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The contrast between efficient and inefficient tennis couldn’t have been much starker than in consecutive ATP matches on Court Philippe Chatrier.  While Federer never opened a window of opportunity for Alejandro Falla, Gael Monfils opened windows and doors aplenty for Fabio Fognini, nearly jumping out of a window himself before the setting sun conspired with the Frenchman to deny the Italian three match points.  We checked out on this match when Monfils led by two sets and a break, then checked out again when he led by a double break in the fourth set; unfortunately for him, though, Gael checked out on both of those occasions as well.  Over on Lenglen, meanwhile, Soderling made even Federer look positively profligate with a 71-minute evisceration of Taylor Dent, who deserves credit for swallowing the humiliation in a sportsmanlike manner (ahem, Querrey?).  Kuznetsova looked Doomed with a capital D against an inspired Petkovic until the German uncharacteristically succumbed to nerves and threw Sveta not one but four lifelines.  In other WTA news, Safarova joined fellow clay season sensations Martinez Sanchez and Gulbis on the ferry to London; even Rezai wallowed through a three-setter on Wednesday, suggesting that those much-hyped Rome and Madrid results may hold as much water as a shot glass.  We’re eagerly awaiting Rezai-Petrova on Friday, but first there’s a bit of business involving three Serbs on a Thursday.

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Jankovic (4) vs. Kanepi (Q) (Chatrier, 1st match):  The architect of Jankovic’s demise a year ago in Dubai, Kanepi has struggled during recent months and surprisingly was forced to qualify here.  Not renowned for her clay prowess, the Estonian defeated none other than Henin in Fed Cup a few weeks ago; the four-time French Open champion admittedly was fatigued from Stuttgart and coping with a broken finger, but still…it’s Henin.  On the other hand, the savage but erratic baseline-bashing of Kanepi (not unlike Djokovic’s first-round opponent, Korolev) should provide an excellent foil for Jankovic in her quest to claim a first Slam, seemingly within the Serb’s grasp here.  In fact, we’d even say that circumstances from her recent resurgence to her tranquil draw and Henin’s contrastingly mountainous path have aligned almost ideally in her favor, which probably means that Jelena will find a way to botch the opportunity eventually.  It won’t happen here, however, for JJ’s superb ball-retrieving will enable her to wear down Kanepi after the type of inspiring defensive display that clay regularly rewards.

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Nishikori vs. Djokovic (3) (Lenglen, 3rd match):  Watching the Bolletieri Academy’s Japanese star outlast Ferrer (a rare event indeed) at the 2008 US Open, we were struck by the resemblance between his game and the Spaniard’s.  If Nishikori successfully impersonates Ferrer’s gritty tenacity, Djokovic might find his fitness severely tested in an endless sequence of baseline exchanges.   As mentioned above, his first-round opponent possesses precisely the opposite style, designed to win short points on fast surfaces; consequently, the Serb’s questionable physical condition wasn’t fully examined.  But one should remember that Nishikori’s own fitness may be a few notches below its best in the aftermath of a thrilling comeback from a two-set deficit against an emerging Santiago Giraldo.  Moreover, Djokovic should be able to break (or at least create opportunities to break) with sufficient frequency to take mental pressure off his own serve.  Although the recent rainy weather favors Nishikori’s counterpunching game, Novak should profit from his vastly superior experience to escape this tricky encounter.  If he wavers early, though, stay alert.

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Kleybanova (28) vs. Ivanovic (Court 1, 1st match):  They’ve clashed three times since the beginning of 2009, of which the Russian has claimed two (Australian Open 2009, Fed Cup 2010).  Having scored upsets over Clijsters and Jankovic as well as Ivanovic, Kleybanova regularly has thrilled us with her competitive fire and fascinating angles; no player came closer to defeating Henin in Melbourne before the final.  (Without being unkind, we also should note that the Russian’s movement is surprisingly effective for a player of her physique.)  In Canada last year, we attended her 3½-hour marathon against Jankovic, during which her poise and desire glowed ever more brightly as the match grew tighter.  Nevertheless, Ana possesses a distinct edge on the surface, which is her favorite and Kleybanova’s least favorite.  Although the Serb struggled immensely with her serve during her opener, she looked consistently comfortable with the shot during her Rome run, where the confidence that she gained from it infused the rest of her game.  While Kleybanova does have the psychological advantage from the head-to-head, Ana did defeat her in Dubai last year even in the midst of her slump and thus should enter the match knowing that she can win against the Russian.  It’s an opportunity for her to make a modest but important statement. 

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Hantuchova (23) vs. Govortsova (Court 3, 3rd match—4th including Baghdatis completion):  A late addition to our preview, this match opposes two competitors who effectively were off the radar several months ago but have since awakened…at least for now.  We were delighted to watch the elegant Slovak resurface with a finals appearance in Monterey, a near-quarterfinal appearance in Miami, and a semifinal appearance in Charleston.  One would think that Hantuchova’s high-risk shotmaking and limited movement wouldn’t suit the clay, yet she trains regularly in Monte Carlo and previously has prospered in tournaments such as Rome.  To be sure, Slams are not a comfort zone for the easily unnerved Hantuchova, who has endured excruciating meltdowns on the sport’s grandest stages.  Once considered a potential top-20 or top-30 prospect before a moribund stretch, Govortsova stirred into life at the end of 2009 by reaching the Moscow final; this year, she plowed into the Amelia Island final before seriously threatening Safarova in Rome and Madrid.  (Ordinarily, “threatening Safarova” doesn’t exactly impress, but the streaky Czech compiled one of the best clay seasons of anyone before ignominiously exiting Roland Garros on Wednesday.)  The Slovak and the Belarussian have split their last two meetings, the last of which was won by Hantuchova in a third-set tiebreak after Govortsova had held match points.  Both players are notoriously uncomfortable with any sort of lead, no matter how vast, so don’t tune out on this one even if it looks lopsided early.

Shvedova vs. Radwanska (8) (Court 4, 1st match):  High on velocity and low on nuance, Shvedova always will enjoy more significant success on hard court than clay, yet she smoothly dismantled Italian clay-court specialist Errani in her opener.  Low on velocity and high on nuance, Radwanska theoretically should thrive at Roland Garros but in fact much prefers the grass of Wimbledon, where she is a two-time quarterfinalist.  The Pole’s comfortable win over Shvedova just weeks ago in Miami suggests that she should defuse the Kazakh just as she has defused so many more notable sluggers.  All the same, this match should provide an engaging puncher-counterpuncher contrast rather akin to Jankovic-Kanepi.  Although one always should favor the counterpuncher on clay, one need look no further than Soderling to remember the increasing success of offensive players at Roland Garros, where the grit is not quite as sluggish as it once was.

Seppi vs. Kohlschreiber (30) (Court 17, 3rd match):  This Transalpine confrontation opposes a mercurial German to a steady Italian, just the reverse of what one would associate with both nationalities.  While that stereotype-shattering fact alone might warrant a brief trip to Court 17, don’t forget that Kohlschreiber has achieved remarkable results both at Slams and on clay, defeating Roddick in a thrilling five-setter at the 2008 Australian Open, Djokovic at the 2009 French Open, and Murray at this year’s Monte Carlo. In the latter tournament, he produced a highly competitive pas de deux with Ferrer, perhaps the greatest dirt devil of all outside Nadal.  Like Dulko, Kohlschreiber unfortunately doesn’t follow his huge wins with deep runs on most occasions.  Nevertheless, his ability to hit winners off his sturdy forehand and his gorgeous one-handed backhand should trump the Italian’s forehand-reliant game.  On this occasion, we favor the counterpuncher over the puncher.

Briefly noted:  The sight of aging serve-and-volley artist Mardy Fish in the second round of Roland Garros was arguably as unexpected as the sight of Taylor Dent there.  On Thursday, Mardy faces a player with a similarly serve-based style and the same odd affinity for Indian Wells, Ivan Ljubicic; while the American came within a set of netting the 2008 title after upsetting Federer in the semis, the Croat stunned Nadal and Roddick to capture this year’s title.  Ever a perfectionist, Serena reported dissatisfaction over a first-round win that lacked the customary authority with which she customarily dispatches overmatched opponents like Stefanie Voegele.  We’ll be interested to note whether her disgruntled demeanor persists in a second round against the less overmatched Julia Goerges, or whether the world #1 will have settled into the tournament.  On the other hand, little sister’s tournament started much more impressively than the 2009 edition, when Klara Zakopalova dragged her into a three-set torture chamber.  This year, the Czech ball-retriever seeks to turn the screws on Henin, whose sporadic inconsistency in her comeback might prolong matters but probably won’t derail her progress.  Unless Flipkens renders her fellow Belgian some unexpected assistance, though, the competition will elevate dramatically (haha) in the next round.

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Almost unnoticed except by the sport’s most fervent followers, four tournaments came and went this week even while most of us recharged our batteries after the drama in Indian Wells and Miami.  Scraping off the rust that accumulated during an extended paternity leave, Stanislas Wawrinka claimed the not very Grand Prix Hassan II in Casablanca, which provided an opportunity for the Olympics gold medallist (see above) to dust off his prodigious clay-court skills before the European events.  Here are four other thoughts from the past week that we wanted to share before taking the next step along the red-brick road to Roland Garros:

1)  Nothing halts a player’s momentum like a change of surface.  Clijsters looked virtually invincible in Miami but came crashing down to earth in Marbella against the 258th-ranked Beatriz Garcia Vidagany.  The Spaniard was playing the first WTA main draw of her career, so her upset surely delighted the home crowd.  Also, we doubt that Clijsters arrived in this Mediterranean resort brimming with competitive ferocity; she needed this title as much as Federer needs a coach.  But she looked decidedly uneasy on her least favorite surface and should have been able to dispose of her many-syllabled opponent despite the insignificance of the occasion.  Keep an eye on Clijsters’ performances in Stuttgart and Rome; is she targeting a deep run in Paris, or is she willing to concede that territory to her compatriot?

2)  The injury bug keeps biting.  Every new day seems to bring another retirement, walkover, or withdrawal.  In Houston, four Americans suffered such fates on the same day, while Argentine Eduardo Schwank limped through his match only to incur a $1,000 fine for lack of effort (moral of the story:  playing through pain doesn’t pay).  Azarenka suffered a leg injury in Marbella, robbing her of almost certain revenge against Indian Wells nemesis Martinez Sanchez.  Soderling and Monfils withdrew from the depleted Monte Carlo field, while Del Potro still suffers from the wrist injury that has sidelined him since Melbourne, and Davydenko probably won’t return until the grass. Last year’s French Open semifinalist  Cibulkova withdrew from the Charleston event, already struck by the withdrawals of Serena, defending champion Sabine Lisicki, and the elegant young lady pictured below.  Somewhere, a bespectacled Novak Djokovic is steadily compiling evidence to support his case for shortening the schedule. 

3)  Wozniacki is indefatigable…so far.  The Great Dane has been great indeed recently, climbing impressively to the #2 ranking.  In Charleston next week, she’ll be the #1 seed at a Premier event for the first time in her young career.  While swarms of rivals keep sports doctors employed, Wozniacki relentlessly chugs through week after week without a significant injury, despite her physically wearing style; next week will be her sixth (yes, sixth!) consecutive week in action.  We applaud her physical and mental resilience, but we’re a little worried about the long-term effects of her workaholic schedule.  After expending so much energy so early in the season, will she be spent in the second half?  Jankovic traveled down a similar road in the past and found herself too exhausted to deliver her best tennis when it mattered most.  Don’t be surprised if Wozniacki endures the same experience once spring turns to summer.

4)  Odesnik is even dumber than we thought.  We concurred with Roddick’s assessment of this American journeyman as a “jackass” after the HGH revelations, which restored credibility to the sport’s draconian, much-ridiculed drug testing policy.  Without plunging too deeply into details, we think that other players can learn a lesson from this case.  If Odesnik remained buried deep below the top 50 despite the assistance of PEDs, there’s clearly much more to performance than what a pharmacist can provide.  At any rate, Odesnik chose not to fade quietly away from our minds, thus allowing sore tempers to heal, but instead entered the Houston event and nearly reached the final (clearly, he’s replenished his supplies since the Melbourne confiscation).  Liable to face an extended suspension for his affront to tennis’ integrity, the American will lose his prize money and rankings points once the investigation culminates in what appears to be a virtually certain verdict.  Therefore, he gains nothing at all from this week while senselessly inflaming the wrath of all those concerned.  Perhaps he has deluded himself into believing that he can eventually wriggle out of his predicament; after all, he once compared himself to an “American Nadal,” an analogy that seemed uncomfortably hubristic at the time and sounds downright disgusting in retrospect.  We can’t think of a single ATP player who has less in common with the unfailingly classy, hardworking Rafa.

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Speaking of Nadal, we’ll take a look at the Monte Carlo draw tomorrow in our next tournament preview, while casting a briefer glance towards the somewhat defanged field in Charleston.  Like Wozniacki, tennis scribes never take a vacation!  🙂