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Rafael Nadal - Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open - Day Eight

Far from a foregone conclusion at times on Saturday, an encore of the championship matches in Indian Wells and Miami will oppose a 33-match winning streak and a 37-match clay winning streak.  From Nadal’s perspective, of course, “encore” serves as a singularly poor word to describe the events that he hopes will unfold.  After winning the first set in each of their North American finals, the Spaniard uncharacteristically squandered leads on both occasions as the world #2 outhit and outmaneuvered the world #1 at the key turning points in those matches.  Most impressive was the apparent fitness edge that the Serb enjoyed in their Miami final, when he looked the less fatigued of the two in the climactic tiebreak.  Yet Rafa has dominated Novak on clay and grass, maintaining a perfect record highlighted by their semifinal clash in Madrid two years ago.  In that riveting four-hour duel, Djokovic delivered a performance that he considered (rightfully) among the finest of his career but still fell one point short of victory.  Can he win one more point this time to preserve his impeccable 2011 record?

With the momentum of their mini-rivalry squarely in his corner, Djokovic should approach this final as confidently as he has approached any of his collisions with Nadal.  Unlikely to become complacent, though, he recognizes the towering task that confronts him and likely will follow Federer’s example in attacking Nadal relentlessly from the baseline, striking the ball early and redirecting it often.  Outside his winning streak, Djokovic probably has less at stake in this match than the world #1 whom he aims to supplant.  Overshadowed by the Serb on the hard court, Rafa cannot cede this clay citadel without amplifying the murmurs of Djokovic’s ascendancy and elevating the pressure that accompanies him at Roland Garros.  If Djokovic can capture his sixth title of his season, he would move a significant step closer to the top ranking while establishing himself as a serious challenger to Nadal’s reign in Paris, although the Spaniard certainly would remain the favorite.  If Rafa can halt Novak’s momentum, by contrast, he would reassert his supremacy as the world #1 and launch himself into the crucial coming weeks with confidence secure.  In a rivalry that likely will define the early stages of this decade, the ATP top two may divide the world into surfaces just as the former top two once did.  With Djokovic aiming to control the hard courts and Nadal the remaining surface, any triumph on the other’s territory resonates with especial force.

Not only a sequel to their thunderous 2009 classic, the 2011 Madrid final offers a plausible preview of the Roland Garros final, albeit on a markedly different surface with markedly different conditions.  Few sequels rise to the level of the original that inspired them, and this match should prove no exception; neither Nadal nor Djokovic has unleashed their most scintillating tennis this week.  (Also, how does one trump a 20-point final-set tiebreak for suspense?)  But that epic two years ago drained both of its combatants, both of whom fell before the quarterfinals in Paris.  This year, perhaps a less magical encounter will serve as an appetizer rather than a feast of Lucullan proportions, setting the stage for what lies ahead rather than resulting in a premature climax.

Victoria Azarenka - Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open - Day Eight

Whereas Nadal and Djokovic will contest their 26th meeting, the WTA finalists will clash for just the fourth time.  Like the Serb, Azarenka mastered the task of defusing an unseeded semifinalist armed with blazing first-strike power and an impressive degree of self-belief.  From her relatively routine triumph shone the Belarussian’s own confidence, undimmed by the intimidating forehands and return winners that Goerges thumped throughout the first several games.  Weathering the early storm with a champion’s aplomb, Azarenka merely honed her focus and scored the pivotal break after trailing 40-0 on her opponent’s serve.  Once she asserted control, moreover, she imposed a linear narrative of increasing dominance upon a match that many had expected to drip with drama.  The new world #4 displayed encouraging tactical acuity when she organized rallies around backhands to pit her greatest weapon against the German’s weaker wing, but she did not hesitate to attack the forehand when she saw an opening or to approach the forecourt upon the first mid-court ball.  In clear contention for the Roland Garros crown is an Azarenka who can muster that level of composure, always the chink in her armor.

Stifled by Kvitova at Wimbledon last year during an arid, injury-blighted spring, Vika hopes to recapture her two earlier successes against the Czech.  Winning four of her five matches against the top 10 this year, including two this week, the Wimbledon semifinalist has announced herself in commanding fashion as an all-surface threat.  Against one of the WTA’s most sparkling returners, Kvitova must seek to control of points immediately with her serve.  Her own return constitutes a formidable weapon as well, subjecting Azarenka’s less imposing delivery to consistent pressure.  Both of these brash blondes contest their third finals of the season, and both won their previous two, so neither should shrink from the opportunity before them.  Aiming for a sweep of the singles and doubles titles, Azarenka has a somewhat fiercer appetite and somewhat more developed game, so she enters as the slight favorite to win a second straight Premier Mandatory title.

The preparatory events to Roland Garros proved a poisoned chalice for their 2010 WTA champions, neither of whom could sustain anything approaching their excellence there.  Nevertheless, the 21-year-old who drinks from that cup this year should not suffer the same fate but instead continue to climb upwards through the ranks of contenders, battling over their sport’s most prestigious prizes.

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Rafael Nadal Roger Federer of Switzerland (R) and Rafael Nadal of Spain share a moment during the prize giving ceremony after the mens final during the Madrid Open tennis tournament at the Caja Magica on May 17, 2009 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Rafael Nadal;Roger Federer

Roger Federer Mens finalist Rafael Nadal and  Roger Federer of Switzerland hold aloft their trophies after the mens final match during the Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open tennis tournament at the Caja Magica on May 16, 2010 in Madrid, Spain.

Nadal vs. Federer:  Among the oddest moments of the 2010 season was the final shot (or non-shot) of their meeting last year in Madrid, a whiff by the 16-time major champion on the twelfth point of the second-set tiebreak.  Rarely has a Masters 1000 tournament ended in such anticlimactic fashion, but their 2009 final in the Caja Magica likewise exuded an air of anticlimax.  Exhausted by his semifinal classic with Djokovic that year, Nadal could not consistently challenge his archrival.  Nevertheless, each Madrid final propelled its victor towards the Roland Garros title three weeks later.  An altered schedule has reduced that potential impact, while Federer does not pose as serious a threat to Rafa’s supremacy on Court Philippe Chatrier as he once did.  Yet intrigue still hovers around their third meeting in the Spanish capital, where the atypically fast surface theoretically should offer the Swiss star his best possible opportunity to unseat the world #1 on clay.  In a quarterfinal victory over Soderling, his first win over a top-5 opponent this season, the third seed never lost his serve and moved more smoothly on the slippery surface than in earlier rounds.  During two brief excursions to the Caja Magica, meanwhile, Nadal has not lost his own serve and surrendered eight total games in performances crisper than many of his previous Madrid efforts.

As Rafa’s ascendancy over Roger has inexorably mounted, their rivalry has pivoted less around the question of “can Nadal topple the GOAT?” than the question of “can Federer conquer his nemesis?”  Following a lackluster loss to Nadal in Miami, some would suggest that the question has become “can Federer keep the match competitive?”  Although that formulation seems premature, the burden clearly rests on the Spaniard to maintain his current dominance over their rivalry.  This shift should allow the 16-time major champion to play with the fluid, confident aggression so rarely evident in his recent matches against Nadal.  But is Federer ready to recognize this shift and assume the underdog’s mantle?  Central to his achievements, a streak of rigid stubbornness may prevent him from perceiving himself as anything other than the favorite and the established champion, a role that he has played so well for so long.  In this waning phase of his career, Federer may need to become less gracious and more gritty.  Now when he plays Nadal, the inevitable uncertainties of an aging champion seep into his game and demeanor.  Virtually impenetrable on his favorite surface already, Rafa requires no such assistance in conquering the suave Swiss matador once more.

Bellucci vs. Djokovic:  At each of the first three Masters 1000 tournaments of the season, excluding the optional Monte Carlo event, the top three players have advanced to the semifinals.  At each of these tournaments, the architect of an unexpected breakthrough joins them—Del Potro in Indian Wells, Fish in Miami, and Belluci (perhaps most surprising of all) in Madrid.  And one can hardly claim that the Brazilian has profited from early upsets that vacated his draw, for he defeated fourth-seeded Murray and seventh-seeded Berdych in straight sets to reach the semifinals.  In an era when surface specialists have begun to decline, Bellucci’s progress through this prestigious event may suggest the continued relevance of expertise on clay.  Personifying the trend towards all-court versatility among the ATP’s elite, however, is a semifinal opponent buoyed by his victory over dirt devil par excellence Ferrer.

Repeatedly stymied by the Spaniard in their previous clay meetings, Djokovic will have acquired confidence from reversing those setbacks in a fiercely contested three-setter.  To be sure, some of the Serb’s self-deprecating grimaces, smirks, and shrugs crept back when he failed to capitalize upon a potentially decisive momentum shift that carried him from 3-4 in the first set to 2-0 in the second.  Impeccable late in the first and third sets, his serve grew unreliable on key points during the second set.  Counterbalancing those causes for concern, however, was his victory celebration after he ended the match.  Delighted but not delirious with joy, Djokovic conducted himself as a champion who had his expectations of eventual victory confirmed after an especially arduous battle.  That heightening maturity will serve him well against a competitor as raw as Bellucci, who at a certain psychological level must feel content to have penetrated as far into the draw as he already has.

Goerges vs. Azarenka:  Facilitating the German’s charge to the Porsche title, the world #5 retired after winning the first set of their Stuttgart meeting.  The latest potential sensation to emerge from the WTA, Goerges must take care to avoid following the routes of Martinez Sanchez and Rezai, who effectively evaporated after excelling on the road to Roland Garros last year.  Petkovic’s compatriot seemingly has a game better adapted to hard courts than to clay, but she demonstrated her ball-striking might by battering through Wozniacki’s defenses in consecutive weeks, no mean feat.  After three three-setters, she comfortably dispatched Pavlyuchenkova in a battle between German and Russian rising stars.  Her eight arduous hours in singles competition, however, contrast with the nearly effortless progress of Azarenka, detained for an hour or more by only one of her four opponents here.  Although she lost a set to Safarova for the first time in six meetings, the fourth seed finished that quarterfinal on an uplifting note, revealing no sign of the physical or mental frailty that has dogged her in long matches before.  While Goerges has won ten straight matches, Azarenka has won her last eighteen encounters excluding retirements and has not faced a match point since February.  Like their fellow semifinalists, these feisty competitors diverge from the familiar model of clay counterpunchers.  Capable movers with respectable consistency, Vika and her challenger nevertheless prowl the baseline eager for the first opportunity to launch a lasered groundstroke.  Can Azarenka finish in Madrid what she started in Stuttgart?

Victoria Azarenka - Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open - Day Seven

Li vs. Kvitova:  In their first career meeting, two players who will rank in the top 10 on Monday hope to rebound from suspenseful quarterfinals.  The formerly flaky Kvitova deserves high praise for chipping away at the baseline fortress of Cibulkova, who mustered far sturdier opposition to the Czech than in their previous clashes this year.  As Li Na has shown herself, inflammable upstarts become ever more dangerous when they gather impetus, and the Chinese star needed all of her competitive tenacity to subdue the startling surge of Bethanie-Mattek-Sands.  Eight years older and considerably more weathered than Kvitova, the sixth seed may not enter their semifinal as fresh as the 21-year-old Czech.  On the other hand, she adapts her movement to the clay more adroitly and strikes the ball a little earlier, allowing her to take the initiative more frequently in exchange for assuming greater risks.  While the Czech owns the superior serve, the Chinese enjoys a more scintillating backhand with which to complement her forehand.  Among the most mercurial personalities in a mercurial WTA elite, these two players will have combined to reach five finals and lose seven first-round matches in this season alone.  One thus expects an unpredictable match filled with stunning shot-making but also some egregious errors as Kvitova and Li target more lines than one typically would find in a clay semifinal.  Perhaps more prescient than Ion Tiriac knew was his suggestion of changing the surface color from red to blue.

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 Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates his win over Novak Djokovic of Serbia in his semi-final match during the Madrid Open tennis tournament at the Caja Magica on May 16, 2009 in Madrid, Spain. Nadal won the match in three sets, 3-6, 7-6 and 7-6.  (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Rafael Nadal

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia lies on the court after slipping on the clay against Oscar Hernandez of Spain in their second round  match during the Madrid Open tennis tournament at the Caja Magica on May 13, 2009 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Novak Djokovic

Having divided the four most important titles of the season so far, the ATP top two could meet again on the Madrid plateau where they dueled so valiantly two years ago.  But first they must negotiate a draw bristling with more dragon’s teeth than those sown by Cadmus.

First quarter:  Falling to Baghdatis in Cincinnati last year, Nadal should find the Cypriot less formidable on clay and certainly less formidable than his potential third-round opponent, Del Potro.   Assigned an opening-round clash with the clay-averse Youzhny, the 2009 Roland Garros semifinalist may arrive in Madrid weary from a fruitful week in Estoril.  Yet he still possesses the ball-striking talent to trouble the top seed in a stadium better suited to offensive tennis than the ordinary clay court.  Less ominous is the rest of this section, headlined by a 2010 Roland Garros semifinalist who defeated in Federer in Monte Carlo and Nadal in their most recent meeting.  Comfortably dispatched by the Spaniard in Madrid two years ago and at Roland Garros last year, Melzer probably would have little greater success than Baghdatis at replicating his hard-court achievement against the world #1.  Absent from Madrid last year, Roddick should prefer this atypical clay tournament to its brethren, for the thin, dry air should allow him to impose his serve more effectively upon his opponents. The altitude proved of little aid against Rafa in a Madrid Davis Cup tie, however, and the American has struggled with an untimely concatenation of injuries and illness that have reduced him to his lowest ranking in years.  Not to be overlooked is the recently resurgent Gasquet, never at his best on clay but still a threat to the erratic Melzer and the declining Roddick.

Second quarter:  Undone by Del Potro twice in two months, Soderling will rejoice to see Nadal saddled with that burden instead.  Nevertheless, the Swede should not celebrate too soon, since Australian Open nemesis Dolgopolov could await in his opener.  Struggling to regain his January-February brilliance, Soderling might falter against an opponent with underrated skills on the surface, demonstrated by a Costa do Sauipe final and a vigorous battle with Ferrer in Acapulco.  From this brutal section of the draw next might spring Almagro, who captured a set from Nadal in their nation’s capital last year.  Confronted with the shockingly unseeded Tsonga in his opener, the Spaniard aims to justify his newly acquired top-10 status before his compatriots, rarely an easy task.  Examining this bristling sub-section, one almost might neglect the 2009 Madrid and Roland Garros champion aligned to meet Nadal in a semifinal for the second time this year.  Although Raonic and Lopez theoretically might challenge Federer, their arduous weeks in Estoril and Belgrade (respectively) might have softened their resistance to a Swiss star who disappointed in Monte Carlo.  Toppled by a lefty on that occasion, Federer should face another imposing lefty in Verdasco albeit one who has won only a solitary set from him in four meetings.  Awakening from an abject slump in Estoril, the Spaniard may have seized motivation from a perceived slight by the Barcelona tournament.  He has the weapons to upset a complacent Federer—and nearly did in London once—but does he have the will?

Third quarter:   Nearly bereft of clay specialists, this section might play largely according to form unless the unseeded Davydenko can capitalize upon his Munich momentum to mount an inspired surge.  Such a surge would need to begin in the second round against Berdych, who defeated him in Dubai this year after losing nine of their ten previous encounter.   Unexpectedly scintillating in Monte Carlo, Murray anchors the base of this section as he aims to recover from an elbow injury that did not forestall him from endangering Nadal at the last Masters 1000 event.  Injured in Monte Carlo himself, Simon might reprise his Mediterranean meeting with the Scot if he can elude the evergreen Ljubicic.  Few notable obstacles bar the fourth seed’s route to the quarterfinals, where last year’s Roland Garros nemesis Berdych might await.  Thoroughly outslugged and outmaneuvered on that overcast afternoon, Murray might prefer to tangle with Davydenko or the recuperating Monfils in a battle of baseline counterpunchers.  As with the fourth quarter of the women’s draw, this section almost certainly will not produce the eventual champion.  On the other hand, an array of sparkling backhands will dazzle viewers in the Caja Magica, ranging from Murray and Davydenko to Troicki and Simon.  Look elsewhere for classic clay-court tennis but not for high-quality rallies and crisp ball-striking of the highest level.

Fourth quarter:  With a Slam title and two Masters 1000 shields tucked away in his Monegasque lair, Djokovic already has accomplished more than almost any player can reasonably expect from a season.  One wonders whether and when his motivation will start to ebb, just as one wonders whether and when the motivation of potential second-round foe Gulbis will reconstitute itself.  Having succumbed to the Latvian during his 2009 skid, Djokovic allowed him a single game at Indian Wells in March and should show scant mercy to a player who will slide swiftly down the rankings with a tepid May.  Twice extended by Wawrinka to third sets on clay, the second seed will find the Swiss #2 useful preparation for a dangerous quarterfinal with Ferrer.  Flawless on clay this year against everyone but Nadal, the Spanish #2 would relish the opportunity to avenge his Miami loss to Fish in the third round.  Intriguingly, Djokovic never has defeated Ferrer on clay and has lost the last seven sets that they have contested on the latter’s favorite surface.  Will the Madrid crowd witness a performance from their countryman as compelling as his semifinal run here in 2010?  If Djokovic aims to emerge as the leading challenger to Nadal’s clay hegemony in 2011, the road to that destination lies through the diminutive Spaniard who twice has played runner-up to Rafa this year.

Aravane Rezai Aravane Rezai of France holds aloft the winners torphy after her straight sets victory against Venus Williams of the USA in the womens final match during the Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open tennis tournament at the Caja Magica on May 16, 2010 in Madrid, Spain.

First quarter:  Her momentum somewhat drained by Goerges in Stuttgart, Wozniacki still enters this Premier Mandatory event with her glass half full of European earth.  With a green-clay title and red-clay final behind her, the 2009 Madrid runner-up could reprise that championship match with Safina in the third round—or perhaps her championship match from last week.  Avenging her Miami loss to Petkovic in Stuttgart, Wozniacki might well avenge her Stuttgart loss to Goerges in Madrid.  Handed a complex opener against Acapulco champion Dulko, Stosur will demonstrate whether an uplifting week at the Porsche event has raised her spirits and rekindled her memories of clay excellence past.  This intriguing corner of the draw also includes Pavlyuchenkova, a perpetually promising prodigy who chronically threatens to burst into contention but never quite does.  Chugging into the dusty battlefield are fast-court juggernauts Kanepi and Bartoli, whose inferior mobility should undermine their hopes on the surface least suited to their styles.  Although Stosur possesses the strongest clay skills of anyone in the quarter, Wozniacki has lost before the semifinals at only one of her last seven tournaments.

Second quarter:  Vaulting back into contention with a strong February-March campaign, Jankovic demonstrated her clay prowess in Fed Cup before predictably falling early in Stuttgart a few days later. The seventh seed should face no opponent capable of consistently outhitting her during the first few rounds, for potential foes like Medina Garrigues and Radwanska have found little success against the Serb by relying upon their characteristic steadiness.  Also of note in this vicinity, however, is Gajdosova, a player whose massive ball-striking and straightforward aggression sometimes recall last year’s champion Rezai.  Lurking on the opposite side of the quarter is Rezai herself, but the Frenchwoman’s title defense probably will crumble under the pressure of Azarenka.  A former quarterfinalist at Roland Garros, the Belarussian can consolidate her position in the top 5 with an imposing May performance.  If her Fed Cup shoulder injury does not hamper her, Azarenka would face a tantalizing third-round encounter with Petkovic or perhaps Pennetta.  Absent from competition since Miami, the Italian defeated Azarenka in Dubai but surprisingly lost their only clay meeting a year ago.  More likely to pose a serious challenge to the world #5 is Petkovic, whose expectations have grown increasingly ambitious as her means of justifying them have expanded.  Might she intersect with Jankovic for a third consecutive tournament?

Ana Ivanovic Of Serbia Celebrates

Third quarter:  Stacked with clay experts, this section features two former Roland Garros champions who could collide in the third round.  If Ivanovic and her questionable abdomen can withstand the idiosyncratic assault of Bethanie Mattek-Sands, she might tangle with one-time French Open semifinalist Petrova.  During a formidable first-half of 2010, the Russian defeated both Williams sisters on clay while falling to Ana in Rome (albeit on a slower court).  Eyeing a dangerous opener against Peng, Schiavone has struggled with fatigue since her epic victory over Kuznetsova in Melbourne, and a return to her favored clay failed to rejuvenate her in Stuttgart.  Curiously, she has lost all three of her meetings with Ivanovic, including a 2009 clay encounter well after the Serb had tumbled from her pinnacle.  In even deeper peril than Schiavone is the floundering Li Na, who has won exactly one match after reaching the Australian Open final in a spiral precipitous even by her standards.  Not at her best on clay, she could succumb immediately to Martinez Sanchez, lethal in Fed Cup against France and well-designed to disrupt Li’s smooth baseline rhythm.  A talent adaptable to every surface, Peer has found herself in an auspicious position near the dormant Kleybanova and a weary Vinci.  Should she advance through the first two rounds without expending great energy, the Israeli could craft an unexpectedly deep run considering her successes against both Ivanovic and Schiavone.

Fourth quarter:  Generally bereft of clay specialists, this section lies at the mercy of the hard-court player who can most successfully conform her style and attitude to the surface.  Following the departure of her coach Sergei Demekhine, Zvonareva enters this event with no clay preparation and scant clay experience over the past few years.  Although Sharapova has reached the quarterfinals at Roland Garros more recently than at any other major, she likewise delivers her least convincing tennis during this phase.  Nevertheless, the similarly erratic first-strike firepower of Venus carried her to the final here a year ago, offering an example for the Russian to emulate.  More accomplished on clay than her compatriots, Kuznetsova has spent over a year reeling from desultory loss to desultory loss despite emanating occasional flashes of hope such as her victory over Henin at the Australian Open.  The 2009 Roland Garros champion may not escape her opener against Cibulkova and gain the opportunity to challenge Sharapova in the third round.  Equaling the latter’s charge to the Indian Wells semifinal, Wickmayer aims to recapitulate a Charleston surge that almost toppled eventual champion Wozniacki.  Among the more compelling narratives of 2011 that this quarter may trace, moreover, is the evolution of Kvitova from an unreliable shot-maker into a steady contender.  While the champion probably will not emerge from this section, it might feature some of the most scintillating early-week encounters.

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Rewinding to the 2009 Madrid final, one is immediately struck by the vastly different situations in which both gladiators find themselves now compared to where they found themselves before the match a year ago.  Then, Nadal stood at the peak of his powers and the pinnacle of the tennis hierarchy, having vanquished Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final, achieved the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics, attained the #1 ranking, and reduced his rival to tears in Australia just a few months before.  Cast adrift from his moorings and deposed from his pedestal, Federer not only had endured a mediocre beginning to 2009 but appeared to have surrendered almost all of his domain to the Spanish rebel; commentators were beginning to write the obituary of the Federer Era while wondering whether the rivalry still existed…

After he scored a startling victory in that final, the Swiss has since reclaimed every territory conceded to Nadal in addition to conquering Rafa’s clay citadel in Paris (admittedly with the aid of a Swedish saboteur).  In fact, Federer came within one set of holding every Slam title at the same time, forestalled from this goal by the Tower of Tandil.  Following the Greatest Upset Ever, meanwhile, Nadal faded from the tennis scene during Wimbledon before resurfacing in diluted form on the summer and fall hard courts, where he absorbed a series of deflating defeats that culminated in a gruesome debacle at the year-end championships.  Slowly returning to form this season despite retiring from the Australian Open, Rafa has found his footing on the clay but still has yet to threaten Federer’s renewed stranglehold over the game.  To some extent, he won’t be able to do so until he wins his next major, for success is measured in Slams, yet a win in a Masters 1000 final over his archrival would deliver a timely message just before the crucial Roland Garros-Wimbledon sequence.  On the other hand, a Federer win would confirm his unchallenged ascendancy above the competition. 

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Although Federer is the top seed, the pressure in this match rests largely on Nadal’s shoulders, since he not only is striving to break Agassi’s Masters 1000 record but is seeking revenge for last year’s loss while fulfilling the lofty expectations of his compatriots.  Consequently, the Swiss should feel relaxed and free to swing with abandon, unburdened with the internal anxiety that dogged him in many of their previous meetings.  Permanently consolidated last summer, his legacy would not be tarnished even if he failed to win another title or defeat Nadal again.  Vital to his success here last year was an outstanding serving performance and unflinching aggression, enhanced by the Madrid altitude.  In addition to repeating this excellence, he’ll need to keep his mind flexible and prepare to make adjustments to his game plan as the situation demands; one senses that both of their games have altered a bit in the past year.  Among the modulations in Nadal’s game is his movement pattern, which formerly favored his backhand side while opening up his forehand corner.  Now, the Spaniard more often leans towards his forehand while exposing his backhand corner.  During their previous confrontations, Federer often seemed stubbornly rooted in a monochrome set of tactics from which he rarely deviated, a tendency that increased as Nadal gradually but steadily gained the momentum in the rivalry.  Rather than temporarily reducing the pace on his first serve when the percentage sagged in Melbourne last year, for example, he continued to bomb, bomb, and bomb some more…until he bombed out.  This time, he should consider varying his serving patterns while refraining from rushing his shots (another characteristic sign of his nerves against Nadal); instead, he should continue to patiently construct points as meticulously as he has through the rest of this week until openings develop.  Armed with a vast range of weapons, Federer should exploit everything in his arsenal in order to keep Rafa guessing.  Tactics might include occasional serve-and-volley on second serve, forehand second-serve returns in the ad court, an occasional kick serve on the first ball, and (horror of horrors) a few of the drop shots that he once maligned as unworthy of his powerful game.  The Swiss #1 needs to stay positive when stunning passing shots fly past him or when returns sail slightly wide.  Such things will happen occasionally, but the mental battle has been vital in this rivalry, and, for the first time in recent memory, Federer could win it.

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Just as much the clay GOAT as Federer is the GOAT, Nadal doubtless will revive his familiar tactics of serving to Federer’s backhand and smothering his own forehand with spin that creates the high bounce far above the world #1’s comfortable strike zone.  In addition to these ploys, Rafa might want to integrate a number of body serves on important points, for Roger struggled to position his feet with the necessary alacrity when his previous opponents this week have attempted that strategy.  If Federer takes the above advice and chooses to run around backhands in the ad court to hit forehand returns, Nadal would be well-served (haha) to occasionally serve towards the forehand side in the ad court, which would be left open by Federer’s anticipatory shift towards the sideline; a fascinating game of cat-and-mouse could then unfold on serves and returns.  As always, we would like to see the Spaniard position himself closer to the baseline on second serves and stay near it during neutral rallies, thereby preventing the Swiss from opening up the court with approach shots.  During these rallies, he should strive to place the ball deep down the center of the court, from where Federer can construct few angles.  The world #1’s forehand on the run has looked breathtaking in this tournament, and his movement along the baseline has been as fluid as ever on this surface; by minimizing his opportunities to hit jaw-dropping winners, Nadal could frustrate Federer or dull his focus.  Regarding the issue of focus, in fact, Rafa has lacked his relentless concentration for prolonged, pivotal stretches when facing top-tier players since his French Open demise.  Unable to maintain his intensity against those upon whom he once preyed, such as Ljubicic and Roddick, the Spaniard can’t afford these concentration lapses when dueling with Federer.  Despite his brilliant championship runs in Monte Carlo and Rome, he hasn’t toppled anyone more imposing than Verdasco, permanently in awe of his talents.  On Sunday, he must not relinquish his focus between the last practice serve and the ceremony.  It’s much easier said than done, of course, but the magnificent has become routine from both players as their rivalry has evolved.   

A year ago, the rivalry seemed to be growing increasingly stale with each meeting, perhaps partly because of the inevitable comparison with the unsurpassable 2008 Wimbledon final.  After Federer’s routine win here against a Djokovic-deadened Nadal, we hoped to see the emergence of new stars, new rivalries, and new champions.  Well, the new stars didn’t produce any new rivalries and rarely produced new champions, with the notable exception of Del Potro at the US Open.  Instead of seizing the opportunity with both hands, Djokovic, Murray, and their peers mostly seized the opportunity with both hands…and respectfully passed it to Federer.  Now we’re eagerly anticipating Federer-Nadal XXI.  Let the bullfight begin!

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After a week replete with stunning headlines and engaging tennis, has all of the magic escaped from the Magic Box?  One might be forgiven for such a thought when contemplating tomorrow’s semifinal lineup.  A combined 14-0 against their respective opponents, Federer and Nadal look likely to set up their 21st collision and their first in exactly a year.  On the WTA side, Venus attempts to inflict a third 2010 defeat upon the pugnacious Peer in order to set up a final against another unseeded opponent.  From all appearances, the elder Williams would have to severely botch something in the next two days for one of her semifinal peers (haha) to seize the title.  Anything can happen, but it probably won’t…or will it?  Martinez Sanchez confounded all expectations a week ago, so maybe there’s something worth discussing here after all:

Safarova-Rezai:  Born just a month apart from each other, these two upstarts share an almost identical career win-loss records (199-139 vs. 203-130).  Appropriately, the head-to-head stands level at one win apiece; while Safarova won the clay encounter in Estoril, Rezai triumphed at the more significant venue in Flushing Meadows.  The Frenchwoman has plowed a more treacherous course here past Henin and Jankovic, the top two contenders for Roland Garros, but the Czech dispatched Sharapova and a resurgent Petrova who had ousted Serena.   Among the x-factors here is the Czech’s physical condition, for she has played three three-setters in the last three days, whereas Rezai followed her three-set upset of Henin with three consecutive straight-set wins.  Both players will zoom upwards in the rankings regardless of the outcome, elevating their seeding and probably improving their draw at Roland Garros.  (We anticipate a media barrage in Paris, where the expectations on Rezai will be higher than the Eiffel Tower after her implausible run here.)  Anticipate a stylistically straightforward exercise in ball-bludgeoning from the baseline.  If Safarova exploits her lefty serve to open up the court, she might be able to keep the Frenchwoman off balance with sharply angled forehands.  Nevertheless, Rezai has looked ferociously relentless and relentlessly ferocious all week.  Refusing to let Jankovic escape from a marathon service game in the first set today, she shrugged off squandered break point after squandered break point (she was 1 for 14 at one stage) until she finally converted.  That sort of tenacity should serve her well against a mentally questionable adversary

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Venus-Peer:  Kudos to Venus for rising immediately from an ignominious fiasco in Rome to establish herself as a genuine threat at Roland Garros.  Not only did she outsteady the volatile Zvonareva and outlast the crafty Schiavone, but she surrendered just six games in the quarterfinals to a Stosur who had rampaged through Charleston and Stuttgart.  A semifinalist in Stuttgart, Peer has thoroughly earned a second final four appearance with eye-opening wins over Kuznetsova, Kleybanova, and Li Na, all of whom possess many more offensive weapons than she does.  In the past, sheer tenacity hasn’t proved sufficient to threaten Venus, who has performed at an outstanding level during their four previous meetings.  Winning all eight sets that she has played against Peer, the elder Williams thrashed the Israeli in the Dubai semifinals before recording a more competitive yet still comfortable win during the aforementioned Rome tournament.  (Her game went off the rails completely a day later, an experience that she won’t want to repeat in Madrid.)  Once again, a solid serving percentage combined with a reasonable number of penetrating forehands should see her through to Sunday.  Meanwhile, don’t forget her doubles final with Serena against the white-hot team of Dulko and Pennetta, which should provide an intriguing signpost as to whether the sisters can secure the Roland Garros doubles title that eluded them last year.

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Almagro-Nadal:  A year ago on this court, Nadal scratched and clawed his way to a record-shattering 243-minute victory over an inspired Djokovic, who seemed to have seized all of the magic from the Magic Box en route to a 20-point third-set tiebreak.  The task today looks far less imposing, for next week’s world #2 has won 12 of 13 total sets from his compatriot.  Woefully outclassed by Rafa at the 2008 French Open, Almagro briefly tested him at the 2009 US Open before severely testing him at the Paris Indoors midway through Nadal’s miserable fall campaign.  Saving several match points, Nadal ultimately dragged his friend deep into the final set, where his superior fitness proved decisive.  Following his startling second-round win over Soderling, Almagro profited from a Verdasco-vacated quarter and hasn’t scored a string of upsets a la Rezai in the WTA draw.  The matchup reminds us a bit of the Federer-Wawrinka encounter, where the Swiss #2 appeared reluctant to unseat his fellow Olympic gold medalist.  Does Almagro really want to be the guy who rains on his friend’s parade?  We doubt it.

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Federer-Ferrer:  Seeking his 10th consecutive win without a loss against the diminutive Spaniard, Federer may finally have risen from his post-Melbourne doldrums with a commanding demolition of Wawrinka and an even more impressive comeback against Gulbis, his nemesis just a fortnight ago.  When the top seed dropped a routine first set and meekly surrendered his serve to start the second set, one suspected that he would mentally move forward to Paris rather than concentrating upon erasing this formidable deficit.  During the second and third sets, however, Federer’s intense, fully focused play delivered a statement of purpose to his weekend opponents.  Raising his level as the week has progressed, Ferrer executed textbook clay-court tennis to swiftly dispense with Cilic; confronted with the sterner test of Murray in the quarterfinals, the Spaniard stymied the Scot with the suffocating court coverage that has long been his trademark.  If Federer opens with erratic groundstrokes or a mediocre first-serve percentage, Ferrer might well win a set, as he has in two of their last three meetings.  The weapons that finally subdued an unruly Gulbis, though, should hit through the counterpuncher on this relatively swift surface, which also will enable Federer to hold serve more regularly than the Spaniard.  Expect the road to Roland Garros to climax with Federer-Nadal XXI on Sunday.

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We’ll return to preview the ATP final tomorrow and perhaps share a few thoughts on the WTA final as well.  In the meantime, let’s hope that the outwardly unprepossessing semifinal lineup serves up something memorable tomorrow. 😉

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Barely two weeks ago, Gulbis scored the most significant triumph of his still-nascent career by upsetting Federer in the latter’s Rome opener.  Just a few days after that match, Ferrer recorded a minor, unsurprising upset over Murray in the Foro Italico.  During the Madrid quarterfinals tomorrow, both Australian Open finalists revisit their recent nemeses as they attempt to secure semifinal slots opposite each other. Arranged in the format of who should win and who might win, previews of those two matches and the two most intriguing WTA quarterfinals lie straight ahead…

Federer-Gulbis:

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Why Federer should win:  Once was enough, wasn’t it?  On only one occasion in the last several years has Federer lost consecutive meetings with a player outside the top 30 (Canas in Indian Wells and Miami).  Pedestrian in Rome, he looked more inspired than he has in months during a third-round rout of another player who had previously defeated him, Wawrinka.  After an unconvincing opening game, he immediately regained the break and never let Wawrinka regain his footing, displaying the clutch serving, purposeful point construction, and sophisticated net play that we have grown to (rather unfairly) expect from him on a regular basis.  At this time a year ago, commentators were raising questions regarding what seemed a decline during the North American hard courts, Monte Carlo, and Rome, but the Magic Box provided Federer with all of the magic that he required in order to complete the career Slam–still a glorious achievement despite Nadal’s absence, in our opinion.  One shouldn’t underestimate the power of positive memories at a certain event.  Meanwhile, Gulbis might be a little complacent after scoring the Rome victory and start the match overconfidently, allowing Federer to establish control in the early stages.

Why Gulbis might win:  One resounding win over a quality opponent (Wawrinka) remains just a resounding win until Federer turns it into a trend.  Unlike Isner and Karlovic, Gulbis possesses manifold weapons with which to capitalize upon that percussive serve; both his forehand and his backhand have penetrated the relatively fast clay here with vigor, while his drop shot provides ingenious variation.  He enjoys a definite edge regarding the second serve as well as backhand-to-backhand rallies, for the world #1’s more elegant one-hander doesn’t wield the raw force of Gulbis’ bruising two-hander.  Extending the momentum from his debut Masters 1000 semifinal in Rome, the Latvian has dramatically improved in the arena of consolidating his successes, a mark of maturity.  Also revealing his maturation was his reaction to the two squandered match points in Lopez’ last service game of the second set.  When the Spaniard escaped that predicament and rallied his hometown fans behind his cause, Gulbis merely intensified his focus and emphatically slammed the door with a 7-0 tiebreak.  If that seismic game is finally harnessed to a modestly sound mind, he’ll be able to threaten anyone on any surface.  Don’t believe me?  Ask Nadal.

Murray-Ferrer:

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Why Ferrer should win:  Far superior to the Scot on this surface, Ferrer may be the best clay-court player in the ATP this year outside Nadal.  At any rate, he’s scored more clay wins than anyone (including Nadal) and reached the semifinals or better at Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Rome; no non-Spanish lefty has defeated him yet.  Once again illustrating his superlative fitness, he efficiently dismantled Cilic after surviving a marathon against Baghdatis on the previous night.  To some extent, Ferrer practices the same art on clay that Murray has refined on a hard court:  wearing down opponents through baseline consistency, intelligent shot selection, and a knack for exposing the opponent’s hidden flaws.  Little effort is required, however, to expose Murray’s uneasiness on clay.  Sometimes one wonders why he bothered to hire French Open champion Alex Corretja to assist him with the clay-court season, since he often appears indifferent to it.  A ghastly 2-and-1 opening loss to Kohlschreiber in Monte Carlo preceded a 3-and-4 defeat against Ferrer in Rome.  At the root of this perceived indifference perhaps lies his mounting awareness of the tension-soaked task ahead at the All England Club, and he certainly could be forgiven for hoarding his energies until that fortnight.

Why Murray might win:  Who would have thought that Murray would have conceded fewer games in his pre-quarterfinal matches than…Rafa Nadal??  To be sure, neither Chela nor Hanescu is a jaw-breaking challenge, but we were impressed by Murray’s more adroit movement and more confident body language so far this week.  He’ll never find a clay more to his liking than the grit at this tournament, and he has reached a significant clay semifinal (Rome 2009) in the past.  Among the numerous surprises at last year’s French Open was his string of four victories, terminated not without some difficulty by Gonzalez in the quarterfinals.  Virtually invisible since his deflating defeat in Melbourne, Murray is long overdue to emerge from the noxious cloud of gloom and self-doubt in which he has since immersed himself.  Despite Ferrer’s sensational clay record, he looked a little less dogged than usual against Baghdatis, donating more unforced errors than does his characteristically stingy self.  The Rome match was somewhat more competitive than the 3-and-4 scoreline suggests, for Murray earned multiple break points on the Spaniard’s serve but couldn’t capitalize; one or two timely conversions could have altered the trajectory of that encounter.

Petrova-Safarova:

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Why Petrova should win:  Serena may have been discomfited by the clay and weary from the longest match of her career, but Petrova still merits applause for her 11-ace display against an opponent who has tormented her in the past.  A former French Open semifinalist, she produced more than enough brilliant clay-court tennis to deserve victory in a second-round loss to Sharapova there last year; she easily could have reached the second week with a less disastrous draw.  Nadia leads the head-to-head with Safarova 3-0, of which two wins came on clay; the Czech secured just nine game in four sets during those two meetings.  When they collided in the Paris Indoors final, where one might expect Petrova to wobble under pressure, she rallied from a one-set deficit to outlast Safarova.  Although the Russian endured a three-set tussle with Serena, the Czech waffled through consecutive epic victories:  7-5 in the third set against the unimpressive Govortsova and 7-6 in the third set against the only marginally more threatening Dulgheru (herself a 7-5 third-set winner in the previous round).  The Dulgheru match ended at 1:48 A.M., according to our friend Alvaro Rama, so Safarova’s biorhythms may not adjust well to an 11 AM start on Friday.  A finicky, unpredictable personality, she veers from equatorially hot to antarctically cold even more abruptly than does Petrova.  

Why Safarova might win:  Last week, Jankovic suffered a bit of a post-Serena letdown against Martinez Sanchez, so Petrova’s momentum might not necessarily persist.  Although hitherto unsuccessful on clay against Petrova, Safarova held a match point against Venus at last year’s French Open, so her history has been not entirely dismal on the surface.  In fact, this week represents her third consecutive clay quarterfinal after reaching that stage in Stuttgart and Rome; upsetting a sore-ankled Wozniacki in the former event, she ambushed Pennetta and Radwanska in the latter tournament.  Particularly impressive was the Radwanska victory, when she stormed back from a dismal 1-6 first-set loss to edge through a third-set tiebreak, revealing that she can summon her best tennis when it matters most.  In the quarterfinals, moreover, she came about as close as anyone else that week to toppling MJMS.  Here, she scored a somewhat less surprising win over a rusty Sharapova:

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Stosur-Venus:

Why Stosur should win:  Not only did she win the Charleston title with an emphatic win over Zvonareva, but she reached the Stuttgart final and even took a 6-2 set from Henin there.  Wisely choosing to rest during Rome, she must not have relished the sight of Martinez Sanchez in her second round, but she consistently outplayed the Spaniard at crucial junctures in that contest.  This match features two of the three best serves in the WTA, which could indicate a tiebreak or two; the Australian has won all three of the tiebreaks that she has played in the tournament, a testament to her outstanding composure.  Venus has looked more convincing here than in Rome, but that statement is a bit like saying that Murray played better here than in his Monte Carlo loss to Kohlschreiber (in other words, the standard has been set very low indeed).  Down a break in both sets to the ever-fragile Zvonareva, the elder Williams lost a set to Schiavone despite her immensely superior serve and overall talents.  A substantial advantage over most adversaries, the American’s superb net skills provide her with little or no edge in that department over the dexterous Australian.  Never comfortable on the dirt, she was bageled by the underachieving Szavay in last year’s French Open and has suffered three consecutive first-week exits there.  By contrast, Stosur built her career-turning momentum burst upon a spectacular, completely unexpected semifinal charge at Roland Garros last year.

Why Venus might winBoth players will enjoy the altitude and the faster conditions, but the recently more erratic Venus will especially benefit from the opportunity to finish points more quickly.  Probably unrecognized by casual fans, her February streak included a clay title in Acapulco despite her infamous struggles on the sluggish surface.  Although extended to three sets on multiple occasions, she delivered performances as gritty as the dirt and revealed a willingness to “win ugly,” always useful for clay.  Furthermore, there’s the 3-0 head-to-head that eerily resembles the Petrova-Safarova statistic.  Mirroring that matchup, two meetings have come on clay, one on red clay and one on green clay; also mirroring that matchup, the losing player (Stosur) won exactly nine games in the four total sets.  It’s worth noting, however, that all of those meetings occurred before the Australian’s Roland Garros breakthrough a year ago and that the red-clay clash in Rome occurred when she was just returning from Lyme disease with a ranking of 145th. 

***

Elsewhere on Friday, it looks more than likely that Nadal and Almagro will set up yet another all-Spanish semifinal at a Masters 1000 event.  Yawn.  Showing little mercy to the last remaining Spaniard in the WTA draw, Jankovic looks primed to reach a third final in the last four Premier Five or Premier Mandatory events, despite Rezai’s eye-popping win over Henin.  Jelena might want to send the Frenchwoman flowers and chocolates for forestalling an 11th meeting–and probably 11th loss–against the Belgian.  It’s hard to tell whether Peer or Li will emerge from their quarterfinal, since both of have been in solid but not fiery form lately.  Stripping much of the suspense from this encounter is the likelihood that either player will fall to the winner of Stosur-Venus in the semis.  Could we ultimately be headed for a third Jankovic-Stosur clash in the last three months?

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It once was a highly exclusive club, populated largely by Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray.  Nalbandian occasionally passed through for hors-d’oeuvres but eventually forgot to pay his fees and surrendered his membership to a towering young compatriot last summer.  For the last several years, Roddick has been out in the rain helplessly banging on the door.  To be sure, impostors like Canas and Volandri tunneled in through the cellar or climbed over the garden wall, but the doorman soon recognized them and expelled them from the elite company.  Recently, though, memberships have been handed out like lottery tickets to plebeians such as Baghdatis, Berdych, Gulbis, and Montanes, who have sauntered through the front door with impunity.  Suffering claustrophobia-related breathing problems, Djokovic is deciding whether to expand the facilities or relinquish his membership altogether, while Nadal is wondering whether to purchase extra fitness equipment.  (“Don’t bother,” says Marcos.  “Can Lucie come?” asks Tomas.  “Bring Shakira!” demands Gulbis.  Montanes is still moving into his attic.)

By now, you’ve probably realized that we’re describing the FNC (Federer Nemesis Club), swelling weekly these days as the GOAT staggers to defeat against a motley assemblage of opponents, some of whom he once dominated.  As disquieting as the defeats themselves have been the manner of the defeats, for Federer has squandered significant opportunities to either win or take control of the match on every occasion.  Somewhat complacent when the slide began, he’s started to sound a trifle irritable lately as the French Open looms ever larger.  In his immediate future, however, is a compatriot who vanquished him on this surface a year ago in Monte Carlo. 

Rusty and erratic for much of the year after a paternity leave, the second-best Swiss accomplished little until rising to the occasion in Rome, where he capped a quarterfinal run with a commanding win over Soderling.  For most of the first set, moreover, he held the upper hand against Nadal with an adroit medley of bludgenoned backhands and delicate drop shots.  Somewhat less stylistically suited to Madrid, he has looked unspectacular through two rounds…but then so did Baghdatis in his Indian Wells opener.  If he executes his high-percentage style effectively, Wawrinka could severely test Federer’s consistency, shaky at best since his triumph over Murray in the Australian Open final.  Just as an unexpected title here last year catapulted Roger towards the cross-Channel Slam sweep, a strong performance here would immensely bolster him as he prepares to defend those achievements.  Has the ATP #1 decided to follow the example of the WTA #1 by concentrating his energies exclusively on the majors?  That strategy led to Serena’s premature departure against Petrova and likely would lead to Federer’s exit at the hands of his fellow Swiss and fellow father.  Or have the losses rankled Roger sufficiently to motivate him for a match that he should win?  In short, is he still complacent, or is he fed up?

Also on Thursday is a tasty trio of ATP clashes that we preview below…

Ferrer-Cilic:  Dazzling in Rome until he encountered Nadal, Ferrer has been a few shades below brilliant in his home tournament, where he allowed Chardy to overstay his welcome and struggled mightily to banish Baghdatis despite possessing a vast edge in clay-court expertise over both opponents.  The Spaniard’s own legendary fitness will need to assist him on Thursday, for he confronts the imposing serve of Marin Cilic less than 24 hours after concluding his epic three-setter against Baghdatis, during which he seemingly traveled more distance than did most of the audience to arrive there.  Almost as surprisingly, the gawky Croat enjoyed a mostly tranquil passage against enigmatic Argentine Eduardo Schwank.  Following a torrid start to 2010, Cilic largely vanished from the conversation after losing early in Indian Wells and Miami, while his clay-court season has proved predictably mediocre. With an altitude that almost matches Madrid, he presents a calm demeanor on the surface but can be flustered by relentless competitors such as the Spaniard.  Nevertheless, Ferrer must hold serve more regularly and comfortably than he did in the Baghdatis match in order to stay within striking distance and keep Cilic under pressure.  As his compatriot Verdasco discovered, the Croatian towers of power will be grudging with their own service games in the Madrid conditions.  Filled with contrasts in height, tactics, and personality, this match could provide the most intriguing entertainment of the day.

Monaco-Almagro:  Persevering through an ill-tempered encounter with Soderling, Almagro showcased an electric baseline game complemented by an uncharacteristic, encouraging readiness to approach the net.  Historically unable to capitalize upon strong wins like these, he did exploit the opportunity created by Djokovic’s untimely upset in Miami to reach the quarterfinals there, where he fell to eventual champion Roddick.  In Paris last fall, moreover, he dueled with Nadal on equal terms before succumbing to cramping late in the third set.  Rather like an Argentine Ferrer, Monaco follows the classic clay-court formula of sturdy fitness, patient point construction, and aversion to risk.   Therefore, the challenge for Almagro will be twofold.  Can his shots penetrate the court sufficiently to hit through Monaco without clearing the baseline?  And can his own, much less reliable patience endure the extended rallies in which the Argentine will seek to engage him?  As he did against Soderling, he’ll enjoy the vociferous support of his compatriots, which perceptibly raised his spirits during dangerous moments in his first two rounds.

Isner-Nadal:  Accustomed to comically lopsided routs in his clay openers, Nadal surrendered half as many game to the unheralded Oleksandr Dolgopolov Jr. as he did during the entire Monte Carlo tournament.  Furthermore, he looked sporadically fallible against Gulbis’ relentless assault in Rome.  Although Isner isn’t ready to score an upset of this magnitude, his serve should keep the match close and perhaps force Rafa into a tiebreak.  Refreshing after a period of American contempt for clay, his positive attitude towards the surface bore fruit in Belgrade with an impressive win over Wawrinka, theoretically much better suited to the surface.  When Isner and Nadal met in Indian Wells, the gentle giant dragged the Spaniard into a deciding set and visibly frustrated him with his arhythmic style before Nadal’s superior fitness prevailed.  On the other hand, the American not only reached the Belgrade final last week but wobbled through a pair of three-set victories here against Christophe Rochus and the suddenly rising Santiago Giraldo.  In Miami, fatigue from a three-set win distinctly hampered Isner during a winnable match against Ferrero.  He’ll need to maintain an Alpine first-serve percentage and unleash fearless forehands whenever an opening emerges.  Although Nadal fans might not relish the thought, it would be satisfying for the general audience to watch him conquer a few noteworthy obstacles en route to surpassing Agassi’s record. 

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The rather nondescript women’s matches tomorrow didn’t quite intrigue, but the WTA quarterfinalists will return to our scrutiny tomorrow.  We’ll close this ATP-exclusive edition with a question for you to ponder.  If you were Federer, whom would you prefer to play from the Gulbis-Lopez match in the quarterfinals, assuming that you got past Wawrinka?  Would it be Lopez, the easier task?  Or would the prospect of revenge for Rome be more enticing?

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Hasta manana!  🙂

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Few fans of Serbian tennis will have forgotten the 2008 Roland Garros semifinal between their nation’s twin WTA pillars, which carried the additional significance of determining the #1 ranking.  Seizing that three-set rollercoaster with a forehand return-of-serve winner, Ivanovic not only presented us with a lovely birthday gift (thanks, Ana! xo) but rode the impetus from the emotional victory into the final, where she captured her first Slam title.  Shortly after a one-sided verbal squabble over Fed Cup participation, the two ajde artists collide for the ninth time but only the second time since that memorable afternoon in Paris.  Although Jankovic won their latest meeting, Ivanovic captured six of the previous seven clashes and both of their matches on the clay where the two Serbs prosper.  This substantial head-to-head edge should infuse Ana with confidence but probably won’t disturb Jelena, well aware of her rival’s prolonged tumble from the top.

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Ranging from stagnant to spectacularly awful in 2009, both Serbs have begun to regain their footing in the last few months.  Jankovic signaled a revival by capturing the Indian Wells title, while Ivanovic waited until last week to announce her return with a semifinal run in Rome during which she bounced two top-10 players and the ever-dangerous Petrova.  Yet Jelena looked even sharper in the Italian capital by scoring the coveted Williams-sister sweep before tumbling to the crafty Martinez Sanchez a day after her compatriot.  Portents suggest a high-quality match far more intriguing than an ordinary second-round encounter, considering the dual momentum surge that the pair generated last week:

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But whose sorcery will prevail in the Magic Box?  Following the offense-counterpunching model, Ivanovic will aim to penetrate the court with her devastating forehand, while Jankovic will seek to move her less agile adversary around the court in order to expose her backhand.  If Jelena can regularly construct backhand-to-backhand rallies, she’ll drag Ana out of her comfort zone into a situation where the elder Serb’s superior consistency will prevail.  We don’t normally advocate running around backhands to hit forehands, but it will be necessary for Ivanovic to do so on this occasion, even if she exposes a large area of the court.  Since she can’t cover that hole, she needs to connect with deep, aggressive shots that keep Jankovic off balance and don’t allow her to redirect the ball; overcooking a few of those forehands is perfectly acceptable, whereas tentative ball-striking is not.  Unexpectedly solid in Rome, Ana’s net play could be vital as a means of preventing Jankovic from digging a trench deep behind the baseline and devoting herself to ball retrieval. 

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Serving will prove crucial for both Serbs in different ways.  In Ivanovic’s case, she’ll want to vary the location of her serve to draw mid-court returns that she can pummel to win quick points before her opponent can settle into the rally.  In Jankovic’s case, she’ll want to serve at a high percentage because Ana loves to run around a shallow second serve and crush a forehand return, the shot that sealed the elder Serb’s fate at the French Open two years ago.  As with the rest of their respective games, the younger Serb will embrace risks while the elder Serb will seek steadiness.

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In order to discern on whose terms the match is being played, note the length of the points.  While short points and high winner / high unforced error totals favor Ana, extended rallies and low winner / low unforced error totals favor Jelena.  An x-factor here is fatigue, which hopefully won’t exert a meaningful impact but could play a role considering their deep runs last week.  If Jankovic’s movement falls below its usual crispness, she could pay for it; weariness in Ivanovic’s game tends to emerge in a lowered first-serve percentage, which would undermine her to an equal extent.  Assuming that both Serbs reach the level of which they’re capable, though, the tournament couldn’t have asked for a more dramatic way with which to start its order of play on Wednesday, although the match will begin not long after drowsy Madrilenos are sipping their morning coffee.  Care for a cup, Snezana?  We thought not.  😉

***

Shifting from ajde to Andy, we’ll start our preview of the other intriguing Wednesday matches with the top-ranked American man and end it with the top-ranked American woman.

Lopez-Roddick:  Far from Roddick’s favorite time of year, the clay season normally offers a brief glimpse of his serve-oriented game before he springs into the foreground at Wimbledon.  Nevertheless, Madrid’s more sprightly surface and high elevation buttressed his quarterfinal run here last year, cut short by (surprise!) Federer in a reasonably competitive three-setter.  In much stronger form than he was a year ago, Andy will seek to preserve the sparkle from an outstanding North American hard-court season, when he fell just one match short of the demanding Indian Wells-Key Biscayne sweep.  Drawn to face Federer in the quarters again, he can’t look too far ahead with a match against the tricky Feliciano Lopez, who enjoys the honor of being the third-best Spanish lefty in the ATP.  Having won sets from Roddick in their earlier meetings, including a match in Melbourne this year, Lopez scored an impressive win over Cilic in Rome two weeks ago before succumbing to Gulbis in the quarterfinals.  Somewhat like Roddick, his serve-volley and serve-forehand combinations don’t translate especially well to the surface but will prove more effective in Madrid than at Roland Garros, for example.  Expect plenty of short points and very few service breaks.  Lopez has won two of his last three tiebreaks against Roddick, no small achievement, but the American’s superior consistency on both physical and mental levels has lifted him to victory in all six of their previous meetings.  On the other hand, we’ve seen very little of Roddick since Miami other than a few beach pictures with his wife in Hawaii, not a renowned tennis destination.  If Andy arrives with the absence of motivation that he displayed in the Asian events last fall, Lopez possesses the weapons to send him off to another lovely vacation spot:  Paris.  With a resilient, determined competitor like Roddick, though, one must assume commitment until proven otherwise.

Ferrer-Baghdatis:  Recently joining the swelling ranks of Federer’s nemeses, Baghdatis returned to the conversation by winning the Sydney title at the outset of 2010 and by rallying from a two-set deficit at the Australian Open against none other than…David Ferrer.  That match marked the first time in Ferrer’s career that the Spaniard had relinquished such a substantial lead, a testament to the competitive zeal of both players.  Always a concern for the Cypriot is his fitness, which forced him to retire in his next Melbourne match against Hewitt; his training regimens reportedly are a shade less than the taxing routines regularly undergone by the ATP elite.  This weakness could be exposed on clay by the supremely fit Ferrer, who looks likely to plow deep into the second week at Roland Garros after playing his best tennis since 2008.  Watch the battles of two-handed backhands that should unfold here, which will exhibit two of the crispest, cleanest, and most economical strokes imaginable.  Unless Baghdatis serves imposingly at crucial moments, though, Ferrer should grind down the Cypriot through the endless baseline exchanges in which he specializes.  The Spaniard’s lack of an explosive offensive weapon prevents him from breaking through consistently against top-ranked players, but his unflinching focus and relentless consistency typically propel him past streaky, second-tier competitors like Baghdatis, especially on Ferrer’s beloved clay.  Moreover, he visibly drew energy from a fervent crowd in Madrid against Roddick two years ago and can anticipate equally enthusiastic support as the marquee ATP match in the night session.

Soderling-Almagro:  In the wake of the non-existent “match of the day” on Tuesday between Berdych and Nalbandian, we’re reluctant to apply that phrase to any of Wednesday’s contests.  Still, the shotmaking standard here should be intense with both players ripping (or at least attempting to rip) outright groundstroke winners on both wings from behind the baseline.  Unimpressive thus far on clay, Soderling has one last chance to assert himself as one of Nadal’s principal challengers in Paris.  Easily adaptable to all surfaces except grass, Almagro is the type of opponent who could bother him on an off-key day with his streaky shot-making prowess, but he’ll need to catch fire at the right time.  After capturing a lopsided first set from the talented Troicki and establishing a break advantage in the second set, the Spaniard unnecessarily muddied the waters by allowing the Serb to slip into a tiebreak.  He can’t expect Soderling to politely demur as did Troicki should he offer the Swede an opportunity to erase any lead that he might accumulate.  On the other hand, hostile crowds have rattled the Swede on past occasions such as his loss to Baghdatis at the 2009 Australian Open, a match that he controlled early before flinging it away in a burst of impatience and pique.  Any momentum shift could snowball quickly for him, so retaining his composure during any patch of adversity will be crucial.  On a technical level, spectators can compare Soderling’s steady but graceless two-handed backhand to Almagro’s graceful but erratic one-hander; the Swede is brutally efficient with the shot, while the Spaniard is elegantly artistic.  Observing the contrast, one can understand why the two-handed backhand has replaced the one-hander as the stroke of choice for developing players.

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Serena-Petrova:  How much does Serena have to offer after the longest match of her career in the second round?  Not her sister, not Henin, not Sharapova, not Jankovic, but none other than the largely anonymous doubles specialist Vera Dushevina kept the world #1 at bay for nearly three and a half hours.  (Dushevina has endured a bizarre recent history of near-misses, coming within three points of upsetting Venus in the first round of last year’s US Open, within two points of upsetting Sharapova in the second round of this year’s Indian Wells, and now within one point of upsetting Serena in the second round of Rome.  She’s getting closer to that elusive triumph, anyway.)  Disappointed to drop a third-set tiebreak to Jankovic after holding a match point and a significant lead in the tiebreak, Serena must have especially enjoyed the precisely opposite experience on Monday.  She can’t afford to play with fire against a much more volatile Russian, who won their last meeting (in yet another third-set tiebreak, no less!) and has defeated her on clay.  By far the most memorable match in their history, however, was Serena’s three-set victory at the 2007 Australian Open, a key turning point in her dramatic charge to the most unexpected (least expected?) title of her career.  Thoroughly overwhelmed by the Russian veteran for a set and a half, the younger Williams found a way to reverse the momentum at the last possible moment and outlast Petrova in the latter stages of their encounter.  If Serena’s physical condition allows, her competitive spark surprisingly and delightfully appears to have been struck during the clay season.  Perhaps the extended absence reinvigorated her appetite for the game; she looked quite hungry indeed on Monday!

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In the other Wednesday clashes, we’re optimistic regarding the chances of Safarova, Peng, Murray, Gulbis, Venus, Wawrinka, and Hanescu; Tsonga, Cilic, Bellucci, and especially Isner might have some work to do against players who are not only respectably talented but more comfortable on the surface than they are.  Oh, and Nadal seems to have a decent chance of pulling out a win.  😉

***

It’s time to get the Ajde Express refueled and back in motion again!  This time, though, remember to mail them to the right Serbian address.  Here’s a helpful reminder:

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