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Samantha Stosur - 2010 French Open - Day Fourteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal (Spain) beats Robin Soderling (Sweden) to win the French Open 2010. The trophy was presented to him by former Roland-Garros champ Nicola Pietrangeli and Jean Gachassin, President of the French Tennis Federation. French Open 2010, Internationaux de France de tennis 2010, held at Roland-Garros in Paris.

First quarter:  Handed a disorienting opener against Isner, Nadal should tower over the towering but clay-averse American while acquiring valuable confidence for the challenges ahead.  Among the talented rivals that riddle this quarter is former Roland Garros semifinalist and potential third-round opponent Davydenko, who has won his last four meetings with Nadal.  Nevertheless, the Russian’s precipitous decline following a wrist injury suggests a match of scintillating rallies but little suspense.  Mired in a less explicable slump, Verdasco has endured a fruitless clay season as his ranking has sagged below the top 15.  If the second-ranked Spanish lefty survives a grinding opener against Monaco, however, his draw could grant him smooth passage into the second week and another doomed battle with his compatriot.  At the base of this section lurks the ATP king-maker, who transferred the Roland Garros crown from Nadal to Federer in 2009 and back to Nadal in 2010.  Dormant since March, Soderling rumbled into relevance with a Rome quarterfinal and can settle into the tournament without facing extreme pressure during the first week.  Although Simon’s lithe movement might unsettle him, only an especially inspired effort from the Frenchman could weather the Swede’s punishing assault.  Having split memorable Roland Garros clashes in the last two years, Rafa and Robin will collide earlier than either would wish.  History always will infuse these meetings with intrigue, but Nadal regained control over their rivalry last year and has solved Soderling (not without difficulty) when healthy.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter:  In 2011, every significant ATP draw has included a quarter open for opportunists and arrivistes.  To be sure, Murray justified his top-four seeding in both Monte Carlo and Rome, where he came closer than anyone this season to snapping The Streak.  The Scot does not intimidate opponents on this surface to the extent that Nadal, Djokovic, or Federer do, though, so a dark horse like flamboyant fourth-round opponent Dolgopolov could wreak havoc.  A quarterfinalist in Melbourne, the 21st seed ambushed Soderling and Tsonga there before falling to Murray; moreover, he demonstrated budding clay-court skills with a final in Brazil and a win over Ferrer.  Perhaps still demoralized from his epic Rome defeat, the Scot might spend this tournament restoring his psyche, although he has shown marked improvement in his clay movement and point construction.  Unlikely to repeat his 2010 semifinal, an injured Melzer has accomplished little on clay this year following a Monte Carlo upset over Federer.  A more imposing threat to Murray or Dolgopolov in the quarterfinals springs from Nice finalist Almagro, who has won two clay titles this season while losing only one clay match to a player outside the top 8.  Recently reaching the top 10 for the first time, Almagro thrust Nadal into two tiebreaks during a compelling quarterfinal here a year ago and has greater ability to hit through the slow courts than most players in this section.

Semifinalist:  Almagro

Third quarter:  Weeks after surviving a match point against Lopez in Madrid, Federer surely did not thank Ivanovic for assigning him an encore with his Spanish near-nemesis.  Once past that initial obstacle, however, the 2010 champion’s route grows more tranquil with the stagnating Tsonga perhaps waiting in the fourth round.  Or perhaps Federer will enjoy a relaxing afternoon with Wawrinka at that stage, having dominated his compatriot and doubles partner on all occasions but one.  In theory, a quarterfinal with Ferrer should prove scarcely more intimidating, considering the Swiss legend’s 11-0 record against the Spaniard (5-0 on clay).  In reality, Ferrer could profit from Federer’s increasingly erratic form to detain him for longer than usual.  An early loser to Melzer last year, the world #7 has reached the second week at Roland Garros in only one of his last five appearances.  Regularly carving deep into most clay draws, Ferrer’s futility at the clay major may arise from his hectic schedule and exhausting playing style in previous weeks.  A Nice loss to Dolgopolov hinted at accumulating weariness that might leave him vulnerable to a shot-maker like Monfils.  Surely eager to atone for an opening-round collapse last year, Gael has earned surprising success at his home major before.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates match point during the final against Rafael Nadal of Spain during day eight of the Internazoinali BNL D'Italia at the Foro Italico Tennis Centre on May 15, 2011 in Rome, Italy.

Fourth quarter:  As befits the colossus looming above the ATP, Djokovic has received the most formidable early draw.  Although he has won all seven of the sets that he played against Del Potro, the Serb could find him an arduous third-round challenge permitting him little time for settling into the fortnight.  But the Argentine first must conquer the elephantine serve of Karlovic and the unpredictable Gulbis as he rebounds from a leg injury.  Elsewhere in this section stands the resurgent Gasquet, who came within a few games of upsetting Murray in the first round last year and will have gained momentum from upsetting Federer in Rome.  The Frenchman has disappointed his compatriots in major after major, though, and his fitness remains questionable in a best-of-five encounter with an athlete of Djokovic’s caliber.  Instead, the second seed might face Madrid semifinalist Bellucci, a dangerous lefty who tested Nadal here before and led the Serb by a set and a break in Madrid before faltering.  The section’s upper half pits 2010 semifinalist Berdych against several players least comfortable on clay, such as Cilic and Youzhny.  Possibly threatened by Fognini in the second round, the Czech should experience scant difficulty en route to a quarterfinal with the player who defeated him in the same round at the Australian Open.  Since Berdych smothered Djokovic in a Wimbledon semifinal last year, their paths have veered in opposite directions.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

***

Final:  Nadal vs. Djokovic

Champion:  Novak Djokovic

Francesca Schiavone wins the 2010 French Open at Roland Garros tennis stadium.

First quarter:  Fresh (or not) from a strong week in Brussels, Wozniacki arrives in Paris after a peripatetic, slightly disappointing clay campaign.  Like Nadal, she must navigate through a curious opener against Kimiko Date-Krumm, no longer a serious threat despite winning a set from the Dane before.  Not until the fourth round will Wozniacki meet an opponent worthy of her steel, for the fragile Hantuchova should not trouble the resilient Dane.  If she can evade Rybarikova in the first round, 2009 champion Kuznetsova could reverse the trajectory of a season that began promisingly in Melbourne and Dubai but has derailed spectacularly since then.  Although the Russian mustered little resistance to Wozniacki in the Dubai final, Kuznetsova has both the offense and the court coverage to challenge her on those increasingly rare days when she performs at her potential.  Equally intriguing is the projected fourth-round collision between Stosur and Goerges, who overcame the Aussie in a tense Stuttgart semifinal.  Before that rematch, the 2010 finalist must recover quickly from her illness against the inflammable Benesova, architect of a Melbourne second-week run.   Nor should one underestimate another Czech lefty as an early test for Goerges, since Safarova upset Jankovic in Madrid and adapts her elongated swings effectively to the slower surface.  Both Goerges and Stosur have scored recent success against Wozniacki, so the top seed should find her accumulating clay skills severely tested in a quarterfinal.  More accomplished at significant tournaments than either of those potential rivals, she also faces greater pressure as the still Slamless #1.

Semifinalist:  Stosur

Second quarter:  Resembling the second quarter of the men’s draw, this softest section hosts several fading veterans and a pair of perpetually rising, never quite risen Russians.  Aligned to meet in the third round, Kleybanova and Pavlyuchenkova spearhead the next generation of their nation’s stars and have inherited the familiarly ball-bruising baseline style of their compatriots.  While neither delivers her best tennis on clay, each has the ability to hit through the slow courts as well as the competitive resilience to stun a contender.  Few are the true contenders in this quarter, moreover, for defending champion Schiavone has followed her historic Australian Open with a series of uninspired performances.  Surprise champions rarely repeat their feats, more often losing early to steady opponents like potential third-round foe Peng Shuai.  Defeated by Peng in Brussels, Zvonareva has shown little appetite for clay wars of attrition and may prefer to conserve her energies for defending her Wimbledon final.  Once an all-surface threat to the WTA elite, Pennetta has won only one match since Indian Wells and could face Rome conqueror Mattek-Sands in the second round.  From this seething chaos nevertheless will emerge a semifinalist, and who better to exploit the void than three-time Roland Garros semifinalist Jankovic?  Although the Serb has sunk to the fringes of the top 10, she has acquired a reputation for seizing opportunities that present themselves.  A generally unremarkable clay season did include a closely contested Rome quarterfinal with Wozniacki, and at any rate nobody else in this section can claim more momentum than the Serb.

Semifinalist:  Jankovic

Third quarter:  Since February, exactly one player has converted a match point against Azarenka as the fourth seed has alternated titles with retirements.  This pattern suggests that physical issues may pose her greatest challenge this fortnight, but Madrid nemesis Kvitova or Melbourne nemesis Li could await in the quarterfinals.  If her elbow injury does not trouble her, Azarenka should ease through a comfortable section of the draw largely bereft of players who can match her firepower or willpower.  The only exception in that group, 2008 champion Ivanovic defeated Vika twice last year after losing their Roland Garros meeting two years ago.  Hampered by abdominal and wrist injuries, the Serb has played only five clay matches before Paris and could encounter the unnerving test of Australian Open conqueror Makarova in the second round.  Attempting to rekindle the flames of Madrid, Kvitova confronts the third-round obstacle of Cibulkova, her sternest test en route to that title and a former semifinalist in Paris.  The Slovak’s relentless retrieving will harden the Czech’s resolve and focus should she survive their meeting, however, and prepare her to reprise her Madrid victory over Li.  Can she follow that script to another win over Azarenka?  On a much slower surface, Vika’s superior movement should allow her to reverse the earlier narrative.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Maria Sharapova - The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2011 - Day Eight

Fourth quarter:  Here roars the Siberian lioness, as confident as ever in her comeback following an unexpected title in Rome and an equally startling victory over Wozniacki.  Situated in a tranquil corner of the draw, Sharapova might find a compelling test of her consistency against indefatigable roadrunner Zakopalova in the third round.  The 31st seed once won a set from Serena here and should prepare Maria for more challenging encounters against players with similar movement but more dangerous offense.  Perhaps endangered earlier by Wickmayer, Radwanska could attempt to block Sharapova’s passage  as she did at the 2007 US Open.  Although the Russian has not lost to the Pole since that notorious meeting, their matches sometimes have grown tense as a result of the latter’s crisp instincts and keen intelligence.  The victor of this battle between the hedgehog and the fox might face two-time finalist Clijsters—but just as plausibly might not.  Halfway to a Kimpressive Slam that would rival the Serena Slam, the Belgian has not won a match on clay in five years and has not recovered entirely from injuries to three different joints.  Most concerning of those injuries is her ankle, which could undermine her movement and leave her vulnerable to a strutting shotmaker like fourth-round opponent Petkovic.  After an encouraging week in Strasbourg, the charismatic German will open against the blossoming Jovanovski and later might face Gajdosova-turned-Groth-turned-Gajdosova, a talent who can unsettle anyone when at her best.  A quarterfinalist at the Australian Open, Petkovic could face Sharapova for the second straight major and the third time this year, allowing us to discover whether Paris has more in common with Melbourne or Miami.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

***

Final:  Stosur vs. Azarenka

Champion:  Victoria Azarenka


 

Milos Raonic Milos Raonic of Canada celebrates match point in his third round match against Mikhail Youzhny of Russia during day six of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 22, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

No Melbourne mirage (Paris, San Jose):  Hard on the heels of his second-week appearance at the Australian Open, Milos Raonic took a crucial first step towards justifying the attention with a debut title in San Jose.  The stocky Montenegrin-turned-Canadian comfortably overcame the waning Blake and the waxing Berankis with serve-forehand combinations that rarely faltered despite his inexperience.  Confronting defending champion Verdasco in the final, Raonic revealed a precocious poise under pressure as impressive as his veering kick serves.  Undeterred by the Spaniard’s impenetrability on serve, San Jose’s new titlist preserved his focus through a complicated service game late in each set that likely would have spelled the difference between victory and defeat.  Moreover, the Canadian refused to relinquish the first-set tiebreak after Verdasco held four successive set points, a squandered advantage that haunted his higher-ranked foe thereafter.  While one cannot project Raonic’s future too closely at this stage, we noticed that he can stay in a rally longer than most powerful, slow-footed servers, while he generally finished points with ease once he gained the initiative.  Those traits suggest that this confident but not cocky newcomer should launch himself towards achievements from which both of his nations can take pride.

Both confident and cocky, Petra Kvitova rivaled Raonic for the upset of the weekend by defeating Clijsters in a startlingly comfortable final.  Announcing herself with a Wimbledon semifinal appearance in 2010, the 20-year-old Czech confirmed that breakthrough after an arid second half with a quarterfinal in Melbourne and now perhaps her most impressive accomplishment thus far.  Able to create angles and spins rare in a righty-dominated WTA, Kvitova saved match points against compatriot Zahlavova Strycova in the second round before surviving another third-set tiebreak against Wickmayer in the quarterfinals.  Then, she dropped just nine total games in the semifinal and final; the Czech thus can win both with and without drama, a useful trait to develop.  While we cannot quite warm to her harsh on-court mannerisms, we appreciate her ability to harness the wayward focus and unruly temper with which she struggled earlier in her career.  Like Zvonareva, Kvitova proved that mental flakiness does not always become a terminal disease.  (On the other hand, see below.)

Not again, Andy? (Rotterdam):  A tournament removed from a perplexing performance in the Australian Open final, Murray revived the specter of his 2010 post-Melbourne slump.  Likewise disconsolate after a straight-sets loss in last year’s final, the Scot proceeded to sag through the next five months with no semifinals and a handful of embarrassing opening-round losses.  Initially envisioning a respite from the battle, the two-time Australian Open runner-up may wish that he had followed his first impulses rather than moping through a first-round defeat against Baghdatis in Rotterdam.  Perhaps Murray aimed to reclaim a top-four seed before the marquee North American tournaments, but he succeeded only in echoing his 2010 malaise by dropping more than half of his service games for the second consecutive match.  By contrast, his replacement at #4 emulated Kvitova by winning his second title of the season after saving match point in an early round.  Steadily improving a once-ghastly finals record, Soderling coolly parried the thunderbolts that an inspired Tsonga flung at him.  From their respective performances, one might have thought that the Swede had reached the final in Melbourne, while Murray had lost to the unheralded Dolgopolov in the fourth round.

A man for all surfaces (Costa do Sauipe):  Less unheralded following a quarterfinal appearance at the Australian Open, Dolgopolov joined Raonic as the second first-time finalist of the weekend.  Winning greater acclaim for offense than defense in Melbourne, the Ukrainian showcased his overlooked movement in a victory over the clay-loving Starace.  Unable to duplicate Raonic’s feat when he faced Almagro in the final, Dolgopolov nevertheless competed with creditable vigor against an opponent with far greater accomplishments on this surface, including a title here three years ago.  Although hard courts have become the dominant currency of the ATP, such versatility can only accelerate the evolution of his still raw game.  Mercurial shotmakers like Dolgopolov can learn the more nuanced skills of point construction on clay, which tests their fitness as well as their patience and thus offers a foundation for building maturity.

Ana Ivanovic Ana Ivanovic of Serbia reacts after losing a point in her first round match against Ekaterina Makarova of Russia during day two of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 18, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Thaid up in knots (Pattaya City):  Divergent from the soothing surroundings of this resort was the notably nervy tennis that unfolded there, infecting one star after another.  First to fall, the glamorous Kirilenko let triple match point vanish against a qualifier and then watched a third-set lead evaporate with a dismay that may have contributed to her opening loss in Dubai.  Just hours afterwards, Ivanovic tottered within a game of defeat when she confronted Craybas, who seemed to have receded into the mists of tennis history long ago.  Tiptoeing through that quagmire, the Serb surrendered meekly a round later to the guile of Roberta Vinci.  When an opportunity to reach the final beckoned, however, the Italian modulated from fearless to feckless herself.  But the most prominent downfall of all occurred atop the draw when two-time defending champion Zvonareva wobbled through a perilous three-setter against Peng only to unravel in familiar fashion against Hantuchova.  Failing to serve out the first set, the Russian soon soaked herself in a monsoon of exasperated disbelief at the Slovak’s precisely placed groundstrokes.  (One seriously questions her ability to win a major if the prospect of capturing a third straight title in Thailand unnerved her so strikingly.)  Ironically, a competitor notorious for emotional frailty surmounted the turmoil around her to collect her first title since 2007 and just the fourth of her career.  Can Hantuchova muster one more implausible surge at Indian Wells, the scene of her finest achievements?

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

 

 

 

Often compared to a butterfly-bee hybrid a la Muhammad Ali, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga reminds us of an electrifying fusion between thunder and lightning.  While his percussive groundstrokes crash through the court like thunder, he flashes around the court with the dizzying speed and brilliance of lightning flashes.  The French translation for “inclement weather” forms the subject of our fourth player profile, which will break down five achievements, five disappointments, three strengths, and three weaknesses,  much as have our earlier articles on Radwanska, Li, and Youzhny.  Happy reading!  🙂

Best of Five:  Achievements:

5)  2010 Australian Open:  Rebounding from a wrist injury and experimenting with a new racket, Tsonga didn’t dominate in Melbourne as he had two years earlier, but he displayed impressive willpower in a pair of five-set wins over challenging opponents.  Before his fourth-round clash with Nicolas Almagro, he had never played a five-set match in his career, and one might not have expected his draining game to adapt well to such marathons.  On the contrary, Tsonga not only dispatched Almagro with thrilling tennis late in the final set but returned a round later to win another epic over Djokovic by steadfastly wearing down the Serb until his fragile fitness crumbled.  In the wake of those exhausting victories, his lopsided loss to Federer represented neither a surprise nor an embarrassment for the Frenchman.

4) 2008 Bangkok:  His first career title, the Thailand tournament started inauspiciously with a nail-biting win over Lukas Dlouhy.  Gradually playing himself into the tournament, however, Tsonga ultimately crushed his compatriot Monfils in the semifinals (never underestimate the emotional significance of a victory over a top compatriot) and defeated Djokovic in a competitive but not overly tense final.  Less than a year after his loss to the Serb in the Melbourne championship match, this win signaled a momentum shift in their head-to-head, which has swung distinctly in the Frenchman’s favor.  Halting several months of injury-hampered and erratic play, his achievements here illustrated his recovery from summer knee surgery and set the stage for #2 on our list.

3)  2009 Rogers Cup:  We’re thrilled to say that we witnessed this highlight in person, both the systematic third-round demolition of Simon and the quarterfinal comeback against Federer.  Another win over a fellow Frenchman, the Simon match showcased Tsonga’s ability to slash through even the most obdurate defensive armor with his explosive offense.  Even more impressive, the Federer upset revealed his capacity to rally from a seemingly terminal deficit (1-5 in the third set against the world #1) with a combination of intelligent point construction and electric shotmaking.  Certainly, Federer allowed Tsonga to regain his footing with passive, error-strewn play, but Jo-Wilfried deserves substantial credit for staying positive and focused in adversity.  He remains the only player other than Nadal on clay to erase a 1-5 deficit against the 16-time Slam champion.

2)  2008 Paris Masters:  Soaking up the home pressure admirably, Tsonga won his first and so far only Masters shield at this fall indoor event, where he endured three three-setters against dangerous foes.  Overcoming Djokovic again in the third round, the Frenchman found himself embroiled in a razor-sharp serving duel with Roddick; despite losing the first set, he found a way to break the American’s delivery before squeaking through a suspenseful third-set tiebreak.  Although one might think him a little weary after this delicious affair, he retained sufficient energy to prevail over David Nalbandian in a high-quality final.  Serving for the title at 5-4 in the third set, disaster loomed when he lost the first three points.  Unruffled by the triple break point threat, Tsonga connected with five crushing serves in a row to close out the formidable Argentine and secure a last-minute slot in the year-end championship.  For once, the French crowd’s rabid support of “les bleus” seemed justified. 

1)  2008 Australian Open:  Ousting a flustered Murray in the opening round, Tsonga capitalized upon the momentum surge of that upset to rumble past a series of equally imposing opponents.  Much more imposing then than he is now, Gasquet succumbed to Jo-Wilfried’s barrage in a scintillating four-setter before the streaking Youzhny’s challenge subsided in straight sets.  Yet the climax of Tsonga’s spectacular run was still to come:  a breathtaking demolition of world #2 Rafael Nadal in the semifinals, which represented the most lopsided loss of the Spaniard’s Slam career to that date.  Clubbing serves and forehands while angling off feathery volleys, the Frenchman remained relentless from the first point to the last.  His game predictably came back to earth in a final against Djokovic, but not before he had dismayed the Serb by capturing the first set (and the hearts of the Melbourne fans).

Worst of Five:  Disappointments:

5)  2009 Cincinnati:  Just days after his memorable win over Federer, Tsonga suffered a startling loss to the Australian journeyman Chris Guccione in the opening round of this pre-US Open Masters Series.  Losing the first set in a tense tiebreak, he mustered little resistance or effort in the second set.  This dispirited performance hinted at his struggle to maintain momentum from one week to the next over the course of the ATP’s grueling calendar; his physically exhausting style of quick-strike tennis renders him less durable than many of his peers.  Furthermoe, observers questioned his competitive willpower when confronting adversity, a trait essential to establish oneself among the game’s elite.

4)  2009 Indian Wells / Miami:  Following two titles the previous month in South Africa and Marseille, Tsonga surely expected more from himself than a premature loss to Andreev in the California desert and a listless defeat in Miami against Djokovic, whom he had defeated in their previous four clashes.  Perhaps his Davis Cup exertions the previous weekend in Europe took a toll, but these two matches still raised eyebrows among those (including us) who expected him to excel at top events in the wake of a sterling 2008. 

3)  2009 Australian Open:  A year removed from his thrilling charge to the Melbourne final, Tsonga fell well short of his own lofty standards during a four-set quarterfinal loss to Verdasco just two days after a dominant performance against Blake.  Although the Spaniard enjoyed the best tournament of his career that fortnight, the Frenchman visibly faded after the first two sets, inciting observers to question both his physical fitness and his mental focus.  Like many of his compatriots, said some commentators, Tsonga preferred style over substance and strove to entertain the audience rather than simply win matches as efficiently as possible.  Dramatic but inefficient, two early-round matches against Ljubicic and Sela may have siphoned away the energy that he would have needed to defuse the smoldering Verdasco.

2)  2009 Wimbledon:  We expected that Tsonga’s blistering serves and deft volleys would allow him to enjoy an extended sojourn at Wimbledon, where the grass rewards players who move forward to finish points.  Falling to Ivo Karlovic in a fourth-set tiebreak before the middle weekend, the Frenchman lacked the composure to cope with the Croat’s idiosyncratic style, which consistently troubles top-10 stars.  Rather than seizing his opportunities to exploit Karlovic’s second serve during the inevitable tiebreaks, Tsonga donated unfocused, half-hearted returns that telegraphed his frustration while lifting pressure from his opponent.

1)  2008 Indian Wells:  A nerve-jangling, three-set epic against Nadal might not appear a major disappointment at first glance.  Still, Tsonga held a one-set lead and eventually a 5-2 lead in the final set before dropping the last five games to the Spaniard.  In addition to wasting this opportunity to score another eye-catching win, he surrended the momentum in his mini-rivalry with Rafa, who predictably has consolidated his edge since that afternoon.  The stark contrast with his overwhelming victory over Nadal in the Australian Open semifinal just a few months before this match suggested that Tsonga may be a player who achieves spectacular but sporadic success but lacks the consistency to capitalize on those accomplishments.

Best of Three:  Strengths:

1)  Serve-forehand combination:  Probably the most rhythmic element of Tsonga’s game, his service motion rarely deserts him at critical stages in a match.  As a result, his first-serve percentage often has been startlingly high (75-80% or better) for entire matches against top competition, despite the prodigious power with which he strikes the shot.  When the Frenchman is serving at such levels, few foes can string together points on his service games but must instead channel their energies towards the essential task of holding their own serve.  Should the ball float back towards Tsonga, moreover, his bone-crushing forehand swiftly dispatches it towards a line or corner.  Although he can hit this shot cross-court, down-the-line, inside-out, or inside-in, the direction often doesn’t matter greatly because the sheer weight of the ball drives it past his flustered opponent or puts him in a hopelessly defensive position.  Since merely punching the ball back into play usually doesn’t suffice, therefore, the opponent confronts the challenge of striking it cleanly in order to pre-empt the inevitable forehand missile.  When Tsonga’s game is clicking on a fast surface, only the most adept returners can solve that conundrum.

2)  Net play:  Despite his football-like physique, Tsonga displays the grace of a dancer during his forays to the net, where he angles delicate volleys towards the sidelines and creates imaginative drop shots.  Defying even Nadal’s lithe movement, the latter weapons left the Spaniard frozen at the baseline or hopelessly mired in mid-court during their Australian Open meeting.  Combined with an automatic, Sampras-esque overhead, these volleys provide Tsonga with yet another way to finish points quickly without permitting his adversary to settle into a rhythm.  Occasionally serving and volleying in a vintage tactic, the sight of his massive frame hurtling forwards with unbridled aggression has unnerved opponents into routine errors.  In an era saturated with baseline bashers, this staccato play (if properly executed) can produce manifold rewards, especially against the less experienced and the easily intimidated.

3)  Athleticism:  Leaping, lunging, dashing, and diving, Tsonga ranks among the most natural athletes in tennis and probably could have excelled in almost any sport.  Few players can levitate to smash an overhead, then sprawl across the court to stab a volley…and win the point.  At 6-5 in the first-set tiebreak against Federer at the Rogers Cup, Tsonga thundered into the net behind a massive serve and dispatched a commanding overhead.  Since Federer is Federer, the ball found its way back over the net and in a highly awkward position that would have stymied most average net rushers.  Crashing onto the court with the full weight of his body, however, Tsonga barely flicked the volley over the net with the edge of his racket.  Visibly disconcerted by this display, the rarely ruffled Swiss legend slashed a backhand pass into the net and trudged to his chair, surely still struggling to grasp what had happened.  In addition to winning points for Tsonga, such moments can leave a lingering psychological impact upon his opponents, causing them to play tentatively and nervously as though bracing themselves for the unthinkable.

Worst of Three:  Weaknesses:

1)  Backhand:  Typically a neutral shot with little purpose, Tsonga’s two-hander possesses none of his forehand’s intensity and frequently is shielded by the Frenchman by running around it.  The backhand is a valuable meter of his confidence, for he’ll guide passive slices towards the middle of the court when he’s nervous or unfocused while swinging through it forcefully only at his motivated best.  Players with superior backhands like Murray, Del Potro, or Soderling can expose this side in crosscourt rallies that push him progressively further into his backhand corner.  When he confronts opponents who can hit winners off both groundstrokes, Tsonga’s asymmetry becomes a liability and sometimes forces him into overly aggressive forehands as he seeks to protect his lopsided court positioning.  The additional movement and footwork involved in regularly running around his backhand, even on hard courts, combine with his already exhausting style to drain energy and render him susceptible to injury.

2)  Return of serve:  As Federer once said of Tsonga, he can wander through games at a time without making a return before suddenly raining a series of savage blows.  Perhaps more demanding of a player’s focus than any other shot, the return has exposed Tsonga’s struggles to maintain his concentration throughout the match.  Rarely do Djokovic’s infinite ball bounces reap greater rewards than when he plays the Frenchman, whose mind has long since drifted four bounces before the serve.  On the physical level, Tsonga’s generally less-than-crisp footwork looks especially unsightly on the return, for which he relies heavily upon his arm to steer the ball.   Beyond subjecting the shoulder and elbow joints to unnecessary stress, stiff, exaggerated arm motions permit less control on the return than does a balanced, firmly grounded stance. 

3)  Shot selection / point construction:  We’re not sure how to translate “point construction” into French, but neither is Tsonga if one can judge from his impetuous, instinctive style.  Rather than engaging in the chess matches crafted by the subject of our third profile, Mikhail Youzhny, the Frenchman invariably lets fly with a forehand at the earliest opportunity when in an aggressive mood; when in a passive mood, he merely pokes the ball lethargically and aimlessly around the court until he misses or his opponent takes a risk.  This quick-strike brand of tennis results in barrages of flamboyant, inspiring winners if his artillery is striking its targets with precision.  When his radar is a shade or two off, however, his reluctance (or inability) to modulate his aggression impedes his efforts to readjust his range and rediscover his rhythm.  Embedded deep in Tsonga’s character, a contempt for compromise has defined both his most stunning and his most hideous performances.

Recap:   In order to establish himself as a perennial threat at all grass and hard-court tournaments, Tsonga must find a way to reduce his extended injury absences, which have hampered his efforts to consolidate momentum and climb upwards through the rankings.  Nevertheless, his serve-based, quick-strike style generally ages as well as a French wine, for players such as Sampras and Roddick have remained dangerous deep into their 20s.  If he can learn to problem-solve more effectively on court, he’ll suffer fewer of the bizarre clunkers that have punctuated his rollercoaster career.  When he’s in the mood, the sky is the limit for his accomplishments.  The challenge that he and his coach, Eric Winogradsky, must confront is to turn that mood into a permanent state of being.  We’d give him probably a little less than a 50% chance at winning a Slam, but he might well capture trophies at the most significant best-of-three tournaments, such as the North American Masters events.

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We hope that you enjoyed this fourth profile in our series on players who cross and recross the boundary between contender and pretender.  Any ideas for a fifth topic?  🙂  There should be time for us to explore someone new during the week of Strasbourg and Warsaw.  Meanwhile, we’ll be returning tomorrow with a preview of the WTA Rome quarterfinals.  Keep those ajdes flowing!  😉