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Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates a point in the Men's Singles semi final match against Viktor Troicki of Serbia on day six of the Rakuten Open tennis tournament at Ariake Colosseum on October 9, 2010 in Tokyo, Japan. Rafael Nadal of Spain defeated Viktor Troicki of Serbia 7-6, 4-6, 7-6.

Having previewed the WTA tournaments in the capitals of Japan and China, we revisit those venues to discuss the less significant but still noteworthy ATP events this week.

Tokyo:

Top half:  The top seed here for the second straight year, Nadal aims to defend a non-clay title for the first time in his career.  Potentially complicating his passage is second-round opponent Milos Raonic, who led the ATP in aces earlier this year.  Nevertheless, the Canadian of Montenegrin origins looked distinctly rusty during a four-set loss to an overmatched Israeli opponent in Davis Cup, his first event since hip surgery this summer.   In the quarterfinals, Nadal might meet the newly crowned Kuala Lumpur champion Tipsarevic, finally a victor in his fifth final after four unsuccessful attempts.  Embedding himself well inside the top 20 during recent months, Djokovic’s compatriot harbors an innate confidence with which he has troubled more familiar foes.  An unwary Rafa thus might encounter stiffer resistance than usual from Tipsarevic, unable to offer even a mildly compelling test in their two previous meetings.  Much less dangerous against the elite than Tipsarevic, yet another Serb stands poised to block Nadal’s route in the semifinals as he nearly did here a year ago.  Holding match points against Nadal on that occasion in a match that wound deep into a third-set tiebreak, Troicki still struggles with a fatalistic streak that hampers him when he finds himself in a promising position.  Nor can one pencil his name into that semifinal berth with too great certitude, for summertime storyline Mardy Fish will import much greater momentum to Tokyo.  Handed the assignment of Ryan Harrison for the third time since Wimbledon, Fish likewise could face Gulbis for the third time this year—and those dangerous opponents stand aligned to meet him in his first two matches.  If the fourth-seeded American survives those threats, he will have proved himself a serious contender who could cause Nadal concern on this fast surface.  Meanwhile, can Bernard Tomic accomplish something noteworthy after slumping to hideous losses in his last two tournaments?

Semifinal:  Nadal d. Fish

Bottom half:  Among the highlights of the 2008 US Open, the first-week battle between Ferrer and Nishikori twisted through five suspenseful sets before “Project 45” claimed the upset.  Reprising that contest on home soil, the often injured Japanese prodigy has honed a style strikingly similar to the grinding Spaniard.  Elsewhere in their section, the ageless Stepanek lilts into another clash of experience against youth when he tangles with Somdeev Devvarman, a lithe Indian with a crisp two-handed backhand somewhat reminiscent of Hewitt.  But few players in this section can mount a serious challenge on a hard court to Murray, who won Bangkok as the top seed last week.  Just when many of his rivals seem vulnerable to competitive ennui, Murray has managed to motivate himself with the objective of overtaking Federer as the year-end #3.  His identification of that goal should aid the Scot in sharpening his focus deep in a season of impressive peaks and gloomy valleys.   The architect of Murray’s demise in Rotterdam, Baghdatis reached the final in Kuala Lumpur last week with upsets over Melzer and Troicki.  If Murray reaches Tokyo weary or unwary, the Cypriot could spring an opening-round ambush with his precisely timed groundstrokes.  A few years ago, the fall showcased David Nalbandian’s mostly squandered talents at their finest.  Following another valiant effort in Davis Cup, this veteran again might stir from his nearly irrelevant state, although Murray comfortably dominated him at Cincinnati this year.  Perhaps more ominous is Juan Monaco, who split his two meetings with Murray last fall and resembles a diluted South American version of Ferrer.

Semifinal:  Murray d. Ferrer

Beijing:

Top half:  In the absence of defending champion Djokovic, the prolific tennis nation of France provides three of this tournament’s top eight seeds.  A champion in Metz two weeks ago, the top-seeded Tsonga may find that distinction less than enviable on this occasion, for he immediately encounters the temperamental Bulgarian shot-maker Dimitrov.  At Wimbledon, they engaged in a four-set rollercoaster of alternately head-turning and head-scratching tennis.  Much more predictable than his compatriot, Simon will rely upon his monochromatic style to seek a quarterfinal against Tsonga in which the relatively slow Beijing courts might assist him.  Before that all-French fracas, Gilles might meet the Brazilian lefty Thomaz Bellucci, nearly the hero of his nation during the Davis Cup World Group playoff but eventually (and once again) disappointing home hopes.  Even if that disappointment does not weigh heavily upon him, though, he has failed comprehensively at breaking through Simon’s defenses before.  Either Tsonga or Simon should brace themselves for a semifinal with Berdych, despite a dangerous opening clash with Melzer.  Typically at his best when under least pressure, the Czech should relish the fall season as an opportunity to scarf down rankings points with minimal scrutiny.  His quarter features a trio of unreliable shot-makers from Verdasco and Kohlschreiber to rising star Dolgopolov.  Puzzling Djokovic throughout an epic first set at the US Open, the last of those figures seems the most plausible test for Berdych, whom he could trouble with his idiosyncratic timing and dipping backhand slices.  Remarkably, Berdych and Tsonga never have confronted each other on a court before; that lacuna should end this week.

Semifinal:  Berdych d. Tsonga

Bottom half:  Looming throughout this section are massive servers, two of whom collide in the first round when US Open quarterfinalist Isner meets Metz runner-up Ljubcic.  Both juggernauts acquitted themselves creditably here last year, and this year’s draw lies open for the winner to reach a semifinal.  Poised to intercept one of them is Almagro, but the Spaniard’s overstuffed schedule during the first half and focus on clay tournaments probably will have undermined his preparation for the fall.  On the other hand, the moderately paced surface should offer him more time to set up his elongated swings, and a tepid summer may have allowed him to refresh his energies.  In the first round, Almagro would meet Youzhny in a rematch of the infamous Miami meeting in which the Russian hammered not the ball but his head with a racket.  Both with exquisite one-handed backhands, they inhabit a quarter with two-handed backhands that vary from the clumsy—Roddick and Anderson—to the serviceable—Monfils and Fognini—to the potentially spectacular—Davydenko and Cilic.  None of those players has proven that they can contend consistently this year, so each match will offer a narrative without foregone conclusions.  Reaching a US Open quarterfinal with a sturdy victory over Ferrer, Roddick may carry that impetus into his next tournament, while Cilic showed signs of resurgence in a competitive loss to Federer and a dominant Davis Cup effort.  At the 2010 French Open, Monfils met Fognini in a protracted war of endless rallies, service breaks, and taut tempers, so one wonders what the first-round sequel here might bring.  Whereas Tokyo should build towards a stirring climax, Beijing might unfold a less linear storyline.

Semifinal:  Roddick d. Isner

***

We return in a few days to preview the WTA quarterfinals in Beijing, perhaps with digressions to any intriguing ATP encounters that develop.

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Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal of Spain looks on during his match against Novak Djokovic of Serbia on day two of the Davis Cup World Group first round tie between Spain and Serbia at the Parque Tematico Terra Mitica on March 8, 2009 in Benidorm, Spain. Nadal defeated Djokovic in three straight sets 6-4, 6-4 and 6-1 sending Spain into the Davis Cup quarter-finals with a 3-1 win over Serbia.  (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Rafael Nadal

If their respective nations advance through the Davis Cup semifinals, the top two men in the world could meet in Belgrade on the final day of the 2011 season.  Less than a week after the US Open’s captivating conclusion, Spain and Serbia aim to conquer France and Argentina in home ties where they should enjoy a distinct advantage.

Losing consecutive Slam finals for the first time in his career, Nadal should find his recovery from a sixth straight loss to Djokovic boosted by a return to his nation and his favorite surface.  On the other hand, the transition from hard courts to clay late in an arduous season will test the Roland Garros champion’s battered physical condition.  During a similarly timed tie against the United States in Madrid, the greatest clay-court player of all time lost a set to the clay-averse Querrey before collecting himself.  Nadal has accumulated a sensational Davis Cup singles record, however, and he had won five of six meetings from probable Friday opponent Tsonga until the Frenchman reversed that trend at Queens Club this year.  Never have they met on clay, where the acrobatic shot-maker who has reached an Australian Open final and a Wimbledon semifinal rarely excels.  Lacking the patience for extended rallies, Tsonga will find that his net-rushing style plays into the hands of Rafa’s passing shots more on this surface than any other.  In the last five years, only Federer, Djokovic, and Soderling have toppled Nadal on the terre battue, so one struggles to imagine any of the famously fickle French winning three sets from him before a Spanish crowd likely to rattle their fragile nerves.

With two near-certain  rubbers from Nadal, assuming his full participation, Spain need collect only one further from the strong supporting cast of Ferrer and the doubles pairing of Verdasco/Lopez.  Although the world #5 has not played much tennis since Wimbledon, he showcased his continued clay excellence with a title and three finals on this surface, including the Masters 1000 tournament in Monte Carlo.  Battling Djokovic through a three-set semifinal in the Madrid Masters tournament, Ferrer has feasted upon the support of his compatriots in previous Davis Cup epics such as five-set victories over Roddick and Stepanek, the latter in a Cup final.  Yet curiously this tenacious competitor has lost all three of his meetings with Friday opponent Monfils, most notably a five-set rollercoaster that ended the Spaniard’s sojourn at Roland Garros this year.  Just two places below Ferrer in the rankings, the exuberant shot-maker also quelled him as part of a Davis Cup shutout when these teams met in France last year.  On both of those occasions, though, the boisterous French fans inspired their hero to a more sustained effort than he might produce before a crowd unappreciative of his showmanship.  Somewhat more successful over the past few months than the Spaniard, Monfils must continue his dominance in their rivalry for France to survive until Sunday, for the experienced doubles squad of Verdasco/Lopez should overcome whatever pairing Guy Forget assembles to face them.

Choosing to load his rifle with four top-15 singles players rather than bring doubles specialist Llodra, the French captain perhaps expected a post-Open withdrawal from Nadal, or else an excellent serving day from Tsonga or Monfils in doubles duty.  Although Lopez probably prefers faster surfaces, he has elevated his form this year to record a near-upset over Federer, a quarterfinal appearance at Wimbledon, and a scintillating five-set Cup victory over the much higher-ranked Fish in a dangerous Austin tie.  Far less impressive are the results produced by Verdasco, but his explosive lefty serve and raw forehand power should prove greater assets in doubles than in singles.  Unless the French secure the doubles, this tie will not extend to a fifth rubber.  Despite all of the talent that they have mustered, the visitors should consider themselves fortunate to avoid a reverse shutout.  Spain

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates at match point after defeating Gael Monfils of France during day three of the Davis Cup Tennis Final at the Begrade Arena on December 5, 2010 in Belgrade, Serbia.

The image of a tightly knit team during their Cup title run last year, Serbia has contrasted with the often dysfunctional squads assembled by Argentina.  An apparent feud (or at least disdain) between Del Potro and Nalbandian undermined their efforts in a 2008 home final against Spain that they entered heavily favored.  In the hostile, raucous confines of Belgrade Arena, any internal division would magnify into a crippling liability.  Like Spain, Serbia will hope to rely for two virtually automatic singles rubbers upon one of the greatest players of this generation.  Weary from his third Slam title during a historic season, however, Djokovic may find discretion the better part of valor in this instance and prefer to recover from recent injuries incurred during his grueling consecutive victories over Federer and Nadal.  Nevertheless, he has not participated in Davis Cup since last year’s final and may sense an especially pressing need to demonstrate his national pride.  The only top-5 player who never has lost to Del Potro, he has relished trading flat baseline missiles with the giant while using his superior footwork and movement to outmaneuver him.  Whether the home nation actually needs Djokovic to win this tie lies open to interpretation, though.  Receding as sharply as the economy over the summer, Del Potro could not propel his US Open winning streak past the counterpunching wiles of Simon, while he fell meekly in straight sets to Gulbis and Cilic on the summer hard courts.  When he played the 2008 final that became known as the Massacre in Mar del Plata, the nerve-jangling pressure led to the sort of tentative performance that Lopez exploited then and that Tipsarevic could exploit now.

Retiring from the US Open with an injury, the eccentric Serbian #2 still seems a better option for starting singles duty than Serbian #3 Troicki, an early victim in New York.  As he demonstrated with a crucial victory over Berdych in last year’s Cup, Tipsarevic does not shrink from the Tour’s heavy hitters as does his less assertive compatriot.  His astonishing career-high ranking of #13 stems from an outstanding summer that included not only his first major quarterfinal, where he acquitted himself impressively against Djokovic, but also his first Masters 1000 semifinal in Montreal.  On the other hand, captain Bogdan Obradovic might contrast his disappointing effort against Monfils in last year’s final with Troicki’s commanding victory over Llodra in the decisive fifth rubber, although those contrasting results seemed to spring somewhat from the opponents and their relative aptitudes on a slow hard court.  Should Djokovic participate, Obradovic still could substitute world #16 Troicki for Sunday’s reverse singles in the event that the home squad requires further heroics.

A perfect 6-0 against Tipsarevic and Troicki  but 0-4 against Djokovic, Del Potro probably must deliver both of his rubbers for the visitors rather than relying upon his meager understudies to deliver two wins of their own.  In fact, the Serbs should consider themselves favored to defeat anyone on this squad outside the recently tottering Tower of Tandil.  Although they combined for five victories at the US Open, Monaco and Chela remain natural dirt devils far from their best in indoor conditions that reward shot-making more than stamina.  A Davis Cup hero for his nation before, Nalbandian has scored improbable victories under Argentine colors but has won only 12 matches since reaching the Auckland final in January, none against top-30 opponents.  The doubles format should showcase his talents for constructing clever angles, however, while its lesser exertions will ease the strain upon his aging, often-injured limbs.  Like France, Argentina brings four singles players rather than any doubles specialists, whereas Serbia can complement its three top-20 residents with top-10 doubles star Nenad Zimonjic.  The defending Cup champions have not fared well lately in doubles, however, losing the valuable middle rubber in both the semifinal and the final last year.  But Zimonjic’s disappointing performances did not return to haunt them, for both times Djokovic galvanized his squad to comebacks from 1-2 deficits by winning the fourth rubber.  Maybe Serbia does need him after all.   Serbia

 We also investigate the World Group playoff ties:

Romania vs. Czech Republic:  This utter mismatch features two top-30 players, the experienced Davis Cup duo of Berdych and Stepanek, against a Romanian squad without anyone in the top 100.  Playing in their capital of Bucharest, the home team will hope to discomfit the 2009 Cup finalists by playing this tie on red clay.  In similar David-Goliath encounters, like recent American trips to Chile and Colombia, the surface could not compensate for the vast gap in talent.  Czech Republic

Russia vs. Brazil:  Far from the sun-soaked beaches of Rio is the central Russian city of Kazan, famously conquered by Ivan the Terrible during the rise of Muscovy into an intimidating empire.  Much less intimidating is the team fielded by ageless Davis Cup savant Shamil Tarpischev, spearheaded by a player with just a 20-19 record this year.  Only three rankings spots higher than Brazilian #1 Bellucci, Youzhny seems an unlikely spearhead for a team filled with unreliable competitors.  The solid doubles pairing of Melo and Soares should secure the third rubber and perhaps vault the visitors to a small upset, but Bellucci likely will have to win both of his singles rubbers.  A clay specialist with short patience and a long history of underachievement, he probably won’t rise to the challenge in a sterile indoor arena that lacks the atmosphere to inspire him.  Russia

Israel vs. Canada:  The only top-50 player to participate in this tie, Milos Raonic has not played since suffering a leg injury at Wimbledon.  If his serve crackles through the court as it did in the first half of 2011, he could win this tie almost single-handedly for the visitors by dominating Israel’s underpowered singles players and combining with doubles specialist Daniel Nestor for a formidable doubles team.  Best known for producing the doubles duo of Ehrlich and Ram, the home nation also has relied upon its exceptional cohesion to slay favored foes like Russia before.  The raucous crowds in Ramat Hasharon have rattled visiting players, but neither Raonic nor Nestor seems easily flustered.  Will rising talent Vasek Pospisil, who impressed Federer this summer and won a match at the Open, play a meaningful role in Sunday’s reverse singles?  Aligned potentially against Israeli #2 Amir Weintraub, he could clinch the tie in a decisive fifth rubber.  Canada

South Africa vs. Croatia:  Unlike Canada, this second English-speaking tennis nation enters this playoff as a clear underdog to a resurgent Cilic, who won a set from Federer at the Open, and the suddenly relevant Dodig, who defeated Nadal and won a set from Djokovic this year.  In a weekend of huge serves, Anderson will hope to channel the energy that led him to the title in the final edition of the Johannesburg tournament.  But Croatia’s much deeper team should win both of the singles rubber that he doesn’t play and find a way to eke out one of the other three matches.  Croatia

Chile vs. Italy:  Electing to exploit their opponent’s weakness rather than their own strength, Chile chose to play this tie on a hard court inimical to clay specialists Starace and Bolelli.  A nation that shares Russia’s tilt towards the WTA, Italy still should feel confident against a team with no player ranked higher than #101 Capdeville, who has subjected his compatriots to a catalogue of Davis Cup disappointments.  Always at his most fiery before an enthusiastic crowd, Olympic medalist Fernando Gonzalez has played only seven ATP matches (winning three) in an injury-marred season.  Retirement looms just over the horizon for most of this Chilean team, especially 2004 gold medalist Nicolas Massu, so they should bring an elevated sense of urgency to gain one more opportunity to play in World Group I next year.  Against a group as unpredictable as the Italians, intangibles determination and home-court advantage might translate into something valuable.  Chile

Japan vs. India:  The visiting team certainly will win the doubles team with the veteran duo of Bhupathi and Paes, so Japan must earn a singles win from someone other than world #55 Nishikori.  And the prospect of two wins in the best-of-five format looks far from assured, considering that Kei just retired from the US Open.  In a year filled with optimism for Asian sports, from Li Na to Japan’s own World Cup-winning women’s soccer team, this beleaguered nation would delight in the chance to reach the Cup’s highest division.  Knowing nothing about the games of Tatsuma Ito or Go Soeda, we somehow doubt that the experienced Indian squad will let this winnable tie slip away.  India

Belgium vs. Austria:  After his startling rush to the top 10 last year, Austrian #1 Melzer has faded from contention in 2011 amidst injuries and a series of unfocused performances.  An accomplished talent in both singles and doubles, he will hope to bring the momentum from winning the US Open men’s doubles crown to a successful partnership with Olivier Marach.  Whether Melzer alone can propel the Austrians past an underrated group of Belgian ball-strikers depends in part on the efforts of the equally enigmatic Belgian #1, Xavier Malisse.  In the twilight of his career, the 31-year-old “X-man” arrives on a six-match losing streak but has wins over Tsonga and Tipsarevic this year as well as Melzer, whom he toppled comfortably in the third round of Wimbledon.  Belgium’s supporting cast of Darcis and Rochus should capitalize upon the support of their compatriots to overcome the rest of Austria’s indifferent singles stars, although the flagship of the visiting squad could make their efforts irrelevant if he catches fire at a key moment.  Belgium

Roger Federer - 2011 US Open - Day 13

Australia vs. Switzerland:  Into the Royal Sydney Golf Club strides the dethroned king of the ATP, freshly committed to Davis Cup this season.  Perhaps hoping to snag a title for Switzerland before he retires, Federer demonstrated his dedication to this team competition by flying from New York to Sydney immediately after absorbing a heartbreaking loss in the US Open semifinal.  As proved the case after his Wimbledon disappointment, the Davis Cup experience might lift Federer’s spirits by offering him the opportunity to devour an overmatched collection of foes.  The home team’s emotional anchor, Lleyton Hewitt, has won only nine matches in a season comprised largely of majors and small events that offered him wildcards for nostalgic reasons.  For the first time in a meaningful tie, therefore, Australia leans upon precocious teenager Bernard Tomic to lead them past the heavily favored visitors.  While Tomic might well deliver a heroic effort against Swiss #2 Wawrinka, Federer should win both of his singles matches while reprising his gold medal-winning partnership with Wawrinka in the doubles, a pairing to which the Aussies can offer little answer.  Switzerland

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?

Schiavone vs. Dokic:  Accused of selecting Centre Court ladies for style rather than substance, the All England Club appears to have made amends in choosing the first pair of women to stride onto the sport’s most fabled arena in 2011.   A former Wimbledon semifinalist, Dokic rekindled memories of her grass-court prowess by contesting the Dutch Open final two days ago.  The adopted Aussie has left minimal impact at majors since reaching the 2009 Australian Open quarterfinals, though, whereas Schiavone now has two Slam finals on her record.  After winning the title at Roland Garros last year, the Italian slumped to an opening loss at Wimbledon as she suffered a predictable hangover from her elation.  Just a round short of defending her title, she might experience a similar fate against the net-skimming groundstrokes of Dokic, still a sporadically spectacular shot-maker albeit not a genuine contender.  More of a liability than an asset during her comeback, the Australian’s serve could prove essential to her purely offensive style.  Schiavone will aim to keep Dokic off balance with varied pace and biting slices, but she may not have the time to settle into a rally if her opponent’s first strikes find the mark.

Vera Zvonareva Vera Zvonareva of Russia in action during her first round match against Nuria Llagostera Vives of Spain on Day One of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 21, 2010 in London, England.

Riske vs. Zvonareva:  A season after what seemed a career breakthrough, the moment of truth has arrived for Zvonareva, who defends 1400 points at Wimbledon.  Although the second seed would not drop precipitously should she fall early, a truncated fortnight would suggest that her 2010 summer represented less a breakthrough than an anomaly.  In 2011, the Russian has reached a single final in Doha while falling to five players outside the top 20 and losing at least one set in nearly half of her matches.  The familiarly volatile Vera emerged during a three-set loss at Roland Garros and could surface more easily here under the pressure of expectations and a plucky opponent.  Typically uncomfortable against powerful servers, Zvonareva nearly fell to Lisicki at Roland Garros and has lost twice this year to the stagnating Stosur.  A former Birmingham semifinalist, Riske can uncork impressive deliveries of her own on the surface that best suits her rough-hewn style.  While one hardly expects Zvonareva to lose this match, it might open a window onto her current mental state.

Rybarikova vs. Azarenka:  Downed early in the last Wimbledon by Kvitova, the fourth seed sometimes struggles with the fast tempo of grass matches.  On the other hand, the surface amplifies her underpowered serve and rewards her balanced groundstrokes, which can produce winners from either wing.  Like Zvonareva, Azarenka almost certainly will not lose this match against a hard-hitting but erratic upstart, but former Birmingham champion Rybarikova prospers most on this surface and has the weapons to fluster the unwary.  Rarely described as a retiring personality, Vika issued her fourth retirement of the season in Eastbourne last season after a reasonably solid week to that stage.  She historically has regrouped brilliantly in the tournaments following retirements, winning consecutive titles in one such situation this year and reaching the Madrid final in another.  Shelved as a contender by many observers after a disappointing Roland Garros, she can strike back immediately here.

Stepanek vs. Verdasco:  As seasons and surfaces changed, the question hovering above Verdasco shifted from “when will he spring out of his slump?” to “will he spring out of his slump?”  A veteran but far from elderly, the second-ranked Spanish lefty has settled into an inexorable decline that has dropped his ranking outside the top 20.  At his least effective on grass, Verdasco eyes a quirky 32-year-old with an affinity for the sort of antics that can ruffle the easily ruffled Spaniard.  Adept at the arrhythmic style that thrives on grass, Stepanek already has defeated Ljubicic and Tsonga on this surface during the last two weeks while winning a set from Nadal.  His unpredictable shot selection and leprechaun-like scampers towards and around the net should contrast deliciously with the unvarnished baseline slugging from Verdasco.

Ljubicic vs. Cilic:  Always intriguing are the internecine clashes that unfold in the early rounds of majors, and this all-Croatian battle should prove no exception.  Once considered the tennis future of his nation, Cilic initially seemed likely to eclipse his compatriot after precocious successes at majors.  Yet now the younger Croat has lain dormant too long to consider him anything more than a former prodigy who has shown little appetite to capitalize upon his talents and refine his technique.  At the opposite end of his career stands Ljubicic, unfortunate to have reached his peak in Federer’s golden age but still a national hero for his role in capturing a Davis Cup title.  While their serve-a-thon brand of tennis may not stimulate the imagination, the divergent stories of these Croats provide a curious pair of narratives on which to reflect as they collide.

Jankovic vs. Martinez Sanchez:  If Zvonareva’s moment of truth lies just ahead, Jankovic’s moment of truth came during a clay season when her ranking slipped to its lowest nadir since 2007.  Little more accomplished on grass than Verdasco, the Serb did win Birmingham four years ago but has found her counterpunching style poorly adapted to these courts.  Here, though, she intersects with a fellow Rome champion who likewise prefers clay to grass despite a more offensive-oriented style.  Outside two victories over Peer, Martinez Sanchez has accomplished little of note this year while falling below the top 50.  More renowned for her prowess in doubles, she owns a sliding lefty serve that sometimes recalls Makarova’s delivery and that has lifted her to victories over Wozniacki, Azarenka, Ivanovic, and more.  As with Stepanek-Verdasco, this match presents a curious contrast of styles that pits a fiery net-rusher against a steady baseliner.

Fognini vs. Raonic:  An improbable quarterfinalist at Roland Garros, the Italian earned fewer headlines for that accomplishment than for the drama that accompanied it.  Can he distract the relatively raw Raonic, who has far more potent weapons but much less experience?  Expected to wreak havoc in future Wimbledon draws, the Canadian phenom may have grown jaded from his hectic first-half schedule.  If he has stayed fresh, his massive serve-forehand combinations should leave Fognini muttering to himself in frustration as a tantalizing third-round clash with Nadal draws closer for Raonic.

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates winning match point after her second round match against Lindsay Davenport of the United States of America on day three of the Australian Open 2008 at Melbourne Park on January 16, 2008 in Melbourne, Australia.

Determined to erase the memories of a year ago, Sharapova opens proceedings on Rod Laver Arena for the second straight season.  While the time and place remain the same, changes in her coach and equipment should help to quell the remembrance of things past, as will an opponent less imposing than 2010 nemesis Kirilenko.  A former doubles partner of the Russian, Tanasugarn asserted herself last year by winning Osaka and reaching the Pattaya City final, but this match lies on the Russian’s racket.  Consecutive second-round losses at Wimbledon caused Sharapova to wobble late in her second-round victory there last year, so one wonders whether similar events will unfold in Melbourne.  Moreover, she needed seven match points to dispatch first-round victim Brianti in Auckland, extending a pattern of mental frailty when victory lies just a point or two away.  Like fellow Slam champions Venus and Henin, the 2008 Australian titlist hopes to establish herself with a firm opening statement before the path grows perilous.  The path grows perilous quickly for another contender, though, with whom we open our first daily preview of Melbourne.

Wozniacki vs. Dulko:  Three years ago, the stylish Argentine collected just two games from a still-budding Dane in the first round at Melbourne.  Although Wozniacki has shown greater mercy to Dulko after that occasion, she has won both of their hard-court meetings and has developed immensely since their last collision in late 2008.  On the other hand, the former girlfriend of Fernando Gonzalez has emerged as one of the more underestimated upset artists in the WTA, bouncing Sharapova from Wimbledon in 2009, Ivanovic from the Australian Open in 2010, and Henin from Indian Wells just a few months later.  Currently the top-ranked doubles player, Dulko clearly lacks the firepower of most opponents who have troubled Wozniacki, and those three previous upsets came against wildly erratic shotmakers who dissolved in an ocean of errors.  The world #1 rarely succumbs to those error-strewn meltdowns, her US Open semifinal with Zvonareva an exception that proves the rule.  Yet the Dane’s light-hitting opponent will force her to take the initiative in rallies, not her preferred strategy, and this meeting represents her first Slam match as a #1.  Already sounding a bit defensive about her elevated stature, Wozniacki did little to justify it in Hong Kong and Sydney.  A sturdy performance in Melbourne, though, would stop the accelerating trickle before it becomes a tide; thus, she may have more at stake here than any other contender.

De Bakker vs. Monfils:   Among the most difficult tasks in any sport is preserving momentum from the end of one season to the start of its successor.  Such is the challenge that confronts Monfils, pedestrian in the first half of 2010 but one of the ATP’s most notable performers from the US Open onwards.  The Frenchman previously has left little imprint upon Melbourne despite the apparent congruence between his game and its surface, which should offer ample opportunities for him to strike those flashy jumping forehands.  Only a year younger than Djokovic and Murray, De Bakker rests far further down the evolutionary ladder but has developed a formidable serve that lifted him to victories over Tsonga, Verdasco, and other noteworthy foes.  Likely to become a threat on all surface, the Dutchman opened 2011 with consecutive losses and enters the Australian Open as a considerable underdog.  The far more experienced Monfils still suffers lapses at unpredictable moments, such as Slam encounters with Fognini and Kendrick.  And his irrepressible instinct to entertain can invigorate a first-week match more than the businesslike, slightly bored demeanor of the top seeds.

Riske vs. Kuznetsova:  Triggering minor headlines when she reached the Birmingham semifinal last year, the American eventually may join Oudin among her nation’s leading women in the post-Williams era.  To be sure, the standard for entrance to that group has sunk to a level just above Death Valley, and Riske opens against a game only somewhat less scorching than that California landmark.  The two-time Slam champion still owns one of the top forehands in the WTA, while her triumph over world #6 Stosur in Sydney should have lifted her confidence.  In a largely fruitless 2010, however, Kuznetsova fell to anonymous opponents on every surface and continent as her technique deserted her.  Although she should prevail over Riske here, the American’s above-average serve and assertive shotmaking may test the Russian sufficiently for observers to assess her chances of penetrating deep into the tournament.

Nikolay Davydenko of Russia celebrates victory over Rafael Nadal of Spain during the Final match of the ATP Qatar ExxonMobil Open at the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex on January 9, 2010 in Doha, Qatar.

Davydenko vs. Mayer:  The only player with a winning record against Rafa after 10 or more meetings, Kolya nearly created a sensation at the 2010 Australian Open when he toyed with Federer like a puppet on a string early in their quarterfinal.  Offering fast-paced entertainment when at their best, his darting groundstrokes and imaginative angles more than compensate for the limitations of his physique.  Yet he confronts an opponent worthy of his steel in Sydney semifinalist Mayer, the architect of Del Potro’s demise there.  Not to be confused with his Argentine namesake, the lanky German stands just three places below his career-high ranking after a sterling fall that included victories over two top-10 opponents, Youzhny and Soderling.  Nevertheleses, Davydenko ousted him routinely in Beijing just before those eye-catching wins.

Fognini vs. Nishikori:  Under the tutelage of Murray guru Brad Gilbert, the Japanese star hopes to regain the momentum that he surrendered with an elbow injury in 2009.  His gritty, counterpunching style should match the personality of his coach, and their partnership already has borne results with a comeback victory over Cilic in Chennai.  Conquering Monfils at Roland Garros and Verdasco at Wimbledon, Fognini has unleashed first-week surprises despite careless technique and an indifferent serve.  Technically crisp himself, Nishikori should engage the Italian in a series of protracted that will display the traits that they share—exceptional fitness and consistency.  Fognini’s casually slapped forehand can generate deceptive power, as can the Japanese prodigy’s meticulously constructed backhand.  Will Italian improvisation or Japanese precision prevail?

Zahlavova Strycova vs. Rezai:  Curl up for the catfight du jour, which might offend the sensibilities of the sportsmanlike Aussies but could open a window onto Rezai’s mental resilience.  Vinegar rather than blood seems to run through the veins of Zahlavaova Strycova, more notable for her incorrigible gamesmanship than for anything that she does with her racket.  While seasoned champions like Sharapova and Clijsters have contemptuously flicked her aside, Rezai sometimes struggles to prevent her own combative streak from overflowing to her detriment.  Far more talented than the Czech, the Frenchwoman must stay focused upon forehands and backhands—and especially her serve.  She disgorged 11 double faults in her first-round victory over Jankovic in Sydney, a match more lost by the Serb than won by Rezai.

***

Wizards of Oz continues tomorrow with a selection of the most intriguing Day 2 matches.  Feel free to post any suggestions in the comments.

 

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In her last two US Opens, Sharapova has opened her campaign with two resounding wins under the lights before wilting under the afternoon sun.  By contrast, Maria begins her 2010 charge during Tuesday’s day session, which will provide her with valuable experience in the afternoon conditions for her future matches.  But is “future matches” a valid assumption?  Although Sharapova cruised past her Australian opponent in their only previous WTA meeting, Groth stunned her in World Team Tennis earlier this summer and has registered second-week appearances in both of her last two majors.  This year, in fact, she has won more Slam matches than has the 2006 US Open champion, having finally learned how to mingle a modicum of consistency with the bone-crushing power that she long has enjoyed.  In the absence of Serena, though, Sharapova arguably possesses more raw ball-striking force than any other player in the draw.  We expect an exercise in first-strike tennis, filled with short points and elevated winner-error totals on both sides of the net.  If Groth can establish an early lead, she might implant doubt in Sharapova’s mind and serve, yet the Russian has accumulated far more experience on these major stages and will be more likely to seize the early momentum.  A little tense when closing out matches in Cincinnati, Maria probably won’t experience tension in a first-round encounter.  Nevertheless, take note of any fluctuations in Sharapova’s serving effectiveness and when they occur.

We continue to preview a selection of the other intriguing matches on Day 2, some of which will be contested far from the marquee surroundings of Maria:

Jankovic vs. Halep:

A somewhat unexpected finalist here in 2008, Jankovic hopes to shed the rust acquired from injuries that forced her to retire from Wimbledon and the minor Portoroz event.  As is customary with the Serb, mental and emotional factors also may have played a role, in this case her disappointment after losing a one-sided Roland Garros semifinal to Stosur.  Whether the product of injury, fatigue, or indifference, JJ’s performance in the US Open Series has fallen well short of expectations and garnered just a solitary win.  A rhythm-based counterpuncher with a game theoretically ill-suited to these fast courts, she confronts a Romanian prodigy who hopes to attract more attention for her tennis than for her medical procedures.  Still somewhat raw and untested at majors, Halep has developed the ingredients of a solid baseline game with penetrating groundstrokes on both wings.  Her serve requires a bit more attention, however, and Jankovic should be able to exploit her inconsistent patches to advance unless she struggles to find the court as mightily as she did in Montreal against Benesova.  With JJ, anything is possible.

Fognini vs. Verdasco:

Weary from an overloaded first half, Verdasco faces his first-round Wimbledon nemesis on a surface that should tilt towards his advantage more than the grass.  Possessing a superior serve and first-strike potential, the second-best Spanish lefty will win more cheap points and seize control of the rallies sooner than Fognini.  Yet the Italian preceded his upset of Verdasco at Wimbledon with a memorable, five-set, two-day ambush of Monfils at Roland Garros, suggesting that he rises to the occasion on the sport’s grandest stages.  The effortful, grunting Verdasco comprises an engaging contrast with the casual Fognini, who often barely seems to look at the ball as he lackadaisically swipes at it.  Yet one of the curious paradoxes of tennis is its habit of sporadically rewarding the casual and lackadaisical rather than always favoring the tireless taskmasters.  All the same, the Italian achieved little of consequence during the US Open Series and will feel rushed out of his comfort zone on the fast courts, which punish his relatively late groundstroke swings and passive court positioning.

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Vandeweghe vs. Lisicki:

Look (or listen) for seismic serves and ferocious forehands in this battle between the chronically injured German and the burgeoning American.  Shocking Zvonareva in San Diego, Coco displayed a gritty competitiveness that boded well for her future.  On the other hand, Lisicki has played very few tournaments this year while regrouping from an ankle injury that undermined her 2009 campaign.  Since both players are trained to hit extremely flat groundstrokes on both sides, their games are constructed with little margin for error.  Meanwhile, the German and the American struggle with their movement, so most baseline exchanges will be abbreviated to no more than a few shots.  Whoever seizes her opportunities more swiftly and takes chances earlier in the rallies should gain command of this encounter, which will feature as many egregious errors as it will scintillating winners.  While the American crowd will boost Vandeweghe, it won’t bother the even-tempered, perpetually smiling Lisicki.

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Petkovic vs. Petrova:

Beyond sharing the first three letters of their last names, these two combatants share a reliance upon heavy serving in addition to asymmetrical groundstrokes.  Whereas Petkovic seeks to set up her forehand, however, Petrova delivers mightier blows from her backhand wing.  After retiring in heat illness in Cincinnati and exiting early at the Rogers Cup, the Russian soared back to vintage form in New Haven, where she plowed past Stosur and Kirilenko before taking a set from Wozniacki in the final.  Will she suffer fatigue from last week’s exertions, or will she recapitulate her excellent performances from the year’s first two majors?  Still in the fledgling stages of her career (see Alvaro Rama’s guest profile on her in this blog), Petkovic repeatedly has come close to upsetting elite adversaries but hasn’t quite punctured the upper echelon of the WTA’s hierarchy.  Such a breakthrough appears only a matter of time, considering the German’s immense serve-forehand combinations, but she has regressed somewhat this summer with disappointingly flimsy performances against Sharapova and Safina.

Chardy vs. Gulbis:

During the Masters 1000 events, Gulbis nearly upset both Soderling and Murray before extending a familiar trend of falling just short against his top-10 opponents.  In Rome this spring, he appeared to have reversed that pattern with an impressive victory over Federer, yet injuries slowed his momentum early this summer.  In addition to the massive ball-striking power with which he burst onto the tennis stage, the Latvian has showcased enhanced variety, improved movement, and increasingly patient point construction in 2010, all attributes that fellow up-and-comer Chardy should emulate as he attempts to refine his own game.  Largely reliant upon the conventional weapons of serve and forehand, the Frenchman possesses outstanding shot-making talents and instincts; nevertheless, he often succumbs to the temptation of pulling the trigger too early in points or attempting an over-ambitious ploy such as a drop shot from behind the baseline.  Look for Gulbis to raise his game at key moments, stay more positive during adversity, and retain his focus more consistently than Chardy, although in this case both “focus” and “consistent” are relative terms.

***

Tomorrow, we return to preview Part Two of Ana’s Adventures as well as the rest of Day 3 action, but for now we wish the Siberian siren an equally triumphant beginning to her fortnight!

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Among the most compelling reasons to watch Novak Djokovic is the Serb’s unpredictability, which echoes the pleasantly surprising narratives that emerge from this unpredictable sport.  Expecting an engaging Day 5 after perusing the order of play, however, we were unpleasantly surprised by the dreary day that developed from what had seemed fascinating encounters.  On the women’s side, not only were there no three-setters, but only one of the sixteen sets even reached 5-5.  On the men’s side, most of the matches that weren’t routine ended anticlimactically, including a fifth-set retirement and a Roddick-Kohlschreiber collision that grew less rather than more dramatic as it progressed.  Settling into the monochrome mood, even Federer returned to routine efficiency after the tension-soaked rollercoasters that had characterized his first two rounds.  Relatively unpromising compared to its predecessor, the Day 6 order of play perhaps will startle us in the opposite sense by unfolding a thriller or two.  Here are the most likely candidates for that role:

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Soderling (6) vs. Bellucci (25) (Court 1, 1st match):  Opting for rest rather than a grass preparatory event, Soderling has vindicated that decision by smothering his first two opponents with withering serves.  Across the net stands one of the ATP’s most upwardly mobile newcomers, a Brazilian lefty who shines most notably on clay but possesses sufficient power to challenge on all surfaces.  Steadily rising through the rankings, Bellucci has relied upon similar serve-groundstroke combinations to the Swede, so their matchup should be littered with unreturned serves, short points, and ultra-aggressive, sometimes impatient shotmaking.  Soderling should consider using his cross-court forehand to expose his opponent’s weaker backhand side, while the Brazilian should test the sixth seed with wide serves into both the deuce and the ad courts; the Swede proves least comfortable when extended laterally early in rallies.  As formidable as anyone in the first two rounds, Soderling should march onwards towards another meeting with Nadal; shot for shot, there’s no arena in which his adversary holds the edge.  Yet one expects Bellucci’s sliced serve to dart elusively across the grass and allow him to hold with adequate regularity to stay within range for at least one or two sets.

Malisse vs. Querrey (18) (Court 1, 3rd match):  The future of American’s tennis attempts to translate his Queens Club success to Wimbledon by exploiting a relatively open draw.  More than once on the brink of a fifth set against the unheralded Ivan Dodig in the second round, Querrey still struggles occasionally to efficiently close out matches without allowing his opponent renewed hope.  Nevertheless, his victory in the marathon fourth-set tiebreak (well, not “marathon” in the Isner-Mahut sense) testified to his recently enhanced focus, suggesting that some long-awaited maturity may have finally arrived for this lanky Californian.  Among his Queens Club victims was the enigmatic Malisse, plagued by injuries and inconsistency but dangerous when fit.  The Belgian demonstrated his fitness in a five-set opening victory over last year’s quarterfinalist Ferrero, which extended his momentum from an upset over Djokovic in the preparatory event.  If Querrey enters the contest a trifle complacent or unwary, as he might considering his recent victory at Queen Club, the veteran will have a real opportunity to accomplish a minor upset.  On grass, Malisse won’t need to hit as many shots in order to finish a point; the surface rewards his style of low-percentage shotmaking more often than punishing it.  On the other hand, he’ll find that breaking Querrey on this surface is a tall order indeed.

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Errani (32) vs. Radwanska (7) (Court 2, 1st match):  Although one typically associates grass with the mighty ball-striking of a Williams or a Sharapova, Radwanska has demonstrated the effectiveness of the opposite style.  Rather than greeting each ball with full-blooded swings (and shrieks), the Pole exploits the vagaries of the soft surface with feathery drop shots and dipping slices.  Her exceptional finesse has carried her into consecutive quarterfinals at the All England Club, at which stage she was ruthlessly outgunned by the sisters.  Also much more gifted at subtlety than power, Errani excels at opening up the court with unexpected angles and befuddling opponents with clever play at the net.  Don’t be surprised to see numerous service breaks and more extended exchanges than one has grown accustomed to expect on this surface.  During an era of Bolletieri-inspired baseline bombing, it can be diverting to watch these ingenious artisans display their craft before mightier warriors seize center stage (and Centre Court) later in the tournament.

Wozniacki (3) vs. Pavlyuchenkova (29) (Court 2, 2nd match):  According to recent history, this matchup should be less scintillating than one would suppose, since the third seed cleaned the Russian’s clock twice already this year.  Once the world’s foremost junior, Pavlyuchenkova has stalled a bit since last year and has been hampered with untimely injuries; like most Russians, she has become increasingly susceptible to clusters of double faults.  Injuries are far from unknown to her opponent, however, for Wozniacki (unwisely, we think) continues to play through a hamstring injury incurred at Charleston in April.  During the first two rounds, an average performance sufficed to dispatch a pair of unprepossessing foes, and something between decent and solid should prove adequate again.  Moderately powerful yet not overwhelming from the baseline, Pavlyuchenkova probably will donate quantities of unforced errors as the Pole-Dane’s counterpunching challenges her consistency.  On the other hand, Wozniacki has endured several post-injury losses to foes less formidable than the Russian, so one never quite knows how much support her ankle will give her on any given day.

Chardy vs. Ferrer (9) (Court 12, 1st match):  For the fourth time since the start of 2009, these two forehand-oriented games collide as the promising but mercurial Frenchman confronts one of the steadiest competitors in the ATP.  Splitting their two non-clay meetings in airtight three-setters, they’ve traded blows from the baseline while rarely venturing into the forecourt.  Having cultivated a much more imposing first serve, Chardy will be better able to seize control of points from the outset and showcase his potentially explosive brand of first-strike tennis.  Almost antithetical to classic grass-court tennis, Ferrer’s style relies upon relentless retrieving and meticulous point construction much more than upon line-clipping missiles.  At Slams, however, the mental component often plays a significant role, so the Spaniard will trust his superior experience to outlast his temperamental foe, still a little unripe at this stage in his development.

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Kvitova vs. Azarenka (14) (Court 18, 1st match):  Consider packing a suit of armor for this match, filled with more attitude and more explosive tempers than can reasonably be crammed into this cramped outer court, forever famous as the scene of Isner-Mahut.  Discomfited by quirky lefty servers in the past (see M for Martinez Sanchez), Azarenka has looked not only sharp but relatively self-possessed during her first two rounds.  The Minx from Minsk should find her penetrating, symmetrical baseline game amply rewarded on the grass, where she reached the quarterfinals a year ago.  As she battles the volatile Czech, however, her patience may be tested a bit more vigorously than against her previous overmatched opponents.  Springing an upset upon then-#1 Safina in a third-set tiebreak at last year’s US Open, Kvitova has both the weaponry and the self-belief to trouble the top players, but her idiosyncratic game generally breaks down under pressure.   Moreover, her loopy groundstrokes expose her to the vagaries of the surface more than would compact swings, although Azarenka also might want to shorten her forehand swing (and enhance her second serve) in order to maximize her future chances here. If the Belarussian can control her temper early in the match, she should exploit the Czech player’s inferior movement while punishing Kvitova for her often injudicious shot selection.

Briefly noted:  Without the Queen to daintily applaud his exertions, Murray continues his Wimbledon campaign against the recently injury-addled Simon, an outstanding competitor but manifestly ill-equipped for success on grass.  While the Scot should extend his fortnight without drama, the charismatic duo of Fognini and Benneteau  target an unexpected niche in the second week; deceptively careless in demeanor, the Italian possesses excellent fitness and movement as well as occasional forehand power, while the Frenchman serves more effectively and approaches the net more adroitly.  Therefore, a baseline-oriented contest with extended rallies favors Fognini, whereas a more traditional grass-court, net-rushing clash with short points would swing toward Benneteau.  Likewise gifted with a delicious opportunity for a second-week appearance are Dulgheru and Kanepi, two players who revitalized their games on the clay before capitalizing on that momentum here.  We expect a more competitive match than some of those involving more familiar names, one of whom contests her first third-round match at Wimbledon since a win over Ai Sugiyama in 2007.

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Maria seeks her first second-week appearance at a Slam since the 2009 French Open.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doubtless energized by a return to the clay, Nadal pursues a record-breaking sixth consecutive Monte Carlo title and his first title in nearly a year.  The draw includes only five of the ATP top ten and lacks not only Federer but past Rafa-killers Del Potro, Davydenko, and Soderling.  In the depleted field, can anyone derail Nadal’s return to the winner’s circle?  Quarter-by-quarter preview straight ahead…

First quarter:  Probably the strongest section of the draw, it features not only top-seeded Djokovic but more than one dangerous dark horse who enjoys this time of year.  Novak’s second match probably pits him against newly minted Casablanca champion Wawrinka, who extended the Serb to three sets here last year after downing Federer.  The winner of that delicious encounter will be favored to progress past either Robredo or Youzhny, but the Spaniard plays better than his ranking on clay while the Russian has soared to uncharacteristic heights so far in 2010.  Don’t completely forget about Houston semifinalist Horacio Zeballos or perennial sleeper David Nalbandian, either.  From the outset, the matches in this quarter should provide tense, compelling drama, an arena in which Djokovic typically excels.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Second quarter:  As a results of the absences catalogued above, Cilic finds himself in possession of his own quarter…but probably not for long.  He looked weary and erratic in the two previous Masters 1000 events, and his movement has looked awkward at best on the clay; we won’t be surprised if a sturdy performance from Andreev topples the Croat in the second round.  In fact, the Russian might plow all the way to the quarters in this relatively soft section, where Verdasco likely would await.  We’ll never discount Berdych again after his (potential) breakthrough in Miami, but we suspect that a third-round encounter with the Spaniard would reverse their quarterfinal clash two weeks ago.  A long time ago, Gasquet burst into the spotlight here by ambushing Federer.  Is he ready to surprise some major names?  Although Richard has (allegedly) committed additional effort to preparing for the clay, we’re not ready to believe in him again.

Semifinalist:  Verdasco

Third quarter:  Welcome to the land of opportunity!  The two names that bookend this section, Ljubicic and Murray, play much lower than the rankings on the red stuff.  Although the Scot did reach the semis here last year, a dogged performance by an underdog probably would extend his slide (and drop him to #5 in the rankings).  On second thought, however, very few players in this section could perform that role; Fognini, Melzer, or Mathieu, anyone?  We didn’t think so.  Scoring a major upset of Djokovic at last year’s French Open, Kohlschreiber could prove a intriguing test in Murray’s opening match.  But few players are as dogged–and as lethal on clay–as the Spaniard who pounded Wawrinka into crushed brick at Davis Cup a month ago.

Semifinalist:  Ferrer

Fourth quarter:  The bull paws the ground here, but will the earth tremble as it has done since 2005?  Playing without high expectations during Indian Wells and Miami, Nadal will feel the “privilege” of pressure squarely on his shoulders this week.  A loss before the final (arguably, a loss to any player other than Djokovic) would telegraph continued fallibility to his rivals and almost-rivals.  Fortunately for him, few truly formidable potholes lurk in his quarter, so he’ll have a chance to settle any nerves against the likes of Argentines Schwank and Monaco.  The second-highest seed in the section, Tsonga probably won’t survive until the quarterfinals, since his acrobatic game lacks the patience and consistency required to succeed on clay.  Unless the Frenchman delivers an outstanding serving performance, Rafa probably will be charging after Almagro or Ferrero in the quarterfinals.  If he’s fully healthy, a loss to either of them on this surface would be virtually inconceivable.

 Semifinalist:  Nadal

Semifinals:  Verdasco hasn’t defeated Djokovic in five meetings since 2006 Hamburg (before Novak was Novak), including a three-set quarterfinal here last year, so we have to stick with the Serb.  Best known for his ball-retrieving talents, Ferrer lacks the ferocious ball-striking and relentless aggression (see D for Davydenko and S for Soderling) of the players who typically trouble Nadal.

Djokovic d. Verdasco, Nadal d. Ferrer

Final:  Djokovic and Nadal played a thrilling championship match here a year ago, the first of three meetings between them during the clay season.  After two strenuous sets, Novak faded in the final set, and his stamina hasn’t improved since then, while his form has distinctly declined.  Moreover, it’s likely that he would be more weary than Rafa at that stage because his path is perceptibly more demanding.

Nadal d. Djokovic

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Of course, we’ll preview the actual semifinal and final matchups in much more extensive detail when they take form, but hopefully we did some of our work in advance.  In the meantime, we’ll be back shortly with a similar preview of the WTA Charleston event.  Enjoy the Mediterranean tennis!  🙂