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Rafael Nadal - Rafael Nadal Wins the Monte Carlo Masters Title

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Spain:  For the second straight year, Nadal snapped a three-final losing streak in the principality on the Mediterranean promontory by conquering a compatriot in the title match.  Not at his classic best throughout the week, Rafa battled through a three-hour exercise in trench warfare against Murray in the semifinals and then charted a far from routine path to victory against Ferrer a day later.  Ironically, though, his ability to win without his finest clay form should infuse him with confidence while reminding his rivals how far below his pinnacle they normally fall.  Without Djokovic in the draw, Monte Carlo proved the ideal venue for the world #1 to reassert his supremacy on the surface from which he sprang like Minerva from Jupiter’s head.  Should his recent nemesis collide with him again in Madrid or Rome, Rafa will approach that meeting with the memories from North America muted if not expunged.

Told that a Spaniard would reach the Monte Carlo final without dropping a set, almost nobody would have identified Ferrer as the lucky fellow.  Rekindling his clay momentum from an Acapulco title, the world #6 lost six or fewer games in each of his four matches before succumbing to Nadal on Sunday.  At his best when the serve matters least, Ferrer eroded the willpower of his opponents by rarely allowing them to glide through a comfortable service game.  Moreover, he tested his compatriot deep into both sets during a second Masters 1000 final appearance.  Although he probably cannot dethrone the king of clay, Ferrer should consolidate his elevated ranking over the next several weeks and perhaps score a key upset or two over a member of the top five.

The principal architect of Spain’s Fed Cup victory over France, Martinez Sanchez reminded us why she is both so inconsistent and so dangerous.  Violating the basic rules taught to any novice, she serves and volleys on clay, attempts drop shots from well behind the baseline, and runs around her forehand to hit backhands.  Yet this iconoclastic style repeatedly reaped rewards for her against flummoxed Frenchwomen Razzano and Rezai, who never could anticipate what gambit would next flutter into the Spaniard’s inspired mind.  Alternately jaw-dropping and head-scratching, Martinez Sanchez relies on tactics extremely hard to execute consistently but nearly unanswerable on this surface when she does.

Monte Carlo semifinalists:  Winless since January, Murray halted his slide much earlier than the similar malaise that descended upon him last year.  Few are the players who can extend Nadal to three hours on clay, and one would not have included the Scot in their number considering his past struggles on the surface.  The longer points favored by the European dirt may have assisted him in regaining his rhythm, while an accommodating draw allowed him to recapture the sensation of winning without suffering undue pressure.  Joining him in the penultimate round was new world #8 Melzer, who earned his career-best ranking with a first victory over Federer.  Having scored 2010 wins over Djokovic and Nadal, the aging lefty summoned just enough self-belief to strike down a player who had defeated him resoundingly three times last year.  Both Murray and Melzer struggled with injuries during their breakthrough weeks, though, so question marks hover above the rest of their clay campaigns.

Jankovic:  Allegedly ill at the start of the weekend, she left Slovakia feeling ill by the end of it.  The Serbian workhorse spent six hours on court during Sunday’s epic battles, which culminated with a 197-minute doubles rubber during which Jankovic and her partner saved two match points.  Once leading by a set and 5-1 in that match, the Slovak duo served for the match three times but could not wrest it away from a Serb who surely relished every moment of the escalating drama.  Although Jankovic clearly improved her results over the previous two months, she entered this weekend lacking a bit of her trademark spark.  That spark may have returned just in time for her most profitable time of year.

Ukraine:  Bringing nobody in the top 100 to Melbourne, the Ukrainian team looked certain cannon fodder against Slovak-turned-Aussie Groth and Russian-turned-Aussie Rodionova.  While Tsurenko and Savchuk detained the former for only 48 minutes apiece, they recorded mini-upsets over the latter that included a two-tiebreak fourth rubber in which Rodionova served for both sets.  The momentum then swung violently against them with a first-set bagel in the decisive doubles, but, like Serbia, Ukraine gallantly saved match points in the second set en route to assuring an implausible berth in the 2012 World Group.  Let the vodka flow in Kiev.

Deuce:

Ana Ivanovic - Sony Ericsson Open

Ivanovic:  On Saturday, Serbia’s merry maiden glowed with happiness as a convincing win over Hantuchova ignited a promising clay campaign.  Casting a pall over that success was the recurrence of a stomach injury that forced her to retire against Cibulkova a day later.  Nevertheless, Ivanovic showed this weekend that she had overcome the scars of her loss against Clijsters more successfully than the scars in her abdominal muscle.  When she returns to practice later this week, she will have a more positive memory on which to reflect as a busy month of May approaches.

American women’s tennis:  Banished from the World Group for the first time in the competition’s history, the US Fed Cup squad faces a potential future relegated to the periphery of the sport.  Without any clear savior on the horizon, the team might well fall into zonal play within a year or two.  In an event completely unrelated to Fed Cup, though, Serena finally returned to the practice courts after a nine-month absence.  Can she race to recovery and create an opportunity to defend her Wimbledon title?  As she has demonstrated before, a lack of match preparation means nothing for her ability to contend.

Hantuchova:  After seven and a half hours of tennis this weekend, the leggy Slovak came away with nothing except three losses and the deflating sensation of having almost single-handedly lost the tie for her country.  Such reflections would not do Hantuchova justice, though, for the former Fed Cup heroine competed valiantly through consecutive three-setters on Sunday even as the anticipation of impending disaster must have gradually crept over her.  Often disparaged for her frailty under pressure, she at least did not capitulate meekly this time.

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Roger Federer - ATP Masters Series Monte Carlo - Day Six

Federer:  Possibly disinclined to serve as Nadal’s Monte Carlo foil for a fourth time, the second seed showed little appetite for the battle during a quarterfinal loss to Melzer.  Recalling his struggles on break points against a more famous lefty, he failed to convert all seven of his opportunities against a foe whom he recently had dominated.  On more than one of those break points, tame second-serve returns settled into the net or drifted lazily over the baseline.  Federer may not have settled into the lethargy of tennis old age, but the glow of his World Tour Finals in London last fall has faded.

Verdasco:  Confident that his fortunes would change once he returned to clay, the third-ranked Spaniard discovered otherwise with an opening-round loss to Robredo.  Now outside the top 10, Verdasco has not made an impact at any important tournament since last year’s clay season and has lost his first match in five of eight tournaments this season, eight of thirteen since the US Open.  Perhaps the home crowd in Madrid will provide the necessary tonic to lift his spirits.

Rybarikova:  Facing match point at 7-8 in the final set of the decisive doubles rubber, she struck a well-placed serve that drew an aimlessly floating return.  At this point, the Slovak journeywoman had a choice:  A) spike the ball somewhere (virtually anywhere) and watch the Serbs scramble desperately, B) watch the ball fly past and assume that it will land inside the baseline.  Like a host of more familiar colleagues from Federer to Tsonga, Rybarikova chose the latter option on a crucial point and discovered the danger of false assumptions.

Svetlana Kuznetsova Svetlana Kuznetsova (R) of Russia celebrates with Russian team captain Shamil Tarpischev (L) and other teammates after her win over Carla Suarez Navarro of Spain on day one of the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group Final between Spain and Russia at the Club de Campo on September 13, 2008 in Madrid, Spain. Kuznetsova won the match in two sets, 6-3 and 6-1, giving Russia a 2-0 lead over Spain.

Italy at Russia:  Bereft of its leading ladies Schiavone and Pennetta, the decimated Italian squad ventures to Moscow with perhaps more hope than conviction.  Crushing Italy on home soil in the 2007 final, Russia looks fully equipped to pummel the visitors into submission once again.  But such a prospect loomed before its quarterfinal against France, when the plucky, vastly outgunned guests showed little courtesy to their hosts.  A heroine of Russia’s historic comeback from a 0-2 deficit, Kuznetsova enters this tie in unimposing form after premature exits in Indian Wells, Miami, and Marbella last week.  Moreover, Saturday opponent Vinci squelched her Beijing title defense last fall.  The two-time major champion often musters her most impassioned, motivated efforts in Fed Cup, however, and she may benefit from sliding into the #2 position behind third-ranked Zvonareva.  Not a participant in February’s miracle, the top Russian has displayed generally solid albeit not overwhelming tennis this year and has thoroughly dominated Vinci, scoring four straight wins during which she lost six or fewer games.  Playing on neither green clay nor red clay in the last two weeks, Zvonareva will arrive in Moscow neither fatigued from recent exertions nor maladjusted to the surface.

Lethal against Italians throughout her career, the world #3 should collect her two singles rubbers, requiring the visitors to defeat Kuznetsova twice in two days.  And Tarpischev also can respond to any stumble from Sveta by substituting Monterrey champion Pavlyuchenkova, just outside the top 20 and a valiant Fed Cup competitor despite her youth.  With this host of options, home-court advantage, and a starless Italy, the somnolent Shamil should enjoy his weekend very much indeed.

Czech Republic at Belgium:  They may not end the first day even in wins, but these two teams enter it even in withdrawals.  Potentially a much more competitive semifinal, the advantage here tilted sharply from the home squad to the visitors when Clijsters announced her withdrawal.  Somewhat softening the blow was the ensuing withdrawal of Safarova, replaced by the less reliable, less powerful Benesova.  Belgium counters the Czech Republic’s left-handed duo with Indian Wells semifinalist Wickmayer, who should relish the opportunity to snatch some of the spotlight from her renowned compatriots.  Resenting her status as the third-best player in her small country, the forehand-thumping firecracker will find her maturity tested as the flagship for her nation’s otherwise puny fleet.  How will Wickmayer respond to the pressure of winning two rubbers (and perhaps three) for the home team?

Her opposing flagship Kvitova has cooled considerably after a torrid, two-title start to 2011, winning just one total match on the North American hard courts.  En route to one of those titles, she outlasted Wickmayer in a third-set tiebreak; three of their five previous meetings, in fact, have reached 5-5 in the third set.  Drama thus may develop in a potentially tie-turning third rubber, but ambushes could occur in any of the weekend’s matches.  While Belgian #2 Flipkens defeated Kvitova a year ago, Benesova has troubled Wickmayer in both of their previous meetings.  Like Tarpischev, though, Czech captain Petr Pala has more ammunition in his arsenal than his opponent.  The pugnacious Zahlavova Strycova not only could thrive in the hostile atmosphere of Charleroi but should forge a doubles partnership with Benesova sturdier than any potential Belgian duo.  After consecutive semifinal losses in 2009 and 2010, the Czech Republic must feel especially determined to break through that barrier this year.

USA at Germany:  The architect of two unexpected finals runs, American captain Mary Joe Fernandez voiced justifiable optimism about a tie less beyond the reach of her squad than their clash with Russia in the same round last year.  Absent from this weekend, however, is the competitive spark of Bethanie Mattek-Sands that proved so critical in fueling that upset.  The United States instead rests its hopes upon two teenagers ranked outside the top 75, although Christina McHale has risen swiftly in recent weeks after victories over Kuznetsova, Kleybanova, and Hantuchova.  Once labeled the future of American tennis, world #81 Oudin has fallen well short of achieving that promise and struggles to cope with the high bounce on clay.  Yet surely the uniformly heavy-hitting German quartet of Petkovic, Goerges, Lisicki, and Groenefeld also would have preferred a hard court over the surface that dulls their power.  Fortunately for all concerned, the Porsche Arena generally has played much faster than a conventional clay court.  The Americans will possess a considerable advantage if they can preserve the tie until the final rubber, when Huber and King would face a German squad without a notable doubles specialist.  Bolstering their chances is Oudin’s Miami success against Goerges, which suggests that the tie could rest upon the shoulders of Fed Cup novice McHale in the fourth rubber.  Don’t discount these overachieving underdogs too easily.

France at Spain:  Frustrated by the historic Russian comeback discussed above, French captain Nicolas Escude publicly blamed then-singles #2 Alize Cornet for the team’s debacle.  One tie later, one wonders how the sensitive Cornet will respond to his criticism as well as her own disappointment.  Unlikely to provide much assistance is the controversy-drenched Rezai, who has wandered through a disastrous start to 2011 after what had appeared a breakthrough in Madrid last year.  Cast into these uncertain waters, Escude wisely selected the sporadically injured Razzano for singles duty despite her lower ranking.  On the other hand, controversy also has encircled the home team, which staged a short-lived Fed Cup boycott in order to extract greater support for women’s tennis from the national federation.  Unlike the French, though, the Spaniards stood united in their bold gambit, displaying a mutual loyalty that could make their seasoned group greater than the sum of its parts.  Designed to disrupt fragile minds, the quirky point construction and dazzling drop shots of Martinez Sanchez should disrupt the rhythm of the visitors.  This trans-Pyrenean encounter therefore might reverse the outcome of the Davis Cup quarterfinal that their nations contested last year.  But first we expect an avalanche of service breaks throughout a weekend populated by shaky servers, ruthless returners, and durable defenders.

Ana Ivanovic - Sony Ericsson Open

Serbia at Slovakia:  Distinctly the most glamorous tie of the weekend, this collision also could prove the most suspenseful.  Fractured by an acerbic fracas last year, the Serbian team has regained at least a semblance of unity as Ivanovic joins Jankovic in a partnership perhaps arranged merely to ensure their Olympic eligibility.  Or could a Davis Cup title last December have inspired Serbia’s feuding stars to bury their grudges and pursue a Fed Cup crown in 2012?  Whether their divisions persist below the surface remains a question crucial to this challenging weekend.  Unglued by the pressure of playing before her compatriots last year, Ivanovic seems more likely to shine in a stadium where expectations lie upon her opponents. Although she has carved out a winning record against Hantuchova, Ana has struggled against both Slovaks before and may require more time to recover from her loss to Clijsters in one of Miami’s most memorable matches.  Meanwhile, Jankovic has split her four clay meetings with Hantuchova and lost to her in Fed Cup last year (during the weekend that provoked the intra-Serbian scuffle).  Pitting soaring prodigy Jovanovski against Cibulkova is the opening rubber, which should tilt towards the diminutive but more clay-savvy Slovak.  If the tie arrives at a decisive doubles rubber, as seems plausible, the home squad should rely upon its superior chemistry to repeat its 2010 victory over Serbia.

Ukraine at Australia:  Without the Bondarenko sisters to shelter them, Ukraine heads to distant climes without a single player in the top 100.  Providing scant solace is the absence of Australian #1 Stosur, who entrusts leadership of the home squad to the eminently capable Groth.  The former Slovak leads the WTA in aces this season while marching into the top 30 for the first time, a status that neither of her Ukrainian opponents ever has approached.  Thriving in the Fed Cup atmosphere, Groth scored a stunning victory over Schiavone in the World Group quarterfinals a round ago and should comfortably capture both of her rubbers.  Beckoning for Cup neophytes Sophie Ferguson and Sally Peers, then, is a chance to stir national pride without incurring significant pressure.

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We return shortly with thoughts on the Mediterranean playground of Rafael Nadal.

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