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Rafael Nadal - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Thirteen

With the sport settled into its midsummer vacation, albeit not a vacation for players like Isner and Roberta Vinci, we return from our own brief respite to remember the most memorable matches of the first half.  In three majors and five Masters 1000 tournaments, the top men provided plenty of stiff competition for a list that we reduced to five (or rather six).

5) Nadal d. Del Potro (Wimbledon):  Arriving much earlier in the fortnight than either player would have preferred, this bruising four-hour battle illustrated Del Potro’s resurgence as well as Nadal’s self-belief against all adversaries but one.  Tension seethed throughout the first three sets as the momentum shifted throughout prolonged service games and rallies that pitted the Argentine’s massive forehand against the top seed’s cat-like court coverage.  Barely denied the upset, the former US Open champion left little doubt that he can recapture his glory once he accumulates greater confidence from playing more matches.   A match waged with the mind as much as the racket, however, this encounter deservedly fell to the combatant with the keener survival instinct and appetite for competition.

4) Djokovic d. Nadal (Wimbledon) / Nadal d. Federer (Roland Garros):  Although not the finest hours of these classic rivalries, the last two Slam finals underscored the new hierarchy at the top.  Following scripts with too little suspense to become classics, they nevertheless featured strings of scintillating exchanges from all corners of the court.  From Federer’s choreographed elegance to Nadal’s grinding physicality to Djokovic’s swaggering fusion of offense and defense, the top three showcased their distinctive strengths as well as their distinctive personalities, opening windows onto the past, present, and perhaps future of the sport.  Apparent from both matches was the psychological edge owned by Nadal over Federer and by Djokovic over Nadal, magnified by the weight of the moment.  As the second half approaches, one wonders whether the greater challenge lies in the Serb’s attempt to maintain his supremacy or in the efforts of the others to overtake him.

3) Djokovic d. Murray (Rome):  No less notable than the brilliance of the victor was the courage displayed by the vanquished in this semifinal epic.  On his least comfortable surface, Murray rebounded from an abysmal first set to reverse the match’s trajectory with a degree of aggression unfamiliar to his fans.  The Scot nearly succeeded where the king of clay failed, edging within two points of victory on multiple occasions as he served for the match.  That predicament inspired Djokovic to display his own valor and demonstrate how he had remained undefeated for so long, growing bolder and more focused as danger loomed.  In the climactic tiebreak, the Serb struck each shot with a fearlessness rarely witnessed during his 2009-10 swoon, a fearlessness that proclaimed not just his desire to win but his conviction that he would.  For Murray, meanwhile, this loss augured more brightly for the future than many of his wins.

2) Federer d. Djokovic (Roland Garros):  Robbed by Djokovic in a New York semifinal and dominated by Djokovic in a Melbourne semifinal, Federer clearly entered their Paris semifinal determined to avenge those wrongs of majors past.  Standing within a victory of the #1 ranking, the still undefeated Serb seemed almost certain to contest a third straight Slam final, for few could imagine the fading Swiss legend outlasting him over the course of five sets.  But Federer halted the march of time during a performance that awakened memories of the steely superstar who played his crispest tennis when he most needed to win a rally, returned most convincingly when he most needed to break serve, and fired an ace when he finally arrived at match point.  Tsonga would prove a month later that this match marked only an ephemeral revival, but Federer salvaged his legitimacy as a contender for some time to come with his most notable triumph since winning the 2010 Australian Open.

1) Djokovic d. Nadal (Miami):  Among the most dazzling feats in tennis is the Indian Wells-Miami double, which demands not a fortnight but a month of sustained dominance.  After Djokovic sagged through the first several games of his final against the world #1, observers sensed that this prize would elude a weary Serb burdened by the pressure of his perfect season.  Just as he had in Indian Wells, however, Djokovic willed himself to find the self-belief necessary to turn the tide early in the second set.  Not vanishing in the third set as he did in the desert, Nadal battled the Serb relentlessly through a riveting final set that featured no breaks but several suspenseful service games.  When Rafa stood two points from victory in the twelfth game, observers again sensed that the sands had at last trickled out of Novak’s hourglass.  Then, Djokovic won nine of the next eleven points as his frequently questioned fitness prevailed on physical and mental levels over an opponent previously unsurpassed in either department.  Not scorched by the glaring Miami sun or the intensity of a title-deciding tiebreak, the future #1 showcased the courageous spirit that has developed into the central storyline of 2011.

What goes up must come down.  Behold the three most unforgettably forgettable fizzles of the first half.

3) Soderling d. Verdasco (Rome):  In 2009, both players looked on the verge of becoming genuine contenders at majors after Verdasco reached the Australian Open semifinals and Soderling the Roland Garros final.  This ghastly carnival of errors illustrated several reasons why both have receded to the edges of the conversation in 2011.  Foremost among those reasons was Verdasco’s serve, which cost him the match with double faults that threw the rest of his volatile game and mind into disarray.  But the Spaniard held triple match point in the second set, which he could not have reached without considerable assistance from an equally impatient and equally profligate Swede, whose scintillating start to the season has evaporated amidst illnesses, injuries, and general petulance.

2) Djokovic d. Murray (Australian Open):  Expected to decide the leading pretender to the Nadal-Federer twin throne, the year’s first Slam final unfolded with no more suspense than a coronation.  Serenely surveying the spectacle from Djokovic’s box, Ivanovic trended on Twitter as the far less stunning events below her sputtered and wheezed towards their inevitable conclusion.  If Murray had joined her there, he might have discomfited Novak more than he did with a thoroughly feckless performance that made Britons wonder why they rose early to watch.  One could understand how farcical gaffes on even his steadiest shots cost the Scot his confidence and plunged him into a second straight spring swoon on the North American hard courts.

1) Nadal d. Federer (Miami):  Eager to witness the first North American edition of The Greatest Rivalry in Sports in six years, the Key Biscayne audience saw no encore of the thrilling 2005 final.  Instead, a listless Federer failed to summon tennis remotely resembling his magnificent best and thus did not force Nadal to unleash his own greatness.  When Federer earned a break point in the first game of the second set, spectators waited breathlessly for the plot twist that would turn this match from a soggy dishcloth into a regal tapestry.  But a dishcloth it remained, arguably the least compelling meeting between the two legends since the earliest stages of their rivalry.  Fortunately, Madrid and Roland Garros enabled them to replace this moment with brighter memories.

***

We return in a few days with the companion piece for the women’s first half.

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Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal of Spain looks on in his final match against Novak Djokovic of Serbia during day eight of the Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open Tennis on May 8, 2011 in Madrid, Spain. Nadal lost his match in straight sets.

Asked to explain his straight-sets loss in the Madrid final, a dejected Nadal mused that he must unravel the reasons why Djokovic has conquered him three times this year.  Just a week later, the Spaniard has earned another opportunity to crack the Serb’s code, which may require prioritizing groundstroke depth over spin and finding his way into the forecourt more often.  Never has the Rome tournament meant more to Nadal, who habitually has collected it during his progress through the European spring.  The world #1 soon will face the most fearsome array of challengers for his Roland Garros crown that he ever has encountered, and an unprecedented pair of losses in the preliminary events would deliver a bruising blow to his confidence.  As he attempts to defuse Djokovic for the first time in four 2011 Masters 1000 finals, Rafa can take comfort from the fatigue with which his challenger will enter the final.  Extended two minutes past three hours by an unexpectedly inspired Murray, the Serb expended vast reserves of physical and emotional energy.

Beginning to weigh on the world #2’s shoulders is the burden of his spectacular winning streak, which has surpassed Nadal’s longest surge and edged close to Federer’s best sequence.  The Australian Open champion struggled to check his frustration late in the third set against Murray, who outmaneuvered a slowing Serb with surprising frequency.  Still, Djokovic’s shot-making precision and velocity remained undimmed despite his sagging body language.  And one can expect him to deliver a valiant effort notwithstanding his fatigue, just as he did in the US Open final against Nadal after a draining five-set victory over Federer.  Buoyed by the elation of his epic semifinal, Djokovic may thunder to an early advantage as he did in Madrid.  There, Rafa failed to stem the tide before it became a tsunami; although he erased the deficit on the scoreboard, the momentum never shifted away from his vulpine foe.

Across the net, the Spaniard has enjoyed a more comfortable passage through the draw than the Serb, facing no opponent more formidable than Gasquet.  Perhaps a product of the demoralizing loss to Djokovic in his home nation, Nadal battled a virus early this week but has rallied admirably with performances worthy of his familiar self in the last two rounds.  On a surface much slower than Manolo Santana Arena, the world #1 can engage in classic clay-court rallies that gradually chip away at his opponent’s agility.  But Nadal also must not shrink from flattening his groundstrokes more often to end rallies when he has the opportunity.  In a supremely physical rivalry, Djokovic recently has set the tone with punishing offense that has drawn uncertain albeit dogged resistance from Rafa.  Central to regaining the initiative from his primary challenger is seizing control of the rallies and forcing the Serb onto the defensive.  When two players of such comparable (and comparably towering) skill levels collide, the more alert, assertive competitor generally prevails no matter the surface.

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

After one of her most impressive victories since shoulder surgery, Sharapova aims to crack the code of clay as she hovers within a single victory of her most significant title to date on the surface.  Upsetting a reigning #1 for the first time since the 2008 Australian Open, she now confronts a player whom she has relentlessly dominated in their seven meetings while conceding just two sets.  Nevertheless, the three-time champion never has clashed with Stosur on the surface friendliest to the Australian and least accommodating to herself.  While Sharapova has not won a title in nearly a year, the 2010 Roland Garros runner-up has waited even longer to clasp her first trophy since Charleston last year.  Notoriously feckless in finals, Stosur opposes a player generally outstanding in championship matches but recently fallible on those stages as well, having lost her last four.  Whereas the Russian has relied upon breaking her opponents consistently this week, the Australian has lost her serve only twice in four matches against resistance as notable as Schiavone and Li.  Whose style will dictate the rhythm in a contest between one of the WTA’s most imposing servers and one of its most savage returners?

In addition to a battle between the Australian’s serve and the Russian’s return, this match also pits the heavy topspin of the former against the flat lasers of the latter.  Central to Stosur’s past struggles against Sharapova is her strategy of thumping high-bouncing groundstrokes and kick serves that jump above the preferred contact points of her victims, leaving them vulnerable for the next stroke in the rally.  These strokes often land inside the exceptionally high strike zone of the statuesque Russian, although they will jump ever higher on clay and threaten her more than on the fast courts where all of their previous meetings have occurred.   Much more balanced from the baseline than Stosur, Sharapova can unleash a barrage of blazing winners from either wing to any corner of the court, even on this slow surface.  In a match likely to feature few extended rallies, she will aim to deliver the first strike as efficiently as she did in the semifinal against Wozniacki.  Remarkably, she averaged nearly two clean winners per game in that semifinal triumph over the WTA’s counterpuncher par excellence.  If the clay offers Sharapova extra time to plant and fire, though, it also allows Stosur greater opportunities to run around her backhand to hit the inside-in and inside-out forehands that propelled her to the Roland Garros final last year.

From the city to which all roads once led, a twisting road of red dirt now curves towards Paris.  Accelerating into scintillating form at an ideal moment, both players will enter the year’s second Slam among the inner circle of contenders.  While a career Slam beckons for Sharapova, a maiden major beckons for Stosur.  Like the men’s final that follows it, the women’s final might presage a more momentous encounter on Court Philippe Chatrier.

Rafael Nadal - The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2011 - Day Four

Nadal vs. Gasquet:  Troubled by similarly unexpected surges from Gulbis in Rome and Almagro in Madrid last year, Nadal might experience stiffer resistance than usual from a player whom he has dominated routinely.  The world #1 has won all eight of his meetings with Gasquet, but then Richard just snapped an eight-match  losing streak against Federer.  A round after defeating Federer on clay in Monte Carlo six years ago, the Frenchman flustered Nadal for a set before his Gallic panache succumbed to Mallorcan resilience.  Starting with that 2005 encounter, Gasquet has lost his last seven sets against the Spaniard on clay, including an entertaining but hardly suspenseful meeting in Monte Carlo last month.  Nevertheless, the Frenchman deserves credit for extending his momentum from toppling Federer to rallying from a one-set deficit against Berdych, who had overpowered him in recent meetings.  The Bellucci of Rome, this chronic underachiever has scored consecutive victories over top-10 opponents twice this year in a revival that will bring his ranking inside the top 15.  Nearly stumbling out of the Foro Italico in his opener, meanwhile, a feverish Nadal found just enough energy to survive that day and has elevated his form with each successive match.  Eyeing the last obstacle before a probable fourth Masters 1000 final with Djokovic this year, Rafa will hope to conserve his strength for a titanic Sunday clash, as he could not do in a three-set Madrid semifinal against Federer.  Moreover, a comprehensive victory over the week’s most notable headline would silence the murmurs of his fallibility that might infuse the Serb with even more confidence.

Murray vs. Djokovic:  When the Scot last faced the Serb, they vied with equal plausibility for the leading position among the challengers of Nadal and Federer.  Less than four months later, Djokovic not only has vaulted far past Murray but arguably has transcended the top two as well, boasting a record as impeccable as when they met in the Australian Open final.  On that occasion, the two-time major champion outhit, outmaneuvered, and outthought the three-time major finalist in every department of the game, while their only clay meeting tilted decisively in his favor.  As Murray wobbled through three-setters against Malisse and Mayer, Djokovic surrendered just five games to Wawrinka and three to Soderling in dismissive displays built upon effortless transitions between defense and offense.  While the world #5 once held advantages over him fitness and consistency, the Serb largely has erased his frailties in those areas.  Perhaps even more impressive than his physical durability is his unflagging motivation as title after title tumbles into his possession.  Against a player of Murray’s quality, that motivation should continue to sharpen Djokovic’s focus.

Hoping to rehabilitate his legitimacy as a contender after a horrific hard-court spring, the Scot will have surpassed his expectations already by reaching two semifinals in the three clay Masters 1000 tournaments.  Less comfortable on this surface than the Serb, he still displayed an encouraging readiness this week to open up the court with his forehand and to redirect the ball from that wing as well as from his more potent backhand.  Murray also can take confidence from his three-match winning streak against Djokovic at Masters 1000 tournaments, including a pair of finals, and he will realize that the pressure rests squarely on his opponent’s shoulders.  But, in order for him to threaten the Serb, he must maintain a higher first-serve percentage and capitalize upon any early chinks in the second seed’s armor.  Slightly edgy to start against Wawrinka and Soderling, Djokovic settled into a lethal rhythm when his opponents spurned their first-set opportunities.  Murray must deny him that initial respite if he aims to avoid a debacle similar to the Melbourne final.

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

Wozniacki vs. Sharapova:  Much like Murray, the Siberian siren seeks to erase the memories of a deflating loss earlier this year to her semifinal opponent on Saturday.  After two victories over Wozniacki in 2008, including one at the Foro Italico, Sharapova ceded control of this fledgling rivalry last summer at the US Open and then mustered just three games from the Dane at Indian Wells this March.  Opening that semifinal in sprightly fashion, the Russian brought intelligent tactics to the match but fell far short of executing them with any consistency.  Groundstroke firepower alone cannot overcome the world #1, so Sharapova again must enter with a plan and adhere to it with conviction.  Among the strategies that she might consider is hitting behind Wozniacki, forcing her to reverse direction and undermining her superb anticipation, or dragging her into the forecourt under awkward circumstances.  Fortunate to escape Azarenka so swiftly (or perhaps at all), Sharapova located her groundstrokes imaginatively and judiciously throughout a fiercely contested first set.  Despite losing that set, the three-time major champion proved that she can compete with the WTA’s best even on her least effective surface.

On the other hand, Wozniacki delivered a compelling statement of intent with her victory over two-time Rome champion Jankovic, admittedly past her prime but still a threat on clay.  More composed than many of her elders in the WTA, the world #1 weathered a bizarre eight-break sequence to capture the pivotal points late in a third set that featured just one service hold.  Goerges hammered her off the court twice in one week, but the faster surfaces at the indoor Porsche Arena and on the Madrid plateau facilitated offense much more than the Roman dirt.  Unless Sharapova can sally inside the baseline regularly, the Dane can rely upon her heavy, high-bouncing retrievals to restart rallies.  Whereas the Russian may have one eye on Paris already, Wozniacki approaches each tournament with the same, often underestimated level of desire.  Hampering her at the majors, that attitude has contributed to her success at the upper tier of WTA events while endearing her to fans from New Haven to Brussels, where she travels next week.  Will the Dane tarry in the Eternal City a day longer, or will Sharapova schedule an early departure for her?

Li vs. Stosur:  Our New Year’s choice to win in Paris, the Aussie should have acquired considerable confidence from avenging her loss in last year’s final with an emphatic quarterfinal victory.  Facing only one break point throughout her revenge, Stosur also dulled the pain of a three-set Fed Cup loss to her Paris tormentor.  The fifth seed would experience no such cathartic pleasure from overcoming the Chinese #1, whom she defeated en route to the Stuttgart final last year.  Alone among the four women’s semifinalists, Stosur would consider clay her favorite surface and thus enters their contest a slight favorite against a player who also contests her second semifinal of the European spring.  Thoroughly thrashed by eventual champion Kvitova in the same round at the Caja Magica, Li nevertheless has asserted herself among the ever-broadening circle (galaxy?) of WTA contenders for the Roland Garros crown.  In order to surpass her Madrid result, the world #6 must strike her return as early as possible while peppering Stosur’s backhand with her own far more imposing two-hander.  Both of the mightiest weapons in this semifinal belong to the Australian, who depends upon her serve and forehand to stifle opponents before they can maneuver into a rally.  Yet the defending Roland Garros finalist has few alternatives when either of those shots misfire, as has happened chronically in 2011.  This semifinal thus pits the Australian’s jagged assemblage of thunderous weapons and glaring weaknesses against the Chinese star’s smooth, versatile repertoire.

Rafael Nadal - The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2011 - Day Four

Nadal vs. Cilic:  One win away from securing the #1 ranking at least through Roland Garros, the Spaniard must conquer not only a Croatian tower of power but the illness that befell him this week.  Although Cilic defeated Nadal in Beijing 2009, the former task appears less imposing than the latter.  Stagnant for the past year and thoroughly uneasy on clay, the fading prodigy mustered just nine games when they met in Australia this January despite a relatively uneven performance by Rafa on that occasion.  At the root of his startling appearance at this stage lie the whimsical deities of the draw, which smiled upon Cilic by showering him with a retirement, a lucky loser after Ferrer’s withdrawal, and the equally clay-averse Fish.  Only another retirement or walkover, one suspects, would extend the world #23’s sojourn in the Eternal City, but Nadal’s uncertain condition brings that possibility within the realm of plausibility.  When ailing on a hard court far from home in Doha, though, the Spaniard gallantly battled through into the semifinals before succumbing to repeated nemesis Davydenko.  On European clay, his willpower surely will crystallize even more powerfully.

Gasquet vs. Berdych:  Scanning this quarter when the week began, few would have selected the Frenchman to survive until Friday.  But perhaps more of us should have, for Federer has struggled in Rome over the last several years, while Gasquet has enjoyed a miniature resurgence that started in Dubai and extended through an Indian Wells quarterfinal appearance.  Accessible to the casual fan as easily as to the aficionado, his breathtaking backhand and artistic shot-making continue to dazzle despite his slide outside the circle of contenders.  Now standing before the Frenchman is a dour Czech who opposes unvarnished baseline power to Gasquet’s mercurial all-court fluidity.  As one would expect considering the current trajectory of the ATP, unvarnished power prevailed in their two meetings since 2007, during which Berdych lost two or fewer games in four of the five sets.  With a famously frail opponent and perhaps a depleted Nadal blocking his path to the final, the world #7 should consider his draw a window of opportunity through which he can leap.  On the other hand, Berdych allowed the aging Nieminen to drag him into a needlessly prolonged three-setter today.  Which of these two chronic underachievers can carpe the diem in the nation of Horace?

Mayer vs. Murray:  Free from any member of the ATP’s reigning triumvirate, this section lay open for a player who once appeared more likely than Djokovic to challenge Nadal and Federer for supremacy.  Lowered expectations on clay may liberate Murray from the pressure that will oppress him at Wimbledon, but the Scot remains a reluctant dirt devil at best as shown in a rollercoaster three-set opener against Malisse.  To his credit, the fourth seed showed greater confidence in a potentially perilous bout with home hope Starace a round later, and he now will face a German who shares his preference for faster surfaces.  Like Cilic, Mayer profited from a key withdrawal in his section when 2010 Roland Garros semifinalist Melzer departed.  Also like Cilic, he relies upon heavy serve-forehand combinations that can penetrate any surface when effective but also can go astray without warning.  Not to be underestimated is a player who already has ambushed Youzhny, Almagro, Davydenko, and Del Potro this year.  Felled by dark horse Bellucci in Madrid, Murray hopes to avoid serving as a platform for a second straight arriviste.

Soderling vs. Djokovic:  The most intriguing of an otherwise plebeian quarterfinal menu, this duel will threaten the Serb’s streak more than any other match that he has played in the last month outside the Madrid final.  Soderling stands alone among the top five in escaping Djokovic’s wrath so far this year, and the Swede has developed an intimidating reputation for wrecking records on clay, including Nadal’s perfection at Roland Garros and Federer’s (probably permanently squelched) attempt to break the record for career weeks at #1.  A two-time finalist at Roland Garros, the fifth seed normally has not prospered  in Rome and famously won just a single game from Nadal here on the eve of the Greatest Upset Ever.  But he has responded to an exceptionally challenging draw with a steeliness absent from his recent slump, saving match points against Verdasco with sledgehammer forehands before grimly outlasting new top-10 resident Almagro.

In the tenth game of his victory over Wawrinka, meanwhile, Djokovic displayed the mental maturity vital to his barrage of titles.  Brushing aside a string of game points, the future #1 refused to let the Swiss #2 elude his grasp.  Instead, Djokovic subjected him to a relentless 36-shot rally that both players appeared to have won more than once; it led to a set point, smartly converted with a  drop shot that froze the weary Wawrinka.  Never the most durable competitor, Federer’s understudy wilted predictably in the second set, his spirit crushed by the close of the first.  A much firmer nut to crack, Soderling has a decent chance at breaking the Serb’s jaws if he can find lines with his mighty swings early in the rallies.  But the Djoker will have the last laugh if he can extend the rallies long enough to expose the Swede’s wooden movement.

Wozniacki vs. Jankovic:  Winless against the Serb in her first four attempts, the world #1 reversed that trend with a pair of straight-sets victories this season.  Falling in consecutive tournaments to the talented but untested Julia Goerges, Wozniacki enters Rome hopeful to bolster her candidacy for the Roland Garros crown.  Across the net stands a three-time Roland Garros semifinalist whose opportunity for capturing that elusive major have dwindled steadily since 2009.  But Jankovic still can count herself among the contenders in Paris this year, especially if she can collect a third title at the tournament kinder to her than any other.  After three successive bagels to start the week, Wozniacki flirted with danger by surrendering a second-set lead to Wickmayer, a fierce ball-striker not unlike Goerges who troubled her in Charleston.  Regrouping to quell that threat before a third set arrived, the Dane may prefer the challenge posed by a counterpuncher similar to herself.  In a match between two players of almost identical styles and strengths, form on the day almost invariably decides the outcome.  While Jankovic impressively avenged her Madrid loss to Safarova, a mid-match wobble against Medina Garrigues does not bode well for a player who defeated the Williams sisters consecutively here a year ago.  Can the apprentice conquer the sorceress for the third time in 2011, or will Wozniacki’s Paris aspirations suffer a blow from a different direction?

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

Azarenka vs. Sharapova:  Opposed in another sorceress-apprentice clash are the Miami finalists, armed with savage shrieks and equally savage returns of serve.  When they intersected in Key Biscayne, Sharapova and her descendant combined for only five service holds in seventeen total games.  This trend should continue in their first clay meeting after five fast-court tilts, although the Russian’s serve has proved unexpectedly imposing during her first two matches.  Broken only once by the solid Peer, Sharapova has lost a bare six games this week and eyes a third consecutive semifinal in the Italian capital, where she has played just once every three years.  Defying the grit beneath her feet, she has hammered her groundstrokes through the court with a vigor barely blunted by the clay.  On the other hand, Azarenka navigated through an erratic three-setter against Pavlyuchenkova, whom she defeated in the same round at Key Biscayne.  Among her former weaknesses was a struggle to finish matches convincingly, but she mastered her nerves impressively in the Miami final after the inevitable late Sharapova surge.  Somewhat similar to the Soderling-Djokovic match that accompanies it in the night session, this glamorous quarterfinal presents the question of whether the Russian can deliver a terminal blow with her superior weight of shot before the Belarussian outmaneuvers her with her superior movement and footwork.  Curiously, all of Azarenka’s wins in their rivalry have come in straight sets, while both of Sharapova’s victories have come in three.  No matter the scoreline, though, their matches provide compelling entertainment as much because of the pugnacious personalities as because of the crackling groundstrokes.

Arn vs. Li:  A 32-year-old Hungarian who won the Auckland title in January, Arn has put  many of her younger colleagues to shame while spending eight hours on court and winning third-set tiebreaks from both Kuznetsova and Vesnina.  This most improbable Cinderella probably will find her coach transformed into a pumpkin by the Australian Open runner-up, striking a rich vein of form at just the right moment.  As she approaches a second straight semifinal at a Premier Mandatory / Five event, dare we place “Li Na” and “consistency” in the same sentence?  Although her game still can veer wildly out of control on any given day, her ghastly post-Melbourne stretch seems finally to have abated.

Stosur vs. Schiavone:  Thrilling the Roman fans who will flock to the Foro Italico on Friday afternoon, this rematch of the Roland Garros final in fact pits two deeply slumping stars desperately in need of momentum before defending their Paris results.  A glance at their clay nemeses this season illustrates the situation, for Vesnina, Pavlyuchenkova, Radwanska, and Mattek-Sands scarcely rank among the leading threats on this surface.  With her top-10 status perhaps soon at stake, Stosur must quell not only her notorious nemesis but an enthusiastic Italian crowd that exhorted Schiavone throughout a suspenseful victory over Hantuchova.  At her best far from the madding crowd, the Australian struggles to match her nerve to the moment and succumbed to the Italian in the similarly fraught environment of Fed Cup.  Nevertheless, she has not experienced the extreme physical (and probably emotional) fatigue suffered by Schiavone after her Melbourne heroics.  Like its famous predecessor and unlike the other quarterfinals, this matinee encounter should feature classic clay-court tennis to delight adherents of tradition and of tennis played as much with the brain as with any other muscle.

Novak Djokovic - Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open - Day Nine

Propping up dilapidated regimes late in the Roman Empire were lavish festivals and athletic competitions with which rulers placated their subjects even as the world around them crumbled, a tactic known as panes et circenses.  Although contemporary Italy lies in a less dire predicament, recent political turmoil might encourage Romans to retreat to the bucolic oasis of the Foro Italico.  There, the ATP triumvirate converges for the fourth time this year at a Masters 1000 event, having reached the semifinals on each of the three previous occasions.

First quarter:  Hobbled by injury, exhaustion, or other extenuating circumstances in many of his previous clay losses, Nadal must respond to the realization that his most recent opponent simply outplayed him on his favorite surface.  Although three successive runner-up finishes to the same player may have struck a blow to his confidence in their rivalry, the Spaniard should assault his quarter with vigor renewed.  As one would expect, Nadal has refused to distract himself with the duel over #1 that lies ahead, and he will need his focus immediately against Madrid semifinalist Bellucci.  The player who came closest to overcoming Djokovic in Madrid, the Brazilian can threaten Rafa but probably cannot defeat him., much like Gulbis on clay last year.  The top seed then could face lefty compatriot Lopez, who held a match point against Madrid and defeated Nadal last year on the vastly different lawns of Queens Club.  On the other side of this strong section stands Ferrer, surely eager to avenge an Indian Wells loss to Karlovic in the second round.  Almost certain to collide in the quarterfinals, the finalists in Monte Carlo and Barcelona will reprise this event’s 2010 final.  Ferrer came within range of troubling Nadal then, as he did in Monte Carlo this year, but he has lost his last ten clay meetings with Nadal while winning just one set during that span.

Second quarter:  Since 2007, Federer has fallen in Rome to the unheralded trio of Volandri, Stepanek, and Gulbis.  Slowest of all Masters 1000 tournaments, the surface here has punished the Swiss star’s faltering consistency as he ages.  Escaping from an inspired Lopez in his Madrid opener, Federer could find the mercurial Tsonga a compelling test in his Rome opener.  The Frenchman only once has troubled the world #3, however, and the latter’s confidence should have mounted after he forced Nadal into a third set last week.  While Andreev oddly has flustered the Swiss at majors, the Russian’s ranking has sunken so far that he needed to qualify for this tournament, so a meeting with Federer would represent his fifth match here.  Intriguing for its contrast of styles is the Tuesday encounter between Monaco and Berdych, which pits one of the ATP’s long-time clay specialists against a brutal ball-striker with limited versatility.  Elsewhere in this quarter lies the artistry of Gasquet, probably at his least effective on clay but somewhat resurgent after the Australian Open.  Should Federer and Berdych reach the quarterfinals, as seems plausible, the Czech will have one last opportunity to inject himself with self-belief before defending his prodigious accomplishments at Roland Garros and Wimbledon last year.

Third quarter:  In an ATP where the top three have distanced themselves so far from their challengers, one quarter in a Masters 1000 draw always lies open to the opportunists.  Exploited most recently by Bellucci, this loophole might expand to admit Troicki, who recorded an impressive straight-sets victory over Davydenko in the first round.  Yet the potential dark horses here seem few in number, including no clay specialists outside the ageless Chela and Starace.  Therefore, the fourth-seeded Murray might progress at least to the quarterfinals despite his usual fecklessness on this surface.  Seemingly revived from a post-Melbourne swoon that embarrassed his entire nation, the Scot caused Nadal’s brow to furrow in a three-set, three-hour Monte Carlo semifinal. Murray has enjoyed repeated success against his most notable potential obstacle en route to the semifinals, Melzer, although the Austrian defeated Federer in Monte Carlo before stumbling to a perplexing early exit in Rome against the anonymous Gimeno-Traver.  Often veering wildly in form from one tournament to the next, the eighth seed may not thrive on a sluggish surface that will require him to hit a longer series of audacious angles in order to finish points.  Although Murray and the accelerating Simon own superior consistency, they may struggle to penetrate the court with their less impressive firepower.  As in Madrid, the player who emerges from this section will face a monumental challenge thenceforth, so one must curtail one’s sense of perspective to fully appreciate the events that unfold here

Fourth quarter:  Occupying this lair is the terror of the ATP, who has lunged within range of reaching the #1 ranking after Roland Garros or perhaps Wimbledon.  Barely blunted by the transition from hard courts to clay, Djokovic continues to rend his victims limb from limb with an offense worthy of Del Potro, movement worthy of Nadal, and poise under pressure worthy of Federer.  The runner-up to Djokovic in the 2008 Rome tournament, Wawrinka has accomplished less on clay than expected after a scintillating start to the season that included an Australian Open quarterfinal.  The Swiss #2 has won sets from the Serb on clay but has not yet encountered him in his current breathtaking incarnation and probably lacks the willpower to snap the streak.  Notorious for his success in the role of spoiler, Soderling certainly possesses the necessary willpower to tarnish Djokovic’s perfect 2011.  Before taking aim at that prestigious target, though, the world #5 must defuse the assault of Verdasco.  Unimpressive during a loss to Lu in Madrid, the Spaniard regrouped with a sturdy victory over Raonic, who overcame him twice in February.  Former nemesis Almagro also might intersect with the fifth seed in a third-round encounter of unsubtly pummeled groundstrokes.  While nobody can feast upon a fallible foe more voraciously than Soderling, the Swede lately has lacked the confidence and competitive resilience required to topple the Djokovic who so expertly smothered Nadal in Madrid.

Probably the slowest surface of any significant event, Rome poses a stern challenge to the offense-oriented elite atop the WTA and offers an opportunity for underdogs to shine.  On the dusty battlegrounds of the Foro Italico, Martinez Sanchez captured the most important title of her career in 2010.  Who will fill her quirky shoes in 2011?

Ana Ivanovic - Sony Ericsson WTA Tour: Rome - Day Four

First quarter:  Embedded in this bristling bastion of three #1s, Ivanovic treads a dangerous path from the outset.  Should she maneuver past Petrova in her Monday opener, Wickmayer and then Wozniacki stand poised to intercept her.  After consecutive losses to Goerges, the Dane has one more opportunity to refine her clay skills before launching her campaign at Roland Garros, where she has a legitimate albeit not outstanding chance to win a maiden major.  One round beyond Ivanovic might lurk another Serb who has recorded her finest achievements on this surface but has lost both of her 2011 meetings with Wozniacki.  A two-time champion in Rome and a finalist last year, Jankovic will hope to avoid the fate suffered by the world #1 in Stuttgart and Madrid.  Last week’s nemesis Safarova will take aim at the Serb once again in the second round, seeking to continue the recent successes scored by Czech lefties.  On this occasion, although the much slower Rome surface will favor the fifth seed as clearly as the slick Madrid courts illuminated her foe’s shot-making prowess.  Not to be neglected is Estoril champion Medina Garrigues, a rather overqualified qualifier here, but Jankovic quelled her comfortably when they met in Miami.  If Wozniacki or Jankovic laments the fate assigned to them by the deities of the draw, one could remind them that the withdrawals of Cibulkova and Goerges lightened a burden unusually heavy for a Premier Five draw.  Viewed more optimistically, the perils before them will provide peerless preparation for the major ahead.

Second quarter:  Scarcely less intriguing than the section above, it features an all-lefty opener between the inflammable Makarova and the defending champion, now immured below the top 75.  Like 2010 Madrid champion Rezai, Martinez Sanchez failed to capitalize upon her unexpected breakthrough over the past twelve months and might well succumb immediately just as the Frenchwoman did last week.  Anchoring the base of this quarter is former Rome semifinalist Sharapova, who seems unlikely to match that implausible result this year after a generally plebeian performance in Madrid.  While she no longer resembles a “cow on ice,” the Russian finds her first-strike power blunted and her consistency challenged in the Foro Italico, leaving her armed largely with her legendary tenacity and focus.  Mildly disappointing in the Madrid final, Azarenka nevertheless enjoyed a splendid sequence of victories that will have lifted her confidence for a tournament where she reached the semifinals in 2009.  But a potentially tricky test awaits her in the form of a clay-savvy Italian, either Errani or Vinci.  Should she stifle the home hope, Azarenka should face no further pre-quarterfinal opposition more compelling than Pavlyuchenkova, whom she overcame in Miami this spring.  And the specter of Sharapova does not haunt a woman who resembles Sharapova 2.0, for the more agile, fluid Belarussian can adapt her style more convincingly to clay than the three-time major champion.

Third quarter:  Surely breathing a sigh of relief, Li Na thrust herself back into contention with a semifinal charge in Madrid that she certainly could replicate here.  In a section with few clay specialists beyond the fading Pennetta, the Chinese star can consolidate her momentum as she so often struggles to do.  Authors of notable upsets in the Spanish capital, Mattek-Sands and Gajdosova might train their fast-court expertise upon each other in the second round.  Elsewhere, 2009 Roland Garros champion Kuznetsova smolders ominously yet has shown few signs of catching a spark after sustaining a ghastly loss in Andalusia and a premature loss in Madrid.  Aligned to meet Radwanska in the third round, Sveta must harness her patience and consistency to a degree greater than she has for much of the season.  On the other hand, the slow courts in Rome will provide her extra time to position her feet and run around her backhand to hit forehands.  Although the champion likely will not emerge from this quarter, its semifinalist might enter the latter rounds fresher than the battle-scarred combatants of the top half.

Fourth quarter:  Doubles partners and adversaries in last year’s Roland Garros final, Stosur and Schiavone could collide in a quarterfinal on the eve of defending their 2010 accomplishments.  Not evaporating entirely like Rezai and Martinez Sanchez, they nevertheless have not reached a final since that sunbathed afternoon in Paris.  Just as Stosur showed signs of stirring from her somnolence with a Stuttgart semifinal, she suffered an unexpected Madrid loss to Pavlyuchenkova in the same round that Mattek-Sands toppled Schiavone.  Whereas the surface in Madrid allowed neither player as much time to construct their combinations as they would prefer, the Foro Italico could enable them to recapture their rhythm.  Perhaps facing Peng for the second straight tournament, Schiavone could oppose her guile to the guns of Kanepi in a stark contrast of styles a round later.  Situated near Acapulco champion Dulko, Stosur might find her path complicated by the post-dance Petkovic.  Ceding the spotlight to her compatriot Goerges lately, the German has faltered since the season shifted from hard courts to clay—and since she abandoned her idiosyncratic victory ritual.  Petkovic nearly ended Kuznetsova’s title defense at Roland Garros last year, proving that she can prosper on clay.  Moreover, few players have seized opportunities more adroitly than Andrea, so the fragile seeds in her section should beware.

***

We return tomorrow to preview the equally imbalanced ATP draw.

Many are the stars that rise and fall, but few are the stars that rise again.  Such was the challenge that confronted Ivanovic in 2010, eighteen months removed from her major breakthrough at Roland Garros and the Wimbledon loss to Zheng that began her ordeal in tennis purgatory.  From the two halves of this season emerged strikingly divergent answers to the question of whether the soulful Serb could regain her position among the sport’s elite.  We attempt to untie the tangled knot of Ivanovic’s sometimes puzzling, often emotional, ultimately inspiring 2010.

***

Having endured a dismal conclusion to 2009, Ana ignited the new season with an moderately promising performance.  Her confidence heightening with each victory, she conquered the ever-inflammable Dokic and the budding Pavlyuchenkova during a sprightly week in Brisbane.  Few observers could fault her for falling to Henin in the semifinals, for the Belgian always had troubled Ivanovic even at the Serb’s zenith in 2007-08.  Consequently, hope stirred in Ana and her supporters as she approached the major where she had reached the final two years before.  But an excruciating second-round loss to Dulko extinguished that hope in a torrent of unforced errors that inspired one observer to note that two prettier women never had played uglier tennis.  After the feckless Argentine squandered a vast lead in the final set, Ana donated three double faults at 4-5 that effectively handed the match to her opponent.

An equally public and painful embarrassment struck in February, when Ivanovic lost both of her singles rubbers for Serbia during the first Fed Cup World Group tie in her nation’s history.  Exacerbating her plight was the prowess demonstrated by her compatriot Jankovic, who scored gritty three-set victories that placed the Russians in a predicament from which Ana promptly released them.  With this debacle branded upon her consciousness, Ana departed in the first round of Indian Wells after a listless loss to Sevastova.  Unable to capitalize upon the memories of two previous finals in the California desert, Ivanovic tumbled outside the top 50 and caused others to wonder whether she shared more than a first name with Kournikova.  A tepid trip through Miami hardly erased these perceptions, although a valiant effort against Radwanska illustrated her unbroken determination.  Struggling to hold serve throughout that match, the Serb battled to break as often as she was broken (e.g., constantly) and extended the Pole deep into both sets.  In an unkind twist of fate, she would fall against to Radwanska in a similarly competitive match at Stuttgart, during which glimpses of her former self surfaced fleetingly but then vanished at the most pivotal moments.  As she crossed the Alps with much less fanfare than did Hannibal, Ivanovic surely could not have imagined the breakthrough that awaited her.

Ana Ivanovic Ana Ivanovic of Serbia celebrates winning against Nadia Petrova of Russia during Day Foir of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour at the Foro Italico Tennis Centre on May 6, 2010 in Rome, Italy.

Embedded near Azarenka in the Rome draw, Ivanovic found herself forced to overcome an opponent who had dominated her at Roland Garros a year earlier.  Much to her own surprise, it seemed, she navigated past the injury-addled Belarussian with timely returning and enhanced consistency during their baseline exchanges.  Not satisfied with this unexpected triumph, however, Ana translated her momentum into an even more encouraging victory over Dementieva, who had won all five of their previous meetings.  When the Russian threatened to slip away with the second set, Ivanovic carefully balanced aggressive ball-striking with intelligent shot selection, determined to seize opportunities rather than grant them.  While both Azarenka and Dementieva fell far short of their customary standard in these matches, Ana visibly rose in confidence as her forehands struck their targets more explosively and her ball toss obeyed her more scrupulously.  By the climactic stages of her quarterfinal victory over Petrova, her signature fistpumps also began to flow more naturally.  She no longer hoped but expected to win.  Succumbing to quirky lefty and eventual champion Martinez Sanchez in the semifinals, Ivanovic suffered a predictable defeat to Jankovic in her Madrid opener.  More notable than the narrative of this match was the venomous conduct of the elder Serb afterwards.  Yet the younger Serb showed greater maturity than her compatriot, and the episode subsided sooner than Jankovic probably had hoped.

After Ivanovic staggered to premature exits at the next two majors, one wondered whether her breakthrough in Rome would prove a beguiling mirage, like the clay title surges of Martinez Sanchez and Rezai.  The 2008 French Open champion displayed little of the vigor and poise that she had accumulated a few weeks earlier, mustering just three games in the second round against a remorseless Kleybanova.  During the all-too-brief respites from the Russian’s assault, Ana’s eloquent eyes mournfully contemplated a world that had turned against her once again.  Perhaps still reeling from this ignominious defeat, she left little imprint upon the grass season, except a bizarre match at the Dutch Open when she reached double digits in both aces and double faults.  After Ana slumped to a first-round defeat at Wimbledon, her 2010 record stood at 11-12 with just four victories outside Brisbane and Rome.

Ana Ivanovic Ana Ivanovic of Serbia in action against Shahar Peer of Israel on Day One of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 21, 2010 in London, England.

Across the Atlantic, Montreal tournament director Eugene Lapierre pondered this grim statistic and arrived at a decision that we believe contributed (unwittingly) to the Serb’s second-half resurgence.  Already granted wildcards at events in Stanford and San Diego where she had little or no history, Ana received the demoralizing news that she would not receive a wildcard at the site of her first significant title in 2006.  Instantly awash in controversy, Lapierre justified himself by claiming that the former #1 would benefit from the additional matches.  Not without logic in a neutral context, this statement accompanied a series of disparaging remarks that antagonized the normally demure Ana.  Having considered her alternatives, she announced that she would not enter the Montreal qualifying draw.  These bold words demanded deeds to buttress them, though, and nothing from the California events suggested that she would reverse her downward spiral.

Nor, in fact, did the early stages of her Cincinnati opener against Azarenka, who had recovered from the injury that had plagued her during their clay meeting and had recorded her best week of the season at Stanford.  While Ana struggled to find a rhythm with her once-fearsome forehand, Vika swept through the first set with ease, showcasing her skill for modulating between aggression and consistency.  Although Ivanovic began to harness her game during the second set, the Belarussian clung to a slim lead until she served for the match at 5-4.  A few tense moments later, Ana drew even—and then dropped her recalcitrant serve again.  Offered another opportunity to advance, Azarenka twice crept within two points of victory during the following game but never saw a match point.  Elated by her narrow escape, the Serb seized control of the ensuing tiebreak and thundered through the final set as the formerly scattered elements of her arsenal coalesced into a coherent whole.  Now soaring in confidence, Ivanovic overpowered her next three opponents with authoritative performances built upon a reinvigorated serve, opportunistic returns, and ambitious forays into the forecourt.  Forced to retire early in her semifinal with Clijsters, the Serb nevertheless had reasserted herself as a formidable competitor with weapons as lethal as her smile was benign.

Unlike Rome, Cincinnati became not an isolated anomaly but a platform from which Ivanovic sprang into the rest of 2010.  Dispelling doubts concerning her injury there, she matched her best career performance at the US Open with three commanding victories.  Formerly fallible against lefties during her slump, she dismissed the distinctive, often tricky Makarova with ease.  But the most promising portent for Ivanovic’s future was the encore of her 2008 Wimbledon clash with Zheng, during which she buried the Chinese star beneath an avalanche of stinging forehands and knifing volleys.  Against one of her key tormentors from the previous two years, Ana maintained a focus and composure that revealed her revitalized self-belief.  Although more resounding than she would have wished, her loss to Clijsters in the fourth round raised no eyebrows, nor did it substantially stall her progress.  After losses to the nondescript Dushevina in Seoul and the far from nondescript Bartoli in Tokyo, the Serb’s final tournaments of the season consolidated the shift in her fortunes that originated in Cincinnati and accelerated in New York.

Having faced Radwanska in consecutive matches during the spring, Ivanovic faced Bartoli in consecutive matches during the fall.  But the Serb efficiently avenged Tokyo in her Beijing opener, and her level continued to climb on the medium-speed hard courts of the former Olympic arena.  Reprising her Rome victory over Dementieva, she wrested two tiebreaks away from the Russian veteran with patient point construction and penetrating groundstrokes on both wings.  In the scintillating second set, neither player dropped serve until they reached the tiebreak, although Ivanovic saved a set point at 4-5.  Responding to the heightening pressure with aplomb, she delivered two timely aces in the tiebreak as she rallied from an early mini-break deficit.  A victim of world #1 Wozniacki in the quarterfinals, the Serb nevertheless competed with conviction and earned herself more opportunities than one might have expected.  When she accepted a wildcard to the following week’s tournament in Linz, therefore, she brought significant momentum from her exploits in the Chinese capital.

Rarely threatened throughout her week in the quiet Austrian city, Ana brushed aside her friend Cirstea in the first round, the pugnacious Zahlavova Strycova in the second round, and rising German Julia Goerges in the quarterfinal to reach her fourth semifinal of 2010.  Her determination emerged when she surmounted the distractions caused by a stomach illness and a bathroom break that cost her a game early in her second match.  Winless in her previous three semifinals, she halted that trend against the crafty Roberta Vinci, who had held match points against her during their previous meeting.  Having defused this Italian’s versatile style, a stern test of focus and consistency, Ana faced another veteran in the evergreen Schnyder.  In the shortest WTA final of 2010, Ivanovic surrendered just three games before sealing the title with an ace.  Adapting to Schnyder’s eccentric style, she cleverly anticipated her opponent’s gambits and often wrong-footed the Swiss star by pinpointing unexpected angles.  More splendid than any of the forehands that crackled through the court, however, was the glacier-melting smile that glowed from Ana’s face as she grasped her first trophy in two years.

Physically and emotionally weary from the weeks in Beijing and Linz, Ana collected two wins in Luxembourg before exiting to Goerges.  Those victories put her in position for a return to the top 20, however, a goal with which she entered the year’s concluding tournament in Bali.  Always at her best against Pavlyuchenkova, the Serb scored the first of the three victories that she required with minimal effort, for the erratic Russian failed to mount a credible challenge.  Far more suspenseful was the ensuing clash with Japanese veteran Kimiko Date Krumm, who had built an implausible comeback upon the bones of several top-20 foes.  Unfamiliar with the arrhythmic, unpredictable playing style of her opponent, Ivanovic sank into a first-set quagmire from which she extricated herself only after saving two set points on her own serve and breaking Date a game later.  Emboldened by the momentum shift, the Linz champion then raced into a 7-5, 2-0 advantage before the Japanese star could collect herself.  But Date had proved herself an indefatigable competitor throughout 2010, and she crafted a comeback that turned the tables on the Serb.  Just as Ivanovic saved set points before winning the first set, Date saved a match point before winning the second set.  At this stage, one favored the veteran to prevail as she had in several epics this year, for the momentum rested squarely in her corner, while Ivanovic’s fitness had raised concern in recent months.  Somewhat to our surprise, then, Ana remained unshaken by the lost second-set opportunity, recaptured the initiative by breaking Date in the first game, and held serve throughout the final set without facing a break point.  Another meeting with Kleybanova, the final unfolded in less nerve-jangling fashion; the Russian never held a lead except during a brief ebb in the Serb’s concentration early in the second set.  Sometimes bent but only once broken, Ivanovic showcased not only her familiar forehand weapons but bold, probing backhands that bore little resemblance to the meek slices upon which Kleybanova had feasted at Roland Garros.  During the first half of 2010, Ana had committed some of her most ghastly errors at the most crucial moments.  Now, she unleashed some of her most spectacular lasers when she most needed them, saving break points late in the second set and sealing the tiebreak that restored her to the top 20.

Since she defends only a handful of rankings points between mid-January and mid-May, Ivanovic has an excellent opportunity to rejoin the top 10 by Roland Garros.  Eager to capitalize upon this possibility, she has planned a rigorous schedule for early 2011.  Whether she can continue to ascend from these newly constructed foundations poses one of the more intriguing questions that next year will answer.

***

After these two individual portraits, we broaden our canvas to recall the most memorable performers of 2010. Who enjoyed a season to remember, and who looks most likely to build upon their breakthroughs?  Although we will cover both the ATP and the WTA, we bring you the gentlemen (and some not very gentle men) next.

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Moving from the WTA to the ATP and from defense to offense, we respond to a pre-Roland Garros request for a profile on the “little Safin,” Ernests Gulbis.  After a hideous 2009 campaign, this longtime underachiever finally began chipping into the vast iceberg of his talent during the spring of 2010, when he scored a possibly career-redefining victory over Federer en route to the Rome semifinals.  The scion of an affluent Latvian family, Gulbis was named after American author Ernest Hemingway, who entitled one of his minor novels To Have and Have Not.  We find the phrase especially apt to characterize this highly individual player, nearly as famous for quips and quirks as for power and precision.  Below are outlined five key traits that Ernests has, in addition to five that he has not.

What he has:

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1)       serve (+second serve):  Like most of the ATP’s elite servers, Gulbis has buttressed his rhythmic motion upon a reliable ball toss that allows him to target all four corners of the service box with equal ease.  Simple and fluid, his delivery incorporates none of the slight pauses with which erratic servers struggle.  Moreover, the Latvian’s second serve constitutes a far more formidable weapon than a standard second ball, for he strikes it aggressively without fear of double faults; an indifferent serving percentage thus doesn’t inevitably spell defeat as it does for many of his rivals.  Although Gulbis does concede the occasional double, he rarely commits these errors in clusters or at crucial moments.  His serve instead provides the ideal foundation for his almost exclusively offensive style, drawing a puny midcourt reply that he can confidently assault.

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2)      forehand:  One of the most explosive groundstroke in the ATP, this shot electrifies audiences while pulverizing opponents who are frozen by its majestic pace.  Among the remarkable features of the Latvian’s high-risk style is the effortlessness that he displays when swatting prodigious winners from anywhere on the court to anywhere else on the court.  The forehand represents the most stunning example of his shotmaking talents, for Gulbis can create stunning crosscourt angles while also pinpointing his opponent’s backhand corner with down-the-line blows.  When especially confident, he doesn’t miss this shot for games at a time, despite the risks associated with its low net clearance and audacious placement. 

3)      groundstroke symmetry:  Much to the chagrin of forehand-favoring veterans such as Roddick or Verdasco, this trait has become the hallmark of those players who have recently blossomed in the ATP (Berdych, Soderling, Del Potro, Cilic).  Although Gulbis’ backhand doesn’t equal his forehand in sheer weight or shotmaking capacity, his two-handed stroke isn’t an Achilles heel that his opponents can regularly target.  When he possesses the time to set his feet and lean into this shot (see below), the backhand crackles through the court with authority, complicating the tactical decisions of his adversaries.  During the Latvian’s 2009 slump, to be sure, the two-hander misfired too frequently, but his 2010 campaign has witnessed steady improvements in his control over the shot and more patience in its deployment. 

4)      drop shot:  A well-crafted complement to his percussive groundstrokes, this often unnoticed weapon in the Latvian’s arsenal reveals his ability to interweave deft finesse with bone-crushing power.  When Gulbis thrusts his opponents several feet behind the baseline, even moderately respectable execution would suffice to win a point.  Yet this bold shotmaker feathers his drop shots with breathtaking precision, drawing praise from such a demanding connoisseur of tennis technique as John McEnroe.  (As one might expect, he missed the next attempt dismally after McEnroe had effusively lauded it.)  Whereas Murray, Djokovic, and other renowned players often deploy the dropper only when nervous or desperate, its appearance in a Gulbis match indicates the Latvian’s confidence.  These exquisitely measured  shots will comprise a major key to his success on all surfaces, furthermore, for they prove especially effective on clay and grass.

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5)      rising to the occasion:  After defeating Djokovic in the 2009 Brisbane event, a rare triumph in that arid year, Gulbis commented that his greatest wins had accompanied  a series of “beautiful losses.”  This witty comment contains considerable truth, for he has twice won sets from Nadal (once during the Spaniard’s 2008 championship run at Wimbledon) and nearly held a two-set lead against Roddick at the US Open.  Early in 2010, he dragged Federer deep into a third set in Doha before scoring the Rome upset that may finally have signaled his breakthrough.  Often uninspired against ATP journeymen, Gulbis clearly relishes the experience of dueling with marquee opponents on the sport’s grandest stages—a characteristic that bodes extremely well for his future success at majors.  If the Latvian can avoid a lethargic early-round exit, his momentum will only accelerate into the second week.

What he has not:

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1)      return:  Not unlike his fellow shotmaker Jo-WIlfried Tsonga, Gulbis often will drift through game after game without connecting with more than a handful of cleanly struck returns.  Despite his superb shotmaking talents, swift reflexes and crisp eye-hand coordination do not constitute two of his strengths.  Occasionally annihilating a benign second serve, he nevertheless fails to convert too many of his second-ball opportunities.  Long struggling to discern the balance that divides aggression from recklessness throughout his game, the Latvian’s return of serve represents the arena in which this balance remains most fragile.  This stroke plays a crucial role on grass and therefore may undermine his chances at Wimbledon until he harnesses it.

2)      variety / versatility:  With the exception of his elegant drop shot, Gulbis essentially relies upon crushing as many balls as possible.  While these flat, penetrating groundstrokes wreak havoc, his game might become even more lethal if he could integrate a few variations such as a more topspin-heavy forehand or a sturdier set of conventional volleys to complement his drop shot.  At the moment, his opponents know exactly what to expect from him, which simplifies strategy for top-drawer competitors like Nadal or Murray.  The raw, unvarnished power that Gulbis currently displays will suffocate most garden-variety foes, but one senses that he might need a bit more texture and complexity in order to consistently conquer the ATP elite.

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3)      movement / footwork:  Not uncommon in players buttressed upon power, the Latvian’s indifferent movement hampers him against to an effective counterpuncher who can situate the ball in awkward positions.  When thrust onto defense, he struggles to transition points back into offense, as Murray illustrated during his two straight-sets Slam wins over Gulbis last year.  Awkward at reversing direction, he can be wrong-footed with relative ease and is notably vulnerable to sharply angled cross-court shots as well as with low, biting slices. Exacerbating this flaw is his occasionally lazy footwork, which forces him to rely upon his arm to generate pace more than is advisable, or even healthy.  If opponents can consistently take time away from Gulbis, they will expose his average technique more often than his outstanding ball-striking.

4)      shot selection:  Intelligent and articulate off the court, the Latvian can be a shade or two less than intelligent on the court.  Supremely confident in his abilities, he often pulls the trigger too soon in rallies and donates needless unforced errors to his opponent’s cause.  When a trifle less than his best, he sometimes refuses to recognize and respond to the situation, instead blindly hitting himself out of the match in an effort to hit his way into it.  After initiating a partnership with Safin’s former guru Hernan Gumy, however, Gulbis has somewhat curbed this youthful impetuosity, which springs in part from his tactical limitations.  When stretched off the court or pinned behind the baseline, his best option perhaps does constitute an all-or-nothing, extremely low-percentage gambit over the high part of the net.  Thus, the Latvian’s questionable shot selection on defense might evaporate if he addresses the previous two points, although his dubious shot selection on offense still requires attention.

5)      focus / motivation:  Repeatedly compared with the charmingly wayward Safin, Gulbis acquainted himself with a Stockholm jail during the ATP tournament there in 2009.  (“I’m never going back to that country,” said the Latvian.)  Throughout most of last year, his dismal results mirrored an apparent slump in his enthusiasm for the game, which sometimes seemed more of a diversion than a profession to him until his recent surge.  The effortlessness that characterizes his game can slide into slovenliness when his mind drifts from a sport that demands intense concentration.  Mentally fortifying him after bitter losses, the Latvian’s insouciance also separates him from relentless competitors such as Nadal, who will accept nothing less than victory.  Yet Gulbis’ more effortful, workmanlike triumphs in recent months may have demonstrated a recognition that the importance of being earnest trumps the importance of being Ernests.

***

Although one must peer into the future with a blurry lens on this occasion, it’s easy to imagine the charismatic Latvian claiming multiple Masters Series crowns, especially on fast surfaces.  Perhaps better suited for a best-of-three format than a best-of-five challenge, he may not prove able to rein in his mighty weapons for an entire fortnight at a major, but he’ll find himself in contention for those prestigious crowns if his relationship with Gumy continues to flourish.  Even if Gulbis doesn’t claim a Slam or embed himself within the top 10 (as he should considering his potential), he’ll often ambush players in both of those categories while providing exhilarating entertainment for spectators who share his affinity for drama and risk.  The question remains tantalizingly open, though, as to whether he can transform what he has not into what he has.

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Three of the four Slams complete, we’re precisely halfway through the 2010 tennis season, so it’s time to reflect upon the most momentous and meaningful achievements of the first half.  We count down the top five on both the men’s and women’s sides, not all of which went to a final-set tiebreak (although a few did) but all of which were laden with meaning for the second half of 2010 and beyond.

5)  Djokovic d. Isner (Davis Cup, 1st round, 4th rubber):  In the midst of a desultory spring, Djokovic delivered a stirring melodrama in five parts before a fervent Belgrade audience and frenzied family, whose soccer-style vibe clashes with some tournaments but meshes smoothly with Davis Cup.  As the visiting villain, Isner performed more convincingly than anyone could have expected for his debut with Team USA.  Littered with jagged plot twists, the match ebbed and flowed from one determined competitor to the other, infusing this often moribund competition with renewed energy and relevance.

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4)  Tsonga d. Almagro (Australian Open, 4th round):  The men’s tournament in Melbourne was rife with spectacular first-week epics such as Youzhny-Gasquet, Blake-Del Potro, Del Potro-Cilic, and Roddick-Gonzalez.  But this marathon five-setter climbed above the rest as a result of its steadily escalating intensity, for each brilliant shotmaker forced the other further into the realm of implausibility during its final stages.  Generally more focused upon the journey than the destination, both Tsonga and Almagro shine most brightly in such moments, while their cordial post-match greeting shone just as brightly for those who appreciate classiness on court.

3)  Nadal d. Gulbis (Rome, Semifinal):  Diabolical on dirt once again, Rafa conceded just two sets throughout the entire clay season, one to Almagro in Madrid and one here to the burgeoning Latvian.  Pushing the Spaniard closer to the brink on his favorite surface than anyone else, Gulbis validated his upset over Federer a few days before by harnessing his spectacular all-court prowess with a vastly enhanced competitive vigor.  Few tennis sights are more inspiring than the Latvian at his best, but one of them is the spectacle of the Spaniard relentlessly willing himself to victory over such a worthy opponent.  When his foe’s determined campaign finally crumbled, Nadal’s trademark victory writhe emanated relief as much as pure jubilation.  Finally integrating the components of his spectacular game, Gulbis seems headed directly for the top 10 when he returns from current injuries.  Look for a player profile on him in the coming weeks.

2)  Berdych d. Federer (Miami, 4th round):  Edging into the nerve-jangling terrain of a third-set tiebreak, the famously fragile Czech proved himself fragile no more by saving match point against the world #1 with a fearless forehand.  Two courageous rallies later, Berdych scored the most significant win of his career, even more impressive than his 2004 Olympics triumph over Federer because of the respective trajectories that their careers have followed over the last six years.  He deserves immense credit for continuing to build upon this career-altering moment over the next two majors, where he emerged among the leading threats to the ATP top four.  After lightning struck twice at Wimbledon, the tennis world hailed the Czech’s emergence as a potential champion.  Yet it was a humid April evening in Miami that had witnessed the rebirth of Tomas Berdych.

1)  Isner d. Mahut (Wimbledon, 1st round):  Shattering shoals of records beyond repair, the 138-game final set alone would place this match atop our list.  Moreover, the pas de deux between the American and the Frenchman brought tennis to the attention of sports fans who previously had thought of golf when hearing about the “US Open.”  Just as the previous two matches represented the makings of Gulbis and Berdych, this three-day grind in the grass probably represented the making of John Isner, who stood every inch as tall as his towering frame.  On a broader level, though, the inhumane dimension of the match may have struck a fatal blow to no-tiebreak final sets, a potentially historic step in the evolution of the sport. 

On to the achievements of the ladies:

5)  Schiavone d. Stosur (French Open, Final):  Over the past few years, the Roland Garros women’s final had featured the most appallingly feckless tennis of the WTA season.  Not on this occasion, when Schiavone fearlessly but intelligently took risks at crucial moments and played with joy as well as intensity; meanwhile, Stosur competed consistently throughout most of this tightly contested encounter.  Although the Italian veteran won’t build upon this achievement, her title provided a well-deserved climax to a career lived far from the limelight.  It was delightful to see a women’s final that was won by the champion rather than lost by the runner-up.

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T-4)  Serena d. Sharapova (Wimbledon, 4th round) / Henin d. Sharapova (French Open, 3rd round):  Confronting the best player on clay at Roland Garros and arguably the best player on grass at Wimbledon, Sharapova compelled both adversaries to display their most dazzling tennis in order to vanquish her.  Against the Russian’s indomitable competitive ferocity, Henin’s tenacious defense glowed as much as Serena’s explosive serving and shotmaking.  Dispelling Sharapova’s uncertain start to 2010, these two matches also underscored her return to familiar fire-breathing form, which should enliven the WTA immensely during the second half. 

T-3)  Stosur d. Serena (French Open, Quarterfinal) / Jankovic d. Serena (Rome, Semifinal):  Almost invincible anywhere but clay, Serena is formidable even on her least favorite surface, as the Australian and the Serb could attest.  Stosur consolidated her presence among the sport’s elite by saving a match point before eliminating the world #1 from a major, following the sort of suspenseful, mentally draining duel in which Serena typically prevails.  Likewise saving a match point in Rome, Jankovic encouraged counterpunchers everywhere by proving that top-drawer defense can frustrate top-level offense, contrary to popular wisdom.  David does slay Goliath sometimes, after all.

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T-2)  Clijsters d. Henin (Brisbane, Final) / Clijsters d. Henin (Miami, Semifinal):  The European version of Serena-Venus, the two Belgians rattle each other more than anyone else can rattle either of them.  Not the most technically sturdy or mentally steady tennis, these tension-soaked strolls along the precipice produced more compelling drama than most WTA rivalries.  As soon as Kim built an immense lead, Justine charged forward to snatch it away, only to trip over herself and hand the initiative back to her compatriot…who politely returned it to her.  Towards the latter stages of these matches, whiplash-inducing momentum shifts occurred every few points until momentum itself became a meaningless concept.  In an especially eerie instance of déjà vu, Clijsters won both matches at exactly the same moment (the 14th point of the third-set tiebreak) with exactly the same shot (a forehand winner down the line).

1)   Serena d. Henin (Australian Open, Final):  A three-set women’s final at a major had become an oxymoron after 13 consecutive straight-setters, so one relished a championship match with more than a single, unbroken storyline.  Of course, one of the principal reasons for that trend was Serena’s dominance, which faltered just enough in the second set to allow Henin an opportunity that she seized with consummate aplomb.  As the Belgian reeled off one blinding winner after another, we wondered how the American could recover, but she demonstrated the same tenacity that Nadal manifested against Gulbis.  Serena dug in her heels with admirable stubbornness, transcending her aching knees to play every point and every shot with the single-minded determination that comprises her greatest weapon.  Of her thirteen major titles, few have been harder earned or more meaningful.

***

After applauding the stars who shone in the first half, it’s time to briefly turn from the sublime to the ridiculous.  Sharpening our satirical pen, we sum up the worst matches of 2010.

5)  Roddick d. Soderling (Indian Wells, Semifinal) / Berdych d. Soderling (Miami, Semifinal):  The pre-2008 version of Soderling isn’t dead but dormant, as he proved twice in two tournaments.

4)  Federer d. Murray (Australian Open, Final):  The Scot didn’t start playing with conviction until the third-set tiebreak, much too late to matter.

3)  Nadal d. Verdasco (Monte Carlo, Final):  Surely this hapless hunk of cannon fodder wasn’t the same player who courageously extended Nadal deep into a fifth set at the Australian Open?

2)  Tsonga d. Djokovic (Australian Open, Quarterfinal):  We empathized when Djokovic excused himself to vomit midway through this debacle.  No, not “sympathize”; “empathize.”

1)  Ginepri d. Querrey (Roland Garros, 1st round):  Whatever the sins of those who lost the previous four matches, at least they didn’t tank and then casually tell the world about it afterwards.

We’re not so chivalrous that we spare the ladies:

5)  Li d. Venus (Australian Open, Quarterfinal):  Seemingly addled by the Australian sun, these two superb shotmakers left their GPS in the locker room and cheerfully engaged in a carnival of errors.

T-4)  Kirilenko d. Sharapova (Australian Open, 1st round) / Dulko d. Ivanovic (Australian Open, 2nd round):  Never have prettier women played uglier tennis.

3)  Stosur d. Jankovic (French Open, Semifinal):  This listless encounter was far less compelling than the other semifinal…which ended in a retirement after a single set.

2)  Dementieva d. Serena (Sydney, Final):  The five-time Australian Open champion had already moved on to Melbourne, but next time she might want to hire a more skilled impersonator.

1)  Clijsters d. Venus (Miami, Final):  Some of the spectators spent the match sleeping or sunbathing, both more profitable activities than watching what passed for “tennis.”

***

We’ll return in two days with a tie-by-tie preview of the Davis Cup quarterfinals!

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The Rome tournament soared to a slightly premature climax on Friday afternoon with the epic Jankovic-Serena semifinal, one of the most dramatic and tightly contested WTA matches of the year so far.  Having observed several weeks ago that Nadal tends to feature in some of the most suspenseful ATP matches of this era, win or lose, one could make a similar remark about the Serb.  After a series of demoralizing losses in 2009, we crossed her off our list of future Slam contenders, but now she’s establishing herself once again among the dominant threats at the top tournaments.  If not for a certain Belgian, in fact, Jankovic might well be the favorite at Roland Garros.  Tomorrow, she’ll pursue her third Rome title in the last four years against the many-syllabled Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, quite the upset artist over the last few months.  The Spaniard’s late-career surge began simultaneously with Jankovic’s revival in Indian Wells and shows just as little sign of abating; her serve-and-volley style could wreak serious havoc at Wimbledon.

Can MJMS complete the Serbian double play and seize this Premier Five title?  After a draining marathon in the semifinals, Jelena may be a little fatigued (as was Ivanovic on Friday) and start sluggishly before settling into the match.  Also, she might suffer a mental hangover from the rare feat of back-to-back wins over Serena and Venus.  She’s solved the most difficult problem, but does she have enough energy to finish the exam?  Even more of a rhythm-oriented player than Ivanovic, Jelena won’t enjoy the staccato style in which she’ll be forced to play if MJMS continues to serve effectively.  On the other hand, Jankovic possesses greater improvisational skills than her more powerful compatriot, which should enable her to adapt more successfully to the Spaniard’s eccentricities.  A little less tall and significantly faster, she’ll be able to reach more low balls and chase down more drop shots than did Ivanovic.  More useful in this situation than Ana’s superior shotmaking prowess, the elder Serb’s reliable return game will force MJMS into more difficult volleying positions.  This feisty underdog certainly could rise to the occasion, but one favors JJ to ultimately unravel one last conundrum, perhaps in three sets.

***

As if to atone for denying us the all-ajde final, the tennis gods (or Ion Tiriac) have ordained an all-ajde second round in Madrid.  The ostensible gift of a first-round bye thus turned into no gift at all for Ana and Jelena, one of whom will arrive rather early in Paris.  So loaded is the draw, however, that several second-round matches of almost equal interest loom during the start of next week.  As always, we take a quarter-by-quarter look at the winding red-brick road ahead, prefaced by a flashback to when Maria was last here:

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First quarter:    Following a undemanding opener against Miss Bye and a routine second round, Serena will meet her first test of the tournament in Petrova, who defeated her in a third-set tiebreak last fall.  Highly accomplished on this surface, the Russian could pull off the upset if the American doesn’t bring her trademark intensity to the match, yet we suspect that events in Rome will have sufficiently irked Serena to motivate her in Madrid.  On the other side of the quarter lurk two more Russians, the returning Sharapova and the omnipresent Dementieva, mediocre in Rome but a former French Open finalist and a major threat on clay in the past.  If Maria shakes off her rust in time to defuse Safarova, she’ll face a severe test of consistency against her elder compatriot.  Unless Dementieva plays as she did this week, we suspect that she’ll set up a quarterfinal rendezvous with Serena…and a trip to Paris shortly thereafter.

Semifinalist:  Serena

Second quarter:  One has to pity defending champion Safina, who crashed out to Dulgheru in the second round of Rome and almost certainly won’t survive the second round here.  Having ended her first career by losing to the Russian in Berlin two years ago, Henin won’t hesitate to settle this particular score and should rumble to the quarterfinals without much ado.  Once there, she should face the winner of Ajde Alley, who might need to overcome Bartoli in the third round.  Should the Serb in question be Jankovic, as is probable, a contentious match could ensue in this ever ill-tempered mini-rivalry, which has produced some of the most acerbic witticisms of the last two years in tennis.  Henin will have the last laugh, though.

Semifinalist:  Henin

Third quarter:  Another Trojan horse of a gift awaits Rome finalist Martinez Sanchez, ushered by a bye  into the second round for a clash with the even more momentum-fueled Stosur.  Expelling the Spaniard from Indian Wells, the Australian should repeat the result here; she’ll always represent an extreme challenge for MJMS, who plays essentially the same game but a little less consistently.  It’s hard to know what (if anything) to expect from Venus after hideous performances against Clijsters in Miami and Jankovic in Rome, but her immediate vicinity looks relatively benign by the standard of this brutal draw.  Although Zvonareva normally would threaten her on this surface, Vera has struggled for most of the season so far and endured a first-round loss to the unimposing Kvitova in Rome. 

Semifinalist:  Stosur

Fourth quarter:  Mirror, mirror, on the wall:  which Kuznetsova answers the call?  The one who performs great deeds with the ball?  Or the one who can’t find the court at all?  Sveta has little room for error when she faces the recently dangerous Peer in her opener.  Elsewhere in this neighborhood are best friends Azarenka and Wozniacki, both struggling with nagging injuries and far from impressive on clay this season.  The door lies open for a determined opportunist to slash a route to the semis, and Li Na seems an excellent candidate for the role.  She defeated Azarenka in Tokyo last fall, Wozniacki in Australia this January, and Kuznetsova just two weeks ago in Stuttgart.  A player of hot streaks and cold streaks, Li awakened from one of the latter in Stuttgart with the aforementioned Kuznetsova upset and looks ready to head in the other direction, provided that she can solve last year’s French Open semifinalist Cibulkova in the second round.

Semifinalist:  Li

Semifinals:  Henin def. Serena, Stosur def. Li

Final:  Henin def. Stosur

***

We’ll return tomorrow with the ATP Madrid preview.  It was a marvelous fortnight in Rome for Nadal, Gulbis, Ferrer, Verdasco, Ivanovic, Jankovic, Serena, and MJMS, but now it’s time to wave goodbye to the Eternal City…

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