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As a collective effort, the WTA may not have produced a season to remember in 2010.  But many of its familiar and several of its less familiar denizens did.  We memorialize their achievements below.

Wozniacki:  Stagnant for most of the first half, the Pole-Dane reached her first Premier Mandatory final at Indian Wells but suffered an ankle injury that hampered her clay and grass campaigns.  After an embarrassing rout at Wimbledon, however, Wozniacki collected herself and reeled off an outstanding second-half surge, featuring six finals and five titles in eight tournaments.  Securing the inaugural edition of her home event in Copenhagen, the future #1 then swept to consecutive titles in Montreal and New Haven within a six-day span.  At the US Open, she scored her first career victory over a former #1 before succumbing to fellow breakthrough artist Zvonareva in the semifinals.  Shrugging off that listless performance, Wozniacki thundered through the Asian fall season until she intersected with the equally scorching Clijsters in the Doha final.  Unruffled so far by the controversy surrounding her Slam-less #1 status, Caroline will face an increasingly polarized reception in 2011 until and unless she wins that elusive major.  The new #1 should refine her schedule in order to pursue that goal most effectively, but regrettably she has shown little sign of doing so.  On the other hand, Wozniacki just turned 20 this summer and has displayed a maturity exceptional for her age; her cherubic, ever-smiling visage also represents the WTA better than the churlishness of fellow Slam-less #1s Jankovic and Safina.

Zvonareva:  Never lacking in talent and versatility, the volatile Vera imploded in Melbourne yet erupted in a positive way just two majors later at Wimbledon.  After a stunning three-set upset over Clijsters, Zvonareva burst into her first Slam final on the hallowed lawns of the All England Club, where she mustered more resistance against Serena than the scoreline suggested.  Disproving the commentators who attributed her breakthrough to an upset-riddled Wimbledon draw, the Russian repeated the feat at the US Open with a smart, balanced brand of tennis that flustered less tactically subtle foes.  Nevertheless, her excruciating disintegration in the final revealed that her affinity for tear-soaked melodrama hasn’t entirely vanished.  (We’re waiting for the endorsement contract with Kleenex.)  More often poised than petulant during the fall, Zvonareva marched to her debut Premier Mandatory final in Beijing and another semifinal at the year-end championships, falling to #1 Wozniacki on both occasions.  Since she defends few points early in 2011, she could challenge the Pole-Dane for the top spot if her momentum continues.  With question marks currently surrounding most of the WTA elite, the Russian should carpe the diem while she can.  A former semifinalist at the Australian Open, she might find its medium-speed surface suited to her style.

Clijsters:  Brilliant in the final of the season-opening Brisbane event, the understated Belgian recaptured the momentum in her storied rivalry with Henin by seizing all three of their meetings in three sets, two in uncannily similar fourteen-point third-set tiebreaks.  Her next two hard-court events ended ignominiously with ambushes by Petrova and Kleybanova, demonstrating the inconsistency typical for such comebacks.  But Clijsters proceeded to win her next 18 matches in the United States, a run that extended from Miami through the US Open and included six victories over former #1s.  Despite a physically and emotionally exhausting semifinal against Henin at Key Biscayne, she dominated a hobbled Venus in the final.  Likewise, a labyrinthine three-set semifinal against Venus in New York did not deplete her reserves for a one-sided final against Zvonareva.  Thoroughly outclassed by Sharapova for nearly two sets in the Cincinnati final, the Belgian clawed herself back into the contest with a resilience too often absent from her rivals.  In many of her most notable victories, however, Clijsters looked commanding early, faltered when victory lay within her grasp, and then mentally regrouped to seal the match.  While this pattern doesn’t produce this crispest, most aesthetically laudable tennis, it does provide compelling drama.  Clearly most comfortable on the American hard courts, she now should attempt to consolidate her legacy by winning a major outside New York.

Serena:  Taking her strategy of “play a little, win a lot” to unprecedented heights, Serena entered just six tournaments in 2010 and still walked away with half of the season’s majors for the second consecutive year.  Her signature moment came in the Australian Open quarterfinal, when she trailed 6-4, 4-0 to a ferociously intent Azarenka before summoning her own ferocity and overcoming a deficit that almost any other player would have found insurmountable.  Together with Henin, Serena delivered the most scintillating final of the Grand Slam season (for men or women), relying on spine-tingling serving and her peerless willpower to conquer both the Belgian firecracker and an injury that soon forced her out of competition.  Setting new ace records with each successive Wimbledon, the 13-time Slam champion roared—often literally—through the fortnight, when she displayed the athleticism and shot-making talent that many have emulated but very few have equaled.  Then Serena abruptly disappeared.  If history serves as any guide, she should spring back into contention almost instantly when she returns.

French Open finalists:  Just a year before, few observers would have expected Stosur to reach the second Saturday at Roland Garros.  Just a week before, even fewer observers would have expected Schiavone to caress the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen with clay-smeared hands.  Yet the Australian courageously dethroned Henin in a tense three-setter before conquering Serena in an even more suspenseful epic.  The first two sets of that quarterfinal recalled the Serena-Azarenka encounter in Melbourne, in which the American somehow snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.  Boldly rewriting the script, Stosur saved a match point with a sparkling forehand passing shot and then became the only player to defeat Serena at a Slam in 2010.  When she thumped a listless Jankovic a round later, a maiden major seemed firmly within her grasp.  Swaggering through the draw’s less star-studded lower half, though, Schiavone stunned Stosur and an international audience by rising to the occasion in the most important match of her life.  Rather than drifting complacently away after this most implausible triumph, the exuberant Italian notched a quarterfinal appearance at the US Open and another Fed Cup title for her beloved nation.  Despite an injury-plagued summer, Stosur likewise reached the quarterfinals in New York, where she took a set from eventual champion Clijsters.  Both players enjoyed their debuts at the year-end championships, where the Aussie avenged the Roland Garros defeat before reaching the semifinal.  A dark horse no longer, Stosur owns the second-best serve in the WTA after Serena and one of the finest forehands.

Li:  With consecutive Melbourne victories over future #1 Wozniacki and former #1 Venus, the Chinese superstar advanced to the first Slam semifinal of her career.  While the quality of tennis in those marquee wins oscillated between the uninspired and the abysmal, Li once again showed her competitive tenacity against heavily favored opponents. In the semifinals, moreover, she dragged defending champion Serena into two tiebreaks before reluctantly conceding the American’s superiority.  Coinciding with the semifinal dash of her compatriot Zheng, her Australian exploits garnered valuable attention for tennis in a region where the sport hopes to expand.  Fresh from a Birmingham title over Sharapova, Li dispatched two-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist Radwanska at the All England Club en route to the quarterfinals herself.  A proud patriot who fell one win short of a medal at the Beijing Olympics, she thrilled her compatriots again by reaching the semifinals at the Premier Mandatory event held in the same stadium.  Yet Li remains a mercurial, enigmatic shotmaker who sprinkled losses to Malek, Baltacha, Bacsinzky, and Zakopalova amidst her prestigious triumphs.  We expect equally jagged peaks and valleys in 2011.

Peer:  Whether or not a fan of Shahar, anyone who followed the Dubai Debacle of 2009 must have relished the Israeli’s unexpected semifinal run at the Persian Gulf tournament this year.  Victories there over Wozniacki and Li heralded a resurgent campaign for the promising but long-dormant Peer.  If she hadn’t collided with the Williams sisters more often than she would have preferred (five losses), she might have progressed even deeper into draws.  Nevertheless, Peer reached the second week at two majors and the semifinals at two Premier Mandatory events, not only placing herself close to contention for Doha in 2010 but in an auspicious position for 2011.

Petrova:  Exactly one player defeated Serena, Venus, and Clijsters this year.  Overcoming the latter two opponents at majors, Nadia inflicted the most lopsided loss of Kim’s career at the Australian Open.   Her characteristic ebbs and flows continued with losses to such unremarkable names as Stefanie Voegele and Anastasija Sevastova, but the Russian veteran crafted plenty of satisfying memories to mull as she sips her vodka during the holiday season.  Having witnessed several of her feckless performances on grand stages, we enjoyed watching her disbelieving glee at these stunning upsets.

First-time Russian titlists:  Even as many of the more experienced countrywomen fizzled and floundered, a pair of rising Russians broke through to claim the first two titles of their career.  Ambushing Clijsters in a third-set tiebreak at Indian Wells, Kleybanova held her first trophy at Kuala Lumpur before continuing her Asian exploits at Seoul in the fall.  Also a finalist at Bali, the burly ball-bruiser aims to carve out a regular residence in the top 20, while her compatriot Pavlyuchenkova targets a loftier objective.  The former junior #1 first opened a window onto her brilliance at Indian Wells in 2009, but she had stalled somewhat until scoring titles at Monterrey and Istanbul this year, where she outlasted Vesnina in the longest final of the WTA season.  Sagging sharply towards the end of the 2010, Pavlyuchenkova probably can claim a position in the top 10 if she can resolve her recent serving woes and reduce an injury rate alarmingly high for such a young player.

Martinez Sanchez / Rezai / Pironkova / Kvitova:  Each of them had their week in the sun, or, in the case of the last two, their fortnight.  None of them has accomplished anything worthy of note since then, and they probably lack either the physical and mental consistency (Rezai, Kvitova) or the firepower (Martinez Sanchez, Pironkova) to impose themselves as consistent contenders.  But at Rome, Madrid, and in the great temple of tennis itself, however, they conquered no fewer than five players who have held the #1 ranking.  The improbability of those upsets and the magnitude of their setting converge to merit a mention here.

Kimiko Date Krumm:  Simply by returning to the battlefield at age 40, she would have deserved inclusion among the most memorable performers in an often pallid 2010.  The 40-year-old Japanese dynamo did far more, however, as Sharapova, Safina, Stosur, and Li can attest.  More durable than many players a generation her junior, Date battled through a gripping series of marathons and often unhinged rhythm-oriented baseliners with her distinctively arrhythmic, unpredictable style.  Here’s hoping that she continues to defy Father Time for at least another year, exhibiting her refreshingly unassuming joy for the game.

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Our next article shifts from the nice to the naughty, reflecting upon the most notable disappointments of 2010.  Who hopes that the new year holds more promise than the old?  Answers to come.

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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.

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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.

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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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Extended over three sets and two days, Henin and Sharapova contributed another worthy entry in a rivalry no less classy than it is classic.  Despite the almost unparalleled intensity of both competitors, the Belgian and the Russian demonstrated their mutual respect with the gracious, sincere handshake above as well as courteous comments aplenty in prematch and postmatch interviews.  It’s satisfying to observe this characteristic in such a major rivalry, which probably would have become a central theme atop the women’s game had not injuries and emotional stress taken a severe toll on both players.  Nevertheless, we still hope to see several more editions of this enthralling contrast in styles on various surfaces throughout the coming months and years.   One of the most stirring single-match performances in both comebacks so far, the match this weekend reminded us of how Henin and Sharapova bring out the best in each other’s games, turning their encounters into much more than the sum of their admittedly spectacular parts.

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While Sharapova crosses the Channel for what promises to be an impressive grass campaign, Henin crosses the puddles to Lenglen for a challenging confrontation with Stosur.  Outside a first-set lapse against Rossana de los Rios, the Australian has looked fairly solid in the first week although perhaps a shade less magnificent than during her semifinal run last year.  Henin’s narrow escape from Sharapova’s jaws could produce one of two opposite outcomes; either her intoxication with the victory will leave her with the dreaded hangover syndrome, or she’ll translate the emotional momentum into a confident, composed performance.  As was the case in the Stuttgart final, the match largely lies in Justine’s hands despite Stosur’s crushing serve.  Gifted with too much variety and texture for the Aussie when she’s focused, the Belgian could struggle against Stosur’s aryhthmic style if she suffers a poor serving day or loses the radar on her forehand.  The indoor surface in the German tournament also seemed surprisingly swift by clay standards, so the ultra-slow Court Suzanne Lenglen should provide Henin with a more compliant canvas for her artistry.  Don’t expect many service breaks, and look for both players to approach the net at the earliest opportunity.  Henin will want to set up backhand-to-backhand rallies, but she’ll be comfortable with forehand-to-forehand battles as well, which suggests that Stosur will need an outstanding serving performance in order to overcome the Belgian’s baseline advantage.

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Ginepri vs. Djokovic (3):  Although the Serb thrashed the American embarrassingly here several years ago, there’s reason to think that this meeting might not be so lopsided.  Ginepri’s sturdy five-set win over Ferrero in the third round illustrated his ability to grind through matches on clay much more successfully than most of his compatriots.  Seemingly in control of his fragile health so far, Djokovic has dropped two sets to his first three opponents but hasn’t found himself in serious trouble.  The Serb has yet to face a tireless mover and consistent retriever like Ginepri, though, whose style adapts itself better to testing fitness than those of Korolev or Hanescu.  On the other hand, the American might be tired and a step slow after his Ferrero victory, like the equally movement-oriented Nishikori when he played Djokovic after a five-set win over Giraldo.  One could imagine Ginepri taking a set, especially if Djokovic loses the rhythm on his serve or a bit of concentration, but it’s hard to imagine that he’ll take three.

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Serena (1) vs. Peer (18):  The Israeli faces the grim prospect of a fourth meeting with a Williams sister since February, although the previous three occurred against Venus.  (Nothing like a bit of variety.)  Three years ago, the rising Peer came within a single game of ousting Serena from the Australian Open, a tournament that the younger Williams famously won despite an extended absence from the game.  Among all of the surprise sensations in Rome and Madrid (MJMS, Rezai, Safarova, Ivanovic), only Peer remains in the Roland Garros draw, where her tenacity emerged most notably during a tense first-set tiebreak against Bartoli.  Serena needed some tenacity herself to overcome an ailing stomach in her previous match, so we’ll see whether the illness lingers.  (She did look fine in her doubles with Venus.)  Even on the slowest surface, the top seed’s serve proved highly effective during this week, while she has moved on the clay with impressive ease.  If her health has returned, expect her to set up the marquee quarterfinal that we’ve all been awaiting after a couple of reasonably competitive sets.

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Bellucci (24) vs. Nadal (2):  Often considered the descendant of Gustavo Kuerten in Brazilian tennis, this aggressive lefty baseliner has much more developing to do before he can step into that French Open champion’s shoes.  In recent weeks, he’s certainly taken important strides by defeating opponents like Isner and Ljubicic; at the same time, he’s wobbled against the likes of qualifier Pablo Andujar, who dragged him into a fifth set two rounds ago.  That stinging forehand should crack some winners, but anything other than a straight-sets win for Rafa would be astonishing in the highest degree.  Despite enduring a few more suspenseful service games than he should, the four-time champion’s knees look healthy, and (just as importantly) so does his confidence. 

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Jankovic (4) vs. Hantuchova (23):  Once again, the Roland Garros organizers schedule the match of the day for the final position on Chatrier.  Can the Serb and the Slovak continue where Henin and Sharapova left off on Saturday night?  Hantuchova  looked ready to become a full-time doubles specialist not long ago, but she must be thinking otherwise after an excellent first week of straight-setters capped by a small upset over Wickmayer.  Adding intrigue to this encounter are Hantuchova’s two recent wins over Jankovic, of which one happened on green clay (Charleston) and the other on hard court in Fed Cup.  To be sure, JJ claimed to be injured on both of those occasions, but isn’t she always ill, injured, exhausted, or all three?  Presented with a golden opportunity to end her Slam drought, she made life more interesting than necessary against Kanepi and Alona Bondarenko.  Jelena loves (melo)drama, though, so don’t read too much into those early difficulties.  The Serb’s superior comfort level on red clay and positive experience at Roland Garros should enable her to join Djokovic in the quarterfinals, perhaps in three sets, which would be her first appearance at that stage of a major since the 2008 US Open.

Gabashvili (Q) vs. Melzer:  Unleashing 58 winners against a becalmed Roddick, Gabashvili looked infinitely more formidable than the average qualifier.  His emotions have betrayed him at crucial moments before, but Melzer likewise has struggled to control his temper against marquee opponents.  What matters more at Roland Garros, beating Roddick or beating Ferrer?  One would imagine the latter, considering the relative prowess on clay of those upset victims.  At any rate, it should be a somewhat intriguing contrast between Melzer’s lefty net-charging style and Gabashvili’s baseline bludgeoning.  While the Russian’s returns and passing shots will be vital, so will the Austrian’s first-serve percentage.  Neither player hits groundstrokes with much margin for error, which renders their second-week appearances all the more unexpected.  We’re not going to hazard a guess here; the ball’s in your court.

Verdasco (7) vs. Almagro (19):  Probably the match of the day on the men’s side, the all-Spanish collision opposes two of the hottest players in the ATP over the last several weeks.  (Female fans might argue that Verdasco has deserved that appellation for much longer than the last several weeks.)  Reaching three finals in his last five tournaments (winning one), Mr. Sauce may be a little weary from over-playing in the preparatory events.  During a five-set, four-hour victory over Kohlschreiber, he requested medical attention on multiple occasions and lacked the usual sting on many of his forehands.   One of only two players to win a set from Nadal during this clay season, Almagro nearly bit the dust (literally) in his opener but has collected himself since then.  Plenty of extended cross-court rallies should ensue, but it’ll be intriguing to note who redirects the ball earlier and takes a risk by connecting on a down-the-line attempt.  Long known for reckless shotmaking, both Spaniards have modulated their aggression more effectively in recent months.  If Verdasco enters the match weary, which is probable, he may seek to take command early in the rally, which means that he might go for too much too soon and look for an angle that isn’t there.  Don’t be surprised to see a mini-upset by the surging Madrid semifinalist.

Groth (W) vs. Shvedova:  Opportunity doesn’t knock here but positively hammers.  Perhaps more familiar to some of you in her Slovakian incarnation as Gajdosova, the ambidextrous Aussie doesn’t hold back on any of her shots.  Neither does the Kazakh, who outslugged Radwanska and Kleybanova in impressive fashion to create an opening for her first Slam quarterfinal.  It’s ironic that the breakthrough could happen on the slowest surface for the hard-hitting, high-risk Kazakh, yet the clay does provide her additional time to set up for her shots and compensate for her indifferent foot speed.  Which player will adjust more smoothly to the ultra-slow court on Lenglen, which stymied Roddick once again this year?  Since Shvedova has overcome much sterner competition than Groth so far, we’re inclined to lean in her direction.

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Let’s hope for sunnier skies and gentler winds as the second week begins!