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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rafael Nadal - Rafael Nadal Wins the Monte Carlo Masters Title


Spain:  For the second straight year, Nadal snapped a three-final losing streak in the principality on the Mediterranean promontory by conquering a compatriot in the title match.  Not at his classic best throughout the week, Rafa battled through a three-hour exercise in trench warfare against Murray in the semifinals and then charted a far from routine path to victory against Ferrer a day later.  Ironically, though, his ability to win without his finest clay form should infuse him with confidence while reminding his rivals how far below his pinnacle they normally fall.  Without Djokovic in the draw, Monte Carlo proved the ideal venue for the world #1 to reassert his supremacy on the surface from which he sprang like Minerva from Jupiter’s head.  Should his recent nemesis collide with him again in Madrid or Rome, Rafa will approach that meeting with the memories from North America muted if not expunged.

Told that a Spaniard would reach the Monte Carlo final without dropping a set, almost nobody would have identified Ferrer as the lucky fellow.  Rekindling his clay momentum from an Acapulco title, the world #6 lost six or fewer games in each of his four matches before succumbing to Nadal on Sunday.  At his best when the serve matters least, Ferrer eroded the willpower of his opponents by rarely allowing them to glide through a comfortable service game.  Moreover, he tested his compatriot deep into both sets during a second Masters 1000 final appearance.  Although he probably cannot dethrone the king of clay, Ferrer should consolidate his elevated ranking over the next several weeks and perhaps score a key upset or two over a member of the top five.

The principal architect of Spain’s Fed Cup victory over France, Martinez Sanchez reminded us why she is both so inconsistent and so dangerous.  Violating the basic rules taught to any novice, she serves and volleys on clay, attempts drop shots from well behind the baseline, and runs around her forehand to hit backhands.  Yet this iconoclastic style repeatedly reaped rewards for her against flummoxed Frenchwomen Razzano and Rezai, who never could anticipate what gambit would next flutter into the Spaniard’s inspired mind.  Alternately jaw-dropping and head-scratching, Martinez Sanchez relies on tactics extremely hard to execute consistently but nearly unanswerable on this surface when she does.

Monte Carlo semifinalists:  Winless since January, Murray halted his slide much earlier than the similar malaise that descended upon him last year.  Few are the players who can extend Nadal to three hours on clay, and one would not have included the Scot in their number considering his past struggles on the surface.  The longer points favored by the European dirt may have assisted him in regaining his rhythm, while an accommodating draw allowed him to recapture the sensation of winning without suffering undue pressure.  Joining him in the penultimate round was new world #8 Melzer, who earned his career-best ranking with a first victory over Federer.  Having scored 2010 wins over Djokovic and Nadal, the aging lefty summoned just enough self-belief to strike down a player who had defeated him resoundingly three times last year.  Both Murray and Melzer struggled with injuries during their breakthrough weeks, though, so question marks hover above the rest of their clay campaigns.

Jankovic:  Allegedly ill at the start of the weekend, she left Slovakia feeling ill by the end of it.  The Serbian workhorse spent six hours on court during Sunday’s epic battles, which culminated with a 197-minute doubles rubber during which Jankovic and her partner saved two match points.  Once leading by a set and 5-1 in that match, the Slovak duo served for the match three times but could not wrest it away from a Serb who surely relished every moment of the escalating drama.  Although Jankovic clearly improved her results over the previous two months, she entered this weekend lacking a bit of her trademark spark.  That spark may have returned just in time for her most profitable time of year.

Ukraine:  Bringing nobody in the top 100 to Melbourne, the Ukrainian team looked certain cannon fodder against Slovak-turned-Aussie Groth and Russian-turned-Aussie Rodionova.  While Tsurenko and Savchuk detained the former for only 48 minutes apiece, they recorded mini-upsets over the latter that included a two-tiebreak fourth rubber in which Rodionova served for both sets.  The momentum then swung violently against them with a first-set bagel in the decisive doubles, but, like Serbia, Ukraine gallantly saved match points in the second set en route to assuring an implausible berth in the 2012 World Group.  Let the vodka flow in Kiev.


Ana Ivanovic - Sony Ericsson Open

Ivanovic:  On Saturday, Serbia’s merry maiden glowed with happiness as a convincing win over Hantuchova ignited a promising clay campaign.  Casting a pall over that success was the recurrence of a stomach injury that forced her to retire against Cibulkova a day later.  Nevertheless, Ivanovic showed this weekend that she had overcome the scars of her loss against Clijsters more successfully than the scars in her abdominal muscle.  When she returns to practice later this week, she will have a more positive memory on which to reflect as a busy month of May approaches.

American women’s tennis:  Banished from the World Group for the first time in the competition’s history, the US Fed Cup squad faces a potential future relegated to the periphery of the sport.  Without any clear savior on the horizon, the team might well fall into zonal play within a year or two.  In an event completely unrelated to Fed Cup, though, Serena finally returned to the practice courts after a nine-month absence.  Can she race to recovery and create an opportunity to defend her Wimbledon title?  As she has demonstrated before, a lack of match preparation means nothing for her ability to contend.

Hantuchova:  After seven and a half hours of tennis this weekend, the leggy Slovak came away with nothing except three losses and the deflating sensation of having almost single-handedly lost the tie for her country.  Such reflections would not do Hantuchova justice, though, for the former Fed Cup heroine competed valiantly through consecutive three-setters on Sunday even as the anticipation of impending disaster must have gradually crept over her.  Often disparaged for her frailty under pressure, she at least did not capitulate meekly this time.


Roger Federer - ATP Masters Series Monte Carlo - Day Six

Federer:  Possibly disinclined to serve as Nadal’s Monte Carlo foil for a fourth time, the second seed showed little appetite for the battle during a quarterfinal loss to Melzer.  Recalling his struggles on break points against a more famous lefty, he failed to convert all seven of his opportunities against a foe whom he recently had dominated.  On more than one of those break points, tame second-serve returns settled into the net or drifted lazily over the baseline.  Federer may not have settled into the lethargy of tennis old age, but the glow of his World Tour Finals in London last fall has faded.

Verdasco:  Confident that his fortunes would change once he returned to clay, the third-ranked Spaniard discovered otherwise with an opening-round loss to Robredo.  Now outside the top 10, Verdasco has not made an impact at any important tournament since last year’s clay season and has lost his first match in five of eight tournaments this season, eight of thirteen since the US Open.  Perhaps the home crowd in Madrid will provide the necessary tonic to lift his spirits.

Rybarikova:  Facing match point at 7-8 in the final set of the decisive doubles rubber, she struck a well-placed serve that drew an aimlessly floating return.  At this point, the Slovak journeywoman had a choice:  A) spike the ball somewhere (virtually anywhere) and watch the Serbs scramble desperately, B) watch the ball fly past and assume that it will land inside the baseline.  Like a host of more familiar colleagues from Federer to Tsonga, Rybarikova chose the latter option on a crucial point and discovered the danger of false assumptions.

Andy Murray - ATP Masters Series Monte Carlo - Day Five

After a week only slightly less tranquil than the Mediterranean’s azure calm, three players nurse flickering hopes of thwarting Nadal’s march to a seventh consecutive Monte Carlo title.  Can any of them quell the terror of the terre battue?  Or perhaps the more realistic question:  who can muster the  most gallant resistance before the raging bull impales them on his horns?

Murray:  Of their thirteen previous meetings, only two have occurred on the surface least friendly to the Scot and most friendly to the Spaniard.  In a Monte Carlo semifinal two years ago, Murray rebounded from a lackluster first set to drag Rafa into a second-set tiebreak decided only after a series of epic, implausibly court-stretching rallies.  Their most recent collision ranked among the most thrilling best-of-three ATP matches of 2010, culminating in a final-set tiebreak that required all of Nadal’s trademark tenacity.  Often discomfited by opponents with penetrating backhands, the world #1 has expressed uneasiness when facing Murray on the hard courts where he has suffered all four of his losses to the Scot.  When the battlefields shift from blue and purple to red and green, Nadal has comprehensively dominated his rival.  While the third seed displayed surprisingly keen clay instincts this week, he never will possess the almost preternatural abilities of the Spaniard to conform his game with the surface.

But Murray has awakened more swiftly from his post-Australian malaise than in 2010, and his three victories this week have lifted his confidence to a position where winning has become familiar again.  As the considerable underdog in their semifinal, he should feel liberated from the pressure that has prevented him from showcasing his finest form in the most important moments of his career.  Since his week already has surpassed any realistic goals, however, he may resign himself to Nadal’s superiority should the match turn against him early.  The Scot can match the Spaniard in patience and in fitness but not yet in fortitude, a crucial test posed by the clay.

Melzer:  Hoping to score a third consecutive victory over Ferrer since the start of 2010, the Austrian lefty crushed the Spaniard en route to a Roland Garros semifinal last year.  Hampered by a back injury, his stirring quarterfinal victory over Federer may have left his energy depleted for what promises to become a fiercely contested semifinal.  Should he survive that encounter, Melzer has both the weapons and the attitude to topple the Monte Carlo champion, whom he conquered on a slow hard court in Shanghai.  The inflammable Austrian attacked Federer with a fearlessness perhaps amplified by awareness of his injury and the limitations that it imposed upon his durability.  When at his best, Melzer interweaves crackling forehands with delicate drop shots and superb reflex volleys.  At his worst, he senselessly sprays low-percentage shots with little purpose and less accuracy.  The challenge for his opponents, therefore, consists of weathering the crests while waiting to exploit the dips, either of which can arrive at any moment.

Uniting the few players who have troubled Nadal on his favorite surface (Davydenko, Soderling, Gulbis) are traits similar to Melzer’s flat, vicious ball-striking and determination to seize the initiative at all costs.  On the other hand, the Austrian never has reached a Masters 1000 final, much less collected one of these prestigious shields.    Moreover, he probably should consider himself fortunate to have escaped all seven of the break points that he faced against Federer, including more than one donated by errant second-serve returns.  Confronted with the six-time defending champion, Melzer would experience far sterner pressure and a return game that will force him into rallies on neutral terms or worse whenever he resorts to a second serve.

Ferrer:  Like Murray, the Spanish #2 has conquered his compatriot on four previous occasions and at both hard-court majors.  Handed an unexpectedly safe passage into the 2011 Australian Open semifinals was a Ferrer who expressed less exultation over his accomplishment than sympathy for Nadal.  The indefatigable grinder has won just one of his last eighteen sets against Rafa on clay, however, although he has come within a few points of snatching sets from him on multiple occasions.  Among these instances, last year’s Rome final featured a tense opening set from which Nadal narrowly extricated himself before tightening the vise around his diminutive countryman thereafter.  Plagued by few clear flaws but armed with few key strengths, Ferrer faces a nearly insoluble conundrum when he confronts a healthy Rafa.  Unable to outhit him from the baseline and uncomfortable at the net, he plays into the strategy of the world #1 by engaging in the wars of attrition that the latter rarely loses.  In contrast to fellow #2s Wawrinka and Troicki, though, Nadal’s relentless supremacy has not gnawed away at the Spanish #2’s self-belief in their encounters.  Even in a battle that he cannot win, Ferrer rarely fails to mount a valiant effort.  A 2011 all-Spanish final likely would offer considerably greater entertainment than the previous edition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Semifinals:  Nadal vs. Monfils, Ferrer vs. Federer

Final:  Nadal vs. Federer

Champion:  Rafael Nadal

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Three of the four Slams complete, we’re precisely halfway through the 2010 tennis season, so it’s time to reflect upon the most momentous and meaningful achievements of the first half.  We count down the top five on both the men’s and women’s sides, not all of which went to a final-set tiebreak (although a few did) but all of which were laden with meaning for the second half of 2010 and beyond.

5)  Djokovic d. Isner (Davis Cup, 1st round, 4th rubber):  In the midst of a desultory spring, Djokovic delivered a stirring melodrama in five parts before a fervent Belgrade audience and frenzied family, whose soccer-style vibe clashes with some tournaments but meshes smoothly with Davis Cup.  As the visiting villain, Isner performed more convincingly than anyone could have expected for his debut with Team USA.  Littered with jagged plot twists, the match ebbed and flowed from one determined competitor to the other, infusing this often moribund competition with renewed energy and relevance.

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4)  Tsonga d. Almagro (Australian Open, 4th round):  The men’s tournament in Melbourne was rife with spectacular first-week epics such as Youzhny-Gasquet, Blake-Del Potro, Del Potro-Cilic, and Roddick-Gonzalez.  But this marathon five-setter climbed above the rest as a result of its steadily escalating intensity, for each brilliant shotmaker forced the other further into the realm of implausibility during its final stages.  Generally more focused upon the journey than the destination, both Tsonga and Almagro shine most brightly in such moments, while their cordial post-match greeting shone just as brightly for those who appreciate classiness on court.

3)  Nadal d. Gulbis (Rome, Semifinal):  Diabolical on dirt once again, Rafa conceded just two sets throughout the entire clay season, one to Almagro in Madrid and one here to the burgeoning Latvian.  Pushing the Spaniard closer to the brink on his favorite surface than anyone else, Gulbis validated his upset over Federer a few days before by harnessing his spectacular all-court prowess with a vastly enhanced competitive vigor.  Few tennis sights are more inspiring than the Latvian at his best, but one of them is the spectacle of the Spaniard relentlessly willing himself to victory over such a worthy opponent.  When his foe’s determined campaign finally crumbled, Nadal’s trademark victory writhe emanated relief as much as pure jubilation.  Finally integrating the components of his spectacular game, Gulbis seems headed directly for the top 10 when he returns from current injuries.  Look for a player profile on him in the coming weeks.

2)  Berdych d. Federer (Miami, 4th round):  Edging into the nerve-jangling terrain of a third-set tiebreak, the famously fragile Czech proved himself fragile no more by saving match point against the world #1 with a fearless forehand.  Two courageous rallies later, Berdych scored the most significant win of his career, even more impressive than his 2004 Olympics triumph over Federer because of the respective trajectories that their careers have followed over the last six years.  He deserves immense credit for continuing to build upon this career-altering moment over the next two majors, where he emerged among the leading threats to the ATP top four.  After lightning struck twice at Wimbledon, the tennis world hailed the Czech’s emergence as a potential champion.  Yet it was a humid April evening in Miami that had witnessed the rebirth of Tomas Berdych.

1)  Isner d. Mahut (Wimbledon, 1st round):  Shattering shoals of records beyond repair, the 138-game final set alone would place this match atop our list.  Moreover, the pas de deux between the American and the Frenchman brought tennis to the attention of sports fans who previously had thought of golf when hearing about the “US Open.”  Just as the previous two matches represented the makings of Gulbis and Berdych, this three-day grind in the grass probably represented the making of John Isner, who stood every inch as tall as his towering frame.  On a broader level, though, the inhumane dimension of the match may have struck a fatal blow to no-tiebreak final sets, a potentially historic step in the evolution of the sport. 

On to the achievements of the ladies:

5)  Schiavone d. Stosur (French Open, Final):  Over the past few years, the Roland Garros women’s final had featured the most appallingly feckless tennis of the WTA season.  Not on this occasion, when Schiavone fearlessly but intelligently took risks at crucial moments and played with joy as well as intensity; meanwhile, Stosur competed consistently throughout most of this tightly contested encounter.  Although the Italian veteran won’t build upon this achievement, her title provided a well-deserved climax to a career lived far from the limelight.  It was delightful to see a women’s final that was won by the champion rather than lost by the runner-up.

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T-4)  Serena d. Sharapova (Wimbledon, 4th round) / Henin d. Sharapova (French Open, 3rd round):  Confronting the best player on clay at Roland Garros and arguably the best player on grass at Wimbledon, Sharapova compelled both adversaries to display their most dazzling tennis in order to vanquish her.  Against the Russian’s indomitable competitive ferocity, Henin’s tenacious defense glowed as much as Serena’s explosive serving and shotmaking.  Dispelling Sharapova’s uncertain start to 2010, these two matches also underscored her return to familiar fire-breathing form, which should enliven the WTA immensely during the second half. 

T-3)  Stosur d. Serena (French Open, Quarterfinal) / Jankovic d. Serena (Rome, Semifinal):  Almost invincible anywhere but clay, Serena is formidable even on her least favorite surface, as the Australian and the Serb could attest.  Stosur consolidated her presence among the sport’s elite by saving a match point before eliminating the world #1 from a major, following the sort of suspenseful, mentally draining duel in which Serena typically prevails.  Likewise saving a match point in Rome, Jankovic encouraged counterpunchers everywhere by proving that top-drawer defense can frustrate top-level offense, contrary to popular wisdom.  David does slay Goliath sometimes, after all.

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T-2)  Clijsters d. Henin (Brisbane, Final) / Clijsters d. Henin (Miami, Semifinal):  The European version of Serena-Venus, the two Belgians rattle each other more than anyone else can rattle either of them.  Not the most technically sturdy or mentally steady tennis, these tension-soaked strolls along the precipice produced more compelling drama than most WTA rivalries.  As soon as Kim built an immense lead, Justine charged forward to snatch it away, only to trip over herself and hand the initiative back to her compatriot…who politely returned it to her.  Towards the latter stages of these matches, whiplash-inducing momentum shifts occurred every few points until momentum itself became a meaningless concept.  In an especially eerie instance of déjà vu, Clijsters won both matches at exactly the same moment (the 14th point of the third-set tiebreak) with exactly the same shot (a forehand winner down the line).

1)   Serena d. Henin (Australian Open, Final):  A three-set women’s final at a major had become an oxymoron after 13 consecutive straight-setters, so one relished a championship match with more than a single, unbroken storyline.  Of course, one of the principal reasons for that trend was Serena’s dominance, which faltered just enough in the second set to allow Henin an opportunity that she seized with consummate aplomb.  As the Belgian reeled off one blinding winner after another, we wondered how the American could recover, but she demonstrated the same tenacity that Nadal manifested against Gulbis.  Serena dug in her heels with admirable stubbornness, transcending her aching knees to play every point and every shot with the single-minded determination that comprises her greatest weapon.  Of her thirteen major titles, few have been harder earned or more meaningful.


After applauding the stars who shone in the first half, it’s time to briefly turn from the sublime to the ridiculous.  Sharpening our satirical pen, we sum up the worst matches of 2010.

5)  Roddick d. Soderling (Indian Wells, Semifinal) / Berdych d. Soderling (Miami, Semifinal):  The pre-2008 version of Soderling isn’t dead but dormant, as he proved twice in two tournaments.

4)  Federer d. Murray (Australian Open, Final):  The Scot didn’t start playing with conviction until the third-set tiebreak, much too late to matter.

3)  Nadal d. Verdasco (Monte Carlo, Final):  Surely this hapless hunk of cannon fodder wasn’t the same player who courageously extended Nadal deep into a fifth set at the Australian Open?

2)  Tsonga d. Djokovic (Australian Open, Quarterfinal):  We empathized when Djokovic excused himself to vomit midway through this debacle.  No, not “sympathize”; “empathize.”

1)  Ginepri d. Querrey (Roland Garros, 1st round):  Whatever the sins of those who lost the previous four matches, at least they didn’t tank and then casually tell the world about it afterwards.

We’re not so chivalrous that we spare the ladies:

5)  Li d. Venus (Australian Open, Quarterfinal):  Seemingly addled by the Australian sun, these two superb shotmakers left their GPS in the locker room and cheerfully engaged in a carnival of errors.

T-4)  Kirilenko d. Sharapova (Australian Open, 1st round) / Dulko d. Ivanovic (Australian Open, 2nd round):  Never have prettier women played uglier tennis.

3)  Stosur d. Jankovic (French Open, Semifinal):  This listless encounter was far less compelling than the other semifinal…which ended in a retirement after a single set.

2)  Dementieva d. Serena (Sydney, Final):  The five-time Australian Open champion had already moved on to Melbourne, but next time she might want to hire a more skilled impersonator.

1)  Clijsters d. Venus (Miami, Final):  Some of the spectators spent the match sleeping or sunbathing, both more profitable activities than watching what passed for “tennis.”


We’ll return in two days with a tie-by-tie preview of the Davis Cup quarterfinals!

It’s always a pleasure to contemplate Henin’s exquisite all-court game, especially on the surface where she has won four of her seven majors.  Although the petite Belgian hasn’t played on clay since Berlin 2008 and claims to be have recentered her game around grass, she’ll be one of the main focal points during the next several weeks.  Can she and Nadal reclaim their long-lived mastery of Roland Garros?  This question and four (actually, five!) others are addressed straight ahead.

1)  Will the king and queen be crowned again?  Despite Monte Carlo’s depleted field, we were highly impressed with the composed, merciless Rafa who systematically dismantled the draw.  To the dismay of his rivals, he appears to have recaptured the inner confidence that flickered throughout the past year.  Never was this fact more visible than in the final, a match that he couldn’t afford to lose (odd as it may sound); revealing no signs of pressure at all, he played with conviction and a determination not to allow Verdasco a ray of hope.  The post-injury Rafa hasn’t yet proven that he can defeat the likes of Federer, Del Potro, or Soderling, but the early omens are excellent.  

Unlike Nadal, Henin voluntarily abdicated her throne without a legitimate successor.  Watching Justine’s retooled style on the hard courts, we wondered whether her enhanced aggression would diminish her chances on a surface designed for longer points.  Against a battered WTA lacking in clay-court specialists, though, it’s hard to imagine more than a handful of players who could trouble her on it.  Safina will be rusty after a long absence, Kuznetsova is nursing a shoulder injury and has underwhelmed this year, Clijsters looked hapless in Marbella, Venus rarely makes an impact at Roland Garros, Jankovic hasn’t defeated Henin in nine attempts (think Verdasco-Nadal), Dementieva already has lost twice to her this year, and the Wozniacki-Azarenka generation still seems intimidated by the veterans.   Her greatest potential challenges might come from Serena and Sharapova, two players who have both the weapons and the self-belief to trouble her on any surface; however, neither of them can be expected to perform at their best until (at least) Wimbledon.  Who else is there?  We think that Henin is even more likely than Nadal to dazzle on the final weekend in Paris.

2)  Will injuries play more or less of a role on this surface?  The extended, grinding points played on clay test fitness more than do the staccato shootouts that so often develop on hard courts.  On the other hand, the softer surface will be gentler on sore joints and perhaps allow players such as Soderling or Del Potro to regain their rhythm with minimal aggravation.  We’ll be curious to observe the trends in withdrawals and retirements during the events in Rome and Madrid, where many of the recent absentees will be tentatively testing their repaired wheels.

3)  Will another Soderling find unexpected glory?  After winning one lone game against Nadal in Rome, the Swede abruptly scored The Greatest Upset Ever and has been soaring ever since.  (By the way, it’s curious how Nadal both won the Greatest Match Ever and was the victim in the Greatest Upset Ever.)  Less loudly, Stosur achieved a significant breakthrough with her semifinal run in Paris and likewise has capitalized on it to establish herself as a permanent threat.  We’ll keep our eyes on anyone who strings together a few surprises, aware that they might be a genuine contender in 2011.  At the moment, the WTA looks more open than the ATP to the rise of a dark horse; perhaps a name like Pennetta, Wickmayer, or Szavay will forge a path deep into the Paris draw. 

4)  How much will the clay specialists trouble the top seeds?  Quite a bit, if Monte Carlo is any judge.  It’s doubtful that Cilic loses to Montanes, Tsonga loses to Ferrero, or Berdych loses to Verdasco on a surface other than clay, while Ferrer won’t reach many Masters 1000 semifinals on a hard court.  Cilic did defeat clay-court warrior Andreev, and Tsonga outlasted dirt devil Almagro, but the draws ahead will be about more than just the boldfaced names; unexpected pitfalls and ambushes will spring from players who struggle to win consecutive matches for much of the season.  Since few of them are seeded, early rounds often will be more dramatic than the usual straight-set yawners. (This issue applies almost exclusively to the ATP, for clay-court specialists are rapidly plunging towards extinction in the WTA.  Standard hard-court tennis won the Charleston title for Stosur without the loss of a set.)

5)  How much will momentum from Indian Wells and Miami matter?  Maybe not so much in the case of ATP Miami champion Roddick, whose next major target will be Wimbledon.  Not so much either in the case of Indian Wells champion Ljubicic, whose title represented an overdue career highlight rather than a foundation for the future.  But it might matter for Jankovic, who was struggling mightily until her triumph in the desert and always has felt comfortable on the clay.  Another beneficiary could be Venus, who found a way to reach the Miami final despite playing far from her best; similar tenacity and determination would benefit her in Europe.  Following his run in Key Biscayne, Berdych played confident tennis and consistently displayed positive body language in Monte Carlo.  Could we be watching a permanently transformed Czech?  Of course, Soderling’s consecutive semifinals augur well for him, but he has demonstrated that he can beat, um, just about anyone at Roland Garros. 

There’s also the possible impact of negative psychological detritus, especially relevant in the cases of Federer, Djokovic, and Murray.  It’s unlikely that Federer will suffer from memories of Baghdatis and Berdych, since he rebounded brilliantly from early losses at these events in 2007.  In Monte Carlo, the Scot reminded us why he’s rarely a serious contender on clay, but he has many more issues at the moment than what’s under his feet, and most of his problems date from Australia.  After impressive wins over Wawrinka and Nalbandian, Djokovic regressed in a dismal loss against Verdasco.  He’s not anywhere near the level where he was at this stage last year, yet the clay suits his increasingly florid strokes and will be an ideal setting to rediscover his serving rhythm.

5+1)  Will matches be more competitive or more lopsided?  On clay, it’s significantly easier to break an opponent’s serve, since fewer points are won on that shot alone.  This distinctive feature could lead to one of two opposite outcomes.  On one hand, players will have more opportunities to rally from a deficit than on hard courts, where a set-and-break lead for a decent server usually makes us hit the snooze button until the next match.   On the other hand, a player who struggles with consistency or who is enduring a mediocre day won’t be able to rest secure in the knowledge that he can collect sufficient cheap points and easy holds to save himself from a humiliating scoreline.   It’ll be curious to see whether epics or routs more frequently develop in matches not involving the top seeds.


Mixing together all of these intriguing plotlines, we’re hoping for a clay season as delicious as Maria’s chocolate chip cookies!  🙂

Banishing an oddly listless Djokovic from the playground of princes, Verdasco reached his first career Masters 1000 final in impressive fashion.  He’ll need to produce a career highlight in order to overcome the intent Nadal, who increasingly resembles the four-time French Open champion long invincible on this surface.  Yet Rafa hasn’t won a title since Rome nearly a year ago, so this championship match represents a moment of truth for him in a sense.  The only player to whom he could respectably lose here was Djokovic; if he wavers against Verdasco, we’ll know that his much-coveted “calm” hasn’t yet returned and that he’s still a bit edgy in the crucial moments.  If he delivers another confident, suffocating performance, however, he could put himself in position for another blazing clay season.  We’ll take a look at the Monte Carlo final and a briefer look at the Charleston final:

Head-to-head:    The statistics are staggering.  Nadal not only leads the overall series 9-0 but has lost just 3 of 23 total sets and has won all nine sets that they’ve played on clay.  Only one occasion did the second-best Spanish lefty challenge Rafa:  their 2009 Australian Open semifinal, during which Verdasco came within six points of victory before falling just short.  Probably more relevant to this match, however, are their two clay quarterfinals last year in Rome and Madrid, both won in straight sets by Nadal. 

Recent form:  A little shaky at the start of 2010, Nadal steadily raised his level on the North American hard courts and has raced through the draw here without dropping a set.  (However, to be frank, his draw wouldn’t have been much friendlier had Uncle Toni personally designed it.)  Thumped by Berdych in Indian Wells, Verdasco scored an impressive win over Cilic in Miami before his breakthrough run here.  It’s worth noting that he has toppled more imposing opponents (including Berdych and Djokovic) than has Nadal, so his arrival here is no accident.

Two pieces of advice for Verdasco: 

1)  Relax.  All of the pressure in this match rests squarely on Nadal’s shoulders, for whom anything less than a win would be inexcusable.  Few would have expected Verdasco to reach this point, so he has nothing at all to prove on Sunday and can swing freely, knowing that he has overachieved here regardless of what happens.

2)  Sit on the power button.  As Soderling, Del Potro and to a lesser extent Djokovic have shown, the way to tackle Nadal is to bury him under a barrage of flat, deep baseline bombs.  Verdasco’s forehand-centric style differs from the symmetrical groundstroke game of those players, but he’ll want to take massive swings whenever possible.  Cleverness and subtlety play straight into Rafa’s hands.

Two pieces of advice for Nadal:

1)  Stay focused.  Mental lapses cost Rafa dearly at both of the first two Masters 1000 events this year; neither Ljubicic nor Roddick seemed to have a chance until the Spaniard handed one to them.  Although he might well recover from a donation or two against Verdasco (generally rather charitable himself), this habit needs to die a swift death before he settles into such a routine regularly.  This match offers an excellent opportunity for him to prove–not to us, but to himself and to his opponents–that he can maintain his intensity through an entire match against a top player.

2)  Pin Verdasco behind the baseline.  If this match turns into a war of attrition and stamina, Nadal will have a distinct edge, since he’s far more consistent and arguably more fit than his compatriot.  He doesn’t need to do anything extraordinary to win, just to make sure that Verdasco doesn’t do anything extraordinary.  The best means to pre-empt a flashy string of winners is to keep Fernando at a distance from which he can’t hit winners with margin and will become reckless in frustrated impatience.

Shot-by-shot breakdown:

Serve:  Verdasco

Return:  Nadal, slightly (although Verdasco is more aggressive, Nadal makes fewer errors on it, which better suits clay)

Forehand:  Nadal, slightly (Nadal’s greater versatility trumps Verdasco’s greater power on clay)

Backhand:  Nadal

Volleys:  Both

Movement:  Nadal

Mental:  Nadal



Shifting back to Charleston across the volcanic plume, here’s a briefer preview of the final there between Zvonareva and Stosur:

Head-to-head:  Stosur has won their last four meetings, while Zvonareva hasn’t defeated her since 2004, but they’ve never played on clay.  Probably the only meaningful meeting occurred last month in Indian Wells, when the Australian halted Vera’s title defense in straight sets.  Injuries and illness have played significant roles in both of their careers, and it’s hard to recall which one was ailing at any given moment in their earlier matches.  Even when Stosur was the lower-ranked player, though, she enjoyed success against Zvonareva.

Recent form:  Dropping just 14 games in the entire tournament, Zvonareva should feel quite fresh following Wozniacki’s semifinal retirement.  In only one of her seven sets this week did the Russian lose more than two games, suggesting that she may be back on track after recent hard-court disappointments.  The event’s informal atmosphere suits her relaxed personality, enabling her to play without the pressure that so often cripples her at major tournaments.  Meanwhile, Stosur saved two set points and rallied impressively from a 2-5 deficit in the second set of her semifinal against Hantuchova, but she hasn’t lost a set this week either.  All three of her losses in Melbourne, Indian Wells, and Miami came against the eventual champions in those events, so a superb performance is required to navigate past her.  It’s clear that (bar injury) she’ll remain near the top of the women’s game for the foreseeable future.

Two pieces of advice for Stosur:

1)  Vary rhythm and pace.  A sturdy, consistent baseliner, Zvonareva would settle into a comfortable rhythm if she can trade flat, crisp groundstrokes from a respectable distance.  Stosur needs to find ways to disrupt the Russian’s timing and footwork, both among her greatest strengths; backhand slices, chipped returns, and heavy topspin forehands are a few of the weapons that she could deploy.

2)  Finish points at the net.   Another way in which Stosur can ruffle the fragile Zvonareva is by cutting points short and charging the net whenever she has an opening to exploit her excellent volleying skills.  This arhythmic style flustered Hantuchova at crucial moments in the semifinal by rushing her out of her comfort zone.  Less leisurely than the Slovak, Zvonareva nevertheless prefers a more flowing style of rally.

Two pieces of advice for Zvonareva: 

1)  Extend the rallies.  Far more consistent than the Australian, the Russian has a significant advantage in the longer points.  She won’t want to go for too much too soon and definitely will want to target Stosur’s unimposing backhand; crosscourt backhand-to-backhand exchanges will reap rewards for her.  As long as the points are played in a conventional manner from the baseline, Zvonareva should be able to wear down Stosur and expose her asymmetrical groundstroke game as well as her questionable movement.  Here, the green clay will serve Vera’s purpose much better than did the hard courts on which she previously has played Stosur.

2)  Stay positive.  Notorious for tearful tantrums, Zvonareva rarely has responded well to adversity and repeatedly has allowed minor setbacks to permanently derail her concentration (cf. her US Open loss to Pennetta last year).  When she’s achieved her best results (cf. her Indian Wells title run last year), her calm demeanor mirrors her crisp, precisely measured groundstrokes.  The Australian’s fast-paced game encourages momentum to mushroom in either direction, so Vera will need to stay as composed and self-assured as she has for most of the week.   There will be stretches when Stosur’s serve is clicking relentlessly, but there also will be stretches when her game unravels wildly.  Zvonareva should accept the inevitability of the former situations, steel herself to survive them, remind herself that opportunities inevitably will arise, and concentrate on exploiting them when they do.

Shot-by-shot breakdown: 

Serve:  Stosur

Return:  Zvonareva (less powerful but more reliable = better on clay)

Forehand:  Stosur

Backhand:  Zvonareva

Volleys:  Stosur

Movement:  Zvonareva

Mental:  Neither (Stosur historically is a dismal performer in finals, but Zvonareva has the reputation sketched above)

As you can tell from this dissection, the matchup is quite difficult to call.  It’s our job, though, so…


We’re nominating Vera for the most beautiful eyes in women’s tennis.  Here’s a glimpse of her greatest triumph, by the way:

We’re so sorry that someone else happens to be in the picture.  😉 

As they say in Monte Carlo, a bientot…

Twice the queen of Indian Wells, Daniela Hantuchova startled us on Friday by intercepting second-seeded Jankovic’s seemingly tranquil trajectory towards the Charleston final.  It was a pleasant surprise, though, for we’ve always enjoyed watching the cultured, multilingual Slovak and have sympathized with her struggles to master her nerves at crucial moments, most notably the 2008 Australian Open semifinal against Ivanovic.  Since we’re straddling the Atlantic Ocean during this joint semifinal preview, moreover, we thought that the longest legs in women’s tennis might help us pull off this balancing act!  🙂


Djokovic (1) vs. Verdasco (10):  The Serb may wish to sharpen his Spanish, for he’s the only semifinalist who doesn’t share a country of origin with Rafa.  His head-to-head with Fernando stands at 5-2 in Djokovic’s favor, including a labyrinthine three-set win in the quarterfinals last year and two other 2009 victories; Verdasco hasn’t defeated the Serb since 2006, when Novak was less known for his tennis than for dubious medical timeouts.  Reaching the final four without dropping a set, Djokovic appears to have regained his confidence after a dismal Indian Wells / Miami campaign, but his inner demons always lurk just around the corner.  Charting a more turbulent course towards the same destination, Verdasco played his best tennis when it mattered most against Berdych but inexcusably handed Montanes a second life in the quarters.  If Saturday’s match becomes a war of attrition centered around stamina, he may rue such profligacy. 

Although both players will want to win efficiently in order to conserve energy for a clash with Nadal, we suspect that this wish may not be fulfilled.  Eager to embrace (and sometimes create) mid-match drama, the top seed possesses a mentality well-designed to prevail in a suspenseful semifinal with multiple momentum shifts.  PickDjokovic (75-25).

Ferrer (11) vs. Nadal (2):  How much difference does an “o” make?  Having defeated Ferrero in the quarters, Nadal now trains his formidable artillery on Ferrer in the third all-Spanish match contested here in the last two days.  Ferrer hasn’t lost a set in four matches while knocking off the likes of Ljubicic and Kohlschreiber, building upon the momentum that he accumulated from a sturdy Miami run.  Meanwhile, Nadal looked almost sadistically single-minded in consecutive humiliations of De Bakker and Berrer before smoothly navigating a resurgent Ferrero.  During the North American hard courts, increasingly frequent flashes of vintage Rafa emerged amidst some oddly less assured play; nevertheless, the clay has visibly boosted his confidence already.  After sustaining consecutive hard-court losses to Ferrer in 2007, Rafa has reeled off five consecutive victories over his compatriot, including three on clay and one just a few weeks ago in Miami.  At the source of the lopsided head-to-head lies their similar playing style.  The two Spaniards play essentially the same tenacious baseline game, but Nadal plays it with more pace and more consistency, leaving Ferrer few weapons with which to threaten him.

For the first time in several years, Rafa has something to prove on this surface and won’t let his compatriot derail him.  This semifinal should be much less dramatic than the other.  Pick:  Nadal (90-10).


Wozniacki (1) vs. Zvonareva (7):  For the second straight year, the dogged Dane seeks a green-clay sweep after capturing the Ponte Vedra Beach title.  After an indifferent start in Australia, her last three tournaments have (somewhat) vindicated her elevated ranking; she followed an Indian Wells finals appearance with a creditable loss to Henin in Miami and the aforementioned championship a week later.  At sea for much of the year, on the other hand, Zvonareva defended her Thailand title but fell quickly during her Indian Wells title defense and wilted against Justine in Miami.  Tied at one after two meetings last year, their head-to-head illustrates the potential directions that this match could take.  The Russian won comfortably during her sensational championship run in the desert, and the Dane survived excruciating cramps during a heroic, nail-biting triumph in Doha.  If Zvonareva performs at her top level, she should win, but something less won’t suffice.  Put another way, Vera’s best is better than Caro’s best, while Caro’s average is better than Vera’s average.

This matchup is very even and might well produce a third set.  Zvonareva has a little more power, Wozniacki has a little more consistency, but otherwise both will be attempting to outmaneuver the other through extended rallies from the baseline; there won’t be many cheap points or many net approaches.  One hidden variable that favors the Dane is the schedule.  She’ll be playing at 1 PM (and on ESPN2) for the third straight day, while Vera played at night on Friday and in the morning on Thursday, so she might be a little off her rhythm.  In a match so close on paper, such a seemingly trivial detail might matter.  Pick:  Um, uh, Wozniacki?? (55-45).

Stosur (5) vs. Hantuchova (8):  Can yesterday’s upset artist craft another ambush?  Arguably more accomplished in doubles than singles, Stosur has been as consistent as any WTA player since last year’s French Open, when she burst out of nowhere to reach the semifinals.  Once embedded in the top 10, Hantuchova has endured more travails than triumphs over the last few years while also accumulating impressive doubles results with partners such as the recently retired Sugiyama.  Their head-to-head is virtually irrelevant, for they haven’t met since 2006 (a quite different stage in both of their careers) and haven’t played on clay since 2003 (!).  Not renowned for their movement, both of them will seek to play first-strike tennis that allows them to spend as much time as possible on offense while shielding their meager defensive skills. 

The x-factor here is Stosur’s serve, the third-best in the WTA after Serena and Venus.  If she can land a reasonable percentage of first balls and take immediate control of the points on her serve, she’ll hold with sufficient ease and regularity to keep Hantuchova under pressure in the Slovak’s service games; eventually, Stosur will break through if such is the case.  But if the Australian finds herself reduced to strings of second serves, her asymmetrical groundstroke game and sub-par foot speed will be mercilessly exposed.  Stosur believes that her serve alone wins countless matches for her, and we can understand why.  Pick:  Stosur (65-35).


Needless to say, we’ll be back when the Sunday lineups are set to preview both championship matches for you in detail, including head-to-heads, nuggets of advice for each finalist, and shot-by-shot breakdowns.  In the meantime, enjoy the matches and this sensuous image of Ivanovic!  🙂

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!  🙂

The top seed at a Masters 1000 event for the first time in his career, Djokovic sank his teeth into the clay season (and Florent Serra) in impressive fashion on Wednesday.  After this relaxing afternoon in the Mediterranean sun, though, his road becomes significantly more arduous against the surging Wawrinka, a perpetual threat on clay.  Although names such as Murray and Youzhny have shuffled off the stage, some engaging tennis lies before us on Thursday, which we will preview in a slightly different manner from usual.  Instead of simply writing a “pick,” we’ll close the capsules with an upset potential rating between 1 and 10, with 1 as the least likely (virtually impossible) and 10 as the most likely (virtually certain).  Consequently, you’ll know not just our prediction but our degree of confidence in it!  Spoiler alert:  there’s only one ranking distinctly over 5, but a few others hover very near that number.

Djokovic (1) vs. Wawrinka (13).  Visibly brimming with confidence in his opener, the Serb will need it to overcome the Swiss #2, who comfortably dispatched Hanescu for the second time in three days and demolished Gulbis in the second round.  These two played a gripping three-setter in the 2009 edition of Monte Carlo, during which Wawrinka’s consistency pushed Djokovic’s offensive talents to the limit in an intensely physical match.  As the match reached its climax, Novak rose to the occasion in the crucial moments and probably will do so again. Upset potential:  3.5.

Robredo (12) vs. Nalbandian.  Renowned for his sturdy ball-retreiving skills, Robredo makes clay courts feel tiny to his opponents, whom he coaxes into reckless errors.  Despite recently undergoing hip surgery, Nalbandian has rebounded almost immediately to threaten Nadal in Miami before upsetting Youzhny in an epic thriller here.  While the Spaniard seeks to shrink the court, the Argentine will strive to expand it with artfully angled groundstrokes.  He’ll likely be weary after a three-hour duel in the sun on Wednesday, and Robredo will test his stamina, but never count him out.  Upset potential:  4.

Cilic (4) vs. Montanes.  Generally a little uneasy on clay, Cilic nevertheless delivered an impressively (and rather unexpectedly) gritty performance against Andreev, rallying after losing a marathon first set.  Facing the unimposing Montanes, he’ll be the aggressor in most of the rallies.  If he controls his aggression and constructs intelligent points, he’ll win routinely.  If he sprays more balls than he ought, he’ll endure some tense moments but probably still prevail anyway.  Upset potential:  2.5.

Berdych (10) vs. Verdasco (6).  After a breakthrough performance in Miami, Berdych has plowed through his first two matches while surrendering just six total games.  On the other hand, Verdasco was equally “en fuego” during his second-round clash with the overmatched Benneteau.  These power merchants square off for the second straight tournament; Berdych eked out a fiercely contested quarterfinal back on the North American courts.  Although he’s enjoyed repeated success against Verdasco, the Spaniard moves more fluidly than the Czech on clay.  He’ll likely earn revenge in a hard-fought, high-quality contest.  Upset potential:  4.5.

Ljubicic (8) vs. Ferrer (11).  The long-dormant Spanish roadrunner resurfaced during Davis Cup and delivered a solid result in Miami before scoring a pair of uneventful wins here.  The toast of Indian Wells, Ljubicic will find his serve blunted by the surface and his limited movement exposed against the uber-consistent Ferrer.  Upset potential:  7.

Petzschner vs. Kohlschreiber.  This all-German match results from Murray’s appallingly lackluster performance in his opener, which he ceded to Kohlschreiber in a (mercifully) fleeting 63 minutes.  Not overshadowed by any clear contender, this quarter offers a mouthwatering chance for one of its four inhabitants to reach the semis without knocking off a marquee name.  Kohlschreiber is much more comfortable than his compatriot on clay.  Oh, and he’s the higher-ranked player, in case you were wondering.  😉  Upset potential:  3.

Tsonga (5) vs. Ferrero (9).  Another rematch from Miami, where a thunderous Tsonga predictably steamrolled the stylish but far less powerful Ferrero.  Suggesting that this encounter should be closer is the Spaniard’s comfort level on clay; the former French Open champion reeled off a 15-match winning streak in South America several weeks ago.  During a dramatic yet erratic victory over Almagro, the clay surface exposed the inconsistencies in Tsonga’s high-risk style.  Although Almagro couldn’t capitalize on multiple opportunities, the steadier, more patient Ferrero might well do so.  Upset potential:  5.5.

Berrer vs. Nadal (2).  On one side of the net stands an aging serve-and-volleyer who has never won a title.  On the other side of the net stands the five-time defending champion and a four-time French Open champion.  Upset potential:  1.


Feel free to let us know what you think of this new format, which we tested just to introduce some variety but which we might revive in the future. 

Initially, we had planned to release our “plotlines to ponder” for the clay season during this week.  However, we decided to save it for the less action-packed week ahead and channel a little extra attention towards Monte Carlo; don’t worry that we’ve wandered away from the agenda!  😉