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Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal (L) of Spain holds the Davis Cup trophy as he celebrates with his teammate David Ferrer during the third and last day of the final Davis Cup match between Spain and Argentina on December 4, 2011 in Seville, Spain.

Barely two months ago, Spain celebrated the latest title captured by its Davis Cup dynasty.  But now the greatest power of the past decade must start to defend its crown once more.  While their path does not look steep, other contending nations eye more imposing challenges to their hopes.

Spain vs. Kazakhstan:  In its first year of World Group experience, the Kazakhs burst onto this grand stage by ambushing the Berdych-led Czech squad in a victory of David over Goliath.  When David traveled to Argentine clay, though, their discomfort on the surface led to an emphatic shutout.  Once again mired in clay, they face the nation most renowned for its success on the terre battue.  But most of that success came from two players absent from Spain’s B-level squad in Oviedo, Nadal and Ferrer.  As Spain enters an era of Davis Cup without its leading stars, the defending champions rely on the fading Ferrero and the enigmatic Almagro, together with the unremarkable Granollers and the second-tier doubles specialist Marc Lopez.  Considering the quality of their competition and home-court advantage, Spain should advance routinely even with this relatively modest quartet.  This easy draw provides a chance for the team’s comprehensive remodeling to coalesce before meeting stiffer resistance.  ESP in 3

Austria vs. Russia:  Not especially intriguing at first glance, this tie features no player in the top 30.  Several curious subtexts lurk beneath its apparent mediocrity, however, including the narrative of Alex Bogomolov’s debut in Russian colors after controversially spurning the United States.  The most reliable member of either squad in Cup action, Youzhny arrives with his spirits soaring from a Zagreb title and owns a 4-2 advantage over Austrian #1 Melzer.  Likely to appear if needed in Sunday’s reverse singles is the Austrian resident Davydenko, whose aggressive ball-striking suits the indoor hard courts better than Bogomolov’s counterpunching style.  Bereft of imposing singles #2s, the hosts will lean heavily on Melzer to participate in winning three rubbers, for they have little hope of survival if the tie hinges upon the 127th-ranked Haider-Maurer.  While the streaky Austrian #1 could ride his lefty net-rushing to a heroic feat, he has won consecutive main-draw matches only once since last July.  His best tennis almost certainly lies behind this 30-year-old Wimbledon doubles champion.  RUS in 5

Canada vs. France:  Like the Austrians, the Canadians pin their ambitions upon a single potential hero in Milos Raonic.  Although Vasek Pospisil and Frank Dancevic have excelled on home soil before, one would not fancy their chances to win two singles rubbers from Tsonga and Monfils, even with the latter perhaps not fully fit.  In the doubles, Canada might combine Dancevic’s net skills with the vast doubles expertise of Daniel Nestor, only a little less effective with age.  Nevertheless, Franch also will bring a talented doubles pairing in Benneteau and Llodra, who have won titles together before and might out-serve the Canadians on these fast courts.  Stirring internal Canadian controversy before the tie was fiercely patriotic advertising by Tennis Canada that irritated the country’s French-speaking citizens.  The weekend’s action will unfold far from Quebec in the British Canadian city of Vancouver, though, notorious for fanaticism in other sports.  Famously fallible throughout their history, the French Davis Cup team must ignore the distractions to showcase their more versatile talent.  Outside the serve, Tsonga and Monfils have far more weapons than Raonic, who might upset one of them but seems unlikely to topple both without their assistance.  Three best-of-five victories on three straight days represents a towering task for the towering Canadian.  FRA in 4

Switzerland vs. USA:  Whereas the previous two ties look more interesting upon further inspection than at first glance, this tie looks more interesting at first glance than upon further inspection.  On the indoor clay in Fribourg, Federer and Wawrinka should tie knots around the one-dimensional American servers.  Unimpressive at the Australian Open, neither Fish nor Isner will bring the level of self-belief necessary to overcome the Swiss master, although Isner did win two sets from Nadal at Roland Garros.  A stronger competitor than formerly (except against Federer), Wawrinka still struggles with maintaining a positive attitude under pressure sometimes.  One wonders a little how he will respond to the challenge of blunting the American serves under the gaze of his expectant compatriots.   So far superior are the Swiss singles players on clay, however, that they could afford to burn understudies Chiudinelli and Lammer on the doubles while relying on winning three of four singles rubbers.  (Thus far, however, they have slotted Federer and Wawrinka into that rubber as well.)  Paired with Ryan Harrison rather than former partner Isner, Mike Bryan should spare the visitors from a shutout before they drift down to the playoff round once more.  In a minor footnote, Harrison should benefit from the experience of playing a visiting Davis Cup tie as his maturation process continues.  SUI in 4

Czech Republic vs. Italy:  Surely seething to avenge their first-round loss last year, the former Davis Cup finalists probably can expect only one or two more seasons from their reliable duo of Berdych and Stepanek.  A two-man team with remarkable success in doubles together, they will host a clay-loving quartet of Italians on fast indoor courts where their superior serves and aggressive tactics should make spaghetti out of Starace et al.  After extending Nadal to four tight sets in an Australian Open quarterfinal, Berdych won the Montpellier title last week and has played more consistently impressive tennis over the last few months thane he generally does.   Not to be outdone by his countryman, Stepanek won the Australian Open doubles crown with Leander Paes in a commendable late-career highlight.  Boosted by their individual momentum, they should prove once again that divergent playing styles and divergent personalities can fuse in explosively effective fashion.  Like the Swiss, the Czechs probably can afford to concede the doubles and rest their stars for the singles.  CZE in 4

Serbia vs. Sweden:  Neither of their nation’s #1s, Djokovic and Soderling, will play a role in this starless Belgrade weekend.  So sanguine was Serbian captain Bogdan Obradovic about his team’s chances that he encouraged the five-time major champion to focus upon preparing for the majors and Olympics.  All the same, two top-25 singles threats in Tipsarevic and Troicki add to doubles veteran Zimonjic in comprising a balanced squad that always shines most under Serbian skies (or roofs, in this case).  Across the net stands no Swede in the top 250 of the ATP singles rankings, although Robin Lindstedt should duel intriguingly with Zimonjic in the doubles rubber.  But otherwise we expect minimal suspense from the greatest mismatch of the weekend.  SRB in 3

Japan vs. Croatia:  A mismatch in height alone, this tie offers a second straight weekend of tennis in the Bourbon Beans Dome.  Partnering Kimiko Date-Krumm in mixed doubles at the Australian Open, Nishikori will aim to emulate that legend’s success in Fed Cup against another Balkans team.  Unexpectedly reaching the singles quarterfinals in Melbourne, the Japanese #1 should relish the rare opportunity to play before his home fans—at least more than the opportunity to blunt Karlovic’s serving power.  The doubles looks even more uncertain than the singles rubbers, although perhaps the Croat’s towering serve will prove decisive by earning ample free points.  In the first meeting between these nations, the straightforward power and forward movement of the visitors will contrast with the steady baseline resilience of the home squad.  While the indoor hard court would seem to tilt towards Croatia, Nishikori and his compatriots will not surrender without a fierce struggle.  CRO in 5

Germany vs. Argentina:  Rebounding from a valiant but doomed effort against a Nadal-led Spain in last year’s final, the perennial bridesmaids of Davis Cup begin yet another Sisyphean quest towards its elusive summit.  Curiously without their flagship Del Potro, a key factor in their semifinal victory over Serbia in 2011, Argentina will rely one more time upon Cup stalwart Nalbandian against a German team lacking its most dangerous player in Kohlschreiber.  Considering the characteristics of Mayer, Petzschner, and Haas, one must query the host country’s decision to put Monaco and Chela on their favored red clay.  Fast-court players who prefer short points, the Germans would seem at a disadvantage against the Argentine clay specialists.  Also notable is the age of the participants, of whom the youngest (Monaco) will turn 28 next month.  Under the rigors of the best-of-five format on a slow court, fatigue and injury may play a role for some of these veterans.  As with Japan vs. Croatia, either team could win any of the rubbers.  But only one of these players, Nalbandian has compiled a history of Davis Cup heroics, and he should lift his nation again in a tie that looks less formidable than it did when the draw first appeared.   ARG in 5

Maria Sharapova - 2012 Australian Open - Day 2

If Sharapova’s legions of fans felt trepidation before her opener against Dulko, they should have left that match reassured not just about her ankle but about the state of her game overall.  Far more impressive than in her last two Melbourne appearances, the Russian moved more and more crisply as the match progressed while suffering only one brief serving lapse and returning serve with her familiar ferocity.  Knowing the quality of her opponent, and remembering her loss to her at Wimbledon 2009, Sharapova may have benefited from a match that forced her to focus immediately.  A draw that initially seemed unkind now grows more benign with a clash against an American qualifier.  Or does it?  The Siberian siren has recorded mixed results against American youngsters before, falling to Oudin in a US Open epic and double-bageling Beatrice Capra a year later.  As she admitted, Sharapova knows virtually nothing about Jamie Hampton’s style and may need a few games to adjust to it.  At the same time, though, Hampton almost certainly never has played an opponent who can generate power approaching the Russian’s baseline bombardment.

More in doubt are several other matches on Day 4, to which we now turn our attention.

Hewitt vs. Roddick:  Although the head-to-head between these two grizzled veterans stands at 7-6 in Roddick’s favor, the American has won their last six meetings in a span stretching back to 2005.  But Hewitt continues to threaten his far more powerful rival with his agile movement, clever point construction, and unrelenting patience.  Three of their last four meetings reached final sets, including a Wimbledon thriller, while the fourth featured two tiebreaks.  Relying upon the support of the Rod Laver crowd, Hewitt may fancy his chances of swinging those few crucial points in his direction this time.  The stark disparity between their serves should play a less significant role than on the grass and fast hard courts where Roddick won all six matches in his current streak.  All the same, the American advanced impressively past a talented opponent in Robin Haase, showing more purpose and poise than usual, whereas Hewitt struggled to deliver the coup de grace against an anonymous obstacle.  Through most of the tennis world, Roddick will go into history as the more accomplished player, but one should note that Hewitt almost certainly will retire with more major titles, including the Wimbledon crown that the American so desperately covets.

Zvonareva vs. Hradecka:  Extended for more than three hours by Alexandra Dulgheru, Zvonareva may arrive in the second round physically and mentally jaded by a match that hung in the balance for an excruciating length.  The Russian typically has struggled with heavy servers (see S for Stosur), so Hradecka’s penetrating delivery may cause her anxiety if supplemented by the groundstroke missiles that she showcased in Auckland during a victory over Peng.  Can she finish what Dulgheru started?   The speed of these courts tilts towards Zvonareva’s advantage, however, showcasing her balanced game more effectively than the raw firepower of her still-evolving opponent.

Bellucci vs. Monfils:  One might understate the situation to say that Monfils has produced drastically different results from one major to the next.  After his comeback five-set victory over dirt devil at Roland Garros, many fans exulted that Monfils finally had found the purpose that he long had lacked.  Then came an unexpected Wimbledon loss to Lukasz Kubot and a thoroughly disappointing US Open setback against Ferrero.  After those setbacks, a strong Australian Open would seem likely for a player whose career has constituted a sequence of peaks and valleys.  Further suggesting that possibility was a strong week in Doha, highlighted by a semifinal victory over Nadal.  Full of talent and ambition, meanwhile, Bellucci has struggled to harness his lefty power at crucial moments in matches.  Before he ended last season with seven straight losses at ATP tournaments, the top-ranked Brazilian defeated Murray and Berdych consecutively at the prestigious event in Madrid. This enigma could trouble Monfils by curving his lefty forehand into the Frenchman’s modest backhand and by winning the battle of court positioning.  But Bellucci has developed little of the tactical sense necessary to topple an opponent superior in athleticism, fitness, experience, and nearly all other meaningful areas.

Raonic vs. Petzschner:  Not known for their returning talents, both of these huge servers broke their opponents repeatedly during emphatic first-round victories.  In fact, Petzschner fell just two games short of the first triple-bagel at the Australian Open since the 1970s and first at any major since 1993.  While his opponent’s ineptitude likely played a role in that development, the German has ridden waves of confidence to impressive accomplishments before.  Contesting a five-setter with Nadal two Wimbledons ago, he shares Raonic’s preference for faster surfaces.  The high bounce of this court should aid the Canadian’s monstrous kick serve, one of the reasons why he reached the second week here last year.  With his hip injury now behind him, Raonic must win matches like these to deliver a statement to his peers about his renewed progress.

Golubev vs. Gasquet:  Slugging his path past the more talented Youzhny in the first round, Golubev confronts a very similar task in the artful Gasquet.  Like the Russian, the Frenchman unleashes stylish one-handed backhands but lacks the muscular force projected by the Kazakh, who has rebounded impressively from an 18-match losing streak in 2011.  When a match turns for or against either of these players, it generally swings dramatically.  In the best-of-five format, neither probably can sustain their high-risk tactics for long enough to win without a lull, which will give the opponent a chance to reassert himself.  One senses that a match of momentum shifts might evolve as Golubev’s unvarnished ball-bruising pounds away at Gasquet’s psyche in addition to his defenses.  If he can stay positive, though, the Frenchman should withstand many of those first strikes and outlast the assault.

Stephens vs. Kuznetsova:  Succumbing twice to Christina McHale in 2011, the two-time major champion now faces another opportunistic American teenager.  Stephens enjoyed her emergence during last summer, when she reached a San Diego quarterfinal and the third round at the US Open with an upset over Peer.  Seeking to duplicate that feat in Australia, she meets a player who already has alternated the encouraging (Auckland semifinal performance, Sydney victory over Zvonareva) with the discouraging (a first career loss to Zheng and a retirement against Safarova).  Illustrating the rollercoaster that Kuznetsova regularly rides was her three-set victory over Scheepers, which started with a comfortable set, continued with a desultory second set, and ended abruptly with a third-set bagel.  Although she can deliver slightly more offense than her fellow rising Americans, Stephens remains a counterpuncher against whom the Russian will need to hit her targets consistently.  Anyone who has watched Kuznetsova could tell you that she finds this task less easy than she should.

Simon vs. Benneteau:  When these two compatriots collide, their promising performances at preparatory tournaments should provide them with plenty of momentum.  A semifinalist at Brisbane, Simon will duel with the Sydney runner-up in a match between a player who clings to the baseline and another who ventures into the forecourt more boldly than many.  As Benneteau tries to shorten points, his countryman will try to extend them with the same tenacity that carried him to a quarterfinal in Melbourne two years ago.  While he has faded since his breakthrough in 2008-09, Simon remains within range of the top 10 and certainly has maximized his potential.  In the Melbourne heat, this counterpuncher’s grinding style should prove especially lethal.

Llodra vs. Bogomolov, Jr.:  Unheralded until last year, the Russian-turned-American-turned-Russian seems to have weathered the controversy over his nationality with little concern.  A win here would move into the third round, justifying his seed and accomplishing the difficult task of maintaining momentum during the offseason.  By the standards of this journeyman, that accomplishment would deserve credit, especially following the early demise of more celebrated compatriots.  Overcoming perhaps the ATP’s most maddening player in Gulbis, Llodra may find greater resistance from someone who generally competes more vigorously (except at the Paris Indoors).  Aware that the Frenchman will attack the forecourt consistently, Bogomolov needs to refine his passing shots and aim to keep his opponent behind the baseline in rallies that expose his erratic groundstrokes.

Makarova vs. Kanepi:  The flavor of the fortnight at the 2010 Australian Open, this lesser Russian built upon an upset of Ivanovic to reach the second week and challenge eventual champion Clijsters for a set when she arrived there.  This year, she delivered two bagels in her opener as memories of Melbourne likely flooded back into her mind.  An unseeded champion in Brisbane, Kanepi entered this tournament as perhaps its most compelling dark horse.  With straight-sets victories over Pavlyuchenkova, Petkovic, and Schiavone during the first week of 2012, she showcased a more formidable serve than ever and rarely faced a break point throughout the tournament.  Even more notable was Kanepi’s improved shot selection and consistency, areas that had retarded her progress until now.  But the question lingers as to whether she enjoyed a career week in Brisbane or whether her accomplishment laid the foundation for something greater.  After all, everyone knows what the Brisbane champion did last year.

And, of course, we could not complete a preview of Day 4 without…

Ivanovic vs. Krajicek:  Never forced to face a break point throughout her opening victory, the former #1 dominated beyond her serve against an overmatched opponent and thus could afford to attack her returns aggressively.  To be sure, the knowledge of Dominguez Lino’s weak serve may have enabled Ivanovic to relax and swing more freely during her own service games, but that shot has shown steady signs of improvement throughout her partnership with Nigel Sears.  When she faces an opponent with a more imposing serve in Krajicek, Ana will face greater pressure to maintain her own delivery.  This match likely will consist of short points punctuated by staccato winners or unforced errors.  A former prodigy derailed by injuries, Krajicek impressed us with her ball-striking and her poise when we watched compete creditably against an aging Hingis in San Diego five years ago.  Although injuries have derailed her since then, she remains a player more dangerous than her ranking would suggest.  Handle not with complacency but with confidence and calm.

Ana Ivanovic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 2

Novak Djokovic - Swiss Indoors Basel - Day Six

First quarter:  Clouding this diverse section is the uncertainty enveloping the world #1, who seems all but certain to withdraw but has not as of Sunday evening.  Should Djokovic find discretion the better part of valor, the two highest-ranked men in the tournament would reside in the same half of the draw.  Conversely, opportunity would knock for 2008 champion Tsonga, who has relished the stage-like setting of this indoor arena as well as its slick surface.  Amidst the second-best season of his career, the Frenchman won the Vienna tournament two weeks ago and has won three of his seven titles on home soil.   Yet this crowd favorite should not overlook the almost equally flamboyant Almagro in the third round.   Although he has won all five of their meetings, the Spanish shot-maker came within a point of ousting Nadal two years ago on this court.  Sandwiched between them is Davydenko, who may no longer deserve a special mention in these previews but historically has feasted on the depleted draws and battered opponents of fall.  Elsewhere, Nishikori may struggle to regroup both physically and mentally from a Shanghai semifinal followed by a Basel final.  Surely hoping for a Djokovic-less draw is his compatriot Troicki, a finalist in Moscow despite an otherwise unremarkable second half.  Only the third-best player in his own country, he has won three of four meetings from Tsonga.

Semifinalist:  Tsonga (whether or not Djokovic plays)

Second quarter:  Likely to compete with his characteristic vigor, the fourth-seeded Ferrer probably will not survive long on a surface antithetical to his strengths.  On the other hand, none of the opponents in the immediate vicinity may muster the determination to dispatch him.  Known for scintillating one-handed backhands, Youzhny and Kohlschreiber will battle for the opportunity to meet Dolgopolov, who has faded from awareness since testing Djokovic at the US Open.  The theatrical atmosphere in Bercy might inspire the charismatic Ukrainian to unleash his fluid, all-court style, while the laboratory-like environment should allow him to perfect his timing.  Weakened by the withdrawal of Del Potro, this quarter still contains two-time finalist Monfils, denied by Djokovic in 2009 and Soderling in 2010.  As enigmatic and engaging as ever, the French #2 recorded one of the most impressive wins of his career on this court when he saved multiple match points to stun Federer in a semifinal, and he collected the Stockholm crown as Tsonga seized Vienna.  Possibly awaiting “La Monf” in the second round is his compatriot and fellow 2010 semifinalist Llodra, who will engage with Lopez in a battle of serve-and-volleying lefties.  Mirroring each other, their vintage styles will contrast with the baseline-bound Monfils or Wawrinka.  Will the more modern game prevail on the surface least designed for it of all Masters 1000 tournaments, or will the fast courts in Paris set the stage for a miniature upset?

Semifinalist:  Monfils

Third quarter:  Having waited ten months from his previous title, Federer earned some desperately needed momentum by capturing his hometown tournament for the fifth time.  A champion only in Doha and Basel this year, he has reached just one total final this year at majors and Masters events as Djokovic’s ascendancy uprooted the ATP hierarchy.  And Federer never has reached the final here, a distinction that Paris shares with no other tournament of its level.  Thwarted by players like Nalbandian and Benneteau in previous appearances, he often has looked drained of motivation and already focused on the year-end championships.  Rome nemesis Gasquet could collide with Federer in the third round, but the former prodigy has specialized in squashing the hopes of his countrymen until reaching the second week of Roland Garros this spring.  Yet another bold-faced French name has ambushed Federer twice on hard courts, including once on an indoor hard court in the fall, and his comeback from a two-set deficit against Roger at the Australian Open clearly discomfited the GOAT.  Not until the quarterfinal would Gilles Simon earn the chance to accomplish a third “accident,” as he self-deprecatingly has termed his upsets over the Swiss.  Still, few opponents in his section impress at first glance, whether the recently injured Fish or the fading Stepanek.  The nemesis of Nadal in Shanghai, Florian Mayer might edge past the American with his underrated serve and penetrating backhand, but few would consider him a threat to Federer.  After a second-half campaign that has revitalized his stagnant career, Donald Young burst through a qualifying draw once more and eyes a winnable encounter with weary Valencia runner-up Monaco.  All of these names, except perhaps Simon, look like subplots if Federer’s form continues to climb as it did from one match to the next in Basel.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Fourth quarter:  Seeking his fourth consecutive title since the US Open, Murray propelled himself to the #3 ranking by demolishing all adversaries throughout the Asian season before a sore backside negated his Basel wildcard.  Unlikely to resist the Scot too fiercely is Valencia champion Granollers, who probably soared into Paris on a wave of elation from that most notable performance of his career. Nor do flammable, fickle second-tier Frenchmen Benneteau and Chardy appear legitimate upset bids.  Since reaching a US Open quarterfinal, Roddick’s form has ranged across the spectrum from the dangerous (third-set tiebreak loss to Ferrer in a Shanghai quarterfinal) to the dismal (opening-round loss to Kevin Anderson in Beijing).  Climaxing with one of the season’s most dazzling winners, his epic triumph over Raonic in the Memphis final might find an encore in his opener here, where their towering serves should produce at least one tiebreak.  Thoroughly stifled by Murray at Queens Club this year, Roddick would have to maintain a superb first-serve percentage to compensate for his inferiority to the Scot in almost all other departments.  A similar task awaits the fifth-seeded Berdych, who has won two of his last three meetings with Murray and should find the surface more suited to his offensive orientation.  But his recurrent bête noire Tipsarevic might lurk in the third round.  The Serb even has enjoyed sporadic success against Murray, while his first career title in Moscow built upon summer breakthroughs in Canada and New York.  In the absence of Djokovic, can one of his compatriots proudly plant his nation’s flag on French soil?

Semifinalist:  Murray

Semifinals:  Tsonga d. Monfils, Federer d. Murray

Final:  Tsonga d. Federer

Roger Federer Roger Federer of Switzerland holds the trophy after defeating Mardy Fish during the finals on Day 7 of the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters at the Lindner Family Tennis Center on August 22, 2010 in Cincinnati, Ohio.

A week after audacious saboteurs tore down the towers of the sport, will Cincinnati more closely resemble the usual blueprints?  The last significant event before the US Open, it will play an especially crucial role this year as contenders who lost early in Toronto strive to accumulate valuable pre-major preparation.  Meanwhile, though, the Serenovak juggernaut rolls on to another city with accelerating speed, causing one to wonder whether anyone can blunt its momentum before New York.  (On the other hand, does the Djoker really fancy that hideous trophy above?)

First quarter:  A semifinalist in consecutive weeks at Atlanta and Los Angeles, Ryan Harrison will bring that momentum into Cincinnati—and a probable second-round encounter with an opponent who has lost only one match this year.  Also in this area lurk Washington champion Stepanek and Atlanta runner-up Isner, who has come within a point of defeating two different top-10 opponents this summer.   Situated near Wimbledon conqueror Feliciano Lopez, Roddick begins his recovery from his most recent injury against Kohlschreiber, often remembered for his five-set victory over the American at the 2008 Australian Open.  From a champion in Los Angeles to a qualifier in Cincinnati, Gulbis displayed uncharacteristic perseverance in emerging from the pre-event to arrange a main-draw meeting with Dodig.  Anchoring the section is Washington runner-up Monfils, a disappointment in his Rogers Cup quarterfinal against Djokovic when he appeared to tank after losing the first set.   But none of these hopefuls, veterans, or dangerous floaters appears likely to ambush the top seed should he arrive at the year’s seventh Masters 1000 tournament in peak condition.  Often bothered by the heat before, Djokovic succumbed to Roddick in a listless quarterfinal here last year.  His improvements in diet, fitness, and mental staying power encourage greater optimism this time, as do the distinctly fallible, one-dimensional opponents around him.  Nevertheless, Cincinnati has halted the momentum of many an ambitious Rogers Cup champion before.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Second quarter:  After the two-time defending champion in Canada dropped his opener, the two-time defending champion in Cincinnati could fare likewise against Del Potro.  Eyeing this formidable opening task, Federer must regroup from his consecutive losses to Tsonga, who overpowered the Swiss legend much as Del Potro did in their 2009 meetings at the US Open and the year-end championships.  A baseliner rather than a net-rusher like Tsonga, though, the Argentine did not impress in straight-sets losses to Gulbis and Cilic in Los Angeles and Montreal, respectively.  Formerly at his best during the summer hard-courts, he appears to have regressed from a spring in which he won two titles, and he has not defeated a notable opponent other than Soderling during his comeback.  Federer should ease through the third round much more comfortably this week against either the decaying Blake or the spineless Troicki, but an intriguing test could await in the quarterfinals.  Battling Berdych in three memorable meetings last year, the third seed suffered stinging defeats in Miami and Wimbledon before claiming a measure of revenge in a Rogers Cup thriller.  Before reaching Federer, the Czech must maneuver past the inflammable Almagro or perhaps Karlovic.  While Berdych theoretically should win those matches, he routinely lost an equally winnable quarterfinal to Tipsarevic in Canada.  Also complicating Federer’s path to a record-extending fifth Cincinnati title is his summer preparation.  Rather than train in scorching Dubai, he chose to stay in temperate Switzerland, a decision that benefited his children but may remove the fitness advantage that he long had held over his rivals in the torrid Ohio summer.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Third quarter:  Like all of the Big Four outside Djokovic, Murray faces the task of rebounding from a severely disappointing week.  A crossroads for the fatalistic Scot, Cincinnati either could mire him deeper in  what could become a post-Wimbledon hangover—or it could lift him out of his doldrums in time to inspire a deep run in New York.  Still seeking his first victory at a Masters 1000 hard-court tournament this season, Murray aims to snap that winless streak against Nishikori or Nalbandian, both more dangerous than some of his  previous 2011 Masters nemeses.  His rocky path will steepen further against the winner of a fascinating encounter between Tsonga and Cilic, assuming that a Montreal injury does not hamper the Frenchman.  Although he possesses 5-1 records against each of those heavy servers, Murray has struggled to defuse them on stages such as Wimbledon or the US Open.  Absent from the Rogers Cup, the ever-grinding, ever-unassuming Ferrer should flourish in the Cincinnati heat, as should his equally indefatigable third-round opponent Gilles Simon.  Entrenched in the top 10 when the season began, Melzer has drifted back into his familiar position of ambush artist and now hopes to unsettle the Frenchman in the first round.  Should Murray maneuver into the quarterfinals, he should gain confidence from his hard-court mastery over Ferrer.  Whether he will arrive there seems open to doubt, though.

Semifinalist:  Tsonga

Fourth quarter:  A player who relies upon match practice to prepare for a major, Nadal got little of it in Canada and thus must hope to compensate for that lack here.  Curiously, he might open against Garcia-Lopez or Benneteau, the former of whom defeated the reigning US Open champion on a hard court in 2010 and the latter of whom came within a point of doing so.  Wedged into his compatriot’s section once again, Verdasco will open Monday’s action by contesting an all-lefty battle with Bellucci, whose victory over him on clay this spring underscored the Spaniard’s woefulness this year.  Seeking to repeat his epic Rogers Cup victory over Youzhny, Llodra adds another lefty to this section but not a Rafa-upset threat.  Instead, the most probable challenge to the Spaniard’s semifinal route will come from three-time US Open Series finalist Fish, who bravely battled Djokovic in Canada before falling short yet again.  That disappointment appeared to weigh heavily upon the top-ranked American and may have drained him emotionally before a tournament where he twice has charged within a set of the title.  Lurking in his vicinity are Murray-killer Kevin Anderson and Federer-killer Gasquet.  Neither of them has both the weapons and versatility of the world #7, yet either could exploit a day when his serve dips or his feet grow sluggish.  Solving Fish in all six of their meetings, albeit only once in the last three years, Nadal probably will not stumble against him here.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Final:  Djokovic vs. Tsonga

At the Rogers Cup trophy presentation, Fish playfully teased Djokovic that the rest of the tour has “gotten tired” of the Serb’s supremacy.  Just as playfully, Djokovic retorted “I’m not getting tired of this.”  Until the top seed and undisputed king of the ATP hill does,…

Champion:  Djokovic

Maria Sharapova Kim Clijsters (R) of Belgium and Maria Sharapova of Russia poses with their individual trophies during the singles final match on day seven of the Western & Southern Financial Group Women's Open on August 15, 2010 at the Lindner Family Tennis Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.

First quarter:  After a modest first half in 2010, Wozniacki caught fire at the stage of this season and lost only two matches thereafter.  Having suffered a demoralizing loss to Vinci in her Rogers Cup opener, the great Dane should experience few difficulties with the inexperienced McHale or the underpowered Pironkova, virtually just a Wimbledon threat.  Forestalled in Toronto, a potential third-round meeting with Ivanovic could occur in Cincinnati, but poised to repeat her upsets one or both of the glamor girls is Vinci once again.  Wimbledon champion Kvitova may pursue revenge against Canada conqueror Petkovic, who built upon her San Diego semifinal with a quarterfinal last week.   Intelligently deconstructing the erratic Czech, the WTA’s lead dancer may find her swagger tested by the imposing serve of Gajdosova, who won a set from her earlier this year.  Of minor note in a section of three Slam champions and perhaps a future champion in Petkovic, Rebecca Marino possesses a thunderous serve that might trouble even Kvitova if her percentage stays high.  Kvitova pummeled Wozniacki at Wimbledon this year but has proved as inconsistent as the Dane has stayed steady (at least until recently).  Should they collide, one might favor the more businesslike Wozniacki in the unremarkable environment of Cincinnati, yet the fast courts should tilt in Kvitova’s favor.  A similar dynamic would define a potential meeting between the top seed and Petkovic, who conquered her in Miami.

Semifinalist:  Petkovic

Second quarter:  Bookended by a pair of flamboyant competitors, this section could several clashes of personalities.  Projected to reprise their Roland Garros duel are the counterpunching, movement-centered styles of Jankovic and Schiavone, both of whom have looked as flat as the American Midwest since the clay season.  On the other hand, Julia Goerges will fancy her chances of repeating last week’s thrashing of the former #1, her only win so far in the US Open Series.  More impressive this summer than her countrywoman, Lisicki followed her outstanding grass-court campaign with a Stanford semifinal before threatening Zvonareva in San Diego.  Absent from Toronto, she arrives more rested than her peers and certainly more confident than Peer, her first-round opponent.  A battle of blondes could occur in the second round between Lisicki and Azarenka, who restored order following her opening-round Stanford loss.  While falling to Serena in a routine semifinal, Vika nevertheless showcased sparkling groundstrokes and an improved sense of point construction that would have served her better against an opponent with a less overpowering serve.   If she can tame Lisicki’s similarly mighty delivery, she should advance more comfortably into a winnable quarterfinal.  More powerful than Schiavone, more motivated than Jankovic, and more consistent than Goerges, Azarenka may find that her path grows more accommodating rather than less as the week unfolds.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Third quarter:  How many more matches does Serena need before New York?  The answer appears to be zero, judging from her 11-match winning streak since her Wimbledon loss, and one wonders whether her focus will start to drift in her third preparatory event.  On the other hand, her champion-stuffed quarter might inspire Serena’s energies even if her brain counsels caution.  As early as the second round, the American might collide again with Sunday victim Stosur, while Roland Garros champion Li Na could await a match later.  Like Kvitova, Li may continue to struggle with adjusting to her sharply elevated status, especially outside China.  Desultory in her Rogers Cup loss, she has faltered often against both Serena and Stosur, who should prefer the faster Cincinnati courts.  Meanwhile, Sharapova will anticipate the daunting prospect of a second quarterfinal against the American in three tournaments.  Fallible this summer, the Wimbledon runner-up needs a momentum boost to catapult her into stronger contention at the US Open.  Fellow Russian Slam champion Kuznetsova could await in her second match, having won four of their nine previous meetings and a set from Maria here last year.  Whereas this season has witnessed a Sharapova resurgence, Sveta’s promising start has given way to deepening doldrums.  Just when one discounts her, though, she tends to deliver something remarkable.

Semifinalist:  S. Williams

Fourth quarter:  Among the most surprising upsets early in Toronto was the demise of Bartoli, who, like Sharapova, had surged through impressive fortnights at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.  The Stanford runner-up  coped with the heat better than one might have expected last year, defeating Wozniacki before falling to recurrent nemesis Sharapova.  Also impressive during the European spring, Hantuchova should encounter last year’s semifinalist Pavlyuchenkova in the second round in a battle of inspired shot-makers and indifferent movers.  Following her horrific week of 53 double faults in Baku, the Russian aims to recapture the promise that she displayed against Zvonareva and Schiavone at Roland Garros.  Dormant since reaching an Indian Wells semifinal, the 17th-seeded Wickmayer has struggled to curb her emotions under pressure but still owns an authoritative serve-forehand combinations reminiscent of Stosur and a natural athleticism reminiscent of Kuznetsova.  Resting rather meekly at the base of this draw, Zvonareva burst from a spring skid to reach the San Diego final before fading with consecutive losses to Radwanska.  In her last tournament before defending her 2010 US Open final appearance, the Russian needs all of the confidence that she can accumulate in order to steel herself for the scrutiny and pressure of New York.  Opening against one of two lefties, Martinez Sanchez or Makarova, Vera must impose her baseline rhythm upon their arrhythmic style.  Zvonareva may have caught a bit of luck in avoiding Jankovic, replaced by Wickmayer after Radwanska’s withdrawal, and she has enjoyed repeated success against Bartoli, including a Miami victory this year.

Semifinalist:  Zvonareva

Final:  Azarenka vs. S. Williams

In 2008, Serena swept consecutive tournaments in Bangalore, Miami, Charleston, a stretch during which she defeated five different top-five opponents.  A triple crown here would represent a feat no more impressive, especially since executed on the same surface (her favorite) and the same continent (where she lives).  The voice of reason says “Serena can’t win so many consecutive matches so early in her comeback.”  The voice of instinct says “When she plays at this level, who can beat her?”

Champion:  S. Williams (or Azarenka over Zvonareva in the final if she withdraws)

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates at match point after defeating Gael Monfils of France during day three of the Davis Cup Tennis Final at the Begrade Arena on December 5, 2010 in Belgrade, Serbia.

Serbia at Sweden:  Initially awaited as a clash between top-five superstars Djokovic and Soderling, this tie developed into a mismatch when Djokovic reaffirmed his Davis Cup commitment while Soderling withdrew.  Considering the Swede’s recent slump, however, the outcome probably would not have changed even if the route had grown more arduous.  As the tie currently stands, the home nation will field no players inside the top 250, so the world #1 and his understudy Troicki should cruise through a pair of comfortable wins on the opening day, barring illness or injury.  After conquering Tsonga and Nadal at Wimbledon, Djokovic should find Eleskovic and Ryderstedt unimposing foes indeed.  The mismatch becomes less severe in doubles, where Sweden might possess a slight advantage in the Olympic silver medalists Aspelin and Lindstedt against the aging Zimonjic and Tipsarevic or some other partner less skilled in doubles than in singles.  Should the home squad survive until Sunday, though, it merely will postpone the inevitable until Djokovic delivers a ringing coup de grace in the reverse singles.

Serbia 3-1

Kazakhstan at Argentina:  Contesting their first World Group tie earlier this year, the visitors remain undefeated in World Group with a stirring upset over 2010 semifinalist Czech Republic.  Crucial to that achievement were the exploits of Andrey Golubev, the team flagship who has posted an 11-1 record in Davis Cup singles including a victory over Berdych.  Outside that weekend, though, the Kazakh #1 has won only two of 20 matches in 2011 and has lost 14 straight encounters since Indian Wells.  At his least effective on clay, he leads his compatriots into not only their weakest surface but a notoriously hostile crowd atmosphere.  Without longtime Davis Cup genie Nalbandian, Argentina still has assembled a team with excellent clay skills, highlighted by former Roland Garros semifinalist Del Potro.  Steadily marching back into relevance, the Tower of Tandil has the weapons to overpower the Kazakhs from the baseline with ease.  But he continues to display psychological frailty at untimely moments, while his shaky loss to Lopez in the 2008 final suggests that national team competition exposes his weaknesses rather than showcasing his strengths.  Beyond Del Potro, the home squad also can rely upon grinding dirt devil Juan Monaco, a veteran unlikely to fold under Davis Cup pressure and likely to outlast the volatile Kazakhs.

Argentina 3-0

Spain at USA:  After copious weeping and gnashing of teeth, the 2008-09 Cup champions trudge reluctantly to a surface where their captain clearly does not fancy their chances.  Costa’s sour carping situates his team in a potentially perilous position, situated too close to fatalistic negativity on the emotional spectrum before the first ace descends.  Eyeing the relentless serving barrage of Fish and Roddick, the visitors may find Nadal’s absence decisive by robbing them of two near-certain victories.  On the other hand, Wimbledon quarterfinalist Lopez should bring considerable optimism to his clash with Roddick, whom he convincingly conquered in the third round at the All England Club.  In a potentially decisive fifth rubber, the American will have an opportunity to soothe the sting of that defeat before his compatriots, whose presence typically inspires his finest tennis.  Before that intriguing rematch, Costa may consider shuffling his lineups to pit Verdasco rather than Ferrer against Roddick on Friday and Fish on Sunday.  Despite the lefty’s 2011 woes, he defeated Roddick on an identical surface in the San Jose final last year and reached the final there again this season.  In contrast, Ferrer displayed uncharacteristically poor body language during his loss to Fish in Miami, while his puny serve will permit him to collect fewer free points on the fast court than will his countryman.  But the American supremacy in doubles with the Bryans may become the decisive factor in this tie.  Confident that the reigning Wimbledon champions can deliver Saturday’s third rubber, the home team knows that they need only split the four singles matches.  With two top-10 veterans on a surface tailored to their strengths, that objective seems well within range, but one cannot discount the ability of the Spaniards to elevate each other as a team to feats that they could not accomplish individually.  Even without Nadal, plenty of intrigue should unfold.

USA 3-1

France at Germany:  Although all of the probably French singles players perch higher in the rankings than all of their German counterparts, this tie could evolve into a more dramatic encounter than statistic would suggest.  With inspired runs to the Halle final last month, both Kohlschreiber and Petzschner demonstrated the emotional boost that they receive from playing at home, whereas les bleus have proven famously fallible under adversity.  Perhaps that national trait has faded lately, however, with a sparkling second-week runs by Gasquet at Roland Garros and Wimbledon accompanying Monfils’ triumph over Ferrer at the former Slam and Tsonga’s fierce comeback against Federer at the latter.  Organized around maximizing singles players, the French squad includes only Llodra among its players earmarked for the doubles, while the hosts enjoy a regular doubles squad in Petzschner and Kas.  At the top of this squad looms the enigmatic Florian Mayer, whom few would consider equal to his top-20 ranking after witnessing his unremarkable shot-making abilities.  More often than one would expect, Davis Cup trains the spotlight on the least heralded star, so one senses that Mayer may play a decisive role before the weekend concludes.  French captain Guy Forget faces a series of intriguing decisions over whether to showcase Monfils, Gasquet, or Tsonga, and against which opponent.  Armed with far more raw talent than the home squad, the visitors should suffer just enough wayward moments to furrow Forget’s brow before relying on their superior depth to advance.

France 3-2

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates a point during the Men's Singles Final match against Tomas Berdych of Czech Republic on Day Thirteen of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 4, 2010 in London, England.

Gentlemen:

First quarter:  Just one major after he narrowly escaped from Isner, Nadal may find himself forced to topple two more giants in the precocious Raonic and the resurgent Del Potro in order to reach the quarterfinals.  The world #1 at least can settle into the tournament with two comfortable rounds before confronting the Canadian, whose thunderous serve and deft forecourt touch should pose compelling threats on grass.  Least comfortable on this surface, Del Potro may struggle against the more compact strokes of Simon in the third round despite his vast advantage over the Frenchman on serve.  At the base of this quarter lies 2010 runner-up Berdych, a first-round loser at two of the three majors since that breakthrough.  The sixth seed crumbled quickly when defending his Roland Garros semifinal, and the pressure of defending 1,400 points will weigh heavily on his fragile mind.  Nevertheless, Berdych should progress comfortably to the second week unless an opportunistic journeyman like Julien Benneteau can emulate Stephane Robert’s feat at Roland Garros.  Like Del Potro, Verdasco displays his least convincing tennis on grass and has watched his ranking slide inexorably downwards during a season-long slump.  Perhaps most likely to clash with Nadal in the quarterfinals, therefore, is tenth-seeded Mardy Fish.  Despite sporadic injury struggles, the American has shone on grass before but lacks the versatile arsenal to upset the top seed.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Greatest threats:  Raonic, Fish

Second quarter:  As Murray-mania descends upon Wimbledon once again, the Centre Court crowds may grow familiar with anonymous figures like Gimeno-Traver and Kavcic.  Probably the softest quarter, Murray’s section contains no fewer than six qualifiers and two wildcards.  But it also contains 2007 Wimbledon semifinalist Gasquet, who has returned to relevance this year with an Indian Wells quarterfinal, Rome semifinal, and an unprecedented second-week run at Roland Garros.  Three years ago, the Scot entangled the Frenchman in a memorable five-setter on these lawns in which his superior fitness and fiercer competitive desire ultimately overcame his opponent’s superior artistry.  Among the intriguing openers in this section are the all-Croatian clash between Ljubicic and Cilic and the intra-Balkan clash between Tipsarevic and Karlovic.  Barely a presence since Indian Wells, world #10 Roddick benefited considerably from Wimbledon’s grass-court formula to gain a top-eight seed and avoid a fourth-round meeting with a contender.  Nevertheless, the three-time finalist may tangle with the dangerous Feliciano Lopez, who hammered 35 aces while extending the American into a third set at Queens Club.  Thoroughly dominated by Murray at that tournament, Roddick might gain confidence from his victory over the Scot in their 2009 semifinal.  In the last two years, though, illness, injury, and erratic play have exposed the American’s one-dimensionality, which he shares with most of the players around him.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Greatest threat:  Roddick

Third quarter:  Drawn in the same half with Djokovic for the fourth straight Slam, Federer should arrive in their semifinal without excessive exertions.  Fading towards retirement, notorious underachiever Nalbandian probably cannot challenge the Swiss over the course of five sets.  Equally unlikely to mount a convincing challenge is Almagro, who fell in the first round of the Dutch Open as the top seed and struggles to fit his elongated swings to the grass.  Nor is the Spaniard the only clay-court specialist in this section, for seventh-seeded Ferrer would face Federer in the quarterfinals should all unfold according to plan.  A plausible candidate to disrupt that narrative, Tsonga reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon last year behind his electrifying first-strike weapons.  Edging within a tiebreak of the Queens Club title, the Frenchman collected a morale-boosting victory over Nadal before severely testing Murray.  Although injuries and dips in motivation have prevented his evolution into a consistent contender, Tsonga still possesses the ability to unleash a crescendo of inspired performances at a major.  In the third round, he might face the winner of an intriguing opening duel between Dolgopolov and the aging Gonzalez, which will pit fluid grace against raw power.  Once extending Nadal to five sets at the All England Club, Youzhny might collide with Federer on the second Monday if he can overcome Isner.  The towering American cannot generate more headlines than he did at the last Wimbledon, but he will hope to record a few more wins.

Semfiinalist:  Federer

Greatest threat:  Tsonga

Fourth quarter:  Aiming to halt his one-match losing streak, Djokovic enters Wimbledon with scant grass-court preparation but looked impressive during pre-tournament exhibitions.  The Serb announced his determination to conquer the sport’s citadel last month despite his less confident movement on grass.  A two-time Wimbledon semifinalist, Djokovic might reprise an epic 2007 encounter with Baghdatis in the third round, while South African giant Kevin Anderson might lurk in the second round.  Should the second seed survive those obstacles, his path might grow smoother with docile compatriot Troicki or perhaps serve-and-volleying Frenchman Michael Llodra, who conquered him at the Paris Indoors last fall but could not trouble him in Dubai this year.  His route barred by only the eventual champion at the last two Wimbledons, Soderling hopes to rebound from a tepid spring by overcoming battle-scarred veterans like Hewitt and Davydenko.  A year after unsettling Federer in the first round, Alejandro Falla could trouble Melzer in the aftermath of an impressive French Open.  Joining heavy-hitting Russians Tursunov and Gabashvili are the formerly promising Gulbis and the still-promising Nishikori in a section of players with talent disproportionate to their accomplishments.  Yet Soderling remains the most probable candidate to progress through this wilderness of enigmatic competitors, presenting Djokovic with a quarterfinal opponent whom he has dominated on all other surfaces.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Greatest threat:  None

Semifinals:  Nadal vs. Murray, Federer vs. Djokovic

Final:  Murray vs. Federer

Champion:  Roger Federer

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russian Federation celebrates a point during the women's singles round one match against Stephanie Foretz of France on day two of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 24, 2008 in London, England.

Ladies:

First quarter:  Although world #1 Wozniacki perches atop this section, the most formidable contender prowls at its base.  Reaching the semifinals or better in four of her last five tournaments, Sharapova accumulated momentum this spring for the first time in her comeback.  Like Djokovic, the 2004 champion enters Wimbledon this year without match practice on grass, but she has routinely smothered opening-round opponent Chakvetadze.  Unless pugnacious British teen Robson can emulate Caroline Garcia in the second round, Sharapova should maneuver through a draw filled with powerful but erratic opponents such as Safarova. Although Stosur represents the Russian’s sternest competition on paper, the resilient Peng in fact might prove her greatest cause for concern.  Winning a set from Sharapova at Indian Wells in March, Peng extended the finest season of her career by reaching the Birmingham semifinal.  Nevertheless, Stosur reached the semifinals a week later at Eastbourne with a slightly surprising triumph over third-ranked Zvonareva.  Aligned against Wozniacki in a potential third-round clash is Jarmila Gajdosova, the type of heavy hitter who could prevent the Dane from finding a rhythm in short points.  On the second Monday, the top seed should face one of two contrasting opponents who have combined for three victories against her in 2011.  Whereas Cibulkova relies on her movement and compact strokes, Goerges showcases an outstanding serve and massive forehand in a game seemingly better suited for grass.  But only one player in this quarter has left an imprint on this surface before.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Greatest threat:  Wozniacki

Second quarter:  Whereas the first quarter features only one former Wimbledon quarterfinalist, this region features no fewer than seven who have attained that stage here before.  Possibly colliding in the second round are two of those figures, newly crowned Roland Garros champion Li Na and newly crowned Birmingham champion Lisicki.  Between them, however, stands volatile Russian Kudryavtseva, who upset Sharapova and nearly Venus on the lawns before as her high-risk title ignited at timely moments.  The survivor of Li-Lisicki then might collide with 2008 semifinalist Zheng, well below her best since a wrist injury last year but still a competitor of underestimated ferocity.  Although Ivanovic’s 2007 semifinal lies four long years ago, the Serb also reached the second week in 2009 and will have lifted her spirits after a Birmingham semifinal as well as an Eastbourne victory over Goerges.  Not quite a title contender, two-time quarterfinalist Radwanska has found surprising success on these fast courts, which reward her delicate touch and amplify her serve.  After thrusting into the Roland Garros semifinals, 2007 runner-up Bartoli extended her momentum with an Eastbourne title run built upon victories over Stosur and Kvitova.  Back in the top 10, the double-fisted Frenchwoman should face little opposition until the second Monday, when she would meet the defending champion.  If Serena stays fit and Li focused, they should reprise last year’s quarterfinal.  Both of those questions loom large indeed, however, considering their history.

Semifinalist:  S. Williams

Greatest threat:  Li

Third quarter:  Alternately stunning and shaky in recent weeks, the seeds who bookend this quarter will have little time to settle into a groove.  Confronted by Dutch Open runner-up Dokic, Schiavone hopes to avoid her early 2010 exit at the major that exposes her offensive shortcomings from the baseline.  Tasked with powerful albeit feckless Slovak Rybarikova, Azarenka will attempt to rebound swiftly from her Eastbourne retirement.  Vika usually has followed those concessions with sparkling performances, though, springing back from an Indian Wells retirement with a Miami title and from a Stuttgart retirement with a Madrid final.  The leading headline of the preparatory events, Hantuchova has defeated Wozniacki, Ivanovic, and Venus in her last three tournaments before also retiring from Eastbourne.  If her injury proves insignificant, she might ruffle Azarenka’s composure in the third round.  Seeking her third consecutive Slam quarterfinal, Petkovic eyes a comfortable first-week draw with few potential foes who can match her self-belief.  Already extending Azarenka to two three-setters this season, meanwhile, budding Russian Pavlyuchenkova seeks to capitalize upon her quarterfinal (near-semifinal) at the previous major.  Pounding winners through the clay from both wings, she should find the grass even better suited to her power-heavy, movement-light style.  Pavlyuchenkova’s compatriot Makarova also stands poised to garner attention for her quirky left-handed game and forecourt skills, honed through her doubles experience.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Greatest threats:  Pavlyuchenkova, Petkovic

Fourth quarter:  Spared an early-round meeting with her sister, Venus instead might collide with familiar foe Jankovic in the first week.  Outside the top 10 for the first time in four years, the Serb rarely has enjoyed her visits to Wimbledon, although she reached the second week last year.  The elder Williams looked initially impressive during her Eastbourne week with victories over Petkovic and Ivanovic before her first career loss to Hantuchova cast a pall upon those achievements.  At the bottom of this quarter stands 2010 finalist Zvonareva, likely to respond to the pressure of defending her points with little more resilience than her counterpart Berdych.  After an encouraging victory over Serena at Eastbourne, the second seed slumped to a demoralizing defeat against Stosur as a frustratingly inconsistent season continued.  Handed a relatively comfortable draw, Vera could reprise last year’s semifinal triumph over Pironkova in the third round before battling the winner of the marquee Venus-Jankovic collision.  Nevertheless, the most imposing threat may spring from the upper section of this quarter, from which Kvitova will launch her bid to reach a second straight Wimbledon semifinal.  If she can escape an early stumble, this Czech lefty will gather momentum with each round.  Falling only to eventual champion Li at Roland Garros, she remains less consistent than one expects from a contender but sufficiently confident to ambush a rusty Venus or a fragile Zvonareva.

Semifinalist:  Kvitova

Greatest threat:  V. Williams

Semifinals:  Sharapova vs. S. Willliams, Azarenka vs. Kvitova

Final:  Sharapova vs. Kvitova

Champion:  Maria Sharapova

 

Novak Djokovic - Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open - Day Five

Lifting the lid to the magic box, we catch sight of several familiar faces on Friday but not quite the cast that one initially expected to assemble at this stage.  We examine the quarterfinals in the semi-predictable ATP draw and its wildly unpredictable WTA counterpart.

Nadal vs. Llodra:  From the outset, one expected the defending champion to reach a quarterfinal in which he would face a lefty with an affinity for charging the net and a brazen, occasionally dubious shot selection.  But one did not expect the aging Llodra to record the finest clay performance of his career, supplanting the eighth-seeded Melzer in an anarchic corner of the draw.  Llodra’s achievement speaks not only to his talent but to the atypical surface and conditions in Madrid, the slickest clay court that one will ever encounter.  Spared from undue exertion by Del Potro’s untimely injury, Nadal has played only one match this week.  Although Llodra upset a weary Djokovic last fall at the Paris Indoors, he surely cannot hope to win more than a handful of games from the world #1.  Swifter than the surface of Court Philippe Chatrier, the Manolo Santana Stadium nevertheless remains a clay court and thus as lethal for most of Rafa’s challengers as the Colosseum for the Christians of ancient Rome.

Federer vs. Soderling:  A match away from meeting his archrival in a Monte Carlo semifinal, Federer slumped abruptly to a straight-sets defeat against Melzer.  The listless nature of that performance caused many to wonder whether the third seed lacked the desire to embark upon yet another quixotic attempt to conquer Nadal on clay.  If a similarly uncertain Federer spars with Soderling on Friday, the Swede might well score just his second victory in their seventeen meetings.  Chronically injured and regularly inconsistent since March, the two-time Roland Garros finalist may have seized some momentum from a tense victory over Tsonga that remained in doubt almost from the first ball to the last.  On the other hand, Federer may relax in relief from the reprieve that he earned when Feliciano Lopez failed to deliver the coup de grace, leading 5-2 in the third-set tiebreak.  While Soderling has won three titles this year to his opponent’s one, the Swiss star has progressed further at all of the key events in Melbourne, Indian Wells, and Miami (Soderling did not play Monte Carlo).  Moreover, the slippery surface and altitude in Madrid should favor a player with greater margin for error and ability to adjust to changing circumstances throughout a match.  Despite the Swede’s capacity to remorselessly punish a tennis ball, he has not excelled in his previous appearances here—one of which ended in a straight-sets loss to Federer.

Berdych vs. Bellucci:  Watching the top-ranked Brazilian upset the top-ranked Brit on Thursday, we noticed fleeting resemblances between the games of Bellucci and 2010 WTA champion Rezai.  Both players whack their groundstrokes with unbridled vigor but lack a sense of how to construct a point or transition from a neutral or defensive position into offensive.  Many were the 150-kph winners that Bellucci whacked past a stumbling Murray, but many were the needlessly sprayed errors that targeted an opening where none existed.  To the Brazilian’s credit, he found the former strokes at the few critical junctures of the match, snuffing out the fourth seed’s last serious threat with a pulverized inside-in forehands.  Two years ago at Roland Garros, he delivered a similarly compelling performance in a competitive loss to Nadal.  And the only somewhat more reliable shot-making of Almagro carried that Spaniard to the semifinals here last year, so Bellucci’s run might extend further.  Against Berdych, however, he will face an opponent who can match him blow for blow from the baseline and ace for ace from the service notch.  In that situation, the less experienced Brazilian will want to pin the Czech into his backhand corner before he finds himself pinned there instead.  Whoever cracks the first mighty blow in the rally will rarely relinquish the initiative thenceforth.

Ferrer vs. Djokovic:  Arguably the most scintillating quarterfinal, this contest pits a 31-match winning streak against a foe who has not lost a clay match to anyone other than Nadal in three tournaments.   Adding to the intrigue is the second-ranked Spaniard’s success against the Serb on this surface, which spans a quite irrelevant 2004 battle in Bucharest, a somewhat relevant 2007 meeting in Monte Carlo, and a highly relevant 2009 duel in Davis Cup.  Generally at his most intense and motivated when playing for his nation, Djokovic could not pry even a set away from the Spaniard on the last of those occasions.  Desultory in the clay season a year ago, he rose to the challenges posed by clay in 2009 with a thunderous charge to the most memorable match ever played in the Spanish capital, a four-hour semifinal against Nadal during which he held multiple match points.  The highly anticipated rematch lies two rounds ahead, but the world #2 can deliver an imposing statement by thrusting aside the player who finished runner-up to Rafa in Monte Carlo and Barcelona.  Dispatching Garcia-Lopez in 54 clinical minutes, Djokovic has looked sharper early this week than in Belgrade last week.  Crucial to his 2011 feats has been his serve, vastly improved from his previous clay losses to Ferrer.  Even more improved is the Serb’s conditioning, which now might enable him to win a war of attrition against the player who personifies that style.  If he can, he will take even greater confidence into a potential Sunday encounter with Nadal.

Julia Goerges Julia Goerges of Germany plays  Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark during the Madrid  Open Tennis Championship in Spain. Georges beat the World No. 1 Wozniacki.

Goerges vs. Pavlyuchenkova:  Last week, one could shrug off the German’s victory over Wozniacki as an emotion-stoked triumph fueled by the Stuttgart crowd.  This week’s result will prove harder to rationalize for the Dane, who could not avenge her loss to Goerges as she did her Miami loss to Petkovic.  Showing perhaps greater grit than the surface in Manolo Santana, the top seed’s challenger refused to wilt after a lopsided second set and in the face of mounting fatigue.  Like her dancing compatriot, Goerges also seems to possess a tactical sensibility greater than many in her generation.  That tool could play a pivotal role against the heavy-hitting, largely straightforward assault of Pavlyuchenkova, who hopes to spearhead the next Russian surge.  After two draining three-setters against #1s, however, how much energy will Goerges bring to a match scheduled first on Friday?  Toppling Stosur with aplomb, Pavlyuchenkova has at least temporarily quelled the injuries and double-fault woes that threatened to derail this precocious teenager.  In a field without a single Slam champion, #1, or former Roland Garros finalist, the much-anticipated breakthrough of this former junior #1 might lie just around the corner.

Azarenka vs. Safarova:  Sometimes fallible against lefties, the fourth seed has been anything but fallible against Safarova in winning all ten of the sets that they have contested.  Showing no lingering discomfort after a shoulder injury in Stuttgart, Azarenka has conceded just five games in six sets en route to the quarterfinals.  Consecutive titles in Miami and Marbella positioned her ideally for a convincing clay campaign, although she bookended those championships with retirements and remains susceptible to sudden injury at any moment.  For the first time in her career, she finds herself the favorite to win a title of consequence, so one wonders how she will respond to that sort of pressure.  Outstanding during last year’s clay season, Safarova reached the Rome quarterfinals and Madrid semifinals with victories over Sharapova, Petrova, Pennetta, and Radwanska, among others.  Thus, her upset over the sixth-seeded Jankovic here should have surprised less than it did at first glance.  Despite her dismal record against Azarenka, she has not faced her on clay since 2007 and perhaps can bring a fresh mentality to this sixth meeting.

Li vs. Mattek-Sands:  A year after Venus reached the Madrid final, one of her compatriots attempts to emulate that feat.  Bageled by Ivanovic in her first set of the tournament, Mattek-Sands has won six consecutive sets since then while ousting not only the 2008 but the 2010 Roland Garros champions.  Less accomplished on clay than on other surface, Li Na finally has won consecutive matches for the first time since the Australian Open.  A severe test confronted her in an opener against clay specialist Martinez Sanchez, who dazzled recently in Fed Cup and might have unsettled the rhythmic Li with her idiosyncratic, inspired arsenal.  Winning two tight sets from the Spaniard, the Chinese star displayed renewed fortitude and focus.  In a French Open field stripped nearly bare of superstars, she may have an opportunity to do what she could not quite do in Melbourne.  While that opportunity still lies far ahead, a Madrid semifinal appearance would lift her spirits at a crucial moment, whereas a loss to an unheralded American could cast her into gloom once more.

Cibulkova vs. Kvitova:  In a quarter initially dominated by three Russians, a Slovak and a Czech have carved their way past Sharapova, Kuznetsova, and Zvonareva.  Since winning two titles in the first two months of 2011, the second Czech lefty in the Madrid quarterfinals struggled to leave an impact upon the spring tournaments.  A flat ball-striker with little spin or margin, she may reap greater rewards on this particular clay court than on most others.  After three straight wins over Slam champions, Cibulkova stands alone among the quarterfinalists as a former Roland Garros semifinalist (2009).  Often overlooked (literally) amidst her towering rivals, she can club a forehand with an authority that belies her stature.  Cibulkova demonstrated herself a resilient competitor during her win over Sharapova, during which she let two leads escape her but regrouped in time to win the vital last two games of both sets.  Rarely does the Slovak become the architect of her own undoing, forcing opponents to earn their victories.  Wozniacki failed to solve her riddle in Sydney this season, Zvonareva in Indian Wells, while Azarenka found Cibulkova her most compelling test en route to the Miami title.  But Kvitova twice has cracked the code already in 2011, allowing her to swagger into their match with the psychological edge.

Rafael Nadal (Spain) beats fellow countryman Fernando Verdasco (Spain) in straight sets, 6/0, 6/1in the final. It's Nadal's 6th straight victory in Monte-Carlo, a record.  Prince Albert de Monaco gave the trophies to the finalists. Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters 2010, an ATP Tour Masters 1000 tennis tournament, held on the clay courts of the Monte-Carlo Country Club.

Perched above the Mediterranean, Monte Carlo has spent the last six years as the undisputed stronghold of Rafael Nadal.  Terminating an 11-month title drought there last season, the Spaniard swept to the title in especially emphatic style by losing no more than six games in any of his matches.  Much of the anticipation surrounding the first clay Masters 1000 event evaporated when Djokovic decided to bask in the glory of his hard-earned Indian Wells-Miami double.  Other than Federer, who has lost three Monte Carlo finals to Nadal, no player in the draw ever has defeated the Spaniard on the clay from which he sprang.  Who dares to storm Rafa’s redoubt this year?

First quarter:  Among the most notable victories of Gasquet’s career occurred on these shores in 2005, when he saved three match points before conquering Federer in a third-set tiebreak.  Often an underachiever on home soil since then, the Frenchman did capture the clay title in nearby Nice last season.  Gasquet twice has won sets from Nadal on the terre battue but has not faced him there since the Spaniard’s first Roland Garros title.  Despite a February-March resurgence, one expects him to muster only meager resistance against the greatest clay-court player in tennis history.  A late wildcard entrant to Monte Carlo, Berdych surely laments the misfortune that situated him in the Spaniard’s section, although he snapped a 20-set losing streak when they met in Miami.  Surging within a set of the Roland Garros final last year, the fifth seed could find his surface skills tested by the canny veteran Juan Ignacio Chela.  Entertaining but unfocused in North American losses to Malisse and Dolgopolov,  Tsonga opens his Monaco campaign against…Monaco, whose grinding style has blunted foes as formidable as Murray on this surface before.

Second quarter:  The highest-ranked player in this section, Murray almost certainly will not fulfill his seeding by progressing to the semifinals.  Reeling from ignominious losses to Donald Young and Alex Bogomolov, Jr., the Scot might start against Rotterdam nemesis Baghdatis.  The Cypriot fancies the clay as little as does the third seed, though, so Murray may have an opportunity to repeat his victory in their meeting at Roland Garros last year.  Similarly encircled by questions, the eighth-seeded Monfils returns from an injury that forced him to miss both Indian Wells and Miami.  While his sliding movement and defensive instincts suit the clay, the Frenchman often lacks the concentration necessary to prevail in a surface that favors longer rallies and greater patience.  His shot-making skills should find an intriguing test in Santiago Giraldo, who enjoyed an eye-opening clay campaign in 2010 before receding.  In a quarter filled with slumping seeds, Giraldo and fellow clay specialist Montanes could penetrate further than expected.  Also a potential dark horse, left-handed Brazilian talent Thomaz Bellucci possesses the weapons to threaten Murray should they meet in the fourth round.  Since no clear favorite looms above this section, more intriguing plotlines could unfold here than in the other quarters.

Third quarter:  Bookending an assortment of streaky, unreliable competitors are the two Spaniards who dogged Nadal’s footsteps during the last clay season.  A runner-up here a year ago, Verdasco desperately needs to regain his footing after a tepid end to 2010 slid into a woeful start to 2011, after which he eyed the return to clay with particular relish.  Yet he may not relish the prospect of an opening meeting with Robredo, who still can punish inconsistent opponents with his bland but stingy consistency.  A runner-up to Nadal in Rome last year, Ferrer has attained far more imposing heights during the last few months, winning two titles and reaching the Australian Open semifinals.  Swift to rebound from an opening-round loss in the California desert, the Spanish #2 gained momentum with a Miami quarterfinal and  should outlast anyone who could meet him before his compatriot.  Sometimes uneasy when forced to generate offense, Ferrer excels when he slips into a counterpunching role of redirecting an opponent’s pace, a task that will confront him constantly as he journeys through this section.  Flamboyant shot-makers Dolgopolov and Gulbis should leave craters in the clay with their percussive groundstrokes, while Llodra and Raonic should offer the rare spectacle of serve-and-volley tennis on the sport’s slowest surface.

Fourth quarter:  Outclassed by Nadal in Miami, a listless Federer arrives in Europe searching for a spark after a series of defeats against the two players ranked above him.  While his decreasing consistency will undermine him on clay more than anywhere else, the second seed will profit from the additional time that the surface provides him to exploit his forehand more frequently and construct points more carefully.  Having upset Murray and Djokovic on clay before, potential second-round opponent Kohlschreiber will force the 2009 Roland Garros champion to find his footing immediately, but the path grows smoother thereafter.  Strictly a hard-court player, Cilic has not learned how to arrange his lanky limbs on the clay, and his self-belief has sagged during the past year.  Unexpectedly reaching the semifinals at the Paris Outdoors last season, Melzer has rarely justified his top-10 ranking in 2011.  Repeatedly dismantled by Federer last year, the Austrian might succumb to Davydenko’s sharply angled groundstrokes in the second round.  Although his best tennis lies behind him, the Russian has recorded more impressive achievements on clay than anyone in this section except the Swiss.  Nor should one overlook Nicolas Almagro, who slashed through South American clay like a knife through butter.  Nevertheless, Federer has lost to just one player outside the top 5 since Wimbledon while compiling a 13-semifinal streak.

Semifinals:  Nadal vs. Monfils, Ferrer vs. Federer

Final:  Nadal vs. Federer

Champion:  Rafael Nadal

Whereas the women’s draw at Indian Wells yawns open for a host of players to exploit, the men’s draw rests within the vise-like grasp of a tiny elite.  Or so we thought last year until Ljubicic reminded us that anything can happen in a land where vistas reveal themselves as mirages.   Will the desert sands shift again in 2011?  We think not.

The best tennis player in the world, Rafael Nadal, wins the ATP tournament of Indian Wells. Rafa defeated Andy Murray in the final match.

First quarter:  Like fellow top seed Wozniacki, Nadal should settle into a section littered with compatriots from Almagro and Montanes to Australian Open nemesis Ferrer.  Sharpening his hard-court weapons against clay specialist Juan Monaco, the two-time Indian Wells champion might confront a player who served for the match against him here three years ago.  Renowned for a stunning 2008 triumph over Rafa in an Australian Open semifinal, Tsonga has lost all five of their other meetings.  In fact, the acrobatic Frenchman might fall victim before that round to the fitter, leaner version of Marcos Baghdatis, although the volatile Cypriot has alternated wins over Del Potro and Murray with retirements in Melbourne and Dubai.  Veering wildly between peaks and valleys, Baghdatis ambushed Federer in this tournament last year and fell to Robredo a round later.  Unless he can reprise his three-set upset over Nadal in Cincinnati, the world #1 should have an opportunity to avenge his recent Melbourne defeat.  In a comic juxtaposition between two foes 13 inches apart in height, Ferrer must tame Karlovic’s staccato, record-breaking serve.  The diminutive Spanard then must adjust to the grinding court coverage of Simon and the flamboyant groundstrokes of Almagro, a two-time titlist this season who fell to Ferrer in the Acapulco final two weeks ago.  Tested by that trio of contrasting styles, the world #6 should profit from the slow hard courts of Indian Wells.  But he will find the healthy Rafa a far more imposing challenge than the hobbled warrior who mustered little resistance against him at the Australian Open.

Semifinalist:  the 2007 and 2009 champion

Second quarter:  Just as in Melbourne, Soderling’s possession of the fourth seed proved immaterial in a draw that could pit him against the fifth-seeded Murray.  Aligned against Kohlschreiber in the third round, the bone-crushing Swede will hope to relive the memory of a Rotterdam encounter during which he saved a match point en route to defeating the German for the first time in five meetings.  Soon to suffer a precipitous rankings tumble, defending champion Ljubicic might not survive the revitalized Del Potro in the second round.  And everyone in this section will struggle to solve the conundrum of Alexander Dolgopolov, the only player to defeat Soderling so far in 2011.  Capitalizing upon the momentum from the Melbourne quarterfinals, the Ukrainian scintillated Latin American audiences last month with his loose-limbed grace.  In this section’s lower half lurks Murray, who suffered from post-Melbourne doldrums here last year during a listless loss to Soderling.  Few potential opponents can hand him a credible excuse for an early exit this time, for even a tepid version of the Scot remains far superior on hard courts to the aging Starace, the powerless Robredo, and the stagnant Verdasco.  Wallowing through three consecutive losses before arriving in the desert, the Spaniard has won consecutive matches in only two of his last eleven tournaments.

Semifinalist:  the 2009 runner-up

Novak Djokovic of Serbia kisses the Pacific Life Open trophy after winning the men's final match by defeating Mardy Fish at the Pacific Life Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden March 23, 2008 in Indian Wells, California. Djokovic won the match 6-2, 5-7, 6-3.

Third quarter:  Undefeated this season after the longest winning streak of his career, Djokovic will attempt to duplicate his 2008 achievement of coupling the year’s first major with the year’s first Masters 1000 event.  Within striking range of the #2 ranking, the Serb will risk his pristine record against Hopman Cup victim Golubev, who will arrive in Indian Wells buoyed by recent Davis Cup heroics.  While the enigmatic Gulbis could loom a round later, Djokovic should glide to the quarterfinals rather than enduring an encore of last year’s early exit.  Among the other intriguing matches in his vicinity is a projected third-round duel between Troicki and Llodra, who decided the 2010 Davis Cup title.  Elsewhere in this section, the stars and stripes wave above Roddick, Blake, and Isner, only one of whom can reach the fourth round.  Defending 1,600 points this month, last year’s finalist seeks to avert another loss to the player who defeated him in a fifth-set tiebreak at the 2009 US Open.  Unlike the slick surface of Arthur Ashe Stadium, the sluggish courts of Indian Wells should tilt towards Roddick’s favor in a collision between Davis Cup teammates.  Tormented by Gasquet four Wimbledons ago, the American should navigate past either the Frenchman or Melzer to arrange a second Indian Wells quarterfinal against Djokovic.  Although Roddick prevailed on that occasion and in four of their last five encounters, the Serb has reclaimed the swagger that propelled him to victory when they met at the 2008 US Open.

Semifinalist:  the 2008 champion

Fourth quarter:  The only player ever to win three consecutive titles in the California desert, Federer hopes to erase the memories of his last several visits to Indian Wells.  After an opening-match loss to Canas to 2007, the Swiss legend mustered just five games against Mardy Fish in the 2008 semifinals, ate a third-set breadstick against Murray in the 2009 semifinals, and spurned double match point en route to defeat against Baghdatis in the third round last year.  Troubled at two previous hard-court majors by potential second-round opponent Andreev, Federer likely will find himself faced with either the aforementioned Fish or overnight sensation Milos Raonic in the fourth round.  Enjoying a meteoric rise through the rankings, the Canadian prodigy must eagerly anticipate the opportunity test his Ancic-like style against the ATP’s most prestigious names.  Federer will hope to meet Wawrinka in the quarterfinals, since his compatriot typically melts at the sight of the GOAT like snow in the desert sun.  Slightly more likely to derail a third 2011 duel with Djokovic is the seventh-seeded Berdych, however, who saved match point against the Swiss in Miami before snapping his streak of seven consecutive Wimbledon finals.  Surely still nursing a thirst for revenge, Federer overcame the Czech at the Rogers Cup last summer by the slimmest of margins.  How much longer can his agility and competitive resilience continue to weather the next generation’s savage baseline blows?

Semifinalist:  the 2004, 2005, and 2006 champion

 

 

Rafael Nadal - Spain v Czech Republic - Davis Cup World Group Final - Day Two

Embarrassment of riches (BEL vs. ESP): Spearheaded by a reinvigorated Rafa, the Spanish team has marshaled no fewer than three top-10 players against a Belgian team with only one member (Malisse) in the top 100.  So potent is Spain’s firepower, in fact, that world #9 Verdasco initially planned to participate only in doubles before Ferrer’s neck cramp forced captain Alberto Costa to redesign his lineup.  While Nadal will profit from a virtual practice match against Bemelmans, the other Spanish lefty can rediscover his hard-court rhythm after consecutive losses to Raonic when he confronts Malisse in the opening rubber.  That match should prove the most competitive of a brutally one-sided tie, certain to deploy the Davis Cup’s new prohibition against dead fifth rubbers.

Weekend without superstars (SRB vs. IND):  Sensibly sparing his energies with the two mini-majors on the horizon, former Indian Wells and Miami champion Djokovic joined Indian Express Bhupathi and Paes on the sidelines as Serbia opens its title defense.  Stripped of its most notable participants, this tie nevertheless will feature a glimpse of rising Indian star Somdeev Devvarman, a Hewitt-esque player gradually inching further into main draws.  But the home squad should thoroughly control proceedings under the aegis of 2010 Davis Cup Final hero Troicki, Delray Beach finalist Tipsarevic, and aging doubles legend Zimonjic.  Just three months after winning their first title in this competition, Serbia should sweep comfortably and schedule a fascinating second-round meeting with Soderling’s Sweden or Tarpischev’s Russia.  On that occasion, they will need their superstar again.

Clinic on clay (ARG vs. ROM): Across from the Grouchy Gaucho stands the Romanian Spit-Fire in a clash of notably ill-tempered personalities.  An enigma in individual competition, Nalbandian has delivered  several memorable performances while compiling a 20-5 record in Davis Cup singles rubbers (16-2 on clay), but Hanescu could thrive on a surface where he has an 11-3 Davis Cup record.  Beyond the two #1s, the 31st-ranked Chela, the 33rd-ranked Monaco, and even Eduardo Schwank trump any member of the visiting squad in clay-court talent, so the surface and the thunderous Buenos Aires crowd should play a decisive role in this tie.   The plot could thicken if the tie reaches Saturday at 1-1, allowing Romanian doubles specialist Horia Tecau to showcase his craft in a potentially pivotal rubber against an Argentine team comprised entirely of singles stars.  In order for the visitors to prevail, though, Hanescu almost surely must win three rubbers, a task probably too tall for the weak-willed, heavy-legged #59 in surroundings as hostile as the Parque Roca.

Serves against the surface (CHI vs. USA):  We might have favored Chile to spring this upset had its marquee player Fernando Gonzalez played a role.  Instead, that inveterate ball-bruiser will join the legions of passionate Chilean fans in an attempt to propel four players outside the top 100 past Roddick, Isner, and the world’s top doubles team.  On any surface other than clay, this matchup would look no less intimidating than Belgium vs. Spain.  Even on clay, the serves of Roddick and Isner will garner many more free points than the the crumbling, 31-year-old Massu and the punchless Capdeville, famously feckless in Davis Cup.  Gallantly battling Djokovic on clay in Davis Cup last year, Isner projects surprising power from his inside-out forehand on this surface, while Roddick always brings an extra jolt of adrenaline and focus to national team competition.  First-time captain Jim Courier should enjoy a debut that will set up a far more imposing home encounter with Spain a week after Wimbledon.

Spotlight on the supporting actors (CRO vs. GER):  With Karlovic drifting towards retirement, Croatia hopes that Zagreb champion Ivan Dodig can slip smoothly into the role of #2 behind Cilic, edging back towards relevance after a final in Marseille.  But Germany bolsters the mercurial Kohlschreiber by bringing an even more promising #2 to this weekend’s collision, which looks destined to enter Sunday undecided.  A two-time semifinalist already this season, Florian Mayer has defeated Del Potro and Davydenko this year while quelling rising Lithuanian Berankis.  Perhaps more importantly, he ended Cilic’s Zagreb defense in February with a startlingly routine victory.  In addition to the Zagreb title, Dodig distinguished himself by winning the only set that Djokovic lost at the Australian Open, and the long-time journeyman has won at least one match at every tournament that he has played this year.  If he duels with Mayer in a decisive fifth rubber, scintillating Davis Cup drama could ensue.

Tomas Berdych - 2011 Australian Open - Day 5

Veterans and novices (CZE vs. KAZ):  While Davis Cup stalwart Stepanek may have Czeched out on this weekend’s action, but Berdych still towers over not only his teammates but their Kazakh opponents.  Squandering a 2-1 lead against Serbia in last year’s semifinals, the Czech Republic contested the Davis Cup final in 2009 and will benefit from a vast advantage in experience over a nation elevated to the World Group for the first time.  In the doubles, Berdych may partner doubles specialist Dlouhy in a Saturday rubber where the home squad should trump the singles-only visitors.  But captain Jaroslav Navratil may decide to reserve his ace for a fourth rubber against Golubev, who nearly defeated Tomas in Washington last summer.  The Kazakh #1 has started 2011 in miserable form, however, dropping four straight matches to start the season and earning his only victory in five tournaments courtesy of a Baghdatis retirement.  Unless he can reverse that momentum  immediately, Kazakhstan won’t play again until September.

One against many (SWE vs. RUS, AUS vs. FRA):  Eyeing his overmatched prey with relish, Soderling should feast upon a Russian team bereft of Davydenko, Youzhny, or any player in the top 75.  The Swede charges into the weekend with three titles in his last four tournaments and 17 victories in his 18 matches this season.  Although legendary strategist Shamil Tarpischev lacks a superstar to counterbalance the world #4, he has marshaled four veterans who have ample expertise in both singles and doubles, thus providing him with a variety of options to manipulate in his characteristically unpredictable style.  Almost certainly doomed in Soderling’s two singles rubbers, Russia conceivably could win the other three.  Behind Soderling stand only the doubles specialists  Aspelin and Lindstedt as well as the quasi-retired Joachim Johansson, summoned for probably perfunctory singles duty.  Johansson has won only one Davis Cup match in his career and none since 2005, while he has played only three total matches since the start of 2010.  At the core of the weekend thus lies the doubles rubber.  A combined 3-9 in Davis Cup doubles, the scheduled duo of Kunitsyn and Tursunov did win their only Cup collaboration against the formidable Argentine pairing of Canas and Nalbandian on Buenos Aires clay.  Curiously, their opponents also have underperformed in the Cup despite winning a silver medal at the 2008 Olympics.

A less striking version of the same storyline could unfold inside an Austrian aircraft hangar, where world #10 Jurgen Melzer seeks to soar above a French team crippled by injuries to its leading stars.  Among the questions surrounding the 2010 Davis Cup finalists is the tension between captain Guy Forget and singles #1 Gilles Simon, a dynamic absent in the avuncular Tarpischev’s squad.  Also, how will Llodra recover from the disappointment of losing the decisive rubber in last year’s final, and how will Jeremy Chardy respond to the pressure of his first meaningful match in Davis Cup, contested before a hostile crowd?  On the other hand, Melzer has looked vulnerable while accumulating a 5-3 record this year, and his supporting cast features no player more imposing than the 34-year-old, 206th-ranked Stefan Koubek.  (One might debate whether Koubek or Johansson will pose a more credible challenge.)  If the visitors can solve their internal differences, they can rely upon a sturdier doubles pairing in Benneteau and Llodra.  Outside that flamboyant duo, though, almost nothing looks certain in a tie that plausibly could come down to a bizarre final rubber between Koubek and Chardy or just as plausibly end in a resounding sweep—by either side.

***

We return in a few days to open our coverage of Indian Wells!

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