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US Players

Readers familiar with this blog will know that we do not beat the tribal drum to proclaim the wonders of American tennis when few such wonders exist.  By contrast, we save praise of our compatriots for the moments that genuinely matter, a category that definitely includes this weekend’s victory over a heavily favored Swiss squad.  From the outset, virtually every imaginable card seemed stacked against the Americans, mired in the hostile clay without the services of their most prolific singles star (Andy Roddick) and half of their legendary doubles team (Mike Bryan) as they confronted the greatest player ever (need you ask?) and a very capable clay threat (Stanislas Wawrinka).  Only heightening the odds were the unimpressive Australian performances of both Fish and Isner, gone before the second week.

In one of the most stunning upsets during the last decade of Davis Cup, however, the Americans registered victories for every member of their team as they shut out their hosts.  Most stunning was Isner’s four-set victory over Federer that grew more emphatic as it progressed, but his teammate Fish deserves equal honors.  With the GOAT looming in the second rubber, the top-ranked American knew that he needed to secure the first rubber against Wawrinka for his team to harbor legitimate hopes of surviving the tie.  Trailing by two sets to one, Fish must have struggled to dispel memories of his demoralizing Davis Cup losses to Spain last year, when he spent eight hours on court with nothing to show for it.  Finishing the nail-biting fifth set with a burst of confident, assertive play, he set an optimistic tone crucial to his team’s success that weekend.  After Isner lost the first set to Federer, his comeback mirrored the spirited effort of his compatriot, unwilling to concede a grain of dirt to a Swiss team far superior in talent but far inferior in resolve.

Tennis sprawled well beyond Switzerland last week, though, so we discuss the rest of the best and worst from Davis Cup and two small WTA events.


Team Argentina:  Another visiting team to sweep their hosts, Argentina arrived in Germany without their best player in Del Potro and yet still ravaged their higher-ranked foes with merciless efficiency.  As he has so often, Nalbandian seized center stage by winning both of his live rubbers, including a demolition of German #1 Florian Mayer.  The Argentines impressed even more because they had sustained a potentially devastating loss to Spain in yet another Davis Cup final last fall, so the psychological burden of starting their quest anew must have loomed large.  Somewhat lightening that burden, to be sure, was Germany’s uninspired decision to host this tie on clay, an unexpected courtesy to South American dirt devils like Monaco.  In the April quarterfinals, the Argentines should show less courtesy when they lay as slow a court as possible to frustrate one particular Croat.

Ivo Karlovic:  Defending his flag far from home, the tallest man in the ATP almost single-handedly thrust aside Japan by winning three rubbers for Croatia.  Like Germany, Japan may rue their choice of surface in retrospect, but Karlovic has proven himself dangerous even on slower courts.  Sweeping aside Nishikori in straight sets on Friday, he never lost his serve in either of his singles matches, including a decisive fifth rubber during which he seemed to feel neither pressure from the situation nor fatigue from his previous matches.  Perhaps most notable from the weekend was Karlovic’s ability to break serve; he needed only one tiebreak in six singles sets and won two sets by double-break margins.  Inside the top 50 as he prepares to turn 33, the Croat has grown more rather than less consistent with age.

Angelique Kerber:  While more often than not the player makes the results, sometimes the results make the player.  After bouncing around the second and third tiers of the WTA for years, Kerber astonished virtually everyone by racing within a set of the US Open final last fall.  That glimpse of what she could accomplish catalyzed her motivation and encouraged her to improve her fitness during the off-season.  Dismissed initially as an accident all too common in the parity of women’s tennis, she has begun to prove otherwise by compiling a 14-3 record in early 2012.  The German lefty reached semifinals in Auckland and Hobart before breaking through to claim her first career title in Paris with victories over two top-eight opponents.  Despite her lack of experience in finals, Kerber held her ground against multiple comebacks from Bartoli and continued creating opportunities to deliver the coup de grace.  When she did, one wondered whether the German trio of Petkovic, Lisicki, and Goerges might have become a quartet.

Pattaya City finalists:  Among players outside the top 20 when the year began, Hantuchova has surpassed all but Kerber in her achievements.  In addition to spearheading Slovakia’s victory over France in Fed Cup, she reached the Brisbane final and knocked off Schiavone in Sydney. Although she defeated no prominent name in the Thai beach city, her first career title defense represents a significant accomplishment for a player considered unreliable and emotionally frail.  Further undercutting that reputation, Hantuchova has rallied from losing the first set in seven of her fourteen victories this year, showing greater capacity for endurance than she has for most of her career.

Despite its insignificant position near the base of the WTA’s tournament hierarchy, Pattaya City featured a final filled with drama and entertainment throughout its 194 minutes.  No less responsible than Hantuchova for its quality was runner-up Kirilenko, who battled through game after game with unexpected tenacity.

Sorana Cirstea / Mona Barthel:  Flavors of the month in January, they started February with promise.  After she upset Stosur in the first round of the Australian Open, the former prodigy Cirstea reached the semifinals in Pattaya City, where she extended Kirilenko to three sets.  Even more notable was the continued surge of Hobart champion Barthel, who has amassed 16 victories already this year.  The last five of those came when she qualified for the main draw and then reached the quarterfinals at the Paris Indoors.  If her progress continues, the Germans could boast five players in the top 30 by midsummer, more than any other nation except Russia.


Team Kazakhstan:  One might wonder how a team can take positives away from losing a second straight Davis Cup tie 5-0, but Kazakhstan’s 10 straight losses mask a brighter story.  Faced with the task of playing a much superior Spanish team on clay, many more talented squads would have crumbled before the first ball even without the presence of Nadal and Ferrer.  In a 2011 quarterfinal, moreover, the Kazakhs had mustered only minimal resistance to Argentina in a clay tie under similar circumstances.  This year, they improved considerably by winning two sets from Ferrero and a set from Almagro in a weekend when victory lay inevitably beyond their grasp.  Still a fledgling Davis Cup power, they may have started to feel as though they belong.

Team Japan:  Literally overshadowed by their Croatian guests, Nishikori and Go Soeda nevertheless left their compatriots little reason for regret.  Although one expected a somewhat more competitive match between the Japanese #1 and Karlovic in Friday, he redeemed himself with an equally imposing triumph over Dodig on Sunday when the tie hung in the balance.  Unable to threaten Karlovic for more than a set in the decisive match, Soeda galvanized the crowd in the Bourbon Beans Dome by erasing a two-set deficit in the opening rubber.  On the heels of Nishikori’s quarterfinal appearance at the Australian Open, this scintillating Davis Cup tie might enhance the prominence of tennis still further in Japan.

Switzerland's Roger Federer Reacts


Federer:  Winning two total sets in two rubbers, the Swiss #1 lost little time in finding not one but two scapegoats for his embarrassment:  the poorly laid surface (fair) and his teammate Wawrinka (unfair).  So heavily did Federer criticize the latter, someone who didn’t watch the tie might have thought that Wawrinka had slumped to a four-set defeat against Isner while Federer had extended Fish deep into a fifth set.  Despite his surprising listlessness, this defeat will occupy scant space in any survey of the 16-time major champion’s career, but his reaction built upon earlier suggestions (cf. Wimbledon 2010, Roland Garros 2011) that Federer’s sportsmanship correlates directly to his success.

Sharapova:  Spraying more than 30 unforced errors in 20 games, she fell well short of justifying her status as the top seed in a draw of players who almost never had defeated her.  A reminder that no conclusions are foregone, Sharapova’s loss paralleled Federer’s setback in the lack of intensity or purpose shown by their protagonists.  Although Kerber’s ensuing march to the title mitigated the disappointment in retrospect, it still surprised considering her dominance of that opponent in Melbourne.  Perhaps February simply offers a necessary lull for these two champions between the demanding months of January and March.

WTA health:  Just one month and one significant tournament into the season, the casualty list has started to mount.  A few days after Li retired from Paris, Zvonareva retired from Pattaya City.  Before Paris even began, both Lisicki and Jankovic excused themselves with lingering injuries that had nagged them during Fed Cup.  Even with the Premier Five tournament in Doha on the horizon, world #3 Kvitova decided to save her ammunition for grander stages.  To some extent, these injuries stem from the habit (and ability) of the top women to set their own schedules, a trend that no Roadmap can cure.  But it still raises concern to see so many injuries to important figures so early in the season.

Alex Bogomolov:  Having stirred the cauldron of controversy by playing Davis Cup for Russia rather than the United States, Bogomolov did nothing to reward the trust of Tarpischev in his first World Group tie.  This most improbable Russian #1 won one total set in two singles rubbers, including an ignominious thrashing by Melzer in the tie-clincher during which he lost only seven games.  Just as embarrassing, though, was a four-set loss on Friday to the 127th-ranked Haider-Maurer that essentially sealed Russia’s fate.  If Tarpischev has any other weapons at his disposal, the Russian-turned-American-turned-Russian should watch the next tie’s live rubbers from the safety of the bench.


Jo-Wilfried Tsonga - 2011 US Open - Day 8

A point from a deflating defeat against John Isner, Tsonga pummeled a first serve and slashed a cross-court forehand for a clean winner.  That relatively routine point inspired a paroxysm of jubilation from the Frenchman, which electrified the riveted compatriot crowd under the Bercy roof and in turn propelled their home hope towards the decisive tiebreak.  Earlier in the match, though, the 2008 champion failed to retrieve an Isner drop shot and then vaulted across the net to the undisguised delight of the audience and the thinly disguised delight of umpire Mohamed Lahyani.  While Tsonga deployed his energy usefully on the former occasion after winning an important point, he squandered it in needless showmanship on the second occasion after losing an unimportant point.  When he faces a motivated opponent of superior talent in the final, the Frenchman must channel his natural exuberance judiciously.  Following his three-hour semifinal victory, Tsonga may bring fewer reserves of energy than usual into the final, so he can ill afford to waste them.  But he should exploit the advantage provided by the vociferously supportive audience in an arena that magnifies their clamor.  Like Monfils in last year’s final, Tsonga may not have recovered sufficiently to project his full first-strike power or bolt across the court with agility deceptive for his size.

Having defeated Nadal in Madrid and Roddick in New York, Federer will not shrink from the task of defusing the home hope as Isner might have in the semifinal tiebreaks.  Sometimes inspired by the prospect of revenge, he delivered a clinical performance in their US Open quarterfinal after the Frenchman had toppled him twice over the summer.  Especially vexing for the Swiss, no doubt, was Tsonga’s comeback from a two-set deficit in the Wimbledon quarterfinal, a triumph of raw, relentless force over the versatile elegance and grace personified by Federer.  After Djokovic’s notorious return winner at the US Open, the 16-time major champion expressed his contempt for players who unleash high-risk, low-percentage shots at crucial moments.  Far more than the Serb, Tsonga inhabits that league of insouciant showmen whose attitude towards the sport irks Federer by clashing with his outcome-oriented approach to his profession.  Denying rhythm to his opponents, the Frenchman can fling returns and forehands hopelessly about the court before suddenly finding his range and cracking the same strokes off lines and corners.  This unpredictability has proved not only one of his greatest flaws but also one of his greatest weapons, allowing him to ambush opponents without warning.

Slower than the three courts on which they have battled this year, the surface in Paris would seem to undermine the offensively centered styles of both players.  Nevertheless, both of them have exploited their forecourt skills frequently throughout the week.  Since the Frenchman possesses passing shots well below the quality of his other weapons, Federer should adhere to that tactic.  For his part, the Swiss master has lost sting on his own passing shots as his timing has declined with age, so Tsonga also should continue to hurtle forward.  Much like his previous match against Berdych, the final presents Federer with the challenge of exposing his opponent’s indifferent backhand while protecting his own weaker wing.  Passing this test with aplomb on Saturday, he again eyes an opponent whose first-serve percentage may dip from fatigue in the aftermath of a prolonged, draining battle.  When Tsonga has deposed the Swiss before, he has relied upon a nearly unbreakable serve that sets up a meek, mid-court reply.  More spontaneous than sophisticated in shot selection, he has struggled to stay focused in neutral rallies from the baseline.  At his immortal best, by contrast, Federer specializes in maneuvering his opponents into a position from which he can deliver a stylish coup de grace.  For this reason, the length of their exchanges should offer a key to the trajectory of the last Masters 1000 match in 2011.  The Masters 1000 season began with the dominance of Djokovic.  It continued with the mastery of Murray.  Will it end with the resurgence of Federer, or will Tsonga disrupt this orderly narrative?

Roger Federer - Swiss Indoors Basel - Day Seven

Federer vs. Berdych:  Aiming to progress further than ever before in Bercy, Federer could win this title without defeating any of his three major rivals.  Projected to meet Murray in the semifinals, he instead will encounter an opponent who has won three of their last four meetings in a rivalry historically dominated by the Swiss master.  In fact, Berdych probably should have won the fourth meeting in that span (at the 2010 Rogers Cup) before Federer snatched victory from the jaws of defeat much as the Czech had when they met in Miami that spring.  Often unable to showcase his most fearless tennis at prestigious tournaments, Tomas has proved that he can quell his diffidence when he faces Federer on occasions as important as the Olympics and Wimbledon.  Although too sporadic to propel him into true contention with his superiors, that self-belief can surface at unpredictable moments for the 2005 champion.  In his quarterfinal against Murray, one would have expected Berdych to wilt after dropping the first set or after he failed to serve out the second set.  As this battle of attrition lurched into its fourth hour, though, he did not waver in his commitment to an ambitious strategy of attacking the net and the Scot’s serve.  The 192-minute victory may have drained Berdych’s fitness and focus for the semifinal, for rarely do best-of-three matches last so long when won by a player with an affinity for short points.  Likewise preferring efficient tennis, Federer has advanced much less eventfully past three second-tier opponents without dropping a set.  His crisper footwork and overall technique should become even more striking with the Czech’s fatigue, but the player who can scorch his inside-out forehand into his opponent’s backhand on important points should prevail.  Not since 2001 has Federer finished a season without winning either a major or a Masters 1000 tournament, so his recurrent malaise in Bercy may not descend this week.

Tsonga vs. Isner:  While little about the 81-inch giant from Georgia would seem unobtrusive at first glance, he has navigated a pathway to his first Masters 1000 semifinal amidst minimal fanfare.  Only when he ambushed the fourth-seeded Ferrer did Isner capture significant attention, for none of his three previous victories came against a seeded opponent.  Not entirely unexpected because of the surface, that quarterfinal victory over the Spanish veteran defied expectations in one sense:  the American’s superior stinginess from the baseline.  Like most players of his height, Isner generally wields a gawky game as overt and unsophisticated as his outfit this week.  On this occasion, though, he stayed consistent under pressure while committing few of the mental blunders that his inexperience often produces.  From his serve stems his calm, which contrasts with the fireball of athleticism across the net.  Seeking to claim a fourth consecutive French berth in a Paris final, Tsonga thrives upon the enthusiasm of his compatriots and has won three of his seven titles on home soil.  Sometimes lacking in focus, though, he cannot afford a lull against an opponent who holds serve with monotonous ease and maintains leads as well as much more renowned peers.  In their only previous collision, Isner relied upon his own compatriots to edge through a third-set tiebreak, a stage at which his matches often climax.  Few would dispute that Tsonga will offer more scintillating entertainment with his acrobatic arsenal of lunges, leaps, and lashing forehands.  But he would do well to remember the tale of the hare and the tortoise, whose methodical approach Isner resembles.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga - 2011 China Open - Day 7

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

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

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

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

Novak Djokovic - Swiss Indoors Basel - Day Six

First quarter:  Clouding this diverse section is the uncertainty enveloping the world #1, who seems all but certain to withdraw but has not as of Sunday evening.  Should Djokovic find discretion the better part of valor, the two highest-ranked men in the tournament would reside in the same half of the draw.  Conversely, opportunity would knock for 2008 champion Tsonga, who has relished the stage-like setting of this indoor arena as well as its slick surface.  Amidst the second-best season of his career, the Frenchman won the Vienna tournament two weeks ago and has won three of his seven titles on home soil.   Yet this crowd favorite should not overlook the almost equally flamboyant Almagro in the third round.   Although he has won all five of their meetings, the Spanish shot-maker came within a point of ousting Nadal two years ago on this court.  Sandwiched between them is Davydenko, who may no longer deserve a special mention in these previews but historically has feasted on the depleted draws and battered opponents of fall.  Elsewhere, Nishikori may struggle to regroup both physically and mentally from a Shanghai semifinal followed by a Basel final.  Surely hoping for a Djokovic-less draw is his compatriot Troicki, a finalist in Moscow despite an otherwise unremarkable second half.  Only the third-best player in his own country, he has won three of four meetings from Tsonga.

Semifinalist:  Tsonga (whether or not Djokovic plays)

Second quarter:  Likely to compete with his characteristic vigor, the fourth-seeded Ferrer probably will not survive long on a surface antithetical to his strengths.  On the other hand, none of the opponents in the immediate vicinity may muster the determination to dispatch him.  Known for scintillating one-handed backhands, Youzhny and Kohlschreiber will battle for the opportunity to meet Dolgopolov, who has faded from awareness since testing Djokovic at the US Open.  The theatrical atmosphere in Bercy might inspire the charismatic Ukrainian to unleash his fluid, all-court style, while the laboratory-like environment should allow him to perfect his timing.  Weakened by the withdrawal of Del Potro, this quarter still contains two-time finalist Monfils, denied by Djokovic in 2009 and Soderling in 2010.  As enigmatic and engaging as ever, the French #2 recorded one of the most impressive wins of his career on this court when he saved multiple match points to stun Federer in a semifinal, and he collected the Stockholm crown as Tsonga seized Vienna.  Possibly awaiting “La Monf” in the second round is his compatriot and fellow 2010 semifinalist Llodra, who will engage with Lopez in a battle of serve-and-volleying lefties.  Mirroring each other, their vintage styles will contrast with the baseline-bound Monfils or Wawrinka.  Will the more modern game prevail on the surface least designed for it of all Masters 1000 tournaments, or will the fast courts in Paris set the stage for a miniature upset?

Semifinalist:  Monfils

Third quarter:  Having waited ten months from his previous title, Federer earned some desperately needed momentum by capturing his hometown tournament for the fifth time.  A champion only in Doha and Basel this year, he has reached just one total final this year at majors and Masters events as Djokovic’s ascendancy uprooted the ATP hierarchy.  And Federer never has reached the final here, a distinction that Paris shares with no other tournament of its level.  Thwarted by players like Nalbandian and Benneteau in previous appearances, he often has looked drained of motivation and already focused on the year-end championships.  Rome nemesis Gasquet could collide with Federer in the third round, but the former prodigy has specialized in squashing the hopes of his countrymen until reaching the second week of Roland Garros this spring.  Yet another bold-faced French name has ambushed Federer twice on hard courts, including once on an indoor hard court in the fall, and his comeback from a two-set deficit against Roger at the Australian Open clearly discomfited the GOAT.  Not until the quarterfinal would Gilles Simon earn the chance to accomplish a third “accident,” as he self-deprecatingly has termed his upsets over the Swiss.  Still, few opponents in his section impress at first glance, whether the recently injured Fish or the fading Stepanek.  The nemesis of Nadal in Shanghai, Florian Mayer might edge past the American with his underrated serve and penetrating backhand, but few would consider him a threat to Federer.  After a second-half campaign that has revitalized his stagnant career, Donald Young burst through a qualifying draw once more and eyes a winnable encounter with weary Valencia runner-up Monaco.  All of these names, except perhaps Simon, look like subplots if Federer’s form continues to climb as it did from one match to the next in Basel.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Fourth quarter:  Seeking his fourth consecutive title since the US Open, Murray propelled himself to the #3 ranking by demolishing all adversaries throughout the Asian season before a sore backside negated his Basel wildcard.  Unlikely to resist the Scot too fiercely is Valencia champion Granollers, who probably soared into Paris on a wave of elation from that most notable performance of his career. Nor do flammable, fickle second-tier Frenchmen Benneteau and Chardy appear legitimate upset bids.  Since reaching a US Open quarterfinal, Roddick’s form has ranged across the spectrum from the dangerous (third-set tiebreak loss to Ferrer in a Shanghai quarterfinal) to the dismal (opening-round loss to Kevin Anderson in Beijing).  Climaxing with one of the season’s most dazzling winners, his epic triumph over Raonic in the Memphis final might find an encore in his opener here, where their towering serves should produce at least one tiebreak.  Thoroughly stifled by Murray at Queens Club this year, Roddick would have to maintain a superb first-serve percentage to compensate for his inferiority to the Scot in almost all other departments.  A similar task awaits the fifth-seeded Berdych, who has won two of his last three meetings with Murray and should find the surface more suited to his offensive orientation.  But his recurrent bête noire Tipsarevic might lurk in the third round.  The Serb even has enjoyed sporadic success against Murray, while his first career title in Moscow built upon summer breakthroughs in Canada and New York.  In the absence of Djokovic, can one of his compatriots proudly plant his nation’s flag on French soil?

Semifinalist:  Murray

Semifinals:  Tsonga d. Monfils, Federer d. Murray

Final:  Tsonga d. Federer

As the ATP top four cross the English Channel to London, Paris prepares to crown a first-time Masters 1000 champion.  Fittingly, both finalists have showcased the finest tennis of their careers in the French capital, where Soderling has reached two Slam finals at Roland Garros and Monfils his only previous Masters final in Bercy a year ago. Beyond that similarity, Sunday’s contestants share a curious rift between their personality and the playing style; the introverted Swede possesses one of the sport’s most explosive offenses, while the flamboyant Frenchman has crafted one of the sport’s most agile defenses.  Separating the two finalists, however, is their clear classification into the categories borrowed by Isaiah Berlin from an ancient Greek poet.  Whereas foxes develop an array of minor skills, according to Berlin, hedgehogs focus upon developing one crucial skill.  Thus, Gael the Fox relies upon a combination of versatility, finesse, craftiness, and movement, while Robin the Hedgehog eschews variety for the single most important skill in the sport: the ability to project raw, bone-crushing power.  We select five key factors that favor either the fox or the hedgehog.

Recovery from the semifinals: Saving multiple match points before seizing third-set tiebreaks, neither Monfils nor Soderling will arrive at their freshest in the final.  After the most impressive victory of his career, the Frenchman will bring greater emotional momentum to Sunday but may suffer a psychological hangover from the thrill of storming the Bastille.  Having carried him to three consecutive three-set thrillers against top-10 opponents, Gael’s knees may feel ready to rest until Davis Cup.  Overcoming a less imposing opponent, Soderling can suffer sluggish footwork when weary, yet he looks should enjoy deeper energy reserves than his opponent.  He recorded three authoritative straight-sets victories before his semifinal epic, and his first-strike style exerts less physical strain than does the Frenchman’s affinity for elongated rallies. Advantage, Hedgehog.

The magnitude of the moment: Competing in his first Masters 1000 final, Robin struggled in both of his major finals despite excellent tournaments until that stage.  Moreover, the Swede lost two Masters semifinals this year before breaking through on his third attempt, so he may pass through a parallel process before claiming his first Masters shield (a question of when, not if).  Just a tiebreak short of claiming his first shield a year ago, Monfils displayed no debutante nerves but instead soaked up the atmosphere with his characteristic insouciance.  Improbably returning to the identical position a year later, he should gain confidence from his near-victory last year as well as his recent title in Montpellier.  Those memories should allow him to retain a positive attitude more easily than Soderling when adversity looms.  Advantage, Fox.

The French crowd: Although he flopped spectacularly at Roland Garros this year, Monfils does not crumble under the gaze of his compatriots as do many of his peers.  A former semifinalist in his country’s major, the two-time Bercy finalist also has acquitted himself creditably in national team competition, even conquering Davis Cup superstar Nalbandian.  The beloved, mercurial “La Monf” also possesses a game seemingly designed to electrify a crowd; blessed with outstanding athleticism, he routinely lunges, leaps, darts, and sprawls at both significant and insignificant moments.  Notorious for his simmering temper, by contrast, the moody Swede has mastered his emotions more effectively than in the past, yet he will find few friendly faces among the Bercy multitudes.  On the other hand, he experienced the same sensation against both Simon and Llodra before dispatching those Frenchmen, so his earlier rounds may shield him from the whirlpool of impassioned nationalism swirling around him.  And home-court advantage has not proved a critical factor in Masters finals over the past two years, when local heroes in fact have endured a losing record in these situations.   Advantage, Fox.

Their (recent) past: Unnoticed by all but the most dedicated fans, the Valencia event last week provided an inadvertent preview of the clash between the fox and the hedgehog.  On that occasion, the hedgehog remorselessly thumped the fox with the loss of just five games.  Although the surface in that Spanish tournament proved much slower than the slick courts in Bercy, one would imagine that the faster surface would augment Soderling’s hopes even further.  Note one caveat, however:  Monfils can expose the Swede’s indifferent footwork and movement more easily on a faster surface if he can prolong the rallies past the first few shots.  But that “if” is massive, and both players surely will remember the events of last week regardless of the contrast in surface.  Advantage, Hedgehog.

Who needs it more: After a somewhat stagnant second half, Soderling would relish the opportunity to assert himself just before the year-end championships, where he charged within a few points of the final last year.  Such a statement of intent also would lift him past Murray into the top four and potentially improve his draw both in London and in Australia.  For Monfils, though, this tournament represents a platform upon which to catapult into Davis Cup glory in December.  Moreover, the Paris title would legitimize his elite status and quell the detractors who label him a shiftless, incorrigible underachiever.  If this magnificent entertainer can buttress his style upon a base as substantive as a Masters shield, he would gain the respect that his athletic gifts deserve.  Deuce.


After the final Masters 1000 match of the season, we shift to a player profile on a newly initiated member of the ATP’s fatherhood fraternity, who shares a passport with Monfils.

Gilles Simon famous French tennis player



Hunting a third consecutive title this week, Federer has pounded aces, slashed volleys, and glided with leonine majesty across the Bercy court.  The top seed has faced break points during just one of his thirty service games, typically cruising through them in two or three minutes.  In his fourth straight week of action, he has shown few signs of either physical or mental fatigue but instead has displayed an urgency absent from his previous fall campaigns.   Considering the slick surface and his glittering performances this week, one easily forgets that Federer had not reached even a semifinal at the Paris Indoors before this year; in fact, it remains the only Masters event where he has not contested a championship match.  Between the Swiss legend and a Nadal-tying 18th shield lie three opponents who have toppled him exactly once in 21 attempts and never on a hard court.  Spared from facing Masters 1000 nemesis Murray, Federer confronts the far less troubling challenge of cooling a feverish French crowd in his semifinal meeting with Monfils.  Although they haven’t met on a hard court since early 2008, the world #2 has won twelve of thirteen total sets from a player whose showmanship he seems to disdain.  An emblem of the sport’s elite dimension, Federer frowns upon the idiosyncratic albeit entertaining antics of his Saturday opponent.  This dissonance in their styles and personalities should lend intrigue to an encounter that theoretically should produce scant suspense.

A finalist here last year, Monfils came within a tiebreak of claiming his first Masters shield before his frenzied fans.  Watching him maneuver past Murray, we reflected that the exceptionally fast court speed may benefit this feline counterpuncher by forcing him to play shorter, more aggressive points.  Armed with ample offensive weapons, Monfils usually rallies purposelessly from the baseline rather than unleashing them.  In his quarterfinal, however, he rarely failed to exploit an opening and approached the net with confidence.  After his concentration predictably dipped in the second set, he recovered impressively to snatch away the initiative from his higher-ranked opponent.  And his drum-beating, flag-waving compatriots refused to let him surrender when he tottered towards near-certain defeat against Verdasco.  Nevertheless, home-court advantage could not rescue Monfils during his three previous clashes with the world #2.  While all of those matches unfolded on clay rather than the Frenchman’s favored hard courts, Roger also prefers the asphalt of Bercy to the dirt of Roland Garros.  Last year here, however, the much less dangerous Benneteau built a spectacular upset over Federer upon inspired shot-making and relentless fan support.  Not traveling to London for the year-end championships, Gael still targets a meaningful objective in 2010:  the Davis Cup final.  The leading singles member on the French team, he could bring substantial momentum to Belgrade if his week rises from memorable to magical.

Michael Llodra Michael Llodra of France (L) and Robin Soderling of Sweden (R) pose with their trophies after the singles final of the ATP 35th ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament at the Ahoy Centre Rotterdam on February 24, 2008 in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

Stunning two former champions this week, Llodra has proudly hoisted the banner of serve-and-volley tennis on the hard court best suited to this style.  The Eastbourne champion leaped and lunged through tense first sets against both Djokovic and Davydenko before those prestigious foes folded swiftly in the second set.  Although Llodra’s style requires precision and intense focus for extended periods, it demands a similar investment from his opponents, who must connect with low, pinpoint returns and capitalize upon the rare opportunities that emerge.  Will Soderling prove equal to that task?  Seeking his first career Masters final, the moody Swede still oscillates between overwhelming and underwhelming in the same tournament.  The French crowd could not salvage more than four games for Simon against Soderling, however, nor could Roddick repeat his two victories over the world #5 earlier this year.   After a modest fall season, he should have accumulated precious confidence from those wins as London looms.   But an unexpected loss to Llodra could reverse this encouraging surge, so Soderling can’t afford to let fantasies of Federer invade his mind.  He has fallen twice to the Frenchman on indoor hard courts, including a quarterfinal this year in Marseille.  Since they have played three tiebreaks in five total sets, one suspects that this encounter might be decided in a few fleeting moments, such as a net-skimming return or bold second serve.  In the Swede’s two previous Masters semifinals, he fell far short of his brutal best and contributed to his own demise with unsightly errors.  A far more complete player than Llodra, he probably will atone for those earlier disappointments—but not before French hearts flutter with ephemeral hope.


We return tomorrow to preview the final Masters 1000 match of 2010!


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

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

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

Semifinalist:  Federer

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

Semifinalist:  Murray

Transmission reference: XAW107

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

Semifinalist:  Roddick

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

Semifinalist:  Djokovic


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


Transmission reference: BAS101

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