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After dropping serve in the fourth game against an imperious Serena Williams, a familiar storyline seemed likely to unfold for Sharapova, who had endured a pair of ignominiously one-sided defeats at the hands of the world #1 in their last two fast-court meetings.  Instead, the 2004 Wimbledon champion swiftly regrouped to break Serena before matching her fistpump for fistpump and serve for blazing serve deep into a first-set tiebreak, where a momentary dip in the Russian’s intensity cost her the chance to establish a lead.  Barely deterred by that disappointment, however, she kept the top seed grimly locked in combat through most of the second set as well.  Rather than the slumping, listless Maria who dropped the Australian final to Serena three years ago, the Centre Court  witnessed a steely competitor whose fabled ferocity glowed once more against the three-time (probably soon to be four-time) titlist at the All England Club.  This startlingly taut encounter joined the gallant three-setter against Henin in Paris among Sharapova’s finest performances in her comeback, for both of these honorable losses impressed more than most of her triumphs over unheralded foes.  (Could someone summon Justine whenever Maria requires an infusion of confidence?  Their epic final at the 2007 year-end championships likewise ignited the Russian after a dismal series of results.)  To be sure, she must polish her second-serve returns and refine her shot selection at crucial moments; she adhered to her aggression-at-all-costs game plan a little too rigorously on a few occasions.  Where Maria is concerned, though, over-aggressive is far preferable to passive; if she can maintain her distance from the doctor, one imagines that her ranking and confidence will continue to climb, lifting the Russian back into the contender’s circle for 2011.  It’s hard to imagine her losing on a fast surface to anyone not named Williams with the standard of play that she showcased on Monday. 

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Meanwhile, Henin finds herself at a slight crossroads in her comeback after a deflating loss to Clijsters during which she produced erratic and often unintelligent tennis.  Following an explosive start to 2010 in Australia, the season hasn’t unfolded as impressively as she surely would have hoped, and three three-set losses to Clijsters will be festering in her mind during the post-Wimbledon hiatus.  If Henin hopes to add the Venus Rosewater Dish to her trophy collection, she must find a way to defeat her compatriot before she can attempt to solve the Williams sisters.  Always an emotional dynamo, the petite Belgian needs an impressive performance or two over the coming months in order to restore her confidence in this second career and vindicate the modifications that thus far have disrupted more than enhanced her game.  On the bright side, her rising ranking will allow her to settle into tournaments more comfortably by easing her draws, brutal at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon. 

Monday was Manic indeed.  Will Tuesday be Terrific or Tepid?  We break down the women’s quarterfinals straight ahead…

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Clijsters (8) vs. Zvonareva (21):  Who would have guessed that Zvonareva would be the last Russian standing at Wimbledon?  While Kim has won all five of their previous meetings, including a 2006 first-round clash here, Vera has extended their last two clashes to three sets and has showcased unexpectedly compelling tennis this fortnight.  Despite the pressure inherent to her exalted surroundings, Zvonareva hasn’t dropped a set in four matches here while restraining her infamous temper.  Unaccustomed to playing on Centre Court, however, she might enter the match a little tentative, which could allow Clijsters to establish an early lead.  Rallying from a one-set deficit against her archrival on Monday, the Belgian either will charge forward with the momentum acquired from overcoming Henin or will suffer an emotional hangover from the relief of reversing Justine’s dominance over her on major stages.  At Miami, an emotionally fraught semifinal triumph against her compatriot preceded a highly capable performance in the final.  “Highly capable” should suffice to vanquish Zvonareva, who can equal Clijsters from both the service notch and the baseline but not above the neckline.  Since neither player wins quantities of free points on their serve, engaging rallies should develop that showcase the balanced groundstroke arsenals and crisp footwork of these competitors.  If one feels rather jaded by the abbreviated points and spasmodic rhythm of conventional grass-court tennis, therefore, this match should offer a refreshing antidote.  We expect a reasonably competitive encounter, perhaps even a three-setter, that Clijsters should capture through her superior consistency unless her game abruptly deserts her as it has a few times this year.  Clijsters, 70/30.

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Serena (1) vs. Li (9):  Virtually bullet-proof through her first four matches, Serena has conceded her serve just once in the tournament while striking an astonishing 62 aces, 38 in her last two matches.  One senses that she’ll need to rely on that massive delivery against an adversary who has won four sets (and one match) from her and who habitually rises to the occasion when confronting formidable opponents.  Forced to perform at a lofty level in order to overcome Sharapova, Serena often benefits from challenging early rounds that elevate her focus for the tournament’s latter stages.  Riding a nine-match winning streak, Li dragged the top seed into two tiebreaks in the Australian Open semifinals; overall, they have contested no fewer than five tiebreaks, of which the American has won four behind her superior serve.  As Serena mentioned in her Monday press conference, the Chinese star never concedes a match and can be at her most dangerous when behind.  In their last two meetings, Li twice broke the world #1 when she served for a set, sharpening her game at crucial moments.  Unintimidated by the Williams sisters, whom she has defeated three times since 2008, the ninth seed surely won’t be intimidated by the aura of Centre Court, a less pressure-laden environment than the Beijing Olympics where she excelled two years ago.  Very few players are more capable of exploiting an off-key day from a marquee opponent, which Venus discovered to her chagrin at the Australian Open.  Yet Serena has looked nothing short of imperious during this fortnight, burdening her opponents with the task of winning virtually every service games simply to stay level with her.  Don’t be surprised to see another tiebreak or two, but only a supreme effort from Li will secure a set for the Chinese star; shot for shot, there’s nothing that she does better than Serena when the American is at her best.   Serena, 80/20.

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Pironkova vs. Venus (2):  Recalling the 2006 Australian Open, fans of the elder Williams sister may anticipate this encounter a little anxiously, since Pironkova scored one of the last decade’s most shocking Slam upsets in the opening round that year.  in an unexpectedly tight, largely overlooked fourth-round triumph over Jarmila Groth, Venus looked less sharp than she had in the first week and was fortunate to escape a third set when the Slovak-turned-Australian crumbled in the second-set tiebreak.  Nevertheless, she faces a vastly different opponent in the Bulgarian, who once seemed a promising future contender before spiraling downwards in the last year or two.  Caressing rather than bludgeoning the ball, Pironkova exploited an extremely weak section of the draw before mystifyingly overcoming the much more grass-friendly game of Bartoli on Monday.  Bartoli’s serve often comprises more of a liability than an asset, however, whereas Venus should hold regularly while constantly threatening the Bulgarian’s benign delivery.  If they clashed on clay, Pironkova might prolong points until the second seed donated costly errors, but on grass this match would seem to be a grotesque mismatch.  On the other hand, Tsvetana is faithfully reproducing Schiavone’s post-victory mannerisms, so who knows?  We think that we do.  Venus, 90/10.

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Kvitova vs. Kanepi (Q):  Two women’s players will have won seven matches at this year’s Wimbledon:  the eventual champion and Kaia Kanepi, who scored three wins in the qualifying draw before reaching the quarters with four more victories.  Critiqued in this blog for her one-dimensionality, the Estonian has proved that might still does make right sometimes, following her Stosur upset with three more quality straight-sets wins.  Although her conditioning must be excellent for her to reach this stage, one imagines that Kanepi will be a little weary as she readies for the lefty missiles from the racket of white-hot Petra Kvitova.  The Estonian has won two of their three meetings, yet the Czech captured a vertiginously seesaw encounter in Memphis this Feburary after Kanepi had served for the match.  Bageling both Azarenka and Wozniacki, Kvitova sometimes looks as though she couldn’t miss if she tried, no matter how outrageously audacious her shots.  With impeccable timing, she’s scheduled the most convincing tennis of her career for arguably the most important tournament of all.  Kvitova possesses superior movement and Kanepi the sturdier serve, but both players probably will greet this immense opportunity apprehensively,  producing less than exquisite tennis.  Will Kanepi’s unflinching power trump Kvitova’s imaginative shotmaking, or will the lefty’s high-wire act continue?  Your guess is as good as ours.  A name beginning with K, 100/0.

We return with a preview of the distinctly more intriguing men’s quarterfinal matchups, three of which we forecasted before the first ball was struck.  Kudos to Yen-Hsun Lu for confounding our expectations, but it’ll be a long flight home for last year’s finalist, who has lost in excruciating fashion at his last four non-clay majors.

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Nobody has endured a heavier diet of disappointment than Roddick, so one hopes that the worm will eventually turn before the last sands trickle out of his hourglass.

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Effective but unspectacular in her third-round victory, Sharapova reached the second week of a Slam for just the second time in her comeback from shoulder surgery and extended an encouraging passage of play that began with her Strasbourg title in May.  Compiling a 14-3 record since her return from elbow injury, Maria now confronts a monumental challenge in world #1, top seed, defending champion, and twelve-time Slam champion Serena Williams.  Six years ago, they clashed on these fabled lawns in the ladies’ final, which unexpectedly proved the spark that launched Sharapova’s sensational career as the world’s highest-earning and arguably most recognizable female athlete.  Since that fateful Saturday in July, however, the American has regained the advantage with a nerve-jangling victory at an Australian Open semifinal and two lopsided 2007 wins during a period when the Russian’s shoulder injury severely undermined her game.  Consequently, what once had seemed likely to become a leading rivalry in women’s tennis evolved into no rivalry at all, as Sharapova wryly reminded the media during her postmatch press conference on Saturday.  We explain below why this narrative has unfolded.

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Like most of the WTA elite, Maria plays effectively the same style as the world #1, with explosive first-strike groundstrokes as well as mighty serving and returning.  Yet nobody executes this bone-crushing tennis more capably than the Williams sisters, who can outslug anyone on a fast surface while moving better than most of their rivals.  Their two principal flaws remain versatility and consistency, the former of which renders them susceptible to the artful Henin and the latter of which leaves them vulnerable to the dogged Clijsters.  Buttressed exclusively upon power, power, and more power, Sharapova virtually plays into Serena’s hands; the American covers the court more than the Russian and blasts her groundstrokes with a bit more margin for error.  The 2004 champion requires time and balance to unleash her savage strokes, while the three-time champion can crack dazzling winners at full stretch from sheer athletic talent.  If an opponent can keep Sharapova moving, by contrast, they can draw underwhelming mid-court replies that expose her indifferent defensive skills or force her to attempt a low-percentage reply.  Whereas Maria pounds almost entirely flat missiles, the top seed tempers her shots with topspin for better net clearance.  In the serving department, no player can trump Serena, whose simple, rhythmic delivery can hit all four corners of the service boxes while producing the most imposing second serve in the WTA.  It’s almost impossible for anyone, even the Belgians, to trade hold for hold with the defending champion on so fast a surface.  Although Maria’s serve has improved dramatically since her return to the elongated, pre-injury motion, she won’t win as many free points from the delivery as will Serena.  And the additional time that she needs to warm up her shoulder will diminish her serve’s pace in the first game or two, aiding her opponent’s efforts to gain an early lead.

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Most important, however, is the confidence factor, one of the most pivotal weapons in the American’s arsenal throughout her prolonged tenure at the summit of the sport.  Despite the obvious role of injuries in Maria’s 2007 losses, those routs (in addition to a lopsided Wimbledon loss against Venus that year) seem to have resigned the Russian to the superiority of the sisters.  Typically combative and authoritative against almost any other opponents, Sharapova loses this swaggering edge when she confronts Serena and Venus.  At her 2008 Charleston meeting with the younger sister, the Russian failed to convert multiple opportunities to assert herself early in the match before fading late.  If she hopes to score a stirring upset, Maria needs to relentlessly take risks on both first and second serves, pull the trigger in rallies at the earliest opportunity, and abbreviate points by moving into the forecourt.  In order to execute this uber-aggressive game plan convincingly, though, she must rediscover the self-belief against Serena that has escaped her since those precocious triumphs in 2004. 

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We break down the rest of Manic Monday below:

Querrey (18) vs. Murray (4) (Centre Court, 3rd match):  The only three-time titlist this year outside Nadal, Querrey has captured a tournament on every surface and now has reached the second week of a Slam for the second time in his career.  Shrugging away wasted opportunities to close out Malisse, the American showcased his newfound resolve and focus by finally finishing off the Belgian deep in a final set.  He has won eight consecutive matches on grass since his disheartening exit from Roland Garros, although none of those wins have come against top-20 players.  Over the last few months, Querrey has improved his movement and footwork as well as his shot selection.  When he runs around his backhand now, he generally prevents his opponent from exploiting his exposed court positioning by delivering a deep, assertive forehand rather than an aimless rally ball as he often did in the past.  Sometimes a little too relaxed for his own good, his attitude will serve him well as he prepares to play on Centre Court for the first time (and against the home hope).  On the other hand, Murray has looked almost flawless in his early rounds, taking the initiative in rallies and displaying positive body language.  The Scot’s outstanding return game has defused the imposing deliveries of Gulbis and Karlovic, so he likely will be able to threaten Querrey’s service games with regularity.  Earlier this year in Australia, he dispatched the towering Isner with relative ease by concentrating on simply blocking returns into play and working himself into rallies from there.  More balanced and versatile than Querrey, Murray should be able to slowly drag the American out of his narrow comfort zone in three or four sets.

Clijsters (8) vs. Henin (17) (Court 1, 1st match):  Both of their previous meetings in 2010 featured decisive third-set tiebreaks after Henin had dug herself a hole with reckless shotmaking and Clijsters courteously extracted her from it with tentative ball-striking.  While their overall head-to-head stands very even, Henin has repeatedly tormented her compatriot at majors, where her fierce competitive zeal has provided the cornerstone for her manifold achievements.  Following those two losses to her compatriot in non-Slams, one sense that Justine will enter the contest filled with motivation to reverse those reverses, and her offense-centered game suits the grass more than the consistency-based style of her compatriot.  Nevertheless, Henin enters this tournament with the self-inflicted pressure from having announced a Wimbledon title as the principal goal of her comeback, whereas Clijsters has burdened herself with no such lofty objectives.  Despite Henin’s propensity to take command of her matches for better or for worse, Clijsters must play with the authority that she demonstrated early in their matches at Brisbane and Miami.  It’s highly unlikely that one Belgian will romp through in a pair of routine sets, considering the nervous tension that they invariably awaken in each other.  Much like the Serena-Venus encounters, their matches are often not high-quality tennis from start to finish, but they’re invariably high-quality drama.  Expect a greater unforced error total from both Justine and Kim, who respect each other’s defensive prowess so deeply that they often try for too much on offense.  Expect Henin to relentlessly attack the net at the earliest opportunity, showcasing her unrivalled volleying abilities against Clijsters’ outstanding passing shots.  And expect the match to become progressively more scintillating as the action unfolds, a trajectory that described both of their previous meetings.  Will it be Henin’s turn to seize the early lead, and Clijsters’ turn to mount the comeback?  Only one fact is guaranteed:  it won’t end in a third-set tiebreak.

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Djokovic (3) vs. Hewitt (15) (Court 1, 2nd match):  The most fascinating Day 7 men’s match on the men’s side, this encounter will illuminate the significance or insignificance of grass expertise.  Distinctly the superior player overall, Djokovic would enjoy a substantial edge were they playing on any other surface, but Hewitt fits the label of “grass-court specialist” more than most ATP players.  While the Serb fell to Xavier Malisse in his second match at Queens Club, for example, the Australian charged to the Halle title with a stunning victory over Federer.  Beyond the surface advantage, however, Hewitt also has proven himself to be a far sterner competitor than the retirement-prone Djokovic, whose fitness has been questioned as much as his commitment and desire; none of those qualities can be questioned in the Aussie’s case.  That said, Djokovic possesses greater first-strike potential with penetrating groundstrokes and a serve that has somewhat improved after a wobbly spring.  Armed with a formidable two-handed backhand, he won’t need to run around his forehand and find himself dangerously out of position on this speedy surface.  Crisper and more compact than his forehand swing, in fact, the backhand might prove a more effective weapon on grass than his other groundstroke.  Both players are much more comfortable at the baseline than the net, although the Australian might be a little more dexterous in the forecourt than the Serb.  Can Hewitt parlay his mental advantage and superior grass-court movement into an upset over a player with a more powerful game but less steady game?  If he can stay close deep in sets, we think that he can.  Expect plenty of extended baseline rallies, fistpumps, and drama; we’d be surprised to see this match end in straight sets.

Zvonareva (21) vs. Jankovic (4) (Court 12, 1st match):  Not quite as storied as the all-Belgian rivalry, this blistering-backhand rivalry has provided highly volatile clashes over the past few years, mostly on hard courts.  Although Jankovic typically has held a slight edge over Zvonareva, most of their matches have been decided by a handful of points in which the Serb’s superior mentality prevailed over the Russian’s emotional frailties.  A superior server and naturally more aggressive player, Zvonareva probably will enjoy more opportunities to launch the first strike and should surpass the fourth seed in winners as well as errors.  Steadier on their backhands than their forehands, these two players strike crisp but not overwhelming groundstrokes, eschewing outright point-ending shots in favor of intelligently constructed rallies that probe the court’s contours.  Despite skipping the grass-court preparatory events, both players have looked sharp in their first three rounds; the Serb dominated Melbourne nemesis Alona Bondarenko and weathered a fervent British crowd to dismiss Laura Robson, while the Russian shredded rising star Yanina Wickmayer on Friday.  In contrast to conventional grass-court tennis, this battle will be waged almost entirely from the baseline with players venturing forward only for swinging volleys and other point-ending shots.  The fourth round has proved disastrous for Zvonareva at two of her last three Slams, featuring meltdowns against Pennetta and Azarenka, but she should take comfort from the knowledge that grass is Jankovic’s weakest surface.  Having endured an indifferent 2010 thus far, the Russian could gain crucial confidence for the second half with a quarterfinal appearance at the All England Club, which also would boost her ranking and grant her more propitious draws throughout the summer and fall.

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Benneteau (32) vs. Tsonga (10) (Court 12, 2nd match):  Comfortably defeating his lower-ranked compatriot here three years ago, Tsonga has split his six meetings with Benneteau and has been tested by the latter’s net-rushing prowess.  Not a formidable returner, the tenth seed struggles to counter serve-and-volley tactics because his reply often floats high over the net for a comfortable volley by his opponent.  Littered with short points, this match should feature very few breaks of serve and should be oriented vertically (baseline to net) rather than horizontally (side-to-side along the baseline).  Both Frenchmen rely upon flamboyant shotmaking rather than consistency, so the winner and unforced error totals should soar on both sides.  Whoever takes more risks probably will reap the rewards on this surface that, like fortune, favors the brave.  Don’t be surprised to see some tiebreaks and a more competitive match than their respective rankings might suggest as Tsonga and Benneteau veer from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again in an unpredictable, momentum-less encounter.

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Li (9) vs. Radwanska (7) (Court 18, 1st match):  These two former Wimbledon quarterfinalists excel on grass despite their contrasting styles; Li captured the Birmingham title two weeks ago, while Radwanska won the 2008 Eastbourne crown.  Whereas the ninth seed relishes the alacrity with which her flat, pinpoint groundstrokes scoot through the grass, the Pole manipulates the surface’s softness with superb finesse and touch shots.  Moreover, the lawns of the All England Club slightly enhance the latter player’s unimposing serve, which oddly wasn’t broken during the entire first week.  Can Li’s relentless offense hit through Radwanska’s seamless movement, or will the Pole’s textured style disrupt her opponent’s rhythm and timing?  Both players adeptly handle the low balls common on grass, so we should witness fewer netted groundstrokes than in matches with taller players.  On the other hand, expect multiple service breaks and tightly contested service games, for Li and Radwanska often have demonstrated their competitive tenacity.   The restricted confines of Court 18 should aid the Chinese star’s aggressive style, for her angled shots will streak off the court with less time for the Pole to track them down than if they were playing in more expansive surroundings.  We know that Serena is rooting for Radwanska, who evinces much less confidence against the Williams sister than does the fearless Li.

Elsewhere (ATP):  Undefeated against Paul-Henri Mathieu, Nadal has struggled with the French underachiever in many of their fast-surface meetings, and Rafa looked a little frail during the first week.  Nevertheless, he  should be able to advance into a quarterfinal with Soderling, the best men’s performer of the early rounds; the Swede’s monumental serve-groundstroke combinations should bludgeon David Ferrer into submission, although the Spaniard already has accomplished more than one might have expected by reaching the second week.  Is Federer slowly playing his way into the tournament with progressively more comfortable scoreline, or is he ripe for an upset by Roland Garros semifinalist Jurgen Melzer?  The early stages of this clash should be crucial for the Austrian, who could severely test the top seed if his confidence is soaring and his groundstrokes clicking as they have in the last several weeks.  One Slam does not a contender make, however, so it’s hard to imagine the veteran winning three sets from Federer, although he might well extend him past the minimum.  In the quarterfinals probably awaits the more imposing challenge of Berdych, who should end the sensational Wimbledon debut of lanky German Daniel Brands after a couple of close sets, maybe including a tiebreak or two.  (Brands has played 7 tiebreaks in 10 sets at the All England Club, so that prognostication seems a sensible guess.)  Defeating the nemeses of Ljubicic and Cilic, Yen-Hsun Lu has most implausibly found himself in a final-16 clash with Roddick despite his punchless game.  Don’t expect him to muster much resistance against last year’s finalist, who looks imperfect but determined so far.  

 Elsewhere (WTA):  On the women’s side, one must applaud Jarmila Groth for a second consecutive final-16 appearance at a major, but she has only a negligible chance to upset Venus if the five-time champion’s stellar form here continues.  A rematch of the 2007 final probably looms in the quarters for the elder Williams sister, since Bartoli has resurfaced at her favorite time of the year and should control her match against the punchless (Lu-like) Pironkova.  (Searching for evidence that the surface is slower than in days of yore?  Look no further than the presence of this Bulgarian in the second week.)  A slightly surprising victor over the recently erratic Azarenka, Kvitova pursues revenge for a clay-season loss to Wozniacki; the quirky Czech shotmaker could trouble the Dane on this faster surface if she continues to paint the lines as effectively as in the previous match…but she’s just as likely to lose her temper after an early break and toss away the match in a fit of pique.  Either Klara Zakopalova  or Kaia Kanepi will be a Wimbledon quarterfinalist.  Although the Estonian enters the contest a little fatigued after traveling through the qualifying rounds, but this former top-20 star has a game much better suited to the surface than the tireless counterpuncher.  Whatever the outcome, though, one has to fancy Woznaicki’s chances to set up a semi with Serena.  Or, just perhaps, Li Na.

***

We’ll return to preview all of the women’s quarterfinals on Tuesday.  Thus far, 14 of the 16 players whom we projected to reach the final eight are one win away from reaching the destinations that we prophesied (only Azarenka and Stosur disappointing us).  How many slots will be filled as we initially foretold?   Manic Monday will tell… 

There’s one particular case in which we would be delighted to be wrong, however:

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Enjoy the most action-soaked day in the tennis calendar!

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Emphatic for most of her second-round match against Ioana Raluca Olaru, Sharapova improved distinctly in two statistical areas that play an essential role on grass.  Maria connected with 71% of her first serves and converted 20 of 23 net points, thus dominating both the beginning and the end of most points on her serve.  Unfortunately for Sharapova, her potential fourth-round opponent Serena Williams was even more overpowering in a 48-minute rout of former top-10 denizen Anna Chakvetadze.  In eight total sets at the All England Club, the Russian and the American have conceded just eleven games, hurling three bagels and two breadsticks at their hapless victims.  Although tennis often defies prediction, one sense that Cibulkova and Zahlavova Strycova will find themselves taxed to the limit of their powers if they intend to forestall a marquee Monday meeting between these legendary champions.  The best ticket of the entire tennis calendar, Monday also might feature yet another edition of the melodramatic intra-Belgian rivalry that already has produced two final-set tiebreaks in 2010.  Write this potential collision in pencil for the moment, however, because a powerful Russian veteran has a legitimate chance to derail it.

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Henin (17) vs. Petrova (12) (Centre Court, 1st match):  Two Slams ago, Petrova scored a stunning third-round upset over a  member of Belgium’s dazzling duo, and she has an opportunity to repeat the feat on the grandest stage of all.  Typically tormented by Henin’s graceful, versatile style, the programmatic Russian dropped two tight matches to the seven-time major champion early this year in Australia, during which she revealed the mental frailties that have undermined her formidable game.  Nevertheless, Nadia has shone at Slams this year with consecutive quarterfinal appearances that will have boosted her confidence for a clash against Henin, whose comeback has slowed after an explosive start at Brisbane and Melbourne.  Effective but not overwhelming in her first two matches, Justine continues to struggle with her modified service motion; in this match, she can’t afford the chronic wobbles on serve that she suffered in her second-round clash with Barrois.  A quarterfinalist at last year’s Wimbledon, the Russian centers an outstanding grass-court style around a reliable serve and dexterous net play.  Just as Stosur relied on her massive delivery to defuse Henin’s shotmaking brilliance at Roland Garros, Petrova’s unglamorous but functional game might well end the Belgian’s Wimbledon campaign, as long as the Russian doesn’t ponder the situation too deeply.

Monfils (21) vs. Hewitt (15) (Centre Court, 2nd match):  Outstanding movers who reside almost entirely at the baseline, the Frenchman and the Australian showcase dramatically divergent styles beneath those superficial similarities.  The methodical Hewitt plays intelligent, careful tennis based on excellent technique and canny court sense, whereas the flamboyant Monfils favors jumping forehands, eye-popping slides, and spontaneous shot selection.  While the Frenchman will win more free points from his distinctly more potent serve, the Australian showcases more natural grass-court movement and far greater focus.  The veteran’s understated style belies his gritty determination to win at all costs, a trait absent from the function-follows-form Monfils.  Although this born entertainer will thrill the Centre Court crowd with improbable winners and retrievals, we expect the steadier, more experienced, and more tenacious Hewitt to take risks at more judicious moments.  His exceptional mental fortitude should allow him to weather his opponent’s barrage after various momentum shifts and navigate into a second-week duel with Djokovic.

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Kleybanova (26) vs. Venus (2) (Court 1, 2nd match):  In 2007, the ball-bruising Russian played a respectably competitive match against Venus at the All England Club that testified to her precocious maturity.  A more relentless competitor than most of her peers, Kleybanova scored a tense three-set win over the elder Williams on the relatively fast clay of Madrid last year.  Venus moves more fluidly than any of her rivals, yet Kleybanova covers the court extremely well and can match her from the baseline blow for blow.  Since both players will seek to play first-strike tennis, first serves and second-serve returns will be crucial factors.  Neither the Russian nor the American will want to start the point from behind, as they probably would if they miss their first deliver, and neither will want to donate points with reckless returning.  Accomplished in doubles, Kleybanova is exceptionally comfortable at the net and won’t shrink from the forecourt like many younger players.  Despite her impressive wins so far, Venus has become increasingly prone to the and few first-week opponents would be more ready to profit than the alert, opportunistic Russian. 

Kohlschreiber (29) vs. Roddick (5) (Court 1, 3rd match):  Not unlike Henin, the compact German compensates for his relatively unprepossessing height by unleashing his entire body into the ball.  Applying a boxing metaphor, he punches well above his weight and possesses an exquisite one-handed backhand that penetrates the court much more effectively than does the American’s matching groundstroke.  Consequently, Roddick should strive to orient cross-court rallies from forehand to forehand rather than backhand to backhand.  Armed with relatively short strokes, the fifth seed will find his less graceful but more efficient swings better suited to grass than the looping swings of his opponent, who needs more time to prepare his racket.  Similar to most bold shotmakers, the German sometimes struggles to control his aggression, oscillating between the sublime and the ridiculous with startling swiftness.  His opponents face the mental challenge of persevering through his scorching stretches while awaiting his lapses.  At the 2008 Australian Open, Kohlschreiber ignited his most fiery tennis at just the right moment against Roddick in perhaps the best match of his career, but it’s unlikely that lightning will strike twice. 

Lopez (22) vs. Melzer (16) (Court 2, 3rd match):  The winner of this clash earns a tilt with the titlist, a less unappetizing prospect than usual considering Federer’s indifferent form in his first two rounds.  Featuring two lefties with similar styles, the match should witness plenty of slicing wide serves and forays into the forecourt, since both of these aging veterans serve and volley expertly.  While Melzer hopes to extend the momentum from his unexpected Roland Garros semifinal run, Lopez seeks to validate his upset over Nadal at Queens Club.  Although the Spaniard and the Austrian favor their forehands, the latter possesses a sturdier backhand and will be forced to run around fewer balls; on grass, groundstroke symmetry (or relative symmetry) can be a vital advantage.  Since neither competitor will earn many break points, their relative success in converting the openings that do present themselves will prove vital.  Known for emotional volatility, Melzer retained his poise to rally from a two-set deficit in the preceding round, yet he may enter the match a step slow after his exertions.  Meanwhile, Lopez retired from Eastbourne last week with a shoulder injury that may drain a little velocity from his serve.  Remember those two potentially costly x-factors as the match unfolds.

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Wickmayer (15) vs. Zvonareva (21) (Court 12, 2nd match):  Highly impressive was the Belgian’s win over her surging compatriot Kristen Flipkens, which featured a marathon first-set tiebreak and a second set that stayed on serve until the final game.  Once again, we observed the psychological sturdiness for which Wickmayer has earned renown but that has faltered a little in past weeks.  On the other hand, psychological sturdiness is not a characteristic commonly associated with the often overwrought Zvonareva, whose volcanic temper can erupt at the most untimely moments.  At this phase in their respective careers, the Russian holds the shot-for-shot edge over the Belgian and is not notably inferior on grass, which hints that a mini-upset could occur.  The grander the stage, however, the greater the probability that Zvonareva will implode at the first sign of adversity.  In New York last year and Melbourne this year, Vera held Pennetta and Azarenka firmly within her grasp through a set and a half, then suddenly unraveled late in the second set and endured a third-set bagel.  Wickmayer must remember that the match is not over until the last point, no matter how bleak the situation may seem, and the Belgian’s natural tenacity will serve her well in these circumstances.

Briefly noted:  For the third consecutive Slam, Jankovic faces Alona Bondarenko  in the third round.  Once a perfect 9-0 against the Ukrainian, the Serb suffered a stunning upset in Melbourne before winning a tight two-setter in Paris.  Grass is probably the least comfortable surface for both players, so the quality of play should be rather indifferent, although the match itself might well be competitive.  Reaching the second week of both Slams thus far in 2010, Kirilenko attempts to score a notable upset for the third consecutive major when she confronts Clijsters, having defeated Sharapova at the Australian Open and Kuznetsova at Roland Garros.  Although the Russian’s punchless serve doesn’t aid her grass, her adroit volleying game and clever drop shots might cause the Belgian a headache or two.  Only the most ardent tennis fans will remember the 2002 Davis Cup final when Youzhny overcame Mathieu in a five-set fifth rubber, but the Russian and the Frenchman will attempt to reprise that scintillating pas de deux on Friday.  Having booked a place in history, what can Isner summon against another mighty server in Thiemo de Bakker?  Perhaps a better question would be:  will it end this week or next?

***

Witnessing the first clashes between seeded players, Day 5 should provide the most compelling entertainment of the fortnight thus far.  As always, happy watching!

Glancing through the Wimbledon draws, we found them more balanced and intriguing than their Roland Garros counterparts.  Rather than reaching a premature climax early in the second week, the narratives should build compellingly throughout the fortnight.  Yet perhaps this impression merely stems from the fact that grass suits more elite players than does clay; there are many fewer “grass specialists” than “clay specialists,” especially as the former surface slows over the years.  At any rate, welcome to the quarter-by-quarter breakdown of what to expect early, middle, and late at the All England Club.

ATP:

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First quarter:  Seeking an eighth consecutive final at the All England Club, Federer will be delighted to face Davydenko rather than Soderling in a potential quarterfinal.  Since the Russian has recently returned from injury and doesn’t deliver his best tennis on grass, however, the top seed might be facing his compatriot Wawrinka or Miami nemesis Berdych instead at that stage.  Few potential threats loom in the first week, except perhaps from Janko Tipsarevic; the eccentric Serb nearly upset Federer in a memorable 2008 Australian Open clash and just reached the UNICEF Open final this week.  Nevertheless, there’s nobody in this section who possesses all of the physical and mental attributes necessary to win three sets from the six-time champion, not even crafty lefty servers Lopez and Melzer.  The next Slam semifinal streak starts here

Quarterfinal:  Federer def. Berdych

Second quarter:  Although Djokovic is the highest seed in this section, the quarter actually belongs to three-time finalist Roddick, whose route looks moderately challenging.  After a possible second round against Eastbourne champion Michael Llodra, the American will confront flamboyant shotmaker Kohlschreiber, the only player other than Roddick to win a set from Federer at last year’s Wimbledon.  Despite the German’s victory over Roddick at the 2008 Australian Open, one suspects that the fifth seed will advance to a meeting with either the Croat who defeated him in Melbourne (Cilic) or the Croat who defeated him in Indian Wells (Ljubicic), yet Mardy Fish represents a dangerous sleeper in that neighborhood.  On the other side, Djokovic will find his tenacity severely tested by Halle champion and new Federer-beater, Lleyton Hewitt, if he can solve the first-round conundrum of Olivier Rochus (3-1 against the Serb).  Dueling in a memorable five-set quarterfinal here last year, Roddick and Hewitt should reprise that battle in 2010.

Quarterfinal:  Roddick def. Hewitt

Third quarter:  Anywhere between pedestrian and ghastly since the Australian Open, Murray received the benign draw that he needed to gain his footing at his home major.  His first three rounds appear as easy as he could reasonably expect, but his second week might begin against Queens Club champion Sam Querrey.  Comfortably defusing the formidable serve of Gulbis at the 2009 Wimbledon, the Scot should profit from his outstanding return game to outmaneuver the inexperienced, relatively one-dimensional American.  The somewhat injured Almagro and Tsonga might stage an encore of their thrillingly uber-aggressive five-setter in Melbourne, with the winner likely to face Verdasco.  After an exhausting clay season, the Spaniard hasn’t played a competitive match on grass; neither has Tsonga, and Almagro exited his grass-court prep on a stretcher.  All of this information suggests that the home hope should reach a second consecutive Wimbledon semifinal.

Quarterfinal:  Murray def. Tsonga

Fourth quarter:  After the withdrawal of Gulbis, Nadal faces a somewhat less intimidating route to the semifinals that the draw previously had indicated.  In an intriguing second round with Blake, though, he’ll confront a fading veteran whose first-strike style has repeatedly flustered Rafa even during the American’s decline.  Twice defeating Youzhny in the fourth round here, Nadal might need to overcome the dangerous Russian once again, but Isner seems a slightly more probable opponent at that stage.  Can the American duplicate Karlovic’s quarterfinal run last year?  This potential match would be decided by a few crucial points, probably in tiebreaks.  On the other side, Soderling will be salivating over an appetizing first week of overmatched opponents, among whom the most impressive might be former Wimbledon quarterfinalist Marcos Baghdatis.  For the second consecutive year, we should see the French Open final reprised in the second week of Wimbledon.

Quarterfinal:  Nadal def. Soderling

Semifinals:  Roddick def. Federer, Murray def. Nadal  Having lost four times to the Swiss at the All England Club, Roddick would enter their meeting with greater motivation than Federer for the first time and may feel less pressure in a semifinal than in a final.  He’s 0-and-plenty against Roger in majors, but many 0-and-plentys involving the 16-time Slam champion have ended recently.  Don’t forget that Nadal rebounded from a painful five-set loss to Federer in 2007 before vanquishing him in 2008.  Meanwhile, Murray has twice proved on hard courts (2008 US Open, 2010 Melbourne) that he can defeat Rafa in a best-of-five format if he plays with focus and aggression.  The partisan crowd should inspire him to rediscover that intensity, while the Spaniard may enter their contest a bit jaded after surviving a thorny quarter.  But both semifinals should be scintillating if they happen.

Final:  Roddick def. Murray Mentally, both players would find themselves under enormous pressure, individual pressure for Roddick and collective pressure for Murray.  Although he would need to control his elation from defeating Federer, Roddick possesses a much more reliable serve than the Scot, a crucial advantage on grass.  During their four-set semifinal at last year’s Wimbledon, the American’s aggressive play ultimately broke down Murray’s patient counterpunching. 

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WTA:

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First quarter:  Scheduled to start the action on Tuesday, Serena will be jolted out of any drowsiness by the uniquely deafening yodels of Larcher de Brito.  The first week might prove more intriguing than usual for the top seed, since the mighty-lunged Portuguese phenom probably will be followed by UNICEF Open finalist Petkovic, a steadily rising star with a confidence level to match her blistering groundstrokes.  Elsewhere in Serena’s vicinity, Sharapova looks likely to surpass her untimely second-round exits here the last two years and set up a third-round encounter with Hantuchova that no man will want to miss.  The second Monday should feature a rematch of the fateful 2004 final that catapulted the Russian into international stardom; as far as tennis is concerned, however, Serena’s star has burned more brightly lately.  Set for a compelling clash with Kuznetsova, Li Na should recapitulate her past success against the stumbling Sveta before confronting two-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist Radwanska in a dramatic contrast of styles.  Recently acquiring the Birmingham title, the Chinese star often has troubled the world #1, including at this year’s Australian Open, so their potential quarterfinal could be suspenseful.

Quarterfinal:  Serena def. Li

Second quarter:  The least imposing district of the draw features four names who seem equally likely to advance from it:  Wozniacki, Azarenka, Zheng, and Stosur.   Yet Zheng may be the only player who enters the tournament in solid physical and mental condition, for the youngsters are struggling with assorted lag injuries, while the Aussie probably needs a respite to recover from the disappointment of losing the Roland Garros final.  On the other hand, Azarenka enjoyed a solid week in Eastbourne prior to the final, defeating Radwanska, Clijsters, and Bartoli, while Zheng crashed out to local wildcard Elena Baltacha.  Moreover, Stosur’s draw should allow her to settle into the tournament before confronting Rezai in a likely fourth round; the Frenchwoman has yet to reproduce her WTA-level success at the majors, so Sam should progress to the quarters.  At that stage, her serve should allow her to hold much more comfortably than anyone whom she might face there, always a vital advantage on grass.  Balancing that factor, however, is the more balanced baseline game that all three of her potential foes would use to expose her mediocre backhand.

Quarterfinal:  Azarenka def. Stosur

Third quarter:  With the Battle of the Belgians looming at the top of this section, one might almost forget about Jankovic and Zvonareva at its base, yet neither of these players likely would topple the winner of the second Monday’s collision between Henin and Clijsters.  Before anticipating that match too eagerly, though, remember that Justine first must navigate past Petrova, her probable third-round opponent and a quarterfinalist at both previous Slams in 2010.  The Russian memorably knocked off Clijsters in the third round of Melbourne before upsetting Venus at Roland Garros.  Fresh from her second title of the year in the Netherlands, Henin will need the confidence from this week in order to overcome Petrova’s powerful serve and adroit transition game.  In the intra-Belgian rivalry, Clijsters has won both meetings since Henin’s return and evened the overall head-to-head with her flashy compatriot.  But Justine typically has enjoyed the last laugh at Slams.

Quarterfinal:  Henin def. Jankovic

Fourth quarter:  Despite a likely second round with Eastbourne champion Makarova, Venus mostly just needs to play competent tennis in order to reach the semis.  Kleybanova does possess the serve-groundstroke combinations to overcome the five-time champion, whom she edge in Madrid last year; nevertheless, the Russian requires a little more time to mature before such a sensational breakthrough.  Well suited to the short points on grass, Bartoli might penetrate a comfortable draw to set up a quarterfinal rematch of the 2007 final, in which her far less imposing serve was ruthlessly exposed by Venus’ return once the elder Williams adjusted to the Frenchwoman’s idiosyncrasies.  Remember Francesca Schiavone?  She’s hovering around this area too, although probably not for long.

Quarterfinal:  Venus def. Bartoli

Semifinals:  Serena def. Azarenka, Venus def. Henin  The defending champion would be clashing with the Belarussian for the fourth time in the last seven majors, of which Serena has won the previous three.  Whereas the Australian meetings were highly suspenseful, their Wimbledon quarterfinal last year proved relatively routine although filled with high-quality rallies.  Azarenka did defeat Serena in Miami a year ago, but thus far she lacks the mental fortitude to dispatch her from a Slam.  Meanwhile, Venus holds a substantial mental edge over the petite Belgian and can expect to hold serve more comfortably.  Unless the elder Williams endures an erratic performance, which she rarely does at Wimbledon, Henin won’t be able to pass such a stern test at this phase of her comeback.  Maybe next year.

Final:  Serena def. Venus  While little sister will have endured the more difficult route to the final Saturday if something similar to our projections materializes, she also sailed more turbulent seas than Venus last year.  Challenging pre-final confrontations often force Serena to raise her level and sharpen her focus, ultimately benefiting her more than would a benign draw.  Less psychologically uneasy than Venus at the thought of playing her sister, the world #1 has won their last four meetings, seven of their last nine Slam meetings, eight of their eleven finals, and three of their four Wimbledon finals.  Slam number 13 won’t feel unlucky to Serena when she hoists the Venus Rosewater Dish for the fourth time.

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***

If Roddick and Serena (or Venus) do prevail, the American might sweep all of the Wimbledon titles outside the mixed doubles.  While the Williams sisters should be nearly impossible to conquer on grass, the Bryan brothers will possess a legitimate chance to break the team doubles title record of Australia’s Woodies.  Beyond the defending champions Nestor and Zimonjic, their most imposing competition might come from the Polish duo Fyrstenberg and Matkowski, two mighty serves who have toppled the Bryans on multiple occasions and demonstrated their grass expertise by winning Eastbourne.  A week ago, Queens Club champions Djokovic (yes, that Djokovic) and Ehrlich paid the Bryans homage by celebrating their title with this light-hearted gesture:

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See you soon with the first of our Wimbledon daily previews!

Having discussed the five tournament favorites, one of whom won’t even enjoy his own quarter, we turn our lens towards the group of players who might produce a slightly unexpected champion or champions.  Once again, this article breaks down each challenger into causes for confidence and causes for concern.  You might find one or two surprises in the list!

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1)       Andy Murray:

Causes for confidence:  Improving his performance at the All England Club with each successive year, Murray has embraced rather than shrunk from the fanatical support of championship-starved British fans.  Among his most charismatic career performances were five-set wins over Gasquet in 2008 and Wawrinka in 2009.  At the Australian Open, his run to the final witnessed more aggressive tennis than we’re accustomed to seeing from him as he shredded Isner and smothered Nadal.  Murray’s all-court prowess and outstanding movement should assist him on a surface where agility can be a crucial weapon.

Causes for concern:  Deflated by his Australian Open loss to Federer, the Scot has since failed to reproduce the level of conviction that he demonstrated during that fortnight.  His second serve remains a liability that aggressive returners can regularly punish on a fast surface, especially since he continues to struggle with his first-serve percentage.  During his four-set semifinal loss to Roddick in 2009, his reliance on counterpunching rather than shotmaking proved the principal difference in a match closer than the score suggested.  Moreover, he has failed to win a set in either of his Slam finals; if he faces Federer again, would he really do betterer?

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2)      Robin Soderling:

Causes for confidence:  Finally snapping a career of futility against Federer, Soderling duplicated his Roland Garros finals appearance with outstanding serving and ball-striking.  Don’t expect the pride of Sweden to be intimidated by the posh surroundings of Wimbledon any more than he was intimidated by Nadal and Federer in Paris the past two years.  More than any other player in the draw, he possesses both the physical and mental attributes to overcome any opponent on the grandest stages.  If any of his important matches are played with the roof closed, Soderling should welcome the controlled conditions, which would help him to time his high ball toss.  His serve should allow him to hold with minimal ado on most occasions, while his balanced groundstroke game allows him to pulverize the ball from forehand and backhand, an important advantage over opponents who will lack time to run around their weaker wing on this surface. 

Causes for concern:  Tall and gawky, he’s not overly comfortable with the low bounce on grass.  Although his skills at the net are consistently improving, he seems oddly uncomfortable with overheads, a shot that he’ll need at Wimbledon.  Even after his 2009 breakthrough, the Swede remains vulnerable to the early, head-scratching lapse, as was demonstrated by his first-round loss in Australia.  Dragged to five sets in both of his Roland Garros semifinal wins, he entered both of his finals there without the energy requisite to sustain the level that he had produced throughout the rest of those fortnights.  Soderling will need to win his best-of-five matches more efficiently in order to claim his first Slam title. 

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3)      Novak Djokovic:

Causes for confidence:  Although he labored through much of the spring with allergies, the Serb exceeded our expectations by coming within a set of the Roland Garros semifinals.  He has won his last three meetings with Nadal, reasserting his relevance in a rivalry that had become deceptively lopsided after a series of clay-court battles.  Like Soderling, he can strike clean winners from both sets of groundstrokes and is improving his talents at moving forward.  A semifinalist here in 2007, Djokovic has reached finals at both Queens Club (2008) and Halle (2009).  Excelling at redirecting the ball, the Serb should be able to wrong-foot his opponents on a surface that permits little reaction time.  Tall but not towering, he also handles low balls more comfortably than the two players who precede and follow him on this list.

Causes for concern:  Still a work in progress, his once-potent serve has lacked its sting for most this season, which will prevent him from holding with the ease of a Federer, Roddick, or even Soderling.  Djokovic’s movement on grass remains suspect, leading to frequent stumbles in the past several years.  In contrast to his head-to-head record with Nadal, his rivalries with Federer and Roddick have tilted distinctly in the direction of those veterans, at least one of whom he probably would need to defeat en route to the title.  Since winning the 2008 Australian Open, Djokovic has failed to reach a Slam final at nine consecutive majors and has suffered fitness-related issues at several of them.  Not the most resilient competitor, he might well retire when any serious adversity strikes.

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4)      Marin Cilic:

Causes for confidence:  At the Australian Open, his semifinal run included gritty, dramatic five-set wins over Del Potro and Roddick that demonstrated the Croat’s precocious maturity.  Explosive serves generally are rewarded at Wimbledon, and Cilic volleys more competently than one would expect from a tower of power.  If he should confront Nadal or Roddick, his recent wins over both of those sterling grass-court artists would inject him with a valuable confident boost.  Finally, the Croat’s tranquil, reserved character seems to suit the quiet atmosphere of Wimbledon; that observation might sound superficial, but Slam champions often have matched the personalities of their most successful majors.

Causes for concern:  After Del Potro’s injury, Cilic effectively has become an ATP surrogate for his equally lanky, equally powerful contemporary, and the continued anxiety over the Argentine’s absence indicates how (un)successful that impersonation has proved.  Since that semifinal run in Australia and two minor early titles in Chennai and Zagreb, he has struggled to win consecutive matches at most tournaments.  His loopy backswing on the forehand is too elongated for the grass, so he could mistime that shot at crucial moments when tensions creeps into his mind.  Also note that his Argentine alter ego fell In the second round here last year despite an equally imposing serve and equally commanding baseline arsenal. 

Familiar names to discount:  Falling to Benjamin Becker at his comeback tournament in Halle, Nikolay Davydenko possesses a game antithetical to grass, with a suspect serve and ghastly volleys.  A definite threat in more propitious circumstances, the still-injury-addled Jo-Wilfried Tsonga retired from Roland Garros and probably won’t be in peak condition at Wimbledon.  Much more comfortable on clay than grass, the Spanish veterans Fernando Verdasco and David Ferrer probably won’t reach the second week unless they find themselves in a particularly accommodating section of the draw.  Neither player entered a grass-court prep, which suggests their lack of commitment to the surface.

And now for the ladies:

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1)      Kim Clijsters:

Causes for confidence:  As of this writing, she’s lost exactly three games in four sets at the Eastbourne tournament, demonstrating an immediate return to form after the foot injury that forced her to miss most of the clay season.  In fact, that absence could be a blessing in disguise, for Kim largely avoided the awkward surface transition endured by most of her rivals.  Following Dementieva’s withdrawal, Kim is seeded 8th at the tournament and will be able to play herself into form before tackling one of the Williams sisters.  Among the key barometers of a player’s potential to win Wimbledon is her success against those Americans.  Since her comeback, Clijsters has compiled a 3-0 record when she’s confronted Serena or Venus (excluding an exhibition match at Madison Square Garden).  Famous for her “splits,” she excels at tracking down low balls and can transition from defense to offense more adroitly than anyone in the WTA, two key traits on the grass.  Although her serve lacks the sheer power of the sisters, it generally provides a sturdy, reliable component of her game, deserting her only when she plays the woman below. 

Causes for concern:  After winning an emotional second Slam at last year’s US Open, Clijsters has only sporadically justified the immense expectations that then loomed above her head.  In Australia, she endured the worst loss of her career in the third round, while her Indian Wells campaign ended prematurely against the admittedly surging Alisa Kleybanova.  Somewhat surprisingly, Wimbledon historically has been her least successful major, and she hasn’t appeared at the All England Club in 2006.  An ambitious upstart might have a chance to destabilize her in an early round before she settles into a rhythm.  Not as much of a first-strike player as the Williams sisters, Clijsters prefers to work her way through rallies, but grass points tend to prove more arhythmic than fluid.

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 2)      Justine Henin:

Causes for confidence:  Creating immediate headlines upon her return, Henin reached the finals of her first two tournaments and severely tested Serena in their Melbourne championship match.  After the end of her Roland Garros winning streak, she’ll perhaps bring a little less pressure to the next major, for which her comeback has been specifically designed.  We liked her decision to enter the weaker event in the Netherlands rather than Eastbourne, since accumulating grass practice is more important for her than confronting top-level foes at this stage.  Despite her diminutive frame and erratic serve, Henin has hovered painfully close to completing the career Slam, falling one set short of the title in 2006 and one set short of the final in 2007.  Justine can showcase her exquisite volleying skills here more than anywhere else, while her recently inconsistent groundstrokes will be less frequently exposed than on slower surfaces because of the shorter points that it encourages.

Causes for concern:  Ever a note of caution, her coach Carlos Rodriguez recently minimized Henin’s chances to capture the title this year.  Although this surrogate parent has inaccurately underestimated her in the past, we agree that her game and especially her serve requires more refinement before she can overcome the Williams sisters.  Since Australia, this much-hyped comeback has produced a few excellent results (Miami semifinal, Stuttgart title) and a few unsightly catastrophes (Indian Wells second-round loss, Madrid first-round loss).  Without the buffer created by a higher seeding, she might be compelled to defeat an additional high-quality opponent or two during the fortnight, probably too great a strain for the fragile Belgian.  Also of note is her poor head-to-head record with Venus, who has enjoyed much more success against her than has her younger sister.  Henin reportedly lost her 2007 semifinal with Bartoli in order to avoid facing the elder Williams in the final; whether true or not, that statement underscores the mental disadvantage that she would bring to a potential clash.

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3)      Maria Sharapova:

Causes for confidence:  Following an elbow injury incurred at Indian Wells, Sharapova rebounded solidly to win Strasbourg, threaten Henin at Roland Garros, and reach the Birmingham final.  From clips of her week at the grass prep emerge a fluid service motion that brought more power and precision to her delivery than has been witnessed during most of her comeback.  The only former Wimbledon champion in the draw outside the Williams sisters, Sharapova allegedly considers this fortnight her favorite time of the season and will profit from the truncated points on grass, which reward her trademark model of first-strike tennis.  She can pound winners from anywhere on the court to anywhere else on the court; recently, the once net-averse Russian also has revealed a greater willingness to move forward in order to finish points, essential on grass.  Although she has struggled in her last several meetings against the Williams sisters, most of those lopsided losses occurred when she was struggling with her shoulder injury or just recovering from it.  If she can survive the first few rounds, the confidence that she acquired from a strong week in Birmingham will mount higher, inspiring her to unleash her high-risk game with ever greater conviction as the tournament progresses.

Causes for concern:  Despite winning two tournaments in 2010 and reaching the final of a third, Sharapova has yet to defeat a top-20 opponent this season.  In the Birmingham final, she never found her highest level against Li Na and could not or would not problem-solve in mid-match, suggesting that she might not survive a bad day against an aggressive adversary.  Since capturing the 2004 Wimbledon crown, Maria’s increased height has decreased her ability to handle low bounces.  Never the most agile mover, she often lacks the time to plant her feet before her bone-crushing groundstrokes, which reduces her control over these high-precision missiles on grass.  Her 2008 and 2009 Wimbledon campaigns abruptly halted with startling second-round losses to two players whom she should have overpowered:  Alla Kudryavtseva and Gisela Dulko.  Not since 2006 has she reached the quarterfinals at the All England Club, and she has reached only one quarterfinal in her last seven majors after winning the 2008 Australian Open. 

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4)       Samantha Stosur: 

Causes for confidence:  A more dominant server than anyone in the WTA not named Williams, the Australian should hold frequently and comfortably while exploiting numerous opportunities to display her excellent net skills.  At Roland Garros, Stosur proved that she could win tightly contested matches against the most talented, battle-tested competitors at the most prestigious tournaments.  Her still-accelerating surge has witnessed very few of the maddening lapses that once cost her on grass, and she possesses the maturity to cope with the pressures of Wimbledon.  Unless she finds herself in an especially fearsome section of the draw, Stosur’s excellent fitness and efficient style should enable her to reach the second week with minimal ado and with ample energy conserved for the marquee rounds.  Like Soderling, she may be better physically and mentally equipped to ambush one of the Wimbledon favorites than anyone else in the draw.

Causes for concern:  Whereas the red clay allows her time to run around her backhand and set up her much more powerful forehand, the grass will force Stosur to hit a greater percentage of balls from her weaker side.  An effective first-strike player can pin her into that corner, draw defensive replies, and move forwards to take control of the point.  After reaching the semifinals in Paris last year, Sam proved unable to translate that momentum into a deep run at the All England Club, falling to the less than formidable Ivanovic in the third round.  In Eastbourne this week, she struggled to put away Daniela Hantuchova, not a name in the vicinity of the contenders’ circle despite a faint resurgence.  And the mental repercussions of her disappointment in dropping a highly winnable French Open final may stall her momentum for the next few tournaments until she regroups.

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5)      Li Na:

Causes for confidence:  En route to the Birmingham title, Li overcame a determined challenge from the dangerous Aravane Rezai before dominating Sharapova with expert returning and ingenious angle construction.  Among her crucial early breakthroughs was the debut Slam quarterfinal that she achieved at the 2006 Wimbledon, where she defeated Kuznetsova and the then-imposing Vaidisova.  Earlier this year, she not only recorded her first Slam semifinal appearance at the Australian Open but defeated Venus in the quarters before dragging Serena into two tiebreaks in the semis.  Li has fallen to the eventual champion in each of her last three majors, so an outstanding performance is required to defeat her.  Although she retired from her Eastbourne opener with a  thigh injury, one shouldn’t worry greatly about her fitness for Wimbledon, since the 2006 performance followed a similar retirement in the Netherlands oon the previous week.  Her ultra-aggressive but balanced style should find a comfortable fit with the grass, where dogged retrievers will find fewer answers to her sparkling down-the-line groundstrokes.  Having defeated virtually every player of consequence in the WTA, the Chinese star will bring an immense supply of fearlessness to the court and almost always rises to the occasion against the competition. 

Causes for concern:  On the other hand, Li often sinks to the level of lesser competition, enduring numerous losses to players well below her talent level in tournaments such as Indian Wells and Miami.  It’s almost impossible to predict how she will play from one day to the next, while her game possesses very little margin between the sublime and the ridiculous, between which she can veer multiple times in the same match.  Furthermore, the Chinese veteran has developed into a Soderling-like upset artist more than a consistent trophy contender; Birmingham represented just her third career title, far fewer than her talent should have earned her by now.  Last Sunday, Li commented that she would have been too excited from her win over Sharapova to play another match.  She’ll need to guard against that sort of victory hangover should she aspire to hold the Venus Rosewater Dish two weeks from Saturday.

Familiar names to discountGifted with far too little power to accomplish a significant run at Wimbledon, Jelena Jankovic should win some matches but will be outslugged sometime around the middle weekend.  Remarkably, the tireless Serb didn’t play a single preliminary tournament.  Still reeling from an ankle injury suffered at Charleston, Caroline Wozniacki dropped her Eastbourne opener to Rezai and must be looking forward to the post-Wimbledon break.  Francesca Schiavone will be more than content to bask in the aura of her Roland Garros crown, while Svetlana Kuznetsova has yet to reach a quarterfinal in 2010.  Despite a semifinal run last year, Dinara Safina will be fortunate to win more than a match or two; she’s lost five in a row, including her Netherlands opener, and is adjusting to a new coach.  We were planning to place Victoria Azarenka in this category after her horrific, injury-plagued clay season; following her win over Radwanska in Eastbourne, though, we suspend judgment until after her intriguing quarterfinal there with Clijsters. 

***

Nine challengers later, we’ve concluded this lengthy second article in our series of Wimbledon previews.  Tomorrow, we return to profile the snakes in the grass:  dark horses who won’t bring home the hardware but will throw all of their efforts into spoiling the fortnights of those with title ambitions.  Who plans to crash the party?  Answers to come…

It seems like only a week or so ago that Schiavone was ingesting particles of crushed brick and Nadal was crying softly into his towel.  Well, it was only a week or so ago.  Nevertheless, another Slam looms on the history-laden lawns of Wimbledon, which means that another preview is straight ahead.  We start at the top with the tournament favorites, profiling causes for confidence and concern in each of their individual circumstances.

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1)       Roger Federer:

Causes for confidence:  There are six of them, shining in gold on some mantle in Switzerland or Dubai.  But beyond his spectacular 47-1 (one walkover) record at the All England Club since 2003, one can look to the ideal fit between the grass and Federer’s aging playing style, which delivers just as much power and artfulness as it ever did while fading a little in consistency.  On the green lawns of Wimbledon, fewer shots are required to win points than at most other tournaments.  Often not exhibited elsewhere, his superlative net skills still thwart all but the most challenging passing shots.  Federer’s loss to Hewitt in Halle shouldn’t be overestimated, for those tournaments have long since ceased to wield an impact upon his legacy and rarely inspire the level of performance that he achieves at the majors.  Moreover, the resurgence of a certain Mallorcan and the loss of his #1 ranking should have infused Roger with fresh motivation to prove that he’s still the best of the sport’s past, present, and future.  During his pedestrian post-Australian performances, motivation seemed the major ingredient that was lacking. 

Causes for concern:  Nadal’s return comprises a mixed blessing, for he holds a distinct mental edge over Roger in their rivalry and would force him to battle memories of 2008 should they meet in the final.  Casting a broader shadow is the much-discussed trend among players who have endured endless years of futility against Federer (Davydenko, Soderling, Berdych, Hewitt) only to break through in recent months.  Despite the burden of an 0-for-life record, these talents proved that the GOAT “has two arms and two legs, like anyone else,” as Hewitt wryly put it; others may take note and approach the Swiss with greater confidence earlier in the draw.  Federer escaped a flat Australian quarterfinal against the dangerous Davydenko, but he couldn’t escape a flat French quarterfinal against the even more dangerous Soderling.  Keep an eye on whom he draws in that round at Wimbledon.

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2)      Rafael Nadal:

Causes for confidence:  The only player to defeat Federer at the All England Club since 2002, Rafa proved that he can adjust swiftly from clay to grass when he completed the “channel Slam” in 2008.  For the third time, he won the French Open without dropping a set and gained an immense psychological boost by dominating last year’s nemesis, Soderling, in the final.  Following a quarterfinal loss at Queens Club, he wisely headed home to Mallorca to refresh himself before what likely will be an emotionally taxing fortnight.  The Spaniard plans to work on his backhand, serve, and grass movement during that time, accurately pinpointing the three elements of his game that require particular attention at this juncture in the season.  Once again a fearless competitor, he possesses more than enough tenacity to weather the ebbs and flows of a brilliant but erratic shotmaker.  And he has nothing to lose because he withdrew from the event last year; therefore, he will feel unburdened by the pressure of defending his title.  As in the past, Federer represents the favorite and the target towards which Nadal aims himself, and he tends to prosper most in this familiar dynamic.

Causes for concern:  During his brief visit to Queens Club, Rafa looked oddly tentative for a player who had just won his seventh major.  Framing overheads, botching drop shots, and crashing into the net, he displayed a timing and focus several notches below his exquisite best.  The quarterfinal loss to Lopez reminded observers that he remains vulnerable on fast surfaces to staccato playing styles that disrupt his rhythm.  If a Roddick or a Tsonga finds peak form while Nadal endures a mediocre day (by his lofty standards), they might hustle him out with a barrage of electric serves and first-strike tennis before he has time to settle into the match.  But it’s much easier said than done.

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3)      Andy Roddick:

Causes for confidence:  Three times the American has reached the final Sunday at Wimbledon, and three times he has watched a dapper Federer saunter into the winner’s circle.  Nevertheless, Roddick came excruciatingly close to winning last year’s history-making clash; even before the break points that he failed to convert in the seventeenth game of the final set, he led by 6-2 in the second-set tiebreak after having won the first set.  If he had converted one of those four points, two of which were on his massive serve, Federer would have been forced to face a two-set deficit and his demons from the previous year.  Understandably shaken by this painful loss, Roddick didn’t recover until early this year, when his Indian Wells runner-up appearance and Miami title illustrated his presence as a threat anywhere other than clay.  If he can work his way into tiebreaks, he’ll have a chance against anyone on a surface as serve-friendly as Wimbledon.  Also, don’t forget what Nadal accomplished in 2008 after losing a five-set final to Federer in 2007.  Time may be running out on Roddick’s attempt to capture that second Slam, but that knowledge should only infuse him with valuable urgency.

Causes for concern:  Who is Dudi Sela?  No Wimbledon title threat by any means, he not only defeated Roddick at Queens Club but managed to win a tiebreak from him.  Beyond this disconcerting result, one should remember that last year’s runner-up will enter this year’s tournament a bit rusty, having played only five competitive matches (two tournaments) since Miami.  A talented sharpshooter like Gasquet might have a chance against him in the early rounds if he starts a little flat, so keep an eye on his draw.  Finally, the American probably would need to defeat both Federer and Nadal in order to win the title.  Only Del Potro has toppled the top two at the same Slam during this era of their greatness, while as fierce a competitor as Soderling has failed on both attempts.

And now for the ladies:

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1)       Serena Williams:

Causes for confidence:  As long as line judges don’t interfere, she continues to win the only tournaments that matter to her.  The pomp and circumstance of the All England Club require a special type of champion who can adeptly handle the moment, and Serena fits that profile distinctly better than anyone in the WTA (just consider her 12-3 record in Slam finals).  After a typically underwhelming clay season, she’ll feel especially determined to produce a typically scintillating performance at Wimbledon.  Although Serena might not admit it, Wimbledon offers her a compelling opportunity to prove once again that she’s the best player in the family.  She trails her sister five titles to three here while leading the intra-Williams competition at all of the other Slams; if she can close that gap to one, she’ll charge ever closer to undisputed family bragging rights.  Should she meet Venus in the final for the third consecutive year, one senses that she is slightly better equipped mentally to play her sibling than is her older sister.  Although their overall head-to-head is very even, Serena possesses a pronounced edge at the Slams.

Causes for concern:  Playing just two tournaments outside the clay season, Serena missed her favorite non-Slam in Miami with a severe knee injury.  A recurrence of that issue could hamper her on a surface where the low bounce renders knee mobility imperative.  Probably able to compensate for any injury against the rank-and-file of the WTA, Serena might not be able to overcome it when she confronts a top-drawer opponent (Henin, Clijsters, Venus, etc.) in the second week.  At the 2007 tournament, Henin showed little mercy to the battered American during their quarterfinal, ruthlessly targeting a backhand that she couldn’t strike with authority.  Moreover, her loss at the French Open sounded a startling note of vulnerability, for an opponent much less experienced on major stages outplayed the world #1 deep in a third set.  How often have we seen that narrative unfold in past majors?

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2)      Venus Williams:

Causes for confidence:  Owning just one fewer Wimbledon than Federer, the elder Williams plays a notably higher level of tennis on grass than on other surfaces.  Her serve penetrates the court with unparalleled vigor, sometimes allowing her to hold serve without hitting groundstroke, while her often wayward groundstrokes generally click at crucial moments.  Again like Federer, she has preserved her power as her consistency has steadily declined, but not many of those bludgeoned forehands will return at the All England Club.  Winning the same two titles this year as she did last year (Dubai, Acapulco), Venus additionally reached two finals in Miami and Madrid.  The seven-time major champion remains a steady, unruffled competitor, who doesn’t panic when her baseline missiles misfire as do many of her rivals.

Causes for concern:  At her previous Slam in Melbourne, the world #2 looked fairly convincing through four rounds but then skidded off the rails completely in the quarterfinals against Li Na, also not at her best that day.  Venus has few alternatives when her high-power, high-precision game doesn’t find lines and corners, and her flat strokes travel through the court with little margin; on a dismal day at Roland Garros, she couldn’t or wouldn’t adapt her game to solve Petrova.  After an impressive run to the Madrid final, furthermore, Serena’s sister faltered against Rezai in a situation when she was the clear favorite.  While most of her contemporaries (outside her family) respect her too much to threaten her at her favorite tournament, a brash upstart from the Frenchwoman’s mold might be able to unflinchingly attack her.

***

We return tomorrow with part two of the preview:  the Wimbledon challengers.  Who can break the triangular Federer / Nadal / Williams stranglehold on this coveted crown?  Answers to come…

 

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 1)      Business as usual for Roger, Maria (more or less):  After Soderling snapped his Slam semifinal streak in Paris, Federer once again found that the grass was greener in Halle, where he reached the final for the sixth time in six attempts since 2002.  Meanwhile, Sharapova charged to the Birmingham semifinals for the seventh time in seven attempts and reached her fourth final at the posh-sounding Edgbaston Priory Club, a record unparalleled among all of her tournaments.  Cracking the fastest serve of her career at 121 mph, she recorded double-digit ace totals in two separate matches while delivering 33 aces against just 14 double faults during the entire week.  Although both marquee stars profited from mediocre opposition en route to the championship match, they found their grass-court games with aplomb, serving brilliantly and moving forward at the earliest opportunity.  Their serves let them down a bit in the finals against a pair of extremely gritty competitors in Hewitt and Li Na; Federer’s first serve faltered at key moments, while Sharapova donated nearly half of her meager tournament double-fault total in the first set of the final.  Fully content with their weeks despite these lapses, Roger and Maria gained a key injection of confidence before traveling to the All England Club. 

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2)      Business emphatically not as usual in London:  On the other hand, the downgraded ATP Queens Club event witnessed a WTA-worthy avalanche of upsets.  Who would have expected the Quirky Quintet of Lopez, Malisse, Fish, Sela, and Llodra to topple the not-very-Fab Five of Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, Roddick, and Cilic?  Never at his most comfortable on grass, Djokovic did secure some solace by winning the doubles title with Jonathan Ehrlich, while Rafa perhaps overstretched himself by switching surfaces days after his fifth French Open title.  Of greater concern were the losses by the two Andys, commonly perceived as the primary challengers to Federer and Nadal on grass.  Petulant and passive during his loss to Fish, Murray continued to demonstrate his vulnerability to any ultra-aggressive player on any fast surface, which bodes ill for his Wimbledon fortnight should he collide with a bold shotmaker early in the draw.  Roddick had little excuse for not closing out the second-set tiebreak against the Israeli, considering his outstanding career tiebreak record and his far superior serve.  After the match, he sounded oddly complacent, not the appropriate attitude to adopt at this crucial stage of the season.

3)      ATP veterans keep winning:  Hold off on the pension plans for former Wimbledon semifinalist Rainer Schuettler, two-time former Wimbledon quarterfinalist Feliciano Lopez, and the still rocket-serving Mardy Fish, all of whom accompanied Sam Querrey to the semifinals at Queens Club.  In Halle, moreover, the multiple-surgery survivor Hewitt halted a 15-match losing streak against Federer, doubtless inspiring other players who are struggling to return from assorted injuries.  Although youth eventually prevailed at Queens Club, we’re curious to see whether the surge of the senior citizens can extend into the more draining best-of-five format at Wimbledon.  As suggested in our Indian Wells tournament summary, Ljubicic’s title at Indian Wells seems to have signaled the revival of some names who looked destined to quietly fade away.  Now the youngsters must strive to follow Querrey’s example and ensure that the past doesn’t become the present.

 4)      Americans start winning:  Not so long ago, Querrey moped out of Paris in a noxious cloud of self-doubt.  This weekend, however, the London tournament finally found itself an oversize champion to match its absurdly oversize trophy.  Also delighted to see green rather than red was his opponent in the Queens Club final, the first-strike, serve-and-volley specialist Fish.  About a hundred miles northwest of that all-American final, the 185th-ranked Alison Riske earned a Wimbledon wildcard by pounding her way to the Birmingham semifinals past Wozniak, Chakvetadze, and the third-seeded Wickmayer.  Most impressive in her run was her ability to hold serve throughout the three-set victory over the Belgian, during which she rallied from a one-set deficit.  Against Sharapova, she showed sterling fortitude by rebounding from a lopsided first set to force a decider.  Keep an eye on her as well as the two men’s stars when looking for potential snakes in the grass at the All England Club.

 ***

Enjoy Eastbourne and the UNICEF Open this week!  How will Henin and Clijsters adapt to grass in their first green tournaments since 2007?  Are grass standouts Bartoli and Radwanska ready to wreak havoc again?  Can a bandaged Ivanovic find her footing in a relatively comfortable draw?  Can Kuznetsova find her footing in a highly uncomfortable draw?  How many rackets will Azarenka obliterate?  How much tape will Wozniacki need for her ankle?  And what in the world are we to expect from our new French Open champion?

We return very shortly with the first of four articles in our Wimbledon preview.  Tuesday, the favorites.  Wednesday, the challengers.  Thursday, the dark horses.  Friday or Saturday, thoughts on the draws.  Happy reading!  🙂

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In the 2008 French Open, the new world #1 Ana Ivanovic proudly lifted the first Slam trophy of what seemed destined to be a career replete with such memorable moments.  In the 2010 French Open, the world #42 Ana Ivanovic cowered helplessly behind the baseline as the burly Alisa Kleybanova crammed a second-set bagel down her throat in the second round.  How did this precipitous two-year plunge from glory to misery accelerate with such alarming speed?  We look at seven of the principal explanations for Ivanovic’s struggles, arranged in order from least convincing to most convincing, before concluding with two potential paths by which she can move forward from the crossroads at which she tentatively stands.

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7)       the aberration theory:  Inviting the disdainful appellation of “one-Slam wonder,” Ivanovic’s failure to reach even a single major quarterfinal since her French Open triumph has caused commentators to wonder whether that title was merely an accident.  To be sure, the Serb did exploit a cozy draw that featured just one top-10 player (Jankovic) during the entire fortnight.  But she’s achieved outstanding results on all surfaces for an extended period, winning the 2006 Rogers Cup in 2006, capturing the 2007 Berlin title, charging to the 2007 Roland Garros final, and reaching the 2007 Wimbledon semifinals.  Considering that context, her six-month peak stretch from Australia 2008 to Roland Garros 2008 no longer appears an isolated accomplishment but instead the next phase in an accelerating career.  Therefore, the headline here clearly is not her rise but her downfall, contrary to what the most disillusioned observers suggest.

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6)  the injury theory:  When a player endures an extended slump, the first potential culprit to investigate generally is their physical condition.  Choosing this explanation as the official narrative, Ivanovic’s website relentlessly and somewhat embarrassingly leans upon injuries throughout its reports of her struggles.  Upon closer examination, however, one should put her thumb injury in 2008 and various illnesses in 2009 into perspective.  Ana never required surgery or suffered extensive absences from any of her injuries, so they might justify sporadic early defeats but certainly not the two-year quagmire into which she has tumbled.  Despite the leg strain that drenched the Serb’s 2009 Wimbledon campaign in a poignant flood of tears, she was thoroughly outplayed by Venus until that stage and possessed virtually no chance of a comeback; the injury by itself did not prevent her from progressing in that crucial tournament.  The exception to this pattern, a vague yet chronic shoulder injury ominously forced her to withdraw from the Dubai tournament this year.  This issue could prove serious and should be carefully monitored by her fitness assistants.

 

5)  the Kournikova theory:  Igniting comparisons with the stunningly beautiful, stunningly underachieving Russian, Ivanovic has continued to fulfill swarms of sponsor obligations and pose for countless magazines even as her ranking has tumbled.  Kind and accommodating by nature (more on those traits below), she may well have stretched herself too far in this arena.  While the Williams sisters and Sharapova have balanced off-court with on-court activities extremely capably, not every player can effectively divide their energies as do that trio.  On the other hand, certain commentators went altogether too far when they linked Ivanovic’s SI Swimsuit photo shoot before the US Open to her first-round loss there.  It’s highly irrational to suggest that an extra practice session would have assured that her final forehand in a third-set tiebreak would have cleared the net rather than meekly sinking into it.  While her management perhaps has scheduled her overzealously, these “extracurricular” projects also provide her with a psychological respite from her on-court struggles.  For example, Ana’s lifetime Adidas deal surely boosted her morale by demonstrating this key sponsor’s firm confidence in her talents.  (And, of course, there’s the mathematical fact that a female athlete as alluring as Ivanovic can earn more in a year of photo shoots than by winning a dozen Slams, which should make any player hesitate before turning down lucrative offers.)

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4)  the Serbia theory:  Together with her compatriots Djokovic and Jankovic, Ivanovic often seems to lack the inner motivation that drives most of this sport’s leading competitors.  Listening to moving stories of bombs and swimming pools, one appreciates just how far these three Serbs have come from the extreme adversity in their backgrounds.  Considering this comparison, it would be only human of them to rest satisfied in the knowledge that they have improved their lives more than they ever could have imagined.  Even if none of the Serbs ever wins another significant title, they’ll spend the rest of their lives in comfortable circumstances.  Consequently, they might content themselves with strong but not legendary careers, whereas players who developed in more advantageous surroundings might be more inclined to seek a higher level of achievement in absolute terms—the same level in relative terms to their beginnings.  Without any disrespect to Serbia, we find this theory somewhat credible, although one never will be able to find unambiguous evidence for it.

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3)  the split-personality theory:  A gentle, self-effacing personality, Ana lacks the steely ferocity of a Serena, Henin, or Sharapova.  Whereas those competitors play with the expectation of victory, Ivanovic plays with the hope of victory.  Cast against type in the role of an athlete, she either underplays her part with tentative body language or overplays it with the ceaseless fist pumps that we discussed in an earlier article.  Rather than demonstrating her hunger for success, those manufactured gestures suggest her discomfort in the match environment and a constant need to reaffirm that she belongs there.  One suspects that the smiling Serb would be much happier in a non-adversarial environment, where she could exploit cooperative rather than competitive skills.  Despite her repeated protestations to the contrary, Ivanovic simply may have chosen the wrong vocation for her temperament, creating a rift between façade and interior that would only deepen as she matures.

 

2)  the expectations theory:  Catapulting suddenly into the #1 ranking shortly after Henin’s unexpected retirement, Ivanovic proved unready to assume the mantle of the game’s dominant star.  While battle-tested competitors such as Federer and Serena welcome the pressure inherent to the top spot, the Serb had not adequately consolidated her elite status when she found herself atop the WTA hierarchy in June 2008.  Bearing the honor more like a cross than a laurel wreath, she played passive, nervous tennis during her two different stretches at the #1 ranking, which was tossed with absurd alacrity among her and two even less qualified top dogs (Jankovic, Safina).  Although Ivanovic had struggled dramatically with her ball toss during the 2007 Roland Garros final, her issues with this component of her game crystallized during this period.  Moreover, she rushed back prematurely from injuries and illness in an effort to justify her exalted status.  As a result, her inner anxieties can be traced back to this period when expectations were thrust upon her before she had developed sufficiently to embrace them rather than hide from them.

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1)       the evolutionary theory:  From our perspective, the most credible theory of all concerns the trajectory of the sport over the past two years, which favors players who can strike powerful groundstrokes off both wings while playing respectable defense.  Mostly just a neutral or defensive shot, Ivanovic’s backhand possesses far less authority than her forehand and can be easily attacked because of her average movement.  On any fast or medium-fast surface, opponents with more balanced groundstroke arsenals can relentlessly pin her into the backhand corner, neutralizing her power.  Even when Ana pounds her forehand with conviction, therefore, capable foes don’t allow her to see enough balls on that side to win the match with this weapon alone.  Improvements in player movement, meanwhile, allow opponents to track down one or two more of her forehand drives than before, testing her consistency as well as her skill moving forward.  In the recent past, a crushing serve-forehand combination typically proved sufficient to overwhelm opponents, but such is no longer the case.  Therefore, we wonder whether the evolution of the sport simply has passed by the Serb, whose game seems outmoded compared to many of her younger rivals, such as Azarenka and Kleybanova. 

***

After diagnosis, the next step is to propose a cure.  We think that Ivanovic has two main avenues open to her, either of which might not return her to Slam glory but would assure her a rewarding career at the WTA level.  Following the Stosur model, she could channel her energies towards maximizing her serve in versatility and consistency as well as power, while simultaneously improving her net skills and forward movement.  Or, emulating the Dementieva paradigm, she could focus on developing a powerful backhand that would complement her forehand, while simultaneously improving her lateral movement behind the baseline.  Rather than stubbornly attempting to win with the same weary formula, though, Ivanovic must rationally decide which new course she would prefer to pursue.  If she dedicates herself to the challenge (probable) and gradually reacquires her confidence (uncertain), there’s no reason why she can’t thrill her legions of international fans with renewed triumphs.

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Understated and businesslike when she takes the court, Samantha Stosur represents a striking anomaly amidst the melodramatic, made-for-TV extravaganzas produced and directed by the WTA’s current elite.  Although scowls, sneers, and sobs provide compelling entertainment, it’s also refreshing to observe a sturdy competitor who simply plays tennis in an unruffled, methodical manner.  Dedication to the sport shines clearly from Stosur’s focused attitude, which should enable her to build upon the remarkable results that she has recorded over the past year.  Over the next three or four years, the Aussie will constitute a substantial threat in the draws at Slams and Premier events on all surfaces.  Therefore, we outline five crucial weapons in her game as well as five areas that she might wish to address in order to establish herself as a perennial contender.

Five key strengths:

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1)  serve + second serve:  Watching Stosur duel with Serena in their French Open quarterfinal, one noticed her ability to match Serena’s imposing serve with equally impressive deliveries of her own.  Like the American, the Aussie can hit all four corners of the service box and intelligently varies the placement on her serves rather than settling into predictable patterns as do many of her rivals.  Moreover, Stosur can afford to take chances on her first serve because she possesses the most formidable second serve in the WTA with the arguable exception of Serena; this heavy, spinning shot hampers the tour’s countless aggressive returners from seizing control of points immediately.  Effective on all surfaces, it has proved especially potent on clay and thus has enabled Sam to become a contender on all surfaces, unlike her flat-serving rivals.  With a deliberate but smooth technique, the French Open runner-up rarely experiences the double-fault clusters rife among the WTA’s best, illustrating not only her poise under pressure (explored below) but her reliable ball toss.  It’s infinitely easier to time this stroke and project maximum power when one’s target doesn’t veer uncontrollably around the strike zone. 

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2)  forehand:  Behind that formidable serve looms a sturdy, continually improving forehand drive, which combines velocity with sufficient topspin for margin.  More similar to some ATP forehands than the flatter WTA strokes, Stosur’s preferred groundstroke penetrates the court with consistent depth but generally maintains significant net clearance, even when she strikes it over the high part of the net.  On clay, the Aussie adroitly runs around her backhand to hit as many forehands as she can, much like a Ferrer or a Verdasco; on grass or hard courts, that ploy may prove less successful.  Even when she concedes a significant area of the court, though, Stosur generally strikes it with adequate angle and pace to prevent a deep riposte into the opening that she has vacated.  She can hit the shot cross-court, down the line, inside-out, or inside-in, and sets up for it the same way on each occasion, not permitting her opponent to anticipate and react in advance.

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3)  net play:  Long renowned for her doubles expertise more than her singles accomplishments, Stosur has a much greater comfort level at the net than her baseline-oriented colleagues, which allows her to finish points more quickly on faster surfaces.  At tournaments like Wimbledon or the US Open, this attribute should allow her to put pressure on her opponents without taking excessive risks.  Rather than pinpointing a corner or the outside of a line from the opposite baseline, the Australian possesses the confidence in her volleys to approach the net behind a strong but not overwhelming approach shot.  Whereas most WTA stars prefer the unconventional swinging volley, Stosur constructs traditional punch volleys that rely more on deftness than power.  One area that she could improve is her drop shot, a tool to which she might resort more often when pinning opponents far behind the baseline.

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4)  resilience:  After dropping a routine first set to the four-time French Open champion, Stosur might easily have been forgiven for accepting the seemingly inevitable.  But instead she wisely observed Henin’s mounting frustrations in the second set and capitalized upon the momentum shift to force a decider; there, she responded gallantly to a squandered lead by intensifying her focus and reining her shots until the Belgian faltered.  Just one round later, the Australian might have wilted following an embarrassingly ugly disaster when she attempted to serve for the match.  Although the world #1 came within a point of a signature comeback, Stosur deserves considerable credit for playing some of her most inspired tennis deep in the third set, At 6-6 and 15-30, she constructed an elegant all-court point that culminated in a breathtaking passing shot to which even a determined Serena had no answer.  Not easily intimidated, the Aussie shows her maturity by radiating a calm purposefulness that suggests her control over the situation, whether or not such is the case.  This veneer did crack a bit in the Roland Garros final and on a few other occasions such as the LA final last year, a trend that we discuss later.

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5)  fitness:  Despite the demands of the tour’s grueling schedule, the Aussie has managed to avoid any major injury over the last year even as her match totals increased.  To some extent, her consistent health stems from her clean, well-crafted technique, which doesn’t place severe stress on any area of her body.  Often entered in both singles and doubles, she plays a substantial schedule on all surfaces but is intelligent enough to know her own limits and withdraw from events like Rome when she requires rest.  Consequently, she has been able to display her highest level of tennis almost everywhere that she appears, a key factor in her rapid rise up the rankings.  After her two grinding wins over Henin and Serena, Stosur should have entered her semifinal with Jankovic physically and mentally weary, yet such was clearly not the case.  As her success continues, though, she may need to craft a somewhat more sparing schedule in order to maximize her longevity.  Stosur’s playing style does tend to age well, so don’t be surprised to see her on the court longer than others in her generation.s

Five flaws:                                                                                                   

1)  backhand:  Again distinct from most of her WTA contemporaries, Stosur lacks the symmetrical groundstroke game valuable on faster surfaces.  Her two-hander doesn’t produce nearly as much pace and depth as her forehand, forcing her to run around it as much as possible.  Although she has developed the skill of running around balls quite impressively, a more reliable backhand would not only provide her with court position but conserve energy in long matches by taking fewer steps before each shot.  During a few recent matches such as the Stuttgart final, Stosur demonstrated that she can hit through that shot with authority, so it’s unclear to us why she doesn’t do so more often.  On the other hand, the 2008 version of Ivanovic suggests that groundstroke symmetry isn’t imperative for winning Slams and other prestigious titles.

2)  return of serve:  A weapon in the Charleston final, the Australian’s return of serve can be electric at times, yet it also can disappear for extended stretches.  Occasionally, her timing can be a little imprecise or tentative, causing her to slice backhands into the net or float forehands over the baseline.  Within her entire arsenal, the return of serve is the only shot on which Stosur can make the same unforced error several times in a row.  In the uncommon moments when she exhibits tension, moreover, it tends to emerge most strikingly in this component of her game.   

3)  footwork / positioning:  Dexterous with her hands, Stosur struggles at times to position her feet in order to drive into the ball with her legs as well as her arms.  Since she can project significant power from her upper body, she hasn’t suffered markedly from this issue.  Here, Sam reminds us of the mighty ATP ball-crusher Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who likewise generates pace from his muscular upper body without necessarily thrusting his entire frame in the right direction. While off-balance hitting reveals the immense athletic abilities of both Stosur and Tsonga, it’s always preferable to maximize precision and power with a fully balanced body when striking the ball.

4)  improvisational skills:  Always more of a programmatic than an instinctive player, the Australian sometimes falters when forced to adapt to a unique playing style or an opponent who takes her out of her comfort zone.  A compelling example of this weakness, the French Open final illustrated her uncertain response when a bold returner (Schiavone, in this case) attacked her serve with unexpected audacity; in Tokyo last fall, Sharapova knocked her onto the back foot with similar tactics.  Taking the net away from Stosur also appears to discomfit the adept volleyer, for Henin and Venus managed to stifle her in Stuttgart and Madrid by winning the race to the forecourt.  Far from unusual among WTA players, the Australian’s lack of a Plan B might hamper her when she faces an opponent as aggressive (and as effectively aggressive) as she is.  Until or unless she develops some secondary options, she’ll be susceptible to a fearless shot-maker on a breathtakingly hot streak.  Such circumstances don’t occur frequently, but they happen disproportionately often in important matches, when adrenaline flows most swiftly.

5)  finals underachievement:  Just 2-7 in championship matches, Stosur has captured no title more significant than the Premier event in Charleston as of this writing.  She recalls the surging ATP slugger Soderling in her ability to defeat anyone on any given day while struggling to close out tournaments.  While the Swede’s game might embrace too many risks to fire on all cylinders throughout an entire week or fortnight, we don’t think that Stosur’s style is inherently susceptible to the same inconsistency.  It’s not so much that her level drops in finals but that she doesn’t elevate it as do most champions and many of her opponents.  When her experience as an elite singles contender grows, she’ll learn gradually how to rise to the occasion and capitalize on her opportunities. 

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Hope that you enjoyed this fifth article in our series of player profiles!  As mentioned on Twitter, we’ll return soon to outline seven reasons for the struggles of our favorite Serb…

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Hope that you relished reading our fortnight of French Open coverage as much as we relished writing it!  We thought that the clay season was a bit more eventful than usual this year, and we’re expecting just as many engaging narratives when the action shifts to grass.  Here are five (plus one, of course!) with which we seek to stoke your anticipation…

1)      Will momentum continue from clay, or rewind to Miami?  A dramatic contrast to the protracted wars of attrition waged on the red dirt of Roland Garros, the first-strike tennis played on grass typically favors those who excel on the hard courts.  Recently, however, the accelerating speed of the clay and the decelerating speed of the grass have diminished the gulf between them, aiding Nadal in his “Channel Slam” of 2008.  We imagine that powerful baseliners Stosur, Berdych, and Soderling will build upon their outstanding Roland Garros runs to wreak havoc at the All England Club, but they also shone on the North American hard courts.  Among those who might struggle to reproduce their recent achievements are clay aficionados such as Jankovic, Kirilenko, Ferrer, and Verdasco, while Radwanska, Bartoli, Roddick, and Ljubicic should rekindle their hard-court form after ineffectual clay campaigns.  A rare Spaniard who has preferred Wimbledon to Roland Garros is Feliciano Lopez, whose serve-and-volley style has led to several first-round losses in Paris but two quarterfinal appearances in London.  As the grass season unfolds, it’ll be intriguing to observe how (or whether) the clay season fits into the fast-court narrative that overshadows it.

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2)      Can the Andys challenge Federer and Nadal?  Three times falling to Federer in the Wimbledon final, Roddick has demonstrated that he can defeat anyone outside the top two at the All England Club.  The final of the ATP London event this weekend might provide an early indication of whether he can challenge Nadal as resolutely as he did the six-time champion a year ago.  (If Roddick had converted a relatively straightforward backhand volley at set point in the second-set tiebreak, he likely would have won the title.)  Even in the latter stages of his career, the American’s massive serve still enables him to hold comfortably and quickly almost every time, forcing opponents into tense tiebreaks where he’ll always have a chance.  We doubt that he could topple both Federer and Nadal in the same Slam; nevertheless, he might well derail a fourth Roger-Rafa final.  Once again bearing the expectations of a nation, Murray recorded a career-best Wimbledon result in 2009, although he has distinctly underwhelmed since February.  The Scot visibly drew motivation from his crowd support during his semifinal run last year and has handled the intense scrutiny as adroitly as anyone could have expected.  Should he receive a reasonably tranquil draw, one suspects that Murray will edge tantalizingly close to history again…only to fall a wee bit short again.

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3)      Will Serena and Venus contest a third consecutive final?  Even before the draw, we know that they’ll be situated in opposite halves, so nothing will be left to chance at the tournament that has been Williams family property for most of this millennium.  The presciently named Venus Rosewater Dish has been claimed by one of the sisters eight times in the last ten Wimbledons (only exceptions:  Sharapova in 2004, Mauresmo in 2006).  Still the mightiest servers in the WTA by a perceptible margin, they’ll win more cheap points than any of their opponents.  Don’t draw too many conclusions from their indifferent Roland Garros results, which have characterized their visits to Paris for years without detrimental influences upon their next tournament; in fact, those who know Serena and Venus claim that their French underachievements motivate them for the grass season.  Of slight concern is the wildly erratic form that Venus displayed not just on clay but in her hard-court tournaments this year.  If she runs into a determined, talented adversary early in the draw, she’ll be more susceptible to an ambush than Serena.  On the other hand, the sisters continue to possess greater maturity and experience than most of their rivals, a key factor in their stranglehold over the most prestigious title in the sport. 

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4)      Will one of the ATP’s towering servers go deep?  The conventional belief that a huge delivery can single-handedly win a Wimbledon title has been disproven over the past several years since Ivanisevic performed precisely that feat en route to the 2001 title.  Nevertheless, notorious ace machines such as Ivo Karlovic can ambush more heralded players at any given moment, as the Croat demonstrated when he upset Tsonga and Verdasco last year before falling to Federer in the quarterfinals.  The 2010 serve to watch might be the surging John Isner, who actually possesses a legitimate forehand weapon to buttress his monumental delivery.  This American also displays the quiet confidence and poise necessary to succeed at the All England Club (see Serena and Venus comments above), so don’t be surprised to see him carve his way a little further than his seeding would suggest.  Firmly checked by Nadal at Indian Wells, though, Isner will not duplicate Ivanisevic’s miraculous accomplishment. 

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5)      What should we expect from the WTA’s comeback queens?  Something unexpected, to judge from their rollercoaster 2010 campaigns.  Crossing and recrossing the line that separates bold from reckless, Henin began the year with exclamation points in Australia, faltered miserably in Indian Wells, rebounded in Miami and Stuttgart, fell on her face in Madrid (including a third-set bagel), and suffered a somewhat disappointing Roland Garros partly as a result of a brutal draw.  Wisely understating her expectations at this stage in her return, Justine won’t secure the elusive Wimbledon crown until she refines her newfound ultra-aggression and finds a more reliable service rhythm.  Sandwiching titles in Brisbane and Miami around disasters in Melbourne and Indian Wells, Clijsters relies more upon consistency than the shot-making panache rewarded at Wimbledon.  We’ll watch her Eastbourne performance with curiosity, however, to see whether Kim takes more risks in an effort to adapt her style to the surface.  The only former champion in the field other than the Williams sisters, Sharapova played her best tennis thus far of 2010 on her least favorite surface during her Strasbourg title run and her highly honorable loss to Henin at Roland Garros.  The Siberian siren has reached just one Slam quarterfinal since winning the 2008 Australian Open, but she appears to have regained her health (for now, anyway) and might well reverse her recent struggles at the All England Club with a second-week appearance.  A title is asking too much, however, because she would almost certainly need to defeat at least one Williams in order to win her second Wimbledon.

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5+1)  Which women will play on Centre Court?  Ever eager to fan the flames of controversy, British tabloids spun story after story around the Wimbledon organizers’ habit of scheduling attractive female stars for the marquee courts while banishing top seeds to the provinces.  (Somehow, we doubt that the WTA objected to that maneuver.)  The tournament responded rather cleverly by claiming that the order of play revolves around which players the fans most wish to see, thereby shifting responsibility onto the faceless multitudes.  Consulted on the topic, various male spectators supported the beauty-over-backhands decision.  Will the trend continue during this Wimbledon, regardless of the attention that it would draw, or will the organizers seek to pre-empt potential controversy by adhering more strictly to ranking in their scheduling priorities?  If the choice were ours, we’d compromise (always a good idea) and schedule the glamorous fan favorites on the show courts during the early stages before reorganizing the order of play around ranking once the action accelerated in the later rounds. 

***

Aussie readers, take note.  We’ll be back soon with a player profile on somebody of whom you should be very proud.  😉

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