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After clicking the WTA website’s link for the Bali draw, one might struggle to locate the bracket in what appears a mostly blank sheet of paper.  The only event in the sport that starts with the quarterfinals, the Tournament of Champions doesn’t quite live up to its name.  After all, the real “Tournament of Champions” just ended last weekend in Istanbul with a series of compelling encounters among top-eight opponents.  Absent from this idyllic island resort is any woman in that category, but the coda to the 2011 season does feature a curious assortment of rising stars, setting stars, supernovas, and black holes.  To paraphrase Larry Scott’s marketing campaign for the actual year-end championships, we look for a heroine in this heterogeneous octet.

Rising stars:

Lisicki:  The best server in the draw, her signature shot should earn her shoals of free points on this slick indoor surface.  Winning two International titles this summer, Lisicki recorded the most notable accomplishment of her career so far by reaching the Wimbledon semifinal with victories over Li and Bartoli, the latter of whom she might face in a semifinal here.  By the US Open, though, her torrid streak had subsided as untimely double faults and impatient shot selection increased.  One can imagine Lisicki developing into the next Stosur, armed with massive serve-forehand combinations and a perennial threat at Wimbledon.  For now, she remains a talent more raw and rough-hewn than those of her compatriots Petkovic and Goerges.  Having recovered from excruciating, career-threatening injuries more than once, though, this German gains underrated strength from her natural optimism.

Peng:  One of two double-fisters here, the Chinese #2 had gained little renown outside her home nation for her skills in singles.  Better known for her exploits in doubles, she accumulated more than 50 victories in 2011 (more than Li Na, in fact) when she occupied one side of the court by herself.  During the first half alone, Peng knocked off two Slam champions in Kuznetsova and Schiavone as well as Zvonareva, Li, and former #1 Jankovic.  Reaching five semifinals before Wimbledon, she still searches for her first career singles crown, an accomplishment that seems long overdue.  Like Lisicki, the Chinese double-fister has traced a steady downward arc over the past few months, probably the inevitable result of a season during which she played far more matches than she expected.  Facing Petrova for the third time this year, she faces a sterner task than in her two preceding three-set wins on slower surfaces.

Setting stars:

Hantuchova:  Just when one thinks that the willowy Slovak has wandered into the mists of history, she bursts back into relevance with a scintillating performance reminiscent of her top-5 days.  Although she collected her fourth title in Pattaya City after a win over Zvonareva, Hantuchova struck her richest vein of form during the clay and grass seasons.  Slashing Wozniacki to ribbons at Roland Garros, she raced to the Birmingham final and challenged eventual semifinalist Azarenka at Wimbledon before succumbing in three sets.  Hantuchova’s audacious angles and the pinpoint control that they require should dazzle on an indoor court, but she lost her opener here last year to an even more inspired Kimiko Date-Krumm.  Shortly Bali shifted from an ordinary event to the Tournament of Champions, she reached a final in this relaxed atmosphere that suits her personality.  Nevertheless, she will struggle to tame Lisicki’s serve in a rematch of the Birmingham final that she lost resoundingly.

Petrova:  The inaugural champion in College Park, this aging Russian lost her first match at nine of twenty tournaments this year while finishing just four wins over .500.  On days when her serve and reflexes remain crisp, Petrova still can compete with most players outside the top five or six.  While the surface will reward those strengths, it also may expose her ungainly movement as with Hantuchova.  In order to advance past the first round, Petrova must find a way to rediscover the mastery over Peng that slipped away from her in their last two meetings.  No matter how she performs in the sense of forehands and backhands, however, she rarely fails to entertain with her expressions of exaggerated disdain, caustic soliloquies to herself in Russian, or idiosyncratic outfits.  When she shifts from tennis into a career as a Russian television commentator, viewers should relish her piquant insights.

Supernovas:

Bartoli:  Resting atop the truncated draw, Bartoli would seem the clear title favorite based upon her 2011 resume.  Whereas most of her rivals captured their laurels at lesser tournaments, this second double-fister not only defeated Serena—an event memorable in itself—but halted the 13-time major champion’s title defense at Wimbledon.  At the previous major, the Frenchwoman delighted her compatriots by reaching an unexpected semifinal.  The runner-up at the first edition of the Tournament of Champions, Bartoli should feast upon the second serves of opponents with her rapier-like returns.  In fact, she could feast upon the first serve of her initial opponent, Medina Garrigues, before arranging a rematch of her Wimbledon quarterfinal with Lisicki.  Will the first strike of the event’s premier server or of the event’s premier returner prove more deadly?  Fresh from a three-set upset over Azarenka at Istanbul, Bartoli won Osaka two weeks before and nearly overcome Petkovic in Beijing, so she arrives in perhaps the most impressive form of all entrants.

Ivanovic:  For the first time since Roland Garros 2009, the former #1 attempts to defend a title.  Spurning the opportunity to protect her Linz crown, Ivanovic enjoyed one of her finest weeks this season two tournaments ago in Beijing, where she defeated Kuznetsova and Zvonareva while yielding just eight total games.  Under the guidance of new coach Nigel Sears, she has survived the first round at seven consecutive tournaments, her longest such streak since winning the French Open.  But the Serb’s luminous smile turned into a grimace when a back injury curtailed her Beijing surge.  Either the injury or the competitive rust that it caused likely contributed to her disappointing defeat to Keothavong in Luxembourg, and Ivanovic continues to nurse that back as she approaches this tournament.  A title defense looks implausible, although a return to these tranquil surroundings offers an excellent endpoint to another turbulent season for the Serb.

Black holes:

Vinci:  After dropping her first four career meetings to Ivanovic, the Italian exacted revenge upon the former #1 twice this year.  Her oddly veering backhand slice should stay low on this surface, like the quirky strokes of Date-Krumm last year, and disrupt her opponent’s rhythm.  But one wonders whether Vinci can display her artful counterpunching to its fullest on a court designed for offense.  Among Wozniacki’s second-half nemeses, she should appreciate her position in the weaker half of the draw and conceivably could reach the final if fortune smiles upon her.

Medina Garrigues:  When she won Estoril this spring, the Spanish veteran surely did not anticipate that her prowess on the dusty battlefields of Portugal would lead her to the beaches of Indonesia.  Accomplishing little outside clay throughout her career, Medina Garrigues enjoyed the most impressive week of her season when she mustered three straight wins in Miami.  Aligned to face Bartoli, she has scant cause for confidence against an opponent who has collected all four of their hard-court matches without conceding a set.  Nevertheless, a quarterfinal berth seems assured.

***

After Istanbul, you may have thought that the seasons of Kvitova and Zvonareva ended.  (Momentarily, they may have thought so too.)  But in fact they will meet once again this year next Sunday with a Fed Cup title at stake.  We return with a preview on Friday.

 

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Maria Sharapova - 2011 French Open - Day Three

Sharapova vs. Garcia:  Dispatching one Caroline en route to the Rome title, Sharapova eyes a less intimidating Caroline in Paris.  This apparent mismatch pits a storied champion who has won three Slam titles against a 17-year-old who has won two total matches at majors, but perhaps one should not feed this Christian to the lioness too eagerly.  Flitting across one’s mind are the shadows of Kudryavtseva and Oudin, who defeated Sharapova at Wimbledon and the US Open when ranked #154 and #70, respectively.  Thrust onto a court far larger than any where she has tread, Garcia can expect the vociferous support of her compatriots and showed a glimpse of courage by winning the first Slam match of her career in January.  Demonstrating a nascent aptitude for the surface, the world #177 claimed her second ITF clay title in Florida this April.  Of course, Sharapova would capture the Premier Five crown in Rome two weeks later.

Chardy vs. Simon:  Sharing a passport but little else, this internecine clash of les bleus pits an aggressive, forehand-centered Frenchman against a compatriot who relies on steadiness and a crisp two-hander.  Whereas Chardy can drift emotionally within tournaments and even matches, a healthy Simon consistently competes with the sturdiness that has enabled him to maximize his potential.  The clay will shelter the former’s asymmetrical groundstroke game while showcasing the latter’s defense.  In the pressure of playing in their nation’s most prestigious event and largest stadium, the experience of Simon may shine through, but the brashness of Chardy may allow him to capture the moment.

Zheng vs. Kvitova:  Although she has failed to recapture her momentum following wrist surgery, Zheng has accumulated a history of upsetting or nearly upsetting contenders from Sharapova to Serena.  Her low center of gravity and compact stroke production aid her in adjusting to the clay’s unpredictable bounces, while her court coverage should prove even more seamless on the dirt.  Nevertheless, the unusually fast bounce and light balls at Roland Garros this year, coupled with warm, sunny weather, will encourage shot-maker like Kvitova to fancy their chances against defensive-minded foes.  Displaying traces of her scintillating form in Madrid, the Czech crushed 2011 surprise Arn in the first round and should gain further hope from her friendly first-week draw.

Malisse vs. Verdasco:  Most dangerous when least anticipated, the Spaniard surprisingly overcame a history of futility against Monaco in his opener despite a generally disappointing season.  One would imagine that this comprehensive four-set victory would raise the spirits of a player whose form fluctuates with his confidence.  But Verdasco’s fortunes have not always followed a logical trajectory, nor have those of his opponent.  From a nation more renowned in the WTA than ATP, Malisse has underachieved even more than the Spaniard has, in part as a result of chronic injuries.  Taking a set from Murray in Rome, he could unsettle the unsubtle Verdasco with his penetrating backhand and versatile all-court repertoire.

Mirza vs. Radwanska / Medina Garrigues vs. Gajdosova:  Only a sporadic player at this stage, Mirza still can unleash forehands that occasionally fluster competitors as noteworthy as Henin (in Melbourne this year).  Targeting the lines too often for sustained success on clay, her relentless ball-striking presents Radwanska with an assignment at which the Pole excels.  Smothered by the WTA’s premier offenses, she specializes in chipping away at less consistent or balanced attackers with canny shot placement that exploits the geometry of the court.  The balance of overall talent between puncher and counterpuncher shifts in the opposite direction when Gajdosova faces Medina Garrigues, whose superior clay skills that carried her to the Barcelona title.  Unruffled by a recent divorce or the circumstances of her opener against Razzano, however, the Aussie proved herself a focused and motivated competitor.

Querrey vs. Ljubicic:  Formerly feckless at Roland Garros, the youthful tower of power delivered a victory over Kohslchreiber almost as impressive and unexpected as Verdasco’s win over Monaco.  Standing poised to intercept him is a seasoned tower of power, who will rely upon the experience that Querrey never quite seems to acquire or turn to his advantage.  Neither player has displayed much spark over the past several months, trudging from tournament to tournament with their explosive serves but not much else.  In a match less meaningful for the veteran than for the American, Querrey has an opportunity to accumulate a bit of momentum before defending his Queens Club title and perhaps launching a longer campaign at Wimbledon.  Far from a contender here or there, he personifies the recent trend among American men of underperforming at majors—by their nation’s lofty standards, in any case.  Perhaps we should learn to accept him for what he remains, a decent talent with weapons and weaknesses in equal measure, rather than expecting him to develop into something special.

Cirstea vs. Dulgheru:  Banished to a court as peripheral as their country on Europe’s map, these two Romanians have scored their finest achievements on clay.  Scorching into the second week at Roland Garros 2009, Cirstea delivered an epic upset over Jankovic that suggested much more promise than she since has fulfilled.  Barely inside the top 100, she has floated among challengers and qualifying draws while winning only three main-draw matches this year.  Less eye-catching in both looks and playing style, Dulgheru won the last two editions of the Warsaw clay tournament with tireless court coverage and timely backhands down the line.  The two Romanians have struggled for most of 2011, although Alexandra did reach the Miami quarterfinals.  Having eaten more bagels and breadsticks lately than her tennis health should permit, she must remember that those who give gain more blessings than those who receive.

Probably the slowest surface of any significant event, Rome poses a stern challenge to the offense-oriented elite atop the WTA and offers an opportunity for underdogs to shine.  On the dusty battlegrounds of the Foro Italico, Martinez Sanchez captured the most important title of her career in 2010.  Who will fill her quirky shoes in 2011?

Ana Ivanovic - Sony Ericsson WTA Tour: Rome - Day Four

First quarter:  Embedded in this bristling bastion of three #1s, Ivanovic treads a dangerous path from the outset.  Should she maneuver past Petrova in her Monday opener, Wickmayer and then Wozniacki stand poised to intercept her.  After consecutive losses to Goerges, the Dane has one more opportunity to refine her clay skills before launching her campaign at Roland Garros, where she has a legitimate albeit not outstanding chance to win a maiden major.  One round beyond Ivanovic might lurk another Serb who has recorded her finest achievements on this surface but has lost both of her 2011 meetings with Wozniacki.  A two-time champion in Rome and a finalist last year, Jankovic will hope to avoid the fate suffered by the world #1 in Stuttgart and Madrid.  Last week’s nemesis Safarova will take aim at the Serb once again in the second round, seeking to continue the recent successes scored by Czech lefties.  On this occasion, although the much slower Rome surface will favor the fifth seed as clearly as the slick Madrid courts illuminated her foe’s shot-making prowess.  Not to be neglected is Estoril champion Medina Garrigues, a rather overqualified qualifier here, but Jankovic quelled her comfortably when they met in Miami.  If Wozniacki or Jankovic laments the fate assigned to them by the deities of the draw, one could remind them that the withdrawals of Cibulkova and Goerges lightened a burden unusually heavy for a Premier Five draw.  Viewed more optimistically, the perils before them will provide peerless preparation for the major ahead.

Second quarter:  Scarcely less intriguing than the section above, it features an all-lefty opener between the inflammable Makarova and the defending champion, now immured below the top 75.  Like 2010 Madrid champion Rezai, Martinez Sanchez failed to capitalize upon her unexpected breakthrough over the past twelve months and might well succumb immediately just as the Frenchwoman did last week.  Anchoring the base of this quarter is former Rome semifinalist Sharapova, who seems unlikely to match that implausible result this year after a generally plebeian performance in Madrid.  While she no longer resembles a “cow on ice,” the Russian finds her first-strike power blunted and her consistency challenged in the Foro Italico, leaving her armed largely with her legendary tenacity and focus.  Mildly disappointing in the Madrid final, Azarenka nevertheless enjoyed a splendid sequence of victories that will have lifted her confidence for a tournament where she reached the semifinals in 2009.  But a potentially tricky test awaits her in the form of a clay-savvy Italian, either Errani or Vinci.  Should she stifle the home hope, Azarenka should face no further pre-quarterfinal opposition more compelling than Pavlyuchenkova, whom she overcame in Miami this spring.  And the specter of Sharapova does not haunt a woman who resembles Sharapova 2.0, for the more agile, fluid Belarussian can adapt her style more convincingly to clay than the three-time major champion.

Third quarter:  Surely breathing a sigh of relief, Li Na thrust herself back into contention with a semifinal charge in Madrid that she certainly could replicate here.  In a section with few clay specialists beyond the fading Pennetta, the Chinese star can consolidate her momentum as she so often struggles to do.  Authors of notable upsets in the Spanish capital, Mattek-Sands and Gajdosova might train their fast-court expertise upon each other in the second round.  Elsewhere, 2009 Roland Garros champion Kuznetsova smolders ominously yet has shown few signs of catching a spark after sustaining a ghastly loss in Andalusia and a premature loss in Madrid.  Aligned to meet Radwanska in the third round, Sveta must harness her patience and consistency to a degree greater than she has for much of the season.  On the other hand, the slow courts in Rome will provide her extra time to position her feet and run around her backhand to hit forehands.  Although the champion likely will not emerge from this quarter, its semifinalist might enter the latter rounds fresher than the battle-scarred combatants of the top half.

Fourth quarter:  Doubles partners and adversaries in last year’s Roland Garros final, Stosur and Schiavone could collide in a quarterfinal on the eve of defending their 2010 accomplishments.  Not evaporating entirely like Rezai and Martinez Sanchez, they nevertheless have not reached a final since that sunbathed afternoon in Paris.  Just as Stosur showed signs of stirring from her somnolence with a Stuttgart semifinal, she suffered an unexpected Madrid loss to Pavlyuchenkova in the same round that Mattek-Sands toppled Schiavone.  Whereas the surface in Madrid allowed neither player as much time to construct their combinations as they would prefer, the Foro Italico could enable them to recapture their rhythm.  Perhaps facing Peng for the second straight tournament, Schiavone could oppose her guile to the guns of Kanepi in a stark contrast of styles a round later.  Situated near Acapulco champion Dulko, Stosur might find her path complicated by the post-dance Petkovic.  Ceding the spotlight to her compatriot Goerges lately, the German has faltered since the season shifted from hard courts to clay—and since she abandoned her idiosyncratic victory ritual.  Petkovic nearly ended Kuznetsova’s title defense at Roland Garros last year, proving that she can prosper on clay.  Moreover, few players have seized opportunities more adroitly than Andrea, so the fragile seeds in her section should beware.

***

We return tomorrow to preview the equally imbalanced ATP draw.

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.

Novak Djokovic - Sony Ericsson Open

As two marquee events hover just beyond the horizon, we unfold some of the potential narratives to consider at this week’s small tournaments, overtures to the clay symphonies in Rome and Madrid.

The march to 28-0 (Belgrade):  Notably absent from Nadal’s triumphal parade through Monte Carlo and Barcelona was his North American bête noir.  Seeking a well-deserved respite during the past two weeks, Djokovic now will ease into his clay campaign at home against a draw otherwise headlined by Troicki, Garcia-Lopez, and Montanes .  The world #2’s unblemished 2011 record should survive this week unscathed, placing him in position to win his first 30 matches of the season should he reach the Madrid quarterfinals.  A staggering accomplishment by any measure, this current winning streak has come at the expense of redoubtable foes who demanded a high degree of focus.  Will Djokovic let that focus slip when he faces less heralded opponents?  Although he will bask in the adulation of his compatriots, he finds himself in a position where anything less than a dominant charge to the title will register as a disappointment.  Rafa handled a similar situation masterfully in Barcelona, and now we will find whether Novak can match his poise.  On the other hand, nobody in the draw probably possesses the necessary nerve—and perhaps nastiness—to ruin the Serb’s homecoming.

Digging out of doldrums (Estoril):  Anchoring the Portuguese draw, Soderling and Verdasco would benefit enormously from a jolt of momentum before the lucrative events ahead.   No elite contender has endured an odder start to the season than the Swede, who won three of his first four tournaments and 19 of his first 20 matches but lost before the quarterfinals in Melbourne, Indian Wells, and Miami.  Hampered in recent weeks by both illness and injury, Soderling did not quite excel during the road to Roland Garros last season but reversed his fortunes with frightening speed.  In fact, he dropped his Nice opener just a week before launching his second straight finals run in Paris.  Perhaps in greater need of psychological succor, therefore, is the Spaniard who stalked away from Barcelona in pique when the tournament denied him a wildcard.  Verdasco’s injured pride may finally catalyze his revival from a period of irritable listlessness that has precipitated his tumble from the top 10.  Situated among the less dangerous half of the draw, he should encounter less sturdy resistance than Soderling.  Succumbing to Del Potro in Miami, the Swede may well confront the 2009 Roland Garros semifinalist again in the quarterfinals, when this gentle seaside town could witness some fantastically ungentle ball-striking.

Backhands do battle (Munich):  While Soderling and Verdasco aim to shift into a higher gear, several of the players at the BMW tournament hope to change the direction of their vehicles entirely.  Chief among them is world #39 Nikolay Davydenko, who in about fifteen months has fallen from a top-8 seed in Melbourne to a top-8 seed in Munich.  The former World Tour Finals champion has unleashed some of his finest tennis on clay, even troubling Nadal four years ago in Rome.  Despite fleeting signs of revival, though, his scintillating groundstrokes have not regained their sting from late 2009 since a wrist injury.  More perplexing is the decline of former prodigy Marin Cilic, who has quietly receded without suffering substantial injury.  Their two-handers could collide in a quarterfinal, while another quarterfinal could feature the elegant one-handers of Kohlschreiber and Wawrinka.  Without Federer looming above him, the Swiss #2 will have the opportunity to exhibit the clay skills that carried him to the Rome final three years ago.  Atop the draw looms yet another fine one-hander in Youzhny, rarely a threat on clay and a possible second-round victim for Barcelona semifinalist Ivan Dodig.  Otherwise, the Russian might confront the dangerous, flat two-hander of Baghdatis.  While improving his fitness, the Cypriot has continued his frustratingly erratic results this year, and he faces an intriguing early test against the much-discussed teenager Grigor Dimitrov.

A Groth by any other name (Estoril): Uncoupled this month from her Aussie husband, the former Slovak hopes that her tennis does not revert to a pre-Groth state together with her name.  A generally solid start to 2011 for Gajdosova augurs well for her ability to wreak limited havoc on clay.   Although few would envy her movement on the surface, she possess sufficient power to hit through even the slowest surface and, like her compatriot Stosur, will enjoy the additional time to measure her groundstrokes.  Thus, one hopes that her divorce and Fed Cup disappointment do not weigh heavily upon her shoulders.  While few bold-faced names here have earned their living during the European spring, the paceless groundstrokes of Sevastova and Zakopalova could trouble the unwary on such a slow surface.  Still unseeded after a strong Miami performance, Medina Garrigues might navigate deeper into this draw than one might expect.  Likewise of note are two youngsters, Radwanska’s sister Urszula and Fez runner-up Simona Halep, a Romanian more natural on clay than many of her peers.

The crucible of clay (Barcelona):  In 2010, the WTA champion at this tiny event brought home the ultimate clay prize from Paris.  Few are the suspects who could repeat the feat this year, although Schiavone would remind us that “nothing is impossible.”  Is the impossible nothing for Alexandra Dulgheru, a clay specialist who reached the quarterfinals in Miami?  Or for Tsvetana Pironkova, a Wimbledon semifinalist last year who has almost entirely evaporated since?  Lightning rarely strikes twice, but beware of taking anyone too lightly in the WTA’s current whirlwind of flux.

Svetlana Kuznetsova Svetlana Kuznetsova (R) of Russia celebrates with Russian team captain Shamil Tarpischev (L) and other teammates after her win over Carla Suarez Navarro of Spain on day one of the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group Final between Spain and Russia at the Club de Campo on September 13, 2008 in Madrid, Spain. Kuznetsova won the match in two sets, 6-3 and 6-1, giving Russia a 2-0 lead over Spain.

Italy at Russia:  Bereft of its leading ladies Schiavone and Pennetta, the decimated Italian squad ventures to Moscow with perhaps more hope than conviction.  Crushing Italy on home soil in the 2007 final, Russia looks fully equipped to pummel the visitors into submission once again.  But such a prospect loomed before its quarterfinal against France, when the plucky, vastly outgunned guests showed little courtesy to their hosts.  A heroine of Russia’s historic comeback from a 0-2 deficit, Kuznetsova enters this tie in unimposing form after premature exits in Indian Wells, Miami, and Marbella last week.  Moreover, Saturday opponent Vinci squelched her Beijing title defense last fall.  The two-time major champion often musters her most impassioned, motivated efforts in Fed Cup, however, and she may benefit from sliding into the #2 position behind third-ranked Zvonareva.  Not a participant in February’s miracle, the top Russian has displayed generally solid albeit not overwhelming tennis this year and has thoroughly dominated Vinci, scoring four straight wins during which she lost six or fewer games.  Playing on neither green clay nor red clay in the last two weeks, Zvonareva will arrive in Moscow neither fatigued from recent exertions nor maladjusted to the surface.

Lethal against Italians throughout her career, the world #3 should collect her two singles rubbers, requiring the visitors to defeat Kuznetsova twice in two days.  And Tarpischev also can respond to any stumble from Sveta by substituting Monterrey champion Pavlyuchenkova, just outside the top 20 and a valiant Fed Cup competitor despite her youth.  With this host of options, home-court advantage, and a starless Italy, the somnolent Shamil should enjoy his weekend very much indeed.

Czech Republic at Belgium:  They may not end the first day even in wins, but these two teams enter it even in withdrawals.  Potentially a much more competitive semifinal, the advantage here tilted sharply from the home squad to the visitors when Clijsters announced her withdrawal.  Somewhat softening the blow was the ensuing withdrawal of Safarova, replaced by the less reliable, less powerful Benesova.  Belgium counters the Czech Republic’s left-handed duo with Indian Wells semifinalist Wickmayer, who should relish the opportunity to snatch some of the spotlight from her renowned compatriots.  Resenting her status as the third-best player in her small country, the forehand-thumping firecracker will find her maturity tested as the flagship for her nation’s otherwise puny fleet.  How will Wickmayer respond to the pressure of winning two rubbers (and perhaps three) for the home team?

Her opposing flagship Kvitova has cooled considerably after a torrid, two-title start to 2011, winning just one total match on the North American hard courts.  En route to one of those titles, she outlasted Wickmayer in a third-set tiebreak; three of their five previous meetings, in fact, have reached 5-5 in the third set.  Drama thus may develop in a potentially tie-turning third rubber, but ambushes could occur in any of the weekend’s matches.  While Belgian #2 Flipkens defeated Kvitova a year ago, Benesova has troubled Wickmayer in both of their previous meetings.  Like Tarpischev, though, Czech captain Petr Pala has more ammunition in his arsenal than his opponent.  The pugnacious Zahlavova Strycova not only could thrive in the hostile atmosphere of Charleroi but should forge a doubles partnership with Benesova sturdier than any potential Belgian duo.  After consecutive semifinal losses in 2009 and 2010, the Czech Republic must feel especially determined to break through that barrier this year.

USA at Germany:  The architect of two unexpected finals runs, American captain Mary Joe Fernandez voiced justifiable optimism about a tie less beyond the reach of her squad than their clash with Russia in the same round last year.  Absent from this weekend, however, is the competitive spark of Bethanie Mattek-Sands that proved so critical in fueling that upset.  The United States instead rests its hopes upon two teenagers ranked outside the top 75, although Christina McHale has risen swiftly in recent weeks after victories over Kuznetsova, Kleybanova, and Hantuchova.  Once labeled the future of American tennis, world #81 Oudin has fallen well short of achieving that promise and struggles to cope with the high bounce on clay.  Yet surely the uniformly heavy-hitting German quartet of Petkovic, Goerges, Lisicki, and Groenefeld also would have preferred a hard court over the surface that dulls their power.  Fortunately for all concerned, the Porsche Arena generally has played much faster than a conventional clay court.  The Americans will possess a considerable advantage if they can preserve the tie until the final rubber, when Huber and King would face a German squad without a notable doubles specialist.  Bolstering their chances is Oudin’s Miami success against Goerges, which suggests that the tie could rest upon the shoulders of Fed Cup novice McHale in the fourth rubber.  Don’t discount these overachieving underdogs too easily.

France at Spain:  Frustrated by the historic Russian comeback discussed above, French captain Nicolas Escude publicly blamed then-singles #2 Alize Cornet for the team’s debacle.  One tie later, one wonders how the sensitive Cornet will respond to his criticism as well as her own disappointment.  Unlikely to provide much assistance is the controversy-drenched Rezai, who has wandered through a disastrous start to 2011 after what had appeared a breakthrough in Madrid last year.  Cast into these uncertain waters, Escude wisely selected the sporadically injured Razzano for singles duty despite her lower ranking.  On the other hand, controversy also has encircled the home team, which staged a short-lived Fed Cup boycott in order to extract greater support for women’s tennis from the national federation.  Unlike the French, though, the Spaniards stood united in their bold gambit, displaying a mutual loyalty that could make their seasoned group greater than the sum of its parts.  Designed to disrupt fragile minds, the quirky point construction and dazzling drop shots of Martinez Sanchez should disrupt the rhythm of the visitors.  This trans-Pyrenean encounter therefore might reverse the outcome of the Davis Cup quarterfinal that their nations contested last year.  But first we expect an avalanche of service breaks throughout a weekend populated by shaky servers, ruthless returners, and durable defenders.

Ana Ivanovic - Sony Ericsson Open

Serbia at Slovakia:  Distinctly the most glamorous tie of the weekend, this collision also could prove the most suspenseful.  Fractured by an acerbic fracas last year, the Serbian team has regained at least a semblance of unity as Ivanovic joins Jankovic in a partnership perhaps arranged merely to ensure their Olympic eligibility.  Or could a Davis Cup title last December have inspired Serbia’s feuding stars to bury their grudges and pursue a Fed Cup crown in 2012?  Whether their divisions persist below the surface remains a question crucial to this challenging weekend.  Unglued by the pressure of playing before her compatriots last year, Ivanovic seems more likely to shine in a stadium where expectations lie upon her opponents. Although she has carved out a winning record against Hantuchova, Ana has struggled against both Slovaks before and may require more time to recover from her loss to Clijsters in one of Miami’s most memorable matches.  Meanwhile, Jankovic has split her four clay meetings with Hantuchova and lost to her in Fed Cup last year (during the weekend that provoked the intra-Serbian scuffle).  Pitting soaring prodigy Jovanovski against Cibulkova is the opening rubber, which should tilt towards the diminutive but more clay-savvy Slovak.  If the tie arrives at a decisive doubles rubber, as seems plausible, the home squad should rely upon its superior chemistry to repeat its 2010 victory over Serbia.

Ukraine at Australia:  Without the Bondarenko sisters to shelter them, Ukraine heads to distant climes without a single player in the top 100.  Providing scant solace is the absence of Australian #1 Stosur, who entrusts leadership of the home squad to the eminently capable Groth.  The former Slovak leads the WTA in aces this season while marching into the top 30 for the first time, a status that neither of her Ukrainian opponents ever has approached.  Thriving in the Fed Cup atmosphere, Groth scored a stunning victory over Schiavone in the World Group quarterfinals a round ago and should comfortably capture both of her rubbers.  Beckoning for Cup neophytes Sophie Ferguson and Sally Peers, then, is a chance to stir national pride without incurring significant pressure.

***

We return shortly with thoughts on the Mediterranean playground of Rafael Nadal.

Maria Sharapova - Sony Ericsson Open

Sharapova vs. Stosur:  More accustomed to late nights than early mornings, the three-time major champion opens proceedings against a player whom she has dominated but has faced just once since shoulder surgery and the Aussie’s renaissance.  On that occasion, Stosur secured just one game against Sharapova in a Tokyo tournament that the Russian eventually won.  Among the most notable weapons in the Australian’s game is her kicking second serve, one of the finest in the WTA.  Against the statuesque Sharapova, however, that shot does not jolt as high above her comfortable strike zone or as far outside her vast wingspan.  Less auspicious for Maria is her reliance on breaking serve throughout this month, which has generally compensated for chronic wobbles in her own service games.  Winning 58% of her return games since the start of Indian Wells, Sharapova cannot expect to break as regularly against a server as imposing as Stosur.  If the world #5 can compile some comfortable holds, the Russian might shoulder elevated pressure as she attempts to circumvent the inevitable her double faults.  Outside her serve, Stosur has few clear advantages over the three-time major champion.  Sharapova will seek to expose her puny backhand and prevent the Aussie from frequently showcasing her net skills with a withering barrage of groundstrokes that thrust her behind the baseline.  Since neither player excels when rushed, both should hasten to attack on the first mid-court ball that they see in order to take time away from the opponent.

While she enters this match in scintillating form, the Russian also dazzled in a few of her Indian Wells matches before crumbling against Wozniacki in the semifinals.  A test of Stosur’s confidence and Sharapova’s consistency, this clash represents an immense opportunity for the winner, who will face either Peng or Dulgheru in a quarterfinal.  Who can carpe the diem?  Sharapova in three

Wozniacki vs. Petkovic:  In the same round at Indian Wells, the Dane stumbled for a set against the heavy-hitting Kleybanova before outlasting her less durable opponent.  A parallel narrative could unfold against Petkovic, physically fit but mentally a bit suspect.  Squandering a cavalcade of match points against Kuznetsova at Roland Garros last year, the German almost let Sharapova escape from a massive deficit in Melbourne and nearly let another commanding lead slip away against Benesova in the previous round.  If she maneuvers herself into position to halt the world #1’s winning streak at these top-tier events, one wonders whether Petkovic will find the nerve to deliver the coup de grace.  Vulnerable in the second set of her victories over Mattek-Sands and Hantuchova, Wozniacki nearly let the Slovak drag her into a third set but ultimately found a way to win the points that she needed to win.  Nevertheless, her strategy in that match boded well for her future more broadly.  Attempting to infuse her game with greater aggression, the world #1 courageously approached the forecourt for swing volleys and struck a series of crackling backhand winners down the line.  Although these unaccustomed tactics did not always reap rewards, the Dane will further her bid for the Indian Wells-Miami double if she can expend less exertion in finishing each point.  Wozniacki in three

Medina Garrigues vs. Jankovic:  Perhaps girding herself for the clay season where she thrives most often, the many-syllabled Spaniard has dispatched three creditable opponents of Dulko, world #11 Peer, and Vesnina without dropping a set.  Yet her implausible run surely will conclude at the hands of the sixth seed, who has rebounded from a stinging Indian Wells defeat with a pair of solid victories.  Like Sharapova, Jankovic has won all six of her meetings with her fourth-round opponent while dropping just two total sets.  Unlike Stosur, Medina Garrigues has done nothing to suggest that her fortunes against a recurrent nemesis could change.  Although the Serb has faded since losing the #1 ranking, opponents without baseline weapons still struggle to overcome her.  Unless Jankovic suffers one of the inexplicable collapses that haunted her in the second half of last year, this match should feature little suspense.  Jankovic in two

Schiavone vs. Radwanska:  As mighty baseliners trade missiles elsewhere on Monday, these subtle shot-makers will dance around each other with artful grace.  Comfortable anywhere on the court, the Italian and the Pole compensate for their lack of first-strike power with brilliant shot selection and generally unerring instincts.  While Schiavone has won all three of their previous meetings, Radwanska has looked equally impressive in recent weeks; both came within a third-set tiebreak of reaching the Indian Wells quarterfinals after sturdy Melbourne performances.  More inclined to generate offense from their backhands than their forehands, they offer a compelling contrast between the Italian’s flowing one-handed stroke and the Pole’s compact two-handed jab.  But neither player relies exclusively upon finishing points from the baseline, instead creeping towards the net for a deft volley or drop shot.  Unimposing on serve, they will punish each other’s second deliveries with precisely placed albeit not overwhelming returns.  One expects a draining test of endurance with prolonged rallies, precarious service games, and plenty of mini-tennis near the net.  Whereas the action in most matches slides along the baseline, points here may unfold vertically as well as horizontally.  Radwanska in three

Victoria Azarenka Victoria Azarenka of Russia reacts after she won the second set against Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia during the Sony Ericsson Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on March 27, 2011 in Key Biscayne, Florida.

Azarenka vs. Pavlyuchenkova:  Two years ago, the Belarussian collided with the former junior #1 en route to the most significant title of her career.  Still struggling to assert herself among the WTA elite, Azarenka has regressed since that breakthrough moment while retaining the core of crisp movement, balanced power, and steady technique that earned her the 2009 Miami crown.  The likely future of Russian tennis, Pavlyuchenkova ominously has endured several injuries already but showed her competitive maturity by rallying from a one-set deficit against Jankovic to defend her Monterrey title this year.  Also on display at this tournament is the Russian’s resilience, which allowed her to survive the disappointment of twice failing to serve out a match against Kvitova in the second set.  Whereas many WTA journeywomen would have crumbled at that stage, “Nastia” proved a nasty foe for the dangerous 12th seed as she fired back with a third-set bagel.  The momentum from that victory could propel Pavlyuchenkova to an only slightly more remarkable victory over the 2009 champion.  During a gripping third-round three-setter of her own, however, Azarenka demonstrated an uncharacteristic degree of durability and focus.  Struggling to hold serve during the first half of the match, the eighth seed did not despair as Cibulkova raced across the court to retrieve every dart that she could throw at her.  One expected that Azarenka might shrug and pout her way to a routine loss when she trailed by a set and a break, but instead she remained confident in her weapons and steadily chipped away at the Slovak.  More comfortable against a player who shares her unreliable serve and penetrating groundstrokes but not her agility, Vika would take a significant step forward if she could reach consecutive quarterfinals at these Premier Mandatory tournaments.  Azarenka in two

Peng vs. Dulgheru:  Almost as deeply rooted in clay as Medina Garrigues, Dulgheru won just one of seven 2011 matches before this week and won consecutive matches just once between the US Open and Miami.  Although she has lost just eight games en route to the final 16, the Romanian will meet a player more than her match in the feisty Peng Shuai, fresh from a second upset over Kuznetsova.  A prosperous month for double-fisters looks likely to continue as this Chinese star has filled the void left by Li in her quarter.  Only four places lower in the rankings than Dulgheru, Peng soon will find herself with seeds, byes, and the other trappings of a legitimate contender if her ascent continues.  Peng in two

Bartoli vs. Zvonareva:  Before the Frenchwoman’s three-set victory in Beijing 2009, the world #3 had collected eight of their nine previous meetings in devastating fashion.  In ten of the fourteen completed sets that Zvonareva won before that loss to Bartoli, she dropped two or fewer games.  The events of March might suggest a change in script, however, for the Frenchwoman built upon a Doha semifinal to reach the final at Indian Wells.  By contrast, the Russian did not capitalize upon her momentum from a Doha title but instead slumped to an epic yet early exit from the desert.  Extended to three sets in their openers, both players advanced less eventfully on Sunday.  A semifinalist at this tournament last year, Bartoli must seize the initiative early in rallies by lashing her double-fisted lasers behind Zvonareva and forcing her to reverse direction.  In order to execute that strategy, though, she must step inside the baseline as often as possible and stay close to the center of the court, a goal that the Russian will aim to thwart by stretching her from side to side with deep groundstrokes.  Pounding ten aces against Groth in the third round, Zvonareva can nullify the Frenchwoman’s formidable return if she maintains a high first-serve percentage. The world #3 has not enjoyed her previous sojourns in Miami, attaining the quarterfinals or better in just one of ten appearances, but unkind draws (like Henin in the fourth round last year) have played a role in her underachievement.  Zvonareva in two

Ana Ivanovic Ana Ivanovic of Serbia reacts against Kimiko Date-Krumm of Japan during the Sony Ericsson Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on March 25, 2011 in Key Biscayne, Florida.

Ivanovic vs. Clijsters:  Seeking her third straight Premier Mandatory quarterfinal, the Serb confronts the defending champion in the fourth round for the second straight tournament.  A quarterfinalist in her first appearance here, Ivanovic typically has suffered a lull in Miami between strong results at Indian Wells and during the clay season.  Traces of this pattern have emerged in her first two matches, during which she confronted 23 break points on her serve.  Tiptoeing around 18 of those threats, Ana cannot depend upon preserving this ratio against another former #1 who has quelled her comfortably in their two previous completed meetings.  On the other hand, Clijsters did not dazzle during her three-set triumph over Martinez Sanchez, during which she uncorked 10 double faults and 39 unforced errors amidst numerous edgy service games.

While Ivanovic should gain confidence from that frailty, she does not possess the quirkiness and versatility of Martinez Sanchez that can fluster a rhythm-oriented player like the Belgian with unpredictable shot selection and placement.  Unless the Serb leaves her comfort zone to attempt high-bouncing, heavy-spinning loopers, drop shots, and slices, the counterpunching Clijsters should thrive on a steady diet of smoothly struck groundstrokes that she can absorb and redirect.  Since the defending champion struggled on her serve against Martinez Sanchez, Ivanovic should swing aggressively on her returns in order to instill a few flickers of doubt in her opponent’s mind.  Just as she did against Jankovic, the Serb will seek to pound the first forehand that she sees, while Clijsters will hope to feed her a steady diet of backhands.  On court for three total hours on Sunday, Ivanovic has struggled to recover from such exertions after streamlining her figure during the offseason.  Clijsters in two

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.

 

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No stranger to tense openers at Roland Garros, Maria has rallied from a one-set deficit against Anastasia Yakimova in 2009, gritted through an 8-6 final set in 2008, and saved match points against Mashona Washington in 2006.  When the statuesque Siberian fell behind talented youngster Ksenia Pervak early in the first set, therefore, one might have expected another nerve-jangling epic to unfold.  Instead, Maria seized five straight games and cruised through the second set with a positive winners/errors differential, always an excellent omen for a shotmaker on this shotmaker-hostile surface.  As relatively inconsequential as it was, Strasbourg appears to have elevated her confidence substantially.  After digesting Pervak, of course, she reminded everyone that she’s actually a sweet person at heart (not that we would have dared to differ):

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A few hours earlier on the same court, Safina once again committed tennis seppuku by regurgitating a comfortable third-set lead and handing Kimiko Date-Krumm her first Roland Garros victory of this millennium.  It’s impossible not to sympathize with the beleaguered Dinara at this stage of her travails, even if one isn’t in her fan club.  Those who are should take comfort that a lower ranking will reduce the public pressure on Safina and allow her to slowly rediscover her comfort zone on the court, a much easier task without constant scrutiny…or so we think.  After tracing the contrasting tales of two Russians on Tuesday, we follow the stories of three more on Wednesday while investigating the French Connection at Roland Garros.

Fognini vs. Monfils (13) (Chatrier, 3rd match):  Although the Frenchman can produce electrifying tennis at times, he’s a disturbingly careless player who wastes energy with unnecessary gyrations, tosses away games and sets with apparent mental lapses, and seems content to trade numerous routine misses for the occasional implausible winner.  Monfils senselessly squandered a set against a lucky loser in the first round, much as he has squandered his immense talents thus far in his career.  Discernibly less talented than “La Monf,” Fognini has developed a smooth all-court game while cultivating a similar propensity for careless, disengaged tennis and erratic focus.  Expect gorgeous winners and ghastly misses in equal measure from both sides of the court; the best way to enjoy this match is not to analyze the larger picture but simply to admire one brushstroke at a time.

Dementieva (5) vs. Medina Garrigues (Chatrier, 4th match):  Almost the diametrical opposite of Monfils and Fognini, Dementieva gradually ensnares her opponent with methodical, cautious point construction.  Often, little seems to be happening during the protracted rallies that often evolve in her matches, until the Russian suddenly strikes one of her sturdy groundstrokes into an opening that one hadn’t even noticed.  This strategy should prove rather effective on clay if Dementieva remains sufficiently calm to execute it, as she was in an impressive opener.  Stifling Melanie Oudin in her own opener and reaching the Strasbourg semis last week, Medina Garrigues has showcased some of the scintillating clay-court tennis with which she surged to the forefront of Spanish female players.  Just days into the tournament, the exits of Martinez Sanchez and Suarez Navarro have cast MG in the leading role again.  We wonder whether the Spaniard’s versatile style will trouble the baseline-rooted Dementieva, but the Russian possesses a substantial power edge. Don’t be surprised if service breaks outnumber holds. 

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Dent vs. Soderling (5) (Lenglen, 1st match):  On the surface (haha), this collision shouldn’t be overly competitive.  We were surprised to see Dent win his opener and only slightly less surprised to see him break the tournament’s serve-speed record.  On the other hand, Soderling remains mentally fallible despite perceptible improvements in that arena and could be rattled by the American’s arrhythmic style.  Therefore, the match might measure the emotional condition of last year’s finalist as he confronts the pressure of repeating his stunning performance form 2009.  While it’s hard to imagine the aging serve-and-volleyer actually winning a clay match against a player of the Swede’s caliber, he might force him into a tiebreak or even take a set if he serves impressively.  Service breaks should be very few and probably terminal when they do occur.

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Ouanna vs. Tsonga (8) (Lenglen, 2nd match):  Unsurprisingly shaky in his Roland Garros debut, Tsonga will be vulnerable on clay to players whom he would crush on faster surfaces.  During the preliminary events, he lost to Ferrero and unheralded Dutchman Thiemo de Bakker before an embarrassingly lopsided defeat to Ferrer in Rome.  Built to win short , staccato points behind serve-forehand combinations, the top-ranked Frenchman lacks both the mental and physical endurance to penetrate deep into this draw, although his quarter does look benign.  The mercurial Ouanna thrilled his compatriots a year ago by defeating Safin 10-8 in the final set with an avalanche of fearlessly attacking tennis, so this matchup should feature plenty of fast-paced, high-risk action.  Weary of watching endless baseline battles between two players who seemingly refuse to miss a shot, or in the mood for some irony?  Come to Lenglen for this clash between two playing styles antithetical to clay…on clay.

Kuznetsova (6) vs. Petkovic (Court 1, 2nd match):  For the second straight round, the German finds herself in one of the day’s most intriguing encounters.  Edging past Vesnina in a three-setter, she now targets a player whom she defeated last fall in Tokyo, just a week before Kuznetsova won the Premier Mandatory title in Beijing.  We wouldn’t put significant weight upon Sveta’s three-set win over the then 143rd-ranked Petkovic in Stuttgart last year, since the latter has refined her game immensely while climbing 100 ranking places since that match.  After dropping the first three games to Cirstea, the defending champion looked more convincing than she has anywhere else in 2010, perhaps suggesting that positive memories from last year are outweighing the situational pressure (in stark contrast to 2009 finalist Safina).  Nevertheless, one solid win remains only one win until the player extends the momentum over several matches.  Kuznetsova has the surface edge over Petkovic, but the German may have the mental edge because of their history and is unlikely to slump into resignation after adversity as did Cirstea.  Expect a crisply played match competitive from start to finish.

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Szavay vs. Petrova (19) (Court 3, 1st match):  Rising and falling faster than a soufflé, Szavay’s meteoric career once inspired us to include her among the future stars of her generation.  (That list also included Cornet, Paszek, and Pironkova, though…hmmm.)  Armed with an imposing serve and a sparkling backhand, she broke into the headlines by charging to the US Open quarterfinals in 2007—and has accomplished barely anything of significance since then.  When she upset Venus in the third round here last year, observers attributed the result less to her brilliance than to the American’s ineptitude, a judgment that the Hungarian promptly vindicated by mustering little resistance against Cibulkova a round later.  Also renowned for a mighty serve and superb two-hander, the aging Petrova stunned international audiences when she humiliated Clijsters and subdued Kuznetsova in Melbourne this year.  Although she’s produced characteristically inconsistent results since then, clay has been friendly to the Russian.  In the second round here a year ago, the former Roland Garros fell to Sharapova 8-6 in the third despite a delicious shotmaking display; that match proved one of the highlights of the WTA tournament.  Expect her to set up a fascinating third-round collision with Rezai.

Briefly notedFulfilling our expectations from Day 3’s preview, Querrey left doubles partner Isner alone to face the dirt that Americans detest.  The towering server began his tournament impressively in the first round by losing just 10 service points, but we’re curious whether his friend’s disgruntled departure wields any influence on his performance against Chiudinelli.  A match between two Fed Cup teammates, the Pennetta-Vinci encounter would have earned our extended attention had their last four meetings not been so oddly lopsided.  They’ve alternated wins in their seven career clashes, and a quick look at the WTA site tells us that it’s Flavia’s turn tomorrow.  Not renowned for his clay achievements, Baghdatis severely tested Ferrer on the admittedly faster surface in Madrid; the charismatic Cypriot will find his patience examined by clay specialist Granollers, who also scored an eye-opening win over Soderling in Melbourne.  Finally, we’re following the fortunes of (two-time!) Warsaw champion Alexandra Dulgheru, steadily rising in the rankings and perhaps a name to remember as spring turns to summer.  She’ll be dueling with Timea Bacsinszky, who recently has won a match from Li Na and a set from Serena. 

***

Let us know if you have any special requests for Day 5, when the top half of the women’s draw and the bottom half of the men’s draw play their first rounds.  You can be assured that we will preview Jankovic-Kanepi, Kleybanova-Ivanovic, Shvedova-Radwanska, Nishikori-Djokovic,  and Seppi-Kohlschreiber, but otherwise we’re open to suggestions!

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Little of consequence transpired on Day 1 beyond the injury-related exits of Martinez Sanchez and Gulbis.  (Nice work with the voodoo doll, Mirka!)  Azarenka fans may be disappointed by her early demise, but the silver lining to this cloud is that the Belarussian will be forced into resting the hamstring injury that she unintelligently refuses to respect.  Perhaps the most surprising news of the day was Kuznetsova’s sturdy performance against the dangerous Cirstea after a predictably uneasy start.  The defending champion will have plenty of work to do against Petkovic on Wednesday, however, and we have plenty of work to do right now.  Day 2 preview straight ahead…

Murray (3) vs. Gasquet (Lenglen, 3rd match):  Few spectators will have forgotten their five-set Wimbledon collision two years ago, when the Scot thrilled his compatriots by rallying from a two-set deficit against the mentally fragile Frenchman.  Gasquet has won their other two meetings, however, and brings a 10-match winning streak from titles in Bordeaux (a challenger) and Nice, where he recorded his most impressive win since the cocaine investigation by defeating Verdasco in the final.  Neither the Scot nor the Frenchman enjoys playing on clay as much as other surfaces, and Murray has looked anywhere from uninspired to horrific during his 3-3 campaign at Monte Carlo, Rome, and Madrid.  If the match extends deep into a fourth or fifth set, however, he’ll have the fitness edge over a weary Gasquet.  The French crowd should aid their player in the initial stages, but don’t be surprised if they turn against him should he open poorly.  Located in the weakest quarter, the winner will be favored to reach the quarters or even the semis.  The fourth seed certainly could use any momentum that he can accumulate here to psychologically buttress him against the Murray Mania that looms in a few weeks.

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Llodra vs. Bellucci (24) (Court 1, 4th match):  Although far from a star-studded matchup, this all-lefty clash opposes the artful, net-charging Frenchman and the baseline-rooted Brazilian in an engaging contrast of styles.  Both players have demonstrated a propensity for mixing flashy winners with ghastly errors, so expect some entertaining momentum shifts.  Court positioning will prove crucial in this match; can Llodra find his way to the net or will Bellucci keep him pinned behind the baseline?  Still vulnerable to outbursts of rash aggression, the Brazilian has noticeably improved over the last few weeks and displayed sufficient patience to oust Isner in Rome.

Dementieva (5) vs. Martic (Court 2, 2nd match):  Struggling to win matches of any sort recently, the world #5 succumbed last week to Pironkova in her Warsaw opener after premature exits in Rome and Madrid.  It’s a bit surprising to note that Dementieva has won multiple titles this year, for her form at the important events has been indifferent at best.  Opposing her is a lanky Croatian teenager who has matured rather slowly following success in the juniors but who scored eye-opening wins over Wickmayer in the Paris Indoors and Rezai in Miami while posting a competitive effort against Jankovic in Indian Wells.  The match rests in Dementieva’s ever-shaky hands, which means that another wobbly outing would give the 19-year-old upstart a chance.

Dokic vs. Safarova (24) (Court 6, 1st match):  Since the 2009 Australian Open, Dokic hasn’t recaptured the luster of that electrifying quarterfinal run; illnesses and recurrent personal issues have hampered her comeback.  Last year, though, she nearly defeated Dementieva here before retiring with an injury, so her high-risk style can reap rewards even on a slower surface.  Confronted with this challenging assignment, Safarova will need the positive momentum accumulated from victories over Wozniacki, Pennetta, Radwanska, and Sharapova during her three clay-court tournaments.  Will the thigh injury that forced her to retire from Madrid recur?  Expect a scintillating, offensive-oriented contest in which both competitors play much more aggressively than would the standard clay-court player.  If the relatively fast conditions observed on Sunday persist, this match could produce very high-quality tennis indeed.

Nishikori vs. Giraldo (Court 6, 3rd match):  Yet another product of the renowned Bolletieri Academy, Nishikori burst upon the stage in 2008 by defeating Ferrer in a five-setter at the US Open.  Although chronic injuries have undermined his attempts to consolidate that breakthrough, his expert movement and low-risk style have achieved their best results on hard courts but also could prosper on the consistency-demanding clay.  Unfortunately for the Japanese prodigy, a more recent breakthrough artist confronts him in the first round.  Giraldo followed his upset of Ferrero in Rome with a sturdy effort in Madrid, where he nearly toppled the towering Isner.  Far more experienced on the surface, he should overcome NIshikori in the end, but first we should see some extended, well-constructed rallies.

Oudin vs. Medina Garrigues (Court 8, 1st match):  Last year’s US Open quarterfinalist has amply demonstrated the mental tenacity required to thrive on the grit.  On the other hand, the diminutive American has struggled with the high-bouncing surface (which makes us wonder how the petite Henin has handled it so well) and with the heavy spins employed by clay specialists.  A semifinalist in Strasbourg, where she won a set from Sharapova, Medina Garrigues long has flourished on her favorite surface with a sturdy, well-rounded game.  The aging Spaniard has perceptibly faded over the last several months, however, and may still be weary from a two-match, one-day effort last week during the aforementioned Strasbourg run.  Expect plenty of service breaks as Oudin attempts to seize one last opportunity to gain momentum before defending her impressive summer results.  Scheduled to face the winner in the second round, Dementieva must be hoping not to see the Georgian, who has beaten her once and taken her to three sets in their other two meetings.

Errani vs. Shvedova (Court 10, 3rd match):  Can an adroit counterpuncher with a high tennis IQ survive in a WTA where power is at a premium, even on the most counterpuncher-friendly surface?  The Italian will seek to disrupt the Russian-turned-Kazakh’s timing with elegant spins and delicate touch, needing to construct the points more meticulously than her opponent.  Shvedova’s strategy is quite straightforward:  see ball, hit ball, watch opponent flail helplessly at ball, repeat.  Courts have been playing relatively fast so far this year, which bodes ill for Errani; still, it’ll be intriguing to see whether she can weave a web around a ball-bruising but stylistically limited opponent from the second tier of sluggers.

Troicki vs. Robredo (21) (Court 17, 3rd match including completion):  One never knows what to expect from Troicki on any given day, for the least famous Serb oscillates between inspired shotmaking and inexplicable avalanches of routine misses.  On the other hand, one knows exactly what to expect from Robredo, who has made a living out of tormenting the inconsistent plebeians of the ATP while lacking the offensive weapons to challenge the elite.  That comment might sound like an insult, but it isn’t; in an era of Slam-obsessed superstars, fans should respect a player who competes at the same level on every occasion even as they admire the brilliance of higher-ranked players.  Will Troicki’s game ebb or flow at crucial moments?  If it flows, Robredo might be in trouble; if it ebbs, the Spaniard will take full advantage.

Briefly notedThe allergy-addled Djokovic tentatively begins his Roland Garros campaign against ball-bruising Russian Evgeny Korolev; although this match normally wouldn’t garner our attention at all, we’re curious to observe the state of the Serb’s fitness, which would be crucial in upcoming rounds.  Not at her finest on clay, Radwanska has been assigned a potentially stern test in the person of Elena Baltacha, who has quietly recorded some impressive wins this year over Li Na, Cirstea, Kateryna Bondarenko, and Chakvetadze.  (Actually, maybe cross out the last one from the “impressive” category.)  Elsewhere, Barrois and Dulgheru attempt to translate their success from Warsaw and Strasbourg to Paris against the respectable but unintimidating duo of Garbin and Hradecka, respectively.  Can Dushevina follow up her near-upset of Serena in Madrid with a sturdy performance against the unpredictable Alona Bondarenko?  In a ridiculously saturated top quarter, Stosur can’t afford many missteps.  The 2009 Roland Garros semifinalist opens her tournament opposite a Romanian star of the future, Simona Halep, who finally is making headlines for the right reasons.  But the place to be in the late afternoon on Tuesday is Court 1, where Safina nemesis Kai-chen Chang collides with someone special:

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We were a bit concerned when Ana mentioned that an illness had prevented her from preparing as effectively as she would have wished.  Nevertheless, a decent performance in Paris would help her prove that Rome wasn’t a mirage.

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