this comprehensive four-set victory would raise the spirits of a player whose form fluctuates with his confidence.  But Verdasco’s fortunes have not always followed a logical trajectory, nor have those of his opponent.  From a nation more renowned in the WTA than ATP, Malisse has underachieved even more than the Spaniard has, in part as a result of chronic injuries.  Taking a set from Murray in Rome, he could unsettle the unsubtle Verdasco with his penetrating backhand and versatile all-court repertoire.

Mirza vs. Radwanska / Medina Garrigues vs. Gajdosova:  Only a sporadic player at this stage, Mirza still can unleash forehands that occasionally fluster competitors as noteworthy as Henin (in Melbourne this year).  Targeting the lines too often for sustained success on clay, her relentless ball-striking presents Radwanska with an assignment at which the Pole excels.  Smothered by the WTA’s premier offenses, she specializes in chipping away at less consistent or balanced attackers with canny shot placement that exploits the geometry of the court.  The balance of overall talent between puncher and counterpuncher shifts in the opposite direction when Gajdosova faces Medina Garrigues, whose superior clay skills that carried her to the Barcelona title.  Unruffled by a recent divorce or the circumstances of her opener against Razzano, however, the Aussie proved herself a focused and motivated competitor.

Querrey vs. Ljubicic:  Formerly feckless at Roland Garros, the youthful tower of power delivered a victory over Kohslchreiber almost as impressive and unexpected as Verdasco’s win over Monaco.  Standing poised to intercept him is a seasoned tower of power, who will rely upon the experience that Querrey never quite seems to acquire or turn to his advantage.  Neither player has displayed much spark over the past several months, trudging from tournament to tournament with their explosive serves but not much else.  In a match less meaningful for the veteran than for the American, Querrey has an opportunity to accumulate a bit of momentum before defending his Queens Club title and perhaps launching a longer campaign at Wimbledon.  Far from a contender here or there, he personifies the recent trend among American men of underperforming at majors—by their nation’s lofty standards, in any case.  Perhaps we should learn to accept him for what he remains, a decent talent with weapons and weaknesses in equal measure, rather than expecting him to develop into something special.

Cirstea vs. Dulgheru:  Banished to a court as peripheral as their country on Europe’s map, these two Romanians have scored their finest achievements on clay.  Scorching into the second week at Roland Garros 2009, Cirstea delivered an epic upset over Jankovic that suggested much more promise than she since has fulfilled.  Barely inside the top 100, she has floated among challengers and qualifying draws while winning only three main-draw matches this year.  Less eye-catching in both looks and playing style, Dulgheru won the last two editions of the Warsaw clay tournament with tireless court coverage and timely backhands down the line.  The two Romanians have struggled for most of 2011, although Alexandra did reach the Miami quarterfinals.  Having eaten more bagels and breadsticks lately than her tennis health should permit, she must remember that those who give gain more blessings than those who receive.

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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In her last two US Opens, Sharapova has opened her campaign with two resounding wins under the lights before wilting under the afternoon sun.  By contrast, Maria begins her 2010 charge during Tuesday’s day session, which will provide her with valuable experience in the afternoon conditions for her future matches.  But is “future matches” a valid assumption?  Although Sharapova cruised past her Australian opponent in their only previous WTA meeting, Groth stunned her in World Team Tennis earlier this summer and has registered second-week appearances in both of her last two majors.  This year, in fact, she has won more Slam matches than has the 2006 US Open champion, having finally learned how to mingle a modicum of consistency with the bone-crushing power that she long has enjoyed.  In the absence of Serena, though, Sharapova arguably possesses more raw ball-striking force than any other player in the draw.  We expect an exercise in first-strike tennis, filled with short points and elevated winner-error totals on both sides of the net.  If Groth can establish an early lead, she might implant doubt in Sharapova’s mind and serve, yet the Russian has accumulated far more experience on these major stages and will be more likely to seize the early momentum.  A little tense when closing out matches in Cincinnati, Maria probably won’t experience tension in a first-round encounter.  Nevertheless, take note of any fluctuations in Sharapova’s serving effectiveness and when they occur.

We continue to preview a selection of the other intriguing matches on Day 2, some of which will be contested far from the marquee surroundings of Maria:

Jankovic vs. Halep:

A somewhat unexpected finalist here in 2008, Jankovic hopes to shed the rust acquired from injuries that forced her to retire from Wimbledon and the minor Portoroz event.  As is customary with the Serb, mental and emotional factors also may have played a role, in this case her disappointment after losing a one-sided Roland Garros semifinal to Stosur.  Whether the product of injury, fatigue, or indifference, JJ’s performance in the US Open Series has fallen well short of expectations and garnered just a solitary win.  A rhythm-based counterpuncher with a game theoretically ill-suited to these fast courts, she confronts a Romanian prodigy who hopes to attract more attention for her tennis than for her medical procedures.  Still somewhat raw and untested at majors, Halep has developed the ingredients of a solid baseline game with penetrating groundstrokes on both wings.  Her serve requires a bit more attention, however, and Jankovic should be able to exploit her inconsistent patches to advance unless she struggles to find the court as mightily as she did in Montreal against Benesova.  With JJ, anything is possible.

Fognini vs. Verdasco:

Weary from an overloaded first half, Verdasco faces his first-round Wimbledon nemesis on a surface that should tilt towards his advantage more than the grass.  Possessing a superior serve and first-strike potential, the second-best Spanish lefty will win more cheap points and seize control of the rallies sooner than Fognini.  Yet the Italian preceded his upset of Verdasco at Wimbledon with a memorable, five-set, two-day ambush of Monfils at Roland Garros, suggesting that he rises to the occasion on the sport’s grandest stages.  The effortful, grunting Verdasco comprises an engaging contrast with the casual Fognini, who often barely seems to look at the ball as he lackadaisically swipes at it.  Yet one of the curious paradoxes of tennis is its habit of sporadically rewarding the casual and lackadaisical rather than always favoring the tireless taskmasters.  All the same, the Italian achieved little of consequence during the US Open Series and will feel rushed out of his comfort zone on the fast courts, which punish his relatively late groundstroke swings and passive court positioning.

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Vandeweghe vs. Lisicki:

Look (or listen) for seismic serves and ferocious forehands in this battle between the chronically injured German and the burgeoning American.  Shocking Zvonareva in San Diego, Coco displayed a gritty competitiveness that boded well for her future.  On the other hand, Lisicki has played very few tournaments this year while regrouping from an ankle injury that undermined her 2009 campaign.  Since both players are trained to hit extremely flat groundstrokes on both sides, their games are constructed with little margin for error.  Meanwhile, the German and the American struggle with their movement, so most baseline exchanges will be abbreviated to no more than a few shots.  Whoever seizes her opportunities more swiftly and takes chances earlier in the rallies should gain command of this encounter, which will feature as many egregious errors as it will scintillating winners.  While the American crowd will boost Vandeweghe, it won’t bother the even-tempered, perpetually smiling Lisicki.

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Petkovic vs. Petrova:

Beyond sharing the first three letters of their last names, these two combatants share a reliance upon heavy serving in addition to asymmetrical groundstrokes.  Whereas Petkovic seeks to set up her forehand, however, Petrova delivers mightier blows from her backhand wing.  After retiring in heat illness in Cincinnati and exiting early at the Rogers Cup, the Russian soared back to vintage form in New Haven, where she plowed past Stosur and Kirilenko before taking a set from Wozniacki in the final.  Will she suffer fatigue from last week’s exertions, or will she recapitulate her excellent performances from the year’s first two majors?  Still in the fledgling stages of her career (see Alvaro Rama’s guest profile on her in this blog), Petkovic repeatedly has come close to upsetting elite adversaries but hasn’t quite punctured the upper echelon of the WTA’s hierarchy.  Such a breakthrough appears only a matter of time, considering the German’s immense serve-forehand combinations, but she has regressed somewhat this summer with disappointingly flimsy performances against Sharapova and Safina.

Chardy vs. Gulbis:

During the Masters 1000 events, Gulbis nearly upset both Soderling and Murray before extending a familiar trend of falling just short against his top-10 opponents.  In Rome this spring, he appeared to have reversed that pattern with an impressive victory over Federer, yet injuries slowed his momentum early this summer.  In addition to the massive ball-striking power with which he burst onto the tennis stage, the Latvian has showcased enhanced variety, improved movement, and increasingly patient point construction in 2010, all attributes that fellow up-and-comer Chardy should emulate as he attempts to refine his own game.  Largely reliant upon the conventional weapons of serve and forehand, the Frenchman possesses outstanding shot-making talents and instincts; nevertheless, he often succumbs to the temptation of pulling the trigger too early in points or attempting an over-ambitious ploy such as a drop shot from behind the baseline.  Look for Gulbis to raise his game at key moments, stay more positive during adversity, and retain his focus more consistently than Chardy, although in this case both “focus” and “consistent” are relative terms.

***

Tomorrow, we return to preview Part Two of Ana’s Adventures as well as the rest of Day 3 action, but for now we wish the Siberian siren an equally triumphant beginning to her fortnight!

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Having begun with the ladies during our tournament previews, we start our Friday forecasts with the men.  In the sweltering temperatures of Toronto and Cincinnati, who will sizzle…and who will fizzle?

Toronto: 

Nadal (1) vs. Kohlschreiber:  Despite his unprepossessing, compact frame, the German projects surprising power from both of his groundstrokes and can unleash a blistering one-handed backhand reminiscent of Gasquet’s stroke.  A flamboyant shotmaker who often plays against percentages, Kohlschreiber ebbs and flows dramatically throughout his matches.  In order to trouble Nadal, he’ll need to avoid the untimely dips in form that have hampered him against the ATP elite; he won a set from Rafa in Melbourne with sparkling offense but conceded too many points on feckless unforced errors.  Tested by Wawrinka and briefly by Anderson, the Spaniard is gradually settling into his hard-court rhythm.  His groundstrokes are penetrating the court with increasing conviction, while Kohlschreiber’s modest serve won’t allow him to immediately seize command of points and keep the rallies short.  Pick:  Nadal.

Murray (4) vs. Nalbandian:  Riding the longest winning streak of a fascinatingly convoluted career, the Argentine has defeated Davydenko, Youzhny, Wawrinka, Simon, Cilic, Ferrer, and most recently Soderling during the last several weeks.  Against the Swede, he confidently regrouped from a one-set deficit in an uncharacteristically steady, tenacious performance.  Bageled twice in his last two tournaments, Murray failed to close out Querrey in the LA final and vanished inexplicably for a lengthy period here against Monfils.  Perhaps unsettled by his current coachlessness, the Scot also must cope with the bitter aftertaste of yet another Wimbledon disappointment.  (Fortunately, though, his game hasn’t plummeted abjectly as it did after Melbourne.) Focus on the crisp two-handed backhands in this match, among the finest weapons of this type in the ATP.  Rather than the serve-oriented short points of the quarterfinal below, we expect elongated rallies in which both competitors carefully probe the court’s angles.  Murray must maintain a first-serve percentage higher than his usual level, for the Argentine’s smooth return will feast upon the Scot’s mediocre second ball.  Pick:  Nalbandian.

Berdych (7) vs. Federer (3):  The only all-seeded clash of the day, this quarterfinal offers the most intrigue.  As noted by Alvaro Rama, Berdych is the only Toronto quarterfinalist who has not dropped serve in the tournament.  The Czech ball-bruiser seeks a third victory over Federer this year after a fourth-round epic in Miami and a less nail-biting but more historic triumph at Wimbledon.  In that quarterfinal upset, Federer seemed to glide through his service games effortlessly until he suddenly didn’t, whereas Berdych wobbled and slogged through his service games but ultimately escaped them.  In their backhand-to-backhand exchanges, his sturdy two-hander overpowered the GOAT’s graceful yet frail one-hander.  Even in forehand-to-forehand rallies, the Czech enjoyed similar success to Del Potro when he pinpointed his flat bombs within centimeters of the baseline and forced the Swiss into mistiming his strokes.  Like Nadal, the third seed has won two tiebreaks in Toronto, which bodes well for him in the likely event that a set should reach that point.  A bit of the old, whining Berdych returned in Washington, moreover, when he peevishly threatened to never return to the Legg Mason event after some admittedly ham-handed scheduling.  Nevertheless, there’s no question who has been the better player of the two over the last several months.  It’s not Roger.  Pick:  Berdych.

Chardy vs. Djokovic (2):  Very hot and very bothered in his muggy opener against Benneteau, Djokovic will be relieved not only to play in the night session but also to avoid Davydenko and Verdasco, against whom he has struggled over the past year.  On the other hand, the Serb faces the upstart who dismissed both the Russian and the Spaniard.  Yet another mercurial French talent, the swaggering Chardy should relish the theatrical atmosphere of the night session as he thumps his serve-forehand combinations.  Following a three-hour war of attrition against Verdasco, he recovered admirably to dominate Davydenko and has more than enough potential to enjoy a prolonged scorching streak.  Calmer and cooler in his victory over Hanescu, however, Djokovic has recorded relatively consistent results in Canada over the past few years.  The moderate speed of the hard court suits his extremely complete but not quite overpowering all-court game, much as it does Nadal’s.  Yet much of the Serb’s charm consists of his unpredictability, which makes us hesitate for a moment before writing his name.  Pick:  Djokovic.

Cincinnati:

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Amanmuradova (Q) vs. Ivanovic:  Hats off to the towering Uzbek for reaching the quarterfinals after slogging through three qualifying rounds in the Cincinnati midsummer heat.  By far the most impressive win of her career, Akgul’s victory over defending champion Jankovic featured 12 aces and no break points whatsoever on her own serve.  She will enter the quarterfinals filled with confidence but perhaps a little jaded as she prepares to play her seventh match in eight days.  Also brimming with confidence is Ivanovic, who has capitalized convincingly upon her first-round upset of Azarenka to record two dominant victories of higher-ranked opponents.  Possibly galvanized by the Rogers Cup controversy, the smiling Serb seeks to exploit a second half in which she will be defending few points at any tournaments.  Although she doesn’t crush as many outright aces as Amanmuradova, she similarly will rely upon her serve and return to set up benign mid-court balls and abbreviate the baseline exchanges.  Neither player wants to wage a war of attrition, so the Uzbek and the Serb will pull the trigger as soon as they can.  Despite the vast gulf in experience here, this match should be competitive and probably decided by a handful of points.  Recently, Ivanovic had struggled to win such encounters, but perhaps that trend has reversed this week.  Expect an exercise in first-strike tennis with very few service breaks or break points, and a match much less attractive than Ana.  On the other hand, most matches are.  Pick:  Ivanovic.

Clijsters (4) vs. Pennetta (11):  Dangerous during the summer hard-court season last year, Pennetta awakened from a dormant stretch to reach the semifinals in San Diego and has extended that form through three routine wins here.  Forced to battle from the brink against Zvonareva in the 2009 US Open, the fiery Italian comfortably eased past the Wimbledon finalist in the third round.  It’s been an odd year of peaks and valleys for Jada’s mom, meanwhile, who sparkled in Brisbane, flopped in Melbourne and Indian Wells, dazzled in Miami, disappeared on the clay, and did a bit of everything during the grass season.  Avenging a loss to Safina during her comeback event here last year, Kim showed no mercy to home hope Christina McHale.  But don’t extrapolate too much from those matches.  At Wimbledon, Clijsters seemed a genuine contender as she expertly defused Henin, then looked much more like a mom than a murderess when she faced Zvonareva a few days later.  Since neither player possesses overwhelming first-strike potential, this match should unfold in a manner drastically divergent from the quarterfinal above; one imagines that breaks will proliferate and rallies will extend.  If Pennetta can control her seething emotions and stay within range, opportunities probably will present themselves.  But Clijsters is the clearly superior player when focused, and the match ultimately will lie in her hands.  Pick:  Clijsters.

Wickmayer (12) vs. Pavlyuchenkova:  Finally, former junior #1 Pavlyuchenkova may be on the verge of realizing her vast potential after a tantalizing glimpse of what she could become at Indian Wells in 2009.  Following three victories over experienced opponents in Hantuchova, Dementieva, and Peer, her excellent week continues to a winnable match against fellow phenom Wickmayer.  Allowed to develop calmly outside the limelight occupied by Clijsters and Henin, “Wickipedia” scored a startling upset herself by edging Li Na, whom we had expected to reach the semifinals.  Opportunity knocks for these burgeoning talents, both of whom surely will find themselves in the top 10 someday.  At this Premier Five event, heaps of ranking points await such opportunists, elevating their ranking and softening their draws in the coming weeks.  A quarterfinalist in Miami, Wickmayer seems a bit closer to a breakthrough than does Pavlyuchenkova; her game currently is crisper and more reliable, her serve is much more potent, and her mind is clearer at tense moments.  On the other hand, the Russian’s groundstrokes are more balanced, while she has recorded more wins over elite players at this stage in her fledgling career.  Will the Belgian’s forehand or the Russian’s backhand set the tone in the rallies?  Either way, their appearances in the quarterfinals here should encourage WTA fans by suggesting that, although the future may not be here, it’s at least approaching.  Pick:  Wickmayer.

Sharapova (10) vs. Bartoli (16):  At the expense of both San Diego finalists, Sharapova has impressed in her Cincinnati debut after an erratic opener during which she struggled with the intense humidity.  Starting with her May title run at Strasbourg, Maria has compiled a 21-4 record that includes three finals appearances on three different surfaces.  Despite early success at Wimbledon, hard courts have evolved into her battleground of choice, where the ball bounces higher than on grass but travels just as fast.  Building her confidence before the US Open are stirring recent triumphs over Dementieva, Radwanska (twice), Kuznetsova, and Zheng, all of whom had frustrated her on past occasions.  The 2007 Wimbledon finalist often shines during the summer season and looked sharp at Stanford as well as her early rounds here.  (In fact, Bartoli was the only player to win a set from Bank of the West champion Azarenka, who dropped no more than five games in any of her other matches that week.)  Slightly marred by a controversial, maybe not quite “timely” challenge on a key point, the Frenchwoman’s upset of the second-seeded Wozniacki again demonstrated her ability to frustrate marquee competition.  Since both players have honed stunning returns, first-serve percentage will be a crucial factor; neither Maria nor Bartoli prosper when regularly forced to rely upon their second delivery.  Although Sharapova has dominated their previous meetings, they haven’t played in the past three years, during which the Frenchwoman has substantially improved her movement.  Once easily wrong-footed along the baseline, she now can retrieve a remarkable range of shots with dogged scurrying.  Maria’s superior first-strike arsenal eventually should  if she can temper her aggression with a modicum of patience, preserve her focus, and take time away from Bartoli by finishing points in the forecourt.  Pick:  Sharapova.

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***

Enjoy what promises to be a fascinating quarterfinal day in two different cities (and countries)!  We will return to preview all four semifinals in a similar fashion.

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Among the most compelling reasons to watch Novak Djokovic is the Serb’s unpredictability, which echoes the pleasantly surprising narratives that emerge from this unpredictable sport.  Expecting an engaging Day 5 after perusing the order of play, however, we were unpleasantly surprised by the dreary day that developed from what had seemed fascinating encounters.  On the women’s side, not only were there no three-setters, but only one of the sixteen sets even reached 5-5.  On the men’s side, most of the matches that weren’t routine ended anticlimactically, including a fifth-set retirement and a Roddick-Kohlschreiber collision that grew less rather than more dramatic as it progressed.  Settling into the monochrome mood, even Federer returned to routine efficiency after the tension-soaked rollercoasters that had characterized his first two rounds.  Relatively unpromising compared to its predecessor, the Day 6 order of play perhaps will startle us in the opposite sense by unfolding a thriller or two.  Here are the most likely candidates for that role:

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Soderling (6) vs. Bellucci (25) (Court 1, 1st match):  Opting for rest rather than a grass preparatory event, Soderling has vindicated that decision by smothering his first two opponents with withering serves.  Across the net stands one of the ATP’s most upwardly mobile newcomers, a Brazilian lefty who shines most notably on clay but possesses sufficient power to challenge on all surfaces.  Steadily rising through the rankings, Bellucci has relied upon similar serve-groundstroke combinations to the Swede, so their matchup should be littered with unreturned serves, short points, and ultra-aggressive, sometimes impatient shotmaking.  Soderling should consider using his cross-court forehand to expose his opponent’s weaker backhand side, while the Brazilian should test the sixth seed with wide serves into both the deuce and the ad courts; the Swede proves least comfortable when extended laterally early in rallies.  As formidable as anyone in the first two rounds, Soderling should march onwards towards another meeting with Nadal; shot for shot, there’s no arena in which his adversary holds the edge.  Yet one expects Bellucci’s sliced serve to dart elusively across the grass and allow him to hold with adequate regularity to stay within range for at least one or two sets.

Malisse vs. Querrey (18) (Court 1, 3rd match):  The future of American’s tennis attempts to translate his Queens Club success to Wimbledon by exploiting a relatively open draw.  More than once on the brink of a fifth set against the unheralded Ivan Dodig in the second round, Querrey still struggles occasionally to efficiently close out matches without allowing his opponent renewed hope.  Nevertheless, his victory in the marathon fourth-set tiebreak (well, not “marathon” in the Isner-Mahut sense) testified to his recently enhanced focus, suggesting that some long-awaited maturity may have finally arrived for this lanky Californian.  Among his Queens Club victims was the enigmatic Malisse, plagued by injuries and inconsistency but dangerous when fit.  The Belgian demonstrated his fitness in a five-set opening victory over last year’s quarterfinalist Ferrero, which extended his momentum from an upset over Djokovic in the preparatory event.  If Querrey enters the contest a trifle complacent or unwary, as he might considering his recent victory at Queen Club, the veteran will have a real opportunity to accomplish a minor upset.  On grass, Malisse won’t need to hit as many shots in order to finish a point; the surface rewards his style of low-percentage shotmaking more often than punishing it.  On the other hand, he’ll find that breaking Querrey on this surface is a tall order indeed.

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Errani (32) vs. Radwanska (7) (Court 2, 1st match):  Although one typically associates grass with the mighty ball-striking of a Williams or a Sharapova, Radwanska has demonstrated the effectiveness of the opposite style.  Rather than greeting each ball with full-blooded swings (and shrieks), the Pole exploits the vagaries of the soft surface with feathery drop shots and dipping slices.  Her exceptional finesse has carried her into consecutive quarterfinals at the All England Club, at which stage she was ruthlessly outgunned by the sisters.  Also much more gifted at subtlety than power, Errani excels at opening up the court with unexpected angles and befuddling opponents with clever play at the net.  Don’t be surprised to see numerous service breaks and more extended exchanges than one has grown accustomed to expect on this surface.  During an era of Bolletieri-inspired baseline bombing, it can be diverting to watch these ingenious artisans display their craft before mightier warriors seize center stage (and Centre Court) later in the tournament.

Wozniacki (3) vs. Pavlyuchenkova (29) (Court 2, 2nd match):  According to recent history, this matchup should be less scintillating than one would suppose, since the third seed cleaned the Russian’s clock twice already this year.  Once the world’s foremost junior, Pavlyuchenkova has stalled a bit since last year and has been hampered with untimely injuries; like most Russians, she has become increasingly susceptible to clusters of double faults.  Injuries are far from unknown to her opponent, however, for Wozniacki (unwisely, we think) continues to play through a hamstring injury incurred at Charleston in April.  During the first two rounds, an average performance sufficed to dispatch a pair of unprepossessing foes, and something between decent and solid should prove adequate again.  Moderately powerful yet not overwhelming from the baseline, Pavlyuchenkova probably will donate quantities of unforced errors as the Pole-Dane’s counterpunching challenges her consistency.  On the other hand, Wozniacki has endured several post-injury losses to foes less formidable than the Russian, so one never quite knows how much support her ankle will give her on any given day.

Chardy vs. Ferrer (9) (Court 12, 1st match):  For the fourth time since the start of 2009, these two forehand-oriented games collide as the promising but mercurial Frenchman confronts one of the steadiest competitors in the ATP.  Splitting their two non-clay meetings in airtight three-setters, they’ve traded blows from the baseline while rarely venturing into the forecourt.  Having cultivated a much more imposing first serve, Chardy will be better able to seize control of points from the outset and showcase his potentially explosive brand of first-strike tennis.  Almost antithetical to classic grass-court tennis, Ferrer’s style relies upon relentless retrieving and meticulous point construction much more than upon line-clipping missiles.  At Slams, however, the mental component often plays a significant role, so the Spaniard will trust his superior experience to outlast his temperamental foe, still a little unripe at this stage in his development.

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Kvitova vs. Azarenka (14) (Court 18, 1st match):  Consider packing a suit of armor for this match, filled with more attitude and more explosive tempers than can reasonably be crammed into this cramped outer court, forever famous as the scene of Isner-Mahut.  Discomfited by quirky lefty servers in the past (see M for Martinez Sanchez), Azarenka has looked not only sharp but relatively self-possessed during her first two rounds.  The Minx from Minsk should find her penetrating, symmetrical baseline game amply rewarded on the grass, where she reached the quarterfinals a year ago.  As she battles the volatile Czech, however, her patience may be tested a bit more vigorously than against her previous overmatched opponents.  Springing an upset upon then-#1 Safina in a third-set tiebreak at last year’s US Open, Kvitova has both the weaponry and the self-belief to trouble the top players, but her idiosyncratic game generally breaks down under pressure.   Moreover, her loopy groundstrokes expose her to the vagaries of the surface more than would compact swings, although Azarenka also might want to shorten her forehand swing (and enhance her second serve) in order to maximize her future chances here. If the Belarussian can control her temper early in the match, she should exploit the Czech player’s inferior movement while punishing Kvitova for her often injudicious shot selection.

Briefly noted:  Without the Queen to daintily applaud his exertions, Murray continues his Wimbledon campaign against the recently injury-addled Simon, an outstanding competitor but manifestly ill-equipped for success on grass.  While the Scot should extend his fortnight without drama, the charismatic duo of Fognini and Benneteau  target an unexpected niche in the second week; deceptively careless in demeanor, the Italian possesses excellent fitness and movement as well as occasional forehand power, while the Frenchman serves more effectively and approaches the net more adroitly.  Therefore, a baseline-oriented contest with extended rallies favors Fognini, whereas a more traditional grass-court, net-rushing clash with short points would swing toward Benneteau.  Likewise gifted with a delicious opportunity for a second-week appearance are Dulgheru and Kanepi, two players who revitalized their games on the clay before capitalizing on that momentum here.  We expect a more competitive match than some of those involving more familiar names, one of whom contests her first third-round match at Wimbledon since a win over Ai Sugiyama in 2007.

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Maria seeks her first second-week appearance at a Slam since the 2009 French Open.

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A rather painful episode of déjà vu occurred today for the star-crossed Richard Gasquet, who watched a two-set-and-break lead evaporate against Murray for the second time.  Probably better suited for the compressed best-of-three format, the Frenchman’s electrifying shotmaking fails to compensate for his lack of physical (and mental) fitness at majors.  With relatively little at stake, Murray deserves credit for staying focused until Gasquet faded once again; this instinctive will to compete comprises an essential trait of a champion.  Elsewhere, Taylor Dent cracked the fastest serve in Roland Garros history…and actually won the match.  (We know that Andy will be eyeing the radar tomorrow in an effort to eclipse that 149-mph bomb, but wet conditions won’t aid his cause.)  In previous French Opens, serving records generally have not produced positive outcomes; Venus broke the WTA Slam speed record in a 2007 loss to Jankovic, while Karlovic broke the single-match Slam ace record in a defeat to Hewitt last year.  Finally, Ivanovic delivered a characteristically candid post-match interview that was much more intriguing than her opening victory.  Documenting the Serb’s mental oscillations between confidence and uncertainty, it’s worth a read for Ana fans (go to the Roland Garros site, click on News and Photos, then Interviews).  As she tries to “move on and get better” from match to match, we move on to Day 3.

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Pironkova vs. Henin (22) (Chatrier, 1st match):  Perhaps a shade more familiar than the typical 22nd seed, Henin will be sure to reawaken blissful memories in the multitudes of quasi-compatriots eager to celebrate her return to Roland Garros.  The four-time defending champion ignites what will be an extremely demanding fortnight (judging from her draw) against a player whom she once considered a future contender.  Her tennis tomorrow will need to be more impressive than her prognosticating skills then, for Pironkova hasn’t accomplished anything remarkable at significant events; nevertheless, she did defeat a sub-par Dementieva in Warsaw last week.  A quintessential pusher, the Bulgarian projects almost no power at all behind her serves and groundstrokes, relying on movement and consistency to prolong points until her opponent commits errors.  Although Henin’s heightened aggression has produced recurrent flurries of miscues, she should find her range sooner or later.  Pironkova’s pacelessness should allow the Belgian to measure her groundstrokes on the clay, providing her with a useful reference point for tenser encounters in the imminent future.

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Hewitt (28) vs. Chardy (Chatrier, 4th match):  While neither player especially enjoys this surface, the match offers an intriguing contrast between a wily, tenacious veteran and a flamboyant, temperamental star of the future.  Or at least the French hope that Chardy delivers upon his promise, since recent evidence has not been impressive.  Can Hewitt’s grittier mentality enable him to outlast the younger player just as another Anglophone competitor survived a Frenchman on Day 2?  Or will Chardy’s more forceful serve-forehand combinations penetrate the court too effectively, miring the Australian deep behind the baseline?  Note the duration of the rallies, which will favor Chardy if relatively short and Hewitt if they extend longer.  Also observe the impact of the Paris crowd on yet another of les bleues, some of whom (Gasquet, Mauresmo) have appeared burdened by expectations and others of whom (Tsonga, Monfils) have relished the adulation.  On the other hand, something more than fanatical Frenchies is required to rattle Hewitt.

Safina (9) vs. Date Krumm (Lenglen, 2nd match):  The Russian seeks her third consecutive finals appearance at Roland Garros after finishing runner-up to Ivanovic and Safina, but it’s unrealistic to expect the realization of that goal in the aftermath of her back surgery.  Winning just one total match at Stuttgart, Rome, and Madrid, Safina could fall well outside the top 10 and possibly outside the top 20 if she falters here.  Opposite her stands the artful, seemingly ageless Date, whose enduring affection for the game inspired her improbable return.  Unsurprisingly, she hasn’t toppled many high-profile foes in the comeback, yet she did win the Seoul title and has taken sets from elite players such as Wozniacki.  The match rests in Safina’s control, which is not necessarily good news for her; in a similar situation against the pedestrian Zakopalova in Madrid, she coughed up leads in both sets before crumbling under pressure in two tiebreaks.  Should she establish an early lead, she might cruise.  If she doesn’t, we could witness a lively rollercoaster that would compensate for mediocre tennis with high-quality drama.

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Cornet vs. Pavlyuchenkova (29) (Court 1, 1st match):  Long considered future superstars by their respective nations, these expectation-laden phenoms have not quite delivered on their promise—the French much more notably than the Russian.  One can trace Cornet’s implosion to the two match points that she squandered against Safina in the fourth round of last year’s Australian Open.  Had she converted one of those opportunities, she would have reached a first Slam quarterfinal and possibly sparked a breakthrough season; instead, her understandable deflation combined with a  shoulder injury to completely reverse her momentum.  Although Pavlyuchenkova hasn’t endured a similarly spectacular collapse, the Russian has wavered after what seemed a career-changing surge into last year’s Indian Wells semifinals.  She has struggled notably on the largest stages over the past year and has been hobbled by a foot injury in recent weeks.  It’ll be intriguing to observe whether Pavlyuchenkova can recapture the form that brought her to the second week here in 2009, or whether Cornet can muster momentum from encouraging performances in Fez and Estoril.  The French crowd will be firmly on her side, but she might be better off if they weren’t.

Ferrero (16) vs. Cuevas (Court 1, 3rd match):  Our last sight of the polished, gracefully aging Ferrero was his ignominious opening defeat in Rome at the unexpected hands of Santiago Giraldo.  (The Colombian displayed a crisp game that day, but a former French Open champion needs to win more than three games from an unseeded challenger.)  Shortly afterwards, a knee injury compelled Juan Carlos to withdraw from his home even in Madrid, a pity considering his near-total dominance of the South American clay courts in February.  It’ll be intriguing to observe what attitude the former French Open champion brings to his clash with the Uruguayan clay-court doubles specialist Pablo Cuevas.  Gifted with an elegant backhand, Cuevas has overcome adversaries as accomplished as Almagro on this surface, so he could penalize an unconvincing Ferrero.  Above all, though, this duo should deliver a classic exhibit of clay-court tennis rather than awkwardly adapting hard-court styles to the dirt as is so often the case in the contemporary game.  Watching players like these, one learns to relish the variety among tennis surfaces and regret the current trend towards uniform surface speed.

Ginepri vs. Querrey (18) (Court 2, 2nd match):  We’ll admit immediately that these two Americans are no clay experts and in fact are occasionally embarrassed by the vagaries of the surface.  This clash caught our attention not from the brilliant technique that they’ll display but from its psychological component.  Losing their previous meeting in the Indianapolis final despite a far more imposing serve, Querrey brings that mental baggage to the court as well as the baggage of never having won a match at Roland Garros.  It’s not surprising that his strategically limited game hasn’t succeeded here in the past, yet the sometimes complacent American has typically underwhelmed at Slams in general, not a positive sign for his future.  He can’t keep writing off early, disappointing losses as learning experiences forever, nor can he continue losing lackadaisically on important occasions to respectable but unintimidating players like Ginepri.  There’s a fine line between relaxed and lackadaisical that the loose-limbed Californian needs to find soon.

Peer (18) vs. Llagostera Vives (Q) (Court 6, 1st match):  Generally not renowned for her clay-court skills, the Israeli smoothly navigated a pair of formidable draws to reach the semifinals in Stuttgart and Madrid.  In that infamous top quarter of the WTA draw, Peer’s days are certainly numbered, for she could face Serena in the round of 16.  Nevertheless, this tournament represents an opportunity to extend the momentum from the Premier events into Wimbledon and the summer hard courts, where she has prospered more often.  Toting a name as long as she is short, Llagostera Vives has achieved resounding success in doubles with Martinez Sanchez but can be crafty in singles as well.  Peer will be cast in the role of the aggressor, an unaccustomed and perhaps uncomfortable position for her.  We should see a match defined by intelligent point construction and mental tenacity much more than baseline bullets.  Neither of these players can survive with the top-tier sluggers, but they’re an engaging diversion from the power-soaked games of the WTA elite.

Briefly notedAfter Ginepri vs. Querrey on Court 2, Serena and Venus continue their pursuit of a doubles calendar Slam.  Absent for most of the clay season in which she thrives, Marbella finalist Suarez Navarro targets Ponte Vedra Beach finalist Govortsova, a Belarussian who has enjoyed surprising success on this surface over the past several weeks.  One match to not watch is the clash between Gabashvili and Daniel Koellerer.  The senselessly pugnacious Austrian has earned the contempt of fellow players, commentators, and spectators alike for his repulsive, relentless displays of gamesmanship inappropriate to this dignified sport.  Far more elegant is the meeting between Hantuchova and Tamarine Tanasugarn, both of whom must be looking forward to the grass season; nevertheless, we’re curious to see who more successfully adapts their fast-court style to the clay.  While the willowy Slovak attempts to solve that riddle, Russian qualifier Ksenia Pervak ventures into the den of a familiar lioness:

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How do you solve a problem like Maria?  We hope that Pervak has no answer. 😉

 

Inactive during the past fortnight, Sharapova dropped two places in the rankings to #14 as a result of some excellent performances by the players just below her.  While she caresses her strings above, we’ll recap some of the big winners and losers from both the WTA and the ATP.

ATP:

Murray (4):  The 2009 champion failed to win a set and once more exchanged places with Nadal after Rafa’s semifinal run.  On the other hand, he has only a relatively modest number of points to defend on clay, whereas the Spaniard has virtually no room to gain before he reaches Paris.

Roddick (7):  The top-ranked American’s sensational month vaulted him past Soderling despite the Swede’s consecutive semifinals.

Youzhny (13):  Sensational so far in 2010, the Russian has erupted from a lengthy slump to challenge the game’s elite.  He defeated a rusty Wawrinka and profited from Fish’s retirement.   Just a hint:  you might hear more about him from us in the near future.  😉

Berdych (16):  He fully earned his highest ranking in years by defeating not one, not two, but three higher-ranked players at Key Biscayne.  There’s plenty of room for him to keep ascending, too.

Simon (26):  Frenchman’s free fall continues after failing to win so much as a set all month.  He’s gone from beating the top players to threatening the top players to not threatening the top players to not threatening anyone.

Almagro (34):  Yet another talented Spaniard fully profited from the section vacated by Djokovic to plow his way to the quarterfinals against unremarkable opposition.

Chardy (44):  A French star of the future avenged his loss to Querrey in Indian Wells by rallying from a one-set deficit against him here before forcing the afore-mentioned Almagro into a third set.

WTA:

Venus (4):  Big sister supplants Kuznetsova after extending her winning streak to 15 consecutive matches.  If she can hold her ground, she won’t risk facing  little sister in the quarterfinal of a major event, better for her and better for the audience.

Azarenka (9):  The defending champion defended a little longer than her counterpart Murray, especially considering her brutal draw.  But she continues to struggle mentally against vaunted veterans and dropped two spots as a consequence.  We’ll see if she can regain her momentum on the clay.

Clijsters (10):  Her return to the top 10 was all but inevitable, since she has no points to defend until Cincinnati.  If she continues to perform at the level that she displayed in Miami, she’ll be back in the top 5 by the late summer.  Maintaining  a standard of excellence is easier than done, however.

Bartoli (12):  The Frenchwoman’s game may be eccentric, even unique, but her results have been more consistent than many of her peers.  She did well to capitalize on the opportunity offered by an injured Kuznetsova and an upset-riddled quarter.  If you open a door for her, she’ll almost always walk through it.

Li (15) / Pennetta (16):  These two veterans skidded downwards after dropping three-setters in their opening rounds.  Li failed to win a match at either Indian Wells or Miami, losing consecutive third-set tiebreaks (and double-faulting on match point).  Nevertheless, you’re going to hear more about her shortly, too.  😉

Rezai (20):  She accomplished nothing at all in Key Biscayne, losing her opener to a wildcard, but somehow still makes her top 20 debut.

Henin (23):  A superb semifinal run in which she defeated two top-ten players and Zvonareva launches Henin ten places closer to the top.  It’s likely that she’ll be seeded in the top 16 for Roland Garros and perhaps in the top 8 for Wimbledon.

Pavlyuchenkova (30):  The promising but still inconsistent Russian (once the #1 junior) returns to the top 30 by knocking off Schiavone, never an easy assignment.

Cirstea (36):  The very promising but still very inconsistent Romanian fell off the radar for the last several months  but knocked off Portuguese phenom Larcher de Brito.  Armed with the expert skills of Antonio van Grichen as her new coach, she should progress further during the road to Roland Garros, where she reached a quarterfinal last year after upsetting Jankovic.  A tricky first-round against Kirilenko looms in Marbella, though.

Ivanovic (57):  One match won, one ranking spot gained.  She made three great decisions during the tournament:  1)  retaining her new coach, Heinz Gunthardt, who seems an excellent personality match for her, 2) withdrawing from the pressure-soaked Fed Cup tie, 3) taking a wildcard into the Stuttgart event.  If she can maximize her match play during the clay court season, she should post more wins and gain more confidence, essential for her aggressive game.  Nearly half of her total rankings point (560 of 1172) come from fourth-round appearances at Roland Garros and Wimbledon next year, so she’ll want to build as much of a buffer as she can should she fail to reproduce those results.  Ana almost definitely will be unseeded for both Slams and could find herself anywhere in the draws.

***

Unless something especially newsworthy occurs in Marbella or Ponte Vedra Beach during the next few days, we’ll be busily working on our second player profile, which will follow the same format as the Radwanska essay (5 highlights, 5 lowlights, 3 strengths, 3 weaknesses, projected future results).  It should be published before the end of the week!  🙂