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Playing a little free association with the words “Henin,” “Sharapova,” and “Madrid,” the 2007 year-end championships final springs to mind, an instant classic in which the statuesque Russian and the petite Belgian fired groundstroke missiles at each other for nearly three and a half electrifying hours.  In their very next trip to the Spanish capital, however, the two former #1s tumbled consecutively to a pair of streaky but second-tier players. 

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Returning from yet another injury and playing on her least comfortable surface, Sharapova wouldn’t have expected to pull off a deep run here and probably would have fallen to Dementieva in the third round even if she had won today.  The Russian has played just nine matches this year and scored just one win outside her title run in Memphis, so she’ll head to Strasbourg hoping to settle into a rhythm before Roland Garros (and perhaps test out what may or may not be a Head racket).  Parallel to 2009, though, Maria’s main goal will be to accumulate match play before the fast-surface summer rather than to peak at the French Open, where she won’t be and has never been among the leading contenders.  A high-risk game like hers doesn’t incorporate the margin for error necessary to win seven consecutive matches on a surface that rewards consistency more than shot-making.  Maria’s best tennis probably lies behind her, for one senses that her career peaked with her dizzyingly brilliant fortnight at the 2008 Australian Open, the most dominant single-Slam performance in recent memory according to such a perfectionist as Martina Navratilova (who ought to know).  But few players can equal the relentless competitive willpower that she brings to the court when healthy and confident.  Don’t be surprised to see Sharapova resurface on the North American hard courts, as she did last year, and progress deep into some significant draws in the season’s second half.

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On the other hand, Henin indeed will be among the leading contenders (if not the leading contender) for the clay-court crown, and her illness-influenced loss to Rezai raises serious questions about her physical durability, problematic thus far in her comeback but essential for her to dominate Paris.  Rivals such as Jankovic and Serena will be encouraged to think that they might be able to claim the French Open title without confronting the Belgian, while the WTA rank-and-file will enter early-round matches against her without the conviction that victory would be “Mission Impossible,” in Rezai’s words.  Furthermore, she squandered a golden opportunity to gain a top-16 seeding at Roland Garros, which would have afforded her one additional round to find her comfort zone before meeting a marquee opponent.  After a hideous loss to Dulko in Indian Wells, however, Henin charged to the semifinals in Miami and nearly conquered eventual champion Clijsters, so don’t underestimate this feisty competitor’s ability to rebound from discouraging losses (see our article on the Art of Amnesia below).  She’ll have plenty of time to rest, recover from this illness, and acclimate herself to the Paris conditions before most of the other contenders arrive. 


It’ll be intriguing to see whether the wave of upsets in the opening weekend, which began with Kuznetsova’s Saturday loss, will trickle into Monday and Tuesday.  We take a look at a handful of Monday matches that each offer something to ponder:

Safina-Zakopalova:  Wobbly so far in her return from a back injury, the defending champion couldn’t have asked for a better opener than against Zakopalova…or for a worse opener.  The 28-year-old Czech lacks any real weapon but can retrieve ball after ball after ball, as Serena discovered to her dismay in a three-set marathon at last year’s French Open.  Safina won’t have to worry about being hustled off the court before she can find a rhythm; she’ll have plenty of chances to work her way through rallies and construct points, so in a sense the matchup is ideal.  On the other hand, an inconsistent evening from the Russian could be a prolonged trip to the torture chamber, since Zakopalova misses very few balls at all and loves to wage a war of attrition, for which Safina is currently unready.  Either way, it’ll be a timely opportunity for her to practice the vital skill of controlled aggression, always a test for her slim patience.

Kvitova-Wozniacki:  The world #2 lost to one lefty in Stuttgart (Sharapova-killer Safarova) and another lefty in Rome (Martinez Sanchez); here comes a third lefty in the opening round of Madrid.  Between Indian Wells and an untimely injury in Charleston, Wozniacki looked ready to take a major step forward, justify her inflated ranking, and perhaps even challenge for the Roland Garros title.  Since she still relies excessively on her movement and ball-retrieving skills, threats to mobility such as this ankle injury could undermine her capacity to outlast streaky shotmakers like Kvitova, who pummeled Zvonareva in Rome last week.   The Pole-Dane should come through because Kvitova tends to go cold at the wrong time, but expect Wozniacki’s wheels to be tested. 

Zvonareva-Venus:  We weren’t quite sure what to expect from either of these players after their dismal exits from Rome, including the worst loss of Venus’ professional career.  In the opening round, however, the American registered a sturdy serving performance, while the Russian routinely knocked off Oudin for the third time in 2010.  (Wasn’t the pugnacious Georgian supposed to be especially good against Russians?)  Venus has won their last six meetings, of which three were on clay, so on paper she appears the heavy favorite.  Nobody saw the horrific Rome loss on the horizon after a pair of capable wins there, though, and the elder Williams sister dropped her second-round match to Kleybanova here last year.  Solid with both sets of groundstrokes, Zvonareva has more than enough ability to grind down an erratic Venus from the baseline, as did Jankovic, or punish her for an off-key serving day.  Considering Venus’ struggles on clay, one imagines that Vera will see an opportunity sometime; can she hold her nerve and convert?

Cirstea-Pennetta:  Picking Pennetta to reach the Rome semis, we felt that she would be buoyed by her recent Fed Cup success, her Andalusia title, and the home crowd.  How wrong we were (although not as wrong as when we picked Henin to win here); the Italian extracted just three games from Safarova in the second round on a very bleak day for her countrywomen, who won nine total games in four matches.  2010 has been surprisingly inconsistent for Pennetta, so far largely unable to capitalize upon the momentum from her strong second half in 2009.  Across the net, Cirstea seems to be finally emerging from a protracted slump by hiring Azarenka architect Antonio van Grichen and scoring a handful of wins during the clay season.  There’s plenty of potential for van Grichen to unlock, as Jankovic could attest after dropping a 9-7 third set to the charismatic Romanian at Roland Garros last year.  Can the stagnating veteran use her experience to prevail over the burgeoning youngster?

Li-Garcia Vidagany:  We hear the contemptuous chuckles from those of you who missed the Marbella event.  Before the dust had settled from Miami, Garcia Vidagany had stunned Clijsters in that lush Mediterranean resort.  Kudos to her for building upon the momentum by qualifying for another of her home tournaments here.  It’s unrealistic to expect her to defeat Li, but we’re curious to see whether this 21-year-old can muster something that will keep her name on our radar, at least for small events.  A competitive effort in this match would do so.


After Monday’s light canape, Tuesday should offer a delicious selection of tapas, not least the Ivanovic-Jankovic and Berdych-Nalbandian encounters.  We’ll be back to set the table for you tomorrow…