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Rafael Nadal - Rakuten Open - Day 6

First quarter:  In the aftermath of yet another disappointment in a final, Nadal will have reason to smile when he crosses the Sea of Japan and examines his accommodating draw.  A runner-up in Shanghai two years ago, the world #2 exited in the third round to Melzer last year and will feel determined to improve upon that result.  With Djokovic and Federer absent, the top seed would not face any opponent more formidable than Ferrer until the final.  As Nadal attempts to rebuild his confidence, he could meet last year’s Bangkok nemesis Garcia-Lopez in the second round, but the prospect of a Dodig-like debacle seems distant.  Aligned for an intriguing first-round meeting with Gulbis is Nalbandian, who competed sturdily through two tight sets against Murray in Tokyo.  The Argentine might well justify his wildcard with a win over the Latvian, the victim of three consecutive losses to players outside the top 50 as his 2011 record has slipped to 17-18.  Despite failing to win a set from Nadal at the US Open, Nalbandian stretched him deep into two sets and continued to trouble Rafa with his flat two-hander.  If he advances to the quarterfinals, the top seed should brace himself to meet Djokovic’s compatriot Tipsarevic, who has evolved into a threat in his own right following a Montreal semifinal and US Open quarterfinal.  Edging within range of the top 10, the Serbian #2 has enjoyed success against sixth-seeded Berdych that includes a US Open Series victory.  Having won his first title in three year at Beijing, however, the Czech may have gained sufficient momentum to avenge that defeat.  But Berdych has lost nine straight matches to Nadal, including 21of their last 22 sets, while Tipsarevic has lost all six sets that he has played against the Spaniard.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter:  Although the most prominent among them rests on the top line of the draw, Spaniards dominate this section in a demonstration of their nation’s depth in men’s tennis.  Bookending the quarter are Ferrer and Almagro, rarely perceived as threats during the fall season but both near or at their career-high rankings.  In Almagro’s case, though, the sheer quantity of matches that he has contested this year (especially on clay) has masked his unremarkable performances at the key hard-court tournaments.  There, he has recorded nothing more than a quarterfinal at the Rogers Cup and a fourth-round appearance in Melbourne.  On the other hand, early assignments such as a clash against his light-hitting compatriot Robredo should not trouble him unduly.  Only once has he faced Roddick, a first-round loser in Beijing who struggled to hold serve there on the same DecoTurf surface laid down in Shanghai.  In fact, the American may not escape a compelling challenge from Grigor Dimitrov if the Bulgarian can impersonate more of Federer’s game than his backhand.  Unlike Almagro, Ferrer stands in the curious position of having etched his reputation on European clay but having recorded his most notable accomplishments with semifinals at the two hard-court majors. His road looks more dangerous with an opening match against Raonic or Llodra, although he edged the Montenegrin-turned-Canadian in four sets at the Australian Open.  Potentially pitted against Ferrer two rounds later is the dark horse of this section in the ever-frustrating, ever-dangerous Verdasco.  A combined 11-6 against Ferrer and Almagro, the Spanish lefty has shown signs of life by winning two matches in each of his last three tournaments.

Semifinalist:  Verdasco

Third quarter:  Expected by many to fade after the US Open, Fish erased those suspicions with a  semifinal run in Tokyo.  If he duplicates that performance in Shanghai, he will thoroughly have earned it by navigating past a varied assemblage of streaky shot-makers.  First among them is Kevin Anderson, the South African who defeated Murray in Montreal and Roddick last week.  Or can Bernard Tomic, who thrilled at Wimbledon and fizzled in New York, build upon his Tokyo upset of Troicki to arrange a rematch with Fish?  In their quarterfinal last week, the American found himself forced to rally from a one-set deficit against the towering but nuanced Aussie.  Oscillating wildly from one tournament to the next, Dolgopolov faces dangerous doubles specialist Kubot before a probable meeting with the possibly resurgent Cilic.  A finalist in Beijing for the second time in three years, the Croat’s steady, understated personality and methodical approach to competition should serve him well during the final.  Cilic surely would relish an opportunity to avenge his loss to Dolgopolov on home soil in Umag, and he has swept his four meetings with Fish.  The #1 seed in Beijing, Tsonga has received perhaps the highest seed of his career at a Masters 1000 tournament as the top-ranked player in this section.  Few are the plausible upset threats in his vicinity, although Santiago Giraldo tested Nadal in Tokyo and Robin Haase severely threatened Murray in New York.  More athletically gifted than either of the above, Tsonga might need to solve the enigmatic Melzer, the architect of Nadal’s demise here last year.  In the event that the Frenchman does face Fish in the quarterfinals, he should gain conviction from his five-set comeback victory over the American at the US Open.

Semifinalist:  Tsonga

Fourth quarter:  With a Djokovic-like display of rifled returns, whizzing backhands, and surreal court coverage, Murray torched 2011 Slam nemesis Nadal in the Tokyo final as he collected his 19th victory in 20 matches and third title in four tournaments.  Unsatisfied with that achievement, he accompanied his brother to the doubles title afterwards in his first career singles/doubles sweep at the same tournament.  Following that hectic albeit rewarding week, Murray will need to elevate his energy once more as he prepares to defend this title more effectively than he did the Rogers Cup trophy.  One wonders whether he can sustain the level of his last match—or the last two sets of it—or whether a lull will overtake him.  Unlikely to profit such a lull are the underachievers Bellucci and Tursunov who will vie for the opportunity to confront the Scot, but third-round opponent Wawrinka might pose a sterner challenge.  The Swiss #2 defeated Murray at the 2010 US Open and may have reinvigorated his sagging fortunes with his heroic effort in winning the Davis Cup World Group playoff.  A surprise finalist in Bangkok, meanwhile, Donald Young qualified for the main draw, drew a Chinese wildcard in the first round, and will hope to repeat his New York upset over Wawrinka.  Another American of note has lain dormant for several weeks following his US Open embarrassment, but Ryan Harrison could trouble the staggering Troicki en route to the third round.  At that stage, he would face the tireless Gilles Simon, often at his best in the fall when his workmanlike attitude capitalizes upon the weary or the satiated.  Although we don’t expect Simon to defeat Murray, he might deplete the second seed’s energy for the more demanding encounters ahead this weekend.

Semifinalist:  Murray

***

We return shortly to review the WTA Premier Five / Premier Mandatory fortnight in Tokyo and Beijing.

 

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Andy Murray - 2011 US Open - Day 13

While the women converge on Tokyo, dual squadrons of men descend on Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.  We focus upon the most intriguing figures in those minor tournaments, discussing what to expect from each of them in a week without the ominous shadows cast by the top three.

Murray (Bangkok):  Outside the copious sum of appearance money that likely spurred his participation, the world #4 has little more to gain than Nadal did in Bangkok last year.  If he considers the 500-level tournament in Dubai a practice event, Murray surely will saunter through his matches here as well.  Despite his distinct superiority to everyone else in the draw, a result other than a title wouldn’t shock us. R ecently, though, the Scot wished that he could play more tournaments where he “didn’t need to kill [him]self in every match” or play elite opponents, and his wish has come true here.

Monfils (Bangkok):  Withdrawing from Davis Cup with a recurrent knee injury, Monfils demonstrated his tendency towards drama with a US Open first-week classic—that he lost to a much lower-ranked albeit more experienced opponent.  A two-time finalist at the Paris Indoors, he has played his best tennis before European and especially French audiences, so one wonders whether the banal Bangkok arena will stimulate his competitive and creative vitality.  The indoor tournament should force him into more aggressive tactics, a shift from which his game in general would benefit.

Simon (Bangkok):  Two years after he won Bangkok for his first and so far only Asian title, the understated counterpuncher returns as the third seed.  In theory, the indoor surface should not suit his reactive style.  Yet surprisingly Simon not only has won three of his nine titles under a roof but also recorded his best Masters 1000 result in the last edition of the Madrid hard-court tournament.  During a stage of the season when more talented foes often waver in motivation, Simon represents the type of industrious, alert opportunist who will not hesitate to capitalize if others lose focus.

Tipsarevic (Kuala Lumpur):  With his first Slam quarterfinal, Djokovic’s understudy displayed talent long obscured by his eccentric personality.  Confident that he can reach the top 10, he faces a reasonably challenging pre-semifinal draw by the standards of these tournaments (probably Tomic and the Harrison-Davydenko winner).  Tipsarevic has shown that he can win matches that he should lose, considering his place in the ATP hierarchy; now he must prove that he can consistently win the matches that he should win.

Troicki (Kuala Lumpur):  If being the second-best player from a small country sounds like an unlucky fate, what about being the third-best player from that small country?  Having ceded his Serbian #2 status to Tipsarevic, Troicki’s sagging summer extended into the Davis Cup semifinal, where he dropped a winnable and potentially crucial rubber to Nalbandian.  But Viktor excelled during the fall last year, holding a match point against Nadal in Tokyo and winning his first career title in Moscow.

Almagro (Kuala Lumpur):  Among the top 5 in ATP matches won this year, this Spaniard gorged on the South American clay tournaments that resemble this week’s competitions in their meager significance.  The “ESP” by his name notwithstanding, Almagro can threaten at least as much on a hard court as on clay.  His serve and shot-making panache can illuminate an indoor surface, providing him with greater first-strike power than anyone whom he could face before the final.  Will fatigue hamper him after such an overloaded schedule in the first half, however?

Garcia-Lopez (Bangkok):  Not even among the top tier of players from his own country, he recorded the finest accomplishment of his career with a three-set comeback victory over Nadal on this court a year ago.  Erasing break point after break point on that occasion, Garcia-Lopez displayed a tenacity against his legendary compatriot that he has shown too sporadically to become a consistent threat.  One wonders whether the quest to defend finalist points will inspire or weigh heavily upon him.

Gulbis (Bangkok):  Every few months, the Latvian reminds viewers why he looked certain a few years ago to vault into the top 10 and contend for all of the non-clay majors.  His latest resurrection occurred in Los Angeles, where he knocked off Del Potro and Fish under the gaze of new coach Guillermo Canas.   Since that week, Gulbis has accomplished nothing of note.  A haven for head-scratchers and underachievers, the fall seems an ideal platform for him to make another of his sporadic statements, although he has struggled against potential quarterfinal opponent Murray (0-5).

Dimitrov (Bangkok):  Compared alternately to Federer and Gulbis, the Bulgarian possesses the backhand of the former and the mystifying streakiness of the latter.  This summer, he lost consecutive matches to players outside the top 100, bookending commendable efforts against Tsonga and Ferrer, before failing to win a set from Monfils in New York.  While the streakiness certainly causes concern for his future, the one-handed backhand also may leave him behind his peers as the stroke becomes an anachronism.  Dimitrov has developed a habit of playing to the level of the competition and the tournament, so his upset over fifth-seeded Dodig in the first round represented encouraging progress.

Donald Young (Bangkok):  A tournament after his second-week appearance at the US Open, the enigmatic, controversial Young returns to the Tour’s daily, less inspiring routine.  Unable to exploit any positive momentum earlier in his career of violent oscillations, he can’t afford to let many more such chances slip past.  Probably the victim of inflated expectations when young, Young still could carve out a respectable tenure in the top 50 if he has learned from both his successes and failures during this dramatic season for him.

Davydenko / Baghdatis (Kuala Lumpur):  Masters of flat, scorching groundstrokes from both wings, these veterans have struggled with injuries in recent years that have undermined their consistency.  Both also have failed to overcome key flaws in their game:  the serve for the Russian and fitness for the Cypriot.  The more brilliant player when at his best, Davydenko has suffered the more precipitous fall but won Shanghai two years with consecutive victories over Djokovic and Nadal.  More than five years removed from his breakthrough at the Australian Open final, Baghdatis has slipped less inexorably into obsolescence and seems the more likely of the two to regroup.

Harrison / Tomic (Kuala Lumpur):  After impressive Wimbledons, including a quarterfinal appearance for the Australian, they regressed with straight-sets defeats to Cilic at the US Open.  Probably the most promising talent among ATP teenagers, Tomic demonstrated his maturity in defeating Wawrinka and recurrently troubling Federer on grass in Davis Cup.  The fall season and especially tournaments like these offer them opportunities to consume relatively cheap rankings points that would position them more auspiciously for the more noteworthy events.  Unfortunately for them, they landed in the same quarter as each other and Davydenko, Harrison’s first-round opponent.

Robin Haase (Bangkok):  Just one place below his career-high ranking, the flying Dutchman has won nine of his last eleven matches in a streak that started with his first career title (Kitzbuhel).  Leading Murray by two sets at the US Open, he faded physically late in the match as his physical condition continues to undermine him.  A lanky, brittle player who looks taller than his height, Haase will appreciate the affinity of indoor courts for short points that will not test his questionable movement or footwork.  He could earn a seed at the Australian Open with a successful fall campaign.

 

Roger Federer Roger Federer of Switzerland holds the trophy after defeating Mardy Fish during the finals on Day 7 of the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters at the Lindner Family Tennis Center on August 22, 2010 in Cincinnati, Ohio.

A week after audacious saboteurs tore down the towers of the sport, will Cincinnati more closely resemble the usual blueprints?  The last significant event before the US Open, it will play an especially crucial role this year as contenders who lost early in Toronto strive to accumulate valuable pre-major preparation.  Meanwhile, though, the Serenovak juggernaut rolls on to another city with accelerating speed, causing one to wonder whether anyone can blunt its momentum before New York.  (On the other hand, does the Djoker really fancy that hideous trophy above?)

First quarter:  A semifinalist in consecutive weeks at Atlanta and Los Angeles, Ryan Harrison will bring that momentum into Cincinnati—and a probable second-round encounter with an opponent who has lost only one match this year.  Also in this area lurk Washington champion Stepanek and Atlanta runner-up Isner, who has come within a point of defeating two different top-10 opponents this summer.   Situated near Wimbledon conqueror Feliciano Lopez, Roddick begins his recovery from his most recent injury against Kohlschreiber, often remembered for his five-set victory over the American at the 2008 Australian Open.  From a champion in Los Angeles to a qualifier in Cincinnati, Gulbis displayed uncharacteristic perseverance in emerging from the pre-event to arrange a main-draw meeting with Dodig.  Anchoring the section is Washington runner-up Monfils, a disappointment in his Rogers Cup quarterfinal against Djokovic when he appeared to tank after losing the first set.   But none of these hopefuls, veterans, or dangerous floaters appears likely to ambush the top seed should he arrive at the year’s seventh Masters 1000 tournament in peak condition.  Often bothered by the heat before, Djokovic succumbed to Roddick in a listless quarterfinal here last year.  His improvements in diet, fitness, and mental staying power encourage greater optimism this time, as do the distinctly fallible, one-dimensional opponents around him.  Nevertheless, Cincinnati has halted the momentum of many an ambitious Rogers Cup champion before.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Second quarter:  After the two-time defending champion in Canada dropped his opener, the two-time defending champion in Cincinnati could fare likewise against Del Potro.  Eyeing this formidable opening task, Federer must regroup from his consecutive losses to Tsonga, who overpowered the Swiss legend much as Del Potro did in their 2009 meetings at the US Open and the year-end championships.  A baseliner rather than a net-rusher like Tsonga, though, the Argentine did not impress in straight-sets losses to Gulbis and Cilic in Los Angeles and Montreal, respectively.  Formerly at his best during the summer hard-courts, he appears to have regressed from a spring in which he won two titles, and he has not defeated a notable opponent other than Soderling during his comeback.  Federer should ease through the third round much more comfortably this week against either the decaying Blake or the spineless Troicki, but an intriguing test could await in the quarterfinals.  Battling Berdych in three memorable meetings last year, the third seed suffered stinging defeats in Miami and Wimbledon before claiming a measure of revenge in a Rogers Cup thriller.  Before reaching Federer, the Czech must maneuver past the inflammable Almagro or perhaps Karlovic.  While Berdych theoretically should win those matches, he routinely lost an equally winnable quarterfinal to Tipsarevic in Canada.  Also complicating Federer’s path to a record-extending fifth Cincinnati title is his summer preparation.  Rather than train in scorching Dubai, he chose to stay in temperate Switzerland, a decision that benefited his children but may remove the fitness advantage that he long had held over his rivals in the torrid Ohio summer.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Third quarter:  Like all of the Big Four outside Djokovic, Murray faces the task of rebounding from a severely disappointing week.  A crossroads for the fatalistic Scot, Cincinnati either could mire him deeper in  what could become a post-Wimbledon hangover—or it could lift him out of his doldrums in time to inspire a deep run in New York.  Still seeking his first victory at a Masters 1000 hard-court tournament this season, Murray aims to snap that winless streak against Nishikori or Nalbandian, both more dangerous than some of his  previous 2011 Masters nemeses.  His rocky path will steepen further against the winner of a fascinating encounter between Tsonga and Cilic, assuming that a Montreal injury does not hamper the Frenchman.  Although he possesses 5-1 records against each of those heavy servers, Murray has struggled to defuse them on stages such as Wimbledon or the US Open.  Absent from the Rogers Cup, the ever-grinding, ever-unassuming Ferrer should flourish in the Cincinnati heat, as should his equally indefatigable third-round opponent Gilles Simon.  Entrenched in the top 10 when the season began, Melzer has drifted back into his familiar position of ambush artist and now hopes to unsettle the Frenchman in the first round.  Should Murray maneuver into the quarterfinals, he should gain confidence from his hard-court mastery over Ferrer.  Whether he will arrive there seems open to doubt, though.

Semifinalist:  Tsonga

Fourth quarter:  A player who relies upon match practice to prepare for a major, Nadal got little of it in Canada and thus must hope to compensate for that lack here.  Curiously, he might open against Garcia-Lopez or Benneteau, the former of whom defeated the reigning US Open champion on a hard court in 2010 and the latter of whom came within a point of doing so.  Wedged into his compatriot’s section once again, Verdasco will open Monday’s action by contesting an all-lefty battle with Bellucci, whose victory over him on clay this spring underscored the Spaniard’s woefulness this year.  Seeking to repeat his epic Rogers Cup victory over Youzhny, Llodra adds another lefty to this section but not a Rafa-upset threat.  Instead, the most probable challenge to the Spaniard’s semifinal route will come from three-time US Open Series finalist Fish, who bravely battled Djokovic in Canada before falling short yet again.  That disappointment appeared to weigh heavily upon the top-ranked American and may have drained him emotionally before a tournament where he twice has charged within a set of the title.  Lurking in his vicinity are Murray-killer Kevin Anderson and Federer-killer Gasquet.  Neither of them has both the weapons and versatility of the world #7, yet either could exploit a day when his serve dips or his feet grow sluggish.  Solving Fish in all six of their meetings, albeit only once in the last three years, Nadal probably will not stumble against him here.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Final:  Djokovic vs. Tsonga

At the Rogers Cup trophy presentation, Fish playfully teased Djokovic that the rest of the tour has “gotten tired” of the Serb’s supremacy.  Just as playfully, Djokovic retorted “I’m not getting tired of this.”  Until the top seed and undisputed king of the ATP hill does,…

Champion:  Djokovic

Maria Sharapova Kim Clijsters (R) of Belgium and Maria Sharapova of Russia poses with their individual trophies during the singles final match on day seven of the Western & Southern Financial Group Women's Open on August 15, 2010 at the Lindner Family Tennis Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.

First quarter:  After a modest first half in 2010, Wozniacki caught fire at the stage of this season and lost only two matches thereafter.  Having suffered a demoralizing loss to Vinci in her Rogers Cup opener, the great Dane should experience few difficulties with the inexperienced McHale or the underpowered Pironkova, virtually just a Wimbledon threat.  Forestalled in Toronto, a potential third-round meeting with Ivanovic could occur in Cincinnati, but poised to repeat her upsets one or both of the glamor girls is Vinci once again.  Wimbledon champion Kvitova may pursue revenge against Canada conqueror Petkovic, who built upon her San Diego semifinal with a quarterfinal last week.   Intelligently deconstructing the erratic Czech, the WTA’s lead dancer may find her swagger tested by the imposing serve of Gajdosova, who won a set from her earlier this year.  Of minor note in a section of three Slam champions and perhaps a future champion in Petkovic, Rebecca Marino possesses a thunderous serve that might trouble even Kvitova if her percentage stays high.  Kvitova pummeled Wozniacki at Wimbledon this year but has proved as inconsistent as the Dane has stayed steady (at least until recently).  Should they collide, one might favor the more businesslike Wozniacki in the unremarkable environment of Cincinnati, yet the fast courts should tilt in Kvitova’s favor.  A similar dynamic would define a potential meeting between the top seed and Petkovic, who conquered her in Miami.

Semifinalist:  Petkovic

Second quarter:  Bookended by a pair of flamboyant competitors, this section could several clashes of personalities.  Projected to reprise their Roland Garros duel are the counterpunching, movement-centered styles of Jankovic and Schiavone, both of whom have looked as flat as the American Midwest since the clay season.  On the other hand, Julia Goerges will fancy her chances of repeating last week’s thrashing of the former #1, her only win so far in the US Open Series.  More impressive this summer than her countrywoman, Lisicki followed her outstanding grass-court campaign with a Stanford semifinal before threatening Zvonareva in San Diego.  Absent from Toronto, she arrives more rested than her peers and certainly more confident than Peer, her first-round opponent.  A battle of blondes could occur in the second round between Lisicki and Azarenka, who restored order following her opening-round Stanford loss.  While falling to Serena in a routine semifinal, Vika nevertheless showcased sparkling groundstrokes and an improved sense of point construction that would have served her better against an opponent with a less overpowering serve.   If she can tame Lisicki’s similarly mighty delivery, she should advance more comfortably into a winnable quarterfinal.  More powerful than Schiavone, more motivated than Jankovic, and more consistent than Goerges, Azarenka may find that her path grows more accommodating rather than less as the week unfolds.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Third quarter:  How many more matches does Serena need before New York?  The answer appears to be zero, judging from her 11-match winning streak since her Wimbledon loss, and one wonders whether her focus will start to drift in her third preparatory event.  On the other hand, her champion-stuffed quarter might inspire Serena’s energies even if her brain counsels caution.  As early as the second round, the American might collide again with Sunday victim Stosur, while Roland Garros champion Li Na could await a match later.  Like Kvitova, Li may continue to struggle with adjusting to her sharply elevated status, especially outside China.  Desultory in her Rogers Cup loss, she has faltered often against both Serena and Stosur, who should prefer the faster Cincinnati courts.  Meanwhile, Sharapova will anticipate the daunting prospect of a second quarterfinal against the American in three tournaments.  Fallible this summer, the Wimbledon runner-up needs a momentum boost to catapult her into stronger contention at the US Open.  Fellow Russian Slam champion Kuznetsova could await in her second match, having won four of their nine previous meetings and a set from Maria here last year.  Whereas this season has witnessed a Sharapova resurgence, Sveta’s promising start has given way to deepening doldrums.  Just when one discounts her, though, she tends to deliver something remarkable.

Semifinalist:  S. Williams

Fourth quarter:  Among the most surprising upsets early in Toronto was the demise of Bartoli, who, like Sharapova, had surged through impressive fortnights at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.  The Stanford runner-up  coped with the heat better than one might have expected last year, defeating Wozniacki before falling to recurrent nemesis Sharapova.  Also impressive during the European spring, Hantuchova should encounter last year’s semifinalist Pavlyuchenkova in the second round in a battle of inspired shot-makers and indifferent movers.  Following her horrific week of 53 double faults in Baku, the Russian aims to recapture the promise that she displayed against Zvonareva and Schiavone at Roland Garros.  Dormant since reaching an Indian Wells semifinal, the 17th-seeded Wickmayer has struggled to curb her emotions under pressure but still owns an authoritative serve-forehand combinations reminiscent of Stosur and a natural athleticism reminiscent of Kuznetsova.  Resting rather meekly at the base of this draw, Zvonareva burst from a spring skid to reach the San Diego final before fading with consecutive losses to Radwanska.  In her last tournament before defending her 2010 US Open final appearance, the Russian needs all of the confidence that she can accumulate in order to steel herself for the scrutiny and pressure of New York.  Opening against one of two lefties, Martinez Sanchez or Makarova, Vera must impose her baseline rhythm upon their arrhythmic style.  Zvonareva may have caught a bit of luck in avoiding Jankovic, replaced by Wickmayer after Radwanska’s withdrawal, and she has enjoyed repeated success against Bartoli, including a Miami victory this year.

Semifinalist:  Zvonareva

Final:  Azarenka vs. S. Williams

In 2008, Serena swept consecutive tournaments in Bangalore, Miami, Charleston, a stretch during which she defeated five different top-five opponents.  A triple crown here would represent a feat no more impressive, especially since executed on the same surface (her favorite) and the same continent (where she lives).  The voice of reason says “Serena can’t win so many consecutive matches so early in her comeback.”  The voice of instinct says “When she plays at this level, who can beat her?”

Champion:  S. Williams (or Azarenka over Zvonareva in the final if she withdraws)

Novak Djokovic - Sony Ericsson Open

As two marquee events hover just beyond the horizon, we unfold some of the potential narratives to consider at this week’s small tournaments, overtures to the clay symphonies in Rome and Madrid.

The march to 28-0 (Belgrade):  Notably absent from Nadal’s triumphal parade through Monte Carlo and Barcelona was his North American bête noir.  Seeking a well-deserved respite during the past two weeks, Djokovic now will ease into his clay campaign at home against a draw otherwise headlined by Troicki, Garcia-Lopez, and Montanes .  The world #2’s unblemished 2011 record should survive this week unscathed, placing him in position to win his first 30 matches of the season should he reach the Madrid quarterfinals.  A staggering accomplishment by any measure, this current winning streak has come at the expense of redoubtable foes who demanded a high degree of focus.  Will Djokovic let that focus slip when he faces less heralded opponents?  Although he will bask in the adulation of his compatriots, he finds himself in a position where anything less than a dominant charge to the title will register as a disappointment.  Rafa handled a similar situation masterfully in Barcelona, and now we will find whether Novak can match his poise.  On the other hand, nobody in the draw probably possesses the necessary nerve—and perhaps nastiness—to ruin the Serb’s homecoming.

Digging out of doldrums (Estoril):  Anchoring the Portuguese draw, Soderling and Verdasco would benefit enormously from a jolt of momentum before the lucrative events ahead.   No elite contender has endured an odder start to the season than the Swede, who won three of his first four tournaments and 19 of his first 20 matches but lost before the quarterfinals in Melbourne, Indian Wells, and Miami.  Hampered in recent weeks by both illness and injury, Soderling did not quite excel during the road to Roland Garros last season but reversed his fortunes with frightening speed.  In fact, he dropped his Nice opener just a week before launching his second straight finals run in Paris.  Perhaps in greater need of psychological succor, therefore, is the Spaniard who stalked away from Barcelona in pique when the tournament denied him a wildcard.  Verdasco’s injured pride may finally catalyze his revival from a period of irritable listlessness that has precipitated his tumble from the top 10.  Situated among the less dangerous half of the draw, he should encounter less sturdy resistance than Soderling.  Succumbing to Del Potro in Miami, the Swede may well confront the 2009 Roland Garros semifinalist again in the quarterfinals, when this gentle seaside town could witness some fantastically ungentle ball-striking.

Backhands do battle (Munich):  While Soderling and Verdasco aim to shift into a higher gear, several of the players at the BMW tournament hope to change the direction of their vehicles entirely.  Chief among them is world #39 Nikolay Davydenko, who in about fifteen months has fallen from a top-8 seed in Melbourne to a top-8 seed in Munich.  The former World Tour Finals champion has unleashed some of his finest tennis on clay, even troubling Nadal four years ago in Rome.  Despite fleeting signs of revival, though, his scintillating groundstrokes have not regained their sting from late 2009 since a wrist injury.  More perplexing is the decline of former prodigy Marin Cilic, who has quietly receded without suffering substantial injury.  Their two-handers could collide in a quarterfinal, while another quarterfinal could feature the elegant one-handers of Kohlschreiber and Wawrinka.  Without Federer looming above him, the Swiss #2 will have the opportunity to exhibit the clay skills that carried him to the Rome final three years ago.  Atop the draw looms yet another fine one-hander in Youzhny, rarely a threat on clay and a possible second-round victim for Barcelona semifinalist Ivan Dodig.  Otherwise, the Russian might confront the dangerous, flat two-hander of Baghdatis.  While improving his fitness, the Cypriot has continued his frustratingly erratic results this year, and he faces an intriguing early test against the much-discussed teenager Grigor Dimitrov.

A Groth by any other name (Estoril): Uncoupled this month from her Aussie husband, the former Slovak hopes that her tennis does not revert to a pre-Groth state together with her name.  A generally solid start to 2011 for Gajdosova augurs well for her ability to wreak limited havoc on clay.   Although few would envy her movement on the surface, she possess sufficient power to hit through even the slowest surface and, like her compatriot Stosur, will enjoy the additional time to measure her groundstrokes.  Thus, one hopes that her divorce and Fed Cup disappointment do not weigh heavily upon her shoulders.  While few bold-faced names here have earned their living during the European spring, the paceless groundstrokes of Sevastova and Zakopalova could trouble the unwary on such a slow surface.  Still unseeded after a strong Miami performance, Medina Garrigues might navigate deeper into this draw than one might expect.  Likewise of note are two youngsters, Radwanska’s sister Urszula and Fez runner-up Simona Halep, a Romanian more natural on clay than many of her peers.

The crucible of clay (Barcelona):  In 2010, the WTA champion at this tiny event brought home the ultimate clay prize from Paris.  Few are the suspects who could repeat the feat this year, although Schiavone would remind us that “nothing is impossible.”  Is the impossible nothing for Alexandra Dulgheru, a clay specialist who reached the quarterfinals in Miami?  Or for Tsvetana Pironkova, a Wimbledon semifinalist last year who has almost entirely evaporated since?  Lightning rarely strikes twice, but beware of taking anyone too lightly in the WTA’s current whirlwind of flux.

1) 1812 Overture: Like Napoleon’s Grande Armée two centuries ago, French invaders temporarily occupied Moscow before valiant Russian resistance forced them to retreat.  Cast in the role of Marshal Kutuzov was the equally wily Shamil Tarpischev, who combined patience with inspiration as a disastrous Saturday turned into a dazzling Sunday.  Initially controlling the opening rubber, Kuznetsova drifted into complacency just as her opponent Alize Cornet began to believe that she actually could win a match for her country.  Tenuously committed to Fed Cup at best, Russian flagship Sharapova then subjected her compatriots to an avalanche of 46 unforced errors that secured her Olympic eligibility in addition to a commanding lead for France.  Staggering from this Battle of Borodino, Tarpischev then replaced the three-time major champion with the plucky yet untested Pavlyuchenkova.  The WTA’s highest-ranked teenager breathed life into a moribund Russian squad by grinding her way past Cornet, who looked the heroine of the tie a set into the third rubber.   Atoning for the sins of Saturday, Kuznetsova firmly subdued Razzano and then returned with undiluted energy for the decisive doubles.  After a nervy first set, Sveta and Nastia savaged Coin and a more familiar version of Cornet during a second set in which the home squad dropped just four total points.   A nation of limitless resources and legendary pugnacity, Russia should have surprised nobody in producing the first team to erase a 0-2 deficit since Fed Cup shifted to the five-rubber format.

2) Tension in Tasmania: Behind an unremarkable 4-1 scoreline smoldered the most scintillating Fed Cup tie of the weekend, which opened with three fiercely contested three-setters.  In the tranquil surroundings of Hobart, the defending champions needed all of Pennetta’s poise and Schiavone’s swagger to escape a confident home squad.  Tiebreaks and deuce service games proliferated from the outset as Groth and Stosur pitted their power against Italian versatility.  Losing two epic encounters in a 24-hour span, the Australian #1 will wonder how the weekend might have unfolded had she capitalized upon the momentum of Groth’s opening upset over Schiavone by serving out the first set against Pennetta.  Unbroken by that disappointment, however, she competed valiantly through the second set before her flagging self-belief betrayed her in the third.  Stosur then starred in an eerily similar script on Sunday, which featured a rematch of the 2010 Roland Garros final that trumped the original in drama if not in quality.  Despite a ghastly first-set tiebreak, Sam regrouped to deliver a dominant second set and looked superior early in the decider.  Narrowly surviving that sequence, Schiavone then turned the tide almost imperceptibly as her service games grew smoother and the Australian’s games more turbulent.  Battling even more doggedly than on the previous day, the Australian erased four match points in a resilient effort from which she could (and should) take pride although not a victory.  We sympathize with her while applauding Pennetta’s 10-match Fed Cup winning streak and Schiavone’s indefatigable willpower.

3) Ivan the Terrible: In the second round of the Australian Open, a virtually unknown Croat named Ivan Dodig extended Djokovic to four sets in the only blemish on the eventual champion’s otherwise flawless fortnight.  Although the Serb promptly punished him for that affront, this implausible home hero kept the Zagreb title in local hands for the third consecutive year with victories over four seeded players during which he dropped just one total set.  Filling the void left by a perplexing Cilic, the 26-year-old Dodig ousted Granollers, Ljubicic, and Garcia-Lopez before mastering his first career final with aplomb.  Well below the towering height of his most notable compatriots, he has contested just 29 singles matches in ATP main draws during a career mostly spent trudging between challengers and qualifying rounds.  Although figures like Dodig will not leave an impact upon the sport, this week reminded us that seemingly trivial tournaments like Zagreb enable opportunistic underdogs to shine.  Fellow journeymen who noticed his feat should pursue their mission with belief rekindled.

4) Standing tall (for now): Another first-time titlist from a home nation, Kevin Anderson emulated Dodig’s feat while standing eight inches taller than Croat on brittle-looking legs.  Equally precarious is the status of the Johannesburg tournament that Anderson won, which may become a victim of a 2012 calendar truncated for the Olympics.  One would not wish to see the ATP shrink an already tentative footprint on the African continent, but few spectators watch tournaments in hopes of seeing Izak van der Merwe, Somdeev Devvarman, and Adrian Mannarino, the three players who accompanied Anderson to the semifinals.  Unlike the once-embattled WTA Birmingham event, the South African tournament lacks a superstar commitment to shelter it.  As the case of Hamburg demonstrated, tournaments have scant recourse against the authority of the ATP, which often rules its dominions by arbitrary fiat.  On the other hand, perhaps Johannesburg can exploit the current uncertainty to escape its undesirable position on the calendar, for the week immediately following a Slam never will host a tournament of relevance.

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As the ATP spirals towards the close of its season, intriguing questions surround the four players atop its rankings.  Will Federer mitigate his Slam disappointment with an emphatic fall and a second straight Masters 1000 title?  Will Djokovic build upon his US Open heroics and conquer one of his three major rivals again?  Can Murray shrug off recent adversity more swiftly than after the Australian Open?  Or will Nadal continue to brush aside any and all challenges to his now unquestioned hegemony?  (Clearly, Uncle Toni never taught him the virtue of sharing with others.)

Nadal’s quarter:  With very little to motivate him this fall, Rafa nevertheless displayed largely focused tennis in Tokyo last week after a puzzling wobble in Bangkok.  A Shanghai finalist last year, the top seed begins against Wawrinka, who hasn’t defeated Nadal in six attempts but severely tested him earlier this summer at the Rogers Cup.  Beyond that initial challenge, few significant obstacles loom between the Spaniard and the final four, although defending champion Davydenko will seek to repeat his mini-upset over Rafa in the quarterfinals.  Posting an 11-11 record after returning from wrist surgery, the Russian hasn’t won more than two consecutive matches since February and has lost eight matches to players outside the top 50.  Like Wawrinka, he could challenge Nadal for a set or so, but he currently doesn’t possess the confidence or the consistency necessary to repeat the feat of 2009.  While opponents such as the burgeoning Istomin might seize inspiration from the ambush sprung by Garcia-Lopez and the near-ambush sprung by Troicki, Nadal rarely tolerates such unwelcome surprises early in Masters 1000 events.

Murray’s quarter:  This section seems the weakest in the draw, not least because the Scot is in it.  Moping his way to defeat against Ljubicic in Beijing, Murray still seems (understandably) disheartened by his New York disaster, much as he exuded deflation after losing the Melbourne final.  Judging by that earlier episode, he will spend the rest of his season nursing his fragile self-esteem back to health for 2011.  But a quirky collection of frail, enigmatic performers populate the fourth seed’s neighborhood, already a bit defanged by the first-round upset of the inflammable Almagro.  Mostly dormant since the grass season, Tsonga looked chronically fallible in a first-round victory over Lopez.  On the other hand, he has threatened Murray on fast courts and arguably should have won their Wimbledon quarterfinal if not for an untimely bit of carelessness in the second-set tiebreak.  A semifinalist at the US Open, Youzhny vindicated that victory with a title in Kuala Lumpur, although he struggled for much of that week against opponents well below his stature; in Beijing, he succumbed immediately to Ljubicic.  If Murray avoids spoilers like Chardy or Dolgopolov, he will hope to face the Russian rather than the Frenchman, for Youzhny’s artful style lacks the tectonic serve-groundstroke combinations that typically trouble the Scot…and that define Tsonga’s game.

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Federer’s quarter:  Apparently fascinated with the spectacle of the Swiss and the Swede, the draw deities again have situated them in the same section.  Nevertheless, these two bookends might find themselves toppled by one of the names between them, including the towering Isner.  Emboldened by a Beijing semifinal appearance, the American poses a perilous conundrum for Federer in his opener.  In order to capitalize upon his opportunities, the third seed must find his rhythm immediately and avoid any of his recently chronic profligacy.  Since he surged to the Australian Open semifinal, Cilic has stagnated if not regressed for much of 2010, so one suspects that Federer could handle him comfortably en route to a quarterfinal with Soderling or Ferrer.  Comprehensively dominating the world #5 in Beijing, the Spaniard reminded viewers of his underestimated hard-court talents by reaching the final of that event.  Meanwhile, the Swede has underachieved notably since Wimbledon.  Armed with a 23-1 record against Soderling and Ferrer combined, Federer might be forgiven for feeling a trifle complacent about his situation.  Complacency undermined him in his US Open semifinal with Djokovic, however, and he fell to the pedestrian Julien Benneteau at about this stage last year.  His thirst for majors only sparingly quenched in 2010, Federer should enter the fall season hungrier and more focused in 2011.

Djokovic’s quarter:  Having seized the Beijing title without the loss of a set, the Serb eyes an opener with Beijing semifinalist Ljubcic, who stunned him early in a fairytale fortnight at Indian Wells.  Restored to human form, the veteran Croat shouldn’t muster the relentless effort required to dispatch the reinvigorated Djokovic.  Much of the drama in this section may happen before the quarterfinal, including a first-round clash between Gulbis and Gasquet that opposes visceral force to deft versatility.  Also colliding in the first round are Roddick and Kohlschreiber, who delivered an entertaining four-setter at Wimbledon this year and a dazzling five-setter at the 2008 Australian Open.  Although Bangkok titlist and nascent Nadal-killer Garcia-Lopez might intend otherwise, either Kohlschreiber or Roddick likely will advance to a final-16 meeting with Berdych, brilliant in the first half but familiarly vulnerable in the second half.  (In fact, don’t be shocked if he falls to the tenacious Robredo on Tuesday.)  On the other side of the quarter, Djokovic could face Tokyo runner-up Monfils, who offered little resistance to the Serb at the US Open and flirts with drama too often to become a serious contender.  Dominated by Roddick since early 2009, the Serb probably would prefer a quarterfinal with Berdych.  Considering the American’s underwhelming second half, however, Djokovic might relish an opportunity to trumpet his revival by settling an old score.

***

As strongly as we’re tempted to choose a trendy draw-breaker in one of these sections, we have decided to unimaginatively stick with the top four seeds to reach their appointed destinations on Saturday.  We will return to Shanghai for semifinal and final previews (if not sooner) before reflecting upon the WTA’s new #1 early next week.

We’ve previewed the ATP and WTA cast of characters at Roland Garros rather thoroughly in the previous two posts, so there’s not much to add after the draw was released today.  Nevertheless, a few more specific pensées struck us as we perused it.  Ten of them, in fact.

1)  Nadal has time to find his rhythm:  Rafa’s initial cannon fodder, French wildcard Gianni Mina won’t enjoy what surely will be a brief visit to Court Philippe Chatrier.  The next two rounds probably feature Zeballos and Hewitt, neither of whom possesses the flat, relentlessly scorching groundstrokes required to trouble Nadal.  In the round of 16, the Spaniard could avenge a defeat to Indian Wells nemesis Ljubicic, not a formidable threat on clay; on the other hand, the flamboyant but raw and undisciplined Bellucci might await.  Likely to economically dispatch all of these adversaries, Nadal should be able to retain ample energy for the second week–bad news for his opponents.

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2)  Henin has virtually no time to find her rhythm:  As the defending ATP champion, Federer drew the WTA seeds and botched the business as badly as the last shot that he (didn’t) hit in Madrid.  Not only are four of the top five contenders are in the top half of the draw, but three of the top five are in the top quarter.  “Merci beaucoup,” says Justine, who confronts the grim prospect of defeating Sharapova, Stosur, Serena, and Jankovic back-to-back-to-back-to-back just in order to reach the final.  Barring some unexpected test, a supreme test of the petite Belgian’s durability looms.  Give her an extra round of applause if she surmounts all of these obstacles to capture her fifth French Open.

3)  The tennis gods are smiling on Venus:  It’s good to have a first-round opponent against whom one is 10-0 (Schnyder).  It’s better to have two potential quarterfinal opponents who combined to win three total matches in Rome and Madrid (Azarenka, Dementieva).  It’s best of all to be the only serious contender in one’s entire half with an open path towards one’s first non-Wimbledon Slam final since Nadal won his first French Open.  To be sure, it’s not so good to have the player who defeated you a week ago in the fourth round, but lightning probably won’t strike twice for Rezai.  In short, Venus got about as much aid as she could reasonably imagine from the deities of the draw.

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4)  The tennis gods are frowning on Verdasco:  After dazzling audiences in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Rome, the streaky Spaniard might have expected to translate that impetus into his second Slam semifinal appearance or even his first Slam final.  He must have been demoralized when Rafa was revealed as his quarterfinal opponent.  If he’s tired from Nice, moreover, he might struggle a round earlier to subdue Almagro, fresh from an exhilarating surge to the Madrid semifinals.

5)  Sharapova was wise to enter Strasbourg:  Recovering from an elbow injury, Maria will need the injection of momentum from that tournament in order to threaten Henin at all during their likely third-round encounter.  In the probable event that such an assignment proves too strenuous for the Russian, the points accumulated in Strasbourg will help to cushion her ranking against those that she would lose from an early exit, since Sharapova thundered to the quarterfinals last year with a dramatic sequence of four consecutive three-set triumphs.

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6)  Gasquet was wise to enter Nice:  The French-kissing Frenchman informed everyone who would listen that he had devoted considerable effort to preparing for the clay season…and then preceded to make no impact there whatsoever.  This week, though, he has strung together a few wins over rather pedestrian opposition in Nice.  Considering Murray’s less than convincing form on clay, Gasquet has a reasonable chance to record his third win in four meetings over the Scot.  Should he progress past that initial challenge, his draw could open up immensely; a deep run in Paris would elevate both his ranking and his confidence.

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7)  Ivanovic has a chance…:  …to reach the second week or even the quarters.  Despite her 2009 Australian Open loss to Kleybanova, one would give the Serb a substantial clay edge over the ponderous Russian, who has struggled since winning her maiden title in Kuala Lumpur this February.  A third-round clash with Radwanska beckons for Ana, who tested the Pole in Stuttgart despite playing far from her best; again, although by no means an easy assignment, it’s a winnable match if Ivanovic can maintain the level that she attained in Rome.  Beset by major physical and mental issues, Safina and Zvonareva represent the leading candidates for the fourth round, and we definitely would feel optimistic regarding her chances against either of those Russians.

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8)  Soderling doesn’t have a chance…:  …to repeat his 2009 performance.  Toting a three-match losing streak into the scene of his historic triumph last year, Soderling not only has no positive impetus upon which to build but also has drawn Federer in the quarterfinals.  He might not risk a 13th consecutive loss to the Swiss legend, however, since Gulbis should intersect his path in the fourth round.  Even the mind-numbingly steady Montanes might  be a bridge too far for the staggering Swede.

9)  There will be at least one surprise WTA semifinalist:  Bookended by defending champion Kuznetsova and the injured Wozniacki, the third quarter offers fertile terrain for a breakthrough similar to Stosur’s career-changing charge here last year.  Judging from recent results, Li Na and Safarova seem the most reasonable candidates; judging by clay expertise, the Italians Schiavone and Pennetta might have a chance, although their 2010 clay campaigns have been inconsistent at best.

10)  There will be at least one surprise ATP semifinalist:  Scanning the second quarter of the draw, we couldn’t locate a single remotely plausible contender in its ranks.  Garcia-Lopez and the aging Robredo are the only real clay experts in this district, for Murray, Tsonga, and Berdych enjoy their best results on faster surfaces.  So does Isner, but the American has acquitted himself competently thus far in the gritty grind.  No matter who does the dirty work, though, Federer (or perhaps Gulbis) will be waiting to feast in the semifinals.

***

Stay tuned for our first daily preview of the action at Roland Garros; “Feet and Feat of Clay” debuts tomorrow with highlight matches, potential upsets, and anything else that might catch our attention!

Sporting a suitably Visigothic coiffure, Ernests Gulbis swept down from the north and sacked the Rome draw by conquering Federer on Tuesday.  As the rest of the second round unfolded, fellow Visigoths such as Giraldo, Wawrinka, and Lopez plundered the palaces of patricians like Ferrero, Berdych, and Cilic; in fact, only half of the tournament’s sixteen seeds survived into Thursday.  We’ll preview the unpredictable matchups that have developed here, starting with the Latvian who spearheaded the assault of the underdogs.

Gulbis vs. Volandri (W):  Confronting the most recent Federer-killer is a Federer-killer from the past, who dethroned him here in 2007.  Since that career highlight, however, Volandri has accomplished little of significance, while Gulbis finally looks determined to unlock at least some of his immense potential.  Only two factors could hinder Ernests:  the post-Federer hangover and the Italian crowd.  In the past, he has struggled to capitalize upon triumphs over top players and lost immediately after defeating Djokovic in Brisbane last year.  However, the crowd will not be a factor unless the match stays tight, an unlikely scenario because the Italian has few weapons with which to counter the massive blows from Gulbis, named after Ernest Hemingway.  The bell tolls for Volandri.  Pick:  Gulbis.

Ljubicic (11) vs. Lopez:  Credit the Croat for refusing to rest on his laurels after winning the Indian Wells title.  His victory over dirt devil Nicolas Almagro bodes well for his chances over the upcoming weeks, but he shouldn’t underestimate the challenge posed by yet another left-handed Spaniard.  a 4-2 record against Ljubicic, Lopez consistently has troubled Ivan and won their only clay meeting.  Rebounding after losing a lopsided first set to Cilic, the Spaniard rose to the occasion late in the match and closed it out impressively.  Neither player enjoys the consistency necessary to grind from the baseline, so whoever serves more effectively and takes command early in the rallies will prevail.  Recently, few players have served better than Ljubicic.  Pick:  Ljubicic.

Nadal (3) vs. Hanescu:  The feat of clay vs. the feet of clay.  The Romanian startlingly won a set from Federer at Indian Wells, but it’s hard to imagine him making an impact against a player who will ruthlessly expose his abysmal movement.  Pick:  Nadal.

Wawrinka vs. Soderling (5):  You’ll want to leave the stadium to witness this potentially spectacular battle over on Pietrangeli.  Ever demanding on dirt, Wawrinka ambushed the resurgent Berdych in an epic secound-round encounter.  His resilience will test the Swede’s shotmaking prowess, which has been on scintillating display since Rotterdam on February.  While the relatively slow surface will aid the best Swiss player still in the singles, Djokovic found ways to hit through him rather comfortably in Monte Carlo.  Also, Soderling constructs points more carefully now than in the past and rarely succumbs to the impatient recklessness that once undermined him against ball-retrievers like Wawrinka.  Pick:  Soderling.

Tsonga (7) vs. Giraldo (Q) This match resembles a duel between a battleship and a tugboat.  Although Tsonga did suffer a DeBakkle in Barcelona, he smothered Troicki rather efficiently and should enjoy another routine victory unless his groundstrokes desert him entirely. Check out the Colombian’s crisp two-handed backhand if you find the opportunity, however; you might see more of it in the future.  Pick:  Tsonga.

Ferrer (13) vs. Murray (4):  This match is the only contest of the day between two seeded players, and it should vie with the Wawrinka-Soderling duel for the most compelling entertainment.  Halting an brutal three-match losing streak with an opening win over Seppi, the fourth seed is seeking to regain confidence before the annual crusade at the All England Club.  Never at ease on this surface, he lost to the clay specialist Juan Monaco here last year and must serve impressively in order to overcome Ferrer.  On a hot streak since Miami, the indefatigable Spaniard relishes the dirt as much as anyone.  If Ferrer can work his way into rallies and wage a war of attrition, he’ll have a strong chance to pull off the upset.  Pick:  Ferrer.

Verdasco (6) vs. Garcia-Lopez:  Reaching the Monte Carlo final and snatching the Barcelona title from Soderling, Verdasco hasn’t lost on clay this year to anyone not named Nadal.  Despite a solid win over Hewitt in the previous round, Garcia-Lopez lacks the ability to pull off a convincing Rafa impersonation.  Pick:  Verdasco.

Bellucci vs. Djokovic (2):  The 2008 champion and 2009 runner-up may be rather relieved to have been spared the ordeal of taming Isner’s serve.  Steadily progressing during the last several months, the Brazilian lefty might create some engaging rallies and showcased an intelligent all-court game during his first two rounds.  Nevertheless, he lacks both the consistency and the experience to discomfit Djokovic if the Serb’s serve proves even modestly effective.  Pick:  Djokovic.

***

Most of the Stuttgart matches tomorrow seem rather predictable, but the all-Belgian clash between Henin and Wickmayer stands as an exception.  Although Henin won their three-set meeting in Melbourne this year, Wickmayer demonstrated not only her sturdy technique and judicious shot selection but a degree of self-belief impressive for her age.  After winning Auckland and playing the Australian Open qualifying, she faded physically late in that match; now, the younger Belgian has the physical advantage as a result of Henin’s injured finger.  One has to favor the four-time French Open champion to ultimately prevail, yet we expect to see a fiercely competitive encounter contested at a consistently high level. 

We’ll be back with a joint preview of the quarterfinals in both Rome and Stuttgart.  Enjoy the round of 16!