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Ana Ivanovic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 4

Asked to guess which leading lady would reach the third round of the Australian Open without facing a break point on her serve, few would have guessed that Ivanovic would accomplish such a feat.   Formerly a key weapon, the serve had become a symptom of her struggles and perhaps now may portend her revival.  When she faces unseeded American Vania King, the Serb seeks to extend this encouraging fortnight into the second week, which she has not reached here since 2008.  Although she has won all three of their meetings, the earliest and most resounding two occurred before her tumble from the top.  Extended to three sets by the American in 2009, Ivanovic has faltered chronically against doubles specialists like Zheng, Dulko, and Makarova.  Such players demonstrate not only impressive net skills but a more subtle vision of the court’s geometry, sometimes frustrating to a programmatic singles player like the former #1.  Returning boldly during her three-set victory over Pavlyuchenkova, King drew double faults and tentative serves from the Russian 15th seed.  Such tactics could reap rewards against Ivanovic on a poor serving day, eroding her overall confidence as well.  Since yielding to Cijsters in Brisbane, though, the smiling Serb has held 24 of 26 service games by raising her first-serve percentage, varying her placement more often, and curbing (although not curing) her ball toss woes.  The products of considerable effort, those improvements have freed her to play more assertively on return games, where she could threaten King’s modest delivery.  A chaotic contest of breaks and momentum shifts could unravel Ivanovic’s ever fragile confidence, while a more linear match of holds and straightforward baseline exchanges would allow her to showcase her superior firepower.

We now preview the other intriguing matches on Day 6.

Kirilenko vs. Kvitova:  To the astonishment of most witnesses, the second seed and title favorite struck a surprising obstacle in the diminutive figure of Suarez Navarro.  Losing a lopsided second set, Kvitova later trailed by a break in the third set as sports bettors worldwide watched in horror.  But the Wimbledon champion visibly exhorted herself point by point to claw herself back into the match and withstand the Spaniard’s impressively sustained effort.  At the core of her comeback lay her first serve, which could serve her well again when she faces Kirilenko.  Overpowered by Kvitova in the Fed Cup final last fall, the Russian feasted upon an erratic Gajdosova in the second round and must hope for similar donations as she continues in her counterpunching role.  Comfortable with every shot but brilliant with none, Kirilenko cannot hit through the world #2 from the baseline, so she cannot take her fate into her own hands.   Nevertheless, the resilience of her retrieving may force Kvitova to construct points more thoroughly than before, raising her consistency in preparation for the second week.

Sharapova vs. Kerber:  Yielding just two games in her first two matches, the 2008 champion soars into the third round on a wave of confidence.  Emblematic of her effort this week was the first game of her meeting with Jamie Hampton.  Although she trailed 40-15, Sharapova refused to let her prey slip away but instead fought through deuce after deuce before finally breaking serve and establishing immediate control.  Against even a clearly overmatched opponent, she combined this steely focus with crisp, purposeful footwork and as keen a sense of point construction as one ever will see from such a single-minded aggressor.  All the same, onlookers might recall that Sharapova also lost just two games in her first two matches at the 2007 US Open—and then departed from the tournament in the next round.  Especially at this stage of her career, her fortunes can change overnight when the competition stiffens, as it may with US Open semifinalist Kerber.  The German lefty experienced wrist pain last week in Hobart, but her first serve will resist the pressure of Sharapova’s return more effectively than those of Dulko and Hampton.  With the exception of one service game in each match, the Russian has controlled her own serve with surprising consistency considering her lack of preparation.  If that pattern extends for another round, few chinks in her armor will emerge.  If it does not, anything can become possible.

Djokovic vs. Mahut:  Looking every inch the best player in the world, Djokovic has dropped only eight games in his first six sets at the major where he has won two titles.  After he defeated clay specialists Lorenzi and Giraldo, the defending champion confronts a dramatically different test in the person of a net-rushing Frenchman who should give him little rhythm in rallies.  Although he will remain most famous for a match that he lost, Mahut exploited his serve-volley strategy to the fullest in easily upsetting top-30 opponent Stepanek and rallying to defeat a Japanese wildcard.  With virtually no hope of victory, he still should provide an entertaining foil for Djokovic’s sizzling returns and passing shots, two of his most formidable strengths.  Rather than engaging in extended rallies where he could wait for his opponent to waver, the world #1 will need to win points more decisively with more aggressive shot-making, a style scintillating to watch even in a match without suspense.

Raonic vs. Hewitt:  While one sympathizes with Roddick for the premature end to his fortnight, one also sympathizes with Hewitt, denied a grand moment under the lights of Rod Laver in perhaps his final appearance at his home major.  The two-time Slam champion and former Melbourne finalist now meets an opponent strikingly similar to Roddick, who relies upon an overwhelming serve and a penetrating forehand that masks an unremarkable backhand.  Since Hewitt owns a two-hander still crisp and polished despite his stage, he will seek to expose that advantage in any rallies when he maneuvers Raonic into a neutral position.  But the disparity between their serves may weigh heavily upon the home favorite, especially in close sets, for he must expend much more effort in his service games than will the Canadian.  Considered one of the finest returners and counterpunchers of his generation, Hewitt must hope that those talents have waned too sharply, for Raonic can finish points more effectively than can Roddick and repeatedly has displayed a precocious poise under pressure.  Don’t expect this neophyte to crumble on a grand stage, even with the crowd squarely against him.

Lisicki vs. Kuznetsova:  In their only previous meeting, the German leaned upon her mighty serve to overpower the Russian at the All England Club en route to her first of two quarterfinals there.  Far less serve-friendly than grass, this sticky surface tilts towards Kuznetsova’s advantage by allowing her more time to survive Lisicki’s first strike.  Not lacking in shot-making skill herself, Sveta will hammer forehands into her opponent’s forehand to create a clash of strength with strength.  Her vulnerable second serve will offer an inviting target for the younger woman’s vicious returns, so the two-time major champion will want to connect with as many first serves as possible.  Notorious for drifting in and out of focus, Kuznetsova cannot afford such lapses in a rare WTA match when a service break actually means something.  Across the net, Lisicki must manage an equally significant internal concern involving her fragile physical condition.  Sidelined much too often for a player of her age, she has retired or withdrawn from several tournaments since the start of 2011.

Zvonareva vs. Makarova:  In apparent danger of defeat during the first round, the fifth seed danced with disaster again when she fell behind Hradecka in the second set of her next match.  Unnoticed by most observers, Zvonareva has edged within one victory of a marquee fourth-round meeting with Serena.  Although she defeated the American in Eastbourne last year, few would fancy her chances in a rematch unless she delivers a significantly more imposing account of herself against Makarova.  A dangerous server with a useful knack for saving break points, the fiery lefty has proven herself a thorn in the side of opponents as talented as Sharapova and Azarenka on medium-speed courts.  She has caught fire for an extended stretch only once in her career, when she won the Eastbourne title as a qualifier, but Makarova upset Brisbane champion Kanepi in the second round.  Until then, the Estonian had seemed the most plausible dark horse in the women’s draw.  We suspect that Makarova wouldn’t mind seizing that role herself.

Janko Tipsarevic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 4

Tipsarevic vs. Gasquet:  Living in the shadow of two far more notable players, these men have traced opposite trajectories in their career.  Whereas Gasquet has shouldered the unwieldy burden created by those who deemed him a “little Federer,” Tipsarevic has found his accomplishments dwarfed by the towering feats of Djokovic.  Yet the Serb and the Frenchman have handled that position in contrasting ways.  A perennial underachiever, Gasquet allowed the mountainous expectations upon him to sink his spirits at key moments in his development, although he has emitted an occasional flash of brilliance.  On the other hand, Tipsarevic has drawn inspiration from the current world #1, remarkably finding self-belief rather than discouragement from the ascendancy of a younger man who has thoroughly eclipsed him.  A few years ago, then Gasquet would have entered this match as the favorite with a second-week berth at a major on the line.  Now, Tipsarevic must adapt to that unaccustomed position with all of the conviction that he can muster.  Beyond these intriguing subplots, this match offers two of the finest down-the-line backhands from outside the ATP top five, wielded by two players unafraid to unleash these weapons with reckless abandon.

Zheng vs. Bartoli:  In the same round at the same tournament two years ago, the doubles star toppled the double-fister after rallying from a one-set deficit.  A quarterfinalist at Melbourne in 2009, Bartoli generally has recorded mixed results at the season’s first major, where the surface perhaps slows down her rapier-like groundstrokes too much.  As she stormed to an unexpected Auckland title, Zheng lasered her low strokes towards the center of the opponent’s baseline, preventing her opponent from carving out an angle.  With this steady diet of depth, albeit not much pace, she hopes to eventually draw a weaker response with which to step inside the court.  Like Kuznetsova, Zheng must recognize that she will win few points on a second serve that Bartoli’s superb return should devour.  Unlike Kuznetsova, she will find ample opportunities to showcase her own returning prowess.  While Bartoli can earn free points on her serve when that shot clicks, rare is the match when it does not desert her for at least one ghastly stretch.  Expect a parade of breaks and tightly contested service games.  As Zheng attempts to consolidate a budding revival, Bartoli aims to build upon a strong 2011 Slam campaign and entrench herself further inside the top 10.

Benneteau vs. Nishikori:  Quietly scoring one of the first week’s more notable upsets, the Sydney finalist continued his momentum by outlasting compatriot Simon in five sets.  One did not expect such stamina from the 30-year-old Frenchman on either mental or physical levels, for Benneteau normally plays a fast-paced style of short points that demands relatively little from the body.  Quite the opposite is his third-round opponent, who once ground down the towering Marin Cilic on a sultry day at the US Open through sheer endurance and tenacity.  Once defeating the ATP’s grinder par excellence, Ferrer, Nishikori exercised his quiet determination when he rallied from a two-set deficit in the previous round against an Australian who coupled the audacity of an underdog with the feistiness of a home favorite.  With youth and fitness on his side, the Japanese #1 should recover more swiftly from his exertions than Benneteau, but relentlessly aggressive opponents still can fluster him.  If he can disrupt Nishikori’s rhythm with imaginative shot selection, the canny veteran could earn himself an opportunity to reach the second week in one of the draw’s more open sections.

 

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Ana Ivanovic - 2012 Australian Open Previews

Overcome by Makarova in her first Melbourne match last year, Ivanovic strides towards a less formidable obstacle in the diminutive Spaniard Lourdes Dominguez Lino.  Never have they met before, but the Serb possesses far superior weapons on every stroke and should pummel her opponent’s weak serve with aggressive returning.  Rather than reaching for her more nuanced, stylish gambits, she should stick to straightforward first-strike tennis for an efficient victory.  The first round invariably triggers nerves in even the most prominent contenders, so this match might provide a glimpse into how steady Ivanovic’s serve stays when her mind grows tense.  Nevertheless, Day 2 offers many more intriguing and suspenseful matches, of which we now preview our favorites.

Dushevina vs. Kvitova:   Falling in the first round of the US Open, Kvitova lost six of nine matches on outdoor hard courts during the spring and summer of 2011.  The favorite for the title notwithstanding, she faces a potentially tricky encounter against a woman who has an uncanny knack for threatening far superior players from both Williams sisters to Sharapova and Ivanovic.  At first glance, one struggles to discern what in Dushevina’s game can pose such difficulty.  But her lack of a clear strength or weakness, as well as her marked fluctuations in form, can confuse and frustrate opponents as they seek to develop a strategy.  If Kvitova strikes her shots with relentless authority, she should overpower the Russian in a match scarcely more competitive than Azarenka’s first-round victory.  If she succumbs to complacency and underestimates her opponent, on the other hand, the second seed might not advance as comfortably as she should.

Paszek vs. Serena:  A surprise quarterfinalist at Wimbledon last year, Paszek reinvigorated a career that had disappointed over the previous few years following injuries and sporadic play.  Australian fans might recall her as the player who nearly upset Jankovic in the first round of the 2008 Australian Open, while others might remember the pronouncements of Henin and others who identified her as a key talent of the next generation.  Unlikely to fulfill those prophecies at this stage, Paszek projects little power from her serve and does not quite fit into the mold of either attacker or counterpuncher.  All the same, she does deliver penetrating groundstrokes from both wings and will approach Serena with more optimism than many first-round opponents.  The American has accumulated an immaculate record in the first round of majors but often doesn’t bring her finest tennis to the very beginning of a tournament.  Watch her attempts to change direction along the baseline to see whether the ankle injury incurred in Brisbane affects her mobility.

Kirilenko vs. Gajdosova: After she absorbed a humiliating double bagel against Bartoli in Hopman Cup, Gajdosova fell well short of defending her Hobart title.  The second-ranked Australian woman thus hopes to salvage her January with a creditable performance in Melbourne.  Reaching the quarterfinals here two years ago, Kirilenko may find this medium-speed surface more suited to her style than will her uncompromisingly aggressive foe.  The Russian should aim to exploit Gajdosova’s impatience by pinning her behind the baseline without offering her the pace that she relishes.  Skilled in doubles as well as in singles, Kirilenko acquits herself impressively from everywhere on the court.  Whereas the Aussie stays at the baseline except to dispatch point-ending swing volleys, the Russian can venture towards the net with confidence.  That tactic should work effectively to rush the slow-footed Gajdosova.

Sharapova vs. Dulko:  Recovering from an ankle injury sustained at Tokyo last fall, Sharapova has played only a handful of matches since the US Open and none at all in 2012.  Understandably in those circumstances, she looked sporadically brilliant and sporadically hapless during a practice match with Vesnina a few days ago.  Memories of her first-round exit from the 2010 Australian Open flicker into one’s mind, considering her rustiness and the steadiness of her opponent.  Although she has distinguished herself more in doubles than in singles, most recently with Pennetta, Dulko has slain many a notable champion at a prestigious tournament.  Among her victims were Henin at Indian Wells and Sharapova at Wimbledon two years ago, but the willowy Argentine also toppled defending finalist Stosur at Roland Garros last year.  Quite literally overshadowed by the three-time major champion, she can unleash surprising power with her forehand and will bring valuable experience to their encounter.  When she upset Sharapova before, Dulko unsettled the Russian’s wayward serve with bold returning.  Her own serve offers a vulnerable target for the WTA’s leading returner, however, so expect a match onf uneven quality littered with breaks.

Murray vs. Harrison:  Before one feels sorry for Ryan Harrison’s unfortunate luck in drawing Murray for his first-round opponent, one should remember that Harrison probably doesn’t feel sorry for himself.  Never bereft of confidence against leading opponents, the brash American youngster stretched Federer to a first-set tiebreak at Indian Wells a year ago before winning two sets from Ferrer at Wimbledon.  To be sure, Ferrer on grass poses a much less daunting challenge than Murray on a hard court, especially the hard court where he has defeated Nadal and reached two major finals.  But Harrison should enjoy the experience of playing this grand stage, albeit Hisense rather than Rod Laver Arena, and opponents who have assaulted the Scot with abandon have reaped rewards from that strategy before.  Across the best-of-five format, Murray’s far superior versatility and depth should suffocate Harrison and expose his mediocre backhand.  American fans should not expect a sequel to Tomic’s accomplishment, then, but they reasonably can expect a strong competitive effort from their nation’s leading man when these two temperamental perfectionists collide.

Haase vs. Roddick:  Dominant through two sets against Murray at the US Open, the lanky Dutchman somehow lost the script and ultimately the match.  This pattern defined much of Haase’s 2011 campaign, which featured no fewer than twelve defeats in which he had won the first set.  Early in that series, he won the first set from Roddick at this tournament a year ago, came within a tiebreak of winning the second set, and then faded thereafter as an apparent ankle injury overtook him.  Can Haase finish what he started this time?  As Roddick’s career has waned, he has won fewer and fewer free points with his serve, leaving him more susceptible to shot-makers like Haase.  Consistency and experience represent his greatest weapons, though, and both of those should serve him well against an opponent who has much to prove regarding his competitive resilience.

Dokic vs. Chakvetadze:  When they met three Australian Opens ago, one of these women still held a prominent position in the WTA, and the other sought to mount a comeback from obscurity.  Now, both Dokic and Chakvetadze seek to revive their careers from potentially terminal setbacks on both physical and mental levels.  In addition to their experience in adversity, they share similarities in the strengths and flaws of their games, such as a tendency towards double faults and a talent for redirecting their groundstrokes, which skim low over the net.  During a promising week in Hobart, Chakvetadze defeated Pironkova and won a set from Peer before retiring ominously.  During an odd week in Sydney, Dokic served a double bagel to her first opponent and then nearly ate another from Bartoli.  All of this evidence suggests that we should expect the unexpected in a meeting of two personalities strung more tightly than their rackets.

Zvonareva vs. Dulgheru:  Strung tightly herself throughout a lopsided Sydney loss to Kuznetsova, Zvonareva looks ripe for an upset as she attempts to defend semifinal points.  Dulgheru overcame Kvitova in the first round of the US Open, battled Sharapova to a third-set tiebreak in Miami, and extended Kvitova to a third set in Sydney last week.  Although the Romanian rarely has progressed deep into tournaments, she mounts a credible threat on all surfaces with her excellent court coverage and clean backhand.  Those strengths shouldn’t suffice to defeat a top-10 opponent, of course, but Zvonareva rarely has played like a woman in the top 10 over the last several months.  Far in the distant past now, seemingly, are her consecutive major finals in 2010.  After those twin peaks to her career, she has slid backwards steadily.

Mahut vs. Stepanek:  Lilting around the court with a panache undimmed by age, these serve-volley artists probably would prefer a faster surface, like grass or an indoor hard court.  Vestiges of a nearly vanished area, Mahut and Stepanek will engage in truncated points that display a mixture of power and touch.  Neither can muster the consistency to survive extended rallies, so the audience should focus on the precision with which they place their serves and their approach shots, a demonstration more intellectual than aesthetically pleasing but still intriguing for its rarity.

Keys vs. Zheng:  After Christina McHale overcame Safarova, another young American woman aims to continue her nation’s momentum.  The Auckland titlist, Zheng peppers the baseline with flat, low groundstrokes that bedevil tall players.  Her opponent remains a work in progress, still raw and far from mature while filled with potential that merited a wildcard into the main draw.  With a serve that regularly reaches triple digits already, she can target Zheng’s much weaker delivery with her returns to capitalize upon this advantage to the fullest.  In this clash of two players with such different styles, Keys should view this opportunity as another step on her long evolutionary journey.

Serena Williams Serena Williams of USA in action against Vera Zvonareva of Russia during day five of the AEGON International at Devonshire Park on June 15, 2011 in Eastbourne, England.

Rezai vs. S. Williams:  Had she maintained her form of a year ago, the flamboyant Frenchwoman would have posed a thorny test for a momentarily vulnerable Serena.  In two matches at Eastbourne, the 13-time major champion looked sporadically frail in many departments but most notably her serve, the key to her four Wimbledon titles.  Fortunately for Serena, though, Rezai has battled a maelstrom of emotional and psychological turmoil off the court that has undermined her season. On the other hand, she might recapture her swagger with the opportunity to showcase her skills on Centre Court.  Having traded baseline missiles with Serena throughout an entertaining three-setter in Sydney, Rezai demonstrated the requisite firepower to conquer the American at her own game.  But one doubts that she sustain it across three sets, as she rarely has throughout her career.

Soderling vs. Petzschner:  Seemingly to his own surprise, Petzschner produced a finals run in his home tournament of Halle that culminated with a three-set victory over Berdych.  Exhausted by those exertions, he retired in the final but surely will arrive in Wimbledon in a dangerously confident mood.  A quarterfinalist here last year, Soderling has lost to the eventual champion in each of the last two years as he did at Roland Garros.  The world #5 has honed a groundstroke arsenal not only steadier but more formidable than Petzschner’s strokes, while his serve will garner just as many free points from the fast court.  Never a natural mover, though, Soderling may struggle to find his footing on the slippery surface after missing the grass preparatory events.  Despite his mid-career breakthrough, he remains vulnerable to unpredictable upsets at majors and has lacked consistency throughout an injury-plagued spring.

Li vs. Kudryavtseva:  Notorious for a temper as flaming as her hair, the Russian came within two points of upsetting Venus early in the American’s historic 2007 title run.  A year later, Kudryavtseva won those two points against Sharapova shortly before her compatriot departed for shoulder surgery.  Just weeks removed from her Roland Garros crown, Li thus should not enter her Wimbledon opener with a complacency otherwise justifiable under the circumstances.  After arriving in maiden Slam finals at the French Open last year, both Schiavone and Stosur slumped to early exits at the All England Club.  More disturbingly, Li herself has followed torrid bursts with arid stretches as her motivation seemingly evaporates.  While Channel Slams have become routine on the men’s side, no woman in recent years has equaled the feats of Nadal and Federer.

Isner vs. Mahut:  Scheduled on a court that didn’t exist during their epic encounter a year ago, the two record-setters probably will enjoy the sequel more than the original.  Expect a semi-serious, semi-exhibition atmosphere as the adversaries-turned-friends make the most of a deliciously bizarre coincidence.  And expect points as short as this preview.

Dolgopolov vs. Gonzalez:  Surging to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, Dolgopolov demonstrated lithe movement and smooth stroke production in addition to an uncanny feel for the ball.  But the Ukrainian has produced inconsistent results since that achievement, revealing an indifferent sense of point construction and shot selection.  The grass should showcase his delicate touch around the net, although his movement will prove a less valuable tool.  Returning from a potentially career-ending surgery, Gonzalez has alternately soared and staggered even more sharply.  Not at his most comfortable on this surface, the Australian Open finalist and Olympic silver medalist possesses a fiercer weapon in his forehand than anything that Dolgopolov can deploy.  If the Ukrainian can find his backhand with his own crisp two-hander, though, he can neutralize the Chilean’s power.  Built upon brief, almost casual motions, both serves can oscillate as much as the rest of their games.  Thrusting Tsonga deep into a fifth set here last Wimbledon, Dolgopolov may deliver another dramatic rollercoaster this year.

Nishikori vs. Hewitt:  Surely soon to vanish into the mists of tennis history is the last man to win Wimbledon before Federer planted his standard on Centre Court.  Nine years and several surgeries later, Hewitt no longer ranks among the contenders but can reflect upon memories as recent as his upset of Del Potro here in 2009.  Unfortunate to draw eventual champion Nadal in his 2010 opener, Nishikori has developed a style similar to Hewitt in his prime with sturdy technique, compact strokes, and mental durability.  With serves little better than point-starting shots, these players might engage in longer rallies than those often seen on grass.  In addition to their backwards caps and counterpunching tenacity, Hewitt and Nishikori share brisk cross-court backhands that exploit the geometry of the court.

Ana Ivanovic - AEGON Classic - Day Six

Ivanovic vs. Oudin:  A first-round victim in three of the last four majors, the former #1 has not reached a Slam quarterfinal since her title at Roland Garros 2008.  Nevertheless, she has recorded solid results at non-majors with sufficient frequency to stabilize her ranking inside or slightly outside the top 20.  After her 2009 US Open quarterfinal, meanwhile, Oudin has plunged off the tennis radar as swiftly as she burst upon it.  Two years ago, both players reached the second week here, and both gain contrasting benefits from the grass. Striking sixteen aces in a Birmingham semifinal, Ivanovic benefits from the surface’s short points and will hope to crack plentiful return winners off Oudin’s unimposing serve.  Like many tall players, though, the Serb sometimes struggles to adjust to the low bounce on grass, which rewards her opponent’s compact stature.  Both Ana and the American vastly prefer their forehands to their backhands, so each should target the other’s weaker wing with inside-out strikes of their weapons.

Sharapova vs. Chakvetadze:  The only former champion in the draw not named Williams, Sharapova ascended to the status of a leading contender after her Roland Garros semifinal.  Seeking her first Wimbledon quarterfinal since 2006, the 2004 champion confronts an opponent whom she has dispatched in all seven of their previous meetings.  After a giddy ascent to the top 5 four years ago, Chakvetadze tumbled to a sub-100 ranking in the wake of a house robbery and a disintegrating serve.  Impressive on the clay when few expected anything notable from her, Sharapova must continue her progress with those expectations now renewed.  Choosing to rest rather than enter Birmingham as usual, she has practiced at Wimbledon for over a week but still lacks any match practice on grass.  Chakvetadze may have an opportunity to exploit that lingering rust early in the match before Sharapova, a habitually slow starter, finds her range and starts to spray chalk around Centre Court.

Cibulkova vs. Lucic:  Yet another retiree who fancied a comeback, a woman who once defeated Seles at Wimbledon aims to recapture that magic of more than a decade ago.  After an encouraging clay campaign, Lucic garnered a pair of wins in Birmingham as her serve struck its targets with increasing precision.  That crucial shot still disintegrates occasionally, though, producing strings of double faults without warning.  A steadier competitor who lacks the Croat’s first-strike power, Cibulkova may find her short wingspan threatened on returns but should outlast Lucic if she can survive the first few shots of the rally.  Despite defeating Kuznetsova en route to the Dutch Open semifinals, the Slovak has found grass her least productive surface and has won only four matches in four Wimbledon appearances—fewer than her opponent won during her signature run in 1999.

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

 

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia plays a forehand during her first round match against Tamarine Tanasugarn of Thailand during day one of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 17, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Not without nerves in her opening victory, Sharapova steadied herself late in both sets and unleashed a pitiless barrage of groundstrokes far removed from the torrent of errors that she delivered in Melbourne last year.  As she marches deeper into the draw, however, the 2008 Australian Open champion must rediscover the rhythm on her serve, which abandoned her for prolonged periods against Tanasugarn.  In the second round, Sharapova must acquaint herself with the style of an opponent whom she never has encountered.  Perhaps best known for defeating Venus in the 2007 Tokyo final, Razzano has steadily climbed through the rankings after a controversial injury thrust her out of the top 100 last year.  Puny at first glance, she counterpunches capably and finds surprising depth on her groundstrokes.  But her second serve offers a tasty target for the Siberian, who lashed a series of scalding returns against Tanasugarn.  Even if Sharapova continues to struggle with her serve, therefore, she should break Razzano with sufficient frequency to defuse the pressure when she approaches the service notch.

Having focused on the women in Day 2, we focus largely on the men in Day 3:

Simon vs. Federer:  Rarely does a Federer second-round match intrigue beyond the potential of witnessing a between-the-legs missile.  But here the Swiss legend confronts one of the few unseeded players in the draw who has scored notable victories over him.  Twice rallying from one-set deficits against Federer, Simon stunned him at both the Rogers Cup and the year-end championships in 2008.  Crucial in those encounters, the Frenchman’s superb two-handed backhand exploited Roger’s vulnerable one-hander, a shot that has improved under the guidance of Paul Annacone.  Since Simon surely will seek to target that side again, this match should measure the progress of Federer’s backhand, perhaps not essential to this match but certainly to the tournament.  Despite a title in Sydney last week, the Frenchman has not quite returned to his 2008 heights and will struggle to match the defending champion’s serve.  In the best-of-five format, moreover, Federer can avoid more comfortably the concentration lapses that have cost him so dearly against Simon.

Tipsarevic vs. Verdasco:  Shining almost as brightly as his shirt during his opening-round victory, the 2009 semifinalist showed few signs of the malaise that plagued him through the second half of 2010.  As he seeks to rekindle the memories of two years ago, he confronts a Serb who habitually rises to the level of his competition.  Tipsarevic has ambushed Roddick twice at majors, including at the US Open last fall, and nearly toppled Federer in a memorable meeting at the 2008 Australian Open.  Not always the most sensible shotmakers, both players can raise eyebrows in more ways than one.  Don’t be surprised to see Verdasco hit (or attempt to hit) flagrant winners from several feet behind the baseline, or Tipsarevic aim for extravagantly angled second serves.  Leaving discretion to the top seeds, these two showmen know how to enliven the first week.

Berdych vs. Kohlschreiber:  The dissonance between their personalities emerges through the contrast between their backhands.  Armed with one of the flashiest one-handed backhands in the game, the German continues to defy national stereotypes with his flamboyant personality and playing style.   Restrained to a conservative two-hander, the somewhat reserved Berdych needs to start 2011 promisingly after a disappointing second half raised questions surrounding the legitimacy of his mid-season breakthrough.  If the Czech seeks to permanently establish himself among the ATP elite, the volatile Kohlschreiber personifies the brand of dangerous dark horse whom he must regularly overcome.

Marino vs. Schiavone:  Trumpeted as the future of Canadian tennis, this big-serving teenager won the admiration of Venus when she extended her to a first-set tiebreak at the US Open last fall.  Highly fallible in her opener against the unheralded Parra Santonja, Schiavone will need her stinging slices and artful forecourt ploys to dull the power from across the net, especially on Marino’s serve.  Can the Italian veteran continue to uphold the banner of subtle finesse against raw, ball-bruising force?

Wawrinka vs. Dimitrov:  After the example set by Gasquet, one should beware of labeling any teenager a “little Federer,” but the label has hovered around Dimitrov like a halo.  While he has defeated Simon and other noteworthy names, he has not yet achieved the Slam breakthrough that would catapult him into the attention of sports fans worldwide.  His resounding victory over Golubev augured well for his season, and a triumph over the Swiss #2 would deliver an imposing statement.  A champion in Chennai, Wawrinka surged within a set of the semifinals in New York; beneath his graceful one-handed backhand stands a foundation of exceptional fitness.  Yet his lack of overwhelming weapons will prevent him from hitting Dimitrov off the court before the Bulgarian has an opportunity to exhibit his nascent talents.

Almagro vs. Andreev:  Troubling Federer in his Melbourne opener last year, Kirilenko’s boyfriend came within a point of a two-sets-to-one lead on multiple occasions before faltering.  Andreev has honed a grinding style oddly more suited to clay than the style of the Spaniard whom he faces, for Almagro relies much less upon consistency than upon shot-making.  Although the Russian has wandered below the realm of relevance for most of the last few years, he looked crisper than the Spaniard in the first round and holds a slight mental edge.

Wickmayer vs. Sevastova:  Although not quite at her best in the first round, the third-ranked Belgian deserves substantial credit for dispatching the dangerous Groth on Rod Laver Arena.  Renowned not only for athletic ability but for gritty competitiveness, Wickmayer should regularly reach the second week of majors once her game matures.  Defeating both Jankovic and Ivanovic last spring, Sevastova has manufactured a deceptively unimposing style that can frustrate opponents by forcing them to generate additional pace on their groundstrokes.  Can the Latvian lull the Belgian to sleep, or will Wickipedia find the answers?

Nicolas Mahut Nicolas Mahut of France celebrates winning a point during his singles match against Potito Starace of Italy on day seven of the Hopman Cup on January 7, 2011 in Perth, Australia.

Troicki vs. Mahut:  Forced rather unjustly to qualify for this event, the co-hero of 70-68 has won four straight matches as he takes aim at the Sydney finalist.  The hero of the Davis Cup final, Troicki has conquered the uncertainties that beset him throughout most of his career.  Firmly tethered to the baseline, he will hope to unsettle the net-rushing Frenchman with his sparkling array of passing shots, much as he did in Belgrade against Mahut’s compatriot Llodra.  Since their strengths mirror each other, expect a sprightly match high in winners and low in rallies.

***

Fancy any particular Day 4 duels?  Feel free to comment or to contact us on Twitter before we release the next preview.

Amidst Christmas celebrations, Federer-Nadal exhibitions, and a series of review articles on 2010, the offseason meandered to its conclusion along a path more beguiling than boring.  With barely two weeks before the first major of 2011, Perth welcomes a glittering panoply of stars that includes five Slam champions and three former #1s.  A bubbly aperitif for the season to come, the Hopman Cup generally treads the line between exhibition and genuine tournament, providing not only light-hearted entertainment outside the sidelines but also compelling encounters between past, current, and future legends.  We sketch each team in one of the most talented groups ever to assemble beneath the Burswood Dome.

Serbia:  Concluding 2010 on an emphatic note, Djokovic and Ivanovic seek to consolidate those successes with an impressive beginning to 2011.  Just a month removed from his nation’s first Davis Cup title, the ATP #3 enjoyed only a fleeting respite from the calendar’s demands; on the other hand, the brief holiday will not have dulled his momentum.  Also eager to prove herself again is his sensuous leading lady, who hopes to buttress her late-season resurgence upon a partnership with Antonio van Grichen of Azarenka renown.  Saddled with a hobbling Jankovic, Djokovic reached the Hopman Cup final in 2008 while dazzling the Perth audience with his comedic flair as much as with his tennis.  Seeded #1 here for the first time, the Serbian team should enjoy similar success in 2011.  Likely to win all of their singles matches except Ivanovic-Henin, they own the two strongest serves in their group.  Although neither Serb has excelled during their sporadic ventures into doubles, mixed doubles often isn’t much more than the sum of its parts.  None of the Hopman Cup duos has accumulated significant experience together, so spectators will see four singles players on the same court rather than two doubles teams.

Great Britain:  Favored to progress from their group, Murray and Laura Robson reprise the partnership that carried them to last year’s final in Perth.  Despite a disappointing 2010 campaign, the Scot played his best tennis of the season at the Australian Open and faces substantial points to defend there in order to hold Soderling and others at bay.  An introverted personality, Murray might benefit from the Hopman Cup’s informal atmosphere, and he should cruise through his singles encounters with Starace, Mahut, and Isner.   Recently known more for verbal than actual volleys, the feisty Robson competed tenaciously at the Burswood Dome last year.  A former Wimbledon junior champion, this lefty bears her nation’s hopes for a first female Slam champion since Virginia Wade.  Such dreams still lie far ahead, but the Hopman Cup offers an excellent occasion for Robson to test her progress against more experienced opponents in a tension-free setting.

Belgium:  One abortive comeback behind her, Henin prepares to launch a second serve in 2011.  Still recovering from an elbow injury suffered at Wimbledon, the petite Belgian challenged Clijsters in an Antwerp exhibition in December.  Against the relentlessly hard-hitting trio of Molik, Shvedova, and Ivanovic, Henin can showcase her effortless movement and the versatility that remains the hallmark of her game.  Since ATP #178 Bemelmans probably won’t score any singles victories, his formidable partner must sweep the board if Belgium fancies a berth in the finals.  Superb at the net, Henin will have the opportunity to exhibit a set of skills infrequently displayed in singles when she accompanies Bemelmans in the doubles.  The doubles rubber also will allow her to experiment with creating angles on her serve, perhaps inspiring her to vary her accustomed pattern of targeting the center service line.

Italy:  Suddenly a familiar face in her home nation, Schiavone endeared herself to fans around the world with her spirited witticisms in the wake of her Roland Garros title.  Ready to revel in the Hopman Cuo’s light-hearted atmosphere, the Italian veteran hopes to befuddle less seasoned opponents with her crafty all-court arsenal.  Don’t be surprised to see Schiavone attempt one of Federer’s between-the-legs swipes as she did at the US Open, or amuse the crowd with one of her characteristically melodramatic explosions of emotion.  By contrast, her partner will seem a rather tepid affair, for Starace has achieved little outside clay and has struggled to reassert himself since a betting suspension paused his career.  As Schiavone likes to remind anyone who will listen, the Italian men still lag many leagues behind their female counterparts.

Australia:  Their best years well behind them, Hewitt and Molik attempt to eke out a few closing memories from their fading careers.  This unassuming pair should bask in the glow of Australia’s ever supportive tennis faithful, among the finest fans in the world.  Thoroughly outgunned by Djokovic, Hewitt will welcome the opportunity to construct court-stretching rallies that will grind down his other two opponents.  Despite an unimpressive performance at the Australian Open wildcard playoffs, Molik still can threaten whenever she connects with her first serve and shields that woeful backhand.  Much more comfortable at the baseline than at the net, Hewitt wobbled in doubles during the last Hopman Cup, and his 2011 partner will provide less reliable support than did 2010 partner Stosur (who abandoned Lleyton for the Brisbane beaches this year).

Kazakhstan:  Predictable winners of the Asian Hopman Cup playoff, Golubev and Shvedova will prove less accommodating foes than previous Asian entries in this competition.  Capturing his first career title at Hamburg last year, Golubev came within a third-set tiebreak of additional hardware in Kuala Lumpur.  Close to a seeded position at the Australian Open, the resident of northern Italy joins a fellow “passport Kazakh” who also lurks within the top 40.  Always high on the WTA’ s power index, Shvedova wastes little time with slices or drop shots.  While her shoot-first, think-later style requires some refinement, she reached the Roland Garros quarterfinals in 2010 and won doubles titles at both Wimbledon and the US Open, partnering Vania King.  Those latter achievements augur well for Kazakhstan’s fate in the mixed doubles, although Golubev lacks any notable successes in court-sharing enterprises.

France:  After Monfils limped away from the Hopman Cup, the French found a noble substitute in Mahut of Wimbledon first-round fame.  The medium-speed courts in the Burswood Dome will reward serve-and-volley less than the grass of the All England Club, but Isner’s accomplice will have an opportunity to reprise their legendary clash in a round-robin meeting at the Hopman Cup.  If they manage to split the first two sets, perhaps they can set a record for the longest third-set tiebreak in tennis history.  Eleven years his junior, Mahut’s partner has never won a main-draw match at a WTA event, placing her even further down the evolutionary chain than Robson.  Yet the 17-year-old Mladenovic already towers close to six feet and won an ITF doubles title in 2010, suggesting that she might have an impact at that stage.

USA:  The bland Isner and the anything-but-bland Mattek-Sands form quite an odd couple in the absence of original entry Serena Williams.  Probably tired already from the mere prospect of Mahut, Isner never quite recovered from their Wimbledon marathon after an auspicious first-half campaign.  Falling routinely to future opponent Murray at last year’s Australian Open, the American owns a serve even more formidable in doubles than in singles, as his partnership with Querrey illustrated.  Nevertheless, doubles also exposes Isner’s clumsiness at the net or with anything more delicate than his sledgehammer forehand.  A member of several triumphant Fed Cup doubles squads, the diminutive Mattek-Sands never shrinks from the spotlight and can be trusted to provide her zany brand of drama if the on-court action lags for long.

***

Higher in affluence and lower in charm, the Abu Dhabi event this weekend could result in the third exhibition meeting between Federer and Nadal during this offseason.  Aiming to ambush that narrative are Soderling and Berdych, both of whom reached a major final in 2010 and seek to move one step further in 2011.  Currently more distant from Slam glory, Tsonga and Baghdatis both have reached the final at the Australian Open but struggled with nagging injuries since their breakthroughs.  Will the top two celebrate the New Year in style, or will one of their rivals find another reason to dream?  Enjoy the exhibitions as we zoom into another scintillating season of tennis.

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For this latest article in our series of player profiles, we have chosen a different format from the “five strength, five weakness” structure that we previously favored.  Discussing the towering American, we address eight key questions concerning his past, present, and future:

1)       What did we learn from the Marathon Match against Mahut?

From a strictly technical and tactical perspective, the match unfolded more or less as one would have imagined.  Few observers would have been surprised either by Isner’s ability to hold serve repeatedly against an indifferent returner or by his inability to break serve, considering his mediocre return.  Yet the remarkable and encouraging lesson from “70-68” was the fortitude and bulldog-like resolve that the American demonstrated by refusing to abandon the struggle even after it reached surreal proportions.  Just as valuable as his serve, this mental trait augurs well for his future in the tour’s most significant events and in his matches against marquee opponents.  Still winless against the ATP top 5, Isner displayed the sort of courage that he will need in order to break through against them.

2)      What effect will that match have upon his career?

One suspects that no second-round Wimbledon loser has received the degree of attention in which Isner was bathed upon his return, where he even participated in the Letterman Show.  Before his next tournament in Atlanta, he claimed to have grown weary of discussing “70-68” already, but he should brace himself for relentless rounds of questions on it throughout the summer.  Although this early taste of celebrity could erode the focus of a less mature player, we suspect that Isner won’t permit himself to be derailed.  Instead, he likely will reflect upon this match as proof that no mission is impossible, reinforcing his already sturdy work ethic.   During those eleven hours, he earned himself fresh legions of fans throughout the world, and their support will bolster this player who clearly benefits from an encouraging crowd.

3)      How does he compare to his compatriot Querrey?         

Impatiently awaiting its next men’s tennis champion, the American media has subjected these two friends to intense levels of scrutiny.  In short, Isner’s strengths are stronger than Querrey’s, while his weaknesses are weaker.  His additional three inches enable him to create even more audacious angles on his first serve, and his second serve penetrates the box with more depth and pace than does his compatriot’s.  Despite its lower net clearance, his flatter forehand also appears slightly more potent.  On the other hand, Isner can play several games in a row without making solid contact with his returns, whereas Querrey connects on that short with greater consistency.  Maneuvering Isner into his backhand corner reaps somewhat greater rewards than targeting Querrey’s backhand, a more developed and assured stroke although certainly not a weapon.  Mentally, the taller man possess a substantial edge over the Californian, whose focus can falter and whose motivation has been persuasively questioned; Querrey almost certainly would have abandoned “70-68” by 20-20 or so.  From this evidence, one imagines that Isner will remain more vulnerable to early-round upsets than his compatriot and record fewer career titles.  Conversely, he will prove more dangerous to higher-ranked players and more likely to record a startling run at a major reminiscent of Ivanisevic’s Wimbledon.

4)      What does he gain / lose by playing doubles regularly?

Attempting to qualify with Querrey for the doubles event at the year-end championships, Isner has committed himself to additional court time throughout the season.  Often denigrated by commentators and top singles players, doubles can prove a vital tool for honing unsteady components of one’s game.  During these matches, Isner will seek to sharpen his instincts and reflexes, which have hampered his ability to time returns with precision.  Doubles further offers numerous opportunities to finish points at the net, a region where he must venture in order to fully capitalize upon his overwhelming serve.  Beyond the additional fatigue induced by the extra court time, however, doubles can undermine the key trait of self-reliance in a singles star by providing constant mid-match encouragement from someone else (one’s partner).  Consequently, Isner should remain wary of dulling his mental edge and slipping into a more dependent mentality.

5)      What is the impact of his unconventional path to the ATP (via college tennis)?

For much of Isner’s breakthrough season in 2007, the element of surprise boosted his results against opponents unsure of how best to exploit his flaws.  When the scouting report gradually developed, his performance dipped temporarily before rising again.  By choosing to remain at Georgia until graduation, Isner escaped from the pressure-packed hothouse of tennis academies, where all other arenas of life are subordinated to the yellow ball.  Even if this decision took time away from his professional career, he probably has become a more balanced, mature personality as a result.  The sport’s history is littered with the cadavers of prodigies who adopted the opposite path before psychologically or physically collapsing without fulfilling their immense promise.  While Isner possesses less natural talent than Gasquet or Donald Young, for example, he has evolved into a far more imposing competitor; the significance of the game’s mental dimension heightens proportionally with the magnitude of a tournament. 

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6)      How much can he improve his weaknesses?

Determined to become more than a serve or serve-forehand machine, Isner has devoted considerable effort to refining his two-handed backhand with greater depth and accuracy.  If he can transform this stroke from a liability into at least a neutral shot, the American will find himself better equipped to stay in rallies and less easily dragged out of position.  Carrying 81 inches and 245 pounds around a tennis court is not an easy task, so don’t expect to ever see him scrambling along the baseline to outlast opponents after 20- or 30-shot rallies.  While his backhand definitely could improve and his movement probably won’t, his volleying potential is more difficult to discern.  On occasions such as his Davis Cup match against Djokovic, Isner’s net play looked startlingly adept, but on other occasions since then he has fluffed routine volleys in crucial situations.  Not a serve-and-volley specialist like Karlovic, he probably will integrate sporadic forecourt forays into his game but will remain more comfortable at the baseline. 

7)      Is he better designed for the best-of-three or the best-of-five format?

In the more abbreviated format, one can more easily ride a limited arsenal of weapons to victory over an elite adversary or on an indifferent day.  An example of the latter would be his win over Gilles Muller in Atlanta this week, during which he never broke the Luxembourger’s lefty delivery.  Allowing greater time for an opponent to adjust, the momentum-blunting five-set format often exposes a player’s lack of versatility.  Arguing for the American’s potential in the best-of-five format, however, are not only his mental grittiness but a scheduling feature distinctive to majors.  As several tournaments this year have revealed, Isner has developed excellent fitness within a single day or single match but often struggles to recover on the next day.  Therefore, the off-days between every round at Slams would enhance his chances to thrust deep into the draws at the calendar’s four most critical events. (An off-week after “70-68” wouldn’t have sufficed at Wimbledon, so one can’t justly draw conclusions from his one-sided second-round defeat there.)

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8)      Can he break through at a major?

Relying so heavily upon his serve, Isner confronts the challenge of maintaining extremely high efficiency on that shot throughout an entire fortnight against a variety of playing styles.  In order to win a Slam, he must find ways to break serve more frequently against lesser opponents, minimizing court time and mental pressure in the early rounds.  Predictably uneasy on clay, he can be largely discounted at Roland Garros, while the low bounces at Wimbledon may thwart a player of such height.  Isner’s most likely options thus are the two hard-court Slams and especially the US Open, where the fast surface as well as the compatriot crowd will heighten his hopes.  Although the American already has reached his mid-20s, he began much later than most of his peers (see above) and can be expected to endure longer; serve-based games generally age better than those centered around movement and counter-punching.  Isner almost certainly won’t reel off a string of majors, but one could plausibly imagine him winning a US Open someday, should he continue his upward progress and avoid serious injury.

***

Over the weekend, we plan to return with a discussion of the contrasts between attending tennis matches and watching them on television or internet, a relevant issue as we prepare to attend consecutive tournaments during the following fortnight.

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Three of the four Slams complete, we’re precisely halfway through the 2010 tennis season, so it’s time to reflect upon the most momentous and meaningful achievements of the first half.  We count down the top five on both the men’s and women’s sides, not all of which went to a final-set tiebreak (although a few did) but all of which were laden with meaning for the second half of 2010 and beyond.

5)  Djokovic d. Isner (Davis Cup, 1st round, 4th rubber):  In the midst of a desultory spring, Djokovic delivered a stirring melodrama in five parts before a fervent Belgrade audience and frenzied family, whose soccer-style vibe clashes with some tournaments but meshes smoothly with Davis Cup.  As the visiting villain, Isner performed more convincingly than anyone could have expected for his debut with Team USA.  Littered with jagged plot twists, the match ebbed and flowed from one determined competitor to the other, infusing this often moribund competition with renewed energy and relevance.

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4)  Tsonga d. Almagro (Australian Open, 4th round):  The men’s tournament in Melbourne was rife with spectacular first-week epics such as Youzhny-Gasquet, Blake-Del Potro, Del Potro-Cilic, and Roddick-Gonzalez.  But this marathon five-setter climbed above the rest as a result of its steadily escalating intensity, for each brilliant shotmaker forced the other further into the realm of implausibility during its final stages.  Generally more focused upon the journey than the destination, both Tsonga and Almagro shine most brightly in such moments, while their cordial post-match greeting shone just as brightly for those who appreciate classiness on court.

3)  Nadal d. Gulbis (Rome, Semifinal):  Diabolical on dirt once again, Rafa conceded just two sets throughout the entire clay season, one to Almagro in Madrid and one here to the burgeoning Latvian.  Pushing the Spaniard closer to the brink on his favorite surface than anyone else, Gulbis validated his upset over Federer a few days before by harnessing his spectacular all-court prowess with a vastly enhanced competitive vigor.  Few tennis sights are more inspiring than the Latvian at his best, but one of them is the spectacle of the Spaniard relentlessly willing himself to victory over such a worthy opponent.  When his foe’s determined campaign finally crumbled, Nadal’s trademark victory writhe emanated relief as much as pure jubilation.  Finally integrating the components of his spectacular game, Gulbis seems headed directly for the top 10 when he returns from current injuries.  Look for a player profile on him in the coming weeks.

2)  Berdych d. Federer (Miami, 4th round):  Edging into the nerve-jangling terrain of a third-set tiebreak, the famously fragile Czech proved himself fragile no more by saving match point against the world #1 with a fearless forehand.  Two courageous rallies later, Berdych scored the most significant win of his career, even more impressive than his 2004 Olympics triumph over Federer because of the respective trajectories that their careers have followed over the last six years.  He deserves immense credit for continuing to build upon this career-altering moment over the next two majors, where he emerged among the leading threats to the ATP top four.  After lightning struck twice at Wimbledon, the tennis world hailed the Czech’s emergence as a potential champion.  Yet it was a humid April evening in Miami that had witnessed the rebirth of Tomas Berdych.

1)  Isner d. Mahut (Wimbledon, 1st round):  Shattering shoals of records beyond repair, the 138-game final set alone would place this match atop our list.  Moreover, the pas de deux between the American and the Frenchman brought tennis to the attention of sports fans who previously had thought of golf when hearing about the “US Open.”  Just as the previous two matches represented the makings of Gulbis and Berdych, this three-day grind in the grass probably represented the making of John Isner, who stood every inch as tall as his towering frame.  On a broader level, though, the inhumane dimension of the match may have struck a fatal blow to no-tiebreak final sets, a potentially historic step in the evolution of the sport. 

On to the achievements of the ladies:

5)  Schiavone d. Stosur (French Open, Final):  Over the past few years, the Roland Garros women’s final had featured the most appallingly feckless tennis of the WTA season.  Not on this occasion, when Schiavone fearlessly but intelligently took risks at crucial moments and played with joy as well as intensity; meanwhile, Stosur competed consistently throughout most of this tightly contested encounter.  Although the Italian veteran won’t build upon this achievement, her title provided a well-deserved climax to a career lived far from the limelight.  It was delightful to see a women’s final that was won by the champion rather than lost by the runner-up.

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T-4)  Serena d. Sharapova (Wimbledon, 4th round) / Henin d. Sharapova (French Open, 3rd round):  Confronting the best player on clay at Roland Garros and arguably the best player on grass at Wimbledon, Sharapova compelled both adversaries to display their most dazzling tennis in order to vanquish her.  Against the Russian’s indomitable competitive ferocity, Henin’s tenacious defense glowed as much as Serena’s explosive serving and shotmaking.  Dispelling Sharapova’s uncertain start to 2010, these two matches also underscored her return to familiar fire-breathing form, which should enliven the WTA immensely during the second half. 

T-3)  Stosur d. Serena (French Open, Quarterfinal) / Jankovic d. Serena (Rome, Semifinal):  Almost invincible anywhere but clay, Serena is formidable even on her least favorite surface, as the Australian and the Serb could attest.  Stosur consolidated her presence among the sport’s elite by saving a match point before eliminating the world #1 from a major, following the sort of suspenseful, mentally draining duel in which Serena typically prevails.  Likewise saving a match point in Rome, Jankovic encouraged counterpunchers everywhere by proving that top-drawer defense can frustrate top-level offense, contrary to popular wisdom.  David does slay Goliath sometimes, after all.

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T-2)  Clijsters d. Henin (Brisbane, Final) / Clijsters d. Henin (Miami, Semifinal):  The European version of Serena-Venus, the two Belgians rattle each other more than anyone else can rattle either of them.  Not the most technically sturdy or mentally steady tennis, these tension-soaked strolls along the precipice produced more compelling drama than most WTA rivalries.  As soon as Kim built an immense lead, Justine charged forward to snatch it away, only to trip over herself and hand the initiative back to her compatriot…who politely returned it to her.  Towards the latter stages of these matches, whiplash-inducing momentum shifts occurred every few points until momentum itself became a meaningless concept.  In an especially eerie instance of déjà vu, Clijsters won both matches at exactly the same moment (the 14th point of the third-set tiebreak) with exactly the same shot (a forehand winner down the line).

1)   Serena d. Henin (Australian Open, Final):  A three-set women’s final at a major had become an oxymoron after 13 consecutive straight-setters, so one relished a championship match with more than a single, unbroken storyline.  Of course, one of the principal reasons for that trend was Serena’s dominance, which faltered just enough in the second set to allow Henin an opportunity that she seized with consummate aplomb.  As the Belgian reeled off one blinding winner after another, we wondered how the American could recover, but she demonstrated the same tenacity that Nadal manifested against Gulbis.  Serena dug in her heels with admirable stubbornness, transcending her aching knees to play every point and every shot with the single-minded determination that comprises her greatest weapon.  Of her thirteen major titles, few have been harder earned or more meaningful.

***

After applauding the stars who shone in the first half, it’s time to briefly turn from the sublime to the ridiculous.  Sharpening our satirical pen, we sum up the worst matches of 2010.

5)  Roddick d. Soderling (Indian Wells, Semifinal) / Berdych d. Soderling (Miami, Semifinal):  The pre-2008 version of Soderling isn’t dead but dormant, as he proved twice in two tournaments.

4)  Federer d. Murray (Australian Open, Final):  The Scot didn’t start playing with conviction until the third-set tiebreak, much too late to matter.

3)  Nadal d. Verdasco (Monte Carlo, Final):  Surely this hapless hunk of cannon fodder wasn’t the same player who courageously extended Nadal deep into a fifth set at the Australian Open?

2)  Tsonga d. Djokovic (Australian Open, Quarterfinal):  We empathized when Djokovic excused himself to vomit midway through this debacle.  No, not “sympathize”; “empathize.”

1)  Ginepri d. Querrey (Roland Garros, 1st round):  Whatever the sins of those who lost the previous four matches, at least they didn’t tank and then casually tell the world about it afterwards.

We’re not so chivalrous that we spare the ladies:

5)  Li d. Venus (Australian Open, Quarterfinal):  Seemingly addled by the Australian sun, these two superb shotmakers left their GPS in the locker room and cheerfully engaged in a carnival of errors.

T-4)  Kirilenko d. Sharapova (Australian Open, 1st round) / Dulko d. Ivanovic (Australian Open, 2nd round):  Never have prettier women played uglier tennis.

3)  Stosur d. Jankovic (French Open, Semifinal):  This listless encounter was far less compelling than the other semifinal…which ended in a retirement after a single set.

2)  Dementieva d. Serena (Sydney, Final):  The five-time Australian Open champion had already moved on to Melbourne, but next time she might want to hire a more skilled impersonator.

1)  Clijsters d. Venus (Miami, Final):  Some of the spectators spent the match sleeping or sunbathing, both more profitable activities than watching what passed for “tennis.”

***

We’ll return in two days with a tie-by-tie preview of the Davis Cup quarterfinals!

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

A:

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

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

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

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

A-:

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

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

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

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

B+:

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

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

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

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

B:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B-:

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

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

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

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

C:

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

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

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

F:

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

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

***

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

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

Rivalries Renewed:  Davis Cup Quarterfinal Preview

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

Pushing Forward:  Caroline Wozniacki (player profile)

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

Service with a Smile:  John Isner (player profile)

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Trudging to the locker room after a 16-14 fifth set against Santiago Giraldo, Thiemo De Bakker must have feared that this protracted encounter would leave him at a physical disadvantage against his next opponent, either Isner or Mahut.  As all tennis fans know well, such thoughts proved unfounded as the Frenchman and the American shattered virtually every record in every single-match category.  In fact, their seven-hour, 118-game final set-in-progress stretched so far beyond the boundaries of credulity that one expects its statistical superlatives to endure forever.  Ten hours and 193 aces later, though, what difference does it really make?  This first-round battle between two non-contenders stalled the first-week schedule and virtually eliminated both of its participants from sheer exhaustion.  Once an advocate of the no-tiebreak format in Slam deciding sets, we feel compelled to reverse our opinion and call for a merciful ending to these inhumane endurance tests well before 50-50, as Kuznetsova whimsically suggested.  Surely this fast-paced sport doesn’t deserve such a mind-numbing, kidney-challenging stalemate, which provided a gluttonous serving (haha) of generally monotonous tennis.  In order to compensate for the difference between the best-of-five and best-of-three formats, perhaps the doubles super tiebreak (first to 10, win by two) could be implemented instead of the conventional first-to-7 structure.  At least, Slams could employ such a deadlock-denying tactic in the first week before the marquee stars intersect.  A marathon final set between Federer and Roddick in the championship match is a classic, but a marathon final set between Isner and Mahut in the first round is a human rain delay.  Here are a handful of Day 4 matches to note while Wimbledon’s Believe It Or Not winds into its eleventh hour of futility.

Soderling (6) vs. Granollers (Court 1, 2nd match):  At the start of 2010, the unremarkable Spaniard rallied from a two-set deficit to stun the Swede in his Australian Open first round.  Soderling had swept their three previous meetings, including a four-setter on these same British lawns in the same round a year ago.  Yet all of the sets were close on that occasion, indicating that this matchup bothers the two-time French Open finalist more than one might imagine considering Granollers’ pedestrian ranking.  Far more powerful than his adversary, Soderling will need to banish memories of their collisions in an intriguing test of his mental willpower.  During an opening win over Ginepri, he looked as formidable as any men’s contender and more formidable than most, but the Swede does remain vulnerable to the unexpected letdown.  If the Spaniard can stay close early, a little drama might develop before the sixth seed moves on to more tranquil waters in the third round.

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Dolgopolov vs. Tsonga (10) (Court 2, 1st match):  Unfocused and uncharacteristically irritable in his four-set opening win over the tricky Kendrick, the tenth seed alternated electrifying forehands and deft volleys with senseless misses and despairing moans.  One of the highest-ranked unseeded players in the draw, the much-misspelled Dolgopolov (add a Jr. if you want) has steadily climbed up the rankings this season with victories over Tomic, Fish, Seppi, Clement, and Gonzalez; last week, he reached the Eastbourne semifinals and mustered a creditable performance against eventual champion Llodra.  Boding well for his continued rise was his resolute demeanor when he encountered Nadal on clay, much sturdier than most developing stars facing an elite player for the first time.  His game remains raw and a little undisciplined, rendering an upset in a best-of-five format unlikely.  Nevertheless, Dolgopolov clearly has achieved an impressive comfort level on grass and brings much more surface experience to the contest than does Tsonga.  If his self-belief doesn’t falter on a Wimbledon show court, this match could be highly competitive although probably not exquisite tennis.

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Serena (1) vs. Chakvetadze (Court 2, 3rd match) :  Watching the once-formidable Chakvetadze in her opener against Petkovic, we noticed that she is striking her groundstrokes with greater depth and conviction than she has during most of her extended swoon since early 2008.  Not only creating clever angles with both forehand and backhand, she sensibly eschewed low-percentage shotmaking from behind the baseline and displayed further intelligence by occasionally wrong-footing the German.  A fountain of double faults over the past two years, her serve remained steady even under pressure deep in the final set.  Against Serena, of course, she’ll need to play at the very summit of her abilities just to stay competitive, and she’ll probably require some assistance from Serena.  After a thunderous first set in her opener, the top seed dropped her game a few notches in the second set, allowing her overmatched opponent to stay within range.  In this case, however, an overpowering first set probably would prove sufficient to crush the Russian’s ever-fragile confidence.  Long a mental midget, Chakvetadze needs to seize the early momentum and hope for a sluggish start from the American.  If this former prodigy starts promisingly, the match could be quite entertaining; if Serena establishes control immediately, it could get gruesome quickly.

Jovanovski vs. Azarenka (14) (Court 12, 2nd match):  After the initial wave of Djokovic, Ivanovic, and Jankovic, the Serbs just keep climbing up the tennis hierarchy in numbers vastly disproportionate to their nation’s size.  The latest Belgrade bombshell, the 18-year-old Jovanovski defeated Rybarikova, Molik, and Chakvetadze earlier in 2010 as she attempts to crack the top 100; in the first round, she ruthlessly eviscerated talented Australian lefty Casey Dellacqua.  Despite suffering from a leg injury in the Eastbourne final, Azarenka has relished the shift from clay to grass as much as anyone and should be eager to exploit an extremely inviting quarter of the draw.  While the Minx from Minsk endured a few puzzling losses during her last several events, she should decode the Serb’s game in plenty of time to advance.  It’s always fascinating to watch an evolving player adjust to confronting top contenders at top tournaments, however, and the first week of a Slam is a great opportunity to assess what potential future stars might offer.

Vinci vs. Pavlyuchenkova (29) (Court 14, 2nd match):  Like Soderling and Granollers, they met in the same place and the same round a year ago.  On that occasion, the cunning Italian veteran prevailed over an inexperienced player nearly a decade younger than herself.  A former junior #1 and junior Slam champion, the many-syllabled Russian avenged that defeat on the Brisbane hard courts this year, but injuries and erratic serving have led to several lopsided losses in recent months.  Not endowed with an overwhelming delivery either, Vinci will seek to disrupt the rhythm of her baseline-bound foe with tantalizing slices that invite her to move forward out of her comfort zone.  Can finesse and intelligent point construction prevail, or will Pavlyuchenkova’s groundstroke power deny the Italian time to create her artful combinations?  At any rate, expect more breaks of serve and longer rallies than are typical on grass; this match should prove a refreshing antidote to the serve-a-licious marathon a few courts away.

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Zheng (23) vs. Kvitova (Court 17, 1st match):  A surprise semifinalist here in 2008, Zheng produced a third-round upset over top seed Ivanovic that not only signaled the Serb’s vertiginous collapse but also showcased the ability of compact, balanced counterpunches to overcome towering, slow-footed sluggers.  The fearless Chinese star reprised that startling run with a second Slam semifinal appearance in Australia this year, after which she defeated Sharapova and threatened eventual finalist Wozniacki at Indian Wells.  Among the curious paradoxes of grass is its capacity to reward both the very tall and the very small, the former of whom can crack unreturnable serves and the latter of whom can manipulate the surface’s low bounces.  Against a mercurial Czech lefty, Zheng enjoys a substantial mental edge, but her high-risk style also can slip off the rails without warning.  She must elevate her first-serve percentage in order shield her puny second delivery from Kvitova’s bold return; also, she should target her adversary’s loopy forehand, a long swing that easily can be mistimed on so fast a surface.  If she takes chances at judicious moments, a delicious third-round collision with Azarenka beckons.

Briefly noted:  On such a relatively uneventful day, we had to upgrade the matches that normally would populate this section to a more privileged status.  Expect our usual coda to return for Day 5.

Meanwhile, the only women’s champion in the draw not named Williams returns on Day 4 with an outfit as immaculate as the lawns of the All England Club.  Let’s hope that clay specialist Ioana Raluca Olaru doesn’t muddy Maria’s dress as did Gisela Dulko in the second round last year.

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The British monarch won’t be the only queen to appear at Wimbledon on Thursday.