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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.

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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

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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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feliciano Lopez Davis Cup team captain Albert Costa (R), Feliciano Lopez (2nd R), Rafael Nadal (C), Fernando Verdasco (2nd L) and David Ferrer of Spain celebrate with the crowd after the last match during the third and final day of the semi final Davis Cup match between Spain and France at the Plaza de Toros de los Califas on September 18, 2011 in Cordoba, Spain.

As December descends, most of the competitors who toiled so tirelessly through the labyrinthine tennis season enjoy a well-deserved respite.  But not quite all of them do.  Proving that this sport’s calendar, unlike all others, lasts twelve months a year is the Davis Cup final in Seville this weekend.  On the (red and gritty) surface, Argentina’s visit to the land of Nadal looks even more fruitless than Spain’s trip to the indoor hard courts of Mar del Plata three years ago.  Nevertheless, the Davis Cup final three years ago took more than one unexpected twist, reminding viewers that the team competition does not always fulfill expectations.  What key questions should we ask of the last men standing this year?

1)     Will Nadal repeat what he did in 2009?

Two years ago, the greatest clay player in tennis history had endured one of the most disappointing seasons of his career, including what remains his only loss in a five-set match on a favorite surface.  When Nadal slumped through a winless week in the World Tour Finals, many wondered whether his presence in Davis Cup would lift the fortunes of his team as significantly as he had in the past.  Assigned the task of facing Berdych on Friday, the Spanish #1 did in fact look uneasy through the first several games—before utterly demolishing the Czech once a set threated to slip away from him.  Although he earned only one victory in that tie, Nadal celebrated the title ecstatically with his team and compatriots.  This momentum-reversing triumph may have propelled him towards the most impressive season of his career so far in 2010, just as a Davis Cup title boosted Djokovic’s moral before his year to remember in 2011.  After another inconsistent second half and tepid performance in the World Tour Finals, a return to his homeland should raise Nadal’s spirits for the short term and could lift his game in the long term.

2)     Will Argentina repeat what it did in 2008?

In what became known as the Massacre of Mar del Plata, a Nadal-less Spanish team tiptoed into the Argentine beach town to face an ebullient home squad on indoor hard courts, the surface least suited to Spanish strengths.  All went according to script during the first rubber, an emphatic victory for Nalbandian over Ferrer.  As Del Potro edged towards a two-set lead over Lopez in the second rubber, a first Cup title looked almost a foregone conclusion.  But then Argentina’s rising star played a poor tiebreak before fading physically, the Argentine doubles team wasted multiple opportunities to seize control of the next rubber before fading physically, and suddenly the battered veteran Jose Acasuso found himself handed a must-win assignment against Verdasco.  Following a hideous five-setter, the Spanish lefty finally clinched the Cup for the leading ATP nation of the last decade.  The humiliation for the still Cup-less Argentines, meanwhile, reached staggering heights as reports of friction between Nalbandian and Del Potro bubbled to the surface.  This time, the same duo will hope to avoid the dissension that made their talented squad less than the sum of its parts.  Far from their compatriots, the away location of this tie may relieve some of the pressure that Del Potro especially seemed to sense in Mar del Plata.

3)     Will we see the Del Potro of the first half or the Del Potro of the second half?

Through Wimbledon, the Tower of Tandil had progressed promisingly and more swiftly than one would have expected.  Winning two small titles in Delray Beach and Estoril, he had reached a semifinal at Indian Wells, a quarterfinal at Miami, defeated Soderling twice, and won a set apiece from Djokovic and Nadal at majors.  Since he enjoyed an outstanding reputation on North American hard courts, the US Open Series offered the perfect platform to vault him towards what looked like an almost certain berth in the top 10.  But the summer did not unfold as one would have expected, combining losses to underachievers Gulbis and Cilic withan unsightly deluge of unforced errors in a first-week defeat to Simon at the US Open.  On the same court where he had dethroned Federer, Del Potro’s forehand suddenly lacked its characteristic explosiveness and his demeanor the quiet confidence that had intimidated his rivals.  Nor did the fall indoor season much improve his fortunes.  Looking much more like the tentative, brittle introvert of his pre-2009 self, he bookended a creditable loss to Tsonga in Vienna with unexpected stumbles against Blake and Granollers in Stockholm and Valencia.  A product of these early losses and a limited schedule, Del Potro’s second half has allowed him ample time to rest for Davis Cup, but rest may translate to rust.  In a must-win match against Ferrer on the first day, with Argentina almost certainly trailing 0-1, will the Spanish crowd unnerve a personality much less imposing than his physique?  Mentally inferior to Ferrer, Del Potro will need to rediscover his bullet serves and forehands for this tie to survive the first day in any meaningful fashion.

4)     Does Nalbandian have another miraculous moment left?

At the 2005 year-end championships, the Argentine with the smooth two-hander and dubious fitness rallied from losing the first two sets to stun Federer in a final-set tiebreak.  Just a few months later at the 2006 Australian Open, he carelessly let a two-set lead slip away against Baghdatis when victory would have allowed him to play for his first major title.  In such an erratic fashion has his long, injury-plagued career veered between spectacular success and spectacular collapses.  His Slam ambitions have long since evaporated, if they ever existed, but Nalbandian long has harbored hopes for his nation’s first Davis Cup crown.  A controversial figure in his home country as elsewhere, he would become a hero forever by snapping Argentina’s futility in Cup competition.  If Nalbandian plays as he did against Ferrer in the first rubber of the 2008 final, the Spaniards will have reason to furrow their brows if he meets Ferrer again in the potentially decisive fifth rubber.  (Although Argentina currently has scheduled Monaco for that match, one expects to see the Grouchy Gaucho riding to the rescue should their title hopes hinge upon it.)  Well past his prime, he still has amassed a formidable 22-5 record in Davis Cup singles rubbers that demonstrates his tendency to shine under national colors.  For Argentina to have any chance at all, Nalbandian must spearhead their doubles charge while conserving adequate energy to fluster Ferrer on Sunday.  The task looms large, but so do the stakes and likely the motivation—the only factor that has prevented him from becoming one of his generation’s elite contenders.

5)     Why don’t we have more questions about Spain? 

Unlike Argentina, the hosts have assembled a squad beyond Nadal that can accomplish more than the sum of its parts, especially at home and on clay.  Whereas uncertainty swirls around the visitors, one can expect an unwaveringly professional effort from Ferrer, who would serve almost any other country well as their #1 singles player.  One need only recall his five-set comeback against the then-imposing Roddick in the 2009 semifinal, or his five-set comeback against Stepanek in the 2009 final, to realize the value of his tenacity in this context, on this surface, and under the eyes of his compatriots.  Somewhat less steady are Lopez and Verdasco, but this flamboyant duo has competed valiantly throughout many a Cup campaign.  More likely than not, Argentina must defeat Ferrer twice and the two lefties once in order to claim its first Davis Cup title. Unless complacency strikes Spain in 2011 as it did Argentina in 2009, the visitors lack the depth and resilience to accomplish that mission.

Prediction:  Spain 3-1

***

Outside exhibitions, this weekend witnesses the last matches of the 2011 season.  We return next week to start reviewing the greatest performances from a fascinating season in both the ATP and the WTA.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga - 2011 China Open - Day 7

Djokovic vs. Tsonga:  Throughout the most spectacular season in the modern era of tennis, the world #1 shed the reputation of physical frailty that had dogged him during his formative years and beyond.  When Basel marked his third retirement in four tournaments, commentators no longer sniffed at his propensity for injuries but instead questioned why he had played at all.  Sensitive to issues surrounding his fitness, Djokovic may have felt the need to prove his durability as evidence of his maturity.  Few expected him to enter Paris, an event that could add little luster to his 2011 accomplishments despite its Masters 1000 status.  Yet the world #1 overcame a concerning shoulder injury to register victories over Dodig and Troicki, rallying from a one-set deficit against the latter opponent.  Having won his last 17 quarterfinals, Djokovic seeks to extend that streak at the expense of a foe whom he has toppled twice this year.  At both Wimbledon and the Rogers Cup, the Serb soared past Tsonga in relatively uneventful fashion; so thoroughly did he dominate him in Montreal that some suspected the Frenchman of a dubious retirement.  Before this year, though, Djokovic had struggled to contain Tsonga’s first-strike power, especially indoors, and his shoulder injury may prevent him from swinging with abandon as he must in order to avoid playing an entirely defensive match.  Although this surface has slowed, few players can defeat elite attackers by playing pure defense on an indoor hard court.  If Tsonga stays optimistic and focused, the last Frenchman remaining in the draw should have an excellent opportunity to rekindle the electricity of his title run here three years ago.

Ferrer vs. Isner:  A tale of twelve inches, the height disparity between the Spaniard and the American represents a weapon as vital as any in this stark contrast of styles.  Long one of the ATP’s most efficient returners, Ferrer has blunted pace with intimidating ease.  Beyond the reflexes and coordination necessary to develop that talent, his tenacious attitude has enabled him to withstand the demoralizing sensation of watching one’s opponent hold serve with minimal effort.  More than any quarterfinalist except Monaco, the highest-ranked Spaniard in the draw will have appreciated the tournament’s decision to reduce its surface speed this year.  Not known for his fall prowess, Ferrer has excelled in his unassuming way since the US Open with a semifinal appearance in Tokyo, a charge to the Shanghai final, and another semifinal in Valencia.  Despite his grinding style, he has remained in prime physical condition as the long calendar winds to its conclusion.  Across the net, Isner has served his way past the more balanced Wawrinka and the lefty net-rushing of Lopez.  Available only to players of his heights are the acute angles and leaping bounces that swing balls away from returners with short wingspans like Ferrer.  Only in three sets did the Spaniard overcome Lopez on the slow court of Shanghai, but he protected his serve doggedly during that encounter and should edge through here if he can repeat that performance.  Neither player generally enjoys venturing towards the net, but both should seek to unleash that dimension of their games in order to take time away from their opponent.

Federer vs. Monaco:  In search of his 800th career victory, the world #4 usually has not enjoyed his visits to the City of Light, whether in the springtime or in the fall.  But this year Federer delivered his strongest Slam run at Roland Garros, while his draw has lain invitingly open at the only Masters 1000 tournament where he never has reached the final.  A week after he claimed a fifth Basel crown, he will recognize the opportunity to accumulate more momentum before he attempts to defend his title at the World Tour Finals.  The slower surface may expose Federer’s sporadic inconsistency in a potential semifinal encounter with Murray, who has learned how to draw the Swiss superstar out of his comfort zone.  Against the unheralded Monaco, though, even the occasional lull should not cost him much more than it did at the US Open.  Under the lights of Arthur Ashe, Federer sparkled throughout an emphatically terse rout of the Argentine clay specialist, who looked overwhelmed by the occasion.  Like most veteran journeymen of his generation, Monaco still appears too awed by the Swiss legend to mount a convincing challenge.  And little in Federer’s first two victories here will have fueled his confidence, for he looked even crisper there than in his home tournament.  After a lopsided first set on Thursday, Monaco reversed the momentum of his match against Fish with impressively steady self-belief.  On Friday, however, his opponent will not offer him a chance to regroup.

Berdych vs. Murray:  Tormented repeatedly by Tipsarevic, the top-ranked Czech finally earned a measure of revenge by halting the London hopes of his nemesis.  After a 2010 campaign that brought him into the edge of the ATP elite, Berdych regressed from those accomplishments to his familiarly unreliable self in 2011.  Despite snapping an interminable title drought in Beijing, he defeated no opponent more notable than Verdasco at a major.  Nevertheless, he has remained firmly entrenched in the top 10 and clinched a second straight berth at the year-end championships, no small feat.  Barring his route to the semifinals is a player whom he has played only once since 2006, dominating a straight-sets meeting at Roland Garros a year ago.  Never have Berdych and Murray intersected on an indoor hard court, which would seem to tilt towards the world #7’s superior offensive firepower.  With a comprehensive triumph over Roddick on Thursday, though, the Scot found the slower surface an accommodating canvas for his fluid court coverage and efficient counterpunching.  Unbeaten since the US Open, he likely shares Federer’s determination to end 2011 with a formidable statement.  In a season controlled by Djokovic and Nadal, Murray quietly has compiled an impressive foundation for 2012.  A player who rarely fails to capitalize upon opportunities, he did not let the Cincinnati or Shanghai titles escape him against overmatched opponents.  The absence of the top two should inspire him to redouble his energies here.

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.

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.

Serbia at Sweden:  Initially awaited as a clash between top-five superstars Djokovic and Soderling, this tie developed into a mismatch when Djokovic reaffirmed his Davis Cup commitment while Soderling withdrew.  Considering the Swede’s recent slump, however, the outcome probably would not have changed even if the route had grown more arduous.  As the tie currently stands, the home nation will field no players inside the top 250, so the world #1 and his understudy Troicki should cruise through a pair of comfortable wins on the opening day, barring illness or injury.  After conquering Tsonga and Nadal at Wimbledon, Djokovic should find Eleskovic and Ryderstedt unimposing foes indeed.  The mismatch becomes less severe in doubles, where Sweden might possess a slight advantage in the Olympic silver medalists Aspelin and Lindstedt against the aging Zimonjic and Tipsarevic or some other partner less skilled in doubles than in singles.  Should the home squad survive until Sunday, though, it merely will postpone the inevitable until Djokovic delivers a ringing coup de grace in the reverse singles.

Serbia 3-1

Kazakhstan at Argentina:  Contesting their first World Group tie earlier this year, the visitors remain undefeated in World Group with a stirring upset over 2010 semifinalist Czech Republic.  Crucial to that achievement were the exploits of Andrey Golubev, the team flagship who has posted an 11-1 record in Davis Cup singles including a victory over Berdych.  Outside that weekend, though, the Kazakh #1 has won only two of 20 matches in 2011 and has lost 14 straight encounters since Indian Wells.  At his least effective on clay, he leads his compatriots into not only their weakest surface but a notoriously hostile crowd atmosphere.  Without longtime Davis Cup genie Nalbandian, Argentina still has assembled a team with excellent clay skills, highlighted by former Roland Garros semifinalist Del Potro.  Steadily marching back into relevance, the Tower of Tandil has the weapons to overpower the Kazakhs from the baseline with ease.  But he continues to display psychological frailty at untimely moments, while his shaky loss to Lopez in the 2008 final suggests that national team competition exposes his weaknesses rather than showcasing his strengths.  Beyond Del Potro, the home squad also can rely upon grinding dirt devil Juan Monaco, a veteran unlikely to fold under Davis Cup pressure and likely to outlast the volatile Kazakhs.

Argentina 3-0

Spain at USA:  After copious weeping and gnashing of teeth, the 2008-09 Cup champions trudge reluctantly to a surface where their captain clearly does not fancy their chances.  Costa’s sour carping situates his team in a potentially perilous position, situated too close to fatalistic negativity on the emotional spectrum before the first ace descends.  Eyeing the relentless serving barrage of Fish and Roddick, the visitors may find Nadal’s absence decisive by robbing them of two near-certain victories.  On the other hand, Wimbledon quarterfinalist Lopez should bring considerable optimism to his clash with Roddick, whom he convincingly conquered in the third round at the All England Club.  In a potentially decisive fifth rubber, the American will have an opportunity to soothe the sting of that defeat before his compatriots, whose presence typically inspires his finest tennis.  Before that intriguing rematch, Costa may consider shuffling his lineups to pit Verdasco rather than Ferrer against Roddick on Friday and Fish on Sunday.  Despite the lefty’s 2011 woes, he defeated Roddick on an identical surface in the San Jose final last year and reached the final there again this season.  In contrast, Ferrer displayed uncharacteristically poor body language during his loss to Fish in Miami, while his puny serve will permit him to collect fewer free points on the fast court than will his countryman.  But the American supremacy in doubles with the Bryans may become the decisive factor in this tie.  Confident that the reigning Wimbledon champions can deliver Saturday’s third rubber, the home team knows that they need only split the four singles matches.  With two top-10 veterans on a surface tailored to their strengths, that objective seems well within range, but one cannot discount the ability of the Spaniards to elevate each other as a team to feats that they could not accomplish individually.  Even without Nadal, plenty of intrigue should unfold.

USA 3-1

France at Germany:  Although all of the probably French singles players perch higher in the rankings than all of their German counterparts, this tie could evolve into a more dramatic encounter than statistic would suggest.  With inspired runs to the Halle final last month, both Kohlschreiber and Petzschner demonstrated the emotional boost that they receive from playing at home, whereas les bleus have proven famously fallible under adversity.  Perhaps that national trait has faded lately, however, with a sparkling second-week runs by Gasquet at Roland Garros and Wimbledon accompanying Monfils’ triumph over Ferrer at the former Slam and Tsonga’s fierce comeback against Federer at the latter.  Organized around maximizing singles players, the French squad includes only Llodra among its players earmarked for the doubles, while the hosts enjoy a regular doubles squad in Petzschner and Kas.  At the top of this squad looms the enigmatic Florian Mayer, whom few would consider equal to his top-20 ranking after witnessing his unremarkable shot-making abilities.  More often than one would expect, Davis Cup trains the spotlight on the least heralded star, so one senses that Mayer may play a decisive role before the weekend concludes.  French captain Guy Forget faces a series of intriguing decisions over whether to showcase Monfils, Gasquet, or Tsonga, and against which opponent.  Armed with far more raw talent than the home squad, the visitors should suffer just enough wayward moments to furrow Forget’s brow before relying on their superior depth to advance.

France 3-2

Ana Ivanovic - The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2011 - Day Two

Ivanovic vs. Larsson:  A first-round victim at two of the last three majors, the 2008 champion has succumbed in her opening match at three of seven tournaments this season.  While the first statistic illustrates her recent psychological frailty on grand stages, the latter statistic springs more from the injuries that have limited her to just 17 matches in 2011.  When healthy and confident, however, Ivanovic can carve her way deep into prestigious draws (cf. Indian Wells this year) and challenge the most elite opponents (cf. Clijsters in Miami).  Despite a wrist inflammation last week, she gained encouragement from her pre-tournament practices and can remind herself that she dominated Larsson in their previous meeting last fall.  The Swede has enjoyed a surprisingly fine clay season, highlighted by an Estoril semifinal, and she showed sufficient steel to topple Li Na in Miami.  If Ivanovic can subdue the inevitable first-round nerves, her much superior weight of shot should prevail.  But she will not want to invigorate her opponent with the sort of mid-match wobble that has dogged her all year, leading to squandered leads in Melbourne, Dubai, Madrid, and Rome.

Sharapova vs. Lucic:  For the second straight season, the three-time major champion arrives with a winning streak at the only Slam that has eluded her.  Far more impressive than the 2010 Strasbourg title, though, was a Rome surge that catapulted Maria from the outer to the inner circle of contenders with a  single blow.  A single blow remains the Russian’s preferred manner of terminating rallies with what Francis Ford Coppola might consider “extreme prejudice.”  In order to ultimately win this title, she must balance on the edge between aggression and recklessness, although her first opponent may not require such precision.  More than a decade ago, Lucic reached the Wimbledon semifinals with a win over Seles before soon fading from the picture like so many former prodigies.  While her comeback has not reached the celebrity of Date-Krumm’s revival, she won a set from Jankovic at the US Open and has the ball-striking capacity to survive the initial wave of assault from Sharapova.  Whether she can stay competitive throughout an entire match lies open to question.

Nadal vs. Isner: Never at his most comfortable against the skyscrapers of the ATP, the five-time champion must feel that Ivanovic played a naughty prank by assigning him the sport’s second-tallest man.  But the first-round loss of the sport’s tallest man, Karlovic, demonstrated the danger of relying upon a single shot to win three sets on these dusty battlefields.   After a desultory season thus far, Isner probably will enter the match with no real self-belief that he could threaten a player against whom he once won a set on a hard court.  If Nadal can score an early break of serve, the intrigue here could evaporate quickly.  Before it does, the match should provide a scintillating exercise in Rafa’s returning skills that will serve him well against later foes like Soderling.  Few elements of Nadal’s game impress more than his ability to gradually maneuver himself into control of a rally after absorbing a massive serve, and no surface showcases that talent more clearly than clay.

Harrison vs. Soderling:  Entering the main draw as a lucky loser, the future of American men’s tennis faces the two-time finalist.  After a pedestrian spring, Soderling brings little momentum into a clash with a player whom he defeated en route to the Brisbane title.  Nor did he bring momentum into his 2010 fortnight here, however, so Harrison should expect to meet the giant-killer who toppled Nadal and Federer in his last two appearances.  As unlikely to mount a legitimate threat as Isner against Nadal, the American has the opportunity to test his fledgling game against one of the ATP’s central pillars.  Mentally, he has the makings of a champion, but does he have the raw weapons?

Li vs. Zahlavova Strycova:  At her finest when coolest in the head, the Australian Open runner-up faces a perpetually sizzling firecracker.  An indifferent talent at best, Zahlavova Strycova attempts to strike sparks from her opponents with her pugnacious gamesmanship and tasteless theatrics.  One wonder whether she can crack the veneer of the Chinese star, so solid in Melbourne but so brittle over the following months.  If Lie aims to become a genuine contender on a consistent basis, the Czech exemplifies the type of journeywoman whom she must regularly defeat in uneventful fashion.

Monaco vs. Verdasco:  Hindered by several unkind draws this season, Verdasco has won consecutive matches at only three of eleven tournaments this year.  Now unseeded at Masters 1000 events, the Spaniard at least enters the tournament fresher than he did last year after an exhausting spring schedule.  Verdasco will need all of the energy that his legs can summon in order to outlast the tireless Monaco, the Argentine answer to Ferrer.  Technically sound albeit offensively underpowered, he can punish the Spaniard for the chronic lulls in the latter’s game by forcing him to hit multiple quasi-winners to finish points.  The world #20 has escaped unscathed from only two of their eights wars of attrition, so he will gain impetus from grinding down the defenses of this recurrent nemesis.

Petkovic vs. Jovanovski:  Can Jovanovski become “the third Serb” and follow in the footstep of compatriots Ivanovic and Jankovic?  Can Petkovic restore Germany to the tennis map a generation after the exploits of Steffi Graf?  The politician-musician-filmmaker-dancer-athlete has made substantial strides in that direction by reaching the Australian Open quarterfinal and Miami semifinal, but her momentum slowed between that performance and her Strasbourg title last week.  While both players prefer hard courts to clay, Petkovic has accumulated greater experience on the dirt and came within a point of halting Kuznetsova’s title defense last year.  In somewhat the opposite of Harrison’s position, Jovanovski has shown that she has ample firepower to compete with the elite, most notably in a Melbourne three-setter against Zvonareva.  What she has not shown is the mental stamina and willpower equally essential to becoming a champion.  To that end, she could learn from her opponent on Tuesday, a few steps higher on that evolutionary ladder although still a work in progress.

Querrey vs. Kohlschreiber:  One of the ATP’s most familiar scènes à faire, this match pits a steady, serve-oriented American against a fiery, versatile European.  Their respective backhands encapsulate the contrast between their styles, Querrey’s a studied, conservative two-hander and Kohlschreiber’s an effortless, audacious one-handed flick.  On clay, steady normally overcomes streaky, but the German has enjoyed much the stronger season overall and finds his footing here more naturally, having scored terre battue triumphs over Djokovic and Murray before.  A day that looks dismal for Americans from Isner to Russell to Harrison may turn no brighter when Querrey takes the court.

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 - 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 (Spain) beats fellow countryman Fernando Verdasco (Spain) in straight sets, 6/0, 6/1in the final. It's Nadal's 6th straight victory in Monte-Carlo, a record.  Prince Albert de Monaco gave the trophies to the finalists. Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters 2010, an ATP Tour Masters 1000 tennis tournament, held on the clay courts of the Monte-Carlo Country Club.

Perched above the Mediterranean, Monte Carlo has spent the last six years as the undisputed stronghold of Rafael Nadal.  Terminating an 11-month title drought there last season, the Spaniard swept to the title in especially emphatic style by losing no more than six games in any of his matches.  Much of the anticipation surrounding the first clay Masters 1000 event evaporated when Djokovic decided to bask in the glory of his hard-earned Indian Wells-Miami double.  Other than Federer, who has lost three Monte Carlo finals to Nadal, no player in the draw ever has defeated the Spaniard on the clay from which he sprang.  Who dares to storm Rafa’s redoubt this year?

First quarter:  Among the most notable victories of Gasquet’s career occurred on these shores in 2005, when he saved three match points before conquering Federer in a third-set tiebreak.  Often an underachiever on home soil since then, the Frenchman did capture the clay title in nearby Nice last season.  Gasquet twice has won sets from Nadal on the terre battue but has not faced him there since the Spaniard’s first Roland Garros title.  Despite a February-March resurgence, one expects him to muster only meager resistance against the greatest clay-court player in tennis history.  A late wildcard entrant to Monte Carlo, Berdych surely laments the misfortune that situated him in the Spaniard’s section, although he snapped a 20-set losing streak when they met in Miami.  Surging within a set of the Roland Garros final last year, the fifth seed could find his surface skills tested by the canny veteran Juan Ignacio Chela.  Entertaining but unfocused in North American losses to Malisse and Dolgopolov,  Tsonga opens his Monaco campaign against…Monaco, whose grinding style has blunted foes as formidable as Murray on this surface before.

Second quarter:  The highest-ranked player in this section, Murray almost certainly will not fulfill his seeding by progressing to the semifinals.  Reeling from ignominious losses to Donald Young and Alex Bogomolov, Jr., the Scot might start against Rotterdam nemesis Baghdatis.  The Cypriot fancies the clay as little as does the third seed, though, so Murray may have an opportunity to repeat his victory in their meeting at Roland Garros last year.  Similarly encircled by questions, the eighth-seeded Monfils returns from an injury that forced him to miss both Indian Wells and Miami.  While his sliding movement and defensive instincts suit the clay, the Frenchman often lacks the concentration necessary to prevail in a surface that favors longer rallies and greater patience.  His shot-making skills should find an intriguing test in Santiago Giraldo, who enjoyed an eye-opening clay campaign in 2010 before receding.  In a quarter filled with slumping seeds, Giraldo and fellow clay specialist Montanes could penetrate further than expected.  Also a potential dark horse, left-handed Brazilian talent Thomaz Bellucci possesses the weapons to threaten Murray should they meet in the fourth round.  Since no clear favorite looms above this section, more intriguing plotlines could unfold here than in the other quarters.

Third quarter:  Bookending an assortment of streaky, unreliable competitors are the two Spaniards who dogged Nadal’s footsteps during the last clay season.  A runner-up here a year ago, Verdasco desperately needs to regain his footing after a tepid end to 2010 slid into a woeful start to 2011, after which he eyed the return to clay with particular relish.  Yet he may not relish the prospect of an opening meeting with Robredo, who still can punish inconsistent opponents with his bland but stingy consistency.  A runner-up to Nadal in Rome last year, Ferrer has attained far more imposing heights during the last few months, winning two titles and reaching the Australian Open semifinals.  Swift to rebound from an opening-round loss in the California desert, the Spanish #2 gained momentum with a Miami quarterfinal and  should outlast anyone who could meet him before his compatriot.  Sometimes uneasy when forced to generate offense, Ferrer excels when he slips into a counterpunching role of redirecting an opponent’s pace, a task that will confront him constantly as he journeys through this section.  Flamboyant shot-makers Dolgopolov and Gulbis should leave craters in the clay with their percussive groundstrokes, while Llodra and Raonic should offer the rare spectacle of serve-and-volley tennis on the sport’s slowest surface.

Fourth quarter:  Outclassed by Nadal in Miami, a listless Federer arrives in Europe searching for a spark after a series of defeats against the two players ranked above him.  While his decreasing consistency will undermine him on clay more than anywhere else, the second seed will profit from the additional time that the surface provides him to exploit his forehand more frequently and construct points more carefully.  Having upset Murray and Djokovic on clay before, potential second-round opponent Kohlschreiber will force the 2009 Roland Garros champion to find his footing immediately, but the path grows smoother thereafter.  Strictly a hard-court player, Cilic has not learned how to arrange his lanky limbs on the clay, and his self-belief has sagged during the past year.  Unexpectedly reaching the semifinals at the Paris Outdoors last season, Melzer has rarely justified his top-10 ranking in 2011.  Repeatedly dismantled by Federer last year, the Austrian might succumb to Davydenko’s sharply angled groundstrokes in the second round.  Although his best tennis lies behind him, the Russian has recorded more impressive achievements on clay than anyone in this section except the Swiss.  Nor should one overlook Nicolas Almagro, who slashed through South American clay like a knife through butter.  Nevertheless, Federer has lost to just one player outside the top 5 since Wimbledon while compiling a 13-semifinal streak.

Semifinals:  Nadal vs. Monfils, Ferrer vs. Federer

Final:  Nadal vs. Federer

Champion:  Rafael Nadal

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