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Pavlyuchenkova vs. Schiavone:  A tiebreak from defeat in the previous round, the flamboyant Italian has grown accustomed to suspenseful three-setters during a year filled with epic encounters.  Among her more memorable triumphs was her quarterfinal duel with Pavlyuchenkova at Roland Garros, during which she lost 10 of the first 12 games.  In that whiplash-inducing rollercoaster, Schiavone then squandered a 5-1 lead in the final set, only to capture the two games that she needed.  At last year’s US Open, the Italian prevailed much less dramatically over a teenager who slumped through a second half of injuries and double faults.  Tested by rising Croat Petra Martic in the second round, Pavlyuchenkova enjoyed a more tranquil passage against 2008 finalist Jankovic, troubled by a back injury.

In a battle of youthful vigor against veteran cunning, the Russian will aim to take time away from Schiavone with penetrating cross-court groundstrokes into the corners that set up mild mid-court replies.  Not especially comfortable at the net, “Nastia” possesses the firepower to end points from the baseline or with a routine drive volley.  Unlike most practitioners of first-strike tennis, however, she has not honed an overwhelming serve or an especially explosive return.  Those shortcomings have forestalled Pavlyuchenkova from mounting higher in the rankings, but they may not hamper her against an opponent unremarkable in those categories herself.  An all-court artist who excels at tying her opponents in knots, Schiavone darted and dodged to consecutive Roland Garros finals by improvising unexpected gambits.  If she can parry Pavlyuchenkova’s initial assault, she might unsettle the relatively one-dimensional novice for the third time in five Slams.

Ana Ivanovic - 2011 US Open - Day 6

Ivanovic vs. Serena:  Thrilled to reach the second week of the US Open for the third time, Ivanovic relished the experience of playing under the lights of Arthur Ashe as her thunderous forehand crackled through the sport’s largest arena.  From her victory over American hope Sloane Stephens emerged flashes of her vintage form, especially her ability to dictate play from her stronger groundstroke while shielding her weaker wing.  On this fast surface, this challenging task will grow ever more demanding when the smiling Serb confronts the greatest player in this era of women’s tennis.  Superior to Ivanovic in virtually all departments of the game, Serena sharpened her weapons with a victory over world #4 Azarenka that began as a rout and would have ended in that fashion had not one of her backhands landed an inch or two wide.  Drama then ensued, but the 13-time Slam champion enjoys nothing more than drama and once again demonstrated her superiority to the WTA’s next generation.

Likely to experience less suspense in this round, Serena will thrive whenever she directs her backhand into Ivanovic’s two-hander, a neutral shot at best and often a liability against elite competition.  Although the American has lost serve only once in the tournament, Ana still should swing freely on her returns in the effort to seize the initiative immediately in rallies.  Should she not deliver that first strike, Serena’s more natural athleticism will offer her few opportunities to assert herself thereafter, and the Serb will not win many points from her defensive abilities.  In her three fourth-round appearances at the fourth jewel in the sport’s crown, Ivanovic has drawn the daunting trio of Clijsters and the Williams sisters.  Giggling with disarming charm when the media discussed her next opponent, the clear-eyed Serb knows the magnitude of the task ahead and likely lacks the confidence to convince herself that she can conquer it.

Tsonga vs. Fish:  Heavy are the expectations that rest upon the top-ranked American man, especially in a tournament where many of his compatriots have surpassed their projected results.  Joined in the second week by Roddick, isner, and Donald Young, Fish continues to generate the most anticipation following a summer of two small titles, a Masters 1000 final, and a first career victory over Nadal.  Yet his performances to this stage have not inspired great confidence, littered with routine unforced errors and missed first serves.  In the previous round against Kevin Anderson, Fish needed four set points to seal the first set and five more to seal the second.  Hitting consecutive double faults at 5-4, 40-15 in the first set, he conceded consecutive backhand unforced errors at 5-4, 40-15 in the second set before losing his serve with another wayward groundstroke.  Unable to finish the match more emphatically, Fish instead came within a few points of losing the third set as well.

Not known for his competitive steeliness, Tsonga has advanced more confidently against arguably more imposing competition, including an authoritative straight-sets victory over former nemesis Verdasco.  Perhaps still buoyed by his Wimbledon semifinal, the Frenchman has struck even his less imposing backhand with conviction.  Nevertheless, Fish should hope to arrange rallies from backhand to backhand rather than forehand to forehand, for his two-hander should break down Tsonga’s stroke under sustained pressure.  As one ponders the seismic serves on both sides of the net, one wonders how many rallies in fact will develop.  Both players typically establish unrelenting control over a point from the first ball, while neither transitions impressively from defense to offense.  Still without a Slam semifinal, Fish has yet to prove that he can translate his ascendancy from best-of-three tournaments to majors.

Wozniacki vs. Kuznetsova:  In a fourth-round night match two US Opens ago, this pair of pleasant personalities waged a gripping war of attrition that culminated in a third-set tiebreak.  The 2004 champion showcased her natural athleticism in extended exchanges during which she steadily outmaneuvered the Dane from the baseline during the first set and a half.  As many of Wozniacki’s more recent opponents have discovered, the precision required to execute that strategy throughout an entire match eventually eluded Kuznetsova, fallible as always when the pressure peaked.  Since that crossroads, their careers have diverged in opposite directions with the Dane soaring to the top ranking and the Russian lurching to perplexing loss after perplexing loss.  Reflecting their relative fortunes are their last two meetings, during which Sveta won nine total games from a steady opponent who needed no more than patience and consistency to outlast her.

Despite losing to anonymous foes like Begu, Arn, and Halep at non-majors, Kuznetsova has saved some of her best tennis in 2011 for the most important tournaments on the calendar.  Reaching the Roland Garros quarterfinals, she dispatched Henin into retirement at the Australian Open and then collaborated with Schiavone on the WTA match of the year.  The glittering lights of Arthur Ashe might spur her to unleash something memorable against an opponent in a state of flux.  Although she survived the first week with minimal difficulty, Wozniacki pursues her first major under constantly increasing scrutiny and with correspondingly increasing uncertainty over the best means to that end.  Only by staying within herself can she earn more opportunities to justify her ascendancy.

Novak Djokovic - 2011 US Open - Day 6

Djokovic vs. Dolgopolov:  A classic example of the dark horse who can defeat almost anyone or lose to almost anyone at almost any time, Dolgopolov has recorded victories over Tsonga (twice), Soderling, Ferrer, and Wawrinka this year.  Yet he also has lost to Potito Starace, Jarkko Nieminen, Jose Acasuso, and Carlos Berlocq in 2011.  The last of those names should sound familiar, for it belongs to the opponent whom Djokovic mercilessly devoured in a second-round victory somewhere between exhibition and execution.  After reaching the Australian Open quarterfinals and excelling in the South American clay tournaments, Dolgopolov faded throughout the spring and summer before reaching his nadir with a first-round Wimbledon loss to Gonzalez.  With nowhere to go but upwards, the Ukrainian then won Umag and ousted the similarly budding Dimitrov at Winston-Salem.  His second-week appearance here comes as little surprise, therefore, while his ability to physically and mentally survive the towering serve of Karlovic in the third round bodes well for his future.

A carefree character who plays an effortless brand of tennis, Dolgopolov should not flinch from the towering odds confronting him against a player who has lost only one match to a player outside the top 20 since Wimbledon last year.  So overwhelming is Djokovic’s dominance that his resounding win over Davydenko, a former top-5 talent, seemed imperfect as well as unremarkable.  The best mover in the ATP, the world #1 should track down the spectacular angles that Dolgopolov creates with his sprawling retrievals, ultimately driving his challenger into attempting the impossible.  Beforehand, though, a series of court-stretching rallies and scrambles to and from the forecourt should unfold.

 

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Vera Zvonareva - 2011 French Open - Day Four

Zvonareva vs. Pavlyuchenkova:  Two of the six Russians who advanced to the second week, they met last month on the indoor clay of Stuttgart.  Rallying from a one-set deficit on that occasion, Zvonareva likewise erased a one-set deficit before saving a match point in her second-round encounter with Lisicki here.  Since Vera and Nastia have combined to play 27 three-setters this year already, one might expect a fiercely contested encounter littered with twists and turns.  Seeking her first Slam quarterfinal, Pavlyuchenkova displayed creditable composure by outlasting clay specialist Llagostera Vives a round ago.  Both Russians have compiled a balanced groundstroke game and will hope to cling as close to the baseline as possible, looking for opportunities to move forward and take time away from the opponent.  A superior server and much superior mover, Zvonareva has few clear weaknesses that the teenager can exploit, although her indifferent clay results will have infused her with little confidence.  Striking a flatter ball with less margin for error, Pavlyuchenkova might aim to redirect her groundstrokes in order to hit behind her compatriot, who reverses direction more awkwardly than she covers the open court.  Intra-Russian affairs rarely produce the most aesthetically pleasing tennis, but they frequently produce comical, emotional, or otherwise entertaining moments to remember.

Gasquet vs. Djokovic:  Swaggering onto the court for the third consecutive day, the world #2 concluded a dangerous battle with Del Potro on an uplifting note by breaking the Argentine four times in the last two sets of their completion.  Rarely has Djokovic struggled to break the serve of the former French prodigy, feeding him four breadsticks during his four previous victories and dominating him at Indian Wells this spring.  As contenders like Murray has discovered at majors past, Gasquet can blaze through sets at a time with effortless precision equal to Federer.  As Murray also discovered, however, the Frenchman disintegrates swiftly when his timing falters by even a fraction, hampering him in the best-of-five format.  Djokovic thus should stay calm if Gasquet slips into one of the torried streaks that has propelled him through the finest performance of his career at his home major.  Falling behind early in both sets in their Indian Wells clash, the Serb comfortably regrouped behind his scorching return and constantly threatened the Frenchman on serve.  Before this week, Richard had won just four total matches in seven appearances at Roland Garros, finding the surface ill-suited to his mercurial flamboyance.  Despite his heartwarming resurgence in 2011, highlighted by a victory over Federer in Rome, he lacks the mental fortitude to grind past a champion of Djokovic’s pedigree at a major unless fatigue significantly undermines the Serb

Jankovic vs. Schiavone:  Somewhat to our surprise, the defending champion reached the second week with minimal ado against a trio of thoroughly overmatched opponents.  Her path now grows steeper as she confronts a three-time Roland Garros semifinalist who has won their last three meetings, crushing her in Marbella two years ago.  A semifinalist or better at no fewer than six majors but never a champion, Jankovic must consider this vulnerable draw an exceptional opportunity to address that lacuna in her resume.  On the other hand, the former #1 appeared to lose much of her competitive desire over the last year, while excessive court mileage from an overstuffed schedule has dulled her once-explosive movement.  Inspiring hope in the Serb, though, was a comfortable victory over Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who previously had enjoyed a compelling clay season.  Can Schiavone’s bubbling joy in the sport and appetite for the battle overcome an opponent with superior weapons?  If the Italian can slip into the forecourt, she could disrupt Jankovic’s baseline rhythm and sow confusion in her mind.  Conversely, the Serb will hope to pin Schiavone behind the baseline, miring her in conventional rallies where the defending champion’s inferior ball-striking capacity will doom her.  Outstanding movers and indifferent servers, these two combatants should win few easy points but instead engage in a series of elongated exchanges that exploit the geometry of the court.

Gael Monfils - 2011 French Open - Day Four

Ferrer vs. Monfils:  For the Spaniard, tennis resembles less a sport than a war.  For the Frenchman, tennis resembles less a sport than a performance.  As one of the ATP’s greatest overachievers collides with one of the ATP’s greatest underachievers, observers might reflect upon the divergent routes that brought them to essentially the same destination:  a status lofty although clearly outside the elite circle of contenders.  Whereas Ferrer lacks the weapons to regularly compete with the best, Monfils lacks the motivation and willpower.  Three years ago at Roland Garros, the latter conquered the former in an uneventful quarterfinal a round before extending Federer to four sets.  In order to repeat that accomplishment, Monfils must maximize his vital advantage at the service notch.  Also a far superior athlete and shot-maker, the Frenchman should not flinch before unleashing his firepower.  Too often, his superlative defensive skills cause him to forget his mighty offensive weapons, most notably a jumping forehand more like an overhead than a groundstroke.  Among the finest returners and baseline retrievers in the ATP, Ferrer would relish a defensively oriented encounter that could showcase his fitness and focus, his two principal advantages over Monfils.  The seventh and ninth seeds should conduct their collision from well behind the baseline, allowing observers to witness a classic display of clay-court tennis.

Hantuchova vs. Kuznetsova:  After the dual upsets of Wozniacki and Stosur, Kuznetsova leapt from the status of an intriguing dark horse to the favorite from her quarter and perhaps her half.  The 2009 champion has not thrived in such a position before, often tripping on the threshold when a door opens for her.  Sharing that trait is her opponent on Sunday, although Hantuchova demonstrated an uncharacteristic degree of composure in surviving a desperate second-set rally by Wozniacki and dispatching a reigning #1 for the first time.  Perhaps still soaring from that stunning accomplishment, the stylish Slovak may have sufficient momentum to overcome her negative history against Kuznetsova, who won both of their previous clay meetings in straight sets.  Pitted against the Russian’s superior athleticism are Hantuchova’s exquisite ball placement and unpredictable angles.  While Sveta appreciates the extra time to set up her forehand on clay, Daniela welcomes the extra time with which the surfaces masks her tepid movement.  Although none of the 11 meetings has occurred at a major, Hantuchova won the most important match of their rivalry in the 2007 Indian Wells final.  In an encounter between two competitors with the flakiness of a millefeuille, however, whoever thinks less will laugh last.

 

 

Rafael Nadal of Spaincelebrates a point during the "Rally For Relief" charity exhibition match ahead of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 16, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Nadal vs. Cilic:  Far more talented than the Spaniard’s previous victims, the Croat routed him late in 2009 but will find a far more determined opponent this time.  Not quite rising to his vintage brilliance, the top seed still has cruised almost casually through his first three encounters against overmatched opponents.  In the sole exception, Tomic raced to a double-break lead in the second set before discovering what happened to the mouse who pulled the tiger’s tail.  Rafa’s fitness remains somewhat dubious following an illness in Doha that has left him looking a bit wearied at times and seems to have depleted his confidence in his normally superb physical condition.  Yet his lanky foe found himself dragged through five physically and emotionally draining sets in a third-round meeting with Isner, who came within a tiebreak of supplanting Cilic in the second week.  Also raising questions over the Croat are the erratic results that he posted last year as his technique startlingly disintegrated.  Although his forceful two-handed backhand could knock Rafa onto his heels, Cilic’s loopy forehand can fracture under the pressure that a resilient baseliner like Nadal will apply.  Only in the serving department does the challenger hold an advantage over the champion, who has not recaptured the percussive delivery that he unleashed so unexpectedly in New York.

Raonic vs. Ferrer:  The first qualifier to reach the second round of a major since 1999, the newfound pride of Canadian tennis won as many matches to reach this stage (seven) as the eventual champion in Melbourne will require.  Once leading the tournament in aces, Raonic must establish control over their exchanges with that opening shot before the grittier, far more experienced, and far fresher Ferrer subjects him to death by paper cut in a series of endlessly extended rallies.  Successful in the past against mighty servers, the Spaniard seeks to atone for his second-round disappointment here last year, when he surrendered a two-set lead to Baghdatis.  In 2011, by contrast, Ferrer dropped just one set in the first week  as he flung bagels and breadsticks at his hapless foes.  Unless Raonic can assert himself from the outset, one imagines  that his Cinderella run will end rather meekly at the hands of the ATP’s steadiest returner.

Soderling vs. Dolgopolov:  Spared from facing Tsonga at this stage, the Swede will target a charismatic Ukrainian thoroughly unfamiliar to him and to less devout fans.  But Dolgopolov’s commanding performance in the last two sets against the 2008 finalist, befuddled by his curiously timed groundstrokes that resembles swings less than swipes.  In the second week of the season’s first major for the first time in his career, Soderling has preserved the scintillating form that carried him to the Brisbane title two weeks ago, although his previous opponents lacked the baseline firepower to test him.  Instead, he could arrange his clumsy feet and measure his targets with effortless precision, under no pressure to prevent an opponent from regaining the initiative in the rally.  A vicious ball-striker who almost (but not quite) rivals the fourth seed, Dolgopolov will unsettle the Swede with a bit of his own medicine.  The key to this match may lie in Soderling’s superior serve, though, which has befriended him at crucial moments in 2011.

Melzer vs. Murray:  Two years ago at the Australian Open, the counterpunching Scot mercilessly dispatched the volatile lefty.  More intriguing to recall is their surly third-round collision at the 2008 US Open, when Melzer edged within two points of what then constituted a monumental upset over a surly Scot.  Friction sparked between their personalities on that occasion and may again if Melzer maintains the explosive shot-making that will bring him to the top 10 after the tournament ends.  Despite a victory over Nadal in Shanghai and Djokovic at Roland Garros, the Austrian has arrived only recently in the ATP elite after four consecutive second-week appearances at majors.  Troubled by Baghdatis until injury overtook the Cypriot, his audacious gambits reap fewer rewards on this medium-speed court than on the slicker fall surfaces where he prospered.  The fifth seed contrastingly should thrive on a surface with a bounce friendly to his high contact point and a speed suitable to his lithe movement. Winless in four meetings with Murray, Melzer may rest content with yet another sturdy Slam performance rather than pressing himself to reprise that US Open epic.

Peng vs. Radwanska: Conquering the seventh-seeded Jankovic in the second round, the double-fisted Chinese star hopes to walk in the footsteps of 2010 semifinalist Zheng.  Better known for her success in doubles than in singles, Peng has displayed adept net skills and competitive poise throughout her first three victories, not only closing out the Serb with ease but overcoming cramping to defeat Morita a round later.  Once considered unlikely to even play in Melbourne, Radwanska now targets her second quarterfinal at the year’s first major after narrowly eluding Kimiko Date Krumm.  The Pole has grown more confident with each match as she plays herself into the tournament, honing the timing on her artistic style and finding greater depth on her groundstrokes.  Since both players threaten more with their return than their serve, one expects  a match filled with service breaks in which no lead is safe.

Makarova vs. Clijsters:  While the three-time US Open champion lost fewer games than any player in the draw during the first week, the Russian lefty lost more games than any player in the draw.  Apparent in her Eastbourne title run last year, Makarova’s competitive zeal shone through in two upsets over seeded opponents that extended deep into third sets.  The world #49 played well above her ranking to ambush both Ivanovic and Petrova, who found few answers for her ruthless angles and formidable serving.  The clear favorite to win this title, Clijsters must elevate her game from the 41-error performance that disfigured Rod Laver Arena in her third-round victory over Cornet.  Although experience clearly favors the only hard-court Slam champion still in Melbourne, Makarova will exploit the foibles that the Frenchwoman graciously declined to punish.  In her first two victories, though, Clijsters looked virtually invincible as she conceded just four games in four sets; thus, one suspects that the Cornet wobble may have stemmed partly from her loss in the same round here last year.   The Russian has lost 13 games per match on average during this tournament, and Kim needs only 12.

Pennetta vs. Kvitova:  Probably the most evenly matched women’s collision of the day, it features two players who overcame adversity in their last two rounds.  Trailing Stosur 5-3 in the first-set tiebreak, Kvitova regrouped to win the next four points with blistering forehands and never looked troubled again en route to the upset.  Although Pennetta scored only a small upset over the tenth-seeded Peer, she came within four points of defeat in the second set before dominating a tiebreak and battling through a tense final set.  The Italian veteran will have gained confidence from avenging an emotionally fraught loss to the Israeli at the previous major, while her victory over Zvonareva in Sydney reminded audiences of the dangers posed by her deceptively bland style.  But will she allow the quirky, inflammable Kvitova to unnerve her, or will she patiently wait for the lulls that inevitably interrupt the Czech lefty’s brilliance?  Since both players currently smolder outside the top 20, both could gain substantially from a quarterfinal or perhaps semifinal appearance here.

Benesova vs. Zvonareva:  Not unlike Oudin at the 2009 US Open, Kvitova’s compatriot and fellow lefty has ousted two seeded Russians with a determination much less characteristic of the Czech than it was of the American.  After 31 consecutive first-week losses at majors, Benesova finds herself in the second week for the first time in her career and should not be discounted against a fallible world #2 despite the disparity in their rankings.  Shrugging off a lopsided second set against Pavlyuchenkova in the third round, the world #60 refused to succumb in the third set as she fought off multiple break points with fearless forehands and drop shots.  Much less than fearless in the first week, Zvonareva allowed a second-set lead to slip away against Safarova and suffered through a 20-point tiebreak before avoiding a second straight three-setter.  Seeking her third consecutive major final, she has displayed only fleeting glimpses of the intelligent point construction and competitive poise that characterized her achievements at Wimbledon and the US Open.  With recurrent nemesis Pennetta perhaps lurking in the quarterfinals, Zvonareva has one last chance to deliver a statement of intent before the pressure rises.

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Having previewed every clash on Day 8, we will discuss all of the remaining singles matches at the 2011 Australian Open as the second week unfolds.

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Having lost just seven games in her last six sets at the US Open, Sharapova seeks the second Slam quarterfinal of her comeback.  A round after a double-bagel demolition of an American wildcard, however, Maria confronts an adversary who recorded a double bagel in the previous round and has dropped just three games in the entire tournament.  Riding a twelve-match winning streak, Wozniacki entered the Open after capturing consecutive titles in Montreal and New Haven, which placed her in position to acquire the top ranking here if she wins a maiden major.  Hitherto winless against former #1s, the Pole-Dane has feasted upon the rank and file of the WTA without quite cracking the Slam stranglehold of the veterans.  Committing herself to steady improvement, Wozniacki has endeavored to add offensive weapons to her counterpunching repertoire, including a flatter forehand.  This match presents the opportunity for her to demonstrate her ability to exchange blows with the mightiest sluggers in her sport, the final step in her evolution.  For the moment, though, the match lies in Sharapova’s hands; Maria knows that she won’t be outserved or outhit from the baseline.  Succinctly summing up the task before her, the 2006 champion remarked that she must be “aggressively patient” rather than pulling the trigger too early in rallies.  The balance between fearless ball-striking and careful point construction comprises a challenge as mental as it is physical, requiring Sharapova to rely upon her steely concentration.  In order to oust the top seed, Maria must connect with a high percentage of first serves as she did in her previous match while exploiting Wozniacki’s still-tepid second serve.  While the fast surface will enhance Sharapova’s massive first-strike potential, it also sometimes exposes her shortcomings in movement and footwork.  As these two vastly divergent styles collide, the match may be seized by who departs from her comfort zone more adroitly.  Will Caroline muster the courage to take additional risks, or will Maria muster the consistency to prevail in elongated rallies on key points?   Contrary to the sports cliché, defense rarely wins championships in women’s tennis, but last year’s finalist hopes to change that trend.  Sharapova, on the other hand, intends to preserve it.

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Fish vs. Djokovic

The toast of Cincinnati a few weeks ago, Fish nearly became ordinary toast when he fell behind the underwhelming Hajek two sets to one in his opener.  More suited to a best-of-three than a best-of-five format, the American nevertheless has relied upon his immensely improved fitness to win a pair of fifth sets in New York, despite falling short of the brilliance that he displayed during the preparatory events.  Mardy must raise his level immediately in order to conquer an opponent whom he has consistently threatened but never overcome, a three-time US Open semifinalist.  Dominant for most of his third-round victory over Blake, Djokovic showed no mental frailty when confronted with a largely hostile crowd and will be prepared for a similar atmosphere on Monday afternoon.  While Fish has acquired a reputation for serve-and-volley exploits, his late-career surge has been built upon enhanced lateral movement, which will enable him to survive elongated rallies better than in previous years.  Meeting the Serb twice at Indian Wells in the last three years, the American extended his higher-ranked foe to a third set on both occasions, only to fade in the decider.  In order to evade a similar fate, the home hope must start more impressively than did Blake against Djokovic, concentrating his energies upon protecting his serve.  Both players have endured pronounced peaks and valleys throughout their first few matches, perhaps an indicator of the Serb’s indifferent focus and the high-risk style to which the American still adheres.  In addition to multiple mini-momentum shifts, we anticipate some scintillating backhand-to-backhand battles; although Fish and Djokovic project just as much power from their forehands, their two-handers remain the more consistent weapons.

(Congratulate us on writing an entire lengthy paragraph about Fish without a single aquatic witticism.)

Petkovic vs. Zvonareva

In this spongy section of the draw, opportunity knocks for an ambitious German who edged Petrova in a third-set tiebreak and saved three match points a round later.  Likely to reach the top 20 in the future, Petkovic summoned her most compelling tennis at the most crucial moments, a pattern that should delight her fans.  Beyond her fierce serve and groundstroke combinations, she is gaining greater comfort in the forecourt and a sturdier composure under pressure.  Opposite this developing star stands the Wimbledon finalist, who can prove herself more than just another flavor of the month with a semifinal appearance here.  Not equipped to outslug the heaviest artillery in the WTA, Zvonareva’s crisp, balanced groundstrokes complement her elegant movement and leave opponents with few flaws to target.  Yet her infamous propensity for meltdowns has hampered the Russian on the grandest stages, including an excruciating, tear-soaked loss to Pennetta in her most recent evening appearance on Arthur Ashe.  If the match stays competitive, we’ll be intrigued to note whether she has banished her inner demons, as she claims, or whether they merely lie dormant.  Will the night session’s electric atmosphere influence either player, neither of whom is accustomed to regularly showcasing their talents in such an imposing venue?  While Petkovic should treat this match and this tournament as a valuable learning experience, her veteran foe will labor under the pressure of expectations.  Vera generally flourishes on the more informal atmosphere of the outer courts, but now it’s time for her to stand and deliver.

Gasquet vs. Monfils

Amidst the mighty servers who always prosper at the Open, two flamboyant shotmakers will drench New York with Gallic flair.  Soaring through three rounds without dropping a set, Gasquet vanquished the highly divergent playing styles of Davydenko and Kevin Anderson with expert returning, even breaking the towering South African four times.  The former prodigy still times his groundstrokes with uncanny precision and breathtaking imagination, while his opponent slides, dives, and leaps around the courts with balletic grace.  Usually a stronger server than Gasquet, Monfils will expect to win more free points but usually will play much further behind the baseline once the rally begins.  Content to remain on defense, Gael typically will allow Richard to unleash his groundstrokes and rely upon spectacular stabs and retrievals to frustrate his compatriot.  Don’t be surprised to see Monfils attempt Federer’s between-the-legs shot at a key moment, for he famously prefers the journey to the destination.  On the other hand, he found sufficient mental reserves to erode Tipsarevic a round after the Serb had toppled Roddick.  While neither of these Frenchmen represents a serious title contender, the jumping forehand of Monfils and the down-the-line backhand of Gasquet constitute two of the most reality-defying groundstrokes in the sport.  In their only Slam meeting at the 2007 Australian Open, Richard prevailed in four erratic but entertaining sets.  If he can take time away from his countryman by charging into the forecourt, he could repeat the accomplishment here.  But the swaggering insouciance of Monfils generally reaps more impressive results than the fragile hopefulness manifested by Gasquet.

***

As blondes battle, Serbs hook fish, and Gael winds blow, we wonder what Day 8 will serve…

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After dropping serve in the fourth game against an imperious Serena Williams, a familiar storyline seemed likely to unfold for Sharapova, who had endured a pair of ignominiously one-sided defeats at the hands of the world #1 in their last two fast-court meetings.  Instead, the 2004 Wimbledon champion swiftly regrouped to break Serena before matching her fistpump for fistpump and serve for blazing serve deep into a first-set tiebreak, where a momentary dip in the Russian’s intensity cost her the chance to establish a lead.  Barely deterred by that disappointment, however, she kept the top seed grimly locked in combat through most of the second set as well.  Rather than the slumping, listless Maria who dropped the Australian final to Serena three years ago, the Centre Court  witnessed a steely competitor whose fabled ferocity glowed once more against the three-time (probably soon to be four-time) titlist at the All England Club.  This startlingly taut encounter joined the gallant three-setter against Henin in Paris among Sharapova’s finest performances in her comeback, for both of these honorable losses impressed more than most of her triumphs over unheralded foes.  (Could someone summon Justine whenever Maria requires an infusion of confidence?  Their epic final at the 2007 year-end championships likewise ignited the Russian after a dismal series of results.)  To be sure, she must polish her second-serve returns and refine her shot selection at crucial moments; she adhered to her aggression-at-all-costs game plan a little too rigorously on a few occasions.  Where Maria is concerned, though, over-aggressive is far preferable to passive; if she can maintain her distance from the doctor, one imagines that her ranking and confidence will continue to climb, lifting the Russian back into the contender’s circle for 2011.  It’s hard to imagine her losing on a fast surface to anyone not named Williams with the standard of play that she showcased on Monday. 

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Meanwhile, Henin finds herself at a slight crossroads in her comeback after a deflating loss to Clijsters during which she produced erratic and often unintelligent tennis.  Following an explosive start to 2010 in Australia, the season hasn’t unfolded as impressively as she surely would have hoped, and three three-set losses to Clijsters will be festering in her mind during the post-Wimbledon hiatus.  If Henin hopes to add the Venus Rosewater Dish to her trophy collection, she must find a way to defeat her compatriot before she can attempt to solve the Williams sisters.  Always an emotional dynamo, the petite Belgian needs an impressive performance or two over the coming months in order to restore her confidence in this second career and vindicate the modifications that thus far have disrupted more than enhanced her game.  On the bright side, her rising ranking will allow her to settle into tournaments more comfortably by easing her draws, brutal at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon. 

Monday was Manic indeed.  Will Tuesday be Terrific or Tepid?  We break down the women’s quarterfinals straight ahead…

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Clijsters (8) vs. Zvonareva (21):  Who would have guessed that Zvonareva would be the last Russian standing at Wimbledon?  While Kim has won all five of their previous meetings, including a 2006 first-round clash here, Vera has extended their last two clashes to three sets and has showcased unexpectedly compelling tennis this fortnight.  Despite the pressure inherent to her exalted surroundings, Zvonareva hasn’t dropped a set in four matches here while restraining her infamous temper.  Unaccustomed to playing on Centre Court, however, she might enter the match a little tentative, which could allow Clijsters to establish an early lead.  Rallying from a one-set deficit against her archrival on Monday, the Belgian either will charge forward with the momentum acquired from overcoming Henin or will suffer an emotional hangover from the relief of reversing Justine’s dominance over her on major stages.  At Miami, an emotionally fraught semifinal triumph against her compatriot preceded a highly capable performance in the final.  “Highly capable” should suffice to vanquish Zvonareva, who can equal Clijsters from both the service notch and the baseline but not above the neckline.  Since neither player wins quantities of free points on their serve, engaging rallies should develop that showcase the balanced groundstroke arsenals and crisp footwork of these competitors.  If one feels rather jaded by the abbreviated points and spasmodic rhythm of conventional grass-court tennis, therefore, this match should offer a refreshing antidote.  We expect a reasonably competitive encounter, perhaps even a three-setter, that Clijsters should capture through her superior consistency unless her game abruptly deserts her as it has a few times this year.  Clijsters, 70/30.

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Serena (1) vs. Li (9):  Virtually bullet-proof through her first four matches, Serena has conceded her serve just once in the tournament while striking an astonishing 62 aces, 38 in her last two matches.  One senses that she’ll need to rely on that massive delivery against an adversary who has won four sets (and one match) from her and who habitually rises to the occasion when confronting formidable opponents.  Forced to perform at a lofty level in order to overcome Sharapova, Serena often benefits from challenging early rounds that elevate her focus for the tournament’s latter stages.  Riding a nine-match winning streak, Li dragged the top seed into two tiebreaks in the Australian Open semifinals; overall, they have contested no fewer than five tiebreaks, of which the American has won four behind her superior serve.  As Serena mentioned in her Monday press conference, the Chinese star never concedes a match and can be at her most dangerous when behind.  In their last two meetings, Li twice broke the world #1 when she served for a set, sharpening her game at crucial moments.  Unintimidated by the Williams sisters, whom she has defeated three times since 2008, the ninth seed surely won’t be intimidated by the aura of Centre Court, a less pressure-laden environment than the Beijing Olympics where she excelled two years ago.  Very few players are more capable of exploiting an off-key day from a marquee opponent, which Venus discovered to her chagrin at the Australian Open.  Yet Serena has looked nothing short of imperious during this fortnight, burdening her opponents with the task of winning virtually every service games simply to stay level with her.  Don’t be surprised to see another tiebreak or two, but only a supreme effort from Li will secure a set for the Chinese star; shot for shot, there’s nothing that she does better than Serena when the American is at her best.   Serena, 80/20.

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Pironkova vs. Venus (2):  Recalling the 2006 Australian Open, fans of the elder Williams sister may anticipate this encounter a little anxiously, since Pironkova scored one of the last decade’s most shocking Slam upsets in the opening round that year.  in an unexpectedly tight, largely overlooked fourth-round triumph over Jarmila Groth, Venus looked less sharp than she had in the first week and was fortunate to escape a third set when the Slovak-turned-Australian crumbled in the second-set tiebreak.  Nevertheless, she faces a vastly different opponent in the Bulgarian, who once seemed a promising future contender before spiraling downwards in the last year or two.  Caressing rather than bludgeoning the ball, Pironkova exploited an extremely weak section of the draw before mystifyingly overcoming the much more grass-friendly game of Bartoli on Monday.  Bartoli’s serve often comprises more of a liability than an asset, however, whereas Venus should hold regularly while constantly threatening the Bulgarian’s benign delivery.  If they clashed on clay, Pironkova might prolong points until the second seed donated costly errors, but on grass this match would seem to be a grotesque mismatch.  On the other hand, Tsvetana is faithfully reproducing Schiavone’s post-victory mannerisms, so who knows?  We think that we do.  Venus, 90/10.

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Kvitova vs. Kanepi (Q):  Two women’s players will have won seven matches at this year’s Wimbledon:  the eventual champion and Kaia Kanepi, who scored three wins in the qualifying draw before reaching the quarters with four more victories.  Critiqued in this blog for her one-dimensionality, the Estonian has proved that might still does make right sometimes, following her Stosur upset with three more quality straight-sets wins.  Although her conditioning must be excellent for her to reach this stage, one imagines that Kanepi will be a little weary as she readies for the lefty missiles from the racket of white-hot Petra Kvitova.  The Estonian has won two of their three meetings, yet the Czech captured a vertiginously seesaw encounter in Memphis this Feburary after Kanepi had served for the match.  Bageling both Azarenka and Wozniacki, Kvitova sometimes looks as though she couldn’t miss if she tried, no matter how outrageously audacious her shots.  With impeccable timing, she’s scheduled the most convincing tennis of her career for arguably the most important tournament of all.  Kvitova possesses superior movement and Kanepi the sturdier serve, but both players probably will greet this immense opportunity apprehensively,  producing less than exquisite tennis.  Will Kanepi’s unflinching power trump Kvitova’s imaginative shotmaking, or will the lefty’s high-wire act continue?  Your guess is as good as ours.  A name beginning with K, 100/0.

We return with a preview of the distinctly more intriguing men’s quarterfinal matchups, three of which we forecasted before the first ball was struck.  Kudos to Yen-Hsun Lu for confounding our expectations, but it’ll be a long flight home for last year’s finalist, who has lost in excruciating fashion at his last four non-clay majors.

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Nobody has endured a heavier diet of disappointment than Roddick, so one hopes that the worm will eventually turn before the last sands trickle out of his hourglass.