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Maria Sharapova - 2012 Australian Open - Day 11

After a discouraging first-round loss to Kirilenko in the 2010 Australian Open, Sharapova eyed her inquisitors with grim resolve as she vowed that she would return to the second Saturday.  A woman of her word and of exemplary efficiency, the 2008 champion required just two years to fulfill her promise.  With a second Australian Open title and the #1 ranking at stake, she now aims to prove herself even better than her word.

Despite Kvitova’s ferocious return and ten double faults, Sharapova protected her serve courageously throughout her semifinal while surrendering only one break in each set.  While Azarenka’s greater consistency on return and weaker serve should result in more breaks for both players, the fourth seed will raise her fortunes significantly if she continues to strike such penetrating serves on crucial points.  Serving out the first set after a massive second serve on break point, Sharapova relied on the shot commonly considered her greatest weakness to escape from multiple break points in the final set.  On the contrary, the long deuce games consistently tilted in her favor, continuing a pattern apparent throughout the fortnight.  Coupled with unblinking focus, her relentless optimism under pressure allowed her to outlast an opponent who had seemed to hold the upper hand for most of the last two sets.  That tenacity could prove a crucial advantage against a first-time major finalist if this match proves as competitive as one would hope.

Among the other patterns from Sharapova’s semifinal and her fortnight more generally is the spurt of momentum with which she has started each match, somewhat uncharacteristic in her career.  Within two or three games from the first ball, she has claimed an early lead and thrust her opponent into a subordinate role.  In five of her six opening sets, she has lost no more than two games, dominance that looms especially large when one remembers that 21 of the last 22 major finals have ended in favor of the woman who won the first set.  Just as repeatedly, however, Sharapova has struggled to maintain her intensity early in the second set and suffered lulls in momentum that an alert foe like Azarenka could exploit.  During points, the 2008 champion also must stay intent and crisp, stretching the fleet-footed Vika along the baseline as soon as possible in the point but not taking anything for granted.  Unlike recent victims Lisicki and Kvitova, Azarenka combines anticipation with keen instincts and will force Sharapova to hit additional shots to finish points.  Since the start of the tournament, the Russian has displayed a crisper sense of shot selection than usual, perhaps aided by the additional time of the medium-speed surface.  Only in her quarterfinal against Makarova did that element of her game waver for substantial stretches.  When she collides with Azarenka, Sharapova must steel herself for the challenge of steadily outmaneuvering her opponent—while remaining ever alert for the first logical opportunity to pull the trigger.

Capitalizing upon the three-time major champion’s struggle to maintain that balance, Azarenka twice has defeated her in hard-court finals during which she lost ten total games and regularly broke serve.  The first-time major finalist demonstrated her vastly improved composure by winning a three-set semifinal against Clijsters after rebounding from a disastrous second set.  While the adverse crowd might have unnerved Vika a year or two ago, she conceded only sporadic flashes of frustration and collected herself without significant damage.  In the final, Azarenka again will need to avoid the emotional rollercoaster that many have grown to associate with her, for Sharapova would pounce on the chance to turn a trickle of momentum into a deluge.  Although lacking her opponent’s ball-striking power, the third seed can muster exceptional depth on her groundstrokes even when thrust out of position, courtesy of her smooth movement and streamlined technique.  If she can pinpoint the baseline as effectively as Sharapova lasers the sidelines, she could catch the Russian off balance to draw either an unforced error or a tentative reply.  As long as Azarenka can stay on neutral terms in rallies past the first several strokes, her superior consistency should wear down an opponent who prefers to terminate points with maximal speed.  Court positioning should play a pivotal role for each woman, each of whom will hope to step inside the baseline as often as possible and plow towards the forecourt to take the ball out of the air.

Victoria Azarenka - 2012 Australian Open - Day 11

When she guards her serve from the WTA’s most savage returner, Azarenka faces intriguing choices.  Occasional body serves probably would reap rewards, while Sharapova’s vast wingspan negates most attempts to create angles and sometimes allows her to create even more acute angles of her own. On the other hand, opening the court would allow her to hit behind the Russian, not adept at reversing direction.  As Kvitova eventually found, pace rather than placement has proved more effective  against Sharapova, so Azarenka may consider trading a modest dip in her normally superb first-serve percentage for a riskier, more powerful delivery more often.  Or she may not, considering that she will not want Maria to feast upon her weak second serve, the most vulnerable area of her game.  The two finalists in fact share many of the same strengths (return, backhand, swing volleys, willpower, lung power) as well as some of the same weaknesses (forehand technique that can falter under pressure, a distaste for conventional volleys, and a chronically unreliable second serve).

Like most major finals, though, tactical decisions and adjustments do not lead directly to outcomes.  Lingering above both players is the question of how they will perform in one of the four most meaningful matches of 2012.  Before her shoulder surgery, few would have hesitated to award Sharapova a clear edge in this category, considering her sparkling record in finals.  In two major semifinals and one final last year, however, she displayed sporadically disheveled tennis as the jagged edges of her massive game jolted into view.  More encouraging was her emotional but poised performance in the semifinal against Kvitova, reminiscent of her vintage efforts.  Meanwhile, Azarenka hopes to acquit herself as creditably as the Czech did when she played her first major final at Wimbledon last year.  Despite her lack of experience in such matches, she has accumulated valuable preparatory experience by winning two Miami finals as well as playing a tight three-set final at the year-end championships, all of those matches against elite opposition.

To judge from their past history, Azarenka could dominate this match from start to finish, as she did their finals in Stanford and Miami.  But a more tightly contested final could swing in the direction of Sharapova, still the superior competitor, as did the three-setters that they played in Los Angeles and Beijing.  When these two blondes battle for the Melbourne crown and the #1 ranking, moreover, the ancien regime of the WTA seeks to withstand the assault of the rising stars.  Will Azarenka score a victory for her generation, or will Sharapova strike a blow for hers?

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Just as he did in 2008, Novak Djokovic has advanced to the Australian Open final after charging to the US Open final the previous fall.  Just as he did in 2008, the Serb mercilessly dismantled the GOAT and reigning champion in a straight-set semifinal victory.  Just as he did in 2008, he faces a Slam-less opponent in the final after a premature exit by Nadal.  So, just as he did in 2008, will Djokovic nuzzle the trophy at the season’s opening major?

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia and Andy Murray of the United States hug at the net during the "Rally For Relief" charity exhibition match ahead of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 16, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Across the net awaits fellow crown prince Andy Murray, who has shared Djokovic’s plight throughout the golden age of Federer and Nadal.  Rare is the opportunity that now beckons before the Scot, who can end his Slam title drought without defeating either of the ATP legends.  Initially dominated by Djokovic in a mini-rivalry that has lain dormant for nearly two years, Murray has won their last six sets and both of their finals.  Although the Serb never has faced him in a best-of-five format, the fifth seed’s superior fitness should tilt that unknown factor in his favor should this match extend deep into the Melbourne night.  After tottering within a point of a two-set deficit against Ferrer, Murray saved his most compelling tennis for the pivotal tiebreaks and gradually ground down the ATP’s ultimate grinder.  Uneven in a four-set quarterfinal victory over Dolgopolov, last year’s finalist nearly allowed a routine first set to escape him and then breathed fleeting life into his opponent with a careless third set.  In his first four matches, however, his victims struggled to snatch a handful of games from the stingy Scot, who played with the lucid mind and opportunistic attitude that he must maintain in the final.

The distinct but not overwhelming favorite on Sunday, Djokovic announced himself as emphatically as Murray by conceding just five games to the competent Granollers in his opener.  Beyond a bizarre second-set wobble a round later, the 2008 champion has bludgeoned the belief out of his quivering prey with a series of nearly flawless performances.  Triggering memories of his title run four years ago, he reeled off six consecutive sets against top-8 opponents in the quarterfinals and semifinals.  Two days after Djokovic relied on his movement and versatility to baffle Berdych, he deployed his underestimated offensive firepower to fluster Federer.  The Serb comfortably won all three tiebreaks that he contested against the Czech and the Swiss, while he showed no traces of his chronic fatalism when confronting a second-set deficit in the semifinal.  Whereas Murray’s efficiency has declined across the fortnight, therefore, Djokovic’s intensity has risen with each match.  And one should not lean too heavily on the evidence of their recent history, for the Serb bears little resemblance to his tepid 2008-09 self.  In an ironic twist, a player who has loudly condemned the tour’s brief off-season profited from that brevity by importing his momentum from the US Open and the Davis Cup championship to Australia.

A sprightly counterpoint to the stately procession of Federer-Nadal finals, the 2011 title clash offers a dimension largely absent from the sport’s defining rivalry.  Divergent from the forehand-centered styles of the top two, Djokovic and Murray will unleash the two most stunning backhands in the ATP; in fact, last year’s finalist derives much greater offense from that wing than from his cautious forehand.  Ever crafty in point construction, the Scot will hope to resist the Serb’s mightier first-strike impact and disrupt his rhythm with a smorgasbord of spins and slices.  Much less averse to risk than the fifth seed, the third seed will aim to flatten his forehand and interweave safer cross-court strokes with intrepid rockets down the lines, robbing his opponent of the time required to construct his clever combinations.  These two gladiators share equally formidable first serves, although Djokovic enjoys greater consistency on that shot and complements it with a superior second serve.  Compensating for that disparity is Murray’s crackling return, which will subject the Serb to greater pressure than did any of his previous opponents.  Since both players prefer to wage war from the baseline, one expects them to decide few points at the net, and their seamless movement will thwart most drop shot attempts when this pair stands toe to toe.

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia waits for Andy Murray of Great Britain to head the ball back during the "Rally For Relief" charity exhibition match ahead of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 16, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Yet the intangible mental dimension probably will separate victor from vanquished.  Neither the Serb nor the Scot excels at concealing their emotions, either smirking in self-deprecation (the former) or moping disconsolately along the baseline (the latter) when the tide turns against them.  How will the two finalists respond to the adversity that surely will confront each of them in a closely contested encounter?  While one combatant seeks to cast aside the cloak of a one-Slam wonder, his adversary would delight in donning that mantle.

Two crown princes.  One throne.  Let the battle royale begin.

 

Na Li Na Li of China celebrates winning the womens final against Kim Clijsters of Belgium during day six of the 2011 Medibank International at Sydney Olympic Park Tennis Centre on January 14, 2011 in Sydney, Australia.

Li vs. Clijsters:  The fifth first-time finalist in the last four majors, Li Na hopes to follow the yellow brick road to the same destination at which Schiavone arrived on the red dirt of Roland Garros.  Yet a maiden title for China’s “golden flower” would surprise much less than the Miracle on Clay, for the ninth seed regularly has ambushed higher-ranked foes on the sport’s grandest stages.  Her icy fortitude resurfaced when she confronted a match point in the second set of her semifinal against world #1 Wozniacki, a moment at which most 11th-ranked players would have contented themselves with the achievement of reaching a Slam semifinal.  Far from sauntering complacently to the exit, however, Li whipped a forehand winner past the Dane and never relinquished the initiative thereafter.  Determined to control her own destiny, she never retreated from her aggressive mentality throughout the tense final set, while Wozniacki shrank ever further into her shell of passivity.  And when Li served for the match, she played with the composure of a champion rather than exposing her nerves with either tentative or reckless ball-striking.  First among her compatriots to reach the final weekend at a Slam, she will bear not only her own expectations but those of her watchful compatriots, who impose lofty standards upon their athletes.  If she can channel the inevitable nerves into positive energy, Clijsters will find Li a sterner challenge than any of her six previous victims.  Whereas Radwanska and Zvonareva generally allowed the Belgian to dictate the rallies, she will receive no such courtesy from the ninth seed.  Further elevating the latter’s confidence, moreover, is her startling victory over Kim in the Sydney final after she reversed a monumental first-set deficit. 

Although this encounter looms much larger in the career of Li than of Clijsters, the world #3 would profit from this fourth major title more than one might first imagine.  A champion only under the bright lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium thus far, the Belgian would buttress her legacy by accompanying her three US Open trophies with the Daphne Akhurst Cup.  Since she claims to envision retirement after the 2012 Olympics, Clijsters may pursue her few remaining opportunities with an additional layer of urgency.  Slightly less authoritative than Li throughout the fortnight, she has meandered through unfocused interludes before restoring order just as a set or crucial service break seemed on the verge of slipping away from her.  Outside her farcically one-sided opener against Safina, however, Kim’s semifinal victory over world #2 Zvonareva unfolded her most convincing and complete performance in Melbourne.  Meticulously organizing the rallies one groundstroke at a time, she steadily outmaneuvered the Russian from the baseline and smoothly sallied into the forecourt whenever she received a meek riposte.  Such alert instincts could prove central to her fate in the final, where the player who finishes points more efficiently will prevail. 

Since both contenders couple their offense with sturdy defense, each of them must plant herself inside the baseline and pin her opponent behind it in order to prevent her from restarting the rally on neutral terms.  Counterbalancing the Chinese star’s somewhat more potent aggression is Kim’s somewhat more fluid movement, but the two finalists can exchange roles with ease.  Mirroring each other’s styles, both Clijsters and Li have assembled symmetrical groundstroke games, superb fitness, precisely timed returns, and serves that disintegrate as rarely as they dazzle.  Thus, the match should hinge less upon overall tactics than upon point-by-point execution.  After an understated beginning, we expect to watch them carefully probe each other’s vulnerabilities and the contours of the court as they determine the degree of risk that will bring them the greatest reward.  Can they choreograph a pas de deux worthy of last year’s championship clash?

Andy Murray Andy Murray of Great Britain celebrates a point in his first round match against Karol Beck of Slovakia during day two of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 18, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Ferrer vs. Murray:  Not the Spaniard whom most expected to spar with the Scot in the second semifinal, the world #7 has reached the final four for only the second time at a major.  Curiously, both of his appearances at this stage have come on hard courts rather than his favored clay, where he has conquered Murray three times.  Succumbing to the Spanish dirt devil at Rome and Madrid in 2010, the world #5 emphatically avenged those reverses at the year-end championships.  Their only hard-court meeting in nearly five years, that contest rushed swiftly towards its inevitable conclusion as Ferrer rarely threatened Murray on his serve while constantly sustaining pressure on his own delivery.  Like Nadal, the Scot can cover the court as thoroughly as the seventh seed, who has not developed the offensive arsenal to overpower his higher-ranked foe from the baseline.  In addition to his grinding resilience, Ferrer relies upon a steady barrage of inside-out forehands that often can trouble forehand-centered games but flies directly into the teeth of Murray’s greatest asset, his brisk two-handed backhand.  Although last year’s finalist has achieved little consistency with his first serve, he will collect far more free points with that imposing delivery than does Ferrer with a serve that merely opens the rally, similar to those of most clay-court specialists. 

Among the two finest returners in the game, the fifth and seventh seeds view that shot from contrasting perspectives.  Whereas the Scot slaps benign second serves for outright winners, the Spaniard punches an unparalleled percentage of first serves into play with his compact strokes, frustrating opponents accustomed to aces.  On a surface far slower than the indoor court in London, Ferrer will sink his jaws into baseline exchanges more frequently than he could during their previous encounter.  Before the quarterfinal, moreover, the seventh seed reeled off victories nearly as authoritative as those of his opponent, who conceded just five games to Melzer and just 22 games in his first 12 sets.  Twice a runner-up to Federer at hard-court majors, Murray bears much greater expectations than does a Spaniard whose compatriots center their attention upon Nadal.  How will he respond to the role of the overwhelming favorite in a situation of this magnitude?  In a similar context against Cilic last year, he opened the match tense and irritable before finding his rhythm midway through the second set.  Without a thunderous serve to defuse, though, Murray should earn another opportunity to infuse British hearts with a bittersweet brew blending renewed hope and the anticipation of anguish.

Li Na Li Na of China reacts after winning a point against Alisa Kleybanova of Russia during day five of the 2010 China Open at the National Tennis Centre on October 5, 2010 in Beijing, China.

Wozniacki vs. Li:  Converging for the second straight Australian Open, these baseline gladiators collaborated upon an especially ghastly fourth-round encounter here last year.  While Wozniacki uncorked just three winners, Li repeatedly shanked swinging volleys and struggled to place her first serve throughout a match that featured more breaks than holds.  Dragging each other into final sets in their two prior meetings, they mirror each other in areas such as their stinging two-handed backhands and unremarkable but reliable serves, which will lead to elongated rallies that showcase their exceptional movement and court sense.  Whereas Wozniacki favors consistency over aggression on a forehand heavy with topspin, though, Li often flattens out her forehand to target lines and corners more ambitiously.  Stretching opponents off the court laterally with acutely angled groundstrokes, last year’s semifinalist must counter the Dane’s tactic of pushing opponents behind the baseline with deep but vertically oriented gambits.

Curiously, the 20-year-old already has compiled far greater experience at the sport’s highest level than the veteran who opposes her.  With one Slam final already to her credit, Wozniacki displayed the self-belief born of that experience in her quarterfinal comeback against Schiavone.  Down a set and a break, the world #1 did not despair during a deuce service game that almost certainly would have sealed her fate had she not secured it.  With a tenacity that resembled champions of the past, she found a way to navigate through those murky waters and soon found herself rewarded as fatigue nibbled away at Schiavone.  In a contrasting manner, Li Na also has resembled past champions through her utter dominance over her first five victims, none of whom could pry more than six games from the relentless Chinese star.  Never a paragon of consistency, she has wobbled for no more than one or two games at a time throughout the fortnight.  Li regrouped immediately when early adversity struck in her victories over Azarenka and Petkovic, demonstrating an appetite for battle that she shares with her adversary.  We expect a tense war of attrition that will jangle the nerves of Piotr and Jiang before the steelier competitor captures a hard-earned berth in the final.

Vera Zvonareva Kim Clijsters (L) of Belguim and Vera Zvonareva of Russia pose before their women's singles final on day thirteen of the 2010 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 11, 2010 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

Clijsters vs. Zvonareva:  A script all too familiar to casual fans, this burgeoning rivalry between two of the top three players in the world reaches its third consecutive major.  Despite their equally lofty rankings, they have produced tepid tennis in most of their recent encounters, even excluding the unsightly US Open final.   The Russian has scored more substantial successes against Clijsters than anyone else during the Belgian’s comeback, however, and the medium-speed courts in Melbourne may tilt in her direction more than the slick surface in New York.  Increasingly accustomed to reaching the latter stages of majors, Zvonareva will have grown in self-belief with each resounding result, while the relatively relaxed atmosphere in Australia will soothe her easily awakened anxieties.  With no fatal flaws yet no striking strengths, she can ambush heralded foes like Clijsters only by maintaining focus, patience, and emotional resilience, all of which she lacked until less than a year ago.  Those traits played a central role in her three 2010 victories over the Belgian, who staggered through both third sets that they contested while Zvonareva stayed unspectacular but solid.

Even if the world #2 does curb her nerves, not an easy task in a Slam semifinal, she probably will need assistance from an opponent who can do everything that she does with just a trifle more polish and precision.  While the Russian has looked more composed and authoritative with each match, Clijsters looked invincible when she routed Safina in the first round but has grown distinctly more human with each round since then.  Over her last three matches, in fact, the Belgian has donated more than 100 unforced errors to opponents who still could not capitalize upon that generosity to steal a set from her.  Subject to more mental lapses than most champions, Clijsters continues to experience moments of negativity or doubt that can cloud her normally acute sensibilities and lure her away from the lucid point construction that has won her three major titles.  On a brighter note, she has won all three of the tiebreaks that she has contested here with minimal ado, whereas Zvonareva has struggled at times near the end of sets and matches.  Rather than the electric shot-making of the Williams sisters, Henin, and Sharapova, Clijsters and Zvonareva excel at absorbing pace and redirecting the ball.  Since their physical skills parallel each other so closely, as in the first semifinal, the psychological dimension probably will decide this encounter.  We expect many more unforced errors than winners as the exhaustive court coverage of both players coaxes their opponent into low-percentage shot selection.

Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic - U.S. Open-Day 13

Djokovic vs. Federer:  Without Nadal awaiting the winner on Sunday night, this encounter becomes even more momentous than a typical Slam semifinal although not quite a de facto final.  Having split their previous four semifinals at hard-court majors, Federer and Djokovic both seek to build upon the confidence that they gained late in 2010, when the Serb’s Davis Cup heroics swiftly followed the Swiss legend’s march through the year-end championships.  Their US Open meeting reinvigorated not only Djokovic but this fiery rivalry, rife with savagely slashed forehands, improbable defensive retrievals, and epic rallies that sprawl both vertically and laterally across the court.  Among the key advantages that the third seed long has enjoyed over the second seed is the finest two-handed backhand in the ATP, which has hammered away at Federer’s vulnerable one-hander during the Serb’s victories over the Swiss.  Yet the defending champion has enhanced that lesser wing during the last several months, flicking cross-court winners at pivotal junctures during his victory over Nadal in London.  From our perspective, though, two-handers inherently possess greater penetrative capacity than their more elegant one-handed counterparts, so Federer cannot completely erase that power gap.

Snapping his streak of three straight US Open losses to the GOAT, Djokovic looked dazed with disbelief at his accomplishment despite having pounded his chest and pumped his fist with intimidating physicality throughout the final set.  Unable to summon the same fearlessness during his three fall clashes with Federer, the Serb lost six of the seven sets that they played in Shanghai, Basel, and London amidst shrugs and self-deprecating smirks.  The post-US Open malaise may have sprung in part from Djokovic’s focus upon the Davis Cup title as the fall events ebbed towards the anticlimactic conclusion in London.  Rather than basking in the glow of his December glory, the third seed has surged through the draw of the major that he won three years ago while conceding only a single set.  Comprehensively dominant against Berdych in the quarterfinals, Djokovic suggested that he may have recaptured the swagger that brought him to the US Open final as well as the Melbourne title three years ago.  A straight-sets victim of the Serb on that occasion, Federer looked chronically fallible in the first week before recording stunning service statistics a round ago against Wawrinka.  The defending champion will face heightened pressure from his opponent’s formidable second-serve return, however, which underscores the significance of his first-serve percentage.  And the suspenseful fifth set in their US Open semifinal might never have arrived had Federer not sagged in intensity for prolonged periods throughout the first four sets.  A far more experienced and somewhat more confident competitor than the Serb, he can avenge that defeat and reclaim the psychological edge in their rivalry only if he proves that he can maintain not just form but focus across a best-of-five encounter—an increasingly complicated challenge as the years drift past.

 

 

Well worth the wait caused by an odd bit of court maintenance, the third-round collision between Sharapova and Julia Goerges featured breathlessly paced rallies punctuated by chillingly bold shot-making.  After the German matched her winner for winner through the first two sets, the Russian’s experience shone through early in the final set as a fatal lull doomed the challenger’s chances.  Curbing one last charge by Goerges, Sharapova unleashed a match-ending ace to conclude her most impressive and complete performance in Melbourne so far.  When she faces a second straight German on Sunday, however, she should aim to elevate her first-serve percentage and find greater depth on her groundstrokes in the early stages.  Whereas Goerges wreaked more damage with her backhand, Petkovic relies upon her forehand to control rallies in addition to a serve as imposing as her compatriot’s delivery.  The calm evening conditions on Rod Laver Arena should benefit Sharapova’s precision-centered game while allowing her to control her towering ball toss more effectively.  Since neither player has developed excellent footwork, the slightly slower court at night will provide each of them with greater time to prepare their baseline lasers—and also offer the opponent more time to retrieve them.  Affectionately nicknamed “Petkorazzi,” the charismatic German should relish the dramatic atmosphere of the evening session.  Yet Sharapova has dazzled under the lights in Melbourne and elsewhere, surely infusing her with confidence as she seeks her first Slam quarterfinal since Roland Garros 2009.

Li vs. Azarenka:  Perhaps the highest-quality encounter of the day, this duel opposes two of the WTA’s finest backhands and grittiest competitors.  Undefeated this season, Li conquered the emerging Kuznetsova in Sydney before rallying from a vast deficit against Clijsters in the final.  The Chinese superstar now can envision a second straight semifinal at the Australian Open after extending her scintillating form through a routine first week.  But the competition now rises sharply with a ball-bruising Belarussian who has taken at least one set from Li in all three of their meetings.  Armed with a slightly more imposing serve than Azarenka, the Sydney champion should find more chances to seize control of rallies from the outset while attacking her opponent’s benign second ball.   An often smarter albeit less imaginative shotmaker, the eighth seed can rely upon her explosive movement to transition from defense to offense with penetrating groundstrokes on both wings.  Both more comfortable at the baseline than in the forecourt, Li and Azarenka excel at redirecting the ball with early contact.  We expect repeated service breaks, multiple momentum shifts, and a match won by the player who displays greater composure late in sets.  May the better backhand prevail.

Roddick vs. Wawrinka:  Unfortunate to find himself in the same quarter with Federer, the American perhaps can extract hope from Kuznetsova’s improbable victory over Henin if he should collide with his tormentor for the 23rd time.  Before he reaches that stage, however, Roddick must overcome the Swiss legend’s understudy and one of the four ATP players to remain undefeated this season.  Ousting Monfils with minimal ado, Wawrinka crushed Berdych in Chennai two weeks ago amid a surge in self-belief that began at the US Open.  One can discard all of the Swiss #2’s previous meetings with Roddick, two of which ended with the latter’s retirement and the third of which came on a slick indoor surface in Davis Cup.  Uneasy early in his third-round encounter with the loose-limbed Robin Haase, the 2003 US Open champion wandered within a tiebreak of a two-set deficit and owed his escape in large part to the Dutchman’s profligacy.  Unlikely to receive such assistance from this fit, focused foe, Roddick must seek to open the match more emphatically if he wishes to avoid a grinding war of attrition.  Unless the American struggles with his first-serve percentage, however, his consistency should enable him to outlast an opponent who lacks the electric forehand to regularly hit through him from the baseline.

Kuznetsova vs. Schiavone:  Sharing the last two Roland Garros titles, the Russian and the Italian have met more times than the latter would prefer.  Although she won two of their last three meetings, Schiavone has dropped all six of their hard courts while winning just a solitary set.  Meanwhile, Kuznetsova raised many eyebrows including her own with an excruciatingly tense victory over Henin.  Far from masterful when victory drew near, the two-time Slam champion might gain even more confidence from this dual victory over the Belgian and her nerves than if she had dominated her familiar nemesis from the first ball to the last.  Flakier than a Dover sole, though, Kuznetsova could suffer a hangover from her breakthrough rather than exploiting the impetus to comfortably dispatch an opponent who struggled in the first week.  Floundering past a trio of unheralded opponents, Schiavone required three labyrinthine sets to win both of her first two matches and should consider herself fortunate to have escaped a final set in the third round.  From recent form alone, the 2009 Roland Garros champion thus holds a significant edge over the 2010 Roland Garros champion, but one should remember that Kuznetsova’s mental frailty can resurface at the most inopportune moments.  And the artful Italian has more than sufficient cunning to unlock it if she can survive the Russian’s first few strikes and craft an elongated rally.

Berdych vs. Verdasco:  Despite the starkly divergent personalities in this top-10 encounter, the Czech and the Spaniard showcase convergent styles that mirror their burly physiques.  Seeking to play as little defense as possible, they entrust their fortunes to suffocating serve-forehand combinations that hinge less upon precision than raw power.  Beyond that broad parallel lurk a few differences, such as Berdych’s steadier backhand and Verdasco’s more convincing forecourt skills, yet those nuances probably will exert scant influence upon the outcome.  Renowned for his amorous accomplishments, the 2009 semifinalist assiduously courted disaster throughout his second-round meeting with Tipsarevic but fully capitalized upon his escape by dominating Nishikori.  One never knows exactly what to anticipate from Verdasco on any given day (or set or point), however, while Berdych has displayed superior consistency during the first week.  Whereas the former possesses greater shot-making talent and the audacity necessary to deploy it, the latter develops points more meticulously and profited from his patience during a three-set comeback when they met in Miami last year.  Firmly entrenched in the ATP elite but not quite leading contenders, both the Czech and the Spaniard likely will earn the right to battle 2008 champion Djokovic in the quarterfinals.  Who covets this opportunity more desperately?

***

Having arrived in the second week, we will preview most of the matches henceforth, but feel free to contact us if you fancy a specific encounter.

As the first week concludes, several of the top seeds confront intriguing obstacles that range from two Czech lefties to a feisty Aussie and an elephantine American.

Safarova vs. Zvonareva:  Despite a dazzling start to 2011 in Hong Kong, the world #2 did not justify her elevated position in Sydney and her second-round victory in Melbourne.  Barely extricating herself from an early predicament against Jovanovski, Zvonareva looked tentative during rallies and erratic on her serve, which had donated 11 double faults to Pennetta a week before.  Like Stosur, she now faces a quirky Czech lefty with the ability to oscillate between Jekyll and Hyde more than once during a single match. When the sets (and players) grow tight, Zvonareva must remember to carpe the diem with penetrating groundstrokes rather than allowing Safarova to step inside the baseline.  If the Russian can keep the Czech off balance, though, the world #2’s distinctly superior footwork will reap rewards against a less technically precise opponent. 

Stosur vs. Kvitova:  Defusing the sporadically dangerous Dushevina in the second round, the fifth seed has lost just seven games during her first two matches.  Much more convincing in Melbourne than in her preliminary tournaments, Stosur now braces her serve and her nerves for a battle with the inflammable Kvitova that should test her lateral movement.  The Brisbane champion should alternate between hammering her forehand down the line and curling it cross-court to expose the Australian’s indifferent backhand, although the medium-speed surface will allow the world #6 to run around her weaker wing relatively often.  As explosive as the Czech lefty’s game are her emotions, which contrast with Stosur’s unruffled demeanor.  The home hope might chip away at Kvitova’s brittle façade if she can hold serve comfortably and unsettle her foe with confident returns.  Across the net, the former Wimbledon semifinalist must keep Stosur pinned behind the baseline rather than permitting her to exercise her scintillating forecourt skills.

Nadal vs. Tomic:  Showing a precocious maturity, the highly anticipated teenager outlasted the far more experienced Lopez in two tiebreaks a round ago.  The second straight Spanish lefty to confront Tomic, Nadal has surrendered just four games in the five sets through which he has cruised here, threatened more by focus lapses than by his lackluster victims.  Despite his lanky stature, the Aussie projects less power behind his serve than one would expect, so Rafa can construct rallies at his leisure without fearing a terminal first strike from his opponent.  While the home crowd on Rod Laver Arena will champion their future star vociferously, Tomic should approach this match as a valuable learning experience upon which he can build, measuring himself against the gold standard of the game.

Pennetta vs. Peer:  For the second straight major, the balanced styles of the Israeli and the Italian collide in an encounter that should feature more elongated rallies than the ball-bruising clashes sketched above.  Since neither Pennetta nor Peer possesses thunderous serves or the raw power to hit her opponent off the court, they must construct points with their symmetrical groundstrokes and meticulous movement.  The routine scoreline that unfolded in their US Open encounter cloaked the intrigue that heightened through several deuce games late in the first set, even more excruciating because both lacked the means to swiftly terminate the suspense.  While Jovanovski abruptly halted Pennetta’s momentum in the second round of Sydney, Safarova ambushed Peer in an epic Brisbane encounter during which this second Czech lefty saved a match point.  Who will banish those recent disappointments by extending their week into a fortnight?

Melzer vs. Baghdatis:  Among the key breakthrough performers of 2010, the veteran lefty defied the inexorable march of time to record victories over Djokovic and Nadal.  Those startling upsets elevated him within sight of a coveted penthouse in the top 10, which he could reach with a creditable result at the season’s first major.  Mustering his Melbourne magic to halt Del Potro’s comeback bid in four sets, Baghdatis has notched his most memorable successes on a high-bouncing surface seemingly hostile to his low, lasered groundstrokes.  Firmly lodged in his corner, however, are legions of full-throated Cypriots, whose exhortations to their compatriot may unnerve the easily flustered Melzer just as they once rattled Soderling.  But the contrast between the baseline-moored Baghdatis  and the net-rushing Austrian should provide an entertaining counterpoint pitting the conventional modern style against its ebbing predecessor.

Halep vs. Radwanska:  Upsetting the potent Kleybanova in the second round, the rising Romanian perhaps has begun to outshine her off-court notoriety with her on-court accomplishments.  A contrasting challenge awaits against Radwanska, whose distinctively nuanced style has unhinged so many of the WTA’s monochromatic baseliners.  Narrowly eluding Date in a suspenseful opener, the Pole brushed off the rust that had gathered on her game during an injury-enforced period of inactivity.  With no massive ball-strikers in her section, Radwanska has become an improbable favorite to reach her fourth Slam quarterfinal and second in Melbourne.

Dolgopolov vs. Tsonga:  Already scarred by a five-setter in the first round, the world #13 hopes to avoid a reprise of his Wimbledon meeting with the Ukrainian if he seeks to surge deep into the draw.  At the All England Club, Dolgopolov fearlessly rallied from a two-set deficit against Tsonga before prolonging the fifth set well into tennis overtime.  Battling not only his opponents but a draining health condition, this reckless ball-striker rarely sees a forehand that he doesn’t seek to obliterate.  Only slightly more subtle, the Frenchman allowed untimely errors to infuse a routine match against Seppi with unnecessary suspense.  If his focus waxes and wanes again, he might not escape Dolgopolov in straight sets and conserve crucial energy for later rounds. 

Isner vs. Cilic:  Two players with a handful of notable first-half accomplishments hope to erase an unimpressive second half with a victory that would impressive for either of them.  Undeterred by a one-set deficit against Stepanek, the towering American displayed not only his serving talent but patient optimism as he comfortably collected the next three sets.  Since Cilic can (almost) equal him from the service notch, breaks of serve in this match will resemble oases in a desert of nondescript holds and truncated exchanges.  Although both players possess mighty forehands, questionable technique undermines the consistency of those weapons.  A semifinalist in Melbourne last year, the Croat wallowed through a disappointing season thereafter but stirred occasional memories of his former self during a victory over the dangerous Giraldo.  Seemingly a calm, understated personality, Cilic will find his confidence tested by the stern challenge of breaking Isner’s serve.  The enormity of that task in turn will place pressure upon his own serve, especially if tiebreaks play a role, and further pressure flows from the rankings plunge that the Croat will suffer if he falls early here.  Will the American’s greater positivity overcome Cilic’s superior overall talent?

Petrova vs. Makarova:  Not content with an epic first-round victory over Ivanovic, the Russian lefty advanced less eventfully to the third round and now eyes a recently formidable but historically fallible compatriot.  After dropping their first two meetings in 2008, Makarova comfortably upset Petrova once in each of the past two seasons, conceding just three games in the last three sets that they have played.   These two volatile Russians share a tendency of erupting for remarkable triumphs while struggling to maintain their momentum throughout an entire week or fortnight.  Unlike the baseline juggernauts who largely populate the WTA, both Petrova and Makarova capitalize upon opportunities to approach the net even when a complicated volley awaits them.  Perhaps a product of their inconsistent technique, their rush to finish points inflates their winners and unforced error totals while preventing opponents from settling into a rhythm.  If Makarova can craft the clever angles with which she wearied Ivanovic, her fellow Russian might seethe with ill-concealed frustration.

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As always, we welcome your suggestions for matches to preview, already having answered two of your requests.  During the second week, however, we generally share our thoughts on the vast majority of the contests that develop.

Initially staggered by her opponent’s scintillating start, Sharapova came within a point of a 4-0 deficit in her second-round clash with Razzano.  Swiping aside three straight break points, however, the Siberian refused to surrender the set but instead showcased her trademark determination late in the opening set, as well as an startlingly delicate lob that secured a key service break.  Less encouraging was Sharapova’s failure to serve out the first set on two different occasions; despite a sensational first-serve percentage, she enjoyed an uncharacteristically low success rate on her first-serve points and faced 16 break points during the match.  Facing the swiftly rising Julia Goerges, the Russian will seek to open the match more convincingly than in her first two rounds, although her shoulder always requires a few games to reach its full range of movement.  Dispatched by the three-time Slam champion in Strasbourg last year, her German opponent has honed an excellent first serve and imposing backhand that could allow to seize control of rallies.  Since neither player prospers on defense, both will seek to deliver a mighty first strike that thrusts her foe onto her heels for the remainder of the point.  In order to reach the second week, therefore, Sharapova must aim to decide points on her own terms for better or for worse, eschewing complacency for a relentless intensity. 

Elsewhere on Day 5:

Wozniacki vs. Cibulkova:  Facing the Slovak for the second straight tournament and the second straight major, the world #1 comfortably triumphed on a windy night in New York before falling to her in the first round of Sydney.  Despite disappointing weeks there and in Hong Kong, Wozniacki has advanced through the first two rounds as smoothly as any of the women’s contenders, justifying her belief that the season-opening events did not presage an early exit at the season’s first major.  Limited by her diminutive stature, Cibulkova has few weapons with which to threaten the Dane from the baseline but cannot rely upon consistency to outlast her.   The matchup thus tilts in Wozniacki’s favor unless she sinks into the inexplicably passive mentality that characterized her loss at the Australian Open last year and her Sydney loss to the 63-inch Slovak, whom she previously had dominated.  Nvertheless, one should note that Cibulkova reached the US Open quarterfinal with a surprising victory over Kuznetsova, and the guidance of Safina’s former coach Zeljk Krajan appears to have revived her once-flagging career.

Henin vs. Kuznetsova:  The WTA corollary to Federer-Roddick, this rivalry (or non-rivalry) began at Wimbledon eight years ago and has spanned clashes at every major, including two major finals.  Collecting 16 of their 18 encounters, Henin has won all of their Slam contests as well as their last eight hard-court meetings in a streak that extends back to 2004.  Kuznetsova frequently has positioned herself to win but faltered in tiebreaks or third sets.  When she visited the Sydney zoo three years ago, Sveta half-jested that she should bring a reptile onto court in order to fluster the steely Belgian.  Yet she may not need such assistance against an Henin who appeared especially fragile in a three-set opener against the hard-hitting Mirza, similar to Kuznetsova in her fondness for mighty forehands.  Testing Henin’s tentative movement, the two-time Slam champion perhaps can hit through her from the baseline more easily than she once could.  Dwindling in confidence herself since a brutal 2010 campaign, though, Sveta may crumble under the psychological burden of conquering a familiar nemesis who has defeated her more often than any active player.

Malisse vs. Federer:   Overshadowed by Henin and Clijsters, the Belgian waffle has battled injuries throughout his career that have undermined his evident talents.  Despite his lowly ranking, he troubled Federer during their last meeting at the 2006 Rogers Cup, when Malisse came within a tiebreak of stunning a player who came within a single victory of a calendar Slam this year.  While he lacks the consistency and the fitness to challenge the Swiss legend in a best-of-five format, an entertaining set or two might ensue if the world #2 enters in mortal guise as he did against Simon.  The X-man’s crisp, flat groundstrokes set up his fluid transition game, taking away time from his adversaries when he strikes his approaches with precision and crisp technique.  If the deified form of Federer swaggers onto the court, though, he should stride briskly into the second week.    

Wawrinka vs. Monfils:  Gamboling and gambling himself into deep trouble two rounds ago, Monfils tottered only slightly further from defeat than did Verdasco against Tipsarevic.  Likewise invigorated by the reprieve, the top-ranked Frenchman cruised through his meeting with the recently resurgent Swiss #2 in Valencia last fall on one of the ATP’s slowest hard courts.  Bolstered (and loudly exhorted) by eccentric coach Peter Lundgren, Wawrinka aims to counter Gael’s artistic flourishes with sturdy, methodical consistency.  Among the pleasures of watching Monfils is his unpredictability, which will contrast with the workmanlike air exuded by his opponent.  We expect a series of compelling rallies in which each competitor leisurely probes the other’s defenses, circling cautiously before delivering a conclusive blow.

Venus vs. Petkovic:  During one of the second round’s oddest encounters, the elder Williams appeared to derive additional focus and intensity after an excruciating injury in the first-set tiebreak.  Yet the question of her recovery looms over this appetizing encounter with a German upstart determined to crack the stranglehold of the WTA elite.  An ambitious shotmaker still searching for consistency, Petkovic reached the Brisbane final but struggled early in a second-round victory over a qualifier that should not have proved so complicated.  Unlike Zahlavova, she can assert control over rallies rather than depending upon errors from Venus, who therefore cannot rest secure in the knowledge that her opponent will not return fire.  Just as compelling as the question of the American’s injury is the uncertainty surrounding the German’s response should she seize the upper hand, which looks plausible if perhaps not probable.  Unable to deliver the coup de grace to Kuznetsova at Roland Garros last year, Petkovic could not rise to the occasion when victory hovered just a point away.  Has she learned from that experience?

Troicki vs. Djokovic:  Sparring no fewer than four times in 2010, the Serbs collide in a tournament where their compatriots have not fared well thus far.  Although Djokovic has emerged victorious from their six previous meetings, the often overlooked Troicki came within three service holds of stunning the world #3 in the first round of the US Open.  At an event that Nole eventually won in Dubai, moreover, he found himself outmaneuvered by the Sydney finalist for the first set and a half before his superior talents finally shone through.  Probably more confident than at any other time in his career, Troicki nearly upset Nadal in Tokyo last fall and claimed his first career title in Moscow.  While Djokovic clearly possesses superior talents in virtually every department of the game, his countryman always has possessed the offensive firepower to punish him for a lapse, such as his second-set stumble a round ago.  Despite an oddly arrhythmic technique, his serve frustrated Nadal throughout three tight sets in Tokyo.  Like Wawrinka, however, he may not summon the courage to topple the greatest athlete in his nation’s history on one of his sport’s greatest stages.

Nishikori vs. Verdasco:  Two players who have accumulated outstanding fitness will bring their strikingly divergent styles to the battlefield.  Less immediately apparent than Verdasco’s mighty offensive arsenal, Nishikori’s tools include his lithe movement, crisp technique, intelligent point construction, and mental resilience.  On the other hand, Verdasco displayed a surprising degree of physical and mental endurance as he ground down an obdurate Tipsarevic in one grueling rally after another.  Thrust to the brink of the precipice not once but three times, the 2009 semifinalist kept defeatism at bay by punctuating each crackling forehand with an emphatic fistpump.  Rewarded by the Serb’s unexpected collapse, he may play more freely in future rounds after that reprieve, but he must beware of relaxing too sharply  against the unprepossessing Nishikori.

Berdych vs. Gasquet:  When the Czech collides with the Frenchman, an underachiever of the past confronts an underachiever of the past, present, and likely future.  Inspiring confidence in the former was Berdych’s determined response to a one-set deficit against the dangerous Kohlschreiber, and he could profit from that experience if Gasquet unleashes one of his patented torrid streaks.  Likened by more than one commentator to a microwave, the Frenchman sometimes sizzles through passages in which he seemingly cannot miss even the most audacious shots.  Just as often, though, he can labor through arid stretches when he struggles to time even the most routine groundstrokes.  Central to Berdych’s mid-career breakthrough is his heightened, more durable focus, a trait that will aid him in exploiting Gasquet’s lulls.  The Czech’s monochromatic style generally proves more efficient albeit less scintillating than the Frenchman’s sophisticated elegance, as textured and as fragile as a tapestry.  As the sport increasingly revolves around unvarnished baseline power, the Soderlings, Del Potros, and Berdyches will profit at the expense of the graceful Gasquets.

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Responding to two requests for the Day 5 preview, we welcome any other suggestions that you might have, either in the comments or on Twitter.

While Ivanovic gazes languorously into a future beyond the Australian Open, we remain firmly in the present and bring you the six most compelling encounters of Day 4.  Can these twelve players fill the void left by the absence of Ana?

Petrova vs. Molik:  Pitting the 2010 quarterfinalist against a comeback-minded Aussie, this encounter should feature a combination of heavy serving and adept net play.  Whereas Molik relies almost exclusively on her forehand, Petrova derives greater power and consistency from her backhand.  If she can target the Aussie’s weakness, the Russian will control the overwhelming majority of the rallies.  Molik will not gain an equally immense advantage if she targets Petrova’s forehand, though, for that less reliable wing still can explode with unpredictable winners.  Not inclined to defend from behind the baseline, both players will seek to capitalize upon their first serve and truncate rallies by moving forward at the earliest opportunity.

Del Potro vs. Baghdatis:  As memories of his US Open title recede, the gentle Argentine represents the single greatest uncertainty in the ATP season.  His reclamation project began inauspiciously last fall and grew only slightly more ominous in Brisbane with a victory over Lopez.  Seeking to rediscover the rhythm on his groundstrokes, Del Potro found an ideal opponent in his opener against Dudi Sela, a consistent ball-striker who extended him into rallies without outhitting him from the baseline.  A finalist in Melbourne five long years ago, Baghdatis collaborated with Hewitt on the latest Slam finish in Open era history here.  In the night session once again, he may well extend that record in a match contested almost entirely from the baseline and littered with flat groundstrokes that skim dangerously low to the net.  Will the Argentine’s superior serve or the Cypriot’s improved fitness prove the greater weapon?

Jankovic vs. Peng:  After Li and Zheng flourished the Chinese flag at the 2010 Australian Open, Peng hopes to follow in their footsteps by building upon consecutive semifinal appearance in Auckland and Hobart.  Conquering the dangerous Kateryna Bondarenko in the first round, her double-fisted forehand created angles reminiscent of Bartoli during her New Zealand upset over Kuznetsova.  Although Jankovic dominated their first six meetings, Peng upset the Serb at the Beijing tournament in 2009, where she also overcame Sharapova.  Solid early and erratic late in her opening victory over Kudryavtseva, the seventh seed will find her renowned movement tested if she resorts exclusively to counterpunching rather than seizing the initiative in rallies.

Tomic vs. Lopez:  Spearheading the future of Australian men’s tennis, the precocious teenager shoulders the hopes of a nation already impatient despite a Slam drought far shorter than the British counterpart.  In addition to that source of pressure, Tomic must navigate around the publicity generated by his controversial father, an enigmatic presence at best.  Nevertheless, the home hope impressed with a comfortable victory over Chardy in his opener and nearly upset eventual semifinalist Cilic early in last year’s tournament.  A less imposing foe than the Croat, Lopez will confront Tomic with serve-and-volley tactics that the teenager rarely will have encountered among his peers.  The Australian will have demonstrated his maturity if he can adjust to the lefty’s arrhythmic style, which has flustered even Federer before.

Jovanovski vs. Zvonareva:  A surprise semifinalist in Sydney, the third-ranked Serbian woman stunned the top-30 trio of Kanepi, Rezai, and Pennetta.  At the same tournament, Zvonareva slumped to an early exit amidst 11 double faults; these serving struggles trickled slightly into an otherwise emphatic start to her Melbourne campaign.  While Jovanovski’s good fortune almost certainly ends here, the experience of playing in the vast expanse of Hisense Arena will benefit her maturation process, and spectators can glimpse a potential star still on the horizon.

Soderling vs. Muller:  Never having reached the third round of the Australian Open, the Swede hopes to rectify that alarming statistic against a former US Open quarterfinalist.  Outside that one splendid fortnight, the top-ranked player from Luxembourg has accomplished little of significance in a career clouded by injury.  On the other hand, Soderling struggled mightily against the net-rushing lefty Llodra at the Paris Indoors, saving three match points before snatching a final-set tiebreak.  Almost impeccable against Starace in the first round, the Swede might drop a set here but surely not three.

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As always, feel free to drop us a line either here or on Twitter if you would relish reading about a certain match on Day 5!

 

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia plays a forehand during her first round match against Tamarine Tanasugarn of Thailand during day one of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 17, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Not without nerves in her opening victory, Sharapova steadied herself late in both sets and unleashed a pitiless barrage of groundstrokes far removed from the torrent of errors that she delivered in Melbourne last year.  As she marches deeper into the draw, however, the 2008 Australian Open champion must rediscover the rhythm on her serve, which abandoned her for prolonged periods against Tanasugarn.  In the second round, Sharapova must acquaint herself with the style of an opponent whom she never has encountered.  Perhaps best known for defeating Venus in the 2007 Tokyo final, Razzano has steadily climbed through the rankings after a controversial injury thrust her out of the top 100 last year.  Puny at first glance, she counterpunches capably and finds surprising depth on her groundstrokes.  But her second serve offers a tasty target for the Siberian, who lashed a series of scalding returns against Tanasugarn.  Even if Sharapova continues to struggle with her serve, therefore, she should break Razzano with sufficient frequency to defuse the pressure when she approaches the service notch.

Having focused on the women in Day 2, we focus largely on the men in Day 3:

Simon vs. Federer:  Rarely does a Federer second-round match intrigue beyond the potential of witnessing a between-the-legs missile.  But here the Swiss legend confronts one of the few unseeded players in the draw who has scored notable victories over him.  Twice rallying from one-set deficits against Federer, Simon stunned him at both the Rogers Cup and the year-end championships in 2008.  Crucial in those encounters, the Frenchman’s superb two-handed backhand exploited Roger’s vulnerable one-hander, a shot that has improved under the guidance of Paul Annacone.  Since Simon surely will seek to target that side again, this match should measure the progress of Federer’s backhand, perhaps not essential to this match but certainly to the tournament.  Despite a title in Sydney last week, the Frenchman has not quite returned to his 2008 heights and will struggle to match the defending champion’s serve.  In the best-of-five format, moreover, Federer can avoid more comfortably the concentration lapses that have cost him so dearly against Simon.

Tipsarevic vs. Verdasco:  Shining almost as brightly as his shirt during his opening-round victory, the 2009 semifinalist showed few signs of the malaise that plagued him through the second half of 2010.  As he seeks to rekindle the memories of two years ago, he confronts a Serb who habitually rises to the level of his competition.  Tipsarevic has ambushed Roddick twice at majors, including at the US Open last fall, and nearly toppled Federer in a memorable meeting at the 2008 Australian Open.  Not always the most sensible shotmakers, both players can raise eyebrows in more ways than one.  Don’t be surprised to see Verdasco hit (or attempt to hit) flagrant winners from several feet behind the baseline, or Tipsarevic aim for extravagantly angled second serves.  Leaving discretion to the top seeds, these two showmen know how to enliven the first week.

Berdych vs. Kohlschreiber:  The dissonance between their personalities emerges through the contrast between their backhands.  Armed with one of the flashiest one-handed backhands in the game, the German continues to defy national stereotypes with his flamboyant personality and playing style.   Restrained to a conservative two-hander, the somewhat reserved Berdych needs to start 2011 promisingly after a disappointing second half raised questions surrounding the legitimacy of his mid-season breakthrough.  If the Czech seeks to permanently establish himself among the ATP elite, the volatile Kohlschreiber personifies the brand of dangerous dark horse whom he must regularly overcome.

Marino vs. Schiavone:  Trumpeted as the future of Canadian tennis, this big-serving teenager won the admiration of Venus when she extended her to a first-set tiebreak at the US Open last fall.  Highly fallible in her opener against the unheralded Parra Santonja, Schiavone will need her stinging slices and artful forecourt ploys to dull the power from across the net, especially on Marino’s serve.  Can the Italian veteran continue to uphold the banner of subtle finesse against raw, ball-bruising force?

Wawrinka vs. Dimitrov:  After the example set by Gasquet, one should beware of labeling any teenager a “little Federer,” but the label has hovered around Dimitrov like a halo.  While he has defeated Simon and other noteworthy names, he has not yet achieved the Slam breakthrough that would catapult him into the attention of sports fans worldwide.  His resounding victory over Golubev augured well for his season, and a triumph over the Swiss #2 would deliver an imposing statement.  A champion in Chennai, Wawrinka surged within a set of the semifinals in New York; beneath his graceful one-handed backhand stands a foundation of exceptional fitness.  Yet his lack of overwhelming weapons will prevent him from hitting Dimitrov off the court before the Bulgarian has an opportunity to exhibit his nascent talents.

Almagro vs. Andreev:  Troubling Federer in his Melbourne opener last year, Kirilenko’s boyfriend came within a point of a two-sets-to-one lead on multiple occasions before faltering.  Andreev has honed a grinding style oddly more suited to clay than the style of the Spaniard whom he faces, for Almagro relies much less upon consistency than upon shot-making.  Although the Russian has wandered below the realm of relevance for most of the last few years, he looked crisper than the Spaniard in the first round and holds a slight mental edge.

Wickmayer vs. Sevastova:  Although not quite at her best in the first round, the third-ranked Belgian deserves substantial credit for dispatching the dangerous Groth on Rod Laver Arena.  Renowned not only for athletic ability but for gritty competitiveness, Wickmayer should regularly reach the second week of majors once her game matures.  Defeating both Jankovic and Ivanovic last spring, Sevastova has manufactured a deceptively unimposing style that can frustrate opponents by forcing them to generate additional pace on their groundstrokes.  Can the Latvian lull the Belgian to sleep, or will Wickipedia find the answers?

Nicolas Mahut Nicolas Mahut of France celebrates winning a point during his singles match against Potito Starace of Italy on day seven of the Hopman Cup on January 7, 2011 in Perth, Australia.

Troicki vs. Mahut:  Forced rather unjustly to qualify for this event, the co-hero of 70-68 has won four straight matches as he takes aim at the Sydney finalist.  The hero of the Davis Cup final, Troicki has conquered the uncertainties that beset him throughout most of his career.  Firmly tethered to the baseline, he will hope to unsettle the net-rushing Frenchman with his sparkling array of passing shots, much as he did in Belgrade against Mahut’s compatriot Llodra.  Since their strengths mirror each other, expect a sprightly match high in winners and low in rallies.

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Fancy any particular Day 4 duels?  Feel free to comment or to contact us on Twitter before we release the next preview.