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The contrast between efficient and inefficient tennis couldn’t have been much starker than in consecutive ATP matches on Court Philippe Chatrier.  While Federer never opened a window of opportunity for Alejandro Falla, Gael Monfils opened windows and doors aplenty for Fabio Fognini, nearly jumping out of a window himself before the setting sun conspired with the Frenchman to deny the Italian three match points.  We checked out on this match when Monfils led by two sets and a break, then checked out again when he led by a double break in the fourth set; unfortunately for him, though, Gael checked out on both of those occasions as well.  Over on Lenglen, meanwhile, Soderling made even Federer look positively profligate with a 71-minute evisceration of Taylor Dent, who deserves credit for swallowing the humiliation in a sportsmanlike manner (ahem, Querrey?).  Kuznetsova looked Doomed with a capital D against an inspired Petkovic until the German uncharacteristically succumbed to nerves and threw Sveta not one but four lifelines.  In other WTA news, Safarova joined fellow clay season sensations Martinez Sanchez and Gulbis on the ferry to London; even Rezai wallowed through a three-setter on Wednesday, suggesting that those much-hyped Rome and Madrid results may hold as much water as a shot glass.  We’re eagerly awaiting Rezai-Petrova on Friday, but first there’s a bit of business involving three Serbs on a Thursday.

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Jankovic (4) vs. Kanepi (Q) (Chatrier, 1st match):  The architect of Jankovic’s demise a year ago in Dubai, Kanepi has struggled during recent months and surprisingly was forced to qualify here.  Not renowned for her clay prowess, the Estonian defeated none other than Henin in Fed Cup a few weeks ago; the four-time French Open champion admittedly was fatigued from Stuttgart and coping with a broken finger, but still…it’s Henin.  On the other hand, the savage but erratic baseline-bashing of Kanepi (not unlike Djokovic’s first-round opponent, Korolev) should provide an excellent foil for Jankovic in her quest to claim a first Slam, seemingly within the Serb’s grasp here.  In fact, we’d even say that circumstances from her recent resurgence to her tranquil draw and Henin’s contrastingly mountainous path have aligned almost ideally in her favor, which probably means that Jelena will find a way to botch the opportunity eventually.  It won’t happen here, however, for JJ’s superb ball-retrieving will enable her to wear down Kanepi after the type of inspiring defensive display that clay regularly rewards.

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Nishikori vs. Djokovic (3) (Lenglen, 3rd match):  Watching the Bolletieri Academy’s Japanese star outlast Ferrer (a rare event indeed) at the 2008 US Open, we were struck by the resemblance between his game and the Spaniard’s.  If Nishikori successfully impersonates Ferrer’s gritty tenacity, Djokovic might find his fitness severely tested in an endless sequence of baseline exchanges.   As mentioned above, his first-round opponent possesses precisely the opposite style, designed to win short points on fast surfaces; consequently, the Serb’s questionable physical condition wasn’t fully examined.  But one should remember that Nishikori’s own fitness may be a few notches below its best in the aftermath of a thrilling comeback from a two-set deficit against an emerging Santiago Giraldo.  Moreover, Djokovic should be able to break (or at least create opportunities to break) with sufficient frequency to take mental pressure off his own serve.  Although the recent rainy weather favors Nishikori’s counterpunching game, Novak should profit from his vastly superior experience to escape this tricky encounter.  If he wavers early, though, stay alert.

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Kleybanova (28) vs. Ivanovic (Court 1, 1st match):  They’ve clashed three times since the beginning of 2009, of which the Russian has claimed two (Australian Open 2009, Fed Cup 2010).  Having scored upsets over Clijsters and Jankovic as well as Ivanovic, Kleybanova regularly has thrilled us with her competitive fire and fascinating angles; no player came closer to defeating Henin in Melbourne before the final.  (Without being unkind, we also should note that the Russian’s movement is surprisingly effective for a player of her physique.)  In Canada last year, we attended her 3½-hour marathon against Jankovic, during which her poise and desire glowed ever more brightly as the match grew tighter.  Nevertheless, Ana possesses a distinct edge on the surface, which is her favorite and Kleybanova’s least favorite.  Although the Serb struggled immensely with her serve during her opener, she looked consistently comfortable with the shot during her Rome run, where the confidence that she gained from it infused the rest of her game.  While Kleybanova does have the psychological advantage from the head-to-head, Ana did defeat her in Dubai last year even in the midst of her slump and thus should enter the match knowing that she can win against the Russian.  It’s an opportunity for her to make a modest but important statement. 

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Hantuchova (23) vs. Govortsova (Court 3, 3rd match—4th including Baghdatis completion):  A late addition to our preview, this match opposes two competitors who effectively were off the radar several months ago but have since awakened…at least for now.  We were delighted to watch the elegant Slovak resurface with a finals appearance in Monterey, a near-quarterfinal appearance in Miami, and a semifinal appearance in Charleston.  One would think that Hantuchova’s high-risk shotmaking and limited movement wouldn’t suit the clay, yet she trains regularly in Monte Carlo and previously has prospered in tournaments such as Rome.  To be sure, Slams are not a comfort zone for the easily unnerved Hantuchova, who has endured excruciating meltdowns on the sport’s grandest stages.  Once considered a potential top-20 or top-30 prospect before a moribund stretch, Govortsova stirred into life at the end of 2009 by reaching the Moscow final; this year, she plowed into the Amelia Island final before seriously threatening Safarova in Rome and Madrid.  (Ordinarily, “threatening Safarova” doesn’t exactly impress, but the streaky Czech compiled one of the best clay seasons of anyone before ignominiously exiting Roland Garros on Wednesday.)  The Slovak and the Belarussian have split their last two meetings, the last of which was won by Hantuchova in a third-set tiebreak after Govortsova had held match points.  Both players are notoriously uncomfortable with any sort of lead, no matter how vast, so don’t tune out on this one even if it looks lopsided early.

Shvedova vs. Radwanska (8) (Court 4, 1st match):  High on velocity and low on nuance, Shvedova always will enjoy more significant success on hard court than clay, yet she smoothly dismantled Italian clay-court specialist Errani in her opener.  Low on velocity and high on nuance, Radwanska theoretically should thrive at Roland Garros but in fact much prefers the grass of Wimbledon, where she is a two-time quarterfinalist.  The Pole’s comfortable win over Shvedova just weeks ago in Miami suggests that she should defuse the Kazakh just as she has defused so many more notable sluggers.  All the same, this match should provide an engaging puncher-counterpuncher contrast rather akin to Jankovic-Kanepi.  Although one always should favor the counterpuncher on clay, one need look no further than Soderling to remember the increasing success of offensive players at Roland Garros, where the grit is not quite as sluggish as it once was.

Seppi vs. Kohlschreiber (30) (Court 17, 3rd match):  This Transalpine confrontation opposes a mercurial German to a steady Italian, just the reverse of what one would associate with both nationalities.  While that stereotype-shattering fact alone might warrant a brief trip to Court 17, don’t forget that Kohlschreiber has achieved remarkable results both at Slams and on clay, defeating Roddick in a thrilling five-setter at the 2008 Australian Open, Djokovic at the 2009 French Open, and Murray at this year’s Monte Carlo. In the latter tournament, he produced a highly competitive pas de deux with Ferrer, perhaps the greatest dirt devil of all outside Nadal.  Like Dulko, Kohlschreiber unfortunately doesn’t follow his huge wins with deep runs on most occasions.  Nevertheless, his ability to hit winners off his sturdy forehand and his gorgeous one-handed backhand should trump the Italian’s forehand-reliant game.  On this occasion, we favor the counterpuncher over the puncher.

Briefly noted:  The sight of aging serve-and-volley artist Mardy Fish in the second round of Roland Garros was arguably as unexpected as the sight of Taylor Dent there.  On Thursday, Mardy faces a player with a similarly serve-based style and the same odd affinity for Indian Wells, Ivan Ljubicic; while the American came within a set of netting the 2008 title after upsetting Federer in the semis, the Croat stunned Nadal and Roddick to capture this year’s title.  Ever a perfectionist, Serena reported dissatisfaction over a first-round win that lacked the customary authority with which she customarily dispatches overmatched opponents like Stefanie Voegele.  We’ll be interested to note whether her disgruntled demeanor persists in a second round against the less overmatched Julia Goerges, or whether the world #1 will have settled into the tournament.  On the other hand, little sister’s tournament started much more impressively than the 2009 edition, when Klara Zakopalova dragged her into a three-set torture chamber.  This year, the Czech ball-retriever seeks to turn the screws on Henin, whose sporadic inconsistency in her comeback might prolong matters but probably won’t derail her progress.  Unless Flipkens renders her fellow Belgian some unexpected assistance, though, the competition will elevate dramatically (haha) in the next round.

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A rather painful episode of déjà vu occurred today for the star-crossed Richard Gasquet, who watched a two-set-and-break lead evaporate against Murray for the second time.  Probably better suited for the compressed best-of-three format, the Frenchman’s electrifying shotmaking fails to compensate for his lack of physical (and mental) fitness at majors.  With relatively little at stake, Murray deserves credit for staying focused until Gasquet faded once again; this instinctive will to compete comprises an essential trait of a champion.  Elsewhere, Taylor Dent cracked the fastest serve in Roland Garros history…and actually won the match.  (We know that Andy will be eyeing the radar tomorrow in an effort to eclipse that 149-mph bomb, but wet conditions won’t aid his cause.)  In previous French Opens, serving records generally have not produced positive outcomes; Venus broke the WTA Slam speed record in a 2007 loss to Jankovic, while Karlovic broke the single-match Slam ace record in a defeat to Hewitt last year.  Finally, Ivanovic delivered a characteristically candid post-match interview that was much more intriguing than her opening victory.  Documenting the Serb’s mental oscillations between confidence and uncertainty, it’s worth a read for Ana fans (go to the Roland Garros site, click on News and Photos, then Interviews).  As she tries to “move on and get better” from match to match, we move on to Day 3.

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Pironkova vs. Henin (22) (Chatrier, 1st match):  Perhaps a shade more familiar than the typical 22nd seed, Henin will be sure to reawaken blissful memories in the multitudes of quasi-compatriots eager to celebrate her return to Roland Garros.  The four-time defending champion ignites what will be an extremely demanding fortnight (judging from her draw) against a player whom she once considered a future contender.  Her tennis tomorrow will need to be more impressive than her prognosticating skills then, for Pironkova hasn’t accomplished anything remarkable at significant events; nevertheless, she did defeat a sub-par Dementieva in Warsaw last week.  A quintessential pusher, the Bulgarian projects almost no power at all behind her serves and groundstrokes, relying on movement and consistency to prolong points until her opponent commits errors.  Although Henin’s heightened aggression has produced recurrent flurries of miscues, she should find her range sooner or later.  Pironkova’s pacelessness should allow the Belgian to measure her groundstrokes on the clay, providing her with a useful reference point for tenser encounters in the imminent future.

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Hewitt (28) vs. Chardy (Chatrier, 4th match):  While neither player especially enjoys this surface, the match offers an intriguing contrast between a wily, tenacious veteran and a flamboyant, temperamental star of the future.  Or at least the French hope that Chardy delivers upon his promise, since recent evidence has not been impressive.  Can Hewitt’s grittier mentality enable him to outlast the younger player just as another Anglophone competitor survived a Frenchman on Day 2?  Or will Chardy’s more forceful serve-forehand combinations penetrate the court too effectively, miring the Australian deep behind the baseline?  Note the duration of the rallies, which will favor Chardy if relatively short and Hewitt if they extend longer.  Also observe the impact of the Paris crowd on yet another of les bleues, some of whom (Gasquet, Mauresmo) have appeared burdened by expectations and others of whom (Tsonga, Monfils) have relished the adulation.  On the other hand, something more than fanatical Frenchies is required to rattle Hewitt.

Safina (9) vs. Date Krumm (Lenglen, 2nd match):  The Russian seeks her third consecutive finals appearance at Roland Garros after finishing runner-up to Ivanovic and Safina, but it’s unrealistic to expect the realization of that goal in the aftermath of her back surgery.  Winning just one total match at Stuttgart, Rome, and Madrid, Safina could fall well outside the top 10 and possibly outside the top 20 if she falters here.  Opposite her stands the artful, seemingly ageless Date, whose enduring affection for the game inspired her improbable return.  Unsurprisingly, she hasn’t toppled many high-profile foes in the comeback, yet she did win the Seoul title and has taken sets from elite players such as Wozniacki.  The match rests in Safina’s control, which is not necessarily good news for her; in a similar situation against the pedestrian Zakopalova in Madrid, she coughed up leads in both sets before crumbling under pressure in two tiebreaks.  Should she establish an early lead, she might cruise.  If she doesn’t, we could witness a lively rollercoaster that would compensate for mediocre tennis with high-quality drama.

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Cornet vs. Pavlyuchenkova (29) (Court 1, 1st match):  Long considered future superstars by their respective nations, these expectation-laden phenoms have not quite delivered on their promise—the French much more notably than the Russian.  One can trace Cornet’s implosion to the two match points that she squandered against Safina in the fourth round of last year’s Australian Open.  Had she converted one of those opportunities, she would have reached a first Slam quarterfinal and possibly sparked a breakthrough season; instead, her understandable deflation combined with a  shoulder injury to completely reverse her momentum.  Although Pavlyuchenkova hasn’t endured a similarly spectacular collapse, the Russian has wavered after what seemed a career-changing surge into last year’s Indian Wells semifinals.  She has struggled notably on the largest stages over the past year and has been hobbled by a foot injury in recent weeks.  It’ll be intriguing to observe whether Pavlyuchenkova can recapture the form that brought her to the second week here in 2009, or whether Cornet can muster momentum from encouraging performances in Fez and Estoril.  The French crowd will be firmly on her side, but she might be better off if they weren’t.

Ferrero (16) vs. Cuevas (Court 1, 3rd match):  Our last sight of the polished, gracefully aging Ferrero was his ignominious opening defeat in Rome at the unexpected hands of Santiago Giraldo.  (The Colombian displayed a crisp game that day, but a former French Open champion needs to win more than three games from an unseeded challenger.)  Shortly afterwards, a knee injury compelled Juan Carlos to withdraw from his home even in Madrid, a pity considering his near-total dominance of the South American clay courts in February.  It’ll be intriguing to observe what attitude the former French Open champion brings to his clash with the Uruguayan clay-court doubles specialist Pablo Cuevas.  Gifted with an elegant backhand, Cuevas has overcome adversaries as accomplished as Almagro on this surface, so he could penalize an unconvincing Ferrero.  Above all, though, this duo should deliver a classic exhibit of clay-court tennis rather than awkwardly adapting hard-court styles to the dirt as is so often the case in the contemporary game.  Watching players like these, one learns to relish the variety among tennis surfaces and regret the current trend towards uniform surface speed.

Ginepri vs. Querrey (18) (Court 2, 2nd match):  We’ll admit immediately that these two Americans are no clay experts and in fact are occasionally embarrassed by the vagaries of the surface.  This clash caught our attention not from the brilliant technique that they’ll display but from its psychological component.  Losing their previous meeting in the Indianapolis final despite a far more imposing serve, Querrey brings that mental baggage to the court as well as the baggage of never having won a match at Roland Garros.  It’s not surprising that his strategically limited game hasn’t succeeded here in the past, yet the sometimes complacent American has typically underwhelmed at Slams in general, not a positive sign for his future.  He can’t keep writing off early, disappointing losses as learning experiences forever, nor can he continue losing lackadaisically on important occasions to respectable but unintimidating players like Ginepri.  There’s a fine line between relaxed and lackadaisical that the loose-limbed Californian needs to find soon.

Peer (18) vs. Llagostera Vives (Q) (Court 6, 1st match):  Generally not renowned for her clay-court skills, the Israeli smoothly navigated a pair of formidable draws to reach the semifinals in Stuttgart and Madrid.  In that infamous top quarter of the WTA draw, Peer’s days are certainly numbered, for she could face Serena in the round of 16.  Nevertheless, this tournament represents an opportunity to extend the momentum from the Premier events into Wimbledon and the summer hard courts, where she has prospered more often.  Toting a name as long as she is short, Llagostera Vives has achieved resounding success in doubles with Martinez Sanchez but can be crafty in singles as well.  Peer will be cast in the role of the aggressor, an unaccustomed and perhaps uncomfortable position for her.  We should see a match defined by intelligent point construction and mental tenacity much more than baseline bullets.  Neither of these players can survive with the top-tier sluggers, but they’re an engaging diversion from the power-soaked games of the WTA elite.

Briefly notedAfter Ginepri vs. Querrey on Court 2, Serena and Venus continue their pursuit of a doubles calendar Slam.  Absent for most of the clay season in which she thrives, Marbella finalist Suarez Navarro targets Ponte Vedra Beach finalist Govortsova, a Belarussian who has enjoyed surprising success on this surface over the past several weeks.  One match to not watch is the clash between Gabashvili and Daniel Koellerer.  The senselessly pugnacious Austrian has earned the contempt of fellow players, commentators, and spectators alike for his repulsive, relentless displays of gamesmanship inappropriate to this dignified sport.  Far more elegant is the meeting between Hantuchova and Tamarine Tanasugarn, both of whom must be looking forward to the grass season; nevertheless, we’re curious to see who more successfully adapts their fast-court style to the clay.  While the willowy Slovak attempts to solve that riddle, Russian qualifier Ksenia Pervak ventures into the den of a familiar lioness:

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How do you solve a problem like Maria?  We hope that Pervak has no answer. 😉