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Na Li - WTA Championships - Istanbul 2011 - Day Two

Li (1-1) vs. Stosur (1-1):  What a difference a day made for these two women. Less than 24 hours after they opened their week with solid victories over Sharapova, Azarenka thrashed the Roland Garros and US Open champions by identical 6-2, 6-2 scores.  Contributing to their swift transformation from predators to prey, Li and Stosur donated far more unforced errors to their opponent’s cause in their second matches, especially from the forehands on which both rely.  Nevertheless, the relative levels of performance attained by the injured, rusty Sharapova and the crisp, confident Azarenka also played significant roles in the whiplash-inducing turn of events.  Initially optimistic and then perhaps pessimistic, the two first-time Slam champions of 2011 should approach their collision through a realistic lens.  Simply put, the winner of this match earns a trip to a semifinal with the White Group winner (most likely Kvitova), while the loser earns a trip to their vacation destination of choice.  Since the year-end championships so often rest in the hands of computers and calculators, we find it refreshing to have a berth decided by a virtual quarterfinal or a single-elimination match.

From a glance at their previous meetings, the conclusion seems foregone.  In five matches on hard courts, carpet, and clay, Li has won one total set from her fellow breakthrough artist.  Only once has Li won more than six games in a match from Stosur, but that one occasion came in their most recent meeting in Cincinnati, which unwound through three tangled, competitive sets and may hint at a potential shift in the balance of power following two routine encounters earlier in 2011.  At the core of the Australian’s dominance lies her much superior serve, which has trumped the Chinese star’s often devastating return.  While Stosur’s serve will present the single most potent weapon on the court, she also owns the second most potent weapon in her forehand, a shot that will win most of their forehand-to-forehand rallies.  As opponents typically have attempted before, Li will seek to orient the rallies around their two-handed backhands, where she holds a distinct advantage despite her foe’s improvements in that area.  If the match evolves into a rigidly serve-oriented contest with short points and few breaks, she will have few opportunities to crack the Stosur conundrum.  By contrast, Li may prevail if she can engage in a more fluid, varied contest that rewards her more balanced style.  Stosur broke through an 0-for-career drought against one opponent this week, extended an 0-for-career drought against another, and now must seek to prevent an opponent from snapping an 0-for-career drought against her.

Kvitova (2-0) vs. Radwanska (1-1):  Unlike the previous match, this duel of dissonant styles matters much more to one combatant than to the other.  By ending Wozniacki’s season in emphatic fashion, the Wimbledon champion assured herself a semifinal berth in her first career appearance at this event.  Kvitova thus will approach this third and, for her, meaningless match with minimal motivation or intensity, a factor that may play directly into the hands of her opponent’s hopes.  After a set of her Thursday battle with Zvonareva, those hopes looked frail indeed as Radwanska could not blunt the Russian’s superior weight of shot.  Down to potentially the last point of her 2011 campaign on two different occasions, however, the champion of Tokyo and Beijing refused to submit meekly to a heavier hitter once again.  As she has so many times before, Radwanska survived by eliciting unforced errors until she thrived by striking the deft, exquisitely placed winners that compensate in grace for what they lack in pace.  From our sideline perspective, moreover, the dogged abandon with which she dashes along the baseline and retrieves laser after laser looks as intimidating as the lasers themselves.  In order to defeat Radwanska, opponents must dig into the trenches for a mentally draining encounter.

On the grass of Eastbourne this year, Kvitova dug into those trenches for a third-set-tiebreak victory that contributed to her impetus on the eve of her Wimbledon triumph.  With virtually nothing at stake here, she probably will prove unwilling to commit the degree of focus or determination required by a game so strongly reliant on precision.  As her wayward patches this year have showed, Kvitova can lose to almost any challenger when her mind wanders and carries her vicious offensive combinations with it.  Needing to win only one set for that first career semifinal berth, Radwanska should fancy her chances of exploiting an indifferent opponent.  One of her greatest tests may consist of recovering from the labyrinthine path that she traced on Thursday to reach this stage, but she has mastered such tasks convincingly throughout the second half of 2011.  And at least the Pole can determine her own fate, a situation much more enviable than the position of waiting, watching, and wondering in which Zvonareva finds herself.

Azarenka (2-0) vs. Bartoli (alt.): One has no doubt of advancing, while the other has no hope of doing so.  Combining those ingredients in this virtual dead rubber, neither player has any real incentive beyond the points and prize money available.  Before the tournament, Azarenka emphasized the allure of the latter, but one would counsel caution with a weekend of vital matches looming on the horizon.  For Bartoli, not for the first time an alternate event, the potential windfall may beckon more invitingly.  Nevertheless, she suffered a double bagel against Henin in a similar dead rubber at the year-end championships, so she may join Vika in the awkward exercise of playing a match while not really contesting it, all too familiar from Davis and Fed Cups past.  Istanbul fans should consider leaving after the previous match and preparing for a magnificent day of (singles and doubles) semifinals on Saturday.

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Novak Djokovic - Rogers Cup - Day 7

At the verge of victory, the pressure suddenly descended on Novak Djokovic.  Even after his stunning Wimbledon title, and even after he took a 40-0 lead in the final game, the new #1 visibly tightened when he stepped to the service notch at triple championship point.  A forehand plunked into the net, a point-stopping challenge turned against him, a second serve trickled off the net into a near-double fault, and another routine forehand floated aimlessly well over the baseline.  As the three championship points melted away, Djokovic’s ball bounces multiplied and his typically penetrating groundstrokes fell shorter and shorter inside the court, sometimes barely beyond the service line.  The sunless Montreal sky glowered down at him, ominously reminiscent of the Paris evening when he suffered his only loss of this superhuman season.  Meanwhile, the enterprising, still hopeful Fish refused to donate a match-ending error, defying his reputation for erratic play.  When Djokovic missed his first serve at deuce and settled into another protracted point, an implausible comeback started to seem plausible. But after an anxiety-laden exchange from both sides of the net, Fish finally sailed a standard backhand—his strength—over the baseline.  That one glimpse of fallibility sealed his fate, for the Serb capitalized upon his second chance with an unreturnable first serve.  In a week when he faced none of his leading rivals, Djokovic’s main challenge ultimately came from within.  Just as impressive as his nervelessness on occasions like his Wimbledon victory this summer was his ability to subdue and survive his nerves when a match tottered on the brink of turning against him.

Suffering yet another gallant defeat in a Masters 1000 final, Fish nevertheless consolidated his status as the tour’s top-ranked American.  In fact, his steady reliance on fundamentals and businesslike demeanor reminded us of his predecessor during his most dangerous years.  Not the most colorful or exciting player to watch, he can rattle the premier contenders with his rare net-rushing style and unpredictable shot-making from both groundstroke wings (Whether he can actually win against them remains an open question, though.)  Unless Roddick rebounds to shine in Cincinnati, Fish clearly has transcended his compatriot and will become the home nation’s principal standard-bearer at the US Open.  Like Schiavone and Li in the WTA, his late-career surge should inspire other chronic underachievers to redouble their efforts in the hope of future rewards.  On the

Crowned in Toronto was a champion ranked much lower than Djokovic but equally expected to collect the title.  Similar to many of her most memorable title charges, Serena’s tournament started modestly with three-setters against Zheng and Safarova before accelerating into commanding performances against Azarenka and Stosur.  Since she might well face the former late in the US Open, her nearly flawless semifinal performance especially dazzled.  Following her success at the relatively minor tournament in Stanford, we still wondered whether Serena could maintain that form into New York and against her leading challengers.  Toronto advanced some distance towards answering that question, confirming the American’s status as the favorite to capture another US Open.  Like Djokovic, however, Serena never faced most of the players whom one might expect to bar her path in New York.  The central storylines of these two tournaments consisted of the astonishing upset epidemic that had convulsed both draws by Wednesday and Thursday.  Beyond Djokovic and Serena, almost none of the familiar names remained immune.  The rest of this article considers the most notable ambushes of the week and their possible impact on the tournaments ahead.

Andy Murray - Rogers Cup - Day 2

Murray (l. to Anderson):  Had he lost two tiebreaks to Kevin Anderson, the towering South African’s upset would look less stunning.  But instead Murray won just four games from an opponent whom he had routed in a previous meeting.  Like Wozniacki, the Scot looked uncomfortable in almost every department of the game, even his normally seamless movement and crisp backhand.  The loss marked a third opening-match exit at Masters 1000 tournaments this year, departing alarmingly from his usual excellence at these events and especially on North American hard courts.  Fortunately for Murray, the concurrent stumbles of Nadal and Federer diminished what otherwise would have seemed a confirmation of the gulf separating him from the top three.  Nevertheless, the Scot risks losing the momentum accumulated during the clay and grass seasons if he allows this loss to deepen the gloom of his Wimbledon disappointment and produce a malaise similar to his post-Australian Open slumps.  Also like Wozniacki, he needs a noteworthy week in Cincinnati to convince himself that he can contend in New York and validate his recent commitment to a more aggressive mentality.

Wozniacki (l. to Vinci):  In March, the world #1 looked on the verge of justifying her ranking after she had come within a point of the Australian Open final and won the year’s first Premier Mandatory tournament at Indian Wells.  Five months later, pre-quarterfinal losses at Roland Garros and Wimbledon punctuated a disappointing European spring of stagnation or even regression.  When the battlefields shifted back to hard courts again, Wozniacki desperately needed an infusion of positive energy.  She didn’t get it.  Squandering a 5-1 lead against Roberta Vinci in her Toronto opener, she unleashed an uncharacteristic string of double faults and then just as uncharacteristically assisted an anxious Vinci with unforced errors when she served for the upset.  The setback heightened the ongoing debate over her (un)worthiness to hold the top ranking and turned Cincinnati into a vital week for her before the US Open.  Renowned for dominating this level of tournament and consistently suppressing the rank-and-file of the WTA during her ascent to #1, Wozniacki can ill afford to start opening the door just as those below her grow more confident and others in her generation (see K for Kvitova) start breaking through at majors.

Clijsters (ret. vs. Zheng):  Winning the only completed set that she played in Canada, the Belgian fell victim not to an opponent but to her fourth injury of 2011.  Gone from Cincinnati but “hopeful” for the US Open, she aims to recover from an ailing wrist, ankle, shoulder, and abdomen in time to defend her title.  When she enters New York, she will have played only three matches since Miami and will lack the rhythm upon which she relies.  Clijsters won the US Open as just the third tournament of her comeback, but rust posed a far different and far more easily solved problem than the myriad injuries encircling her.  In order to mount a creditable title defense, she will need a comfortable draw free of dangerous floaters, but the odds of her battered body surviving the fortnight in prime condition look slim.

Zvonareva (l. to Radwanska):  Conquered by Radwanska in straight sets for the second consecutive week, Vera floundered helplessly on her serve this week but still should not have lost twice to an opponent like the Pole on a hard court.  When she won her first nine matches at Wimbledon, one wondered whether she had emerged from the rollercoaster of the last few months.  An error-strewn final in San Diego suggested otherwise, and an early loss in Canada continued her 2011 pattern of underachieving at significant events.  Having fallen in the third round of her Wimbledon finals defense, her US Open finals defense looks equally precarious.  On the other hand, Zvonareva collided with an opponent enjoying one of the most successful stretches of her career, hardly an anonymous journeywoman like several of this week’s other ambush artists.  The top-three ranking also probably inflates her status and thus the magnitude of her defeats.

Maria Sharapova - Rogers Masters presented by National Bank - Day 4

Sharapova (l. to Voskoboeva):  Just 2-2 in the US Open Series, the Russian appears to have witnessed the climax of her spring surge at the Wimbledon final.  In her four hard-court matches this summer, Sharapova soared through a few brilliant passages but recurrently sank into mediocre and sometimes abysmal stretches.  Often subdued in manner at the Rogers Cup, she may still have felt the sting of her sixth straight loss to Serena.  Moreover, her motivation may have ebbed following her outstanding European campaign.  During her comeback, Sharapova has relied more than ever upon determination and willpower to propel her through matches.  Without those traits, her diminished serve and low margin for error leave her vulnerable to anyone on a day when she lacks her competitive will.  The three-time major champion has suffered much more discouraging reverses over the past few years, however, and has sprung back eventually from each of them with redoubled vigor.  For the post-surgery Sharapova, streakiness has become a way of life, leading to both equally stunning heights and depths.

Nadal (l. to Dodig):  Not since 2008 had the Spaniard fallen in his opening match at a Slam or Masters 1000 tournament, although Isner had startled him in the first round of Roland Garros.  While Ivan Dodig delivered the performance of a lifetime, Nadal routinely has survived the mightiest thunderbolts that ordinary adversaries can hurl at him.  Dominant through a set and a half, the second seed let an opponents escape a one-set deficit for the fourth time this season, causing one to wonder whether his five losses to Djokovic have drained his morale more generally.  But beware of extrapolating too much from a single setback.  After Nadal last lost an opener at a Masters 1000 tournament, he rebounded to win not only the next Masters event but the next two majors, a run culminating with the unforgettable Wimbledon 2008 final.  Inadequate preparation stemming from a nagging foot injury also may have undermined him when the match drifted deep into the Montreal night.

Li (l. to Stosur):  Following her surprise appearance in the Australian Open final, she failed to win a match until the clay season.  Following her even more surprising run to the Roland Garros title, a parallel hangover has ensued that has exacerbated the inconsistency inherent throughout Li’s career.  Although Stosur eventually reached the final, the sixth seed should have found a way to win more than six games in a match when she played “like a junior,” by her own admission.  All the same, one can easily forgive her this lapse when one considers the degree to which her life has changed off the court since that Sunday in Paris.  Projected to become the second-highest-earning woman in sports, Li may not adjust to her new celebrity status for months to come.  If the season ended today, she still would be the WTA player of the year, followed closely by the next name on this list.

Kvitova (l. to Petkovic):  Much like Li, the sudden surge in her renown likely will distract her in the coming tournaments.  First among her peers to claim a major title, Kvitova came down to earth with a thud as she collected just three games from Petkovic, whom she had defeated comfortably in the Brisbane final.  The defeat exposed her lack of versatility or alternatives when her formidable weapons misfire, but one could say the same about most of her offense-oriented peers.  If Kvitova accomplishes nothing the rest of the year, she still has accomplished more than almost all of her rivals, and the recognition of that fact may understandably sap her motivation.

Federer (l. to Tsonga):  For the second time in two tournaments, the GOAT looked listless, tentative, and often disinterested against Tsonga’s assertive physicality.  One might have expected him to vigorously seek revenge for his unprecedented Wimbledon defeat after holding a two-set lead.  Instead, Federer wasted multiple opportunities to seize control of a first set that he ultimately lost, and he oddly vanished after rallying to force a third set, when the momentum lay in his favor.  But only one position in the rankings matters to Federer in his fourth decade, and only four tournaments on the calendar. Three years ago, he lost his opening match at the Rogers Cup to the then-unfamiliar Gilles Simon, an opponent much less accomplished than Tsonga.  A month afterwards, he held the US Open trophy.

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We return shortly with the previews of the Cincinnati tournament, the last major event before the last major of 2011.

Robin Soderling - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Two

Soderling vs. Hewitt:  Thrust to the brink of a fifth set by Petzschner in his opener, the world #5 battled not only an inflammable opponent but bursts of erratic play from himself.  That procession of squandered leads and prolonged service games inspired little faith in Soderling’s ability to contend for the title and even cast doubt upon his ability to reach the second week.  Against an equally dangerous foe in Nishikori, the 2002 champion flirted with disaster by wasting a match point in the third set but finished more impressively than did the Swede.  Fortunate to escape their profligacy without further consequences, Soderling and Hewitt complement each other’s strengths with a massive server (the former) confronting a steady returner (the latter).  Despite the serve-friendly surface, both players struggled to hold in their opening encounters.  The Aussie might earn a reasonable chance to score the upset if this trend continues, just as he did against the similarly powerful but mobility-challenged Del Potro in 2009.

Li vs. Lisicki:  Since she exited Roland Garros on a stretcher, the Florida-based German has reeled off seven straight victories on grass.  Elated to win her first title in more than two years at Birmingham, Lisicki also can draw inspiration from the memory of a 2009 quarterfinal charge during which she overcame Kuznetsova and Wozniacki.  Outside the Williams sisters, few women can deliver serves with both power and accuracy equal to the vivacious blonde, who curbed her erratic tendencies to concede only six unforced errors in her opener.  Not tested by massive servers at the season’s first two majors, Li Na withstood the temptation to bask in the aura of her Roland Garros title and maintained her focus to smoothly dispatch Kudryavtseva. Lisicki’s all-or-nothing style often reduces matches to a few key points late in sets, so the Chinese star must stay alert to recognize her opportunities when they arise.

Dimitrov vs. Tsonga:  Often described as the future Federer, the Bulgarian prodigy has worn that label awkwardly at times while attempting to master his volatile temper.  Whether or not the Swiss master’s elegant brand of tennis can produce a champion in an era of enhanced physicality remains an open question that Dimitrov may answer, but he must travel a considerable distance before one can pose it.  Across the net stands a manifestation of that enhanced physicality, a Frenchman with superb athleticism and sporadic focus.  Even on an erratic day, Tsonga should survive this second-round encounter, for he reached the Queens Club final this year and the Wimbledon quarterfinals last year, troubling Murray on both occasions.  This match thus represents a rare opportunity for Dimitrov to test himself against a mature member of the elite and learn from the results, as well as an opportunity for spectators to measure his evolution in comparison to Harrison, Raonic, Berankis, and other rising stars.

Maria Sharapova - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Two

Sharapova vs. Robson:  For the second round of the second straight major, Sharapova levels her glacial gaze at the most promising rising star from the host nation.  Narrowly surviving the lashing forehands of Caroline Garcia in Paris, she will hope to overcome the similarly spunky Laura Robson in less suspenseful fashion.  Within a game of defeat in the first round, the former junior Wimbledon champion rallied impressively to turn the tide but nearly let a double-break lead slip away in the third set before collecting herself.  Unflustered by former top-10 denizen Chakvetadze in her opener, Sharapova moved with surprising fluidity on a surface where she had not played any preparatory matches.  Her crisp footwork and clean ball-striking defined an intimidatingly effortless performance, but she has looked equally emphatic in first rounds of majors past before faltering soon afterwards.  A second-round victim in two of her last three Wimbledon appearances, the 2004 champion may require a few games to adjust to the patterns of an unfamiliar challenger.  Meawhile, Robson also must adjust to the pace of an opponent who strikes the ball more savagely than anyone whom she has played before.

Ferrer vs. Harrison:  Perhaps a future rival of Dimitrov, the most promising young American announced himself at the US Open last year and continued his success as an Indian Wells wildcard this spring.  Less successful outside his home nation, Harrison exploited his lucky-loser status to the fullest by defeating Croat Ivan Dodig, who had won a title this year and challenged more than one notable opponent.  Since Ferrer finds his grinding style least suited to this surface, the fiery phenom may fancy his chances to score an upset over a player who will not out-serve him like most of the top 10.  Relying on his experience to overcome Harrison’s superior power, the seventh seed has reached the second week at Wimbledon before and likely has accumulated superior fitness for what promises to become an extended battle.  The American harbors a voracious appetite for competition himself, however, so he should not relent easily.

Ivanovic vs. Daniilidou:  The only Serb to reach the second round in the women’s draw, Ivanovic dazzled in a 48-minute victory over Oudin filled with pulverized returns and audaciously angled forehands.  Oscillating in form from one day to the next throughout the season, the former #1 either has annihilated opponents or slumped to demoralizing defeats without much explanation for one outcome or the other outside the status of a few nagging injuries.  Not threatening an adversary of Ana’s credentials for many months, her sub-100 opponent had won exactly one main-draw match at 2011 WTA tournaments before defusing Coco Vandeweghe’s serve in the first round.  Daniilidou did defeat Henin here six years ago, suggesting that her unusual one-handed backhand and concomitant weapons translate smoothly to grass.  But Ivanovic’s fate rests firmly in her own hands, for she projects superior power behind nearly every shot.

Almagro vs. Isner:  Escaping a tepid encore of the Mahut marathon without undue exertion, Isner will aim to progress much further into the draw than he could after last year’s historic collision.  This year’s Wimbledon has not proved kind to tall players, for Karlovic fell in straight sets to an unremarkable opponent, while the diminutive Rochus captured the first set from Del Potro.  Nevertheless, the grass usually proves even less kind to clay specialists, who struggle to streamline their elongated swings and eschew their baseline-tethered positioning to step inside the court.  Especially reluctant to break free from that mold is a dirt devil as dedicated as Almagro, who swept through the picayune South American tournaments with an almost comical determination.  Unlikely to appease the gods of grass by regularly charging the net, the Spaniard will juxtapose his horizontal baseline coverage with Isner’s vertical forecourt gambits.  An often reckless shot-maker, Almagro must stay stingy in order to quell an opponent against whom any misstep, as Nadal muttered, causes “big trouble.”

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark plays a forehand during her quarterfinal match against Francesca Schiavone of Italy during day nine of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 25, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

First quarter:  Temporarily deposed in Paris last week, Wozniacki aims to reclaim her throne atop the WTA rankings in the season’s first Premier Five event.  In the quarterfinal, the beguiling Dane could confront the memories of her riveting Australian Open semifinal against Li Na, who snatched victory from the jaws of defeat just a point from elimination.  Before that stage, however, the top seed probably must navigate past Pattaya City champion Hantuchova and the rampaging Paris Indoors titlist.  Thoroughly thrashed by Kvitova at Wimbledon last year, Wozniacki still should draw confidence from her routine victory over the Czech lefty on a similarly medium-speed hard court in Beijing.  Tasked with a slightly less imposing challenge, Li may open her campaign by reprising her Sydney victory over rising Serb Bojana Jovanovski, whose opening duel with Wickmayer comprises one of the most intriguing first-round collisions.  Charging implausibly to the semifinals here last year, Peer hopes to rekindle the magic of that week while atoning for a disappointing exit in the Australian Open, where she failed to serve out a match against Pennetta.  The top-ranked Israeli won both of her 2010 meetings with Li Na, who retired against her in Dubai a year ago yet seems as healthy as one can reasonably expect for a veteran nearing her 29th birthday.  Having halted Wozniacki’s quest for a maiden major, can Li halt her quest for a third consecutive Premier Five crown?

Semifinalist:  Li

Second quarter:  Saturated with talented players searching for confidence, this section lies open for an unexpected semifinalist who can catch fire at timely moments.  Headlining it are a player who has generated few headlines thus far in 2011 (Stosur) and a player who has generated no headlines at all since last year’s Wimbledon (Jankovic).  Just a week removed from a pair of painful Fed Cup losses, the Australian’s self-belief must simmer especially low as she braces herself for a clash with Pattaya City finalist Errani.  If she can quell an opponent who held match points against her in New Haven last summer, Stosur likely may battle Ivanovic in a battle that would showcase two of the WTA’s mightiest forehands.  While Zheng could await in the second round, the Serb convincingly dispatched her former tormentor at the US Open, and the petite Chinese star returned from wrist surgery only last week.  Unless Ivanovic can hold serve more consistently than in Thailand, though, she will struggle to upset Stosur even if the fourth seed fails to unleash her best tennis.  Positioned near familiar nemesis Kanepi, Jankovic urgently needs a momentum surge before embarking upon her Indian Wells title defense next month.  The world #8 has lost all three of her hard-court meetings with the Estonian in straight sets, including an embarrassingly slovenly defeat here last year.  Eager to take another step forward after an a first Slam quarterfinal appearance, Petkovic lurks ominously in Jankovic’s vicinity and owns sufficient first-strike power to upset the Serb.

Semifinalist:  Stosur

Svetlana Kuznetsova - 2011 Australian Open - Day 7

Third quarter:  Leaping out from these otherwise unassuming surroundings is the prospect of a third-round encore between Kuznetsova and Schiavone, who can rest content in the anticipation of a third-set tiebreak.  Both of these proud Fed Cup heroines delivered crucial victories for their nations last weekend that buttressed promising Australian Open performances, and their natural athleticism should find fluent expression on a surface that will allow them to construct extended rallies.  Yet Kuznetsova should not glance too far ahead, since potential second-round opponent and Eastbourne conqueror Makarova will bring elevated confidence from epic Melbourne triumphs over Ivanovic and Petrova.  Destined for a first-round duel with Date-Krumm, the staccato style of Bartoli has left little impact on the WTA lately; the Frenchwoman also could find herself threatened by the mercurial Czech Benesova if she defuses the Japanese star.  Hovering amidst the flamboyant personalities in this quarter, the relatively understated Radwanska eyes an intriguing encounter with Sevastova, whose pace-less style should test the eighth seed’s uncertain ability to generate offense and finish points.  Although the odds tilt against it, we would relish a quarterfinal between the Pole and the Italian, feisty competitors with more guile and finesse than anyone else in the draw.  Despite the compelling matches that could develop here, one cannot imagine the eventual champion emerging from the third quarter.  In the predictably unpredictable state of the WTA, however, that situation likely means that one of its inhabitants in fact will raise the trophy next Sunday.

Semifinalist:  Kuznetsova

Fourth quarter:  A runner-up to Venus here a year ago, Azarenka has harnessed her weapons only sporadically over the past several months.  Assigned to face the sizzling Peng or Mattek-Sands in her opener, the Belarussian will need to strike her competitive spark without delay.  Should she survive that test, an accommodating draw might pit her against Pennetta or perhaps Dokic in the third round.  The former Wimbledon semifinalist asserted her continued relevance last week by upsetting Safarova and Petrova, but she will find the less powerful, more consistent Italian a sterner challenge.  Relieved to have left Pattaya City, Zvonareva will shoulder scant pressure on the Persian Gulf.  Nevertheless, a capricious twist of fate has situated her near 2009 nemesis Kleybanova and one of the most overqualified qualifiers in the tournament’s history, the 14th-ranked Pavlyuchenkova.  Impressive early in 2011, Hobart champion Groth aims to burst through the Russian enclave in this section.  Relying upon effortless first-strike power, she possesses the sort of game that can fluster Zvonareva but first must overcome the gritty Cibulkova, whose court coverage may extract untimely errors from her former compatriot.  Since the surface should reward the balanced styles of the section’s two highest-ranked stars, one imagines that Zvonareva and Azarenka might resume their curious rivalry in the quarterfinals.  Initially suppressing the Belarussian with ease, the Russian tumbled to ignominious defeats against her at the Australian Open and Dubai last year.  Did she regain the initiative over Vika with a tightly contested victory at the year-end championships?

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

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In a day or two, we return to tie together the threads of last week as we dash across five tournaments in four different continents.

Ana Ivanovic - 2011 Australian Open - Day 2



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Bright lights, big city, baseline bombs:  the US Open has arrived again.  We break down both the men’s and the women’s draws quarter by quarter, this time starting with the ladies…

First quarter: Having captured consecutive titles in Montreal and New Haven, top seed Wozniacki looms over the draw a bit more authoritatively than one might have expected.  The world #2 should cruise through her first two rounds into a potentially intriguing clash with lefty shotmaker Safarova, who often has ambushed marquee players and may profit from her opponent’s fatigue.  If healthy, though, the top seed likely will advance to a final-16 clash with Sharapova, who must overcome surging Australian Jarmila Groth in the first round and French firecracker Rezai in the third round.  On the other side lurks Li Na, unimpressive since Wimbledon but always a formidable competitor in majors with her focus and mental resilience.  Not known for either of those qualities, 2004 champion and 2007 finalist Kuznetsova might encounter the Chinese star in the fourth round if she escapes Roland Garros (and Rome) nemesis Kirilenko in the third round.  The most fearsome offense in this fearsome section, however, belongs to the 14th-seeded Sharapova, who also may benefit from Wozniacki’s weariness and Kuznetsova’s continued fragility.  Despite her premature exits at her last two US Opens, Maria has rediscovered her confidence as well as her serve in recent months, and her savage strokes should sizzle through the fast courts just as they did in Stanford and Cincinnati.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Second quarter: Probably the softest quarter in the draw, this section might open a door for a dark horse like Petrova, who has reached two Slam quarterfinals this year by knocking off Clijsters and Venus.  The enigmatic Russian opens her campaign against rising German Andrea Petkovic before colliding with the crafty Radwanska in the third round; although she sparkled for much of the US Open Series, the Pole lacks the first-strike weaponry required to progress deep into the New York draw.  Eyeing a potential rematch with San Diego nemesis Coco Vandeweghe is Wimbledon finalist Zvonareva, who rebounded from a predictable post-breakthrough lull to reach the Montreal final with a second victory over Clijsters.  Almost vanishing after Roland Garros, Jankovic played only four matches on American hard courts this summer (winning just one) and faces a thorny third-round clash with Kaia Kanepi.  Before charging within a point of the Wimbledon semifinals, the burly Estonian threatened the lithe Serb on the Paris clay.  Suffering an arid summer so far, lower seeds Martinez Sanchez and Wickmayer might struggle to reach the second week.  Whoever emerges from this section, however, likely will be cannon fodder for the semifinalist from the first quarter, whether it is Sharapova, Wozniacki, Kuznetsova, or Li.

Semifinalist:  Zvonareva

Third quarter: Above the top two seeds in this region, Venus and Schiavone, hover substantial uncertainties concerning the motivation level of the former and the fitness level of the latter.  In the third round, the willowy Bulgarian Tsvetana Pironkova aims to complete three-quarters of a Venus Slam, having vanquished the elder Williams at the Australian Open and this year’s Wimbledon.  Yet the more intriguing third-round encounter features Cincinnati semifinalist and former junior #1 Pavlyuchenkova against Stanford champion Azarenka, once again on the threshold of evolving into an elite contender.  Don’t forget last year’s quarterfinalist Flavia Pennetta, a steady all-court veteran who might well oust Venus in the fourth round, but we’ll back the winner of Pavlyuchenkova-Azarenka to reach the final four of a major for the first time in their careers.  (Situated in a relatively benign corner, meanwhile, Melanie Oudin might not fall on her face as disastrously as some Americans have feared.)

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Fourth quarter: Rivaling the first quarter for potential intrigue, this section features the defending champion, two former #1s, an Olympic gold medalist, and arguably the best server in the tournament.  Like Wozniacki, Clijsters enjoys a pair of comfortable rounds before confronting a quirky Czech lefty with an arhythmic style centered around high risk and high reward.  Since reaching the Wimbledon semifinals, however, Kvitova has struggled to cope with her elevated status and (not unlike Rezai) has returned to her feckless former self.  If Ivanovic can defuse Eastbourne champion Makarova in her opener, she will face the imposing task of overcoming Zheng and then Bartoli in order to arrive at a fourth-round meeting with the defending champion.  The other side of this quarter features several players armed with excellent pedigrees but plagued by recurrent inconsistency, ranging from Stosur and Kleybanova to Safina and Dementieva.  In her New Haven semifinal with Wozniacki, Elena outplayed the eventual champion for much of the match but characteristically squandered a late lead, while the ailing Stosur pried just three games from Petrova last week.  Therefore, opportunity knocks for 2008 semifinalist Safina to extend her encouraging summer with a second-week appearance.  But her run will end by the quarters unless the Belgian’s hip injury resurfaces.

Semifinalist:  Clijsters

Final:  Sharapova vs. Azarenka

Champion:  Sharapova

Turning to the gentlemen and not-so-gentle men…

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First quarter: Uninspired during the summer Masters 1000 tournaments, Nadal should feast upon a section filled with erratic shotmakers and dubious competitors, although projected third-round foe Kohlschreiber did challenge him in Toronto.  The only player to defeat Rafa between Miami and the Rogers Cup, Lopez could intersect with his compatriot in the round of 16 after a third-round meeting with Ljubicic; the Croat has faded swiftly (and unsurprisingly) since winning Indian Wells.  On the other side proliferate some of the ATP’s most distinctive personalities, spearheaded by Verdasco, Gulbis, and Nalbandian.  Sagging after a dazzling clay season, Verdasco likely will fall to the resurgent Argentine in the third round, while Gulbis will be favored to bludgeon slow-surface specialist Ferrer into submission.  Nadal could struggle against the winner of a Gulbis-Nalbandian confrontation, for both of them possess the ability to overpower the Spaniard from the baseline.  Nevertheless, the top seed should rely on his consistency and concentration against the Latvian or his fitness against the Argentine in order to reach a third consecutive semifinal at the only Slam that still eludes him.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter: A finalist at two of his last four hard-court majors, Murray once again lies on the threshold of a substantial breakthrough after defeating Federer and Nadal consecutively in Canada.  Occasional hitting partner Wawrinka should test but not thwart the Scot in the third round, and possible fourth-round foe Querrey still must learn how to translate his small-scale success into the majors and Masters 1000 tournaments.  At the base of the quarter rests the revelation of the year, Berdych, although a leg injury in Cincinnati may undercut his efforts to reprise a Roland Garros demolition of Murray and reach a third consecutive Slam semifinal.  Moreover, the Czech appears a bit mentally jaded after his unexpected successes in 2010 have elevated his match total relatively early in the season.  Mentally suspect or physically dubious names populate much of this section, Isner among them; hindered by strained ankle ligaments, the American is still regrouping after his surreal Wimbledon epic.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Third quarter: Although tennis doesn’t incorporate the concept of home-court advantage, both Roddick and Fish will feel relatively satisfied with their section.  Briefly outstanding during his Toronto semifinal, Djokovic lapsed into lethargy and indifference again during his week in Cincinnati, where Andy extended his dominance over the Serb.  They could collide in the quarterfinals for the second straight tournament, but it’s equally likely that Roddick will meet the winner of a third-round duel between Baghdatis and Fish.  Long known for squandering their talents, both the Cypriot and the American reaped the rewards of renewed dedication during the US Open Series.  Despite recuperating from mono, Roddick has enjoyed greater success in the best-of-five format than most of this quarter’s other inhabitants, including potential fourth-round opponents Davydenko and Bellucci.  If he hopes to progress deep into the tournament, however, Andy must win his matches more efficiently than he did in Cincinnati.

Semifinalist:  Roddick

Fourth quarter: Whether seeded at the top or the bottom of the draw, Federer generally finds himself nestled in a cozy corner.  Such is the case again here, as the Swiss legend will not have to overcome anyone more demanding than veterans Hewitt, Ferrero, and Melzer in order to reach the quarterfinals—where he faces the same player whom he defeated here in that round a year ago.  In addition to Soderling’s dismal head-to-head record against Federer, however, one should remember that he dragged the five-time US Open champion within a point of a fifth set last year before dispatching him from Roland Garros (in yet another quarterfinal) this year.  With the massive bookends of the Swede and the Swiss, one might nearly forget about the balanced groundstroke game of Marin Cilic, whose recent swoon is threatening to shift him from the “promising” to the “once-promising” category.  Surrounded by a host of qualifiers, the Croat should reach the second week and a fourth-round encounter with Soderling, but neither he nor the injury-addled Gonzalez currently possesses both the confidence and the weapons to win a best-of-five encounter with the fifth seed.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Final:  Murray vs. Federer

Champion:  Federer

***

Balanced better than the draws of several recent Slams, these quadrants should provide a steady acceleration of action from the first week through the middle weekend towards the championship matches.  We return tomorrow to preview the most scintillating opening salvos of the season’s final major!

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After three days of sporadically entertaining but largely straightforward tennis, most of the favorites in both Cincinnati and Montreal remain in the hunt for the last two significant titles before the US Open.  The round of 16 comprises the first substantial hurdle for several leading contenders, so we break down each of these clashes to discuss who is most likely to survive…and who is most likely to enjoy a few extra sessions on the practice court before heading to New York.  😉

Nadal (1) vs. Benneteau:  Probably best known for his upset of Federer at last year’s Paris Indoors tournament, the Frenchman tested Djokovic in hot, humid conditions a week ago in Toronto.  Yet he lacks the mighty serve, groundstroke depth, and mental resilience to overcome Nadal, who looked average for much of the Rogers Cup but rarely loses to ATP journeymen.  Expect the Spaniard’s consistency to wear down Benneteau fairly routinely. Pick:  Nadal, 80-20.

Baghdatis vs. Berdych (7):  Often dismissed for lack of motivation and fitness, Baghdatis has enjoyed a mini-revival this year and recently reached the Washington final.  His flat, crisply angled two-handed backhand trumps the Wimbledon finalist’s two-hander, while his serve has developed into a more substantial weapon.  Armed with a much more formidable forehand than the Cypriot, however, the Czech possesses much greater first-strike potential and should relish the fast conditions in Cincinnati.  Unless Baghdatis can drag Berdych into repeated backhand-to-backhand exchanges, there are few ways for him to threaten his more powerful adversary.  Pick:  Berdych, 65-35.

Federer (3) vs. Kohlschreiber:  Courtesy of Denis Istomin’s retirement, Federer has advanced to the final 16 having played just seven games, an advantage that may profit him as the tournament progresses.  Across the net stands one of the few players to have taken a set from Roger at Wimbledon in recent years.  Kohlschreiber’s one-handed backhand complements his versatile forehand to provide him with striking power well above what one would expect from his compact, unimposing physique; last week, he impressed by reaching the Rogers Cup quarterfinals and threatening Nadal in a tense three-setter.  Surely brimming with confidence after winning two tight matches last week over Berdych and Djokovic, Federer previously has demonstrated his prowess in Cincinnati’s muggy weather by winning the title in two of the last three years.  As long as he can avoid an untimely mental lapse, he should outlast the German.  Pick:  Federer, 75-25.

Ferrer (10) vs. Davydenko (6):  The high-octane offense of the Russian and the indefatigable defense of the Spaniard should bring out the best in each other.  Balancing Davydenko’s superior hard-court credentials is the wrist injury from which his game still is recovering.  Against Ginepri, the sixth seed occasionally struggled with his footwork and shot selection, vital elements of his game; on the other hand, Ferrer overcame the dangerous Querrey rather comfortably in front of his home crowd.  Can he capitalize upon the Russian’s inconsistency, or will he be forced too far behind the baseline to cut off Davydenko’s angles?  Pick:  Davydenko, 60-40.

Fish (W) vs. Gasquet:  Seizing headlines from Roddick during the US Open Series, the long-overlooked Fish relied upon improved fitness to win consecutive titles in Newport and Atlanta.  Never a consistent performer, he then crashed out early in Washington and Toronto before rising again here with consecutive victories over Simon and Verdasco.  Avenging an Australian Open loss to Youzhny in the first round, Gasquet hasn’t yet regained the momentum lost by his extended absence last year, despite occasional flickers of brilliance.  Pick:  Fish, 60-40.

Gulbis vs. Murray (4):  Fresh (or not) from his first title of 2010, the Scot comprehensively drubbed Gulbis at two Slams last year in matches that illustrated his adeptness at stifling a more powerful opponent with ingenious point construction.  Far more formidable than he was a year ago, however, the Latvian has honed his concentration and patience during key rallies under the tutelage of Safin-maker Hernan Gumy.  Perhaps a little weary from his Canadian exertions, Murray dropped a set to rising Frenchman, Chardy, while Gulbis squeaked through a third-set tiebreak against crafty lefty veteran Melzer.  We expect the fourth seed to cope more successfully with the mid-day Ohio heat than than will the Latvian, whose form has faltered a bit after a promising clay season.  If Gulbis can maintain a high first-serve percentage, though, he might relish the light balls and fast court, which favor the staccato playing style that he prefers.  Pick:  Murray, 70-30.

Soderling (5) vs. Roddick (9):  Barely weathering a stern challenge from the evergreen Hewitt, the Swede looked several notches below his midseason form and often struggled to find the court after a rally extended further than five or six shots.  Recovering from mono, Roddick also has looked rusty at times in his first two matches, and he continued his recent tiebreak struggles by losing one to Stakhovsky in his opener.  The American’s main task will be to survive the first few blows from the Swede, who can overpower anyone on a hard court with his savage groundstrokes that skim so close to the net.  In longer rallies, Roddick’s superior consistency will give him the edge.  Whereas Soderling often lets his emotions overheat when confronted with a hostile crowd, the American will relish the support his compatriots, many of whom have witnessed his two title runs here.  Pick:  Roddick, 55-45.

Nalbandian (PR) vs. Djokovic (2):  Nightmares for prognosticators, both the Argentine and the Serb have proved enigmatic, unpredictable competitors.  While an epic three-set battle with Federer in the Toronto semifinals should have inspired Djokovic to raise his level, narrow losses to his top 5 peers often have discouraged him into apathy.  The second seed did defeat Nalbandian with little ado in Monte Carlo, but the former Wimbledon finalist didn’t revitalize his year until another stirring Davis Cup performance in July.  Most dangerous when he has nothing to lose, David might well rattle the Serb if he starts the match impressively.  Nevertheless, his sharply angled two-handed backhand will meet its match in Djokovic’s smoothly timed two-hander, and there is no single area of Nalbandian’s game in which he surpasses his opponent.   The Serb’s greatest enemy may be the torpor-inducing midafternoon heat to which scheduling caprice will subject him. Pick:  Djokovic, 60-40.

Moving northeast to Montreal…

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Benesova (Q) vs. Bartoli (17):  The eccentric Czech lefty’s upset of Montreal’s top seed resulted much more from Jankovic’s ineptitude than from her own brilliance, for the Serb never inflicted the sort of pressure on Benesova that normally causes her to crumble.  We anticipate no such profligacy from Bartoli, who is gathering momentum on the summer hard courts and reached the semifinals on the last occasion that the women played in Montreal.  Unlike Jankovic, she won’t allow Benesova time to set up for her loopy forehand and calmly line up angles.  Pick:  Bartoli, 75-25.

Azarenka (10) vs. Li (9):  The most intriguing WTA encounter of the day, this clash pits two brilliant backhands and two (in)famously streaky competitors.  A champion in Stanford and a first-round loser in Cincinnati (courtesy of Ivanovic), the Belarussian has lost both of her meetings with the Chinese star in three extremely tight sets, including a 2009 Tokyo loss during which she squandered multiple leads.  It’s nearly impossible to pick a winner among these two, especially considering their resounding early wins in Montreal; neither players possesses an overwhelming serve or an impressive net game, relying almost exclusively on scorching groundstrokes.  Since Azarenka strikes the ball slightly harder and moves slightly better, she has the physical edge.  Yet Li has the mental edge, as she does over so many of her weak-willed colleagues, so a long match with multiple momentum shifts would tilt in her direction once again.  It’ll be up to Azarenka to ensure that the momentum doesn’t shift.  Pick:  Azarenka, 55-45.

Clijsters (5) vs. Kanepi:  A point away from reaching the Wimbledon semifinals, the burly Estonian has resurrected what seemed to be a career en route to the dustbin of tennis history (to paraphrase Trotsky).  Barely escaping a shocking first-round demise at the hands of Bethanie Mattek-Sands, the Cincinnati champion may gain some momentum from her second lease on life, as have Querrey and Hantuchova in recent weeks.  While we don’t expect her to win the title in Montreal, we do expect her to survive the mighty but still erratic Kanepi.  Pick:  Clijsters, 75-25.

Szavay vs. Zvonareva (8):  Already winning two titles this summer, Szavay hopes to follow Kanepi’s example by surging back into relevance at significant events.  An impressive step in that direction was her three-set comeback win over Wickmayer, who has sped past her in the ranks of the WTA’s Generation Next.  Although we haven’t watched Szavay for over a year, we recall the potency of her serve and backhand, which fueled a US Open quarterfinal run in 2007.  Indifferent in San Diego and Cincinnati, the surprise Wimbledon finalist has seemed no more confident than after her equally surprising run to the 2009 Indian Wells title.  She might struggle against a cocky upstart with nothing to lose, for she faltered against Coco Vandeweghe two weeks ago.  On the other hand, her crisp, fluid style devoured the ball-bruising Shvedova in her opener.  Pick:  Zvonareva, 70-30.

Radwanska (7) vs. Kuznetsova (11):  A rematch of the San Diego final, this collision of an artful counterpuncher and a volatile shotmaker provides a rare contrast of styles in the increasingly homogenous WTA.  Under the extreme pressure of a final, Sveta let Radwanska off the hook late in the second set of a match that she had controlled before ultimately outlasting the Pole.  It’s unlikely that the Russian would let such a lead slip in the much less nerve-jangling circumstances of a third-round encounter, although her penchant for drama found expression in the six three-setters that she has played among her last eight matches.  Halting Pavlyuchenkova’s momentum in the first round, Kuznetsova has regained some of her poise when attempting to close out matches, the arena that most troubled her during her perplexing slide.  (Interesting fact:  the players are tied high in the US Open Series standings, so this result could have implications for bonus prize money in New York.)  Pick:  Kuznetsova, 60-40.

Zheng vs. Dementieva (4):  Growing streakier with age, the Russian defending champion delivered one of her worst performance this year in Cincinnati—by her own admission—but bounced back to dismiss the sporadically challenging Zakopalova.  A perennial threat to upset top seeds with her low, penetrating groundstrokes, the Chinese doubles specialist barely edged past French firecracker Rezai, who had served for the match at 6-5 in the second set.  Without a crackling serve to earn her easy holds, Zheng will need all of her trademark steeliness as she battles through each game and point.  Despite a recent leg injury that forced her to miss Wimbledon, Dementieva’s fitness and return game looked solid at Stanford, although her serve and competitive drive remain as questionable as ever.  Pick:  Dementieva, 60-40.

Schiavone (6) vs. Safina:  Recording her first pair of consecutive victories since the Australian Open, Safina extended her Montreal winning streak to seven matches following her 2008 title here.  The most noteworthy win since her back injury, her three-set triumph over Petrova represented just Dinaraa’s second win in seven meetings over her compatriot; reversing the pattern of her losses, she rallied from a late deficit to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.  In the wake of her memorable French Open triumph, Schiavone has earned the right to be complacent until the Fed Cup final in November.  Although her crafty combinations might disrupt the Russian’s rhythm, Safina wants (and needs) a strong performance far more desperately, probably inspiring her to play with greater urgency.  Pick:  Safina, 65-35.

Pennetta (15) vs. Wozniacki (2):  As reliable as anyone in the WTA until an ankle injury in Charleston, Wozniacki has failed to recapture her consistency on clay, on grass, and so far on hard courts, where her Copenhagen title was outweighed by a lackluster Cincinnati loss to Bartoli.   A few months ago, the Pole-Dane seemed far closer to fame than her friend Azarenka, but now it’s the Belarussian who has recaptured the edge in their race to the top.  Clashes with opponents such as the experienced but not overwhelming Pennetta are matches that Wozniacki must win in order to regain her momentum.  Against someone with few weapons to pound her off the court outright, her movement-based style and competitive fortitude should prevail on a medium-speed hard court.  Even on her worst surface and Pennetta’s best, she overcame the Italian at Roland Garros this year.  Pick:  Wozniacki, 70-30.

***

We return tomorrow for quarterfinal previews in both cities while beginning to organize our thoughts for a three-part US Open preview early next week!

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Just two weeks remain until the final major of 2010, and the tournaments next week mark the final significant opportunity for players to hone their skills before entering the harsh New York spotlight.  While the men’s event in Cincinnati showcases all of the ATP elite, the skeletal draw in Montreal features only a handful of stars familiar to those outside the sport’s inner circle.  In the absence of marquee names Serena, Venus, Sharapova, and Henin, ample opportunities await for a dormant veteran or an ambitious youngster to pound and/or shriek themselves (see image above) into the conversation surrounding the upcoming Slam.  Quarter-by-quarter previews of Montreal and Cincinnati straight ahead:

First quarter

In this section are situated many of the WTA’s finest two-handed backhands, from Jankovic and Petrova to Azarenka and Li.  Although the terms “forehand” and “backhand” don’t quite apply to Bartoli’s double-fisted style, the Frenchwoman might upset the top-seeded Serb in a particularly bitter third-round clash, especially since Jankovic is struggling with an ankle injury.  A champion at Stanford and a first-round loser (albeit a doubles champion) at Cincinnati, Azarenka persists in defying expectation for better or for worse.  So does her scheduled third-round opponent, Li Na, who is most dangerous when discounted and most vulnerable when hyped.  After dispatching a Bondarenko apiece, the blazing-eyed Belarussian and the steely Chinese will contest perhaps the most intriguing midweek match.  Who will consolidate her position as a dark horse at the US Open?

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Second quarter:

Fortunately the recipient of a first-round bye, Clijsters must quickly regroup after the Cincinnati final but faces no intimidating opponents in her early rounds.  Neither Oudin nor Peer is equipped to outhit the defending US Open champion, despite the grim tenacity exhibited by the American and the Israeli.  On the other side, this weakest section of a weak draw features Clijsters’ compatriot Wickmayer, steadily approaching the limelight and the architect of Li’s demise in Cincinnati.  Seeking a potential rematch of a Wimbledon quarterfinal is the presence of Zvonareva, who defeated Kim for the first time at the All England Club.  Nevertheless, we expect Wickmayer to dispatch Vera beforehand and set up an all-Belgian quarterfinal; Clijsters is undefeated against her countrywomen during her comeback so far, crushing “Wickipedia” in Eastbourne this June.

Semifinalist:  Clijsters

Third quarter:

Filled with flamboyant personalities, distinctive playing styles, and existential angst, this section features both of the San Diego finalists as well as the tournament’s most intriguing first-round match:  Pavlyuchenkova-Kuznetsova.  On the other side lurk the aging, injury-addled Dementieva, the enigmatic Rezai, and equally enigmatic Wimbledon semifinalist Kvitova.  Both ranked among the top five in the US Open Series standings, Radwanska and Kuznetsova probably will clash for the second time in three tournaments.  This time, the Russian should win more comfortably without the additional pressure of playing for a title and armed with the confidence from her week in San Diego.  Since the other bold-faced names in this neighborhood have faltered miserably lately, Sveta should capitalize upon the momentum surge so curtly interrupted by Sharapova in Cincinnati.

Semifinalist:  Kuznetsova

Fourth quarter:

Defanged by the withdrawal of Sharapova, this section includes Roland Garros champion and quintessential one-Slam wonder, Francesca Schiavone.  Having won exactly one match since her magical fortnight in Paris, the Italian shouldn’t penetrate too deeply in this draw.  Consequently, a door might well open for the winner of the first-round confrontation between ball-bruising German Andrea Petkovic and the most maligned former #1 in WTA history, Dinara Safina.  Considering that the Russian hasn’t won consecutive matches since January, however, one suspects that the semifinalist will emerge from the lower section of this quarter.  Despite capturing the title at her home tournament in Copenhagen, Wozniacki has accomplished nothing of note since Miami and exited meekly to Bartoli in Cincinnati.  Yet her most substantial competition is San Diego semifinalist Pennetta, who enjoys the summer hardcourts more than one would imagine for a clay-loving Italian.

Semifinalist:  Wozniacki

Moving on (or back) to Cincinnati…

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First quarter:

One match played, one seed gone as Baghdatis upset the floundering Cilic on Sunday night after the women’s final.  After a rather flat trip to Canada, Nadal probably will begin his tournament against one of only two players who have defeated him since April, compatriot Feliciano Lopez.  If Rafa is a little deflated or unfocused, the quirky serve-and-volleying veteran could spell trouble as he did for Murray in Los Angeles, but it’s hard to imagine Lopez upsetting the world #1 in consecutive meetings.  Representing another potential hurdle is the 14th-seeded Almagro, who held match points against Nadal last fall and became one of only two players (with Gulbis) to win a set from the five-time French Open champion during the clay season.  A likely rematch of the Wimbledon final looms in the quarters, for Berdych enjoys a rather smooth road through the early rounds and looked convincing in Canada.  Even when the Czech has displayed some of his best tennis, though, Nadal has ultimately solved his challenge.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter:

Crisp and poised for most of his finals run in Toronto, Federer will have gained a significant injection of confidence by overcoming Wimbledon nemesis Berdych and retaking the #2 ranking from Djokovic.  Whether Blake, Monfils, Ferrer, or Davydenko, all of the marquee names in his vicinity have struggled mightily against the GOAT, so it’s his quarter to lose until proven otherwise.  Mediocre since returning from an injury, Davydenko might fall to the LA champion and winner of last year’s US Open Series, Querrey.  But note that the American thus far has failed to translate his success from the peripheral 250 and 500 events to a Masters Series; in Cincinnati, he crashed out early to the gawky Kevin Anderson.  Other than the potential task of solving Querrey’s serve, Federer’s goal here should be to win as efficiently as possible in order to conserve energy for a semifinal with the Mallorcan.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Third quarter:

Tangling in a memorable opening-round encounter at the Australian Open, the scintillating one-handed backhands of Gasquet and Youzhny collide in the first round once again.  At the top of the quarter, Simon and Fish intersect in a meeting between Roddick’s two most recent nemeses that should feature a contrast of styles between the baseline-rooted Frenchman and the net-rushing American.  Trudging wearily through his last several events, eighth seed Verdasco looks ripe for an upset by one of the aforementioned players.  But the last laugh probably will belong to the Rogers Cup champion and 2008 Cincinnati champion, unless Gulbis can recapture his clay-season form to ambush Murray in the third round.  Considering the light balls and fast courts here, it’s not inconceivable although unlikely.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Clashing in the opening round are a pair of veterans who resuscitated their careers this year after prolonged sojourns in the tennis wilderness, Ljubicic and Nalbandian.  While the Croat’s title in Indian Wells increasingly resembles Schiavone’s conquest of Roland Garros, the Argentine seems more likely to build upon his summer success for a surprising run at the US Open.  Perhaps still reeling from a frustrating, blowout-turned-nailbiter semifinal loss to Federer, Djokovic should overcome compatriot Troicki in his opener but might fall to either Nalbandian or Isner in the third round.  Without the stabilizing influence of coach Magnus Norman, Soderling may struggle to overcome home favorite Roddick, who will enjoy vociferous crowd support as he nurses a lingering case of mono.  If Roddick collides with Djokovic in the quarterfinals, momentum in their mini-rivalry will rest squarely on his side.  If he confronts Isner or Nalbandian, expect his superior conditioning to outlast those opponents in the torrid Cincinnati heat.

Semifinalist:  Roddick

***

Perspiration will pour, fists will pump, and nerves will jangle.  Who will surmount the heat and the pressure to prance nimbly through these capacious but not overwhelming draws?

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Returning from our two-week “WTA vacation,” we were delighted to see that many of you were eagerly anticipating our next entry.  Yet we were even more delighted to see that the Serbian Sleeping Beauty awakened in Cincinnati to overcome a recently revived Azarenka in a memorable three-set collision.  Forcing herself to remain positive after a lackluster first set, Ivanovic steadied her emotions and mentally outlasted the blazing-tempered Belarussian, who twice failed to serve out the match. Two points from defeat on three different occasions, Ana somehow found the inner steeliness necessary to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.   The Serb’s confidence surely will soar after winning the type of closely contested encounter that she had been losing all too frequently.  We hope that she can capitalize upon her triumph to profit from a second half during which she will have little to lose and much to gain in the rankings.  Meanwhile, though, we head back to the business of bracketology with a somewhat tardy analysis of the draws at the WTA Cincinnati and ATP Toronto events.

Cincinnati:

First quarter: Qualifiers and Serbs proliferate in this region, although we do not confuse them as did the Montreal tournament director.  Atop the section looms defending champion Jankovic, but a three-match losing streak prevents her from towering over the draw as would a typical top seed.  With Azarenka already headed to Montreal, however, few obstacles could prevent JJ from reaching the semifinals; Schiavone seems more than content (and rightfully so) to rest upon her French laurels, while Ivanovic, Shvedova, or Vesnina probably would feel satisfied simply to reach the quarters.  Owing in part to the vagaries of this bizarrely imbalanced draw, Jankovic won’t play anyone except a qualifier until that round, which should mean that she’ll be as rested as possible for the weekend.   One suspects that JJ won’t wait until then to find drama, though, perhaps spicing up our lives in another intra-Serbian duel with Ana.  Be sure to postmark your “ajdes” carefully.

Semifinalist:  Jankovic

Second quarter: Remember the notorious, tear-soaked clash between Pennetta and Zvonareva at last year’s US Open?  Beckoning at the base of this quarter is a probable rematch, but Zvonareva’s limp performance in San Diego suggests that an opportunity might open for second-round opponent Kirilenko.  In the 2009 edition of this tournament, the then-#1 Safina halted Clijsters in the first event of her comeback; the Belgian could exact a substantial revenge on Wednesday by thrusting the Russian out of the top 50 with a victory.  Clijsters has been just a top-25 player outside her US Open run last year (subtract her points from New York to see what we mean), and she accomplished little in the first half outside Miami and two other wins over Henin.  Nevertheless, bearing the Belgian banner alone might relax Kim a bit as she returns to her favored hard courts, and Safina hasn’t won consecutive matches since the Australian Open.  In the Wimbledon quarterfinals, Zvonareva defeated Clijsters for the first time in their careers.  Could she repeat the feat?  Not if she’s the same Vera whom we saw last week.

Semifinalist: Clijsters

Third quarter: Recuperating from leg injuries that forced her to miss Wimbledon, Dementieva may find herself tested by upwardly mobile compatriot Pavlyuchenkova in the second round.  Embedded on the other side is the next era of Belgian brilliance, also known as Yanina Wickmayer.  A future top-10 star, she won sets from Stosur at Stanford and Kuznetsova in San Diego but hasn’t quite broken through at a significant tournament.  Wickmayer’s third-round clash with Li Na should feature an avalanche of bludgeoned groundstrokes and court-stretching rallies; one ultimately must favor the Chinese star on account of her stellar season and superior experience.  While Dementieva holds the hard-court edge in her prior collisions with Li, she may not be sufficiently durable and consistent at this stage in her return to navigate past her fellow Beijing Olympic medalist.

Semifinalist:  Li

Fourth quarter: Even after Sharapova dispatched San Diego champion Kuznetsova, this quarter remains littered with stern competitors ranging from Maria to Radwanska, Wozniacki, and Bartoli.  If Maria can recover from her Tuesday night match with her energy intact for Wednesday afternoon, she probably will advance to a third-round meeting with the Pole.  Having won their last four clashes since a 2007 US Open fiasco, Sharapova possesses too much sheer power for Radwanska to deflect except when the Russian suffers an especially erratic outing.  On the other side, world #3 Wozniacki seeks to capitalize upon the momentum gained by capturing her home tournament last week.   But will her fatigue from the elongated matches that she played there undermine her against Bartoli’s relentless, double-barrelled offense?  An early loser in San Diego (courtesy of Hantuchova), the Frenchwoman has looked sharp in two victories here and would enjoy greater rest than the Dane entering their projected third-round duel.  This quarter probably will feature the most entertaining tennis, but its residents likely will exhaust each other before the week concludes, reducing the chances of the last woman standing here to win the title.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

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Toronto:

First quarter: Following the premature demises of Cilic and Roddick, Nadal’s path to the semifinals suddenly yawns open before him.  His only potential seeded opponent is Querrey, who won the LA tournament from Murray but so far has fallen a little short in his meetings with the Spaniard.  Moreover, the four-time titlist this year may be fatigued from his recent heroics; the unheralded Michael Russell managed to extend him into a third set on Tuesday.  With a reinvigorated, freshly treated pair of knees, Nadal should be able to wear down Wawrinka with minimal ado before confronting the American.  If he progresses past Querrey to the final eight, he shouldn’t be excessively challenged by the likes of Troicki or Lu, credible all-court players without the physicality, groundstroke depth, or relentless focus vital to conquering the world #1.  Although Querrey possesses the groundstroke depth, he remains lacking in the other departments despite maturing steadily this year.  (Interesting fact:  a Nadal-Querrey meeting would feature the two players who have won more titles in 2010 than anyone else in the ATP.)

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter: Question marks hover ominously above the two main dramatis personae in this section; Murray must adjust to his separation from coach Miles Maclagan, while Soderling withdrew from Washington for “personal reasons” and only narrowly withstood the weapons of Gulbis in his opener.  Lurking in the shadows is the Washington champion, David Nalbandian, who is riding a nine-match winning streak that started with Davis Cup and who already has dispatched the ever-tenacious Ferrer.  The third-round duel between the Argentine and the Swede should enthrall, as should the encounter between Murray and Monfils.  Flamboyant, enigmatic, and notoriously unreliable, Nalbandian has developed a habit of alternating prolonged surges with prolonged slides, and he’s in the midst of a surge at the moment.  When one ventures out on a limb to expect something from him, he generally cuts the limb down himself.  Nevertheless, the current uncertainty surrounding Murray and Soderling persuades us to perch out there anyway.

Semifinalist:  Nalbandian

Third quarter: Upon sinking to world #3, Federer has encouraged his supporters by breaking free from complacency to explore a coaching partnership with Paul Annacone.  Despite the strong season enjoyed by Nicolas Almagro, the Spaniard never has recorded a victory over a member of the game’s elite and will enter his third-round clash with the Swiss as a heavy underdog.  During his opener against Chela, Federer’s serve delivered at the most vital moments as it regularly has in the past, but his backhand sporadically deserted him.  In a likely quarterfinal with Berdych, the Czech’s equally explosive serve, newfound self-belief, and much steadier backhand might well vault him past the 16-time major champion for the second straight tournament and the third time in 2010.  Concerning the probable Berdych-Youzhny third-round confrontation, one suspects that the Russian’s fluid movement and shot-making versatility will not compensate for his relatively unimpressive serve and first-strike potential any more than when he met Berdych at Roland Garros.

Semifinalist:  Berdych

Fourth quarter: Reportedly sluggish and uninspired during his doubles with Nadal, Djokovic has been handed a draw that will provide him with ample time to rouse himself.  Benneteau can threaten the top players with his distinctive style, even upsetting Federer last fall, but the Serb will not find his consistency or fitness severely tested by the French doubles specialist.  Not until the quarterfinals will Djokovic face a seeded opponent, which would be either the struggling Davydenko or the exhausted-looking Verdasco.  While the Russian recently returned from an extended injury absence, the Spanish lefty substantially overloaded his schedule during the clay season and slogged through an uninspired opener against journeyman Eduardo Schwank.  On one hand, both Davydenko and Verdasco have enjoyed recent success against Djokovic, so they could profit from one of the inexplicably flat performances that he has delivered chronically ever since winning the 2008 Australian Open.  On the other hand, they’re just as likely to submit an inexplicably flat performance themselves, and a mediocre effort from the Serb trumps a mediocre effort from either the Russian or the Spaniard.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

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***

We return on Thursday for quarterfinal previews in both cities, followed by semifinal and final previews over the weekend.

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

A:

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

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

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

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

A-:

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

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

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

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

B+:

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

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

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

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

B:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B-:

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

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

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

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

C:

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

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

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

F:

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

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

***

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

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

Rivalries Renewed:  Davis Cup Quarterfinal Preview

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

Pushing Forward:  Caroline Wozniacki (player profile)

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

Service with a Smile:  John Isner (player profile)

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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!