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Serena Williams Serena Williams of USA in action against Vera Zvonareva of Russia during day five of the AEGON International at Devonshire Park on June 15, 2011 in Eastbourne, England.

Rezai vs. S. Williams:  Had she maintained her form of a year ago, the flamboyant Frenchwoman would have posed a thorny test for a momentarily vulnerable Serena.  In two matches at Eastbourne, the 13-time major champion looked sporadically frail in many departments but most notably her serve, the key to her four Wimbledon titles.  Fortunately for Serena, though, Rezai has battled a maelstrom of emotional and psychological turmoil off the court that has undermined her season. On the other hand, she might recapture her swagger with the opportunity to showcase her skills on Centre Court.  Having traded baseline missiles with Serena throughout an entertaining three-setter in Sydney, Rezai demonstrated the requisite firepower to conquer the American at her own game.  But one doubts that she sustain it across three sets, as she rarely has throughout her career.

Soderling vs. Petzschner:  Seemingly to his own surprise, Petzschner produced a finals run in his home tournament of Halle that culminated with a three-set victory over Berdych.  Exhausted by those exertions, he retired in the final but surely will arrive in Wimbledon in a dangerously confident mood.  A quarterfinalist here last year, Soderling has lost to the eventual champion in each of the last two years as he did at Roland Garros.  The world #5 has honed a groundstroke arsenal not only steadier but more formidable than Petzschner’s strokes, while his serve will garner just as many free points from the fast court.  Never a natural mover, though, Soderling may struggle to find his footing on the slippery surface after missing the grass preparatory events.  Despite his mid-career breakthrough, he remains vulnerable to unpredictable upsets at majors and has lacked consistency throughout an injury-plagued spring.

Li vs. Kudryavtseva:  Notorious for a temper as flaming as her hair, the Russian came within two points of upsetting Venus early in the American’s historic 2007 title run.  A year later, Kudryavtseva won those two points against Sharapova shortly before her compatriot departed for shoulder surgery.  Just weeks removed from her Roland Garros crown, Li thus should not enter her Wimbledon opener with a complacency otherwise justifiable under the circumstances.  After arriving in maiden Slam finals at the French Open last year, both Schiavone and Stosur slumped to early exits at the All England Club.  More disturbingly, Li herself has followed torrid bursts with arid stretches as her motivation seemingly evaporates.  While Channel Slams have become routine on the men’s side, no woman in recent years has equaled the feats of Nadal and Federer.

Isner vs. Mahut:  Scheduled on a court that didn’t exist during their epic encounter a year ago, the two record-setters probably will enjoy the sequel more than the original.  Expect a semi-serious, semi-exhibition atmosphere as the adversaries-turned-friends make the most of a deliciously bizarre coincidence.  And expect points as short as this preview.

Dolgopolov vs. Gonzalez:  Surging to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, Dolgopolov demonstrated lithe movement and smooth stroke production in addition to an uncanny feel for the ball.  But the Ukrainian has produced inconsistent results since that achievement, revealing an indifferent sense of point construction and shot selection.  The grass should showcase his delicate touch around the net, although his movement will prove a less valuable tool.  Returning from a potentially career-ending surgery, Gonzalez has alternately soared and staggered even more sharply.  Not at his most comfortable on this surface, the Australian Open finalist and Olympic silver medalist possesses a fiercer weapon in his forehand than anything that Dolgopolov can deploy.  If the Ukrainian can find his backhand with his own crisp two-hander, though, he can neutralize the Chilean’s power.  Built upon brief, almost casual motions, both serves can oscillate as much as the rest of their games.  Thrusting Tsonga deep into a fifth set here last Wimbledon, Dolgopolov may deliver another dramatic rollercoaster this year.

Nishikori vs. Hewitt:  Surely soon to vanish into the mists of tennis history is the last man to win Wimbledon before Federer planted his standard on Centre Court.  Nine years and several surgeries later, Hewitt no longer ranks among the contenders but can reflect upon memories as recent as his upset of Del Potro here in 2009.  Unfortunate to draw eventual champion Nadal in his 2010 opener, Nishikori has developed a style similar to Hewitt in his prime with sturdy technique, compact strokes, and mental durability.  With serves little better than point-starting shots, these players might engage in longer rallies than those often seen on grass.  In addition to their backwards caps and counterpunching tenacity, Hewitt and Nishikori share brisk cross-court backhands that exploit the geometry of the court.

Ana Ivanovic - AEGON Classic - Day Six

Ivanovic vs. Oudin:  A first-round victim in three of the last four majors, the former #1 has not reached a Slam quarterfinal since her title at Roland Garros 2008.  Nevertheless, she has recorded solid results at non-majors with sufficient frequency to stabilize her ranking inside or slightly outside the top 20.  After her 2009 US Open quarterfinal, meanwhile, Oudin has plunged off the tennis radar as swiftly as she burst upon it.  Two years ago, both players reached the second week here, and both gain contrasting benefits from the grass. Striking sixteen aces in a Birmingham semifinal, Ivanovic benefits from the surface’s short points and will hope to crack plentiful return winners off Oudin’s unimposing serve.  Like many tall players, though, the Serb sometimes struggles to adjust to the low bounce on grass, which rewards her opponent’s compact stature.  Both Ana and the American vastly prefer their forehands to their backhands, so each should target the other’s weaker wing with inside-out strikes of their weapons.

Sharapova vs. Chakvetadze:  The only former champion in the draw not named Williams, Sharapova ascended to the status of a leading contender after her Roland Garros semifinal.  Seeking her first Wimbledon quarterfinal since 2006, the 2004 champion confronts an opponent whom she has dispatched in all seven of their previous meetings.  After a giddy ascent to the top 5 four years ago, Chakvetadze tumbled to a sub-100 ranking in the wake of a house robbery and a disintegrating serve.  Impressive on the clay when few expected anything notable from her, Sharapova must continue her progress with those expectations now renewed.  Choosing to rest rather than enter Birmingham as usual, she has practiced at Wimbledon for over a week but still lacks any match practice on grass.  Chakvetadze may have an opportunity to exploit that lingering rust early in the match before Sharapova, a habitually slow starter, finds her range and starts to spray chalk around Centre Court.

Cibulkova vs. Lucic:  Yet another retiree who fancied a comeback, a woman who once defeated Seles at Wimbledon aims to recapture that magic of more than a decade ago.  After an encouraging clay campaign, Lucic garnered a pair of wins in Birmingham as her serve struck its targets with increasing precision.  That crucial shot still disintegrates occasionally, though, producing strings of double faults without warning.  A steadier competitor who lacks the Croat’s first-strike power, Cibulkova may find her short wingspan threatened on returns but should outlast Lucic if she can survive the first few shots of the rally.  Despite defeating Kuznetsova en route to the Dutch Open semifinals, the Slovak has found grass her least productive surface and has won only four matches in four Wimbledon appearances—fewer than her opponent won during her signature run in 1999.

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Roger Federer - The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2011 - Day Five

Oudin vs. Schiavone:  Returning to defend a notable title, surprise champions often falter at the first obstacle as the task of repeating their feat looms large in their minds.  On Sunday, Stosur overcame a similar test with aplomb, delivering one of her finer performances this season.  Tepid over the last several months, Schiavone must rise to the occasion against a feisty foe who defeated her in Fed Cup last fall.  Oudin has not fulfilled her promise from the 2009 US Open and may find her height an insurmountable handicap.  While the clay allows her to run around her backhand to hit her much more imposing forehand, the higher bounce often carries balls above her comfortable strike zone.  Also troubling the American is Schiavone’s artful net play, which frustrates straightforward baseliners when executed with the energy recently lacking in the Italian’s game.

Lopez vs. Federer:  Just weeks ago in Madrid, the third-ranked Spanish lefty held a match point against the 2009 Roland Garros champion in a three-tiebreak thriller.  But the significantly slower surface of Paris should allow Federer to return his opponent’s formidable serve and expose his inconsistency in longer rallies, while the Chatrier crowd will not buttress Lopez as did the denizens of Manolo Santana Arena.  Perhaps more significantly, the best-of-five format will assist the Swiss master in outlasting any surge from the streaky lefty.  Federer did wobble to the brink of defeat three majors ago at Wimbledon against the much less heralded Falla, and he remains more susceptible to upsets on clay than on any other surface.  At no major since 2003, though, has he lost to a player who failed to at least reach the final at that major, and few would expect Lopez to register a similar accomplishment.

Gasquet vs. Stepanek / Phau vs. Monfils:  The principal standard-bearers for their nation, these two Frenchmen face a pair of aging, idiosyncratic opponents who could spell trouble for their own unpredictable styles.  Losing only one of eleven first-round clashes this year, Gasquet accumulated momentum with runs to the Rome semifinal and Indian Wells quarterfinal that included victories over Federer, Melzer, and Roddick.  The former prodigy once labeled “baby Federer” has habitually disappointed the hopes of his compatriots at his home major, however, rampaging to within a few games of Murray in his 2010 opener before slumping to yet another demoralizing defeat.  More successful at Roland Garros than some have acknowledged, Monfils accompanied Gasquet to a first-round exit last year after similarly winning the first two sets from Fabio Fognini.  Can les bleus win a fleeting bit of redemption in the harsh eyes of their countrymen, or will the tradition of French futility in Paris continue?

Del Potro vs. Karlovic:  When he learned his opening assignment, the Argentine must have wondered whether he erred in finding valor the better part of discretion and returning so swiftly from his leg injury.  On one hand, Karlovic’s affinity for short points will not test Del Potro’s movement and expose any lingering twinges.  On the other hand, the Croat represents a singularly challenging opponent for a player who seeks to establish a rhythm after an absence from competition and has contested relatively few matches this year.  Del Potro won the Estoril title with straight-set triumphs over Soderling and Verdasco, though, while his exceptional wingspan should enable him to retriever more of Karlovic’s serves than the typical returner.  If he can record comfortable holds on his own serve, he should steadily outmaneuver the Croat in points that last longer than three or four strokes.

Wozniacki vs. Date-Krumm:  Weary after playing five hours in two days to win her first red-clay title last week, the world #1 now faces a woman twice her age who toppled former #1 Safina here a year ago.  Early in her comeback, Date-Krumm also won a set from Wozniacki at the Australian Open, and her imaginative angle creation could fluster an opponent who depends upon maintaining a reliable rhythm.  After a momentous 2010, the Japanese legend has sagged to a pedestrian level in 2011, showing few signs of threatening a player as confident and talented as the Dane.  Her increasingly error-prone groundstrokes should play into Wozniacki’s steady hands, albeit not before some scrambling exchanges.

Arn vs. Kvitova:  Firmly entrenching herself in the top 10, the Czech lefty already has won three titles in 2011 but has alternated the torrid with the frigid.  After she started the season 16-1, Kvitova lost four of her next five matches, then won twelve straight before unexpectedly dropping the final of the Prague challenger to the 72nd-ranked Rybarikova.  One wonders whether that defeat will trigger another brief skid or whether she can extend the impetus from a Madrid surge during which she conquered three top-10 opponents.  Unlikely to prove willing cannon fodder, Arn not only won Auckland in January with wins over Sharapova and Wickmayer but defeated Kuznetsova in Rome after saving three match points.  While the 32-year-old Hungarian cannot survive a convincing offensive assault from Kvitova, therefore, she could exploit one of the head-scratching afternoons that the Czech still donates occasionally.

Condemned to eternally roll a boulder up a rugged mountainside, the mythical figure of Sisyphus would complete that labor only to immediately undertake it anew.   Three months after hoisting their second straight Fed Cup title, Corrado Barazzutti’s sprightly squad perhaps could empathize with the perpetually toiling Greek as they open their title defense on an island far from Sicily.

Corrado Barattuzzi Francesca Schiavone (R) of Italy celebrates her victory over Melanie Oudin of USA with team captain Corrado Barattuzzi during the Federation Cup World Group Final between Italy and the USA at Circolo Tennis Rocco Polimeni on November 7, 2009 in Reggio Calabria, Italy.

The hard courts of Hobart will host an Australian team that suddenly has assembled an impressive singles pairing of world #5 Stosur and Jarmila Groth, whose career has surged after changing her surname and her passport.  Since the Italians will bring two top-20 players to this collision, however, they remain the slight favorites in a tie where all five matches should prove competitive.  Beyond their advantage in Fed Cup experience and exploits, Pennetta and Schiavone enjoyed far more memorable Australian Opens than did the two home hopes, who combined to collect just two victories there against seven by the Italians.  All too eager to delight the Aussie crowds, both Stosur and Groth slumped under the pressure in Melbourne, and this long-awaited World Group tie will test their nerves again.  Although last year’s Roland Garros runner-up avenged that loss to Schiavone last fall, she curiously has failed to win more than four games in any of the six sets that she has contested with Pennetta.  Famous for her characteristically Calabrian temper, the Italian has proved a poised competitor in Fed Cup and clinched both of her nation’s last two titles with composed performances.  Moreover, her confidence will have soared following a debut Grand Slam doubles title with fellow doubles #1 Dulko.  If Schiavone can defuse the stunning but raw game of Groth, therefore, the visitors probably will carry a 2-0 edge into Sunday that they will not squander.  Even if Australian can take the tie to the concluding doubles, Errani and Vinci will bring their undefeated record into a fascinating battle against Stosur and Stubbs.  One anticipates drama during plenty of individual sets in Tasmania but perhaps not in the overall scoreline.

Half a world away in Bratislava, the other engaging tie of the weekend pits the bifurcated halves of the former Czechoslovakia.  Braced to renew the internecine rivalry, the stylish Hantuchova and the resurgent Cibulkova hoist the Slovak flag together with 2009 Birmingham champion Rybarikova, who has sagged after initial promise.  Hampered by an injury that forced her withdrawal from Brisbane, former prodigy Hantuchova has faded into the twilight stages of her career but mustered one of her finer recent performances in last year’s World Group playoff against Serbia.  Literally rising above her stature, Cibulkova has added a startling degree of offense over the past year and scored an eye-opening victory over Wozniacki in Sydney.  The visitors will fancy their chances of reaching a third consecutive Fed Cup semifinal, though, for all three of their singles options acquitted themselves creditably in Melbourne and possess the combative streak that can insulate players from hostile surroundings.  Spearheading the charge is Australian Open quarterfinalist Kvitova, who conquered both Stosur and Pennetta in a fortnight that bolstered her Wimbledon breakthrough.  While Safarova competed resolutely against Zvonareva, Zahlavova Strycova toppled top-20 foe Rezai.  Yet all of the Czechs remain far less predictable than either of the Slovaks, so this tie could develop into a rollercoaster of momentum shifts within and between matches.  In the doubles, the Czechs have a slight but potentially vital edge with specialist Kveta Peschke and superior servers in Kvitova and Safarova.

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates winning her second round match against Virginie Razzano of France during day three of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 19, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

When Sharapova enters Fed Cup, an Olympic year must lie just over the horizon.  Having participated in only one previous Fed Cup tie, she returns to a country where she has not showcased her talents since 2007 and has won just two matches in her career.  The three-time major champion grimly bulldozed through the Israeli team in 2008, adjusting with aplomb to the competition’s distinctive atmosphere.  On the Moscow indoor hard court, her recently erratic groundstrokes will not need to find the mark as regularly, so she should register her two matches in Russia’s victory column.  Both Razzano and Cornet surpassed expectations in Melbourne, however; the former threatened to take a set from Sharapova in the second round, while the latter nearly did the same against Clijsters a round later.  Despite the higher ranking of Pavlyuchenkova, one imagines that Tarpischev will reward the more experienced Kuznetsova for her previous Fed Cup service and her courageous performance in Australia.  The final opponent of Henin’s career, the Russian will have accumulated immense confidence after defeating Stosur and nearly Li in Sydney.  But will she have recovered physically from the longest women’s match in Grand Slam history?  If she falters against Cornet on the first day, which seems unlikely considering the Frenchwoman’s haplessness in Fed Cup, Tarpischev might substitute the WTA’s highest-ranked teenager against Sunday.  Pavlyuchenkova crushed projected Sunday opponent Razzano on an indoor hard court two years ago, whereas Kuznetsova hasn’t faced her in nearly seven years.  If outcomes reflect the lopsided talents of these two teams, though, Tarpischev will doze through another first-round romp.

More sleepwalking impends in Belgium, where Clijsters joins Wickmayer against a plucky American squad that upset an understaffed Russia last year en route to their second straight final.  As usual, the USA will aim to split the singles rubbers and pin their hopes on the doubles, where they hold a considerable advantage with Liezel Huber.  In order to realize that goal, they must rely on both Oudin and Mattek-Sands to overcome Wickmayer in singles, since Clijsters surely will sail bulletproof through the weekend.  The task does not tower quite as dauntingly as it might seem at first glance, for the Belgian #2 has struggled alarmingly since last year’s US Open despite reaching the final in Auckland after an arduous week of three-setters.  A feisty competitor who performs above her standard level in Fed Cup, Mattek-Sands shone on an indoor surface at the Hopman Cup and again in Hobart, although she suffered a discouraging first-round loss in Melbourne.  If she can find Wickmayer’s backhand more regularly than the Belgian finds her forehand, her sturdier confidence could translate into a minor upset.  Meanwhile, Oudin has shifted from prodigy to former prodigy as she has failed abjectly in rekindling the spark that ignited the 2009 US Open.  Somewhat less feckless in Fed Cup, she defeated Schiavone last fall and competed valiantly on Italian clay during the previous final.  With USA almost certain to enter the fourth rubber trailing 2-1, though, she will face not only a more talented opponent but the pressure of preserving the tie.  Lightning probably won’t strike Wickmayer twice.

We close with a few thoughts on the four World Group II ties:

Spain at Estonia:  Perhaps a more decisive factor than any player, the indoor hard court in Tallinn may frustrate dirt devils Martinez Sanchez and Suarez Navarro.  Despite a second-round exit at the Australian Open, top Estonian Kanepi enjoys greater firepower than either Spaniard and should overwhelm them with a barrage of mighty first blows.  Like the USA, Spain seeks only to split the singles and reach the doubles, where the experienced duo of Medina Garrigues and Llagostera Vives could shine.  Unlike the USA, they have an excellent chance of accomplishing that mission with the 527th-ranked Maret Ani playing the role of Wickmayer.  Perhaps more intriguing than the tennis here is the subplot that revolved around the miniature Fed Cup strike staged by the top Spanish women against their own tennis federation.  Ostensibly placated now, they could bolster their pleas for greater attention in Spain’s male-dominated tennis world by restoring their nation to the World Group in 2012.

Andrea Petkovic Andrea Petkovic of Germany celebrates winning a point in her quarterfinal match against Na Li of China during day nine of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 25, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Germany at Slovenia:  Frauleins with a future and an average ranking of #29, Petkovic and Goerges delivered an emphatic statement of intent in Melbourne with performances as notable for their poise as for their shot-making.  The two ball-bruising brunettes enter the tie distinctly favored against a Slovenian squad highlighted by doubles specialist Katarina Srebotnik.  Unless she decides to renege upon her retirement from singles, her chances of playing a meaningful match this weekend look slim to none.  On the other hand, Petkovic proved herself more frail than the French in Fed Cup last year (no small feat), and the youthful Germans may find an opponent worthy of their steel in Polona Hercog.  Two weeks after her 20th birthday, the lanky Slovenian #1 established herself in the top 50 during the past year but has lost all three of her matches in 2011.  Can the home crowd rejuvenate her?

Canada at Serbia:  Stripped of Jankovic and Ivanovic, the hosts suddenly confront a perilous situation against the dangerous albeit often injured Wozniak and an even brighter talent in the burly teenager Rebecca Marino.  Fortunately for Serbia, an equally promising teenager carries their banner in a bid to return to the World Group from which Russia expelled them in 2010.  One of the WTA’s better kept secrets, Bojana Jovanovski burst onto the international stage by sweeping to the Sydney semifinals past three top-20 players and boldly swiping a set from Zvonareva in Melbourne. Probably unable to secure victory single-handedly, she nevertheless could extend the tie to a decisive doubles rubber where anything could happen.

Ukraine at Sweden:  Weren’t the Bondarenko sisters planning to boycott Fed Cup this year?  Although newly married Alona remains aloof, Kateryna broke the ban and could inject some intrigue into what still seems a notably uninteresting tie.  No rising stars, aging legends, or electrifying games on display here.  Just an invigorating ferry ride from host city Helsingfors stands Hamlet’s castle, however, a much more scintillating destination.

 

After an eventful week of tennis, we pause to review the action that unfolded at four events on three different continents.

Transmission reference: BALI101

1)      The Ascent of Ana continues:

Charging to her second title of the fall, Ivanovic won matches in every way possible:  a rout, a nail-biter, and a hybrid that hovered between the two extremes.  Relentless in her 57-minute quarterfinal, the Serb surrendered just a single game to world #20 Pavlyuchenkova behind a barrage of thunderous serves.  Although she adjusted swiftly to a surface faster than she prefers, Ivanovic struggled to adapt to the distinctive style of Kimiko Date Krumm.  The age-defying Japanese legend baffled Ana for most of the first set with deceptive angles and low groundstrokes that barely skimmed across the net before darting through the court.  Facing double set point on her serve, however, Ivanovic collected herself just in time to reel off six consecutive games and seemingly seize control.  Unwilling to yield so easily, Date Krumm battled back into this memorable semifinal by rallying from a 3-5 deficit in the second set, saving a match point, and climbing out of a 2-4 hole in the second set tiebreak.  Yet this comeback remarkably failed to fluster the Serb; armed with her revived confidence, Ana broke the Japanese veteran immediately in the third set and cruised behind her own serve thereafter.

Despite her sterling record in finals, Ivanovic began the title match against Kleybanova rather tentatively and only relaxed after she broke the Russian midway through the first set.  At that stage, she reeled off 14 consecutive points to establish command.  Too resilient a competitor to let the trophy slip away, Kleybanova halted the Serb’s momentum early in the second set, while nerves caused Ivanovic’s ball toss to wander unpredictably.  Down double break point at 5-5 in the second set, though, Ana relied on her improved movement to track down a penetrating Kleybanova approach and lash an implausible passing-shot winner.  She rode this momentum surge into the tiebreak, where her opponent conceded a costly double fault for the only mini-break.  A stunning cross-court forehand and an ace later, Ivanovic had scored her tenth victory in eleven matches and vaulted back into the top 20 at #17.  Having been ranked outside the top 60 after Wimbledon, Ana improbably ends her 2010 campaign ahead of fellow Slam champions Sharapova and Kuznetsova.  As she acknowledged afterwards, this second taste of success will inject her with additional motivation during the offseason.

2)     Home-court advantage reigns (mostly):

Robbed of his home title by a bold Serb last year, Federer thrilled his compatriots by avenging that defeat in 2010.  Enjoying a tranquil route to the final, he inflicted yet another dent upon Roddick’s armor in a semifinal performance that showcased his still-crisp reflexes and instincts.  As the Swiss master braced himself for an encore of last year’s Basel final, he probably drew confidence from his title run in Stockholm last week as well as his victory over the Serb in Shanghai.  Ominously, the first two sets of the final recalled their US Open meeting, where Federer had secured a tight first set before suffering a mental lapse in the second.  Reversing that trajectory with an emphatic final set, though, the world #2 confirmed his Shanghai success and extended his momentum in this key rivalry.  Before he departed to share lunch with the ballboys, Federer claimed that this triumph evoked similar emotions in him to winning his elusive Roland Garros title.  Even allowing for post-championship hyperbole, that statement revealed a more human, even endearing dimension to the lofty GOAT.

Amidst a Valencia draw riddled with upsets, Ferrer played the local hero by conquering the fearsome Soderling for the second time this fall.  The Spaniard secured his second ATP 500 title of 2010 by overcoming compatriot Marcel Granollers in a final that few observers anticipated before the week began.  Probably best known for defeating Soderling at this year’s Australian Open, the understated, unseeded Granollers sprang unpleasant surprises upon Shanghai semifinalist Monaco as well as the rejuvenated Simon.  His charge to the final illustrated not only the advantages of playing at home but the depth of Spanish men’s tennis, seemingly unique in its ability to produce legions of champions and finalists on all surfaces.  (Kudos to the Frenchman, though, who adroitly defused the twin threats of Verdasco and Davydenko just weeks after seizing the title in Metz.  Davis Cup captain Guy Forget must seriously consider him for singles action in Belgrade).

Transmission reference: CAGB121

3)      Viva Flavia:

Nevertheless, home-court advantage couldn’t rescue the US Fed Cup team from their more talented Italian foes, spearheaded on this occasion not by Schiavone but by the tempestuous Pennetta.  Delivering two of her team’s three victories, Flavia atoned for an uninspired 2010 campaign and compensated for a puzzlingly erratic performance by the Roland Garros champion in the third rubber.  Two moments from Pennetta’s weekend especially impressed, for they represented the two potential turning points of what could have been a tightly contested tie.  Having watched a 5-1 lead slip away in the first set against Mattek-Sands, the Italian suddenly found herself staring at a set point in the set’s twelfth game.  With an invigorated American crowd exhorting her opponent, Pennetta mustered her nerve and fought her way into the tiebreak, where she played intelligently high-percentage tennis while the American imploded.  Had she let that set unravel, though, Mattek-Sands might not have relinquished the initiative; instead, Italy took a commanding, virtually terminal lead after Saturday.

Less obviously crucial was the second moment, which occurred just two games into Pennetta’s Sunday clash with the untested but mighty Coco Vandeweghe.  After cheering Oudin to an astonishing victory over Schiavone, the home crowd watched with delight as the teenager broke the Italian in the opening game and advanced to 40-0 on her own serve.  Undeterred by this inauspicious beginning, Pennetta swept aside game point after game point before converting a break point seven deuces later.  Having halted Vandeweghe’s impetus, she thoroughly dominated proceedings and trimmed the burly American down to size with a clinical efficiency worthy of Procrustes. A week after winning the doubles title in Doha, Pennetta proudly clinched the Fed Cup title for her nation just as she had in 2009.

***

We return to preview the Paris semifinals on Friday; until then, enjoy the tennis!

 

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This third article in our US Open preview series discusses the dark horses, players who almost certainly won’t win the title in New York but who might topple some notable names during the first week or so. Rankings, not seeds, are in parentheses.  Did we forget someone?  Let us know in the comments.

Baghdatis (18):  Most dangerous when most discounted, the Cypriot ambushed Cilic and Berdych in Cincinnati before overcoming Nadal for the first time in seven meetings.  Although Rafa lacked his trademark intensity in their quarterfinal, Baghdatis completed the upset with impressive composure.  Two weeks earlier, he reached the final in Washington as well after defeating Verdasco.  Active in New Haven this week, though, he may arrive in New York a little fatigued, and the best-of-five format undermines a player who has struggled with fitness.

Fish (21): Who knew that fish could stay fresh in the heat?  Sizzling since Wimbledon, Mardy posted the best results of any American in the US Open Series and would have had a chance to win it had he not withdrawn (wisely) from New Haven.  Fish came within a tiebreak of the Cincinnati title after rallying from one-set deficits against both of the ATP’s leading Andys.  Fitter than ever, he also overcame Roddick and Isner in Atlanta despite the scorching heat.  On the other hand, he sometimes fades in best-of-five matches, as he did after winning the first set from Nadal at the 2008 US Open.

Querrey (22):  The future of American tennis together with the ailing Isner, Querrey scored one of the biggest wins of his career by defeating Murray in the LA final after saving match point on multiple occasions throughout the tournament.  The lanky Californian should enjoy the fast courts and supportive crowds in New York; he owns more titles than anyone but Nadal this year and is the only player to win a tournament on every surface in 2010.  Aligned against him are his indifferent performances at majors (cf. this year’s French Open), although a second-week showing at Wimbledon boded well for the future.

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Gulbis (26):  A tiebreak away from defeating an overheated Murray in Cincinnati, Gulbis also took a set from Soderling in Toronto despite rustiness after the leg injury that curtailed his Roland Garros and Wimbledon campaigns.  Having scored victories over Federer and Djokovic, he constitutes a threat to all of the ATP’s elite contenders; his encounter with Roddick at the 2008 US Open proved one of that tournament’s most scintillating first-week matches.  An abysmal 2009 included an uninspired first-round against Murray there last year, but outstanding performances this spring suggest that the charismatic Latvian will substantially improve upon that performance.  But he still revels in unpredictability and could produce a head-scratching loss just as easily as a sensational upset.

Kohlschreiber (31):  The flashy German with the sparkling one-handed backhand severely tested Nadal in a three-set Rogers Cup quarterfinal before withdrawing from Cincinnati with a shoulder strain.  Powerful off both wings, Kohlschreiber’s balanced groundstroke game and relentlessly attacking style should reap dividends on the fast surface in New York, where short points will expose his struggles with consistency less frequently.  Undermining his chances for a deep run are his serve, less reliable than the deliveries of most higher-ranked players, and his fragile sense of self-belief

Nalbandian (33):  Surging within a set of the final in 2003, the enigmatic Argentine may be the most dangerous name on the list.  Since Wimbledon, he defeated Davydenko and Youzhny in Davis Cup, then swept to the Washington title with victories over Simon, Cilic, and Baghdatis.  Murray and Djokovic dispatched him routinely at the two Masters 1000 events, but not before he had ousted Ferrer, Soderling, and Ljubicic.  Like many of the figures on this list, his injuries and dubious fitness hamper him in the best-of-five format, yet his often-questioned motivation is soaring; Nalbandian finally recognizes the approaching endpoint of his career and is playing with more urgency than he has shown in years.  The Argentine’s early ball-striking and flat two-hander will flourish on the New York courts against all but the best movers.

Potential victims: Wallowing in a summer-long slump, Davydenko has endured several losses to sub-50 players after returning from the wrist injury that he suffered in Miami.  Although he has enjoyed past success in New York, he also has suffered a few bizarre losses to unheralded opponents such as Gilles Muller.  Verdasco might be a threat under normal conditions, but the Spaniard exhausted himself with clay-season exertions and sagged listlessly during the US Open Series.  Moreover, no serious contender for the Open should be playing on the red dirt after Wimbledon unless it’s a home tournament, as it was for Soderling.  After a dazzling start to 2010 and a maiden Slam semifinal in Australia, Cilic has reeled from one early exit to another against foes from Garcia-Lopez to Michael Llodra and Florian Mayer.  Despite upsetting Murray in New York last year, he lacks the steely confidence to enjoy a deep run in New York.  Fellow Croat Ljubicic has faded quietly since startling rivals and audiences with his Indian Wells title run, even dropping his Wimbledon opener to a little-known Pole.

On to the ladies:

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Pennetta (21):  A quarterfinalist at last year’s US Open, this emotional Italian enjoys almost as much success on hard courts as on her beloved clay.  An impressive US Open Series included quarterfinals in both of the Premier Five events (Cincinnati and Canada), during which she threatened leading contenders Clijsters and Wozniacki.  Before Cincinnati, she reached the semifinals of San Diego with a commanding victory over Stosur.  All three players who defeated Pennetta in the summer hard-court season have progressed to win the title, so only a top-drawer performance sufficed to overcome her.  On the other hand, she looked weary and literally foot-sore in Montreal but chose to play New Haven anyway, perhaps not the most judicious decision for her New York longevity.

Pavlyuchenkova (22):  The Russians keep coming as relentlessly as the rain in Montreal last weekend, and this former junior #1 seems destined for the top 10.  During a breakthrough week in Cincinnati, she overcame Hantuchova, Dementieva, and Wickmayer before taking a set from Sharapova; also impressive was her stamina in the heat, an auspicious omen for the Open.  Less encouraging were her struggles with double faults and a hip injury that forced her to withdraw from New Haven and may have hampered her during a three-set loss to Kuznetsova in Montreal.

Zheng (23):  Better known for her accomplishments in doubles, the Chinese firecracker battled toe-to-toe with Sharapova for much of their Stanford encounter and later ambushed Dementieva in Canada en route to the quarterfinals.  She has scored multiple victories over former #1s and rises to the occasion on the grandest stages, including semifinals at Wimbledon in 2008 and the Australian Open in 2009.  Inside her petite frame lies far more competitive determination than is found inside many of her colleagues.  Sadly for her, her serve is as benign as her charming smile and offers too inviting a target for the WTA’s top returners.

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Ivanovic (41):  A surprise semifinalist in Cincinnati, the sensuous Serb gathered momentum after a thrilling three-set comeback over Stanford champion Azarenka, during which she hovered within two points of defeat on three different occasions.  Could that match be the turning point that her fans long have awaited?  Profiting from a relatively barren section of the draw, Ana romped through her next three rounds with the loss of just 13 games but injured her ankle ligaments early in the semifinal against Clijsters.  Even if she recovers, she must grapple with negative memories of New York, her least successful major; exposing her tentative backhand, the fast courts there have fueled first-week exits in all but one of her appearances.

Oudin (44):  To be sure, she enters the Open on a four-match losing streak and has been dreadful for the vast majority of the past 12 months.  Nevertheless, some players remain oddly steady at a certain tournament despite disasters everywhere else.  While Oudin will feel the pressure of justifying last year’s result, the crowd will be enthusiastically behind her on every point.  Should we still BELIEVE?  The moment of truth approaches.

Safina (59):  A semifinalist in 2008, the Russian former #1 suffered a string of ignominious exits after returning from a back injury this summer but has shown recent signs of life.  Probably her most impressive victory of the US Open Series was a tightly contested three-setter against her compatriot Petrova, a two-time Slam quarterfinalist herself this year.  This week, Safina gained revenge upon Montreal nemesis Schiavone, so she’s gathering momentum at an ideal time.  It’s probable that she’ll wilt eventually under the bright lights of New York, but her penetrating groundstrokes might generate a first-week headline or two.

Potential victims:  Perpetually injured, ill, exhausted, or all of the above, Jankovic lost consecutive matches to qualifiers in Cincinnati and Montreal.  The 2008 US Open finalist won just one match in the US Open Series (against a qualifier) and has vanished from the radar almost completely since an especially feckless implosion in the Roland Garros semifinals.  Struggling with an arm injury, Stosur is saving match points against Errani as we write and never has progressed past the second round in New York.  Not unlike Ivanovic, she struggles to conceal her tepid backhand on the fast courts.  Seemingly content with that magical Roland Garros title, Schiavone has won very few matches since then and probably won’t revive her competitive vigor until the Fed Cup final in November.  (On the other hand, she did reach the second week at the Open last year.)  Finally, Roland Garros semifinalist Dementieva has fallen from the top 10 after a combination of injuries and straight-set losses to Pavlyuchenkova and Zheng in the early rounds of the two Premier Five events.

***

We return on Friday or Saturday to break down each quarter of both draws in our usual fashion.

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Just two weeks remain until the final major of 2010, and the tournaments next week mark the final significant opportunity for players to hone their skills before entering the harsh New York spotlight.  While the men’s event in Cincinnati showcases all of the ATP elite, the skeletal draw in Montreal features only a handful of stars familiar to those outside the sport’s inner circle.  In the absence of marquee names Serena, Venus, Sharapova, and Henin, ample opportunities await for a dormant veteran or an ambitious youngster to pound and/or shriek themselves (see image above) into the conversation surrounding the upcoming Slam.  Quarter-by-quarter previews of Montreal and Cincinnati straight ahead:

First quarter

In this section are situated many of the WTA’s finest two-handed backhands, from Jankovic and Petrova to Azarenka and Li.  Although the terms “forehand” and “backhand” don’t quite apply to Bartoli’s double-fisted style, the Frenchwoman might upset the top-seeded Serb in a particularly bitter third-round clash, especially since Jankovic is struggling with an ankle injury.  A champion at Stanford and a first-round loser (albeit a doubles champion) at Cincinnati, Azarenka persists in defying expectation for better or for worse.  So does her scheduled third-round opponent, Li Na, who is most dangerous when discounted and most vulnerable when hyped.  After dispatching a Bondarenko apiece, the blazing-eyed Belarussian and the steely Chinese will contest perhaps the most intriguing midweek match.  Who will consolidate her position as a dark horse at the US Open?

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Second quarter:

Fortunately the recipient of a first-round bye, Clijsters must quickly regroup after the Cincinnati final but faces no intimidating opponents in her early rounds.  Neither Oudin nor Peer is equipped to outhit the defending US Open champion, despite the grim tenacity exhibited by the American and the Israeli.  On the other side, this weakest section of a weak draw features Clijsters’ compatriot Wickmayer, steadily approaching the limelight and the architect of Li’s demise in Cincinnati.  Seeking a potential rematch of a Wimbledon quarterfinal is the presence of Zvonareva, who defeated Kim for the first time at the All England Club.  Nevertheless, we expect Wickmayer to dispatch Vera beforehand and set up an all-Belgian quarterfinal; Clijsters is undefeated against her countrywomen during her comeback so far, crushing “Wickipedia” in Eastbourne this June.

Semifinalist:  Clijsters

Third quarter:

Filled with flamboyant personalities, distinctive playing styles, and existential angst, this section features both of the San Diego finalists as well as the tournament’s most intriguing first-round match:  Pavlyuchenkova-Kuznetsova.  On the other side lurk the aging, injury-addled Dementieva, the enigmatic Rezai, and equally enigmatic Wimbledon semifinalist Kvitova.  Both ranked among the top five in the US Open Series standings, Radwanska and Kuznetsova probably will clash for the second time in three tournaments.  This time, the Russian should win more comfortably without the additional pressure of playing for a title and armed with the confidence from her week in San Diego.  Since the other bold-faced names in this neighborhood have faltered miserably lately, Sveta should capitalize upon the momentum surge so curtly interrupted by Sharapova in Cincinnati.

Semifinalist:  Kuznetsova

Fourth quarter:

Defanged by the withdrawal of Sharapova, this section includes Roland Garros champion and quintessential one-Slam wonder, Francesca Schiavone.  Having won exactly one match since her magical fortnight in Paris, the Italian shouldn’t penetrate too deeply in this draw.  Consequently, a door might well open for the winner of the first-round confrontation between ball-bruising German Andrea Petkovic and the most maligned former #1 in WTA history, Dinara Safina.  Considering that the Russian hasn’t won consecutive matches since January, however, one suspects that the semifinalist will emerge from the lower section of this quarter.  Despite capturing the title at her home tournament in Copenhagen, Wozniacki has accomplished nothing of note since Miami and exited meekly to Bartoli in Cincinnati.  Yet her most substantial competition is San Diego semifinalist Pennetta, who enjoys the summer hardcourts more than one would imagine for a clay-loving Italian.

Semifinalist:  Wozniacki

Moving on (or back) to Cincinnati…

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First quarter:

One match played, one seed gone as Baghdatis upset the floundering Cilic on Sunday night after the women’s final.  After a rather flat trip to Canada, Nadal probably will begin his tournament against one of only two players who have defeated him since April, compatriot Feliciano Lopez.  If Rafa is a little deflated or unfocused, the quirky serve-and-volleying veteran could spell trouble as he did for Murray in Los Angeles, but it’s hard to imagine Lopez upsetting the world #1 in consecutive meetings.  Representing another potential hurdle is the 14th-seeded Almagro, who held match points against Nadal last fall and became one of only two players (with Gulbis) to win a set from the five-time French Open champion during the clay season.  A likely rematch of the Wimbledon final looms in the quarters, for Berdych enjoys a rather smooth road through the early rounds and looked convincing in Canada.  Even when the Czech has displayed some of his best tennis, though, Nadal has ultimately solved his challenge.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter:

Crisp and poised for most of his finals run in Toronto, Federer will have gained a significant injection of confidence by overcoming Wimbledon nemesis Berdych and retaking the #2 ranking from Djokovic.  Whether Blake, Monfils, Ferrer, or Davydenko, all of the marquee names in his vicinity have struggled mightily against the GOAT, so it’s his quarter to lose until proven otherwise.  Mediocre since returning from an injury, Davydenko might fall to the LA champion and winner of last year’s US Open Series, Querrey.  But note that the American thus far has failed to translate his success from the peripheral 250 and 500 events to a Masters Series; in Cincinnati, he crashed out early to the gawky Kevin Anderson.  Other than the potential task of solving Querrey’s serve, Federer’s goal here should be to win as efficiently as possible in order to conserve energy for a semifinal with the Mallorcan.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Third quarter:

Tangling in a memorable opening-round encounter at the Australian Open, the scintillating one-handed backhands of Gasquet and Youzhny collide in the first round once again.  At the top of the quarter, Simon and Fish intersect in a meeting between Roddick’s two most recent nemeses that should feature a contrast of styles between the baseline-rooted Frenchman and the net-rushing American.  Trudging wearily through his last several events, eighth seed Verdasco looks ripe for an upset by one of the aforementioned players.  But the last laugh probably will belong to the Rogers Cup champion and 2008 Cincinnati champion, unless Gulbis can recapture his clay-season form to ambush Murray in the third round.  Considering the light balls and fast courts here, it’s not inconceivable although unlikely.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Clashing in the opening round are a pair of veterans who resuscitated their careers this year after prolonged sojourns in the tennis wilderness, Ljubicic and Nalbandian.  While the Croat’s title in Indian Wells increasingly resembles Schiavone’s conquest of Roland Garros, the Argentine seems more likely to build upon his summer success for a surprising run at the US Open.  Perhaps still reeling from a frustrating, blowout-turned-nailbiter semifinal loss to Federer, Djokovic should overcome compatriot Troicki in his opener but might fall to either Nalbandian or Isner in the third round.  Without the stabilizing influence of coach Magnus Norman, Soderling may struggle to overcome home favorite Roddick, who will enjoy vociferous crowd support as he nurses a lingering case of mono.  If Roddick collides with Djokovic in the quarterfinals, momentum in their mini-rivalry will rest squarely on his side.  If he confronts Isner or Nalbandian, expect his superior conditioning to outlast those opponents in the torrid Cincinnati heat.

Semifinalist:  Roddick

***

Perspiration will pour, fists will pump, and nerves will jangle.  Who will surmount the heat and the pressure to prance nimbly through these capacious but not overwhelming draws?

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Eagerly exploiting the faster surface, Sharapova followed her Birmingham finals appearance with a suffocating salvo to ignite her Wimbledon campaign.  The transition from clay to grass proved a bit less hospitable, however, to two terrors of the terre battue.  Unceremoniously ushered out of their All England Club debuts, Verdasco and Stosur failed to translate their six combined clay finals into the language of grass.  But their defeats speak less about their shortcomings than about the prodigious achievements of Nadal and Federer in winning “Channel Slams” during the past two years.  A relatively obscure feat in the tennis statistical pantheon, the Roland Garros-Wimbledon sweep ranks with the elusive Indian Wells-Miami double.  One Andy came within a single victory of that rare accomplishment last year, while another Andy duplicated that near-miss this year.  He opens Centre Court and our Day 3 preview.

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Llodra vs. Roddick (5) (Centre Court, 1st match):  Facing a rather indifferent field at an ATP Eastbourne event not to be confused with its high-quality WTA counterpart, the left-handed Frenchman served and volleyed his won to a rare singles title.  A week earlier, Roddick fell to unheralded Israeli Dudi Sela at the Queens Club event two hours to the north.  Do these divergent grass-court results portend a potential upset?  The American swiftly dispatched one of his compatriots in his All England Club debut, while the perhaps weary Llodra eked out a four-set win over an unimposing American qualifier.  In their Davis Cup meeting on a fast indoor surface two years ago, Roddick prevailed in one of the tightest straight-set matches that one could imagine, which featured just a single break of serve.  Since both players don’t hesitate to move forward on grass, we should see shoals of volleys and passing shot attempts with few points lasting more than four or five strokes.  Possessing an elegant backhand volley, the Frenchman displays more grace at the net than Roddick but often proves a little too clever and artsy for his own good.  The fifth seed’s more functional, less exuberant style should carry him through unless his timing falters as badly as it did against Tipsarevic in 2008.  In order to counter the charging Llodra, he needs to be more aggressive than usual on returns and intelligent with his passing-shot placement.

Makarova vs. Venus (2) (Centre Court, 2nd match):  The other Eastbourne champion, Makarova faces an equally imposing challenge as her male counterpart yet enters this encounter on an eight-match winning streak that included straight-set triumphs over Pennetta, Petrova, Kuznetsova, Stosur, and Azarenka.  Against the aging, over-matched Rossana de los Rios, Venus looked as potent as ever on her favorite surface; she started the match with a 119-mph delivery and was largely untouchable in her service games.   Remaining firmly entrenched inside the baseline, she cracked crisp groundstrokes from both sides without slipping into recklessness (most of the time).  Nevertheless, the elder Williams seems a different player every time that she enters the court this year, looking impressive in the early rounds of both previous Slams before donating a sudden clunker.  As a result of Makarova’s solid serve, this match should feature more holds than we’re accustomed to seeing from the breaktastic WTA.  The Russian is an expert at saving break points (10 of 11 in the Eastbourne final), a talent towards which lefties are naturally predisposed; ask if you want to know why.  Although Makarova probably can’t secure the massive upset, don’t be surprised to see one tight set before Venus takes control.

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Djokovic (3) vs. Dent (Q) (Centre Court, 3rd match):  Stubbornly adhering to retro serve-and-volley tactics, Dent is far from a legitimate contender at any significant tournament but still possesses the weapons to occasionally ambush someone who is.  Susceptible to an opportunistic underdog, Djokovic coughed up a two-set lead to Melzer at Roland Garros before nearly falling to Rochus in his Wimbledon opener.  Contrasting with the Serb’s recently wayward delivery, Dent’s elephantine serve comprises a formidable weapon on grass, allowing him to hold with sufficient regularity to put pressure on opponents’ service games and bomb his way into some tiebreaks.  Unless the American collapses as he did against Soderling in Paris, he should test Djokovic’s ever-shaky nerves by remaining within range for most of the match.  Considering the gulf between Dent’s superlative serve and erratic return, any breaks probably will be terminal.  The match should provide Djokovic with an opportunity to hone his timing and his concentration for a possible collision with Hewitt two rounds ahead.

Korolev vs. Hewitt (15) (Court 1, 2nd match):  Seeking to extend the momentum from his unexpected Halle title, the Aussie hopes to avoid the untimely demises of compatriots Stosur and Dellacqua.  A relentlessly ferocious ball-striker, Korolev should prosper on the grass, although his mediocre footwork sometimes leaves him off balance for his mighty groundstrokes on surfaces with little reaction time.  Whereas Hewitt will seek to stretch the Russian laterally along the baseline, his adversary will attempt to shorten points with constant risk-taking and unflinching aggression.  Almost everything must go right for him, however, in order to overcome the Aussie’s consistency, superior technique, and far superior tenacity.  In a best-of-five format, it’s easier to weather a temporary storm and wait for the deluge of errors that inevitably will succeed the deluge of winners.  Here, Hewitt’s patience could prove a more valuable attribute than anything related to a racket.

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Wickmayer (15) vs. Flipkens (Court 12, 3rd match):  Welcome to the next generation’s edition of Henin-Clijsters.  While this second intra-Belgian rivalry certainly lacks the intensity of its ancestor, this clash provides an intriguing means of measuring the progress of these ascending stars.  Still recovering from an elbow injury, Wickmayer avenged a Birmingham loss to Alison Riske in an opening three-setter, while Flipkens has sizzled during a semifinal run at the UNICEF Open.  Ranked lower than her compatriot, her high-risk, first-strike style may prove more effective on grass and allow her to post the mini-upset.  Built more for durability and consistency, Wickmayer often struggles to identify the appropriate moments to unleash her aggression and either flinches before pulling the trigger or pulls it indiscriminately until it jams.  Fortune favors the brave, and so do the lawns of the All England Club, so it’ll be intriguing to see which youngster will seize the day more authoritatively.

Troicki vs. Melzer (16) (Court 14, 1st match):  Often the forgotten Serb behind the trio of Djokovic, Jankovic, and Ivanovic, Troicki showcases an exquisite two-handed backhand that should produce engaging cross-court rallies with Melzer’s whipping lefty forehand.  An intriguing counterpoint to the net-rushing Austrian, the Serb has honed a full arsenal of passing shots that should produce a classic grass-court duel of cat-and-mouse.  In this match, raw power will be trumped by placement, guile, reflexes, and dexterity, always a compelling entertainment in the first week.  After Roland Garros, we wrote that the aging Melzer probably couldn’t reproduce his achievement at another Slam, but he has a comfortable draw that might allow him to reach the second week for the second consecutive major. 

Groth vs. Oudin (33) (Court 14, 3rd match):  Largely failing to capitalize upon her US Open quarterfinal run, Oudin expertly defused the powerful game of Groenefeld in the first round and now tackles a similar assignment.  Agile and low to the ground, the pugnacious American compensates for her lack of a powerful serve with seamless movement and a forehand much more formidable than her size would suggest.  Surprisingly charging to the second week of Roland Garros, the Slovakian-Australian exploited an open draw similar to the soft section in which she currently finds herself.  The match will be decided mostly on Groth’s terms, for she possesses the capacity either to hit Oudin off the court or to hit herself off the court.  In New York last year, Oudin feasted upon erratic, temperamental baseline sluggers, which indicates that she’ll approach this contest with confidence and an intelligent plan. 

Briefly noted:  A couple of you wrote for insight on Wozniak-Jankovic, which perplexes us a bit because the Serb has won all three of their previous meetings in straight sets and appears to have emerged this spring from her protracted slump.  Meanwhile, the Canadian enters the match with a meager 14-14 record in 2010 with losses to opponents such as Cornet, Pironkova, and Heather Watson.   Consequently, it’s difficult to see an upset here unless Jankovic enters as flat as she was at the Roland Garros semifinal.  Although grass is her weakest surface, she couldn’t have asked for a more benign draw…until a Belgian arrives in the quarters.  The new pride of Lithuanian tennis, Ricardas Berankis has won four consecutive matches at the All England Club and will have a legitimate chance to threaten Queens Club semifinalist Lopez, who may still be nursing a shoulder injury incurred at Eastbourne.  Famous for a slightly tarnished upset over Venus on these very lawns, Karolina Sprem pursues more marquee prey in a second-round collision with Clijsters, superb at one Slam in her comeback and a disaster at the other.  A great serving day for the Croat could spell a spot of bother for the eighth seed, who can look tentative against players who are constantly taking chances and making things happen.  The Belgian’s nemesis at Indian Wells, Kleybanova faces a power-saturated duel with compatriot Alla Kudryavtseva, the architect of Sharapova’s demise in 2008 and nearly the architect of Venus’ demise in 2007.  Elsewhere, Teimuraz Gabashvili attempts to extend his momentum from clay to grass as he battles flamboyant German Kohlschreiber for the right to share a show court with Roddick, who fell to the Russian a month ago and to the German two years ago.  If you fancy a bit of doubles, meanwhile, check out Marray/Murray against Nestor/Zimonjic on one of the small outer courts, where a raucous home crowd doubtless will congregate to support their favorite Scot.  

***

Keep sharing your comments and suggesting intriguing matches for the days ahead!

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Welcome to the debut of our daily preview series on all of the Wimbledon action, which will briefly discuss an intriguing topic from the previous day’s action before examining several key matches in detail.  They will conclude with a “briefly noted” section on matches of lesser interest that might be worth more casual attention when the central action ebbs.  Since there’s little to discuss from today’s action beyond the arrangement of Federer’s trophy room (read his interview if you haven’t already), we ignite this series by previewing a former champion who will grace Centre Court on Monday.  No, not you, Roger.

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Robson (W) vs. Jankovic (4) (Centre Court, 2nd match):  Eagerly embracing drama and intrigue, the fourth seed should relish her opening Centre Court clash with Great Britain’s leading female hope, a junior champion in 2008.  A lefty with a modest serve but aggressive groundstrokes, Robson is more likely to rise to the occasion than crumble under the pressure of her surroundings.  Surprisingly declining to enter a grass prep, Jankovic may need time to adjust to her weakest surface and settle into the match, which could provide an early opportunity upon which the teenager must capitalize.  Although Serb suffered a startling loss to Oudin here last year, she remains too steady to succumb to a largely untested opponent unless one of her chronic, innumerable health issues intervenes.  But Robson might well win a set and temporarily ignite the fervor of British fans.

Djokovic (3) vs. Rochus (Centre Court, 3rd match):  After upsetting Murray in his Miami opener, Fish sprang a second ambush on the Scot during the grass season.  Can the diminutive Rochus, who likewise upset Djokovic in his Miami opener, also repeat the accomplishment on grass.  The Belgian oddly has won three of their four previous meetings, none of which have been played in the best-of-five format; nevertheless, the Serb won their only collision on grass.  Despite his unimpressive stature, Rochus maximizes the pace upon his groundstrokes with compact, well-timed swings and crisp footwork.  Falling to the enigmatic Xavier Malisse at Queens Club, Djokovic did hone his grass skills later that week by winning the doubles title with Jonathan Ehrlich.  Crucial to his success at Wimbledon will be his recently remodeled serve, which faltered in the Miami match with Rochus.  When the Serb’s serve wobbles, so does his confidence, and an alert counterpuncher like the Belgian can take advantage.  This match is Djokovic’s to win or lose; he’ll probably win it, but not without some ado.   

Anderson vs. Davydenko (7) (Court 1, 1st match): Never at his most formidable on grass, Davydenko returned from a two-month injury absence in Halle, where he won a match before losing to former Wimbledon nemesis Benjamin Becker.  Generally considered one of the ATP’s premier returners, his talents in that arena will be severely tested by a South African giant (6’7”) whose delivery should scoot through this fast surface.  Since the seventh seed will struggle to break, he’ll feel additional pressure on his own service games.  On the other hand, Murray thumped Anderson at the Australian Open and broke his serve almost at will, while the South African has yet to score a win over a marquee player at a marquee event.  Beyond the serve, he’ll be overwhelmingly outgunned by Davydenko from the baseline, and his net prowess remains indifferent at best.  If Anderson doesn’t maintain an extremely high first-serve percentage, a challenging task in a best-of-five format, he lacks the consistency to trouble the Russian.

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Fish vs. Tomic (Q) (Court 2, 2nd match):  Reaching the Queens Club final with impressive wins over Murray and Lopez, the American veteran illustrated his continuing relevance in singles despite a mediocre 2010.  His first-strike, serve-and-volley aggression should suit the grass, but he confronts a future top-20 or possibly top-10 star who already has performed impressively at this level.  In Melbourne, Tomic extended Cilic to five compelling sets with fluid movement, balanced groundstrokes, and more versatility than one would expect from such a relatively raw player.  Will youth or experience triumph?  Fish needs to relentlessly move forward behind his imposing first serve and perhaps behind second serves as well.  Once Tomic lures him into a neutral baseline rally, the teenager’s superior consistency and durability would prevail, allowing him to set up a potential rematch with Cilic.  Therefore, the American must attempt to engage in a vertical battle of forward movement, while the Australian will seek to engage in a horizontal battle of lateral movement.  Fish should hit many more winners and many more errors, but the key to the match will be the length of point; the longer, the better for Tomic.

Hercog vs. Shvedova (30) (Court 8, 2nd match):  A lanky Slovenian teenager, Hercog achieved her first impact in the WTA by surging to the Acapulco final with victories over Szavay and Suarez Navarro; once there, she demonstrated impressive maturity by winning a set from Venus.  Since that breakthrough, she crushed Safarova at the French Open while winning sets from Wozniacki, Bartoli, and Peer.  Across the net stands unexpected Roland Garros quarterfinalist Shvedova, who underlined her own maturation by conquering the mental challenge of Radwanska and the physical challenge of Kleybanova.  Consecutive wins over those almost diametrically opposed playing styles testified to the Kazakh’s development into an all-court player with sufficient consistency to complement her long-impressive power.  While both players will require more time to evolve, they comprise part of the answer to the omnipresent question “who’s next?” in the WTA.  More important than who wins or loses here is how they respond to various match situations and the pressure inherent at this prestigious event.

Wickmayer (15) vs. Riske (W) (Court 14, 3rd match):  The All England Club took a bit of a Riske by awarding the American a wildcard following a Birmingham semifinal run that saw her depose Wozniak and Wickmayer.  Distinctly underwhelming since a Miami quarterfinal appearance, the third highest-ranked Belgian recently endured arthroscopic surgery on her elbow, flopped miserably against Clijsters at Eastbourne, and failed to break Riske’s serve at all during their three-set confrontation.  If the American wildcard enters the court with a positive attitude, she’ll already possess an advantage over the waffling Belgian.  The draw would open up a little for her after an upset, so she must discipline herself to control her emotions and play steady, intelligent tennis, which might well be good enough. 

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Peer (13) vs. Ivanovic (Court TBA, not before 17:00 local time):  Having surprisingly reached the second week at last year’s Wimbledon, Ivanovic faces a moderately significant rankings drop should she fail to score the mini-upset here.  Not at her best on grass, Peer fell to Zheng in her Eastbourne opener after an excellent clay season.  As usual, the Serb’s serve will play a pivotal role in what could be a Centre Court clash; following a disastrous Roland Garros, that shot rebounded to deliver 23 aces in her two matches at the UNICEF Open, where her three-set loss to Petkovic looked more respectable when the German came within two games of the title.  Much more consistent and balanced, the Israeli will try to extend Ivanovic along the baseline, set up crosscourt backhand exchanges, and pin the Serb into awkward positions when she unleashes her high-risk groundstrokes.  Peer always represents a challenging mental test as well, brimming with competitive vigor and intense focus.  Yet grass generally favors bold aggressors more than sturdy counterpunchers (ahem, Murray), pleasant news for the Serb.  The match should play out a bit like Fish-Tomic, with Ivanovic moving forward, shortening points, and littering the statistics sheet with far more winners and far more errors than her adversary.  If she brings a positive, confident mind to the match, she’ll give herself the opportunity to move forward into an invitingly weak area of the draw.

Briefly noted:  Fresh from an improbable title run in Eastbourne, today’s sensation Makarova intersects with the rapidly fading but still sporadically dangerous Szavay.  Not so fresh from an even more improbable title run in Paris, Schiavone prepares to battle Vera Dushevina in a clash of two all-court games; Dushevina nearly upset Venus, Serena, and Sharapova within the past year, so don’t be surprised to witness an upset here.  Nadal’s nemesis from Queens Club, Feliciano Lopez, will test a recently injured shoulder against fellow lefty Jesse Levine, while the still huge-serving Karolina Sprem quietly continues her comeback against Fed Cup heroine Bethanie Mattek-Sands.  As spring turns to summer, the expectations will mount on Melanie Oudin to recapitulate her outstanding performances from Wimbledon and the US Open a year ago.  The Georgian has achieved little of note so far in 2010 and faces a much more powerful although much more erratic opponent in Anna-Lena Groenefeld; a win here might open the door for another second-week appearance.  Taking aim at the streaky Wawrinka is Nadal’s near-nemesis from Queens Club, Denis Istomin, whose powerful offense might unsettle an adversary who opted to enter a clay challenger in his native Switzerland rather than a grass prep. 

***

We return tomorrow with previews of opening rounds for the bottom half of the men’s draw and the top half of the women’s draw.  If any particular matches seem especially worthy to you, you’re welcome to mention any preferences in the comments or write to us on Twitter about them.  We’ve fulfilled all requests so far!

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Little of consequence transpired on Day 1 beyond the injury-related exits of Martinez Sanchez and Gulbis.  (Nice work with the voodoo doll, Mirka!)  Azarenka fans may be disappointed by her early demise, but the silver lining to this cloud is that the Belarussian will be forced into resting the hamstring injury that she unintelligently refuses to respect.  Perhaps the most surprising news of the day was Kuznetsova’s sturdy performance against the dangerous Cirstea after a predictably uneasy start.  The defending champion will have plenty of work to do against Petkovic on Wednesday, however, and we have plenty of work to do right now.  Day 2 preview straight ahead…

Murray (3) vs. Gasquet (Lenglen, 3rd match):  Few spectators will have forgotten their five-set Wimbledon collision two years ago, when the Scot thrilled his compatriots by rallying from a two-set deficit against the mentally fragile Frenchman.  Gasquet has won their other two meetings, however, and brings a 10-match winning streak from titles in Bordeaux (a challenger) and Nice, where he recorded his most impressive win since the cocaine investigation by defeating Verdasco in the final.  Neither the Scot nor the Frenchman enjoys playing on clay as much as other surfaces, and Murray has looked anywhere from uninspired to horrific during his 3-3 campaign at Monte Carlo, Rome, and Madrid.  If the match extends deep into a fourth or fifth set, however, he’ll have the fitness edge over a weary Gasquet.  The French crowd should aid their player in the initial stages, but don’t be surprised if they turn against him should he open poorly.  Located in the weakest quarter, the winner will be favored to reach the quarters or even the semis.  The fourth seed certainly could use any momentum that he can accumulate here to psychologically buttress him against the Murray Mania that looms in a few weeks.

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Llodra vs. Bellucci (24) (Court 1, 4th match):  Although far from a star-studded matchup, this all-lefty clash opposes the artful, net-charging Frenchman and the baseline-rooted Brazilian in an engaging contrast of styles.  Both players have demonstrated a propensity for mixing flashy winners with ghastly errors, so expect some entertaining momentum shifts.  Court positioning will prove crucial in this match; can Llodra find his way to the net or will Bellucci keep him pinned behind the baseline?  Still vulnerable to outbursts of rash aggression, the Brazilian has noticeably improved over the last few weeks and displayed sufficient patience to oust Isner in Rome.

Dementieva (5) vs. Martic (Court 2, 2nd match):  Struggling to win matches of any sort recently, the world #5 succumbed last week to Pironkova in her Warsaw opener after premature exits in Rome and Madrid.  It’s a bit surprising to note that Dementieva has won multiple titles this year, for her form at the important events has been indifferent at best.  Opposing her is a lanky Croatian teenager who has matured rather slowly following success in the juniors but who scored eye-opening wins over Wickmayer in the Paris Indoors and Rezai in Miami while posting a competitive effort against Jankovic in Indian Wells.  The match rests in Dementieva’s ever-shaky hands, which means that another wobbly outing would give the 19-year-old upstart a chance.

Dokic vs. Safarova (24) (Court 6, 1st match):  Since the 2009 Australian Open, Dokic hasn’t recaptured the luster of that electrifying quarterfinal run; illnesses and recurrent personal issues have hampered her comeback.  Last year, though, she nearly defeated Dementieva here before retiring with an injury, so her high-risk style can reap rewards even on a slower surface.  Confronted with this challenging assignment, Safarova will need the positive momentum accumulated from victories over Wozniacki, Pennetta, Radwanska, and Sharapova during her three clay-court tournaments.  Will the thigh injury that forced her to retire from Madrid recur?  Expect a scintillating, offensive-oriented contest in which both competitors play much more aggressively than would the standard clay-court player.  If the relatively fast conditions observed on Sunday persist, this match could produce very high-quality tennis indeed.

Nishikori vs. Giraldo (Court 6, 3rd match):  Yet another product of the renowned Bolletieri Academy, Nishikori burst upon the stage in 2008 by defeating Ferrer in a five-setter at the US Open.  Although chronic injuries have undermined his attempts to consolidate that breakthrough, his expert movement and low-risk style have achieved their best results on hard courts but also could prosper on the consistency-demanding clay.  Unfortunately for the Japanese prodigy, a more recent breakthrough artist confronts him in the first round.  Giraldo followed his upset of Ferrero in Rome with a sturdy effort in Madrid, where he nearly toppled the towering Isner.  Far more experienced on the surface, he should overcome NIshikori in the end, but first we should see some extended, well-constructed rallies.

Oudin vs. Medina Garrigues (Court 8, 1st match):  Last year’s US Open quarterfinalist has amply demonstrated the mental tenacity required to thrive on the grit.  On the other hand, the diminutive American has struggled with the high-bouncing surface (which makes us wonder how the petite Henin has handled it so well) and with the heavy spins employed by clay specialists.  A semifinalist in Strasbourg, where she won a set from Sharapova, Medina Garrigues long has flourished on her favorite surface with a sturdy, well-rounded game.  The aging Spaniard has perceptibly faded over the last several months, however, and may still be weary from a two-match, one-day effort last week during the aforementioned Strasbourg run.  Expect plenty of service breaks as Oudin attempts to seize one last opportunity to gain momentum before defending her impressive summer results.  Scheduled to face the winner in the second round, Dementieva must be hoping not to see the Georgian, who has beaten her once and taken her to three sets in their other two meetings.

Errani vs. Shvedova (Court 10, 3rd match):  Can an adroit counterpuncher with a high tennis IQ survive in a WTA where power is at a premium, even on the most counterpuncher-friendly surface?  The Italian will seek to disrupt the Russian-turned-Kazakh’s timing with elegant spins and delicate touch, needing to construct the points more meticulously than her opponent.  Shvedova’s strategy is quite straightforward:  see ball, hit ball, watch opponent flail helplessly at ball, repeat.  Courts have been playing relatively fast so far this year, which bodes ill for Errani; still, it’ll be intriguing to see whether she can weave a web around a ball-bruising but stylistically limited opponent from the second tier of sluggers.

Troicki vs. Robredo (21) (Court 17, 3rd match including completion):  One never knows what to expect from Troicki on any given day, for the least famous Serb oscillates between inspired shotmaking and inexplicable avalanches of routine misses.  On the other hand, one knows exactly what to expect from Robredo, who has made a living out of tormenting the inconsistent plebeians of the ATP while lacking the offensive weapons to challenge the elite.  That comment might sound like an insult, but it isn’t; in an era of Slam-obsessed superstars, fans should respect a player who competes at the same level on every occasion even as they admire the brilliance of higher-ranked players.  Will Troicki’s game ebb or flow at crucial moments?  If it flows, Robredo might be in trouble; if it ebbs, the Spaniard will take full advantage.

Briefly notedThe allergy-addled Djokovic tentatively begins his Roland Garros campaign against ball-bruising Russian Evgeny Korolev; although this match normally wouldn’t garner our attention at all, we’re curious to observe the state of the Serb’s fitness, which would be crucial in upcoming rounds.  Not at her finest on clay, Radwanska has been assigned a potentially stern test in the person of Elena Baltacha, who has quietly recorded some impressive wins this year over Li Na, Cirstea, Kateryna Bondarenko, and Chakvetadze.  (Actually, maybe cross out the last one from the “impressive” category.)  Elsewhere, Barrois and Dulgheru attempt to translate their success from Warsaw and Strasbourg to Paris against the respectable but unintimidating duo of Garbin and Hradecka, respectively.  Can Dushevina follow up her near-upset of Serena in Madrid with a sturdy performance against the unpredictable Alona Bondarenko?  In a ridiculously saturated top quarter, Stosur can’t afford many missteps.  The 2009 Roland Garros semifinalist opens her tournament opposite a Romanian star of the future, Simona Halep, who finally is making headlines for the right reasons.  But the place to be in the late afternoon on Tuesday is Court 1, where Safina nemesis Kai-chen Chang collides with someone special:

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We were a bit concerned when Ana mentioned that an illness had prevented her from preparing as effectively as she would have wished.  Nevertheless, a decent performance in Paris would help her prove that Rome wasn’t a mirage.

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Confronted with a lethal-looking draw at the outset of this week, Nadal now finds himself within two comfortable wins of tying Agassi’s record for career Masters titles (17).  Although he had been projected to play Soderling, Federer, and Djokovic consecutively, ambushes by Wawrinka, Gulbis, and Verdasco erased all three threats from his path.  The Latvian should connect with some booming serves and fearsome forehands, but we doubt that he’ll string enough of those dazzling winners together to discomfit Rafa on his favorite surface.  Meanwhile, the all-Spanish semifinal in the bottom half should offer a scintillating counterpoint of Verdasco’s offensive brilliance against Ferrer’s defensive prowess.  When they met in the Barcelona semifinal exactly a week ago, the retriever nearly prevailed before the shotmaker finally rose to the occasion late in the second set.  Looming over both of them, however, is the towering shadow of Nadal, which drains a little energy from this match because it appears virtually certain that his two compatriots are playing for the runner-up trophy.  Will Verdasco dog the defending champion’s footsteps as relentlessly as did the Serb pictured above?  Judging from his oft-expressed reverence for Rafa, we doubt it.  On the other hand, Ferrer has the belief to tackle Nadal but lacks the weapons. 

Across the Alps, another upset-riddled tournament has allowed Stosur and Henin to slide into cruise control against a pair of overmatched opponents.  Yet another prodigious ball-striker from Russia, Lapushchenkova won’t be able to hold serve with sufficient ease and consistency to create pressure on Stosur’s serve, nearly impenetrable so far this week.  If Henin can recover from an exhausting win over Jankovic in time for her afternoon semifinal, she shouldn’t find Peer excessively demanding.  Notable for her outstanding competitive resilience, the Israeli will be forced onto defense for most of their encounter, not where one wants to be on this surprisingly fast clay.  Unlike the Rome tournament, however, the Stuttgart final could prove fascinating indeed with Henin attempting to claim the first title of her comeback (having lost two finals) and Stosur striving to consolidate her momentum from Charleston.  Regardless of the outcome, a major statement will be made concerning the more significant events in Rome and Madrid as well as Roland Garros.  We’ll thoroughly preview that match for you in the very likely event that it develops. 

Much more thought-provoking than these rather limp semifinals is the WTA Rome draw, which compiles all of the top 10 and features such intriguing first-round clashes as Stosur-Cibulkova, Vinci-Kleybanova, and Schiavone-Hantuchova.  Since the event begins on Sunday, we’ve already whipped out the crystal ball for a wide-angle look at the road ahead, one quarter at a time:

First quarter:  Mystery reigns regarding the state of Serena‘s knee, which until recently threatened to prevent her from appearing at the Foro Italico this year.  She’ll have time to rediscover her clay-court game in an unimposing opener, yet she might struggle in a third-round meeting with Zvonareva, who has troubled her on this surface before.  Still, one would have to favor the 12-time Slam champion to overcome that obstacle if (and it’s a massive “if”) she is both healthy and motivated.  On the other side of this section lies Kuznetsova, Serena’s nemesis at last year’s French Open but far from confident after a string of dismal results in 2010.  We suspect that Serena would need to conquer Stosur in order to reach the semis; she dominated the Australian in Melbourne while falling to her in a listless quarterfinal at the Stanford event last year.  Swiftly embedding herself among the central contenders in Paris, Stosur might demand a more determined performance than Serena will be inclined to muster at a non-Slam.

Semifinalist:  Stosur

Second quarter:  Another Williams, another questionable knee.  Unlike little sister, Venus will need to start on the right foot if she opens against Dulko; the Argentine excels at exposing an opponent’s erratic play or fitness flaws.  Littered with qualifiers, this neighborhood could prove friendly to a dark horse like Rezai or Wickmayer and might produce at least one surprise quarterfinalist.  Jankovic won’t look forward to an opening-match duel with Oudin, who stunned her at Wimbledon last year before her breakthrough run at the US Open.  Far more comfortable on clay than the American, though, the Serb should carve a characteristically melodramatic route to the quarters.  Highly entertaining and tightly contested, her meetings with Venus have followed a simple pattern:  JJ wins on clay (with one exception), Venus wins on hard court (with one exception).  They’re playing on clay, so…

Semifinalist:  Jankovic

Third quarter: 

This section is a trifle less cozy than the setting in which Ivanovic is pictured above, for it includes not only Azarenka (a possible second-round opponent for Ana) but two former French Open finalists, Dementieva and Safina.  Just returning from a severe back injury, Dinara almost certainly won’t defend her title and likely won’t survive compatriot Petrova in the third round.  A former semifinalist at Roland Garros, Nadia started 2010 spectacularly in Australia but hasn’t distinguished herself since then.  The key to this quarter should be the Azarenka-Dementieva round of 16, where we would give Elena a slight edge for her maturity as well as her head-to-head lead.  Also, she’s one of the few elite players who has been fully healthy this season; although she hasn’t shone at the top events, she has quietly secured two titles already.

Semifinalist:  Dementieva

Fourth quarter:  Returning to the city of their recent Fed Cup victory, Pennetta and Schiavone lurk in the middle of this relatively soft section.  If she can quell the resurgent Hantuchova, Schiavone probably will collide with the second seed Wozniacki in a third-round match during which the Dane’s movement and fitness will be severely tested.  Anchoring the other side, Radwanska seeks to atone for an unexpected tumble in Stuttgart at the hands of Peer, although she probably would need to navigate Pennetta and Vinci, another clay-loving Italian who reached the final in Barcelona (where she lost to Schiavone).  One would expect both Radwanska and Wozniacki to excel on this surface, considering their high-percentage, low-risk playing styles, yet neither has generally played her best tennis on clay. 

Semifinalist:  Pennetta

***

We enjoyed an excellent week with our long-distance forecasts for the ATP Rome event, so let’s hope that the winning streak stays in the venue for the ladies.  🙂  Arrivederci and Auf Wiedersehn!