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Julia Goerges - WTA Dubai Duty Free Tennis  Championship - Day Five

Goerges vs. Radwanska:  Crushed by Sharapova at the Australian Open, Kerber rebounded to defeat the Russian at the Paris Indoors less than a month later.  Her compatriot Goerges will aim to accomplish the same feat after an ignominious loss to Radwanska in Melbourne, where she reached the second week of a major for the first time.  Combined with that unfamiliar situation, the canny ball placement and varied shot selection of the Pole exposed the unvarnished quality of the German’s game.

Like Kerber, Goerges probably has learned from her first meeting with an opponent whom few others resemble.  As in her semifinal victory over Wozniacki, she can discomfit her rival for the title with high-bouncing groundstrokes that push Radwanska behind the baseline, where her lack of power often translates to a lack of depth on the reply.  Following the same model as Kerber and Lisicki last year, Goerges must maximize the advantage that she holds over the world #6 in the point-starting areas of serve and returns.  To exploit this advantage, she should return aggressively not only against second serves but against some first serves as well, while she can frustrate Radwanska’s crisp return game by varying the placement on her own serve.  In a two-set semifinal that lasted over two hours, Goerges proved that she could surpass Wozniacki’s celebrated focus through multiple-deuce games, which many would have expected the more experienced player to win.  That trait will prove essential again when she meets the stingy Radwanska, but she still needs to seize as much control over the rallies as soon as she can, suffocating the Pole before she catches her breath from the first blow.

Even more inferior to Goerges in overall firepower than was Wozniacki, Radwanska poses a sterner challenge in some respects.  Whereas the former #1 strikes a steady rhythm from the baseline, the world #6 can vary spins and speeds in ways that disturb the German’s more programmatic style.  Recalling her success in the Asian fall season was her relative willingness to take chances and finish points when the opportunity presented itself, especially with her compact backhand.  In her victory over Jankovic, she survived a torrid stretch from an opponent who could not maintain the momentum for more than a set.  When she plays for the title, Radwanska again will stay positive through such spells from a superior aggressor—an improved ability of hers—and wait alertly for a likely lull.  The Pole’s skill at absorbing and redirecting pace, sometimes by striking groundstrokes on one knee, will pose compelling questions for Goerges to answer as balls return with more depth than she might expect.  A semifinalist or better at five of her last seven non-majors, Radwanska displayed sparkling form in winning all three of her 2011 finals from elite opponents in Zvonareva and Petkovic.  Overall, her 7-2 record in title tilts suggests a player who rises to rather than shrinks from the occasion.  But an outstanding performance in the Stuttgart final indicated the same of Goerges.

With a title in Dubai, Radwanska would reach the top 5 for the first time in her career, an accomplishment that looked improbable just a year ago.  With a title in Dubai, Goerges would join Kerber as the second German champion of a February Premier event, underscoring the ascent of a nation that now has placed four players in the top 20.  Their trans-Oder battle also offers an opportunity for each woman to establish herself as a plausible dark horse when the contenders reconvene in Indian Wells and Miami next month.  To increase the intrigue there, one hopes that both say goodbai to the Gulf in style.

***

Also on Saturday is a pair of promising men’s semifinals, one in Marseille and one in Memphis.

Tsonga vs. Del Potro:  Few leading ATP players obey Murphy’s Law more scrupulously than does Tsonga, at his best when most neglected  and at his worst when most expected to excel.  Considering his dismal exit in Melbourne, therefore, a strong performance in Marseille should take no observer by surprise.  Nor should it surprise considering his pattern of shining under the lights in his home country, a thread that connects previous titles here, in Metz, and at the Paris Indoors, where he reached a second final as well.  Eight of Tsonga’s thirteen finals have occurred on indoor hard courts, the surface most suited to his style of spontaneous combustion.  As he seeks another indoor final, the Frenchman will want to impose his explosive, relentlessly athletic tempo upon a more leisurely Argentine opponent.  Whereas Tsonga struts around the court with barely contained energy between points, Del Potro ambles with a mellow ease dissonant from his equally fierce weaponry.  Winning most of his points from the baseline, he likely will seek to uncover the inconsistency in his opponent’s backhand, a shot neutral at most under pressure.  Neither man dazzled for extended stretches during quarterfinal victories that became more eventful than necessary.  After Tsonga needed to scramble from falling behind an early break to the anonymous Edouard Roger-Vasselin, Del Potro might well have lost both sets to Gasquet if not for the latter’s reliable unreliability in key moments.  Sinking to the level of their inferior competition, neither new member of the 200-win club can afford to leave anything behind on Saturday.  With all due respect to Tipsarevic and Llodra, this match feels like a de facto final.

Melzer vs. Stepanek:  Living dangerously throughout his week in Memphis, the Austrian lefty has survived not one but two third-set tiebreaks.  But Melzer always has lived on the edge, striking his groundstrokes with minimal net clearance and hurtling towards the net at the slightest invitation.  Both there and at the baseline, his keen reflexes earned him an upset over the top-seeded Isner in the quarterfinal.  Winning an astonishing 33% of the points on the American giant’s first serve, Melzer twice recovered from a minibreak in the tiebreak and scorched the opposite baseline with a pinpoint return on match point.  As sizzling as he looked then, he can turn frigid without warning, so many of his matches unfold in the fashion of a rollercoaster.  Ever ready to ride on a rollercoaster is his playful semifinal opponent, Stepanek, a fellow veteran whose vitality never seems to dwindle with age.  A former champion in San Jose and finalist in Memphis, the 33-year-old Czech historically has sparkled in the United States, where his quirkiness perhaps finds a more appreciative audience than in most venues.  Like Melzer, Stepanek relishes opportunities to reach the forecourt and darts around the court to create clever angles.  For what they lack in discipline and raw power, these two wily veterans compensate in entertainment and eccentricity.

 

US Players

Readers familiar with this blog will know that we do not beat the tribal drum to proclaim the wonders of American tennis when few such wonders exist.  By contrast, we save praise of our compatriots for the moments that genuinely matter, a category that definitely includes this weekend’s victory over a heavily favored Swiss squad.  From the outset, virtually every imaginable card seemed stacked against the Americans, mired in the hostile clay without the services of their most prolific singles star (Andy Roddick) and half of their legendary doubles team (Mike Bryan) as they confronted the greatest player ever (need you ask?) and a very capable clay threat (Stanislas Wawrinka).  Only heightening the odds were the unimpressive Australian performances of both Fish and Isner, gone before the second week.

In one of the most stunning upsets during the last decade of Davis Cup, however, the Americans registered victories for every member of their team as they shut out their hosts.  Most stunning was Isner’s four-set victory over Federer that grew more emphatic as it progressed, but his teammate Fish deserves equal honors.  With the GOAT looming in the second rubber, the top-ranked American knew that he needed to secure the first rubber against Wawrinka for his team to harbor legitimate hopes of surviving the tie.  Trailing by two sets to one, Fish must have struggled to dispel memories of his demoralizing Davis Cup losses to Spain last year, when he spent eight hours on court with nothing to show for it.  Finishing the nail-biting fifth set with a burst of confident, assertive play, he set an optimistic tone crucial to his team’s success that weekend.  After Isner lost the first set to Federer, his comeback mirrored the spirited effort of his compatriot, unwilling to concede a grain of dirt to a Swiss team far superior in talent but far inferior in resolve.

Tennis sprawled well beyond Switzerland last week, though, so we discuss the rest of the best and worst from Davis Cup and two small WTA events.

Ad-in:

Team Argentina:  Another visiting team to sweep their hosts, Argentina arrived in Germany without their best player in Del Potro and yet still ravaged their higher-ranked foes with merciless efficiency.  As he has so often, Nalbandian seized center stage by winning both of his live rubbers, including a demolition of German #1 Florian Mayer.  The Argentines impressed even more because they had sustained a potentially devastating loss to Spain in yet another Davis Cup final last fall, so the psychological burden of starting their quest anew must have loomed large.  Somewhat lightening that burden, to be sure, was Germany’s uninspired decision to host this tie on clay, an unexpected courtesy to South American dirt devils like Monaco.  In the April quarterfinals, the Argentines should show less courtesy when they lay as slow a court as possible to frustrate one particular Croat.

Ivo Karlovic:  Defending his flag far from home, the tallest man in the ATP almost single-handedly thrust aside Japan by winning three rubbers for Croatia.  Like Germany, Japan may rue their choice of surface in retrospect, but Karlovic has proven himself dangerous even on slower courts.  Sweeping aside Nishikori in straight sets on Friday, he never lost his serve in either of his singles matches, including a decisive fifth rubber during which he seemed to feel neither pressure from the situation nor fatigue from his previous matches.  Perhaps most notable from the weekend was Karlovic’s ability to break serve; he needed only one tiebreak in six singles sets and won two sets by double-break margins.  Inside the top 50 as he prepares to turn 33, the Croat has grown more rather than less consistent with age.

Angelique Kerber:  While more often than not the player makes the results, sometimes the results make the player.  After bouncing around the second and third tiers of the WTA for years, Kerber astonished virtually everyone by racing within a set of the US Open final last fall.  That glimpse of what she could accomplish catalyzed her motivation and encouraged her to improve her fitness during the off-season.  Dismissed initially as an accident all too common in the parity of women’s tennis, she has begun to prove otherwise by compiling a 14-3 record in early 2012.  The German lefty reached semifinals in Auckland and Hobart before breaking through to claim her first career title in Paris with victories over two top-eight opponents.  Despite her lack of experience in finals, Kerber held her ground against multiple comebacks from Bartoli and continued creating opportunities to deliver the coup de grace.  When she did, one wondered whether the German trio of Petkovic, Lisicki, and Goerges might have become a quartet.

Pattaya City finalists:  Among players outside the top 20 when the year began, Hantuchova has surpassed all but Kerber in her achievements.  In addition to spearheading Slovakia’s victory over France in Fed Cup, she reached the Brisbane final and knocked off Schiavone in Sydney. Although she defeated no prominent name in the Thai beach city, her first career title defense represents a significant accomplishment for a player considered unreliable and emotionally frail.  Further undercutting that reputation, Hantuchova has rallied from losing the first set in seven of her fourteen victories this year, showing greater capacity for endurance than she has for most of her career.

Despite its insignificant position near the base of the WTA’s tournament hierarchy, Pattaya City featured a final filled with drama and entertainment throughout its 194 minutes.  No less responsible than Hantuchova for its quality was runner-up Kirilenko, who battled through game after game with unexpected tenacity.

Sorana Cirstea / Mona Barthel:  Flavors of the month in January, they started February with promise.  After she upset Stosur in the first round of the Australian Open, the former prodigy Cirstea reached the semifinals in Pattaya City, where she extended Kirilenko to three sets.  Even more notable was the continued surge of Hobart champion Barthel, who has amassed 16 victories already this year.  The last five of those came when she qualified for the main draw and then reached the quarterfinals at the Paris Indoors.  If her progress continues, the Germans could boast five players in the top 30 by midsummer, more than any other nation except Russia.

Deuce:

Team Kazakhstan:  One might wonder how a team can take positives away from losing a second straight Davis Cup tie 5-0, but Kazakhstan’s 10 straight losses mask a brighter story.  Faced with the task of playing a much superior Spanish team on clay, many more talented squads would have crumbled before the first ball even without the presence of Nadal and Ferrer.  In a 2011 quarterfinal, moreover, the Kazakhs had mustered only minimal resistance to Argentina in a clay tie under similar circumstances.  This year, they improved considerably by winning two sets from Ferrero and a set from Almagro in a weekend when victory lay inevitably beyond their grasp.  Still a fledgling Davis Cup power, they may have started to feel as though they belong.

Team Japan:  Literally overshadowed by their Croatian guests, Nishikori and Go Soeda nevertheless left their compatriots little reason for regret.  Although one expected a somewhat more competitive match between the Japanese #1 and Karlovic in Friday, he redeemed himself with an equally imposing triumph over Dodig on Sunday when the tie hung in the balance.  Unable to threaten Karlovic for more than a set in the decisive match, Soeda galvanized the crowd in the Bourbon Beans Dome by erasing a two-set deficit in the opening rubber.  On the heels of Nishikori’s quarterfinal appearance at the Australian Open, this scintillating Davis Cup tie might enhance the prominence of tennis still further in Japan.

Switzerland's Roger Federer Reacts

Ad-out:

Federer:  Winning two total sets in two rubbers, the Swiss #1 lost little time in finding not one but two scapegoats for his embarrassment:  the poorly laid surface (fair) and his teammate Wawrinka (unfair).  So heavily did Federer criticize the latter, someone who didn’t watch the tie might have thought that Wawrinka had slumped to a four-set defeat against Isner while Federer had extended Fish deep into a fifth set.  Despite his surprising listlessness, this defeat will occupy scant space in any survey of the 16-time major champion’s career, but his reaction built upon earlier suggestions (cf. Wimbledon 2010, Roland Garros 2011) that Federer’s sportsmanship correlates directly to his success.

Sharapova:  Spraying more than 30 unforced errors in 20 games, she fell well short of justifying her status as the top seed in a draw of players who almost never had defeated her.  A reminder that no conclusions are foregone, Sharapova’s loss paralleled Federer’s setback in the lack of intensity or purpose shown by their protagonists.  Although Kerber’s ensuing march to the title mitigated the disappointment in retrospect, it still surprised considering her dominance of that opponent in Melbourne.  Perhaps February simply offers a necessary lull for these two champions between the demanding months of January and March.

WTA health:  Just one month and one significant tournament into the season, the casualty list has started to mount.  A few days after Li retired from Paris, Zvonareva retired from Pattaya City.  Before Paris even began, both Lisicki and Jankovic excused themselves with lingering injuries that had nagged them during Fed Cup.  Even with the Premier Five tournament in Doha on the horizon, world #3 Kvitova decided to save her ammunition for grander stages.  To some extent, these injuries stem from the habit (and ability) of the top women to set their own schedules, a trend that no Roadmap can cure.  But it still raises concern to see so many injuries to important figures so early in the season.

Alex Bogomolov:  Having stirred the cauldron of controversy by playing Davis Cup for Russia rather than the United States, Bogomolov did nothing to reward the trust of Tarpischev in his first World Group tie.  This most improbable Russian #1 won one total set in two singles rubbers, including an ignominious thrashing by Melzer in the tie-clincher during which he lost only seven games.  Just as embarrassing, though, was a four-set loss on Friday to the 127th-ranked Haider-Maurer that essentially sealed Russia’s fate.  If Tarpischev has any other weapons at his disposal, the Russian-turned-American-turned-Russian should watch the next tie’s live rubbers from the safety of the bench.

 

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

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates a point in the Men's Singles semi final match against Viktor Troicki of Serbia on day six of the Rakuten Open tennis tournament at Ariake Colosseum on October 9, 2010 in Tokyo, Japan. Rafael Nadal of Spain defeated Viktor Troicki of Serbia 7-6, 4-6, 7-6.

Having previewed the WTA tournaments in the capitals of Japan and China, we revisit those venues to discuss the less significant but still noteworthy ATP events this week.

Tokyo:

Top half:  The top seed here for the second straight year, Nadal aims to defend a non-clay title for the first time in his career.  Potentially complicating his passage is second-round opponent Milos Raonic, who led the ATP in aces earlier this year.  Nevertheless, the Canadian of Montenegrin origins looked distinctly rusty during a four-set loss to an overmatched Israeli opponent in Davis Cup, his first event since hip surgery this summer.   In the quarterfinals, Nadal might meet the newly crowned Kuala Lumpur champion Tipsarevic, finally a victor in his fifth final after four unsuccessful attempts.  Embedding himself well inside the top 20 during recent months, Djokovic’s compatriot harbors an innate confidence with which he has troubled more familiar foes.  An unwary Rafa thus might encounter stiffer resistance than usual from Tipsarevic, unable to offer even a mildly compelling test in their two previous meetings.  Much less dangerous against the elite than Tipsarevic, yet another Serb stands poised to block Nadal’s route in the semifinals as he nearly did here a year ago.  Holding match points against Nadal on that occasion in a match that wound deep into a third-set tiebreak, Troicki still struggles with a fatalistic streak that hampers him when he finds himself in a promising position.  Nor can one pencil his name into that semifinal berth with too great certitude, for summertime storyline Mardy Fish will import much greater momentum to Tokyo.  Handed the assignment of Ryan Harrison for the third time since Wimbledon, Fish likewise could face Gulbis for the third time this year—and those dangerous opponents stand aligned to meet him in his first two matches.  If the fourth-seeded American survives those threats, he will have proved himself a serious contender who could cause Nadal concern on this fast surface.  Meanwhile, can Bernard Tomic accomplish something noteworthy after slumping to hideous losses in his last two tournaments?

Semifinal:  Nadal d. Fish

Bottom half:  Among the highlights of the 2008 US Open, the first-week battle between Ferrer and Nishikori twisted through five suspenseful sets before “Project 45” claimed the upset.  Reprising that contest on home soil, the often injured Japanese prodigy has honed a style strikingly similar to the grinding Spaniard.  Elsewhere in their section, the ageless Stepanek lilts into another clash of experience against youth when he tangles with Somdeev Devvarman, a lithe Indian with a crisp two-handed backhand somewhat reminiscent of Hewitt.  But few players in this section can mount a serious challenge on a hard court to Murray, who won Bangkok as the top seed last week.  Just when many of his rivals seem vulnerable to competitive ennui, Murray has managed to motivate himself with the objective of overtaking Federer as the year-end #3.  His identification of that goal should aid the Scot in sharpening his focus deep in a season of impressive peaks and gloomy valleys.   The architect of Murray’s demise in Rotterdam, Baghdatis reached the final in Kuala Lumpur last week with upsets over Melzer and Troicki.  If Murray reaches Tokyo weary or unwary, the Cypriot could spring an opening-round ambush with his precisely timed groundstrokes.  A few years ago, the fall showcased David Nalbandian’s mostly squandered talents at their finest.  Following another valiant effort in Davis Cup, this veteran again might stir from his nearly irrelevant state, although Murray comfortably dominated him at Cincinnati this year.  Perhaps more ominous is Juan Monaco, who split his two meetings with Murray last fall and resembles a diluted South American version of Ferrer.

Semifinal:  Murray d. Ferrer

Beijing:

Top half:  In the absence of defending champion Djokovic, the prolific tennis nation of France provides three of this tournament’s top eight seeds.  A champion in Metz two weeks ago, the top-seeded Tsonga may find that distinction less than enviable on this occasion, for he immediately encounters the temperamental Bulgarian shot-maker Dimitrov.  At Wimbledon, they engaged in a four-set rollercoaster of alternately head-turning and head-scratching tennis.  Much more predictable than his compatriot, Simon will rely upon his monochromatic style to seek a quarterfinal against Tsonga in which the relatively slow Beijing courts might assist him.  Before that all-French fracas, Gilles might meet the Brazilian lefty Thomaz Bellucci, nearly the hero of his nation during the Davis Cup World Group playoff but eventually (and once again) disappointing home hopes.  Even if that disappointment does not weigh heavily upon him, though, he has failed comprehensively at breaking through Simon’s defenses before.  Either Tsonga or Simon should brace themselves for a semifinal with Berdych, despite a dangerous opening clash with Melzer.  Typically at his best when under least pressure, the Czech should relish the fall season as an opportunity to scarf down rankings points with minimal scrutiny.  His quarter features a trio of unreliable shot-makers from Verdasco and Kohlschreiber to rising star Dolgopolov.  Puzzling Djokovic throughout an epic first set at the US Open, the last of those figures seems the most plausible test for Berdych, whom he could trouble with his idiosyncratic timing and dipping backhand slices.  Remarkably, Berdych and Tsonga never have confronted each other on a court before; that lacuna should end this week.

Semifinal:  Berdych d. Tsonga

Bottom half:  Looming throughout this section are massive servers, two of whom collide in the first round when US Open quarterfinalist Isner meets Metz runner-up Ljubcic.  Both juggernauts acquitted themselves creditably here last year, and this year’s draw lies open for the winner to reach a semifinal.  Poised to intercept one of them is Almagro, but the Spaniard’s overstuffed schedule during the first half and focus on clay tournaments probably will have undermined his preparation for the fall.  On the other hand, the moderately paced surface should offer him more time to set up his elongated swings, and a tepid summer may have allowed him to refresh his energies.  In the first round, Almagro would meet Youzhny in a rematch of the infamous Miami meeting in which the Russian hammered not the ball but his head with a racket.  Both with exquisite one-handed backhands, they inhabit a quarter with two-handed backhands that vary from the clumsy—Roddick and Anderson—to the serviceable—Monfils and Fognini—to the potentially spectacular—Davydenko and Cilic.  None of those players has proven that they can contend consistently this year, so each match will offer a narrative without foregone conclusions.  Reaching a US Open quarterfinal with a sturdy victory over Ferrer, Roddick may carry that impetus into his next tournament, while Cilic showed signs of resurgence in a competitive loss to Federer and a dominant Davis Cup effort.  At the 2010 French Open, Monfils met Fognini in a protracted war of endless rallies, service breaks, and taut tempers, so one wonders what the first-round sequel here might bring.  Whereas Tokyo should build towards a stirring climax, Beijing might unfold a less linear storyline.

Semifinal:  Roddick d. Isner

***

We return in a few days to preview the WTA quarterfinals in Beijing, perhaps with digressions to any intriguing ATP encounters that develop.

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal of Spain looks on during his match against Novak Djokovic of Serbia on day two of the Davis Cup World Group first round tie between Spain and Serbia at the Parque Tematico Terra Mitica on March 8, 2009 in Benidorm, Spain. Nadal defeated Djokovic in three straight sets 6-4, 6-4 and 6-1 sending Spain into the Davis Cup quarter-finals with a 3-1 win over Serbia.  (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Rafael Nadal

If their respective nations advance through the Davis Cup semifinals, the top two men in the world could meet in Belgrade on the final day of the 2011 season.  Less than a week after the US Open’s captivating conclusion, Spain and Serbia aim to conquer France and Argentina in home ties where they should enjoy a distinct advantage.

Losing consecutive Slam finals for the first time in his career, Nadal should find his recovery from a sixth straight loss to Djokovic boosted by a return to his nation and his favorite surface.  On the other hand, the transition from hard courts to clay late in an arduous season will test the Roland Garros champion’s battered physical condition.  During a similarly timed tie against the United States in Madrid, the greatest clay-court player of all time lost a set to the clay-averse Querrey before collecting himself.  Nadal has accumulated a sensational Davis Cup singles record, however, and he had won five of six meetings from probable Friday opponent Tsonga until the Frenchman reversed that trend at Queens Club this year.  Never have they met on clay, where the acrobatic shot-maker who has reached an Australian Open final and a Wimbledon semifinal rarely excels.  Lacking the patience for extended rallies, Tsonga will find that his net-rushing style plays into the hands of Rafa’s passing shots more on this surface than any other.  In the last five years, only Federer, Djokovic, and Soderling have toppled Nadal on the terre battue, so one struggles to imagine any of the famously fickle French winning three sets from him before a Spanish crowd likely to rattle their fragile nerves.

With two near-certain  rubbers from Nadal, assuming his full participation, Spain need collect only one further from the strong supporting cast of Ferrer and the doubles pairing of Verdasco/Lopez.  Although the world #5 has not played much tennis since Wimbledon, he showcased his continued clay excellence with a title and three finals on this surface, including the Masters 1000 tournament in Monte Carlo.  Battling Djokovic through a three-set semifinal in the Madrid Masters tournament, Ferrer has feasted upon the support of his compatriots in previous Davis Cup epics such as five-set victories over Roddick and Stepanek, the latter in a Cup final.  Yet curiously this tenacious competitor has lost all three of his meetings with Friday opponent Monfils, most notably a five-set rollercoaster that ended the Spaniard’s sojourn at Roland Garros this year.  Just two places below Ferrer in the rankings, the exuberant shot-maker also quelled him as part of a Davis Cup shutout when these teams met in France last year.  On both of those occasions, though, the boisterous French fans inspired their hero to a more sustained effort than he might produce before a crowd unappreciative of his showmanship.  Somewhat more successful over the past few months than the Spaniard, Monfils must continue his dominance in their rivalry for France to survive until Sunday, for the experienced doubles squad of Verdasco/Lopez should overcome whatever pairing Guy Forget assembles to face them.

Choosing to load his rifle with four top-15 singles players rather than bring doubles specialist Llodra, the French captain perhaps expected a post-Open withdrawal from Nadal, or else an excellent serving day from Tsonga or Monfils in doubles duty.  Although Lopez probably prefers faster surfaces, he has elevated his form this year to record a near-upset over Federer, a quarterfinal appearance at Wimbledon, and a scintillating five-set Cup victory over the much higher-ranked Fish in a dangerous Austin tie.  Far less impressive are the results produced by Verdasco, but his explosive lefty serve and raw forehand power should prove greater assets in doubles than in singles.  Unless the French secure the doubles, this tie will not extend to a fifth rubber.  Despite all of the talent that they have mustered, the visitors should consider themselves fortunate to avoid a reverse shutout.  Spain

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates at match point after defeating Gael Monfils of France during day three of the Davis Cup Tennis Final at the Begrade Arena on December 5, 2010 in Belgrade, Serbia.

The image of a tightly knit team during their Cup title run last year, Serbia has contrasted with the often dysfunctional squads assembled by Argentina.  An apparent feud (or at least disdain) between Del Potro and Nalbandian undermined their efforts in a 2008 home final against Spain that they entered heavily favored.  In the hostile, raucous confines of Belgrade Arena, any internal division would magnify into a crippling liability.  Like Spain, Serbia will hope to rely for two virtually automatic singles rubbers upon one of the greatest players of this generation.  Weary from his third Slam title during a historic season, however, Djokovic may find discretion the better part of valor in this instance and prefer to recover from recent injuries incurred during his grueling consecutive victories over Federer and Nadal.  Nevertheless, he has not participated in Davis Cup since last year’s final and may sense an especially pressing need to demonstrate his national pride.  The only top-5 player who never has lost to Del Potro, he has relished trading flat baseline missiles with the giant while using his superior footwork and movement to outmaneuver him.  Whether the home nation actually needs Djokovic to win this tie lies open to interpretation, though.  Receding as sharply as the economy over the summer, Del Potro could not propel his US Open winning streak past the counterpunching wiles of Simon, while he fell meekly in straight sets to Gulbis and Cilic on the summer hard courts.  When he played the 2008 final that became known as the Massacre in Mar del Plata, the nerve-jangling pressure led to the sort of tentative performance that Lopez exploited then and that Tipsarevic could exploit now.

Retiring from the US Open with an injury, the eccentric Serbian #2 still seems a better option for starting singles duty than Serbian #3 Troicki, an early victim in New York.  As he demonstrated with a crucial victory over Berdych in last year’s Cup, Tipsarevic does not shrink from the Tour’s heavy hitters as does his less assertive compatriot.  His astonishing career-high ranking of #13 stems from an outstanding summer that included not only his first major quarterfinal, where he acquitted himself impressively against Djokovic, but also his first Masters 1000 semifinal in Montreal.  On the other hand, captain Bogdan Obradovic might contrast his disappointing effort against Monfils in last year’s final with Troicki’s commanding victory over Llodra in the decisive fifth rubber, although those contrasting results seemed to spring somewhat from the opponents and their relative aptitudes on a slow hard court.  Should Djokovic participate, Obradovic still could substitute world #16 Troicki for Sunday’s reverse singles in the event that the home squad requires further heroics.

A perfect 6-0 against Tipsarevic and Troicki  but 0-4 against Djokovic, Del Potro probably must deliver both of his rubbers for the visitors rather than relying upon his meager understudies to deliver two wins of their own.  In fact, the Serbs should consider themselves favored to defeat anyone on this squad outside the recently tottering Tower of Tandil.  Although they combined for five victories at the US Open, Monaco and Chela remain natural dirt devils far from their best in indoor conditions that reward shot-making more than stamina.  A Davis Cup hero for his nation before, Nalbandian has scored improbable victories under Argentine colors but has won only 12 matches since reaching the Auckland final in January, none against top-30 opponents.  The doubles format should showcase his talents for constructing clever angles, however, while its lesser exertions will ease the strain upon his aging, often-injured limbs.  Like France, Argentina brings four singles players rather than any doubles specialists, whereas Serbia can complement its three top-20 residents with top-10 doubles star Nenad Zimonjic.  The defending Cup champions have not fared well lately in doubles, however, losing the valuable middle rubber in both the semifinal and the final last year.  But Zimonjic’s disappointing performances did not return to haunt them, for both times Djokovic galvanized his squad to comebacks from 1-2 deficits by winning the fourth rubber.  Maybe Serbia does need him after all.   Serbia

 We also investigate the World Group playoff ties:

Romania vs. Czech Republic:  This utter mismatch features two top-30 players, the experienced Davis Cup duo of Berdych and Stepanek, against a Romanian squad without anyone in the top 100.  Playing in their capital of Bucharest, the home team will hope to discomfit the 2009 Cup finalists by playing this tie on red clay.  In similar David-Goliath encounters, like recent American trips to Chile and Colombia, the surface could not compensate for the vast gap in talent.  Czech Republic

Russia vs. Brazil:  Far from the sun-soaked beaches of Rio is the central Russian city of Kazan, famously conquered by Ivan the Terrible during the rise of Muscovy into an intimidating empire.  Much less intimidating is the team fielded by ageless Davis Cup savant Shamil Tarpischev, spearheaded by a player with just a 20-19 record this year.  Only three rankings spots higher than Brazilian #1 Bellucci, Youzhny seems an unlikely spearhead for a team filled with unreliable competitors.  The solid doubles pairing of Melo and Soares should secure the third rubber and perhaps vault the visitors to a small upset, but Bellucci likely will have to win both of his singles rubbers.  A clay specialist with short patience and a long history of underachievement, he probably won’t rise to the challenge in a sterile indoor arena that lacks the atmosphere to inspire him.  Russia

Israel vs. Canada:  The only top-50 player to participate in this tie, Milos Raonic has not played since suffering a leg injury at Wimbledon.  If his serve crackles through the court as it did in the first half of 2011, he could win this tie almost single-handedly for the visitors by dominating Israel’s underpowered singles players and combining with doubles specialist Daniel Nestor for a formidable doubles team.  Best known for producing the doubles duo of Ehrlich and Ram, the home nation also has relied upon its exceptional cohesion to slay favored foes like Russia before.  The raucous crowds in Ramat Hasharon have rattled visiting players, but neither Raonic nor Nestor seems easily flustered.  Will rising talent Vasek Pospisil, who impressed Federer this summer and won a match at the Open, play a meaningful role in Sunday’s reverse singles?  Aligned potentially against Israeli #2 Amir Weintraub, he could clinch the tie in a decisive fifth rubber.  Canada

South Africa vs. Croatia:  Unlike Canada, this second English-speaking tennis nation enters this playoff as a clear underdog to a resurgent Cilic, who won a set from Federer at the Open, and the suddenly relevant Dodig, who defeated Nadal and won a set from Djokovic this year.  In a weekend of huge serves, Anderson will hope to channel the energy that led him to the title in the final edition of the Johannesburg tournament.  But Croatia’s much deeper team should win both of the singles rubber that he doesn’t play and find a way to eke out one of the other three matches.  Croatia

Chile vs. Italy:  Electing to exploit their opponent’s weakness rather than their own strength, Chile chose to play this tie on a hard court inimical to clay specialists Starace and Bolelli.  A nation that shares Russia’s tilt towards the WTA, Italy still should feel confident against a team with no player ranked higher than #101 Capdeville, who has subjected his compatriots to a catalogue of Davis Cup disappointments.  Always at his most fiery before an enthusiastic crowd, Olympic medalist Fernando Gonzalez has played only seven ATP matches (winning three) in an injury-marred season.  Retirement looms just over the horizon for most of this Chilean team, especially 2004 gold medalist Nicolas Massu, so they should bring an elevated sense of urgency to gain one more opportunity to play in World Group I next year.  Against a group as unpredictable as the Italians, intangibles determination and home-court advantage might translate into something valuable.  Chile

Japan vs. India:  The visiting team certainly will win the doubles team with the veteran duo of Bhupathi and Paes, so Japan must earn a singles win from someone other than world #55 Nishikori.  And the prospect of two wins in the best-of-five format looks far from assured, considering that Kei just retired from the US Open.  In a year filled with optimism for Asian sports, from Li Na to Japan’s own World Cup-winning women’s soccer team, this beleaguered nation would delight in the chance to reach the Cup’s highest division.  Knowing nothing about the games of Tatsuma Ito or Go Soeda, we somehow doubt that the experienced Indian squad will let this winnable tie slip away.  India

Belgium vs. Austria:  After his startling rush to the top 10 last year, Austrian #1 Melzer has faded from contention in 2011 amidst injuries and a series of unfocused performances.  An accomplished talent in both singles and doubles, he will hope to bring the momentum from winning the US Open men’s doubles crown to a successful partnership with Olivier Marach.  Whether Melzer alone can propel the Austrians past an underrated group of Belgian ball-strikers depends in part on the efforts of the equally enigmatic Belgian #1, Xavier Malisse.  In the twilight of his career, the 31-year-old “X-man” arrives on a six-match losing streak but has wins over Tsonga and Tipsarevic this year as well as Melzer, whom he toppled comfortably in the third round of Wimbledon.  Belgium’s supporting cast of Darcis and Rochus should capitalize upon the support of their compatriots to overcome the rest of Austria’s indifferent singles stars, although the flagship of the visiting squad could make their efforts irrelevant if he catches fire at a key moment.  Belgium

Roger Federer - 2011 US Open - Day 13

Australia vs. Switzerland:  Into the Royal Sydney Golf Club strides the dethroned king of the ATP, freshly committed to Davis Cup this season.  Perhaps hoping to snag a title for Switzerland before he retires, Federer demonstrated his dedication to this team competition by flying from New York to Sydney immediately after absorbing a heartbreaking loss in the US Open semifinal.  As proved the case after his Wimbledon disappointment, the Davis Cup experience might lift Federer’s spirits by offering him the opportunity to devour an overmatched collection of foes.  The home team’s emotional anchor, Lleyton Hewitt, has won only nine matches in a season comprised largely of majors and small events that offered him wildcards for nostalgic reasons.  For the first time in a meaningful tie, therefore, Australia leans upon precocious teenager Bernard Tomic to lead them past the heavily favored visitors.  While Tomic might well deliver a heroic effort against Swiss #2 Wawrinka, Federer should win both of his singles matches while reprising his gold medal-winning partnership with Wawrinka in the doubles, a pairing to which the Aussies can offer little answer.  Switzerland

Sabine Lisicki - Bank of the West Classic - Day 2

Tucked unobtrusively into the week before consecutive Premier Five tournaments, the reinstated San Diego event has become a shadow of its former Tier I self.  Nevertheless, the La Costa Resort might host some intriguing if not star-studded collisions in its peaceful precincts.  We look ahead to the next week of the US Open Series….

Top half:  After demoralizing defeats at the European Slams, Zvonareva urgently needs a confidence injection before attempting to defend another Slam final appearance.  Unlikely to suffer an Erakovic-like setback, she should overcome her initial, unimpressive opponents through her consistency alone, but the plot could thicken in the quarterfinals.  At that stage, the Russian might encounter near-Roland Garros nemesis and Wimbledon semifinalist Lisicki, who translated her grass success to hard courts with a third straight semifinal at Stanford.  As her record against Stosur demonstrates, Zvonareva often finds powerful servers unnerving and has struggled in the rare WTA matches when service breaks actually mean something.  In a fascinating contrast of styles similar to her battle with Venus, Date-Krumm might encounter the German’s massive serve in the second round.  Her status uncertain following an abdominal injury at Stanford, Cibulkova also might challenge Zvonareva should she defuse Lisicki.  The Indian Wells clash between the Slovak and the Russian developed into a gritty, suspenseful epic, so a sequel certainly would enliven this draw.  Nor should one forget 2010 quarterfinalist Coco Vandeweghe, who defeated Zvonareva at her home tournament and continues to unleash thunderous serve-forehand combinations, albeit little else.

Among the few players in the second quarter not in an extended slump or terminal decline is the fourth seed Peng Shuai, who has reached semifinal after semifinal en route to a career-high ranking.  China’s #2 has defeated Li, Kuznetsova, and Zvonareva this year while taking sets from four of the current five.  Hardly an electrifying shot-maker, Peng generally wins by making her opponents as uncomfortable as possible, posing questions with her penetrating double-fisted groundstrokes down the center of the court that they struggle to answer.   If the fading Mirza finds forehands at critical moments, she could solve the Peng conundrum, as could the fifth-seeded Ivanovic.  Before she reaches the quarterfinals, however, the Serbian former #1 must overcome either last week’s Anapest, Morita, or the ever-dangerous Dokic in an opener.  Far from impressive at Stanford, Ivanovic looks unready for a deep run with her new coach.  But who else around her does?  After a promising beginning to 2011, Pennetta’s season quickly turned sour when she passed winless through the European clay, and her appearances at two post-Wimbledon clay tournaments suggest scant commitment to the summer hard courts.

Semifinal:  Lisicki d. Peng

Bottom half:  Stronger than the upper section, it could feature a quarterfinal that reprises last year’s semifinal between Hantuchova and Radwanska.  During a three-set loss to Sharapova at Stanford, the Slovak showed flashes of her brilliance this spring that illustrated her renewed confidence against even the more illustrious opponents.  Vanquished by the feisty Zahlavova Strycova at an earlier Wimbledon, she will need that confidence to retain her composure and advance to a potential meeting with third-ranked Serb Bojana Jovanovski.  A sudden sensation in Australia this year, Jovanovski has generated fewer headlines over the last several months, and Italian veteran Vinci will hope to unnerve the youngster with her nuanced array of spins and slices.  Nuance certainly defines the third-seeded Radwanska, a finalist in San Diego last year during an impressive US Open Series.  Less convincing lately, she failed to withstand the pressure of Lisicki’s serve at Stanford and might encounter similar difficulty against Gajdosova.  Also in the third quarter are home hopes Christina McHale and Melanie Oudin, heading in opposite directions since their appearances at the 2009 US Open.  Unable to overcome the disadvantage of her height, Oudin has not evolved into the balanced, opportunistic baseliner that McHale aims to become.

Bookended by two Germans, the lowest quarter also features a pair of streaky dark horses and a Wimbledon quarterfinalist.  Perplexing many an elite rival with her swerving lefty serve, Makarova should test Petkovic’s resilience in her opener rather than courteously ushering her into the top 10.  Meanwhile, Petkorazzi’s compatriot Goerges must contend with the heavy-serving Canadian Rebecca Marino, who threatened Venus at last year’s US Open.  After an unexpected four-match winning streak at the All England Club, former prodigy Tamira Paszek extended her momentum with a semifinal appearance in College Park.  Considering the fallibility displayed by Goerges at Stanford, the Austrian might fancy her chances of reversing the Anschluss.  The only player to win a set from Serena last week, Kirilenko also captured the Stanford doubles title and thus will have carried considerable confidence with her down Interstate 5.

Semifinal:  Petkovic d. Hantuchova

Final:  Lisicki d. Petkovic

***

Mardy Fish - Farmers Classic presented by Mercedes-Benz - Day 6

Having collected a championship trophy in Atlanta and a runner-up trophy in Los Angeles, Mardy Fish returns to the East Coast as the leading magnet for American ambitions this summer.  Expected to face him in the quarterfinals is one of two formerly renowned, recently feckless players.  Despite a finals appearance on clay in Umag, Verdasco has suffered a disappointing 2011 during which his ranking has receded to the edges of the top 20.  His collaborator in a memorably horrific Australian Open encounter last year, Davydenko has struggled to win consecutive matches since wrist surgery and now usually appears in headlines as the foil for enterprising newcomers.  Once considered potential Slam champions, neither of these players likely will regain their former glory, but one still wonders whether they can score the occasional surprise.  A pair of lefties might vie for the honor of meeting Fish in the semifinals, for Bellucci looks likely to collide with Melzer if he can escape a rusty Gonzalez.  Despite a victory over Federer on the European clay, the Austrian has fallen far short of his 2010 exploits and might find his brittle composure challenged by the unnerving Karlovic.

The only other top-10 player in the Washington draw, Gael Monfils, remains an enigmatic competitor although certainly a superior athlete with more explosive groundstrokes.  In his section also lurk Los Angeles semifinalist Alex Bogomolov, Jr. and Grigor Dimitrov, who frustratingly followed his Wimbledon accomplishments with momentum-halting losses to two players outside the top 200.  Ever a thorny task for higher-ranked opponents, Serbian #3 Tipsarevic might await Monfils in a quarterfinal rematch of their battle in the Davis Cup final, where the Frenchman comfortably handled the bespectacled eccentric.  Of note elsewhere in this half is Djokovic’s other understudy, the third-seeded Troicki, who seems to have internalized a keen sense of his position in the ATP food chain inside and outside his country.  Riding his towering serve to the Newport title and Atlanta final, Isner could confront Troicki in the quarterfinals and Monfils a round later should he repeat his tense Atlanta victory over aging countryman Blake.  Somewhat rejuvenating his fortunes during the hard-court summer, as he often has before, Blake temporarily has vindicated his decision to postpone retirement.  But second-round opponent Nalbandian hopes to craft a few closing highlights of his own before dusk settles on his career.

***

We return shortly with reflections on last week’s action in California.

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal (Spain) beats Robin Soderling (Sweden) to win the French Open 2010. The trophy was presented to him by former Roland-Garros champ Nicola Pietrangeli and Jean Gachassin, President of the French Tennis Federation. French Open 2010, Internationaux de France de tennis 2010, held at Roland-Garros in Paris.

First quarter:  Handed a disorienting opener against Isner, Nadal should tower over the towering but clay-averse American while acquiring valuable confidence for the challenges ahead.  Among the talented rivals that riddle this quarter is former Roland Garros semifinalist and potential third-round opponent Davydenko, who has won his last four meetings with Nadal.  Nevertheless, the Russian’s precipitous decline following a wrist injury suggests a match of scintillating rallies but little suspense.  Mired in a less explicable slump, Verdasco has endured a fruitless clay season as his ranking has sagged below the top 15.  If the second-ranked Spanish lefty survives a grinding opener against Monaco, however, his draw could grant him smooth passage into the second week and another doomed battle with his compatriot.  At the base of this section lurks the ATP king-maker, who transferred the Roland Garros crown from Nadal to Federer in 2009 and back to Nadal in 2010.  Dormant since March, Soderling rumbled into relevance with a Rome quarterfinal and can settle into the tournament without facing extreme pressure during the first week.  Although Simon’s lithe movement might unsettle him, only an especially inspired effort from the Frenchman could weather the Swede’s punishing assault.  Having split memorable Roland Garros clashes in the last two years, Rafa and Robin will collide earlier than either would wish.  History always will infuse these meetings with intrigue, but Nadal regained control over their rivalry last year and has solved Soderling (not without difficulty) when healthy.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter:  In 2011, every significant ATP draw has included a quarter open for opportunists and arrivistes.  To be sure, Murray justified his top-four seeding in both Monte Carlo and Rome, where he came closer than anyone this season to snapping The Streak.  The Scot does not intimidate opponents on this surface to the extent that Nadal, Djokovic, or Federer do, though, so a dark horse like flamboyant fourth-round opponent Dolgopolov could wreak havoc.  A quarterfinalist in Melbourne, the 21st seed ambushed Soderling and Tsonga there before falling to Murray; moreover, he demonstrated budding clay-court skills with a final in Brazil and a win over Ferrer.  Perhaps still demoralized from his epic Rome defeat, the Scot might spend this tournament restoring his psyche, although he has shown marked improvement in his clay movement and point construction.  Unlikely to repeat his 2010 semifinal, an injured Melzer has accomplished little on clay this year following a Monte Carlo upset over Federer.  A more imposing threat to Murray or Dolgopolov in the quarterfinals springs from Nice finalist Almagro, who has won two clay titles this season while losing only one clay match to a player outside the top 8.  Recently reaching the top 10 for the first time, Almagro thrust Nadal into two tiebreaks during a compelling quarterfinal here a year ago and has greater ability to hit through the slow courts than most players in this section.

Semifinalist:  Almagro

Third quarter:  Weeks after surviving a match point against Lopez in Madrid, Federer surely did not thank Ivanovic for assigning him an encore with his Spanish near-nemesis.  Once past that initial obstacle, however, the 2010 champion’s route grows more tranquil with the stagnating Tsonga perhaps waiting in the fourth round.  Or perhaps Federer will enjoy a relaxing afternoon with Wawrinka at that stage, having dominated his compatriot and doubles partner on all occasions but one.  In theory, a quarterfinal with Ferrer should prove scarcely more intimidating, considering the Swiss legend’s 11-0 record against the Spaniard (5-0 on clay).  In reality, Ferrer could profit from Federer’s increasingly erratic form to detain him for longer than usual.  An early loser to Melzer last year, the world #7 has reached the second week at Roland Garros in only one of his last five appearances.  Regularly carving deep into most clay draws, Ferrer’s futility at the clay major may arise from his hectic schedule and exhausting playing style in previous weeks.  A Nice loss to Dolgopolov hinted at accumulating weariness that might leave him vulnerable to a shot-maker like Monfils.  Surely eager to atone for an opening-round collapse last year, Gael has earned surprising success at his home major before.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates match point during the final against Rafael Nadal of Spain during day eight of the Internazoinali BNL D'Italia at the Foro Italico Tennis Centre on May 15, 2011 in Rome, Italy.

Fourth quarter:  As befits the colossus looming above the ATP, Djokovic has received the most formidable early draw.  Although he has won all seven of the sets that he played against Del Potro, the Serb could find him an arduous third-round challenge permitting him little time for settling into the fortnight.  But the Argentine first must conquer the elephantine serve of Karlovic and the unpredictable Gulbis as he rebounds from a leg injury.  Elsewhere in this section stands the resurgent Gasquet, who came within a few games of upsetting Murray in the first round last year and will have gained momentum from upsetting Federer in Rome.  The Frenchman has disappointed his compatriots in major after major, though, and his fitness remains questionable in a best-of-five encounter with an athlete of Djokovic’s caliber.  Instead, the second seed might face Madrid semifinalist Bellucci, a dangerous lefty who tested Nadal here before and led the Serb by a set and a break in Madrid before faltering.  The section’s upper half pits 2010 semifinalist Berdych against several players least comfortable on clay, such as Cilic and Youzhny.  Possibly threatened by Fognini in the second round, the Czech should experience scant difficulty en route to a quarterfinal with the player who defeated him in the same round at the Australian Open.  Since Berdych smothered Djokovic in a Wimbledon semifinal last year, their paths have veered in opposite directions.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

***

Final:  Nadal vs. Djokovic

Champion:  Novak Djokovic

Francesca Schiavone wins the 2010 French Open at Roland Garros tennis stadium.

First quarter:  Fresh (or not) from a strong week in Brussels, Wozniacki arrives in Paris after a peripatetic, slightly disappointing clay campaign.  Like Nadal, she must navigate through a curious opener against Kimiko Date-Krumm, no longer a serious threat despite winning a set from the Dane before.  Not until the fourth round will Wozniacki meet an opponent worthy of her steel, for the fragile Hantuchova should not trouble the resilient Dane.  If she can evade Rybarikova in the first round, 2009 champion Kuznetsova could reverse the trajectory of a season that began promisingly in Melbourne and Dubai but has derailed spectacularly since then.  Although the Russian mustered little resistance to Wozniacki in the Dubai final, Kuznetsova has both the offense and the court coverage to challenge her on those increasingly rare days when she performs at her potential.  Equally intriguing is the projected fourth-round collision between Stosur and Goerges, who overcame the Aussie in a tense Stuttgart semifinal.  Before that rematch, the 2010 finalist must recover quickly from her illness against the inflammable Benesova, architect of a Melbourne second-week run.   Nor should one underestimate another Czech lefty as an early test for Goerges, since Safarova upset Jankovic in Madrid and adapts her elongated swings effectively to the slower surface.  Both Goerges and Stosur have scored recent success against Wozniacki, so the top seed should find her accumulating clay skills severely tested in a quarterfinal.  More accomplished at significant tournaments than either of those potential rivals, she also faces greater pressure as the still Slamless #1.

Semifinalist:  Stosur

Second quarter:  Resembling the second quarter of the men’s draw, this softest section hosts several fading veterans and a pair of perpetually rising, never quite risen Russians.  Aligned to meet in the third round, Kleybanova and Pavlyuchenkova spearhead the next generation of their nation’s stars and have inherited the familiarly ball-bruising baseline style of their compatriots.  While neither delivers her best tennis on clay, each has the ability to hit through the slow courts as well as the competitive resilience to stun a contender.  Few are the true contenders in this quarter, moreover, for defending champion Schiavone has followed her historic Australian Open with a series of uninspired performances.  Surprise champions rarely repeat their feats, more often losing early to steady opponents like potential third-round foe Peng Shuai.  Defeated by Peng in Brussels, Zvonareva has shown little appetite for clay wars of attrition and may prefer to conserve her energies for defending her Wimbledon final.  Once an all-surface threat to the WTA elite, Pennetta has won only one match since Indian Wells and could face Rome conqueror Mattek-Sands in the second round.  From this seething chaos nevertheless will emerge a semifinalist, and who better to exploit the void than three-time Roland Garros semifinalist Jankovic?  Although the Serb has sunk to the fringes of the top 10, she has acquired a reputation for seizing opportunities that present themselves.  A generally unremarkable clay season did include a closely contested Rome quarterfinal with Wozniacki, and at any rate nobody else in this section can claim more momentum than the Serb.

Semifinalist:  Jankovic

Third quarter:  Since February, exactly one player has converted a match point against Azarenka as the fourth seed has alternated titles with retirements.  This pattern suggests that physical issues may pose her greatest challenge this fortnight, but Madrid nemesis Kvitova or Melbourne nemesis Li could await in the quarterfinals.  If her elbow injury does not trouble her, Azarenka should ease through a comfortable section of the draw largely bereft of players who can match her firepower or willpower.  The only exception in that group, 2008 champion Ivanovic defeated Vika twice last year after losing their Roland Garros meeting two years ago.  Hampered by abdominal and wrist injuries, the Serb has played only five clay matches before Paris and could encounter the unnerving test of Australian Open conqueror Makarova in the second round.  Attempting to rekindle the flames of Madrid, Kvitova confronts the third-round obstacle of Cibulkova, her sternest test en route to that title and a former semifinalist in Paris.  The Slovak’s relentless retrieving will harden the Czech’s resolve and focus should she survive their meeting, however, and prepare her to reprise her Madrid victory over Li.  Can she follow that script to another win over Azarenka?  On a much slower surface, Vika’s superior movement should allow her to reverse the earlier narrative.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

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

Fourth quarter:  Here roars the Siberian lioness, as confident as ever in her comeback following an unexpected title in Rome and an equally startling victory over Wozniacki.  Situated in a tranquil corner of the draw, Sharapova might find a compelling test of her consistency against indefatigable roadrunner Zakopalova in the third round.  The 31st seed once won a set from Serena here and should prepare Maria for more challenging encounters against players with similar movement but more dangerous offense.  Perhaps endangered earlier by Wickmayer, Radwanska could attempt to block Sharapova’s passage  as she did at the 2007 US Open.  Although the Russian has not lost to the Pole since that notorious meeting, their matches sometimes have grown tense as a result of the latter’s crisp instincts and keen intelligence.  The victor of this battle between the hedgehog and the fox might face two-time finalist Clijsters—but just as plausibly might not.  Halfway to a Kimpressive Slam that would rival the Serena Slam, the Belgian has not won a match on clay in five years and has not recovered entirely from injuries to three different joints.  Most concerning of those injuries is her ankle, which could undermine her movement and leave her vulnerable to a strutting shotmaker like fourth-round opponent Petkovic.  After an encouraging week in Strasbourg, the charismatic German will open against the blossoming Jovanovski and later might face Gajdosova-turned-Groth-turned-Gajdosova, a talent who can unsettle anyone when at her best.  A quarterfinalist at the Australian Open, Petkovic could face Sharapova for the second straight major and the third time this year, allowing us to discover whether Paris has more in common with Melbourne or Miami.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

***

Final:  Stosur vs. Azarenka

Champion:  Victoria Azarenka


 

Novak Djokovic - The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2011 - Day Eight

This article originally appeared on the Australian Open website at http://www.australianopen.com.  You can continue to find more Roland Garros coverage by me there in the coming days.

Nadal:  Since an injury-induced exit in Australia, the Spaniard has not lost before the final in six successive tournaments and not fallen to anyone except Djokovic.  Virtually no conceivable foe should block a healthy Rafa’s path to the climactic Sunday, therefore, and Nadal can take solace from his perfect record in majors against the Serb who has baffled him at Masters events.  In a best-of-five marathon, his competitive stamina might allow him to outlast Djokovic, who has a far less storied Slam resume.  Moreover, the two-week sprawl of a major includes more twists and turns than the condensed Masters format, so Nadal can hope that his path to a sixth Paris crown may not intersect with his nemesis.  Until it does, he should prevent his anxiety over their rivalry from depleting his confidence against earlier opponents.

Djokovic:  All things must come to an end, including a winning streak that has featured seven victories over the eclipsed Nadal and Federer.  But, even after the Indian Wells-Miami double, Djokovic has shown scant sign of fatigue while expelling the world #1 from clay citadels in Rome and Madrid.  Should they meet in the final, he will possess a vast psychological advantage from those four Masters 1000 finals, much more recent than his Roland Garros losses to Nadal.  And Djokovic cleverly solved the challenge posed by a best-of-five format in Australia—he won all but one of his matches in three sets.  The world #2 enters Roland Garros as the slight favorite unless his knee betrays him or his motivation plummets, unlikely in a tournament where he can snatch the top ranking.

Federer:  His record in 2011 sums up his situation:  0-5 against the top two, 28-2 against everyone else.  While Federer has won sets from Nadal and Djokovic, his graceful game has looked outmoded and his body language too muted during those crucial meetings.  When he does attack them with conviction, he can win sets but lacks the consistency to execute high-risk tactics throughout an entire match.  Still intimidating to most opponents, Federer continues to rely upon his experience to withstand dangerous dark horses.  Nevertheless, he never won more than a set from Nadal at Roland Garros in his prime, so three sets seems well beyond his reach now.  Nor does he have the weapons to combat Djokovic’s balanced baseline assault, not winning a set in their Melbourne semifinal despite a generally crisp performance.

Murray:  Perhaps the greatest surprise of the clay-court season sprang from the Scot’s semifinals in Monte Carlo and Rome.  The only player to serve for a match against Djokovic this year, Murray also won a set from Nadal as he awakened from his post-Melbourne malaise.  He will rue the double faults that cost him a potentially career-changing victory over the Serb, but the Scot must emerge from their three-hour battle with his confidence restored.  As Wimbledon looms, Murray would benefit from an encouraging Paris fortnight before he shoulders the perennial expectations of his compatriots.  Improving his clay movement and striking his forehand more assertively, he must concentrate on maintaining an optimistic attitude, often the difference between success and failure for the Scot.

Soderling:  Lately blunted by illness and injury, the giant-slaying Swede overcame Verdasco and Almagro in Rome before winning just three games from Djokovic.  His indifferent preparation should not cause concern, for Soderling displayed equally unimpressive form in his last two trips through the European spring—before he arrived at Roland Garros and halted the title defenses of Nadal and Federer.  Although his unpredictability may prevent him from winning a major, Soderling has the capacity to shatter a seemingly predestined narrative with his bone-crushing groundstrokes and defiant self-belief.

Berdych / Melzer:  Semifinalists at Roland Garros last year, they look unlikely to repeat those feats.  Melzer collected an impressively poised win over Federer at Monte Carlo, yet he has wilted under the spotlight of the Slams since last year’s breakthrough and faded swiftly at Rome and Madrid.  More consistent than in his wayward past, Berdych won a set from Djokovic in Dubai and Nadal in Miami.  On clay, though, he could not conquer flavors of the week Bellucci and Gasquet, or even the decaying Ljubicic.  Failing to embrace his lofty status last year, the Czech still lacks the steely core necessary to win a major.

Ferrer:  Twice a runner-up to Nadal this year, the Spaniard would have won a Roland Garros title had Rafa never emerged.  His remorselessly grinding game can wear down anyone outside the top three, against whom he lacks the offensive explosiveness (especially with his serve) to win three sets on clay.

Del Potro:  A set away from the 2009 final, the gentle giant rebounded from wrist surgery with startling alacrity, only to suffer a leg injury that jeopardizes his Paris plans and squelches hope of an improbable title.  Should he arrive in the City of Light, however, darkness could descend upon one of the contenders as early as the third round.

Novak Djokovic - Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open - Day Nine

Propping up dilapidated regimes late in the Roman Empire were lavish festivals and athletic competitions with which rulers placated their subjects even as the world around them crumbled, a tactic known as panes et circenses.  Although contemporary Italy lies in a less dire predicament, recent political turmoil might encourage Romans to retreat to the bucolic oasis of the Foro Italico.  There, the ATP triumvirate converges for the fourth time this year at a Masters 1000 event, having reached the semifinals on each of the three previous occasions.

First quarter:  Hobbled by injury, exhaustion, or other extenuating circumstances in many of his previous clay losses, Nadal must respond to the realization that his most recent opponent simply outplayed him on his favorite surface.  Although three successive runner-up finishes to the same player may have struck a blow to his confidence in their rivalry, the Spaniard should assault his quarter with vigor renewed.  As one would expect, Nadal has refused to distract himself with the duel over #1 that lies ahead, and he will need his focus immediately against Madrid semifinalist Bellucci.  The player who came closest to overcoming Djokovic in Madrid, the Brazilian can threaten Rafa but probably cannot defeat him., much like Gulbis on clay last year.  The top seed then could face lefty compatriot Lopez, who held a match point against Madrid and defeated Nadal last year on the vastly different lawns of Queens Club.  On the other side of this strong section stands Ferrer, surely eager to avenge an Indian Wells loss to Karlovic in the second round.  Almost certain to collide in the quarterfinals, the finalists in Monte Carlo and Barcelona will reprise this event’s 2010 final.  Ferrer came within range of troubling Nadal then, as he did in Monte Carlo this year, but he has lost his last ten clay meetings with Nadal while winning just one set during that span.

Second quarter:  Since 2007, Federer has fallen in Rome to the unheralded trio of Volandri, Stepanek, and Gulbis.  Slowest of all Masters 1000 tournaments, the surface here has punished the Swiss star’s faltering consistency as he ages.  Escaping from an inspired Lopez in his Madrid opener, Federer could find the mercurial Tsonga a compelling test in his Rome opener.  The Frenchman only once has troubled the world #3, however, and the latter’s confidence should have mounted after he forced Nadal into a third set last week.  While Andreev oddly has flustered the Swiss at majors, the Russian’s ranking has sunken so far that he needed to qualify for this tournament, so a meeting with Federer would represent his fifth match here.  Intriguing for its contrast of styles is the Tuesday encounter between Monaco and Berdych, which pits one of the ATP’s long-time clay specialists against a brutal ball-striker with limited versatility.  Elsewhere in this quarter lies the artistry of Gasquet, probably at his least effective on clay but somewhat resurgent after the Australian Open.  Should Federer and Berdych reach the quarterfinals, as seems plausible, the Czech will have one last opportunity to inject himself with self-belief before defending his prodigious accomplishments at Roland Garros and Wimbledon last year.

Third quarter:  In an ATP where the top three have distanced themselves so far from their challengers, one quarter in a Masters 1000 draw always lies open to the opportunists.  Exploited most recently by Bellucci, this loophole might expand to admit Troicki, who recorded an impressive straight-sets victory over Davydenko in the first round.  Yet the potential dark horses here seem few in number, including no clay specialists outside the ageless Chela and Starace.  Therefore, the fourth-seeded Murray might progress at least to the quarterfinals despite his usual fecklessness on this surface.  Seemingly revived from a post-Melbourne swoon that embarrassed his entire nation, the Scot caused Nadal’s brow to furrow in a three-set, three-hour Monte Carlo semifinal. Murray has enjoyed repeated success against his most notable potential obstacle en route to the semifinals, Melzer, although the Austrian defeated Federer in Monte Carlo before stumbling to a perplexing early exit in Rome against the anonymous Gimeno-Traver.  Often veering wildly in form from one tournament to the next, the eighth seed may not thrive on a sluggish surface that will require him to hit a longer series of audacious angles in order to finish points.  Although Murray and the accelerating Simon own superior consistency, they may struggle to penetrate the court with their less impressive firepower.  As in Madrid, the player who emerges from this section will face a monumental challenge thenceforth, so one must curtail one’s sense of perspective to fully appreciate the events that unfold here

Fourth quarter:  Occupying this lair is the terror of the ATP, who has lunged within range of reaching the #1 ranking after Roland Garros or perhaps Wimbledon.  Barely blunted by the transition from hard courts to clay, Djokovic continues to rend his victims limb from limb with an offense worthy of Del Potro, movement worthy of Nadal, and poise under pressure worthy of Federer.  The runner-up to Djokovic in the 2008 Rome tournament, Wawrinka has accomplished less on clay than expected after a scintillating start to the season that included an Australian Open quarterfinal.  The Swiss #2 has won sets from the Serb on clay but has not yet encountered him in his current breathtaking incarnation and probably lacks the willpower to snap the streak.  Notorious for his success in the role of spoiler, Soderling certainly possesses the necessary willpower to tarnish Djokovic’s perfect 2011.  Before taking aim at that prestigious target, though, the world #5 must defuse the assault of Verdasco.  Unimpressive during a loss to Lu in Madrid, the Spaniard regrouped with a sturdy victory over Raonic, who overcame him twice in February.  Former nemesis Almagro also might intersect with the fifth seed in a third-round encounter of unsubtly pummeled groundstrokes.  While nobody can feast upon a fallible foe more voraciously than Soderling, the Swede lately has lacked the confidence and competitive resilience required to topple the Djokovic who so expertly smothered Nadal in Madrid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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