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Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal (L) of Spain holds the Davis Cup trophy as he celebrates with his teammate David Ferrer during the third and last day of the final Davis Cup match between Spain and Argentina on December 4, 2011 in Seville, Spain.

Barely two months ago, Spain celebrated the latest title captured by its Davis Cup dynasty.  But now the greatest power of the past decade must start to defend its crown once more.  While their path does not look steep, other contending nations eye more imposing challenges to their hopes.

Spain vs. Kazakhstan:  In its first year of World Group experience, the Kazakhs burst onto this grand stage by ambushing the Berdych-led Czech squad in a victory of David over Goliath.  When David traveled to Argentine clay, though, their discomfort on the surface led to an emphatic shutout.  Once again mired in clay, they face the nation most renowned for its success on the terre battue.  But most of that success came from two players absent from Spain’s B-level squad in Oviedo, Nadal and Ferrer.  As Spain enters an era of Davis Cup without its leading stars, the defending champions rely on the fading Ferrero and the enigmatic Almagro, together with the unremarkable Granollers and the second-tier doubles specialist Marc Lopez.  Considering the quality of their competition and home-court advantage, Spain should advance routinely even with this relatively modest quartet.  This easy draw provides a chance for the team’s comprehensive remodeling to coalesce before meeting stiffer resistance.  ESP in 3

Austria vs. Russia:  Not especially intriguing at first glance, this tie features no player in the top 30.  Several curious subtexts lurk beneath its apparent mediocrity, however, including the narrative of Alex Bogomolov’s debut in Russian colors after controversially spurning the United States.  The most reliable member of either squad in Cup action, Youzhny arrives with his spirits soaring from a Zagreb title and owns a 4-2 advantage over Austrian #1 Melzer.  Likely to appear if needed in Sunday’s reverse singles is the Austrian resident Davydenko, whose aggressive ball-striking suits the indoor hard courts better than Bogomolov’s counterpunching style.  Bereft of imposing singles #2s, the hosts will lean heavily on Melzer to participate in winning three rubbers, for they have little hope of survival if the tie hinges upon the 127th-ranked Haider-Maurer.  While the streaky Austrian #1 could ride his lefty net-rushing to a heroic feat, he has won consecutive main-draw matches only once since last July.  His best tennis almost certainly lies behind this 30-year-old Wimbledon doubles champion.  RUS in 5

Canada vs. France:  Like the Austrians, the Canadians pin their ambitions upon a single potential hero in Milos Raonic.  Although Vasek Pospisil and Frank Dancevic have excelled on home soil before, one would not fancy their chances to win two singles rubbers from Tsonga and Monfils, even with the latter perhaps not fully fit.  In the doubles, Canada might combine Dancevic’s net skills with the vast doubles expertise of Daniel Nestor, only a little less effective with age.  Nevertheless, Franch also will bring a talented doubles pairing in Benneteau and Llodra, who have won titles together before and might out-serve the Canadians on these fast courts.  Stirring internal Canadian controversy before the tie was fiercely patriotic advertising by Tennis Canada that irritated the country’s French-speaking citizens.  The weekend’s action will unfold far from Quebec in the British Canadian city of Vancouver, though, notorious for fanaticism in other sports.  Famously fallible throughout their history, the French Davis Cup team must ignore the distractions to showcase their more versatile talent.  Outside the serve, Tsonga and Monfils have far more weapons than Raonic, who might upset one of them but seems unlikely to topple both without their assistance.  Three best-of-five victories on three straight days represents a towering task for the towering Canadian.  FRA in 4

Switzerland vs. USA:  Whereas the previous two ties look more interesting upon further inspection than at first glance, this tie looks more interesting at first glance than upon further inspection.  On the indoor clay in Fribourg, Federer and Wawrinka should tie knots around the one-dimensional American servers.  Unimpressive at the Australian Open, neither Fish nor Isner will bring the level of self-belief necessary to overcome the Swiss master, although Isner did win two sets from Nadal at Roland Garros.  A stronger competitor than formerly (except against Federer), Wawrinka still struggles with maintaining a positive attitude under pressure sometimes.  One wonders a little how he will respond to the challenge of blunting the American serves under the gaze of his expectant compatriots.   So far superior are the Swiss singles players on clay, however, that they could afford to burn understudies Chiudinelli and Lammer on the doubles while relying on winning three of four singles rubbers.  (Thus far, however, they have slotted Federer and Wawrinka into that rubber as well.)  Paired with Ryan Harrison rather than former partner Isner, Mike Bryan should spare the visitors from a shutout before they drift down to the playoff round once more.  In a minor footnote, Harrison should benefit from the experience of playing a visiting Davis Cup tie as his maturation process continues.  SUI in 4

Czech Republic vs. Italy:  Surely seething to avenge their first-round loss last year, the former Davis Cup finalists probably can expect only one or two more seasons from their reliable duo of Berdych and Stepanek.  A two-man team with remarkable success in doubles together, they will host a clay-loving quartet of Italians on fast indoor courts where their superior serves and aggressive tactics should make spaghetti out of Starace et al.  After extending Nadal to four tight sets in an Australian Open quarterfinal, Berdych won the Montpellier title last week and has played more consistently impressive tennis over the last few months thane he generally does.   Not to be outdone by his countryman, Stepanek won the Australian Open doubles crown with Leander Paes in a commendable late-career highlight.  Boosted by their individual momentum, they should prove once again that divergent playing styles and divergent personalities can fuse in explosively effective fashion.  Like the Swiss, the Czechs probably can afford to concede the doubles and rest their stars for the singles.  CZE in 4

Serbia vs. Sweden:  Neither of their nation’s #1s, Djokovic and Soderling, will play a role in this starless Belgrade weekend.  So sanguine was Serbian captain Bogdan Obradovic about his team’s chances that he encouraged the five-time major champion to focus upon preparing for the majors and Olympics.  All the same, two top-25 singles threats in Tipsarevic and Troicki add to doubles veteran Zimonjic in comprising a balanced squad that always shines most under Serbian skies (or roofs, in this case).  Across the net stands no Swede in the top 250 of the ATP singles rankings, although Robin Lindstedt should duel intriguingly with Zimonjic in the doubles rubber.  But otherwise we expect minimal suspense from the greatest mismatch of the weekend.  SRB in 3

Japan vs. Croatia:  A mismatch in height alone, this tie offers a second straight weekend of tennis in the Bourbon Beans Dome.  Partnering Kimiko Date-Krumm in mixed doubles at the Australian Open, Nishikori will aim to emulate that legend’s success in Fed Cup against another Balkans team.  Unexpectedly reaching the singles quarterfinals in Melbourne, the Japanese #1 should relish the rare opportunity to play before his home fans—at least more than the opportunity to blunt Karlovic’s serving power.  The doubles looks even more uncertain than the singles rubbers, although perhaps the Croat’s towering serve will prove decisive by earning ample free points.  In the first meeting between these nations, the straightforward power and forward movement of the visitors will contrast with the steady baseline resilience of the home squad.  While the indoor hard court would seem to tilt towards Croatia, Nishikori and his compatriots will not surrender without a fierce struggle.  CRO in 5

Germany vs. Argentina:  Rebounding from a valiant but doomed effort against a Nadal-led Spain in last year’s final, the perennial bridesmaids of Davis Cup begin yet another Sisyphean quest towards its elusive summit.  Curiously without their flagship Del Potro, a key factor in their semifinal victory over Serbia in 2011, Argentina will rely one more time upon Cup stalwart Nalbandian against a German team lacking its most dangerous player in Kohlschreiber.  Considering the characteristics of Mayer, Petzschner, and Haas, one must query the host country’s decision to put Monaco and Chela on their favored red clay.  Fast-court players who prefer short points, the Germans would seem at a disadvantage against the Argentine clay specialists.  Also notable is the age of the participants, of whom the youngest (Monaco) will turn 28 next month.  Under the rigors of the best-of-five format on a slow court, fatigue and injury may play a role for some of these veterans.  As with Japan vs. Croatia, either team could win any of the rubbers.  But only one of these players, Nalbandian has compiled a history of Davis Cup heroics, and he should lift his nation again in a tie that looks less formidable than it did when the draw first appeared.   ARG in 5

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Jo-Wilfried Tsonga - 2011 French Open - Day One

Andreev vs. Tsonga:  Atypical among Russians, the world #92 has excelled on clay perhaps more than on any other surface, even registering a win over a youthful Nadal.  Conversely, Tsonga vastly prefers the faster surfaces that showcase his thunderbolts and acrobatic flourishes to the sluggish dirt of his home nation’s major.  On the especially slow hard court of Indian Wells, in fact, he surrendered to Andreev in straight sets two years ago.  But the Frenchman strutted through an imposing opener that illustrated his delicate touch in the forecourt and a clay movement more competent than observers might have expected.  Since both players generate much greater offense from their forehands, they will exploit the extra time provided by the surface to run around as many backhands as possible.  Whereas one never knows quite what to expect from Tsonga, one always knows what to expect from Andreev:  resilient ball-striking and relentless court coverage.  Somewhat like Verdasco against Monaco on Tuesday, the 17th seed must prepare to expend both mental and physical effort before reaping a reward.

Ferrer vs. Benneteau / Gasquet vs. Granollers:  Adding additional spice to the trans-Pyrenean rivalry is the recent achievements of Spain at the French Slam.  Likely to write another page in that chapter is the world #6, who regrouped in sparkling fashion from illness to demolish the potentially dangerous Nieminen a round ago.  Fitter and fresher than many of his peers, Ferrer should not relax against the mercurial Benneteau, known more for his exploits in doubles than singles but the architect of an occasional ambush.  Buoyed by his compatriots, the Frenchman scored a stunning upset over Federer in the 2009 Paris Indoors and delivered a stirring performance against the then-formidable Gulbis at this tournament last year.  His compact two-hander offers an intriguing contrast to the florid one-hander of Gasquet, who recently overcame Federer in a clay third-set tiebreak for the second time.  In his meeting with Granollers, the 13th seed meets an opponent with similarly elongated strokes although much less imagination.  A victor over Soderling a few Australian Opens ago, Granollers has greater grit than his unprepossessing game would suggest.

Zvonareva vs. Lisicki:  Early in the 2010 US Open, the Russian defused the German’s thunderous serve en route to her second major final.  Zvonareva will hope to script a parallel narrative as she seeks to reach the semifinal or better at all four Slams consecutively, but Roland Garros has remained a thorn in her side during her relatively few appearances here.  A natural counterpuncher who aims to exploit the pace of her opponents, the third seed sometimes struggles to generate adequate offense to finish points on this surface.  The Russian has lost at least one set in seven of her eight clay matches this season to opponents including Schnyder and Galina Voskoboeva, while her straight-sets loss to Peng in Brussels likewise boded ill.  As her odd history of futility against Stosur suggests, moreover, Zvonareva can become flustered by the heaviest deliveries in the game, so Lisicki should offer an intriguing mental test.

Safarova vs. Goerges:  Having split their two previous meetings, these two audacious ball-strikers should extend the competitive beginnings of their rivalry.  Although both can impose themselves on rallies from either groundstroke, the match could turn upon who can earn more opportunities to unleash the forehands that they prefer.  Safarova’s left-handedness will enable her to uncover the backhand of Goerges with her heavy cross-court forehand, a shot that garnered substantial success for the Czech on clay last year.  Aligned for clay are their elongated strokes, which require a timing less precise than on faster surfaces.  More skilled than many of their peers at the service notch, they should deliver an encounter with relatively few breaks.  In Stuttgart, Goerges became the only player this year to play an entire match against Wozniacki without dropping her serve.  Can she progress from ambush artist to reliable threat and summon her best when not facing the best?  Safarova will inquire.

Martinez Sanchez vs. Marino:  Vaulting past Wozniak as the brightest star in the firmament of Canadian tennis, the muscular Marino announced herself with a strong effort against Venus at the US Open last year.  After their clash, the seven-time major champion complimented her victim by comparing her to herself.  While Marino must make considerable strides before validating that praise, she illustrated her promise a Slam later by dragging Schiavone deep into a third set at the Australian Open.  Lacking in clay expertise, she does not lack the willpower to trouble dirt devil Martinez Sanchez in another match of sturdy serves.  The 2010 Rome champion rode her multifaceted style to a mini-upset over Peer in her opener, stirring to life after a generally moribund 2011.  If she can exploit the opening in the draw that she has created, the momentum of this streaky competitor could snowball in the Paris sun.  As the power of Marino represents the WTA’s future, the grace and delicacy of Martinez Sanchez gestures towards the sport’s past.

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia reacts against Samantha Stosur of Australia during the Sony Ericsson Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on March 28, 2011 in Key Biscayne, Florida.

Sharapova vs. Dulgheru:  Emphatically delivering her first victory over a top-5 opponent since shoulder surgery, the two-time Miami finalist now hopes to replicate her semifinal surge at Indian Wells as her confidence grows with each victory.  Unusually crisp with her movement and footwork here, Sharapova has dropped her serve just three times in three matches despite occasional clusters of double faults, while her return arguably has unleashed even more impressive blows.  Yet the Russian has oscillated sharply from one match to the next throughout her comeback, suggesting that the excellence of Monday will not necessarily translate to Tuesday.  At Indian Wells, for example, she stifled the potentially dangerous Safina with intimidating ease before wobbling through extended stretches of her quarterfinal against the less intimidating Peng.  Never having faced the Romanian before, Sharapova will require a few games to adjust to Dulgheru’s style.  Without the opportunity to watch the world #28 during the past year, we cannot offer much insight onto that style.  Nevertheless, Dulgheru has advanced to this quarterfinal without dropping a set, an accomplishment that deserves respect although occurring entirely against unseeded players.  While the match surely rests in Sharapova’s hands, the three-time major champion cannot afford to loosen her focus against a competitor probably brimming with confidence.

Petkovic vs. Jankovic:  Fortunate to encounter Wozniacki on an uncharacteristically error-strewn afternoon, “Petkorazzi” still receives credit for polishing off the world #1 so confidently.  Serving out the match at love with an ace, the 21st seed showcased the swagger that could bring her into the top 20 if she learns how to harness her groundstrokes throughout an entire tournament.  Aligned against a second consecutive counterpuncher, Petkovic probably will deploy the same tactics that her coach suggested to undermine Wozniacki.  One wonders whether her strategy of out-counterpunching the counterpuncher would have succeeded so well, however, had the Dane not substituted an impersonator for her normally stingy self.  Even more susceptible to such wobbles than Wozniacki is the counterpuncher who now confronts the German, for Jankovic spent much of last year tottering from one misstep to the next.  Buoyed by a February revival, she atoned for a disappointing Indian Wells campaign with a sturdy performance here.  On the other hand, none of her previous victims possesses the same degree of weapons or poise as Petkovic.  Another resident in the WTA’s second tier of ball-strikers, Pavlyuchenkova, thumped heavy but not electric groundstrokes past her in the Monterrey final.

Mayer vs. Berdych:  Fallible in his first two victories, the 2010 runner-up needlessly dropped a set to the aging Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo and nearly another to the anonymous Carlos Berlocq.  Such profligacy could cost Berdych against an opponent who quenched the inflammable Almagro two rounds after circumventing Indian Wells quarterfinalist Karlovic.  Nor should this week’s success surprise those who closely followed the German this season, during which he has conquered Del Potro, Davydenko, and Cilic.  A two-time semifinalist already in 2011, Mayer can compile formidable serve-forehand combinations while struggling at times with his movement and shot selection.  Also a rather programmatic player, Berdych has settled into a netherworld this year between the leading contenders and the second tier, generally defeating the players whom he should defeat but losing to those ranked above him.  The Czech must defend vast quantities of points over the next few months, so one wonders how he will respond to the pressure.

Federer vs. Rochus:  A former doubles partner of the Swiss legend, the Belgian never has defeated him in their seven career meetings.  En route to this unexpected fourth-round encounter, though, Rochus not only qualified but defeated familiar names Baghdatis and Youzhny after winning the longest match of the men’s tournament in his opener.  Cruising at medium altitude in his first two matches, Federer should not need to elevate his performance to record another unremarkable straight-sets victory.  In return for brushing aside potential threats like a minesweeper, Rochus probably deserves a bit of compensation from the world #3.  Perhaps an autographed box of Lindt chocolates?

Tipsarevic vs. Simon:  Amidst a largely sparkling tournament for Serbs so far, the quirky Tipsarevic displayed his underrated talents by upsetting a flustered Cilic with one carefully constructed rally at a time.  Far less mighty than the Croat, the compact Serb outmaneuvered his lanky foe from the baseline with expertly placed groundstrokes while creating unpredictable angles on his serve.  But Tipsarevic now collides with an opponent who shares his competitive resilience and his scintillating two-handed backhand.  Although Tipsarevic reached the Delray Beach final in February, Simon generally has shone more brightly over the past several months with titles in Metz last fall and Sydney before the Australian Open.  After a rain-soaked three-setter with Cuevas that extended late into Monday night, the Frenchman may enter his meeting with the Serb a trifle jaded.  His brand of tennis relies upon indefatigable movement and concentration, whereas Tipsarevic more often showcases shot-making almost as bold and idiosyncratic as his hairstyle, sunglasses, and tattoos.

Ferrer vs Granollers:  Following a dismal defeat against Karlovic, the Spanish #2 regrouped commendably to overcome a rising Devvarman.  The highest-ranked player remaining in his section eyes a compatriot who rallied from the edge of the precipice against Llodra a round ago to win his third consecutive three-setter.  Not known for his serving prowess, Granollers nevertheless never conceded his delivery throughout three sets against twelfth-seeded Wawrinka.  And he already has proven his ability to topple notable opponents by conquering Soderling at the 2010 Australian Open.  Will three long matches hamper his fitness against Ferrer, perhaps the worst possible opponent to confront when tired?  Unless Granollers can continue to win free points on his serve, he probably will find himself dragged into prolonged baseline exchanges where Ferrer’s consistency should prevail.

Juan Martin Del Potro - Sony Ericsson Open

Fish vs. Del Potro:  In the most impressive victory of his comeback, the 2009 US Open champion comprehensively outplayed world #4 Soderling from the first ball to the last.  Covering the court with aplomb, Del Potro struck his backhand with as much purpose and confidence as his forehand, a dangerous omen for his rivals.  After such a comprehensive performance, he must guard against a lull when he faces an opponent who troubled him in the second set of their Delray Beach semifinal.  Among Fish’s more successful ploys in that match was pounding his two-hander down the line into Del Potro’s forehand, the side towards which the Argentine moves less effectively.  Unlikely to outlast or consistently outhit the Tower of Tandil from the baseline, the American must maintain a high first-serve percentage in order to open as many rallies as possible on the offensive, perhaps even following his serve to the net at times.  Across the net, Del Potro will aim to intimidate Fish with the percussive returns that his broad wingspan facilitates.

Isner vs. Anderson:  Serve…serve…serve.  In Federer’s view, with which we sympathize, these two leviathans do not play tennis but some ghastly and irreverent imitation of it.  Both of them have profited from the upsets that other players achieved over Murray and Verdasco.  Although Isner’s greater experience at elite tournaments should provide him with a vital edge, this match probably will hinge upon a missed first serve or a botched smash on break point or in a tiebreak.  Until that moment occurs, little action will stimulate audience members who hope to see something more than serve…serve…serve.

Troicki vs. Djokovic:  When the current world #2 struggled in 2010, his compatriot nearly capitalized with a pair of notable upsets in Dubai and the US Open.  Noted by a variety of commentators, his first-round encounter with Djokovic in New York may have represented a crucial turning point in the younger Serb’s revitalization.  Having failed to secure that match when it lay well within his grasp, Troicki appears to have lost self-belief against the Australian Open champion.  When they met in the same round at Indian Wells, he collected just one game from Djokovic in an effort that fell short even of Wawrinka’s standards against Federer.  Still undefeated in 2011, the second seed has conceded only three games in four sets here while spending 101 total minutes on court.  Striking every shot with effortless confidence, he has dominated opponents to an extent reminiscent of Nadal on clay.  Throughout this winning streak, viewers have started to wonder less whether the Serb would prevail than how he would arrive at his inevitable destination this time.

[As of publication, Nadal’s fourth-round opponent remained undecided.  See the article below for a preview of Ivanovic-Clijsters, postponed from Monday night as a result of inclement weather.]

 

 

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.

After an eventful week of tennis, we pause to review the action that unfolded at four events on three different continents.

Transmission reference: BALI101

1)      The Ascent of Ana continues:

Charging to her second title of the fall, Ivanovic won matches in every way possible:  a rout, a nail-biter, and a hybrid that hovered between the two extremes.  Relentless in her 57-minute quarterfinal, the Serb surrendered just a single game to world #20 Pavlyuchenkova behind a barrage of thunderous serves.  Although she adjusted swiftly to a surface faster than she prefers, Ivanovic struggled to adapt to the distinctive style of Kimiko Date Krumm.  The age-defying Japanese legend baffled Ana for most of the first set with deceptive angles and low groundstrokes that barely skimmed across the net before darting through the court.  Facing double set point on her serve, however, Ivanovic collected herself just in time to reel off six consecutive games and seemingly seize control.  Unwilling to yield so easily, Date Krumm battled back into this memorable semifinal by rallying from a 3-5 deficit in the second set, saving a match point, and climbing out of a 2-4 hole in the second set tiebreak.  Yet this comeback remarkably failed to fluster the Serb; armed with her revived confidence, Ana broke the Japanese veteran immediately in the third set and cruised behind her own serve thereafter.

Despite her sterling record in finals, Ivanovic began the title match against Kleybanova rather tentatively and only relaxed after she broke the Russian midway through the first set.  At that stage, she reeled off 14 consecutive points to establish command.  Too resilient a competitor to let the trophy slip away, Kleybanova halted the Serb’s momentum early in the second set, while nerves caused Ivanovic’s ball toss to wander unpredictably.  Down double break point at 5-5 in the second set, though, Ana relied on her improved movement to track down a penetrating Kleybanova approach and lash an implausible passing-shot winner.  She rode this momentum surge into the tiebreak, where her opponent conceded a costly double fault for the only mini-break.  A stunning cross-court forehand and an ace later, Ivanovic had scored her tenth victory in eleven matches and vaulted back into the top 20 at #17.  Having been ranked outside the top 60 after Wimbledon, Ana improbably ends her 2010 campaign ahead of fellow Slam champions Sharapova and Kuznetsova.  As she acknowledged afterwards, this second taste of success will inject her with additional motivation during the offseason.

2)     Home-court advantage reigns (mostly):

Robbed of his home title by a bold Serb last year, Federer thrilled his compatriots by avenging that defeat in 2010.  Enjoying a tranquil route to the final, he inflicted yet another dent upon Roddick’s armor in a semifinal performance that showcased his still-crisp reflexes and instincts.  As the Swiss master braced himself for an encore of last year’s Basel final, he probably drew confidence from his title run in Stockholm last week as well as his victory over the Serb in Shanghai.  Ominously, the first two sets of the final recalled their US Open meeting, where Federer had secured a tight first set before suffering a mental lapse in the second.  Reversing that trajectory with an emphatic final set, though, the world #2 confirmed his Shanghai success and extended his momentum in this key rivalry.  Before he departed to share lunch with the ballboys, Federer claimed that this triumph evoked similar emotions in him to winning his elusive Roland Garros title.  Even allowing for post-championship hyperbole, that statement revealed a more human, even endearing dimension to the lofty GOAT.

Amidst a Valencia draw riddled with upsets, Ferrer played the local hero by conquering the fearsome Soderling for the second time this fall.  The Spaniard secured his second ATP 500 title of 2010 by overcoming compatriot Marcel Granollers in a final that few observers anticipated before the week began.  Probably best known for defeating Soderling at this year’s Australian Open, the understated, unseeded Granollers sprang unpleasant surprises upon Shanghai semifinalist Monaco as well as the rejuvenated Simon.  His charge to the final illustrated not only the advantages of playing at home but the depth of Spanish men’s tennis, seemingly unique in its ability to produce legions of champions and finalists on all surfaces.  (Kudos to the Frenchman, though, who adroitly defused the twin threats of Verdasco and Davydenko just weeks after seizing the title in Metz.  Davis Cup captain Guy Forget must seriously consider him for singles action in Belgrade).

Transmission reference: CAGB121

3)      Viva Flavia:

Nevertheless, home-court advantage couldn’t rescue the US Fed Cup team from their more talented Italian foes, spearheaded on this occasion not by Schiavone but by the tempestuous Pennetta.  Delivering two of her team’s three victories, Flavia atoned for an uninspired 2010 campaign and compensated for a puzzlingly erratic performance by the Roland Garros champion in the third rubber.  Two moments from Pennetta’s weekend especially impressed, for they represented the two potential turning points of what could have been a tightly contested tie.  Having watched a 5-1 lead slip away in the first set against Mattek-Sands, the Italian suddenly found herself staring at a set point in the set’s twelfth game.  With an invigorated American crowd exhorting her opponent, Pennetta mustered her nerve and fought her way into the tiebreak, where she played intelligently high-percentage tennis while the American imploded.  Had she let that set unravel, though, Mattek-Sands might not have relinquished the initiative; instead, Italy took a commanding, virtually terminal lead after Saturday.

Less obviously crucial was the second moment, which occurred just two games into Pennetta’s Sunday clash with the untested but mighty Coco Vandeweghe.  After cheering Oudin to an astonishing victory over Schiavone, the home crowd watched with delight as the teenager broke the Italian in the opening game and advanced to 40-0 on her own serve.  Undeterred by this inauspicious beginning, Pennetta swept aside game point after game point before converting a break point seven deuces later.  Having halted Vandeweghe’s impetus, she thoroughly dominated proceedings and trimmed the burly American down to size with a clinical efficiency worthy of Procrustes. A week after winning the doubles title in Doha, Pennetta proudly clinched the Fed Cup title for her nation just as she had in 2009.

***

We return to preview the Paris semifinals on Friday; until then, enjoy the tennis!

 

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Trudging to the locker room after a 16-14 fifth set against Santiago Giraldo, Thiemo De Bakker must have feared that this protracted encounter would leave him at a physical disadvantage against his next opponent, either Isner or Mahut.  As all tennis fans know well, such thoughts proved unfounded as the Frenchman and the American shattered virtually every record in every single-match category.  In fact, their seven-hour, 118-game final set-in-progress stretched so far beyond the boundaries of credulity that one expects its statistical superlatives to endure forever.  Ten hours and 193 aces later, though, what difference does it really make?  This first-round battle between two non-contenders stalled the first-week schedule and virtually eliminated both of its participants from sheer exhaustion.  Once an advocate of the no-tiebreak format in Slam deciding sets, we feel compelled to reverse our opinion and call for a merciful ending to these inhumane endurance tests well before 50-50, as Kuznetsova whimsically suggested.  Surely this fast-paced sport doesn’t deserve such a mind-numbing, kidney-challenging stalemate, which provided a gluttonous serving (haha) of generally monotonous tennis.  In order to compensate for the difference between the best-of-five and best-of-three formats, perhaps the doubles super tiebreak (first to 10, win by two) could be implemented instead of the conventional first-to-7 structure.  At least, Slams could employ such a deadlock-denying tactic in the first week before the marquee stars intersect.  A marathon final set between Federer and Roddick in the championship match is a classic, but a marathon final set between Isner and Mahut in the first round is a human rain delay.  Here are a handful of Day 4 matches to note while Wimbledon’s Believe It Or Not winds into its eleventh hour of futility.

Soderling (6) vs. Granollers (Court 1, 2nd match):  At the start of 2010, the unremarkable Spaniard rallied from a two-set deficit to stun the Swede in his Australian Open first round.  Soderling had swept their three previous meetings, including a four-setter on these same British lawns in the same round a year ago.  Yet all of the sets were close on that occasion, indicating that this matchup bothers the two-time French Open finalist more than one might imagine considering Granollers’ pedestrian ranking.  Far more powerful than his adversary, Soderling will need to banish memories of their collisions in an intriguing test of his mental willpower.  During an opening win over Ginepri, he looked as formidable as any men’s contender and more formidable than most, but the Swede does remain vulnerable to the unexpected letdown.  If the Spaniard can stay close early, a little drama might develop before the sixth seed moves on to more tranquil waters in the third round.

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Dolgopolov vs. Tsonga (10) (Court 2, 1st match):  Unfocused and uncharacteristically irritable in his four-set opening win over the tricky Kendrick, the tenth seed alternated electrifying forehands and deft volleys with senseless misses and despairing moans.  One of the highest-ranked unseeded players in the draw, the much-misspelled Dolgopolov (add a Jr. if you want) has steadily climbed up the rankings this season with victories over Tomic, Fish, Seppi, Clement, and Gonzalez; last week, he reached the Eastbourne semifinals and mustered a creditable performance against eventual champion Llodra.  Boding well for his continued rise was his resolute demeanor when he encountered Nadal on clay, much sturdier than most developing stars facing an elite player for the first time.  His game remains raw and a little undisciplined, rendering an upset in a best-of-five format unlikely.  Nevertheless, Dolgopolov clearly has achieved an impressive comfort level on grass and brings much more surface experience to the contest than does Tsonga.  If his self-belief doesn’t falter on a Wimbledon show court, this match could be highly competitive although probably not exquisite tennis.

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Serena (1) vs. Chakvetadze (Court 2, 3rd match) :  Watching the once-formidable Chakvetadze in her opener against Petkovic, we noticed that she is striking her groundstrokes with greater depth and conviction than she has during most of her extended swoon since early 2008.  Not only creating clever angles with both forehand and backhand, she sensibly eschewed low-percentage shotmaking from behind the baseline and displayed further intelligence by occasionally wrong-footing the German.  A fountain of double faults over the past two years, her serve remained steady even under pressure deep in the final set.  Against Serena, of course, she’ll need to play at the very summit of her abilities just to stay competitive, and she’ll probably require some assistance from Serena.  After a thunderous first set in her opener, the top seed dropped her game a few notches in the second set, allowing her overmatched opponent to stay within range.  In this case, however, an overpowering first set probably would prove sufficient to crush the Russian’s ever-fragile confidence.  Long a mental midget, Chakvetadze needs to seize the early momentum and hope for a sluggish start from the American.  If this former prodigy starts promisingly, the match could be quite entertaining; if Serena establishes control immediately, it could get gruesome quickly.

Jovanovski vs. Azarenka (14) (Court 12, 2nd match):  After the initial wave of Djokovic, Ivanovic, and Jankovic, the Serbs just keep climbing up the tennis hierarchy in numbers vastly disproportionate to their nation’s size.  The latest Belgrade bombshell, the 18-year-old Jovanovski defeated Rybarikova, Molik, and Chakvetadze earlier in 2010 as she attempts to crack the top 100; in the first round, she ruthlessly eviscerated talented Australian lefty Casey Dellacqua.  Despite suffering from a leg injury in the Eastbourne final, Azarenka has relished the shift from clay to grass as much as anyone and should be eager to exploit an extremely inviting quarter of the draw.  While the Minx from Minsk endured a few puzzling losses during her last several events, she should decode the Serb’s game in plenty of time to advance.  It’s always fascinating to watch an evolving player adjust to confronting top contenders at top tournaments, however, and the first week of a Slam is a great opportunity to assess what potential future stars might offer.

Vinci vs. Pavlyuchenkova (29) (Court 14, 2nd match):  Like Soderling and Granollers, they met in the same place and the same round a year ago.  On that occasion, the cunning Italian veteran prevailed over an inexperienced player nearly a decade younger than herself.  A former junior #1 and junior Slam champion, the many-syllabled Russian avenged that defeat on the Brisbane hard courts this year, but injuries and erratic serving have led to several lopsided losses in recent months.  Not endowed with an overwhelming delivery either, Vinci will seek to disrupt the rhythm of her baseline-bound foe with tantalizing slices that invite her to move forward out of her comfort zone.  Can finesse and intelligent point construction prevail, or will Pavlyuchenkova’s groundstroke power deny the Italian time to create her artful combinations?  At any rate, expect more breaks of serve and longer rallies than are typical on grass; this match should prove a refreshing antidote to the serve-a-licious marathon a few courts away.

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Zheng (23) vs. Kvitova (Court 17, 1st match):  A surprise semifinalist here in 2008, Zheng produced a third-round upset over top seed Ivanovic that not only signaled the Serb’s vertiginous collapse but also showcased the ability of compact, balanced counterpunches to overcome towering, slow-footed sluggers.  The fearless Chinese star reprised that startling run with a second Slam semifinal appearance in Australia this year, after which she defeated Sharapova and threatened eventual finalist Wozniacki at Indian Wells.  Among the curious paradoxes of grass is its capacity to reward both the very tall and the very small, the former of whom can crack unreturnable serves and the latter of whom can manipulate the surface’s low bounces.  Against a mercurial Czech lefty, Zheng enjoys a substantial mental edge, but her high-risk style also can slip off the rails without warning.  She must elevate her first-serve percentage in order shield her puny second delivery from Kvitova’s bold return; also, she should target her adversary’s loopy forehand, a long swing that easily can be mistimed on so fast a surface.  If she takes chances at judicious moments, a delicious third-round collision with Azarenka beckons.

Briefly noted:  On such a relatively uneventful day, we had to upgrade the matches that normally would populate this section to a more privileged status.  Expect our usual coda to return for Day 5.

Meanwhile, the only women’s champion in the draw not named Williams returns on Day 4 with an outfit as immaculate as the lawns of the All England Club.  Let’s hope that clay specialist Ioana Raluca Olaru doesn’t muddy Maria’s dress as did Gisela Dulko in the second round last year.

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The British monarch won’t be the only queen to appear at Wimbledon on Thursday.

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No stranger to tense openers at Roland Garros, Maria has rallied from a one-set deficit against Anastasia Yakimova in 2009, gritted through an 8-6 final set in 2008, and saved match points against Mashona Washington in 2006.  When the statuesque Siberian fell behind talented youngster Ksenia Pervak early in the first set, therefore, one might have expected another nerve-jangling epic to unfold.  Instead, Maria seized five straight games and cruised through the second set with a positive winners/errors differential, always an excellent omen for a shotmaker on this shotmaker-hostile surface.  As relatively inconsequential as it was, Strasbourg appears to have elevated her confidence substantially.  After digesting Pervak, of course, she reminded everyone that she’s actually a sweet person at heart (not that we would have dared to differ):

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A few hours earlier on the same court, Safina once again committed tennis seppuku by regurgitating a comfortable third-set lead and handing Kimiko Date-Krumm her first Roland Garros victory of this millennium.  It’s impossible not to sympathize with the beleaguered Dinara at this stage of her travails, even if one isn’t in her fan club.  Those who are should take comfort that a lower ranking will reduce the public pressure on Safina and allow her to slowly rediscover her comfort zone on the court, a much easier task without constant scrutiny…or so we think.  After tracing the contrasting tales of two Russians on Tuesday, we follow the stories of three more on Wednesday while investigating the French Connection at Roland Garros.

Fognini vs. Monfils (13) (Chatrier, 3rd match):  Although the Frenchman can produce electrifying tennis at times, he’s a disturbingly careless player who wastes energy with unnecessary gyrations, tosses away games and sets with apparent mental lapses, and seems content to trade numerous routine misses for the occasional implausible winner.  Monfils senselessly squandered a set against a lucky loser in the first round, much as he has squandered his immense talents thus far in his career.  Discernibly less talented than “La Monf,” Fognini has developed a smooth all-court game while cultivating a similar propensity for careless, disengaged tennis and erratic focus.  Expect gorgeous winners and ghastly misses in equal measure from both sides of the court; the best way to enjoy this match is not to analyze the larger picture but simply to admire one brushstroke at a time.

Dementieva (5) vs. Medina Garrigues (Chatrier, 4th match):  Almost the diametrical opposite of Monfils and Fognini, Dementieva gradually ensnares her opponent with methodical, cautious point construction.  Often, little seems to be happening during the protracted rallies that often evolve in her matches, until the Russian suddenly strikes one of her sturdy groundstrokes into an opening that one hadn’t even noticed.  This strategy should prove rather effective on clay if Dementieva remains sufficiently calm to execute it, as she was in an impressive opener.  Stifling Melanie Oudin in her own opener and reaching the Strasbourg semis last week, Medina Garrigues has showcased some of the scintillating clay-court tennis with which she surged to the forefront of Spanish female players.  Just days into the tournament, the exits of Martinez Sanchez and Suarez Navarro have cast MG in the leading role again.  We wonder whether the Spaniard’s versatile style will trouble the baseline-rooted Dementieva, but the Russian possesses a substantial power edge. Don’t be surprised if service breaks outnumber holds. 

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Dent vs. Soderling (5) (Lenglen, 1st match):  On the surface (haha), this collision shouldn’t be overly competitive.  We were surprised to see Dent win his opener and only slightly less surprised to see him break the tournament’s serve-speed record.  On the other hand, Soderling remains mentally fallible despite perceptible improvements in that arena and could be rattled by the American’s arrhythmic style.  Therefore, the match might measure the emotional condition of last year’s finalist as he confronts the pressure of repeating his stunning performance form 2009.  While it’s hard to imagine the aging serve-and-volleyer actually winning a clay match against a player of the Swede’s caliber, he might force him into a tiebreak or even take a set if he serves impressively.  Service breaks should be very few and probably terminal when they do occur.

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Ouanna vs. Tsonga (8) (Lenglen, 2nd match):  Unsurprisingly shaky in his Roland Garros debut, Tsonga will be vulnerable on clay to players whom he would crush on faster surfaces.  During the preliminary events, he lost to Ferrero and unheralded Dutchman Thiemo de Bakker before an embarrassingly lopsided defeat to Ferrer in Rome.  Built to win short , staccato points behind serve-forehand combinations, the top-ranked Frenchman lacks both the mental and physical endurance to penetrate deep into this draw, although his quarter does look benign.  The mercurial Ouanna thrilled his compatriots a year ago by defeating Safin 10-8 in the final set with an avalanche of fearlessly attacking tennis, so this matchup should feature plenty of fast-paced, high-risk action.  Weary of watching endless baseline battles between two players who seemingly refuse to miss a shot, or in the mood for some irony?  Come to Lenglen for this clash between two playing styles antithetical to clay…on clay.

Kuznetsova (6) vs. Petkovic (Court 1, 2nd match):  For the second straight round, the German finds herself in one of the day’s most intriguing encounters.  Edging past Vesnina in a three-setter, she now targets a player whom she defeated last fall in Tokyo, just a week before Kuznetsova won the Premier Mandatory title in Beijing.  We wouldn’t put significant weight upon Sveta’s three-set win over the then 143rd-ranked Petkovic in Stuttgart last year, since the latter has refined her game immensely while climbing 100 ranking places since that match.  After dropping the first three games to Cirstea, the defending champion looked more convincing than she has anywhere else in 2010, perhaps suggesting that positive memories from last year are outweighing the situational pressure (in stark contrast to 2009 finalist Safina).  Nevertheless, one solid win remains only one win until the player extends the momentum over several matches.  Kuznetsova has the surface edge over Petkovic, but the German may have the mental edge because of their history and is unlikely to slump into resignation after adversity as did Cirstea.  Expect a crisply played match competitive from start to finish.

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Szavay vs. Petrova (19) (Court 3, 1st match):  Rising and falling faster than a soufflé, Szavay’s meteoric career once inspired us to include her among the future stars of her generation.  (That list also included Cornet, Paszek, and Pironkova, though…hmmm.)  Armed with an imposing serve and a sparkling backhand, she broke into the headlines by charging to the US Open quarterfinals in 2007—and has accomplished barely anything of significance since then.  When she upset Venus in the third round here last year, observers attributed the result less to her brilliance than to the American’s ineptitude, a judgment that the Hungarian promptly vindicated by mustering little resistance against Cibulkova a round later.  Also renowned for a mighty serve and superb two-hander, the aging Petrova stunned international audiences when she humiliated Clijsters and subdued Kuznetsova in Melbourne this year.  Although she’s produced characteristically inconsistent results since then, clay has been friendly to the Russian.  In the second round here a year ago, the former Roland Garros fell to Sharapova 8-6 in the third despite a delicious shotmaking display; that match proved one of the highlights of the WTA tournament.  Expect her to set up a fascinating third-round collision with Rezai.

Briefly notedFulfilling our expectations from Day 3’s preview, Querrey left doubles partner Isner alone to face the dirt that Americans detest.  The towering server began his tournament impressively in the first round by losing just 10 service points, but we’re curious whether his friend’s disgruntled departure wields any influence on his performance against Chiudinelli.  A match between two Fed Cup teammates, the Pennetta-Vinci encounter would have earned our extended attention had their last four meetings not been so oddly lopsided.  They’ve alternated wins in their seven career clashes, and a quick look at the WTA site tells us that it’s Flavia’s turn tomorrow.  Not renowned for his clay achievements, Baghdatis severely tested Ferrer on the admittedly faster surface in Madrid; the charismatic Cypriot will find his patience examined by clay specialist Granollers, who also scored an eye-opening win over Soderling in Melbourne.  Finally, we’re following the fortunes of (two-time!) Warsaw champion Alexandra Dulgheru, steadily rising in the rankings and perhaps a name to remember as spring turns to summer.  She’ll be dueling with Timea Bacsinszky, who recently has won a match from Li Na and a set from Serena. 

***

Let us know if you have any special requests for Day 5, when the top half of the women’s draw and the bottom half of the men’s draw play their first rounds.  You can be assured that we will preview Jankovic-Kanepi, Kleybanova-Ivanovic, Shvedova-Radwanska, Nishikori-Djokovic,  and Seppi-Kohlschreiber, but otherwise we’re open to suggestions!

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