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Samantha Stosur - 2010 French Open - Day Fourteen

Benesova vs. Stosur:  Reinvigorated with a stirring week in Rome, last year’s finalist must recover swiftly from the illness that troubled her there.  Stosur recently defeated Benesova on clay, but the Czech lefty reached the second week at the Australian Open by upsetting a pair of seeded opponents.  Opening the fortnight’s action on Philippe Chatrier, the Aussie may feel some flickers of the pressure that hampered her play at the season’s first major.  While Beneosva almost certainly cannot outplay her for an entire match on this surface, we might gain a window into Stosur’s current confidence as she enters the scene of her most glorious victories and most painful defeat.

Ferrer vs. Nieminen:  Like Stosur, the second-ranked Spaniard suffered from illness in Rome that may have filtered into an unimpressive performance in Nice.  After reaching a Masters 1000 final on clay and another semifinal last season, Ferrer fell meekly to Melzer in the third round at the major where he should prosper the most.  If he has not fully recovered his energy, the aging lefty Nieminen could trouble him as he did a few months ago in Rotterdam.  Nevertheless, Ferrer’s far superior fitness should bolster him in the best-of-five format against his occasional doubles partner, whom he overcame in a Melbourne four-setter.

Hewitt vs. Montanes:  Receding into the mists of tennis history, Hewitt has battled gallantly through multiple surgeries as he attempts to resist the evolution of the game.  The valiant Aussie’s counterpunching tactics no longer can frustrate the ATP elite, and repeated injuries have slowed his once formidable movement.  Against the offensively challenged Montanes, however, he might find one more opportunity to thrill his devoted Aussie fans in a match certain to feature grueling rally after grueling rally.  Armed with the competitive willpower of a champion, Hewitt may ambush a player who relies just as much upon high-percentage point construction and stingy defense.  But the surface edge swings the advantage clearly towards Montanes, who has defeated even Federer on clay.

Jankovic vs. A. Bondarenko:  Fourteen meetings normally suggest a hard-fought rivalry between two players near the peak of the game.  In this case, by contrast, the frequency of this non-rivalry tells nothing about the relative strengths of its components.  Jankovic has won twelve of their thirteen meetings, with eleven of the wins coming in straight sets.  After recording three bagels and four breadsticks against the unfortunate Ukrainian, perhaps she can expand the menu to croissants.

Rybarikova vs. Kuznetsova:  When Kvitova abandoned the Rome tournament to play her local challenger in Prague, she surely expected to cruise to an uneventful title.  Such proved not the case, for Rybarikova squashed the Czech’s dreams of hometown heroics.  A Birmingham champion two years ago, the Slovak possesses the flat strokes and limited movement more suited to grass or the indoor hard-court in Memphis where she won another title this year.  Her Prague ambush might have meant nothing at all in the larger picture, but she now faces a highly vulnerable opponent who has lost four opening-round matches in 2011 and four to players outside the top 50.  On the other hand, Kuznetsova also has defeated three top-10 players this year, in addition to Henin, as she continues to translate unpredictability into Russian.

Peer vs. Martinez Sanchez:  Hailed as a genuine threat when she won Rome in 2010, Martinez Sanchez has proven those proclamations unfounded as she has sunk below the top 75.  Not as dazzling as she was during that championship run, she remains a more compelling adversary than her ranking suggests.  Against a baseliner like Peer who moves better laterally than forwards and prefers longer rallies, the Spaniard’s drop shots and serve-volley tactics could pose complicated questions.  On the brink of the top 10 earlier this year, the Israeli has slumped to the edge of the top 20 as she has struggled to integrate timely aggression into her naturally counterpunching style.  Like Jankovic, she may prefer to return to what she does best and accept her limitations rather than attempting to have her pain au chocolat and eat it too.

Shvedova vs. Pavlyuchenkova:  Both reaching the second week of Roland Garros last year, they stood as monuments to either the current dearth of WTA clay specialists (viewed pessimistically) or the ability of two heavy hitters to project their power onto a hostile surface (viewed optimistically).  Both the Russian and the pseudo-Kazakh have suffered from a concerning quantity of injuries that have hampered their attempts to establish momentum.  Absent from the Australian Open, Shvedova may require a few months to regain her shot-making precision, which often placed her atop the WTA power rankings in a measure of sheer velocity.  The highest-ranked teenager in the sport, Pavlyuchenkova must develop a sturdier serve to complement her penetrating groundstrokes before taking the next step forward.  The narrow confines of the outer court where they collide should illuminate their first-strike power by creating more opportunities to strike terminal blows early in the rally.

Novak Djokovic - Sony Ericsson Open

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Semifinals:  Nadal vs. Monfils, Ferrer vs. Federer

Final:  Nadal vs. Federer

Champion:  Rafael Nadal

Tomas Berdych - 2011 Australian Open - Day 5

First quarter:  While Nadal may loom above the competition here, the section’s most intriguing storyline concerns 2010 runner-up Berdych, whose surge into the top 10 began in Key Biscayne last year with victories over Federer, Verdasco, and Soderling.  Less formidable but relatively consistent in recent months, last year’s finalist could advance to the fourth round without facing any opponent more intimidating than Gulbis.  Aligned to reprise their Indian Wells collision are Spaniards Almagro and Montanes, although one wonders whether Karlovic can exploit a wildcard to reprise his draw-shattering assault in the desert.  Well superior to either Spaniard except on his most erratic days, Berdych might experience a greater challenge if he confronts the Croat’s staggering delivery.  Hoping to reconstitute the serve that evaporated in the Indian Wells final, Nadal finds himself amidst three of the ATP’s rising stars.  After a potential first-round encounter with the recently disappointing Nishikori, the world #1 could face Lithunian prodigy Ricardas Berankis if the latter can overcome aging lefty Feliciano Lopez.  Reliant more on subtlety and deftness than on raw power, Berankis probably can threaten Rafa less than the effortless, electrifying shot-making of Dolgopolov, a possible fourth-round opponent.  Despite an indifferent performance at Indian Wells, the Ukrainian should have an opportunity to repeat his Australian Open upset over Tsonga.  If top seeds Nadal and Berdych do maneuver into the quarterfinals, though, the top seed will bring immense confidence from a 19-set winning streak against the Czech that dates from early 2007.

Quarterfinal:  Nadal vs. the 2010 finalist

Second quarter:  Like the first quarter, the second highest-ranked seed offers a more compelling narrative than the legend who shares this neighborhood with him.  A champion at this prestigious event last year, Roddick eyes a plausible third-round confrontation with the indefatigable Simon, who won their last meeting during the 2010 US Open Series but fell to the American at this tournament three years ago.  Lacking his former spark since his struggle with mono, the defending champion could fall from the top 10 if he fails to progress smoothly through this quarter.  Also in his vicinity is teenage sensation Ryan Harrison, who must attempt to capitalize upon his Indian Wells momentum at his home event.  Defeating Roddick at the 2009 Australian Open, Cilic has edged into relevance this season after the inexplicable, career-threatening slump that descended upon him a year ago.  Should the defending champion arrive in the quarterfinals, the competition could spike upwards dramatically against a player who has pitilessly blocked the American’s path to Slam glory since 2004.  Likely to have won at least four or five majors had Federer chosen soccer over tennis, Roddick nevertheless scored one of his two victories against the Swiss star at this tournament in 2008.  Moreover, the GOAT tumbled to a fourth-round loss against Berdych here last year and could face 2010 nemesis Baghdatis at that stage this year.  Already having defeated Murray and Del Potro during 2011, the Cypriot could cause trouble for Federer if he enters this tournament searching for motivation.  Or so Roddick fervently hopes.

Quarterfinal:  Federer vs. the defending champion

Third quarter:  Sharing this section are two players who fizzled like soggy fireworks in Indian Wells, Soderling and Ferrer.  Struggling with illness there, the Swede may have suffered from a peripatetic post-Melbourne schedule during which he captured two titles and a Davis Cup victory over Russia.  Although Ferrer swept through the clay event in Acapulco, he looked jaded in Indian Wells against Karlovic while playing uncharacteristically error-strewn tennis.  Yet the Spaniard can excel on these medium-speed hard courts, as demonstrated by two Miami semifinals.  A semifinalist here in 2010, meanwhile, Soderling could face Del Potro in a highly anticipated third-round encounter should the Argentine navigate past Kohlschreiber as he did in the desert.  On the other hand, the former US Open champion may enter this tournament weary from a Delray Beach title and an Indian Wells semifinal appearance.  This quarter thus offers fertile terrain for a dark horse like Raonic, who could hammer his mighty serves past Ferrer in the third round just as Karlovic did in the second round of Indian Wells.  Among the more experienced opportunists here are the one-handed backhands of Wawrinka and Gasquet.  Ferocious against anyone but Federer, the Swiss #2 upset Berdych last week and enjoys a comfortable early draw before tackling Ferrer, whom he rarely has faced on a hard court.  Aligned against Fish in a potential third-round clash, Gasquet dazzled in Indian Wells but must validate that apparent revival with consistent results before his momentum slows.

Quarterfinal:  Wawrinka vs. Del Potro

Fourth quarter:  Undefeated since November, Djokovic has gripped the ATP in a relentless stranglehold.  Interrupting his quest for the Indian Wells-Miami double, however, were promotional activities that ranged from a Colombia exhibition and a Head video to two charity events in Miami.  Can Djokovic recover his focus from those distractions and batter his way to a title that he seized in 2007?  Surrounded by several slumping rivals, the Serb may not need to reach his highest level en route to the quarterfinals.  While Djokovic has handled Troicki with increasing ease, he routinely dismantled Querrey in their two hard-court meetings.  Even more stagnant than his compatriot, Isner admitted that a series of uninspired performances have eroded his conviction—not an auspicious situation in which to confront the world #2.  Eagerly anticipating his return to clay, Verdasco has looked listless and puzzled during his hard-court encounters in 2011.  Nor has he conquered Djokovic on a hard court since the 2005 US Open, long before the latter’s breakthrough.  Atop this section stands currently the ATP’s greatest enigma, a resident and former champion in Miami who defeated the Serb in the 2009 final.  Struggling with his serve, stamina, and self-belief on that occasion, however, Djokovic scarcely resembled the confident, fit, and technically flawless competitor who has sparkled this year.  Before a fruitless clay season begins, Murray hopes to reconstruct his own confidence with a few notable victories.  Unable to do so last year, he may crumble mentally if he confronts the player who comprehensively crushed him at the Australian Open.

Quarterfinal:  Murray vs. Djokovic

Andy Murray of Great Britain (L) congratulates Novak Djokovic of Serbia after winning championship point in their men's final match during day fourteen of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 30, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Djokovic has beaten Federer and Nadal in the space of a week.

Although Nadal doesn’t tower atop the draw, the Paris Masters will offer ample intrigue over the next week as the year-end championships beckon.  The concluding Masters 1000 event of 2010 not only will determine the final entries in London but will provide a last window of insight onto the status of Rafa’s primary challengers for the most important title still absent from his collection.  We break down the Paris draw, one section at a time.

First quarter:  For the second consecutive year, Federer faces a local favorite in his opener.  Unlikely to permit an encore, however, the Swiss legend has reached the final in his last five non-majors and will enter Bercy eager to end a disappointing season on a positive note.  His second match might feature the talented but enigmatic Almagro, who held multiple match points here against Nadal last year but has faded in the last few months after a promising spring surge.  Edging towards a berth in the year-end championships, Ferrer eyes a third-round clash with lefty veteran Melzer, who conquered the world #1 at the most recent Masters 1000 tournament.  Since both the Spaniard and the Austrian have captured indoor titles this fall, they should collaborate on an engaging performance that juxtaposes the former’s tenacious consistency with the latter’s mercurial aggression.  Yet Federer won’t fear either of them in his potential quarterfinal, having compiled a perfect record and Ferrer and having comprehensively defeated Melzer at both of the last two majors.  He should arrive in the semifinals without undue anxiety, his winning streak comfortably intact.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Second quarter:  The champion at two of the last three Masters 1000 events, Murray slumped to a listless loss in Valencia last week just as he did in Beijing a week before winning Shanghai.  Always dangerous in the fall, 2007 champion and 2008 finalist Nalbandian could pose a stern opening test, although the Argentine succumbed rather meekly to Roddick in Basel.  After a sensational start to 2010, Cilic has curiously evaporated since March despite suffering no apparent injury or illness.  Drawn to face doubles partner Lopez in the second round, Verdasco must awaken swiftly in order to preserve his waning hopes for London.  A two-time finalist since the US Open, Monfils seeks to recapture the ephemeral magic that lifted him to the championship match (and nearly the title) here a year ago.  The flamboyant Frenchman should delight his compatriots with a miniature upset over Verdasco, but his passive tactics and defensive court positioning will render him vulnerable to Murray.  Leisurely loping behind the baseline, Monfils too often relies upon his outstanding defensive skills rather than his equally outstanding offensive potential.  By turning the match into a comfortable contest of consistency, this athletic underachiever probably will play directly into the Scot’s hands.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Transmission reference: XAW107

Third quarter:  Retiring from Shanghai with a leg injury, Roddick rebounded impressively in Basel with a comfortable victory over Nalbandian before colliding with Federer once again.  The American should start against resurgent left-hander Nieminen, while US Open semifinalist Youzhny could await in the third round.  Although he hasn’t encountered the Russian in over four years, Roddick should suffocate the fluid, versatile Russian with a power-centered style much better suited to a fast hard court.   In the lower half of this section, Soderling faces a compelling collision with Valencia semifinalist Simon, who displayed his fierce competitive spirit in a tense three-set victory over Davydenko last week.  Still emotionally volatile despite recent improvements, the Swede might falter in the hostile atmosphere of a Paris crowd.  The winner of that match should routinely dismiss Indian Wells champion Ljubicic in the third round before testing Roddick in the quarterfinals.  Nearly a semifinalist in Paris two years ago, the American should reach that round on this occasion.

Semifinalist:  Roddick

Fourth quarter:  Enduring an extended arid spell since reaching the Wimbledon final, Berdych might find himself in a third-round encounter with Davydenko, who has struggled almost as dramatically over the last few months.  Between the Czech and the Russian, however, lie a few notable dark horses such as Montanes and Kohlschreiber, so a surprise quarterfinalist might confront Djokovic on Friday.  In order to reach that stage, the Serb might need to overcome both heads of the American hydra known as Querrey and Isner.  But the gritty, underrated Monaco might ambush Querrey in the opening round, for the Argentine charged to the quarterfinals in Shanghai and defeated Murray last week in Valencia.  First reprising a recent clash with Llodra, Isner probably could duel with Djokovic for a set before fading.  Bringing much more momentum into the week than anyone else in his section, the Serb should glide smoothly into the weekend.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

***

We return to Paris for previews of the semifinals and finals, but first we will revisit the events of Basel, Valencia, San Diego, and Bali.  The next edition of TW(2) looms…

 

Transmission reference: BAS101

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Despite the occasional fiery forehand, Ana’s second-round performance largely justified the desolate expression above.  At the root of her downfall once again lay her serve, which always has been a reliable barometer for the state of her game and confidence.  Players who rely less heavily on the shot can surmount poor serving days, but Ivanovic can’t afford to start the majority of points in neutral or defensive mode, the situation in which she found herself for most of the match against an inspired Kleybanova.  One of Ana’s finest moments of the day, however, came during her post-match press conference, when she was asked about the controversy that arose when Jankovic bitingly imitated her signature fistpump following their match in Madrid.  Stating in a crisp and well-articulated tone that “sports don’t build character; they show [character],” Ivanovic responded to her compatriot’s tasteless gesture with a resolute display of backbone—important in individual competition—without descending into petty vindictiveness.  She kept her words as impersonal as possible, not once mentioning Jankovic’s name.  We thought that the entire fistpump fracas would dwindle away rather quickly, but instead it has meandered on and on…and on, much like Fognini-Monfils.  Here’s a brief capsule of our thoughts on it, after which we will lay the issue to rest.

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Although Jankovic mishandled the situation by bringing it so crudely into the open, it’s true that Ivanovic often pumps her fist at inappropriate moments.  We differ from the commonly expressed perspective according to which only winners should elicit fistpumps; often, a player’s ball-retrieving skills force an opponent into hitting several extra shots…which they miss.  In those cases, a player’s brilliant defense wins them the point just as if they had struck a winner, so they deserve to relish the moment.  The boundary is somewhat subjective between what results from superb defense (fistpump appropriate) and what results from an opponent’s outright ineptitude (fistpump inappropriate), but Ana has crossed that line consistently.  During the 2007 Luxembourg final against Hantuchova, we first observed Ivanovic’s tendency to react in this way when the Slovak committed unforced errors from neutral positions early in rallies; this habit thus stems from long before Ana’s meteoric fall and cannot be explained by anxiety over returning to the top.  As much as we support Ivanovic and hope that she rises again, her excessive fist-pumping constitutes unsportsmanlike behavior and reflects poorly upon her, despite the fact that it’s probably unintentional.  We doubt that she’ll abandon such a deeply ingrained habit at this stage in her career, of course, and we should note that she’s far from the only offender (nor is Jankovic her only victim).  The prevalence of an unfortunate practice doesn’t inherently exonerate each individual who indulges in it, however.  As for Jankovic, this self-initiated distraction merely illustrates her continued immaturity, which has hampered her efforts to realize her vast potential.  Surely an opponent’s gestures don’t influence JJ’s ability to win a match, and a truly committed competitor shouldn’t care what happens across the net.  If Jelena fails to win a Slam, there’s nobody (including Henin) whom she should blame more than herself.  Now that the Serbs have exchanged salvos, though, here’s hoping that they can take a deep breath and progress from this sorry squabble, as we do now with the preview of a thrilling Day 6 menu.

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Cibulkova (26) vs. Venus (2) (Chatrier, 2nd match; 3rd including Henin completion):  Although a ten-inch height difference separates these competitors, their third-round meeting might be a little less routine than it appears. Many fans might not remember that the diminutive Slovak comfortably defeated the lanky American in their only previous collision (Doha 2008).  A surprise semifinalist here last year, Cibulkova profited from a section that had been vacated by the untimely demise of none other than…Venus.  Renowned for explosive movement and superb court coverage, she punches well above her size and could lure the second seed into unforced errors if her groundstrokes penetrate the court with adequate depth.  The contrast in their serves, however, should wield a significant impact even on this least serve-friendly surface.  Venus needs to move forward whenever possible in order to take time away from Cibulkova; if she can, she’ll be able to shorten the rallies and control the tempo of the match.

Rezai (15) vs. Petrova (19) (Chatrier, 4th match; 5th including completion):  The most intriguing WTA contest of the day represents the first serious test for Rezai in the bid to justify her new position among the game’s elite.  Defeating a pair of unheralded foes in her first two rounds, the Iranian-turned-Frenchwoman takes aim at Petrova, who ousted her rather comfortably at Roland Garros two years ago.  While the Russian didn’t claim a title during the preliminary events, she reached the quarterfinals in Rome before ambushing Serena en route to another quarterfinal in Madrid.  Whereas Rezai prefers to trade missiles from the baseline, Nadia has developed an all-court game in which her groundstrokes complement occasional forays to the net.  A former French Open semifinalist, Petrova adapts better to clay than most of her compatriots despite her infamously suspect mentality.  That flaw may be exposed by what surely will be a rabid French crowd on Chatrier tomorrow evening…or will the vociferous support unveil hitherto hidden cracks in Rezai’s veneer?  She’ll feel the expectations of a nation on her shoulders more firmly than ever before.

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Murray (4) vs. Baghdatis (25) (Lenglen, 3rd match; 4th including Bartoli completion):  Facing Gasquet on his least favorite surface before a partisan crowd, Murray shook his head in disgust, barked at his box, missed first serve after first serve, but somehow stayed around just long enough to watch the Frenchman fold.  A four-set win over Chela in the next round doesn’t greatly impress because he thoroughly throttled the Argentine just two weeks ago in Madrid.  Nevertheless, the Scot now confronts someone who relishes the clay as little as he does in the person of former Australian Open finalist and recent Federer nemesis Marcos Baghdatis.  Like Murray, the Cypriot fell to Ferrer in Madrid, yet (unlike Murray) he acquitted himself convincingly before finally succumbing deep in the third set.  The fourth seed’s motivation may not be running high at the moment with Wimbledon looming on the horizon; on the other hand, it’s almost impossible to ascertain the level of motivation and commitment that Baghdatis will bring to any given match.  Watch the battle of two-handed backhands as the match unfolds.  While Murray generally sacrifices some pace in exchange for more topspin (and thus more margin), the Cypriot connects with low-flying bullets that somehow repeatedly clear the net by centimeters when he’s at his best.

Dulgheru (31) vs. Wozniacki (3) (Court 1, 3rd match):  After contemplating withdrawal from Roland Garros, Wozniacki charged through her first two rounds with a Soderling-like efficiency that saw her drop just seven games in four sets.  Too hampered by an ankle injury to join the principal title contenders here, she still could reach the quarters or even a semi as a consequence of a relatively benign draw.  Two-time Warsaw champion Alexandra Dulgheru could pose an engaging challenge to that quest, however, for the Romanian preceded her unexpected title defense with wins over Safina in Rome and Dementieva in Madrid.  Although neither of Russian is exactly scalding at the moment, those triumphs demonstrated Dulgheru’s mental ability to defeat marquee players when they’re not at their highest level.  It’s hard to imagine that Wozniacki will reach her highest level, so an opportunity might arise for the Romanian.  On the other hand, she won’t be fresh after her Polish exertions last week and might lack the energy to cope with the prolonged rallies into which she’ll be dragged.

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Kuznetsova (6) vs. Kirilenko (30) (Court 1, 4th match):  Dodging not one but four bullets against the nerve-ridden Petkovic, Kuznetsova survived only to confront the compatriot who banished her from Rome just weeks ago.  Typically well-suited to clay, Kirilenko’s solid defense game and versatile shot repertoire will force Kuznetsova to harness her aggression, waiting patiently for opportunities but striking immediately when they arise.  As in Rome, the match lies in the hands of the defending champion, but she has proven reluctant to seize the initiative in such situations this year.  We’re curious to observe whether she elevates her game in the wake of her previous eleventh-hour escape, which could have lifted some pressure from Sveta’s mind.  After her remarkable comeback, has her confidence returned and expelled the fear of losing from her overactive mind?  When focused and composed, Kuznetsova is as dangerous as anyone on clay.

Montanes (29) vs. Soderling (5) (Court 2, 3rd match; 4th including Sharapova completion):  A thunderous beginning to the Swede’s Roland Garros campaign has obscured his mediocre results during the rest of the clay season.  Shelling a French wildcard and the clay-averse Taylor Dent, Soderling now faces the much more formidable assignment of Albert Montanes, a clay specialist who defended his Estoril title after defeating Federer there.  The Spaniard’s talent at tirelessly soaking up pace from deep behind the baseline tests any player’s patience and consistency, two virtues that last year’s finalist doesn’t possess in especially strong supply.  Far more imposing on serve than Montanes, however, Soderling needs to attack relentlessly and stay positive despite the occasional misfire.  If he allows himself to be lured into neutral rallies, he could find himself in the role of Monfils opposite Montanes’ impersonation of Fognini.

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Isner (17) vs. Berdych (15) (Court 6, 3rd match):  Attending this match?  You might want to wear a helmet.  Hammering 38 aces during a four-set, three-tiebreak victory over Chiudinelli, Isner intersects with the almost equally imposing serve of Tomas Berdych.  The toast of Miami with wins over Federer, Verdasco, and Soderling, the Czech has found his momentum slowed by nagging injuries over the last several weeks, during which he lost tense three-setters to clay artists Verdasco and Wawrinka.  A valuable opportunity awaits the winner of this match, who could profit from a toothless quarter to create some headlines and elevate their rankings.  Expect swift service holds, very few backhands, very little clay-court tennis, and more tiebreaks.  While Berdych can execute a greater range of shots than Isner, the American is mentally stronger and perhaps a little hungrier at this juncture.

Briefly noted:  A victim of rising Dutchman Thiemo de Bakker in the 500-level Barcelona tournament, Tsonga seeks revenge in front of a compatriot crowd that now must consider the leading male contender after Monfils’ premature exit.  If anyone can absorb the pressure, though, it’s the carefree Tsonga.  To be honest, we didn’t expect that either Youzhny or Troicki would reach the third round on their least favorite surface, but they’ve done so with aplomb and should showcase some crisp backhand-to-backhand rallies when they collide.  Scoring an impressively commanding upset over Safarova, Slovenian teenager Polona Hercog eyes a clash with Pennetta, who predictably overwhelmed Vinci but has struggled this year with the younger generation.  Lastly, the two gritty veterans Schiavone and Li duel in a contest between the crafty versatility of the Italian and the fearless shotmaking of the Chinese., who came within two games of the quarterfinals here last year.

***

You may want to refer back to the Day 5 preview for some of the matches that never took the court on Thursday, including Nishikori-Djokovic or Seppi-Kohlschreiber.  Let’s hope that the rain irrigates the grasses of Wimbledon while the clay stays as dry as the Sahara! 🙂

We’ve previewed the ATP and WTA cast of characters at Roland Garros rather thoroughly in the previous two posts, so there’s not much to add after the draw was released today.  Nevertheless, a few more specific pensées struck us as we perused it.  Ten of them, in fact.

1)  Nadal has time to find his rhythm:  Rafa’s initial cannon fodder, French wildcard Gianni Mina won’t enjoy what surely will be a brief visit to Court Philippe Chatrier.  The next two rounds probably feature Zeballos and Hewitt, neither of whom possesses the flat, relentlessly scorching groundstrokes required to trouble Nadal.  In the round of 16, the Spaniard could avenge a defeat to Indian Wells nemesis Ljubicic, not a formidable threat on clay; on the other hand, the flamboyant but raw and undisciplined Bellucci might await.  Likely to economically dispatch all of these adversaries, Nadal should be able to retain ample energy for the second week–bad news for his opponents.

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2)  Henin has virtually no time to find her rhythm:  As the defending ATP champion, Federer drew the WTA seeds and botched the business as badly as the last shot that he (didn’t) hit in Madrid.  Not only are four of the top five contenders are in the top half of the draw, but three of the top five are in the top quarter.  “Merci beaucoup,” says Justine, who confronts the grim prospect of defeating Sharapova, Stosur, Serena, and Jankovic back-to-back-to-back-to-back just in order to reach the final.  Barring some unexpected test, a supreme test of the petite Belgian’s durability looms.  Give her an extra round of applause if she surmounts all of these obstacles to capture her fifth French Open.

3)  The tennis gods are smiling on Venus:  It’s good to have a first-round opponent against whom one is 10-0 (Schnyder).  It’s better to have two potential quarterfinal opponents who combined to win three total matches in Rome and Madrid (Azarenka, Dementieva).  It’s best of all to be the only serious contender in one’s entire half with an open path towards one’s first non-Wimbledon Slam final since Nadal won his first French Open.  To be sure, it’s not so good to have the player who defeated you a week ago in the fourth round, but lightning probably won’t strike twice for Rezai.  In short, Venus got about as much aid as she could reasonably imagine from the deities of the draw.

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4)  The tennis gods are frowning on Verdasco:  After dazzling audiences in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Rome, the streaky Spaniard might have expected to translate that impetus into his second Slam semifinal appearance or even his first Slam final.  He must have been demoralized when Rafa was revealed as his quarterfinal opponent.  If he’s tired from Nice, moreover, he might struggle a round earlier to subdue Almagro, fresh from an exhilarating surge to the Madrid semifinals.

5)  Sharapova was wise to enter Strasbourg:  Recovering from an elbow injury, Maria will need the injection of momentum from that tournament in order to threaten Henin at all during their likely third-round encounter.  In the probable event that such an assignment proves too strenuous for the Russian, the points accumulated in Strasbourg will help to cushion her ranking against those that she would lose from an early exit, since Sharapova thundered to the quarterfinals last year with a dramatic sequence of four consecutive three-set triumphs.

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6)  Gasquet was wise to enter Nice:  The French-kissing Frenchman informed everyone who would listen that he had devoted considerable effort to preparing for the clay season…and then preceded to make no impact there whatsoever.  This week, though, he has strung together a few wins over rather pedestrian opposition in Nice.  Considering Murray’s less than convincing form on clay, Gasquet has a reasonable chance to record his third win in four meetings over the Scot.  Should he progress past that initial challenge, his draw could open up immensely; a deep run in Paris would elevate both his ranking and his confidence.

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7)  Ivanovic has a chance…:  …to reach the second week or even the quarters.  Despite her 2009 Australian Open loss to Kleybanova, one would give the Serb a substantial clay edge over the ponderous Russian, who has struggled since winning her maiden title in Kuala Lumpur this February.  A third-round clash with Radwanska beckons for Ana, who tested the Pole in Stuttgart despite playing far from her best; again, although by no means an easy assignment, it’s a winnable match if Ivanovic can maintain the level that she attained in Rome.  Beset by major physical and mental issues, Safina and Zvonareva represent the leading candidates for the fourth round, and we definitely would feel optimistic regarding her chances against either of those Russians.

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8)  Soderling doesn’t have a chance…:  …to repeat his 2009 performance.  Toting a three-match losing streak into the scene of his historic triumph last year, Soderling not only has no positive impetus upon which to build but also has drawn Federer in the quarterfinals.  He might not risk a 13th consecutive loss to the Swiss legend, however, since Gulbis should intersect his path in the fourth round.  Even the mind-numbingly steady Montanes might  be a bridge too far for the staggering Swede.

9)  There will be at least one surprise WTA semifinalist:  Bookended by defending champion Kuznetsova and the injured Wozniacki, the third quarter offers fertile terrain for a breakthrough similar to Stosur’s career-changing charge here last year.  Judging from recent results, Li Na and Safarova seem the most reasonable candidates; judging by clay expertise, the Italians Schiavone and Pennetta might have a chance, although their 2010 clay campaigns have been inconsistent at best.

10)  There will be at least one surprise ATP semifinalist:  Scanning the second quarter of the draw, we couldn’t locate a single remotely plausible contender in its ranks.  Garcia-Lopez and the aging Robredo are the only real clay experts in this district, for Murray, Tsonga, and Berdych enjoy their best results on faster surfaces.  So does Isner, but the American has acquitted himself competently thus far in the gritty grind.  No matter who does the dirty work, though, Federer (or perhaps Gulbis) will be waiting to feast in the semifinals.

***

Stay tuned for our first daily preview of the action at Roland Garros; “Feet and Feat of Clay” debuts tomorrow with highlight matches, potential upsets, and anything else that might catch our attention!

As most players enjoy a well-merited respite before the French Open fortnight, we cast our minds towards the first Slam that will be covered by this blog. Based largely upon the events of Monte Carlo, Stuttgart, Rome, and Madrid, our preview will identify contenders, pretenders, and dark horses at the event that starts in less than a week, as Tennis Channel’s “Countdown to Roland Garros” chronically reminds us. Under “contenders” are the tournament favorites, while “pretenders” feature high-ranked players who likely will falter well before the finish line; “dark horses” comprise the reverse phenomenon of low-ranked players who might perform above their rankings (but won’t win the title). The ATP edition follows below, and the WTA edition will be released on Thursday. All things come in threes, according to the cliché, but here they come in fives.

Contenders (in order of most likely to win):

1) Nadal: In a way, this list should read 1) Nadal, 2) Nadal, 3) Nadal, 4) Nadal, 5) Nadal. A considerable gamble after he dominated Monte Carlo and Rome, the Madrid tournament infused Rafa with invaluable momentum by proving that he can once again conquer the ATP elite after a lengthy stretch of futility against top-10 players. We know that the forehand is brutal, the touch exquisite, and the movement feline, but a key barometer of Nadal’s confidence is his two-handed backhand, which whistled through the court with increasing authority as the week progressed. Although he still donates occasional clusters of unforced errors, such as the fourth game of the final, he has rediscovered his composure at crucial moments, such as when he survived three break points to serve out the first set. Perhaps most intimidating to his future foes, however, was his ability to win this prestigious title despite playing a few notches below his jaw-dropping best. Unless unexpected injury intervenes, one must favor Rafa to win his fifth French Open over the other 127 players combined.

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2) Federer: One knows that a Slam is drawing near when Federer returns to his focused, purposeful demeanor. Among his most fascinating traits is the ability to flip an inner switch with timeliness and alacrity when required; the player who succumbed to Montanes in Estoril never would have defeated Gulbis and Ferrer in Madrid. In his loss to Nadal, Federer looked more confident than on many of their recent meetings, fearlessly attacking Rafa rather than slumping into resignation. A man with a plan, he might well have prevailed or forced a final set had a few key rallies ended in his favor, including the break points late in the first set or the bizarre forehand whiff that ended the match. One doubts that he’ll overcome Nadal in a best-of-five format on clay, but expect him to take full advantage if a new Soderling ambushes the Spaniard before the final. After all, he hasn’t lost to anyone else at the French Open since 2004.

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3) Verdasco: Clearly fatigued in Madrid, he probably should have rested instead of entering the Nice event this week. Nevertheless, the second-best Spanish lefty reminded everyone that he’s more than a flashy hairstyle with inspired performances in Monte Carlo and Rome as well as an emotional title run in Barcelona. In those three tournaments, he conquered a diverse range of playing styles from bone-crushing sluggers Soderling and Gulbis to crafty counterpunchers Montanes and Ferrer. Scoring two wins over 2009 nemesis Djokovic, one emphatic and one suspenseful, Verdasco proved that he can both overpower and outlast top opponents. He still doesn’t believe in himself against Nadal, but he’ll challenge anyone else and would have placed second on this list had Federer not reached the Madrid final.

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4) Ferrer: If Verdasco and Ferrer could be fused into one player, that hybrid might seriously threaten Nadal. While Verdasco showcases the shot-making capacity to hit through Rafa, Ferrer possesses the mental belief; one wouldn’t have surmised his 0-9 record against Federer from the typically tenacious effort that he displayed in the semifinals. It’s worth noting that all of his losses at clay Masters 1000 events this season have come against Nadal (twice) and Federer (once), while he split his two meetings with Verdasco. Lacking the weapons to defeat either of them at their best, he would enjoy a substantial chance against them if previous adversaries had worn them down beforehand, as was the case with Nadal at the 2007 US Open. In the absence of his famous compatriot, Ferrer probably would have claimed at least one French Open by now.

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5) Gulbis: Could he be the 2010 version of Soderling? Among the parallels to the Swede’s game are the explosive and flat, penetrating groundstrokes off both sides, while the Latvian’s artful drop shot trumps anything that Soderling can produce in the finesse department. Under the guidance of coach Hernan Gumy, Gulbis finally has harnessed some decent tactics and a modicum of focus to his ever-electrifying talents. At the climax of his breakthrough charge to the Rome semifinals, his three-set clash with Nadal proved the Spaniard’s most severe test so far on his favorite surface. His loss to Federer in Madrid concealed further positive portents, most notably his ability to recover from a dismal second set and compete effectively in the third set. Don’t forget that his best Slam performance to date was a French Open quarterfinal. If you’re looking for a genuinely threatening sleeper, look no further than the awakened Gulbis, who finally might be more than the sum of his parts.

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Pretenders (in order of ranking):

1) Djokovic: The Serb’s impersonation of a leading contender has been especially unpersuasive recently. Even beyond his sagging serve and crumbling confidence, the Parisian pollen season apparently represents a relevant factor in his performance. Whether or not Belgrade’s budding leaves actually hampered his performance, his retirement there unwisely telegraphed his continuing frailty to hungry future opponents. One might imagine that the slower surface would minimize the significance of his serving struggles, but the mental strain of tense service games will be amplified by the clay, always a test of emotional durability. A sturdy performance by a clay specialist or a reasonably tenacious opponent probably would suffice to send Djokovic to London earlier than he would prefer.

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2) Murray: Mustering a bare three wins during his three clay tournaments, the Scot was humiliated by Kohlschreiber in Monte Carlo and efficiently dispatched by Ferrer at the other events (insofar as Ferrer ever is efficient). Although Murray does appear to be emerging from a hideous post-Melbourne slump, his main goal now must be preparing for Wimbledon, where the recent slide will not have diminished the expectations of his compatriots. He’d be wise not to invest too much emotional or physical capital in Roland Garros, and Murray generally seems a sensible lad. Or do they say “laddie” in Scotland?

3) Soderling: Still streaky despite recent improvements, Soderling has caught fire at unexpected moments in the past, but his hot-and-cold game has been unseasonably chilly over the last few weeks. Unlike Verdasco, he made the right decision by entering Nice to garner some additional clay matches. After his finals appearance in Barcelona, the 2009 French Open finalist disappointed at both Rome and Madrid, where he exited rather meekly to Wawrinka and Almagro, respectively. Both of them are the type of player (sturdy, consistent, but unspectacular) whom Soderling must defeat in order to duplicate his triumph from last year.

4) Tsonga: Far less powerful but far more consistent, Ferrero and Ferrer made the big man look small in Monte Carlo and Rome, while he lost to De Bakker (who?) in Barcelona and ominously retired in Madrid. Even if the retirement was precautionary, as is probable, Tsonga’s brand of undiluted aggression should shine at Wimbledon while remaining antithetical to the demands of this surface. Moreover, one must remember the ignominious reputation of les bleus (and les bleues) for drastically under-performing at their home Slam.  Fortunately for Tsonga, the local pressure will rest largely on a member of les bleues this year.

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5) Cilic: The newest tower from Croatia has looked about as unsteady as his counterpart in Pisa during the clay Masters events. Mustering just a 2-3 record at those tournaments, he succumbed rather routinely to the diminutive Montanes in Monte Carlo, blew a substantial lead against Lopez in his Rome opener, and collected just five games from a stingy Ferrer in Madrid. The slump may not entirely be a product of the surface, moreover, for Cilic fell before the quarters in both Indian Wells and Miami, which should have favored his style. Don’t put too much weight upon his finals appearance in Munich, where no top stars and few clay experts participated. In fact, the clay-averse Youzhny toppled him there.

Dark horses (in order of…nothing in particular):

1) Almagro: Was he overachieving by reaching a debut Masters 1000 semifinal in Madrid? Probably, and his section was decimated by withdrawals (Berdych, Nalbandian) as well as upsets (Melzer def. Verdasco). As in Miami, though, Almagro walked through the door that was opened for him and also impressively dispatched Soderling in the second round. If his draw in Paris offers him room to operate, expect him to take advantage of the opportunity.

2) Montanes: The latest Federer-killer not only defended his title in Estoril but also reached the quarters in Monte Carlo, where he took a set from Verdasco. Unlucky to draw Gulbis in the first round of Madrid, this Spaniard covers the court like a vacuum cleaner, which often proves adequate against an erratic shotmaker on this surface.

3) Wawrinka: Preoccupied with fatherhood rather than forehands for much of the season’s early stages, the steady Swiss #2 comfortably defeated Gulbis in Monte Carlo, a win that appeared more significant in retrospect. Two weeks later, his quarterfinal run in Rome featured a gritty, thrilling triumph over the revitalized Berdych as well as a resounding victory over Soderling. Less renowned than either the Czech or the Swede, Wawrinka lost only to Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic at the three clay-court tournaments. We were a trifle puzzled by his semifinal loss in Belgrade to…

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4) Isner: Despite narrowly falling to compatriot Querrey in the Belgrade final, Isner proved that he can compete on clay both physically and mentally. Unlike most of the American men, he might well justify his seeding or even more. Beyond the eye-opening win over Wawrinka, the Georgia alumnus severely tested Djokovic in a pre-Indian Wells Davis Cup tie; during the course of five twisting sets , he admirably soaked up the pressure, held his nerve (mostly), and demonstrated better fitness than one has come to expect from the ATP’s giants. His mental fortitude resurfaced with consecutive comebacks from one-set deficits in Madrid, where a weary Isner acquitted himself as creditably as one could hope against a Nadal who would not be denied. We found that second comeback from a one-set deficit especially impressive because it came at the expense of…

5) Santiago Giraldo: You’ll want to learn the name of this Colombian and store it away for future reference, perhaps on hard courts as well as clay. Unimposing in stature, Giraldo burst from nowhere to humiliate a resurgent Ferrero in the second round of Madrid; almost as impressive was his ability to follow up the breakthrough with a comfortable third-round win. Far from a one-day wonder, he showcased his mettle just a fortnight later by rallying from a disastrous first set to erase the ever dangerous Kohlschreiber, who has defeated Djokovic and Murray on this surface. Edging within two points of victory against the towering Isner, Giraldo accomplished the rare feat of winning a 6-1 set from the (admittedly tired) elephantine server. Don’t expect him to explode into the second week, for he remains a work in progress, but do keep an eye on his match with the unlucky seed who draws him early at Roland Garros. Unless it’s Nadal, of course.

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***

Hope that you enjoyed this preview as much as Djokovic is enjoying handing out the hardware below…

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The Serb needs to forget that it is more blessed to give than to receive.  😉

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Recognize this man?  Roger Federer does, having ignominiously fallen to him a few days in an Estoril semifinal.  After improbably defending his title at that Portuguese tournament, Montanes opens his Madrid campaign against fellow Federer nemesis Gulbis, also riding a tsunami-like momentum wave from a semifinal run in Rome.  Their match offers an almost diametrical contrast in styles, for the Latvian relies on explosive serves and forehands whereas the unheralded Spaniard churns through extended rallies in the mode of a classic clay-courter.  Since Gulbis nearly hit through Nadal at the Foro Italico, one would imagine that he’ll comfortably hit through Nadal’s less resilient compatriot.  Nevertheless, emerging players often stagger a little after key breakthroughs while they peer through the settling dust at their unfamiliar surroundings.  Blinded for most of 2009 by the dust of 2007-08, Gulbis could be seeded at the French Open with a sturdy performance here.  His draw is solid but not overly daunting, so a valuable opportunity awaits. 

The Latvian firecracker isn’t the only player who will be seeking to capitalize upon a rousing Rome breakhrough, for Martinez Sanchez begins tomorrow against Stosur, who remarkably must be considered among the leading contenders at Roland Garros.  A preview of that match and four other Tuesday clashes is straight ahead:

Stosur-Martinez Sanchez:  It’s a pity that the Stuttgart finalist and the Rome champion must meet so early in Madrid, from where only one of them can receive a final injection of confidence before the French Open.  Since their playing styles are so similar, the match likely will be decided by who serves more effectively and creates more opportunities to attack the net, where both of them rank among the best in the WTA.  The Australian’s outstanding second serve could prove a crucial factor, allowing her to escape with a lower first-serve percentage than can the Spaniard with her relatively straightforward second delivery.  Is MJMS here to stay, or was Rome a breathtaking career highlight like Bartoli’s 2007 Wimbledon run?  More experienced than Gulbis, she’ll be less susceptible to a post-breakthrough hangover.  We should witness an crisply played match high on short points and low on service breaks, a rarity in the WTA”s world of resounding returns and sagging serves.  Unable to ruffle the imperturbable Stosur, the Spanish crowd might lift MJMS to the upset but also might burden her with the weight of their collective expectation.  Over the last several weeks, she has conclusively seized the standard of women’s tennis in her nation from the fading Medina Garrigues and the injured Suarez Navarro.

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Verdasco-Karlovic:  Nobody wants to see the monolithic Croat adjacent to them in a draw, least of all a player on a scalding streak like Verdasco.  Even if he overcomes Karlovic, the spasmodic style in which the match will be played could disrupt his rhythm for future matches against more conventional players.  The Croat’s serve-and-volley tactics shouldn’t convert well at all to clay, but his serve can be cashed in virtually any currency.  Focusing simply on putting that shot back in play, Verdasco will need to play a little more conservatively than he prefers; there is very little margin for error against Karlovic, especially on one’s own service games, so he should focus on fundamentals instead of flashiness.  Winning four of the six tiebreaks that they have contested, the ace king has toppled Verdasco in their last three meetings, so it’ll be intriguing to observe whether the Spaniard brings any mental baggage to the court with him.  He needs to remember that none of those matches were played on clay and to keep his composure when Karlovic unleashes his bombardment of blurs.  Recently a much more sturdy competitor than in the past, the Monte Carlo finalist can rely upon his compatriots in the crowd to help him fend off frustration.  Here is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate his new mental maturity.

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Nalbandian-Berdych:  Somewhat surprisingly, the Czech hasn’t ignited after his spectacular fortnight in Miami and suffered one of his trademark head-scratching losses last week in Munich to Petzschner.  Berdych would do well to look across the net for a reminder of what can happen to those who don’t possess the dedication and urgency necessary to fulfill their potential, for Nalbandian surely will enter history as the most talented player of his generation never to win a Slam.  On the other hand, Tomas perhaps should concentrate on the task at hand, since he’s lost four of their previous five meetings and (eerily) twice in this city, although both of those matches lasted three sets.  Seeking to rebound from what seemed a  career-threatening hip injury, the Argentine nearly jolted Nadal in Miami before hurtling into the quarterfinals of Monte Carlo with victories over Youzhny and Robredo.  His early ball-striking and ingenious angle-creating should translate even better here than they did to the slower surface in that Mediterranean pleasure garden.  Meanwhile, Berdych’s serve-forehand combinations should find the mark more effectively at this altitude.  If both men play at the level of which they’re capable, this clash will be the match of the day.  But it’s a huge “if.”

Petkovic-Pennetta:  We hadn’t really noticed this early-morning catfight until our Spanish friend Alvaro Rama called our attention to it.  (If you have a specific match that you would like us to profile on any of these days, by the way, just Twitter at us or write a comment here, and we’ll do our best to comply.)  One of the more colorful characters in a WTA full of colorful characters, the multitalented Petkovic has explored music and politics in her adopted country.  She plays some decent tennis on the side, as Pennetta learned the hard way in her Miami opener, and is more dangerous than her ranking just outside the top 50 suggests.  First watching the Bosnian-turned-German last fall in Tokyo, we were struck both by her businesslike attitude on the court and by the fearlessness with which she attacked Kuznetsova, uncommon among players unused to tackling the WTA elite.  A few weeks ago, her two wins for Germany in a tense Fed Cup tie against France further illustrated her poise under pressure, a trait not shared by Pennetta.  Trading breadsticks with Cirstea in a bizarre first round, the Italian has developed a balanced, technically crisp style and is comfortable from almost any position on the court, but she struggles to unleash the point-ending shots owned by Petkovic.  The match thus represents a contest between versatility and shot-making, of which the clay should favor the former.  Nevertheless, the intelligent German is learning how to modulate her aggression and could flap the highly flappable Italian if she starts confidently and establishes her authority early in the match.

Li-Cibulkova:  Mercilessly bludgeoning their first-round foes, these steely competitors will remain rintooted to the baseline as consistently as Stosur and Martinez Sanchez will hasten to the net.  A 2009 French Open semifinalist, the diminutive Slovak hasn’t impressed on most occasions since then and has struggled with injuries, but she’ll severely test Li’s Achilles heel, her consistency.  Surprisingly, the Chinese star nearly reached the quarterfinals at Roland Garros last year and has enjoyed recurrent success on what one would consider her least comfortable surface.  Among clay venues, the swift Madrid courts should suit her game more effectively than most, seemingly setting her up for an extended  run through the weakest section of the draw.  She often rises or sinks to the level of the competition, however, and has chronically struggled to win matches that she should win.  The 13th seed must take intelligent rather than reckless risks and mentally prepare herself to hit one extra ball, while the Slovak must keep her opponent pinned behind the baseline in order to keep the rallies in neutral mode.  If this match is decided by winners, Li will win; if it’s decided by errors, the Slovak will advance.

Of somewhat less interest but still worthy of note are a pair of WTA matches on the same court as Li.  Peer-Kleybanova will afford the same stark style contrast as Gulbis-Montanes, with the burly Russian seeking to muscle groundstrokes past the the tenacious Israeli.  Shortly afterwards, Pavlyuchenkova-Petrova juxtaposes yet another budding baseliner bearing the “Made in Russia” label with an aging but still dangerous and always entertaining compatriot.  Will the future or the past be the present on Tuesday?

***
The match for which all of us have been waiting (all right, the match for which we have been waiting) won’t happen until Wednesday, but you can be sure that we’ll feature it prominently in the next edition of our blog!

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Ana couldn’t believe her eyes when she captured the #1 ranking for the first time by winning that three-set semifinal at Roland Garros.  🙂

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The five-time defending champion was ruthlessly efficient again today, conceding just one game to an outgunned opponent for the second straight match.  After a successful day of predictions on Thursday, all four of our projected semifinalists remain in contention for the first significant prize of the ATP clay season.  But will they take the final step into precisely the Saturday matchups that we envisioned several days ago?  Let’s break down the action on Friday:

Djokovic (1) vs. Nalbandian:  His expectations unquenched with a dramatic triumph over Youzhny, the evergreen Argentine posted an equally impressive win over the ultra-consistent Robredo.  Meanwhile, Djokovic delivered some of his cleanest and most confident tennis since last fall when he routinely dismissed Wawrinka.  Although the Serb has sometimes struggled against Nalbandian, his seamless movement and ability to rapidly transition from defense into offense should reap rewards on the clay.  Expect a high-quality match filled with crisp ball-striking, audacious shot placement, and brilliantly bludgeoned two-handers.  Pick:  Djokovic.

Montanes vs. Verdasco (10):   Credit Montanes for overcoming the surging Baghdatis and the formidable serve of Cilic, two opponents who would have overpowered the unseeded Spaniard on any other surface.  Now, however, he faces a compatriot who also has enjoyed substantial success on clay; he’ll need to retrieve as many balls as he can and hope for untimely erratic stretches from Verdasco.  Soaring past an increasingly dangerous Berdych in the third round, the tenth seed exacted revenge against the player who had eliminated him from the previous two Masters 1000 tournaments; perhaps the most impressive feature of his victory was the mental toughness that he displayed after losing an airtight first set.  A fraction of that toughness coupled with Verdasco’s far superior power should spell a comfortable win.  Pick:  Verdasco.

Ferrer (11) vs. Kohlschreiber:  Following a pair of routine straight-set victories, Ferrer crammed a bagel down the throat of the Indian Wells champion before edging through a second-set tiebreak.  Already a titlist on clay this season (Acapulco), he should scurry and grind his way past the German, who exploited a woefully inept performance from Murray.  His  flowing shot-making skills should provide a scintillating contrast with the Spaniard’s indefatigable counter-punching, but Kohlschreiber’s game oscillates between peaks and valleys.  He won’t maintain the unflagging intensity and consistency required to topple Ferrer on this surface.  Pick:  Ferrer.

Ferrero (9) vs. Nadal (2):  The competition abruptly spikes upward for Nadal, who confronts a fellow French Open champion and one of the tiny handful of players who has defeated him on this surface (Rome 2008).  Nevertheless, that match featured a blisters-riddled Nadal who couldn’t perform at a level remotely close to his capabilities.  Although Ferrero displayed impressive grittiness during his win over Tsonga, he may be a little weary as a consequence of its bone-crushing rallies.  On the other hand, Rafa exerted himself so little during his win over Berrer that he practiced after the  match!  A rested Nadal + a tired opponent = good news for Nadal fans.  Pick:  Nadal.

***

Just as in Monte Carlo, all four of our projected semifinalists in Charleston have reached the quarters,  and we’re sticking with the four girls whom we brought to the dance.  Once the lineup there has been decided, we’ll come back with a transatlantic preview of the semifinals in both events!  🙂

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