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After three days of sporadically entertaining but largely straightforward tennis, most of the favorites in both Cincinnati and Montreal remain in the hunt for the last two significant titles before the US Open.  The round of 16 comprises the first substantial hurdle for several leading contenders, so we break down each of these clashes to discuss who is most likely to survive…and who is most likely to enjoy a few extra sessions on the practice court before heading to New York.  😉

Nadal (1) vs. Benneteau:  Probably best known for his upset of Federer at last year’s Paris Indoors tournament, the Frenchman tested Djokovic in hot, humid conditions a week ago in Toronto.  Yet he lacks the mighty serve, groundstroke depth, and mental resilience to overcome Nadal, who looked average for much of the Rogers Cup but rarely loses to ATP journeymen.  Expect the Spaniard’s consistency to wear down Benneteau fairly routinely. Pick:  Nadal, 80-20.

Baghdatis vs. Berdych (7):  Often dismissed for lack of motivation and fitness, Baghdatis has enjoyed a mini-revival this year and recently reached the Washington final.  His flat, crisply angled two-handed backhand trumps the Wimbledon finalist’s two-hander, while his serve has developed into a more substantial weapon.  Armed with a much more formidable forehand than the Cypriot, however, the Czech possesses much greater first-strike potential and should relish the fast conditions in Cincinnati.  Unless Baghdatis can drag Berdych into repeated backhand-to-backhand exchanges, there are few ways for him to threaten his more powerful adversary.  Pick:  Berdych, 65-35.

Federer (3) vs. Kohlschreiber:  Courtesy of Denis Istomin’s retirement, Federer has advanced to the final 16 having played just seven games, an advantage that may profit him as the tournament progresses.  Across the net stands one of the few players to have taken a set from Roger at Wimbledon in recent years.  Kohlschreiber’s one-handed backhand complements his versatile forehand to provide him with striking power well above what one would expect from his compact, unimposing physique; last week, he impressed by reaching the Rogers Cup quarterfinals and threatening Nadal in a tense three-setter.  Surely brimming with confidence after winning two tight matches last week over Berdych and Djokovic, Federer previously has demonstrated his prowess in Cincinnati’s muggy weather by winning the title in two of the last three years.  As long as he can avoid an untimely mental lapse, he should outlast the German.  Pick:  Federer, 75-25.

Ferrer (10) vs. Davydenko (6):  The high-octane offense of the Russian and the indefatigable defense of the Spaniard should bring out the best in each other.  Balancing Davydenko’s superior hard-court credentials is the wrist injury from which his game still is recovering.  Against Ginepri, the sixth seed occasionally struggled with his footwork and shot selection, vital elements of his game; on the other hand, Ferrer overcame the dangerous Querrey rather comfortably in front of his home crowd.  Can he capitalize upon the Russian’s inconsistency, or will he be forced too far behind the baseline to cut off Davydenko’s angles?  Pick:  Davydenko, 60-40.

Fish (W) vs. Gasquet:  Seizing headlines from Roddick during the US Open Series, the long-overlooked Fish relied upon improved fitness to win consecutive titles in Newport and Atlanta.  Never a consistent performer, he then crashed out early in Washington and Toronto before rising again here with consecutive victories over Simon and Verdasco.  Avenging an Australian Open loss to Youzhny in the first round, Gasquet hasn’t yet regained the momentum lost by his extended absence last year, despite occasional flickers of brilliance.  Pick:  Fish, 60-40.

Gulbis vs. Murray (4):  Fresh (or not) from his first title of 2010, the Scot comprehensively drubbed Gulbis at two Slams last year in matches that illustrated his adeptness at stifling a more powerful opponent with ingenious point construction.  Far more formidable than he was a year ago, however, the Latvian has honed his concentration and patience during key rallies under the tutelage of Safin-maker Hernan Gumy.  Perhaps a little weary from his Canadian exertions, Murray dropped a set to rising Frenchman, Chardy, while Gulbis squeaked through a third-set tiebreak against crafty lefty veteran Melzer.  We expect the fourth seed to cope more successfully with the mid-day Ohio heat than than will the Latvian, whose form has faltered a bit after a promising clay season.  If Gulbis can maintain a high first-serve percentage, though, he might relish the light balls and fast court, which favor the staccato playing style that he prefers.  Pick:  Murray, 70-30.

Soderling (5) vs. Roddick (9):  Barely weathering a stern challenge from the evergreen Hewitt, the Swede looked several notches below his midseason form and often struggled to find the court after a rally extended further than five or six shots.  Recovering from mono, Roddick also has looked rusty at times in his first two matches, and he continued his recent tiebreak struggles by losing one to Stakhovsky in his opener.  The American’s main task will be to survive the first few blows from the Swede, who can overpower anyone on a hard court with his savage groundstrokes that skim so close to the net.  In longer rallies, Roddick’s superior consistency will give him the edge.  Whereas Soderling often lets his emotions overheat when confronted with a hostile crowd, the American will relish the support his compatriots, many of whom have witnessed his two title runs here.  Pick:  Roddick, 55-45.

Nalbandian (PR) vs. Djokovic (2):  Nightmares for prognosticators, both the Argentine and the Serb have proved enigmatic, unpredictable competitors.  While an epic three-set battle with Federer in the Toronto semifinals should have inspired Djokovic to raise his level, narrow losses to his top 5 peers often have discouraged him into apathy.  The second seed did defeat Nalbandian with little ado in Monte Carlo, but the former Wimbledon finalist didn’t revitalize his year until another stirring Davis Cup performance in July.  Most dangerous when he has nothing to lose, David might well rattle the Serb if he starts the match impressively.  Nevertheless, his sharply angled two-handed backhand will meet its match in Djokovic’s smoothly timed two-hander, and there is no single area of Nalbandian’s game in which he surpasses his opponent.   The Serb’s greatest enemy may be the torpor-inducing midafternoon heat to which scheduling caprice will subject him. Pick:  Djokovic, 60-40.

Moving northeast to Montreal…

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Benesova (Q) vs. Bartoli (17):  The eccentric Czech lefty’s upset of Montreal’s top seed resulted much more from Jankovic’s ineptitude than from her own brilliance, for the Serb never inflicted the sort of pressure on Benesova that normally causes her to crumble.  We anticipate no such profligacy from Bartoli, who is gathering momentum on the summer hard courts and reached the semifinals on the last occasion that the women played in Montreal.  Unlike Jankovic, she won’t allow Benesova time to set up for her loopy forehand and calmly line up angles.  Pick:  Bartoli, 75-25.

Azarenka (10) vs. Li (9):  The most intriguing WTA encounter of the day, this clash pits two brilliant backhands and two (in)famously streaky competitors.  A champion in Stanford and a first-round loser in Cincinnati (courtesy of Ivanovic), the Belarussian has lost both of her meetings with the Chinese star in three extremely tight sets, including a 2009 Tokyo loss during which she squandered multiple leads.  It’s nearly impossible to pick a winner among these two, especially considering their resounding early wins in Montreal; neither players possesses an overwhelming serve or an impressive net game, relying almost exclusively on scorching groundstrokes.  Since Azarenka strikes the ball slightly harder and moves slightly better, she has the physical edge.  Yet Li has the mental edge, as she does over so many of her weak-willed colleagues, so a long match with multiple momentum shifts would tilt in her direction once again.  It’ll be up to Azarenka to ensure that the momentum doesn’t shift.  Pick:  Azarenka, 55-45.

Clijsters (5) vs. Kanepi:  A point away from reaching the Wimbledon semifinals, the burly Estonian has resurrected what seemed to be a career en route to the dustbin of tennis history (to paraphrase Trotsky).  Barely escaping a shocking first-round demise at the hands of Bethanie Mattek-Sands, the Cincinnati champion may gain some momentum from her second lease on life, as have Querrey and Hantuchova in recent weeks.  While we don’t expect her to win the title in Montreal, we do expect her to survive the mighty but still erratic Kanepi.  Pick:  Clijsters, 75-25.

Szavay vs. Zvonareva (8):  Already winning two titles this summer, Szavay hopes to follow Kanepi’s example by surging back into relevance at significant events.  An impressive step in that direction was her three-set comeback win over Wickmayer, who has sped past her in the ranks of the WTA’s Generation Next.  Although we haven’t watched Szavay for over a year, we recall the potency of her serve and backhand, which fueled a US Open quarterfinal run in 2007.  Indifferent in San Diego and Cincinnati, the surprise Wimbledon finalist has seemed no more confident than after her equally surprising run to the 2009 Indian Wells title.  She might struggle against a cocky upstart with nothing to lose, for she faltered against Coco Vandeweghe two weeks ago.  On the other hand, her crisp, fluid style devoured the ball-bruising Shvedova in her opener.  Pick:  Zvonareva, 70-30.

Radwanska (7) vs. Kuznetsova (11):  A rematch of the San Diego final, this collision of an artful counterpuncher and a volatile shotmaker provides a rare contrast of styles in the increasingly homogenous WTA.  Under the extreme pressure of a final, Sveta let Radwanska off the hook late in the second set of a match that she had controlled before ultimately outlasting the Pole.  It’s unlikely that the Russian would let such a lead slip in the much less nerve-jangling circumstances of a third-round encounter, although her penchant for drama found expression in the six three-setters that she has played among her last eight matches.  Halting Pavlyuchenkova’s momentum in the first round, Kuznetsova has regained some of her poise when attempting to close out matches, the arena that most troubled her during her perplexing slide.  (Interesting fact:  the players are tied high in the US Open Series standings, so this result could have implications for bonus prize money in New York.)  Pick:  Kuznetsova, 60-40.

Zheng vs. Dementieva (4):  Growing streakier with age, the Russian defending champion delivered one of her worst performance this year in Cincinnati—by her own admission—but bounced back to dismiss the sporadically challenging Zakopalova.  A perennial threat to upset top seeds with her low, penetrating groundstrokes, the Chinese doubles specialist barely edged past French firecracker Rezai, who had served for the match at 6-5 in the second set.  Without a crackling serve to earn her easy holds, Zheng will need all of her trademark steeliness as she battles through each game and point.  Despite a recent leg injury that forced her to miss Wimbledon, Dementieva’s fitness and return game looked solid at Stanford, although her serve and competitive drive remain as questionable as ever.  Pick:  Dementieva, 60-40.

Schiavone (6) vs. Safina:  Recording her first pair of consecutive victories since the Australian Open, Safina extended her Montreal winning streak to seven matches following her 2008 title here.  The most noteworthy win since her back injury, her three-set triumph over Petrova represented just Dinaraa’s second win in seven meetings over her compatriot; reversing the pattern of her losses, she rallied from a late deficit to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.  In the wake of her memorable French Open triumph, Schiavone has earned the right to be complacent until the Fed Cup final in November.  Although her crafty combinations might disrupt the Russian’s rhythm, Safina wants (and needs) a strong performance far more desperately, probably inspiring her to play with greater urgency.  Pick:  Safina, 65-35.

Pennetta (15) vs. Wozniacki (2):  As reliable as anyone in the WTA until an ankle injury in Charleston, Wozniacki has failed to recapture her consistency on clay, on grass, and so far on hard courts, where her Copenhagen title was outweighed by a lackluster Cincinnati loss to Bartoli.   A few months ago, the Pole-Dane seemed far closer to fame than her friend Azarenka, but now it’s the Belarussian who has recaptured the edge in their race to the top.  Clashes with opponents such as the experienced but not overwhelming Pennetta are matches that Wozniacki must win in order to regain her momentum.  Against someone with few weapons to pound her off the court outright, her movement-based style and competitive fortitude should prevail on a medium-speed hard court.  Even on her worst surface and Pennetta’s best, she overcame the Italian at Roland Garros this year.  Pick:  Wozniacki, 70-30.

***

We return tomorrow for quarterfinal previews in both cities while beginning to organize our thoughts for a three-part US Open preview early next week!

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Just two weeks remain until the final major of 2010, and the tournaments next week mark the final significant opportunity for players to hone their skills before entering the harsh New York spotlight.  While the men’s event in Cincinnati showcases all of the ATP elite, the skeletal draw in Montreal features only a handful of stars familiar to those outside the sport’s inner circle.  In the absence of marquee names Serena, Venus, Sharapova, and Henin, ample opportunities await for a dormant veteran or an ambitious youngster to pound and/or shriek themselves (see image above) into the conversation surrounding the upcoming Slam.  Quarter-by-quarter previews of Montreal and Cincinnati straight ahead:

First quarter

In this section are situated many of the WTA’s finest two-handed backhands, from Jankovic and Petrova to Azarenka and Li.  Although the terms “forehand” and “backhand” don’t quite apply to Bartoli’s double-fisted style, the Frenchwoman might upset the top-seeded Serb in a particularly bitter third-round clash, especially since Jankovic is struggling with an ankle injury.  A champion at Stanford and a first-round loser (albeit a doubles champion) at Cincinnati, Azarenka persists in defying expectation for better or for worse.  So does her scheduled third-round opponent, Li Na, who is most dangerous when discounted and most vulnerable when hyped.  After dispatching a Bondarenko apiece, the blazing-eyed Belarussian and the steely Chinese will contest perhaps the most intriguing midweek match.  Who will consolidate her position as a dark horse at the US Open?

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Second quarter:

Fortunately the recipient of a first-round bye, Clijsters must quickly regroup after the Cincinnati final but faces no intimidating opponents in her early rounds.  Neither Oudin nor Peer is equipped to outhit the defending US Open champion, despite the grim tenacity exhibited by the American and the Israeli.  On the other side, this weakest section of a weak draw features Clijsters’ compatriot Wickmayer, steadily approaching the limelight and the architect of Li’s demise in Cincinnati.  Seeking a potential rematch of a Wimbledon quarterfinal is the presence of Zvonareva, who defeated Kim for the first time at the All England Club.  Nevertheless, we expect Wickmayer to dispatch Vera beforehand and set up an all-Belgian quarterfinal; Clijsters is undefeated against her countrywomen during her comeback so far, crushing “Wickipedia” in Eastbourne this June.

Semifinalist:  Clijsters

Third quarter:

Filled with flamboyant personalities, distinctive playing styles, and existential angst, this section features both of the San Diego finalists as well as the tournament’s most intriguing first-round match:  Pavlyuchenkova-Kuznetsova.  On the other side lurk the aging, injury-addled Dementieva, the enigmatic Rezai, and equally enigmatic Wimbledon semifinalist Kvitova.  Both ranked among the top five in the US Open Series standings, Radwanska and Kuznetsova probably will clash for the second time in three tournaments.  This time, the Russian should win more comfortably without the additional pressure of playing for a title and armed with the confidence from her week in San Diego.  Since the other bold-faced names in this neighborhood have faltered miserably lately, Sveta should capitalize upon the momentum surge so curtly interrupted by Sharapova in Cincinnati.

Semifinalist:  Kuznetsova

Fourth quarter:

Defanged by the withdrawal of Sharapova, this section includes Roland Garros champion and quintessential one-Slam wonder, Francesca Schiavone.  Having won exactly one match since her magical fortnight in Paris, the Italian shouldn’t penetrate too deeply in this draw.  Consequently, a door might well open for the winner of the first-round confrontation between ball-bruising German Andrea Petkovic and the most maligned former #1 in WTA history, Dinara Safina.  Considering that the Russian hasn’t won consecutive matches since January, however, one suspects that the semifinalist will emerge from the lower section of this quarter.  Despite capturing the title at her home tournament in Copenhagen, Wozniacki has accomplished nothing of note since Miami and exited meekly to Bartoli in Cincinnati.  Yet her most substantial competition is San Diego semifinalist Pennetta, who enjoys the summer hardcourts more than one would imagine for a clay-loving Italian.

Semifinalist:  Wozniacki

Moving on (or back) to Cincinnati…

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First quarter:

One match played, one seed gone as Baghdatis upset the floundering Cilic on Sunday night after the women’s final.  After a rather flat trip to Canada, Nadal probably will begin his tournament against one of only two players who have defeated him since April, compatriot Feliciano Lopez.  If Rafa is a little deflated or unfocused, the quirky serve-and-volleying veteran could spell trouble as he did for Murray in Los Angeles, but it’s hard to imagine Lopez upsetting the world #1 in consecutive meetings.  Representing another potential hurdle is the 14th-seeded Almagro, who held match points against Nadal last fall and became one of only two players (with Gulbis) to win a set from the five-time French Open champion during the clay season.  A likely rematch of the Wimbledon final looms in the quarters, for Berdych enjoys a rather smooth road through the early rounds and looked convincing in Canada.  Even when the Czech has displayed some of his best tennis, though, Nadal has ultimately solved his challenge.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter:

Crisp and poised for most of his finals run in Toronto, Federer will have gained a significant injection of confidence by overcoming Wimbledon nemesis Berdych and retaking the #2 ranking from Djokovic.  Whether Blake, Monfils, Ferrer, or Davydenko, all of the marquee names in his vicinity have struggled mightily against the GOAT, so it’s his quarter to lose until proven otherwise.  Mediocre since returning from an injury, Davydenko might fall to the LA champion and winner of last year’s US Open Series, Querrey.  But note that the American thus far has failed to translate his success from the peripheral 250 and 500 events to a Masters Series; in Cincinnati, he crashed out early to the gawky Kevin Anderson.  Other than the potential task of solving Querrey’s serve, Federer’s goal here should be to win as efficiently as possible in order to conserve energy for a semifinal with the Mallorcan.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Third quarter:

Tangling in a memorable opening-round encounter at the Australian Open, the scintillating one-handed backhands of Gasquet and Youzhny collide in the first round once again.  At the top of the quarter, Simon and Fish intersect in a meeting between Roddick’s two most recent nemeses that should feature a contrast of styles between the baseline-rooted Frenchman and the net-rushing American.  Trudging wearily through his last several events, eighth seed Verdasco looks ripe for an upset by one of the aforementioned players.  But the last laugh probably will belong to the Rogers Cup champion and 2008 Cincinnati champion, unless Gulbis can recapture his clay-season form to ambush Murray in the third round.  Considering the light balls and fast courts here, it’s not inconceivable although unlikely.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Clashing in the opening round are a pair of veterans who resuscitated their careers this year after prolonged sojourns in the tennis wilderness, Ljubicic and Nalbandian.  While the Croat’s title in Indian Wells increasingly resembles Schiavone’s conquest of Roland Garros, the Argentine seems more likely to build upon his summer success for a surprising run at the US Open.  Perhaps still reeling from a frustrating, blowout-turned-nailbiter semifinal loss to Federer, Djokovic should overcome compatriot Troicki in his opener but might fall to either Nalbandian or Isner in the third round.  Without the stabilizing influence of coach Magnus Norman, Soderling may struggle to overcome home favorite Roddick, who will enjoy vociferous crowd support as he nurses a lingering case of mono.  If Roddick collides with Djokovic in the quarterfinals, momentum in their mini-rivalry will rest squarely on his side.  If he confronts Isner or Nalbandian, expect his superior conditioning to outlast those opponents in the torrid Cincinnati heat.

Semifinalist:  Roddick

***

Perspiration will pour, fists will pump, and nerves will jangle.  Who will surmount the heat and the pressure to prance nimbly through these capacious but not overwhelming draws?

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While commentators often have likened Murray to the next generation’s version of Federer, we have observed few similarities in their games.  Whereas the Swiss master has honed a free-flowing brand of shotmaking that relies upon relentless aggression, the Scot’s success has hinged upon his outstanding counterpunching and resilient defense, somewhat reminiscent of grinders like Hewitt.  Therefore, their rivalry has featured an intriguing contrast of styles in addition to a mini-momentum shift.  Frustrated by Murray during their early meetings, Federer recently has wrested the psychological advantage away from the Scot.  Can the Rogers Cup’s defending champion reverse the balance of power on Sunday?  We offer three kernels of advice for each finalist to ponder.

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1)      transition from defense to offense:  During the Australian Open final, Murray recoiled from seizing command of rallies and exerting pressure upon Federer from the baseline.  Content to rely upon his superb movement and reflexes, he allowed the Swiss legend to settle into the role of aggressor throughout the match.  By stepping into midcourt balls and attempting to create offensive forays of his own, Murray can implant doubts into Federer’s mind that will complicate his game plan.  Despite the third seed’s skill in passing shots, the defending champion should confidently venture towards the forecourt when his imposing first serve elicits a diffident return.  If he can translate to the final the resolute mentality with which he attacked Nadal, Federer might be discomfited by the unexpected departure from the Scot’s cautious personality. 

2)      backhand to backhand rallies:  One of the crispest and most consistent two-handers in the game, Murray’s backhand penetrates the court far better than does Federer’s one-hander in addition to donating far fewer errors.  The Scot ably redirects the ball on this wing and disguises the direction of his shots, allowing him to keep opponents off balance.  Although Federer hit through his weaker groundstroke with confidence early in his semifinal, the shot predictably wilted when the match grew tight.  Rather than allowing the Swiss to unleash forehand after forehand, Murray must force him into his backhand corner and erode his patience, perhaps eventually luring him into an recklessly aggressive gambit.

3)      stay positive:  Whereas Federer radiates confidence even in perilous situations, Murray has proven swift to sink into negativity when momentum shifts against him.  Petulantly castigating himself or his coaches, he displays an emotional vulnerability upon which opponents as experienced as the Swiss will capitalize.  One imagines that Federer might start the final impressively, as he did in Australia; that time, the Scot vanished into a cloud of defeatism from where he didn’t emerge until the third set, before which the match virtually had been decided.  In this final, Murray must remind himself that the GOAT has grown increasingly susceptible to peaks and valleys within a match, creating unforeseen opportunities for his challengers.  But one can profit from such lapses only by remaining alert, focused, and optimistic.

Federer:

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1)      finishing points at the net:  A deft and instinctive volleyer, Federer demonstrated his forecourt talents  at pivotal junctures in his victories over Berdych and Djokovic.  Murray’s retrieving style probably will create repeated openings for the third seed to move forward, which will enable him to take time away from his fluid opponent.  Rather than engaging in a war of attrition from the baseline, Federer can prevent the defending champion from settling into a rhythm by decisively cutting points short and forcing the thoughtful Scot to rush.  In order to implement this tactic, though, he must elevate his first-serve percentage, for Murray’s outstanding return will neutralize any attempt to attack behind a second delivery.  Here, Federer might choose to prioritize placement over pace, utilizing a few more wide serves to drag the Scot off the court.

2)      attack Murray’s second serve:  Connecting with fewer than 50% of his first serves against Nadal, Murray managed to survive that low conversion rate in part because of the Spaniard’s benign returning.  Don’t expect Federer to perch cautiously behind the baseline when one of the Scot’s second balls arrives, however.  Enabling an aggressive opponent to seize the initiative immediately, this shot remains the greatest flaw in Murray’s game.  If the second serve lands well inside the service line, Federer should consider running around his backhand and crushing an inside-out or inside-in forehand return.  Beyond winning a few points outright, such a strategy would send a message to Murray and perhaps cause the pace on his first serve to diminish as the defending champion focuses upon raising his percentage. 

3)      stay focused:  Leading Djokovic 6-1, 2-0, 30-0 in the semifinal, Federer seemed headed towards an emphatic victory after an hour or so.  Serving at 5-6, 40-15 in the second set against Berdych, he seemed headed towards a tiebreak that he probably would win.  On both occasions, he injected his reeling, vastly outplayed opponent with hope by donating a slovenly service game.  While one doesn’t expect a 29-year-old father of twins to play with the relentless urgency of a hungry 24-year-old, such lapses have cost Federer severely at non-majors and even have infiltrated his game during the eight most important weeks of the calendar.  A cunning competitor when at his best, Murray feasts upon the unwary and the unfocused.  Don’t expect him to reward any charity from Federer with mercy of his own.

Shot-by-shot breakdown:  who has the edge?

Serve:  Federer

Return:  Murray

Forehand:  Federer

Backhand:  Murray

Volleys:  Federer

Movement:  Murray

Mental:  Federer

***

In Cincinnati, meanwhile, Sharapova finds herself in a highly similar situation to two weeks ago in Stanford, when she battled through a three-set semifinal on Saturday night before finding herself “out of gas” (her expression) in Sunday afternoon’s final.   While Maria will welcome the 3 PM first ball much more than Stanford’s noon start, she will be playing for a sixth consecutive day—an extremely rare occurrence in her career.  An excellent mover, the much better rested Clijsters should be able to stay in the rallies until fatigue forces the weary Russian to purposelessly spray groundstrokes, a product of striking her high-risk missiles late and out of position.  We suspect that this final may be a “one-set match,” during which Sharapova attempts to keep pace with her fellow US Open champion in the first set while ascertaining the amount of effort that the match will require from her.  If Clijsters establishes the lead with a reasonably sturdy set, Maria probably will concede the second set as she did in Palo Alto.  But if she can muster the energy to swipe the first set from an uninspired Belgian, all bets are off. 

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One can’t imagine how the Cincinnati stadium could have experienced a power outage when the Siberian’s percussive groundstrokes thundered through the court.

We return shortly to preview the ATP Cincinnati and WTA Montreal draws in the same quarter-by-quarter format that we used for this week’s tournaments!

Just as we had hinted in our pre-tournament previews, Nalbandian chopped down the limb on which we had climbed by forecasting him to reach the semifinals.  At any rate, such is the beauty of the disclaimers that one can carefully attach to these long-shot picks.  When the player actually performs as we had foretold, we can proclaim that we knew that they would.  When he/she doesn’t…well, we can proclaim that we knew that they wouldn’t.  In our semifinal preview, we investigate the probability of the first Federer-Nadal hard-court clash since the 2009 Australian Open and the probability of the first “Sharapovanovic” final since the 2008 Australian Open. 

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Nadal (1) vs. Murray (4):  For the second straight tournament and the second straight Toronto Rogers Cup, the fiery Spaniard and the icy Scot collide in a semifinal.  During their eleven previous meetings, a fascinating rivalry has developed that has showcased Murray’s capacity for offensive first-strike tennis (uncharacteristic) as well as Nadal’s scintillating counter-punching talents (characteristic).  While Murray must leave his comfort zone when he plays Rafa, therefore, the Spaniard requires few adjustments when he confronts the Scot.  As one would expect, Rafa has dominated their head-to-head except on three occasions when injuries or fatigue undercut his performance.  Hard courts constitute Murray’s surface of choice as well as Nadal’s least favorite surface, so a mini-upset could occur if the world #1’s pedestrian form from this week continues.  Erratic against Monfils, Murray delivered a poised, seamless quarterfinal performance to record his first career victory over Nalbandian.  The Scot will seek to recapitulate his stunning display against Rafa in Melbourne, when he served boldly on key points, sharpened his focus throughout the rallies, and resolutely opened up the court with early ball-striking.  Aiding Nadal will be the humid weather conditions, to which the Spaniard adapts more adeptly than does Murray.  Healthy and mentally relaxed, Rafa should elongate a sufficient number of rallies on this medium-speed hard court to wear down Murray physically and psychologically.  Since we’re only a month removed from Wimbledon, the ghosts of Nadal’s rather straightforward victory there will be waiting to descend into the Scot’s mind when adversity strikes. Pick:  Nadal, 70-30.

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Federer (3) vs. Djokovic (2):  At the 2007 Rogers Cup, Djokovic achieved a vital breakthrough by ambushing Federer in one of the most thrilling championship matches ever hosted by the tournament.  At the last three US Opens, however, the engaging Serb has lost to Federer, Federer, and…Federer.  Furthermore, he fell to the Swiss maestro in last year’s Cincinnati final, after which he admitted his lack of confidence against the GOAT.  Djokovic’s stirring upset of Federer at the 2008 Australian Open feels like a long time ago now; since that fortnight, his focus has wandered, his confidence has faltered, and his strokes have lost their crisp, almost robotic precision.  Suggesting a Djokovic renaissance was a Wimbledon semifinal run as well as a comprehensive demolition of Croats Ljubicic and Cilic in Davis Cup.  After almost retiring in his opener here, the Serb dispatched a pair of overmatched opponents in Hanescu and Chardy but has not faced a seeded player.  Menawhile, Federer displayed bursts of signature form in a quarterfinal comeback against Berdych that should have revived his self-belief after losing to the Czech at the All England Club.   But the 29-year-old’s game did wobble in pivotal moments including the last game of the second set, which featured two double faults, a wildly reckless forehand miss, and a shanked backhand on set point.  Armed with a crisp two-hander, Djokovic will hope to target Federer’s weaker wing as often as possible.  By contrast, their forehand-to-forehand battles would favor the Swiss, so be sure to observe the direction of the cross-court rallies.  As has often been the case in their scintillating collision, though, the key factor should be Federer’s superior poise under pressure, the trait that assured his survival on Friday.  (Interesting fact:  Federer was two points from defeat on seven different occasions against Berdych.)  Pick:  Federer, 60-40.

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Ivanovic vs. Clijsters (4):  Just like Hantuchova in San Diego, Ivanovic barely dodged defeat in her first-round match against a seeded opponent.  Also like Hantuchova, she exploited the opportunity that she herself had created by dispatching her next few adversaries as her confidence has mounted visibly each day.  Following the second-set tiebreak seized from Azarenka, Ana has lost just fifteen games in her last seven sets, five of which were played against higher-ranked players.  Once again like Hantuchova, she enters the semifinal as a clear underdog against the fourth seed, a player with a much more versatile game and superior movement.  Don’t put too much weight on their one-set Madison Square Garden exhibition, a ghastly comedy of errors at a time when both women were struggling mightily.  Unless the Serb enjoys an outstanding serving day, Clijsters should expose her still dubious albeit improved movement by stretching her laterally.  Possessing much more balanced groundstrokes than does Ivanovic, the Belgian will seek to pin Ana in her backhand corner, where she either will be prevented from unleashing her massive forehand or will be lured into running around the backhand and thus exposing too much court territory.  The smiling Serb showcased sparkling net should play during her quarterfinal victory, which should encourage her to venture into the forecourt whenever an opening emerges.  Yet the depth on Clijsters’ penetrating, symmetrical groundstrokes should forestall such incursions for much of the match unless Kim’s concentration dissolves; in fact, she has suffered such lapses too frequently during her comeback thus far.  Among the key trends to observe in this encounter will be the length of the points, which will favor Clijsters when extended and Ivanovic when briskly curtailed.  Even if the Serb sprays a few rash forehands, she must muster the confidence to continue forcing the issue and aiming for the lines, necessary against a much more consistent opponent.  (Interesting fact:  a win in this match should vault Ivanovic into a seeded slot for the US Open, a position in which one never could have imagined her a few weeks ago.)  Pick:  Clijsters, 75-25.

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Pavlyuchenkova vs. Sharapova (10):  Savage and suffocating in her last three matches, Sharapova has dropped five or fewer games in her last three matches against Petkovic, Radwanska, and Bartoli—not quite the elite of the elite, to be sure, but a sturdy trio of opponents all the same.  When her serve deserts her as it did early against Radwanska and late against Bartoli, Maria has been able to regroup, crush thunderous returns, and prevent her opponent from capitalizing on the momentum shift.  While she continues to pursue this courageous comeback, the three-time Slam champion has learned to adapt to the dips in her service rhythm rather than allowing them to derail the rest of her game as it did in 2009.  Despite the mind-numbing heat and humidity in Cincinnati, Maria has progressed efficiently through her matches (unlike at Stanford) and has enjoyed the advantage of twice playing at night.  Nevertheless, playing on the fifth consecutive day often has proved a challenge for her in the past, so take note of her movement and footwork in the early stages.  When taking small, careful steps towards the ball, the Russian fully profits from her statuesque frame to blast her baseline weapons with eye-popping precision.  When fatigue induces her to take large, careless strides, she loses the timing and rhythm on her swings, guiding balls instead of striking them cleanly. Having not watched the Istanbul tournament or any of Pavlyuchenkova’s matches this week, we’re unsure what to expect from Maria’s compatriot, who sounded doubtful about her own recovery from a three-set quarterfinal under the unforgiving Ohio sun.  Neither player knows much about the details of her opponent’s game, which implies that the match might feature an early adjustment period as they adapt.  Although upstarts who never have played Sharapova often wilt under her sheer weight of shot, Pavlyuchenkova scored two impressive wins over Venus last fall and thus has demonstrated her ability to absorb pace.  The former junior #1 reached a Premier Mandatory final in 2009; is she ready to extend a career-best nine-match winning streak and reach a Premier Five final in 2010?  Or will Maria reach her fifth final of the season and fourth in her last six tournaments?  Pick:  Sharapova, 65-35.

***

Enjoy the star-studded Saturday in Toronto and Cincinnati, arguably the most intriguing day of tennis so far in this year’s US Open Series!

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Having begun with the ladies during our tournament previews, we start our Friday forecasts with the men.  In the sweltering temperatures of Toronto and Cincinnati, who will sizzle…and who will fizzle?

Toronto: 

Nadal (1) vs. Kohlschreiber:  Despite his unprepossessing, compact frame, the German projects surprising power from both of his groundstrokes and can unleash a blistering one-handed backhand reminiscent of Gasquet’s stroke.  A flamboyant shotmaker who often plays against percentages, Kohlschreiber ebbs and flows dramatically throughout his matches.  In order to trouble Nadal, he’ll need to avoid the untimely dips in form that have hampered him against the ATP elite; he won a set from Rafa in Melbourne with sparkling offense but conceded too many points on feckless unforced errors.  Tested by Wawrinka and briefly by Anderson, the Spaniard is gradually settling into his hard-court rhythm.  His groundstrokes are penetrating the court with increasing conviction, while Kohlschreiber’s modest serve won’t allow him to immediately seize command of points and keep the rallies short.  Pick:  Nadal.

Murray (4) vs. Nalbandian:  Riding the longest winning streak of a fascinatingly convoluted career, the Argentine has defeated Davydenko, Youzhny, Wawrinka, Simon, Cilic, Ferrer, and most recently Soderling during the last several weeks.  Against the Swede, he confidently regrouped from a one-set deficit in an uncharacteristically steady, tenacious performance.  Bageled twice in his last two tournaments, Murray failed to close out Querrey in the LA final and vanished inexplicably for a lengthy period here against Monfils.  Perhaps unsettled by his current coachlessness, the Scot also must cope with the bitter aftertaste of yet another Wimbledon disappointment.  (Fortunately, though, his game hasn’t plummeted abjectly as it did after Melbourne.) Focus on the crisp two-handed backhands in this match, among the finest weapons of this type in the ATP.  Rather than the serve-oriented short points of the quarterfinal below, we expect elongated rallies in which both competitors carefully probe the court’s angles.  Murray must maintain a first-serve percentage higher than his usual level, for the Argentine’s smooth return will feast upon the Scot’s mediocre second ball.  Pick:  Nalbandian.

Berdych (7) vs. Federer (3):  The only all-seeded clash of the day, this quarterfinal offers the most intrigue.  As noted by Alvaro Rama, Berdych is the only Toronto quarterfinalist who has not dropped serve in the tournament.  The Czech ball-bruiser seeks a third victory over Federer this year after a fourth-round epic in Miami and a less nail-biting but more historic triumph at Wimbledon.  In that quarterfinal upset, Federer seemed to glide through his service games effortlessly until he suddenly didn’t, whereas Berdych wobbled and slogged through his service games but ultimately escaped them.  In their backhand-to-backhand exchanges, his sturdy two-hander overpowered the GOAT’s graceful yet frail one-hander.  Even in forehand-to-forehand rallies, the Czech enjoyed similar success to Del Potro when he pinpointed his flat bombs within centimeters of the baseline and forced the Swiss into mistiming his strokes.  Like Nadal, the third seed has won two tiebreaks in Toronto, which bodes well for him in the likely event that a set should reach that point.  A bit of the old, whining Berdych returned in Washington, moreover, when he peevishly threatened to never return to the Legg Mason event after some admittedly ham-handed scheduling.  Nevertheless, there’s no question who has been the better player of the two over the last several months.  It’s not Roger.  Pick:  Berdych.

Chardy vs. Djokovic (2):  Very hot and very bothered in his muggy opener against Benneteau, Djokovic will be relieved not only to play in the night session but also to avoid Davydenko and Verdasco, against whom he has struggled over the past year.  On the other hand, the Serb faces the upstart who dismissed both the Russian and the Spaniard.  Yet another mercurial French talent, the swaggering Chardy should relish the theatrical atmosphere of the night session as he thumps his serve-forehand combinations.  Following a three-hour war of attrition against Verdasco, he recovered admirably to dominate Davydenko and has more than enough potential to enjoy a prolonged scorching streak.  Calmer and cooler in his victory over Hanescu, however, Djokovic has recorded relatively consistent results in Canada over the past few years.  The moderate speed of the hard court suits his extremely complete but not quite overpowering all-court game, much as it does Nadal’s.  Yet much of the Serb’s charm consists of his unpredictability, which makes us hesitate for a moment before writing his name.  Pick:  Djokovic.

Cincinnati:

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Amanmuradova (Q) vs. Ivanovic:  Hats off to the towering Uzbek for reaching the quarterfinals after slogging through three qualifying rounds in the Cincinnati midsummer heat.  By far the most impressive win of her career, Akgul’s victory over defending champion Jankovic featured 12 aces and no break points whatsoever on her own serve.  She will enter the quarterfinals filled with confidence but perhaps a little jaded as she prepares to play her seventh match in eight days.  Also brimming with confidence is Ivanovic, who has capitalized convincingly upon her first-round upset of Azarenka to record two dominant victories of higher-ranked opponents.  Possibly galvanized by the Rogers Cup controversy, the smiling Serb seeks to exploit a second half in which she will be defending few points at any tournaments.  Although she doesn’t crush as many outright aces as Amanmuradova, she similarly will rely upon her serve and return to set up benign mid-court balls and abbreviate the baseline exchanges.  Neither player wants to wage a war of attrition, so the Uzbek and the Serb will pull the trigger as soon as they can.  Despite the vast gulf in experience here, this match should be competitive and probably decided by a handful of points.  Recently, Ivanovic had struggled to win such encounters, but perhaps that trend has reversed this week.  Expect an exercise in first-strike tennis with very few service breaks or break points, and a match much less attractive than Ana.  On the other hand, most matches are.  Pick:  Ivanovic.

Clijsters (4) vs. Pennetta (11):  Dangerous during the summer hard-court season last year, Pennetta awakened from a dormant stretch to reach the semifinals in San Diego and has extended that form through three routine wins here.  Forced to battle from the brink against Zvonareva in the 2009 US Open, the fiery Italian comfortably eased past the Wimbledon finalist in the third round.  It’s been an odd year of peaks and valleys for Jada’s mom, meanwhile, who sparkled in Brisbane, flopped in Melbourne and Indian Wells, dazzled in Miami, disappeared on the clay, and did a bit of everything during the grass season.  Avenging a loss to Safina during her comeback event here last year, Kim showed no mercy to home hope Christina McHale.  But don’t extrapolate too much from those matches.  At Wimbledon, Clijsters seemed a genuine contender as she expertly defused Henin, then looked much more like a mom than a murderess when she faced Zvonareva a few days later.  Since neither player possesses overwhelming first-strike potential, this match should unfold in a manner drastically divergent from the quarterfinal above; one imagines that breaks will proliferate and rallies will extend.  If Pennetta can control her seething emotions and stay within range, opportunities probably will present themselves.  But Clijsters is the clearly superior player when focused, and the match ultimately will lie in her hands.  Pick:  Clijsters.

Wickmayer (12) vs. Pavlyuchenkova:  Finally, former junior #1 Pavlyuchenkova may be on the verge of realizing her vast potential after a tantalizing glimpse of what she could become at Indian Wells in 2009.  Following three victories over experienced opponents in Hantuchova, Dementieva, and Peer, her excellent week continues to a winnable match against fellow phenom Wickmayer.  Allowed to develop calmly outside the limelight occupied by Clijsters and Henin, “Wickipedia” scored a startling upset herself by edging Li Na, whom we had expected to reach the semifinals.  Opportunity knocks for these burgeoning talents, both of whom surely will find themselves in the top 10 someday.  At this Premier Five event, heaps of ranking points await such opportunists, elevating their ranking and softening their draws in the coming weeks.  A quarterfinalist in Miami, Wickmayer seems a bit closer to a breakthrough than does Pavlyuchenkova; her game currently is crisper and more reliable, her serve is much more potent, and her mind is clearer at tense moments.  On the other hand, the Russian’s groundstrokes are more balanced, while she has recorded more wins over elite players at this stage in her fledgling career.  Will the Belgian’s forehand or the Russian’s backhand set the tone in the rallies?  Either way, their appearances in the quarterfinals here should encourage WTA fans by suggesting that, although the future may not be here, it’s at least approaching.  Pick:  Wickmayer.

Sharapova (10) vs. Bartoli (16):  At the expense of both San Diego finalists, Sharapova has impressed in her Cincinnati debut after an erratic opener during which she struggled with the intense humidity.  Starting with her May title run at Strasbourg, Maria has compiled a 21-4 record that includes three finals appearances on three different surfaces.  Despite early success at Wimbledon, hard courts have evolved into her battleground of choice, where the ball bounces higher than on grass but travels just as fast.  Building her confidence before the US Open are stirring recent triumphs over Dementieva, Radwanska (twice), Kuznetsova, and Zheng, all of whom had frustrated her on past occasions.  The 2007 Wimbledon finalist often shines during the summer season and looked sharp at Stanford as well as her early rounds here.  (In fact, Bartoli was the only player to win a set from Bank of the West champion Azarenka, who dropped no more than five games in any of her other matches that week.)  Slightly marred by a controversial, maybe not quite “timely” challenge on a key point, the Frenchwoman’s upset of the second-seeded Wozniacki again demonstrated her ability to frustrate marquee competition.  Since both players have honed stunning returns, first-serve percentage will be a crucial factor; neither Maria nor Bartoli prosper when regularly forced to rely upon their second delivery.  Although Sharapova has dominated their previous meetings, they haven’t played in the past three years, during which the Frenchwoman has substantially improved her movement.  Once easily wrong-footed along the baseline, she now can retrieve a remarkable range of shots with dogged scurrying.  Maria’s superior first-strike arsenal eventually should  if she can temper her aggression with a modicum of patience, preserve her focus, and take time away from Bartoli by finishing points in the forecourt.  Pick:  Sharapova.

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***

Enjoy what promises to be a fascinating quarterfinal day in two different cities (and countries)!  We will return to preview all four semifinals in a similar fashion.

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Returning from our two-week “WTA vacation,” we were delighted to see that many of you were eagerly anticipating our next entry.  Yet we were even more delighted to see that the Serbian Sleeping Beauty awakened in Cincinnati to overcome a recently revived Azarenka in a memorable three-set collision.  Forcing herself to remain positive after a lackluster first set, Ivanovic steadied her emotions and mentally outlasted the blazing-tempered Belarussian, who twice failed to serve out the match. Two points from defeat on three different occasions, Ana somehow found the inner steeliness necessary to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.   The Serb’s confidence surely will soar after winning the type of closely contested encounter that she had been losing all too frequently.  We hope that she can capitalize upon her triumph to profit from a second half during which she will have little to lose and much to gain in the rankings.  Meanwhile, though, we head back to the business of bracketology with a somewhat tardy analysis of the draws at the WTA Cincinnati and ATP Toronto events.

Cincinnati:

First quarter: Qualifiers and Serbs proliferate in this region, although we do not confuse them as did the Montreal tournament director.  Atop the section looms defending champion Jankovic, but a three-match losing streak prevents her from towering over the draw as would a typical top seed.  With Azarenka already headed to Montreal, however, few obstacles could prevent JJ from reaching the semifinals; Schiavone seems more than content (and rightfully so) to rest upon her French laurels, while Ivanovic, Shvedova, or Vesnina probably would feel satisfied simply to reach the quarters.  Owing in part to the vagaries of this bizarrely imbalanced draw, Jankovic won’t play anyone except a qualifier until that round, which should mean that she’ll be as rested as possible for the weekend.   One suspects that JJ won’t wait until then to find drama, though, perhaps spicing up our lives in another intra-Serbian duel with Ana.  Be sure to postmark your “ajdes” carefully.

Semifinalist:  Jankovic

Second quarter: Remember the notorious, tear-soaked clash between Pennetta and Zvonareva at last year’s US Open?  Beckoning at the base of this quarter is a probable rematch, but Zvonareva’s limp performance in San Diego suggests that an opportunity might open for second-round opponent Kirilenko.  In the 2009 edition of this tournament, the then-#1 Safina halted Clijsters in the first event of her comeback; the Belgian could exact a substantial revenge on Wednesday by thrusting the Russian out of the top 50 with a victory.  Clijsters has been just a top-25 player outside her US Open run last year (subtract her points from New York to see what we mean), and she accomplished little in the first half outside Miami and two other wins over Henin.  Nevertheless, bearing the Belgian banner alone might relax Kim a bit as she returns to her favored hard courts, and Safina hasn’t won consecutive matches since the Australian Open.  In the Wimbledon quarterfinals, Zvonareva defeated Clijsters for the first time in their careers.  Could she repeat the feat?  Not if she’s the same Vera whom we saw last week.

Semifinalist: Clijsters

Third quarter: Recuperating from leg injuries that forced her to miss Wimbledon, Dementieva may find herself tested by upwardly mobile compatriot Pavlyuchenkova in the second round.  Embedded on the other side is the next era of Belgian brilliance, also known as Yanina Wickmayer.  A future top-10 star, she won sets from Stosur at Stanford and Kuznetsova in San Diego but hasn’t quite broken through at a significant tournament.  Wickmayer’s third-round clash with Li Na should feature an avalanche of bludgeoned groundstrokes and court-stretching rallies; one ultimately must favor the Chinese star on account of her stellar season and superior experience.  While Dementieva holds the hard-court edge in her prior collisions with Li, she may not be sufficiently durable and consistent at this stage in her return to navigate past her fellow Beijing Olympic medalist.

Semifinalist:  Li

Fourth quarter: Even after Sharapova dispatched San Diego champion Kuznetsova, this quarter remains littered with stern competitors ranging from Maria to Radwanska, Wozniacki, and Bartoli.  If Maria can recover from her Tuesday night match with her energy intact for Wednesday afternoon, she probably will advance to a third-round meeting with the Pole.  Having won their last four clashes since a 2007 US Open fiasco, Sharapova possesses too much sheer power for Radwanska to deflect except when the Russian suffers an especially erratic outing.  On the other side, world #3 Wozniacki seeks to capitalize upon the momentum gained by capturing her home tournament last week.   But will her fatigue from the elongated matches that she played there undermine her against Bartoli’s relentless, double-barrelled offense?  An early loser in San Diego (courtesy of Hantuchova), the Frenchwoman has looked sharp in two victories here and would enjoy greater rest than the Dane entering their projected third-round duel.  This quarter probably will feature the most entertaining tennis, but its residents likely will exhaust each other before the week concludes, reducing the chances of the last woman standing here to win the title.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

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Toronto:

First quarter: Following the premature demises of Cilic and Roddick, Nadal’s path to the semifinals suddenly yawns open before him.  His only potential seeded opponent is Querrey, who won the LA tournament from Murray but so far has fallen a little short in his meetings with the Spaniard.  Moreover, the four-time titlist this year may be fatigued from his recent heroics; the unheralded Michael Russell managed to extend him into a third set on Tuesday.  With a reinvigorated, freshly treated pair of knees, Nadal should be able to wear down Wawrinka with minimal ado before confronting the American.  If he progresses past Querrey to the final eight, he shouldn’t be excessively challenged by the likes of Troicki or Lu, credible all-court players without the physicality, groundstroke depth, or relentless focus vital to conquering the world #1.  Although Querrey possesses the groundstroke depth, he remains lacking in the other departments despite maturing steadily this year.  (Interesting fact:  a Nadal-Querrey meeting would feature the two players who have won more titles in 2010 than anyone else in the ATP.)

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter: Question marks hover ominously above the two main dramatis personae in this section; Murray must adjust to his separation from coach Miles Maclagan, while Soderling withdrew from Washington for “personal reasons” and only narrowly withstood the weapons of Gulbis in his opener.  Lurking in the shadows is the Washington champion, David Nalbandian, who is riding a nine-match winning streak that started with Davis Cup and who already has dispatched the ever-tenacious Ferrer.  The third-round duel between the Argentine and the Swede should enthrall, as should the encounter between Murray and Monfils.  Flamboyant, enigmatic, and notoriously unreliable, Nalbandian has developed a habit of alternating prolonged surges with prolonged slides, and he’s in the midst of a surge at the moment.  When one ventures out on a limb to expect something from him, he generally cuts the limb down himself.  Nevertheless, the current uncertainty surrounding Murray and Soderling persuades us to perch out there anyway.

Semifinalist:  Nalbandian

Third quarter: Upon sinking to world #3, Federer has encouraged his supporters by breaking free from complacency to explore a coaching partnership with Paul Annacone.  Despite the strong season enjoyed by Nicolas Almagro, the Spaniard never has recorded a victory over a member of the game’s elite and will enter his third-round clash with the Swiss as a heavy underdog.  During his opener against Chela, Federer’s serve delivered at the most vital moments as it regularly has in the past, but his backhand sporadically deserted him.  In a likely quarterfinal with Berdych, the Czech’s equally explosive serve, newfound self-belief, and much steadier backhand might well vault him past the 16-time major champion for the second straight tournament and the third time in 2010.  Concerning the probable Berdych-Youzhny third-round confrontation, one suspects that the Russian’s fluid movement and shot-making versatility will not compensate for his relatively unimpressive serve and first-strike potential any more than when he met Berdych at Roland Garros.

Semifinalist:  Berdych

Fourth quarter: Reportedly sluggish and uninspired during his doubles with Nadal, Djokovic has been handed a draw that will provide him with ample time to rouse himself.  Benneteau can threaten the top players with his distinctive style, even upsetting Federer last fall, but the Serb will not find his consistency or fitness severely tested by the French doubles specialist.  Not until the quarterfinals will Djokovic face a seeded opponent, which would be either the struggling Davydenko or the exhausted-looking Verdasco.  While the Russian recently returned from an extended injury absence, the Spanish lefty substantially overloaded his schedule during the clay season and slogged through an uninspired opener against journeyman Eduardo Schwank.  On one hand, both Davydenko and Verdasco have enjoyed recent success against Djokovic, so they could profit from one of the inexplicably flat performances that he has delivered chronically ever since winning the 2008 Australian Open.  On the other hand, they’re just as likely to submit an inexplicably flat performance themselves, and a mediocre effort from the Serb trumps a mediocre effort from either the Russian or the Spaniard.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

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***

We return on Thursday for quarterfinal previews in both cities, followed by semifinal and final previews over the weekend.

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Spearheaded by American #1 Roddick, the fledgling Atlanta event initiates the US Open Series today.  Similar to the “Road to Roland Garros,” these eleven tournaments (six ATP, five WTA) attempt to serve the dual purpose of affording players ample preparation for the year’s final major while creating a crescendo of enthusiasm among the sport’s followers.  Despite the attendant pomp and circumstance, the USOS often falls a bit short of its lofty designation as “the greatest roadtrip in sports,” especially in comparison with its momentous clay counterpart.  Yet these events do play a pivotal role in the calendar as the threshold to the season’s second half, which frequently offers a jarringly divergent set of narratives from the first half.  We present five potential plotlines for the 2010 edition.

1a)  Can the ATP top two extend their momentum? 

After an indifferent beginning to 2010, vultures were circling around the Spaniard and the Serb as commentators queried whether either of them could recapitulate their 2008 peaks.  First to awaken was Nadal, whose literally perfect clay season foreshadowed his second career Channel Slam.  Still slumbering on much of the terre battue, Djokovic reinvigorated himself with a Wimbledon semifinal run that once again illustrated his stylish, multifaceted all-court style.  So will Rafa dominate the hard courts as he did the clay and grass, and will Novak justify his elevated ranking over the summer?  Often weary from first-half exertions, Nadal rarely displays his most brilliant tennis in this phase of the season, whereas Djokovic has garnered his most consistent results at the US Open (three consecutive semifinals).  Nevertheless, the world #1 will enter both Masters Series events as the distinct favorite, while the Serb will attract far less attention than a typical #2; such a role might benefit the easily diverted Djokovic, though, allowing him to focus upon forehands and backhands.  [Some sources suggest that Nadal will play only one event in the US Open Series, but he has not yet withdrawn from either Canada or Cincinnati.]

1b)  Can the next two reverse their momentum?

Since a sparkling Melbourne campaign, Federer has suffered a series of prodigious blows on all three surfaces, culminating in an uninspired quarterfinal loss at Wimbledon.  To be sure, a similar scenario unfolded two years ago before the Swiss grandmaster rallied to capture three of the next four Slams, so discussions of his demise sound a trifle premature.  Yet his mid-season swoon looked much more disquieting this time, for his Slam losses occurred against players whom he had formerly dominated instead of against long-time nemesis Nadal.  Inscribed on almost every meaningful page in the sport’s record book, Federer recently has struggled for motivation at Masters Series events and will be vulnerable to any ball-bruising baseliner brimming with confidence.  Positively horrific between Melbourne and Wimbledon, meanwhile, Murray must avoid the mental torpor that descended upon him after his previous Slam disappointment.  The Scot excelled in Canada and Cincinnati last year but has exited before the semis at all five Masters Series events in 2010.

2)  Which American will enjoy the strongest summer?

Had Serena remembered to look before she stepped, this question would have been easy to answer.  In her absence, can Venus and Roddick rebound from their tepid Wimbledons to lead the charge?  Falling just one victory short of an Indian Wells-Miami double, Andy has endured pre-quarterfinal exits in his last four tournaments, while Serena’s sister has not won a single North American hard-court event in nearly a decade.  The toast of New York a year ago, Melanie Oudin has faded into near-invisibility in 2010 with the exception of Fed Cup.  Fortunately for the stars and stripes, three moderately familiar ATP names seem poised to shine in their home nation.  Recently reaching two grass-court finals (Queens Club, Newport), Mardy Fish might ride his crackling serve to a key upset somewhere, just as he did against Murray in Miami this spring.  Yet the towering duo of Querrey and Isner may shoulder the principal burdens of American hopes; these rapidly maturing baseliners possess an ideal game for these fast hard courts and might well record a stirring performance or two.

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3)  How much will we miss Del Potro, Serena, and Henin?

Vanquishing Nadal, Roddick, and nearly Murray in Montreal, the lanky Argentine provided arguably the most compelling storyline of last year’s US Open Series.  His breakthrough not only delighted spectators with electrifying shotmaking but provided a refreshing counterpoint to the Roger-Rafa dichotomy.  In 2010, the task of creating an appetizing alternate narrative will fall instead to players like Soderling and Berdych, whom we expect to acquit themselves creditably in that role.  On the other hand, the injuries to 40% of the WTA’s Big Five severely undermined the women’s events.  We wouldn’t have foretold titles for either Serena or Henin, for Serena generally delivers lackadaisical, unpersausive tennis at venues like Cincinnati, and Henin’s comeback has faltered since its sensational beginning in Australia.  But the WTA Premier draws will look perceptibly depleted without those marquee names, whose mere presence infuses a stadium with intrigue regardless of their current form.

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4)  Can the Russian women rise again?

Between Roland Garros and Wimbledon, only one Russian woman (Dementieva) remained in the top 10 from the legions who had populated that uppermost echelon in the WTA hierarchy.  Two-time major champion Kuznetsova has drifted to the fringes of the top 20 after recording a single quarterfinal in 2010, while three-time major finalist Safina could be unseeded for the US Open unless she regains her rhythm in the coming weeks.  A quarterfinalist at both the Australian Open and Roland Garros, Petrova has failed to find the necessary consistency to maintain a high ranking, and Dementieva herself has alternated impressive results (a French Open semifinal) with patches of listlessness.  At the All England Club, however, two Russians did perform convincingly.  To almost everyone’s surprise, Zvonareva defeated Clijsters en route to her first career Slam final; to almost nobody’s surprise, Sharapova built upon her scintillating French Open form to reach a fiercely contested second-week collision with Serena.  Do those two efforts signal a Russian resurgence, or has this nation’s tide of dominance definitively receded, leaving occasional achievements like driftwood on the shore rather than cresting into a mighty tsunami?

5)  Which (if any) WTA youngster / unknown will score the greatest impact?                    

Among the most intriguing and least predictable plotlines at Wimbledon was the emergence of Petra Kvitova and Tsvetana Pironkova as stern competitors who could test the WTA elite.  Moreover, Kaia Kanepi revived her sagging career with a quarterfinal run that preceded her maiden title in Palermo last week.  When the tour shifts from red and green to blue, we’ll follow these three figures in addition to nascent stars including Wickmayer and Pavlyuchenkova.  Although Wozniacki and Azarenka have struggled with injuries and erratic performance over the last few months, meanwhile, the post-Wimbledon hiatus might have reinvigorated the 2009 US Open finalist and 2009 Miami champion.  Yet the WTA’s veteran core looks likely to retain its stranglehold over the key events, where their superior mental fortitude separates them from the youthful upstarts.  Thus far, Generation Next has not demonstrated that it can regularly solve not only established champions like the Williams sisters, Clijsters, and Sharapova but also the tour’s ladies-in-waiting like Jankovic and Dementieva.  Eventually, however, youth must break through…mustn’t it?

5+1)  Are hard courts really faster than grass?

By the middle weekend at Wimbledon, the Centre Court baselines resembled a dusty clay court much more than pristine grass.  Over the past few years, commentators and players alike have remarked upon the slowing speed of the grass together with the accelerating speed of clay to explain the increasing ease with which players transition between these seemingly antithetical surfaces.  By contrast, the North American hard courts often play progressively faster as a tournament approaches its latter stages, aiding powerful servers and ultra-aggressive shotmakers against counterpunchers.  (This characteristic may have influenced Nadal’s struggle in New York as much as his second-half fatigue.)  Once considered a little slower than Wimbledon, therefore, the US Open now possesses an arguable claim to the speediest surface of any major.  Are the courts throughout the US Open Series equally fast?  Is there significant variation in speed among them?  How relevant are results from these preparatory tournaments if the ball travels perceptibly faster at the climactic event?  Cast a thought to those issues as the “greatest roadtrip in sports” unfolds.

***

In a few days, we return with an article on John Isner, which will differ in format from our previous player profiles but will cover most of the same issues.

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In the 2008 French Open, the new world #1 Ana Ivanovic proudly lifted the first Slam trophy of what seemed destined to be a career replete with such memorable moments.  In the 2010 French Open, the world #42 Ana Ivanovic cowered helplessly behind the baseline as the burly Alisa Kleybanova crammed a second-set bagel down her throat in the second round.  How did this precipitous two-year plunge from glory to misery accelerate with such alarming speed?  We look at seven of the principal explanations for Ivanovic’s struggles, arranged in order from least convincing to most convincing, before concluding with two potential paths by which she can move forward from the crossroads at which she tentatively stands.

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7)       the aberration theory:  Inviting the disdainful appellation of “one-Slam wonder,” Ivanovic’s failure to reach even a single major quarterfinal since her French Open triumph has caused commentators to wonder whether that title was merely an accident.  To be sure, the Serb did exploit a cozy draw that featured just one top-10 player (Jankovic) during the entire fortnight.  But she’s achieved outstanding results on all surfaces for an extended period, winning the 2006 Rogers Cup in 2006, capturing the 2007 Berlin title, charging to the 2007 Roland Garros final, and reaching the 2007 Wimbledon semifinals.  Considering that context, her six-month peak stretch from Australia 2008 to Roland Garros 2008 no longer appears an isolated accomplishment but instead the next phase in an accelerating career.  Therefore, the headline here clearly is not her rise but her downfall, contrary to what the most disillusioned observers suggest.

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6)  the injury theory:  When a player endures an extended slump, the first potential culprit to investigate generally is their physical condition.  Choosing this explanation as the official narrative, Ivanovic’s website relentlessly and somewhat embarrassingly leans upon injuries throughout its reports of her struggles.  Upon closer examination, however, one should put her thumb injury in 2008 and various illnesses in 2009 into perspective.  Ana never required surgery or suffered extensive absences from any of her injuries, so they might justify sporadic early defeats but certainly not the two-year quagmire into which she has tumbled.  Despite the leg strain that drenched the Serb’s 2009 Wimbledon campaign in a poignant flood of tears, she was thoroughly outplayed by Venus until that stage and possessed virtually no chance of a comeback; the injury by itself did not prevent her from progressing in that crucial tournament.  The exception to this pattern, a vague yet chronic shoulder injury ominously forced her to withdraw from the Dubai tournament this year.  This issue could prove serious and should be carefully monitored by her fitness assistants.

 

5)  the Kournikova theory:  Igniting comparisons with the stunningly beautiful, stunningly underachieving Russian, Ivanovic has continued to fulfill swarms of sponsor obligations and pose for countless magazines even as her ranking has tumbled.  Kind and accommodating by nature (more on those traits below), she may well have stretched herself too far in this arena.  While the Williams sisters and Sharapova have balanced off-court with on-court activities extremely capably, not every player can effectively divide their energies as do that trio.  On the other hand, certain commentators went altogether too far when they linked Ivanovic’s SI Swimsuit photo shoot before the US Open to her first-round loss there.  It’s highly irrational to suggest that an extra practice session would have assured that her final forehand in a third-set tiebreak would have cleared the net rather than meekly sinking into it.  While her management perhaps has scheduled her overzealously, these “extracurricular” projects also provide her with a psychological respite from her on-court struggles.  For example, Ana’s lifetime Adidas deal surely boosted her morale by demonstrating this key sponsor’s firm confidence in her talents.  (And, of course, there’s the mathematical fact that a female athlete as alluring as Ivanovic can earn more in a year of photo shoots than by winning a dozen Slams, which should make any player hesitate before turning down lucrative offers.)

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4)  the Serbia theory:  Together with her compatriots Djokovic and Jankovic, Ivanovic often seems to lack the inner motivation that drives most of this sport’s leading competitors.  Listening to moving stories of bombs and swimming pools, one appreciates just how far these three Serbs have come from the extreme adversity in their backgrounds.  Considering this comparison, it would be only human of them to rest satisfied in the knowledge that they have improved their lives more than they ever could have imagined.  Even if none of the Serbs ever wins another significant title, they’ll spend the rest of their lives in comfortable circumstances.  Consequently, they might content themselves with strong but not legendary careers, whereas players who developed in more advantageous surroundings might be more inclined to seek a higher level of achievement in absolute terms—the same level in relative terms to their beginnings.  Without any disrespect to Serbia, we find this theory somewhat credible, although one never will be able to find unambiguous evidence for it.

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3)  the split-personality theory:  A gentle, self-effacing personality, Ana lacks the steely ferocity of a Serena, Henin, or Sharapova.  Whereas those competitors play with the expectation of victory, Ivanovic plays with the hope of victory.  Cast against type in the role of an athlete, she either underplays her part with tentative body language or overplays it with the ceaseless fist pumps that we discussed in an earlier article.  Rather than demonstrating her hunger for success, those manufactured gestures suggest her discomfort in the match environment and a constant need to reaffirm that she belongs there.  One suspects that the smiling Serb would be much happier in a non-adversarial environment, where she could exploit cooperative rather than competitive skills.  Despite her repeated protestations to the contrary, Ivanovic simply may have chosen the wrong vocation for her temperament, creating a rift between façade and interior that would only deepen as she matures.

 

2)  the expectations theory:  Catapulting suddenly into the #1 ranking shortly after Henin’s unexpected retirement, Ivanovic proved unready to assume the mantle of the game’s dominant star.  While battle-tested competitors such as Federer and Serena welcome the pressure inherent to the top spot, the Serb had not adequately consolidated her elite status when she found herself atop the WTA hierarchy in June 2008.  Bearing the honor more like a cross than a laurel wreath, she played passive, nervous tennis during her two different stretches at the #1 ranking, which was tossed with absurd alacrity among her and two even less qualified top dogs (Jankovic, Safina).  Although Ivanovic had struggled dramatically with her ball toss during the 2007 Roland Garros final, her issues with this component of her game crystallized during this period.  Moreover, she rushed back prematurely from injuries and illness in an effort to justify her exalted status.  As a result, her inner anxieties can be traced back to this period when expectations were thrust upon her before she had developed sufficiently to embrace them rather than hide from them.

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1)       the evolutionary theory:  From our perspective, the most credible theory of all concerns the trajectory of the sport over the past two years, which favors players who can strike powerful groundstrokes off both wings while playing respectable defense.  Mostly just a neutral or defensive shot, Ivanovic’s backhand possesses far less authority than her forehand and can be easily attacked because of her average movement.  On any fast or medium-fast surface, opponents with more balanced groundstroke arsenals can relentlessly pin her into the backhand corner, neutralizing her power.  Even when Ana pounds her forehand with conviction, therefore, capable foes don’t allow her to see enough balls on that side to win the match with this weapon alone.  Improvements in player movement, meanwhile, allow opponents to track down one or two more of her forehand drives than before, testing her consistency as well as her skill moving forward.  In the recent past, a crushing serve-forehand combination typically proved sufficient to overwhelm opponents, but such is no longer the case.  Therefore, we wonder whether the evolution of the sport simply has passed by the Serb, whose game seems outmoded compared to many of her younger rivals, such as Azarenka and Kleybanova. 

***

After diagnosis, the next step is to propose a cure.  We think that Ivanovic has two main avenues open to her, either of which might not return her to Slam glory but would assure her a rewarding career at the WTA level.  Following the Stosur model, she could channel her energies towards maximizing her serve in versatility and consistency as well as power, while simultaneously improving her net skills and forward movement.  Or, emulating the Dementieva paradigm, she could focus on developing a powerful backhand that would complement her forehand, while simultaneously improving her lateral movement behind the baseline.  Rather than stubbornly attempting to win with the same weary formula, though, Ivanovic must rationally decide which new course she would prefer to pursue.  If she dedicates herself to the challenge (probable) and gradually reacquires her confidence (uncertain), there’s no reason why she can’t thrill her legions of international fans with renewed triumphs.

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

Best of Five:  Achievements:

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

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

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

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

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

Worst of Five:  Disappointments:

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

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

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

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

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

Best of Three:  Strengths:

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

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

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

Worst of Three:  Weaknesses:

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

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

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

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

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

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