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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Li Na Li Na China) beats Francesca Schiavone (Italy) 6/4, 7/6 in the women's final, becoming the first chinese player to win a Grand Slam. The trophies were presented by former Australian tennis champion Evonne Goolagong and Jean Gachassin, President of the French Tennis Federation.

Li:  Narrowly denied in Melbourne, she finished what she started in style this time by sweeping the final nine points of the women’s tournament.  Like Schiavone last year, Li accumulated momentum with each round and metamorphosed almost visibly from fallible beginnings to an ironclad ball-striking machine.  Undaunted by the scrutiny of her compatriots, who celebrated her victory deliriously, the Chinese star relied upon self-discipline and composure as much as forehands and backhands.  When nerves finally crept upon her late in the final, she quelled them with the ruthlessness of a battle-scarred champion.  At a battered 29, Li probably will not emerge into a dominant contender for years to come, yet her breakthrough may have opened the long-awaited floodgates for the Asian game.  Rather than exploiting a decimated draw, moreover, she slashed her way through the most arduous route that anyone could have devised for her.  Neither Serena nor Venus nor Henin nor Clijsters nor Sharapova ever has defeated four consecutive top-10 opponents en route to a major title.  Li Na has.  Valedictorian

Nadal:  Already reeling from consecutive losses to Djokovic in Madrid and Rome, the top seed stared at a dangerous deficit against Isner’s mighty serve just three sets into the tournament.  Two weeks later, he stood as the champion after defeating three straight top-5 opponents at major for the first time.   Especially impressive was his comprehensive victory over Soderling, which illustrated Nadal’s ability to elevate his form almost overnight in response to a threat far more formidable than any that he had previously encountered.  Also encouraging were his comfortable victories in tiebreaks against Soderling and Federer, situations in which nerves might have ruffled his invaluable “calm.”  Only sporadically at his best throughout the fortnight, Nadal saved mountains of break points, struggled to consolidate momentum, and shanked more routine strokes than in any of his previous French Opens.  None of those frailties ultimately derailed him, a fact that should intimidate his rivals more than if he had won the tournament in impeccable fashion.  He enters Wimbledon favored to complete a third Channel Slam.  A+

Rafael Nadal - 2011 French Open - Day Fifteen

Federer:  Unwilling to serve the function of semifinal trampoline for The Streak, the 2009 champion served brilliantly and moved almost as well in a match that appeared a larger upset than the rankings suggested.  Often looking listless and deflated early this year, Federer contrasted with the pallid Serb in displays of visceral emotion throughout the match that demonstrated his undimmed desire.  At match point, his emphatic ace down the T felt just like the vintage era of the Swiss legend’s dominance, during which he seemed invincible on crucial points. Of course, he faltered again in the final against Nadal, failing to serve out a crucial first set and conceding the last set in anticlimactic fashion as he still could not solve the riddle of Rafa’s cross-court forehand.  But that felt just like old times too.  A

Schiavone:  Perhaps even more unexpected than Li’s title was the second straight finals appearance of her last victim, discarded as a bizarre anomaly until lightning nearly struck twice.  Defeating a series of younger and more powerful opponents, Schiavone reveled in returning to the scene of her greatest achievement instead of shrinking from the stage like so many surprise champions.  She rarely overpowered opponents with a single blow but rather entangled them in elaborate, meticulous snares.  From her feisty three-setters against Jankovic and Pavlyuchenkova shone her joy and passion for competition, rarely witnessed in a WTA of overwrought young women.  Although the Italian fell in the rankings by failing to defend her title, she rose in stature by defying the odds to come within a round of doing so.  Last year, Schiavone earned our praise; this year, she earned our respect.  A

Murray:  In an ironic twist, the Scot finally learned how to generate offense on the sport’s most defensively oriented surface.  Previously tethered to a spinning forehand far less potent than those of other top-5 players, Murray suddenly accelerated his racket speed, struck the ball earlier, and found himself with groundstroke weapons on both sides.  Whether he can permanently incorporate the innovations of Paris (and Rome) remains an open question, but his compatriots must have delighted to watch his exploits.  Nor should one neglect his courageous effort in surviving a third-round injury to record his best performance at Roland Garros.  Outside the injury, this fortnight held nothing but positives for Murray.  A

Djokovic:  Did he peak too soon at the clay Masters events?  Djokovic’s ability to endure the grueling fortnight of Roland Garros remains subject to doubt on psychological and physical grounds, for he brought less swagger to his meeting Federer than his 41-0 record would have suggested.  A step slower and a several degrees less intense than his conqueror, Djokovic failed to defend his winning streak with the ferocity that he displayed in similar circumstances against Murray in Rome.  All things must come to an end, though, and the Serb may feel liberated from his surreal 2011 record.  From a broader perspective, moreover, he remains unquestionably the dominant player of the year and likely to overtake Nadal for the top ranking during the summer.  A-

Maria Sharapova - 2011 French Open - Day Eleven

Sharapova:  After a sizzling spring that led from Indian Wells and Miami to Rome, she entered Roland Garros determined to revive her relevance at majors following seven straight pre-quarterfinal defeats.  That skid looked likely to continue a set and a half into her encounter with French prodigy Caroline Garcia, at which moment Sharapova steeled herself to forget the swirling wind, her precocious challenger, and the dirt that has bedeviled her throughout her career.  From that stage forward, the Russian blasted all of her artillery with unbridled aggression as she cast aside conventional wisdom, thrust her opponents on the defensive, and dared them to do something about it.  In the end, only the eventual champion could, and only after Sharapova had delivered her finest Slam performance in more than three years.  The French Open probably will elude her forever, but other majors may not if her serve stays with her just a little longer.  A-

Bartoli:  In a quarter with Wozniacki, Kuznetsova, Stosur, and Julia Goerges, the idiosyncratic Frenchwoman somehow became the last woman standing as she rejoined the top 10.  Breadsticked in her first set of the tournament, Bartoli profited somewhat from an evacuated section but delivered impressive victories over Goerges and then the 2009 champion.  Impervious to the surface advantage of her opponents, this player most renowned for her grass-court talents translated her flat strikes to clay as she perhaps benefited from the new balls.  The first Frenchwoman to reach the semifinals here since Mary Pierce, Bartoli demonstrated fortitude as gritty as the surface.  Like Sharapova’s surge, her semifinal run will have inspired similarly clay-averse peers by reminding them that players, not surfaces, win matches.  A-

Russian women (outside Sharapova):  While the former empire of women’s tennis may not have struck back with full force, it rumbled ominously by sending six citizens to the final sixteen.  The exploits of Makarova and Kirilenko owed a debt to vacated draws around them, but the fearless hitting of Pavlyuchenkova not only led to a first Slam quarterfinal but augurs promisingly for the teenager’s  future.  Twice rallying from deficits against Zvonareva, she dominated Schiavone through a set and a half and then battled her with stunning tenacity in a bare-knuckle third set before finally succumbing—on that day, anyway.  Somewhat less surprisingly, 2009 champion Kuznetsova scored her best string of victories since February en route to a somewhat disappointing loss against Bartoli.  B+

French men:  Notorious for meltdowns at their home major, three contrasting Frenchmen left an impact on the Paris dust by reaching the second week.  An unassuming grinder who suits the clay in personality if not in playing style, Simon scored a commanding victory over the recently imposing Fish.  In the lower half, Monfils repeated an earlier French Open victory against Ferrer with a five-set battle stretched over two days during which he somehow preserved his focus.  Perhaps the most satisfying run came from tormented genius Gasquet, though, who atoned for squandering a two-set lead against Murray last year by reaching the fourth round after defeating Madrid semifinalist Bellucci.  Close to the top 10 again, this sensitive Frenchman finally had the opportunity to bask in the applause of his compatriots.  B+

Old men:  Entering the second week without losing a set were Federer, Ferrer, Murray, and…the 32-year-old Ivan Ljubicic.  Although Nadal soon halted that trend, the Croat merits mention for his ability to outlast the recently woeful but much younger Verdasco and Querrey.  Less immaculate in the early rounds, the ageless Chela penetrated even further than Ljubicic after outlasting Falla in a five-setter.  As young stars like Dolgopolov and Raonic imploded early, these veterans proved age, in Li Na’s phrase, “just paper.”  B+

Kvitova:  Falling to the eventual champion at three of the last four majors, the WTA’s highest-ranked lefty came closer than anyone here to derailing Li.  The Czech led by a set and later by 3-0 (nearly 4-0) in the final set before injudicious shot selection provided her opponent with a vital respite.  As that match oscillated through violent momentum shifts, though, Kvitova demonstrated her best, her worst, and the fact that not much lies between those poles.  This latest mercurial youngster can look forward to more stunning titles and unsightly first-round losses in equal proportion.  B+

Petkovic:  Surging to the second week for the third straight Slam, the German edged to the verge of the top 10 and reaffirmed her supremacy over her compatriot Goerges.  Petkovic survived challenging three-setters against Gajdosova and Kirilenko that illustrated her mental as much as her physical fitness.  Equally adaptable to all surfaces, she has shaved many of the rough edges off her weapons to yield a balanced style with few glaring weaknesses.  On the other hand, the Petko-dance and its progeny must depart for good if their creator aims to become something more than a WTA Monfils.  B+

Victoria Azarenka - 2011 French Open - Day Nine

Azarenka:  Through the first four rounds, the fourth seed looked like a genuine favorite as she surrendered no more than six games in any match.  Holding her ground against Li for a set, Azarenka demonstrated her combination of lithe movement and explosive offense possessed by many former Roland Garros champions.  When adversity struck, though, Vika faded swiftly once again as her record in Slam quarterfinals fell to 0-4.  Still unable to withstand the psychological pressure of a major, she showed that her bark remains worse than her bite.  B

Soderling:  Although he could not deliver the upset on this occasion, the Swede again unleashed some of his finest tennis at Roland Garros despite unimpressive displays at the preparatory events.  For a player who labored to string together victories since March, a Slam quarterfinal represents a hopeful step forward towards his majestic form in January and February.  B

Jankovic:  Suffering her fourth consecutive pre-quarterfinal loss at a major, she displayed flashes of her former self during one of the most entertaining fourth-round encounters.  In that loss to Schiavone, Jankovic displayed more feistiness and agility than in most of her victories this year.  Nevertheless, those extended battles of will that she once used to win now repeatedly slip away from her.  B

Ferrer:  Once again, the diminutive Spaniard stood tall at the preparatory events by reaching consecutive finals in Monte Carlo and Barcelona before extending Djokovic to three sets in Madrid.  Once again, Ferrer shrank into mediocrity at the clay major in a five-set loss to Monfils in which one would have expected his dogged resilience to prevail.  Without denying the Frenchman credit, one must suspect the Spaniard’s self-belief as a reason for his underperformance at Roland Garros, for one cannot question his fitness in the best-of-five format.  B-

Wozniacki:  Stagnant if not in recession since Indian Wells, the world #1 concluded her clay campaign in embarrassing fashion with a 73-minute loss to the hardly intimidating Hantuchova.  In a major without the Williams sisters and effectively without Clijsters, Wozniacki spurned a golden opportunity to capture that legitimizing major title.  For an intelligent girl, she has exhibited a notable lack of intelligence with regard to setting her schedule and priorities.  Wozniacki should contemplate the unenviable fate of Jankovic after she reached #1 and proceed with caution.  C

Stosur:  Toppled to the edge of the top 10, the Australian has shown scant glimmers of the player who dispatched Henin and Serena here in 2010. While the giant-killing Dulko has upset three former #1s and Henin in the past three years, Stosur’s far mightier serve and forehand should have enabled her to dominate their meeting.  Instead, she squandered a third-set lead and continued to show a mind much less sturdy than her muscle.  When she lost to Schiavone, it still seemed just a matter of time before she claimed a major; a year later, the question has become not “when” but “whether.”  C

Ana Ivanovic - 2011 French Open - Day Three

Ivanovic:  For the second time in three tournaments, she bageled a first-round opponent en route to a loss.  Neither mentally nor physically capable of competing across three sets at the moment, Ivanovic has not reached a Slam quarterfinal since winning this tournament three long years ago.  Her body will heal eventually, but will her mind?  She arrived in Paris with little match practice and less confidence, though, so her early demise didn’t exactly surprise.  C-

Technology (or the lack thereof):  Let there be light, quoth the gods of Roland Garros, but not until 2016.  Meanwhile, captivating encounters such as Djokovic-Del Potro, Ferrer-Monfils, Murray-Troicki, and almost Federer-Djokovic stretched from one day to the next, wearying the players and diminishing the suspense.  On another note, the absence of Hawkeye cost Schiavone a crucial point late in the women’s final that would have brought her within a point of a third set.  Upholding tradition does not require freezing a tournament in the—literally—Dark Ages.  D for Darkness

Berdych:  Who is “Stephane Robert?”  Most tennis fans outside France do not know.  But you will never forget.  F

Almagro:  The more dedicated among us do know something about Lukasz Kubot, albeit mostly in doubles.  And the especially dedicated among us know enough about him to know that someone of the Spaniard’s talents cannot excuse himself for wasting a two-set lead against the lanky Pole.  F

Del Potro:  Handed a brutal draw after an injury absence, the 2009 US Open champion gallantly fought past the titanic serve of Karlovic and snatched a set from Djokovic.  While the latter accomplishment looks less splendid in retrospect, Del Potro deserves applause for summoning the courage to challenge a player who had looked invincible until that stage.  If the Serb could find no answer for his forehand at its best, nobody can.  Incomplete

Clijsters:  We expected little from her and got less, as the Belgian suffered the second first-week Slam loss of her comeback to accompany the three Slam titles.  Casting a pall over her tournament from the outset was the ankle injury that hampered her movement and probably should have forestalled her appearance here altogether.  Now, can all the king’s horses and all the king’s men put her back together for Wimbledon?  Incomplete



Victoria Azarenka - 2011 French Open - Day Seven

Li vs. Azarenka:  In her fourth Slam quarterfinal and second at Roland Garros, Azarenka eyes revenge against the player who halted her in Melbourne.  Since the fourth and sixth seeds possess markedly similar styles, the outcome of this baseline battle should hinge upon execution rather than strategy.  Striking their groundstrokes with relentless depth, both women own balanced assaults with slightly more reliable backhands than forehands but the ability to dictate play from either wing.  Gifted with a somewhat superior serve, Li faces an indifferent server and outstanding returner in Azarenka, so this quarterfinal should feature a host of breaks and closely contested service games like their Australian meeting.  The Chinese superstar has won three of their four previous encounters, demonstrating a firmer resilience that perhaps springs from her experience.  At this tournament, however, Azarenka has conceded no more than six games in each of her first four matches, while Li has found herself thrust into a pair of three-setters.  But the fourth seed has not faced resistance as stiff as the challenge posed by Kvitova, against whom the Chinese rebounded from a demoralizing first set and reversed her defeat to the Czech in Madrid.  Having conquered that recent bête noire, the Melbourne finalist may have gained the momentum necessary to expose any chinks in Azarenka’s armor, which have looked few indeed lately.  If she can pass this test of her confidence and maturity, the Belarussian will have taken a substantial step towards proving her ability to endure the pressures of a fortnight at a major.

Nadal vs. Soderling:  Threatening to become a Roland Garros tradition is the mid-tournament meeting between the feral Swede and the defending champion.  As he stalks into this third meeting with Nadal here in three years, Soderling will have scented an uncharacteristic degree of frailty from the Spaniard that should whet his appetite.  Both players have won their last 11 sets after first-round drama, although the defending champion has not performed as close to his finest level as has his challenger.  More willing to step inside the baseline in the fourth round against Ljubicic, though, Nadal displayed glimmers of escaping from the mental malaise into which consecutive clay defeats to Djokovic seemingly had cast him.  And few champions rise to the occasion as brilliantly as the Spaniard, fully aware of the danger posed by his opponent and likely to focus ever more keenly as a result.  After that memorable upset two French Opens ago, in fact, Nadal slowly regained his dominance over Soderling with two Slam victories last year during which he lost only one total set.  Nevertheless, the seemingly bulletproof Spaniard who stifled the Swede in the 2010 Roland Garros final scarcely resembles the uncertain, weary competitor who has struggled to consolidate service breaks over the past week.  Normally an outstanding front-runner, Nadal stands at a crossroads.  If Soderling charges to a second upset in three years, Rafa’s competitive vitality might ebb further at a crucial moment in the season.  If the defending champion can rekindle his familiar passion with an inspired, vintage triumph over a former nemesis, another spectacular summer still might lie ahead.

Maria Sharapova - 2011 French Open - Day Nine

Sharapova vs. Petkovic:   A tribute as much to her perseverance as to her power, Maria’s fifth quarterfinal appearance at Roland Garros pits her against her Australian Open nemesis.  Resembling a rollercoaster are the three previous collisions in their mini-rivalry, which began when Sharapova savaged the German’s serve in Cincinnati last year.  After Petkovic retaliated with an almost equally emphatic triumph in Melbourne, the Russian reeled off 11 straight games during their Miami semifinal.  Operating in a mode closer to digital than analog, the components of their games either click into breathtaking engines of offense or fragment into scattered shards.  Able to escape from erratic beginnings to two of her previous matches, Sharapova cannot rely on hammering her way out of a similar predicament this time.  Whereas Garcia had the weapons and lacked the mind to seal the upset, Radwanska had the mind and lacked the weapons, but Petkovic likely has both.  The three-time major champion thus must sharpen her precision from the outset while continuing the timely serving with which she frustrated the Pole.  Comparably convinced that the best defense consists of a potent offense, this pair should essentially impose their hard-court styles on the reluctant clay and contest rallies much shorter than those in the other semifinal.  Perhaps separating this encounter from the Melbourne meeting is Sharapova’s elevated confidence from capturing the prestigious Rome title.  But Petkovic also enters their quarterfinal with a nine-match winning streak after collecting the smaller Strasbourg event.  Shifted outside Chatrier for the first time in the tournament, Sharapova returns to the scene of her most memorable battles at this major:  her 2007 victory over Schnyder after saving two match points, her 2008 loss to Safina after holding a match point, and her stirring 2009 comeback against Petrova in just her fifth singles match after shoulder surgery.  Will Suzanne Lenglen witness another dramatic chapter in Maria’s quest for the only major that stubbornly resists her allure?

Murray vs. Chela:  Deterred by neither a sprained ankle against Berrer or a two-set deficit against Troicki, the fourth seed seeks his first semifinal at his least successful major.  Recognizing the opportunity presented by a second-week encounter with Chela, the Scot gallantly overcame the physical and psychological burdens posed by a two-day battle with the second Serb.  Few observers outside Argentina would have favored the orthodontically challenged veteran to reach this stage, which will have boosted his ranking into relevance.  If Murray’s ailing joint continues to trouble him, Chela might well duplicate Melzer’s almost equally startling route to the final four last year.  Not the counterpunching Scot renowned for his movement more than his shot-making, the fourth seed has demonstrated his latent offensive talents in his last two victories.  Thus, Chela may recoil in initial surprise from an opponent who boldly targets the lines with his groundstrokes and glides (or rather hobbles) towards the net when the opportunity emerges.  Confronting the Argentine is the dilemma of whether to craft his tactics around Murray’s much-publicized injury.  To that end, Troicki cleverly hit behind the Scot while compiling his vast advantage, testing the ankle’s mobility as its owner reversed direction on these slippery courts.  If not a facet of Chela’s regular repertoire, however, these gambits could distract him and lure him away from a straightforward, steady clay-court style that might prove sufficient if Murray’s improvised offense starts to unravel.

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!

Dwarfed by the lingering shadow of the US Open, four small tournaments came and went last week.  We outline one intriguing storyline from each of these geographically disparate events in the most recent edition of (TW)2.

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Allez les bleus (Metz): Just a week after France advanced to the Davis Cup final, two players who didn’t participate in any live rubbers dazzled in Metz.  Overcoming the tenacious Robredo in the quarterfinals, Gasquet temporarily conquered his aversion to playing before his compatriots and extended his momentum from a second-week run at the US Open.  But the more remarkable storyline came from the nearly forgotten Simon, who celebrated the birth of his first child with his first title of 2010.  Enduring an arid campaign this year, Gilles emphatically dispatched the formidable Kohlschreiber in the semifinals after the German had ousted Cilic with equal authority in the quarterfinals.  Accomplished on indoor hard courts, Simon enters the fall season fresher and more motivated than most of his rivals, having missed much of the spring and summer with injuries.  Don’t be surprised to see the new father spring an upset or two (or, in Simon-speak, “accidents”) during the Masters 1000 events.  If his star does continue to rise, Guy Forget may face some intriguing choices when assembling his squad for the Davis Cup final.

The clay season never ends (Bucharest): Between Wimbledon and the US Open, an assortment of small events throughout Europe allow dirt devils to gobble up rankings points while the top dogs play elsewhere.  Even after the US Open, though, the Bucharest event greets clay specialists with open arms at a time when Roland Garros lies far in the past or the future, depending on your perspective.  Unsurprisingly, three Spaniards capitalized upon this unlikely windfall to reach the semifinals, while the ageless Chela captured his second title of 2010.  Although these results bear little or no meaning for the impending Asian hard courts, one should note that not every player experiences the apparently seamless progression from hard courts to clay to grass to hard courts traced by the arc of the key events.  When contemplating schedule revisions, though, ATP officials might want to address this particular anomaly and relocate it to a more appropriate week in the calendar.

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One step forward, one step back for former #1s (Seoul): Following encouraging campaigns at Cincinnati and the US Open, Ivanovic should have entered Seoul filled with the confidence to move further on her winding road back to relevance.  Yet the Serb tumbled out of the tournament with an unsightly loss to Vera Dushevina, who has developed an odd habit for dragging top players down to her pedestrian level.  Despite winning a comfortable first set, Ivanovic lost the rhythm on her serve shortly thereafter and never regained it.  By contrast, her victim in the 2008 Roland Garros final recorded a pair of solid wins before falling to recurrent nemesis Zakopalova.  One of Safina’s more impressive victories since returning from a back injury, her commanding performance against Kirilenko boded well for her self-belief as 2010 edges towards its conclusion.  Neither Safina nor Ivanovic has anything significant to defend during the fall (Ivanovic, in fact, has nothing at all to defend); therefore, they should hope to exploit any advantageous draws that they receive in order to bolster their rankings for 2011.  (A round into Tokyo, the Serb scored another victory over Kleybanova, while the Russian endured a puzzling loss to Julia Goerges.  In other words, the rollercoaster continues.)

The Russians keep coming (Tashkent): Dwindling to just one member of the top 10, this mighty tennis nation continues to capture title after title at all levels of the WTA.  In Tashkent, Kudryavtseva reached her second straight final and then became the sixth different Russian to win a singles title this year…at the expense of compatriot Vesnina, who was contesting her second final of 2010.  Had Petrova not withdrawn from her Seoul semifinal, another all-Russian title tilt might have developed there.  As it was, Kleybanova thoroughly dominated the competition in the South Korean capital and showed flashes of the shot-making artistry that might lead her to the top 20.  While nobody would mistake Kudryavtseva, Vesnina, or arguably even Kleybanova for a Slam contender, these players remind observers that Russian women’s tennis possesses a depth equaled only by Spanish men’s tennis.  Wherever tennis balls are struck, it seems that someone from the land of Stravinsky and Stalin will stand poised to strike them.


On Wednesday, we preview the quarterfinals in Tokyo.  Who looks ready to open the fall with an imposing statement?

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