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Lisicki vs. Bartoli:  Rarely has a beneficiary of a Slam wildcard seized the opportunity with both hands as has Lisicki, who has arrived at her second Wimbledon quarterfinal in three years.  Frequently hammering serves above 120 mph, the former Bolletieri pupil saved two match points in the second round against Li with her signature shot before riding it to two ensuing victories.  Lisicki crunches her groundstrokes with only somewhat less velocity, sparing little time for slices or drop shots.  While her lack of variety may limit her upward progress, it has proved no obstacle on the surface where first-strike tennis still offers the greatest reward.  Yet Lisicki did not become the only quarterfinalist who saved match point in the second round, for Bartoli dodged multiple bullets against Dominguez Lino at that stage.  Following unsteady efforts at that stage and in her ensuring round, the double-fister submitted a thoroughly poised, complete effort against Serena that showcased every element of her game at its most lethal.  When the Birmingham champion confronts the Eastbourne champion,  an intriguing battle should emerge between Lisicki’s serve and Bartoli’s return.  Will the Frenchwoman attack the German’s weapon as boldly as she did Serena’s serve?  After a ten-match winning streak or a nine-match winning streak, respectively, both players have quelled their fatigue thus far, but one wonders whether fitness will become a factor considering the prolonged matches that both have played here.  Since neither woman counts movement as a strength, most rallies should not last longer than a few shots in the staccato style familiar from classic grass-court tennis.

Maria Sharapova - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Seven

Sharapova vs. Cibulkova:  If the 2004 champion had glanced ahead at her draw on Monday morning, she would have observed that a formidable trio of Wozniacki, Serena, and Venus loomed ahead.  By late Monday afternoon, the topography of the women’s draw had shifted starkly as all three of those threats tumbled from their pedestals.  The sole Slam champion remaining in the draw, Sharapova now must master the pressure of expectations that have crystallized around her.  Walking through an open door can prove more challenging than opening the door oneself, as no less a champion than Federer discovered during his near-loss to Haas after Soderling defeated Nadal at Roland Garros 2009.  Sharapova thus must steel herself to remain focused on the immediate future, a rendezvous with the only player to halt her before the semifinals in any tournament since March.  Victorious in that Madrid collision, Cibulkova never has faced the former #1 on a surface other than clay but will gain confidence from having won their only Slam meeting.  The feisty Slovak demonstrated her survival skills by winning three three-setters here, erasing a set-and-break deficit against Lucic before rallying from an unsightly first set against Wozniacki.  Ideally suited to cope with the low bounces of grass, Cibulkova has enhanced her serve and forehand under the guidance of Zelkjo Krajan.  Rather than engaging in a shot-making duel with Maria, though, she might attempt to feed low balls deep down the center that force the Russian to create her own angles.  Meanwhile, Sharapova should vary the placement of her groundstrokes in order to keep this scrambling roadrunner off balance.  Despite not yielding a set this fortnight, Maria maintains that she has not attained her optimal level, a thought perhaps more ominous for opponents than for herself.

Kvitova vs. Pironkova:  Both semifinalists at Wimbledon last year, only one can defend all of her points this year.  Before the tournament, in fact, few would have projected Pironkova to reach the second week after a generally futile 2011 campaign.  Once she arrived on her favored lawns, the memories of recent glory must have awakened to inspire her through victories over Zvonareva and Venus during which she conceded ten total games.  Not a player who seems likely at first glance to record such dismissive results, the Bulgarian counterbalances the exclusively offensive games of most shot-makers who have left their imprint on the grass.  Clearly in that latter category stands Kvitova, who surrendered just two games to the talented Wickmayer a round ago.  The Czech enjoys the natural advantages of a lefty on this surface, curling and kicking serves at uncomfortable angles that open the court.  Not always the sturdiest competitor in adversity, however, Kvitova can look overwhelming until an opponent dares to blast groundstrokes with her from the baseline throughout an entire match, at which point the intimidator sometimes becomes the intimidated.  More comfortable in a counterpunching mode than when taking the initiative, Pironkova may allow the brash eighth seed  to measure her targets rather than forcing her into a situation that tests her resolve.

Paszek vs. Azarenka:  Still searching for her first major semifinal after four failed attempts, the minx from Minsk can find little excuse if she fails to break through this time.  Although Paszek deserves credit for upsetting Schiavone in a 20-game third set, this former prodigy vies with Pironkova’s 2010 effort for the honor of most surprising Wimbledon women’s quarterfinalist in recent years.  Despite sporadic frailty against Hantuchova, Azarenka showed scant mercy to the aging Petrova on Monday.  Her strikingly fierce victory celebration, disproportionate to the scoreline and opponent, demonstrated the degree to which she craves a maiden major.  Before she can capture that honor, she may need to manage her emotions more maturely.  Unless an unexpected injury descends upon her, as it often has in the past eighteen months, Vika should move a step closer to her goal and accumulate the experience essential to becoming a genuine contender.  Like Murray, she probably must improve her second serve before winning Wimbledon, but a semifinal certainly would position her auspiciously for the summer hard courts where she can wreak greater havoc.

Conventionally considered a second-tier competition populated by mid-level players, the Davis Cup also can be perceived as a theater where those outside the ATP elite can seize a rare chance for immortality.  Contrasting with most tournaments in this individual sport, the raucous atmosphere of the national team competition often christens unexpected heroes.  Studded with several marquee attractions, though, will the quarterfinals perpetuate or diverge from this pattern?

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France vs. Spain:  Surely thrilled not to see the Wizard of Wimbledon and Ruler of Roland Garros (aka Nadal), the French will be disappointed to contest this tie without the services of fast-court specialist Tsonga.  Likely to rise to the occasion is Gael Monfils, who delighted his compatriots last year by reaching the final of the Paris Indoors.  Yet one never knows precisely what to expect from the mercurial “La Monf,” who exited prematurely at the last two majors while his first-rubber opponent, David Ferrer, excelled even on his worst surface.  Surging within a set of the Wimbledon quarterfinals, the second Spanish singles player has thrived in Davis Cup and can be expected to deliver as sturdy an effort as possible despite the fast indoor court.  This first rubber must be claimed by the home nation, for the visitors will be heavily favored to win the Verdasco-Llodra clash that follows it.  Although the left-handed Llodra did claim the Eastbourne title before testing Roddick at Wimbledon, Fernando will relish the surface speed and enjoys a far more imposing arsenal of weapons than his opponent.

Somewhat unusually in Davis Cup, the doubles match will oppose two teams who often compete together at ATP events (Benneteau/Llodra vs. Verdasco/Lopez) , so one should expect a hotly contested match at the pivot point of the weekend.  If France can secure the 2-1 lead, the hosts will head into the reverse singles with a vital boost of confidence, but Spain’s greater experience in crucial Davis Cup ties must provide them with a slight edge.  One of the key factors in the tie will be Verdasco’s ability to win three best-of-five matches in three days (albeit one in doubles), a feat that he nearly performed last year against Germany.  Potentially tasked with closing out the tie against Monfils in the fourth rubber, the highest-ranked Spaniard outside Nadal generally responds with aplomb to the demands of Davis Cup.  In the 2008 final, he scored the clinching victory over Argentina’s Jose Acasuso after a poorly played but suspenseful five-setter.  Since Ferrer will struggle to win either of his singles rubbers, we wouldn’t be surprised to see Spanish captain Albert Costa substitute the superior fast-court player Almagro for him in the fifth rubber should it prove decisive.  It probably won’t, for the Spanish team’s far superior teamwork and shared experience should prevail over their flaky trans-Pyrenean rivals.  Spain, 70-30.

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Serbia vs. Croatia:  As volatile as this intra-Balkans rivalry might be at a national level, all of the competition’s participants have developed personal friendships that should defuse the hostility bubbling around them.  Fresh (or not fresh) from a Wimbledon semifinal run, Djokovic enters the weekend in his best form of the season, whereas his first-rubber foe Ljubicic has fallen well short of his Indian Wells success thereafter, losing his Wimbledon opener to an anonymous Pole.  The Croatian veteran won their last meeting during that magical Indian Wells surge, though, so recent history might play a factor; otherwise, Djokovic has dominated their collisions.  During the Davis Cup first round in Belgrade, the Serb embraced this competition’s combative atmosphere and played forceful tennis against American giants Querrey and Isner.  After he scores the first point of Serbia, Croatia’s top singles player Marin Cilic should even the tie despite his recently underwhelming form.  An easily disheartened, mentally fragile competitor, his opponent Victor Troicki lacks the emotional poise to vanquish a distinctly superior foe before a hostile crowd.  Sometimes a little fragile himself, Cilic recorded two sturdy wins in the quarterfinals at home last year, when Croatia hosted the United States.

In the unlikely event that Serbia leads 2-0 after the first day, expect Croatian captain Goran Prpic to substitute Ljubicic and Cilic in the doubles, where Serbia’s doubles star Nenad Zimonjic provides the visitors with a clear advantage.  If Prpic sticks with Dodig and Veic, his team likely will be forced to win both of the reverse singles on Sunday, an imposing but not impossible challenge.  Serbia will want to finish the job immediately in the fourth rubber, a marquee clash between Djokovic and Cilic.  Although the budding Croat sternly tested the world #2 at the 2008 US Open, the Djoker has dominated their fledgling rivalry by winning all four meetings and nine of ten total sets.  If the tie comes down to a fifth rubber, Ljubicic would be distinctly favored over Troicki on a fast indoor court, so Serbian captain Bogdan Obradovic might consider substituting Tipsarevic, a sturdier competitor and superior server despite his lower ranking.  The efforts of Djokovic and Zimonjic should render such speculation unnecessary, however.  Serbia, 60-40.

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Russia vs. Argentina:  In this tie that might be labeled “Russia vs. Nalbandian,” the Argentine will be expected to win all three rubbers in order to propel his nation into the semifinals.  Relishing heroic roles, he skipped Wimbledon in order to prepare for this weekend, which opens with a stunning matchup against Davydenko, who also recently returned from injury.  Although their head-to-head is nearly even, Nalbandian has won three of their four non-clay meetings as well as two of their three Davis Cup clashes.  Having developed a highly similar style predicated upon early ball-striking and audacious angles, these bold shotmakers should produce scintillating tennis if both can shed the rust from their prolonged absences.  The second rubber should swing definitively towards the hosts, for Leonardo Mayer displays a far less complete game than Mikhail Youzhny, who often has shone in team competition. 

Far more adept in singles than doubles, Russia probably will surrender the doubles to Nalbandian and Horacio Zeballos while pinning their hopes upon the reverse singles.  If Nalbandian has defeated Davydenko at that stage, one should expect a decisive fifth rubber between the Argentine and Youzhny.  But if Davydenko starts the weekend with a victory, he should finish the task in the fourth rubber against Mayer.  Even supposing that Nalbandian does win the first rubber and the doubles, he would enter the reverse singles a little weary considering his lack of match play over the last few months.  Although he might deplete Youzhny’s limited reserves of patience and extend their encounter to a thrilling conclusion, he might struggle to win three sets from the versatile Russian.  Although Nalbandian played the hero expertly in the first round against Sweden, there is significantly more pressure on his shoulders when Argentina faces this much more formidable foe.  Russia, 60-40.

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Chile vs. Czech Republic:  Who are these people, and what did they do with Gonzalez, Berdych, and Stepanek?  While Fernando and Radek battle injuries, Tomas understandably proved reluctant to test his footing on red clay during the transition from grass to hard courts.  During the Czech Republic’s slightly surprising run to the 2009 Davis Cup final, Berdych and Stepanek played virtually every rubber including the doubles, which suggests that Czech captain Jaroslav Navratil possesses hardly any other weapons at all.  None of the visiting names here ring a bell except doubles specialist Lukas Dlouhy, so the home nation will be favored to prevail in all four singles matches, contested on their favorite surface and before a partisan crowd.  Capturing the 2004 Olympic gold medal for Chile, Nicolas Massu has competed impressively at the national level even as his ATP results have sagged.  Once a notorious under-performer in Davis Cup, Paul Capdeville has shown signs of dispelling that reputation with a few key recent wins.  If the Czechs can somehow find a way to survive this round, of course, they could catapult directly back into contention with Berdych’s return for the semifinals against Serbia or Croatia.  Therefore, a literally gritty performance by its B-team could reap greater rewards than simply survival into the next round.  But it’s difficult to see the Czech journeymen winning three rubbers from the Chilean veterans on a surface barely familiar to them, thousands of miles from home.  Chile, 80-20.


Over the weekend, we’ll compile the first of next week’s two player profiles, which will feature Wozniacki and Gulbis.  They’ll follow the trademark five-strength, five-weakness format with which we have prospered thus far.

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Whereas the men’s tournament builds toward a magnificent climax, the women’s tournament skidded downhill towards a highly predictable conclusion after only one Williams sister survived the quarterfinals.  Joined by three players with a solitary Slam semifinal among them (Zvonareva—2009 Australian Open), Serena will swagger into the latter rounds with an immense edge in every physical and mental department.  Probably the greatest surprise of the tournament so far, meanwhile, was the premature demise of its five-time women’s champion.  No longer can commentators claim that Venus becomes a different player when she steps onto the grass; today, we saw every flaw in this legendary but aging game exposed as cruelly as on any other surface.  While her career wanes, the elder Williams sister has grappled not only with focus lapses but with wildly imprecise timing on her groundstrokes, a costly flaw in a game with such little margin for error.  This unreliability from the baseline places too much pressure upon her first serve and return to terminate points before rallies develop; a mediocre performance in one or both of those areas leaves her vulnerable to consistent, opportunistic opponents.  Moreover, a talent that long separated the world #2 from her rivals was her well-honed net prowess, yet she won just half of her net points in the loss today while displaying the indifferent forecourt footwork that has characterized her reverses this year.  Among the most telling elements of the upset, though, was its lopsided scoreline.  In three of her six defeats this year, Venus has won five or fewer games.  These embarrassments in Miami, Rome, and Wimbledon reveal her inability to alter a strategy that isn’t working, for she never has possessed a Plan B and has shown no inclination to craft one as her high-risk style grows progressively less dependable.  At this stage in her storied career, nobody can fault her for clinging to what has preserved her position at the summit of the sport for over a decade.  Nevertheless, the bizarre, seemingly inexplicable days when she suddenly can’t find the court will recur with increasing frequency, hindering her from adding to the seven majors in her collection.  Although Venus can win week-long WTA tournaments with sporadic brilliance, she can’t survive a fortnight’s supply of fiercely motivated adversaries without the mental fortitude and sturdy technique that have recently deserted her.  To be sure, Federer regrouped after losing his citadel on grass to recapture it a year later, so there’s a precedent for the elder Williams sister to again hold the dish that bears her name.  Perhaps the shock of this loss will thrust her from her complacent torpor into the competitive intensity that played a vital role in her five Wimbledon crowns.  But time is not on her side.

After a wayward (although far from dull) day courtesy of the women, will the top four men restore order in the court and advance to the semis?  Confronted with four highly formidable foes, they might not find the task as easy as they would hope.

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Federer (1) vs. Berdych (12):  Far from flawless in his first two rounds, Federer rediscovered his range during the next two matches and has dropped just 16 games in his last 6 sets.  Having fallen to a mighty slugger in his last Slam quarterfinal, Federer will find himself forced to solve the similar, slightly less formidable conundrum posed by his recent Miami nemesis.  Surging to his first career Slam semifinal at Roland Garros, Berdych enjoys a reasonable chance to match that accomplishment if Federer reverts to his early-tournament malaise rather than rising to the occasion as he typically does in the second week.  The Czech has progressed to this stage only slightly more compellingly than the top seed, for he dropped three sets in his past two matches against the anonymous Denis Istomin and Daniel Brands.  Whereas the defending champion’s form has steadily accelerated, therefore, his challenger’s form has dropped a bit.  Also in Federer’s favor is the best-of-five format, which allows him the time to rebound from an indifferent start while also providing his opponents greater opportunity to ponder the magnitude of a potential upset.  Almost as relevant to this clash as the Miami meeting this year, their 2009 Australian Open encounter witnessed the Swiss star’s stirring comeback from a two-set deficit; after dominating Federer in those first two sets, Berdych sharply declined thereafter as a result of mental insecurities and his inferior fitness.  Although the fitness remains an issue, the mental insecurities may no longer hamper Berdych, since his remarkable results in Miami and Paris appear to have silenced his inner demons.  (Or are they only temporarily silenced?  We might find out.)  The early stages of this match will be crucial for the Czech in order for him to implant doubts in the defending champion’s mind, a bit more frail in 2010 than in preceding years.  Much more adept at the net than his challenger, Federer should attempt to drag Berdych forward in uncomfortable circumstances while fearlessly venturing into the forecourt himself whenever an opportunity arises.  If Berdych can protect his serve and force Federer into tiebreaks, the top seed might well blink.  But he must slam the door as soon as possible before the Swiss can catch his balance.  Otherwise, the next Slam semifinal streak starts here.  Federer, 60-40.

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Tsonga (10) vs. Murray (4):  The Scot has won two of their three meetings, but it’s the Frenchman who won their most significant clash at the 2008 Australian Open.  In that first-round encounter, Murray remained locked in a passive counter-punching mentality while Tsonga took all the risks and reaped most of the rewards.  Over the last two years, the home hope has enhanced his aggressive skills to a perceptible extent but not sufficiently to outgun Roddick in a 2009 semifinal here.  Uncertain of his participation until shortly before the fortnight began, Tsonga has weathered a few unconventional, motivated foes such as Ukraine’s Dolgopolov and his compatriot Julien Benneteau.  The only player to reach the quarters without dropping a set, Murray has enjoyed a placid draw with the exception of the rising Sam Querrey, whose formidable serve rarely ruffled the fourth seed.  That fact bodes ill for the Frenchman, who relies upon a massive first delivery to set up his forehand and acrobatic net-rushing style.  Much less athletic than Tsonga, the Scot has achieved his accomplishments through intelligence, versatility, crisp footwork, and exceptional movement, an underrated advantage on grass.  While short points will favor the Frenchman, longer exchanges will shift towards the much more consistent Murray, armed with an exceptional passing shot that should blunt his opponent’s charges into the forecourt.  Moreover, the ingenious Scot will seek to construct backhand-to-backhand rallies in which he would enjoy a clear edge.  If Tsonga attempts to run around his weaker wing to hit a forehand, he would sacrifice too much court area to protect on this fast surface.  We wouldn’t be surprised to see an early wobble or two from the Scot, though, who did start tentatively against Querrey.  Nevertheless, Tsonga generally ebbs and flows during the best-of-five format, winning only one straight-setter thus far despite winning the first two sets in every round.  Whereas he can escape that streakiness (albeit narrowly) against most ATP journeymen, Murray should exploit the lulls that punctuate the Frenchman’s high-wire performance.  Like Berdych, Tsonga either will win this match in a hurry or not at all.  Murray, 70-30.

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Djokovic (3) vs. Lu:  The only unseeded player to reach the quarterfinals, Lu should not be discounted as he was by almost everyone before his five-set upset of Roddick in the previous round.  During that match, the Taiwanese star showcased lithe movement and flat, almost net-skimming groundstrokes that darted through the grass with greater pace than one might expect from his slim physique.  Equally impressive was the sturdy mentality with which he refused to wilt after wasting a chance to close out the match in the fourth-set tiebreak.  Nearly all observers would have handed Roddick the advantage in a no-tiebreak deciding set, but it was the world #82 who found his sharpest serves, zippiest passing shots, and deftest volleys when it mattered most.  Will he be mentally and physically weary following the most dazzling win of his career, however?  It’s not easy to score two massive upsets in a row, although Djokovic did fall prey to a career run from Melzer in the same round at Roland Garros.  Often struggling to raise his level against an exceptionally inspired opponent, the Serb might be vulnerable to Lu if his physical condition remains shaky as it was late in his gritty win over Hewitt.  On the other hand, that previous triumph will have prepared Djokovic for the playing style that he will face in the quarterfinals, since the Taiwanese challenger possesses most of the same strengths (tenacity, tennis IQ, court coverage, groundstroke depth) and weaknesses (serve, first-strike ability) as the Australian.  Underdogs like Lu are dangerous because they have nothing to lose, but Djokovic must approach this match with the same mentality; almost nobody has mentioned him as a genuine contender for the title here, yet he’ll be within a win of the final Sunday should he survive this match.  At the semifinal stage, anything can happen.  For the moment, though, the Serb needs to play with the same crisp, purposeful demeanor that characterized his previous victory and that must replace his energy-draining penchant for drama if he is to reaffirm himself as a Slam contender.  Business first, pleasure later.  Djokovic, 75-25.

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Soderling (6) vs. Nadal (2):  Arguably the juiciest of these four delicious confrontations, this clash reprises the French Open final just as did the Federer-Soderling fourth-rounder here last year.  Although the Swiss star reprised his straight-sets win over the Swedish behemoth that time, one senses that Nadal might not cruise so conclusively now.  Inciting the anxiety of his fans, Rafa request multiple medical timeouts during a mediocre first week that included consecutive five-setters.  He did look considerably more convincing in his last round against the mentally frail Mathieu, but the knees remain an ongoing issue about which he admitted his concern.  Ever eager to pounce upon a weakened adversary, Soderling reaped historic rewards a year ago when he battered a knee-troubled Rafa into submission, so he might well repeat the feat on Wednesday.  Of concern for the Swede’s supporters, though, was his erratic play and overt emotional turmoil during his five-set win over Ferrer, which disturbingly recalled the pre-2009 Robin.  In order to conquer the Spaniard in a best-of-five format, Soderling must prevent his temper from bubbling to the surface and concentrate upon bombing serve after serve after serve.  Unlike all other men’s contenders, his serve survived intact into the second set of his fourth match.  Predictably less invulnerable upon his own delivery, Nadal will rely upon his superb movement, reflexes, and instincts to transition from defense to offense after retrieving the Swede’s thunderbolts.  Not as many of those shots will return on grass, however, as they did on clay a month ago, so the world #1 needs to impose himself upon rallies with more first-strike tennis than he generally prefers.  Like Federer, Nadal should bring his net-averse foe forward in uncomfortable positions whenever convenient, for his passing shots have crackled through the court with authority lately.  The low bounce on grass hampers the lofty Soderling, who prefers a high strike zone for his groundstrokes, but it also lessens the topspin on Nadal’s heavy groundstrokes.  Neither the Spaniard’s beloved clay nor the Swede’s favored hard courts, this surface represents a relatively neutral battleground.  If the sixth seed serves brilliantly and the second seed moves brilliantly, this match is very even indeed.  Whoever wins should approach the rest of his tournament brimming with confidence after overcoming a redoubtable adversary.  Nadal, 51-49. 


Although we gave the Big Four the edge in each of these compelling matchups, somehow we suspect that at least one challenger will thwart the odds and embed themselves in Friday’s semifinals.  But who?  Answers to come…

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After dropping serve in the fourth game against an imperious Serena Williams, a familiar storyline seemed likely to unfold for Sharapova, who had endured a pair of ignominiously one-sided defeats at the hands of the world #1 in their last two fast-court meetings.  Instead, the 2004 Wimbledon champion swiftly regrouped to break Serena before matching her fistpump for fistpump and serve for blazing serve deep into a first-set tiebreak, where a momentary dip in the Russian’s intensity cost her the chance to establish a lead.  Barely deterred by that disappointment, however, she kept the top seed grimly locked in combat through most of the second set as well.  Rather than the slumping, listless Maria who dropped the Australian final to Serena three years ago, the Centre Court  witnessed a steely competitor whose fabled ferocity glowed once more against the three-time (probably soon to be four-time) titlist at the All England Club.  This startlingly taut encounter joined the gallant three-setter against Henin in Paris among Sharapova’s finest performances in her comeback, for both of these honorable losses impressed more than most of her triumphs over unheralded foes.  (Could someone summon Justine whenever Maria requires an infusion of confidence?  Their epic final at the 2007 year-end championships likewise ignited the Russian after a dismal series of results.)  To be sure, she must polish her second-serve returns and refine her shot selection at crucial moments; she adhered to her aggression-at-all-costs game plan a little too rigorously on a few occasions.  Where Maria is concerned, though, over-aggressive is far preferable to passive; if she can maintain her distance from the doctor, one imagines that her ranking and confidence will continue to climb, lifting the Russian back into the contender’s circle for 2011.  It’s hard to imagine her losing on a fast surface to anyone not named Williams with the standard of play that she showcased on Monday. 

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Meanwhile, Henin finds herself at a slight crossroads in her comeback after a deflating loss to Clijsters during which she produced erratic and often unintelligent tennis.  Following an explosive start to 2010 in Australia, the season hasn’t unfolded as impressively as she surely would have hoped, and three three-set losses to Clijsters will be festering in her mind during the post-Wimbledon hiatus.  If Henin hopes to add the Venus Rosewater Dish to her trophy collection, she must find a way to defeat her compatriot before she can attempt to solve the Williams sisters.  Always an emotional dynamo, the petite Belgian needs an impressive performance or two over the coming months in order to restore her confidence in this second career and vindicate the modifications that thus far have disrupted more than enhanced her game.  On the bright side, her rising ranking will allow her to settle into tournaments more comfortably by easing her draws, brutal at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon. 

Monday was Manic indeed.  Will Tuesday be Terrific or Tepid?  We break down the women’s quarterfinals straight ahead…

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Clijsters (8) vs. Zvonareva (21):  Who would have guessed that Zvonareva would be the last Russian standing at Wimbledon?  While Kim has won all five of their previous meetings, including a 2006 first-round clash here, Vera has extended their last two clashes to three sets and has showcased unexpectedly compelling tennis this fortnight.  Despite the pressure inherent to her exalted surroundings, Zvonareva hasn’t dropped a set in four matches here while restraining her infamous temper.  Unaccustomed to playing on Centre Court, however, she might enter the match a little tentative, which could allow Clijsters to establish an early lead.  Rallying from a one-set deficit against her archrival on Monday, the Belgian either will charge forward with the momentum acquired from overcoming Henin or will suffer an emotional hangover from the relief of reversing Justine’s dominance over her on major stages.  At Miami, an emotionally fraught semifinal triumph against her compatriot preceded a highly capable performance in the final.  “Highly capable” should suffice to vanquish Zvonareva, who can equal Clijsters from both the service notch and the baseline but not above the neckline.  Since neither player wins quantities of free points on their serve, engaging rallies should develop that showcase the balanced groundstroke arsenals and crisp footwork of these competitors.  If one feels rather jaded by the abbreviated points and spasmodic rhythm of conventional grass-court tennis, therefore, this match should offer a refreshing antidote.  We expect a reasonably competitive encounter, perhaps even a three-setter, that Clijsters should capture through her superior consistency unless her game abruptly deserts her as it has a few times this year.  Clijsters, 70/30.

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Serena (1) vs. Li (9):  Virtually bullet-proof through her first four matches, Serena has conceded her serve just once in the tournament while striking an astonishing 62 aces, 38 in her last two matches.  One senses that she’ll need to rely on that massive delivery against an adversary who has won four sets (and one match) from her and who habitually rises to the occasion when confronting formidable opponents.  Forced to perform at a lofty level in order to overcome Sharapova, Serena often benefits from challenging early rounds that elevate her focus for the tournament’s latter stages.  Riding a nine-match winning streak, Li dragged the top seed into two tiebreaks in the Australian Open semifinals; overall, they have contested no fewer than five tiebreaks, of which the American has won four behind her superior serve.  As Serena mentioned in her Monday press conference, the Chinese star never concedes a match and can be at her most dangerous when behind.  In their last two meetings, Li twice broke the world #1 when she served for a set, sharpening her game at crucial moments.  Unintimidated by the Williams sisters, whom she has defeated three times since 2008, the ninth seed surely won’t be intimidated by the aura of Centre Court, a less pressure-laden environment than the Beijing Olympics where she excelled two years ago.  Very few players are more capable of exploiting an off-key day from a marquee opponent, which Venus discovered to her chagrin at the Australian Open.  Yet Serena has looked nothing short of imperious during this fortnight, burdening her opponents with the task of winning virtually every service games simply to stay level with her.  Don’t be surprised to see another tiebreak or two, but only a supreme effort from Li will secure a set for the Chinese star; shot for shot, there’s nothing that she does better than Serena when the American is at her best.   Serena, 80/20.

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Pironkova vs. Venus (2):  Recalling the 2006 Australian Open, fans of the elder Williams sister may anticipate this encounter a little anxiously, since Pironkova scored one of the last decade’s most shocking Slam upsets in the opening round that year.  in an unexpectedly tight, largely overlooked fourth-round triumph over Jarmila Groth, Venus looked less sharp than she had in the first week and was fortunate to escape a third set when the Slovak-turned-Australian crumbled in the second-set tiebreak.  Nevertheless, she faces a vastly different opponent in the Bulgarian, who once seemed a promising future contender before spiraling downwards in the last year or two.  Caressing rather than bludgeoning the ball, Pironkova exploited an extremely weak section of the draw before mystifyingly overcoming the much more grass-friendly game of Bartoli on Monday.  Bartoli’s serve often comprises more of a liability than an asset, however, whereas Venus should hold regularly while constantly threatening the Bulgarian’s benign delivery.  If they clashed on clay, Pironkova might prolong points until the second seed donated costly errors, but on grass this match would seem to be a grotesque mismatch.  On the other hand, Tsvetana is faithfully reproducing Schiavone’s post-victory mannerisms, so who knows?  We think that we do.  Venus, 90/10.

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Kvitova vs. Kanepi (Q):  Two women’s players will have won seven matches at this year’s Wimbledon:  the eventual champion and Kaia Kanepi, who scored three wins in the qualifying draw before reaching the quarters with four more victories.  Critiqued in this blog for her one-dimensionality, the Estonian has proved that might still does make right sometimes, following her Stosur upset with three more quality straight-sets wins.  Although her conditioning must be excellent for her to reach this stage, one imagines that Kanepi will be a little weary as she readies for the lefty missiles from the racket of white-hot Petra Kvitova.  The Estonian has won two of their three meetings, yet the Czech captured a vertiginously seesaw encounter in Memphis this Feburary after Kanepi had served for the match.  Bageling both Azarenka and Wozniacki, Kvitova sometimes looks as though she couldn’t miss if she tried, no matter how outrageously audacious her shots.  With impeccable timing, she’s scheduled the most convincing tennis of her career for arguably the most important tournament of all.  Kvitova possesses superior movement and Kanepi the sturdier serve, but both players probably will greet this immense opportunity apprehensively,  producing less than exquisite tennis.  Will Kanepi’s unflinching power trump Kvitova’s imaginative shotmaking, or will the lefty’s high-wire act continue?  Your guess is as good as ours.  A name beginning with K, 100/0.

We return with a preview of the distinctly more intriguing men’s quarterfinal matchups, three of which we forecasted before the first ball was struck.  Kudos to Yen-Hsun Lu for confounding our expectations, but it’ll be a long flight home for last year’s finalist, who has lost in excruciating fashion at his last four non-clay majors.

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Nobody has endured a heavier diet of disappointment than Roddick, so one hopes that the worm will eventually turn before the last sands trickle out of his hourglass.

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