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Roger Federer - Swiss Indoors Basel - Day One

In the last match of individual competition that he played before his Basel opener on Monday, Federer marched within a point of the US Open final before Djokovic snatched that pearl out of the Swiss lion’s jaws.  Now, the Serb ventures into the den of the lion itself in an attempt to deny his vanquished rival even this modest prize, as he did in 2009 but could not do in 2010.  But plentiful intrigue awaits in Basel beyond the tantalizing thought of a Federer-Djokovic rematch.  We discuss the exceptional draw at this ATP 500 tournament.

First quarter:  Assigned to tackle the leviathan astride the ATP is the aging Belgian Xavier Malisse, who still can serve impressively at times while striking penetrating groundstrokes off both wings.  Considering Djokovic’s rust from an injury absence, one could imagine this match proving closer than their relative rankings would suggest.  In the second round, doubles specialist Lukasz Kubot shares many of Malisse’s strengths and has demonstrated the ability to score minor upsets, although he never has threatened an opponent of the Serb’s quality.  Ousting the eighth-seeded Troicki on Monday after saving match point, Baghdatis might pose the sternest pre-semifinal test for a Djokovic who probably will arrive slightly out of tune.  The former Australian  Open finalist has lost all five of his meetings with the two-time Australian Open champion, but he has won at least one set in each of the last four.  With his flat groundstrokes and a tendency to accelerate the tempo of a match, Baghdatis might deny the top seed the rhythm that he needs.  Also lurking in Djokovic’s quarter is the mercurial Youzhny, who has won all three of the indoor meetings (twice in Rotterdam and once in Marseille).  For most of this season, though, Youzhny has not reached the same level that he displayed in those victories but instead has undermined his own cause with untimely double faults and ill-advised shot selection.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Second quarter:  After the US Open, many observers expected Mardy Fish to fade in a fall far from the North American scene of his greatest successes.  While an early exit to Tomic in Shanghai seemed to confirm those thoughts, Fish can clinch his first career berth at the year-end championships with a solid autumn campaign and thus should bring plenty of motivation to these tournaments.  Moreover, the indoor environment should suit his precise style as the relatively faster courts maximize his serve.  Fish has struggled against Americans throughout his career, however, and he faces a potentially perilous opener against Blake, who flickered into life with a Stockholm semifinal appearance.  These courts should suit that veteran’s breathless, instinctive style as well, and the lefty serve of Gilles Muller may prove especially devastating here.  Aligned to meet Berdych in the second round, the pride of Luxembourg should not dismiss the possibility of facing Kei Nishikori instead.  Although he seems overmatched by Berdych’s power on serve and forehand, the highest-ranked man in the history of Japanese tennis won their only previous meeting and arrives fresh from a Shanghai semifinal.  Can Nishikori build upon that breakthrough, his greatest accomplishment so far, to march higher in the rankings before 2012 begins?

Semifinalist:  Fish

Third quarter:  Here roars the local lion, whose cubs may attend the tournament as they did last year.  In arguably the softest section of the draw, Federer allowed the unremarkable Potito Starace to stay within range longer than expected before notching his first victory of the week.  Either a youthful lefty or a veteran lefty will meet him in the second round, following a match that pits Bellucci’s power against the experience of Stockholm finalist Nieminen.  Then looms the prospect of a vintage meeting with Roddick, reprising the classic 2009 Wimbledon final in which the American served as the reluctant platform for Federer’s conquest of immortality.  Yet Roddick may not even reach that stage, for his form has oscillated unpredictably throughout a season that appears to mark the onset of an inexorable decline.  He must overcome a familiar nemesis in Tommy Haas to start the tournament and the lilting, maddening mosquito Radek Stepanek.  On the other hand, none of these curious encounters will pique interest in Federer, who long has dominated all of his potential quarterfinal opponents.  The elder statesman of the ATP should appreciate and capitalize upon the opportunity to reach a strenuous weekend with his energy mostly intact.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Fourth quarter:  Seeking his fourth consecutive title after sweeping the ATP Asian season, Murray has lost only one match at a non-major since the clay season.  When he met first-round opponent Robin Haase at the US Open, though, the Scot found himself forced to escape from a two-set deficit.  This time, he won’t have the luxury of time on a surface that tilts towards the lanky Dutchman’s strengths.   Elsewhere in this section loom Nadal-killers Ivan Dodig and Florian Mayer, the former near Murray and the latter adjacent to the sixth-seeded Tipsarevic.  After winning his first career title this fall and reaching another final, the Serbian #2 has every right to feel giddy (or perhaps Tipsy) with success.  One wonders how much motivation he will carry into a potentially dangerous draw with not only Mayer but Llodra and Ljubicic, imposing servers with a history of excelling in the fall.  Less likely to succumb to a dark horse is the second seed, who conceded sets here and there throughout his dazzling recent surge without ever coming close to defeat.  All the same, Wawrinka will benefit from the Swiss crowd and has defeated Murray before, so the Scot will need to elevate his level early in the week.  If he survives that test, he would arrive in the semifinals strengthened for his encounter with another Swiss foe.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Semifinals:  Djokovic d. Fish, Federer d. Murray

Final:  Federer d. Djokovic

Andy Roddick - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Three

Lopez vs. Roddick:  As a hail of aces rained off the Spaniard’s racket at Queens Club, the three-time Wimbledon finalist held his ground with a composure born of experience and waited for a chink in his opponent’s armor to emerge.  When it did, Roddick pounced and escaped a two-tiebreak, three-set serve-a-thon that hung in the balance until the final game.  Often outplayed by Lopez for sporadic stretches of their meetings, the American has relied on executing fundamentals with the consistency of a metronome.  In his two straight-sets wins here, he has conceded only a handful of unforced errors while suffocating opponents through impenetrable serving.  This third-round encounter may pivot upon tiebreaks, an area where Roddick declined sharply last year after a career of brilliance.  Improving in that category recently, he seemed encouraged by his Queens Club semifinal appearance rather than deflated by the lopsided loss with which it ended.  Still, his one-dimensional style leaves him vulnerable to lower-ranked, highly talented opponents like Lopez when they seize a sudden burst of inspiration.

Hantuchova vs. Azarenka:  An encounter certain to please male audience members, this typically glamorous Centre Court collision might feature engaging tennis as well.  Seemingly fading into a terminal spiral, Hantuchova reignited her career with a second-week appearance at Roland Garros that she followed with a Birmingham final and Eastbourne semifinal.  Not for years had this mentally fallible competitor compiled such a steady sequence of results, despite the relative insignificance of the grass tournaments.  Those three events included victories over Wozniacki, Ivanovic, Li, and Venus, a group encompassing three Slam champions and three #1s.  With those momentous victories behind her, Hantuchova should consider herself capable of expelling the fourth seed from the tournament a day after the third seed.  Azarenka has displayed formidable grass-court skills, though, ranging from a 2009 Wimbledon quarterfinal to a 2010 Eastbourne final and victory over Clijsters.  As suspect physically as Hantuchova mentally, she benefits from the extra jolt that the surface provides her powerful but not quite turbocharged weapons, especially her serve.  A lithe mover who can track down the Slovak’s angles, Azarenka might grow frustrated if dragged towards the net on disadvantageous terms.

Martinez Sanchez vs. V. Williams:  Like Roddick, his female compatriot faces a serve-and-volleying Spanish lefty with a dangerous propensity for catching fire at timely moments.  At this stage, Venus would have expected to face familiar Jankovic, but Martinez Sanchez halted the former #1’s path in an entertaining display of classic grass-court tennis.  Subjected to a similarly classic display in the second round, the elder Williams can count herself lucky to have survived the exhausting test mounted by Kimiko Date-Krumm.  Venus must recover swiftly in order to repeat a resounding Wimbledon victory over the Spaniard during which she struck the fastest women’s serve in tournament history.  Early in a comeback from injury, though, players often struggle with their reflexes and timing.  Against an opponent who favors rushing through points and towards the net, the American will need to hone the precision on her passing shots.  Gifted with an outstanding reach, Venus surrenders few aces but sometimes struggles to strike her returns with consistent accuracy.  Those two shots, in addition to her ability to recover from Wednesday’s marathon, will prove vital to her fate on Friday.

Nadal vs. Muller:  Spared the psychic ordeal of a clash with Raonic, Rafa must count himself fortunate to set his targets against an aging, rarely notable lefty from Luxembourg.  Or should he?  In his last pre-final loss at Wimbledon, Nadal fell to Muller at the 2005 tournament less than a month after winning his first major title at Roland Garros.  Nine majors and two Wimbledon crowns later, the world #1 has learned how to blunt the power of the towering servers who threaten the elite on grass, while the surface has slowed with every year and the balls become heavier.  All of those factors indicate a more routine result on this occasion, especially considering Nadal’s sparkling form in two straight-sets victories this year.  In 2010, he edged laboriously through the first week with a pair of five-setters, whereas no adjustment period appears necessary in 2011.

Tsvetana Pironkova Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria in action during the Ladies Semi Final match against Vera Zvonareva of Russia on Day Ten of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 1, 2010 in London, England.

Pironkova vs. Zvonareva:  A surprise semifinalist last year, the willowy Bulgarian built her memorable Wimbledon run upon a stunning upset over Venus.  Virtually irrelevant since that breakthrough, Pironkova faces a dramatic rankings plunge should she fail to topple the player who halted the finest fortnight of her career.  Curiously, Zvonareva endured three sets and several tense moments on that occasion before overcoming a player with a far less formidable game, and she also has not capitalized upon her stirring 2010 to record a solid 2011.  Despite semifinals in Melbourne and Miami, the Russian has regressed in general towards a level not commensurate with her elevated ranking.  Extended to three sets by Riske and nearly by Vesnina, she looks ripe for an upset despite having recorded what should have proved a confidence-boosting victory over Serena in Eastbourne.  Nevertheless, Vera probably will survive for exactly one more round before Venus avenges the slight to her sister.

Monfils vs. Kubot:  Accustomed to loping along the baseline at his leisure, the Frenchman often finds the grass a little too swift for his counterpunching comfort zone.  If the surface forces Monfils into a more aggressive mentality, though, he could adapt his effortless power on serve and forehand to terminate points as abruptly as Tsonga.  A doubles specialist with a brisk return, Kubot followed earlier victories over titanic servers Roddick and Querrey with a routine win over the most formidable ace machine of all, Karlovic. From both his five-set victory over Querrey in Australia and his victory over the Croat here shone the Pole’s focus at pivotal moments and his early contact point on groundstrokes.  Although he often prefers time to assess a situation, Monfils must play a more instinctive brand of tennis against Kubot, an adjustment that could benefit him as he moves into the second week.

Wickmayer vs. Kuznetsova:  Similar in playing style albeit not in credentials, the Belgian and the Russian enjoy excellent athleticism and forehands much more potent than their backhands.  While Wickmayer owns the superior serve, Kuznetsova probably has cultivated greater prowess in the forecourt.  Both players can drift in and out of focus with alarming facility, resulting in matches with unpredictable mood and momentum swings.  Since each has disappointed hopes for most of 2011, a second-week appearance for either would mark a noteworthy achievement on arguably their weakest surface.  Thus, this match represents one of the rare Slam encounters with little to lose and much to gain for both contenders, a combination that should spawn crisp, compelling tennis.

 

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Cows, put on your skates.  Maria Sharapova would be the first to admit her shortcomings on clay, once labeling herself a “cow on ice,” but she claimed the first red-clay title of her career at Strasbourg this weekend.  Although nobody would confuse it with Rome or Madrid, the tournament will have restored some vital confidence to a player whose high-stakes game revolves around it.  We were encouraged to observe how greatly she relished winning this insignificant title, moreover, proving that her renowned passion for competition remains undimmed despite demoralizing injuries.  If Maria can carry her momentum here into faster surfaces, the summer hard courts should see her well-positioned to wreak some havoc.  Better positioned than a cow on ice, anyway.

While Maria journeys to the French capital, we inaugurate our daily previews of the matches to watch at Roland Garros.  Sunday’s order of play disappointed us a bit, to be honest, so the selection is smaller than what you’ll see from us in the future.  Nevertheless, there’s a defending champion and a pair of potential future champions in action…

Kuznetsova (6) vs. Cirstea (Chatrier, 1st match):  Just 3-5 since the beginning of March, Kuznetsova has been struggling to win matches since her title in Beijing last fall.  If the defending champion doesn’t win this match, she’ll drop well outside the top 10 and perhaps outside the top 20.  Unfortunately for her, victory is far less assured than in most first rounds, for the draw has pitted her against a quarterfinalist here last year, who upset Jankovic in a marathon three-setter.  Like Kuznetsova, though, Cirstea has accomplished much less recently than her talents would suggest and has not recorded an impressive win since defeating Dementieva in Hopman Cup.  On the other hand, she recently harnessed the assistance of Azarenka’s former coach, Antonio Van Grichen, and showed promising signs by defeating Kirilenko in Andalusia as well as taking a set from Pennetta in Madrid.  Both players showcase bold shotmaking that can veer wildly from sizzling to Antarctic, which might produce an entertaining rollercoaster.  If the photogenic Romanian can stay focused and within range, she’ll have an opportunity to pull off the upset.

Dulko vs. Azarenka (10) (Lenglen, 2nd match):  One never would consider Azarenka the retiring type, but the extroverted Belorussian has retired three times since Miami with a hamstring injury.  Also a quarterfinalist here last year, her balanced game suits the clay better than many of her peers and may someday lift her to the title.  It won’t happen in 2010, however, for any sort of hampered movement will be ruthlessly exposed on this surface.  Dulko’s consistency might enable her to wear down Azarenka in long rallies; the Argentine certainly isn’t intimidated by marquee players, having defeated Sharapova, Ivanovic, and Henin at Wimbledon, the Australian Open, and Indian Wells during the past year.  Another factor here may be the unruly French crowd, since hostile audiences have rattled Azarenka in the past by mocking her Sharapova-esque shriek.  That said, she has many more ways to win points than does Dulko. 

Benneteau vs. Gulbis (23) (Lenglen, 3rd match):  On paper, this first round should be an utter mismatch, but we’re moderately curious to observe how Gulbis responds to what surely will be a partisan Paris crowd.  The Latvian defeated an Italian in Italy and a Spaniard in Spain during his last two events, seeming a trifle jaded against Volandri but completely unruffled against Lopez.  An accomplished doubles player, Benneteau doesn’t possess the consistency or defensive skills that would test Gulbis’ still-suspect consistency.  Among the key questions regarding his future Slam success would be his ability to remain focused deep into a best-of-five format, but that question probably won’t be answered for at least one or two more rounds.

Sprem vs. Kirilenko (30) (Court 2, 2nd match):  Steadily rising in the rankings, Kirilenko impressively followed up her opening upset of Sharapova by reaching the final eight in Melbourne.  The 30th seed also navigated into the Rome quarterfinals after defeating Kuznetsova in three sets.  Situated in Sveta’s section again here, she could accomplish another strong run here, although she just suffered an oddly lopsided loss in Madrid to Radwanska, no dirt devil herself.  Designed around grace and guile, her game sometimes falters against an imposing server like Croatia’s Sprem, perhaps best known for a controversial Wimbledon win over Venus.  The contrast between adroit point construction and first-strike tennis could produce some engaging rallies.

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Vesnina vs. Petkovic (Court 17, 1st match):  This match deserves much better than Court 17.  Separated by just three places in the rankings, the Russian and the German both possess well-rounded games as well as an imaginative sense of opening up the court with angled groundstrokes.  Although Petkovic prefers hard courts to clay, she has acquitted herself surprisingly well on the surface with wins over Rezai and Pennetta, in addition to taking a set from Serena in Rome.  Winless on red clay this year, Vesnina nevertheless scored her best performance of 2010 on green clay in the now-defunct Ponte Vedra Beach tournament, where she came within a few points of defeating eventual champion Wozniacki.  Mentally stronger than the Russian, Petkovic should prevail, but their encounter should be more tightly contested than most of Sunday’s clashes.

Briefly noted:  Most of the ATP matches look rather nondescript, but here are a few of minor interest.  A year after thrilling his compatriots by defeating Safin 10-8 in the fifth set, Josselin Ouanna attempts to recapture that magic against dangerous doubles specialist Lukasz Kubot.  Two years after nearly toppling Federer in another 10-8 fifth-set (at the Australian Open), the ever-eccentric, engaging Serb Janko Tipsarevic duels with Colombian clay specialist Alejandro Falla for the reward of a rematch with the world #1.  A tireless ball-retriever, Indian phenom Somdev Devvarman unsurprisingly clawed a path through qualifying to set up a winnable match against Swiss journeyman Marco Chiudinelli.  While Devvarman must refine his shot selection and develop an offensive weapon in order to break through, the clay should allow him to showcase his excellent defensive skills.  Keep his name on your radar for the long-distance future.

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