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Regularly rewarding the Russians who have set foot in its arena, Beijing crowned three Olympic medalists from that nation in 2008 and Kuznetsova in 2009.  Already expelled from this year’s tournament, however, Sveta will surrender her crown to a colleague hungry to conclude the season on an emphatic note (and with an avalanche of rankings points).  Opportunists should beware, however, for the 2009 champion struggled mightily throughout 2010.  Which emboldened competitor believes that she can reverse that trend?

First quarter: Poised within two victories of the #1 ranking, Wozniacki may face a third-round encounter with Wimbledon nemesis Kvitova before sealing her grasp upon the top spot.  Before then, though, the Czech lefty will reprise her Wimbledon quarterfinal with Kanepi, during which she saved multiple match points before prevailing 8-6 in the third.  An almost identical scenario unfolded when they met in Memphis, where Kvitova saved a match point and then seized a third-set tiebreak, so this second-round clash ranks among the most intriguing in the draw.  Although a quarterfinal rematch of the Tokyo final might loom in the quarterfinals, Dementieva will need to navigate past the evergreen Date Krumm, who led her by a set and a break in her Stanford opener.  Almost as likely to meet Wozniacki in the quarterfinals is her Cincinnati conqueror Bartoli, who retired from Tokyo last week but tends to be most dangerous when least discussed.  Nearly undefeated since Wimbledon, the top seed might suffer a letdown if and when she clinches the #1 ranking.  Yet she remains the steadiest competitor in this section, and her conscientious work ethic should shield her from such a lapse.

Semifinalist:  Wozniacki

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Second quarter: Despite exiting before the quarterfinals of her last seven tournaments, Jankovic somehow has claimed the third seed in this prestigious draw.  The fading Serb trailed 4-2 in both sets of her opening win over Zakopalova but should enjoy more comfortable passage in an all-Serbian clash with the promising Bojana Jovanovski.  In fact, tournament probably will witness Jankovic’s first final-eight appearance since Roland Garros, for her immediate vicinity features none of the overpowering shotmakers who typically trouble her.  On the other side of the section lies much more compelling drama, including a potential rematch of the epic duel between Sharapova and Azarenka in last year’s tournament.  During most of her opener, Russian scalded her groundstrokes with much greater authority than Tokyo and approached the forecourt more aggressively; nevertheless, her serve can lurch from sublime to hideous and back within the course of a few points, while her confidence visibly wavered late in both sets.  If she can dispatch Tashkent finalist Vesnina, Maria will need her trademark intensity to overcome Azarenka, who similarly struggled with her serve and her confidence in Tokyo.  Vika has regularly alternated excellent results with premature exits throughout the summer and fall, so her Tokyo semifinal appearance might suggest early disappointment in Beijing.    But Azarenka’s competitive desire seems to burn more brightly than Sharapova’s at the moment.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Third quarter: After leading 5-2 in the third set, fourth-seeded Stosur ultimately fell to a qualifier and thus further opened this already wide-open section.  An opportunist at the majors this year, Petrova performed impressively in last year’s event but remains an enigma from one day to the next.  In a productive partnership with Safina’s former coach, Cibulkova continued her resurgence with an emphatic win over the wallowing Wickmayer; her baseline consistency and explosive moment could trouble Nadia if her serve falls short of its best.  Last year’s finalist Radwanska doesn’t exactly tower atop the section, although the deities of the draw have handed her a pair of exceptionally friendly opening rounds.  But the name that leaps out of this odd cast of characters is ninth seed Li Na, who launched an unforgettable semifinal run in this stadium during the 2008 Olympics.  Forced to withdraw from Tokyo with a gastrointestinal illness, the Chinese warrior thumped Tashkent champion Kudryavtseva in her opener.  If she can outslug the ever-dangerous Kleybanova in the second round, she should repeat her comprehensive Wimbledon triumph over Radwanska.  Expect the home crowd to lift Li to a memorable performance again.

Semifinalist:  Li

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Fourth quarter: Featuring the most intriguing first-round match in the draw, this section already has witnessed the departure of the defending champion, another Premier Mandatory champion (Rezai), and Hantuchova.  Ever eager to seize the spoils of war, Schiavone probably will profit from the debacles of others to prance into the quarterfinals with minimal ado.  But the question of whom she will face at that stage remains murky.  Fellow upset artists Dulko and Kirilenko engage in a stylish second-round meeting, while the winner of the Safina-Zvonareva clash confronts future top-20 player and top-10 personality Petkovic.  Although all-Russian matches generally defy predictions, they often offer riveting melodrama through vertiginous momentum shifts and entertainingly overt expressions of angst.  Still searching for her first marquee win since back surgery, Safina will hope to reproduce the 2009 Australian Open semifinal but probably lacks both the consistency and the self-belief to outlast Zvonareva.  Nevertheless, Vera displayed vulnerability during two wins and a straight-sets loss in Tokyo, during which she resembled her former, star-crossed self more than a two-time Slam finalist.  Both players comfortably overcame Petkovic on the American hard courts, so the winner probably will advance to the quarterfinals.  Once there, they possess more than enough weaponry to conquer Schiavone, although the Italian’s artistry could frustrate these fragile Russians.  On the other hand, Safina and Zvonareva will derive confidence from the 2008 exploits on this court, where they claimed the silver and bronze medals for their nation.

Semifinalist:  Safina-Zvonareva winner

***

A counterpoint to the marquee WTA tournament, the concurrent 500-level ATP event has compiled a draw much more imposing than its significance would suggest.

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Top half: Seemingly fond of Djokovic-Berdych collisions, the deities of the draw have arranged another quarterfinal clash between two players who met in the Wimbledon semifinals and the Davis Cup semifinals just after the US Open.  En route to that rendezvous, the revitalized Serb eyes a tranquil path past a Chinese wildcard and the winner of Fish-Tipsarevic, both of whom have often won sets from him but neither of whom has defeated him.  Not unlike Wawrinka, Tipsarevic generally cedes the spotlight to a colleague whom he enthusiastically labeled the greatest athlete in Serbian history, while Fish has yet to prove that he can export his success from his bastion on American hard courts.  Underwhelming since Wimbledon, Berdych might fall in the second round to 2009 US Open nemesis Querrey or Metz champion Simon, who has won their last two meetings.  Even if the Czech does reach the quarterfinals, the medium-speed Beijing hard courts favor Djokovic’s hybrid of offense and defense, which carried him to the title here a year ago.

Opportunity knocks for the players in the second quarter, bookended by the staggering Davydenko and the unreliable Verdasco, who both lost early last week to players outside the top 50.  Waging five-set slugfests against Kohlschreiber in their previous two meetings, the Spaniard might succumb in his opener against the German.  Desperately hoping for a positive end to a dismal 2010 campaign, 2009 finalist Cilic begins against the talented yet mentally brittle Bellucci; then, he probably would confront Davydenko in a contest between two players whose confidence has dwindled low in recent months.  Has Isner recovered from his Wimbledon marathon?  While the courts might not play as swiftly as he would prefer, the American constitutes a threat to implode any draw that he enters.  From the comedy of errors that probably will develop in the section, though, will surface a semifinal opponent much to Djokovic’s taste.

Finalist:  Djokovic

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Bottom half: Another Wimbledon rematch might impend between Ferrer and Soderling, who should have intersected in Kuala Lumpur last week but instead fell to Golubev.  Although few potential Golubevs lurk in their vicinity, Almagro will seek to reprise his victories over the Swede in Madrid and Gstaad this year.  More heavily favored against the Spaniard on the Beijing hard courts than on the clay of those events, Soderling nevertheless might struggle with those negative memories and his personal dislike for Almagro; like most players, the world #5 doesn’t deliver his best tennis when inflamed with emotion.  Meanwhile, Ferrer opens against New Haven finalist Istomin, an upwardly mobile baseliner with a crisp two-handed backhand.  If Soderling does reach the quarterfinals, he will find his consistency arduously tested by an opponent who extended him to five sets on grass this year.

Crowned the Kuala Lumpur champion today, Youzhny may enter Beijing weary from playing three consecutive three-setters in the Malaysian capital.  A slightly disquieting obstacle awaits in the first round with Ljubicic, although the Croat has receded rather quietly since acquiring the Indian Wells title.  Among the ATP’s more mercurial and charismatic inhabitants, Baghdatis will clash with the almost equally mercurial Dolgopolov before meeting Youzhny, whom he nearly defeated in Kuala Lumpur.  Anchoring the base of this half, Murray seeks to erase the memories of another early departure from the US Open.  Will the Scot rebound from that disappointment more swiftly than he did from his loss in Australia?  He has few fond memories of Beijing, having fallen to Yen-Hsun Lu in the first round of the 2008 Olympics.  In the aftermath of Melbourne, moreover, Soderling thoroughly dominated Murray at Indian Wells, a surface that should have suited the Scot.

Finalist:  Soderling

***

We return in a few days to discuss the quarterfinals!

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Dominant on serve during a comprehensive first-round win over Makarova, Ivanovic has earned an opportunity to consolidate her revival by exacting revenge from one of the architects of her decline.  Fresh from the 2008 Roland Garros title, the Serb entered Wimbledon as a buoyant top seed, only to be deflated by the tenacious Chinese star.  In addition to outstanding movement and consistency, Zheng has troubled Ana with low, deep groundstrokes that force her statuesque opponent below her comfortable striking point.  Among the key advantages that Ivanovic holds over the petite 21st seed, however, is her recently reinvigorated serve and sparkling second-serve return.  Those first-strike weapons should shine on the Open’s fast courts, capturing short points without allowing Zheng to settle into rallies.  While first-serve percentage will prove vital for Ana, this statistic also will be essential for the Chinese star, who can’t afford to expose her benign second delivery on crucial points.  Both Ana and Jie typically rely upon baseline might to dictate exchanges, but the Serb and the doubles specialist have ventured into the forecourt with panache during recent weeks.  As the match evolves, note the duration of the points to determine who holds the edge at any stage; short points augur well for Ivanovic, while longer rallies favor Zheng.

We proceed to preview several of the other intriguing events on Day 3:

Tipsarevic vs. Roddick:

A day after three Serbs showcased their talents on Arthur Ashe Stadium, the bespectacled Tipsarevic takes aim at the leading American hope.  Two years ago at Wimbledon, Janko stunned the three-time Wimbledon finalist by capitalizing on almost every opportunity that he gained on Roddick’s serve while profiting from his adversary’s untimely miscues.  Recovering from a summer hampered by mono, Andy briskly dispatched Stephane Robert in his opener and displayed more impressive all-court coverage than one generally associates with him.  If fitness doesn’t become an issue, the home-court crowd and slick surface should lift Roddick over Tipsarevic, but the Serb has developed a habit of rising to the occasion against elite opponents on the grandest stages.  His five-set epic with Federer at the Australian Open two years ago ranks among the most thrilling first-week Slam encounters of the last few years, and he won’t feel intimidated by the hostile crowd.  Once reliant upon his tiebreak prowess, Roddick has struggled notably in those situations since Wimbledon, so watch closely if the match arrives at that stage.  Unless Tipsarevic can set up backhand-to-backhand exchanges that test Andy’s fitness or patience, however, he won’t be able to win three sets from the American.

Dulko vs. Azarenka:

Does Vika fancy a bit of vengeance?  At this year’s Roland Garros, the delicate Argentine inflicted one of the most lopsided losses of the Belarussian’s career in majors.  Nevertheless, Dulko profited from Azarenka’s hamstring injury in addition to a succession of shanked forehands, and don’t forget that she (unlike Vika) reached the second week here last year.  Healthy and refocused, the tenth seed enjoyed a stellar US Open Series that included a Stanford title and Rogers Cup semifinal appearance.  Beyond her Paris embarrassment at the Argentine’s hands, she may be hoping to atone for her painful demise in New York last year, courtesy of the indefatigable Schiavone.  Tantrums, meltdowns, and odd injuries still play a role in Azarenka’s evolution, and she displayed familiar frailty in the second set of her opener against the crafty but underpowered Niculescu.  As she prepares for a tantalizing collision with Pavlyuchenkova, however, Vika will hope to dismiss this opponent with maximum efficiency.

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Llodra vs. Berdych:

At the core of France’s Davis Cup upset over defending champion Spain stood the quirky lefty Michael Llodra, who named Mauresmo his coach, discusses his wine collection during press conferences, and once celebrated a Wimbledon doubles title by prancing around the court in his underwear.  More importantly, the Frenchman captured the Eastbourne title this summer, sternly tested Roddick at Wimbledon, and even held a brief lead over Federer at the Rogers Cup.  Having reached a semifinal and a final at his last two majors, Berdych should be filled with confidence and relaxed in his new role as one of the ATP’s premier contenders.  On the other hand, he showed a disquieting glimpse of his former, flustered self by failing to finish Federer in Toronto, and a leg injury hobbled him during a Cincinnati loss to the now-absent Baghdatis.  One would expect the Czech’s thunderous game to flourish in Flushing just as did Del Potro’s monstrous groundstrokes a year ago, yet his mind remains the most vulnerable element of his game.  If Llodra can rattle the easily rattled Czech with relentless forays to the net and deftly angled volleys, a scintillating rollercoaster could develop.

Errani vs. Kleybanova:

Opposing an Italian with an intelligent all-court game but limited first-strike potential is a Russian with prodigious groundstroke power but underwhelming recent results.  In San Diego, Errani came within a handful of points of upsetting eventual champion Kuznetsova; a few weeks later in New Haven, she held multiple match points against the admittedly ailing Stosur.  On both of those occasions, the diminutive doubles specialist rallied from one-set deficits in displays of a Schiavone-like tenacity that nearly toppled opponents of far greater shot-making talent and athletic ability.  An imaginative shotmaker herself, Kleybanova fell twice to Errani’s compatrio­t Pennetta this summer and suffered a perplexing loss to Hantuchova in San Diego, after she had thoroughly controlled their encounter.  The Russian’s deceptively effective movement and relentless depth on both groundstroke wings should hit through the Italian on this fast surface, one would think, but the Italian frustrated her on the Miami hard court earlier this year.  Look for an intriguing contrast of styles and cleverly constructed points that probe unexpected angles on both sides of the court.

***

It’s time to revert to the ajdes as we prepare for Episode II of the Adventures of Ana!  Maybe we should close our eyes and hope for the best…

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Three of the four Slams complete, we’re precisely halfway through the 2010 tennis season, so it’s time to reflect upon the most momentous and meaningful achievements of the first half.  We count down the top five on both the men’s and women’s sides, not all of which went to a final-set tiebreak (although a few did) but all of which were laden with meaning for the second half of 2010 and beyond.

5)  Djokovic d. Isner (Davis Cup, 1st round, 4th rubber):  In the midst of a desultory spring, Djokovic delivered a stirring melodrama in five parts before a fervent Belgrade audience and frenzied family, whose soccer-style vibe clashes with some tournaments but meshes smoothly with Davis Cup.  As the visiting villain, Isner performed more convincingly than anyone could have expected for his debut with Team USA.  Littered with jagged plot twists, the match ebbed and flowed from one determined competitor to the other, infusing this often moribund competition with renewed energy and relevance.

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4)  Tsonga d. Almagro (Australian Open, 4th round):  The men’s tournament in Melbourne was rife with spectacular first-week epics such as Youzhny-Gasquet, Blake-Del Potro, Del Potro-Cilic, and Roddick-Gonzalez.  But this marathon five-setter climbed above the rest as a result of its steadily escalating intensity, for each brilliant shotmaker forced the other further into the realm of implausibility during its final stages.  Generally more focused upon the journey than the destination, both Tsonga and Almagro shine most brightly in such moments, while their cordial post-match greeting shone just as brightly for those who appreciate classiness on court.

3)  Nadal d. Gulbis (Rome, Semifinal):  Diabolical on dirt once again, Rafa conceded just two sets throughout the entire clay season, one to Almagro in Madrid and one here to the burgeoning Latvian.  Pushing the Spaniard closer to the brink on his favorite surface than anyone else, Gulbis validated his upset over Federer a few days before by harnessing his spectacular all-court prowess with a vastly enhanced competitive vigor.  Few tennis sights are more inspiring than the Latvian at his best, but one of them is the spectacle of the Spaniard relentlessly willing himself to victory over such a worthy opponent.  When his foe’s determined campaign finally crumbled, Nadal’s trademark victory writhe emanated relief as much as pure jubilation.  Finally integrating the components of his spectacular game, Gulbis seems headed directly for the top 10 when he returns from current injuries.  Look for a player profile on him in the coming weeks.

2)  Berdych d. Federer (Miami, 4th round):  Edging into the nerve-jangling terrain of a third-set tiebreak, the famously fragile Czech proved himself fragile no more by saving match point against the world #1 with a fearless forehand.  Two courageous rallies later, Berdych scored the most significant win of his career, even more impressive than his 2004 Olympics triumph over Federer because of the respective trajectories that their careers have followed over the last six years.  He deserves immense credit for continuing to build upon this career-altering moment over the next two majors, where he emerged among the leading threats to the ATP top four.  After lightning struck twice at Wimbledon, the tennis world hailed the Czech’s emergence as a potential champion.  Yet it was a humid April evening in Miami that had witnessed the rebirth of Tomas Berdych.

1)  Isner d. Mahut (Wimbledon, 1st round):  Shattering shoals of records beyond repair, the 138-game final set alone would place this match atop our list.  Moreover, the pas de deux between the American and the Frenchman brought tennis to the attention of sports fans who previously had thought of golf when hearing about the “US Open.”  Just as the previous two matches represented the makings of Gulbis and Berdych, this three-day grind in the grass probably represented the making of John Isner, who stood every inch as tall as his towering frame.  On a broader level, though, the inhumane dimension of the match may have struck a fatal blow to no-tiebreak final sets, a potentially historic step in the evolution of the sport. 

On to the achievements of the ladies:

5)  Schiavone d. Stosur (French Open, Final):  Over the past few years, the Roland Garros women’s final had featured the most appallingly feckless tennis of the WTA season.  Not on this occasion, when Schiavone fearlessly but intelligently took risks at crucial moments and played with joy as well as intensity; meanwhile, Stosur competed consistently throughout most of this tightly contested encounter.  Although the Italian veteran won’t build upon this achievement, her title provided a well-deserved climax to a career lived far from the limelight.  It was delightful to see a women’s final that was won by the champion rather than lost by the runner-up.

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T-4)  Serena d. Sharapova (Wimbledon, 4th round) / Henin d. Sharapova (French Open, 3rd round):  Confronting the best player on clay at Roland Garros and arguably the best player on grass at Wimbledon, Sharapova compelled both adversaries to display their most dazzling tennis in order to vanquish her.  Against the Russian’s indomitable competitive ferocity, Henin’s tenacious defense glowed as much as Serena’s explosive serving and shotmaking.  Dispelling Sharapova’s uncertain start to 2010, these two matches also underscored her return to familiar fire-breathing form, which should enliven the WTA immensely during the second half. 

T-3)  Stosur d. Serena (French Open, Quarterfinal) / Jankovic d. Serena (Rome, Semifinal):  Almost invincible anywhere but clay, Serena is formidable even on her least favorite surface, as the Australian and the Serb could attest.  Stosur consolidated her presence among the sport’s elite by saving a match point before eliminating the world #1 from a major, following the sort of suspenseful, mentally draining duel in which Serena typically prevails.  Likewise saving a match point in Rome, Jankovic encouraged counterpunchers everywhere by proving that top-drawer defense can frustrate top-level offense, contrary to popular wisdom.  David does slay Goliath sometimes, after all.

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T-2)  Clijsters d. Henin (Brisbane, Final) / Clijsters d. Henin (Miami, Semifinal):  The European version of Serena-Venus, the two Belgians rattle each other more than anyone else can rattle either of them.  Not the most technically sturdy or mentally steady tennis, these tension-soaked strolls along the precipice produced more compelling drama than most WTA rivalries.  As soon as Kim built an immense lead, Justine charged forward to snatch it away, only to trip over herself and hand the initiative back to her compatriot…who politely returned it to her.  Towards the latter stages of these matches, whiplash-inducing momentum shifts occurred every few points until momentum itself became a meaningless concept.  In an especially eerie instance of déjà vu, Clijsters won both matches at exactly the same moment (the 14th point of the third-set tiebreak) with exactly the same shot (a forehand winner down the line).

1)   Serena d. Henin (Australian Open, Final):  A three-set women’s final at a major had become an oxymoron after 13 consecutive straight-setters, so one relished a championship match with more than a single, unbroken storyline.  Of course, one of the principal reasons for that trend was Serena’s dominance, which faltered just enough in the second set to allow Henin an opportunity that she seized with consummate aplomb.  As the Belgian reeled off one blinding winner after another, we wondered how the American could recover, but she demonstrated the same tenacity that Nadal manifested against Gulbis.  Serena dug in her heels with admirable stubbornness, transcending her aching knees to play every point and every shot with the single-minded determination that comprises her greatest weapon.  Of her thirteen major titles, few have been harder earned or more meaningful.

***

After applauding the stars who shone in the first half, it’s time to briefly turn from the sublime to the ridiculous.  Sharpening our satirical pen, we sum up the worst matches of 2010.

5)  Roddick d. Soderling (Indian Wells, Semifinal) / Berdych d. Soderling (Miami, Semifinal):  The pre-2008 version of Soderling isn’t dead but dormant, as he proved twice in two tournaments.

4)  Federer d. Murray (Australian Open, Final):  The Scot didn’t start playing with conviction until the third-set tiebreak, much too late to matter.

3)  Nadal d. Verdasco (Monte Carlo, Final):  Surely this hapless hunk of cannon fodder wasn’t the same player who courageously extended Nadal deep into a fifth set at the Australian Open?

2)  Tsonga d. Djokovic (Australian Open, Quarterfinal):  We empathized when Djokovic excused himself to vomit midway through this debacle.  No, not “sympathize”; “empathize.”

1)  Ginepri d. Querrey (Roland Garros, 1st round):  Whatever the sins of those who lost the previous four matches, at least they didn’t tank and then casually tell the world about it afterwards.

We’re not so chivalrous that we spare the ladies:

5)  Li d. Venus (Australian Open, Quarterfinal):  Seemingly addled by the Australian sun, these two superb shotmakers left their GPS in the locker room and cheerfully engaged in a carnival of errors.

T-4)  Kirilenko d. Sharapova (Australian Open, 1st round) / Dulko d. Ivanovic (Australian Open, 2nd round):  Never have prettier women played uglier tennis.

3)  Stosur d. Jankovic (French Open, Semifinal):  This listless encounter was far less compelling than the other semifinal…which ended in a retirement after a single set.

2)  Dementieva d. Serena (Sydney, Final):  The five-time Australian Open champion had already moved on to Melbourne, but next time she might want to hire a more skilled impersonator.

1)  Clijsters d. Venus (Miami, Final):  Some of the spectators spent the match sleeping or sunbathing, both more profitable activities than watching what passed for “tennis.”

***

We’ll return in two days with a tie-by-tie preview of the Davis Cup quarterfinals!

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Cows, put on your skates.  Maria Sharapova would be the first to admit her shortcomings on clay, once labeling herself a “cow on ice,” but she claimed the first red-clay title of her career at Strasbourg this weekend.  Although nobody would confuse it with Rome or Madrid, the tournament will have restored some vital confidence to a player whose high-stakes game revolves around it.  We were encouraged to observe how greatly she relished winning this insignificant title, moreover, proving that her renowned passion for competition remains undimmed despite demoralizing injuries.  If Maria can carry her momentum here into faster surfaces, the summer hard courts should see her well-positioned to wreak some havoc.  Better positioned than a cow on ice, anyway.

While Maria journeys to the French capital, we inaugurate our daily previews of the matches to watch at Roland Garros.  Sunday’s order of play disappointed us a bit, to be honest, so the selection is smaller than what you’ll see from us in the future.  Nevertheless, there’s a defending champion and a pair of potential future champions in action…

Kuznetsova (6) vs. Cirstea (Chatrier, 1st match):  Just 3-5 since the beginning of March, Kuznetsova has been struggling to win matches since her title in Beijing last fall.  If the defending champion doesn’t win this match, she’ll drop well outside the top 10 and perhaps outside the top 20.  Unfortunately for her, victory is far less assured than in most first rounds, for the draw has pitted her against a quarterfinalist here last year, who upset Jankovic in a marathon three-setter.  Like Kuznetsova, though, Cirstea has accomplished much less recently than her talents would suggest and has not recorded an impressive win since defeating Dementieva in Hopman Cup.  On the other hand, she recently harnessed the assistance of Azarenka’s former coach, Antonio Van Grichen, and showed promising signs by defeating Kirilenko in Andalusia as well as taking a set from Pennetta in Madrid.  Both players showcase bold shotmaking that can veer wildly from sizzling to Antarctic, which might produce an entertaining rollercoaster.  If the photogenic Romanian can stay focused and within range, she’ll have an opportunity to pull off the upset.

Dulko vs. Azarenka (10) (Lenglen, 2nd match):  One never would consider Azarenka the retiring type, but the extroverted Belorussian has retired three times since Miami with a hamstring injury.  Also a quarterfinalist here last year, her balanced game suits the clay better than many of her peers and may someday lift her to the title.  It won’t happen in 2010, however, for any sort of hampered movement will be ruthlessly exposed on this surface.  Dulko’s consistency might enable her to wear down Azarenka in long rallies; the Argentine certainly isn’t intimidated by marquee players, having defeated Sharapova, Ivanovic, and Henin at Wimbledon, the Australian Open, and Indian Wells during the past year.  Another factor here may be the unruly French crowd, since hostile audiences have rattled Azarenka in the past by mocking her Sharapova-esque shriek.  That said, she has many more ways to win points than does Dulko. 

Benneteau vs. Gulbis (23) (Lenglen, 3rd match):  On paper, this first round should be an utter mismatch, but we’re moderately curious to observe how Gulbis responds to what surely will be a partisan Paris crowd.  The Latvian defeated an Italian in Italy and a Spaniard in Spain during his last two events, seeming a trifle jaded against Volandri but completely unruffled against Lopez.  An accomplished doubles player, Benneteau doesn’t possess the consistency or defensive skills that would test Gulbis’ still-suspect consistency.  Among the key questions regarding his future Slam success would be his ability to remain focused deep into a best-of-five format, but that question probably won’t be answered for at least one or two more rounds.

Sprem vs. Kirilenko (30) (Court 2, 2nd match):  Steadily rising in the rankings, Kirilenko impressively followed up her opening upset of Sharapova by reaching the final eight in Melbourne.  The 30th seed also navigated into the Rome quarterfinals after defeating Kuznetsova in three sets.  Situated in Sveta’s section again here, she could accomplish another strong run here, although she just suffered an oddly lopsided loss in Madrid to Radwanska, no dirt devil herself.  Designed around grace and guile, her game sometimes falters against an imposing server like Croatia’s Sprem, perhaps best known for a controversial Wimbledon win over Venus.  The contrast between adroit point construction and first-strike tennis could produce some engaging rallies.

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Vesnina vs. Petkovic (Court 17, 1st match):  This match deserves much better than Court 17.  Separated by just three places in the rankings, the Russian and the German both possess well-rounded games as well as an imaginative sense of opening up the court with angled groundstrokes.  Although Petkovic prefers hard courts to clay, she has acquitted herself surprisingly well on the surface with wins over Rezai and Pennetta, in addition to taking a set from Serena in Rome.  Winless on red clay this year, Vesnina nevertheless scored her best performance of 2010 on green clay in the now-defunct Ponte Vedra Beach tournament, where she came within a few points of defeating eventual champion Wozniacki.  Mentally stronger than the Russian, Petkovic should prevail, but their encounter should be more tightly contested than most of Sunday’s clashes.

Briefly noted:  Most of the ATP matches look rather nondescript, but here are a few of minor interest.  A year after thrilling his compatriots by defeating Safin 10-8 in the fifth set, Josselin Ouanna attempts to recapture that magic against dangerous doubles specialist Lukasz Kubot.  Two years after nearly toppling Federer in another 10-8 fifth-set (at the Australian Open), the ever-eccentric, engaging Serb Janko Tipsarevic duels with Colombian clay specialist Alejandro Falla for the reward of a rematch with the world #1.  A tireless ball-retriever, Indian phenom Somdev Devvarman unsurprisingly clawed a path through qualifying to set up a winnable match against Swiss journeyman Marco Chiudinelli.  While Devvarman must refine his shot selection and develop an offensive weapon in order to break through, the clay should allow him to showcase his excellent defensive skills.  Keep his name on your radar for the long-distance future.

Confronted with a lethal-looking draw at the outset of this week, Nadal now finds himself within two comfortable wins of tying Agassi’s record for career Masters titles (17).  Although he had been projected to play Soderling, Federer, and Djokovic consecutively, ambushes by Wawrinka, Gulbis, and Verdasco erased all three threats from his path.  The Latvian should connect with some booming serves and fearsome forehands, but we doubt that he’ll string enough of those dazzling winners together to discomfit Rafa on his favorite surface.  Meanwhile, the all-Spanish semifinal in the bottom half should offer a scintillating counterpoint of Verdasco’s offensive brilliance against Ferrer’s defensive prowess.  When they met in the Barcelona semifinal exactly a week ago, the retriever nearly prevailed before the shotmaker finally rose to the occasion late in the second set.  Looming over both of them, however, is the towering shadow of Nadal, which drains a little energy from this match because it appears virtually certain that his two compatriots are playing for the runner-up trophy.  Will Verdasco dog the defending champion’s footsteps as relentlessly as did the Serb pictured above?  Judging from his oft-expressed reverence for Rafa, we doubt it.  On the other hand, Ferrer has the belief to tackle Nadal but lacks the weapons. 

Across the Alps, another upset-riddled tournament has allowed Stosur and Henin to slide into cruise control against a pair of overmatched opponents.  Yet another prodigious ball-striker from Russia, Lapushchenkova won’t be able to hold serve with sufficient ease and consistency to create pressure on Stosur’s serve, nearly impenetrable so far this week.  If Henin can recover from an exhausting win over Jankovic in time for her afternoon semifinal, she shouldn’t find Peer excessively demanding.  Notable for her outstanding competitive resilience, the Israeli will be forced onto defense for most of their encounter, not where one wants to be on this surprisingly fast clay.  Unlike the Rome tournament, however, the Stuttgart final could prove fascinating indeed with Henin attempting to claim the first title of her comeback (having lost two finals) and Stosur striving to consolidate her momentum from Charleston.  Regardless of the outcome, a major statement will be made concerning the more significant events in Rome and Madrid as well as Roland Garros.  We’ll thoroughly preview that match for you in the very likely event that it develops. 

Much more thought-provoking than these rather limp semifinals is the WTA Rome draw, which compiles all of the top 10 and features such intriguing first-round clashes as Stosur-Cibulkova, Vinci-Kleybanova, and Schiavone-Hantuchova.  Since the event begins on Sunday, we’ve already whipped out the crystal ball for a wide-angle look at the road ahead, one quarter at a time:

First quarter:  Mystery reigns regarding the state of Serena‘s knee, which until recently threatened to prevent her from appearing at the Foro Italico this year.  She’ll have time to rediscover her clay-court game in an unimposing opener, yet she might struggle in a third-round meeting with Zvonareva, who has troubled her on this surface before.  Still, one would have to favor the 12-time Slam champion to overcome that obstacle if (and it’s a massive “if”) she is both healthy and motivated.  On the other side of this section lies Kuznetsova, Serena’s nemesis at last year’s French Open but far from confident after a string of dismal results in 2010.  We suspect that Serena would need to conquer Stosur in order to reach the semis; she dominated the Australian in Melbourne while falling to her in a listless quarterfinal at the Stanford event last year.  Swiftly embedding herself among the central contenders in Paris, Stosur might demand a more determined performance than Serena will be inclined to muster at a non-Slam.

Semifinalist:  Stosur

Second quarter:  Another Williams, another questionable knee.  Unlike little sister, Venus will need to start on the right foot if she opens against Dulko; the Argentine excels at exposing an opponent’s erratic play or fitness flaws.  Littered with qualifiers, this neighborhood could prove friendly to a dark horse like Rezai or Wickmayer and might produce at least one surprise quarterfinalist.  Jankovic won’t look forward to an opening-match duel with Oudin, who stunned her at Wimbledon last year before her breakthrough run at the US Open.  Far more comfortable on clay than the American, though, the Serb should carve a characteristically melodramatic route to the quarters.  Highly entertaining and tightly contested, her meetings with Venus have followed a simple pattern:  JJ wins on clay (with one exception), Venus wins on hard court (with one exception).  They’re playing on clay, so…

Semifinalist:  Jankovic

Third quarter: 

This section is a trifle less cozy than the setting in which Ivanovic is pictured above, for it includes not only Azarenka (a possible second-round opponent for Ana) but two former French Open finalists, Dementieva and Safina.  Just returning from a severe back injury, Dinara almost certainly won’t defend her title and likely won’t survive compatriot Petrova in the third round.  A former semifinalist at Roland Garros, Nadia started 2010 spectacularly in Australia but hasn’t distinguished herself since then.  The key to this quarter should be the Azarenka-Dementieva round of 16, where we would give Elena a slight edge for her maturity as well as her head-to-head lead.  Also, she’s one of the few elite players who has been fully healthy this season; although she hasn’t shone at the top events, she has quietly secured two titles already.

Semifinalist:  Dementieva

Fourth quarter:  Returning to the city of their recent Fed Cup victory, Pennetta and Schiavone lurk in the middle of this relatively soft section.  If she can quell the resurgent Hantuchova, Schiavone probably will collide with the second seed Wozniacki in a third-round match during which the Dane’s movement and fitness will be severely tested.  Anchoring the other side, Radwanska seeks to atone for an unexpected tumble in Stuttgart at the hands of Peer, although she probably would need to navigate Pennetta and Vinci, another clay-loving Italian who reached the final in Barcelona (where she lost to Schiavone).  One would expect both Radwanska and Wozniacki to excel on this surface, considering their high-percentage, low-risk playing styles, yet neither has generally played her best tennis on clay. 

Semifinalist:  Pennetta

***

We enjoyed an excellent week with our long-distance forecasts for the ATP Rome event, so let’s hope that the winning streak stays in the venue for the ladies.  🙂  Arrivederci and Auf Wiedersehn!

Before discussing the volatile vixen above and her imposing task tomorrow, we wanted to share our thoughts from the scintillating clash between Radwanska and the second half of our pseudonym.  Contested at a far higher level than their Miami meeting, this match demonstrated the progress that both players have accomplished over the last few months. 

No longer constantly catching her ball toss, Ana established the most reliable service rhythm that she has enjoyed since last year’s Wimbledon and rarely struggled with the shot on crucial points.  Moreover, she consistently showcased a forehand that, while less formidable than two years ago, is steadily climbing back towards its former self.  We also noticed that she was constructing points with amplified purpose and conviction for much of the match until her confidence sagged near the end.  Probably resulting from her collaboration with coach Heinz Gunthardt, these technical improvements were essential preludes to the challenge of rebuilding her self-belief.  In addition to recovering this strength, she must conquer her habit of alternating inspired periods with erratic lapses.  Ana and Heinz can address both of these issues by increasing her match play now that injuries no longer seem such a serious concern.

Across the net from Ivanovic, Radwanska likewise demonstrated significant improvements since the last occasion on which we saw her.  Much maligned by commentators including ourselves, her serve no longer looked a liability; she placed the shot with impressive precision and variety that more than compensated for its modest speed.  (We’ve mentioned before that accuracy usually trumps sheer pace on a serve, except in extreme cases such as the Williams sisters, and Radwanska eloquently testified on her behalf today.)  Just as importantly, the Pole didn’t hesitate when she had the opportunity to seize control of a point, producing a masterful display of controlled aggression.  If she can develop these offensive skills while retaining her defensive brilliance (not as easy as it sounds), she might surpass the expectations that we outlined in our profile on her several weeks ago. 

Meanwhile, we were initially planning to split this post between Rome and Stuttgart, but a glance at the Porsche event’s order of play convinced us to focus our attention there for now and return to the Foro Italico for a Federer-less (gasp) final 16.  On Wednesday there, Soderling, Nadal, Verdasco, Ferrer, and Tsonga should progress with minimal tension, while Isner, Ljubicic, Berdych, and Cilic might be in trouble.  But the main drama should occur north of the Alps, where four matches could produce outcomes unfavorable to their seeded participants.  We’ll preview those four confrontations, outlining reasons why upsets might or might not happen in each instance:

Jankovic (4) vs. Dulko:

Why an upset might happen:  Dulko has established a reputation for flustering the most formidable names in the WTA, ranging from Henin to Sharapova, and defeated Jankovic on the North American hard courts last year.  Although JJ is one of the best women on this surface, she won’t enjoy an enormous advantage in that department over a player who grew up on the grit in Argentina.  Also in the equation is a swollen wrist that hampered Jankovic in Charleston and Fed Cup, especially concerning her backhand; if she loses that weapon, she’s vulnerable to anyone.

Why it might not: The courts in Stuttgart are playing relatively fast for clay, which will allow Jankovic to exploit her more powerful game.  Relying mostly on consistency and movement, Dulko has few weapons with which to intimidate opponents.  And this part of the season historically has been kind to the Serb, a two-time titlist in the Rome event that will be held next week.

Azarenka (6) vs. Pennetta:

Why an upset might happen:  Scoring two Fed Cup singles wins (including the clincher) over the weekend, Pennetta brings momentum into this first-round encounter.  Moreover, the Italian seized the Andalusia title with a tenacious performance against Suarez Navarro in the final.  After a strong start in Sydney, Melbourne, and Dubai, Azarenka faded markedly in Indian Wells and Miami, where her seething emotions once again bubbled forth at the wrong moments.  Consecutive retirements in Andalusia and Charleston sprang from a hamstring injury that reportedly has healed, but you never know until a player steps onto the court.

Why it might not:  Although Pennetta brings momentum from Fed Cup, she might not bring mental freshness; her wins there were a little more arduous than one might expect.  Before the clay season began, she had struggled in most of the important events this year, including early exits in Indian Wells and Miami.  Surprisingly sharp on clay, Azarenka was drubbing overmatched opponents in Andalucia before her tournament ended prematurely with the injury.  There are few eccentricities in Pennetta’s baseline-rooted game that could disrupt her rhythm as did the quirky Martinez Sanchez in Indian Wells.

Kuznetsova (3) vs. Li:

Why an upset might happen:  They collided here last year in the identical round, when Kuznetsova rallied from a one-set deficit to barely edge the Chinese star 7-5 in the third.  Li has defeated the Russian on two of the grandest stages in the sport, Wimbledon and the Olympics, so she’ll enter the match with the self-belief necessary to pull off a win.  Despite her high-risk style, she nearly reached the quarterfinals at Roland Garros last year.  Ignominiously falling to foes such as Regina Kulikova and Suarez Navarro, Kuznetsova failed to reach the quarters in her first five tournaments of 2010.

Why it might not:  Beyond the two losses at Wimbledon and the Olympics, Kuznetsova has defeated Li on six other occasions and will have the advantage on surface.  After a sensational Australian Open breakthrough, the Chinese firebrand has fizzled even more dramatically than Kuznetsova since then, snapping a four-match losing streak against a weary Errani in the first round here.  She may be perfectly solid on clay, but her opponent is the best WTA player on the dirt outside Henin.

Wickmayer (8) vs. Schiavone:

Why an upset might happen:  Like Pennetta, Schiavone brings a heaping helping of momentum into the week following her third career title in Barcelona and a Fed Cup blitz of Safarova.  Rapidly maturing into an all-court player, Wickmayer currently lacks the Italian veteran’s magnificent skills on this surface, where her crafty style has often outshone more powerful opponents.  She waffled a little (haha) in scoring two Fed Cup wins this week over a pair of Estonians well below her level.

Why it might not:  Schiavone relishes youthful opponents who lack the maturity to cope with her cunning style, but she may find this up-and-comer a bit more difficult to unnerve.  Seasoned in overcoming adversity throughout her life (ask me for details if you’re interested), the Belgian possesses an ideal mixture of competitiveness and composure to succeed at the highest level of this sport.  Mentally, she’s far more advanced than several of her peers upon whom more ink has been spilled. 

***

After reading those last remarks, a blazing-eyed Vika is started to march towards us, brandishing a racket with malicious intent.  We’d better escape while we can.  😉  Enjoy the Stuttgart matches, and see you back in Rome for Thursday!