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Simultaneously savage and stylish, Sharapova prepares to debut her night outfit for a second-round collision with Czech lefty Iveta Benesova.  In her last two US Open appearances, the Russian delivered a pair of sensational performances under the lights only to fade in the day session a round later.  Already divergent from those inauspicious precedents, this trip to New York began ominously for Maria with a one-set deficit against Jarmila Groth.  Despite an indifferent first-serve percentage, however, Sharapova relied upon an imposing second serve to suffocate her dangerous Australian adversary.  She overcame Benesova en route to the Tokyo title last fall and possesses a substantial mental edge over the fragile lefty.  Nevertheless, the Czech shone under the Montreal lights when she upset top-seeded Jankovic at the Rogers Cup, where her forehands created audacious and unexpected angles.  A round after that breakthrough, of course, Benesova mustered just a solitary game against Bartoli in a result that illustrated her persistent inconsistency.  Although Maria might require a few games to adjust to the lefty serve-forehand combinations, her return and backhand comprise far more potent weapons than those of her opponent.  On an especially fast surface such as Arthur Ashe Stadium, the Russian’s balanced groundstrokes should reap rewards, while Benesova may struggle to find enough time to set up her loopy forehand.  Perhaps the most compelling statistic, however, is Sharapova’s immaculate night session record at majors.  Can Benesova accomplish what nobody has before her?  In the world’s largest tennis arena, she’s more likely to retreat from than rise to the occasion.

As always, we continue to preview more of Day 4’s most scintillating action…

Lisicki vs. Zvonareva:

Thoroughly thrashing home hope Coco Vandeweghe in her opener, Lisicki literally served notice of her much-awaited return to the WTA following a nagging ankle injury.  Across the net stands a woman familiar with such experiences, the Wimbledon finalist and veteran of ankle surgery last fall.  Generally more comfortable as a counterpuncher, Zvonareva proved that her game could prosper on a fast surface with her stunning fortnight at the All England Club, yet Lisicki’s serve will exert steady pressure upon the Russian’s return.  Moreover, the burden of consistently holding serve to keep pace with the German will challenge Zvonareva’s newfound, somewhat untested poise.  In San Diego, she eventually crumbled against Vandeweghe ‘s superior weight of shot, and the surface here will amplify the ball-bludgeoning might of such aggressors more than the medium-speed court at the earlier event.  If Lisicki can connect with a substantial percentage of her first serves, she might threaten to produce the most notable upset on the women’s side so far.  On the other hand, Zvonareva will seek to stretch the German laterally and expose her indifferent footwork and movement.  She might also attempt to elongate the rallies in order to extract unforced errors from Lisicki, who strikes the ball with a flat swing and thus will bury groundstrokes in the net more often than the Russian.

Jankovic vs. Lucic:

Perhaps a bit fortunate to escape the burgeoning Simona Halep in the first round, Jankovic attempts to thwart the comeback saga of Mirjana Lucic.  Extending a lengthy succession of recent un-retirements, the Croat dominated fellow comeback artist Molik in her opener and should relish the swift courts in New York.  A former Wimbledon semifinalist, Lucic possesses the shotmaking skill to fluster the Serb, who has been easily rattled in recent weeks and seems to have lost her customary feel for the ball.  In her US Open Series appearances, the world #4 looked sluggish, uncertain, and weary, perhaps the consequence of yet another WTA ankle injury.  Nevertheless, Jankovic’s court coverage should force the Croat to hit a few more shots than she can produce at this stage in her return.  Although Lucic once won a set from Graf, she hasn’t defeated an adversary approaching the Serb’s caliber during her “second career” and should consider this match an experience from which she can learn for the months ahead.

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Davydenko vs. Gasquet:

One of the flashiest one-handed backhands in the ATP duels with one of the crispest two-handers, inviting spectators to compare the relative merits of these competing shots.  Erratic since his return from a sprained wrist, Davydenko has barely won consecutive matches since April and has suffered several losses to players outside the top 50.  Considering the exceptional timing upon which his game relies, the cascades of unforced errors from his racket surprised few observers during the US Open Series.  Also reliant upon precise timing, Gasquet shares the Russian’s knack for alternating between head-turning winners and head-scratching gaffes.  Since his controversy-shrouded hiatus, the Frenchman has sparkled for occasional sets and reached a pair of finals in 2010.  Outside his victory over Verdasco in the second of those finals, however, he has fallen well short of testing the ATP elite—as has Davydenko, outside a brief spell from late 2009 to early 2010.  Neither the Russian nor the Frenchman enjoys a stellar serve, so some captivating rallies should unfold.  More comfortable at the net than Davydenko, Gasquet should attempt to finish points in the forecourt rather than allowing his opponent’s superior foot speed, footwork, and fitness to mire him in a war of attrition.

Soderling vs. Dent:

A few months ago at Roland Garros, Soderling won the shortest men’s match of the tournament over the clay-averse Taylor Dent.  Can the American exact revenge at his home major?  The task may not prove so unrealistic as one might imagine, for the Swede squandered a two-set lead against an Austrian qualifier in his first match, while Dent overcame Federer’s near-nemesis Alejandro Falla in a routine serving clinic.  Reunited with coach Magnus Norman, Soderling hopes to shed the negative body language and lackluster play that characterized most of his post-Wimbledon tournaments, beginning with a disappointing loss to Almagro at the final of his home event.  Entering the match with nothing to lose, the American will enjoy substantial support from the Louis Armstrong Stadium crowd.  Soderling often loses composure when audiences emphatically exhort his foe, such as a loss to Baghdatis in an Australian Open that he had controlled at the outset.  If Dent can hold serve and stay close early, a window into the ever-inflammable Swede’s psyche might open.

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While Ana rests her ankle, we eagerly anticipate the return of Maria Mania tomorrow night!

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The contrast between efficient and inefficient tennis couldn’t have been much starker than in consecutive ATP matches on Court Philippe Chatrier.  While Federer never opened a window of opportunity for Alejandro Falla, Gael Monfils opened windows and doors aplenty for Fabio Fognini, nearly jumping out of a window himself before the setting sun conspired with the Frenchman to deny the Italian three match points.  We checked out on this match when Monfils led by two sets and a break, then checked out again when he led by a double break in the fourth set; unfortunately for him, though, Gael checked out on both of those occasions as well.  Over on Lenglen, meanwhile, Soderling made even Federer look positively profligate with a 71-minute evisceration of Taylor Dent, who deserves credit for swallowing the humiliation in a sportsmanlike manner (ahem, Querrey?).  Kuznetsova looked Doomed with a capital D against an inspired Petkovic until the German uncharacteristically succumbed to nerves and threw Sveta not one but four lifelines.  In other WTA news, Safarova joined fellow clay season sensations Martinez Sanchez and Gulbis on the ferry to London; even Rezai wallowed through a three-setter on Wednesday, suggesting that those much-hyped Rome and Madrid results may hold as much water as a shot glass.  We’re eagerly awaiting Rezai-Petrova on Friday, but first there’s a bit of business involving three Serbs on a Thursday.

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Jankovic (4) vs. Kanepi (Q) (Chatrier, 1st match):  The architect of Jankovic’s demise a year ago in Dubai, Kanepi has struggled during recent months and surprisingly was forced to qualify here.  Not renowned for her clay prowess, the Estonian defeated none other than Henin in Fed Cup a few weeks ago; the four-time French Open champion admittedly was fatigued from Stuttgart and coping with a broken finger, but still…it’s Henin.  On the other hand, the savage but erratic baseline-bashing of Kanepi (not unlike Djokovic’s first-round opponent, Korolev) should provide an excellent foil for Jankovic in her quest to claim a first Slam, seemingly within the Serb’s grasp here.  In fact, we’d even say that circumstances from her recent resurgence to her tranquil draw and Henin’s contrastingly mountainous path have aligned almost ideally in her favor, which probably means that Jelena will find a way to botch the opportunity eventually.  It won’t happen here, however, for JJ’s superb ball-retrieving will enable her to wear down Kanepi after the type of inspiring defensive display that clay regularly rewards.

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Nishikori vs. Djokovic (3) (Lenglen, 3rd match):  Watching the Bolletieri Academy’s Japanese star outlast Ferrer (a rare event indeed) at the 2008 US Open, we were struck by the resemblance between his game and the Spaniard’s.  If Nishikori successfully impersonates Ferrer’s gritty tenacity, Djokovic might find his fitness severely tested in an endless sequence of baseline exchanges.   As mentioned above, his first-round opponent possesses precisely the opposite style, designed to win short points on fast surfaces; consequently, the Serb’s questionable physical condition wasn’t fully examined.  But one should remember that Nishikori’s own fitness may be a few notches below its best in the aftermath of a thrilling comeback from a two-set deficit against an emerging Santiago Giraldo.  Moreover, Djokovic should be able to break (or at least create opportunities to break) with sufficient frequency to take mental pressure off his own serve.  Although the recent rainy weather favors Nishikori’s counterpunching game, Novak should profit from his vastly superior experience to escape this tricky encounter.  If he wavers early, though, stay alert.

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Kleybanova (28) vs. Ivanovic (Court 1, 1st match):  They’ve clashed three times since the beginning of 2009, of which the Russian has claimed two (Australian Open 2009, Fed Cup 2010).  Having scored upsets over Clijsters and Jankovic as well as Ivanovic, Kleybanova regularly has thrilled us with her competitive fire and fascinating angles; no player came closer to defeating Henin in Melbourne before the final.  (Without being unkind, we also should note that the Russian’s movement is surprisingly effective for a player of her physique.)  In Canada last year, we attended her 3½-hour marathon against Jankovic, during which her poise and desire glowed ever more brightly as the match grew tighter.  Nevertheless, Ana possesses a distinct edge on the surface, which is her favorite and Kleybanova’s least favorite.  Although the Serb struggled immensely with her serve during her opener, she looked consistently comfortable with the shot during her Rome run, where the confidence that she gained from it infused the rest of her game.  While Kleybanova does have the psychological advantage from the head-to-head, Ana did defeat her in Dubai last year even in the midst of her slump and thus should enter the match knowing that she can win against the Russian.  It’s an opportunity for her to make a modest but important statement. 

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Hantuchova (23) vs. Govortsova (Court 3, 3rd match—4th including Baghdatis completion):  A late addition to our preview, this match opposes two competitors who effectively were off the radar several months ago but have since awakened…at least for now.  We were delighted to watch the elegant Slovak resurface with a finals appearance in Monterey, a near-quarterfinal appearance in Miami, and a semifinal appearance in Charleston.  One would think that Hantuchova’s high-risk shotmaking and limited movement wouldn’t suit the clay, yet she trains regularly in Monte Carlo and previously has prospered in tournaments such as Rome.  To be sure, Slams are not a comfort zone for the easily unnerved Hantuchova, who has endured excruciating meltdowns on the sport’s grandest stages.  Once considered a potential top-20 or top-30 prospect before a moribund stretch, Govortsova stirred into life at the end of 2009 by reaching the Moscow final; this year, she plowed into the Amelia Island final before seriously threatening Safarova in Rome and Madrid.  (Ordinarily, “threatening Safarova” doesn’t exactly impress, but the streaky Czech compiled one of the best clay seasons of anyone before ignominiously exiting Roland Garros on Wednesday.)  The Slovak and the Belarussian have split their last two meetings, the last of which was won by Hantuchova in a third-set tiebreak after Govortsova had held match points.  Both players are notoriously uncomfortable with any sort of lead, no matter how vast, so don’t tune out on this one even if it looks lopsided early.

Shvedova vs. Radwanska (8) (Court 4, 1st match):  High on velocity and low on nuance, Shvedova always will enjoy more significant success on hard court than clay, yet she smoothly dismantled Italian clay-court specialist Errani in her opener.  Low on velocity and high on nuance, Radwanska theoretically should thrive at Roland Garros but in fact much prefers the grass of Wimbledon, where she is a two-time quarterfinalist.  The Pole’s comfortable win over Shvedova just weeks ago in Miami suggests that she should defuse the Kazakh just as she has defused so many more notable sluggers.  All the same, this match should provide an engaging puncher-counterpuncher contrast rather akin to Jankovic-Kanepi.  Although one always should favor the counterpuncher on clay, one need look no further than Soderling to remember the increasing success of offensive players at Roland Garros, where the grit is not quite as sluggish as it once was.

Seppi vs. Kohlschreiber (30) (Court 17, 3rd match):  This Transalpine confrontation opposes a mercurial German to a steady Italian, just the reverse of what one would associate with both nationalities.  While that stereotype-shattering fact alone might warrant a brief trip to Court 17, don’t forget that Kohlschreiber has achieved remarkable results both at Slams and on clay, defeating Roddick in a thrilling five-setter at the 2008 Australian Open, Djokovic at the 2009 French Open, and Murray at this year’s Monte Carlo. In the latter tournament, he produced a highly competitive pas de deux with Ferrer, perhaps the greatest dirt devil of all outside Nadal.  Like Dulko, Kohlschreiber unfortunately doesn’t follow his huge wins with deep runs on most occasions.  Nevertheless, his ability to hit winners off his sturdy forehand and his gorgeous one-handed backhand should trump the Italian’s forehand-reliant game.  On this occasion, we favor the counterpuncher over the puncher.

Briefly noted:  The sight of aging serve-and-volley artist Mardy Fish in the second round of Roland Garros was arguably as unexpected as the sight of Taylor Dent there.  On Thursday, Mardy faces a player with a similarly serve-based style and the same odd affinity for Indian Wells, Ivan Ljubicic; while the American came within a set of netting the 2008 title after upsetting Federer in the semis, the Croat stunned Nadal and Roddick to capture this year’s title.  Ever a perfectionist, Serena reported dissatisfaction over a first-round win that lacked the customary authority with which she customarily dispatches overmatched opponents like Stefanie Voegele.  We’ll be interested to note whether her disgruntled demeanor persists in a second round against the less overmatched Julia Goerges, or whether the world #1 will have settled into the tournament.  On the other hand, little sister’s tournament started much more impressively than the 2009 edition, when Klara Zakopalova dragged her into a three-set torture chamber.  This year, the Czech ball-retriever seeks to turn the screws on Henin, whose sporadic inconsistency in her comeback might prolong matters but probably won’t derail her progress.  Unless Flipkens renders her fellow Belgian some unexpected assistance, though, the competition will elevate dramatically (haha) in the next round.

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No stranger to tense openers at Roland Garros, Maria has rallied from a one-set deficit against Anastasia Yakimova in 2009, gritted through an 8-6 final set in 2008, and saved match points against Mashona Washington in 2006.  When the statuesque Siberian fell behind talented youngster Ksenia Pervak early in the first set, therefore, one might have expected another nerve-jangling epic to unfold.  Instead, Maria seized five straight games and cruised through the second set with a positive winners/errors differential, always an excellent omen for a shotmaker on this shotmaker-hostile surface.  As relatively inconsequential as it was, Strasbourg appears to have elevated her confidence substantially.  After digesting Pervak, of course, she reminded everyone that she’s actually a sweet person at heart (not that we would have dared to differ):

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A few hours earlier on the same court, Safina once again committed tennis seppuku by regurgitating a comfortable third-set lead and handing Kimiko Date-Krumm her first Roland Garros victory of this millennium.  It’s impossible not to sympathize with the beleaguered Dinara at this stage of her travails, even if one isn’t in her fan club.  Those who are should take comfort that a lower ranking will reduce the public pressure on Safina and allow her to slowly rediscover her comfort zone on the court, a much easier task without constant scrutiny…or so we think.  After tracing the contrasting tales of two Russians on Tuesday, we follow the stories of three more on Wednesday while investigating the French Connection at Roland Garros.

Fognini vs. Monfils (13) (Chatrier, 3rd match):  Although the Frenchman can produce electrifying tennis at times, he’s a disturbingly careless player who wastes energy with unnecessary gyrations, tosses away games and sets with apparent mental lapses, and seems content to trade numerous routine misses for the occasional implausible winner.  Monfils senselessly squandered a set against a lucky loser in the first round, much as he has squandered his immense talents thus far in his career.  Discernibly less talented than “La Monf,” Fognini has developed a smooth all-court game while cultivating a similar propensity for careless, disengaged tennis and erratic focus.  Expect gorgeous winners and ghastly misses in equal measure from both sides of the court; the best way to enjoy this match is not to analyze the larger picture but simply to admire one brushstroke at a time.

Dementieva (5) vs. Medina Garrigues (Chatrier, 4th match):  Almost the diametrical opposite of Monfils and Fognini, Dementieva gradually ensnares her opponent with methodical, cautious point construction.  Often, little seems to be happening during the protracted rallies that often evolve in her matches, until the Russian suddenly strikes one of her sturdy groundstrokes into an opening that one hadn’t even noticed.  This strategy should prove rather effective on clay if Dementieva remains sufficiently calm to execute it, as she was in an impressive opener.  Stifling Melanie Oudin in her own opener and reaching the Strasbourg semis last week, Medina Garrigues has showcased some of the scintillating clay-court tennis with which she surged to the forefront of Spanish female players.  Just days into the tournament, the exits of Martinez Sanchez and Suarez Navarro have cast MG in the leading role again.  We wonder whether the Spaniard’s versatile style will trouble the baseline-rooted Dementieva, but the Russian possesses a substantial power edge. Don’t be surprised if service breaks outnumber holds. 

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Dent vs. Soderling (5) (Lenglen, 1st match):  On the surface (haha), this collision shouldn’t be overly competitive.  We were surprised to see Dent win his opener and only slightly less surprised to see him break the tournament’s serve-speed record.  On the other hand, Soderling remains mentally fallible despite perceptible improvements in that arena and could be rattled by the American’s arrhythmic style.  Therefore, the match might measure the emotional condition of last year’s finalist as he confronts the pressure of repeating his stunning performance form 2009.  While it’s hard to imagine the aging serve-and-volleyer actually winning a clay match against a player of the Swede’s caliber, he might force him into a tiebreak or even take a set if he serves impressively.  Service breaks should be very few and probably terminal when they do occur.

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Ouanna vs. Tsonga (8) (Lenglen, 2nd match):  Unsurprisingly shaky in his Roland Garros debut, Tsonga will be vulnerable on clay to players whom he would crush on faster surfaces.  During the preliminary events, he lost to Ferrero and unheralded Dutchman Thiemo de Bakker before an embarrassingly lopsided defeat to Ferrer in Rome.  Built to win short , staccato points behind serve-forehand combinations, the top-ranked Frenchman lacks both the mental and physical endurance to penetrate deep into this draw, although his quarter does look benign.  The mercurial Ouanna thrilled his compatriots a year ago by defeating Safin 10-8 in the final set with an avalanche of fearlessly attacking tennis, so this matchup should feature plenty of fast-paced, high-risk action.  Weary of watching endless baseline battles between two players who seemingly refuse to miss a shot, or in the mood for some irony?  Come to Lenglen for this clash between two playing styles antithetical to clay…on clay.

Kuznetsova (6) vs. Petkovic (Court 1, 2nd match):  For the second straight round, the German finds herself in one of the day’s most intriguing encounters.  Edging past Vesnina in a three-setter, she now targets a player whom she defeated last fall in Tokyo, just a week before Kuznetsova won the Premier Mandatory title in Beijing.  We wouldn’t put significant weight upon Sveta’s three-set win over the then 143rd-ranked Petkovic in Stuttgart last year, since the latter has refined her game immensely while climbing 100 ranking places since that match.  After dropping the first three games to Cirstea, the defending champion looked more convincing than she has anywhere else in 2010, perhaps suggesting that positive memories from last year are outweighing the situational pressure (in stark contrast to 2009 finalist Safina).  Nevertheless, one solid win remains only one win until the player extends the momentum over several matches.  Kuznetsova has the surface edge over Petkovic, but the German may have the mental edge because of their history and is unlikely to slump into resignation after adversity as did Cirstea.  Expect a crisply played match competitive from start to finish.

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Szavay vs. Petrova (19) (Court 3, 1st match):  Rising and falling faster than a soufflé, Szavay’s meteoric career once inspired us to include her among the future stars of her generation.  (That list also included Cornet, Paszek, and Pironkova, though…hmmm.)  Armed with an imposing serve and a sparkling backhand, she broke into the headlines by charging to the US Open quarterfinals in 2007—and has accomplished barely anything of significance since then.  When she upset Venus in the third round here last year, observers attributed the result less to her brilliance than to the American’s ineptitude, a judgment that the Hungarian promptly vindicated by mustering little resistance against Cibulkova a round later.  Also renowned for a mighty serve and superb two-hander, the aging Petrova stunned international audiences when she humiliated Clijsters and subdued Kuznetsova in Melbourne this year.  Although she’s produced characteristically inconsistent results since then, clay has been friendly to the Russian.  In the second round here a year ago, the former Roland Garros fell to Sharapova 8-6 in the third despite a delicious shotmaking display; that match proved one of the highlights of the WTA tournament.  Expect her to set up a fascinating third-round collision with Rezai.

Briefly notedFulfilling our expectations from Day 3’s preview, Querrey left doubles partner Isner alone to face the dirt that Americans detest.  The towering server began his tournament impressively in the first round by losing just 10 service points, but we’re curious whether his friend’s disgruntled departure wields any influence on his performance against Chiudinelli.  A match between two Fed Cup teammates, the Pennetta-Vinci encounter would have earned our extended attention had their last four meetings not been so oddly lopsided.  They’ve alternated wins in their seven career clashes, and a quick look at the WTA site tells us that it’s Flavia’s turn tomorrow.  Not renowned for his clay achievements, Baghdatis severely tested Ferrer on the admittedly faster surface in Madrid; the charismatic Cypriot will find his patience examined by clay specialist Granollers, who also scored an eye-opening win over Soderling in Melbourne.  Finally, we’re following the fortunes of (two-time!) Warsaw champion Alexandra Dulgheru, steadily rising in the rankings and perhaps a name to remember as spring turns to summer.  She’ll be dueling with Timea Bacsinszky, who recently has won a match from Li Na and a set from Serena. 

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Let us know if you have any special requests for Day 5, when the top half of the women’s draw and the bottom half of the men’s draw play their first rounds.  You can be assured that we will preview Jankovic-Kanepi, Kleybanova-Ivanovic, Shvedova-Radwanska, Nishikori-Djokovic,  and Seppi-Kohlschreiber, but otherwise we’re open to suggestions!