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Maria Sharapova - 2011 US Open - Day 3

Sharapova vs. Pennetta:  In each of their three matches, a similar script has witnessed a player win the first set, sag in losing the second set, and then rebound to capture the third.  Not only undefeated when she wins the first set this year, Sharapova has compiled a stunning 12-0 record in three-setters, including eight comebacks from one-set deficits.  One thus would favor her should she engage in another epic with Pennetta, an emotional competitor with few clear weaknesses but few overpowering weapons.  Rarely does the Italian undermine herself, instead compelling opponents to sustain a solid if not spectacular level in order to conquer her.  Despite a poor first half, the 29-year-old veteran has shown flickers of improvement on the summer hard courts with triumphs over Kirilenko and Pavlyuchenkova.  Seeking her eighth straight victory, meanwhile, Sharapova surged forward from a shaky three-setter in her opener here to a commanding double-breadstick win under the Arthur Ashe lights.  The daytime breezes may trouble the 2006 champion’s ball toss and serve as they have in previous US Opens, while Pennetta’s high-percentage style should suffer less from the elements.  Toppled in the third round at two of her last three US Opens, Sharapova expects considerably more from herself this year and finally has the confidence to achieve it.  All the same, Pennetta probably will force her to hit an additional shot or two to finish points, a challenge to which the Russian has risen courageously in recent months.

McHale vs. Kirilenko:  As the year’s final major approached, hopes for American players focused mostly around surging men’s players like Harrison and Bogomolov, but the home nation’s women have stolen the spotlight from them.  Triggering memories of the US Open two years ago, Christina McHale aims to become the Oudin of the 2011 tournament after defeating eighth-seeded Bartoli in the second round.  Like her compatriot, this rising American thrives more when she can exploit the pace or placement of her opponent than when she must generate her own offense.  A smart counterpuncher with more power than Oudin, McHale benefited from the intimate confines of the Grandstand in her upset two days ago, for the home crowd clustered around that stadium to exhort her.  In the more intimidating atmosphere of Arthur Ashe, she must hold together her nerves better than she did two years ago in a night session here against Sharapova.   Moreover, the consistent but not powerful Kirilenko will force McHale to take the initiative in creating opportunities to take control of rallies.  Just as Oudin failed to solve the steady defense of Wozniacki two years ago, her successor may struggle to strike a balance between aggression and judicious shot selection—a skill that comes with experience.

Roddick vs. Sock:  Seemingly more and more defensive as he ages, the 2003 champion failed to catch fire from the spark of playing under the Arthur Ashe lights in the first round.  Still recovering from an abdominal injury this summer, Roddick has not recaptured the sting on his serve and has double-faulted with increasing frequency.  A combination of solid groundstrokes and occasional net forays sufficed to edge him past the unremarkable Russell in four sets, but one couldn’t escape the thought that this match would have ended much more emphatically a few years ago.  Likely to suffice against the untested Sock is a similarly solid performance from the veteran.  A fellow Nebraskan, Sock won his first career match at a major two days ago against Marc Gicquel, demonstrating explosive serve-forehand combinations.  The teenager can extract valuable lessons from his Arthur Ashe debut, and this match should become more competitive than their rankings would suggest.  While it seems implausible to expect him to win three sets from Roddick, Sock could capitalize upon the lulls in the older American’s fading game.  Known for a volatile temper, he should learn from his opponent’s example and curb his emotions in tense moments.

Haase vs. Murray:  Three years ago, the Dutchman defeated Murray at the former’s home tournament in Rotterdam.  Now elevated to #41 in the rankings, Haase has won 10 of his last 11 matches while capturing his first career title in Kitzbuhel and reaching the semifinals in Winston-Salem.  Defeating Verdasco at Wimbledon, he came within a few points of a two-set lead against Roddick in Melbourne this year before succumbing to injury.  This 24-year-old possesses effortless power with his serve and forehand but can lose the rhythm on both shots as a result of fluctuating technique.  More streamlined in his strokes and more versatile in his options, Murray sometimes can out-think himself against relatively straightforward opponents like Haase.  Yet the Scot, who also collected a (much more prestigious) title this summer, struck his much-maligned forehand with authority in an opening-round victory that grew more convincing as it progressed.  Efforts to flatten out that groundstroke has produced mixed results for Murray in recent months, so his refusal to retreat from that tactic illustrates a positive product of his trademark stubbornness.  Like the women’s #1, the men’s #4 can use such strategies to progress more smoothly through early rounds, conserving energy for the second week.

Peng vs. Goerges:  Steady meets streaky in this match between two top-20 stars who have recorded the finest seasons of their careers to date.  Whereas Peng has built her breakthrough upon reaching semifinal after semifinal, Goerges soared into instant notoriety by twice conquering Wozniacki on clay and winning the moderately notable Stuttgart title.  Congruent with those results are their personalities and playing styles, for the Chinese double-fister generally plays percentages and competes relentlessly throughout the match while the German can veer in and out of focus as she impetuously targets lines and corners early in rallies.  In their first career encounter, Peng will attempt to pepper the center of the baseline with penetrating groundstrokes that prevent Goerges from creating angles without too much risk.  The German owns far more firepower with both her groundstrokes and her serve, although the Chinese star has improved the latter stroke this year.  Hoping to take time away from her agile opponent, Goerges seeks to dictate points from inside the baseline and cannot recover easily from a defensive position.  Court positioning thus should offer a key to who holds the edge in this evenly matched encounter.

James Blake - 2011 US Open - Day 2

Ferrer vs. Blake:  In the twilight of his career, the battered American shot-maker clings to the tenuous hope of leaving one last glowing memory behind him.  Such an accomplishment seems relatively plausible against Ferrer, whom Blake has defeated in both of their previous meetings and whose underpowered serve would seem to play into the hands of his crackling return.  A contrast to the Spaniard’s methodical style, the American’s breakneck pace could rush the fifth seed out of his comfort zone as it has with Nadal.  Nevertheless, Ferrer demonstrated his prowess even on these fast hard courts by reaching the 2007 semifinal, a feat that Blake at his best never could achieve.  Repeatedly raising the hopes of his fans only to disappoint them, this serial Slam quarterfinalist has gained most acclaim for gallant defeats such as his 2005 quarterfinal epic against Agassi.  Blake’s career may have suffered from the omnipresence of the more accomplished Roddick, a predicament with which Ferrer could empathize in the Nadal era of Spanish tennis.  When the two understudies collide, their returns of serve will mirror their conflicting perceptions of the game.  A personification of first-strike tennis, Blake takes massive swings at second serves and even first serves, whereas grinder par excellence Ferrer forces his opponent to play every point rather than attempt an outright winner.

Ljubicic vs. Nalbandian:  The history between these venerable bastions of the ATP extends back to 2004 across meetings at five different Masters tournaments, the year-end championships, and Davis Cup.  Never have they met at a major, however, where one would expect the injury struggles and fitness issues of the Argentine to hamper his performance.  Winning four of their last five meetings, the Croat possesses the superior serve and forecourt ability but less reliable groundstrokes.  Often at his best in the second half and especially the fall, Nalbandian still impresses sporadically with a two-handed backhand that creates shallow angles, drawing opponents far from the center of the court.  Although his timing has declined with age, the “grouchy gaucho” continues to challenge net-rushers like Ljubicic with pinpointed passing shots whenever his ailing legs permit.  Several years ago, they might have met in the quarterfinal or even semifinal of a major.  With physicality and raw power increasingly central to this sport, however, they meet in a second-round glimpse of how tennis might have developed in the absence of Federer and Nadal.   After a trip to the outer court, few will feel nostalgic for what might have been.

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Andy Roddick - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Three

Lopez vs. Roddick:  As a hail of aces rained off the Spaniard’s racket at Queens Club, the three-time Wimbledon finalist held his ground with a composure born of experience and waited for a chink in his opponent’s armor to emerge.  When it did, Roddick pounced and escaped a two-tiebreak, three-set serve-a-thon that hung in the balance until the final game.  Often outplayed by Lopez for sporadic stretches of their meetings, the American has relied on executing fundamentals with the consistency of a metronome.  In his two straight-sets wins here, he has conceded only a handful of unforced errors while suffocating opponents through impenetrable serving.  This third-round encounter may pivot upon tiebreaks, an area where Roddick declined sharply last year after a career of brilliance.  Improving in that category recently, he seemed encouraged by his Queens Club semifinal appearance rather than deflated by the lopsided loss with which it ended.  Still, his one-dimensional style leaves him vulnerable to lower-ranked, highly talented opponents like Lopez when they seize a sudden burst of inspiration.

Hantuchova vs. Azarenka:  An encounter certain to please male audience members, this typically glamorous Centre Court collision might feature engaging tennis as well.  Seemingly fading into a terminal spiral, Hantuchova reignited her career with a second-week appearance at Roland Garros that she followed with a Birmingham final and Eastbourne semifinal.  Not for years had this mentally fallible competitor compiled such a steady sequence of results, despite the relative insignificance of the grass tournaments.  Those three events included victories over Wozniacki, Ivanovic, Li, and Venus, a group encompassing three Slam champions and three #1s.  With those momentous victories behind her, Hantuchova should consider herself capable of expelling the fourth seed from the tournament a day after the third seed.  Azarenka has displayed formidable grass-court skills, though, ranging from a 2009 Wimbledon quarterfinal to a 2010 Eastbourne final and victory over Clijsters.  As suspect physically as Hantuchova mentally, she benefits from the extra jolt that the surface provides her powerful but not quite turbocharged weapons, especially her serve.  A lithe mover who can track down the Slovak’s angles, Azarenka might grow frustrated if dragged towards the net on disadvantageous terms.

Martinez Sanchez vs. V. Williams:  Like Roddick, his female compatriot faces a serve-and-volleying Spanish lefty with a dangerous propensity for catching fire at timely moments.  At this stage, Venus would have expected to face familiar Jankovic, but Martinez Sanchez halted the former #1’s path in an entertaining display of classic grass-court tennis.  Subjected to a similarly classic display in the second round, the elder Williams can count herself lucky to have survived the exhausting test mounted by Kimiko Date-Krumm.  Venus must recover swiftly in order to repeat a resounding Wimbledon victory over the Spaniard during which she struck the fastest women’s serve in tournament history.  Early in a comeback from injury, though, players often struggle with their reflexes and timing.  Against an opponent who favors rushing through points and towards the net, the American will need to hone the precision on her passing shots.  Gifted with an outstanding reach, Venus surrenders few aces but sometimes struggles to strike her returns with consistent accuracy.  Those two shots, in addition to her ability to recover from Wednesday’s marathon, will prove vital to her fate on Friday.

Nadal vs. Muller:  Spared the psychic ordeal of a clash with Raonic, Rafa must count himself fortunate to set his targets against an aging, rarely notable lefty from Luxembourg.  Or should he?  In his last pre-final loss at Wimbledon, Nadal fell to Muller at the 2005 tournament less than a month after winning his first major title at Roland Garros.  Nine majors and two Wimbledon crowns later, the world #1 has learned how to blunt the power of the towering servers who threaten the elite on grass, while the surface has slowed with every year and the balls become heavier.  All of those factors indicate a more routine result on this occasion, especially considering Nadal’s sparkling form in two straight-sets victories this year.  In 2010, he edged laboriously through the first week with a pair of five-setters, whereas no adjustment period appears necessary in 2011.

Tsvetana Pironkova Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria in action during the Ladies Semi Final match against Vera Zvonareva of Russia on Day Ten of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 1, 2010 in London, England.

Pironkova vs. Zvonareva:  A surprise semifinalist last year, the willowy Bulgarian built her memorable Wimbledon run upon a stunning upset over Venus.  Virtually irrelevant since that breakthrough, Pironkova faces a dramatic rankings plunge should she fail to topple the player who halted the finest fortnight of her career.  Curiously, Zvonareva endured three sets and several tense moments on that occasion before overcoming a player with a far less formidable game, and she also has not capitalized upon her stirring 2010 to record a solid 2011.  Despite semifinals in Melbourne and Miami, the Russian has regressed in general towards a level not commensurate with her elevated ranking.  Extended to three sets by Riske and nearly by Vesnina, she looks ripe for an upset despite having recorded what should have proved a confidence-boosting victory over Serena in Eastbourne.  Nevertheless, Vera probably will survive for exactly one more round before Venus avenges the slight to her sister.

Monfils vs. Kubot:  Accustomed to loping along the baseline at his leisure, the Frenchman often finds the grass a little too swift for his counterpunching comfort zone.  If the surface forces Monfils into a more aggressive mentality, though, he could adapt his effortless power on serve and forehand to terminate points as abruptly as Tsonga.  A doubles specialist with a brisk return, Kubot followed earlier victories over titanic servers Roddick and Querrey with a routine win over the most formidable ace machine of all, Karlovic. From both his five-set victory over Querrey in Australia and his victory over the Croat here shone the Pole’s focus at pivotal moments and his early contact point on groundstrokes.  Although he often prefers time to assess a situation, Monfils must play a more instinctive brand of tennis against Kubot, an adjustment that could benefit him as he moves into the second week.

Wickmayer vs. Kuznetsova:  Similar in playing style albeit not in credentials, the Belgian and the Russian enjoy excellent athleticism and forehands much more potent than their backhands.  While Wickmayer owns the superior serve, Kuznetsova probably has cultivated greater prowess in the forecourt.  Both players can drift in and out of focus with alarming facility, resulting in matches with unpredictable mood and momentum swings.  Since each has disappointed hopes for most of 2011, a second-week appearance for either would mark a noteworthy achievement on arguably their weakest surface.  Thus, this match represents one of the rare Slam encounters with little to lose and much to gain for both contenders, a combination that should spawn crisp, compelling tennis.

 

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.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga - 2011 French Open - Day One

Andreev vs. Tsonga:  Atypical among Russians, the world #92 has excelled on clay perhaps more than on any other surface, even registering a win over a youthful Nadal.  Conversely, Tsonga vastly prefers the faster surfaces that showcase his thunderbolts and acrobatic flourishes to the sluggish dirt of his home nation’s major.  On the especially slow hard court of Indian Wells, in fact, he surrendered to Andreev in straight sets two years ago.  But the Frenchman strutted through an imposing opener that illustrated his delicate touch in the forecourt and a clay movement more competent than observers might have expected.  Since both players generate much greater offense from their forehands, they will exploit the extra time provided by the surface to run around as many backhands as possible.  Whereas one never knows quite what to expect from Tsonga, one always knows what to expect from Andreev:  resilient ball-striking and relentless court coverage.  Somewhat like Verdasco against Monaco on Tuesday, the 17th seed must prepare to expend both mental and physical effort before reaping a reward.

Ferrer vs. Benneteau / Gasquet vs. Granollers:  Adding additional spice to the trans-Pyrenean rivalry is the recent achievements of Spain at the French Slam.  Likely to write another page in that chapter is the world #6, who regrouped in sparkling fashion from illness to demolish the potentially dangerous Nieminen a round ago.  Fitter and fresher than many of his peers, Ferrer should not relax against the mercurial Benneteau, known more for his exploits in doubles than singles but the architect of an occasional ambush.  Buoyed by his compatriots, the Frenchman scored a stunning upset over Federer in the 2009 Paris Indoors and delivered a stirring performance against the then-formidable Gulbis at this tournament last year.  His compact two-hander offers an intriguing contrast to the florid one-hander of Gasquet, who recently overcame Federer in a clay third-set tiebreak for the second time.  In his meeting with Granollers, the 13th seed meets an opponent with similarly elongated strokes although much less imagination.  A victor over Soderling a few Australian Opens ago, Granollers has greater grit than his unprepossessing game would suggest.

Zvonareva vs. Lisicki:  Early in the 2010 US Open, the Russian defused the German’s thunderous serve en route to her second major final.  Zvonareva will hope to script a parallel narrative as she seeks to reach the semifinal or better at all four Slams consecutively, but Roland Garros has remained a thorn in her side during her relatively few appearances here.  A natural counterpuncher who aims to exploit the pace of her opponents, the third seed sometimes struggles to generate adequate offense to finish points on this surface.  The Russian has lost at least one set in seven of her eight clay matches this season to opponents including Schnyder and Galina Voskoboeva, while her straight-sets loss to Peng in Brussels likewise boded ill.  As her odd history of futility against Stosur suggests, moreover, Zvonareva can become flustered by the heaviest deliveries in the game, so Lisicki should offer an intriguing mental test.

Safarova vs. Goerges:  Having split their two previous meetings, these two audacious ball-strikers should extend the competitive beginnings of their rivalry.  Although both can impose themselves on rallies from either groundstroke, the match could turn upon who can earn more opportunities to unleash the forehands that they prefer.  Safarova’s left-handedness will enable her to uncover the backhand of Goerges with her heavy cross-court forehand, a shot that garnered substantial success for the Czech on clay last year.  Aligned for clay are their elongated strokes, which require a timing less precise than on faster surfaces.  More skilled than many of their peers at the service notch, they should deliver an encounter with relatively few breaks.  In Stuttgart, Goerges became the only player this year to play an entire match against Wozniacki without dropping her serve.  Can she progress from ambush artist to reliable threat and summon her best when not facing the best?  Safarova will inquire.

Martinez Sanchez vs. Marino:  Vaulting past Wozniak as the brightest star in the firmament of Canadian tennis, the muscular Marino announced herself with a strong effort against Venus at the US Open last year.  After their clash, the seven-time major champion complimented her victim by comparing her to herself.  While Marino must make considerable strides before validating that praise, she illustrated her promise a Slam later by dragging Schiavone deep into a third set at the Australian Open.  Lacking in clay expertise, she does not lack the willpower to trouble dirt devil Martinez Sanchez in another match of sturdy serves.  The 2010 Rome champion rode her multifaceted style to a mini-upset over Peer in her opener, stirring to life after a generally moribund 2011.  If she can exploit the opening in the draw that she has created, the momentum of this streaky competitor could snowball in the Paris sun.  As the power of Marino represents the WTA’s future, the grace and delicacy of Martinez Sanchez gestures towards the sport’s past.

Initially staggered by her opponent’s scintillating start, Sharapova came within a point of a 4-0 deficit in her second-round clash with Razzano.  Swiping aside three straight break points, however, the Siberian refused to surrender the set but instead showcased her trademark determination late in the opening set, as well as an startlingly delicate lob that secured a key service break.  Less encouraging was Sharapova’s failure to serve out the first set on two different occasions; despite a sensational first-serve percentage, she enjoyed an uncharacteristically low success rate on her first-serve points and faced 16 break points during the match.  Facing the swiftly rising Julia Goerges, the Russian will seek to open the match more convincingly than in her first two rounds, although her shoulder always requires a few games to reach its full range of movement.  Dispatched by the three-time Slam champion in Strasbourg last year, her German opponent has honed an excellent first serve and imposing backhand that could allow to seize control of rallies.  Since neither player prospers on defense, both will seek to deliver a mighty first strike that thrusts her foe onto her heels for the remainder of the point.  In order to reach the second week, therefore, Sharapova must aim to decide points on her own terms for better or for worse, eschewing complacency for a relentless intensity. 

Elsewhere on Day 5:

Wozniacki vs. Cibulkova:  Facing the Slovak for the second straight tournament and the second straight major, the world #1 comfortably triumphed on a windy night in New York before falling to her in the first round of Sydney.  Despite disappointing weeks there and in Hong Kong, Wozniacki has advanced through the first two rounds as smoothly as any of the women’s contenders, justifying her belief that the season-opening events did not presage an early exit at the season’s first major.  Limited by her diminutive stature, Cibulkova has few weapons with which to threaten the Dane from the baseline but cannot rely upon consistency to outlast her.   The matchup thus tilts in Wozniacki’s favor unless she sinks into the inexplicably passive mentality that characterized her loss at the Australian Open last year and her Sydney loss to the 63-inch Slovak, whom she previously had dominated.  Nvertheless, one should note that Cibulkova reached the US Open quarterfinal with a surprising victory over Kuznetsova, and the guidance of Safina’s former coach Zeljk Krajan appears to have revived her once-flagging career.

Henin vs. Kuznetsova:  The WTA corollary to Federer-Roddick, this rivalry (or non-rivalry) began at Wimbledon eight years ago and has spanned clashes at every major, including two major finals.  Collecting 16 of their 18 encounters, Henin has won all of their Slam contests as well as their last eight hard-court meetings in a streak that extends back to 2004.  Kuznetsova frequently has positioned herself to win but faltered in tiebreaks or third sets.  When she visited the Sydney zoo three years ago, Sveta half-jested that she should bring a reptile onto court in order to fluster the steely Belgian.  Yet she may not need such assistance against an Henin who appeared especially fragile in a three-set opener against the hard-hitting Mirza, similar to Kuznetsova in her fondness for mighty forehands.  Testing Henin’s tentative movement, the two-time Slam champion perhaps can hit through her from the baseline more easily than she once could.  Dwindling in confidence herself since a brutal 2010 campaign, though, Sveta may crumble under the psychological burden of conquering a familiar nemesis who has defeated her more often than any active player.

Malisse vs. Federer:   Overshadowed by Henin and Clijsters, the Belgian waffle has battled injuries throughout his career that have undermined his evident talents.  Despite his lowly ranking, he troubled Federer during their last meeting at the 2006 Rogers Cup, when Malisse came within a tiebreak of stunning a player who came within a single victory of a calendar Slam this year.  While he lacks the consistency and the fitness to challenge the Swiss legend in a best-of-five format, an entertaining set or two might ensue if the world #2 enters in mortal guise as he did against Simon.  The X-man’s crisp, flat groundstrokes set up his fluid transition game, taking away time from his adversaries when he strikes his approaches with precision and crisp technique.  If the deified form of Federer swaggers onto the court, though, he should stride briskly into the second week.    

Wawrinka vs. Monfils:  Gamboling and gambling himself into deep trouble two rounds ago, Monfils tottered only slightly further from defeat than did Verdasco against Tipsarevic.  Likewise invigorated by the reprieve, the top-ranked Frenchman cruised through his meeting with the recently resurgent Swiss #2 in Valencia last fall on one of the ATP’s slowest hard courts.  Bolstered (and loudly exhorted) by eccentric coach Peter Lundgren, Wawrinka aims to counter Gael’s artistic flourishes with sturdy, methodical consistency.  Among the pleasures of watching Monfils is his unpredictability, which will contrast with the workmanlike air exuded by his opponent.  We expect a series of compelling rallies in which each competitor leisurely probes the other’s defenses, circling cautiously before delivering a conclusive blow.

Venus vs. Petkovic:  During one of the second round’s oddest encounters, the elder Williams appeared to derive additional focus and intensity after an excruciating injury in the first-set tiebreak.  Yet the question of her recovery looms over this appetizing encounter with a German upstart determined to crack the stranglehold of the WTA elite.  An ambitious shotmaker still searching for consistency, Petkovic reached the Brisbane final but struggled early in a second-round victory over a qualifier that should not have proved so complicated.  Unlike Zahlavova, she can assert control over rallies rather than depending upon errors from Venus, who therefore cannot rest secure in the knowledge that her opponent will not return fire.  Just as compelling as the question of the American’s injury is the uncertainty surrounding the German’s response should she seize the upper hand, which looks plausible if perhaps not probable.  Unable to deliver the coup de grace to Kuznetsova at Roland Garros last year, Petkovic could not rise to the occasion when victory hovered just a point away.  Has she learned from that experience?

Troicki vs. Djokovic:  Sparring no fewer than four times in 2010, the Serbs collide in a tournament where their compatriots have not fared well thus far.  Although Djokovic has emerged victorious from their six previous meetings, the often overlooked Troicki came within three service holds of stunning the world #3 in the first round of the US Open.  At an event that Nole eventually won in Dubai, moreover, he found himself outmaneuvered by the Sydney finalist for the first set and a half before his superior talents finally shone through.  Probably more confident than at any other time in his career, Troicki nearly upset Nadal in Tokyo last fall and claimed his first career title in Moscow.  While Djokovic clearly possesses superior talents in virtually every department of the game, his countryman always has possessed the offensive firepower to punish him for a lapse, such as his second-set stumble a round ago.  Despite an oddly arrhythmic technique, his serve frustrated Nadal throughout three tight sets in Tokyo.  Like Wawrinka, however, he may not summon the courage to topple the greatest athlete in his nation’s history on one of his sport’s greatest stages.

Nishikori vs. Verdasco:  Two players who have accumulated outstanding fitness will bring their strikingly divergent styles to the battlefield.  Less immediately apparent than Verdasco’s mighty offensive arsenal, Nishikori’s tools include his lithe movement, crisp technique, intelligent point construction, and mental resilience.  On the other hand, Verdasco displayed a surprising degree of physical and mental endurance as he ground down an obdurate Tipsarevic in one grueling rally after another.  Thrust to the brink of the precipice not once but three times, the 2009 semifinalist kept defeatism at bay by punctuating each crackling forehand with an emphatic fistpump.  Rewarded by the Serb’s unexpected collapse, he may play more freely in future rounds after that reprieve, but he must beware of relaxing too sharply  against the unprepossessing Nishikori.

Berdych vs. Gasquet:  When the Czech collides with the Frenchman, an underachiever of the past confronts an underachiever of the past, present, and likely future.  Inspiring confidence in the former was Berdych’s determined response to a one-set deficit against the dangerous Kohlschreiber, and he could profit from that experience if Gasquet unleashes one of his patented torrid streaks.  Likened by more than one commentator to a microwave, the Frenchman sometimes sizzles through passages in which he seemingly cannot miss even the most audacious shots.  Just as often, though, he can labor through arid stretches when he struggles to time even the most routine groundstrokes.  Central to Berdych’s mid-career breakthrough is his heightened, more durable focus, a trait that will aid him in exploiting Gasquet’s lulls.  The Czech’s monochromatic style generally proves more efficient albeit less scintillating than the Frenchman’s sophisticated elegance, as textured and as fragile as a tapestry.  As the sport increasingly revolves around unvarnished baseline power, the Soderlings, Del Potros, and Berdyches will profit at the expense of the graceful Gasquets.

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Responding to two requests for the Day 5 preview, we welcome any other suggestions that you might have, either in the comments or on Twitter.

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In 56 sparkling minutes on Wednesday morning, Ivanovic not only avenged her previous losses to Zheng but demonstrated heightened confidence in all areas of her game.  Most notable was her belief in her backhand, a shot that had betrayed her during much of her slump and that had diminished into a benign slice when nerves overtook her.  Rather than striking tentative midcourt balls on her weaker wing, the Serb stepped into several two-handers with conviction and targeted the corners of the court.  While her fans will have been grateful for Bartoli’s premature demise, the other Frenchwoman whom Ana confronts in the third round has flustered her more than one might imagine.  Just two weeks before Ivanovic reached the 2008 Australian Open final, in fact, Razzano extended her into a third set at the Sydney tournament.  Granted a wildcard after a controversial injury hiatus, the Serb’s opponent shares Bartoli’s quirky service motion and arrhythmic groundstroke style; when we last saw her two years ago, her unimposing frame generated deceptive power, enhanced by above-average racket control.  While Ana certainly should feel heartened and enthusiastic about her progress, therefore, she can’t afford to relax against an experienced player who has defeated her in the past and conquered elite competitors such as Venus Williams.  A win for Ana would match the best performance of her career in New York and represent her first appearance in the second-week of a major since Wimbledon 2009, an uplifting conclusion to her Slam season and a foundation upon which to build her 2011 campaign.

Kvitova vs. Clijsters

Before Wimbledon this year, the flamboyant Czech lefty had accumulated a reputation as yet another outstanding shotmaker with vacant real estate above her neck.  Combining wins over Zheng, Azarenka, and Wozniacki with a surprisingly competitive semifinal against Serena, her fortnight at the All England Club hinted that Kvitova might capitalize upon her athletic potential after all.  Likewise encouraging was her victory over then-#1 and top seed in New York last year, which culminated in a nerve-jangling third-set tiebreak.  Although Kvitova has vanished from the radar since that stirring Wimbledon breakthrough, she might relish the opportunity of playing in the world’s largest tennis arena.  Quietly dismissing a pair of third-rate foes, meanwhile, Clijsters has displayed few traces of the hip injury that contributed to her premature exit from the Rogers Cup.  The turbulence projected to arrive in New York tomorrow should aid the defending champion against an adversary with less margin on her shots and less emotional tolerance for matters outside her control, such as the vagaries of weather.  Early in Clijsters’ second-round victory, however, she struggled with the timing on her serve and groundstrokes, so the Czech may glimpse some early opportunities.  If Kvitova can capitalize upon them, this match could become quite intriguing; if the Belgian finds the time to settle into her groove, her challenger could crumble.

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Hantuchova vs. Dementieva

Despite a heavily taped thigh, the Slovak relied on her improved fitness to outlast Vania King in the second round after an impressively routine victory over Safina in her opener.  The stylish Hantuchova relies more on placement and point construction than raw power, creating a slight variation from the WTA’s standard currency.  Steadily accumulating confidence and momentum after leg injuries interrupted her season, Dementieva has assembled a virtually bulletproof baseline game that has more than compensated for her limp serve…except at majors.  While one doesn’t expect the Russian to snap that career-long drought here, a second-week charge could provide consolation for her Roland Garros disappointment and propel her back into the conversation.  Having lost to Oudin in the second round here last year, Elena also could climb back towards the top 10 with an extended run in New York.  Much superior to Daniela in lateral movement, she can falter when brought out of her groundstroke comfort zone into the forecourt.  In addition to ambitious angles, therefore, Hantuchova should attempt to break the Russian’s metronomic regularity by integrating the variety and texture that she has accumulated from her doubles experience.

Peer vs. Pennetta

Early in 2010, both the tenacious Israeli and the inflammable Italian had receded to the periphery of the sport’s contenders, causing commentators to question whether they could return to their former level.  After a storybook semifinal run in Dubai, Peer consolidated that momentum with victories over Kuznetsova, Radwanska, Li Na, Bartoli, and Pennetta herself over the next few months.  Recently, however, her surge has stalled a bit as injuries have hobbled her.  Overshadowed (like everyone else) by her compatriot Schiavone during the clay season, Pennetta regrouped with aplomb on the summer hard courts, where she recorded triumphs over Zvonareva and Stosur while becoming the only player to win a set from Wozniacki at Montreal.  A quarterfinalist at last year’s US Open, the Italian enjoys a more potent serve than the Israeli but a less gritty mentality.  Largely committed to remaining at the baseline except in extremely advantageous circumstances, the Israeli and the Italian possess balanced groundstrokes and fluid movement without the overwhelming power of the WTA’s elite.  Despite the slick courts at the US Open, some scintillating rallies should unfold in which both players gradually maneuver around each other like boxers waiting for the ideal moment to strike.

Simon vs. Kohlschreiber

As you might have suspected from our preview of Davydenko-Gasquet, we especially enjoy watching excellent backhands of both the one-handed and two-handed varieties.  Another contrast of this sort awaits in this trans-Rhine contest between a mercurial shotmaker and a sturdy counterpuncher that plays against both national stereotypes.  Although both players unleash their most dazzling shots from what analysts often consider “the weaker wing,” Simon relies upon the crisp, compact two-hander favored by Davydenko, while Kohlschreiber parallels Gasquet with his traditional one-handed flick.  After the French one-hander trumped the Russian two-hander on Day 4, will the trend continue on Day 5? Unprepossessing in physique, neither the Frenchman nor the German buttress their games upon overwhelming serves, which offers  a refreshing change from the bomb-a-thons that so often develop at the year’s final major.  Less reliable than their backhands are their forehands, flatter shots that can penetrate the court but that can desert both players for extended stretches.  This match lies largely in Kohlschreiber’s hands, for Simon will be content to travel laterally behind the baseline and force his opponent to hit as many shots as possible in the hope that his high-risk style will suffer an untimely lull.  Outside an injury that forced him to withdraw from Cincinnati, however, the German has been the superior player over the past several weeks and will be eager to set up another meeting with Nadal.

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Also of note on Friday is Stosur’s collision with Errani, who held multiple match points against the Aussie in New Haven.  While American fans will look forward to discovering whether Ryan Harrison can continue his unexpected success this week against New Haven champion Stakhovsky, Nadal may need to shed his first-round rust in order to dispatch New Haven finalist Istomin without excessive ado.  Let’s hope that Episode III of Ana’s Adventures proves equally uneventful!

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Emphatic for most of her second-round match against Ioana Raluca Olaru, Sharapova improved distinctly in two statistical areas that play an essential role on grass.  Maria connected with 71% of her first serves and converted 20 of 23 net points, thus dominating both the beginning and the end of most points on her serve.  Unfortunately for Sharapova, her potential fourth-round opponent Serena Williams was even more overpowering in a 48-minute rout of former top-10 denizen Anna Chakvetadze.  In eight total sets at the All England Club, the Russian and the American have conceded just eleven games, hurling three bagels and two breadsticks at their hapless victims.  Although tennis often defies prediction, one sense that Cibulkova and Zahlavova Strycova will find themselves taxed to the limit of their powers if they intend to forestall a marquee Monday meeting between these legendary champions.  The best ticket of the entire tennis calendar, Monday also might feature yet another edition of the melodramatic intra-Belgian rivalry that already has produced two final-set tiebreaks in 2010.  Write this potential collision in pencil for the moment, however, because a powerful Russian veteran has a legitimate chance to derail it.

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Henin (17) vs. Petrova (12) (Centre Court, 1st match):  Two Slams ago, Petrova scored a stunning third-round upset over a  member of Belgium’s dazzling duo, and she has an opportunity to repeat the feat on the grandest stage of all.  Typically tormented by Henin’s graceful, versatile style, the programmatic Russian dropped two tight matches to the seven-time major champion early this year in Australia, during which she revealed the mental frailties that have undermined her formidable game.  Nevertheless, Nadia has shone at Slams this year with consecutive quarterfinal appearances that will have boosted her confidence for a clash against Henin, whose comeback has slowed after an explosive start at Brisbane and Melbourne.  Effective but not overwhelming in her first two matches, Justine continues to struggle with her modified service motion; in this match, she can’t afford the chronic wobbles on serve that she suffered in her second-round clash with Barrois.  A quarterfinalist at last year’s Wimbledon, the Russian centers an outstanding grass-court style around a reliable serve and dexterous net play.  Just as Stosur relied on her massive delivery to defuse Henin’s shotmaking brilliance at Roland Garros, Petrova’s unglamorous but functional game might well end the Belgian’s Wimbledon campaign, as long as the Russian doesn’t ponder the situation too deeply.

Monfils (21) vs. Hewitt (15) (Centre Court, 2nd match):  Outstanding movers who reside almost entirely at the baseline, the Frenchman and the Australian showcase dramatically divergent styles beneath those superficial similarities.  The methodical Hewitt plays intelligent, careful tennis based on excellent technique and canny court sense, whereas the flamboyant Monfils favors jumping forehands, eye-popping slides, and spontaneous shot selection.  While the Frenchman will win more free points from his distinctly more potent serve, the Australian showcases more natural grass-court movement and far greater focus.  The veteran’s understated style belies his gritty determination to win at all costs, a trait absent from the function-follows-form Monfils.  Although this born entertainer will thrill the Centre Court crowd with improbable winners and retrievals, we expect the steadier, more experienced, and more tenacious Hewitt to take risks at more judicious moments.  His exceptional mental fortitude should allow him to weather his opponent’s barrage after various momentum shifts and navigate into a second-week duel with Djokovic.

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Kleybanova (26) vs. Venus (2) (Court 1, 2nd match):  In 2007, the ball-bruising Russian played a respectably competitive match against Venus at the All England Club that testified to her precocious maturity.  A more relentless competitor than most of her peers, Kleybanova scored a tense three-set win over the elder Williams on the relatively fast clay of Madrid last year.  Venus moves more fluidly than any of her rivals, yet Kleybanova covers the court extremely well and can match her from the baseline blow for blow.  Since both players will seek to play first-strike tennis, first serves and second-serve returns will be crucial factors.  Neither the Russian nor the American will want to start the point from behind, as they probably would if they miss their first deliver, and neither will want to donate points with reckless returning.  Accomplished in doubles, Kleybanova is exceptionally comfortable at the net and won’t shrink from the forecourt like many younger players.  Despite her impressive wins so far, Venus has become increasingly prone to the and few first-week opponents would be more ready to profit than the alert, opportunistic Russian. 

Kohlschreiber (29) vs. Roddick (5) (Court 1, 3rd match):  Not unlike Henin, the compact German compensates for his relatively unprepossessing height by unleashing his entire body into the ball.  Applying a boxing metaphor, he punches well above his weight and possesses an exquisite one-handed backhand that penetrates the court much more effectively than does the American’s matching groundstroke.  Consequently, Roddick should strive to orient cross-court rallies from forehand to forehand rather than backhand to backhand.  Armed with relatively short strokes, the fifth seed will find his less graceful but more efficient swings better suited to grass than the looping swings of his opponent, who needs more time to prepare his racket.  Similar to most bold shotmakers, the German sometimes struggles to control his aggression, oscillating between the sublime and the ridiculous with startling swiftness.  His opponents face the mental challenge of persevering through his scorching stretches while awaiting his lapses.  At the 2008 Australian Open, Kohlschreiber ignited his most fiery tennis at just the right moment against Roddick in perhaps the best match of his career, but it’s unlikely that lightning will strike twice. 

Lopez (22) vs. Melzer (16) (Court 2, 3rd match):  The winner of this clash earns a tilt with the titlist, a less unappetizing prospect than usual considering Federer’s indifferent form in his first two rounds.  Featuring two lefties with similar styles, the match should witness plenty of slicing wide serves and forays into the forecourt, since both of these aging veterans serve and volley expertly.  While Melzer hopes to extend the momentum from his unexpected Roland Garros semifinal run, Lopez seeks to validate his upset over Nadal at Queens Club.  Although the Spaniard and the Austrian favor their forehands, the latter possesses a sturdier backhand and will be forced to run around fewer balls; on grass, groundstroke symmetry (or relative symmetry) can be a vital advantage.  Since neither competitor will earn many break points, their relative success in converting the openings that do present themselves will prove vital.  Known for emotional volatility, Melzer retained his poise to rally from a two-set deficit in the preceding round, yet he may enter the match a step slow after his exertions.  Meanwhile, Lopez retired from Eastbourne last week with a shoulder injury that may drain a little velocity from his serve.  Remember those two potentially costly x-factors as the match unfolds.

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Wickmayer (15) vs. Zvonareva (21) (Court 12, 2nd match):  Highly impressive was the Belgian’s win over her surging compatriot Kristen Flipkens, which featured a marathon first-set tiebreak and a second set that stayed on serve until the final game.  Once again, we observed the psychological sturdiness for which Wickmayer has earned renown but that has faltered a little in past weeks.  On the other hand, psychological sturdiness is not a characteristic commonly associated with the often overwrought Zvonareva, whose volcanic temper can erupt at the most untimely moments.  At this phase in their respective careers, the Russian holds the shot-for-shot edge over the Belgian and is not notably inferior on grass, which hints that a mini-upset could occur.  The grander the stage, however, the greater the probability that Zvonareva will implode at the first sign of adversity.  In New York last year and Melbourne this year, Vera held Pennetta and Azarenka firmly within her grasp through a set and a half, then suddenly unraveled late in the second set and endured a third-set bagel.  Wickmayer must remember that the match is not over until the last point, no matter how bleak the situation may seem, and the Belgian’s natural tenacity will serve her well in these circumstances.

Briefly noted:  For the third consecutive Slam, Jankovic faces Alona Bondarenko  in the third round.  Once a perfect 9-0 against the Ukrainian, the Serb suffered a stunning upset in Melbourne before winning a tight two-setter in Paris.  Grass is probably the least comfortable surface for both players, so the quality of play should be rather indifferent, although the match itself might well be competitive.  Reaching the second week of both Slams thus far in 2010, Kirilenko attempts to score a notable upset for the third consecutive major when she confronts Clijsters, having defeated Sharapova at the Australian Open and Kuznetsova at Roland Garros.  Although the Russian’s punchless serve doesn’t aid her grass, her adroit volleying game and clever drop shots might cause the Belgian a headache or two.  Only the most ardent tennis fans will remember the 2002 Davis Cup final when Youzhny overcame Mathieu in a five-set fifth rubber, but the Russian and the Frenchman will attempt to reprise that scintillating pas de deux on Friday.  Having booked a place in history, what can Isner summon against another mighty server in Thiemo de Bakker?  Perhaps a better question would be:  will it end this week or next?

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Witnessing the first clashes between seeded players, Day 5 should provide the most compelling entertainment of the fortnight thus far.  As always, happy watching!