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Rafael Nadal - Rakuten Open - Day 6

First quarter:  In the aftermath of yet another disappointment in a final, Nadal will have reason to smile when he crosses the Sea of Japan and examines his accommodating draw.  A runner-up in Shanghai two years ago, the world #2 exited in the third round to Melzer last year and will feel determined to improve upon that result.  With Djokovic and Federer absent, the top seed would not face any opponent more formidable than Ferrer until the final.  As Nadal attempts to rebuild his confidence, he could meet last year’s Bangkok nemesis Garcia-Lopez in the second round, but the prospect of a Dodig-like debacle seems distant.  Aligned for an intriguing first-round meeting with Gulbis is Nalbandian, who competed sturdily through two tight sets against Murray in Tokyo.  The Argentine might well justify his wildcard with a win over the Latvian, the victim of three consecutive losses to players outside the top 50 as his 2011 record has slipped to 17-18.  Despite failing to win a set from Nadal at the US Open, Nalbandian stretched him deep into two sets and continued to trouble Rafa with his flat two-hander.  If he advances to the quarterfinals, the top seed should brace himself to meet Djokovic’s compatriot Tipsarevic, who has evolved into a threat in his own right following a Montreal semifinal and US Open quarterfinal.  Edging within range of the top 10, the Serbian #2 has enjoyed success against sixth-seeded Berdych that includes a US Open Series victory.  Having won his first title in three year at Beijing, however, the Czech may have gained sufficient momentum to avenge that defeat.  But Berdych has lost nine straight matches to Nadal, including 21of their last 22 sets, while Tipsarevic has lost all six sets that he has played against the Spaniard.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter:  Although the most prominent among them rests on the top line of the draw, Spaniards dominate this section in a demonstration of their nation’s depth in men’s tennis.  Bookending the quarter are Ferrer and Almagro, rarely perceived as threats during the fall season but both near or at their career-high rankings.  In Almagro’s case, though, the sheer quantity of matches that he has contested this year (especially on clay) has masked his unremarkable performances at the key hard-court tournaments.  There, he has recorded nothing more than a quarterfinal at the Rogers Cup and a fourth-round appearance in Melbourne.  On the other hand, early assignments such as a clash against his light-hitting compatriot Robredo should not trouble him unduly.  Only once has he faced Roddick, a first-round loser in Beijing who struggled to hold serve there on the same DecoTurf surface laid down in Shanghai.  In fact, the American may not escape a compelling challenge from Grigor Dimitrov if the Bulgarian can impersonate more of Federer’s game than his backhand.  Unlike Almagro, Ferrer stands in the curious position of having etched his reputation on European clay but having recorded his most notable accomplishments with semifinals at the two hard-court majors. His road looks more dangerous with an opening match against Raonic or Llodra, although he edged the Montenegrin-turned-Canadian in four sets at the Australian Open.  Potentially pitted against Ferrer two rounds later is the dark horse of this section in the ever-frustrating, ever-dangerous Verdasco.  A combined 11-6 against Ferrer and Almagro, the Spanish lefty has shown signs of life by winning two matches in each of his last three tournaments.

Semifinalist:  Verdasco

Third quarter:  Expected by many to fade after the US Open, Fish erased those suspicions with a  semifinal run in Tokyo.  If he duplicates that performance in Shanghai, he will thoroughly have earned it by navigating past a varied assemblage of streaky shot-makers.  First among them is Kevin Anderson, the South African who defeated Murray in Montreal and Roddick last week.  Or can Bernard Tomic, who thrilled at Wimbledon and fizzled in New York, build upon his Tokyo upset of Troicki to arrange a rematch with Fish?  In their quarterfinal last week, the American found himself forced to rally from a one-set deficit against the towering but nuanced Aussie.  Oscillating wildly from one tournament to the next, Dolgopolov faces dangerous doubles specialist Kubot before a probable meeting with the possibly resurgent Cilic.  A finalist in Beijing for the second time in three years, the Croat’s steady, understated personality and methodical approach to competition should serve him well during the final.  Cilic surely would relish an opportunity to avenge his loss to Dolgopolov on home soil in Umag, and he has swept his four meetings with Fish.  The #1 seed in Beijing, Tsonga has received perhaps the highest seed of his career at a Masters 1000 tournament as the top-ranked player in this section.  Few are the plausible upset threats in his vicinity, although Santiago Giraldo tested Nadal in Tokyo and Robin Haase severely threatened Murray in New York.  More athletically gifted than either of the above, Tsonga might need to solve the enigmatic Melzer, the architect of Nadal’s demise here last year.  In the event that the Frenchman does face Fish in the quarterfinals, he should gain conviction from his five-set comeback victory over the American at the US Open.

Semifinalist:  Tsonga

Fourth quarter:  With a Djokovic-like display of rifled returns, whizzing backhands, and surreal court coverage, Murray torched 2011 Slam nemesis Nadal in the Tokyo final as he collected his 19th victory in 20 matches and third title in four tournaments.  Unsatisfied with that achievement, he accompanied his brother to the doubles title afterwards in his first career singles/doubles sweep at the same tournament.  Following that hectic albeit rewarding week, Murray will need to elevate his energy once more as he prepares to defend this title more effectively than he did the Rogers Cup trophy.  One wonders whether he can sustain the level of his last match—or the last two sets of it—or whether a lull will overtake him.  Unlikely to profit such a lull are the underachievers Bellucci and Tursunov who will vie for the opportunity to confront the Scot, but third-round opponent Wawrinka might pose a sterner challenge.  The Swiss #2 defeated Murray at the 2010 US Open and may have reinvigorated his sagging fortunes with his heroic effort in winning the Davis Cup World Group playoff.  A surprise finalist in Bangkok, meanwhile, Donald Young qualified for the main draw, drew a Chinese wildcard in the first round, and will hope to repeat his New York upset over Wawrinka.  Another American of note has lain dormant for several weeks following his US Open embarrassment, but Ryan Harrison could trouble the staggering Troicki en route to the third round.  At that stage, he would face the tireless Gilles Simon, often at his best in the fall when his workmanlike attitude capitalizes upon the weary or the satiated.  Although we don’t expect Simon to defeat Murray, he might deplete the second seed’s energy for the more demanding encounters ahead this weekend.

Semifinalist:  Murray

***

We return shortly to review the WTA Premier Five / Premier Mandatory fortnight in Tokyo and Beijing.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Semifinals:  Nadal vs. Monfils, Ferrer vs. Federer

Final:  Nadal vs. Federer

Champion:  Rafael Nadal

Before shifting to preview the Miami draws, we reflect upon some of the more memorable events at Indian Wells.  Not a comprehensive recap, this article merely sketches the storylines that most piqued our interest during the last week.

Novak Djokovic - BNP Paribas Open

First among equals:  Confirming what the first two months of 2011 already had suggested, Djokovic established himself as the leading challenger to Nadal’s hegemony over the ATP.  For the third consecutive tournament, the Serb decisively defeated Federer despite a generally solid and occasionally splendid display from the 16-time major champion.  When he progressed through the early rounds, moreover, the craven performances of his victims evoked the same defeatist attitude with which opponents approached Federer at his peak.  Just as he cruised past the former world #2 in the final set of their semifinal, Djokovic dominated the world #1 in the third set of their championship match and extended his hard-court record against Rafa to 8-5.  Defeating the two legends on consecutive days for the first time since 2007, the Serb responded to adversity with a mental resilience rarely seen in his formative period.  Although he did not quite maintain his lofty level from Australia, the new #2 heads to Miami on a 20-match winning streak that includes seven victories over top-10 rivals.  With his serve, fitness, and confidence soaring higher than ever, the elusive Indian Wells-Miami double seems well within range unless his weary knee falters.

With the most notable title of her career to date, Wozniacki weathered sporadic stumbles against Kleybanova and Bartoli to collect her fifth consecutive Premier Mandatory or Premier Five trophy.  In the absence of the Williams sisters, Henin, and perhaps Clijsters, few foes can hit through the Dane’s dogged defenses or outlast her consistency.  (While Zvonareva springs to mind, the Russian has fallen well short of matching Wozniacki’s poise under pressure on grand stages.)  Surely destined to break through at the majors, the world #1 has remained unruffled despite the heightening scrutiny and expectations surrounding her.  More confident in her status than other Slam-less#1s, the self-assured Dane has the physical and mental durability to sweep the North American spring events.  But she still could fall prey to an exceptionally inspired shot-maker, such as a Li or a Kvitova on their brightest days.

Spaniards:  Coming within a few games of a 19th Masters 1000 shield, Nadal can consider this week an encouraging yet tentative step forward following his injury-enforced absence.  While the world #1 defeated no opponents in the top 50 en route to the final, few should underestimate the ability of Karlovic or the resurgent Del Potro to unsettle a top seed.  Rafa deserves credit for delicately navigating past those unnerving obstacles, but he will rue the uncharacteristic avalanche of unforced errors that reversed his momentum against Djokovic on Sunday.  Also concerning was Nadal’s struggle to deliver his first serve, resulting in a crushing sequence of four consecutive breaks between the second and third sets from which he never recovered in scoreline or spirit.

On the other hand, Nadal fared considerably better than his two most prominent compatriots.  Ferrer looked thoroughly perplexed by Karlovic in his opener, and Verdasco continued a desultory 2011 campaign with a limp, unfocused loss to Querrey.  A less renowned member of the Spanish Armada, Robredo counterbalanced those disappointments with an unexpected quarterfinal run that included a dual triumph over both Querrey and a painful leg injury.

Americans:  A ray of hope for this tottering tennis power, the 18-year-old Ryan Harrison stunned not only the experienced Garcia-Lopez but the recently incandescent Raonic.  Relishing his fierce competitive zeal and his authoritative returns, we also appreciated his precocious talents in more subtle areas such as a respectable backhand slice and crisp forecourt reflexes.  In an engaging clash with Federer, Harrison showcased all of those qualities in a gallant effort that bodes well for his future.  Meanwhile, Querrey scored the strongest victory since the US Open by upsetting Verdasco in two relatively routine sets.  And Donald Young capitalized upon the opportunity to score a massive upset, triggering speculation that he may yet break free from what has seemed terminal underachievement.

Amidst this optimistic trend were discouraging performances by Isner and Roddick, whose 16-3 record this season does not reflect his pedestrian play (although he still owns the shot of the year so far in the Memphis final).  Scheduled to defend championship points in Miami, the top-ranked American will descend swiftly if he continues to fluff second-serve returns on set points and uncork double faults in tiebreaks.  Harrison’s emergence has come none too soon, one senses.

Belgians:  Far from surprising was the presence of a Belgian in the women’s semifinals.  But few would have guessed that Wickmayer rather than Clijsters would have carried her nation’s banner to that stage.  While the injury to the Australian Open champion raises broader questions about her season, Wickmayer ‘s gritty victories over Kanepi, Cibulkova, and Peer hinted that she may have awakened from a dismal slump during the second half of 2010.  Self-destructing in the semifinals against Bartoli, this natural athlete could rise even further if she can control her perfectionist streak and prevent minor mid-match setbacks from spiraling into meltdowns.  Also filling Belgian fans with pride this week was veteran Xavier Malisse, who accompanied Dolgoopolov in an eventful journey to the doubles title built upon the bones of the Bryans, the Murrays, the Indo-Pak Express, and Federer/Wawrinka.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal - BNP Paribas Open

Doubles:  Usually relegated to the least desirable courts and times, the sport’s poor cousin took center stage (often literally) after Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, Murray, Ivanovic, Jankovic, and a host of other heralded singles stars entered the doubles draws.  Spectators starved of the Federer-Nadal rivalry seized the opportunity to see them engage in a light-hearted doubles semifinal, while WTA fans enjoyed the chance to watch three top-10 players take the court simultaneously when Schiavone and Stosur collided with Azarenka and Kirilenko.  From the success of these cameo appearances emerged once again the superiority of singles players to their doubles counterparts and the relative insignificance of teamwork compared to sheer talent.  While Nadal and Marc Lopez dispatched the fourth-seeded Polish duo of Fyrstenberg and Matkowski, Federer and Wawrinka overcame the second-seeded pairing of Mirnyi and Nestor.  In the women’s draw, the unlikely combination of Jankovic and Pavlyuchenkova conquered world #1s Dulko and Pennetta.  Despite the discomfiture of leading doubles teams, however, doubles itself gained a significant boost in visibility during the tournament, including screentime on national television following the women’s semifinals.

Double-fisters:  Not among the sport’s most elegant stylists, Bartoli and Peng carved through their sections of the draw as much with fortitude as with timely shot-making.  Steadier under pressure than her quarterfinal and semifinal opponents, the Frenchwoman dragged world #1 Wozniacki into a third set despite suffering from illness.  While Bartoli returned to the top 10, Peng continued her eye-opening 2011 campaign with three consecutive three-set victories, two over seeded players.  Although a fourth three-setter proved just beyond her reach, the Chinese double-fister recorded her finest performance at an event of this significance by reaching the quarterfinals at the expense of Petrova and Li.  Armed with fewer weapons than Bartoli, Peng shares the Frenchwoman’s mental relentlessness as well as her opportunistic streak.

Entombments:  Winless since the Australian Open semifinal, Murray failed to win a single set at the season’s first Masters 1000 tournament.  Hampered by a wrist injury in February, the Melbourne runner-up veered between passivity and impotent frustration during an ignominious loss to Donald Young, who collected only four games from Robredo a round later.  On the other hand, at least the Scot did not sink quite to the abyss inhabited by Stosur during a loss to Safina in which the Russian hit 16 double faults and nevertheless won in straight sets.  Flinging a smash several feet over the baseline on match point, the 2010 Roland Garros runner-up missed routine forehands and service returns throughout this ghastly encounter.  Whereas Murray can wallow in self-pity until Wimbledon without adverse consequences, Stosur must reassemble her confidence much sooner.  With a heavy forehand and kicking serve that shine on clay, the Aussie still has a legitimate chance to win the Roland Garros crown if she can halt her recent skid.

Resurrections:  Accelerating in momentum with every week that passes, Del Potro vaulted himself to the threshold of the top 50 with victories over defending champion Ljubicic, Dolgopolov, and Kohlschreiber.  The 2009 US open champion unleashed his forehand with progressively greater confidence as the tournament unfolded, even freezing Nadal at times in a creditable semifinal defeat.  Also thriving in the relaxed atmosphere of Indian Wells was the enigmatic Gasquet, who looked fitter, fresher, and more focused than he has since 2007.  A round after thrashing world #10 Melzer, the ATP’s most spectacular one-handed backhand dominated Roddick for a set and a half before briefly faltering when he stood on the verge of victory.  The familiar, diffident version of Gasquet would have allowed that stumble to ruin his confidence, but instead he regained his composure and played a commanding tiebreak concluded by—what else—a balletic backhand winner that barely clipped the baseline.

Yet perhaps the most surprising and noteworthy revival of the week occurred in the  women’s draw, where former #1 Safina launched an unexpected charge through three opponents.  Overcoming two-time champion Hantuchova, Marat’s sister displayed flashes of the imposing backhand and the combative spark that defined her tenure at the top.  Against world #4 Stosur, the Russian participated in one of the worst matches of the women’s season (see above) but still found a way to win the most important points, including the potentially tense first-set tiebreak.  Thoroughly outgunned by Sharapova a round later, Safina nevertheless should take immense reassurance from this week as she heads to Miami and a potential second-round meeting with Zvonareva.

Maria Sharapova - BNP Paribas Open

Glamor girls:  In one of her most impressive results since shoulder surgery, Sharapova reached the final four of this Premier Mandatory event and stands within range of rejoining the top 10.  Rusty from a February illness, she required three hours to maneuver through her opener but then bludgeoned Rezai and Safina while losing just six total games.  Although her erratic play resurfaced against Peng, Sharapova demonstrated elevated confidence by surmounting a wayward serve, windy conditions, and an obdurate opponent.  Having fallen to Zheng in similar circumstances last year, she avoided an encore by trusting her shots to scorch the lines when it mattered most.  Mitigating these encouraging portents was a loss to Wozniacki in which the three-time major champion evinced a listlessness almost as odd as Nadal’s error-strewn collapse in the final.  After a sprightly, fist-pumping beginning, the three-time major champion looked resigned to defeat when the momentum turned against her rather than showcasing her fabled steeliness.  On the other hand, one disconcerting evening should not outweigh the sequence of successes that preceded it.

On the other side of the draw, Ivanovic more than doubled her victory total for the season by recapturing traces of the magic that propelled her to consecutive Indian Wells finals in 2008-09.  Under Djokovic’s watchful eye, she defused the dangerous Kimiko Date-Krumm in her opener, an accomplishment that she may need to repeat in Miami.  Two rounds later, the smiling Serb confronted compatriot and defending champion Jankovic, who had won their two previous meetings during Ivanovic’s slump.  Clenching her fist and twirling in joy with each swinging volley or forehand winner, Ana reasserted her dominance over the intra-Serbian rivalry during an emphatic victory.  Perhaps too spent from that cathartic triumph to muster sufficient energy on the following day, Ivanovic nevertheless can reflect with satisfaction upon a week that banished many melancholy memories of the last two months from her mind like clouds from the cerulean California sky.

Continuing our Indian Wells daily preview series, we separate the four favorites on Thursday into the punchers and the counterpunchers.  Or, in a more picturesque phrase, swords and shields.

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia pumps her fist following her victory over Dinara Safina of Russia during the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on March 15, 2011 in Indian Wells, California.

Swords:

Sharapova:  After an uncertain opening game against Safina, the 2006 champion sharpened her focus and methodically snuffed out any ray of hope that her former nemesis might have nurtured.  Even as she marched inexorably towards the quarterfinals, Sharapova continued to level her frosty glare before each serve and inspect each adverse call.  This mental relentlessness recalled her tenure at the peak of the game, when she played each point with the same single-minded intensity without regard to the scoreline.  Against a less notable but far more sprightly opponent, the Russian will need to maintain that level of concentration as well as the spine-tingling shot-making that characterized her 28 winners in the previous round.  The three-time major champion also altered her serving stance (although not her motion) before the tournament, and she generally has controlled that shot more effectively here than for much of her comeback.

In contrast to the less mobile Rezai and Safina, Peng possesses the agility to track down and Sharapova’s skidding rockets.  Like her compatriot Zheng, her low center of gravity enables her to retrieve them more comfortably than Maria’s statuesque Eastern European opponents.  Also like Zheng, however, Peng projects little power from the service notch and must hope to protect her second serve with a high first-serve percentage.  From their previous meetings emerge little useful evidence, for Sharapova’s victory came on red clay six years ago, while Peng upset an exhausted Russian a day after she battled Azarenka for three and a half hours.  Able to absorb the pace of Petrova and Li Na, the Chinese star certainly could capitalize upon an erratic afternoon from the 2006 champion.  But Sharapova will control her own destiny for better or for worse, just as this proud competitor prefers.

Del Potro:  Having equaled his best performance in the desert so far, the Argentine tower of power shares Sharapova’s capacity to hammer groundstrokes through even this exceptionally slow surface.  His comeback has accelerated with implausible speed from semifinals in San Jose and Memphis to a title in Delray Beach and four successive victories here.  Without the privilege of a bye, Del Potro nevertheless showed little sign of fatigue during a three-set victory over Ljubicic or a two-tiebreak triumph over Kohlschreiber, when he saved five successive set points.  Will his physical and mental exertions eventually weigh upon his lanky limbs, especially when he plays for the second straight day?  On the other hand, the rusty Argentine may benefit from an injury to projected opponent Tommy Robredo, who overcame a painful leg strain against Querrey on Wednesday.  The valiant Spaniard has dispatched both of the American Cinderellas in his section, eliminating not only Verdasco-killer Querrey but also Murray-killer Donald Young.  Should he dare to take the court, one suspects that the hunter will become the hunted, for Del Potro’s massive forehand has grown progressively more ominous from one victory to the next.

Rafael Nadal - BNP Paribas Open

Shields:

Nadal:  Scarcely short of flawless in his first two victories, the world #1 displayed his mortal nature in a surprisingly complicated meeting with Indian qualifier Somdev Devvarman.  Since his draw nearly emptied of contenders within the first two rounds, Nadal could trace a tranquil route to the final.  Having slipped outside the top 200 with injuries and advancing age, Karlovic has risen from the catacombs of obscurity this week with victories over Ferrer, Simon, and Montanes.  Probably more remarkable than his unbroken sequence of service holds across eight sets was his ability to break his seeded opponents six times despite a normally woeful return game.  Nadal has likened returning the Croat’s serve to a soccer goalie receiving a kick in the stomach, and he has dropped sets to this intimidating opponent on more than one occasion.  Although the slow surface has denied Karlovic his customary avalanche of aces, he has found plentiful opportunities to stride to the net for a comfortably high volley.  Confronting the peerless passing shots of the Spaniard, that task grows significantly more difficult.  One could imagine Karlovic forcing a tiebreak or two, perhaps even slipping away a set with a little luck if Nadal fails to elevate his level from Wednesday.  When a match hinges upon a few key points, however, few players have a keener knack for capturing the moment than the world #1.

Wozniacki:  Seeking to tighten her grip upon the #1 ranking, last year’s finalist has become the clear favorite for the title following the early exodus of almost the entire top 10.  Alone among the other survivors is Wozniacki’s quarterfinal opponent, a close friend off the court and a fierce rival on it.  Perhaps as a result of their congenial relationship, their previous encounters have featured scintillating tennis only sporadically but have compensated for that flaw with dramatic suspense.  Last fall in Tokyo, for example, the world #1 thoroughly dominated Azarenka through a set and a half before the Belarussian awakened to play an inspired tiebreak and force a third set.  At that stage, Wozniacki rushed to a 5-0 lead, only to watch it nearly evaporate beneath her opponent’s assault.  Their rivalry looks likely to assume center stage after the current generation of WTA stars fade, mixing talent with glamor in the fusion beloved by the WTA’s marketing squad.

Diverging in personalities more than in playing styles, they arrived at this anticipated meeting only after rallying from one-set deficits in the previous round.  But he parallels between those comebacks stop at the surface.  Whereas Wozniacki progressively consolidated her control over a flagging Kleybanova and romped through the final set, Azarenka averted four match points against Radwanska during a match that lasted over three hours.  If the Belarussian has recovered physically from that ordeal, she may have gained psychological impetus through her brush with disaster.  Extremely fortunate to have remained in the desert for another round, she can attack her shots liberated from the tension of expectations.  In order to postpone a flight to Miami that looked imminent two days ago, however, Azarenka must curb her serving struggles and find a way to hold more comfortably than she did against Radwanska.  No serving leviathan, Wozniacki still maintains her equilibrium far more steadily than does her friend and can navigate through her service games more efficiently.  Azarenka can unveil her arguably greater potential only when she develops a similar ability.


Transmission reference: CADC102

Serbs:

Ivanovic vs. Bartoli:  Skipping to the net after a comprehensive victory over compatriot, rival, and defending champion Jankovic, Serbia’s merry maiden exuded delight with her most impressive performance of the season so far.  Now, Ivanovic must prevent her charmingly giddy mood from spilling into a winnable match against not Clijsters, her anticipated opponent, but Bartoli.  If she can preserve the focus that she displayed in her first three matches, the Serb should earn the opportunity to take control of this encounter.  Once dominant against the double-fisted Frenchwoman, Ivanovic suffered a pair of defeats against her last season before rebounding to vanquish her en route to the Beijing quarterfinals.  In a match between two players with exceptional returns, the ability to find first serves at pivotal moments will prove essential.  While Bartoli built a victory over Petkovic upon timely serving, Ana relied upon her delivery to deny several break points and propel her through multiple deuce games against Jankovic.

Perhaps a little fortunate to receive a retirement from Clijsters, Bartoli will hope to stretch Ivanovic out of position with her symmetrical groundstrokes.  The similarly flat, low, and heavy groundstrokes of Kleybanova baffled Wozniacki for a set on the same court, so the Frenchwoman could enjoy parallel success if she takes control of the points from the outset.  By contrast, Ivanovic will aim to establish early dominance over their exchanges with a mighty first blow of her own, from either the serve or the return.  Since neither player fancies elongated, grinding rallies, we should witness a sequence of relatively short, sharp exchanges that the Frenchwoman and the Serb will seek to terminate in the forecourt.  Will Ana rest content in the euphoria of Tuesday’s triumph, or will she soar from that success to another win on Wednesday?

Troicki vs. Djokovic:  The second all-Serbian match in the last two days, this confrontation may test the apparent invincibility of the Australian Open champion.  Racing through a 16-match winning streak, Djokovic has lost only three sets this season—as many as he lost to Troicki in their four meetings last year.  Since the elder Serb won their first collision in 2007, his younger compatriot has reeled off seven consecutive victories but twice had to escape from predicaments against him last year.  Most notably, Troicki led the eventual US Open runner-up by two sets to one in New York before succumbing.  Denied a chance to atone for that disappointment when he retired against Djokovic in Melbourne, the world #18 will hope to capitalize upon his renewed self-belief after winning his first career title and the deciding Davis Cup rubber last fall.  On the other hand, he surpasses his compatriot in no area of the game when the world #3 produces his best tennis. Almost entirely bulletproof thus far, Djokovic may benefit from the incline in competition as the crucial rounds approach.

Serves:

Querrey vs. Robredo:  Dispatching the two highest-ranked players in their eighth of the draw, two Americans have found their paths barred by the evergreen Robredo.  Will Querrey founder on the shoals of the Spaniard’s unassuming game just as did Donald Young?  Unbroken on serve in victories over Tipsarevic and Verdasco, he possesses a far more formidable weapon in that tournament than his compatriot.  Robredo has struggled against the powerful serve of Roddick, unable to expose that American’s relative one-dimensionality.  Against Querrey, his principal advantage lies in his experience and his often more intelligent shot selection.  But he may not have the opportunity to construct rallies as carefully as he would prefer.

Roddick vs. Gasquet:  While Roddick may have won three of their four meetings, the clash that most fans remember tilted in the direction of the Frenchman.  Trailing the former US Open champion by two sets and a break in their Wimbledon quarterfinal, Gasquet suddenly sprang to life to erase the arrears with his magical shot-making.  Almost before Roddick could catch his breath, it appeared, the last of the Frenchman’s exquisite backhands whistled past him to terminate his campaign at the All England Club.  In a far more prosaic encounter, however, lies the key to how this match might unfold.  After a scintillating first set accelerated into a tiebreak, Roddick’s superior serve collected crucial points as a deflated Gasquet faded anticlimactically.

And more:

Kohlschreiber vs. Del Potro:  Following the departure of most notable names from his section, the Argentine can become a surprise semifinalist if he overcomes a German who continued his dominance over Soderling in the previous round.  Increasingly more impressive in a three-set victory over Ljubicic, Del Potro then dismissed Dolgopolov with surprising ease.  He has not faced Kohlschreiber on a hard court since 2007, well before his breakthrough, and he must beware of targeting the German’s volatile backhand in cross-court exchanges.  A recurrent dark horse but rarely a champion, the world #35 generally scores no more than one upset per tournament.  Despite the disparity between their current rankings, a win over the 2009 US Open champion probably would rank in the upset category.

Berdych vs. Wawrinka:  Once again situated in Federer’s vicinity, the second Swiss aims to extend his two-match winning streak against the seventh seed, whom he routed in January at Chennai.  While Berdych has looked imperious against a pair of overmatched opponents, Wawrinka has labored harder to earn his victories.  Narrowly escaping Davydenko after the Russian served for the match in the second set, he later erased a first-set deficit against Cilic.  No longer content to idle in Federer’s shadow, the Swiss #2 has grown more willing to take the initiative in baseline exchanges rather than trudging through wars of attrition.  Just before his Miami breakthrough last year, Berdych reached the quarterfinal in the desert and valiantly tested Nadal through a pair of tight sets.  As he prepares to defend copious amounts of points through the spring and summer, a strong result at a major event like Indian Wells would buttress his confidence.

Peer vs. Wickmayer:  A round after clawing herself past Pavlyuchenkova 7-5 in the third set, the gritty Israeli once again found herself in a marathon encounter.  Extending her uncanny hard-court dominance over Schiavone, Peer battled past the Italian in a third-set tiebreak with a dogged resilience to which her victim herself would have doffed her cap.   Yet one wonders how much energy will she bring to this quarterfinal against an opponent who can outhit her from the baseline and out-serve her from the notch.  Across the net, Wickmayer squandered a 5-1 lead in the first set against Cibulkova and proceeded through the second set less efficiently than she could have.  On the other hand, the Belgian won the two games at the end of each set and, like Peer, refused to let the points that mattered most slip away from her.  Armed with combative mentalities, neither the Israeli nor the Belgian should concede an inch with so much at stake:  a berth in a Premier Mandatory semifinal, which does not often drift in their direction.

Whereas the women’s draw at Indian Wells yawns open for a host of players to exploit, the men’s draw rests within the vise-like grasp of a tiny elite.  Or so we thought last year until Ljubicic reminded us that anything can happen in a land where vistas reveal themselves as mirages.   Will the desert sands shift again in 2011?  We think not.

The best tennis player in the world, Rafael Nadal, wins the ATP tournament of Indian Wells. Rafa defeated Andy Murray in the final match.

First quarter:  Like fellow top seed Wozniacki, Nadal should settle into a section littered with compatriots from Almagro and Montanes to Australian Open nemesis Ferrer.  Sharpening his hard-court weapons against clay specialist Juan Monaco, the two-time Indian Wells champion might confront a player who served for the match against him here three years ago.  Renowned for a stunning 2008 triumph over Rafa in an Australian Open semifinal, Tsonga has lost all five of their other meetings.  In fact, the acrobatic Frenchman might fall victim before that round to the fitter, leaner version of Marcos Baghdatis, although the volatile Cypriot has alternated wins over Del Potro and Murray with retirements in Melbourne and Dubai.  Veering wildly between peaks and valleys, Baghdatis ambushed Federer in this tournament last year and fell to Robredo a round later.  Unless he can reprise his three-set upset over Nadal in Cincinnati, the world #1 should have an opportunity to avenge his recent Melbourne defeat.  In a comic juxtaposition between two foes 13 inches apart in height, Ferrer must tame Karlovic’s staccato, record-breaking serve.  The diminutive Spanard then must adjust to the grinding court coverage of Simon and the flamboyant groundstrokes of Almagro, a two-time titlist this season who fell to Ferrer in the Acapulco final two weeks ago.  Tested by that trio of contrasting styles, the world #6 should profit from the slow hard courts of Indian Wells.  But he will find the healthy Rafa a far more imposing challenge than the hobbled warrior who mustered little resistance against him at the Australian Open.

Semifinalist:  the 2007 and 2009 champion

Second quarter:  Just as in Melbourne, Soderling’s possession of the fourth seed proved immaterial in a draw that could pit him against the fifth-seeded Murray.  Aligned against Kohlschreiber in the third round, the bone-crushing Swede will hope to relive the memory of a Rotterdam encounter during which he saved a match point en route to defeating the German for the first time in five meetings.  Soon to suffer a precipitous rankings tumble, defending champion Ljubicic might not survive the revitalized Del Potro in the second round.  And everyone in this section will struggle to solve the conundrum of Alexander Dolgopolov, the only player to defeat Soderling so far in 2011.  Capitalizing upon the momentum from the Melbourne quarterfinals, the Ukrainian scintillated Latin American audiences last month with his loose-limbed grace.  In this section’s lower half lurks Murray, who suffered from post-Melbourne doldrums here last year during a listless loss to Soderling.  Few potential opponents can hand him a credible excuse for an early exit this time, for even a tepid version of the Scot remains far superior on hard courts to the aging Starace, the powerless Robredo, and the stagnant Verdasco.  Wallowing through three consecutive losses before arriving in the desert, the Spaniard has won consecutive matches in only two of his last eleven tournaments.

Semifinalist:  the 2009 runner-up

Novak Djokovic of Serbia kisses the Pacific Life Open trophy after winning the men's final match by defeating Mardy Fish at the Pacific Life Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden March 23, 2008 in Indian Wells, California. Djokovic won the match 6-2, 5-7, 6-3.

Third quarter:  Undefeated this season after the longest winning streak of his career, Djokovic will attempt to duplicate his 2008 achievement of coupling the year’s first major with the year’s first Masters 1000 event.  Within striking range of the #2 ranking, the Serb will risk his pristine record against Hopman Cup victim Golubev, who will arrive in Indian Wells buoyed by recent Davis Cup heroics.  While the enigmatic Gulbis could loom a round later, Djokovic should glide to the quarterfinals rather than enduring an encore of last year’s early exit.  Among the other intriguing matches in his vicinity is a projected third-round duel between Troicki and Llodra, who decided the 2010 Davis Cup title.  Elsewhere in this section, the stars and stripes wave above Roddick, Blake, and Isner, only one of whom can reach the fourth round.  Defending 1,600 points this month, last year’s finalist seeks to avert another loss to the player who defeated him in a fifth-set tiebreak at the 2009 US Open.  Unlike the slick surface of Arthur Ashe Stadium, the sluggish courts of Indian Wells should tilt towards Roddick’s favor in a collision between Davis Cup teammates.  Tormented by Gasquet four Wimbledons ago, the American should navigate past either the Frenchman or Melzer to arrange a second Indian Wells quarterfinal against Djokovic.  Although Roddick prevailed on that occasion and in four of their last five encounters, the Serb has reclaimed the swagger that propelled him to victory when they met at the 2008 US Open.

Semifinalist:  the 2008 champion

Fourth quarter:  The only player ever to win three consecutive titles in the California desert, Federer hopes to erase the memories of his last several visits to Indian Wells.  After an opening-match loss to Canas to 2007, the Swiss legend mustered just five games against Mardy Fish in the 2008 semifinals, ate a third-set breadstick against Murray in the 2009 semifinals, and spurned double match point en route to defeat against Baghdatis in the third round last year.  Troubled at two previous hard-court majors by potential second-round opponent Andreev, Federer likely will find himself faced with either the aforementioned Fish or overnight sensation Milos Raonic in the fourth round.  Enjoying a meteoric rise through the rankings, the Canadian prodigy must eagerly anticipate the opportunity test his Ancic-like style against the ATP’s most prestigious names.  Federer will hope to meet Wawrinka in the quarterfinals, since his compatriot typically melts at the sight of the GOAT like snow in the desert sun.  Slightly more likely to derail a third 2011 duel with Djokovic is the seventh-seeded Berdych, however, who saved match point against the Swiss in Miami before snapping his streak of seven consecutive Wimbledon finals.  Surely still nursing a thirst for revenge, Federer overcame the Czech at the Rogers Cup last summer by the slimmest of margins.  How much longer can his agility and competitive resilience continue to weather the next generation’s savage baseline blows?

Semifinalist:  the 2004, 2005, and 2006 champion

 

 

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As the ATP spirals towards the close of its season, intriguing questions surround the four players atop its rankings.  Will Federer mitigate his Slam disappointment with an emphatic fall and a second straight Masters 1000 title?  Will Djokovic build upon his US Open heroics and conquer one of his three major rivals again?  Can Murray shrug off recent adversity more swiftly than after the Australian Open?  Or will Nadal continue to brush aside any and all challenges to his now unquestioned hegemony?  (Clearly, Uncle Toni never taught him the virtue of sharing with others.)

Nadal’s quarter:  With very little to motivate him this fall, Rafa nevertheless displayed largely focused tennis in Tokyo last week after a puzzling wobble in Bangkok.  A Shanghai finalist last year, the top seed begins against Wawrinka, who hasn’t defeated Nadal in six attempts but severely tested him earlier this summer at the Rogers Cup.  Beyond that initial challenge, few significant obstacles loom between the Spaniard and the final four, although defending champion Davydenko will seek to repeat his mini-upset over Rafa in the quarterfinals.  Posting an 11-11 record after returning from wrist surgery, the Russian hasn’t won more than two consecutive matches since February and has lost eight matches to players outside the top 50.  Like Wawrinka, he could challenge Nadal for a set or so, but he currently doesn’t possess the confidence or the consistency necessary to repeat the feat of 2009.  While opponents such as the burgeoning Istomin might seize inspiration from the ambush sprung by Garcia-Lopez and the near-ambush sprung by Troicki, Nadal rarely tolerates such unwelcome surprises early in Masters 1000 events.

Murray’s quarter:  This section seems the weakest in the draw, not least because the Scot is in it.  Moping his way to defeat against Ljubicic in Beijing, Murray still seems (understandably) disheartened by his New York disaster, much as he exuded deflation after losing the Melbourne final.  Judging by that earlier episode, he will spend the rest of his season nursing his fragile self-esteem back to health for 2011.  But a quirky collection of frail, enigmatic performers populate the fourth seed’s neighborhood, already a bit defanged by the first-round upset of the inflammable Almagro.  Mostly dormant since the grass season, Tsonga looked chronically fallible in a first-round victory over Lopez.  On the other hand, he has threatened Murray on fast courts and arguably should have won their Wimbledon quarterfinal if not for an untimely bit of carelessness in the second-set tiebreak.  A semifinalist at the US Open, Youzhny vindicated that victory with a title in Kuala Lumpur, although he struggled for much of that week against opponents well below his stature; in Beijing, he succumbed immediately to Ljubicic.  If Murray avoids spoilers like Chardy or Dolgopolov, he will hope to face the Russian rather than the Frenchman, for Youzhny’s artful style lacks the tectonic serve-groundstroke combinations that typically trouble the Scot…and that define Tsonga’s game.

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Federer’s quarter:  Apparently fascinated with the spectacle of the Swiss and the Swede, the draw deities again have situated them in the same section.  Nevertheless, these two bookends might find themselves toppled by one of the names between them, including the towering Isner.  Emboldened by a Beijing semifinal appearance, the American poses a perilous conundrum for Federer in his opener.  In order to capitalize upon his opportunities, the third seed must find his rhythm immediately and avoid any of his recently chronic profligacy.  Since he surged to the Australian Open semifinal, Cilic has stagnated if not regressed for much of 2010, so one suspects that Federer could handle him comfortably en route to a quarterfinal with Soderling or Ferrer.  Comprehensively dominating the world #5 in Beijing, the Spaniard reminded viewers of his underestimated hard-court talents by reaching the final of that event.  Meanwhile, the Swede has underachieved notably since Wimbledon.  Armed with a 23-1 record against Soderling and Ferrer combined, Federer might be forgiven for feeling a trifle complacent about his situation.  Complacency undermined him in his US Open semifinal with Djokovic, however, and he fell to the pedestrian Julien Benneteau at about this stage last year.  His thirst for majors only sparingly quenched in 2010, Federer should enter the fall season hungrier and more focused in 2011.

Djokovic’s quarter:  Having seized the Beijing title without the loss of a set, the Serb eyes an opener with Beijing semifinalist Ljubcic, who stunned him early in a fairytale fortnight at Indian Wells.  Restored to human form, the veteran Croat shouldn’t muster the relentless effort required to dispatch the reinvigorated Djokovic.  Much of the drama in this section may happen before the quarterfinal, including a first-round clash between Gulbis and Gasquet that opposes visceral force to deft versatility.  Also colliding in the first round are Roddick and Kohlschreiber, who delivered an entertaining four-setter at Wimbledon this year and a dazzling five-setter at the 2008 Australian Open.  Although Bangkok titlist and nascent Nadal-killer Garcia-Lopez might intend otherwise, either Kohlschreiber or Roddick likely will advance to a final-16 meeting with Berdych, brilliant in the first half but familiarly vulnerable in the second half.  (In fact, don’t be shocked if he falls to the tenacious Robredo on Tuesday.)  On the other side of the quarter, Djokovic could face Tokyo runner-up Monfils, who offered little resistance to the Serb at the US Open and flirts with drama too often to become a serious contender.  Dominated by Roddick since early 2009, the Serb probably would prefer a quarterfinal with Berdych.  Considering the American’s underwhelming second half, however, Djokovic might relish an opportunity to trumpet his revival by settling an old score.

***

As strongly as we’re tempted to choose a trendy draw-breaker in one of these sections, we have decided to unimaginatively stick with the top four seeds to reach their appointed destinations on Saturday.  We will return to Shanghai for semifinal and final previews (if not sooner) before reflecting upon the WTA’s new #1 early next week.

Dwarfed by the lingering shadow of the US Open, four small tournaments came and went last week.  We outline one intriguing storyline from each of these geographically disparate events in the most recent edition of (TW)2.

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Allez les bleus (Metz): Just a week after France advanced to the Davis Cup final, two players who didn’t participate in any live rubbers dazzled in Metz.  Overcoming the tenacious Robredo in the quarterfinals, Gasquet temporarily conquered his aversion to playing before his compatriots and extended his momentum from a second-week run at the US Open.  But the more remarkable storyline came from the nearly forgotten Simon, who celebrated the birth of his first child with his first title of 2010.  Enduring an arid campaign this year, Gilles emphatically dispatched the formidable Kohlschreiber in the semifinals after the German had ousted Cilic with equal authority in the quarterfinals.  Accomplished on indoor hard courts, Simon enters the fall season fresher and more motivated than most of his rivals, having missed much of the spring and summer with injuries.  Don’t be surprised to see the new father spring an upset or two (or, in Simon-speak, “accidents”) during the Masters 1000 events.  If his star does continue to rise, Guy Forget may face some intriguing choices when assembling his squad for the Davis Cup final.

The clay season never ends (Bucharest): Between Wimbledon and the US Open, an assortment of small events throughout Europe allow dirt devils to gobble up rankings points while the top dogs play elsewhere.  Even after the US Open, though, the Bucharest event greets clay specialists with open arms at a time when Roland Garros lies far in the past or the future, depending on your perspective.  Unsurprisingly, three Spaniards capitalized upon this unlikely windfall to reach the semifinals, while the ageless Chela captured his second title of 2010.  Although these results bear little or no meaning for the impending Asian hard courts, one should note that not every player experiences the apparently seamless progression from hard courts to clay to grass to hard courts traced by the arc of the key events.  When contemplating schedule revisions, though, ATP officials might want to address this particular anomaly and relocate it to a more appropriate week in the calendar.

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One step forward, one step back for former #1s (Seoul): Following encouraging campaigns at Cincinnati and the US Open, Ivanovic should have entered Seoul filled with the confidence to move further on her winding road back to relevance.  Yet the Serb tumbled out of the tournament with an unsightly loss to Vera Dushevina, who has developed an odd habit for dragging top players down to her pedestrian level.  Despite winning a comfortable first set, Ivanovic lost the rhythm on her serve shortly thereafter and never regained it.  By contrast, her victim in the 2008 Roland Garros final recorded a pair of solid wins before falling to recurrent nemesis Zakopalova.  One of Safina’s more impressive victories since returning from a back injury, her commanding performance against Kirilenko boded well for her self-belief as 2010 edges towards its conclusion.  Neither Safina nor Ivanovic has anything significant to defend during the fall (Ivanovic, in fact, has nothing at all to defend); therefore, they should hope to exploit any advantageous draws that they receive in order to bolster their rankings for 2011.  (A round into Tokyo, the Serb scored another victory over Kleybanova, while the Russian endured a puzzling loss to Julia Goerges.  In other words, the rollercoaster continues.)

The Russians keep coming (Tashkent): Dwindling to just one member of the top 10, this mighty tennis nation continues to capture title after title at all levels of the WTA.  In Tashkent, Kudryavtseva reached her second straight final and then became the sixth different Russian to win a singles title this year…at the expense of compatriot Vesnina, who was contesting her second final of 2010.  Had Petrova not withdrawn from her Seoul semifinal, another all-Russian title tilt might have developed there.  As it was, Kleybanova thoroughly dominated the competition in the South Korean capital and showed flashes of the shot-making artistry that might lead her to the top 20.  While nobody would mistake Kudryavtseva, Vesnina, or arguably even Kleybanova for a Slam contender, these players remind observers that Russian women’s tennis possesses a depth equaled only by Spanish men’s tennis.  Wherever tennis balls are struck, it seems that someone from the land of Stravinsky and Stalin will stand poised to strike them.

***

On Wednesday, we preview the quarterfinals in Tokyo.  Who looks ready to open the fall with an imposing statement?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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We’ve previewed the ATP and WTA cast of characters at Roland Garros rather thoroughly in the previous two posts, so there’s not much to add after the draw was released today.  Nevertheless, a few more specific pensées struck us as we perused it.  Ten of them, in fact.

1)  Nadal has time to find his rhythm:  Rafa’s initial cannon fodder, French wildcard Gianni Mina won’t enjoy what surely will be a brief visit to Court Philippe Chatrier.  The next two rounds probably feature Zeballos and Hewitt, neither of whom possesses the flat, relentlessly scorching groundstrokes required to trouble Nadal.  In the round of 16, the Spaniard could avenge a defeat to Indian Wells nemesis Ljubicic, not a formidable threat on clay; on the other hand, the flamboyant but raw and undisciplined Bellucci might await.  Likely to economically dispatch all of these adversaries, Nadal should be able to retain ample energy for the second week–bad news for his opponents.

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2)  Henin has virtually no time to find her rhythm:  As the defending ATP champion, Federer drew the WTA seeds and botched the business as badly as the last shot that he (didn’t) hit in Madrid.  Not only are four of the top five contenders are in the top half of the draw, but three of the top five are in the top quarter.  “Merci beaucoup,” says Justine, who confronts the grim prospect of defeating Sharapova, Stosur, Serena, and Jankovic back-to-back-to-back-to-back just in order to reach the final.  Barring some unexpected test, a supreme test of the petite Belgian’s durability looms.  Give her an extra round of applause if she surmounts all of these obstacles to capture her fifth French Open.

3)  The tennis gods are smiling on Venus:  It’s good to have a first-round opponent against whom one is 10-0 (Schnyder).  It’s better to have two potential quarterfinal opponents who combined to win three total matches in Rome and Madrid (Azarenka, Dementieva).  It’s best of all to be the only serious contender in one’s entire half with an open path towards one’s first non-Wimbledon Slam final since Nadal won his first French Open.  To be sure, it’s not so good to have the player who defeated you a week ago in the fourth round, but lightning probably won’t strike twice for Rezai.  In short, Venus got about as much aid as she could reasonably imagine from the deities of the draw.

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4)  The tennis gods are frowning on Verdasco:  After dazzling audiences in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Rome, the streaky Spaniard might have expected to translate that impetus into his second Slam semifinal appearance or even his first Slam final.  He must have been demoralized when Rafa was revealed as his quarterfinal opponent.  If he’s tired from Nice, moreover, he might struggle a round earlier to subdue Almagro, fresh from an exhilarating surge to the Madrid semifinals.

5)  Sharapova was wise to enter Strasbourg:  Recovering from an elbow injury, Maria will need the injection of momentum from that tournament in order to threaten Henin at all during their likely third-round encounter.  In the probable event that such an assignment proves too strenuous for the Russian, the points accumulated in Strasbourg will help to cushion her ranking against those that she would lose from an early exit, since Sharapova thundered to the quarterfinals last year with a dramatic sequence of four consecutive three-set triumphs.

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6)  Gasquet was wise to enter Nice:  The French-kissing Frenchman informed everyone who would listen that he had devoted considerable effort to preparing for the clay season…and then preceded to make no impact there whatsoever.  This week, though, he has strung together a few wins over rather pedestrian opposition in Nice.  Considering Murray’s less than convincing form on clay, Gasquet has a reasonable chance to record his third win in four meetings over the Scot.  Should he progress past that initial challenge, his draw could open up immensely; a deep run in Paris would elevate both his ranking and his confidence.

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7)  Ivanovic has a chance…:  …to reach the second week or even the quarters.  Despite her 2009 Australian Open loss to Kleybanova, one would give the Serb a substantial clay edge over the ponderous Russian, who has struggled since winning her maiden title in Kuala Lumpur this February.  A third-round clash with Radwanska beckons for Ana, who tested the Pole in Stuttgart despite playing far from her best; again, although by no means an easy assignment, it’s a winnable match if Ivanovic can maintain the level that she attained in Rome.  Beset by major physical and mental issues, Safina and Zvonareva represent the leading candidates for the fourth round, and we definitely would feel optimistic regarding her chances against either of those Russians.

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8)  Soderling doesn’t have a chance…:  …to repeat his 2009 performance.  Toting a three-match losing streak into the scene of his historic triumph last year, Soderling not only has no positive impetus upon which to build but also has drawn Federer in the quarterfinals.  He might not risk a 13th consecutive loss to the Swiss legend, however, since Gulbis should intersect his path in the fourth round.  Even the mind-numbingly steady Montanes might  be a bridge too far for the staggering Swede.

9)  There will be at least one surprise WTA semifinalist:  Bookended by defending champion Kuznetsova and the injured Wozniacki, the third quarter offers fertile terrain for a breakthrough similar to Stosur’s career-changing charge here last year.  Judging from recent results, Li Na and Safarova seem the most reasonable candidates; judging by clay expertise, the Italians Schiavone and Pennetta might have a chance, although their 2010 clay campaigns have been inconsistent at best.

10)  There will be at least one surprise ATP semifinalist:  Scanning the second quarter of the draw, we couldn’t locate a single remotely plausible contender in its ranks.  Garcia-Lopez and the aging Robredo are the only real clay experts in this district, for Murray, Tsonga, and Berdych enjoy their best results on faster surfaces.  So does Isner, but the American has acquitted himself competently thus far in the gritty grind.  No matter who does the dirty work, though, Federer (or perhaps Gulbis) will be waiting to feast in the semifinals.

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Stay tuned for our first daily preview of the action at Roland Garros; “Feet and Feat of Clay” debuts tomorrow with highlight matches, potential upsets, and anything else that might catch our attention!