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Nursing a tender ankle, Ivanovic hopes to extend her Cincinnati momentum into her New York opener against inflammable lefty Makarova.  Although the Russian posted five consecutive top-20 wins en route to the Eastbourne title in June, she has dwindled into obscurity during the US Open Series.  Her slice serve into the ad court will target Ivanovic’s backhand effectively; this weapon explains why Makarova has proved so successful at saving break points when at her best, for the vast majority of break points are played in the ad court.  Once the rallies begin, however, Ana possesses a mightier weapon in her forehand than anything in Makarova’s arsenal.  If the Serb continues with the steady serving and aggressive court positioning that she displayed in Cincinnati, she should prevail rather routinely.  Yet Ivanovic also must conquer the memories of her last two appearances in New York, both of which concluded swiftly in painful three-set losses.  Last year, she led Kateryna Bondarenko by a set and a break before crumbling, so her supporters shouldn’t relax even if she seizes an apparently decisive lead.  Struggling recently with lefties, moreover, the Serb lost to Czink and Safarova on American hard courts a year ago.  Uncertainty surrounds both her physical and mental condition, but the confidence gained on the relatively fast surface of Cincinnati eventually should propel Ana through this potentially perilous encounter, assuming that the ankle is healthy.

We continue to preview more of Day 1’s admittedly slim menu…

Hantuchova vs. Safina:

In New Haven, Safina avenged a defeat that Schiavone had inflicted upon her a week before in Montreal; can Daniela turn the tables on Dinara this week by avenging her loss to the Russian in New Haven?  Probably the most scintillating match of Day 1, this contest features two women with extremely balanced groundstrokes, questionable movement, and frailty under pressure.  The luster from Hantuchova’s San Diego semifinal run has dimmed a bit after early exits in her three tournaments since that week, when she defeated Bartoli, Zheng, and Kleybanova in succession.  Meanwhile, Safina appears to be edging tentatively towards the end of what has been quite a long tunnel, scoring wins over Petrova and Petkovic at the Rogers Cup.  Just as it did in New Haven, her superior serve comprises a key advantage that will allow her to take control of rallies earlier and more often than Hantuchova. Neither the Slovak nor the Russian can afford to play defense throughout the match, especially on these fast courts. On the other hand, the pressure attendant to a Slam (in)famously has unhinged Safina’s ever-tenuous nerves with increasing regularity since her rise to near-glory.  Although Hantuchova is the higher-ranked and seeded competitor, she has much less to prove than the former #1 and surely will swing more freely.  In all events, her free-flowing, seemingly effortless style will contrast fascinatingly with the laborious, effort-filled exertions of Safina.

Stosur vs. Vesnina:

Enduring a shoulder injury shortly after the Roland Garros final, Stosur never has progressed past the second round at the US Open.  Her indifferent foot speed and vulnerable backhand hamper her on the Open’s slick surface, while her confidence looks at a low ebb this summer.  In New Haven, she barely escaped the unimposing Sara Errani before slumping to a lopsided loss against Petrova.  A finalist in Istanbul this July, Vesnina can hold serve with sufficient regularity to stay close with the fifth seed deep into sets.  Highly proficient in doubles, both players should venture frequently into the forecourt and display their artistry at the net.  Among the key factors in this match is Stosur’s second serve, which produced numerous free points for her on the high-bouncing clay but which can be more easily attacked on this surface.  If Vesnina can connect on deep, aggressive returns when she sees a second ball, anxiety might seep into the Australian’s already embattled shoulder.

Larcher de Brito vs. Mirza:

At most majors, an all-qualifier bout would trigger barely a flicker of attention from most onlookers, but the intersection of these two flamboyant personalities could spark some unexpected drama.  Struggling with her serve for much of this season, Larcher de Brito salvaged a host of break points in her final qualifying round, whereas Mirza progressed to the main draw with less ado.  Once a dangerous ball-striker with a percussive forehand, the Indian star has reduced her schedule in recent months and no longer maintains the consistency required to remain a threat on the grand stages.  Still at the outset of her career, by contrast, the Portuguese phenom seeks to transcend her reputation as the WTA’s champion shrieker and unlock the promise that she displayed in the juniors and at the Bolletieri Academy.  Despite her petite physique, Larcher de Brito can thump groundstrokes with as much savagery as her statuesque foes and currently possesses far more competitive savagery than Mirza.  We expect a streaky match with multiple momentum shifts, few free points, and perhaps occasional emotional outbursts if it stays as competitive as we think it should.

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Monfils vs. Kendrick / Nishikori vs. Korolev:

Among the few men’s matches of note are a pair of contests between an agile counterpuncher and a purely offensive juggernaut.  Whereas Korolev unleashes his weaponry from the baseline, though, Kendrick prefers hurtling to the net for adeptly angled volleys.  Opposite these aggressors stand Monfils and Nishikori, respectively; while the Frenchman relies on outrageous slides and scrambles to discomfit his victims, the Japanese phenom relies upon crisp footwork and intelligent shot selection.    Nishikori will be grateful to avoid Nadal in the first round as he continues his comeback from a protracted injury hiatus, but the swift surface at the US Open should allow his mighty Russian adversary to control most of the rallies.  Meanwhile, Monfils’ superior offensive potential should enable him to weather Kendrick’s forward-rushing tactics more comfortably than his counterpunching Japanese counterpart can outlast Korolev.  Consider these matches early indications of how much the Open’s court speed might influence the first week’s action, for both Monfils and Nishikori are distinctly superior to their challengers overall but much less superior on the fastest surfaces.

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We return tomorrow to preview Maria and more, but first we cross our fingers for the braid from Belgrade!

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If Wimbledon used the best-of-three format for the first week of its men’s matches, three of the top eight seeds would have fallen in their openers to Alejandro Falla, Olivier Rochus, and Kevin Anderson.  While the travails of neither Djokovic nor Davydenko surprised us, the near-disaster suffered by the six-time champion was completely unexpected, since Federer had comfortably dismissed Falla twice in the last month.  Forced to extricate himself from a two-set deficit, the feckless top seed nearly embarrassed the organizers who placed him atop the draw instead of Nadal.  Two potential outcomes could emerge from this excruciating brush with catastrophe, one positive and one negative for Federer.  Relieved to have escaped the Colombian, he might well relax in his future matches and remind himself that he managed to win despite playing several notches below his immortal best.  Don’t forget what happened after he hovered within five points of a straight-sets loss to Haas at the 2009 French Open, but also don’t forget what happened after he hovered within four points of a third-round loss to Tipsarevic at the 2008 Australian Open.  On the latter occasion, Federer’s frailty spurred the rest of the draw to assault him with renewed confidence, which resulted in his only straight-sets loss at a non-clay Slam since 2003 (semifinal vs. Djokovic).  Berdych, Roddick, Hewitt, and others should take note of how the defending champion’s tournament began as they devise their plans for how it will end.  Meanwhile, Federer’s fellow top seed attempts to make a more authoritative impact tomorrow morning.

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Serena (1) vs. Larcher de Brito (Centre Court, 1st match):  A prodigy most noted for sonic scandals, the petite Portuguese star has yet to deliver upon the promise that she demonstrated in juniors and at the Bolletieri Academy.  Combined with her savage ball-striking, however, is a competitive ferocity rivaled by few of her peers.  Nevertheless, those assets recently have been overshadowed by her serving struggles, which will fatally undermine her cause against the most formidable serve in the WTA.  Although Serena does wobble sometimes in the first week of a Slam, she never has lost an opener and should be able to take command of most points with a massive first strike on either serve or return.  It’ll be intriguing to watch how Larcher de Brito handles the moment, though, for she remains unaccustomed to playing on venues like Wimbledon’s Centre Court.  In any case, we know that the Portuguese phenom won’t buckle meekly and will make every effort to dig her teeth into the rallies, creating sporadically entertaining exchanges before her eventual extent.  (By the way, our Portuguese Twitter correspondent Jose Morgado reports that the infamous shriek has diminished a little lately.)

Kendrick (Q) vs. Tsonga (10) (Court 1, 1st match):  Despite the rankings disparity here, Kendrick won a set from Murray last year behind impressive serving and relentless aggression.  Moreover, he’s accustomed himself to the atmosphere here by already having played three matches in the qualifying draw; having retired at Roland Garros a few weeks ago, by contrast, Tsonga has played no competitive matches on grass this season and might start a little slowly.  When the Frenchman lacks full confidence in his physical condition, his electrifyingly acrobatic style dips perceptibly as his shots rattle through the court with a shade less conviction.  Kendrick might have a greater chance to win in a best-of-three format before Tsonga can settle into a rhythm.  On the other hand, the tenth seed isn’t built for endurance and rarely plays five-setters, although he did win two of them in Melbourne.  Since both competitors will be swinging for the lines as soon as possible, few points should last more than four or five shots.  Extending a pattern of early-tournament inconsistency, Tsonga nearly dropped his opener in Paris to the unheralded Daniel Brands, yet that surface suits his game much less effectively than the speedy grass.  Therefore, an upset remains unlikely but not inconceivable.

Kiefer (W) vs. Ferrer (9) (Court 2, 2nd match):  The aging German still possesses a penetrating serve that distinctly trumps the Spaniard’s pedestrian delivery, whereas Ferrer enjoys far greater consistency from the baseline.  If the veteran can serve at a high percentage, finish points quickly, and keep the speedy retriever guessing with intelligent placement, he might well overcome the clay specialist.  After an outstanding season on the European dirt, Ferrer demonstrated his susceptibility to powerful servers during his startling straight-sets loss to Melzer in Paris, although he defeated Karlovic at Indian Wells.  Like Tsonga, the ninth seed chose not to play a grass prep, perhaps an indication that he has conceded this part of the season.  His fellow clay specialist Wawrinka made the same decision and paid a predictable price against Denis Istomin on Monday.  Much more adept on grass, Kiefer will take the initiative constantly and hold the match in his hands, so the outcome should come down to his execution level and confidence at key moments.  After a lengthy period of irrelevance, does he still believe in himself on the grandest stages?

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Chakvetadze vs. Petkovic (Court 14, 1st match):  Two years ago, the mercurial Russian reached the second week of the All England Club.  Three years ago, she built upon a sensational hard-court campaign to edge within one set of the US Open final.  While Chakvetadze has generated few headlines since those accomplishments, her two-hander remains a sensational weapon, and she compensates for her relative lack of pace by striking the bally early and creating unexpected angles; one might liken her style to a diluted version of her compatriot Davydenko.  Opposite the Russian stands one of the WTA’s hottest new commodities, a Bosnian-German who charged to the UNICEF Open and severely threatened Henin at that stage.  Unintimidated by most occasions or opponents, Petkovic did falter against Kuznetsova at Roland Garros, but the alacrity with which she rebounded testifies to her granite mentality, a stark contrast with Chakvetadze.  Yet one should remember that the Russian defeated the Bosnian-German in Birmingham two weeks ago, exploiting a sub-par performance from Petkovic that perhaps stemmed from her Paris disappointment.  Nevertheless, one of these stars has been rising as swiftly as the other has been descending, and Slams tend to confirm rather than reverse such trends.

Kanepi (Q) vs. Stosur (6) (Court 18, 2nd match):  Decent but unremarkable in her Eastbourne prep, Stosur surrendered sets to Hantuchova and Baltacha before becoming one of the victims in Makarova’s bizarre march to the title.  The Estonian has never seen a ball that she doesn’t attempt to obliterate, adhering to a straightforward power baseline style that has proven less effective this year than it has in the past.  Charting Kanepi’s decline, one can note the inexorable transformation in the WTA, where what Mats Wilander called “mindless bashing” once represented a reliable formula for winning matches but now must be combined with intelligent point construction, a little more versatility, and a bit more consistency than was previously necessary.  (Slumping sluggers Kuznetsova, Safina, and Ivanovic, among others, might wish to take note as they wallow in existential woe.)  Beyond her outstanding serve, Stosur has cultivated more variety than the average women’s star and thus should be able to outlast the erratic, slow-footed Estonian.  All the same, the Australian was outslugged by Baltacha during the early stages of their Eastbourne match, and the Brit’s game markedly resembles that of the Estonian.  Don’t be surprised to see Stosur dragged into a decider before she pulls through, just as Kanepi dragged Jankovic into a decider at Roland Garros.

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Mahut (Q) vs. Isner (23) (Court 18, 4th match):  The flamboyant Frenchman produced a characteristically odd bit of trivia in the qualifying by winning a 46-game final set from local hope Alex Bogdanovic.  Comprising 23 consecutive service holds, that Roddick-esque performance will need to be repeated in order for Mahut to upset the towering Isner.  Yet he should take heart by noting that giants did not stand tall on Day 1, which included losses by Anderson (6’7”), Cilic (6’6”), and Ljubicic (6’5”); even Del Potro (6’6”) exited in the second round last year.  A Queens Club finalist in 2007, Mahut came within a point of ambushing Roddick for the title and relishes grass more than any other surface.  Break points should be at a premium in this collision, which might witness multiple tiebreaks and probably will pivot on a tiny handful of timely winners or cluster of unforced errors.  Whereas the American will stand atop the baseline and attempt to dictate play with his forehand, the Frenchman will hurtle towards the net at the earliest opportunity.  Isner thus will test Mahut’s movement and consistency, while Mahut will test Isner’s reflexes and instincts.   If they head into a fifth set, these two adversaries might test the daylight by holding serve again and again…and again.

Briefly noted:  Shortly after his return from a protracted injury hiatus, Nishikori receives the monumental assignment of tackling Nadal on Centre Court, too demanding a task at this stage in his development although an opportunity to display some of his promise where people will notice.  Another Roland Garros champion, Ferrero might be challenged by Xavier Malisse as he attempts to repeat his 2009 quarterfinal appearance; the enigmatic Belgian recently upset Djokovic in Queens Club, while the Spaniard has been erratic since Rome.  Bolstered by the Croatian architect of Safina’s success, Cibulkova will seek to exploit the low bounces of the surface least natural to her against Safarova, who dazzled on clay before wilting at Eastbourne.  Her fellow clay-season arriviste Rezai rarely can be accused of wilting in any circumstances, but she did under-perform a bit at Roland Garros after swaggering to the Madrid title.  Having reached the Birmingham semis and vanquished Wozniacki in Eastbourne, the Frenchwoman faces a stern test of her all-court prowess when she confronts 2009 Birmingham titlist Rybarikova.  Early in a partnership with Antonio van Grichen (of Azarenka-related renown), Cirstea has accomplished little of significance for most of 2010 but showed signs of awakening by defeating Schiavone and nearly Kuznetsova in Eastbourne.  Will she extend her momentum against another Czech lefty, Kvitova, whose emotional implosions often dwarf her talents? 

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Meanwhile, Maria prepares to showcase her latest foray into fashion on Court 2.  Can she recapture the lofty heights attained by her 2008 design?

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