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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Roger Federer - Swiss Indoors Basel - Day One

In the last match of individual competition that he played before his Basel opener on Monday, Federer marched within a point of the US Open final before Djokovic snatched that pearl out of the Swiss lion’s jaws.  Now, the Serb ventures into the den of the lion itself in an attempt to deny his vanquished rival even this modest prize, as he did in 2009 but could not do in 2010.  But plentiful intrigue awaits in Basel beyond the tantalizing thought of a Federer-Djokovic rematch.  We discuss the exceptional draw at this ATP 500 tournament.

First quarter:  Assigned to tackle the leviathan astride the ATP is the aging Belgian Xavier Malisse, who still can serve impressively at times while striking penetrating groundstrokes off both wings.  Considering Djokovic’s rust from an injury absence, one could imagine this match proving closer than their relative rankings would suggest.  In the second round, doubles specialist Lukasz Kubot shares many of Malisse’s strengths and has demonstrated the ability to score minor upsets, although he never has threatened an opponent of the Serb’s quality.  Ousting the eighth-seeded Troicki on Monday after saving match point, Baghdatis might pose the sternest pre-semifinal test for a Djokovic who probably will arrive slightly out of tune.  The former Australian  Open finalist has lost all five of his meetings with the two-time Australian Open champion, but he has won at least one set in each of the last four.  With his flat groundstrokes and a tendency to accelerate the tempo of a match, Baghdatis might deny the top seed the rhythm that he needs.  Also lurking in Djokovic’s quarter is the mercurial Youzhny, who has won all three of the indoor meetings (twice in Rotterdam and once in Marseille).  For most of this season, though, Youzhny has not reached the same level that he displayed in those victories but instead has undermined his own cause with untimely double faults and ill-advised shot selection.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Second quarter:  After the US Open, many observers expected Mardy Fish to fade in a fall far from the North American scene of his greatest successes.  While an early exit to Tomic in Shanghai seemed to confirm those thoughts, Fish can clinch his first career berth at the year-end championships with a solid autumn campaign and thus should bring plenty of motivation to these tournaments.  Moreover, the indoor environment should suit his precise style as the relatively faster courts maximize his serve.  Fish has struggled against Americans throughout his career, however, and he faces a potentially perilous opener against Blake, who flickered into life with a Stockholm semifinal appearance.  These courts should suit that veteran’s breathless, instinctive style as well, and the lefty serve of Gilles Muller may prove especially devastating here.  Aligned to meet Berdych in the second round, the pride of Luxembourg should not dismiss the possibility of facing Kei Nishikori instead.  Although he seems overmatched by Berdych’s power on serve and forehand, the highest-ranked man in the history of Japanese tennis won their only previous meeting and arrives fresh from a Shanghai semifinal.  Can Nishikori build upon that breakthrough, his greatest accomplishment so far, to march higher in the rankings before 2012 begins?

Semifinalist:  Fish

Third quarter:  Here roars the local lion, whose cubs may attend the tournament as they did last year.  In arguably the softest section of the draw, Federer allowed the unremarkable Potito Starace to stay within range longer than expected before notching his first victory of the week.  Either a youthful lefty or a veteran lefty will meet him in the second round, following a match that pits Bellucci’s power against the experience of Stockholm finalist Nieminen.  Then looms the prospect of a vintage meeting with Roddick, reprising the classic 2009 Wimbledon final in which the American served as the reluctant platform for Federer’s conquest of immortality.  Yet Roddick may not even reach that stage, for his form has oscillated unpredictably throughout a season that appears to mark the onset of an inexorable decline.  He must overcome a familiar nemesis in Tommy Haas to start the tournament and the lilting, maddening mosquito Radek Stepanek.  On the other hand, none of these curious encounters will pique interest in Federer, who long has dominated all of his potential quarterfinal opponents.  The elder statesman of the ATP should appreciate and capitalize upon the opportunity to reach a strenuous weekend with his energy mostly intact.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Fourth quarter:  Seeking his fourth consecutive title after sweeping the ATP Asian season, Murray has lost only one match at a non-major since the clay season.  When he met first-round opponent Robin Haase at the US Open, though, the Scot found himself forced to escape from a two-set deficit.  This time, he won’t have the luxury of time on a surface that tilts towards the lanky Dutchman’s strengths.   Elsewhere in this section loom Nadal-killers Ivan Dodig and Florian Mayer, the former near Murray and the latter adjacent to the sixth-seeded Tipsarevic.  After winning his first career title this fall and reaching another final, the Serbian #2 has every right to feel giddy (or perhaps Tipsy) with success.  One wonders how much motivation he will carry into a potentially dangerous draw with not only Mayer but Llodra and Ljubicic, imposing servers with a history of excelling in the fall.  Less likely to succumb to a dark horse is the second seed, who conceded sets here and there throughout his dazzling recent surge without ever coming close to defeat.  All the same, Wawrinka will benefit from the Swiss crowd and has defeated Murray before, so the Scot will need to elevate his level early in the week.  If he survives that test, he would arrive in the semifinals strengthened for his encounter with another Swiss foe.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Semifinals:  Djokovic d. Fish, Federer d. Murray

Final:  Federer d. Djokovic

Andy Murray - Rakuten Open - Day 7

While Djokovic and Federer sprawl harmlessly across couches rather than courts this week, Florian Mayer excised another member of the ATP top four from the depleted Shanghai draw.  The sole survivor at the eighth Masters 1000 tournament of 2011, Murray now looks poised to sweep the Asian season and gorge himself on fall titles like a vulture on carrion.  But this section of the calendar historically has witnessed more unexpected ambushes than any other, and Murray displayed hints of vulnerability in a three-set triumph over Wawrinka.  We consider the seven remaining players who stand between the defending champion and a second straight Shanghai title.

Ferrer:  Not to be underestimated on any surface, the third seed might gain momentum after saving three match points in the third round against Ferrero and escaping a very tight two-setter with the dangerous Raonic.  If Murray enters Sunday a little fatigued from his recent exertions, Ferrer could capitalize just as he often does upon an opponent’s complacency.  Nevertheless, their head-to-head record splits cleanly according to surface, with the Spaniard undefeated on clay and the Scot undefeated on hard courts.  Just last week in Tokyo, Andy cruised through a semifinal during which David rarely could generate the groundstroke pace to hit through the Scot’s defenses or the serving power to seize control of the points from the outset.  In order to defeat Murray on a court, therefore, Ferrer needs assistance from across the net in the form of an erratic or disinterested performance, which he probably will not receive in a Masters 1000 final.

Roddick:  Before the third seed even reaches the final, in fact, he may fall prey to a miniature upset from the evergreen American.  Toppling Ferrer en route to the US Open quarterfinals, Roddick quickly thrust the disappointment of a first-round Tokyo loss behind him in Shanghai.  A round ago, he showcased not only the familiarly formidable serve against Almagro but also crisper court coverage, both vertically and laterally.  Roddick delivered one of the finest performances of his Slam career in conquering the home hope at the All England Club two years ago, exploiting his opponent’s negativity under pressure.  Outside that memorable meeting, though, he never has defeated Murray outside the United States, and his serve-reliant style plays directly into the hands of the ATP’s second-best returner.  So clinical was the Scot’s rout of Roddick at Queens Club this year that the American half-jokingly asked him for mercy.

Dolgopolov:  Captivating at his best and maddening at his worst, the quirky Ukrainian seems to have struck a rich vein of form at a convenient moment, when large quantities of cheap rankings points might await him.  Down a set in each of his last two matches, Dolgopolov conceded just one game in the last two sets against future superstar Tomic.  His quarterfinal opponent Nishikori will test his patience, rarely a strength, and force him to construct points more thoughtfully than usual.  Susceptible to veering in and out of focus throughout a match, Dolgopolov has the arrhythmic flair that could irritate Murray, as he showed in the third set of their Australian Open quarterfinal.  As Murray showed in the other three sets, Dologopolov oddly lacks the core of motivation that inspires elite contenders in significant matches.  When his focus fades, the second seed will pounce.

Mayer:  Last year, Melzer battered Nadal into submission in the third round before exiting Shanghai a round later.  As he recovers from the most impressive win of his career to date, Mayer must avoid the lull that afflicted his predecessor and fellow Central European.  Despite Rafa’s returning skills, he never faced a break point throughout that upset and lost only four first-serve points.  Should he maintain that standard, he will trouble anyone in the draw, but common sense suggests that he will not.  Mayer’s deceptively powerful backhand frustrated Murray throughout a first-set breadstick in Monte Carlo this year, after which an irritated Scot hurled two breadsticks back at him.  When faced with such a consistent opponent, the German’s precariously assembled technique proved his undoing, while his serve-volley attempts merely exposed him to Murray’s passing shots.

Lopez:  In the final of Judy Murray’s dreams, the one-dimensional lefty would stand little chance against Murray’s versatility unless he maintains a superb serving percentage.  Amidst one of the best seasons of his singles career, Lopez has fallen to the world #4 in straight sets at the last two majors, including an exhibition-like evisceration in New York.  Only one of their fifteen sets have tilted in the Spaniard’s direction, for his unreliable groundstrokes prevent him from surviving in extended baseline exchanges with Murray.  As long as the Scot can keep him out of the forecourt, he should contentedly concentrate on high-percentage strokes and wait for Lopez to either donate an unforced error or gamble upon an ill-advised approach.

Nishikori:  Somewhat similar to Ferrer in size and mentality, the Japanese star finally has achieved his goal of becoming the highest-ranked man in his nation’s history.  Guided by Brad Gilbert and finally (relatively) free from injuries, he rallied to stun Tsonga in a result almost as astonishing as Mayer’s upset over Nadal.  Also like Ferrer, however, Nishikori lacks the weapons to hit through Murray from the baseline or the serve to generate free points.  Never having reached a Masters 1000 semifinal in his career, he would rely upon a pedestrian performance from the Scot should he arrive there.

Ebden:  Perhaps buoyed by Stosur’s stirring US Open fortnight, this 124th-ranked qualifier derailed what might have become a compelling quarterfinal between Simon and Murray.  In its place awaits a demolition in the making, potentially similar to the Scot’s crushing victory over Donald Young in the Bangkok final.  After a rollercoaster victory over Wawrinka, Murray will welcome the respite that allows him to conserve energy for the weekend.

Rafael Nadal - The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2011 - Day Four

Nadal vs. Cilic:  One win away from securing the #1 ranking at least through Roland Garros, the Spaniard must conquer not only a Croatian tower of power but the illness that befell him this week.  Although Cilic defeated Nadal in Beijing 2009, the former task appears less imposing than the latter.  Stagnant for the past year and thoroughly uneasy on clay, the fading prodigy mustered just nine games when they met in Australia this January despite a relatively uneven performance by Rafa on that occasion.  At the root of his startling appearance at this stage lie the whimsical deities of the draw, which smiled upon Cilic by showering him with a retirement, a lucky loser after Ferrer’s withdrawal, and the equally clay-averse Fish.  Only another retirement or walkover, one suspects, would extend the world #23’s sojourn in the Eternal City, but Nadal’s uncertain condition brings that possibility within the realm of plausibility.  When ailing on a hard court far from home in Doha, though, the Spaniard gallantly battled through into the semifinals before succumbing to repeated nemesis Davydenko.  On European clay, his willpower surely will crystallize even more powerfully.

Gasquet vs. Berdych:  Scanning this quarter when the week began, few would have selected the Frenchman to survive until Friday.  But perhaps more of us should have, for Federer has struggled in Rome over the last several years, while Gasquet has enjoyed a miniature resurgence that started in Dubai and extended through an Indian Wells quarterfinal appearance.  Accessible to the casual fan as easily as to the aficionado, his breathtaking backhand and artistic shot-making continue to dazzle despite his slide outside the circle of contenders.  Now standing before the Frenchman is a dour Czech who opposes unvarnished baseline power to Gasquet’s mercurial all-court fluidity.  As one would expect considering the current trajectory of the ATP, unvarnished power prevailed in their two meetings since 2007, during which Berdych lost two or fewer games in four of the five sets.  With a famously frail opponent and perhaps a depleted Nadal blocking his path to the final, the world #7 should consider his draw a window of opportunity through which he can leap.  On the other hand, Berdych allowed the aging Nieminen to drag him into a needlessly prolonged three-setter today.  Which of these two chronic underachievers can carpe the diem in the nation of Horace?

Mayer vs. Murray:  Free from any member of the ATP’s reigning triumvirate, this section lay open for a player who once appeared more likely than Djokovic to challenge Nadal and Federer for supremacy.  Lowered expectations on clay may liberate Murray from the pressure that will oppress him at Wimbledon, but the Scot remains a reluctant dirt devil at best as shown in a rollercoaster three-set opener against Malisse.  To his credit, the fourth seed showed greater confidence in a potentially perilous bout with home hope Starace a round later, and he now will face a German who shares his preference for faster surfaces.  Like Cilic, Mayer profited from a key withdrawal in his section when 2010 Roland Garros semifinalist Melzer departed.  Also like Cilic, he relies upon heavy serve-forehand combinations that can penetrate any surface when effective but also can go astray without warning.  Not to be underestimated is a player who already has ambushed Youzhny, Almagro, Davydenko, and Del Potro this year.  Felled by dark horse Bellucci in Madrid, Murray hopes to avoid serving as a platform for a second straight arriviste.

Soderling vs. Djokovic:  The most intriguing of an otherwise plebeian quarterfinal menu, this duel will threaten the Serb’s streak more than any other match that he has played in the last month outside the Madrid final.  Soderling stands alone among the top five in escaping Djokovic’s wrath so far this year, and the Swede has developed an intimidating reputation for wrecking records on clay, including Nadal’s perfection at Roland Garros and Federer’s (probably permanently squelched) attempt to break the record for career weeks at #1.  A two-time finalist at Roland Garros, the fifth seed normally has not prospered  in Rome and famously won just a single game from Nadal here on the eve of the Greatest Upset Ever.  But he has responded to an exceptionally challenging draw with a steeliness absent from his recent slump, saving match points against Verdasco with sledgehammer forehands before grimly outlasting new top-10 resident Almagro.

In the tenth game of his victory over Wawrinka, meanwhile, Djokovic displayed the mental maturity vital to his barrage of titles.  Brushing aside a string of game points, the future #1 refused to let the Swiss #2 elude his grasp.  Instead, Djokovic subjected him to a relentless 36-shot rally that both players appeared to have won more than once; it led to a set point, smartly converted with a  drop shot that froze the weary Wawrinka.  Never the most durable competitor, Federer’s understudy wilted predictably in the second set, his spirit crushed by the close of the first.  A much firmer nut to crack, Soderling has a decent chance at breaking the Serb’s jaws if he can find lines with his mighty swings early in the rallies.  But the Djoker will have the last laugh if he can extend the rallies long enough to expose the Swede’s wooden movement.

Wozniacki vs. Jankovic:  Winless against the Serb in her first four attempts, the world #1 reversed that trend with a pair of straight-sets victories this season.  Falling in consecutive tournaments to the talented but untested Julia Goerges, Wozniacki enters Rome hopeful to bolster her candidacy for the Roland Garros crown.  Across the net stands a three-time Roland Garros semifinalist whose opportunity for capturing that elusive major have dwindled steadily since 2009.  But Jankovic still can count herself among the contenders in Paris this year, especially if she can collect a third title at the tournament kinder to her than any other.  After three successive bagels to start the week, Wozniacki flirted with danger by surrendering a second-set lead to Wickmayer, a fierce ball-striker not unlike Goerges who troubled her in Charleston.  Regrouping to quell that threat before a third set arrived, the Dane may prefer the challenge posed by a counterpuncher similar to herself.  In a match between two players of almost identical styles and strengths, form on the day almost invariably decides the outcome.  While Jankovic impressively avenged her Madrid loss to Safarova, a mid-match wobble against Medina Garrigues does not bode well for a player who defeated the Williams sisters consecutively here a year ago.  Can the apprentice conquer the sorceress for the third time in 2011, or will Wozniacki’s Paris aspirations suffer a blow from a different direction?

Maria Sharapova - The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2011 - Day Five

Azarenka vs. Sharapova:  Opposed in another sorceress-apprentice clash are the Miami finalists, armed with savage shrieks and equally savage returns of serve.  When they intersected in Key Biscayne, Sharapova and her descendant combined for only five service holds in seventeen total games.  This trend should continue in their first clay meeting after five fast-court tilts, although the Russian’s serve has proved unexpectedly imposing during her first two matches.  Broken only once by the solid Peer, Sharapova has lost a bare six games this week and eyes a third consecutive semifinal in the Italian capital, where she has played just once every three years.  Defying the grit beneath her feet, she has hammered her groundstrokes through the court with a vigor barely blunted by the clay.  On the other hand, Azarenka navigated through an erratic three-setter against Pavlyuchenkova, whom she defeated in the same round at Key Biscayne.  Among her former weaknesses was a struggle to finish matches convincingly, but she mastered her nerves impressively in the Miami final after the inevitable late Sharapova surge.  Somewhat similar to the Soderling-Djokovic match that accompanies it in the night session, this glamorous quarterfinal presents the question of whether the Russian can deliver a terminal blow with her superior weight of shot before the Belarussian outmaneuvers her with her superior movement and footwork.  Curiously, all of Azarenka’s wins in their rivalry have come in straight sets, while both of Sharapova’s victories have come in three.  No matter the scoreline, though, their matches provide compelling entertainment as much because of the pugnacious personalities as because of the crackling groundstrokes.

Arn vs. Li:  A 32-year-old Hungarian who won the Auckland title in January, Arn has put  many of her younger colleagues to shame while spending eight hours on court and winning third-set tiebreaks from both Kuznetsova and Vesnina.  This most improbable Cinderella probably will find her coach transformed into a pumpkin by the Australian Open runner-up, striking a rich vein of form at just the right moment.  As she approaches a second straight semifinal at a Premier Mandatory / Five event, dare we place “Li Na” and “consistency” in the same sentence?  Although her game still can veer wildly out of control on any given day, her ghastly post-Melbourne stretch seems finally to have abated.

Stosur vs. Schiavone:  Thrilling the Roman fans who will flock to the Foro Italico on Friday afternoon, this rematch of the Roland Garros final in fact pits two deeply slumping stars desperately in need of momentum before defending their Paris results.  A glance at their clay nemeses this season illustrates the situation, for Vesnina, Pavlyuchenkova, Radwanska, and Mattek-Sands scarcely rank among the leading threats on this surface.  With her top-10 status perhaps soon at stake, Stosur must quell not only her notorious nemesis but an enthusiastic Italian crowd that exhorted Schiavone throughout a suspenseful victory over Hantuchova.  At her best far from the madding crowd, the Australian struggles to match her nerve to the moment and succumbed to the Italian in the similarly fraught environment of Fed Cup.  Nevertheless, she has not experienced the extreme physical (and probably emotional) fatigue suffered by Schiavone after her Melbourne heroics.  Like its famous predecessor and unlike the other quarterfinals, this matinee encounter should feature classic clay-court tennis to delight adherents of tradition and of tennis played as much with the brain as with any other muscle.

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates winning match point after her second round match against Lindsay Davenport of the United States of America on day three of the Australian Open 2008 at Melbourne Park on January 16, 2008 in Melbourne, Australia.

Determined to erase the memories of a year ago, Sharapova opens proceedings on Rod Laver Arena for the second straight season.  While the time and place remain the same, changes in her coach and equipment should help to quell the remembrance of things past, as will an opponent less imposing than 2010 nemesis Kirilenko.  A former doubles partner of the Russian, Tanasugarn asserted herself last year by winning Osaka and reaching the Pattaya City final, but this match lies on the Russian’s racket.  Consecutive second-round losses at Wimbledon caused Sharapova to wobble late in her second-round victory there last year, so one wonders whether similar events will unfold in Melbourne.  Moreover, she needed seven match points to dispatch first-round victim Brianti in Auckland, extending a pattern of mental frailty when victory lies just a point or two away.  Like fellow Slam champions Venus and Henin, the 2008 Australian titlist hopes to establish herself with a firm opening statement before the path grows perilous.  The path grows perilous quickly for another contender, though, with whom we open our first daily preview of Melbourne.

Wozniacki vs. Dulko:  Three years ago, the stylish Argentine collected just two games from a still-budding Dane in the first round at Melbourne.  Although Wozniacki has shown greater mercy to Dulko after that occasion, she has won both of their hard-court meetings and has developed immensely since their last collision in late 2008.  On the other hand, the former girlfriend of Fernando Gonzalez has emerged as one of the more underestimated upset artists in the WTA, bouncing Sharapova from Wimbledon in 2009, Ivanovic from the Australian Open in 2010, and Henin from Indian Wells just a few months later.  Currently the top-ranked doubles player, Dulko clearly lacks the firepower of most opponents who have troubled Wozniacki, and those three previous upsets came against wildly erratic shotmakers who dissolved in an ocean of errors.  The world #1 rarely succumbs to those error-strewn meltdowns, her US Open semifinal with Zvonareva an exception that proves the rule.  Yet the Dane’s light-hitting opponent will force her to take the initiative in rallies, not her preferred strategy, and this meeting represents her first Slam match as a #1.  Already sounding a bit defensive about her elevated stature, Wozniacki did little to justify it in Hong Kong and Sydney.  A sturdy performance in Melbourne, though, would stop the accelerating trickle before it becomes a tide; thus, she may have more at stake here than any other contender.

De Bakker vs. Monfils:   Among the most difficult tasks in any sport is preserving momentum from the end of one season to the start of its successor.  Such is the challenge that confronts Monfils, pedestrian in the first half of 2010 but one of the ATP’s most notable performers from the US Open onwards.  The Frenchman previously has left little imprint upon Melbourne despite the apparent congruence between his game and its surface, which should offer ample opportunities for him to strike those flashy jumping forehands.  Only a year younger than Djokovic and Murray, De Bakker rests far further down the evolutionary ladder but has developed a formidable serve that lifted him to victories over Tsonga, Verdasco, and other noteworthy foes.  Likely to become a threat on all surface, the Dutchman opened 2011 with consecutive losses and enters the Australian Open as a considerable underdog.  The far more experienced Monfils still suffers lapses at unpredictable moments, such as Slam encounters with Fognini and Kendrick.  And his irrepressible instinct to entertain can invigorate a first-week match more than the businesslike, slightly bored demeanor of the top seeds.

Riske vs. Kuznetsova:  Triggering minor headlines when she reached the Birmingham semifinal last year, the American eventually may join Oudin among her nation’s leading women in the post-Williams era.  To be sure, the standard for entrance to that group has sunk to a level just above Death Valley, and Riske opens against a game only somewhat less scorching than that California landmark.  The two-time Slam champion still owns one of the top forehands in the WTA, while her triumph over world #6 Stosur in Sydney should have lifted her confidence.  In a largely fruitless 2010, however, Kuznetsova fell to anonymous opponents on every surface and continent as her technique deserted her.  Although she should prevail over Riske here, the American’s above-average serve and assertive shotmaking may test the Russian sufficiently for observers to assess her chances of penetrating deep into the tournament.

Nikolay Davydenko of Russia celebrates victory over Rafael Nadal of Spain during the Final match of the ATP Qatar ExxonMobil Open at the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex on January 9, 2010 in Doha, Qatar.

Davydenko vs. Mayer:  The only player with a winning record against Rafa after 10 or more meetings, Kolya nearly created a sensation at the 2010 Australian Open when he toyed with Federer like a puppet on a string early in their quarterfinal.  Offering fast-paced entertainment when at their best, his darting groundstrokes and imaginative angles more than compensate for the limitations of his physique.  Yet he confronts an opponent worthy of his steel in Sydney semifinalist Mayer, the architect of Del Potro’s demise there.  Not to be confused with his Argentine namesake, the lanky German stands just three places below his career-high ranking after a sterling fall that included victories over two top-10 opponents, Youzhny and Soderling.  Nevertheleses, Davydenko ousted him routinely in Beijing just before those eye-catching wins.

Fognini vs. Nishikori:  Under the tutelage of Murray guru Brad Gilbert, the Japanese star hopes to regain the momentum that he surrendered with an elbow injury in 2009.  His gritty, counterpunching style should match the personality of his coach, and their partnership already has borne results with a comeback victory over Cilic in Chennai.  Conquering Monfils at Roland Garros and Verdasco at Wimbledon, Fognini has unleashed first-week surprises despite careless technique and an indifferent serve.  Technically crisp himself, Nishikori should engage the Italian in a series of protracted that will display the traits that they share—exceptional fitness and consistency.  Fognini’s casually slapped forehand can generate deceptive power, as can the Japanese prodigy’s meticulously constructed backhand.  Will Italian improvisation or Japanese precision prevail?

Zahlavova Strycova vs. Rezai:  Curl up for the catfight du jour, which might offend the sensibilities of the sportsmanlike Aussies but could open a window onto Rezai’s mental resilience.  Vinegar rather than blood seems to run through the veins of Zahlavaova Strycova, more notable for her incorrigible gamesmanship than for anything that she does with her racket.  While seasoned champions like Sharapova and Clijsters have contemptuously flicked her aside, Rezai sometimes struggles to prevent her own combative streak from overflowing to her detriment.  Far more talented than the Czech, the Frenchwoman must stay focused upon forehands and backhands—and especially her serve.  She disgorged 11 double faults in her first-round victory over Jankovic in Sydney, a match more lost by the Serb than won by Rezai.

***

Wizards of Oz continues tomorrow with a selection of the most intriguing Day 2 matches.  Feel free to post any suggestions in the comments.

 

Conventionally considered a second-tier competition populated by mid-level players, the Davis Cup also can be perceived as a theater where those outside the ATP elite can seize a rare chance for immortality.  Contrasting with most tournaments in this individual sport, the raucous atmosphere of the national team competition often christens unexpected heroes.  Studded with several marquee attractions, though, will the quarterfinals perpetuate or diverge from this pattern?

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=verdasco+davis+cup&iid=7319589″ src=”http://view4.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/7319589/spain-czech-republic-davis/spain-czech-republic-davis.jpg?size=500&imageId=7319589″ width=”500″ height=”351″ /]

France vs. Spain:  Surely thrilled not to see the Wizard of Wimbledon and Ruler of Roland Garros (aka Nadal), the French will be disappointed to contest this tie without the services of fast-court specialist Tsonga.  Likely to rise to the occasion is Gael Monfils, who delighted his compatriots last year by reaching the final of the Paris Indoors.  Yet one never knows precisely what to expect from the mercurial “La Monf,” who exited prematurely at the last two majors while his first-rubber opponent, David Ferrer, excelled even on his worst surface.  Surging within a set of the Wimbledon quarterfinals, the second Spanish singles player has thrived in Davis Cup and can be expected to deliver as sturdy an effort as possible despite the fast indoor court.  This first rubber must be claimed by the home nation, for the visitors will be heavily favored to win the Verdasco-Llodra clash that follows it.  Although the left-handed Llodra did claim the Eastbourne title before testing Roddick at Wimbledon, Fernando will relish the surface speed and enjoys a far more imposing arsenal of weapons than his opponent.

Somewhat unusually in Davis Cup, the doubles match will oppose two teams who often compete together at ATP events (Benneteau/Llodra vs. Verdasco/Lopez) , so one should expect a hotly contested match at the pivot point of the weekend.  If France can secure the 2-1 lead, the hosts will head into the reverse singles with a vital boost of confidence, but Spain’s greater experience in crucial Davis Cup ties must provide them with a slight edge.  One of the key factors in the tie will be Verdasco’s ability to win three best-of-five matches in three days (albeit one in doubles), a feat that he nearly performed last year against Germany.  Potentially tasked with closing out the tie against Monfils in the fourth rubber, the highest-ranked Spaniard outside Nadal generally responds with aplomb to the demands of Davis Cup.  In the 2008 final, he scored the clinching victory over Argentina’s Jose Acasuso after a poorly played but suspenseful five-setter.  Since Ferrer will struggle to win either of his singles rubbers, we wouldn’t be surprised to see Spanish captain Albert Costa substitute the superior fast-court player Almagro for him in the fifth rubber should it prove decisive.  It probably won’t, for the Spanish team’s far superior teamwork and shared experience should prevail over their flaky trans-Pyrenean rivals.  Spain, 70-30.

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=djokovic+davis+cup&iid=8192080″ src=”http://view3.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/8192080/serbia-usa/serbia-usa.jpg?size=500&imageId=8192080″ width=”500″ height=”360″ /]

Serbia vs. Croatia:  As volatile as this intra-Balkans rivalry might be at a national level, all of the competition’s participants have developed personal friendships that should defuse the hostility bubbling around them.  Fresh (or not fresh) from a Wimbledon semifinal run, Djokovic enters the weekend in his best form of the season, whereas his first-rubber foe Ljubicic has fallen well short of his Indian Wells success thereafter, losing his Wimbledon opener to an anonymous Pole.  The Croatian veteran won their last meeting during that magical Indian Wells surge, though, so recent history might play a factor; otherwise, Djokovic has dominated their collisions.  During the Davis Cup first round in Belgrade, the Serb embraced this competition’s combative atmosphere and played forceful tennis against American giants Querrey and Isner.  After he scores the first point of Serbia, Croatia’s top singles player Marin Cilic should even the tie despite his recently underwhelming form.  An easily disheartened, mentally fragile competitor, his opponent Victor Troicki lacks the emotional poise to vanquish a distinctly superior foe before a hostile crowd.  Sometimes a little fragile himself, Cilic recorded two sturdy wins in the quarterfinals at home last year, when Croatia hosted the United States.

In the unlikely event that Serbia leads 2-0 after the first day, expect Croatian captain Goran Prpic to substitute Ljubicic and Cilic in the doubles, where Serbia’s doubles star Nenad Zimonjic provides the visitors with a clear advantage.  If Prpic sticks with Dodig and Veic, his team likely will be forced to win both of the reverse singles on Sunday, an imposing but not impossible challenge.  Serbia will want to finish the job immediately in the fourth rubber, a marquee clash between Djokovic and Cilic.  Although the budding Croat sternly tested the world #2 at the 2008 US Open, the Djoker has dominated their fledgling rivalry by winning all four meetings and nine of ten total sets.  If the tie comes down to a fifth rubber, Ljubicic would be distinctly favored over Troicki on a fast indoor court, so Serbian captain Bogdan Obradovic might consider substituting Tipsarevic, a sturdier competitor and superior server despite his lower ranking.  The efforts of Djokovic and Zimonjic should render such speculation unnecessary, however.  Serbia, 60-40.

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=youzhny+davis+cup&iid=8186803″ src=”http://view1.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/8186803/russia-defeats-india-davis/russia-defeats-india-davis.jpg?size=500&imageId=8186803″ width=”500″ height=”350″ /]

Russia vs. Argentina:  In this tie that might be labeled “Russia vs. Nalbandian,” the Argentine will be expected to win all three rubbers in order to propel his nation into the semifinals.  Relishing heroic roles, he skipped Wimbledon in order to prepare for this weekend, which opens with a stunning matchup against Davydenko, who also recently returned from injury.  Although their head-to-head is nearly even, Nalbandian has won three of their four non-clay meetings as well as two of their three Davis Cup clashes.  Having developed a highly similar style predicated upon early ball-striking and audacious angles, these bold shotmakers should produce scintillating tennis if both can shed the rust from their prolonged absences.  The second rubber should swing definitively towards the hosts, for Leonardo Mayer displays a far less complete game than Mikhail Youzhny, who often has shone in team competition. 

Far more adept in singles than doubles, Russia probably will surrender the doubles to Nalbandian and Horacio Zeballos while pinning their hopes upon the reverse singles.  If Nalbandian has defeated Davydenko at that stage, one should expect a decisive fifth rubber between the Argentine and Youzhny.  But if Davydenko starts the weekend with a victory, he should finish the task in the fourth rubber against Mayer.  Even supposing that Nalbandian does win the first rubber and the doubles, he would enter the reverse singles a little weary considering his lack of match play over the last few months.  Although he might deplete Youzhny’s limited reserves of patience and extend their encounter to a thrilling conclusion, he might struggle to win three sets from the versatile Russian.  Although Nalbandian played the hero expertly in the first round against Sweden, there is significantly more pressure on his shoulders when Argentina faces this much more formidable foe.  Russia, 60-40.

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=massu+davis+cup&iid=8180554″ src=”http://view4.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/8180554/dudi-sela-nicolas-massu/dudi-sela-nicolas-massu.jpg?size=500&imageId=8180554″ width=”500″ height=”333″ /]

Chile vs. Czech Republic:  Who are these people, and what did they do with Gonzalez, Berdych, and Stepanek?  While Fernando and Radek battle injuries, Tomas understandably proved reluctant to test his footing on red clay during the transition from grass to hard courts.  During the Czech Republic’s slightly surprising run to the 2009 Davis Cup final, Berdych and Stepanek played virtually every rubber including the doubles, which suggests that Czech captain Jaroslav Navratil possesses hardly any other weapons at all.  None of the visiting names here ring a bell except doubles specialist Lukas Dlouhy, so the home nation will be favored to prevail in all four singles matches, contested on their favorite surface and before a partisan crowd.  Capturing the 2004 Olympic gold medal for Chile, Nicolas Massu has competed impressively at the national level even as his ATP results have sagged.  Once a notorious under-performer in Davis Cup, Paul Capdeville has shown signs of dispelling that reputation with a few key recent wins.  If the Czechs can somehow find a way to survive this round, of course, they could catapult directly back into contention with Berdych’s return for the semifinals against Serbia or Croatia.  Therefore, a literally gritty performance by its B-team could reap greater rewards than simply survival into the next round.  But it’s difficult to see the Czech journeymen winning three rubbers from the Chilean veterans on a surface barely familiar to them, thousands of miles from home.  Chile, 80-20.

***

Over the weekend, we’ll compile the first of next week’s two player profiles, which will feature Wozniacki and Gulbis.  They’ll follow the trademark five-strength, five-weakness format with which we have prospered thus far.

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