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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

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Novak Djokovic - 2011 US Open - Day 15

Djokovic:  For the eventual champion, the first five rounds gave little sign of what would unfold during the final weekend, to which Djokovic advanced with efforts unremarkable by his standards this year.  In eight hours across the last two rounds of the tournament, though, the ATP #1 conquered the two players who had held the top spot before him by defeating both of them at their own game, much as Stosur had with Serena.  Roaring (literally) back from a two-set deficit against Federer, the Serb delivered first strikes from his serve and forehand in a fashion familiar to fans of the five-time champion.  The most impressive shot of the tournament, his nonchalant return winner off the Swiss first serve to save a match point stunned both his audience and his opponent, who would win only four more points.  Since Djokovic had lost to Nadal after an equally draining five-set victory over Federer here a year ago, some observers wondered whether he would stay physically and mentally fresh.  Aside from a lull late in the third set, the answer came emphatically as the world #1 outran the defending champion along the baseline, outlasted him in crucial rallies, and outmaneuvered him strategically.  Trailing by a break in both the first and second sets, Djokovic rebounded to establish the same two-set stranglehold that he had in the Wimbledon final.  Nevertheless, despite the commanding scoreline, game after game settled into a deadlock of deuces, producing the war of attrition that Nadal normally wins.  Not so on this occasion, when Djokovic won a 17-minute, nine-deuce game to erase an early second-set deficit and then perhaps the most pivotal game of this fascinating final, immediately after his medical timeout in the fourth set.  At that stage, Rafa had held significant momentum and stood on the verge of accelerating towards the final set.  Snuffing out any hope of an epic comeback, Djokovic denied him escape from a five-deuce service game before scoring what proved the decisive break.  Less than half an hour later, the Serb sprawled euphorically across the court where he had lost two previous finals.  A Roland Garros title away from a career Slam of his own, Djokovic ends the 2011 Slam season head, shoulders, and 4,000 points above his nearest rivals, telegraphing a power shift in men’s tennis.

Nadal:  Reaching six major finals in each of the last two seasons, the Spaniard provided a worthy to sequel to Djokovic-Federer his crisp semifinal victory over Murray, which avenged two losses to the Scot at hard-court majors.  After a dismal US Open Series, Nadal surprised many observers by dropping just one set en route to the championship match at his least successful Slam.  His performance here confirmed his status as an all-surface threat and the favorite against any opponent but one, the player who has defeated him in six finals this year.  Two sets and three games into the final, Nadal looked headed straight for an ignominious straight-sets rout.  To his credit, he battled back from three third-set deficits to break Djokovic each time and turn the final into an encounter worthy of their rivalry.  Also to his credit, Rafa committed himself to flattening out his forehand and redirecting it down the line, the tactic that propelled him back into competition when all seemed lost.  Broken five times this year by the Serb when serving to stay in a set, he attempted to change that dynamic by choosing to serve first when he won the toss.  In the end, though, he could not compensate for the glaring contrast between Djokovic’s backhand and his own two-hander, which often bounced around the service line and offered his rival a choice of angles.  Nor did the imposing serve that won him the 2010 US Open resurface for more than a few fleeting moments.  Constantly under pressure in his service games and broken eleven times, Nadal needed all of his energy and willpower simply to survive for a fourth set, at which point he looked physically and psychologically spent.  Perhaps not destined to face Djokovic again until 2012, Rafa likely will spend the offseason searching for ways to unsettle this rival who has toppled him as decisively as he once toppled Federer.

Murray:  Another year of Slam disappointments having come to a close, one must wonder whether the world #4 progressed any closer to a maiden major.  After collapsing in the Australian Open final, Murray lost to Nadal in three consecutive semifinals at Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and the US Open, the last of which had witnessed his victory over the Spaniard in 2008.  To be sure, the Scot has lost at Slams only to the top two players in the world, who collectively have befuddled almost the entire ATP this year.  And the self-deprecating body language doesn’t strike us as an insuperable obstacle, considering the gnarly dispositions of champions and champion curmudgeons like McEnroe or Connors.  The scarcely competitive nature of those defeats (two sets won in four matches), though, bodes ill for his chances of overtaking them at the summit.  Against almost any opponent outside the top five, Murray’s bulletproof consistency from behind the baseline will reap rewards.  Against opponents who can combine consistency with superb shot-making, he has few options with which to win a best-of-five match unless he forces his forehand far out of its comfort zone.  Repeatedly over-hitting that stroke against Nadal, he will not win a major until—or rather, unless—he finds a way to transform it into a weapon that can match the forehands of those ranked above him.  Absent a point-ending shot, tactical versatility counts for little in the sport’s current era.

Federer:  Losing to the eventual champion at two of the last three majors, the Swiss master again showcased his vintage brilliance at a tournament where he once won five consecutive titles.  Revenge for two defeats this summer, his quarterfinal victory over Tsonga showcased the elegant, effortless tennis with which Federer has defused one-dimensional ball-bruisers over the years.  Through two sets against Djokovic, he dominated the Serb from all areas of the court as he struck his backhand with confidence and expertly finished points at the net.  A point away from a spectacular upset over the world #1, though, Federer appeared to allow one spectacular return to unnerve him.  Two forehand errors and a double fault later, the opportunity slipped through his grasp.  Recognizing that he still can battle on even terms with the very best in his sport, one also left this tournament thinking that the Federer of years past never would have let that Slam semifinal escape him.  His consecutive losses after holding two-set leads at majors suggest not only a more fragile focus but perhaps a diminished appetite for competition.  With no real records left to break or challenges left to conquer, the 30-year-old legend needs to find a new source of motivation as the game threatens to move past him.  Surely not content with semifinal after semifinal, this polished character nevertheless lacks the degree of anger, frustration, or injured pride that galvanized many aging champions before him.

Del Potro:  After his contentious four-set loss to Nadal at Wimbledon, his competitive intensity seems to have peeled away gradually.  The gentle giant cruised through two comfortable rounds and then fell prey to the first noteworthy opponent whom he encountered in a match less close than the score suggested.  Dropping two tiebreaks to Simon, Del Potro played passively and unintelligently at crucial junctures in sets, while the forehand that battered Federer off the court two years ago could not end points with such casual ferocity.  Rather than following the usual upward trajectory of a comeback, Del Potro’s return has traced a winding route for reasons not always apparent.

Tipsarevic:  When he reached his first Slam quarterfinal by outlasting the dogged Ferrero, one expected him to bow with little resistance to his top-ranked compatriot.  Instead, Tipsarevic battled toe to toe with Djokovic from the baseline for two compelling tiebreak sets that stretched over two and a half hours.  Although his overstretched fitness ultimately betrayed him, this new member of the top 20 continued his momentum from a breakthrough summer and has gained great motivation from his fellow Serb’s accomplishments.  Often an enigmatic competitor, he projects more power from his serve and groundstrokes than his small frame would suggest.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga - 2011 US Open - Day 8

Tsonga:  Recalling his comeback against Federer at Wimbledon, his surge from within six points of defeat against Mardy Fish appeared to reveal a player who could curb his affinity for distractions when necessary.  As his almost equally talented opponent self-destructed in the final set, Tsonga kept his antics to a minimum as he plowed through games with accumulating momentum.  Then, the maturity that this victory seemingly had demonstrated gave way to a disappointingly flat, unfocused loss against Federer in the quarterfinals.  Despite the damp New York night and the largely hostile crowd, Tsonga should have produced a sturdier effort when he faced a player whom he had conquered twice this summer.  Undermining thoughts that he might have evolved into a reliable contender, the loss illustrated the gulf in competitive vigor separating him from the elite whom he chronically upsets, a fact that no amount of dazzling acrobatics can obscure.  On the other hand, his even-tempered, positive attitude towards tennis and life enables one to connect with him more than with the grim stoicism of Murray  or the ethereal elegance of Federer, for example.

Roddick:  Somewhat like Muller in Nadal’s previous match, the 2003 champion offered merely a hapless foil for the brilliance of Rafa’s return game and passing shots.  During the four preceding matches, though, he gave American fans much to celebrate with performances greatly improved from his tepid spring and summer.  Especially notable was his four-set victory over Ferrer, the tenacious grinder who wore down Roddick in Davis Cup but could not crack his focus or determination here.  After winning what felt like a “six-setter” to him, the American rounded Court 13 to revel in his triumph with the crowd who had supported him on every shot—one of the 2011 Open’s more satisfying moments.  Recapturing some of his lost public relations capital there, Roddick also deserved credit for his strong stance against the bizarre scheduling decisions that unfolded during the soggy second week.

Isner:  A debut Slam quarterfinalist together with Tipsarevic, the most challenging serve in men’s tennis impressed almost as much by winning tiebreak after tiebreak, including three in one match against Simon.  Content to focus upon holding serve and letting his opponent do likewise, Isner won four matches while seeming to expend little more energy during points than between them.  Despite the inevitable opportunities for humor that his game invites, he gave Murray little cause for laughter during their four-set encounter.  Spectators might not see the most captivating tennis when they watch Isner, but they almost certainly will see a match decided by only a handful of key points, converted by the more opportunistic player on that day.

Young American men (no pun intended):  Seemingly headed into the dustbin of tennis history, the less famous Donald in New York started to unlock some of his unexplored potential in an impressive win over Wawrinka.  When Young previously has recorded his illusory “breakthroughs,” like an upset over Murray at Indian Wells, he would slump to an ignominious defeat in the next round against a highly beatable opponent.  This time, by contrast, he eased past Chela with minimal drama and reached the second week of a major for the first time.  The nearly forgotten Young much surpassed the disappointing fate of Ryan Harrison, trumpeted as a plausible Open sensation after consecutive semifinals in Atlanta and Los Angeles.  Again unable to channel his temper effectively, this teenager twice failed to serve out sets against Cilic in a step backwards from his first-round victory over Ljubicic last year.

Cilic:  Gone in the third round like his fellow giant Del Potro, the Croat nevertheless showed glimpses of his former self in pummeling his inside-out forehand past rising stars Ryan Harrison and Bernard Tomic.  The only player other than Djokovic to win a set from Federer, he competed more courageously than one might have expected through the first three sets of that match.  That performance may have testified not just to the five-time champion’s depleted aura but to a renewed sense of purpose in a powerful game that lost direction over the past two years.

Fish:  In the finest year of his career to date, the top-ranked American reached one major quarterfinal and failed even to equal his best performance at his home Slam.  Leading two sets to one against a deflated Tsonga, Fish played an inexcusably sloppy game when leading 4-4, 30-0 in the fourth set and then faded into fatalism during the crucial early games of the final set.  Considering Tsonga’s famously fallible focus, these lapses loomed large as proof of the American’s lack of the killer instinct that defines great champions.  He remains a remarkable talent, an engaging personality, an exemplary representative for American tennis—and a very human competitor who simply can’t handle the pressure of the greatest matches on the grandest stages.

Ferrero vs. Monfils:  The former flagship of the Spanish Armada, the gracefully aging Ferrero engaged in a five-set, nearly five-hour epic with a player several years younger and many rankings slots higher—and won it.  On one hand, Monfils should shoulder the responsibility for blowing a match in which he led by two sets to one and committed 81 unforced errors.  On the other hand, those 81 unforced errors came with 81 winners, ranging from the impressive to the spectacular.  Neither player cruised through any of the five sets without encountering stiff resistance from the opponent, several deuce games, and a harrowing test of nerve.  When Ferrero finally stepped to the service notch at 5-4 in the final set, though, he ended this extravaganza with the emphatic style worthy of this veteran, stoic and undaunted throughout the firework display across the net.  Perhaps the final glowing memory of his career, it stayed the most compelling match of the first week and one of the most compelling matches in the men’s draw overall.  While one would have hoped to see Monfisl advance further, the Frenchman always has prioritized entertainment value over winning and certainly delivered in that regard.  Even in the losing role, he enjoyed himself to the utmost, as did all of the fortunate observers.

***

We return shortly with a preview of the Davis Cup semifinals, which might feature the top two should they recover from their latest clash of swords.

Caroline Wozniacki - 2011 US Open - Day 2

Wozniacki vs. Rus:  Having snapped a three-match losing streak with a five-match winning streak, the Dane arrives at the US Open fresh from a New Haven title for the fourth consecutive year.  As with Radwanska’s parallel shift, the decision to separate from her increasingly irritable father may have allowed Wozniacki to collect herself following a disappointing summer.  Her familiar self in New Haven and the first round here, the world #1 played within herself as she won with depth rather than angle and placement rather than pace.  A tall Dutch lefty with a heavy forehand, Rus earned fleeting notoriety by upsetting Clijsters in the second round of Roland Garros after winning a set from Sharapova in Madrid.  On both occasions, she benefited from error-strewn displays by her opponents that positioned her to win, but the Dutchwoman finished off Clijsters with increasingly confident play.  Normally stingy with unforced errors, Wozniacki became more slovenly in that category during her summer swoon before reverting to her characteristic cleanliness last week.  Nevertheless, lefties have troubled her in the past (cf. Martinez Sanchez), so this match might open a window onto her current level of confidence.

Jankovic vs. Dokic:  Meeting Mirjana Lucic in the first round of last year’s Open, the Serb needed three sets to squelch a comeback threat from the Balkans.  In the second round of this year’s Open, she faces a similar opponent at a similar stage in her career.  Winning a title earlier this year in Kuala Lumpur, Dokic sporadically reminds audiences of the danger latent in her flat, low groundstroke lasers.  Just as prominent in her comeback are the cascades of double faults that have cost her many a match.  Since Dokic tends to veer from outstanding to abysmal with little between them, her first-round victory suggests that she has struck at least a moderately formidable vein of form here.  Dropping just two games in her own opener, Jankovic will hope to survive the first blow or two before gradually outmaneuvering her opponent.  Although she struggles with double faults less often, the former #1’s serve remains a questionable stroke that Dokic can attack in attempts to shorten the points, essential against an opponent with much superior fitness and consistency.

Ferrero vs. Monfils:  Famous for antics like leaping in mid-air to strike an ordinary groundstroke, Monfils perhaps set the tennis precedent for Petkovic.  Yet he has grown more focused and businesslike this summer as his ranking has climbed inside the top eight.  Seriously challenging Djokovic in Cincinnati, the Frenchman looked extremely sharp in dismantling future star Grigor Dimitrov a round ago.  Few fans would want Monfils to become a sober, steely ball-striking machine, though, and he continued to oblige the spectators with vintage leaps, lunges, and dashes punctuated by a flourished fist.  If he can restrain those bursts of showmanship to unimportant moments, his sparkling athleticism should conquer the 2003 finalist.  Once the flagship of the Spanish Armada, Ferrero has receded towards an approaching retirement, and his unflagging professionalism jars intriguingly with the exuberance across the net.  Rarely a crowd favorite in New York, the Spaniard’s dour visage invites viewers to admire his technique, study his footwork, respect his achievements—but not to connect with him.

Azarenka vs. Dulko:  One US Open ago, Azarenka retired against Dulko in the first round with a concussion that caused her to lose consciousness on the court.  At Roland Garros last year, the current world #5 pried just three games away from the Argentine, who also defeated her in straight sets three years ago.  While she continues to retire at an alarming rate, Azarenka did not look hampered by the hand injury that forced her withdrawal from Cincinnati in the first round.  An appetite for revenge likely will motivate the pugnacious Belarussian to reverse those recent results, but Dulko has proven a difficult riddle to solve for even the most accomplished players.  At first glance, one struggles to find the elements of this unassuming game that could have undone opponents from Henin to Sharapova.  Rather than any single weapon, Dulko’s overall consistency and court coverage will pose the most significant challenge to an impetuous shot-maker who never saw a ball that she didn’t want to crush.  One round away from a Saturday night clash with Serena Williams, Azarenka wants to ensure that she shows as little vulnerability as possible.

Berdych vs. Fognini:  Often a frustrating pastime, “Berd-watching” became more rewarding in Cincinnati when the underachieving Czech finally achieved an accomplishment of note for the first time since Wimbledon 2010.  In a routine straight-sets victory over Federer, Berdych illustrated once again how far sheer ferocity of ball-striking can carry a player past a more versatile, less brutal style.  Less forceful than his serve and groundstrokes is his mind, the arena where his second-round opponent can undermine him.  An idiosyncratic Italian with much-remarked eyebrows, Fognini specializes in the sort of protracted, emotionally heated contest where Berdych sometimes crumbles.  An example of that genre unfolded at Roland Garros this year, when an ailing Fognini hobbled theatrically around the court en route to a seemingly certain loss—and won.  His casual swings at groundstrokes suggest a practice session more than a match, but this effortlessness masks power that he can unleash unexpectedly. While Fognini’s game may seem like an expertly assembled set of smoke and mirrors, its lack of straightforwardness could force Berdych to think more than he would wish.

Petkovic vs. Zheng:  In a sensational year for Chinese tennis, the chronically injured Zheng has played a third fiddle to Roland Garros champion Li and new top-20 resident Peng.  Once in the top 20 herself, this doubles star and Olympic medalist can fight firepower with firepower better than her petite frame would suggest.  A victory over Sharapova and multiple three-setters against Serena have attested to her self-belief against the most elite opponents in the sport, so Petkovic should practice her groundstrokes more than her dancing.  The glaring flaw in Zheng’s game, her meek second serve should offer the German plentiful opportunities to gain control of opponents with aggressive returns.  Regrouping from a first-week loss at Wimbledon, Petkovic reasserted herself in North America with two victories over Kvitova amidst semifinal appearances in San Diego and Cincinnati.  Ever the entertainer, whether deliberately or inadvertently, Petkorazzi’s most memorable moment of the summer came when she bolted indecorously from the San Diego court mid-match to vomit.  With a personality so multifaceted and unpredictable, though, something quirky or intriguing almost always happens during her matches and makes her a must-see player in the first week.

Ana Ivanovic - 2011 US Open - Day 2

Ivanovic vs. Cetkovska:  Falling to the Czech at Wimbledon, the former #1 will aim to avenge that defeat just as she reversed her Stanford loss to Morita a tournament later in San Diego.  Double-bageled by Ivanovic three years ago, Cetkovska has developed into a far more accomplished, self-assured competitor who defeated three top-15 opponents last week in New Haven.  Under the pressure of a third-set tiebreak against Li Na, she defied expectations by proving mentally sturdier than the Chinese veteran.  When she faced Ivanovic at Wimbledon, Cetkovska never lost her serve in the two sets and dominated the tiebreak, an area in which the Serb has faltered throughout 2011.  Shaky late in close sets and matches, Ivanovic rallied in her opener against the dangerous lefty Ksenia Pervak and then dedicated the victory to her dead grandfather.  Far from her best in that encounter, she will need to elevate her first-serve percentage significantly and sting her groundstrokes more assertively from the outset, especially her backhand.  Much like Jankovic at last year’s US Open, a second-round casualty after the death of her grandmother, Ana may struggle to focus on her tennis amidst the personal issues besetting her.  Or the sight of a recent nemesis across the net may inspire her to “put things right,” as the sensitive Serb described her triumph over Morita in San Diego.

Tomic vs. Cilic:  At the Australian Open 2009, they contested a gripping albeit uneven five-setter in which Cilic survived not only the talented teenager but the partisan crowd.  Against a similarly hostile audience in the first round, the lanky Croat eased past Ryan Harrison in straight sets as he erased multiple deficits late in the match.  A curious figure who has stalled since his breakthrough two years ago, Cilic appears to have both the physical talents and the mental poise to compete at the elite level.  But his technique, especially on his forehand, continues to break down at key moments, while his serve has produced fewer free points than a player of his height normally records.  Does that notably calm demeanor mask a lack of determination or competitive vigor?  Just as intriguing is Cilic’s opponent, a precocious Wimbledon quarterfinalist who presented Djokovic with arguably his most formidable test of that fortnight.  Long overshadowed by his repulsive father, Tomic accumulated a reputation as an arrogant, prickly youngster lacking in respect for peers like Lleyton Hewitt and in gratitude for the opportunities given him by Tennis Australia.  Perhaps not coincidentally, his increased successes have stemmed from opportunities that he has created for himself, while his father has faded from the headlines.  Spectators now can appreciate a surprisingly mature, complete game played by a tall player who moves well, a power player who defends well, and a baseliner who exhibits crisp technique in volleys.  Does the kernel of a future champion lie in the versatile, motivated Tomic?

Maria Sharapova - Western & Southern Open - Day 7

Sharapova vs. Watson:  A day after Hurricane Irene subsided, Hurricane Maria roars from her Cincinnati title into yet another clash with a rising star in the first week of a major.  At Roland Garros, Sharapova clawed out of a substantial deficit to escape French hope Caroline Garcia.  At Wimbledon, she trailed Robson in the first set and later in the first-set tiebreak before reversing the momentum.  In her New York opener last year, moreover, Sharapova started tentatively while losing the first set to Groth.  Seeking her 30th victory of the season, the 19-year-old Heather Watson has not yet threatened (and rarely played) an elite opponent but has secured a handful of victories over respectable foes like Scheepers, Larsson, and Suarez Navarro.  Already the third-ranked British woman, Watson has gained attention for her crisp movement and versatile stroke repertoire, as well as her precocious maturity.  Her debut on the largest arena in tennis should test her nerve even before Sharapova unleashes her thunderous returns.  Although the teenager might well challenge the Russian for a set or so, the latter has found herself in such a position before and will rely upon her experience to prevail.

Harrison vs. Cilic:  Relatively unfamiliar to the tennis world a year ago, Harrison built upon the support of his compatriots to defeat Ljubicic and nearly Stakhovsky.  Now a familiar name to all but the most casual fans, the future top-ranked American stands in an ideal position where he can score a meaningful victory against a talented but recently underperforming opponent.  Two semifinals in the US Open Series extended Harrison’s momentum from an encouraging Wimbledon, while Cilic scored a surprising straight-sets victory over Del Potro.  In what should become a high-quality encounter, the introverted Croat must guard against the distractions of a partisan crowd, a task that has troubled him in Davis Cup.  A more complete player than Harrison at this stage, however, he should gain control of rallies consistently by targeting the American’s backhand with his own superior two-hander.  Meanwhile, the teenager should exploit the Croat’s ungainly height by hitting behind him and forcing him to reverse direction.  Against Cilic’s formidable serve stands Harrison’s sparkling return, a key matchup to watch in a first-round encounter that looks destined to last more than three sets.

Dimitrov vs. Monfils:  Older and taller than Harrison, the Bulgarian descendant to Federer faces a more imposing challenge in the form of world #8 Monfils.  Ascending to that likely inflated ranking, the Frenchman has continued to oscillate between the sublime and the absurd in recent weeks.  One week after he effectively conceded a quarterfinal to Djokovic, he showed flashes of brilliance and enhanced focus in a three-set defeat to the Serb in Cincinnati.  Against an opportunistic prodigy, Monfils cannot afford to let his concentration lapse, always a greater challenge in the best-of-five format.  Nearly overcoming Ferrer in Cincinnati, Dimitrov owns elegant strokes behind which lurk an unexpected degree of power.  Nevertheless, he has not followed Harrison’s example in capitalizing upon a strong Wimbledon performance, instead falling to two players outside the top 200 in his next two tournaments.  A potential thriller, this match just as easily could swing strongly in one direction or the other considering the unpredictability of its combatants.

Stakhovsky vs. Gasquet:  While two-handed backhands have evolved into the smarter, more effective choice, the traditional one-handed stroke remains one of the most aesthetically attractive shots in the sport.  The most scintillating one-hander in the ATP faces a charismatic, slightly quirky opponent in Stakhovsky, who has enjoyed this phase of the season before.  Gifted with a talent for improvisation, the Ukrainian’s spontaneity in shot selection should create an entertaining foil for a player who has spent most of his career as a foil for greatness.  Long past the days when observers predicted his evolution into a Slam contender, Gasquet has recorded second-week appearances at the last two majors amidst a generally impressive year for French tennis.  But his fragile personality fits uncomfortably into the electric atmosphere of the Open, where he often has not found his finest form.

Radwanska vs. Radwanska:  As with Serena and Venus, the dynamic of two sisters aligned on opposite sides of the net never fails to intrigue.  In contrast to her deft, counterpunching sister, the younger Radwanska has honed the power-hitting baseline style more characteristic of the WTA.  A former junior US Open finalist, Urszula defeated Agnieszka in Dubai two years ago and then fell easily to her in Eastbourne.  The recently resurgent A-Rad once again excelled on the US Open courts, appearing to have benefited by separating from her father.  Although her underpowered game won’t allow her to contend for the title, the two-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist relishes faster surfaces that add an extra jolt to her groundstrokes without compromising her movement.

Karlovic vs. Gonzalez:  Far removed from his tenure in the top 10, the 2007 Australian Open finalist has demonstrated his courage in returning from a potentially career-ending injury.  Not noted for focus or mental tenacity, Gonzalez faces a severe test of patience when he confronts the frustratingly impenetrable serve of Karlovic.  Within two points of an Indian Wells semifinal before Nadal edged past him, the tallest player in the ATP has suffered significant injuries himself as he ages, but none of those niggles have seemed to dilute a serve that has registered the fastest speed in tennis.  Like most South Americans, Gonzalez tethers himself to the baseline even on hard courts, so a curious contrast should develop with the net-rushing, volley-slashing Karlovic.

Makarova vs. Kirilenko:  Beyond two sisters battling each other, two Russians engaged in an internecine collision might represent the second-most entertaining plotline in women’s tennis.  Better known for her doubles accomplishments, Eastbourne champion Makarova constantly seeks to dictate rallies with her typical lefty arsenal.  Comfortable in all areas of the court, Kirilenko also has earned more laurels when accompanied by a partner but has reached a Slam quarterfinal (2010 Australian Open) with a game built mostly around consistency and versatility.  Also separating these countrywomen is the lefty’s fiery competitive personality, which has surfaced even in the relatively relaxed atmosphere of doubles.   Just as her feisty spirit matches her aggressive playing style, so does Kirilenko’s tranquility mirror her professional polish.

Novak Djokovic - Western & Southern Open - Day 7

First quarter:  On the top line of a Slam draw for the first time in his career, Djokovic should not test his ailing shoulder significantly against his first two opponents.  Not until the third round does the path become intriguing for the Serb, who then would face Nadal’s recent nemesis Ivan Dodig.  Of Djokovic’s seven victims in Australia, only Dodig claimed a set from him.  Also wedged into this section is former semifinalist Davydenko, a recurrent threat to Djokovic on hard courts although lately struggling to string together compelling performances.  As the second week begins, a pair of graceful, spectacular, and spectacularly erratic shot-makers in Dolgopolov and Gasquet will vie for the right to battle the top seed.  The towering serve of Karlovic and a revitalized Gonzalez might disrupt the Frenchman’s progress with styles perhaps better suited to the fast courts of New York.  But none of these competitors possesses the versatility, athleticism, and mental durability of the Djokovic who has burst to the pinnacle of the ATP in 2011.  Nor, most likely, do his most plausible quarterfinal opponents.  For the third consecutive North American tournament, Djokovic might meet Monfils in an entertaining quarterfinal.  When they collided her last year, however, the latter’s showmanship produced sporadic moments of brilliance rather than a competitive encounter.  His confidence boosted by a Cincinnati victory over Federer, Berdych could block Monfils in the fourth round.  Almost the opposite of the Frenchman in playing style and personality, the 2010 Wimbledon finalist could not challenge Djokovic in Australia and has dropped their last five meetings.  Among the dark horses in this section is Grigor Dimitrov, who delivered a promising effort against Tsonga at Wimbledon and could ambush a desultory Monfils in his opener.

Quarterfinal:  Djokovic d. Berdych

Second quarter:  Having knocked off Ljubicic in the first round of last year’s Open, rising American star Ryan Harrison aims to repeat the feat against another Croat, 2009 quarterfinalist Cilic.  If Harrison should score the mini-upset, a battle between future ATP champions could unfold when he duels with leading Australian hope Bernard Tomic.  Turning heads with his Wimbledon quarterfinal appearance, the Aussie shares the American’s competitive determination, which would serve either of them well against Federer.   Like Djokovic, the five-time champion should collide with no genuine threats in his first two matches and might well reach the quarterfinals without dropping a set.  No longer able to blaze through draws with sustained dominance, Federer could profit from the opportunity to gradually refine his shots as the tournament progresses.  In a similar situation with a comfortable Wimbledon draw, though, he lacked the necessary intensity to withstand Tsonga’s inspired charge when the competition suddenly spiked upward dramatically.  Aligned to meet Stepanek, Troicki, or perhaps Kohlschreiber in the fourth round, the Swiss legend would face a corresponding challenge at the US Open when he meets Tsonga or Fish a round later.  Lurking ominously near the top-ranked American is Thiemo De Bakker, a tall Dutchman with the overpowering serve-forehand combinations that could trouble even the elite on this fast surface.  As for Tsonga, the American’s projected fourth-round opponent, a host of neighboring qualifiers and the fading Verdasco.  The Spaniard did topple Federer’s recent conqueror during his sensational semifinal run at the 2009 Australian Open, but a rematch of this year’s Wimbledon quarterfinal looks likely.  Can Federer solve a foe who has lost serve just twice in their last eight sets?

Quarterfinal:  Tsonga d. Federer

Third quarter:  In his return to the scene of his greatest triumph, Del Potro hopes to reclaim his scintillating spring form and move past the disappointing US Open Series.  Already having defeated Soderling twice this year, the 2009 champion should reprise that meeting early in the second week.  Before that stage, the indefatigable Simon will probe Del Potro’s consistency and fitness by extending the Argentine deep into rallies.  Of the three Americans situated between the Argentine and the Swede, Alex Bogomolov has earned the greatest attention by catapulting from a Miami upset of Murray to reach his highest ranking to date.  Likely unimpressed by this counterpunching upstart, Soderling has not played on hard courts this summer and may open the tournament a few notches below his impenetrable self.  In fact, the two-time Roland Garros finalist has spent much of 2011 located between stagnation and regression as increasing numbers of opponents have exposed his one-dimensionality.  On the day that Soderling meets Del Potro, Murray might seek revenge for his loss to Wawrinka at last year’s Open.  The Swiss #2 chronically displayed skills that shine on any surface, but the Cincinnati title should have boosted the Scot’s confidence before his (alleged) favorite major.  Late in the first week, he might once again test his mother’s loyalties when he faces Wimbledon quarterfinalist Feliciano Lopez, routinely dispatched by Murray at the All England Club.  Navigating past Del Potro in a four-set quarterfinal three years ago, the third seed typically struggles against the type of opponent who can terminate points without warning from either groundstroke wing.  Nevertheless, the 2009 champion has not yet toppled one of the ATP’s top four since returning from wrist surgery, still searching for the effortless explosiveness that won him this title.

Quarterfinal:  Murray d. Del Potro

Fourth quarter:  Slipping outside the top 20 for the first time in a decade, Roddick could not have asked for a kinder draw at his home major, which he departed in the second round last year.  Ample talent but scant willpower looms to threaten the 2003 champion in the form of Winston-Salem finalist Benneteau or new top-10 inhabitant Almagro.  Hampered since Wimbledon by assorted injuries, Roddick did play four matches last week in North Carolina although faltering again once he encountered determined resistance.  Here, that resistance should arrive in the fourth round, when he attempts to avoid a second 2011 defeat to Ferrer after falling to him in straight sets during the Davis Cup quarterfinal.  Undeterred by the American crowd, the world #5 rallied from multiple deficits in that match as he slowly gnawed away at Roddick mentally and physically.  Familiar with such a feeling against Ferrer here, world #2 Nadal yielded to his compatriot at this tournament four years ago. After dismal performances in Montreal and Cincinnati, Nadal could lift his spirits (and thus his game) significantly by recording a series of uneventful victories en route to that quarterfinal.  Projected to encounter him before that stage is another notable hard-court nemesis of the Spaniard, 2010 Indian Wells champion Ljubicic.  The second seed should quell that aging menace before reprising last year’s semifinal here against Youzhny.  Once winning two sets from Nadal at Wimbledon, Youzhny might fall prey to the reinvigorated Gulbis in his opener.  Should the Latvian string together three wins to reach Nadal, a compelling test of Rafa’s nerve might lie ahead.

Quarterfinal:  Nadal d. Ferrer

Semifinals:  Djokovic d. Tsonga; Murray d. Nadal

Final:  Djokovic d. Murray

***

We return tomorrow with the companion article on the women’s draw.

Rafael Nadal - Western & Southern Open - Day 4

Nadal vs. Fish:  Having spent nearly five hours on court the day before, the second seed will find his powers of recovery severely tested if he seeks to continue his mastery over the top-ranked American. Burdened with a similar task in Chennai after an epic victory over Moya three years ago, Rafa faded quickly against Youzhny a day later.  Uncharacteristically erratic during much of his twelfth straight victory over Verdasco, Nadal now targets his seventh consecutive victory over Wimbledon quarterfinal victim Fish.  A finalist at his last three tournaments, the American regrouped swiftly from his Rogers Cup disappointment to conquer Davydenko and Gasquet without losing his serve in either match.  Failing to serve out a match against Benneteau, Nadal’s service frailty extended into his grinding battle with Verdasco.  In few other departments does Fish surpass the Spaniard, however, while the latter’s crackling passing shots will challenge him on approaches or serve-volley gambits.  Despite his improved stamina, he still cannot attempt to outrun or outmaneuver the Spaniard, as he should have learned in his Wimbledon loss.  Strikingly, though, the American’s most successful Masters 1000 tournament has proven Nadal’s least successful, the only event of this stature where he has not reached the final.  An unexpected loss to Baghdatis in a 2010 quarterfinal extended that futility and snapped an unbeaten streak against that distinctly inferior foe, whereas Fish’s second finals appearance here followed from victories over Murray and Roddick.  Nowhere else would he seem more likely to ambush Rafa, moreover, than on a fast hard court in his home nation with the ten-time major champion still searching for confidence.

Federer vs. Berdych:  Into their first meeting this year, both men will bring memories of their three notable collisions in 2010.  Bookending Berdych’s upset of Federer at Wimbledon, their two Masters Series encounters ended in third-set tiebreaks that they split in Miami and Toronto.  The two-time defending champion has looked arguably the most formidable player in the men’s draw this week, exacting revenge for his 2009 losses to Del Potro with superb serving.  Less remarkable was a predictably comprehensive victory over Blake that left the GOAT’s energies minimally depleted for Friday.  Yet Berdych also impressed by losing just four games in his last three sets, two of them against world #11 Almagro.  Still seeking his first Masters 1000 semifinal of the season, the Czech may feel liberated by the prospect of a second half in which he defends relatively few points.  Both players often rely on running around their backhands to strike inside-out forehands to the opponent’s backhand, so the battle for the middle of the baseline will prove critical.  Despite the Cincinnati humidity, Federer has looked especially agile and keen of instincts this week, while his effective returning of Del Potro’s serve bodes ill for Berdych.  Relying on that shot to set up his heavy groundstrokes, the eighth seed needs to assert himself early in rallies before Federer outmaneuvers him and disrupts his rhythm.

Djokovic vs. Monfils:  Precisely a week ago, they met in a quarterfinal at the Rogers Cup that scarcely felt like a battle between two top-10 players.  A battle it was not, in fact, for Djokovic won ten of the last eleven games from the disengaged Frenchman and improved his record against him to 7-0.  While the world #1 pockmarked the baseline with his groundstrokes, Monfils focused on entertaining the crowd the occasional improbable retrieval or dramatic, leaping smash.  Even more unpredictable than his compatriot Tsonga, he has begun to win the matches that he should win more often but continues to lose almost all of the matches that he should lose.  Clearly intimidated by Djokovic’s almost error-free play, Monfils lamented after last week’s debacle that he had no weapons with which to challenge the Serb.  A more accurate account would ascribe that outcome not to his lack of weapons but to his reluctance to use them.  Noted by former coach Roger Rasheed, Monfils’ curious passivity has prevented him from exploiting his offensive potential to the utmost, necessary against elite foes.  A casual, loose-limbed eccentric, he enjoys rallying endlessly from behind the baseline too much to finish points at the first opportunity or in a manner less than artistic.  Although still a pleasure to watch, Djokovic’s more functional, efficient style requires opponents to adopt a similarly determined, gritty mentality in order to challenge him—something of which Monfils rarely seems capable.

Simon vs. Murray:  Both preferring to defend rather than attack, these quarterfinalists display similarly symmetrical groundstrokes and an aversion to risk.  Relying on high-percentage shot selection and stingy consistency to frustrate Ferrer, Simon has vaulted into the threshold of the top 10 as he has distanced himself from the injuries that hampered him last season.  Quarterfinals in Dubai and Miami have accompanied two minor titles, telegraphing the Frenchman’s renewed presence just outside the elite group of contenders.  Losing his last six encounters with Murray, however, Simon has suffered from the disparity between their first serves.  When the Scot gains at least a modest success rate on that shot, he can prevent his service games from developing into the wars of attrition that the Frenchman’s service games often become.  When the percentage dips, the rest of his game can spiral downwards, as his opening win over Nalbandian illustrated.  Surely relieved to have avenged his Miami loss to Bogomolov, Jr. with a 12-ace barrage on Thursday, Murray needs a sturdy week in Cincinnati before the next Slam arrives.  He has much more to lose than to gain in this match, which suggests that tentative ball-striking might define it.  On the other hand, his nemeses typically overpower rather than outlast him, and Simon’s legs may have grown weary following consecutive three-setters filled with epic rallies.

Maria Sharapova - Western & Southern Open - Day 4

Sharapova vs. Stosur:  Winless in eight clashes with the statuesque Siberian, Stosur has found her indifferent backhand exposed and her kick serve neutralized by this opponent.  Normally jumping above the comfort level of most WTA returners, the latter shot leaps into Sharapova’s strike zone and allows her to hit down on the ball, flattening it into a powerful point-starting blow.  The three-time major champion has won the last nine sets that they have played by exploiting the asymmetry in Stosur’s groundstrokes, which contrasts with her weaponry on both wings.  After a third-round exit in Toronto, Sharapova recaptured glimpses of her spring form with a resounding victory over Kuznetsova, who has the innate athleticism and elastic movement that has troubled programmatic shot-makers like Maria.  Like that Roland Garros champion, the former Roland Garros finalist will hope to hit as many forehands as possible but must avoiding exposing too much court to her opponent’s lasers.  Unlike Kuznetsova, Stosur can create significant pressure with her opening shot, finishing points as swiftly and decisively as Sharapova does when she has the opportunity.  Since neither player wishes to spend the morning patrolling the baseline, most exchanges should end with an aggressive blow from one player or the other that permits her slow-footed opponent no time to restart the rally.  In two relatively uneventful victories this year, Sharapova delivered that terminal blow much more often than did Stosur, and decided the clear majority of points on her own terms.  On the fast surface where she reached the final last year, the WTA’s most fearsome returner will aim to assault both first and second serves, requiring the Aussie to summon all of the confidence accumulated during her run to the Rogers Cup final.

Hantuchova vs. Zvonareva:  Aided by Bartoli’s 16 double faults, Hantuchova nevertheless deserved credit for outlasting the tenacious double-fister in a match that lasted exactly three hours.  Dazzling in her two 2011 meetings with Zvonareva, the elegant Slovak halted the Russian’s title defense in Pattaya City before nearly forestalling her title run in Doha.  On both of those occasions, her clever angles tested Zvonareva’s lateral movement and drew her away from her safe haven along the baseline into uncomfortable positions.  Notoriously fragile in close matches, Hantuchova predictably faded late in the third set of their Doha thriller, and fatigue from Thursday might compromise her energy.  Meanwhile, the second seed has continued an encouraging post-Wimbledon surge with a pair of routine victories.  As she prepares to defend her US Open final, Zvonareva would benefit immensely from an impressive week in Cincinnati, where the fast courts would seem to undermine her naturally counterpunching style.  On the other hand, the relaxed atmosphere of the American Midwest may soothe her easily ruffled emotions, deflating whatever pressure she encounters.

Petrova vs. Petkovic:  Saturated with drama was their only previous encounter, which thundered into a third-set tiebreak at last year’s US Open.  Although her prime lies several years behind her, Petrova remains an occasionally formidable force on serve and at the net, skills that have aided her in doubles as well as singles.  Overcoming Ivanovic in the second round, the College Park champion can feel fortunate to have avoided Wozniacki a round later, dispatching the Dane’s latest nemesis with scant difficulty.  Unlike her opponent, Petkovic fought her way to this quarterfinal over compelling opposition in Gajdosova and Wimbledon champion Kvitova, whom she has defeated in consecutive weeks after struggling against her early in 2011.  Neither the Russian nor the German plays with much margin for error, suggesting that viewers will see significant quantities of unforced errors if their timing falters.  While Petkovic rarely has earned the opportunity to reach a semifinal at an event of this significance, Petrova will realize that she can expect few more such chances as her career wanes.  More dominant from her forehand than her backhand, the world #11 will aim to target her opponent’s forehand, less reliable than her two-hander.  The stolid veteran and the cheeky upstart should offer an intriguing contrast of personalities in a match that should prove well-contested and compelling, if not star-studded or aesthetically picturesque.

Peng vs. Jankovic:  Doubtless buoyed by her three-set triumph over Schiavone, Jankovic showcased some of her finest tennis this season, including imaginatively angled passing shots, alert anticipation, and timely serving (although facing 19 break points).  Although she twice failed to serve out the match against the indomitable Italian, the former #1 ultimately reveled in avenging her reverse at this opponent’s hands in Roland Garros.  More revenge might lie ahead with Australian Open conqueror Peng aligned to intercept the Serb, but Jankovic has lost their only two meetings since 2008.  Victorious in their six preceding encounters, however, she smothered Peng with her balanced groundstrokes and a court coverage that comfortably withstood the Chinese star’s meager power.  Amidst the most impressive season of her career, the world #15 has achieved that career-high ranking by winning nearly 50 matches not long after the year’s midpoint.  Peng typically bombards the center of the baseline with her groundstrokes, attempting to elicit errors from opponents pressed into a position that prevents them from creating angles.   Not likely to succumb to such a tactic when at her best, though, Jankovic more often relies upon similarly heavy north-south hitting that wears down the durability and patience of her victims.  Once again flashing her signature smile towards the end of her hard-earned Schiavone victory, the 2009 Cincinnati champion has not won a title this year after having won at least one notable tournament in each of the previous four seasons.  Can Jankovic muster just enough momentum to unleash an unexpected charge here?

Roger Federer Roger Federer of Switzerland holds the trophy after defeating Mardy Fish during the finals on Day 7 of the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters at the Lindner Family Tennis Center on August 22, 2010 in Cincinnati, Ohio.

A week after audacious saboteurs tore down the towers of the sport, will Cincinnati more closely resemble the usual blueprints?  The last significant event before the US Open, it will play an especially crucial role this year as contenders who lost early in Toronto strive to accumulate valuable pre-major preparation.  Meanwhile, though, the Serenovak juggernaut rolls on to another city with accelerating speed, causing one to wonder whether anyone can blunt its momentum before New York.  (On the other hand, does the Djoker really fancy that hideous trophy above?)

First quarter:  A semifinalist in consecutive weeks at Atlanta and Los Angeles, Ryan Harrison will bring that momentum into Cincinnati—and a probable second-round encounter with an opponent who has lost only one match this year.  Also in this area lurk Washington champion Stepanek and Atlanta runner-up Isner, who has come within a point of defeating two different top-10 opponents this summer.   Situated near Wimbledon conqueror Feliciano Lopez, Roddick begins his recovery from his most recent injury against Kohlschreiber, often remembered for his five-set victory over the American at the 2008 Australian Open.  From a champion in Los Angeles to a qualifier in Cincinnati, Gulbis displayed uncharacteristic perseverance in emerging from the pre-event to arrange a main-draw meeting with Dodig.  Anchoring the section is Washington runner-up Monfils, a disappointment in his Rogers Cup quarterfinal against Djokovic when he appeared to tank after losing the first set.   But none of these hopefuls, veterans, or dangerous floaters appears likely to ambush the top seed should he arrive at the year’s seventh Masters 1000 tournament in peak condition.  Often bothered by the heat before, Djokovic succumbed to Roddick in a listless quarterfinal here last year.  His improvements in diet, fitness, and mental staying power encourage greater optimism this time, as do the distinctly fallible, one-dimensional opponents around him.  Nevertheless, Cincinnati has halted the momentum of many an ambitious Rogers Cup champion before.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Second quarter:  After the two-time defending champion in Canada dropped his opener, the two-time defending champion in Cincinnati could fare likewise against Del Potro.  Eyeing this formidable opening task, Federer must regroup from his consecutive losses to Tsonga, who overpowered the Swiss legend much as Del Potro did in their 2009 meetings at the US Open and the year-end championships.  A baseliner rather than a net-rusher like Tsonga, though, the Argentine did not impress in straight-sets losses to Gulbis and Cilic in Los Angeles and Montreal, respectively.  Formerly at his best during the summer hard-courts, he appears to have regressed from a spring in which he won two titles, and he has not defeated a notable opponent other than Soderling during his comeback.  Federer should ease through the third round much more comfortably this week against either the decaying Blake or the spineless Troicki, but an intriguing test could await in the quarterfinals.  Battling Berdych in three memorable meetings last year, the third seed suffered stinging defeats in Miami and Wimbledon before claiming a measure of revenge in a Rogers Cup thriller.  Before reaching Federer, the Czech must maneuver past the inflammable Almagro or perhaps Karlovic.  While Berdych theoretically should win those matches, he routinely lost an equally winnable quarterfinal to Tipsarevic in Canada.  Also complicating Federer’s path to a record-extending fifth Cincinnati title is his summer preparation.  Rather than train in scorching Dubai, he chose to stay in temperate Switzerland, a decision that benefited his children but may remove the fitness advantage that he long had held over his rivals in the torrid Ohio summer.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Third quarter:  Like all of the Big Four outside Djokovic, Murray faces the task of rebounding from a severely disappointing week.  A crossroads for the fatalistic Scot, Cincinnati either could mire him deeper in  what could become a post-Wimbledon hangover—or it could lift him out of his doldrums in time to inspire a deep run in New York.  Still seeking his first victory at a Masters 1000 hard-court tournament this season, Murray aims to snap that winless streak against Nishikori or Nalbandian, both more dangerous than some of his  previous 2011 Masters nemeses.  His rocky path will steepen further against the winner of a fascinating encounter between Tsonga and Cilic, assuming that a Montreal injury does not hamper the Frenchman.  Although he possesses 5-1 records against each of those heavy servers, Murray has struggled to defuse them on stages such as Wimbledon or the US Open.  Absent from the Rogers Cup, the ever-grinding, ever-unassuming Ferrer should flourish in the Cincinnati heat, as should his equally indefatigable third-round opponent Gilles Simon.  Entrenched in the top 10 when the season began, Melzer has drifted back into his familiar position of ambush artist and now hopes to unsettle the Frenchman in the first round.  Should Murray maneuver into the quarterfinals, he should gain confidence from his hard-court mastery over Ferrer.  Whether he will arrive there seems open to doubt, though.

Semifinalist:  Tsonga

Fourth quarter:  A player who relies upon match practice to prepare for a major, Nadal got little of it in Canada and thus must hope to compensate for that lack here.  Curiously, he might open against Garcia-Lopez or Benneteau, the former of whom defeated the reigning US Open champion on a hard court in 2010 and the latter of whom came within a point of doing so.  Wedged into his compatriot’s section once again, Verdasco will open Monday’s action by contesting an all-lefty battle with Bellucci, whose victory over him on clay this spring underscored the Spaniard’s woefulness this year.  Seeking to repeat his epic Rogers Cup victory over Youzhny, Llodra adds another lefty to this section but not a Rafa-upset threat.  Instead, the most probable challenge to the Spaniard’s semifinal route will come from three-time US Open Series finalist Fish, who bravely battled Djokovic in Canada before falling short yet again.  That disappointment appeared to weigh heavily upon the top-ranked American and may have drained him emotionally before a tournament where he twice has charged within a set of the title.  Lurking in his vicinity are Murray-killer Kevin Anderson and Federer-killer Gasquet.  Neither of them has both the weapons and versatility of the world #7, yet either could exploit a day when his serve dips or his feet grow sluggish.  Solving Fish in all six of their meetings, albeit only once in the last three years, Nadal probably will not stumble against him here.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Final:  Djokovic vs. Tsonga

At the Rogers Cup trophy presentation, Fish playfully teased Djokovic that the rest of the tour has “gotten tired” of the Serb’s supremacy.  Just as playfully, Djokovic retorted “I’m not getting tired of this.”  Until the top seed and undisputed king of the ATP hill does,…

Champion:  Djokovic

Maria Sharapova Kim Clijsters (R) of Belgium and Maria Sharapova of Russia poses with their individual trophies during the singles final match on day seven of the Western & Southern Financial Group Women's Open on August 15, 2010 at the Lindner Family Tennis Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.

First quarter:  After a modest first half in 2010, Wozniacki caught fire at the stage of this season and lost only two matches thereafter.  Having suffered a demoralizing loss to Vinci in her Rogers Cup opener, the great Dane should experience few difficulties with the inexperienced McHale or the underpowered Pironkova, virtually just a Wimbledon threat.  Forestalled in Toronto, a potential third-round meeting with Ivanovic could occur in Cincinnati, but poised to repeat her upsets one or both of the glamor girls is Vinci once again.  Wimbledon champion Kvitova may pursue revenge against Canada conqueror Petkovic, who built upon her San Diego semifinal with a quarterfinal last week.   Intelligently deconstructing the erratic Czech, the WTA’s lead dancer may find her swagger tested by the imposing serve of Gajdosova, who won a set from her earlier this year.  Of minor note in a section of three Slam champions and perhaps a future champion in Petkovic, Rebecca Marino possesses a thunderous serve that might trouble even Kvitova if her percentage stays high.  Kvitova pummeled Wozniacki at Wimbledon this year but has proved as inconsistent as the Dane has stayed steady (at least until recently).  Should they collide, one might favor the more businesslike Wozniacki in the unremarkable environment of Cincinnati, yet the fast courts should tilt in Kvitova’s favor.  A similar dynamic would define a potential meeting between the top seed and Petkovic, who conquered her in Miami.

Semifinalist:  Petkovic

Second quarter:  Bookended by a pair of flamboyant competitors, this section could several clashes of personalities.  Projected to reprise their Roland Garros duel are the counterpunching, movement-centered styles of Jankovic and Schiavone, both of whom have looked as flat as the American Midwest since the clay season.  On the other hand, Julia Goerges will fancy her chances of repeating last week’s thrashing of the former #1, her only win so far in the US Open Series.  More impressive this summer than her countrywoman, Lisicki followed her outstanding grass-court campaign with a Stanford semifinal before threatening Zvonareva in San Diego.  Absent from Toronto, she arrives more rested than her peers and certainly more confident than Peer, her first-round opponent.  A battle of blondes could occur in the second round between Lisicki and Azarenka, who restored order following her opening-round Stanford loss.  While falling to Serena in a routine semifinal, Vika nevertheless showcased sparkling groundstrokes and an improved sense of point construction that would have served her better against an opponent with a less overpowering serve.   If she can tame Lisicki’s similarly mighty delivery, she should advance more comfortably into a winnable quarterfinal.  More powerful than Schiavone, more motivated than Jankovic, and more consistent than Goerges, Azarenka may find that her path grows more accommodating rather than less as the week unfolds.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Third quarter:  How many more matches does Serena need before New York?  The answer appears to be zero, judging from her 11-match winning streak since her Wimbledon loss, and one wonders whether her focus will start to drift in her third preparatory event.  On the other hand, her champion-stuffed quarter might inspire Serena’s energies even if her brain counsels caution.  As early as the second round, the American might collide again with Sunday victim Stosur, while Roland Garros champion Li Na could await a match later.  Like Kvitova, Li may continue to struggle with adjusting to her sharply elevated status, especially outside China.  Desultory in her Rogers Cup loss, she has faltered often against both Serena and Stosur, who should prefer the faster Cincinnati courts.  Meanwhile, Sharapova will anticipate the daunting prospect of a second quarterfinal against the American in three tournaments.  Fallible this summer, the Wimbledon runner-up needs a momentum boost to catapult her into stronger contention at the US Open.  Fellow Russian Slam champion Kuznetsova could await in her second match, having won four of their nine previous meetings and a set from Maria here last year.  Whereas this season has witnessed a Sharapova resurgence, Sveta’s promising start has given way to deepening doldrums.  Just when one discounts her, though, she tends to deliver something remarkable.

Semifinalist:  S. Williams

Fourth quarter:  Among the most surprising upsets early in Toronto was the demise of Bartoli, who, like Sharapova, had surged through impressive fortnights at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.  The Stanford runner-up  coped with the heat better than one might have expected last year, defeating Wozniacki before falling to recurrent nemesis Sharapova.  Also impressive during the European spring, Hantuchova should encounter last year’s semifinalist Pavlyuchenkova in the second round in a battle of inspired shot-makers and indifferent movers.  Following her horrific week of 53 double faults in Baku, the Russian aims to recapture the promise that she displayed against Zvonareva and Schiavone at Roland Garros.  Dormant since reaching an Indian Wells semifinal, the 17th-seeded Wickmayer has struggled to curb her emotions under pressure but still owns an authoritative serve-forehand combinations reminiscent of Stosur and a natural athleticism reminiscent of Kuznetsova.  Resting rather meekly at the base of this draw, Zvonareva burst from a spring skid to reach the San Diego final before fading with consecutive losses to Radwanska.  In her last tournament before defending her 2010 US Open final appearance, the Russian needs all of the confidence that she can accumulate in order to steel herself for the scrutiny and pressure of New York.  Opening against one of two lefties, Martinez Sanchez or Makarova, Vera must impose her baseline rhythm upon their arrhythmic style.  Zvonareva may have caught a bit of luck in avoiding Jankovic, replaced by Wickmayer after Radwanska’s withdrawal, and she has enjoyed repeated success against Bartoli, including a Miami victory this year.

Semifinalist:  Zvonareva

Final:  Azarenka vs. S. Williams

In 2008, Serena swept consecutive tournaments in Bangalore, Miami, Charleston, a stretch during which she defeated five different top-five opponents.  A triple crown here would represent a feat no more impressive, especially since executed on the same surface (her favorite) and the same continent (where she lives).  The voice of reason says “Serena can’t win so many consecutive matches so early in her comeback.”  The voice of instinct says “When she plays at this level, who can beat her?”

Champion:  S. Williams (or Azarenka over Zvonareva in the final if she withdraws)

Serena Williams Serena Williams celebrates winning a point against Jie Zheng of China on Day 4 of the Rogers Cup presented by National Bank at the Rexall Centre on August 11, 2011 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Far from Canada’s frozen north, Toronto and Montreal still have proven inhospitable habitats for elite contenders in both Rogers Cups.  Defending champions Murray and Wozniacki?  The three WTA Slam champions this year?  The two most dominant ATP players of the past decade?  Together with defending US Open finalist Zvonareva and former #1s Sharapova, Ivanovic, and Jankovic, all have departed to more humid surroundings in Cincinnati.  Scraping through the rubble after the avalanche of upsets are a host of talented, often under-appreciated figures—in addition to a reigning #1 and a thirteen-time Slam champion with carnivorous streaks.

Vinci vs. Stosur:  Glancing down the WTA rankings, few would suspect that the world #22 has won more tournaments than eight members of the current top 10.  But Vinci has enjoyed a modest counterpart to the late-career surge of her compatriot Schiavone, capturing three titles in 2011 and baffling more notable opponents with her deceptively penetrating backhand slice.  Among the baffled this week were two former #1s, Wozniacki and Ivanovic, who struggled to find a rhythm against the Italian’s unpredictable mixture of slices, chops, and spins.  Although this quarterfinal seems a serving mismatch on paper, Vinci protected her underpowered delivery with considerable success against the excellent return games of the Dane and the Serb.  Facing only one break point in her second 2011 victory over Li Na, meanwhile, Stosur has responded to the loss of her top-10 status with one of her most encouraging performances this year.  Nevertheless, she now must shoulder the burden of the favorite in a half stripped of the Roland Garros champion, the Wimbledon champion, the defending US Open finalist, and the reigning world #1.  Often fragile under pressure, Stosur may require time to adjust to a distinctive game that she never before has faced and that may threaten her composure unless she can assert her dominance in the early stages.

Radwanska vs. Petkovic:  Less than a week ago in San Diego, they met in a semifinal defined mostly by Petkovic’s nausea-induced sprint from the court.  Drained of energy by that experience, the top 10’s newest inhabitant mustered scant resistance thenceforth against a foe who has won all three of their encounters and excels at eroding the physically or mentally vulnerable and.  Radwanska repeated her Sunday victory over Zvonareva on Thursday, suggesting that her first title in over three years has boosted her confidence.  Regularly impressive during the US Open Series, the San Diego champion often has thrived on faster surfaces that add an ounce of extra sting to her serve.  Halting Kvitova in the previous round, Petkovic benefited considerably from the Wimbledon champion’s errant groundstrokes but deserves credit for staying crisp and focused rather than allowing her opponent’s waywardness to infect her.  At the core of this quarterfinal are Radwanska’s serve and Petkovic’s return, which could savage the Pole’s second delivery if she fails to maintain a high first-serve percentage.  Able to maneuver through rallies reasonably well when healthy, the German must resist the temptation to pull the trigger too aggressively too early in the point.  At the same time, she will want to keep Radwanska stretched along the baseline, preventing her from constructing her clever combinations at leisure.

Voskoboeva vs. Azarenka:  If one of the other quarterfinalists wins this tournament, they will have needed to collect only five or six victories.  Voskoboeva already has won five matches here, having progressed through qualifying, and has defeated two top-10 opponents in Bartoli and Sharapova.  Sometimes flustered by unknown challengers before, Azarenka suffered such a fate when she lost to Erakovic in her Stanford opener.  Far more impressive are her first two performances in this tournament, when she conceded three total games in four sets against home hope Dubois and former nemesis Martinez Sanchez.  Despite Voskoboeva’s stunning run to this stage, fatigue may hamper her as she confronts a player more consistent than those whom she previously has ambushed.  The Kazakh has spent nine hours on court this week compared to just two for the Belarussian, who seeks her third semifinal at one of the Canadian tournaments.

Safarova vs. Serena:  A rematch of a 2009 quarterfinal, this meeting would seem to offer little drama.  Riding an eight-match winning streak into a clash with an opponent who never has defeated her, Serena has wasted little time in establishing herself as the leading contender for the US Open.  Since Wimbledon, she has conquered not only veterans like Sharapova and Bartoli but some of the WTA’s more promising younger stars, such as Lisicki and Goerges.  The root of Serena’s success remains a serve that has distanced itself ever further from the competition, resulting in a streak of 24 consecutive holds between Stanford and Canada.  After a series of emphatic victories, though, the former #1 faced ten break points and lost serve twice in a tense three-setter against Zheng Jie, a valiant competitor but a fading force in singles.  One wonders whether that scratchy performance signaled an ebb in Serena’s momentum or a dip in her motivation.  On the other hand, she survived a similarly unimpressive performance against Kirilenko in the same round at Stanford before roaring to life when the title neared and the opponents grew more worthy of her attention.  Having overcome Schiavone in two routine sets late on Thursday, Safarova may have gained a burst of self-belief that she can use to challenge an opponent who has not faced a lefty in over a year.  Should Serena find her trademark determination, though, the flaky Czech probably will show little appetite for battle.

Novak Djokovic - Rogers Cup - Day 4

Djokovic vs. Monfils:  Aiming to move 50 wins over .500 just 52 matches into the season, the top seed and only surviving member of the Top Four must fancy his chances of a fifth Masters 1000 crown.  Undefeated in six previous meetings with Monfils, the Serb has won ten of their last eleven sets, including emphatic victories at the US Open and Davis Cup final last year.  This authoritative head-to-head underscores the gap separating the Frenchman from the players above his inflated ranking of #7.  Lucky to survive a third-set tiebreak against Troicki on Thursday, Monfils lost the Washington final to Stepaek and has not shed his reputation of an unreliable competitor whose mind wanders from one point to the next.  Once smeared with a similar reputation, Djokovic can attribute much of his spectacular season to his elevated commitment and maturity, a lesson that his ultra-talented opponent could learn.  Nevertheless, the world #1 struggled in his opener against Davydenko and should have felt fortunate to evade a three-setter when he trailed by two breaks and later faced set point.  Although his serving improved during a Thursday victory over Cilic, the first set remained tighter than one might have expected.  On both occasions, Djokovic merely accelerated to steamroll his opponents once he earned the one-set lead, and Monfils should anticipate no more mercy if he relinquishes the initiative.

Tsonga vs. Almagro:  For the second time in four matches and for the second time in Montreal, the acrobatic Frenchman conquered Federer.  After those two earlier victories, Tsonga slumped to defeat a round later, so he must beware of another hangover against an opponent who arrived in the top 10 this year for the first time.  Less visibly talented than Tsonga, Almagro has enhanced his fitness this season and owns one of the ATP’s most elegant one-handed backhands, which he deployed to overcome fellow backhand artist and 2011 breakthrough story Gasquet.  The Spaniard and the Frenchman have tangled four times since the start of 2010, including a spectacular five-setter at the Australian Open last year that showcased not only shot-making skills but sportsmanship on both sides.  Especially ominous for the world #10, three of those matches came on the clay where he possesses much greater aptitude than does Tsonga.  His more elongated strokes require more precise timing than the compact, bludgeoned whacks of his opponent, who relies less upon placement than upon raw power.  Since the minds of both combatants can drift, though, a plot twist or two should enliven this narrative of stunning winners and stunning errors.

Fish vs. Wawrinka:  Unlike Federer, the top-ranked American avenged a recent defeat on Thursday when he reversed the Los Angeles final result against Gulbis.  Having withdrawn from Washington to rest his ankle, Fish found his caution rewarded with his second Masters 1000 quarterfinal of the season.  Expected to face Murray at the stage, he instead eyes an opponent whom he has not faced in four years and who should pose a much less formidable threat.  After consecutive Slam quarterfinals at the US Open and Australian Open, as well as an Indian Wells quarterfinal, Wawrinka has watched his results taper and his ranking rise stall.  Best suited to clay, his sturdy game rarely breaks down for extended stretches but conceals little of brilliance.  Much the opposite, Fish remains prone to inconsistency in his groundstrokes but remains an explosive server with sparkling touch around the net.  Considering that skill, one wonder why he does not approach the forecourt more frequently.  If Wawrinka lures him into baseline rallies, he could neutralize his disadvantage in first-strike power.  The American instead must hope to set the tone with his much brisker pace of play on serve while swinging freely on returns.

Berdych vs. Tipsarevic:  A beneficiary of Dodig’s monumental upset, Berdych has become the arguable favorite to reach the final from this half.  Last year, the Czech served for the match against Federer and has found the fast-but-not-too-fast hard courts a suitable venue for exploiting his serve while protecting his questionable movement and groundstroke asymmetry.  Contrary to expectations, Berdych has lost both of his previous meetings with Tipsarevic, who nearly choked away a match against Verdasco for the second time this year but managed to survive 12 double faults.  The Serb often raises his level to meet the competition, delivering his finest tennis when battling opponents like Federer and Roddick.  Against the Czech, Tipsarevic has compensated for his deficiency in power with relentless focus, a weapon against an opponent as mentally flaky as girlfriend Safarova.  His stellar 2010 spring and summer nearly forgotten, Berdych has reached a position where he must prove himself again to the ATP elite.  Another defeat to Tipsarevic would heighten impressions of him as a dangerous floater capable of wins or losses against anyone, while a first victory would fan hope that last year represented no anomaly.

Agnieszka Radwanska - Mercury Insurance Open presented by Tri-City Medical - Day 7

From the relatively arid draws of San Diego and Washington emerge few signals for the Premier Five and Masters 1000 tournaments ahead.  In fact, Del Potro’s nudge past Verdasco from #20 to #19 marked the only change in the rankings of the ATP top 20.  Nevertheless, these tournaments featured some surprisingly intriguing and entertaining tennis, most notably from the quirky hero and heroine who wove artful paths toward the champion’s podium.

A fine hour for finesse:  Retired magician Fabrice Santoro would have relished watching Stepanek and Radwanska carve through their draws to comfortably dispatch a pair of top-10 opponents in the finals.  Even before his routine victory over Monfils, Stepanek had conquered the far more powerful and athletic Verdasco with similar ease.  For her part, Radwanska rallied from a first-set bagel against Hantuchova and another one-set deficit against Petkovic, relentlessly chipping away at her opponents until they crumbled.  Not known for their outstanding serves, neither the Czech nor the Pole lost their serve throughout their Sunday collisions with two outstanding returners.  Especially notable in this regard was Stepanek, who perceptibly heightened his focus at crucial moments and never faced a break point even as the nerve-inducing upset neared.  Likewise, Radwanska compensated for her lack of first-strike power with uncanny instincts and a keen sense of placement.  Exploiting every area of the court, including the net, both champions varied spins and speeds throughout rallies, leaving their more programmatic, rhythm-oriented opponents marooned in confusion.  While Stepanek carved sharply angled volleys and abruptly changed the pace on his groundstrokes, Radwanska looped moonballs, feathered drop shots, and lofted precise lobs.  To be sure, one hardly expects the 32-year-old Stepanek to become a factor at the prestigious Masters 1000 events ahead.  Nor will Radwanska threaten the WTA’s heaviest hitters, like Serena or Clijsters.  But, on a week when most top stars rested, their distinctive games offered an entertaining diversion from the status quo that enlivened these events more than one would have anticipated.

A tale of two top seeds:  While some #1 seeds tower above their draws, others perch there precariously.  Clearly in the latter category, Monfils and Zvonareva had looked vulnerable for much of 2011, so their mental frailty suggested that they might wilt under the pressure of their position.  Although both ultimately fell one round short, they recorded a handful of creditable victories in hard-fought contests.  The Frenchman impressed with his semifinal victory over Isner in a match delayed by rain during which he saved a match point in the third-set tiebreak.  An exuberant personality often lacking in competitive stamina or motivation, Monfils might have buckled under either the distractions of the weather or the American’s impenetrable serve.  By evading both of those pitfalls, the Washington top seed proved that a professional lurks behind the veneer of a charismatic performer.  As introverted as Monfils is extroverted, Zvonareva harbors a morose streak that might have undone her when she squandered a first-set lead against Ivanovic and ultimately lost the set on a double fault.  After she edged through a shaky second set on her seventh set point, though, the San Diego top seed revealed a champion’s DNA by asserting control early in the final set.  Zvonareva almost choked away another lead at the end, but the ability to choke and survive impresses at least as much as the ability to avoid choking at all.  Also praiseworthy was her victory over the streaking Lisicki in a three-set quarterfinal, during which she shrugged off multiple missed opportunities and steadied herself in the climactic moments.

The sluggish performances by both top seeds in the finals sprang in large part from fatigue, causing one to wonder the extent to which playing the Saturday evening semifinal places that finalist at a disadvantage against the finalist who played the Saturday afternoon semifinal.  Serena and Gulbis escaped that predicament last week, but they progressed much more comfortably.  Perhaps someone should research whether three-set Saturday night semifinals correlate inversely with success in Sunday afternoon finals, with additional variables for ranking, ranking of opponent, temperature, and magnitude of tournament….

Putting the US in the US Open Series: As so often happens, the American men have flourished this summer on their home hard courts.  Advancing to his first ATP semifinal in the Washington midsummer torpor, Donald Young raised eyebrows with a straight-sets victory over the dangerous but erratic Marcos Baghatis.  Within a point of his second final in the US Open Series, Isner elevated his ranking inside the top 30 and continued to menace opponents with far greater athleticism and natural talent.  Upsetting defending champion Nalbandian in the second round of Washington, Blake engaged in a second three-set epic with Isner that thrilled the local crowd, if not tennis purists.

In a much less frequent and thus more newsworthy development, American women flew their flag with pride at San Diego.  Despite falling a round short of last year’s quarterfinal appearance, Coco Vandeweghe mustered consecutive main-draw victories.  The fastest-rising teenager in the WTA top 100, Christina McHale likewise registered a pair of wins before succumbing to eventual champion Radwanska.  Rewarding the wildcard that the tournament offered her, Alexa Glatch ambushed the formidable lefty serve of Makarova, a challenge that has baffled many a more experienced player.  But the most remarkable accomplishment resonated from the racket of fellow wildcard Sloane Stephens, who repeated Vandeweghe’s 2010 feat by reaching her first WTA quarterfinal following a triumph over top-20 opponent Julia Goerges.  All of the above hinted that there might be life after death in American women’s tennis, or rather life after the retirement of the Williams sisters.

Briefly noted:

Welcome to the top 10, Andrea Petkovic!  Amidst the controversy over the divergence between rankings and reality in the WTA, the German’s rise and Stosur’s accompanying fall seemed to clearly reflect their recent performances.  A two-time Slam quarterfinalist in 2011, the German recovered from a dip during the grass season to reach another semifinal, from which she might have emerged had not her lunch decided otherwise.

Tremendously exhilarating at the moment, an unexpected title can poison a player’s ranking a year later.  Few would have picked David Nalbandian to win Washington last year, and his title defense stalled in his opening round this year.  As a result, an oddly inflated ranking tumbled 24 positions to the edge of the top 50, the difference between a seed and a lack thereof at the US Open.  The mercurial Baghdatis suffered a somewhat less precipitous plunge but also sagged well below that crucial 32nd position.  Although ample points await in Canada and Cincinnati, the current form of both players suggests that they will not recoup their losses.  Headed in the opposite direction was Stepanek, who halved his ranking as he climbed from outside the top 50 to inside the top 30.  If he remains active a year from now, though, he probably will suffer the fate of Nalbandian.

Inching upward to her highest ranking since 2009, Ivanovic erased the memories of a first-round Stanford exit with a San Diego charge that brought her within a set of the final. Not having defeated a top-3 opponent since winning Roland Garros three long years ago, the former #1 displayed impressive competitive resilience against Zvonareva and dominated 2011 breakthrough artist Peng.  Victorious in only two of ten three-setters this year, Ivanovic must aim to improve her fitness for these extended encounters.  Nevertheless, she appears to have committed to her new coach more than to his predecessors, and the situational stability should buttress her volatile game.  Most promising of all was her success in close sets.  Previously 2-10 this year in sets that reached 5-5, Ivanovic rallied from 0-5 to win a tiebreak against Stanford conqueror Morita and rallied from a 3-5 deficit in the first set against Zvonareva.  Those comebacks sketch a competitor increasing in confidence and now within striking distance of once again becoming the top-ranked woman from her nation.

Ana Ivanovic - Mercury Insurance Open presented by Tri-City Medical - Day 3

Which is not to say that, considering her dramatic ebbs and flows, one should not close one’s eyes and hope for the best.

For the first time, the Rogers Cup events will occur concurrently rather than consecutively.  Unlike the other concurrent ATP / WTA events, however, this veritable smorgasbord of tennis will unfold in two cities five hundred kilometers apart.  This dubious decision may benefit television audiences but hinders those who enjoy attending the two Rogers Cups in consecutive week.  While concurrent events generally succeed when held at the same venue, the same-time-but-not-same-place concept strikes us as exceedingly foolish.  Just like the fans in Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Rome, and other tennis capitals, the fans in Canada should not have to choose between the two outstanding draws that we discuss below.

Andy Murray Andy Murray of Great Britain poses for photographers after defeating Roger Federer of Switzerland during the final of the Rogers Cup at the Rexall Centre on August 15, 2010 in Toronto, Canada.

First quarter:  Often troubled by Davydenko before, Djokovic likely will contest his 50th match of 2011 against the quirky Russian who has declined so steeply since wrist surgery last year.  When Kolya now appears in headlines, he generally has functioned as the foil for the breakthrough of a youngster or home hope.  Far more formidable is the challenge posed a round later by Del Potro, despite his disappointing loss to Gulbis in Los Angeles.  Winning a set from the Serb at Roland Garros this year, the Tower of Tandil never has toppled the world #1 but might approach their match with greater motivation.  A contrast to his repeated successes against Nadal and Federer, Del Potro’s futility against Djokovic suggests that he must leave his comfort zone to conquer him.  Barring such an extraordinary performance, the top seed would encounter a much more comfortable quarterfinal against his compatriot Troicki or perhaps Monfils, distinctly inferior in competitive will.  After his conquest of the All England Club and rise to #1, one wonders how much motivation Djokovic will bring to his quest for a fifth Masters 1000 crown of 2011.  Still, he has not lost before the semifinals since the Paris Indoors last year and should have refreshed his energies during the midsummer break.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Second quarter:  In this section proliferate the ATP’s most notable one-handed backhands, from Federer and Gasquet to Kohlschreiber and Almagro.  Just a month after falling to Tsonga at Wimbledon, the third seed may have the opportunity to exact revenge from the Frenchman in the stadium where he lost a third-set tiebreak to him two years ago after holding a 5-1 lead.  Seeking to intercept that tantalizing collision, Wimbledon quarterfinalist Tomic hopes to rival Ryan Harrison’s summer surge rather than suffering the post-Wimbledon slump of Grigor Dimitrov.  The quarter’s other side features a first-round encounter between look-alikes Stakhovsky and Kohlschreiber but no real contenders.  Like the winner of the Djokovic-Del Potro clash, the winner of a potential Federer-Tsonga meeting would fancy his chances against either of the bold-faced names here.  Fusing grace with power in their one-handed backhands, Gasquet and Almagro should offer an exuberant shot-making display in the third round.  Both players climbed unexpectedly into the top 10 or its immediate environs this season, as the Frenchman recorded second-week runs at two majors and a Masters 1000 semifinal in Rome.  Unlikely to repeat that feat here, he did defeat Federer during the aforementioned Rome run and has a winning record against Tsonga.  Comment se dit “dark horse” en français?

Semifinalist:  Federer

Third quarter:  Eclipsed this year by the other members in the Gang of Four, the two-time defending champion defeated Nadal and Federer on consecutive days at last year’s Toronto event.  Also conquering Del Potro in the 2009 final, Murray typically has showcased his finest tennis on North American hard courts and finds himself in the weakest section of the draw, allowing him to preserve energy for the weekend climax.  Littering his section is the detritus of yesteryear like Ferrero and Nalbandian or clay specialists like Montanes and Andujar.  In the third round, Murray might encounter Federer’s understudy Wawrinka, who defeated him at last year’s US Open en route to consecutive Slam quarterfinals.  Since the Australian Open, the Swiss #2 has shown little confidence and less consistency against not just the elite but the ATP journeymen.  A more compelling test might come in the quarterfinals, where Murray might encounter either the Los Angeles titlist Gulbis or Los Angeles runner-up Fish.  Wisely withdrawing from Washington to rest his ankle, the American will rely on his experience to conquer his recent nemesis.  Spurred by consecutive finals appearance in the first two US Open Series events, Fish also can recall his Cincinnati victory over Murray last year should he face him in a quarterfinal.  If Judy Murray has her hopes answered, though, Feliciano Lopez will carve his way through this flaccid section to set up a second consecutive quarterfinal with her son.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Fourth quarter:  Lost in the scrutiny of his struggles against Djokovic were Nadal’s achievements between Indian Wells and Wimbledon.  Falling just a win short of his third Channel Slam, the new #2 has lost only once since the Australian Open to an opponent other than Djokovic, while recording seven victories over other top-5 opponents.  Aligned to meet Nadal in the third round is his compatriot Verdasco, who challenged him so memorably at the 2009 Australian Open but never has defeated him.  If the seventh-seeded Berdych can escape a Dolgopolov fresh from his debut title, he would attempt to halt a prolonged drought against Rafa during which he once lost 19 consecutive sets.  Solid but unremarkable this season, the Czech has evinced few flickers of the form that carried him to the Wimbledon final last summer, and he has not won a title at any level since 2009.  Towering over his surroundings is the perpetually dangerous Karlovic, who came within two points of defeating Nadal on the slow hard courts of Indian Wells.  But perhaps the most vigorous test for the second seed might come from Gilles Simon, an indefatigable competitor with earlier success against Rafa and a crowd favorite in this Francophone city before.  Only if his lingering foot injury hampers the Spaniard’s explosive athleticism, however, will he become vulnerable for a pre-semifinal upset.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Final: Djokovic vs. Murray

Champion:  Djokovic

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark poses for photographers after defeating Vera Zvonareva of Russia during the final of the  Rogers Cup at Stade Uniprix on August 23, 2010 in Montreal, Canada.

First quarter:  Following an indifferent European spring, Wozniacki will need to right her Viking vessel immediately in order to survive a section that includes two of the three players who have defeated her at majors in 2011 .  As early as the third round, the defending champion could face San Diego semifinalist Ivanovic, who tested her in Beijing last fall and dragged world #3 Zvonareva through three tense sets on Saturday.  The survivor from this battle of current and former #1s next might duel with Roland Garros champion Li Na, although Li has proved erratic in the past following her greatest accomplishments and will not fancy the prospect of facing Peng Shuai in the second round.  Defeating her compatriot earlier in 2011, Peng has compiled a consistent season during which she has regularly challenged elite opponents.  One can say the same of Cibulkova, who has defeated Wozniacki twice this year and notched a victory over Ivanovic in Fed Cup (albeit on clay).  The new prototype for players who aim to transcend their diminutive stature, the Slovak excels at covering all but the fastest courts and generates deceptive pace from her forehand.  A less imposing rival for Wozniacki in this section, Stosur seems likely to fall well outside the top 10 by the end of the US Open if the level of her performances continues its inverse correlation with the magnitude of events.  Yet she too has troubled the Dane before, so the world #1 certainly will have earned her semifinal berth if she does arrive there.

Semifinalist:  Wozniacki

Second quarter:  Having fallen to Radwanska in the San Diego final on Sunday, Zvonareva could meet the cunning Pole again on Thursday.  Wedged into her section also is inaugural College Park champion Petrova, far from a title threat at significant tournaments but as much of a potential dark horse as her first-round opponent Gajdosova.  An encore of the Brisbane final could unfold in this section should seeds Petkovic and Kvitova progress to the third round, yet one suspects that the Czech lefty’s first tournament since winning Wimbledon may not inspire her competitive energies.  A competitor as volatile and erratic as Li, Kvitova likely will suffer a lapse in form until at least the US Open. Reaching the semifinals in San Diego to secure her top-10 debut, Petkovic remains too raw and plays with too little margin for error to topple Zvonareva’s consistent, versatile baseline arsenal.  The Russian’s consecutive finals should infuse her with confidence, as should her memories of a run to the Canada final last year.    Courageously overcoming a shoulder injury to win San Diego, Radwanska probably cannot sustain her artistry for a second straight week.

Semifinalist:  Zvonareva

Third quarter:  Lurking here is Roland Garros semifinalist and Wimbledon runner-up Sharapova, who must lose little time in rebounding from a dismal loss to Serena at Stanford.  An intriguing potential opener with rising Serb Bojana Jovanovski could precede a clash with Stanford finalist Bartoli, back in the top 10 after winning nine matches at the last two majors.  Often at her finest on the North American hard courts, the double-fister has struggled to protect her serve against Sharapova’s scorching return and, in her father’s opinion, lacks the belief that she can threaten her.  If Bartoli can find that belief, though, her own penetrating returns could test the Russian’s confidence in her serve following a four-match stretch in which it has chronically disappeared.  Disappearing as well in the opening match of her Stanford title defense, Azarenka should halt her losing streak at two in a comfortable section of the draw.  Barring her path to the quarterfinal is Pavlyuchenkova, who twice has won sets from her this year but, like Sharapova, has suffered severe albeit sporadic serving disruptions.  The WTA’s top-ranked teenager donated more than 50 double faults during three matches at her last tournament (Baku) while failing to build upon the momentum of her Roland Garros quarterfinal.  Stopped by Sharapova at Stanford and Radwanska in San Diego, Hantuchova won a set from Azarenka at Wimbledon and could take advantage of any lapse.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Fourth quarter:  No fewer than four Slam champions reside in this elite district, of which the lowest ranked may prove the most dangerous.  Fierce and focused as she charged to the Stanford title, Serena may bring slightly less motivation now that she has dispelled her post-Wimbledon uncertainties.  Nevertheless, one’s imagination falters at the thought of a dormant and dispirited Jankovic finding a way to overcome even a tepid Serena, despite their history of thrilling encounters.  Having played only one tournament since Miami, Clijsters pursues a similar mission to Serena’s objective during the US Open Series:  accumulating sufficient matches to mount a credible charge at a major that suits their strengths.  These US Open champions would collide on Thursday as Djokovic and Del Potro do battle in Montreal, forcing television viewers to hold onto their remotes and internet viewers like us to use multiple streaming windows.  In the first meeting since their famous “foot fault” clash of 2009, one expects a scintillating encounter between two competitors who will want to deliver a key pre-Open statement.  Unlikely to leave an impact upon the summer hard courts are the two bold-faced names higher in the quarter.  Just six months removed from their 4-hour, 44-minute Australian Open epic, Schiavone and Kuznetsova will hope for a swifter decision on this occasion.  Balancing their hard-court resumes against those of Serena and Clijsters, one nourishes little optimism for their chances in a quarterfinal.

Semifinalist:  S. Williams

Final:  Zvonareva vs. S. Williams

Champion:  S. Williams