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Victoria Azarenka - 2012 Sydney International - Day 6

This article marks the first in a daily series that highlights the most interesting matches, in our opinion, from each order of play at the Australian Open.

Azarenka vs. Watson:  After playing the last women’s match on Ken Rosewall Arena this year, Vika will play the first match on Rod Laver Arena.  While the Sydney title should bolster her confidence, she has won consecutive titles only once in her career (Miami-Marbella last year) and often has followed an outstanding performance with a disappointment.  A product of the Bolletieri Academy, British teenager Watson scrambles effectively while striking penetrating although not explosive groundstrokes.  An upset seems highly improbable in any circumstances, but Azarenka may not escape from the midday heat as soon as she would wish if her weekend title leaves her unfocused.  As a true title contender, she should aim not just to win but to win efficiently, a goal that sometimes has eluded her in early rounds. 

Tomic vs. Verdasco:  Expect legion of chanting Australian fans for the most intriguing men’s match of Day 1.  Both players should perform at a reasonably high level, considering that each reached a semifinal at a preparatory tournament.  Reaching the second week at last year’s Australian Open, former semifinalist Verdasco enjoyed the best run of his career here in 2009.  Meanwhile, Tomic nearly gained a seed here after needing a wildcard in previous appearances, as barely a dozen rankings spots separate two careers headed in opposite directions.  While Verdasco will enjoy the high bounce and additional time to set up his superior weapons, the court speed will favor the more versatile Tomic.  And the Australian crowd may rattle the easily flustered Spaniard. 

Pervak vs. Li:  More and more dangerous as she progresses deeper into a tournament, Li lost six opening-round matches last year and may share Azarenka’s post-Sydney lull.  A rare lefty from Russia, or now “Kazakhstan,” Pervak led Schiavone early in their Brisbane meeting before retiring with a migraine.  Although she lacks significant power on her serve or return, she reached the second week of Wimbledon last year and certainly can threaten Li if the latter’s mind wanders.  On the other hand, the Chinese star experienced little trouble while dispatching a much more talented lefty last week in Safarova. 

Dellacqua vs. Jovanovski:  The often injured Dellacqua reached the second week of the Australian Open four years ago after defeating former champion and former #1 Mauresmo.  Buoyed by the support of her compatriots, she will rely upon her experience against the new face of Serbian women’s tennis in Jovanovski, who extended Zvonareva to three sets here a year ago.  Since the Serb still searches for a more potent serve, Dellacqua will want to take chances on return and use her left-handedness to frustrate the rhythm-based, relatively monochromatic opponent.  In a neutral baseline rally, though, Jovanovski’s superior depth and pace should prevail. 

Robson vs. Jankovic:  Meeting on the British teenager’s home court in Wimbledon 2010, these feisty personalities engaged in a surprisingly competitive battle considering Robson’s youth.  While Jankovic registered only three total wins in Brisbane and Sydney, she showed flashes of her former self during a fiercely contested loss to Schiavone.  Not granted a wildcard, Robson earned her berth through three convincing victories in the qualifying draw, showing that she has recovered from a stress fracture in her leg last fall.  Showcasing her underrated shot-making and serving, the pugnacious Brit should not hesitate to attack Jankovic relentlessly and create her own opportunities.  The Serb’s movement has declined in recent years, as have her results at majors, although she never has lost in the first round here through nine appearances. 

Mattek-Sands vs. Radwanska:  Sometimes daunted by imposing servers, Radwanska feasts upon players with tendencies to donate swarms of unforced errors.  In this eccentric American, she will face an opponent with a modestly imposing serve and a talent for finishing points at the net, taking valuable time away from counterpunchers like the Pole.  But she also will face an opponent who sometimes struggles to convert routine shots and falls well short of her in tactical prowess.  Which trend will define the trajectory of this match?  Among the top eight seeds, Radwanska seems probably the most susceptible to an upset.  At her last two majors, she lost in the second round to players ranked #81 and #92, and she survived a first-round reverse here last year by the narrowest of margins.  While she reached the Sydney semifinal, though, Mattek-Sands fell in Hobart to the long-irrelevant Cirstea. 

Fish vs. Muller:  Like his fellow eighth seed, the top-ranked American looks the ripest for an upset among his fellow elite contenders.  Injured for much of last fall, Fish endured a disastrous week in Hopman Cup that included an uncharacteristic altercation.  While he has accomplished nothing of note for the last few years, the lefty Muller caught fire a few US Opens to reach the quarterfinals.  This contest should center around the two impressive serves on display, perhaps featuring more tiebreaks than breaks.  If he can survive the point-starting shot, Fish holds a clear advantage with his relatively more balanced array of weapons.  But the towering lefty from Luxembourg might cause the American’s already sagging spirits to sink further by recording holds with his frustrating delivery. 

Rezai vs. Peng:  The best season of Peng’s career began last year when she upset Jankovic at the Australian Open and fought deep into a three-setter against Radwanska.  Across the net stands a player who recorded her greatest accomplishments two years ago, drawing as much attention for her volatile groundstrokes and flashy shot-making as for her volatile temper and flashy outfits.  (Well, almost as much attention.)  Beset by crises of confidence and personal setbacks since then, Rezai has lost much of her swagger.  The steady Peng, accustomed to pumping deep balls down the center of the court, might become a nightmare for the flamboyant Française.  Just as she would prefer, though, Rezai will have the opportunity to determine her own fate.  Look for her to hit far more winners and far more unforced errors. 

Hercog vs. Goerges:  While Goerges retired from Sydney with an illness, Hercog suffered a back injury in Brisbane, so both limp into this otherwise intriguing encounter.  After an impressive clay season, Goerges never quite assembled her intimidating but often wayward weapons as her countrywomen eclipsed her.  Yet she battled courageously against Sharapova here last year in one of the first week’s most compelling matches.  A six-foot Slovenian who turns 20 during the tournament, Hercog broke through in 2010 when she won a set from Venus in the Acapulco final.  Curiously for a lanky, power-hitting player, all three of her singles finals have come on clay.  We expect a match with a staccato rhythm that alternates bursts of brilliance with spells of slovenliness. 

Chardy vs. Dimitrov:  Searching for his notable run at a major, Dimitrov turned heads by severely testing eventual semifinalist Tsonga at Wimbledon.  Modeled on Federer, his game bears an eerie resemblance to the Swiss star in not only his one-handed backhand and other strokes, but his movement and footwork.  At the Hopman Cup, he thrashed Fish and delivered a competitive effort against Berdych.  Dimitrov has developed a habit of playing to the level of his competition, regrettably, and lost matches to players outside the top 200 soon after threatening Tsonga.  In the second tier of Frenchmen who populate the ATP, Chardy has underachieved when one considers his penetrating serve-forehand combinations.  Like many of his compatriots, he appears to have suffered from a lack of motivation and competitive willpower.  Both men should feel confident about their chances of winning this match, which should result in an entertaining, opportunistic brand of tennis. 

Pironkova vs. Mirza:  Dimitrov’s partner at the Hopman Cup, the willowy Pironkova enjoyed noteworthy success there herself while winning a set from Wozniacki  Her understated style contrasts starkly with the uncompromising aggression of Mirza, the top-ranked Indian woman but now a part-time player following her marriage to Pakistani cricketer Shoab Malik.  Ripping forehands with abandon from all corners of the court, she even stymied Henin for a set last year in the last tournament of the Belgian’s career.  Known mostly for her Wimbledon accomplishments, Pironkova rarely has distinguished herself at the other majors, and she has won just five matches in six Melbourne appearances.  On the other hand, she won the first match that she ever played here against a player who enjoyed a reasonably solid career:  Venus Williams.

Safarova vs. McHale:  Initially overshadowed by her peer Melanie Oudin, McHale likely will surpass her before their careers end.  The American teenager tasted significant success for the first time last summer with victories over Wozniacki, Kuznetsova, and Bartoli.  Limited by her modest height, McHale does not share Safarova’s ball-striking capacity and must substitute for that disadvantage with intelligent point construction.  One wonders whether she can protect her serve as effectively as the Czech, who holds regularly when at her best.  In a tournament where the WTA’s young stars seem ready to shine, McHale represents the principal American hope for post-Williams relevance.

 

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Novak Djokovic - Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open - Day Five

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ana Ivanovic Of Serbia Celebrates

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

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

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

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

Semifinalist:  Li

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

Semifinalist:  Stosur

Svetlana Kuznetsova - 2011 Australian Open - Day 7

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

Semifinalist:  Kuznetsova

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

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

***

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

Ana Ivanovic - 2011 Australian Open - Day 2



Condemned to eternally roll a boulder up a rugged mountainside, the mythical figure of Sisyphus would complete that labor only to immediately undertake it anew.   Three months after hoisting their second straight Fed Cup title, Corrado Barazzutti’s sprightly squad perhaps could empathize with the perpetually toiling Greek as they open their title defense on an island far from Sicily.

Corrado Barattuzzi Francesca Schiavone (R) of Italy celebrates her victory over Melanie Oudin of USA with team captain Corrado Barattuzzi during the Federation Cup World Group Final between Italy and the USA at Circolo Tennis Rocco Polimeni on November 7, 2009 in Reggio Calabria, Italy.

The hard courts of Hobart will host an Australian team that suddenly has assembled an impressive singles pairing of world #5 Stosur and Jarmila Groth, whose career has surged after changing her surname and her passport.  Since the Italians will bring two top-20 players to this collision, however, they remain the slight favorites in a tie where all five matches should prove competitive.  Beyond their advantage in Fed Cup experience and exploits, Pennetta and Schiavone enjoyed far more memorable Australian Opens than did the two home hopes, who combined to collect just two victories there against seven by the Italians.  All too eager to delight the Aussie crowds, both Stosur and Groth slumped under the pressure in Melbourne, and this long-awaited World Group tie will test their nerves again.  Although last year’s Roland Garros runner-up avenged that loss to Schiavone last fall, she curiously has failed to win more than four games in any of the six sets that she has contested with Pennetta.  Famous for her characteristically Calabrian temper, the Italian has proved a poised competitor in Fed Cup and clinched both of her nation’s last two titles with composed performances.  Moreover, her confidence will have soared following a debut Grand Slam doubles title with fellow doubles #1 Dulko.  If Schiavone can defuse the stunning but raw game of Groth, therefore, the visitors probably will carry a 2-0 edge into Sunday that they will not squander.  Even if Australian can take the tie to the concluding doubles, Errani and Vinci will bring their undefeated record into a fascinating battle against Stosur and Stubbs.  One anticipates drama during plenty of individual sets in Tasmania but perhaps not in the overall scoreline.

Half a world away in Bratislava, the other engaging tie of the weekend pits the bifurcated halves of the former Czechoslovakia.  Braced to renew the internecine rivalry, the stylish Hantuchova and the resurgent Cibulkova hoist the Slovak flag together with 2009 Birmingham champion Rybarikova, who has sagged after initial promise.  Hampered by an injury that forced her withdrawal from Brisbane, former prodigy Hantuchova has faded into the twilight stages of her career but mustered one of her finer recent performances in last year’s World Group playoff against Serbia.  Literally rising above her stature, Cibulkova has added a startling degree of offense over the past year and scored an eye-opening victory over Wozniacki in Sydney.  The visitors will fancy their chances of reaching a third consecutive Fed Cup semifinal, though, for all three of their singles options acquitted themselves creditably in Melbourne and possess the combative streak that can insulate players from hostile surroundings.  Spearheading the charge is Australian Open quarterfinalist Kvitova, who conquered both Stosur and Pennetta in a fortnight that bolstered her Wimbledon breakthrough.  While Safarova competed resolutely against Zvonareva, Zahlavova Strycova toppled top-20 foe Rezai.  Yet all of the Czechs remain far less predictable than either of the Slovaks, so this tie could develop into a rollercoaster of momentum shifts within and between matches.  In the doubles, the Czechs have a slight but potentially vital edge with specialist Kveta Peschke and superior servers in Kvitova and Safarova.

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates winning her second round match against Virginie Razzano of France during day three of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 19, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

When Sharapova enters Fed Cup, an Olympic year must lie just over the horizon.  Having participated in only one previous Fed Cup tie, she returns to a country where she has not showcased her talents since 2007 and has won just two matches in her career.  The three-time major champion grimly bulldozed through the Israeli team in 2008, adjusting with aplomb to the competition’s distinctive atmosphere.  On the Moscow indoor hard court, her recently erratic groundstrokes will not need to find the mark as regularly, so she should register her two matches in Russia’s victory column.  Both Razzano and Cornet surpassed expectations in Melbourne, however; the former threatened to take a set from Sharapova in the second round, while the latter nearly did the same against Clijsters a round later.  Despite the higher ranking of Pavlyuchenkova, one imagines that Tarpischev will reward the more experienced Kuznetsova for her previous Fed Cup service and her courageous performance in Australia.  The final opponent of Henin’s career, the Russian will have accumulated immense confidence after defeating Stosur and nearly Li in Sydney.  But will she have recovered physically from the longest women’s match in Grand Slam history?  If she falters against Cornet on the first day, which seems unlikely considering the Frenchwoman’s haplessness in Fed Cup, Tarpischev might substitute the WTA’s highest-ranked teenager against Sunday.  Pavlyuchenkova crushed projected Sunday opponent Razzano on an indoor hard court two years ago, whereas Kuznetsova hasn’t faced her in nearly seven years.  If outcomes reflect the lopsided talents of these two teams, though, Tarpischev will doze through another first-round romp.

More sleepwalking impends in Belgium, where Clijsters joins Wickmayer against a plucky American squad that upset an understaffed Russia last year en route to their second straight final.  As usual, the USA will aim to split the singles rubbers and pin their hopes on the doubles, where they hold a considerable advantage with Liezel Huber.  In order to realize that goal, they must rely on both Oudin and Mattek-Sands to overcome Wickmayer in singles, since Clijsters surely will sail bulletproof through the weekend.  The task does not tower quite as dauntingly as it might seem at first glance, for the Belgian #2 has struggled alarmingly since last year’s US Open despite reaching the final in Auckland after an arduous week of three-setters.  A feisty competitor who performs above her standard level in Fed Cup, Mattek-Sands shone on an indoor surface at the Hopman Cup and again in Hobart, although she suffered a discouraging first-round loss in Melbourne.  If she can find Wickmayer’s backhand more regularly than the Belgian finds her forehand, her sturdier confidence could translate into a minor upset.  Meanwhile, Oudin has shifted from prodigy to former prodigy as she has failed abjectly in rekindling the spark that ignited the 2009 US Open.  Somewhat less feckless in Fed Cup, she defeated Schiavone last fall and competed valiantly on Italian clay during the previous final.  With USA almost certain to enter the fourth rubber trailing 2-1, though, she will face not only a more talented opponent but the pressure of preserving the tie.  Lightning probably won’t strike Wickmayer twice.

We close with a few thoughts on the four World Group II ties:

Spain at Estonia:  Perhaps a more decisive factor than any player, the indoor hard court in Tallinn may frustrate dirt devils Martinez Sanchez and Suarez Navarro.  Despite a second-round exit at the Australian Open, top Estonian Kanepi enjoys greater firepower than either Spaniard and should overwhelm them with a barrage of mighty first blows.  Like the USA, Spain seeks only to split the singles and reach the doubles, where the experienced duo of Medina Garrigues and Llagostera Vives could shine.  Unlike the USA, they have an excellent chance of accomplishing that mission with the 527th-ranked Maret Ani playing the role of Wickmayer.  Perhaps more intriguing than the tennis here is the subplot that revolved around the miniature Fed Cup strike staged by the top Spanish women against their own tennis federation.  Ostensibly placated now, they could bolster their pleas for greater attention in Spain’s male-dominated tennis world by restoring their nation to the World Group in 2012.

Andrea Petkovic Andrea Petkovic of Germany celebrates winning a point in her quarterfinal match against Na Li of China during day nine of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 25, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Germany at Slovenia:  Frauleins with a future and an average ranking of #29, Petkovic and Goerges delivered an emphatic statement of intent in Melbourne with performances as notable for their poise as for their shot-making.  The two ball-bruising brunettes enter the tie distinctly favored against a Slovenian squad highlighted by doubles specialist Katarina Srebotnik.  Unless she decides to renege upon her retirement from singles, her chances of playing a meaningful match this weekend look slim to none.  On the other hand, Petkovic proved herself more frail than the French in Fed Cup last year (no small feat), and the youthful Germans may find an opponent worthy of their steel in Polona Hercog.  Two weeks after her 20th birthday, the lanky Slovenian #1 established herself in the top 50 during the past year but has lost all three of her matches in 2011.  Can the home crowd rejuvenate her?

Canada at Serbia:  Stripped of Jankovic and Ivanovic, the hosts suddenly confront a perilous situation against the dangerous albeit often injured Wozniak and an even brighter talent in the burly teenager Rebecca Marino.  Fortunately for Serbia, an equally promising teenager carries their banner in a bid to return to the World Group from which Russia expelled them in 2010.  One of the WTA’s better kept secrets, Bojana Jovanovski burst onto the international stage by sweeping to the Sydney semifinals past three top-20 players and boldly swiping a set from Zvonareva in Melbourne. Probably unable to secure victory single-handedly, she nevertheless could extend the tie to a decisive doubles rubber where anything could happen.

Ukraine at Sweden:  Weren’t the Bondarenko sisters planning to boycott Fed Cup this year?  Although newly married Alona remains aloof, Kateryna broke the ban and could inject some intrigue into what still seems a notably uninteresting tie.  No rising stars, aging legends, or electrifying games on display here.  Just an invigorating ferry ride from host city Helsingfors stands Hamlet’s castle, however, a much more scintillating destination.

 

In the final article of our Australian Open preview series, we scan both draws one quarter at a time to discuss the potential narratives that might unfold during the season’s first major.  Many are the hopes that spring eternal in Melbourne, but few are the hopes that find reward.  Who will tower above the competition like a skyscraper in the desert?

ATP:

First quarter:  Atop a somewhat benign section looms a Spaniard with a 21-match winning streak at majors and the 2009 title in Melbourne.  Unlikely to face any severe test until the quarterfinals, Nadal might dispatch Queens Club nemesis Feliciano Lopez in the third round before starting the second week against 2010 semifinalist Cilic.  Yet the Croat has proved an immense disappointment over the past several months and might tumble in a third-round confrontation with the even taller Isner, who appeared to have recovered from his Wimbledon exertions with a credible performance at the Hopman Cup.  On the other side of this quarter stand a pair of mercurial competitors in Youzhny and Llodra, both of whom surged to startling heights during the second half of 2010.  The Russian should profit more from the Melbourne courts than the Frenchman, a serve-and-volley specialist fonder of fast surfaces.  While a scintillating clash with Hewitt beckons for Nalbandian in the first round, the 27th seed and Auckland finalist will eye a rematch of that final against Ferrer in the third round.  Although Nalbandian and Ferrer have notched notable victories over Nadal, they will not intimidate him as easily as they did when injuries hampered his confidence.  He remains most vulnerable to them on hard courts, his least favorite surface, but he should outlast either of them unless his illness and peripatetic offseason have wearied him.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter:  After the publicity generated when Soderling gained a top-four seed in Melbourne, the draw whimsically negated that advantage by situating him in the same quarter with the Scot whom he supplanted.  The Swedish sledgehammer never has penetrated past the second round at the season’s first major, a puzzling statistic that surely will vanish when he overcomes fading dirt devil Starace and a qualifier.  Seeking to intercept Soderling before the quarterfinals, promising talents Bellucci and Gulbis have not yet uncovered more than the crust of their potential.  Will they spring into the headlines at a tournament renowned for surprises?  A surprise finalist here three years ago, Tsonga will pit his insouciant athleticism against the fourth seed’s grimly mechanical style.  Offered a more accommodating draw, meanwhile, Murray will open his campaign against a pair of anonymous foes and then the lowest seed in the draw.  Like Soderling, he could face a former Australian Open finalist in the fourth round, where Baghdatis will seek to buttress another memorable run upon his elevated fitness.  Having reached the second week at the last three majors, Melzer might mount a more plausible challenge to the world #5 should he trump the Cypriot in the third round, while Del Potro smolders ominously.  The top two seeds still should collide in the most intriguing quarterfinal of the draw, where the surface should provide Murray with a slight edge.

Semifinalist: Murray

Third quarter: Toppling Soderling in the first round last year, Marcel Granollers faces Djokovic in his Melbourne opener this year.  Considering the third seed’s outstanding form late in 2010, however, lightning probably will not strike twice.  But then the chronically troublesome Karlovic will hurl much more literal thunderbolts at the Serb, who also must navigate past burgeoning compatriot and near-US Open nemesis Troicki a round later.  The opposite side of the quarter will begin to answer one of the season’s key questions, namely the second act that Berdych will produce after his convincing summer and equally unconvincing fall.  Aligned to collide for the second straight year in Melbourne, Davydenko and Verdasco prowl just outside the elite group of contenders, searching for a crack in the citadel’s wall.  Perhaps an upstart like Nishikori will spare Australian fans the ordeal of an encore between the Russian and the Spaniard, who collaborated on one of 2010’s uglier matches.  Defeated in two of the tournament’s recent first-round matches, Gasquet hopes to craft a happier narrative on this occasion as time trickles inexorably away from him.  Opportunity knocks in this section of the draw, where question marks hover above all of the familiar names…except one.

Semifinalist: Djokovic

Fourth quarter:  In a region stacked with American opponents, Federer should relish the opportunity to extend his suffocating dominance over Roddick should they meet as arranged in the quarterfinals.  Lurking to ambush the latter is the recently reinvigorated Monfils, who looked more focused than usual during a fall season that included a Tokyo victory over the American.  His Gallic flair regularly irks and often flusters Roddick, but the Frenchman might find himself flustered by fellow US Open quarterfinalist Wawrinka.  A somewhat steadier competitor than Monfils, the Swiss #2 opened the season with a Chennai title that augured auspiciously for his partnership with Peter Lundgren.  Returning to relevance with a Sydney title run, Simon will target a third victory over Federer in their second-round meeting after the defending champion tests his steel against Lukas Lacko.  Can Fish reproduce his magnificent effort from the Cincinnati final, where he came within a tiebreak of toppling the world #2?  A round earlier, his internecine contest with Querrey should open a window onto the future of American tennis.  But that thread represents merely a tasty subplot in a section that has “RF” monogrammed all over it.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Final:  Murray vs. Djokovic

Champion:  Novak Djokovic

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates after winning championship point after the women's final match against Ana Ivanovic of Serbia on day thirteen of the Australian Open 2008 at Melbourne Park on January 26, 2008 in Melbourne, Australia.

WTA:

First quarter:  A far more precarious #1 than Nadal, Wozniacki seeks to forget her stagger through Sydney against occasional giant-killer Dulko, who has claimed Sharapova, Ivanovic, and Henin among her marquee victims.  Two rounds later, revenge would taste sweet for the gentle Dane when she confronts her Sydney conqueror, Cibulkova.  While her route to the quarterfinals looks less friendly than some of her 2010 draws, Wozniacki still should edge past Bartoli or Wickmayer, both of whom looked fallible in the preliminary events.  Among those lurking in the shadows, though, is home hope Jarmila Groth; the sprightly Aussie could march into the second week if she can vanquish Wickmayer in a thorny opener.  Gifted two comfortable rounds, Henin will rekindle her one-sided rivalry with Kuznetsova if the slumping Russian can defuse the streaking Mattek-Sands.  And one overlooks Schiavone at one’s own peril, especially since the Italian defeated the Belgian in their previous meeting (Dubai 2008).  This potential battle of Roland Garros champions could offer plenty of dramatic intrigue, as would a rematch of Henin’s three-set Miami quarterfinal against Wozniacki.

Semifinalist:  Henin

Second quarter:  Arguably the strongest section of the draw, it could evolve into a pair of fourth-round encounters that would intersect Venus with Sharapova on one side and Li Na with Azarenka on the other.  Uncomfortably wedged between them are several formidable foes, not least Rezai.  The prodigious ball-striker muscled Jankovic off the court in Sydney and should engage in a feisty second-round encounter with Dokic, with the winner advancing to test Li.  Recovering from a heel injury, Hantuchova seems unlikely to muster much resistance against Azarenka, but the ambitious Petkovic surely believes that she can challenge Venus after their contrasting starts to 2011.  Somewhat an enigma since her Wimbledon loss last summer, the elder Williams sister clearly has the weapons to win this title and will face no opponent in this quarter who can disrupt her rhythm or drag her out of her comfort zone.  Her clash with the equally uncertain Sharapova defies facile prediction, for the Russian holds the edge in their hard-court rivalry, but the American convincingly won their only recent meeting.  Can Li duplicate her semifinal run here last year?  Holding a winning record against the other three players in her section, she looks primed to extend her impetus from Sydney just as she did at Wimbledon after winning Birmingham.

Semifinalist:  Li

Third quarter:  Embedded in this section is the tournament favorite, Clijsters, who suffered a setback in the Sydney final despite a generally reassuring week.  Aligned against 2009 finalist Safina in her opener, the Belgian must elevate her level immediately in order to surmount an obstacle more ominous than her next two opponents.  The path grows stony again in the fourth round when Clijsters faces either the evergreen Petrova, her former Melbourne nemesis, or the renascent Ivanovic.  Nestled among foes whom she defeated comfortably during the last year, the Serb looks likely to realize her modest objective of reaching the second week.   Unlikely to emerge from the other side, seventh-seeded Jankovic has showed few signs of regaining the form that she displayed during the 2010 clay season.  A more probable quarterfinal opponent for Clijsters, Kleybanova has split two final-set tiebreaks with her over the past two seasons and has relished her previous visits to Australia; after a second-week Melbourne appearance in 2009, the Russian nearly pummeled Henin into submission here last year before fading.  While neither the recuperating Radwanska nor Kimiko Date Krumm likely will advance to the quarterfinals, their first-round encounter should feature fascinating all-court tennis as their distinctive styles probe the court’s angles.

Semifinalist:  Clijsters

Fourth quarter:  Dazzling in Hong Kong and feckless in Sydney a week later, what will Zvonareva bring to the tournament where she reached her first major semifinal in 2009?  If she can navigate past Sydney semifinalist Jovanovski in the second round, the world #2 might gather momentum and cruise through a series of highly winnable matches into the quarterfinals or better.  A surprise quarterfinalist in 2010 after upsetting Sharapova, Kirilenko has troubled her compatriot before and might engage in a compelling battle with compatriot Pavlyuchenkova.  Although Russians riddle this quarter, Stosur finds herself in gentle terrain for her first two rounds before clashing with the volatile Kvitova, an unseeded champion in Brisbane.  Almost as intriguing as Kirilenko-Pavlyuchenkova is another potential third-round collision between Peer and Pennetta, an encore of their fraught US Open encounter.  Curiously, Pennetta has enjoyed substantial success against both Stosur and Zvonareva, the two most heralded figures in her section.   The Russian has imploded recently against the Australian as well as the Italian, so a meeting with either of them would test her newfound, much celebrated, and perhaps overestimated resilience.  Testing Stosur’s own resilience, meanwhile, is the pressure exerted by the championship-starved Aussie crowd, while Pennetta will shoulder the burden of seeking her first career Slam semifinal.  Questions proliferate, and answers may startle.

Semifinalist:  Stosur

Final:  Henin vs. Clijsters

Champion:  Kim Clijsters

***

We return very shortly with the first edition of our daily preview series on Melbourne, which will often rove far beyond the show courts to preview the most scintillating encounters of each day before it unfolds.  Prepare for a fortnight of fireworks with the “Wizards of Oz.”

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Welcome to the debut of our daily preview series on all of the Wimbledon action, which will briefly discuss an intriguing topic from the previous day’s action before examining several key matches in detail.  They will conclude with a “briefly noted” section on matches of lesser interest that might be worth more casual attention when the central action ebbs.  Since there’s little to discuss from today’s action beyond the arrangement of Federer’s trophy room (read his interview if you haven’t already), we ignite this series by previewing a former champion who will grace Centre Court on Monday.  No, not you, Roger.

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Robson (W) vs. Jankovic (4) (Centre Court, 2nd match):  Eagerly embracing drama and intrigue, the fourth seed should relish her opening Centre Court clash with Great Britain’s leading female hope, a junior champion in 2008.  A lefty with a modest serve but aggressive groundstrokes, Robson is more likely to rise to the occasion than crumble under the pressure of her surroundings.  Surprisingly declining to enter a grass prep, Jankovic may need time to adjust to her weakest surface and settle into the match, which could provide an early opportunity upon which the teenager must capitalize.  Although Serb suffered a startling loss to Oudin here last year, she remains too steady to succumb to a largely untested opponent unless one of her chronic, innumerable health issues intervenes.  But Robson might well win a set and temporarily ignite the fervor of British fans.

Djokovic (3) vs. Rochus (Centre Court, 3rd match):  After upsetting Murray in his Miami opener, Fish sprang a second ambush on the Scot during the grass season.  Can the diminutive Rochus, who likewise upset Djokovic in his Miami opener, also repeat the accomplishment on grass.  The Belgian oddly has won three of their four previous meetings, none of which have been played in the best-of-five format; nevertheless, the Serb won their only collision on grass.  Despite his unimpressive stature, Rochus maximizes the pace upon his groundstrokes with compact, well-timed swings and crisp footwork.  Falling to the enigmatic Xavier Malisse at Queens Club, Djokovic did hone his grass skills later that week by winning the doubles title with Jonathan Ehrlich.  Crucial to his success at Wimbledon will be his recently remodeled serve, which faltered in the Miami match with Rochus.  When the Serb’s serve wobbles, so does his confidence, and an alert counterpuncher like the Belgian can take advantage.  This match is Djokovic’s to win or lose; he’ll probably win it, but not without some ado.   

Anderson vs. Davydenko (7) (Court 1, 1st match): Never at his most formidable on grass, Davydenko returned from a two-month injury absence in Halle, where he won a match before losing to former Wimbledon nemesis Benjamin Becker.  Generally considered one of the ATP’s premier returners, his talents in that arena will be severely tested by a South African giant (6’7”) whose delivery should scoot through this fast surface.  Since the seventh seed will struggle to break, he’ll feel additional pressure on his own service games.  On the other hand, Murray thumped Anderson at the Australian Open and broke his serve almost at will, while the South African has yet to score a win over a marquee player at a marquee event.  Beyond the serve, he’ll be overwhelmingly outgunned by Davydenko from the baseline, and his net prowess remains indifferent at best.  If Anderson doesn’t maintain an extremely high first-serve percentage, a challenging task in a best-of-five format, he lacks the consistency to trouble the Russian.

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Fish vs. Tomic (Q) (Court 2, 2nd match):  Reaching the Queens Club final with impressive wins over Murray and Lopez, the American veteran illustrated his continuing relevance in singles despite a mediocre 2010.  His first-strike, serve-and-volley aggression should suit the grass, but he confronts a future top-20 or possibly top-10 star who already has performed impressively at this level.  In Melbourne, Tomic extended Cilic to five compelling sets with fluid movement, balanced groundstrokes, and more versatility than one would expect from such a relatively raw player.  Will youth or experience triumph?  Fish needs to relentlessly move forward behind his imposing first serve and perhaps behind second serves as well.  Once Tomic lures him into a neutral baseline rally, the teenager’s superior consistency and durability would prevail, allowing him to set up a potential rematch with Cilic.  Therefore, the American must attempt to engage in a vertical battle of forward movement, while the Australian will seek to engage in a horizontal battle of lateral movement.  Fish should hit many more winners and many more errors, but the key to the match will be the length of point; the longer, the better for Tomic.

Hercog vs. Shvedova (30) (Court 8, 2nd match):  A lanky Slovenian teenager, Hercog achieved her first impact in the WTA by surging to the Acapulco final with victories over Szavay and Suarez Navarro; once there, she demonstrated impressive maturity by winning a set from Venus.  Since that breakthrough, she crushed Safarova at the French Open while winning sets from Wozniacki, Bartoli, and Peer.  Across the net stands unexpected Roland Garros quarterfinalist Shvedova, who underlined her own maturation by conquering the mental challenge of Radwanska and the physical challenge of Kleybanova.  Consecutive wins over those almost diametrically opposed playing styles testified to the Kazakh’s development into an all-court player with sufficient consistency to complement her long-impressive power.  While both players will require more time to evolve, they comprise part of the answer to the omnipresent question “who’s next?” in the WTA.  More important than who wins or loses here is how they respond to various match situations and the pressure inherent at this prestigious event.

Wickmayer (15) vs. Riske (W) (Court 14, 3rd match):  The All England Club took a bit of a Riske by awarding the American a wildcard following a Birmingham semifinal run that saw her depose Wozniak and Wickmayer.  Distinctly underwhelming since a Miami quarterfinal appearance, the third highest-ranked Belgian recently endured arthroscopic surgery on her elbow, flopped miserably against Clijsters at Eastbourne, and failed to break Riske’s serve at all during their three-set confrontation.  If the American wildcard enters the court with a positive attitude, she’ll already possess an advantage over the waffling Belgian.  The draw would open up a little for her after an upset, so she must discipline herself to control her emotions and play steady, intelligent tennis, which might well be good enough. 

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Peer (13) vs. Ivanovic (Court TBA, not before 17:00 local time):  Having surprisingly reached the second week at last year’s Wimbledon, Ivanovic faces a moderately significant rankings drop should she fail to score the mini-upset here.  Not at her best on grass, Peer fell to Zheng in her Eastbourne opener after an excellent clay season.  As usual, the Serb’s serve will play a pivotal role in what could be a Centre Court clash; following a disastrous Roland Garros, that shot rebounded to deliver 23 aces in her two matches at the UNICEF Open, where her three-set loss to Petkovic looked more respectable when the German came within two games of the title.  Much more consistent and balanced, the Israeli will try to extend Ivanovic along the baseline, set up crosscourt backhand exchanges, and pin the Serb into awkward positions when she unleashes her high-risk groundstrokes.  Peer always represents a challenging mental test as well, brimming with competitive vigor and intense focus.  Yet grass generally favors bold aggressors more than sturdy counterpunchers (ahem, Murray), pleasant news for the Serb.  The match should play out a bit like Fish-Tomic, with Ivanovic moving forward, shortening points, and littering the statistics sheet with far more winners and far more errors than her adversary.  If she brings a positive, confident mind to the match, she’ll give herself the opportunity to move forward into an invitingly weak area of the draw.

Briefly noted:  Fresh from an improbable title run in Eastbourne, today’s sensation Makarova intersects with the rapidly fading but still sporadically dangerous Szavay.  Not so fresh from an even more improbable title run in Paris, Schiavone prepares to battle Vera Dushevina in a clash of two all-court games; Dushevina nearly upset Venus, Serena, and Sharapova within the past year, so don’t be surprised to witness an upset here.  Nadal’s nemesis from Queens Club, Feliciano Lopez, will test a recently injured shoulder against fellow lefty Jesse Levine, while the still huge-serving Karolina Sprem quietly continues her comeback against Fed Cup heroine Bethanie Mattek-Sands.  As spring turns to summer, the expectations will mount on Melanie Oudin to recapitulate her outstanding performances from Wimbledon and the US Open a year ago.  The Georgian has achieved little of note so far in 2010 and faces a much more powerful although much more erratic opponent in Anna-Lena Groenefeld; a win here might open the door for another second-week appearance.  Taking aim at the streaky Wawrinka is Nadal’s near-nemesis from Queens Club, Denis Istomin, whose powerful offense might unsettle an adversary who opted to enter a clay challenger in his native Switzerland rather than a grass prep. 

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We return tomorrow with previews of opening rounds for the bottom half of the men’s draw and the top half of the women’s draw.  If any particular matches seem especially worthy to you, you’re welcome to mention any preferences in the comments or write to us on Twitter about them.  We’ve fulfilled all requests so far!