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Vera Zvonareva - Sony Ericsson Open

Radwanska vs. Zvonareva:  Despite their crowded schedules over the last several years, they have met on only one prior occasion, a 2007 meeting that the Russian routinely collected.  Since both players have developed so substantially since that moment, the outcome bears little relevance to Wednesday’s collision.  While Radwanska has spared no efforts in amplifying her meager serve and developing a more penetrating backhand, Zvonareva finally has learned how to channel her emotions in a positive direction—at least more often than not.  The third and ninth seeds have traced contrasting routes to this stage, for the former twice has rallied from one-set deficits whereas the latter remains the only player who has not lost a set in the tournament.  Bageling both Kirilenko and Schiavone, Radwanska cruised past two opponents who have troubled her before.  But Zvonareva defused arguably more challenging opponents in Safina and Bartoli, finishing both of those matches in resounding fashion by sweeping the last four games of the final sets.  A few degrees less than bulletproof on her serve, however, she may offer the Pole an opportunity if a break-riddled encounter evolves.  On the other hand, Zvonareva enjoys both the power to outhit Radwanska from the baseline and the tactical poise to outmaneuver her.  Unless her technique deserts her, she also possesses too much consistency to donate the unforced errors upon which the Pole feasts against opponents who engage in risker gambits.  Perhaps Radwanska can gain a mental advantage if her canny drop shots can lure Zvonareva forwards from her baseline comfort zone towards the net, where the ninth seed excels.  Otherwise, she lacks an edge over the world #3 in any of the game’s physical components and will struggle to find loopholes in one of the WTA’s most complete players. 

Azarenka vs. Clijsters:  Twice erasing first-set setbacks like Zvonareva, the 2009 champion doggedly battled past two of her generation’s most resilient competitors in Cibulkova and Pavlyuchenkova.  Also dragged into third sets during her last two matches, Clijsters must count herself fortunate to have survived five match points in a fraught duel with Ivanovic that extended into Tuesday evening.  Amidst 11 double faults and 22 break points, the Belgian carved (or rather hacked) her path to victory by the narrowest of margins and cannot depend upon the pugnacious Azarenka to let her escape from a similar quagmire.  But nor can Vika expect Kim to conveniently falter as did Cibulkova when she led the Belarussian by a set and a break.  Should her questionable shoulder have survived Tuesday’s exertions intact, Clijsters may enter their clash relaxed by her brush with disaster and finally free from the tension that has beset her throughout much of the tournament.  In order to disrupt Kim’s title defense, the preceding champion must steel herself to preserve her patience and concentration in adversity more effectively than she did against Clijsters here a year ago.  Then, Azarenka competed resolutely through a series of repeated breaks before surrendering the first set with a few untimely errors—which she allowed to poison her mind thereafter and lead to a second-set bagel.  Not for many months has she conquered a player of the Belgian’s level at an event of this magnitude, so a victory could signal a significant breakthrough.  The steadier player of the two this week, Azarenka should place herself in position to issue that signal if she can master the moment more maturely than in the past. 

Ferrer vs. Fish:  A tribute to his improved fitness, the American’s unexpected victory over Del Potro edged him within one win of becoming his nation’s top-ranked man for the first time in his career.  On a humid Miami morning, Fish moved fluidly through the thick air and stayed in rallies longer than he could have a year ago.  Delivering crucial free points for him was his versatile first serve, which struck all four corners of the box.  In order to stifle one of the ATP’s finest returners, Fish will need that shot to prevent Ferrer from sinking his teeth into too many rallies.  Armed with balanced, consistent groundstrokes from both wings, the world #6 will outmaneuver and outlast the American once extended exchanges develop.  Even the less trim version of Fish has troubled Ferrer in the past, however, defeating him at the 2007 Australian Open and winning sets from him on earlier occasions.  Despite not intersecting for more than three years, these two veterans still possess essentially the same weapons that they have in the past, although both have honed those weapons in the intervening time.  Buoyed by the home crowd as well as the stirring victory over Del Potro, Fish should test Ferrer much more vigorously than his previous, less powerful opponents.  Among the most intriguing elements of the match is the potential duel between the Spaniard’s inside-out forehand and the American’s down-the-line backhand, two of their most reliable strokes.  If Fish can track down the former shot with sufficient time to redirect him, he could fluster Ferrer by transitioning into offense from a neutral position.  Although he will cast himself as the counterpuncher for most of the match, meanwhile, the Spaniard should not neglect the opportunity to finish points when he can.  Opponents cannot permit a player infused with as much momentum as Fish to constantly dictate rallies, for he may well strike his targets once too often. 

Anderson vs. Djokovic:  Having doled out various types of pastries from a fully functioning bakery over the past few weeks, the last remaining undefeated player in 2011 has broken opponents more often than they have held while not dropping his own serve throughout the tournament so far.  Such a recipe results in a championship more often than not, but Djokovic first must blunt the serving might of a relatively unheralded ATP giant.  Capitalizing upon a vacuum in his section of the draw, Anderson has navigated through an area once populated by Murray and Verdasco.  A champion in Johannesburg earlier this season, he complements his serve with a creditable inside-in forehand and serviceable touch at the net.  Beyond his massive delivery, however, Anderson will find his offensive potential thoroughly contained by the Serb’s lithe movement and explosive counterpunching.  Moreover, once Djokovic takes command of a rally, the South African probably cannot recover from a defensive position because his gangly limbs will hamper his movement.  Likely to hold serve more regularly than most of the second seed’s previous victims, Anderson must hope to stay within range early and hope that his opponent grows frustrated by his inability to dominate as comprehensively as in the resounding triumphs to which he has become accustomed.  Considering Djokovic’s current confidence in every element of his game, however, such a hope looks slim indeed.  

Novak Djokovic - Sony Ericsson Open

 

1) 1812 Overture: Like Napoleon’s Grande Armée two centuries ago, French invaders temporarily occupied Moscow before valiant Russian resistance forced them to retreat.  Cast in the role of Marshal Kutuzov was the equally wily Shamil Tarpischev, who combined patience with inspiration as a disastrous Saturday turned into a dazzling Sunday.  Initially controlling the opening rubber, Kuznetsova drifted into complacency just as her opponent Alize Cornet began to believe that she actually could win a match for her country.  Tenuously committed to Fed Cup at best, Russian flagship Sharapova then subjected her compatriots to an avalanche of 46 unforced errors that secured her Olympic eligibility in addition to a commanding lead for France.  Staggering from this Battle of Borodino, Tarpischev then replaced the three-time major champion with the plucky yet untested Pavlyuchenkova.  The WTA’s highest-ranked teenager breathed life into a moribund Russian squad by grinding her way past Cornet, who looked the heroine of the tie a set into the third rubber.   Atoning for the sins of Saturday, Kuznetsova firmly subdued Razzano and then returned with undiluted energy for the decisive doubles.  After a nervy first set, Sveta and Nastia savaged Coin and a more familiar version of Cornet during a second set in which the home squad dropped just four total points.   A nation of limitless resources and legendary pugnacity, Russia should have surprised nobody in producing the first team to erase a 0-2 deficit since Fed Cup shifted to the five-rubber format.

2) Tension in Tasmania: Behind an unremarkable 4-1 scoreline smoldered the most scintillating Fed Cup tie of the weekend, which opened with three fiercely contested three-setters.  In the tranquil surroundings of Hobart, the defending champions needed all of Pennetta’s poise and Schiavone’s swagger to escape a confident home squad.  Tiebreaks and deuce service games proliferated from the outset as Groth and Stosur pitted their power against Italian versatility.  Losing two epic encounters in a 24-hour span, the Australian #1 will wonder how the weekend might have unfolded had she capitalized upon the momentum of Groth’s opening upset over Schiavone by serving out the first set against Pennetta.  Unbroken by that disappointment, however, she competed valiantly through the second set before her flagging self-belief betrayed her in the third.  Stosur then starred in an eerily similar script on Sunday, which featured a rematch of the 2010 Roland Garros final that trumped the original in drama if not in quality.  Despite a ghastly first-set tiebreak, Sam regrouped to deliver a dominant second set and looked superior early in the decider.  Narrowly surviving that sequence, Schiavone then turned the tide almost imperceptibly as her service games grew smoother and the Australian’s games more turbulent.  Battling even more doggedly than on the previous day, the Australian erased four match points in a resilient effort from which she could (and should) take pride although not a victory.  We sympathize with her while applauding Pennetta’s 10-match Fed Cup winning streak and Schiavone’s indefatigable willpower.

3) Ivan the Terrible: In the second round of the Australian Open, a virtually unknown Croat named Ivan Dodig extended Djokovic to four sets in the only blemish on the eventual champion’s otherwise flawless fortnight.  Although the Serb promptly punished him for that affront, this implausible home hero kept the Zagreb title in local hands for the third consecutive year with victories over four seeded players during which he dropped just one total set.  Filling the void left by a perplexing Cilic, the 26-year-old Dodig ousted Granollers, Ljubicic, and Garcia-Lopez before mastering his first career final with aplomb.  Well below the towering height of his most notable compatriots, he has contested just 29 singles matches in ATP main draws during a career mostly spent trudging between challengers and qualifying rounds.  Although figures like Dodig will not leave an impact upon the sport, this week reminded us that seemingly trivial tournaments like Zagreb enable opportunistic underdogs to shine.  Fellow journeymen who noticed his feat should pursue their mission with belief rekindled.

4) Standing tall (for now): Another first-time titlist from a home nation, Kevin Anderson emulated Dodig’s feat while standing eight inches taller than Croat on brittle-looking legs.  Equally precarious is the status of the Johannesburg tournament that Anderson won, which may become a victim of a 2012 calendar truncated for the Olympics.  One would not wish to see the ATP shrink an already tentative footprint on the African continent, but few spectators watch tournaments in hopes of seeing Izak van der Merwe, Somdeev Devvarman, and Adrian Mannarino, the three players who accompanied Anderson to the semifinals.  Unlike the once-embattled WTA Birmingham event, the South African tournament lacks a superstar commitment to shelter it.  As the case of Hamburg demonstrated, tournaments have scant recourse against the authority of the ATP, which often rules its dominions by arbitrary fiat.  On the other hand, perhaps Johannesburg can exploit the current uncertainty to escape its undesirable position on the calendar, for the week immediately following a Slam never will host a tournament of relevance.

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Welcome to the debut of our daily preview series on all of the Wimbledon action, which will briefly discuss an intriguing topic from the previous day’s action before examining several key matches in detail.  They will conclude with a “briefly noted” section on matches of lesser interest that might be worth more casual attention when the central action ebbs.  Since there’s little to discuss from today’s action beyond the arrangement of Federer’s trophy room (read his interview if you haven’t already), we ignite this series by previewing a former champion who will grace Centre Court on Monday.  No, not you, Roger.

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Robson (W) vs. Jankovic (4) (Centre Court, 2nd match):  Eagerly embracing drama and intrigue, the fourth seed should relish her opening Centre Court clash with Great Britain’s leading female hope, a junior champion in 2008.  A lefty with a modest serve but aggressive groundstrokes, Robson is more likely to rise to the occasion than crumble under the pressure of her surroundings.  Surprisingly declining to enter a grass prep, Jankovic may need time to adjust to her weakest surface and settle into the match, which could provide an early opportunity upon which the teenager must capitalize.  Although Serb suffered a startling loss to Oudin here last year, she remains too steady to succumb to a largely untested opponent unless one of her chronic, innumerable health issues intervenes.  But Robson might well win a set and temporarily ignite the fervor of British fans.

Djokovic (3) vs. Rochus (Centre Court, 3rd match):  After upsetting Murray in his Miami opener, Fish sprang a second ambush on the Scot during the grass season.  Can the diminutive Rochus, who likewise upset Djokovic in his Miami opener, also repeat the accomplishment on grass.  The Belgian oddly has won three of their four previous meetings, none of which have been played in the best-of-five format; nevertheless, the Serb won their only collision on grass.  Despite his unimpressive stature, Rochus maximizes the pace upon his groundstrokes with compact, well-timed swings and crisp footwork.  Falling to the enigmatic Xavier Malisse at Queens Club, Djokovic did hone his grass skills later that week by winning the doubles title with Jonathan Ehrlich.  Crucial to his success at Wimbledon will be his recently remodeled serve, which faltered in the Miami match with Rochus.  When the Serb’s serve wobbles, so does his confidence, and an alert counterpuncher like the Belgian can take advantage.  This match is Djokovic’s to win or lose; he’ll probably win it, but not without some ado.   

Anderson vs. Davydenko (7) (Court 1, 1st match): Never at his most formidable on grass, Davydenko returned from a two-month injury absence in Halle, where he won a match before losing to former Wimbledon nemesis Benjamin Becker.  Generally considered one of the ATP’s premier returners, his talents in that arena will be severely tested by a South African giant (6’7”) whose delivery should scoot through this fast surface.  Since the seventh seed will struggle to break, he’ll feel additional pressure on his own service games.  On the other hand, Murray thumped Anderson at the Australian Open and broke his serve almost at will, while the South African has yet to score a win over a marquee player at a marquee event.  Beyond the serve, he’ll be overwhelmingly outgunned by Davydenko from the baseline, and his net prowess remains indifferent at best.  If Anderson doesn’t maintain an extremely high first-serve percentage, a challenging task in a best-of-five format, he lacks the consistency to trouble the Russian.

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Fish vs. Tomic (Q) (Court 2, 2nd match):  Reaching the Queens Club final with impressive wins over Murray and Lopez, the American veteran illustrated his continuing relevance in singles despite a mediocre 2010.  His first-strike, serve-and-volley aggression should suit the grass, but he confronts a future top-20 or possibly top-10 star who already has performed impressively at this level.  In Melbourne, Tomic extended Cilic to five compelling sets with fluid movement, balanced groundstrokes, and more versatility than one would expect from such a relatively raw player.  Will youth or experience triumph?  Fish needs to relentlessly move forward behind his imposing first serve and perhaps behind second serves as well.  Once Tomic lures him into a neutral baseline rally, the teenager’s superior consistency and durability would prevail, allowing him to set up a potential rematch with Cilic.  Therefore, the American must attempt to engage in a vertical battle of forward movement, while the Australian will seek to engage in a horizontal battle of lateral movement.  Fish should hit many more winners and many more errors, but the key to the match will be the length of point; the longer, the better for Tomic.

Hercog vs. Shvedova (30) (Court 8, 2nd match):  A lanky Slovenian teenager, Hercog achieved her first impact in the WTA by surging to the Acapulco final with victories over Szavay and Suarez Navarro; once there, she demonstrated impressive maturity by winning a set from Venus.  Since that breakthrough, she crushed Safarova at the French Open while winning sets from Wozniacki, Bartoli, and Peer.  Across the net stands unexpected Roland Garros quarterfinalist Shvedova, who underlined her own maturation by conquering the mental challenge of Radwanska and the physical challenge of Kleybanova.  Consecutive wins over those almost diametrically opposed playing styles testified to the Kazakh’s development into an all-court player with sufficient consistency to complement her long-impressive power.  While both players will require more time to evolve, they comprise part of the answer to the omnipresent question “who’s next?” in the WTA.  More important than who wins or loses here is how they respond to various match situations and the pressure inherent at this prestigious event.

Wickmayer (15) vs. Riske (W) (Court 14, 3rd match):  The All England Club took a bit of a Riske by awarding the American a wildcard following a Birmingham semifinal run that saw her depose Wozniak and Wickmayer.  Distinctly underwhelming since a Miami quarterfinal appearance, the third highest-ranked Belgian recently endured arthroscopic surgery on her elbow, flopped miserably against Clijsters at Eastbourne, and failed to break Riske’s serve at all during their three-set confrontation.  If the American wildcard enters the court with a positive attitude, she’ll already possess an advantage over the waffling Belgian.  The draw would open up a little for her after an upset, so she must discipline herself to control her emotions and play steady, intelligent tennis, which might well be good enough. 

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Peer (13) vs. Ivanovic (Court TBA, not before 17:00 local time):  Having surprisingly reached the second week at last year’s Wimbledon, Ivanovic faces a moderately significant rankings drop should she fail to score the mini-upset here.  Not at her best on grass, Peer fell to Zheng in her Eastbourne opener after an excellent clay season.  As usual, the Serb’s serve will play a pivotal role in what could be a Centre Court clash; following a disastrous Roland Garros, that shot rebounded to deliver 23 aces in her two matches at the UNICEF Open, where her three-set loss to Petkovic looked more respectable when the German came within two games of the title.  Much more consistent and balanced, the Israeli will try to extend Ivanovic along the baseline, set up crosscourt backhand exchanges, and pin the Serb into awkward positions when she unleashes her high-risk groundstrokes.  Peer always represents a challenging mental test as well, brimming with competitive vigor and intense focus.  Yet grass generally favors bold aggressors more than sturdy counterpunchers (ahem, Murray), pleasant news for the Serb.  The match should play out a bit like Fish-Tomic, with Ivanovic moving forward, shortening points, and littering the statistics sheet with far more winners and far more errors than her adversary.  If she brings a positive, confident mind to the match, she’ll give herself the opportunity to move forward into an invitingly weak area of the draw.

Briefly noted:  Fresh from an improbable title run in Eastbourne, today’s sensation Makarova intersects with the rapidly fading but still sporadically dangerous Szavay.  Not so fresh from an even more improbable title run in Paris, Schiavone prepares to battle Vera Dushevina in a clash of two all-court games; Dushevina nearly upset Venus, Serena, and Sharapova within the past year, so don’t be surprised to witness an upset here.  Nadal’s nemesis from Queens Club, Feliciano Lopez, will test a recently injured shoulder against fellow lefty Jesse Levine, while the still huge-serving Karolina Sprem quietly continues her comeback against Fed Cup heroine Bethanie Mattek-Sands.  As spring turns to summer, the expectations will mount on Melanie Oudin to recapitulate her outstanding performances from Wimbledon and the US Open a year ago.  The Georgian has achieved little of note so far in 2010 and faces a much more powerful although much more erratic opponent in Anna-Lena Groenefeld; a win here might open the door for another second-week appearance.  Taking aim at the streaky Wawrinka is Nadal’s near-nemesis from Queens Club, Denis Istomin, whose powerful offense might unsettle an adversary who opted to enter a clay challenger in his native Switzerland rather than a grass prep. 

***

We return tomorrow with previews of opening rounds for the bottom half of the men’s draw and the top half of the women’s draw.  If any particular matches seem especially worthy to you, you’re welcome to mention any preferences in the comments or write to us on Twitter about them.  We’ve fulfilled all requests so far!

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