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Li Na Li Na China) beats Francesca Schiavone (Italy) 6/4, 7/6 in the women's final, becoming the first chinese player to win a Grand Slam. The trophies were presented by former Australian tennis champion Evonne Goolagong and Jean Gachassin, President of the French Tennis Federation.

Li:  Narrowly denied in Melbourne, she finished what she started in style this time by sweeping the final nine points of the women’s tournament.  Like Schiavone last year, Li accumulated momentum with each round and metamorphosed almost visibly from fallible beginnings to an ironclad ball-striking machine.  Undaunted by the scrutiny of her compatriots, who celebrated her victory deliriously, the Chinese star relied upon self-discipline and composure as much as forehands and backhands.  When nerves finally crept upon her late in the final, she quelled them with the ruthlessness of a battle-scarred champion.  At a battered 29, Li probably will not emerge into a dominant contender for years to come, yet her breakthrough may have opened the long-awaited floodgates for the Asian game.  Rather than exploiting a decimated draw, moreover, she slashed her way through the most arduous route that anyone could have devised for her.  Neither Serena nor Venus nor Henin nor Clijsters nor Sharapova ever has defeated four consecutive top-10 opponents en route to a major title.  Li Na has.  Valedictorian

Nadal:  Already reeling from consecutive losses to Djokovic in Madrid and Rome, the top seed stared at a dangerous deficit against Isner’s mighty serve just three sets into the tournament.  Two weeks later, he stood as the champion after defeating three straight top-5 opponents at major for the first time.   Especially impressive was his comprehensive victory over Soderling, which illustrated Nadal’s ability to elevate his form almost overnight in response to a threat far more formidable than any that he had previously encountered.  Also encouraging were his comfortable victories in tiebreaks against Soderling and Federer, situations in which nerves might have ruffled his invaluable “calm.”  Only sporadically at his best throughout the fortnight, Nadal saved mountains of break points, struggled to consolidate momentum, and shanked more routine strokes than in any of his previous French Opens.  None of those frailties ultimately derailed him, a fact that should intimidate his rivals more than if he had won the tournament in impeccable fashion.  He enters Wimbledon favored to complete a third Channel Slam.  A+

Rafael Nadal - 2011 French Open - Day Fifteen

Federer:  Unwilling to serve the function of semifinal trampoline for The Streak, the 2009 champion served brilliantly and moved almost as well in a match that appeared a larger upset than the rankings suggested.  Often looking listless and deflated early this year, Federer contrasted with the pallid Serb in displays of visceral emotion throughout the match that demonstrated his undimmed desire.  At match point, his emphatic ace down the T felt just like the vintage era of the Swiss legend’s dominance, during which he seemed invincible on crucial points. Of course, he faltered again in the final against Nadal, failing to serve out a crucial first set and conceding the last set in anticlimactic fashion as he still could not solve the riddle of Rafa’s cross-court forehand.  But that felt just like old times too.  A

Schiavone:  Perhaps even more unexpected than Li’s title was the second straight finals appearance of her last victim, discarded as a bizarre anomaly until lightning nearly struck twice.  Defeating a series of younger and more powerful opponents, Schiavone reveled in returning to the scene of her greatest achievement instead of shrinking from the stage like so many surprise champions.  She rarely overpowered opponents with a single blow but rather entangled them in elaborate, meticulous snares.  From her feisty three-setters against Jankovic and Pavlyuchenkova shone her joy and passion for competition, rarely witnessed in a WTA of overwrought young women.  Although the Italian fell in the rankings by failing to defend her title, she rose in stature by defying the odds to come within a round of doing so.  Last year, Schiavone earned our praise; this year, she earned our respect.  A

Murray:  In an ironic twist, the Scot finally learned how to generate offense on the sport’s most defensively oriented surface.  Previously tethered to a spinning forehand far less potent than those of other top-5 players, Murray suddenly accelerated his racket speed, struck the ball earlier, and found himself with groundstroke weapons on both sides.  Whether he can permanently incorporate the innovations of Paris (and Rome) remains an open question, but his compatriots must have delighted to watch his exploits.  Nor should one neglect his courageous effort in surviving a third-round injury to record his best performance at Roland Garros.  Outside the injury, this fortnight held nothing but positives for Murray.  A

Djokovic:  Did he peak too soon at the clay Masters events?  Djokovic’s ability to endure the grueling fortnight of Roland Garros remains subject to doubt on psychological and physical grounds, for he brought less swagger to his meeting Federer than his 41-0 record would have suggested.  A step slower and a several degrees less intense than his conqueror, Djokovic failed to defend his winning streak with the ferocity that he displayed in similar circumstances against Murray in Rome.  All things must come to an end, though, and the Serb may feel liberated from his surreal 2011 record.  From a broader perspective, moreover, he remains unquestionably the dominant player of the year and likely to overtake Nadal for the top ranking during the summer.  A-

Maria Sharapova - 2011 French Open - Day Eleven

Sharapova:  After a sizzling spring that led from Indian Wells and Miami to Rome, she entered Roland Garros determined to revive her relevance at majors following seven straight pre-quarterfinal defeats.  That skid looked likely to continue a set and a half into her encounter with French prodigy Caroline Garcia, at which moment Sharapova steeled herself to forget the swirling wind, her precocious challenger, and the dirt that has bedeviled her throughout her career.  From that stage forward, the Russian blasted all of her artillery with unbridled aggression as she cast aside conventional wisdom, thrust her opponents on the defensive, and dared them to do something about it.  In the end, only the eventual champion could, and only after Sharapova had delivered her finest Slam performance in more than three years.  The French Open probably will elude her forever, but other majors may not if her serve stays with her just a little longer.  A-

Bartoli:  In a quarter with Wozniacki, Kuznetsova, Stosur, and Julia Goerges, the idiosyncratic Frenchwoman somehow became the last woman standing as she rejoined the top 10.  Breadsticked in her first set of the tournament, Bartoli profited somewhat from an evacuated section but delivered impressive victories over Goerges and then the 2009 champion.  Impervious to the surface advantage of her opponents, this player most renowned for her grass-court talents translated her flat strikes to clay as she perhaps benefited from the new balls.  The first Frenchwoman to reach the semifinals here since Mary Pierce, Bartoli demonstrated fortitude as gritty as the surface.  Like Sharapova’s surge, her semifinal run will have inspired similarly clay-averse peers by reminding them that players, not surfaces, win matches.  A-

Russian women (outside Sharapova):  While the former empire of women’s tennis may not have struck back with full force, it rumbled ominously by sending six citizens to the final sixteen.  The exploits of Makarova and Kirilenko owed a debt to vacated draws around them, but the fearless hitting of Pavlyuchenkova not only led to a first Slam quarterfinal but augurs promisingly for the teenager’s  future.  Twice rallying from deficits against Zvonareva, she dominated Schiavone through a set and a half and then battled her with stunning tenacity in a bare-knuckle third set before finally succumbing—on that day, anyway.  Somewhat less surprisingly, 2009 champion Kuznetsova scored her best string of victories since February en route to a somewhat disappointing loss against Bartoli.  B+

French men:  Notorious for meltdowns at their home major, three contrasting Frenchmen left an impact on the Paris dust by reaching the second week.  An unassuming grinder who suits the clay in personality if not in playing style, Simon scored a commanding victory over the recently imposing Fish.  In the lower half, Monfils repeated an earlier French Open victory against Ferrer with a five-set battle stretched over two days during which he somehow preserved his focus.  Perhaps the most satisfying run came from tormented genius Gasquet, though, who atoned for squandering a two-set lead against Murray last year by reaching the fourth round after defeating Madrid semifinalist Bellucci.  Close to the top 10 again, this sensitive Frenchman finally had the opportunity to bask in the applause of his compatriots.  B+

Old men:  Entering the second week without losing a set were Federer, Ferrer, Murray, and…the 32-year-old Ivan Ljubicic.  Although Nadal soon halted that trend, the Croat merits mention for his ability to outlast the recently woeful but much younger Verdasco and Querrey.  Less immaculate in the early rounds, the ageless Chela penetrated even further than Ljubicic after outlasting Falla in a five-setter.  As young stars like Dolgopolov and Raonic imploded early, these veterans proved age, in Li Na’s phrase, “just paper.”  B+

Kvitova:  Falling to the eventual champion at three of the last four majors, the WTA’s highest-ranked lefty came closer than anyone here to derailing Li.  The Czech led by a set and later by 3-0 (nearly 4-0) in the final set before injudicious shot selection provided her opponent with a vital respite.  As that match oscillated through violent momentum shifts, though, Kvitova demonstrated her best, her worst, and the fact that not much lies between those poles.  This latest mercurial youngster can look forward to more stunning titles and unsightly first-round losses in equal proportion.  B+

Petkovic:  Surging to the second week for the third straight Slam, the German edged to the verge of the top 10 and reaffirmed her supremacy over her compatriot Goerges.  Petkovic survived challenging three-setters against Gajdosova and Kirilenko that illustrated her mental as much as her physical fitness.  Equally adaptable to all surfaces, she has shaved many of the rough edges off her weapons to yield a balanced style with few glaring weaknesses.  On the other hand, the Petko-dance and its progeny must depart for good if their creator aims to become something more than a WTA Monfils.  B+

Victoria Azarenka - 2011 French Open - Day Nine

Azarenka:  Through the first four rounds, the fourth seed looked like a genuine favorite as she surrendered no more than six games in any match.  Holding her ground against Li for a set, Azarenka demonstrated her combination of lithe movement and explosive offense possessed by many former Roland Garros champions.  When adversity struck, though, Vika faded swiftly once again as her record in Slam quarterfinals fell to 0-4.  Still unable to withstand the psychological pressure of a major, she showed that her bark remains worse than her bite.  B

Soderling:  Although he could not deliver the upset on this occasion, the Swede again unleashed some of his finest tennis at Roland Garros despite unimpressive displays at the preparatory events.  For a player who labored to string together victories since March, a Slam quarterfinal represents a hopeful step forward towards his majestic form in January and February.  B

Jankovic:  Suffering her fourth consecutive pre-quarterfinal loss at a major, she displayed flashes of her former self during one of the most entertaining fourth-round encounters.  In that loss to Schiavone, Jankovic displayed more feistiness and agility than in most of her victories this year.  Nevertheless, those extended battles of will that she once used to win now repeatedly slip away from her.  B

Ferrer:  Once again, the diminutive Spaniard stood tall at the preparatory events by reaching consecutive finals in Monte Carlo and Barcelona before extending Djokovic to three sets in Madrid.  Once again, Ferrer shrank into mediocrity at the clay major in a five-set loss to Monfils in which one would have expected his dogged resilience to prevail.  Without denying the Frenchman credit, one must suspect the Spaniard’s self-belief as a reason for his underperformance at Roland Garros, for one cannot question his fitness in the best-of-five format.  B-

Wozniacki:  Stagnant if not in recession since Indian Wells, the world #1 concluded her clay campaign in embarrassing fashion with a 73-minute loss to the hardly intimidating Hantuchova.  In a major without the Williams sisters and effectively without Clijsters, Wozniacki spurned a golden opportunity to capture that legitimizing major title.  For an intelligent girl, she has exhibited a notable lack of intelligence with regard to setting her schedule and priorities.  Wozniacki should contemplate the unenviable fate of Jankovic after she reached #1 and proceed with caution.  C

Stosur:  Toppled to the edge of the top 10, the Australian has shown scant glimmers of the player who dispatched Henin and Serena here in 2010. While the giant-killing Dulko has upset three former #1s and Henin in the past three years, Stosur’s far mightier serve and forehand should have enabled her to dominate their meeting.  Instead, she squandered a third-set lead and continued to show a mind much less sturdy than her muscle.  When she lost to Schiavone, it still seemed just a matter of time before she claimed a major; a year later, the question has become not “when” but “whether.”  C

Ana Ivanovic - 2011 French Open - Day Three

Ivanovic:  For the second time in three tournaments, she bageled a first-round opponent en route to a loss.  Neither mentally nor physically capable of competing across three sets at the moment, Ivanovic has not reached a Slam quarterfinal since winning this tournament three long years ago.  Her body will heal eventually, but will her mind?  She arrived in Paris with little match practice and less confidence, though, so her early demise didn’t exactly surprise.  C-

Technology (or the lack thereof):  Let there be light, quoth the gods of Roland Garros, but not until 2016.  Meanwhile, captivating encounters such as Djokovic-Del Potro, Ferrer-Monfils, Murray-Troicki, and almost Federer-Djokovic stretched from one day to the next, wearying the players and diminishing the suspense.  On another note, the absence of Hawkeye cost Schiavone a crucial point late in the women’s final that would have brought her within a point of a third set.  Upholding tradition does not require freezing a tournament in the—literally—Dark Ages.  D for Darkness

Berdych:  Who is “Stephane Robert?”  Most tennis fans outside France do not know.  But you will never forget.  F

Almagro:  The more dedicated among us do know something about Lukasz Kubot, albeit mostly in doubles.  And the especially dedicated among us know enough about him to know that someone of the Spaniard’s talents cannot excuse himself for wasting a two-set lead against the lanky Pole.  F

Del Potro:  Handed a brutal draw after an injury absence, the 2009 US Open champion gallantly fought past the titanic serve of Karlovic and snatched a set from Djokovic.  While the latter accomplishment looks less splendid in retrospect, Del Potro deserves applause for summoning the courage to challenge a player who had looked invincible until that stage.  If the Serb could find no answer for his forehand at its best, nobody can.  Incomplete

Clijsters:  We expected little from her and got less, as the Belgian suffered the second first-week Slam loss of her comeback to accompany the three Slam titles.  Casting a pall over her tournament from the outset was the ankle injury that hampered her movement and probably should have forestalled her appearance here altogether.  Now, can all the king’s horses and all the king’s men put her back together for Wimbledon?  Incomplete

 

 

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Na Li - 2011 French Open - Day Twelve

Schiavone vs. Li:  After 40 million Chinese watched their countrywoman defuse Sharapova in the semifinals, how many will watch her pursue the accomplishment that eluded her in Melbourne?  On that occasion, Li dominated the clearly favored Clijsters through the first set and a half, only to flinch when the title loomed just ten points ahead.  Having healed those scars over the ensuing months, she now hopes to avoid the fate of Zvonareva, who crumbled in horrific fashion after reaching her second straight Slam final.  A far fiercer competitor than that Russian, Li carved an arduous path through the title through three top-10 opponents, whom most considered contenders more legitimate than China’s “golden flower.”  In deep trouble against Kvitova on two separate occasions, the world #7 fought with her trademark tenacity to survive that three-setter before muting the roaring offenses of Azarenka and Sharapova.  While not depleting her energy too deeply, this fearsome draw should have primed her to dispatch the finalist from the top half, a much less intimidating persona than her previous victims.  Anything can happen at a major, to be sure, but it probably won’t on this occasion….

Or so we thought last year when Stosur clawed past Henin and Serena in dramatic three-setters before dismantling former #1 Jankovic.  When a smooth path to the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen seemingly lay open before her, though, the Aussie faltered under the inspired assault of last year’s champion and this year’s finalist.  No statuesque Russian but a fiery Italian, Schiavone deserves perhaps even more credit for reaching her second Slam final than for that first, implausible breakthrough.  Many are the one-Slam wonders who litter the annals of tennis history, so a second major title would raise her a notch in the respect not only of her peers but of posterity.  And Schiavone confronted a potentially challenging assortment of foes earlier in the tournament, from former nemesis Jankovic to a ball-bruising Russian eleven years her junior.  Like her Saturday opponent, she battled through that turbulence and gradually elevated her form as the tournament progressed, eventually showcasing her artistry to its fullest against a befuddled Bartoli.  Against the Chinese star, she should eschew the dipping slices that land near Li’s relatively low strike zone but instead craft higher-bouncing strokes with heavy spin.  Having relied upon her penetrating groundstrokes to neutralize much more potent offenses, the world #7 can parry any of Schiavone’s thrusts with little difficulty.  A match of cleanly struck strokes and rhythmic rallies will tilt to her advantage, so the defending champion must make it her mission to disrupt that rhythm with all of the guile at her disposal.

En route to last year’s final, Schiavone comfortably overcame her opponent on Saturday after having lost two of their three previous meetings.  Never have they met on a stage of this magnitude, however, so history offers scant guidance.  Despite the contrasts in styles between the artful, all-court versatility of the Italian and the baseline impenetrability of the Chinese star, these veterans share a competitive willpower that has not withered but crystallized with the years.  Rather than the heaviest hitters, stingiest defenders, or most glamorous champions in the WTA, Schiavone and Li are survivors of the sport’s most prestigious tournament on the sport’s most demanding surface.  But only one can survive their duel on Saturday.

Roger Federer Rafael Nadal of Spain consoles Roger Federer of Switzerland during the trophy presentation after his men's final match during day fourteen of the 2009 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on  February 1, 2009 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Roger Federer;Rafael Nadal

Nadal vs. Federer:  For more than two years, the final image of their rivalry in major finals remained the unseemly, unsettling spectacle of Nadal comforting a weeping Federer at the 2009 Australian Open.  In those two years, much has changed to transform the landscape of their rivalry, especially from the Swiss grandmaster’s perspective.  When they met in Melbourne, Federer had not yet conquered Roland Garros to complete his career Slam and looked increasingly distant from accomplishing that goal.  Nor had he yet broken the all-time record held by Sampras that he had targeted throughout a pressure-soaked career.  As much the GOAT as if horns sprouted from his temples, Federer should enter this fourth French Open final against his archrival without the mentality of a Don Quixote hopelessly tilting at windmills.  The 2009 Roland Garros champion can relax his shoulders and breathe more freely, secure in the sense that no loss can tarnish his legacy, however bleak.  Causing his confidence to soar was his rousing four-set collision with Djokovic, from which Federer gained the satisfaction of avenging defeats to the Serb at the previous two majors and halting his bid to become #1.  Still far from that pinnacle himself, Federer unleashed some of his fiercest forehands and silkiest movement in the two key tiebreaks, proving that his champion’s spirit had lain dormant rather than extinct.

On the other hand, Federer does not find himself alone among players who completed the career Slam since his last major final against Nadal.  Constructing a foundation for his own legacy, the Spaniard enjoyed as sensational a season last year as any in the Swiss legend’s career; just two days after his 25th birthday, he can vault into double digits of Slam titles.  As he noted after one of his shaky early wins, a sixth Roland Garros title would not greatly alter our perceptions of him.  Surely relieved to encounter someone other than Djokovic in the final, Nadal has gained considerable momentum from consecutive straight-sets victories over Soderling and Murray, both of whom have troubled him at majors.  Those wins revealed a Rafa more confident and determined than since his Melbourne injury, although still less than immaculate when holding serve.  The Spaniard never has lost a major final to Federer anywhere other than Wimbledon, and he revived his clay mastery over him with a comeback victory in the Madrid semifinals.  Moreover, despite his self-confessed struggle to maintain “calm,” Nadal remains the best competitor in the ATP at decisive moments and momentous occasions, so a match with the #1 ranking at stake should kindle his competitive flame.

From a tactical perspective, the archrivals hold no secrets from each other.  The key shot in this final, therefore, belongs to a backhand that Federer ebulliently called “unbelievable” in a recent burst of self-appreciation but that now must withstand the unparalleled pressure of Nadal’s curling cross-court forehand.  If his backhand remains as reliable and timely as in the semifinal, the five-time Roland Garros champion may have a contest on his hands.  If Federer finds himself forced to run around that shot to hit forehands, by contrast, all of us know how that narrative will unfold.  With less at stake for both men than in any of their previous Slam finals, they have another opportunity to awaken the memories of years past before dusk descends upon the chapter that they have written together.

Rafael Nadal - 2011 French Open - Day Eleven

Nadal vs. Murray:  Not a round too soon, the five-time Roland Garros champion muscled aside the pallid impersonation of himself that had crept more than charged through the first four rounds.  In a resounding victory over his previous Paris tormentor, Nadal seized the impetus necessary to propel himself through two more matches against top-5 opponents.  Equally compelling, though, was the chronicle of Murray’s recovery from an excruciating ankle injury in the second set of his third-round match.  Two sets and two more matches behind him, the Scot somehow has survived to reach the Roland Garros semifinals for the first time and will become the first player to meet the Spaniard at every major.  Defeating Nadal at both the US Open and the Australian Open, Murray never has conquered him in five meetings on clay or grass.  Nevertheless, he finally won a set from the world #1 on the latter’s favorite surface during a three-set, three-hour semifinal in Monte Carlo, even while struggling with an elbow injury.  Just as the injury to that joint hampered his ball-striking capacity, the injury to this joint will undermine his mobility against the sport’s smoothest mover on the terre battue.

Compensating for the injury with an uncharacteristic offensive assault, Murray has shown how he ultimately could win a major by complementing his counterpunching with penetrating blows from both groundstroke wings.  Even before he twisted his ankle, in fact, the world #4 had elevated his willingness to strike his forehand with more conviction both inside-in and inside-out.  The player who most threatened Djokovic’s streak this year, he not only withstood the Serb’s baseline assault but often turned the tables.  Less impressive is Murray’s serve, which deserted him in that Rome match and continues to leave him exposed to aggressive returns when he lacks a high first-serve percentage (as he usually does).  Yet Nadal also has struggled with his serve over the past few tournaments, especially when serving to consolidate a break.  Since both players rank among the finest returners in the ATP, meanwhile, one can expect multiple service breaks and deuce games.

Among the strategies that Murray has employed most successfully against Rafa on hard courts is driving his cross-court backhand deep into Nadal’s forehand and then moving forward to strike a two-hander down the line before the Spaniard recovers.  In contrast, Nadal has gained success against Murray by pounding his down-the-line forehand into Murray’s own forehand to draw a weakly looping reply.  If the wind plays a perceptible role, as it did in the women’s semifinals, the defending champion adapts much more confidently to the conditions than the Scot, rattled by gusts in their Indian Wells final last year.  All the same, a reinvigorated Rafa probably will not require the assistance of the weather to consolidate the momentum acquired by defeating Soderling.

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates winning a point in his semifinal match against Roger Federer of Switzerland during day eleven of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 27, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Federer vs. Djokovic:  For the first time in their rivalry, which has featured only one fewer meeting than Nadal-Federer, the Swiss star enters as the underdog to a player who halted him in this round at the last two majors.  Capturing their last five sets at Slams, the Serb has conquered Federer three times this year while losing one total set.  Djokovic appears unburdened by a winning streak that has neared historic proportions as he attempts to become the first man in the Open era to reach the grass season undefeated.  Tested by Del Potro over two days in the third round, he cruised through a comfortable victory over Gasquet last Sunday—and has not played since, the beneficiary of Fognini’s withdrawal.  While that additional rest should have reinvigorated Djokovic physically, it may also have disrupted his rhythm and given him an unwelcome opportunity to contemplate the consequences of a title this weekend or of a victory here.  Producing uneven performances with  the #2 ranking at stake, the Serb will face a mental challenge as he seeks to become the first player other than Nadal or Federer to claim the top position since February 2004.

Fully alert to the implications of what he considers the only number that matters, the 2009 champion has stated his claim to the throne with understated eloquence, brushing aside an overmatched array of pretenders without conceding a set.  While Djokovic needed to elevate his game in the first week to survive Del Potro, Federer has experienced no real adversity in his first five matches, so he must raise his level sharply as well as suddenly.  When the same scenario occurred at the US Open last fall, he uncorked a performance unusually erratic even by his late-career standards, effectively dozing through the second and fourth sets.  Not yet has Federer encountered an opponent who not only can summon Djokovic’s power but can sustain it throughout a best-of-five encounter.  In their previous matches, the Serb hammered away at both of his groundstrokes until first the backhand and then the famed forehand crumbled.  Equipped with a revitalized serve, moreover, the world #2 lost only two service games in his first four matches here despite the slow surface.  If Djokovic rises to his potential, Federer thus has few options with which to challenge him from the baseline.  And he will struggle to reach the net with regularity unless he enjoys an outstanding serving day, for the Serb’s groundstrokes penetrate hardly less forcefully on clay than on hard courts.

In order to halt Djokovic’s remarkable run, Federer probably must benefit from a slightly fallible performance by his opponent in addition to demonstrating more guile and artistry than the power that he prefers.  Renowned for his stinging serve and fierce forehand, the 16-time major champion must accept that the two men who have surpassed him can muster superior weight behind their groundstrokes more frequently and can strike their targets with more consistent precision.  Cast in an unfamiliar role as an underdog, Federer still can shine if he can blunt Djokovic’s power with the variety than his younger rival still does not possess.  Late in his career, one of the world’s most glamorous athletes may need to win less glamorously than he previously has.  If he can recognize that fact, though, the last player to defeat in Djokovic in 2010 may become the first player to defeat him in 2011.

Maria Sharapova - 2011 French Open - Day Eleven

Sharapova vs. Li:  The youngest semifinalist at Roland Garros, Sharapova has reached more Slam semifinals than all of the remaining women combined.  Maria may find that experience vital when she encounters a veteran seeking to emulate Zvonareva’s feat from last year in following her maiden Slam final with an immediate sequel.  Carving a winding route through the thorniest quarter of the draw, Li has earned this opportunity with valiant victories over top-10 opponents Kvitova and Azarenka, both considered contenders for this title.  Scarcely scarred but rather buttressed by those battles, the Chinese star has unleashed outstanding performances in each of her two previous Slam semifinals.  Succumbing to Serena in two tiebreaks at the 2010 Australian Open, she erased that disappointment a year later with a brilliant comeback after facing match point against Wozniacki.  Aligned against yet another opponent who has held the top ranking, Li can gain confidence from having won her last two encounters with Sharapova and five of their last seven sets.  Once mired in a five-match losing streak against the Russian, the sixth seed may have shifted the momentum in their rivalry after a three-set loss to her two French Opens ago.  But another interpretation would attribute those recent successes in part to Maria’s post-surgery struggles with serve and motivation—struggles that seemingly have receded over the last few months.

Among the keys to Sharapova’s fortnight, her fickle serve has crystallized into a state approaching its former menace.  Less an ace machine than the preamble to a terminal blow from a groundstroke, Maria’s point-starting shot has trapped opponents in defensive positions that expose broad swathes of the court to the rest of her artillery.  In direct proportion to her serve has mounted her confidence, elevated by the Rome title and essential to battering through this penultimate obstacle.   Throughout her earlier rounds, the three-time major champion showcased her ability to pivot on a neutral shot in the center of the court and slash a viciously angled laser towards a corner.  In order to keep the Russian at bay, Li must target the baseline more than the sidelines while waiting for the opportunity to reverse direction in cross-court rallies.  Few players absorb and redirect pace more adeptly than the compact, balanced sixth seed, whose best chance lies in exposing Sharapova’s uncertain footwork and movement.  If Maria can seize control with massive first strikes from her serve and return, though, an imposing task will confront the Chinese star.

Hovering above both combatants are divergent types of pressure.  Whereas a billion compatriots rest their hopes of a first Slam champion on Li’s shoulders, Sharapova must free her mind from the magnitude of what might loom ahead, instead focusing on one scorching groundstroke at a time against an opponent whose intensity evokes her own relentlessness.

Bartoli vs. Schiavone:  In an unexpected edition of the transalpine rivalry, the defending champion confronts a home hope whom few expected to survive the first week.  Having dropped her first set of the tournament to the unheralded Tatishvili, Bartoli hopes to duplicate what Schiavone achieved after losing the first set of her Roland Garros campaign last year.  In her only previous Slam semifinal, the pugnacious Frenchwoman swept past seven-time Slam champion Henin without showing any flickers of doubt on the grandest stage of all, Wimbledon.  Escaping consecutive three-setters against Zvonareva and Jankovic in the previous two rounds, Schiavone will need to refresh her depleted energies as she prepares for an opponent who has extended her to three sets in four of their five previous meetings.  The Italian ultimately prevailed on all but one of those occasions, however, and the clay where they never have clashed should illustrate her multifaceted game to even greater effect.  Comfortable in all areas of the court, Schiavone should attempt to draw the baseline-bound Bartoli into the forecourt on awkward terms, where an artfully located passing shot or lob can fluster her.  Nevertheless, the defending champion must beware of offering the Frenchwoman too many opportunities to attack a mid-court ball, for she excels at finishing points.  Penetrating the court with low lasers at distinctive angles, the eleventh seed will aim to preserve her focus and timing against the defending champion’s array of unpredictably darting spins and slices.

During her quarterfinal with Pavlyuchenkova, spectators witnessed the best and worst of Schiavone.  First emerged the indefatigable competitive flair that enabled her to crawl out of a deep quagmire, but then surfaced the wandering mind that threw her youthful opponent a lifeline as the Italian squandered a double-break lead in the final set.  Against the more seasoned, opportunistic Bartoli, such a lapse could have proved fatal.  Among the defining traits of champions is their ability to deliver the coup de grace, a skill with which Schiavone must reacquaint herself if she plans to pursue a second straight title in Paris on Saturday.

Victoria Azarenka - 2011 French Open - Day Seven

Li vs. Azarenka:  In her fourth Slam quarterfinal and second at Roland Garros, Azarenka eyes revenge against the player who halted her in Melbourne.  Since the fourth and sixth seeds possess markedly similar styles, the outcome of this baseline battle should hinge upon execution rather than strategy.  Striking their groundstrokes with relentless depth, both women own balanced assaults with slightly more reliable backhands than forehands but the ability to dictate play from either wing.  Gifted with a somewhat superior serve, Li faces an indifferent server and outstanding returner in Azarenka, so this quarterfinal should feature a host of breaks and closely contested service games like their Australian meeting.  The Chinese superstar has won three of their four previous encounters, demonstrating a firmer resilience that perhaps springs from her experience.  At this tournament, however, Azarenka has conceded no more than six games in each of her first four matches, while Li has found herself thrust into a pair of three-setters.  But the fourth seed has not faced resistance as stiff as the challenge posed by Kvitova, against whom the Chinese rebounded from a demoralizing first set and reversed her defeat to the Czech in Madrid.  Having conquered that recent bête noire, the Melbourne finalist may have gained the momentum necessary to expose any chinks in Azarenka’s armor, which have looked few indeed lately.  If she can pass this test of her confidence and maturity, the Belarussian will have taken a substantial step towards proving her ability to endure the pressures of a fortnight at a major.

Nadal vs. Soderling:  Threatening to become a Roland Garros tradition is the mid-tournament meeting between the feral Swede and the defending champion.  As he stalks into this third meeting with Nadal here in three years, Soderling will have scented an uncharacteristic degree of frailty from the Spaniard that should whet his appetite.  Both players have won their last 11 sets after first-round drama, although the defending champion has not performed as close to his finest level as has his challenger.  More willing to step inside the baseline in the fourth round against Ljubicic, though, Nadal displayed glimmers of escaping from the mental malaise into which consecutive clay defeats to Djokovic seemingly had cast him.  And few champions rise to the occasion as brilliantly as the Spaniard, fully aware of the danger posed by his opponent and likely to focus ever more keenly as a result.  After that memorable upset two French Opens ago, in fact, Nadal slowly regained his dominance over Soderling with two Slam victories last year during which he lost only one total set.  Nevertheless, the seemingly bulletproof Spaniard who stifled the Swede in the 2010 Roland Garros final scarcely resembles the uncertain, weary competitor who has struggled to consolidate service breaks over the past week.  Normally an outstanding front-runner, Nadal stands at a crossroads.  If Soderling charges to a second upset in three years, Rafa’s competitive vitality might ebb further at a crucial moment in the season.  If the defending champion can rekindle his familiar passion with an inspired, vintage triumph over a former nemesis, another spectacular summer still might lie ahead.

Maria Sharapova - 2011 French Open - Day Nine

Sharapova vs. Petkovic:   A tribute as much to her perseverance as to her power, Maria’s fifth quarterfinal appearance at Roland Garros pits her against her Australian Open nemesis.  Resembling a rollercoaster are the three previous collisions in their mini-rivalry, which began when Sharapova savaged the German’s serve in Cincinnati last year.  After Petkovic retaliated with an almost equally emphatic triumph in Melbourne, the Russian reeled off 11 straight games during their Miami semifinal.  Operating in a mode closer to digital than analog, the components of their games either click into breathtaking engines of offense or fragment into scattered shards.  Able to escape from erratic beginnings to two of her previous matches, Sharapova cannot rely on hammering her way out of a similar predicament this time.  Whereas Garcia had the weapons and lacked the mind to seal the upset, Radwanska had the mind and lacked the weapons, but Petkovic likely has both.  The three-time major champion thus must sharpen her precision from the outset while continuing the timely serving with which she frustrated the Pole.  Comparably convinced that the best defense consists of a potent offense, this pair should essentially impose their hard-court styles on the reluctant clay and contest rallies much shorter than those in the other semifinal.  Perhaps separating this encounter from the Melbourne meeting is Sharapova’s elevated confidence from capturing the prestigious Rome title.  But Petkovic also enters their quarterfinal with a nine-match winning streak after collecting the smaller Strasbourg event.  Shifted outside Chatrier for the first time in the tournament, Sharapova returns to the scene of her most memorable battles at this major:  her 2007 victory over Schnyder after saving two match points, her 2008 loss to Safina after holding a match point, and her stirring 2009 comeback against Petrova in just her fifth singles match after shoulder surgery.  Will Suzanne Lenglen witness another dramatic chapter in Maria’s quest for the only major that stubbornly resists her allure?

Murray vs. Chela:  Deterred by neither a sprained ankle against Berrer or a two-set deficit against Troicki, the fourth seed seeks his first semifinal at his least successful major.  Recognizing the opportunity presented by a second-week encounter with Chela, the Scot gallantly overcame the physical and psychological burdens posed by a two-day battle with the second Serb.  Few observers outside Argentina would have favored the orthodontically challenged veteran to reach this stage, which will have boosted his ranking into relevance.  If Murray’s ailing joint continues to trouble him, Chela might well duplicate Melzer’s almost equally startling route to the final four last year.  Not the counterpunching Scot renowned for his movement more than his shot-making, the fourth seed has demonstrated his latent offensive talents in his last two victories.  Thus, Chela may recoil in initial surprise from an opponent who boldly targets the lines with his groundstrokes and glides (or rather hobbles) towards the net when the opportunity emerges.  Confronting the Argentine is the dilemma of whether to craft his tactics around Murray’s much-publicized injury.  To that end, Troicki cleverly hit behind the Scot while compiling his vast advantage, testing the ankle’s mobility as its owner reversed direction on these slippery courts.  If not a facet of Chela’s regular repertoire, however, these gambits could distract him and lure him away from a straightforward, steady clay-court style that might prove sufficient if Murray’s improvised offense starts to unravel.

Francesca Schiavone - 2011 French Open - Day Eight

Pavlyuchenkova vs. Schiavone:  Surviving a taut three-setter against Jankovic, Schiavone must recover swiftly in order to reinvigorate the adroit movement and reflexes essential for her suffocating court coverage.  If the Italian enters the match flat-footed or emotionally dulled by her previous rollercoaster, she could fall prey to Pavlyuchenkova’s blistering backhands.  But fatigue seems unlikely to afflict a player who recovered from the longest women’s match in Grand Slam history to threaten the world #1 a round later in Melbourne.  Remarkably mature for her nineteen years, the Russian defeated Schiavone in Miami last year before collecting just three games from her at the US Open, part of an arid second half for the teenager.  Trailing Zvonareva in both of the sets that she ultimately won, Pavlyuchenkova showcased not only her familiar ball-striking brilliance (seemingly something that her compatriots take from the womb) but an unfamiliar tenacity that she formerly had lacked.  Nevertheless, the Russian now will face a foe much steelier than the still-fragile Vera, and she must beware of the complacency that could stem from appearing in her first Slam quarterfinal after scoring one of her most significant victories to date.   Discounted on the eve of the tournament by many observers, including ourselves, Schiavone stands three winnable matches from an improbable title defense that would free her from the label of “one-Slam wonder.”  A victim in the quarterfinals of the last two majors, she can deploy her experience and veteran cunning to defuse an opponent eleven years her junior.

Monfils vs. Federer:  For the third time in four years, the 16-time major champion meets the leading home hope on the Parisian terre battue.  During their 2008 semifinal, Monfils infused his countrymen with fleeting hope as he captured a set from the Swiss grandmaster; in 2009, by contrast, he succumbed relatively meekly after an intriguing first set.  Always separating Federer from the Frenchman are his superior focus and superior desire, the first of which has ebbed in recent years but the second of which remains largely undimmed.  At his best, Monfils scampers along the baseline while uncorking thunderous serves and forehands with an exuberant nonchalance simultaneously endearing and frustrating.  At his worst, he lapses into a leisurely lope and soporific exchanges with all of the rhythm and imagination of a metronome.  The best of Monfils surfaced during his scintillating upset over Federer at the Paris Indoors last fall, when he swatted away five match points from a disinterested world #2.  Struggling to sustain that level in a best-of-five format, the Frenchman danced near disaster by squandering double match point as he served for the match against Ferrer in their two-day encounter.  Perhaps relieved  to escape the scrutiny enveloping Nadal and Djokovic, Federer has arrived in the quarterfinals without dropping a set and will bring greater reserves of energy to their encounter.  While a few Gallic flourishes should enliven the afternoon, the 2009 champion has shown sufficient composure here to weather the spectacle across the net by maintaining the steadiness of a Rolex.

Kuznetsova vs. Bartoli:  Defying the conventional wisdom, playing a tournament the week before a major has benefited three of the women’s quarterfinalists.  Bereft of momentum until Brussels and Strasbourg, Bartoli, Schiavone, and Petkovic finally dug into the terre battue at those minor events and entrenched themselves further during the first week of Roland Garros.  Scoring a startling victory over Stuttgart champion Goerges, the top-ranked Frenchwoman should climb even higher as the lawns of Wimbledon beckon.  Both women owe boxes of chocolates to fourth-round opponents Hantuchova and Dulko, who greatly eased their routes by ambushing Wozniacki and Stosur, respectively.  Wildly inconsistent in their results, they have not played a suspenseful match in their three meetings, instead trading bagels and 6-2 sets.  A far superior mover and somewhat more versatile stylist, Kuznetsova clearly has the surface advantage over a player who depends upon her serve and return to seize immediate control of points.  Able to win few rallies with defense, Bartoli will aim to attack the Russian’s indifferent second serve while exposing her backhand.  Like Stosur and Ivanovic, Kuznetsova runs around her two-hander to unleash forehands in the belief that the firepower of her preferred groundstroke justifies the court territory that she surrenders.  Yet Sveta has struck impressive backhands throughout this tournament, so the Frenchwoman should refrain from adhering to that strategy too blindly.  Countering Kuznetsova’s psychological comfort at a tournament that she won two years ago is Bartoli’s superior poise at potential turning points.  No matter the outcome, though, Roland Garros will have produced at least one semifinalist whose hopes seemed as remote as Andorra a few weeks ago.

Na Li - 2011 French Open - Day Seven

Li vs. Kvitova:  Enjoying the best clay season of her career, the Chinese superstar has erased the memories of her February-April swoon by reaching consecutive semifinals in Madrid and Rome before reaching the second week here.  Not without wobbles in her first two matches, she delivered her most comprehensive performance of the tournament in the previous round against Cirstea but must elevate her game several notches in order to survive the Madrid champion.  Already the proud owner of three 2011 titles, Kvitova crushed Li in the Spanish capital with her superior first-strike weapons.  On that occasion, the Czech’s powerful serve and return trumped the more fluid movement and more complete game of the sixth seed.  Both players can oscillate between the audacity of extreme optimism and the passivity of extreme pessimism, so this fascinating encounter might prove more one-sided than their rankings would suggest.  Pitting strength against strength are the exchanges between Kvitova’s cross-court lefty forehand and Li’s versatile backhand, strokes not only penetrating but consistent.  While the Czech still lacks the experience of the Chinese veteran, she also has fewer ghosts to haunt her mind when adversity strikes—and an example of lefty success in Paris on which to reflect.

Nadal vs. Ljubicic:  More fallible than his normal first-week self, Nadal finally earned a resounding win in the third round after a pair of protracted ordeals.  Having defeated Ljubicic en route to the Monte Carlo title, he perhaps can settle his palpable nerves against an opponent who will not startle him with anything unexpected.  Before the tournament began, few observers would have listed the Croat among the players who would reach the second week without dropping  a set, but the Croat has dethroned two seeds with impressive resolve.  Ljubicic can seize a flicker of inspiration from three-set victory over the Spaniard at Indian Wells last year, where his serve and flamboyant one-handed backhand discomfited a tentative Nadal.  Nevertheless, he never has won a set from Rafa on clay and has no department of his game other than the serve in which he can dominate him consistently.  Positioning himself too far behind the baseline in his first two matches, Nadal should plant himself more assertively inside the court, as he did against the previous Croat.  With Soderling soon to descend, the top seed needs an authoritative victory to restore his battered self-belief.

Simon vs. Soderling:  Thoroughly dominated by the Swede in Paris last fall, Simon pursues revenge on a court where his understated all-court game dazzled in dispatching Fish.  A triumph for a fox over a hedgehog, that match illustrated the Frenchman’s capacity to defuse a mighty serve and expose an opponent’s indifferent movement.  The two-time finalist presents a similar type of challenge, relying upon power to cloak his one-dimensionality, but Soderling’s arsenal can hammer opponents off even the slowest surface more swiftly than could Fish.  After an unimpressive opener, the Swede has won eight consecutive sets at the tournament where he first claimed fame.  If his illness and injury woes of the spring have receded, he will present a towering challenge to an opponent whom he never has faced on clay.  Confronted with the resilience of Simon, though, will Soderling maintain his focus and willpower?  The Frenchman cannot survive by trading blow for blow across five bruising sets, so his only hope rests in an optimistic start that flusters and discourages the Swede.  Although aggression does not come naturally to Simon, he must look for opportunities to attack Soderling whenever possible rather than letting him relax into a leisurely afternoon of target practice without pressure.

Maria Sharapova - 2011 French Open - Day Seven

Sharapova vs. Radwanska:  Like the match that precedes it, this collision opposes one of the sport’s most percussive shot-makers against a clever counterpuncher with a crisp backhand and acute court sense.  Falling in this round at each of the last three Slams, Sharapova has not reached a major quarterfinal since Roland Garros two years ago and lost her only Slam meeting with Radwanska at the 2007 US Open.  Since that setback, Maria has swept her five encounters with the Pole to recapture the mental advantage. Brimming with confidence after a Rome title, the Russian probably will not donate the avalanche of hapless errors from which the Pole profited in New York.   Nevertheless, Radwanska has either won a set or forced a tiebreak in three of those five losses, troubling Sharapova with placement rather than power on strokes like her deep returns and artfully angled passing shots.  Like Simon, she must continue to assert her presence affirmatively whenever she can instead of mechanically retrieving Maria’s missiles.  Perched close to the baseline in the sets and matches when she has most challenged Sharapova, the world #12 can transition expertly from defense to offense.  If the three-time major champion continues to connect with a high percentage of first serves, though, she should earn frequent opportunities to plant herself inside the baseline while pinning her opponent behind it.  Equally vital is Radwanska’s first-serve percentage, for Sharapova should subject her benign second balls to unrelenting pressure.  Can the Aga Khan engineer a whirlwind of breaks, or will the Siberian siren maintain order in the court?

Makarova vs. Azarenka:  Intersecting for the fourth time in twelve months, the Russian and the Belarussian crafted a pair of memorable encounters in the last round of Eastbourne and the first round of Sydney.  Often baffled by lefties, Azarenka fell to Makarova in straight sets on grass while struggling to convert break points against a serve that veers sharply away from the returner in the ad court.  In a three-hour battle this January, Vika continued to struggle in that category but earned just enough success to eke out a Pyrrhic victory that drained her energy for the following match.  More encouraging for her prospects on Monday and thereafter was a routine victory over Makarova at Indian Wells.  The highest-ranked player remaining in Paris, the fourth seed has become the slight tournament favorite despite never having attained a Slam semifinal.  Visibly elated to conquer the unassuming Vinci in the third round, she must hold her emotions in check as a potentially career-changing breakthrough draws within range.  When opportunity has knocked before, though, Azarenka often has struggled to capitalize but instead has suffered meltdown or injury.  While Makarova possesses far less raw talent or competitive will, she represents the type of player who could expose Vika’s inner demons and test her (somewhat) improved maturity.

Murray vs. Troicki:  Hardly a contender when this clay season began, the Scot thrust himself into the conversation like his fellow Melbourne runner-up Li Na, scoring semifinals at two of the three Masters 1000 events.  In a depleted quarter, Murray can glimpse a first Roland Garros semifinal—if he can survive the ankle injury that he endured a round ago.  Illustrating his overlooked courage was his ability to win that match, far from its conclusion when he launched his ill-fated lunge towards the net.  The Scot forced himself to strike his groundstrokes more aggressively, revealing an offensive capacity that this innate counterpuncher seldom displays.  Especially notable was his forehand, often criticized as a weapon inferior to the parallel strokes of the top three.  As he had during his thrilling near-victory over Djokovic in Rome, Murray struck his weaker groundstroke with authority and precision.  The Scot must preserve those winning habits to escape this match, far from a certainty considering Troicki’s composed performance against Dolgopolov.  Perhaps relieved to dwell in the shadow of Djokovic’s success, the second Serb shares Murray’s preference for his backhand and tendency towards self-deprecation.  The survivor of this match will have little to bemoan, however, having earned a quarterfinal meeting with the distinctly undistinguished Falla or Chela.

Vera Zvonareva - 2011 French Open - Day Four

Zvonareva vs. Pavlyuchenkova:  Two of the six Russians who advanced to the second week, they met last month on the indoor clay of Stuttgart.  Rallying from a one-set deficit on that occasion, Zvonareva likewise erased a one-set deficit before saving a match point in her second-round encounter with Lisicki here.  Since Vera and Nastia have combined to play 27 three-setters this year already, one might expect a fiercely contested encounter littered with twists and turns.  Seeking her first Slam quarterfinal, Pavlyuchenkova displayed creditable composure by outlasting clay specialist Llagostera Vives a round ago.  Both Russians have compiled a balanced groundstroke game and will hope to cling as close to the baseline as possible, looking for opportunities to move forward and take time away from the opponent.  A superior server and much superior mover, Zvonareva has few clear weaknesses that the teenager can exploit, although her indifferent clay results will have infused her with little confidence.  Striking a flatter ball with less margin for error, Pavlyuchenkova might aim to redirect her groundstrokes in order to hit behind her compatriot, who reverses direction more awkwardly than she covers the open court.  Intra-Russian affairs rarely produce the most aesthetically pleasing tennis, but they frequently produce comical, emotional, or otherwise entertaining moments to remember.

Gasquet vs. Djokovic:  Swaggering onto the court for the third consecutive day, the world #2 concluded a dangerous battle with Del Potro on an uplifting note by breaking the Argentine four times in the last two sets of their completion.  Rarely has Djokovic struggled to break the serve of the former French prodigy, feeding him four breadsticks during his four previous victories and dominating him at Indian Wells this spring.  As contenders like Murray has discovered at majors past, Gasquet can blaze through sets at a time with effortless precision equal to Federer.  As Murray also discovered, however, the Frenchman disintegrates swiftly when his timing falters by even a fraction, hampering him in the best-of-five format.  Djokovic thus should stay calm if Gasquet slips into one of the torried streaks that has propelled him through the finest performance of his career at his home major.  Falling behind early in both sets in their Indian Wells clash, the Serb comfortably regrouped behind his scorching return and constantly threatened the Frenchman on serve.  Before this week, Richard had won just four total matches in seven appearances at Roland Garros, finding the surface ill-suited to his mercurial flamboyance.  Despite his heartwarming resurgence in 2011, highlighted by a victory over Federer in Rome, he lacks the mental fortitude to grind past a champion of Djokovic’s pedigree at a major unless fatigue significantly undermines the Serb

Jankovic vs. Schiavone:  Somewhat to our surprise, the defending champion reached the second week with minimal ado against a trio of thoroughly overmatched opponents.  Her path now grows steeper as she confronts a three-time Roland Garros semifinalist who has won their last three meetings, crushing her in Marbella two years ago.  A semifinalist or better at no fewer than six majors but never a champion, Jankovic must consider this vulnerable draw an exceptional opportunity to address that lacuna in her resume.  On the other hand, the former #1 appeared to lose much of her competitive desire over the last year, while excessive court mileage from an overstuffed schedule has dulled her once-explosive movement.  Inspiring hope in the Serb, though, was a comfortable victory over Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who previously had enjoyed a compelling clay season.  Can Schiavone’s bubbling joy in the sport and appetite for the battle overcome an opponent with superior weapons?  If the Italian can slip into the forecourt, she could disrupt Jankovic’s baseline rhythm and sow confusion in her mind.  Conversely, the Serb will hope to pin Schiavone behind the baseline, miring her in conventional rallies where the defending champion’s inferior ball-striking capacity will doom her.  Outstanding movers and indifferent servers, these two combatants should win few easy points but instead engage in a series of elongated exchanges that exploit the geometry of the court.

Gael Monfils - 2011 French Open - Day Four

Ferrer vs. Monfils:  For the Spaniard, tennis resembles less a sport than a war.  For the Frenchman, tennis resembles less a sport than a performance.  As one of the ATP’s greatest overachievers collides with one of the ATP’s greatest underachievers, observers might reflect upon the divergent routes that brought them to essentially the same destination:  a status lofty although clearly outside the elite circle of contenders.  Whereas Ferrer lacks the weapons to regularly compete with the best, Monfils lacks the motivation and willpower.  Three years ago at Roland Garros, the latter conquered the former in an uneventful quarterfinal a round before extending Federer to four sets.  In order to repeat that accomplishment, Monfils must maximize his vital advantage at the service notch.  Also a far superior athlete and shot-maker, the Frenchman should not flinch before unleashing his firepower.  Too often, his superlative defensive skills cause him to forget his mighty offensive weapons, most notably a jumping forehand more like an overhead than a groundstroke.  Among the finest returners and baseline retrievers in the ATP, Ferrer would relish a defensively oriented encounter that could showcase his fitness and focus, his two principal advantages over Monfils.  The seventh and ninth seeds should conduct their collision from well behind the baseline, allowing observers to witness a classic display of clay-court tennis.

Hantuchova vs. Kuznetsova:  After the dual upsets of Wozniacki and Stosur, Kuznetsova leapt from the status of an intriguing dark horse to the favorite from her quarter and perhaps her half.  The 2009 champion has not thrived in such a position before, often tripping on the threshold when a door opens for her.  Sharing that trait is her opponent on Sunday, although Hantuchova demonstrated an uncharacteristic degree of composure in surviving a desperate second-set rally by Wozniacki and dispatching a reigning #1 for the first time.  Perhaps still soaring from that stunning accomplishment, the stylish Slovak may have sufficient momentum to overcome her negative history against Kuznetsova, who won both of their previous clay meetings in straight sets.  Pitted against the Russian’s superior athleticism are Hantuchova’s exquisite ball placement and unpredictable angles.  While Sveta appreciates the extra time to set up her forehand on clay, Daniela welcomes the extra time with which the surfaces masks her tepid movement.  Although none of the 11 meetings has occurred at a major, Hantuchova won the most important match of their rivalry in the 2007 Indian Wells final.  In an encounter between two competitors with the flakiness of a millefeuille, however, whoever thinks less will laugh last.

 

 

Victoria Azarenka - 2011 French Open - Day Three

Vinci vs. Azarenka:  Crisp and commanding in her first two matches, the world #4 has established herself as a leading contender in a draw devoid of the top two seeds.  Able to slide smoothly from defense to offense, Azarenka wields a combination of movement and power designed to succeed on the clay where she has reached two finals this year.  Nevertheless, retirements and tantrums have caused many to question her future promise, for she may not withstand their burdens created by a fortnight of intensifying pressure.  Testing Azarenka psychologically more than physically is her third-round opponent, a crafty Italian veteran who has unraveled powerful ball-strikers such as Kuznetsova and Ivanovic.  A champion in Barcelona, Vinci compensates for her lack of an offensive weapon with a variety of spins and slices that disrupt an opponent’s rhythm while allowing her to restart rallies.  Azarenka generally displays the intelligent shot selection essential to outlasting the Italian, but she also must show more patience than she often does.  Long armed with the game of a champion, does she have the mind of a champion as well?

Fish vs. Simon:  Hooked by Fish when they met on hard courts last summer, Simon may find the momentum swinging towards him on a surface vastly different from Cincinnati.  Preferring the faster surfaces as well, the top half’s only surviving Frenchman has acquitted himself creditably during the clay season but has not won more than two matches at any of his last five tournaments.  In order to halt that trend, Gilles will hope to extend the American into court-stretching rallies that enable him to outmaneuver Fish along the baseline.  Although both players can generate ample offense from their forehands, their brisk two-handers stay more technically reliable.  The last surviving American in either draw, Fish will rely upon his improved fitness to construct points carefully against an opponent who punishes the impetuous.  He remains the more natural aggressor of this pair, on the other hand, and must not allow Simon to lull him into a war of attrition from the baseline.

Maria Sharapova - 2011 French Open - Day Five

Sharapova vs. Chan:  From an early stroll along the precipice can emerge one of two divergent trajectories for a player’s future in the tournament.  Like Nadal, Sharapova hopes that her flirtation with danger against Garcia does not foretell an early exit against an unheralded upstart but rather propels her forward with the momentum of a warrior offered a second life.  The WTA Valkyrie next crosses swords with Yung-Jan Chan, who fell to her routinely in Miami and Wimbledon four years ago.  In contrast to Garcia’s fearless assault, the Chinese doubles star focuses on executing the fundamentals as meticulously as possible.  During a qualifying match in Indian Wells this spring, for (an extreme) example, she struck 54 consecutive first serves.  Her stingy tactics force opponents to earn their victories over her by hitting their targets consistently, but Sharapova always has relished the opportunity to grasp her fate in her own hands.  If the wind whirls around Chatrier again, her ball toss  could falter and her confidence wane.  But Maria’s escape from adverse conditions and an inspired foe on Thursday should have hardened her determination for the challenges ahead.

Wickmayer vs. Radwanska:  Just a few months older than her opponent, Radwanska has crossed the threshold from promising upstart to established competitor, whereas Wickmayer remains in the former category.  Despite occasionally experimenting with amplified offense, the Pole has settled into a counterpunching mold that proves adequate against most WTA journeywomen while stalling her progress around the fringe of the top 10.  Even if she never joins the circle of Slam contenders, though, Radwanska should penetrate into many second weeks.  In the fraught Fed Cup epic that they contested last year, Wickmayer ground down her defenses by the narrowest of margins, buttressed by a significantly superior serve.  The heiress to the kingdom of Henin and Clijsters plays less like either of them than like Stosur or Kuznetsova, showcasing less grace than rugged athleticism and shielding her average movement with potent serve-forehand gambits.  While Radwanska illustrates the mental dimension of this Janus-faced sport, therefore, Wickmayer evokes its equally central physicality.

Dolgopolov vs. Troicki:  During one span earlier this year, the second Serb had lost only to the eventual champion in six of seven tournaments.  Perhaps disheartened by his unkind draws, Troicki has fallen to unremarkable opponents like Starace, Granollers, and Florian Mayer more recently.  Much more at home on hard courts than clay, he can seize control of rallies with either groundstroke but succumbs too swiftly to pessimism.  Clay can unlock those emotions more easily, but Dolgopolov can frustrate opponents on any surface with his lithe court coverage, uncanny timing, and knack for executing implausible shots under pressure.  In stark contrast are their distinctive service motions—the Serb’s a jerky sequence of starts and stops, the Ukrainian’s a smooth, loose-limbed curl.  A quarterfinalist at the Australian Open, Dolgopolov has cultivated an insouciant swagger that belies his sub-20 ranking.  Keenly aware of his surroundings on most occasions, Troicki conversely has allowed tension to undermine him in proportion to the magnitude of the moment.  When they met in New Haven last summer, they collaborated on a pair of energetic tiebreak sets before the Ukrainian faded in the third.  Although a chronic illness never lurks far away, Dolgopolov has improved his stamina this season and demonstrated his ability to win five-setters in Australia.

Petkovic vs. Gajdosova:  In the first round of Roland Garros 2007, the heavy-hitting German overcame the heavy-hitting Slovak when both lay well outside the top 50.  As Petkovic nears the top 10 and Gajdosova the top 25, their encounter has shifted to the middle weekend.  In each of the two previous French Opens, a player who mingled thunderous offense with meager defense reached the second week (first Cirstea and then Shvedova).  Perhaps taking confidence from those examples, Gajdosova represents the counterintuitive type of player who can shine on the clay, the ball-bruiser who can penetrate the slow court with her groundstrokes while enjoying the additional time to set her feet.  Soderling turned this formula into consecutive finals here in 2009-10, although none should confuse the Swede with the Aussie.  Also a player who prefers to deliver rather than receive blows, Petkovic can modulate into a serviceable defense more comfortably but will win few points when pressed behind the baseline.  In a WTA without conventional clay specialists, this secondary style of clay tennis may portend a trend for future French Opens.

Julia Goerges - Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open - Day Seven

Bartoli vs. Goerges:  Not a factor on clay before this year, the former Wimbledon runner-up married her fast-court skills to her least friendly surface by reaching the Strasbourg final last week.  A player renowned for return winners and similarly potent first strikes, Bartoli will face an opponent who has built her suddenly augmented credentials upon two upsets over Wozniacki.  Goerges should count herself fortunate to have survived her three-setter with Safarova a round ago, however, for the Czech nearly buried her under a barrage of lefty forehands into her more vulnerable backhand.  Potentially vital in this match is the German’s far superior serve, which rarely undergoes the wobble experienced by Bartoli’s ungainly delivery at some stage in most matches.  While the French crowd that boosted Garcia will stand firmly behind Marion, Goerges appears a steady competitor unlikely to implode upon request.  But one wonders how she will adjust to Bartoli’s unorthodox, double-barreled style, having struggled to adapt to the distinctive weapons of Safarova.

Wawrinka vs. Tsonga:  The only Swiss star to feature on Chatrier today, Wawrinka knows that another encounter with his nation’s #1 lies just beyond a potential victory here.  Will that deflating realization infect the play of Federer’s doubles partner?  Behind his quarterfinal runs at each of the previous two majors loomed not only bellicose coach Peter Lundgren but an enhanced offense highlighted by the mightiest one-handed backhand in tennis.   Wawrinka could deploy that stroke to pin Tsonga into his relatively weak backhand corner, tempting the French hope to run around that shot to hit forehands and thus surrender a gaping swathe of court position.  Belied by the Swiss #2’s compact, unprepossessing frame, his serve often enables him to take command of points more frequently than he once could.  En route to his unexpected quarterfinals in New York and Melbourne, Wawrinka toppled Murray at the former and Roddick at the latter, so Tsonga represents a target well within his range.  The ebullient Frenchman proved against Andreev that baseline grinding alone will not erode him, though, requiring the Swiss to seize the initiative if he hopes to seize the day.

Del Potro vs. Djokovic:  Probably more anticipated than any first-round encounter, this collision will occur as the suitably dramatic late-afternoon shadows creep across Chatrier.  Yet the sun will not set on Djokovic’s 41-match winning streak unless Del Potro unleashes his most imposing performance since the 2009 US Open—and sustains it across the course of five sets against the most relentless mover in the sport.  The Argentine looked increasingly convincing after losing the first set of the tournament to Karlovic, measuring his balanced groundstrokes to the baselines and heightening his focus at potential turning points.  Nevertheless, Djokovic has thundered through his first two matches with bulletproof determination, perhaps emboldened by the prospect of the #1 ranking four wins ahead.  A personality gentler than his fearsome forehand would suggest, Del Potro may find the task posed by the second seed too formidable to even contemplate the possibility of victory so soon after his return from a leg injury.  Unless he finds an early ray of optimism, he may meekly bare his neck to the Serbian battleaxe.

Peng vs. Schiavone:  For some players, returning to the scene of their greatest achievements intimidates them into timid, uncertain performances.  Not so for Schiavone, who so far has frolicked on the clay where she sprawled in ecstasy a year ago.  The competition spikes upward with the resolute Peng, who has split her two meetings with Schiavone and menaced her throughout an airtight two-setter in Madrid this month.  Moreover, the rising Chinese star won three consecutive sets against top-three opposition in Brussels last week before succumbing to Wozniacki in the final.  Since Peng clearly believes that she belongs in the conversation with the elite, Schiavone cannot expect the assistance that her previous opponents generously provided in their own demise.  Always eager to engage in battle, the feisty Italian gladiator must sharpen her sword before dispatching an opponent worthy of her steel.

Tipsarevic vs. Federer:  Few can forget their magical meeting at the 2008 Australian Open, when the GOAT locked horns with a bespectacled Serb who had the audacity to extend him into an 18-game final set.  Surely remembering that blight upon his escutcheon with especial clarity, Federer has not earned an opportunity for revenge until now.  Although the clay can expose the Swiss legend’s sporadic bouts of inconsistency, Tipsarevic should find the dirt poorly suited to his low-percentage shot selection.

Wozniacki vs. Hantuchova:  Whenever the graceful Slovak takes the court, two Hantuchovas alternate in confronting her opponents.  In the first set of her Miami meeting with Wozniacki this year, the feckless Hantuchova struggled to time or locate even the most routine swing volleys into the open court.  In the second set, the free-flowing Hantuchova executed improbable drop shots and exquisitely placed forehands with apparent effortlessness.  Probably anticipating an uneventful victory after the first set, Wozniacki needed her most dogged defense (and a bit of luck) to dodge a third.  Almost as lucky to avoid a final set against Wozniak, the Dane looked uneasy in a desultory performance that featured an unusually high quantity of unforced errors.  Whatever frailty she experiences, however, seems slight when juxtaposed with an emblem of physical and emotional fragility.

Gasquet vs. Bellucci:  Plats du jour at the two main appetizers of the clay season, these incorrigible underachievers enjoyed their weeks in the spotlight at the expense of Murray (Bellucci) and Federer (Gasquet).  A power merchant who spares little effort for finesse, the heir to Gustavo Kuerten bludgeons his backhand at a velocity almost equal to his sweeping forehand and with seeming indifference to the lines.  Likewise inclined to flirt with the perimeters of the court is his French foe, although the latter relies upon elegant forecourt touch as much as his crackling backhand and underrated serve.  Clay grants these players more time to arrange their elongated groundstroke swings, but it also tests their dubious fortitude under pressure.