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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Novak Djokovic - 2011 US Open - Day 15

Djokovic:  For the eventual champion, the first five rounds gave little sign of what would unfold during the final weekend, to which Djokovic advanced with efforts unremarkable by his standards this year.  In eight hours across the last two rounds of the tournament, though, the ATP #1 conquered the two players who had held the top spot before him by defeating both of them at their own game, much as Stosur had with Serena.  Roaring (literally) back from a two-set deficit against Federer, the Serb delivered first strikes from his serve and forehand in a fashion familiar to fans of the five-time champion.  The most impressive shot of the tournament, his nonchalant return winner off the Swiss first serve to save a match point stunned both his audience and his opponent, who would win only four more points.  Since Djokovic had lost to Nadal after an equally draining five-set victory over Federer here a year ago, some observers wondered whether he would stay physically and mentally fresh.  Aside from a lull late in the third set, the answer came emphatically as the world #1 outran the defending champion along the baseline, outlasted him in crucial rallies, and outmaneuvered him strategically.  Trailing by a break in both the first and second sets, Djokovic rebounded to establish the same two-set stranglehold that he had in the Wimbledon final.  Nevertheless, despite the commanding scoreline, game after game settled into a deadlock of deuces, producing the war of attrition that Nadal normally wins.  Not so on this occasion, when Djokovic won a 17-minute, nine-deuce game to erase an early second-set deficit and then perhaps the most pivotal game of this fascinating final, immediately after his medical timeout in the fourth set.  At that stage, Rafa had held significant momentum and stood on the verge of accelerating towards the final set.  Snuffing out any hope of an epic comeback, Djokovic denied him escape from a five-deuce service game before scoring what proved the decisive break.  Less than half an hour later, the Serb sprawled euphorically across the court where he had lost two previous finals.  A Roland Garros title away from a career Slam of his own, Djokovic ends the 2011 Slam season head, shoulders, and 4,000 points above his nearest rivals, telegraphing a power shift in men’s tennis.

Nadal:  Reaching six major finals in each of the last two seasons, the Spaniard provided a worthy to sequel to Djokovic-Federer his crisp semifinal victory over Murray, which avenged two losses to the Scot at hard-court majors.  After a dismal US Open Series, Nadal surprised many observers by dropping just one set en route to the championship match at his least successful Slam.  His performance here confirmed his status as an all-surface threat and the favorite against any opponent but one, the player who has defeated him in six finals this year.  Two sets and three games into the final, Nadal looked headed straight for an ignominious straight-sets rout.  To his credit, he battled back from three third-set deficits to break Djokovic each time and turn the final into an encounter worthy of their rivalry.  Also to his credit, Rafa committed himself to flattening out his forehand and redirecting it down the line, the tactic that propelled him back into competition when all seemed lost.  Broken five times this year by the Serb when serving to stay in a set, he attempted to change that dynamic by choosing to serve first when he won the toss.  In the end, though, he could not compensate for the glaring contrast between Djokovic’s backhand and his own two-hander, which often bounced around the service line and offered his rival a choice of angles.  Nor did the imposing serve that won him the 2010 US Open resurface for more than a few fleeting moments.  Constantly under pressure in his service games and broken eleven times, Nadal needed all of his energy and willpower simply to survive for a fourth set, at which point he looked physically and psychologically spent.  Perhaps not destined to face Djokovic again until 2012, Rafa likely will spend the offseason searching for ways to unsettle this rival who has toppled him as decisively as he once toppled Federer.

Murray:  Another year of Slam disappointments having come to a close, one must wonder whether the world #4 progressed any closer to a maiden major.  After collapsing in the Australian Open final, Murray lost to Nadal in three consecutive semifinals at Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and the US Open, the last of which had witnessed his victory over the Spaniard in 2008.  To be sure, the Scot has lost at Slams only to the top two players in the world, who collectively have befuddled almost the entire ATP this year.  And the self-deprecating body language doesn’t strike us as an insuperable obstacle, considering the gnarly dispositions of champions and champion curmudgeons like McEnroe or Connors.  The scarcely competitive nature of those defeats (two sets won in four matches), though, bodes ill for his chances of overtaking them at the summit.  Against almost any opponent outside the top five, Murray’s bulletproof consistency from behind the baseline will reap rewards.  Against opponents who can combine consistency with superb shot-making, he has few options with which to win a best-of-five match unless he forces his forehand far out of its comfort zone.  Repeatedly over-hitting that stroke against Nadal, he will not win a major until—or rather, unless—he finds a way to transform it into a weapon that can match the forehands of those ranked above him.  Absent a point-ending shot, tactical versatility counts for little in the sport’s current era.

Federer:  Losing to the eventual champion at two of the last three majors, the Swiss master again showcased his vintage brilliance at a tournament where he once won five consecutive titles.  Revenge for two defeats this summer, his quarterfinal victory over Tsonga showcased the elegant, effortless tennis with which Federer has defused one-dimensional ball-bruisers over the years.  Through two sets against Djokovic, he dominated the Serb from all areas of the court as he struck his backhand with confidence and expertly finished points at the net.  A point away from a spectacular upset over the world #1, though, Federer appeared to allow one spectacular return to unnerve him.  Two forehand errors and a double fault later, the opportunity slipped through his grasp.  Recognizing that he still can battle on even terms with the very best in his sport, one also left this tournament thinking that the Federer of years past never would have let that Slam semifinal escape him.  His consecutive losses after holding two-set leads at majors suggest not only a more fragile focus but perhaps a diminished appetite for competition.  With no real records left to break or challenges left to conquer, the 30-year-old legend needs to find a new source of motivation as the game threatens to move past him.  Surely not content with semifinal after semifinal, this polished character nevertheless lacks the degree of anger, frustration, or injured pride that galvanized many aging champions before him.

Del Potro:  After his contentious four-set loss to Nadal at Wimbledon, his competitive intensity seems to have peeled away gradually.  The gentle giant cruised through two comfortable rounds and then fell prey to the first noteworthy opponent whom he encountered in a match less close than the score suggested.  Dropping two tiebreaks to Simon, Del Potro played passively and unintelligently at crucial junctures in sets, while the forehand that battered Federer off the court two years ago could not end points with such casual ferocity.  Rather than following the usual upward trajectory of a comeback, Del Potro’s return has traced a winding route for reasons not always apparent.

Tipsarevic:  When he reached his first Slam quarterfinal by outlasting the dogged Ferrero, one expected him to bow with little resistance to his top-ranked compatriot.  Instead, Tipsarevic battled toe to toe with Djokovic from the baseline for two compelling tiebreak sets that stretched over two and a half hours.  Although his overstretched fitness ultimately betrayed him, this new member of the top 20 continued his momentum from a breakthrough summer and has gained great motivation from his fellow Serb’s accomplishments.  Often an enigmatic competitor, he projects more power from his serve and groundstrokes than his small frame would suggest.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga - 2011 US Open - Day 8

Tsonga:  Recalling his comeback against Federer at Wimbledon, his surge from within six points of defeat against Mardy Fish appeared to reveal a player who could curb his affinity for distractions when necessary.  As his almost equally talented opponent self-destructed in the final set, Tsonga kept his antics to a minimum as he plowed through games with accumulating momentum.  Then, the maturity that this victory seemingly had demonstrated gave way to a disappointingly flat, unfocused loss against Federer in the quarterfinals.  Despite the damp New York night and the largely hostile crowd, Tsonga should have produced a sturdier effort when he faced a player whom he had conquered twice this summer.  Undermining thoughts that he might have evolved into a reliable contender, the loss illustrated the gulf in competitive vigor separating him from the elite whom he chronically upsets, a fact that no amount of dazzling acrobatics can obscure.  On the other hand, his even-tempered, positive attitude towards tennis and life enables one to connect with him more than with the grim stoicism of Murray  or the ethereal elegance of Federer, for example.

Roddick:  Somewhat like Muller in Nadal’s previous match, the 2003 champion offered merely a hapless foil for the brilliance of Rafa’s return game and passing shots.  During the four preceding matches, though, he gave American fans much to celebrate with performances greatly improved from his tepid spring and summer.  Especially notable was his four-set victory over Ferrer, the tenacious grinder who wore down Roddick in Davis Cup but could not crack his focus or determination here.  After winning what felt like a “six-setter” to him, the American rounded Court 13 to revel in his triumph with the crowd who had supported him on every shot—one of the 2011 Open’s more satisfying moments.  Recapturing some of his lost public relations capital there, Roddick also deserved credit for his strong stance against the bizarre scheduling decisions that unfolded during the soggy second week.

Isner:  A debut Slam quarterfinalist together with Tipsarevic, the most challenging serve in men’s tennis impressed almost as much by winning tiebreak after tiebreak, including three in one match against Simon.  Content to focus upon holding serve and letting his opponent do likewise, Isner won four matches while seeming to expend little more energy during points than between them.  Despite the inevitable opportunities for humor that his game invites, he gave Murray little cause for laughter during their four-set encounter.  Spectators might not see the most captivating tennis when they watch Isner, but they almost certainly will see a match decided by only a handful of key points, converted by the more opportunistic player on that day.

Young American men (no pun intended):  Seemingly headed into the dustbin of tennis history, the less famous Donald in New York started to unlock some of his unexplored potential in an impressive win over Wawrinka.  When Young previously has recorded his illusory “breakthroughs,” like an upset over Murray at Indian Wells, he would slump to an ignominious defeat in the next round against a highly beatable opponent.  This time, by contrast, he eased past Chela with minimal drama and reached the second week of a major for the first time.  The nearly forgotten Young much surpassed the disappointing fate of Ryan Harrison, trumpeted as a plausible Open sensation after consecutive semifinals in Atlanta and Los Angeles.  Again unable to channel his temper effectively, this teenager twice failed to serve out sets against Cilic in a step backwards from his first-round victory over Ljubicic last year.

Cilic:  Gone in the third round like his fellow giant Del Potro, the Croat nevertheless showed glimpses of his former self in pummeling his inside-out forehand past rising stars Ryan Harrison and Bernard Tomic.  The only player other than Djokovic to win a set from Federer, he competed more courageously than one might have expected through the first three sets of that match.  That performance may have testified not just to the five-time champion’s depleted aura but to a renewed sense of purpose in a powerful game that lost direction over the past two years.

Fish:  In the finest year of his career to date, the top-ranked American reached one major quarterfinal and failed even to equal his best performance at his home Slam.  Leading two sets to one against a deflated Tsonga, Fish played an inexcusably sloppy game when leading 4-4, 30-0 in the fourth set and then faded into fatalism during the crucial early games of the final set.  Considering Tsonga’s famously fallible focus, these lapses loomed large as proof of the American’s lack of the killer instinct that defines great champions.  He remains a remarkable talent, an engaging personality, an exemplary representative for American tennis—and a very human competitor who simply can’t handle the pressure of the greatest matches on the grandest stages.

Ferrero vs. Monfils:  The former flagship of the Spanish Armada, the gracefully aging Ferrero engaged in a five-set, nearly five-hour epic with a player several years younger and many rankings slots higher—and won it.  On one hand, Monfils should shoulder the responsibility for blowing a match in which he led by two sets to one and committed 81 unforced errors.  On the other hand, those 81 unforced errors came with 81 winners, ranging from the impressive to the spectacular.  Neither player cruised through any of the five sets without encountering stiff resistance from the opponent, several deuce games, and a harrowing test of nerve.  When Ferrero finally stepped to the service notch at 5-4 in the final set, though, he ended this extravaganza with the emphatic style worthy of this veteran, stoic and undaunted throughout the firework display across the net.  Perhaps the final glowing memory of his career, it stayed the most compelling match of the first week and one of the most compelling matches in the men’s draw overall.  While one would have hoped to see Monfisl advance further, the Frenchman always has prioritized entertainment value over winning and certainly delivered in that regard.  Even in the losing role, he enjoyed himself to the utmost, as did all of the fortunate observers.

***

We return shortly with a preview of the Davis Cup semifinals, which might feature the top two should they recover from their latest clash of swords.

Caroline Wozniacki - 2011 US Open - Day 2

Wozniacki vs. Rus:  Having snapped a three-match losing streak with a five-match winning streak, the Dane arrives at the US Open fresh from a New Haven title for the fourth consecutive year.  As with Radwanska’s parallel shift, the decision to separate from her increasingly irritable father may have allowed Wozniacki to collect herself following a disappointing summer.  Her familiar self in New Haven and the first round here, the world #1 played within herself as she won with depth rather than angle and placement rather than pace.  A tall Dutch lefty with a heavy forehand, Rus earned fleeting notoriety by upsetting Clijsters in the second round of Roland Garros after winning a set from Sharapova in Madrid.  On both occasions, she benefited from error-strewn displays by her opponents that positioned her to win, but the Dutchwoman finished off Clijsters with increasingly confident play.  Normally stingy with unforced errors, Wozniacki became more slovenly in that category during her summer swoon before reverting to her characteristic cleanliness last week.  Nevertheless, lefties have troubled her in the past (cf. Martinez Sanchez), so this match might open a window onto her current level of confidence.

Jankovic vs. Dokic:  Meeting Mirjana Lucic in the first round of last year’s Open, the Serb needed three sets to squelch a comeback threat from the Balkans.  In the second round of this year’s Open, she faces a similar opponent at a similar stage in her career.  Winning a title earlier this year in Kuala Lumpur, Dokic sporadically reminds audiences of the danger latent in her flat, low groundstroke lasers.  Just as prominent in her comeback are the cascades of double faults that have cost her many a match.  Since Dokic tends to veer from outstanding to abysmal with little between them, her first-round victory suggests that she has struck at least a moderately formidable vein of form here.  Dropping just two games in her own opener, Jankovic will hope to survive the first blow or two before gradually outmaneuvering her opponent.  Although she struggles with double faults less often, the former #1’s serve remains a questionable stroke that Dokic can attack in attempts to shorten the points, essential against an opponent with much superior fitness and consistency.

Ferrero vs. Monfils:  Famous for antics like leaping in mid-air to strike an ordinary groundstroke, Monfils perhaps set the tennis precedent for Petkovic.  Yet he has grown more focused and businesslike this summer as his ranking has climbed inside the top eight.  Seriously challenging Djokovic in Cincinnati, the Frenchman looked extremely sharp in dismantling future star Grigor Dimitrov a round ago.  Few fans would want Monfils to become a sober, steely ball-striking machine, though, and he continued to oblige the spectators with vintage leaps, lunges, and dashes punctuated by a flourished fist.  If he can restrain those bursts of showmanship to unimportant moments, his sparkling athleticism should conquer the 2003 finalist.  Once the flagship of the Spanish Armada, Ferrero has receded towards an approaching retirement, and his unflagging professionalism jars intriguingly with the exuberance across the net.  Rarely a crowd favorite in New York, the Spaniard’s dour visage invites viewers to admire his technique, study his footwork, respect his achievements—but not to connect with him.

Azarenka vs. Dulko:  One US Open ago, Azarenka retired against Dulko in the first round with a concussion that caused her to lose consciousness on the court.  At Roland Garros last year, the current world #5 pried just three games away from the Argentine, who also defeated her in straight sets three years ago.  While she continues to retire at an alarming rate, Azarenka did not look hampered by the hand injury that forced her withdrawal from Cincinnati in the first round.  An appetite for revenge likely will motivate the pugnacious Belarussian to reverse those recent results, but Dulko has proven a difficult riddle to solve for even the most accomplished players.  At first glance, one struggles to find the elements of this unassuming game that could have undone opponents from Henin to Sharapova.  Rather than any single weapon, Dulko’s overall consistency and court coverage will pose the most significant challenge to an impetuous shot-maker who never saw a ball that she didn’t want to crush.  One round away from a Saturday night clash with Serena Williams, Azarenka wants to ensure that she shows as little vulnerability as possible.

Berdych vs. Fognini:  Often a frustrating pastime, “Berd-watching” became more rewarding in Cincinnati when the underachieving Czech finally achieved an accomplishment of note for the first time since Wimbledon 2010.  In a routine straight-sets victory over Federer, Berdych illustrated once again how far sheer ferocity of ball-striking can carry a player past a more versatile, less brutal style.  Less forceful than his serve and groundstrokes is his mind, the arena where his second-round opponent can undermine him.  An idiosyncratic Italian with much-remarked eyebrows, Fognini specializes in the sort of protracted, emotionally heated contest where Berdych sometimes crumbles.  An example of that genre unfolded at Roland Garros this year, when an ailing Fognini hobbled theatrically around the court en route to a seemingly certain loss—and won.  His casual swings at groundstrokes suggest a practice session more than a match, but this effortlessness masks power that he can unleash unexpectedly. While Fognini’s game may seem like an expertly assembled set of smoke and mirrors, its lack of straightforwardness could force Berdych to think more than he would wish.

Petkovic vs. Zheng:  In a sensational year for Chinese tennis, the chronically injured Zheng has played a third fiddle to Roland Garros champion Li and new top-20 resident Peng.  Once in the top 20 herself, this doubles star and Olympic medalist can fight firepower with firepower better than her petite frame would suggest.  A victory over Sharapova and multiple three-setters against Serena have attested to her self-belief against the most elite opponents in the sport, so Petkovic should practice her groundstrokes more than her dancing.  The glaring flaw in Zheng’s game, her meek second serve should offer the German plentiful opportunities to gain control of opponents with aggressive returns.  Regrouping from a first-week loss at Wimbledon, Petkovic reasserted herself in North America with two victories over Kvitova amidst semifinal appearances in San Diego and Cincinnati.  Ever the entertainer, whether deliberately or inadvertently, Petkorazzi’s most memorable moment of the summer came when she bolted indecorously from the San Diego court mid-match to vomit.  With a personality so multifaceted and unpredictable, though, something quirky or intriguing almost always happens during her matches and makes her a must-see player in the first week.

Ana Ivanovic - 2011 US Open - Day 2

Ivanovic vs. Cetkovska:  Falling to the Czech at Wimbledon, the former #1 will aim to avenge that defeat just as she reversed her Stanford loss to Morita a tournament later in San Diego.  Double-bageled by Ivanovic three years ago, Cetkovska has developed into a far more accomplished, self-assured competitor who defeated three top-15 opponents last week in New Haven.  Under the pressure of a third-set tiebreak against Li Na, she defied expectations by proving mentally sturdier than the Chinese veteran.  When she faced Ivanovic at Wimbledon, Cetkovska never lost her serve in the two sets and dominated the tiebreak, an area in which the Serb has faltered throughout 2011.  Shaky late in close sets and matches, Ivanovic rallied in her opener against the dangerous lefty Ksenia Pervak and then dedicated the victory to her dead grandfather.  Far from her best in that encounter, she will need to elevate her first-serve percentage significantly and sting her groundstrokes more assertively from the outset, especially her backhand.  Much like Jankovic at last year’s US Open, a second-round casualty after the death of her grandmother, Ana may struggle to focus on her tennis amidst the personal issues besetting her.  Or the sight of a recent nemesis across the net may inspire her to “put things right,” as the sensitive Serb described her triumph over Morita in San Diego.

Tomic vs. Cilic:  At the Australian Open 2009, they contested a gripping albeit uneven five-setter in which Cilic survived not only the talented teenager but the partisan crowd.  Against a similarly hostile audience in the first round, the lanky Croat eased past Ryan Harrison in straight sets as he erased multiple deficits late in the match.  A curious figure who has stalled since his breakthrough two years ago, Cilic appears to have both the physical talents and the mental poise to compete at the elite level.  But his technique, especially on his forehand, continues to break down at key moments, while his serve has produced fewer free points than a player of his height normally records.  Does that notably calm demeanor mask a lack of determination or competitive vigor?  Just as intriguing is Cilic’s opponent, a precocious Wimbledon quarterfinalist who presented Djokovic with arguably his most formidable test of that fortnight.  Long overshadowed by his repulsive father, Tomic accumulated a reputation as an arrogant, prickly youngster lacking in respect for peers like Lleyton Hewitt and in gratitude for the opportunities given him by Tennis Australia.  Perhaps not coincidentally, his increased successes have stemmed from opportunities that he has created for himself, while his father has faded from the headlines.  Spectators now can appreciate a surprisingly mature, complete game played by a tall player who moves well, a power player who defends well, and a baseliner who exhibits crisp technique in volleys.  Does the kernel of a future champion lie in the versatile, motivated Tomic?

David Ferrer - ATP Masters Series Monte Carlo - Day Eight

Awaiting the proud citizens of Barcelona is a Friday filled with compatriots on the court.  No fewer than five Spaniards have reached the quarterfinals of this ATP 500 tournament, which could feature all-Spanish semifinals and probably will feature an all-Spanish final.  Two top-10 opponents and an opportunistic Croat aim to disrupt that narrative, however.

Nadal vs. Monfils:  The top-ranked players from their respective nations, the Spaniard and the Frenchman personify two fundamentally opposing approaches to the sport.  While Nadal channels his energies towards the single goal of winning, Monfils generally gains more satisfaction from the journey than the destination.  Equal to the world #1 in power and athleticism, the world #9 habitually attempts low-percentage shots that showcase his spectacular abilities on the occasions when they find their targets.  But Monfils lacks the strategic clarity and talent for point construction that has fueled Nadal’s success on clay as much as his defensive abilities.  A natural mover on this surface and an excellent defender himself, the Frenchman often doesn’t choose the wisest option when he has the opportunity to finish a point.  By contrast, Nadal’s transition game functions more smoothly than those of any rival except perhaps Djokovic.  He has lost five or fewer games in all three of his clay meetings with the Frenchman, who understandably has struggled to find his idiosyncratic style since returning from injury.  For every acrobatic jumping forehand and ostentatiously pulverized smash, an equal number of routine errors will emerge to fuel Nadal’s progress into the semifinals.

Dodig vs. Lopez:  Perhaps the ATP’s best-kept secret in 2011, Dodig defeated Soderling earlier this week, won his home title in Croatia, and became the only player to capture a set from Djokovic in Melbourne.   Unlike most of his compatriots, this Croat stands at just six feet and thus need not construct his game around his serve.  This greater versatility probably explains his success on a surface where Cilic, Ljubicic, Ancic, and similar towers of power have scored relatively few accomplishments.  Against the third-ranked Spanish lefty, Dodig will confront an opponent not dissimilar to his previous victim, the budding Milos Raonic.  Unflustered by the Canadian’s thunderous delivery, the Croat handed him a rare tiebreak bagel before ultimately outlasting him in three sets.  Just as uncommon among Spaniards as Dodig is among Croats, Lopez has cultivated a net-rushing, serve-centric style better adapted to grass than clay.  That said, his national surface offers him more time to run around his unreliable backhand to dictate rallies with his forehand.  Overwhelmed by Ferrer in Monte Carlo, Lopez recorded a pair of creditable victories here over Garcia-Lopez and Nishikori.

Melzer vs. Ferrer:  Clashing just last week in a Monte Carlo semifinal, the Austrian and the Spaniard progressed to this round in contrasting manners.  As he did in the Mediterranean principality, Ferrer has comprehensively dominated all opponents not named Nadal.  After reaching the Rome final last year, he sustained that success by extending Federer to a third set in a Madrid semifinal, so he should not rest content with last week’s accomplishments.  Physically and mentally fit to unfold a sequence of deep runs, Ferrer faces an opponent who shrugged off a back injury in Monte Carlo and overcame the challenging Montanes in a Thursday three-setter.  The 30-year-old Melzer deserves acclaim for defying his age to deliver the best tennis of his career over the past year, but he does not rank among the few players who match Ferrer’s fitness level.  Somewhat deceptive was the routine scoreline of their Monte Carlo semifinal, however, which featured several close games and break points on which the Austrian did not capitalize.  But his audacious shot-making requires an ample degree of confidence, which he may lack against a player who stifled him just six days ago.

Ferrero vs. Almagro:  Eyeing a top-10 berth, Almagro has rekindled memories of his thunderous South American clay-court campaign with straight-sets victories over the recently dangerous Andujar and the increasingly less dangerous Davydenko.  In Madrid last year, the Spaniard also become one of only two players to win a set from Nadal on clay last year.  Somewhat in the vein of Monfils, Almagro has chronically lacked intensity; in Monte Carlo, he faced four match points against the unimposing Maximo Gonzalez and then mustered little resistance against Melzer.  Far south of the Spaniard in the rankings lies the former #1 Ferrero, who did not play an ATP main-draw match in 2011 until this week.  In the twilight of his career, this genteel competitor has delighted his compatriots by exploiting an accommodating draw.  Much more substance than style, the understated Ferrero should pose an intriguing personality comparison with the flamboyant Almagro.  One wonders whether crowd sympathies will tilt towards the fading flagship of the former “Spanish Armada” or the more electrifying style of his challenger.  Counter-intuitively, Ferrero has won their last two meetings, including an Acapulco three-setter last year.   Unless Almagro self-destructs, as he still can, his raw firepower should prove too intense for a veteran whose weapons cannot compete with those of the current elite.

***

We return tomorrow to discuss the final four in a fascinating Stuttgart tournament.

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Bright lights, big city, baseline bombs:  the US Open has arrived again.  We break down both the men’s and the women’s draws quarter by quarter, this time starting with the ladies…

First quarter: Having captured consecutive titles in Montreal and New Haven, top seed Wozniacki looms over the draw a bit more authoritatively than one might have expected.  The world #2 should cruise through her first two rounds into a potentially intriguing clash with lefty shotmaker Safarova, who often has ambushed marquee players and may profit from her opponent’s fatigue.  If healthy, though, the top seed likely will advance to a final-16 clash with Sharapova, who must overcome surging Australian Jarmila Groth in the first round and French firecracker Rezai in the third round.  On the other side lurks Li Na, unimpressive since Wimbledon but always a formidable competitor in majors with her focus and mental resilience.  Not known for either of those qualities, 2004 champion and 2007 finalist Kuznetsova might encounter the Chinese star in the fourth round if she escapes Roland Garros (and Rome) nemesis Kirilenko in the third round.  The most fearsome offense in this fearsome section, however, belongs to the 14th-seeded Sharapova, who also may benefit from Wozniacki’s weariness and Kuznetsova’s continued fragility.  Despite her premature exits at her last two US Opens, Maria has rediscovered her confidence as well as her serve in recent months, and her savage strokes should sizzle through the fast courts just as they did in Stanford and Cincinnati.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Second quarter: Probably the softest quarter in the draw, this section might open a door for a dark horse like Petrova, who has reached two Slam quarterfinals this year by knocking off Clijsters and Venus.  The enigmatic Russian opens her campaign against rising German Andrea Petkovic before colliding with the crafty Radwanska in the third round; although she sparkled for much of the US Open Series, the Pole lacks the first-strike weaponry required to progress deep into the New York draw.  Eyeing a potential rematch with San Diego nemesis Coco Vandeweghe is Wimbledon finalist Zvonareva, who rebounded from a predictable post-breakthrough lull to reach the Montreal final with a second victory over Clijsters.  Almost vanishing after Roland Garros, Jankovic played only four matches on American hard courts this summer (winning just one) and faces a thorny third-round clash with Kaia Kanepi.  Before charging within a point of the Wimbledon semifinals, the burly Estonian threatened the lithe Serb on the Paris clay.  Suffering an arid summer so far, lower seeds Martinez Sanchez and Wickmayer might struggle to reach the second week.  Whoever emerges from this section, however, likely will be cannon fodder for the semifinalist from the first quarter, whether it is Sharapova, Wozniacki, Kuznetsova, or Li.

Semifinalist:  Zvonareva

Third quarter: Above the top two seeds in this region, Venus and Schiavone, hover substantial uncertainties concerning the motivation level of the former and the fitness level of the latter.  In the third round, the willowy Bulgarian Tsvetana Pironkova aims to complete three-quarters of a Venus Slam, having vanquished the elder Williams at the Australian Open and this year’s Wimbledon.  Yet the more intriguing third-round encounter features Cincinnati semifinalist and former junior #1 Pavlyuchenkova against Stanford champion Azarenka, once again on the threshold of evolving into an elite contender.  Don’t forget last year’s quarterfinalist Flavia Pennetta, a steady all-court veteran who might well oust Venus in the fourth round, but we’ll back the winner of Pavlyuchenkova-Azarenka to reach the final four of a major for the first time in their careers.  (Situated in a relatively benign corner, meanwhile, Melanie Oudin might not fall on her face as disastrously as some Americans have feared.)

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Fourth quarter: Rivaling the first quarter for potential intrigue, this section features the defending champion, two former #1s, an Olympic gold medalist, and arguably the best server in the tournament.  Like Wozniacki, Clijsters enjoys a pair of comfortable rounds before confronting a quirky Czech lefty with an arhythmic style centered around high risk and high reward.  Since reaching the Wimbledon semifinals, however, Kvitova has struggled to cope with her elevated status and (not unlike Rezai) has returned to her feckless former self.  If Ivanovic can defuse Eastbourne champion Makarova in her opener, she will face the imposing task of overcoming Zheng and then Bartoli in order to arrive at a fourth-round meeting with the defending champion.  The other side of this quarter features several players armed with excellent pedigrees but plagued by recurrent inconsistency, ranging from Stosur and Kleybanova to Safina and Dementieva.  In her New Haven semifinal with Wozniacki, Elena outplayed the eventual champion for much of the match but characteristically squandered a late lead, while the ailing Stosur pried just three games from Petrova last week.  Therefore, opportunity knocks for 2008 semifinalist Safina to extend her encouraging summer with a second-week appearance.  But her run will end by the quarters unless the Belgian’s hip injury resurfaces.

Semifinalist:  Clijsters

Final:  Sharapova vs. Azarenka

Champion:  Sharapova

Turning to the gentlemen and not-so-gentle men…

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First quarter: Uninspired during the summer Masters 1000 tournaments, Nadal should feast upon a section filled with erratic shotmakers and dubious competitors, although projected third-round foe Kohlschreiber did challenge him in Toronto.  The only player to defeat Rafa between Miami and the Rogers Cup, Lopez could intersect with his compatriot in the round of 16 after a third-round meeting with Ljubicic; the Croat has faded swiftly (and unsurprisingly) since winning Indian Wells.  On the other side proliferate some of the ATP’s most distinctive personalities, spearheaded by Verdasco, Gulbis, and Nalbandian.  Sagging after a dazzling clay season, Verdasco likely will fall to the resurgent Argentine in the third round, while Gulbis will be favored to bludgeon slow-surface specialist Ferrer into submission.  Nadal could struggle against the winner of a Gulbis-Nalbandian confrontation, for both of them possess the ability to overpower the Spaniard from the baseline.  Nevertheless, the top seed should rely on his consistency and concentration against the Latvian or his fitness against the Argentine in order to reach a third consecutive semifinal at the only Slam that still eludes him.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter: A finalist at two of his last four hard-court majors, Murray once again lies on the threshold of a substantial breakthrough after defeating Federer and Nadal consecutively in Canada.  Occasional hitting partner Wawrinka should test but not thwart the Scot in the third round, and possible fourth-round foe Querrey still must learn how to translate his small-scale success into the majors and Masters 1000 tournaments.  At the base of the quarter rests the revelation of the year, Berdych, although a leg injury in Cincinnati may undercut his efforts to reprise a Roland Garros demolition of Murray and reach a third consecutive Slam semifinal.  Moreover, the Czech appears a bit mentally jaded after his unexpected successes in 2010 have elevated his match total relatively early in the season.  Mentally suspect or physically dubious names populate much of this section, Isner among them; hindered by strained ankle ligaments, the American is still regrouping after his surreal Wimbledon epic.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Third quarter: Although tennis doesn’t incorporate the concept of home-court advantage, both Roddick and Fish will feel relatively satisfied with their section.  Briefly outstanding during his Toronto semifinal, Djokovic lapsed into lethargy and indifference again during his week in Cincinnati, where Andy extended his dominance over the Serb.  They could collide in the quarterfinals for the second straight tournament, but it’s equally likely that Roddick will meet the winner of a third-round duel between Baghdatis and Fish.  Long known for squandering their talents, both the Cypriot and the American reaped the rewards of renewed dedication during the US Open Series.  Despite recuperating from mono, Roddick has enjoyed greater success in the best-of-five format than most of this quarter’s other inhabitants, including potential fourth-round opponents Davydenko and Bellucci.  If he hopes to progress deep into the tournament, however, Andy must win his matches more efficiently than he did in Cincinnati.

Semifinalist:  Roddick

Fourth quarter: Whether seeded at the top or the bottom of the draw, Federer generally finds himself nestled in a cozy corner.  Such is the case again here, as the Swiss legend will not have to overcome anyone more demanding than veterans Hewitt, Ferrero, and Melzer in order to reach the quarterfinals—where he faces the same player whom he defeated here in that round a year ago.  In addition to Soderling’s dismal head-to-head record against Federer, however, one should remember that he dragged the five-time US Open champion within a point of a fifth set last year before dispatching him from Roland Garros (in yet another quarterfinal) this year.  With the massive bookends of the Swede and the Swiss, one might nearly forget about the balanced groundstroke game of Marin Cilic, whose recent swoon is threatening to shift him from the “promising” to the “once-promising” category.  Surrounded by a host of qualifiers, the Croat should reach the second week and a fourth-round encounter with Soderling, but neither he nor the injury-addled Gonzalez currently possesses both the confidence and the weapons to win a best-of-five encounter with the fifth seed.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Final:  Murray vs. Federer

Champion:  Federer

***

Balanced better than the draws of several recent Slams, these quadrants should provide a steady acceleration of action from the first week through the middle weekend towards the championship matches.  We return tomorrow to preview the most scintillating opening salvos of the season’s final major!

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If Wimbledon used the best-of-three format for the first week of its men’s matches, three of the top eight seeds would have fallen in their openers to Alejandro Falla, Olivier Rochus, and Kevin Anderson.  While the travails of neither Djokovic nor Davydenko surprised us, the near-disaster suffered by the six-time champion was completely unexpected, since Federer had comfortably dismissed Falla twice in the last month.  Forced to extricate himself from a two-set deficit, the feckless top seed nearly embarrassed the organizers who placed him atop the draw instead of Nadal.  Two potential outcomes could emerge from this excruciating brush with catastrophe, one positive and one negative for Federer.  Relieved to have escaped the Colombian, he might well relax in his future matches and remind himself that he managed to win despite playing several notches below his immortal best.  Don’t forget what happened after he hovered within five points of a straight-sets loss to Haas at the 2009 French Open, but also don’t forget what happened after he hovered within four points of a third-round loss to Tipsarevic at the 2008 Australian Open.  On the latter occasion, Federer’s frailty spurred the rest of the draw to assault him with renewed confidence, which resulted in his only straight-sets loss at a non-clay Slam since 2003 (semifinal vs. Djokovic).  Berdych, Roddick, Hewitt, and others should take note of how the defending champion’s tournament began as they devise their plans for how it will end.  Meanwhile, Federer’s fellow top seed attempts to make a more authoritative impact tomorrow morning.

***

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Serena (1) vs. Larcher de Brito (Centre Court, 1st match):  A prodigy most noted for sonic scandals, the petite Portuguese star has yet to deliver upon the promise that she demonstrated in juniors and at the Bolletieri Academy.  Combined with her savage ball-striking, however, is a competitive ferocity rivaled by few of her peers.  Nevertheless, those assets recently have been overshadowed by her serving struggles, which will fatally undermine her cause against the most formidable serve in the WTA.  Although Serena does wobble sometimes in the first week of a Slam, she never has lost an opener and should be able to take command of most points with a massive first strike on either serve or return.  It’ll be intriguing to watch how Larcher de Brito handles the moment, though, for she remains unaccustomed to playing on venues like Wimbledon’s Centre Court.  In any case, we know that the Portuguese phenom won’t buckle meekly and will make every effort to dig her teeth into the rallies, creating sporadically entertaining exchanges before her eventual extent.  (By the way, our Portuguese Twitter correspondent Jose Morgado reports that the infamous shriek has diminished a little lately.)

Kendrick (Q) vs. Tsonga (10) (Court 1, 1st match):  Despite the rankings disparity here, Kendrick won a set from Murray last year behind impressive serving and relentless aggression.  Moreover, he’s accustomed himself to the atmosphere here by already having played three matches in the qualifying draw; having retired at Roland Garros a few weeks ago, by contrast, Tsonga has played no competitive matches on grass this season and might start a little slowly.  When the Frenchman lacks full confidence in his physical condition, his electrifyingly acrobatic style dips perceptibly as his shots rattle through the court with a shade less conviction.  Kendrick might have a greater chance to win in a best-of-three format before Tsonga can settle into a rhythm.  On the other hand, the tenth seed isn’t built for endurance and rarely plays five-setters, although he did win two of them in Melbourne.  Since both competitors will be swinging for the lines as soon as possible, few points should last more than four or five shots.  Extending a pattern of early-tournament inconsistency, Tsonga nearly dropped his opener in Paris to the unheralded Daniel Brands, yet that surface suits his game much less effectively than the speedy grass.  Therefore, an upset remains unlikely but not inconceivable.

Kiefer (W) vs. Ferrer (9) (Court 2, 2nd match):  The aging German still possesses a penetrating serve that distinctly trumps the Spaniard’s pedestrian delivery, whereas Ferrer enjoys far greater consistency from the baseline.  If the veteran can serve at a high percentage, finish points quickly, and keep the speedy retriever guessing with intelligent placement, he might well overcome the clay specialist.  After an outstanding season on the European dirt, Ferrer demonstrated his susceptibility to powerful servers during his startling straight-sets loss to Melzer in Paris, although he defeated Karlovic at Indian Wells.  Like Tsonga, the ninth seed chose not to play a grass prep, perhaps an indication that he has conceded this part of the season.  His fellow clay specialist Wawrinka made the same decision and paid a predictable price against Denis Istomin on Monday.  Much more adept on grass, Kiefer will take the initiative constantly and hold the match in his hands, so the outcome should come down to his execution level and confidence at key moments.  After a lengthy period of irrelevance, does he still believe in himself on the grandest stages?

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Chakvetadze vs. Petkovic (Court 14, 1st match):  Two years ago, the mercurial Russian reached the second week of the All England Club.  Three years ago, she built upon a sensational hard-court campaign to edge within one set of the US Open final.  While Chakvetadze has generated few headlines since those accomplishments, her two-hander remains a sensational weapon, and she compensates for her relative lack of pace by striking the bally early and creating unexpected angles; one might liken her style to a diluted version of her compatriot Davydenko.  Opposite the Russian stands one of the WTA’s hottest new commodities, a Bosnian-German who charged to the UNICEF Open and severely threatened Henin at that stage.  Unintimidated by most occasions or opponents, Petkovic did falter against Kuznetsova at Roland Garros, but the alacrity with which she rebounded testifies to her granite mentality, a stark contrast with Chakvetadze.  Yet one should remember that the Russian defeated the Bosnian-German in Birmingham two weeks ago, exploiting a sub-par performance from Petkovic that perhaps stemmed from her Paris disappointment.  Nevertheless, one of these stars has been rising as swiftly as the other has been descending, and Slams tend to confirm rather than reverse such trends.

Kanepi (Q) vs. Stosur (6) (Court 18, 2nd match):  Decent but unremarkable in her Eastbourne prep, Stosur surrendered sets to Hantuchova and Baltacha before becoming one of the victims in Makarova’s bizarre march to the title.  The Estonian has never seen a ball that she doesn’t attempt to obliterate, adhering to a straightforward power baseline style that has proven less effective this year than it has in the past.  Charting Kanepi’s decline, one can note the inexorable transformation in the WTA, where what Mats Wilander called “mindless bashing” once represented a reliable formula for winning matches but now must be combined with intelligent point construction, a little more versatility, and a bit more consistency than was previously necessary.  (Slumping sluggers Kuznetsova, Safina, and Ivanovic, among others, might wish to take note as they wallow in existential woe.)  Beyond her outstanding serve, Stosur has cultivated more variety than the average women’s star and thus should be able to outlast the erratic, slow-footed Estonian.  All the same, the Australian was outslugged by Baltacha during the early stages of their Eastbourne match, and the Brit’s game markedly resembles that of the Estonian.  Don’t be surprised to see Stosur dragged into a decider before she pulls through, just as Kanepi dragged Jankovic into a decider at Roland Garros.

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Mahut (Q) vs. Isner (23) (Court 18, 4th match):  The flamboyant Frenchman produced a characteristically odd bit of trivia in the qualifying by winning a 46-game final set from local hope Alex Bogdanovic.  Comprising 23 consecutive service holds, that Roddick-esque performance will need to be repeated in order for Mahut to upset the towering Isner.  Yet he should take heart by noting that giants did not stand tall on Day 1, which included losses by Anderson (6’7”), Cilic (6’6”), and Ljubicic (6’5”); even Del Potro (6’6”) exited in the second round last year.  A Queens Club finalist in 2007, Mahut came within a point of ambushing Roddick for the title and relishes grass more than any other surface.  Break points should be at a premium in this collision, which might witness multiple tiebreaks and probably will pivot on a tiny handful of timely winners or cluster of unforced errors.  Whereas the American will stand atop the baseline and attempt to dictate play with his forehand, the Frenchman will hurtle towards the net at the earliest opportunity.  Isner thus will test Mahut’s movement and consistency, while Mahut will test Isner’s reflexes and instincts.   If they head into a fifth set, these two adversaries might test the daylight by holding serve again and again…and again.

Briefly noted:  Shortly after his return from a protracted injury hiatus, Nishikori receives the monumental assignment of tackling Nadal on Centre Court, too demanding a task at this stage in his development although an opportunity to display some of his promise where people will notice.  Another Roland Garros champion, Ferrero might be challenged by Xavier Malisse as he attempts to repeat his 2009 quarterfinal appearance; the enigmatic Belgian recently upset Djokovic in Queens Club, while the Spaniard has been erratic since Rome.  Bolstered by the Croatian architect of Safina’s success, Cibulkova will seek to exploit the low bounces of the surface least natural to her against Safarova, who dazzled on clay before wilting at Eastbourne.  Her fellow clay-season arriviste Rezai rarely can be accused of wilting in any circumstances, but she did under-perform a bit at Roland Garros after swaggering to the Madrid title.  Having reached the Birmingham semis and vanquished Wozniacki in Eastbourne, the Frenchwoman faces a stern test of her all-court prowess when she confronts 2009 Birmingham titlist Rybarikova.  Early in a partnership with Antonio van Grichen (of Azarenka-related renown), Cirstea has accomplished little of significance for most of 2010 but showed signs of awakening by defeating Schiavone and nearly Kuznetsova in Eastbourne.  Will she extend her momentum against another Czech lefty, Kvitova, whose emotional implosions often dwarf her talents? 

***

Meanwhile, Maria prepares to showcase her latest foray into fashion on Court 2.  Can she recapture the lofty heights attained by her 2008 design?

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Feel free to use the comments or write to us on Twitter if you have a Day 3 match about which you would like to read here! 🙂

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A rather painful episode of déjà vu occurred today for the star-crossed Richard Gasquet, who watched a two-set-and-break lead evaporate against Murray for the second time.  Probably better suited for the compressed best-of-three format, the Frenchman’s electrifying shotmaking fails to compensate for his lack of physical (and mental) fitness at majors.  With relatively little at stake, Murray deserves credit for staying focused until Gasquet faded once again; this instinctive will to compete comprises an essential trait of a champion.  Elsewhere, Taylor Dent cracked the fastest serve in Roland Garros history…and actually won the match.  (We know that Andy will be eyeing the radar tomorrow in an effort to eclipse that 149-mph bomb, but wet conditions won’t aid his cause.)  In previous French Opens, serving records generally have not produced positive outcomes; Venus broke the WTA Slam speed record in a 2007 loss to Jankovic, while Karlovic broke the single-match Slam ace record in a defeat to Hewitt last year.  Finally, Ivanovic delivered a characteristically candid post-match interview that was much more intriguing than her opening victory.  Documenting the Serb’s mental oscillations between confidence and uncertainty, it’s worth a read for Ana fans (go to the Roland Garros site, click on News and Photos, then Interviews).  As she tries to “move on and get better” from match to match, we move on to Day 3.

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Pironkova vs. Henin (22) (Chatrier, 1st match):  Perhaps a shade more familiar than the typical 22nd seed, Henin will be sure to reawaken blissful memories in the multitudes of quasi-compatriots eager to celebrate her return to Roland Garros.  The four-time defending champion ignites what will be an extremely demanding fortnight (judging from her draw) against a player whom she once considered a future contender.  Her tennis tomorrow will need to be more impressive than her prognosticating skills then, for Pironkova hasn’t accomplished anything remarkable at significant events; nevertheless, she did defeat a sub-par Dementieva in Warsaw last week.  A quintessential pusher, the Bulgarian projects almost no power at all behind her serves and groundstrokes, relying on movement and consistency to prolong points until her opponent commits errors.  Although Henin’s heightened aggression has produced recurrent flurries of miscues, she should find her range sooner or later.  Pironkova’s pacelessness should allow the Belgian to measure her groundstrokes on the clay, providing her with a useful reference point for tenser encounters in the imminent future.

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Hewitt (28) vs. Chardy (Chatrier, 4th match):  While neither player especially enjoys this surface, the match offers an intriguing contrast between a wily, tenacious veteran and a flamboyant, temperamental star of the future.  Or at least the French hope that Chardy delivers upon his promise, since recent evidence has not been impressive.  Can Hewitt’s grittier mentality enable him to outlast the younger player just as another Anglophone competitor survived a Frenchman on Day 2?  Or will Chardy’s more forceful serve-forehand combinations penetrate the court too effectively, miring the Australian deep behind the baseline?  Note the duration of the rallies, which will favor Chardy if relatively short and Hewitt if they extend longer.  Also observe the impact of the Paris crowd on yet another of les bleues, some of whom (Gasquet, Mauresmo) have appeared burdened by expectations and others of whom (Tsonga, Monfils) have relished the adulation.  On the other hand, something more than fanatical Frenchies is required to rattle Hewitt.

Safina (9) vs. Date Krumm (Lenglen, 2nd match):  The Russian seeks her third consecutive finals appearance at Roland Garros after finishing runner-up to Ivanovic and Safina, but it’s unrealistic to expect the realization of that goal in the aftermath of her back surgery.  Winning just one total match at Stuttgart, Rome, and Madrid, Safina could fall well outside the top 10 and possibly outside the top 20 if she falters here.  Opposite her stands the artful, seemingly ageless Date, whose enduring affection for the game inspired her improbable return.  Unsurprisingly, she hasn’t toppled many high-profile foes in the comeback, yet she did win the Seoul title and has taken sets from elite players such as Wozniacki.  The match rests in Safina’s control, which is not necessarily good news for her; in a similar situation against the pedestrian Zakopalova in Madrid, she coughed up leads in both sets before crumbling under pressure in two tiebreaks.  Should she establish an early lead, she might cruise.  If she doesn’t, we could witness a lively rollercoaster that would compensate for mediocre tennis with high-quality drama.

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=cornet+roland+garros&iid=4892985″ src=”2/7/7/7/2009_French_Open_f2c8.jpg?adImageId=12977001&imageId=4892985″ width=”500″ height=”333″ /]

Cornet vs. Pavlyuchenkova (29) (Court 1, 1st match):  Long considered future superstars by their respective nations, these expectation-laden phenoms have not quite delivered on their promise—the French much more notably than the Russian.  One can trace Cornet’s implosion to the two match points that she squandered against Safina in the fourth round of last year’s Australian Open.  Had she converted one of those opportunities, she would have reached a first Slam quarterfinal and possibly sparked a breakthrough season; instead, her understandable deflation combined with a  shoulder injury to completely reverse her momentum.  Although Pavlyuchenkova hasn’t endured a similarly spectacular collapse, the Russian has wavered after what seemed a career-changing surge into last year’s Indian Wells semifinals.  She has struggled notably on the largest stages over the past year and has been hobbled by a foot injury in recent weeks.  It’ll be intriguing to observe whether Pavlyuchenkova can recapture the form that brought her to the second week here in 2009, or whether Cornet can muster momentum from encouraging performances in Fez and Estoril.  The French crowd will be firmly on her side, but she might be better off if they weren’t.

Ferrero (16) vs. Cuevas (Court 1, 3rd match):  Our last sight of the polished, gracefully aging Ferrero was his ignominious opening defeat in Rome at the unexpected hands of Santiago Giraldo.  (The Colombian displayed a crisp game that day, but a former French Open champion needs to win more than three games from an unseeded challenger.)  Shortly afterwards, a knee injury compelled Juan Carlos to withdraw from his home even in Madrid, a pity considering his near-total dominance of the South American clay courts in February.  It’ll be intriguing to observe what attitude the former French Open champion brings to his clash with the Uruguayan clay-court doubles specialist Pablo Cuevas.  Gifted with an elegant backhand, Cuevas has overcome adversaries as accomplished as Almagro on this surface, so he could penalize an unconvincing Ferrero.  Above all, though, this duo should deliver a classic exhibit of clay-court tennis rather than awkwardly adapting hard-court styles to the dirt as is so often the case in the contemporary game.  Watching players like these, one learns to relish the variety among tennis surfaces and regret the current trend towards uniform surface speed.

Ginepri vs. Querrey (18) (Court 2, 2nd match):  We’ll admit immediately that these two Americans are no clay experts and in fact are occasionally embarrassed by the vagaries of the surface.  This clash caught our attention not from the brilliant technique that they’ll display but from its psychological component.  Losing their previous meeting in the Indianapolis final despite a far more imposing serve, Querrey brings that mental baggage to the court as well as the baggage of never having won a match at Roland Garros.  It’s not surprising that his strategically limited game hasn’t succeeded here in the past, yet the sometimes complacent American has typically underwhelmed at Slams in general, not a positive sign for his future.  He can’t keep writing off early, disappointing losses as learning experiences forever, nor can he continue losing lackadaisically on important occasions to respectable but unintimidating players like Ginepri.  There’s a fine line between relaxed and lackadaisical that the loose-limbed Californian needs to find soon.

Peer (18) vs. Llagostera Vives (Q) (Court 6, 1st match):  Generally not renowned for her clay-court skills, the Israeli smoothly navigated a pair of formidable draws to reach the semifinals in Stuttgart and Madrid.  In that infamous top quarter of the WTA draw, Peer’s days are certainly numbered, for she could face Serena in the round of 16.  Nevertheless, this tournament represents an opportunity to extend the momentum from the Premier events into Wimbledon and the summer hard courts, where she has prospered more often.  Toting a name as long as she is short, Llagostera Vives has achieved resounding success in doubles with Martinez Sanchez but can be crafty in singles as well.  Peer will be cast in the role of the aggressor, an unaccustomed and perhaps uncomfortable position for her.  We should see a match defined by intelligent point construction and mental tenacity much more than baseline bullets.  Neither of these players can survive with the top-tier sluggers, but they’re an engaging diversion from the power-soaked games of the WTA elite.

Briefly notedAfter Ginepri vs. Querrey on Court 2, Serena and Venus continue their pursuit of a doubles calendar Slam.  Absent for most of the clay season in which she thrives, Marbella finalist Suarez Navarro targets Ponte Vedra Beach finalist Govortsova, a Belarussian who has enjoyed surprising success on this surface over the past several weeks.  One match to not watch is the clash between Gabashvili and Daniel Koellerer.  The senselessly pugnacious Austrian has earned the contempt of fellow players, commentators, and spectators alike for his repulsive, relentless displays of gamesmanship inappropriate to this dignified sport.  Far more elegant is the meeting between Hantuchova and Tamarine Tanasugarn, both of whom must be looking forward to the grass season; nevertheless, we’re curious to see who more successfully adapts their fast-court style to the clay.  While the willowy Slovak attempts to solve that riddle, Russian qualifier Ksenia Pervak ventures into the den of a familiar lioness:

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=sharapova+li+roland+garros&iid=4911534″ src=”9/a/a/b/2009_French_Open_04d2.jpg?adImageId=12977072&imageId=4911534″ width=”396″ height=”594″ /]

How do you solve a problem like Maria?  We hope that Pervak has no answer. 😉

 

After enjoying one of the smoothest imaginable draws in Monte Carlo, Nadal now must tackle one of the most difficult paths imaginable in order to capture his fifth Rome title, which would tie him with Agassi for the Masters 1000 record.  Just to reach the final, he likely will be forced to overcome Soderling and Federer, the two players who defeated him on his favorite surface last year.  Should he secure this tournament, however, the victory would resonate throughout the tennis world even more powerfully than did  the Monte Carlo triumph, which carried a slight asterisk considering the number of marquee absences.  There will be no asterisk this week.  Can the Mallorcan bull trample the most skilled matadors in the ATP?  Quarter-by-quarter preview straight ahead!

First quarter:  We’d almost forgotten about Federer, who has played just five total matches since the Australian Open while recovering from a lung infection.  He’ll need to set his clay-court wheels in motion immediately against either Gulbis or his recent conquerer Baghdatis, but his ease on the grit should see him through to the quarters rather comfortably.  On the other side, we wouldn’t be surprised to see the flamboyant Almagro inflict some damage on two Croats who would prefer to play on any other surface, perhaps even the moon.  A third-round clash between Cilic and Ljubicic would intriguingly sketch the past and the present of Croatian tennis.  (Or is it the present and the future, judging from their recent results?)  We wouldn’t be surprised to see Almagro spoil their rendezvous, though; his clay expertise could carry him all the way to the quarters…but no further.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Second quarter:  How odd is it to see Nadal’s name embedded unobtrusively in the center of a draw rather than looming over the top or anchoring the bottom?  Rafa will want to conserve energy in his first two rounds, perhaps against Kohlschreiber and Andreev, before the thunderbolts start descending from a familiar Swedish mountaintop.  It’s not a certainty that Soderling will reach the quarters, since either Berdych or Wawrinka will strive to intercept him.  Yet the Swede has a distinct edge in the ball-bruising contest that would unfold against either the Czech or the Swiss, and last week in Barcelona he showed no lingering complications from a knee injury.  Over the past year, Soderling’s game has become increasingly bullet-proof, but will it be bull-proof again?   Look for the extra-slow surface to aid Nadal more than his memories hamper him. 

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Third quarter:  We’re quite confident that the champion won’t emerge from this nondescript neighborhood.  Neither Tsonga nor Murray can be expected to reach their projected collision on Friday, considering their shared discomfort on clay.  If Murray doesn’t suffer a fourth consecutive loss in his opener, Ferrer probably will halt his winning streak at one in the third round.  Meanwhile, the age-defying Ferrero should repeat his upset of Tsonga from Monte Carlo, considering that the surface generally plays even more slowly here.  That fact will aid Ferrer’s counterpunching game in an all-Spanish quarterfinal that should offer a clay-court clinic par excellence.  Only one of the eight Ferrer-Ferrero duels has concluded in straight sets, so expect a gritty, grueling war of attrition built upon marathon rallies and superb court coverage.  And expect the diminutive David to ultimately grunt and grit his way past a stylish but not overwhelmingly powerful opponent.

Semifinalist:  Ferrer

Fourth quarter:  Riding the momentum of his Barcelona title, Verdasco has little to fear from his first two opponents, since he’s far more comfortable on this surface than potential foes such as Hewitt or Youzhny.  On the other side, Djokovic should comfortably dispatch the still-unreliable Chardy en route to a scintillating third-round encounter with Isner, who threatened him much more than one would have expected during the Davis Cup tie in Belgrade.  If the Serb’s serve wobbles as precariously as it has in recent weeks, this match could produce some nervous moments for his fans, but the American doesn’t seem quite ready to topple a top seed.  Consequently, we expect the two bookends of this quarter to reprise their semifinal meeting in Monte Carlo, captured resoundingly by the Spaniard.  He’ll have won 12 of his last 13 matches at that stage (with the one loss against Nadal), so he’ll have the confidence edge in this battle of fragile psyches.

Semifinalist:  Verdasco

Semifinals:  Nadal d. Federer, Verdasco d. Ferrer.  Rafa has much more to prove at this stage than does Roger, who has vanquished him on dirt only at Hamburg and Madrid–the least sluggish of all clay courts.  Although Ferrer can trouble Verdasco in his less consistent patches, the stronger Spaniard has been connecting with his best shots at timely moments lately.

Final:  Nadal d. Verdasco.  When there’s an 10-0 head-to-head between two players, you have to stick with the winner until the loser proves you wrong.

***

We’ll be back tomorrow with a preview of the WTA Stuttgart draw, which features stunning first rounds such as Azarenka-Pennetta, Bartoli-Stosur, Wickmayer-Schiavone, and Radwanska-Ivanovic.

The five-time defending champion was ruthlessly efficient again today, conceding just one game to an outgunned opponent for the second straight match.  After a successful day of predictions on Thursday, all four of our projected semifinalists remain in contention for the first significant prize of the ATP clay season.  But will they take the final step into precisely the Saturday matchups that we envisioned several days ago?  Let’s break down the action on Friday:

Djokovic (1) vs. Nalbandian:  His expectations unquenched with a dramatic triumph over Youzhny, the evergreen Argentine posted an equally impressive win over the ultra-consistent Robredo.  Meanwhile, Djokovic delivered some of his cleanest and most confident tennis since last fall when he routinely dismissed Wawrinka.  Although the Serb has sometimes struggled against Nalbandian, his seamless movement and ability to rapidly transition from defense into offense should reap rewards on the clay.  Expect a high-quality match filled with crisp ball-striking, audacious shot placement, and brilliantly bludgeoned two-handers.  Pick:  Djokovic.

Montanes vs. Verdasco (10):   Credit Montanes for overcoming the surging Baghdatis and the formidable serve of Cilic, two opponents who would have overpowered the unseeded Spaniard on any other surface.  Now, however, he faces a compatriot who also has enjoyed substantial success on clay; he’ll need to retrieve as many balls as he can and hope for untimely erratic stretches from Verdasco.  Soaring past an increasingly dangerous Berdych in the third round, the tenth seed exacted revenge against the player who had eliminated him from the previous two Masters 1000 tournaments; perhaps the most impressive feature of his victory was the mental toughness that he displayed after losing an airtight first set.  A fraction of that toughness coupled with Verdasco’s far superior power should spell a comfortable win.  Pick:  Verdasco.

Ferrer (11) vs. Kohlschreiber:  Following a pair of routine straight-set victories, Ferrer crammed a bagel down the throat of the Indian Wells champion before edging through a second-set tiebreak.  Already a titlist on clay this season (Acapulco), he should scurry and grind his way past the German, who exploited a woefully inept performance from Murray.  His  flowing shot-making skills should provide a scintillating contrast with the Spaniard’s indefatigable counter-punching, but Kohlschreiber’s game oscillates between peaks and valleys.  He won’t maintain the unflagging intensity and consistency required to topple Ferrer on this surface.  Pick:  Ferrer.

Ferrero (9) vs. Nadal (2):  The competition abruptly spikes upward for Nadal, who confronts a fellow French Open champion and one of the tiny handful of players who has defeated him on this surface (Rome 2008).  Nevertheless, that match featured a blisters-riddled Nadal who couldn’t perform at a level remotely close to his capabilities.  Although Ferrero displayed impressive grittiness during his win over Tsonga, he may be a little weary as a consequence of its bone-crushing rallies.  On the other hand, Rafa exerted himself so little during his win over Berrer that he practiced after the  match!  A rested Nadal + a tired opponent = good news for Nadal fans.  Pick:  Nadal.

***

Just as in Monte Carlo, all four of our projected semifinalists in Charleston have reached the quarters,  and we’re sticking with the four girls whom we brought to the dance.  Once the lineup there has been decided, we’ll come back with a transatlantic preview of the semifinals in both events!  🙂

The top seed at a Masters 1000 event for the first time in his career, Djokovic sank his teeth into the clay season (and Florent Serra) in impressive fashion on Wednesday.  After this relaxing afternoon in the Mediterranean sun, though, his road becomes significantly more arduous against the surging Wawrinka, a perpetual threat on clay.  Although names such as Murray and Youzhny have shuffled off the stage, some engaging tennis lies before us on Thursday, which we will preview in a slightly different manner from usual.  Instead of simply writing a “pick,” we’ll close the capsules with an upset potential rating between 1 and 10, with 1 as the least likely (virtually impossible) and 10 as the most likely (virtually certain).  Consequently, you’ll know not just our prediction but our degree of confidence in it!  Spoiler alert:  there’s only one ranking distinctly over 5, but a few others hover very near that number.

Djokovic (1) vs. Wawrinka (13).  Visibly brimming with confidence in his opener, the Serb will need it to overcome the Swiss #2, who comfortably dispatched Hanescu for the second time in three days and demolished Gulbis in the second round.  These two played a gripping three-setter in the 2009 edition of Monte Carlo, during which Wawrinka’s consistency pushed Djokovic’s offensive talents to the limit in an intensely physical match.  As the match reached its climax, Novak rose to the occasion in the crucial moments and probably will do so again. Upset potential:  3.5.

Robredo (12) vs. Nalbandian.  Renowned for his sturdy ball-retreiving skills, Robredo makes clay courts feel tiny to his opponents, whom he coaxes into reckless errors.  Despite recently undergoing hip surgery, Nalbandian has rebounded almost immediately to threaten Nadal in Miami before upsetting Youzhny in an epic thriller here.  While the Spaniard seeks to shrink the court, the Argentine will strive to expand it with artfully angled groundstrokes.  He’ll likely be weary after a three-hour duel in the sun on Wednesday, and Robredo will test his stamina, but never count him out.  Upset potential:  4.

Cilic (4) vs. Montanes.  Generally a little uneasy on clay, Cilic nevertheless delivered an impressively (and rather unexpectedly) gritty performance against Andreev, rallying after losing a marathon first set.  Facing the unimposing Montanes, he’ll be the aggressor in most of the rallies.  If he controls his aggression and constructs intelligent points, he’ll win routinely.  If he sprays more balls than he ought, he’ll endure some tense moments but probably still prevail anyway.  Upset potential:  2.5.

Berdych (10) vs. Verdasco (6).  After a breakthrough performance in Miami, Berdych has plowed through his first two matches while surrendering just six total games.  On the other hand, Verdasco was equally “en fuego” during his second-round clash with the overmatched Benneteau.  These power merchants square off for the second straight tournament; Berdych eked out a fiercely contested quarterfinal back on the North American courts.  Although he’s enjoyed repeated success against Verdasco, the Spaniard moves more fluidly than the Czech on clay.  He’ll likely earn revenge in a hard-fought, high-quality contest.  Upset potential:  4.5.

Ljubicic (8) vs. Ferrer (11).  The long-dormant Spanish roadrunner resurfaced during Davis Cup and delivered a solid result in Miami before scoring a pair of uneventful wins here.  The toast of Indian Wells, Ljubicic will find his serve blunted by the surface and his limited movement exposed against the uber-consistent Ferrer.  Upset potential:  7.

Petzschner vs. Kohlschreiber.  This all-German match results from Murray’s appallingly lackluster performance in his opener, which he ceded to Kohlschreiber in a (mercifully) fleeting 63 minutes.  Not overshadowed by any clear contender, this quarter offers a mouthwatering chance for one of its four inhabitants to reach the semis without knocking off a marquee name.  Kohlschreiber is much more comfortable than his compatriot on clay.  Oh, and he’s the higher-ranked player, in case you were wondering.  😉  Upset potential:  3.

Tsonga (5) vs. Ferrero (9).  Another rematch from Miami, where a thunderous Tsonga predictably steamrolled the stylish but far less powerful Ferrero.  Suggesting that this encounter should be closer is the Spaniard’s comfort level on clay; the former French Open champion reeled off a 15-match winning streak in South America several weeks ago.  During a dramatic yet erratic victory over Almagro, the clay surface exposed the inconsistencies in Tsonga’s high-risk style.  Although Almagro couldn’t capitalize on multiple opportunities, the steadier, more patient Ferrero might well do so.  Upset potential:  5.5.

Berrer vs. Nadal (2).  On one side of the net stands an aging serve-and-volleyer who has never won a title.  On the other side of the net stands the five-time defending champion and a four-time French Open champion.  Upset potential:  1.

***

Feel free to let us know what you think of this new format, which we tested just to introduce some variety but which we might revive in the future. 

Initially, we had planned to release our “plotlines to ponder” for the clay season during this week.  However, we decided to save it for the less action-packed week ahead and channel a little extra attention towards Monte Carlo; don’t worry that we’ve wandered away from the agenda!  😉

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