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Victoria Azarenka - Sony Ericsson Open

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Wozarenka:  When the surface changed, the champions stayed the same.  While she didn’t quite tower over the Charleston draw, Wozniacki elevated her performance as the week progressed and satisfyingly erased the memory of her ankle sprain here last year.  Challenged more than expected by Zahlavova Strycova and Wickmayer, the world #1 should draw confidence from her ability to capture crucial points even when she couldn’t find her best form.  Wozniacki’s comfortable victory over Jankovic, one of her generation’s finest clay players, augurs well for the Dane’s chances at Roland Garros.  Armed with sufficient consistency, concentration, and fitness to prevail on clay, she could finally legitimize her top ranking in a draw without clear favorites.  On the other hand, Caro’s best friend might ruin that storyline.  Spanning the hard courts of Miami and the red clay of Marbella, the longest winning streak of Azarenka’s career has vaulted her into the top 5 for the first time.  In the relatively toothless Andalusian draw, Vika did not succumb to complacency but instead marched through the week without surrendering a set.  A somewhat more natural mover on the crushed brick, Azarenka shares Wozniacki’s hope that injuries will not cripple her clay campaign as happened last year.  If they remain healthy, this budding rivalry could blossom during the European spring.  Stay tuned for Stuttgart, where they compete for a Porsche.

First-time champions: While Begu and Vesnina fell a round short of their maiden titles, Pablo Andujar and Ryan Sweeting completed most improbable weeks by defeating distinctly favored opponents in the final.  Prognosticators should not extrapolate too boldly from these peripheral tournaments, far removed in geography and significance from the battlefields of Madrid, Rome, and Paris.  Nevertheless, Andujar deserves credit for capitalizing upon his victory over Verdasco in Miami, which itself extended promising portents such as a win over Robredo and a competitive three-set loss to Wawrinka.  And Sweeting will have claimed the attention of hopeful American fans with aggressive ball-striking and a confident demeanor that belied his inexperience in finals.  That confidence assisted him in a victory over the recently resurgent Karlovic, who has flustered many a more notable foe.  Under pressure from Nishikori late in the second set, Sweeting found the courage to take his fate into his own hands during the championship-clinching tiebreak—not an easy feat for a first-time finalist.

Nishikori:  Unfortunate to draw Nadal in his Miami opener, he acquitted himself impressively throughout a match more complex than the scoreline suggested and built upon that encouraging performance in Houston.  Still early in his partnership with Brad Gilbert, Nishikori has climbed to a position within range of his ambition to become the highest-ranked Japanese player in ATP history.  He should aim to bolster his second serve and refine his down-the-line forehand, but this week provided a desperately needed flicker of positive news for his beleaguered compatriots.  (Nishikori also has started an auction and a Facebook fund-raising drive for tsunami relief in which anyone interested should participate.)

Peng:  Despite Li Na’s post-Australian collapse, Chinese tennis continues to enjoy an outstanding 2011.  A paragon of consistency amidst the tumultuous WTA, China’s #2 surrounded an Indian Wells quarterfinal with fourth-round surges in Melbourne and Miami during which she defeated Jankovic and Kuznetsova, respectively.  The double-fister once known largely for her doubles skills plowed into the Charleston semifinals despite a style seemingly unsuited for the clay.  Firmly embedded in the top 30, Peng soon can look forward to seeded status at Grand Slams and perhaps even byes at some of the smaller tournaments.

Lisicki:  Sweeping to the Charleston title in 2009, the German with the infectious smile looked on the verge of a breakthrough that could catapult her to the top of the WTA.  Injuries (probably permanently) thwarted those aspirations, but Lisicki proved with a resounding victory over Bartoli that she still can threaten top-20 opponents.  To be sure, the Frenchwoman has suffered her share of head-scratching losses.  Still, this triumph must have delighted a player who spent months on crutches learning how to walk again one step at a time.

Deuce:

Jankovic:  Inching back towards her former reliability, she has reached the quarterfinals or better in six of seven tournaments since a second-round Melbourne loss to the aforementioned Peng.  This stretch represents a significant step forward from a disastrous second half of 2010, and Jankovic’s most productive time of year lies just over the horizon.  But one expected more from the Serb than a routine straight-sets loss when she faced a fallible Wozniacki.  Like Sharapova, Jankovic has begun to struggle against the stars of the next generation (Pavyluchenkova, Petkovic, Wozniacki), never an auspicious sign.

Safina:  Whether or not one supports Marat’s controversial sister, only the hardest hearts could lack at least a tremor of compassion for her frustrating, chronically aborted return from a back injury.  Two creditable victories in Marbella set up an intriguing clash with Azarenka, at which stage her body failed her again.  Few players deserve a shift in karma more than Safina.

Green clay:  On the one hand, the slow-but-not-too-slow courts in Charleston offered a pleasant transition in color and texture between the blue/purple of the North American hard courts and the red of the European clay.  On the other hand, how relevant is a surface when only one tournament in either the ATP or WTA calendar uses it?  Even more ominously, Charleston’s move to the week immediately after the Indian Wells-Miami marathon does not bode well for its future viability. While Wimbledon could survive as the season’s only grass tournament, if necessary, Charleston might struggle to lift the banner of green clay on its own.

Samantha Stosur - Sony Ericsson Open

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Stosur:  For last year’s Roland Garros finalist, her past accomplishments weigh upon her as a burden rather than buttressing her as a source of confidence.  Considering her 2011 form, though, one could not have expected her to defend her title, and her defeat to Vesnina looked less embarrassing after the Russian reached the final.  Can a return to the red clay reverse her spiral before it imperils her top-10 status?

Kuznetsova:  Fortunate to escape a qualifier ranked outside the top 100 in her opener, the 2009 Roland Garros champion wasn’t so lucky when the same situation recurred in her semifinal.  While conquering Henin and three top-10 opponents this year, Sveta has suffered four of her nine defeats against players ranked outside the top 60.

Rezai:  Another hideous loss for the pugnacious Frenchwoman as time ticks towards April 30, the day when her Madrid title defense begins.  It may end then as well, judging from recent evidence.

 

Banishing an oddly listless Djokovic from the playground of princes, Verdasco reached his first career Masters 1000 final in impressive fashion.  He’ll need to produce a career highlight in order to overcome the intent Nadal, who increasingly resembles the four-time French Open champion long invincible on this surface.  Yet Rafa hasn’t won a title since Rome nearly a year ago, so this championship match represents a moment of truth for him in a sense.  The only player to whom he could respectably lose here was Djokovic; if he wavers against Verdasco, we’ll know that his much-coveted “calm” hasn’t yet returned and that he’s still a bit edgy in the crucial moments.  If he delivers another confident, suffocating performance, however, he could put himself in position for another blazing clay season.  We’ll take a look at the Monte Carlo final and a briefer look at the Charleston final:

Head-to-head:    The statistics are staggering.  Nadal not only leads the overall series 9-0 but has lost just 3 of 23 total sets and has won all nine sets that they’ve played on clay.  Only one occasion did the second-best Spanish lefty challenge Rafa:  their 2009 Australian Open semifinal, during which Verdasco came within six points of victory before falling just short.  Probably more relevant to this match, however, are their two clay quarterfinals last year in Rome and Madrid, both won in straight sets by Nadal. 

Recent form:  A little shaky at the start of 2010, Nadal steadily raised his level on the North American hard courts and has raced through the draw here without dropping a set.  (However, to be frank, his draw wouldn’t have been much friendlier had Uncle Toni personally designed it.)  Thumped by Berdych in Indian Wells, Verdasco scored an impressive win over Cilic in Miami before his breakthrough run here.  It’s worth noting that he has toppled more imposing opponents (including Berdych and Djokovic) than has Nadal, so his arrival here is no accident.

Two pieces of advice for Verdasco: 

1)  Relax.  All of the pressure in this match rests squarely on Nadal’s shoulders, for whom anything less than a win would be inexcusable.  Few would have expected Verdasco to reach this point, so he has nothing at all to prove on Sunday and can swing freely, knowing that he has overachieved here regardless of what happens.

2)  Sit on the power button.  As Soderling, Del Potro and to a lesser extent Djokovic have shown, the way to tackle Nadal is to bury him under a barrage of flat, deep baseline bombs.  Verdasco’s forehand-centric style differs from the symmetrical groundstroke game of those players, but he’ll want to take massive swings whenever possible.  Cleverness and subtlety play straight into Rafa’s hands.

Two pieces of advice for Nadal:

1)  Stay focused.  Mental lapses cost Rafa dearly at both of the first two Masters 1000 events this year; neither Ljubicic nor Roddick seemed to have a chance until the Spaniard handed one to them.  Although he might well recover from a donation or two against Verdasco (generally rather charitable himself), this habit needs to die a swift death before he settles into such a routine regularly.  This match offers an excellent opportunity for him to prove–not to us, but to himself and to his opponents–that he can maintain his intensity through an entire match against a top player.

2)  Pin Verdasco behind the baseline.  If this match turns into a war of attrition and stamina, Nadal will have a distinct edge, since he’s far more consistent and arguably more fit than his compatriot.  He doesn’t need to do anything extraordinary to win, just to make sure that Verdasco doesn’t do anything extraordinary.  The best means to pre-empt a flashy string of winners is to keep Fernando at a distance from which he can’t hit winners with margin and will become reckless in frustrated impatience.

Shot-by-shot breakdown:

Serve:  Verdasco

Return:  Nadal, slightly (although Verdasco is more aggressive, Nadal makes fewer errors on it, which better suits clay)

Forehand:  Nadal, slightly (Nadal’s greater versatility trumps Verdasco’s greater power on clay)

Backhand:  Nadal

Volleys:  Both

Movement:  Nadal

Mental:  Nadal

Pic(k):

***

Shifting back to Charleston across the volcanic plume, here’s a briefer preview of the final there between Zvonareva and Stosur:

Head-to-head:  Stosur has won their last four meetings, while Zvonareva hasn’t defeated her since 2004, but they’ve never played on clay.  Probably the only meaningful meeting occurred last month in Indian Wells, when the Australian halted Vera’s title defense in straight sets.  Injuries and illness have played significant roles in both of their careers, and it’s hard to recall which one was ailing at any given moment in their earlier matches.  Even when Stosur was the lower-ranked player, though, she enjoyed success against Zvonareva.

Recent form:  Dropping just 14 games in the entire tournament, Zvonareva should feel quite fresh following Wozniacki’s semifinal retirement.  In only one of her seven sets this week did the Russian lose more than two games, suggesting that she may be back on track after recent hard-court disappointments.  The event’s informal atmosphere suits her relaxed personality, enabling her to play without the pressure that so often cripples her at major tournaments.  Meanwhile, Stosur saved two set points and rallied impressively from a 2-5 deficit in the second set of her semifinal against Hantuchova, but she hasn’t lost a set this week either.  All three of her losses in Melbourne, Indian Wells, and Miami came against the eventual champions in those events, so a superb performance is required to navigate past her.  It’s clear that (bar injury) she’ll remain near the top of the women’s game for the foreseeable future.

Two pieces of advice for Stosur:

1)  Vary rhythm and pace.  A sturdy, consistent baseliner, Zvonareva would settle into a comfortable rhythm if she can trade flat, crisp groundstrokes from a respectable distance.  Stosur needs to find ways to disrupt the Russian’s timing and footwork, both among her greatest strengths; backhand slices, chipped returns, and heavy topspin forehands are a few of the weapons that she could deploy.

2)  Finish points at the net.   Another way in which Stosur can ruffle the fragile Zvonareva is by cutting points short and charging the net whenever she has an opening to exploit her excellent volleying skills.  This arhythmic style flustered Hantuchova at crucial moments in the semifinal by rushing her out of her comfort zone.  Less leisurely than the Slovak, Zvonareva nevertheless prefers a more flowing style of rally.

Two pieces of advice for Zvonareva: 

1)  Extend the rallies.  Far more consistent than the Australian, the Russian has a significant advantage in the longer points.  She won’t want to go for too much too soon and definitely will want to target Stosur’s unimposing backhand; crosscourt backhand-to-backhand exchanges will reap rewards for her.  As long as the points are played in a conventional manner from the baseline, Zvonareva should be able to wear down Stosur and expose her asymmetrical groundstroke game as well as her questionable movement.  Here, the green clay will serve Vera’s purpose much better than did the hard courts on which she previously has played Stosur.

2)  Stay positive.  Notorious for tearful tantrums, Zvonareva rarely has responded well to adversity and repeatedly has allowed minor setbacks to permanently derail her concentration (cf. her US Open loss to Pennetta last year).  When she’s achieved her best results (cf. her Indian Wells title run last year), her calm demeanor mirrors her crisp, precisely measured groundstrokes.  The Australian’s fast-paced game encourages momentum to mushroom in either direction, so Vera will need to stay as composed and self-assured as she has for most of the week.   There will be stretches when Stosur’s serve is clicking relentlessly, but there also will be stretches when her game unravels wildly.  Zvonareva should accept the inevitability of the former situations, steel herself to survive them, remind herself that opportunities inevitably will arise, and concentrate on exploiting them when they do.

Shot-by-shot breakdown: 

Serve:  Stosur

Return:  Zvonareva (less powerful but more reliable = better on clay)

Forehand:  Stosur

Backhand:  Zvonareva

Volleys:  Stosur

Movement:  Zvonareva

Mental:  Neither (Stosur historically is a dismal performer in finals, but Zvonareva has the reputation sketched above)

As you can tell from this dissection, the matchup is quite difficult to call.  It’s our job, though, so…

Pic(k):

We’re nominating Vera for the most beautiful eyes in women’s tennis.  Here’s a glimpse of her greatest triumph, by the way:

We’re so sorry that someone else happens to be in the picture.  😉 

As they say in Monte Carlo, a bientot…

Twice the queen of Indian Wells, Daniela Hantuchova startled us on Friday by intercepting second-seeded Jankovic’s seemingly tranquil trajectory towards the Charleston final.  It was a pleasant surprise, though, for we’ve always enjoyed watching the cultured, multilingual Slovak and have sympathized with her struggles to master her nerves at crucial moments, most notably the 2008 Australian Open semifinal against Ivanovic.  Since we’re straddling the Atlantic Ocean during this joint semifinal preview, moreover, we thought that the longest legs in women’s tennis might help us pull off this balancing act!  🙂

MONTE CARLO:

Djokovic (1) vs. Verdasco (10):  The Serb may wish to sharpen his Spanish, for he’s the only semifinalist who doesn’t share a country of origin with Rafa.  His head-to-head with Fernando stands at 5-2 in Djokovic’s favor, including a labyrinthine three-set win in the quarterfinals last year and two other 2009 victories; Verdasco hasn’t defeated the Serb since 2006, when Novak was less known for his tennis than for dubious medical timeouts.  Reaching the final four without dropping a set, Djokovic appears to have regained his confidence after a dismal Indian Wells / Miami campaign, but his inner demons always lurk just around the corner.  Charting a more turbulent course towards the same destination, Verdasco played his best tennis when it mattered most against Berdych but inexcusably handed Montanes a second life in the quarters.  If Saturday’s match becomes a war of attrition centered around stamina, he may rue such profligacy. 

Although both players will want to win efficiently in order to conserve energy for a clash with Nadal, we suspect that this wish may not be fulfilled.  Eager to embrace (and sometimes create) mid-match drama, the top seed possesses a mentality well-designed to prevail in a suspenseful semifinal with multiple momentum shifts.  PickDjokovic (75-25).

Ferrer (11) vs. Nadal (2):  How much difference does an “o” make?  Having defeated Ferrero in the quarters, Nadal now trains his formidable artillery on Ferrer in the third all-Spanish match contested here in the last two days.  Ferrer hasn’t lost a set in four matches while knocking off the likes of Ljubicic and Kohlschreiber, building upon the momentum that he accumulated from a sturdy Miami run.  Meanwhile, Nadal looked almost sadistically single-minded in consecutive humiliations of De Bakker and Berrer before smoothly navigating a resurgent Ferrero.  During the North American hard courts, increasingly frequent flashes of vintage Rafa emerged amidst some oddly less assured play; nevertheless, the clay has visibly boosted his confidence already.  After sustaining consecutive hard-court losses to Ferrer in 2007, Rafa has reeled off five consecutive victories over his compatriot, including three on clay and one just a few weeks ago in Miami.  At the source of the lopsided head-to-head lies their similar playing style.  The two Spaniards play essentially the same tenacious baseline game, but Nadal plays it with more pace and more consistency, leaving Ferrer few weapons with which to threaten him.

For the first time in several years, Rafa has something to prove on this surface and won’t let his compatriot derail him.  This semifinal should be much less dramatic than the other.  Pick:  Nadal (90-10).

CHARLESTON:

Wozniacki (1) vs. Zvonareva (7):  For the second straight year, the dogged Dane seeks a green-clay sweep after capturing the Ponte Vedra Beach title.  After an indifferent start in Australia, her last three tournaments have (somewhat) vindicated her elevated ranking; she followed an Indian Wells finals appearance with a creditable loss to Henin in Miami and the aforementioned championship a week later.  At sea for much of the year, on the other hand, Zvonareva defended her Thailand title but fell quickly during her Indian Wells title defense and wilted against Justine in Miami.  Tied at one after two meetings last year, their head-to-head illustrates the potential directions that this match could take.  The Russian won comfortably during her sensational championship run in the desert, and the Dane survived excruciating cramps during a heroic, nail-biting triumph in Doha.  If Zvonareva performs at her top level, she should win, but something less won’t suffice.  Put another way, Vera’s best is better than Caro’s best, while Caro’s average is better than Vera’s average.

This matchup is very even and might well produce a third set.  Zvonareva has a little more power, Wozniacki has a little more consistency, but otherwise both will be attempting to outmaneuver the other through extended rallies from the baseline; there won’t be many cheap points or many net approaches.  One hidden variable that favors the Dane is the schedule.  She’ll be playing at 1 PM (and on ESPN2) for the third straight day, while Vera played at night on Friday and in the morning on Thursday, so she might be a little off her rhythm.  In a match so close on paper, such a seemingly trivial detail might matter.  Pick:  Um, uh, Wozniacki?? (55-45).

Stosur (5) vs. Hantuchova (8):  Can yesterday’s upset artist craft another ambush?  Arguably more accomplished in doubles than singles, Stosur has been as consistent as any WTA player since last year’s French Open, when she burst out of nowhere to reach the semifinals.  Once embedded in the top 10, Hantuchova has endured more travails than triumphs over the last few years while also accumulating impressive doubles results with partners such as the recently retired Sugiyama.  Their head-to-head is virtually irrelevant, for they haven’t met since 2006 (a quite different stage in both of their careers) and haven’t played on clay since 2003 (!).  Not renowned for their movement, both of them will seek to play first-strike tennis that allows them to spend as much time as possible on offense while shielding their meager defensive skills. 

The x-factor here is Stosur’s serve, the third-best in the WTA after Serena and Venus.  If she can land a reasonable percentage of first balls and take immediate control of the points on her serve, she’ll hold with sufficient ease and regularity to keep Hantuchova under pressure in the Slovak’s service games; eventually, Stosur will break through if such is the case.  But if the Australian finds herself reduced to strings of second serves, her asymmetrical groundstroke game and sub-par foot speed will be mercilessly exposed.  Stosur believes that her serve alone wins countless matches for her, and we can understand why.  Pick:  Stosur (65-35).

***

Needless to say, we’ll be back when the Sunday lineups are set to preview both championship matches for you in detail, including head-to-heads, nuggets of advice for each finalist, and shot-by-shot breakdowns.  In the meantime, enjoy the matches and this sensuous image of Ivanovic!  🙂

The five-time defending champion was ruthlessly efficient again today, conceding just one game to an outgunned opponent for the second straight match.  After a successful day of predictions on Thursday, all four of our projected semifinalists remain in contention for the first significant prize of the ATP clay season.  But will they take the final step into precisely the Saturday matchups that we envisioned several days ago?  Let’s break down the action on Friday:

Djokovic (1) vs. Nalbandian:  His expectations unquenched with a dramatic triumph over Youzhny, the evergreen Argentine posted an equally impressive win over the ultra-consistent Robredo.  Meanwhile, Djokovic delivered some of his cleanest and most confident tennis since last fall when he routinely dismissed Wawrinka.  Although the Serb has sometimes struggled against Nalbandian, his seamless movement and ability to rapidly transition from defense into offense should reap rewards on the clay.  Expect a high-quality match filled with crisp ball-striking, audacious shot placement, and brilliantly bludgeoned two-handers.  Pick:  Djokovic.

Montanes vs. Verdasco (10):   Credit Montanes for overcoming the surging Baghdatis and the formidable serve of Cilic, two opponents who would have overpowered the unseeded Spaniard on any other surface.  Now, however, he faces a compatriot who also has enjoyed substantial success on clay; he’ll need to retrieve as many balls as he can and hope for untimely erratic stretches from Verdasco.  Soaring past an increasingly dangerous Berdych in the third round, the tenth seed exacted revenge against the player who had eliminated him from the previous two Masters 1000 tournaments; perhaps the most impressive feature of his victory was the mental toughness that he displayed after losing an airtight first set.  A fraction of that toughness coupled with Verdasco’s far superior power should spell a comfortable win.  Pick:  Verdasco.

Ferrer (11) vs. Kohlschreiber:  Following a pair of routine straight-set victories, Ferrer crammed a bagel down the throat of the Indian Wells champion before edging through a second-set tiebreak.  Already a titlist on clay this season (Acapulco), he should scurry and grind his way past the German, who exploited a woefully inept performance from Murray.  His  flowing shot-making skills should provide a scintillating contrast with the Spaniard’s indefatigable counter-punching, but Kohlschreiber’s game oscillates between peaks and valleys.  He won’t maintain the unflagging intensity and consistency required to topple Ferrer on this surface.  Pick:  Ferrer.

Ferrero (9) vs. Nadal (2):  The competition abruptly spikes upward for Nadal, who confronts a fellow French Open champion and one of the tiny handful of players who has defeated him on this surface (Rome 2008).  Nevertheless, that match featured a blisters-riddled Nadal who couldn’t perform at a level remotely close to his capabilities.  Although Ferrero displayed impressive grittiness during his win over Tsonga, he may be a little weary as a consequence of its bone-crushing rallies.  On the other hand, Rafa exerted himself so little during his win over Berrer that he practiced after the  match!  A rested Nadal + a tired opponent = good news for Nadal fans.  Pick:  Nadal.

***

Just as in Monte Carlo, all four of our projected semifinalists in Charleston have reached the quarters,  and we’re sticking with the four girls whom we brought to the dance.  Once the lineup there has been decided, we’ll come back with a transatlantic preview of the semifinals in both events!  🙂

One could argue that currently there are five real marquee names in the WTA;  two are sisters, two are Belgians, and the fifth is mauling a hapless tennis ball above.  As it happens, none of the five are participating in Charleston this week (although two were originally entered).  While tournament organizers and sponsors may rue their absence, the players in the draw should relish the opportunity to seize a prize of some consequence without conquering an exceptionally forbidding foe.  Spectators who enjoy compelling tennis likewise should relish the occasion; the competition often rises a notch among the WTA rank-and-file when no juggernauts are marching towards an inevitable title.  There’s much to be said for seeing the game’s legends, but there’s also something to be said for watching a hard-fought three-setter rather than a lackadaisical 6-0, 6-2 clinic that was over before it began.  With those thoughts in mind, let’s take a look at who might carpe the diem…

Top half:  Fresh (or not?) from her triumph in Ponte Vedra Beach, Wozniacki has a rather smooth route to the quarterfinals, although she might need to brace herself for a clash with ferociously competitive Portuguese phenom Larcher de Brito.  She should navigate either that test or Schnyder with ease before a Friday meeting with Petrova, who has more than enough firepower to muscle aside her first two potential opponents.  The mercurial Russian split two engaging sets with the Dane last month but ate a bagel in the decider.  Since both players have developed outstanding skills and resumes on this surface, we should see a very high-quality quarterfinal.

The second quarter looks almost certain to produce another edition of the Vera-Vika Show, already aired twice in 2010.  Despite her erratic form this year, Zvonareva won’t find any threats to her composure (always the key for her) among her first two opponents.  A little less lucky with Oudin in her neighborhood, Azarenka may be hampered by the leg injury that forced her to retire from Marbella.  If she is healthy, though, it’s hard to imagine that her crisp technique and versatile style will falter against the American, who typically feasts on erratic, one-dimensional shotmakers.  This quarterfinal may not offer the most exquisite tennis in a technical sense, but its violent, emotion-laden momentum swings should offer delicious entertainment for those of us who enjoy a dash of melodrama in our martinis.

Semifinal:  Zvonareva d. Wozniacki.  They’ve split their two meetings, they’re both former finalists, they’re both skilled on clay, and they both play relatively conservatively while covering the court brilliantly.  What’s to choose between them?  We think that Wozniacki’s mileage will catch up with her against an opponent who is equally tireless.

Bottom half:  Since last year’s French Open, Stosur has been one of the most consistent players in the WTA and can threaten anyone with her imposing serve-forehand combination.  Although her functional style may not inspire the imagination, her brisk, even-tempered demeanor serves (haha) her well in a WTA filled with fragility.  Her literal serve should allow her to coast into a quarterfinal with either Bartoli or Ponte Vedra Beach semifinalist Vesnina.  Since no real clay demon lurks in this section, one can expect the matches here to play out much as they would on a hard court, which means that Stosur should break serve more often than she loses it.

The bottom quarter has the name of Jelena Jankovic smeared all over it in red lip gloss.  Not only did the smiling Serb awaken from a dismal 14-month slump by taking the title in Indian Wells, but she has more clay-court ability than all of her potential opponents here combined.  Nearly certain to face JJ in the quarterfinals is the gentle, elegant Hantuchova, who can create angles that would fluster a geometry professor yet moves around the court far less smoothly than one would imagine from her lithe figure.  In a sense, the match would oppose a player who makes the court look huge (Hantuchova) against a player who makes it look tiny (Jankovic); the Serb should find a way to retrieve enough balls until she finds a way to transition from defense into offense and take over the rallies from there.

Semifinal:  Jankovic d. Stosur.  They split their two meetings in Indian Wells and Miami, but Jelena struggled with fatigue and blustery conditions on the latter occasion.  The slower surface favors her counterpunching style, and a well-advised rest since Miami (ahem, Caroline?) should restore the spring in her step. 

Final:  Jankovic d. Zvonareva.  Like Zvonareva-Wozniacki, this potential pas de deux is very even, in part because they showcase strikingly similar styles.  The Russian prevailed when they met in a semifinal here two years ago and has won their last two meetings, but Jankovic is the better player when all things are equal and has recently demonstrated improvement in her ability to stay focused on the task at hand.  We won’t be surprised to see this trophy in her well-manicured hands, as it was in 2007:

***

We’ll return to preview the Monte Carlo semifinals on Friday, but in the meantime we’ll compile a “Plotlines to Ponder” post on the clay season in general.  Happy reading and, more importantly, happy watching!  🙂

Almost unnoticed except by the sport’s most fervent followers, four tournaments came and went this week even while most of us recharged our batteries after the drama in Indian Wells and Miami.  Scraping off the rust that accumulated during an extended paternity leave, Stanislas Wawrinka claimed the not very Grand Prix Hassan II in Casablanca, which provided an opportunity for the Olympics gold medallist (see above) to dust off his prodigious clay-court skills before the European events.  Here are four other thoughts from the past week that we wanted to share before taking the next step along the red-brick road to Roland Garros:

1)  Nothing halts a player’s momentum like a change of surface.  Clijsters looked virtually invincible in Miami but came crashing down to earth in Marbella against the 258th-ranked Beatriz Garcia Vidagany.  The Spaniard was playing the first WTA main draw of her career, so her upset surely delighted the home crowd.  Also, we doubt that Clijsters arrived in this Mediterranean resort brimming with competitive ferocity; she needed this title as much as Federer needs a coach.  But she looked decidedly uneasy on her least favorite surface and should have been able to dispose of her many-syllabled opponent despite the insignificance of the occasion.  Keep an eye on Clijsters’ performances in Stuttgart and Rome; is she targeting a deep run in Paris, or is she willing to concede that territory to her compatriot?

2)  The injury bug keeps biting.  Every new day seems to bring another retirement, walkover, or withdrawal.  In Houston, four Americans suffered such fates on the same day, while Argentine Eduardo Schwank limped through his match only to incur a $1,000 fine for lack of effort (moral of the story:  playing through pain doesn’t pay).  Azarenka suffered a leg injury in Marbella, robbing her of almost certain revenge against Indian Wells nemesis Martinez Sanchez.  Soderling and Monfils withdrew from the depleted Monte Carlo field, while Del Potro still suffers from the wrist injury that has sidelined him since Melbourne, and Davydenko probably won’t return until the grass. Last year’s French Open semifinalist  Cibulkova withdrew from the Charleston event, already struck by the withdrawals of Serena, defending champion Sabine Lisicki, and the elegant young lady pictured below.  Somewhere, a bespectacled Novak Djokovic is steadily compiling evidence to support his case for shortening the schedule. 

3)  Wozniacki is indefatigable…so far.  The Great Dane has been great indeed recently, climbing impressively to the #2 ranking.  In Charleston next week, she’ll be the #1 seed at a Premier event for the first time in her young career.  While swarms of rivals keep sports doctors employed, Wozniacki relentlessly chugs through week after week without a significant injury, despite her physically wearing style; next week will be her sixth (yes, sixth!) consecutive week in action.  We applaud her physical and mental resilience, but we’re a little worried about the long-term effects of her workaholic schedule.  After expending so much energy so early in the season, will she be spent in the second half?  Jankovic traveled down a similar road in the past and found herself too exhausted to deliver her best tennis when it mattered most.  Don’t be surprised if Wozniacki endures the same experience once spring turns to summer.

4)  Odesnik is even dumber than we thought.  We concurred with Roddick’s assessment of this American journeyman as a “jackass” after the HGH revelations, which restored credibility to the sport’s draconian, much-ridiculed drug testing policy.  Without plunging too deeply into details, we think that other players can learn a lesson from this case.  If Odesnik remained buried deep below the top 50 despite the assistance of PEDs, there’s clearly much more to performance than what a pharmacist can provide.  At any rate, Odesnik chose not to fade quietly away from our minds, thus allowing sore tempers to heal, but instead entered the Houston event and nearly reached the final (clearly, he’s replenished his supplies since the Melbourne confiscation).  Liable to face an extended suspension for his affront to tennis’ integrity, the American will lose his prize money and rankings points once the investigation culminates in what appears to be a virtually certain verdict.  Therefore, he gains nothing at all from this week while senselessly inflaming the wrath of all those concerned.  Perhaps he has deluded himself into believing that he can eventually wriggle out of his predicament; after all, he once compared himself to an “American Nadal,” an analogy that seemed uncomfortably hubristic at the time and sounds downright disgusting in retrospect.  We can’t think of a single ATP player who has less in common with the unfailingly classy, hardworking Rafa.

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Speaking of Nadal, we’ll take a look at the Monte Carlo draw tomorrow in our next tournament preview, while casting a briefer glance towards the somewhat defanged field in Charleston.  Like Wozniacki, tennis scribes never take a vacation!  🙂

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