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Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal of Spain looks on in his final match against Novak Djokovic of Serbia during day eight of the Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open Tennis on May 8, 2011 in Madrid, Spain. Nadal lost his match in straight sets.

Asked to explain his straight-sets loss in the Madrid final, a dejected Nadal mused that he must unravel the reasons why Djokovic has conquered him three times this year.  Just a week later, the Spaniard has earned another opportunity to crack the Serb’s code, which may require prioritizing groundstroke depth over spin and finding his way into the forecourt more often.  Never has the Rome tournament meant more to Nadal, who habitually has collected it during his progress through the European spring.  The world #1 soon will face the most fearsome array of challengers for his Roland Garros crown that he ever has encountered, and an unprecedented pair of losses in the preliminary events would deliver a bruising blow to his confidence.  As he attempts to defuse Djokovic for the first time in four 2011 Masters 1000 finals, Rafa can take comfort from the fatigue with which his challenger will enter the final.  Extended two minutes past three hours by an unexpectedly inspired Murray, the Serb expended vast reserves of physical and emotional energy.

Beginning to weigh on the world #2’s shoulders is the burden of his spectacular winning streak, which has surpassed Nadal’s longest surge and edged close to Federer’s best sequence.  The Australian Open champion struggled to check his frustration late in the third set against Murray, who outmaneuvered a slowing Serb with surprising frequency.  Still, Djokovic’s shot-making precision and velocity remained undimmed despite his sagging body language.  And one can expect him to deliver a valiant effort notwithstanding his fatigue, just as he did in the US Open final against Nadal after a draining five-set victory over Federer.  Buoyed by the elation of his epic semifinal, Djokovic may thunder to an early advantage as he did in Madrid.  There, Rafa failed to stem the tide before it became a tsunami; although he erased the deficit on the scoreboard, the momentum never shifted away from his vulpine foe.

Across the net, the Spaniard has enjoyed a more comfortable passage through the draw than the Serb, facing no opponent more formidable than Gasquet.  Perhaps a product of the demoralizing loss to Djokovic in his home nation, Nadal battled a virus early this week but has rallied admirably with performances worthy of his familiar self in the last two rounds.  On a surface much slower than Manolo Santana Arena, the world #1 can engage in classic clay-court rallies that gradually chip away at his opponent’s agility.  But Nadal also must not shrink from flattening his groundstrokes more often to end rallies when he has the opportunity.  In a supremely physical rivalry, Djokovic recently has set the tone with punishing offense that has drawn uncertain albeit dogged resistance from Rafa.  Central to regaining the initiative from his primary challenger is seizing control of the rallies and forcing the Serb onto the defensive.  When two players of such comparable (and comparably towering) skill levels collide, the more alert, assertive competitor generally prevails no matter the surface.

Maria Sharapova - The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2011 - Day Seven

After one of her most impressive victories since shoulder surgery, Sharapova aims to crack the code of clay as she hovers within a single victory of her most significant title to date on the surface.  Upsetting a reigning #1 for the first time since the 2008 Australian Open, she now confronts a player whom she has relentlessly dominated in their seven meetings while conceding just two sets.  Nevertheless, the three-time champion never has clashed with Stosur on the surface friendliest to the Australian and least accommodating to herself.  While Sharapova has not won a title in nearly a year, the 2010 Roland Garros runner-up has waited even longer to clasp her first trophy since Charleston last year.  Notoriously feckless in finals, Stosur opposes a player generally outstanding in championship matches but recently fallible on those stages as well, having lost her last four.  Whereas the Russian has relied upon breaking her opponents consistently this week, the Australian has lost her serve only twice in four matches against resistance as notable as Schiavone and Li.  Whose style will dictate the rhythm in a contest between one of the WTA’s most imposing servers and one of its most savage returners?

In addition to a battle between the Australian’s serve and the Russian’s return, this match also pits the heavy topspin of the former against the flat lasers of the latter.  Central to Stosur’s past struggles against Sharapova is her strategy of thumping high-bouncing groundstrokes and kick serves that jump above the preferred contact points of her victims, leaving them vulnerable for the next stroke in the rally.  These strokes often land inside the exceptionally high strike zone of the statuesque Russian, although they will jump ever higher on clay and threaten her more than on the fast courts where all of their previous meetings have occurred.   Much more balanced from the baseline than Stosur, Sharapova can unleash a barrage of blazing winners from either wing to any corner of the court, even on this slow surface.  In a match likely to feature few extended rallies, she will aim to deliver the first strike as efficiently as she did in the semifinal against Wozniacki.  Remarkably, she averaged nearly two clean winners per game in that semifinal triumph over the WTA’s counterpuncher par excellence.  If the clay offers Sharapova extra time to plant and fire, though, it also allows Stosur greater opportunities to run around her backhand to hit the inside-in and inside-out forehands that propelled her to the Roland Garros final last year.

From the city to which all roads once led, a twisting road of red dirt now curves towards Paris.  Accelerating into scintillating form at an ideal moment, both players will enter the year’s second Slam among the inner circle of contenders.  While a career Slam beckons for Sharapova, a maiden major beckons for Stosur.  Like the men’s final that follows it, the women’s final might presage a more momentous encounter on Court Philippe Chatrier.

Rafael Nadal - The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2011 - Day Four

Nadal vs. Gasquet:  Troubled by similarly unexpected surges from Gulbis in Rome and Almagro in Madrid last year, Nadal might experience stiffer resistance than usual from a player whom he has dominated routinely.  The world #1 has won all eight of his meetings with Gasquet, but then Richard just snapped an eight-match  losing streak against Federer.  A round after defeating Federer on clay in Monte Carlo six years ago, the Frenchman flustered Nadal for a set before his Gallic panache succumbed to Mallorcan resilience.  Starting with that 2005 encounter, Gasquet has lost his last seven sets against the Spaniard on clay, including an entertaining but hardly suspenseful meeting in Monte Carlo last month.  Nevertheless, the Frenchman deserves credit for extending his momentum from toppling Federer to rallying from a one-set deficit against Berdych, who had overpowered him in recent meetings.  The Bellucci of Rome, this chronic underachiever has scored consecutive victories over top-10 opponents twice this year in a revival that will bring his ranking inside the top 15.  Nearly stumbling out of the Foro Italico in his opener, meanwhile, a feverish Nadal found just enough energy to survive that day and has elevated his form with each successive match.  Eyeing the last obstacle before a probable fourth Masters 1000 final with Djokovic this year, Rafa will hope to conserve his strength for a titanic Sunday clash, as he could not do in a three-set Madrid semifinal against Federer.  Moreover, a comprehensive victory over the week’s most notable headline would silence the murmurs of his fallibility that might infuse the Serb with even more confidence.

Murray vs. Djokovic:  When the Scot last faced the Serb, they vied with equal plausibility for the leading position among the challengers of Nadal and Federer.  Less than four months later, Djokovic not only has vaulted far past Murray but arguably has transcended the top two as well, boasting a record as impeccable as when they met in the Australian Open final.  On that occasion, the two-time major champion outhit, outmaneuvered, and outthought the three-time major finalist in every department of the game, while their only clay meeting tilted decisively in his favor.  As Murray wobbled through three-setters against Malisse and Mayer, Djokovic surrendered just five games to Wawrinka and three to Soderling in dismissive displays built upon effortless transitions between defense and offense.  While the world #5 once held advantages over him fitness and consistency, the Serb largely has erased his frailties in those areas.  Perhaps even more impressive than his physical durability is his unflagging motivation as title after title tumbles into his possession.  Against a player of Murray’s quality, that motivation should continue to sharpen Djokovic’s focus.

Hoping to rehabilitate his legitimacy as a contender after a horrific hard-court spring, the Scot will have surpassed his expectations already by reaching two semifinals in the three clay Masters 1000 tournaments.  Less comfortable on this surface than the Serb, he still displayed an encouraging readiness this week to open up the court with his forehand and to redirect the ball from that wing as well as from his more potent backhand.  Murray also can take confidence from his three-match winning streak against Djokovic at Masters 1000 tournaments, including a pair of finals, and he will realize that the pressure rests squarely on his opponent’s shoulders.  But, in order for him to threaten the Serb, he must maintain a higher first-serve percentage and capitalize upon any early chinks in the second seed’s armor.  Slightly edgy to start against Wawrinka and Soderling, Djokovic settled into a lethal rhythm when his opponents spurned their first-set opportunities.  Murray must deny him that initial respite if he aims to avoid a debacle similar to the Melbourne final.

Maria Sharapova - The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2011 - Day Six

Wozniacki vs. Sharapova:  Much like Murray, the Siberian siren seeks to erase the memories of a deflating loss earlier this year to her semifinal opponent on Saturday.  After two victories over Wozniacki in 2008, including one at the Foro Italico, Sharapova ceded control of this fledgling rivalry last summer at the US Open and then mustered just three games from the Dane at Indian Wells this March.  Opening that semifinal in sprightly fashion, the Russian brought intelligent tactics to the match but fell far short of executing them with any consistency.  Groundstroke firepower alone cannot overcome the world #1, so Sharapova again must enter with a plan and adhere to it with conviction.  Among the strategies that she might consider is hitting behind Wozniacki, forcing her to reverse direction and undermining her superb anticipation, or dragging her into the forecourt under awkward circumstances.  Fortunate to escape Azarenka so swiftly (or perhaps at all), Sharapova located her groundstrokes imaginatively and judiciously throughout a fiercely contested first set.  Despite losing that set, the three-time major champion proved that she can compete with the WTA’s best even on her least effective surface.

On the other hand, Wozniacki delivered a compelling statement of intent with her victory over two-time Rome champion Jankovic, admittedly past her prime but still a threat on clay.  More composed than many of her elders in the WTA, the world #1 weathered a bizarre eight-break sequence to capture the pivotal points late in a third set that featured just one service hold.  Goerges hammered her off the court twice in one week, but the faster surfaces at the indoor Porsche Arena and on the Madrid plateau facilitated offense much more than the Roman dirt.  Unless Sharapova can sally inside the baseline regularly, the Dane can rely upon her heavy, high-bouncing retrievals to restart rallies.  Whereas the Russian may have one eye on Paris already, Wozniacki approaches each tournament with the same, often underestimated level of desire.  Hampering her at the majors, that attitude has contributed to her success at the upper tier of WTA events while endearing her to fans from New Haven to Brussels, where she travels next week.  Will the Dane tarry in the Eternal City a day longer, or will Sharapova schedule an early departure for her?

Li vs. Stosur:  Our New Year’s choice to win in Paris, the Aussie should have acquired considerable confidence from avenging her loss in last year’s final with an emphatic quarterfinal victory.  Facing only one break point throughout her revenge, Stosur also dulled the pain of a three-set Fed Cup loss to her Paris tormentor.  The fifth seed would experience no such cathartic pleasure from overcoming the Chinese #1, whom she defeated en route to the Stuttgart final last year.  Alone among the four women’s semifinalists, Stosur would consider clay her favorite surface and thus enters their contest a slight favorite against a player who also contests her second semifinal of the European spring.  Thoroughly thrashed by eventual champion Kvitova in the same round at the Caja Magica, Li nevertheless has asserted herself among the ever-broadening circle (galaxy?) of WTA contenders for the Roland Garros crown.  In order to surpass her Madrid result, the world #6 must strike her return as early as possible while peppering Stosur’s backhand with her own far more imposing two-hander.  Both of the mightiest weapons in this semifinal belong to the Australian, who depends upon her serve and forehand to stifle opponents before they can maneuver into a rally.  Yet the defending Roland Garros finalist has few alternatives when either of those shots misfire, as has happened chronically in 2011.  This semifinal thus pits the Australian’s jagged assemblage of thunderous weapons and glaring weaknesses against the Chinese star’s smooth, versatile repertoire.

Rafael Nadal - The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2011 - Day Four

Nadal vs. Cilic:  One win away from securing the #1 ranking at least through Roland Garros, the Spaniard must conquer not only a Croatian tower of power but the illness that befell him this week.  Although Cilic defeated Nadal in Beijing 2009, the former task appears less imposing than the latter.  Stagnant for the past year and thoroughly uneasy on clay, the fading prodigy mustered just nine games when they met in Australia this January despite a relatively uneven performance by Rafa on that occasion.  At the root of his startling appearance at this stage lie the whimsical deities of the draw, which smiled upon Cilic by showering him with a retirement, a lucky loser after Ferrer’s withdrawal, and the equally clay-averse Fish.  Only another retirement or walkover, one suspects, would extend the world #23’s sojourn in the Eternal City, but Nadal’s uncertain condition brings that possibility within the realm of plausibility.  When ailing on a hard court far from home in Doha, though, the Spaniard gallantly battled through into the semifinals before succumbing to repeated nemesis Davydenko.  On European clay, his willpower surely will crystallize even more powerfully.

Gasquet vs. Berdych:  Scanning this quarter when the week began, few would have selected the Frenchman to survive until Friday.  But perhaps more of us should have, for Federer has struggled in Rome over the last several years, while Gasquet has enjoyed a miniature resurgence that started in Dubai and extended through an Indian Wells quarterfinal appearance.  Accessible to the casual fan as easily as to the aficionado, his breathtaking backhand and artistic shot-making continue to dazzle despite his slide outside the circle of contenders.  Now standing before the Frenchman is a dour Czech who opposes unvarnished baseline power to Gasquet’s mercurial all-court fluidity.  As one would expect considering the current trajectory of the ATP, unvarnished power prevailed in their two meetings since 2007, during which Berdych lost two or fewer games in four of the five sets.  With a famously frail opponent and perhaps a depleted Nadal blocking his path to the final, the world #7 should consider his draw a window of opportunity through which he can leap.  On the other hand, Berdych allowed the aging Nieminen to drag him into a needlessly prolonged three-setter today.  Which of these two chronic underachievers can carpe the diem in the nation of Horace?

Mayer vs. Murray:  Free from any member of the ATP’s reigning triumvirate, this section lay open for a player who once appeared more likely than Djokovic to challenge Nadal and Federer for supremacy.  Lowered expectations on clay may liberate Murray from the pressure that will oppress him at Wimbledon, but the Scot remains a reluctant dirt devil at best as shown in a rollercoaster three-set opener against Malisse.  To his credit, the fourth seed showed greater confidence in a potentially perilous bout with home hope Starace a round later, and he now will face a German who shares his preference for faster surfaces.  Like Cilic, Mayer profited from a key withdrawal in his section when 2010 Roland Garros semifinalist Melzer departed.  Also like Cilic, he relies upon heavy serve-forehand combinations that can penetrate any surface when effective but also can go astray without warning.  Not to be underestimated is a player who already has ambushed Youzhny, Almagro, Davydenko, and Del Potro this year.  Felled by dark horse Bellucci in Madrid, Murray hopes to avoid serving as a platform for a second straight arriviste.

Soderling vs. Djokovic:  The most intriguing of an otherwise plebeian quarterfinal menu, this duel will threaten the Serb’s streak more than any other match that he has played in the last month outside the Madrid final.  Soderling stands alone among the top five in escaping Djokovic’s wrath so far this year, and the Swede has developed an intimidating reputation for wrecking records on clay, including Nadal’s perfection at Roland Garros and Federer’s (probably permanently squelched) attempt to break the record for career weeks at #1.  A two-time finalist at Roland Garros, the fifth seed normally has not prospered  in Rome and famously won just a single game from Nadal here on the eve of the Greatest Upset Ever.  But he has responded to an exceptionally challenging draw with a steeliness absent from his recent slump, saving match points against Verdasco with sledgehammer forehands before grimly outlasting new top-10 resident Almagro.

In the tenth game of his victory over Wawrinka, meanwhile, Djokovic displayed the mental maturity vital to his barrage of titles.  Brushing aside a string of game points, the future #1 refused to let the Swiss #2 elude his grasp.  Instead, Djokovic subjected him to a relentless 36-shot rally that both players appeared to have won more than once; it led to a set point, smartly converted with a  drop shot that froze the weary Wawrinka.  Never the most durable competitor, Federer’s understudy wilted predictably in the second set, his spirit crushed by the close of the first.  A much firmer nut to crack, Soderling has a decent chance at breaking the Serb’s jaws if he can find lines with his mighty swings early in the rallies.  But the Djoker will have the last laugh if he can extend the rallies long enough to expose the Swede’s wooden movement.

Wozniacki vs. Jankovic:  Winless against the Serb in her first four attempts, the world #1 reversed that trend with a pair of straight-sets victories this season.  Falling in consecutive tournaments to the talented but untested Julia Goerges, Wozniacki enters Rome hopeful to bolster her candidacy for the Roland Garros crown.  Across the net stands a three-time Roland Garros semifinalist whose opportunity for capturing that elusive major have dwindled steadily since 2009.  But Jankovic still can count herself among the contenders in Paris this year, especially if she can collect a third title at the tournament kinder to her than any other.  After three successive bagels to start the week, Wozniacki flirted with danger by surrendering a second-set lead to Wickmayer, a fierce ball-striker not unlike Goerges who troubled her in Charleston.  Regrouping to quell that threat before a third set arrived, the Dane may prefer the challenge posed by a counterpuncher similar to herself.  In a match between two players of almost identical styles and strengths, form on the day almost invariably decides the outcome.  While Jankovic impressively avenged her Madrid loss to Safarova, a mid-match wobble against Medina Garrigues does not bode well for a player who defeated the Williams sisters consecutively here a year ago.  Can the apprentice conquer the sorceress for the third time in 2011, or will Wozniacki’s Paris aspirations suffer a blow from a different direction?

Maria Sharapova - The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2011 - Day Five

Azarenka vs. Sharapova:  Opposed in another sorceress-apprentice clash are the Miami finalists, armed with savage shrieks and equally savage returns of serve.  When they intersected in Key Biscayne, Sharapova and her descendant combined for only five service holds in seventeen total games.  This trend should continue in their first clay meeting after five fast-court tilts, although the Russian’s serve has proved unexpectedly imposing during her first two matches.  Broken only once by the solid Peer, Sharapova has lost a bare six games this week and eyes a third consecutive semifinal in the Italian capital, where she has played just once every three years.  Defying the grit beneath her feet, she has hammered her groundstrokes through the court with a vigor barely blunted by the clay.  On the other hand, Azarenka navigated through an erratic three-setter against Pavlyuchenkova, whom she defeated in the same round at Key Biscayne.  Among her former weaknesses was a struggle to finish matches convincingly, but she mastered her nerves impressively in the Miami final after the inevitable late Sharapova surge.  Somewhat similar to the Soderling-Djokovic match that accompanies it in the night session, this glamorous quarterfinal presents the question of whether the Russian can deliver a terminal blow with her superior weight of shot before the Belarussian outmaneuvers her with her superior movement and footwork.  Curiously, all of Azarenka’s wins in their rivalry have come in straight sets, while both of Sharapova’s victories have come in three.  No matter the scoreline, though, their matches provide compelling entertainment as much because of the pugnacious personalities as because of the crackling groundstrokes.

Arn vs. Li:  A 32-year-old Hungarian who won the Auckland title in January, Arn has put  many of her younger colleagues to shame while spending eight hours on court and winning third-set tiebreaks from both Kuznetsova and Vesnina.  This most improbable Cinderella probably will find her coach transformed into a pumpkin by the Australian Open runner-up, striking a rich vein of form at just the right moment.  As she approaches a second straight semifinal at a Premier Mandatory / Five event, dare we place “Li Na” and “consistency” in the same sentence?  Although her game still can veer wildly out of control on any given day, her ghastly post-Melbourne stretch seems finally to have abated.

Stosur vs. Schiavone:  Thrilling the Roman fans who will flock to the Foro Italico on Friday afternoon, this rematch of the Roland Garros final in fact pits two deeply slumping stars desperately in need of momentum before defending their Paris results.  A glance at their clay nemeses this season illustrates the situation, for Vesnina, Pavlyuchenkova, Radwanska, and Mattek-Sands scarcely rank among the leading threats on this surface.  With her top-10 status perhaps soon at stake, Stosur must quell not only her notorious nemesis but an enthusiastic Italian crowd that exhorted Schiavone throughout a suspenseful victory over Hantuchova.  At her best far from the madding crowd, the Australian struggles to match her nerve to the moment and succumbed to the Italian in the similarly fraught environment of Fed Cup.  Nevertheless, she has not experienced the extreme physical (and probably emotional) fatigue suffered by Schiavone after her Melbourne heroics.  Like its famous predecessor and unlike the other quarterfinals, this matinee encounter should feature classic clay-court tennis to delight adherents of tradition and of tennis played as much with the brain as with any other muscle.

Novak Djokovic - Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open - Day Nine

Propping up dilapidated regimes late in the Roman Empire were lavish festivals and athletic competitions with which rulers placated their subjects even as the world around them crumbled, a tactic known as panes et circenses.  Although contemporary Italy lies in a less dire predicament, recent political turmoil might encourage Romans to retreat to the bucolic oasis of the Foro Italico.  There, the ATP triumvirate converges for the fourth time this year at a Masters 1000 event, having reached the semifinals on each of the three previous occasions.

First quarter:  Hobbled by injury, exhaustion, or other extenuating circumstances in many of his previous clay losses, Nadal must respond to the realization that his most recent opponent simply outplayed him on his favorite surface.  Although three successive runner-up finishes to the same player may have struck a blow to his confidence in their rivalry, the Spaniard should assault his quarter with vigor renewed.  As one would expect, Nadal has refused to distract himself with the duel over #1 that lies ahead, and he will need his focus immediately against Madrid semifinalist Bellucci.  The player who came closest to overcoming Djokovic in Madrid, the Brazilian can threaten Rafa but probably cannot defeat him., much like Gulbis on clay last year.  The top seed then could face lefty compatriot Lopez, who held a match point against Madrid and defeated Nadal last year on the vastly different lawns of Queens Club.  On the other side of this strong section stands Ferrer, surely eager to avenge an Indian Wells loss to Karlovic in the second round.  Almost certain to collide in the quarterfinals, the finalists in Monte Carlo and Barcelona will reprise this event’s 2010 final.  Ferrer came within range of troubling Nadal then, as he did in Monte Carlo this year, but he has lost his last ten clay meetings with Nadal while winning just one set during that span.

Second quarter:  Since 2007, Federer has fallen in Rome to the unheralded trio of Volandri, Stepanek, and Gulbis.  Slowest of all Masters 1000 tournaments, the surface here has punished the Swiss star’s faltering consistency as he ages.  Escaping from an inspired Lopez in his Madrid opener, Federer could find the mercurial Tsonga a compelling test in his Rome opener.  The Frenchman only once has troubled the world #3, however, and the latter’s confidence should have mounted after he forced Nadal into a third set last week.  While Andreev oddly has flustered the Swiss at majors, the Russian’s ranking has sunken so far that he needed to qualify for this tournament, so a meeting with Federer would represent his fifth match here.  Intriguing for its contrast of styles is the Tuesday encounter between Monaco and Berdych, which pits one of the ATP’s long-time clay specialists against a brutal ball-striker with limited versatility.  Elsewhere in this quarter lies the artistry of Gasquet, probably at his least effective on clay but somewhat resurgent after the Australian Open.  Should Federer and Berdych reach the quarterfinals, as seems plausible, the Czech will have one last opportunity to inject himself with self-belief before defending his prodigious accomplishments at Roland Garros and Wimbledon last year.

Third quarter:  In an ATP where the top three have distanced themselves so far from their challengers, one quarter in a Masters 1000 draw always lies open to the opportunists.  Exploited most recently by Bellucci, this loophole might expand to admit Troicki, who recorded an impressive straight-sets victory over Davydenko in the first round.  Yet the potential dark horses here seem few in number, including no clay specialists outside the ageless Chela and Starace.  Therefore, the fourth-seeded Murray might progress at least to the quarterfinals despite his usual fecklessness on this surface.  Seemingly revived from a post-Melbourne swoon that embarrassed his entire nation, the Scot caused Nadal’s brow to furrow in a three-set, three-hour Monte Carlo semifinal. Murray has enjoyed repeated success against his most notable potential obstacle en route to the semifinals, Melzer, although the Austrian defeated Federer in Monte Carlo before stumbling to a perplexing early exit in Rome against the anonymous Gimeno-Traver.  Often veering wildly in form from one tournament to the next, the eighth seed may not thrive on a sluggish surface that will require him to hit a longer series of audacious angles in order to finish points.  Although Murray and the accelerating Simon own superior consistency, they may struggle to penetrate the court with their less impressive firepower.  As in Madrid, the player who emerges from this section will face a monumental challenge thenceforth, so one must curtail one’s sense of perspective to fully appreciate the events that unfold here

Fourth quarter:  Occupying this lair is the terror of the ATP, who has lunged within range of reaching the #1 ranking after Roland Garros or perhaps Wimbledon.  Barely blunted by the transition from hard courts to clay, Djokovic continues to rend his victims limb from limb with an offense worthy of Del Potro, movement worthy of Nadal, and poise under pressure worthy of Federer.  The runner-up to Djokovic in the 2008 Rome tournament, Wawrinka has accomplished less on clay than expected after a scintillating start to the season that included an Australian Open quarterfinal.  The Swiss #2 has won sets from the Serb on clay but has not yet encountered him in his current breathtaking incarnation and probably lacks the willpower to snap the streak.  Notorious for his success in the role of spoiler, Soderling certainly possesses the necessary willpower to tarnish Djokovic’s perfect 2011.  Before taking aim at that prestigious target, though, the world #5 must defuse the assault of Verdasco.  Unimpressive during a loss to Lu in Madrid, the Spaniard regrouped with a sturdy victory over Raonic, who overcame him twice in February.  Former nemesis Almagro also might intersect with the fifth seed in a third-round encounter of unsubtly pummeled groundstrokes.  While nobody can feast upon a fallible foe more voraciously than Soderling, the Swede lately has lacked the confidence and competitive resilience required to topple the Djokovic who so expertly smothered Nadal in Madrid.

Probably the slowest surface of any significant event, Rome poses a stern challenge to the offense-oriented elite atop the WTA and offers an opportunity for underdogs to shine.  On the dusty battlegrounds of the Foro Italico, Martinez Sanchez captured the most important title of her career in 2010.  Who will fill her quirky shoes in 2011?

Ana Ivanovic - Sony Ericsson WTA Tour: Rome - Day Four

First quarter:  Embedded in this bristling bastion of three #1s, Ivanovic treads a dangerous path from the outset.  Should she maneuver past Petrova in her Monday opener, Wickmayer and then Wozniacki stand poised to intercept her.  After consecutive losses to Goerges, the Dane has one more opportunity to refine her clay skills before launching her campaign at Roland Garros, where she has a legitimate albeit not outstanding chance to win a maiden major.  One round beyond Ivanovic might lurk another Serb who has recorded her finest achievements on this surface but has lost both of her 2011 meetings with Wozniacki.  A two-time champion in Rome and a finalist last year, Jankovic will hope to avoid the fate suffered by the world #1 in Stuttgart and Madrid.  Last week’s nemesis Safarova will take aim at the Serb once again in the second round, seeking to continue the recent successes scored by Czech lefties.  On this occasion, although the much slower Rome surface will favor the fifth seed as clearly as the slick Madrid courts illuminated her foe’s shot-making prowess.  Not to be neglected is Estoril champion Medina Garrigues, a rather overqualified qualifier here, but Jankovic quelled her comfortably when they met in Miami.  If Wozniacki or Jankovic laments the fate assigned to them by the deities of the draw, one could remind them that the withdrawals of Cibulkova and Goerges lightened a burden unusually heavy for a Premier Five draw.  Viewed more optimistically, the perils before them will provide peerless preparation for the major ahead.

Second quarter:  Scarcely less intriguing than the section above, it features an all-lefty opener between the inflammable Makarova and the defending champion, now immured below the top 75.  Like 2010 Madrid champion Rezai, Martinez Sanchez failed to capitalize upon her unexpected breakthrough over the past twelve months and might well succumb immediately just as the Frenchwoman did last week.  Anchoring the base of this quarter is former Rome semifinalist Sharapova, who seems unlikely to match that implausible result this year after a generally plebeian performance in Madrid.  While she no longer resembles a “cow on ice,” the Russian finds her first-strike power blunted and her consistency challenged in the Foro Italico, leaving her armed largely with her legendary tenacity and focus.  Mildly disappointing in the Madrid final, Azarenka nevertheless enjoyed a splendid sequence of victories that will have lifted her confidence for a tournament where she reached the semifinals in 2009.  But a potentially tricky test awaits her in the form of a clay-savvy Italian, either Errani or Vinci.  Should she stifle the home hope, Azarenka should face no further pre-quarterfinal opposition more compelling than Pavlyuchenkova, whom she overcame in Miami this spring.  And the specter of Sharapova does not haunt a woman who resembles Sharapova 2.0, for the more agile, fluid Belarussian can adapt her style more convincingly to clay than the three-time major champion.

Third quarter:  Surely breathing a sigh of relief, Li Na thrust herself back into contention with a semifinal charge in Madrid that she certainly could replicate here.  In a section with few clay specialists beyond the fading Pennetta, the Chinese star can consolidate her momentum as she so often struggles to do.  Authors of notable upsets in the Spanish capital, Mattek-Sands and Gajdosova might train their fast-court expertise upon each other in the second round.  Elsewhere, 2009 Roland Garros champion Kuznetsova smolders ominously yet has shown few signs of catching a spark after sustaining a ghastly loss in Andalusia and a premature loss in Madrid.  Aligned to meet Radwanska in the third round, Sveta must harness her patience and consistency to a degree greater than she has for much of the season.  On the other hand, the slow courts in Rome will provide her extra time to position her feet and run around her backhand to hit forehands.  Although the champion likely will not emerge from this quarter, its semifinalist might enter the latter rounds fresher than the battle-scarred combatants of the top half.

Fourth quarter:  Doubles partners and adversaries in last year’s Roland Garros final, Stosur and Schiavone could collide in a quarterfinal on the eve of defending their 2010 accomplishments.  Not evaporating entirely like Rezai and Martinez Sanchez, they nevertheless have not reached a final since that sunbathed afternoon in Paris.  Just as Stosur showed signs of stirring from her somnolence with a Stuttgart semifinal, she suffered an unexpected Madrid loss to Pavlyuchenkova in the same round that Mattek-Sands toppled Schiavone.  Whereas the surface in Madrid allowed neither player as much time to construct their combinations as they would prefer, the Foro Italico could enable them to recapture their rhythm.  Perhaps facing Peng for the second straight tournament, Schiavone could oppose her guile to the guns of Kanepi in a stark contrast of styles a round later.  Situated near Acapulco champion Dulko, Stosur might find her path complicated by the post-dance Petkovic.  Ceding the spotlight to her compatriot Goerges lately, the German has faltered since the season shifted from hard courts to clay—and since she abandoned her idiosyncratic victory ritual.  Petkovic nearly ended Kuznetsova’s title defense at Roland Garros last year, proving that she can prosper on clay.  Moreover, few players have seized opportunities more adroitly than Andrea, so the fragile seeds in her section should beware.

***

We return tomorrow to preview the equally imbalanced ATP draw.

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