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Rafael Nadal - Spain v Czech Republic - Davis Cup World Group Final - Day Two

Embarrassment of riches (BEL vs. ESP): Spearheaded by a reinvigorated Rafa, the Spanish team has marshaled no fewer than three top-10 players against a Belgian team with only one member (Malisse) in the top 100.  So potent is Spain’s firepower, in fact, that world #9 Verdasco initially planned to participate only in doubles before Ferrer’s neck cramp forced captain Alberto Costa to redesign his lineup.  While Nadal will profit from a virtual practice match against Bemelmans, the other Spanish lefty can rediscover his hard-court rhythm after consecutive losses to Raonic when he confronts Malisse in the opening rubber.  That match should prove the most competitive of a brutally one-sided tie, certain to deploy the Davis Cup’s new prohibition against dead fifth rubbers.

Weekend without superstars (SRB vs. IND):  Sensibly sparing his energies with the two mini-majors on the horizon, former Indian Wells and Miami champion Djokovic joined Indian Express Bhupathi and Paes on the sidelines as Serbia opens its title defense.  Stripped of its most notable participants, this tie nevertheless will feature a glimpse of rising Indian star Somdeev Devvarman, a Hewitt-esque player gradually inching further into main draws.  But the home squad should thoroughly control proceedings under the aegis of 2010 Davis Cup Final hero Troicki, Delray Beach finalist Tipsarevic, and aging doubles legend Zimonjic.  Just three months after winning their first title in this competition, Serbia should sweep comfortably and schedule a fascinating second-round meeting with Soderling’s Sweden or Tarpischev’s Russia.  On that occasion, they will need their superstar again.

Clinic on clay (ARG vs. ROM): Across from the Grouchy Gaucho stands the Romanian Spit-Fire in a clash of notably ill-tempered personalities.  An enigma in individual competition, Nalbandian has delivered  several memorable performances while compiling a 20-5 record in Davis Cup singles rubbers (16-2 on clay), but Hanescu could thrive on a surface where he has an 11-3 Davis Cup record.  Beyond the two #1s, the 31st-ranked Chela, the 33rd-ranked Monaco, and even Eduardo Schwank trump any member of the visiting squad in clay-court talent, so the surface and the thunderous Buenos Aires crowd should play a decisive role in this tie.   The plot could thicken if the tie reaches Saturday at 1-1, allowing Romanian doubles specialist Horia Tecau to showcase his craft in a potentially pivotal rubber against an Argentine team comprised entirely of singles stars.  In order for the visitors to prevail, though, Hanescu almost surely must win three rubbers, a task probably too tall for the weak-willed, heavy-legged #59 in surroundings as hostile as the Parque Roca.

Serves against the surface (CHI vs. USA):  We might have favored Chile to spring this upset had its marquee player Fernando Gonzalez played a role.  Instead, that inveterate ball-bruiser will join the legions of passionate Chilean fans in an attempt to propel four players outside the top 100 past Roddick, Isner, and the world’s top doubles team.  On any surface other than clay, this matchup would look no less intimidating than Belgium vs. Spain.  Even on clay, the serves of Roddick and Isner will garner many more free points than the the crumbling, 31-year-old Massu and the punchless Capdeville, famously feckless in Davis Cup.  Gallantly battling Djokovic on clay in Davis Cup last year, Isner projects surprising power from his inside-out forehand on this surface, while Roddick always brings an extra jolt of adrenaline and focus to national team competition.  First-time captain Jim Courier should enjoy a debut that will set up a far more imposing home encounter with Spain a week after Wimbledon.

Spotlight on the supporting actors (CRO vs. GER):  With Karlovic drifting towards retirement, Croatia hopes that Zagreb champion Ivan Dodig can slip smoothly into the role of #2 behind Cilic, edging back towards relevance after a final in Marseille.  But Germany bolsters the mercurial Kohlschreiber by bringing an even more promising #2 to this weekend’s collision, which looks destined to enter Sunday undecided.  A two-time semifinalist already this season, Florian Mayer has defeated Del Potro and Davydenko this year while quelling rising Lithuanian Berankis.  Perhaps more importantly, he ended Cilic’s Zagreb defense in February with a startlingly routine victory.  In addition to the Zagreb title, Dodig distinguished himself by winning the only set that Djokovic lost at the Australian Open, and the long-time journeyman has won at least one match at every tournament that he has played this year.  If he duels with Mayer in a decisive fifth rubber, scintillating Davis Cup drama could ensue.

Tomas Berdych - 2011 Australian Open - Day 5

Veterans and novices (CZE vs. KAZ):  While Davis Cup stalwart Stepanek may have Czeched out on this weekend’s action, but Berdych still towers over not only his teammates but their Kazakh opponents.  Squandering a 2-1 lead against Serbia in last year’s semifinals, the Czech Republic contested the Davis Cup final in 2009 and will benefit from a vast advantage in experience over a nation elevated to the World Group for the first time.  In the doubles, Berdych may partner doubles specialist Dlouhy in a Saturday rubber where the home squad should trump the singles-only visitors.  But captain Jaroslav Navratil may decide to reserve his ace for a fourth rubber against Golubev, who nearly defeated Tomas in Washington last summer.  The Kazakh #1 has started 2011 in miserable form, however, dropping four straight matches to start the season and earning his only victory in five tournaments courtesy of a Baghdatis retirement.  Unless he can reverse that momentum  immediately, Kazakhstan won’t play again until September.

One against many (SWE vs. RUS, AUS vs. FRA):  Eyeing his overmatched prey with relish, Soderling should feast upon a Russian team bereft of Davydenko, Youzhny, or any player in the top 75.  The Swede charges into the weekend with three titles in his last four tournaments and 17 victories in his 18 matches this season.  Although legendary strategist Shamil Tarpischev lacks a superstar to counterbalance the world #4, he has marshaled four veterans who have ample expertise in both singles and doubles, thus providing him with a variety of options to manipulate in his characteristically unpredictable style.  Almost certainly doomed in Soderling’s two singles rubbers, Russia conceivably could win the other three.  Behind Soderling stand only the doubles specialists  Aspelin and Lindstedt as well as the quasi-retired Joachim Johansson, summoned for probably perfunctory singles duty.  Johansson has won only one Davis Cup match in his career and none since 2005, while he has played only three total matches since the start of 2010.  At the core of the weekend thus lies the doubles rubber.  A combined 3-9 in Davis Cup doubles, the scheduled duo of Kunitsyn and Tursunov did win their only Cup collaboration against the formidable Argentine pairing of Canas and Nalbandian on Buenos Aires clay.  Curiously, their opponents also have underperformed in the Cup despite winning a silver medal at the 2008 Olympics.

A less striking version of the same storyline could unfold inside an Austrian aircraft hangar, where world #10 Jurgen Melzer seeks to soar above a French team crippled by injuries to its leading stars.  Among the questions surrounding the 2010 Davis Cup finalists is the tension between captain Guy Forget and singles #1 Gilles Simon, a dynamic absent in the avuncular Tarpischev’s squad.  Also, how will Llodra recover from the disappointment of losing the decisive rubber in last year’s final, and how will Jeremy Chardy respond to the pressure of his first meaningful match in Davis Cup, contested before a hostile crowd?  On the other hand, Melzer has looked vulnerable while accumulating a 5-3 record this year, and his supporting cast features no player more imposing than the 34-year-old, 206th-ranked Stefan Koubek.  (One might debate whether Koubek or Johansson will pose a more credible challenge.)  If the visitors can solve their internal differences, they can rely upon a sturdier doubles pairing in Benneteau and Llodra.  Outside that flamboyant duo, though, almost nothing looks certain in a tie that plausibly could come down to a bizarre final rubber between Koubek and Chardy or just as plausibly end in a resounding sweep—by either side.

***

We return in a few days to open our coverage of Indian Wells!

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Standing head and shoulders above their respective challengers (figuratively in Nadal’s case), the two #1s asserted their authority with emphatic victories in Wimbledon’s final weekend.  As the victors bask in the glow of their well-deserved triumphs, we present report cards for the principal contenders as well as those who surprised us, for better or for worse.  Brace yourselves for a lengthy but hopefully entertaining read.

A:

Nadal:  For the third consecutive year, the men’s tour witnessed a Channel Slam as the same player swept Roland Garros and Wimbledon, but this feat may become commonplace considering Nadal’s dominance at both venues.  Especially important to his legacy are his non-clay majors, which cement his reputation as a magnificent all-surface player and eventually will incorporate him in the GOAT debate if he remains healthy.  Also significant were his straight-sets triumphs over ball-bruising behemoths in the last two Slam finals, for the style of Soderling and Berdych will characterize most of the opponents whom he must vanquish in the later rounds of majors.  Finally, we saw Nadal outside the stifling context of his evaporating rivalry with Federer, the narrative of which often cast him as the foil to the Swiss legend’s majesty, an upstart who courageously sought to dethrone the king.  Now Rafa reigns supreme, fortified in the #1 ranking for the foreseeable future and ideally positioned to pursue the elusive career Slam at the US Open. 

Serena:  “Dependable” and “steady” might not be the first words that spring to mind when describing the flamboyant Serena, yet they accurately evoke the order and continuity that she has brought to the mercurial WTA.  While Belgians bomb, Russians reel, and a sister sinks, the world #1 fires ace after ace, makes top-50 players look like practice partners, and wins virtually at will.  During her seven victories here, she lost her serve just three times and faced ten total break points (none in the final); only once, against Sharapova, was the American in any real danger of losing so much as a set.  Having won five of the last six non-clay majors, Serena will enter the US Open as the clear favorite to record a 14th major.  We’ll be curious to see whether she ends her career with more Slams than Federer.

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Berdych:  Proving that Miami was no accident, the enigmatic Czech appears to have solved his own riddle and finally assembled his mighty game, which for so long was less than the sum of its parts.  At the core of his last two Slam performances was his vastly improved confidence, which carried him past the six-time champion in a quarterfinal that offered multiple opportunities to falter.  In future majors, he’ll want to take care of business more efficiently in the first week, during which he played a five-setter against Istomin and a four-setter against Brands.  But his achievements in the most pressure-laden environment of all demonstrated that he’s ready to breathe the rarefied air at the top of the game.  With few points to defend on the American hard courts, his ranking should keep rising.

Zvonareva:  She didn’t hold the Venus Rosewater Dish on Saturday, but in a personal sense Zvonareva achieved even more than did Serena during this fortnight.  Whereas we’ve accustomed ourselves to the younger Williams sister delivering such performances, the rebirth of this volatile Russian as a mature competitor should have elated the WTA.  Armed with a complete arsenal of weapons and an excellent tennis IQ, Zvonareva should build upon this tournament as Berdych built upon his Miami breakthrough.  Even in the final, she competed courageously rather than folding as have so many of Serena’s craven foes, while her two previous matches featured n uncharacteristically sturdy comebacks  by a player formerly most famous for her meltdowns.   It’s a pleasure to see the prettiest pair of eyes in women’s tennis sparkling with joy rather than brimming with tears.

A-:

Murray:  Just as in Australia, the Scot was the best player of the men’s tournament until the semis, conceding one lone set en route to that stage.  During his first five matches, he looked nearly invincible as he defused the explosive offenses of Querrey and Tsonga after dismissing a trio of garden-variety foes.  Murray’s emergence from a prolonged post-Australian Open slump will have boosted his confidence at a timely moment before the shift to American hard courts, where he generally prospers.  And his post-defeat press conference was far more gracious than one would have expected from the often truculent Scot.  Nevertheless, he continues to fall just short at Slams and oddly seemed reluctant to carpe the diem against Rafa as he did so expertly in Melbourne.

Surprise WTA semifinalists:  Nadal wasn’t the only lefty who shone on the lawns of the All England Club, nor was Berdych the only Czech.  En route to a surprisingly respectable loss to Serena, Kvitova overwhelmed both Azarenka and Wozniacki as well as 2008 semifinalist Zheng Jie.  Presaged by a trip to the second week of last year’s US Open, the quirky shotmaker’s triumphs against these three diverse playing styles bodes well for her future as a dark horse in key tournaments.  Told that one player other than Serena would reach the semis without dropping a set, few spectators would have guessed Tsvetana Pironkova.  Despite a counterpunching, movement-based game seemingly antithetical to grass, the Bulgarian radiated calm poise throughout her upsets of Bartoli and Venus.  She doesn’t hit anyone off the court, but she makes those who do win points three times or more in order to oust her.

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Sharapova:  Why is a fourth-round loser in this prestigious category?  We grade on improvement (or “dis-improvement”—see below), and that ghastly first-round debacle in Melbourne has receded into distant memory after Maria’s sterling competitive efforts in the last two majors.  If she hadn’t netted a routine forehand on set point in the tiebreak against Serena, she might well have scored a stunning victory last Monday in what became the de facto final; afterwards, the Russian likely would have navigated to a second Wimbledon title.  Even more of a confidence player than Nadal, she proved a shade tentative on key moments in the Serena encounter but looked sharper at Wimbledon than she has since 2006.  When she translates those fearsome serve-groundstroke combinations to her best surface, the hard courts, Sharapova could prove Serena’s primary challenger again at the US Open.

Isner / Mahut / Mohammed Lahyani:  The longest match ever was far from the greatest match ever, yet its B-level tennis shouldn’t detract from the spectacular resilience of its participants.  Kudos to perhaps the most good-natured umpire of all for withstanding seven stiff hours on his lonely perch.  Greater kudos to Isner for defying exhaustion and finding the willpower to propel his massive frames through 118 games in a single day.  And greatest kudos of all to Mahut, who gallantly held serve to stay alive not once, not twice, not thrice, but 64 times.  Perhaps the French World Cup team should watch the spectacular feat of their compatriot, who offered a splendid lesson in how to lose with grace and glory.

B+:

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Djokovic:  He was excellent at times and solid at others, but he doesn’t quite seem like the second-best player in the world, as the rankings would suggest.  Escaping a potential first-round catastrophe against Miami nemesis Rochus, the Serb seemed to settle into the tournament with each successive match, of which the most impressive was his four-set win over the ever-tenacious Hewitt.  In the quarterfinals, Djokovic suffocated the sprightly challenge of Yen-Hsun Lu with arguably his strongest, steadiest single-match performance of 2010 thus far.  Two days later, his serve unraveled ignominiously against Berdych with a double fault to lose the second-set tiebreak and consecutive doubles to drop serve in the third set.  Still uneasy against confident, big-serving opponents, Djokovic stubbornly stuck to an unintelligent game plan in the semis despite possessing ample alternatives.  Most concerning, though, was his fitness; after two hours, he looked more drained than did Mahut after seven.  

Kanepi:  While reaching the quarterfinals was more than sufficient cause for celebration, consider that Kaia Kanepi accomplished that feat after qualifying and while playing doubles.  The indefatigable Estonian reminded us that a crunching serve and mountains of first-strike power often can compensate for an otherwise one-dimensional style on this surface.  Once in the top 20, Kanepi has played with conviction since defeating Henin in Fed Cup  this spring, and her momentum should extend onto the fast hard courts.

Querrey:  After collecting the Queens Club title, the lanky Californian reached the second week of a major for just the second time, an achievement especially remarkable considering his bizarre French fadeout.  In the third round against the ever-dangerous Malisse, he refused to buckle after squandering opportunities in the fourth and fifth sets, instead calmly continuing to hold serve until the Belgian blinked.  When he wasted an opportunity to build an early lead against Murray, however, the Scot swiftly punished him for his profligacy.

Li:  Capitalizing upon her Birmingham title just as Querrey capitalized upon his Queens Club triumph, Li scored a commanding win over two-time quarterfinalist Radwanska in the final 16.  She managed to keep pace with Serena before unaccountably letting a service game slip away late in the first set, after which she faded swiftly.  But the Chinese star has now reached the quarterfinals or better at three of the last four majors, summoning her best tennis for the grandest stages and finally accumulating the consistency that long has constituted her greatest flaw.

B:

Tsonga:  Despite an injury that endangered his participation here, the acrobatic Frenchman leaped and lunged through an eventful first week to reach the quarters.  Had he closed out the second-set tiebreak against Murray, a semifinal spot almost surely would have awaited.  An embarrassing  (but unfortunately not uncharacteristic) faux pas at 5-5 in that tiebreak cost him dearly, though; positioned to demolish a floating return, Tsonga motionlessly watched it sail past him in the expectation that it would land out.  It didn’t, and Murray took full advantage of the reprieve.

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Soderling:  The Swedish juggernaut still exposes the frailties in Nadal, who looked unduly anxious during much of their quarterfinal.  Yet the Spaniard has distinctly recaptured the edge in this mini-rivalry, while Soderling’s temper returned in an unnecessarily prolonged five-set win over Ferrer.  After he refused to drop serve throughout the entire first week, one expected a bit more confidence in the second week.  Nevertheless, a foot injury clearly undermined him against the eventual champion, so look for him to wield an impact again at the US Open.

Melzer:  Winning just eight games from a clearly less-than-flawless Federer in the round of 16:  C+.  Seizing the doubles title with Petzschner:  A-.  Those divergent performances average to a B for this maddeningly mercurial but fascinatingly distinctive veteran, who now has won consecutive third-round matches at Slams after dropping his previous eleven.

Hewitt:  Following his superlative performance in Halle, many observers (including ourselves) expected him to record an upset over Djokovic last Monday.  Although he proved unable to do so, his previous win over Monfils illustrated the dogged determination that he brings to every point of every match.  While that unflinching intensity alone would justify watching him, his superb court sense and point-construction skills scintillate on a more intellectual level.  Rarely does the Australian beat himself, which is a description that one can’t apply to several higher-ranked players.

Groth:  Like Melzer, she reached the second week for the second consecutive major, pounding last year’s sensation Melanie Oudin into submission en route.  Although her competitive fourth-round encounter with Venus looked less impressive two days later, she showed greater poise than she formerly had on such occasions…until she served for the second set, when her game predictably fell apart.  All the same, the Slovak-turned-Australian is steadily learning how to channel her prodigious power, ominous news for whoever draws her early in New York.

Clijsters:  Losing to a pair of mentally dubious Russians (Petrova, Zvonareva) at her last two Slams, the 2009 US Open champion will be hard-pressed to defend her title unless her level rises distinctly in Cincinnati and Canada.  Sluggish and seemingly disinterested for much of her quarterfinal here, Clijsters looked more like a mom who plays tennis than a tennis player who is a mom.  Yet perhaps she was mentally drained from yet another three-set triumph over Henin on the previous day, a match that reaffirmed her position as currently the Best in Belgium.  Kim won’t need to worry about such a hangover at the next major, where she’ll gain the psychological boost of flying her country’s flag alone.

Haase / Petzschner:  Unknown outside the inner circle of aficionados, these northern European sluggers both won two sets from Nadal.  Those five-set losses represent greater accomplishments than any of their prior victories and should inspire them to future exploits.

Wimbledon crowd:  A thunderous standing ovation for the six-time men’s champion as he trudged off Centre Court in defeat:  A.  Boos for the five-time women’s champion when she arrived ten minutes late on Court 2:  C.  Does that sixth title really garner so much additional respect?  Apparently not, since nobody dared to boo Sharapova when she appeared ten minutes late on the same court (and probably for the same, perfectly justifiable reason).

B-:

Federer:  After nearly finding himself on the wrong side of history in the first round, the defending champion seemed to be playing his way into the tournament when he crashed into Berdych and out of Wimbledon.  That Sampras record of total weeks at #1 may be safe after all unless the Swiss legend suddenly reinvigorates himself as he did in 2008.  Leading us to expect otherwise, however, are these consecutive pre-quarterfinal losses at majors to players whom Federer formerly had dominated, losses that he rationalized a little too glibly in his post-match interview.  His final unforced error of the day, that sour press conference revealed a much less gracious personality than we had identified with the former #1.  Not unlike Serena at her worst, he attributed his loss to everything—from injuries to simple bad luck—except his opponent.  Has Federer perhaps been concealing a churlish streak beneath his genteel veneer?  It’s not hard to look and sound classy when you’re always holding a trophy.

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Henin:  We’ve reached a key crossroads in her comeback, which has garnered two minor titles and the Australian Open final but has fallen well short of most expectations.  During her protracted injury absence, she might want to assess the state of her game and consider what could be changed to take the next step forward.  But a third loss to Clijsters in six months—at the tournament for which this entire project is designed—must have struck a heavy blow to her easily deflated morale.

Azarenka / Wozniacki:  Once described as the future faces of women’s tennis, the Belarussian and the Dane have taken winding detours on their respective routes to what seemed inevitable Slam glory.  Both of them gulped down bagels courtesy of Kvitova, and both remain chronically hampered by injuries that restrict their movement.  Let’s hope that the post-Wimbledon hiatus provides a much-needed physical and mental respite.

Roland Garros women’s finalists:  The toasts of France quickly became French toast at Wimbledon, garnering just one set between them.  While Schiavone doesn’t need to win another match if she doesn’t want, Stosur needs to dispel the lingering aftermath of her Paris disappointment before it festers too long.

C:

Roddick:  For the second straight Wimbledon, he held his serve through five sets until losing it in the final game of the match.  For the second straight Wimbledon, he lost two of three tiebreaks.  For the second straight Wimbledon, he rallied from a two-sets-to-one deficit to force a final set.  For the second straight Wimbledon, he came within a point of serving for the match.  But this time he was playing Yen-Hsun Lu in the fourth round instead of Federer in the final.  A major setback for the top-ranked American, Roddick’s tournament effectively erased his momentum from Indian Wells and Miami while intensifying the pressure that he’ll confront at the US Open.  Just beyond his grasp a year ago, that second Slam now looks as far away as ever.

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Venus:  Accustomed to routine quarterfinals at her favorite tournament, the elder Williams is not accustomed to being the victim of routine quarterfinals at her favorite tournament.  Facing break point in all but two of her service games, she never found her range against an energetic but far from overpowering Pironkova, the type of player whom she must conquer in order to contend for majors again.  It’s becoming increasingly difficult to imagine her harnessing those unruly groundstrokes throughout an entire fortnight.  In the twilight stages of Venus’ career, her game is hideous when it is anything less than sublime.

Men’s doubles stars:  Seeking to break the Woodies’ titles record, the Bryans let a potentially magical moment slip away in the quarterfinals.  Their perennial nemeses, defending champions Nestor and Zimonjic departed even earlier. 

F:

Blake / Pam Shriver:  Both of them forfeited considerable respect by stooping to engage in a mid-match war of words after Pam’s biting critique of James.  Credit Robin Haase for not allowing the fracas to distract him from the task of pulverizing Blake, whose career has drifted out to sea for good. 

Hanescu:  Keep your saliva to yourself.  Nobody wants to be infected with the type of malady that engenders such disrespect for the sport.  Or did you confuse Wimbledon with the World Cup, where such antics might be applauded?

***

Although most of the top players now embark upon quasi-summer vacations, we will not vanish into the London mist.  Here are some of the articles that you can expect to read here in the next few weeks:

Five to Frame:  The Five Most Memorable Matches of the First Half (ATP edition and WTA edition)

Rivalries Renewed:  Davis Cup Quarterfinal Preview

5 (+1) Plotlines to Ponder:  US Open Series Edition

Pushing Forward:  Caroline Wozniacki (player profile)

To Have and Have Not:  Ernests Gulbis (player profile)  [Sorry for the delay on this article, a pre-Roland Garros request.  We didn’t forget, though!]

Service with a Smile:  John Isner (player profile)

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It gets late early in Paris this weekend.  We refer not to the avalanche of complaints from players who resent peering through twilight at the ball, but to the third-round collision between two WTA superstars with ten Slam titles between them.  This match marks the first time in ten meetings that Sharapova and Henin have intersected before the quarterfinal.   (Shouldn’t the French Open adjust its seedings to reflect clay expertise as Wimbledon does for grass prowess?)  Winning six of their nine previous clashes and both of their clay matches, the Belgian clearly has the surface edge as well as the overall edge in the rivalry, which suggests that the encounter might not live up to the media’s expectations.  On the other hand, Maria has showcased her highest level of tennis on the past three occasions when she has confronted Justine:  the 2006 US Open final, the 2007 year-end championships final, and the 2008 Australian Open quarterfinal.  Although all of those matches were contested on hard courts, the two clay meetings don’t hold much significance because they occurred five years ago before Sharapova’s game had evolved into its mature form.  Yet Justine has evolved markedly as well since that time, now more willing to finish points quickly with an imposing forehand or by approaching the net.  Meanwhile, Maria has improved her patience and fitness, an arena in which the Belgian long had held an advantage over her.  On this occasion, the fitness edge should be effectively neutralized, however, because Henin has been physically fragile during her comeback while Sharapova has devoted much effort to that feature of her game.  

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Brushing aside a quartet of helpless opponents, both players looked equally dominant in their first two rounds; Justine responded to the pressure of her Roland Garros return with trademark poise, and Maria advanced through the early stages with much more efficiency than usual.  Despite a few new wrinkles like Sharapova’s occasional drop shot and Henin’s sporadic serve-and-volley, there are no secrets in this rivalry.  Contemptuously rejecting a reporter’s suggestion that she modify her style for the clay, the Russian will hammer away at the Belgian’s defense from the baseline, while the four-time champion will seek to improvise ways to disrupt her opponent’s programmatic point construction.  Essential for both players, impressive serving would allow Maria to instantly assert control of rallies, pinning her opponent behind the baseline, and allow Justine to approach the net, where she regularly excels.  The cooler evening temperatures and more spacious Chatrier court would favor Henin more than if the match were played in mid-afternoon on Lenglen, but those factors shouldn’t be crucial.  Instead, what will be crucial will be the relative confidence of both players and their ability to seize opportunities while controlling their aggression.  Capturing the minor Strasbourg title last week, Sharapova enters the contest with a seven-match winning streak on her least favorite surface but has yet to defeat an elite player this season.  Entering the contest with a 23-match winning streak at Roland Garros, Henin has countless positive memories on which to reflect but has yet to defeat a former Slam champion or a player of Sharapova’s competitive resilience during her comeback.  If the Belgian finds her rhythm, she should be able to defuse the Russian’s power; if she’s a little off-key, she might be in trouble.

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Beyond the soiree of champions, here are additional matches of note on a somewhat nondescript Day 7.

Serena (1) vs. Pavlyuchenkova (29) (Chatrier, 1st match):  Predictably unsteady in her opener, Serena looked considerably sharper during a 55-minute demolition of Julia Goerges.  The top seed probably plans to use the first week to find her range before a challenging quarterfinal.  Formerly the #1 junior in the world, Pavlyuchenkova has cultivated a style most effective on hard courts but adaptable to all surfaces.  She appears to have recovered from a nagging foot injury that has hampered her for much of 2010.  Still too inexperienced to topple a competitor of Serena’s steel, the much-anticipated Russian phenom could create some engaging baseline rallies.  We’re curious to see what attitude Pavlyuchenkova brings to the match; Goerges capitulated rather spinelessly, but we suspect that Serena’s next opponent might not be willing to concede immediately. 

Peer (18) vs. Bartoli (13) (Lenglen, 2nd match):  Like Gasquet, Bartoli prefers the grasses of Wimbledon to the grit of her own country.  The top-ranked Frenchwoman left little imprint upon the rest of the clay season and was fortunate to draw a pair of underwhelming adversaries in the first two rounds.  By contrast, Peer has excelled throughout the road to Roland Garros despite preferring hard courts to the slower surface.  Although the star performers of Stuttgart, Rome, and Madrid have enjoyed mixed results so far in Paris, don’t be surprised if the tenacious Israeli outlasts the eccentric, controversial leader of les bleues.

Verdasco (7) vs. Kohlschreiber (30) (Lenglen, 3rd match):  An engaging contest between two baseliners who love to take huge swings in both opportune and inopportune situations, this match should showcase exceptional shotmaking.  The German punches well above his size and unleashes explosive backhands, while Verdasco’s forehand remains among the most powerful in the ATP.  Perhaps a little tired from Nice, the Spaniard recording outstanding results at all of the preliminary clay events except Madrid.  Expect a few momentum shifts, but expect Verdasco’s more potent serve, improved fitness, and somewhat improved patience to carry him into the final 16.

Hantuchova (23) vs. Wickmayer (16) (Court 2, 2nd match):  The stylish Slovak navigated her first two matches rather routinely, showing further signs of the resurgence that began in March.  Extended deep into a deciding set by Bammer, meanwhile, Wickmayer may be running low on energy as she was a few months ago in Australia. Somewhat like Kuznetsova except stronger mentally, this future top-10 WTA star possesses outstanding athletic talents that should serve her well on every surface.  One should remember that she is returning from an elbow injury that required surgery, however, and may not be able to display her highest-quality tennis.  If Hantuchova can control her nerves and stretch Wickmayer laterally with her trademark down-the-line groundstrokes, she’ll have a definite chance to pull off the mini-upset.

Ljubicic (14) vs. Bellucci (24) (Court 2, 3rd match):  Just weeks removed from his Indian Wells renaissance, the 31-year-old Croat stands a win away from setting up a rematch with Nadal.  This meeting presents an intriguing clash between a seasoned veteran and a raw but highly talented upstart.  Will Ljubicic’s greater versatility and all-court expertise prevail over Bellucci’s flamboyant lefty shot-making from the baseline?  Complicating the situation a little is the Croat’s marathon win over Fish on Friday, which might have drained his energy and taken a few vital miles per hour off his massive serve.  Nevertheless, expect few breaks and many short points, unlike a conventional clay-court encounter.

Briefly noted:  More impressive than anticipated against Nishikori, Djokovic shouldn’t experience excessive difficulty with Hanescu, who secured just three games in Madrid against Murray—nobody’s idea of a clay-court expert.  Even if the Serb’s much-scrutinized fitness sags a bit, the slow-footed Romanian won’t be able to extend the rallies sufficiently to test it.  Jankovic strives to improve upon a lackluster second-round performance by exacting revenge upon Alona Bondarenko for a loss in the same round of Melbourne.  On the other hand, the Ukrainian had lost all nine of their previous meetings before that Australian encounter, so perhaps Jelena should show her some mercy.  In the weakest section of the draw, Ivanovic nemesis Kleybanova intersects with Radwanska nemesis Shvedova for a ball-bruising pas de deux.  One of these two hard-court aficionados will be favored to reach their first Slam quarterfinal over the winner of Groth-Rodionova; it’ll be intriguing to note who capitalizes upon the opportunity.  Moreover, both Kleybanova and Shvedova have scored success against Jankovic in the recent past, suggesting that the Serb might look forward to a livelier quarterfinal than we initially had imagined when examining her vicinity.

Enjoy the accelerating action tomorrow as Roland Garros marches into the middle weekend!  🙂

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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!

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